The Brexit withdrawal bill and ‘healing’

The conclusion of the Commons stages of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in just three days last week, with a majority of 99, gives the impression of a government in a hurry to deliver. Which it clearly is, in the sense of its self-imposed deadline of 31 January – though it seems in a little less of a hurry to deliver the ‘healing’, which cause Johnson espoused immediately post-election and then repeated in his New Year message. Though his wouldn’t, of course, be the first government to preach reconciliation and practise division – Thatcher did something similar in, and then following, 1979.

While the election has settled the principle of Brexit for, er, a generation, there remains a number of problems about what Brexit looks like which will continue beyond 31 January and as the future trade relationship is settled. Chief among these is that, while the 2016 referendum was, as Chris Grey has continued to argue, a vote against something, there has, opinion polls and politicians’ assertions apart, been no attempt to define what it might have been a vote for. Labour’s stance of seeking a fresh deal and then putting that to the electorate remains, in this context, the right stance to have taken in principle, however much it turned out to be electorally unpopular – though that is a battle now lost. In seeking that definition, there is a number of battlegrounds set out in last week’s passage of the Bill through the Commons which indicates the government’s general direction compared to the previous version (full list here):

– workers’ rights being removed from the Bill and re-located to a suggested new Employment Bill. The concern remains that this will be used to drive workers’ rights downwards in a race to the bottom

– a clause giving ministers the power to direct the courts on the interpretation of EU law and to allow lower courts the power to overturn rulings by the European Court of Justice, something of particular concern to those of us worried about workers’ rights

– a removal of the right of unaccompanied child refugees in the UK to be reunited with their families

– a rejection of a series of clauses to improve citizens’ rights and a potential withdrawal of teeth from the ‘independent’ monitoring authority, which has already attracted the attention of the European Parliament, whose role in approving the final withdrawal agreement remains critical

– a rejection of the attempt to impose in the Bill a requirement to seek continued participation in Erasmus, the EU programme facilitating study abroad

– a refusal to consider mitigating the impact on firms in Northern Ireland of the volte face over the presence of a border down the Irish Sea and checks on goods crossing that border east-west, together with the inclusion of ‘Henry VIII’ powers on the parts of the withdrawal agreement focusing on Northern Ireland

– a refusal to countenance a block on the negotiation of future trade deals until parliament had approved an overall mandate. Taking back control did not, it seems, encompass much of a vision for the role of parliament vis-à-vis the government.

The Lords are, given the outcome of the election and the super-majority that the Johnson government now possesses, unlikely to mess around with any of this too much, although Lord Dubs certainly isn’t giving up and the Lords Constitution Committee is sounding the alarm on lower courts being able to overturn ECJ decisions.

On any one of these issues, a government in possession of a desire to effect some actual reconciliation, and even ‘healing’, could have made some moves towards meeting the demands of the MPs sponsoring amendments and to limit the extent to which people not only working but building their lives in this country could be viewed as people rather than as an economic resource with all the division and rancour that entails – but, no.

The response to some of these is that further legislation will be brought forward – but there are no guarantees on that and the content is inevitably currently unknown. The response to others is that meeting such demands would have ‘weakened the hands’ of negotiators and that progress may still be made on them, presumably via trade-offs. That highlights that such issues as workers’ rights continue to be seen as potential bargaining chips – a matter of disgrace. In others, we need to remember that meaningful negotiations, outside the area of a free trade agreement, have all but finished. Furthermore, in terms of understanding, it represents a failure to understand that modern negotiations is based on conversing about the achievement of mutual gains in which your strategy remains hidden but in which your aims are very much disclosed – and, frequently, strengthened by demonstrations of extensive popular support.

There was a potential win – or even series of wins – for the government here which it has simply chosen to ignore.

Instead, we have the spectacle of Brexit ultras in parliament, whose numbers have increased as a result of the election and the deliberate selection of Tory candidates committed to Johnson’s approach, and who are little more now than lobby fodder, seeking to grind its victory humiliatingly into the faces of opponents. Furthermore, we have the ludicrous, time-wasting spectacle of a public debate over whether Big Ben should strike at 11pm on 31 January, with at least the early crowdfunding of the requisite ‘bungs’, i.e. ahead of Mark Francois’s donation appearing to fall somewhat flat (‘bob a job’ has got expensive these days, although it’s probably marginally more cost effective than Francois climbing up there to do the job himself). Not only that, but there is the approval (from the Mayor of London) for a ‘Leave Means Leave’ event in Parliament Square on 31 January, whose triumphalist tone and nature can only be imagined at this stage but which also just chances to coincide in the same place with a gathering of far-right street thugs being planned by the English Defence League. Likely to be a joyous occasion, I’m sure. But, if they want to celebrate it, then they can own what happens in its wake.

Healing it’s not. But then, healing is far from the minds of the ultras and, by definition, this government. Offering anything to the 48% of us who voted ‘in’ in 2016, or to the majority of the electorate which voted for remain parties in the 2019 general election, or to the probable majority of people who would now vote ‘in’ (currently the same as the general election outcome, incidentally) – such as dynamic alignment of rights, the Norway model, Canada+++ or, heaven forfend, single market membership – would be seen as a betrayal of the one true Brexit. Thus, the call for reconciliation is entirely superficial. The ‘People’s Government’ is just for Leavers – or, at least, that section of Leavers which also voted Tory, given that the Tories’ electoral base has become predominantly Eurosceptic.

Oh – and #ReleaseTheRussiaReport. We all know at this stage of Brexit that it’s more embarrassing (probably most of all for Johnson himself) than revelatory. Even were it the latter, it won’t now stop Brexit; as Brittany Kaiser’s (otherwise extremely useful) whistle-blowing revelations that Robert Mercer funded both Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns will also not do. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, people being defrauded and then having the wool pulled over their eyes is never an edifying spectacle – and prolonging the period in which the report is not released is just compounding it.

Brendan: a photographic footnote

A couple of photos taken this morning – at about 1025 – from the garden steps into respectively the north-east and south-east corners of the garden. These show, firstly, that either yesterday evening’s high tide (c. 2120) or this morning’s (c. 0930) brought some seaweed debris into the furthermost corner of the garden, either as a result of overlapping sea water or as a result of being ejected from the sea by strong waves driven by the wind to crash on the shore; and, secondly, showing that there is also a small amount of seaweed debris washed right across the shore road.

IMG_4995-800x600

The winds were gusting above 60mph right through the night until 0700, and high 50s thereafter, but they were coming from the south-west so ought not to have been responsible for bringing seaweed debris this far; it’s more likely therefore to have been the high tide. We can see that there is still plenty of debris floating around in what is a sluggish and heavy-moving sea; and, yes, that is one of our gang of starlings standing centre left perusing the potential future lunch opportunities arising from the new situation.

IMG_4997-800x600The water level is very high, given that the rock in the sea left of centre is virtually submerged. Normally the shore line here follows the line of the rocks at centre right, and curving into roughly the lower horizontal third of the photo (and above the fence line); currently it’s blurred by the amount of debris. Seaweed debris on the shore is common, especially when the sea has been churned up by strong winds; above the shore, much less so and usually only after the sorts of extremes we had yesterday. And pretty rarely as much as this.

We still have plenty of height to the house above this level, but any sign of encroachment by the sea above the shoreline is clearly a serious matter.

Brendan makes a repeat visit

Around 1,500 years after St. Brendan the Navigator made his visit to these islands, commemorated particularly on Barra with no less than a church and cemetery, a hospital and a care home, and even an MP, Met Éireann’s Storm Brendan – also coming from the south – brought this week a somewhat different sense of pastoral attention.

Here on South Uist yesterday the winds were officially higher than anywhere else in the country, while 87 mph was something of a record in our brief time here, being a little stronger than Storm Conor three years ago. Indeed, the Met Office’s station on South Uist – on the Range, adjacent to where we live, so a pretty good indicator of what we experienced locally – and from where this measure was taken, recorded gusts of over 80 mph for four hours in a row from noon yesterday, returning to that level on one more occasion during the evening. Unofficially, the winds a little further south both on South Uist and indeed also on Barra seem to have been higher, perhaps topping a ton in both places. It’s been a tough start to the year, with a succession of storms and rain and high winds characterising these first two weeks of 2020.

Not just high winds but a collapsing air pressure, on top of a spring tide, brings its own tragic recollections on Uist around January.

This time, that the winds came from the south kept the water off most of the local roads, although the coastal road on Benbecula was closed further up the coast and the causeway at the North Ford was shut for a while at high tide yesterday evening. At the house, our windproof netting is looking a little ragged, having been ripped at the bottom from the nails holding it to a whole line of fence posts, a few 4.8m lengths of 6″ x 1″ timber destined to constitute a new fence one day have been shifted around a bit, the house name sign was torn from the wall and dropped, insultingly face down, on to the ground and the meter cupboard lost its door (again), as did the wheelie bins lose their moorings (though that’s a pretty usual occurrence when the wind gets above 40mph). The storm has churned up the sea so much that the foreshore is a mass of brown algae, at least until calmer waters can gradually move it back out to sea (or, on the dryer and less rocky sands on the far side of the bay, until the crofters can gather it to spread as fertiliser). We also had the rare event (on these islands) of two shots of thunder and lightning, one of which appeared to be responsible for the last, and most significant (i.e. we had to get candles out), of the three power cuts during the day.

Today is relatively calmer, although winds gusting above 50 and into the 60s are the case pretty much until dawn on Thursday and ‘wintry showers’ are currently adding to the mix. Ferries out of Lochboisdale remain cancelled and the Eriskay causeway remains shut at the time of writing. At home, visibly moving window panes, creaking timbers and rattling roof tiles, as the house resettles after resisting yet another wind slam, will be the case for a while yet, alongside a few more nights of sleep that is too light and too short.

These small inconveniences apart, Brendan has let us off lightly; and we have been lucky.

Firefox, when I opened up this morning to write these words, quoted me rather appositely John Steinbeck from his Travels with Charley: In Search of America road trip:

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

This seems to be clearly true, but I can’t help commenting that, if it is indeed so, then so must be the reverse.

In the meantime, and if it’s not too late, Bliadhn’ Ur Mhath.

Book Review: The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places

Neil Oliver’s recent history is one of those works of non-fiction which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Born out of people coming up to him and asking about the places they should visit, this is Neil Oliver’s attempt to crystallise the history of these islands into a series of short essays about the most remarkable finds, events and structures which tell the story of the people who have lived here. Starting with footprints uncovered briefly in the mud at Happisburgh in East Anglia, which may have been up to 950,000 years old and at a time when this ‘long island’ was joined to the rest of Europe and there was no sea Channel, Oliver pursues his narration chronologically, proceeding up to the Millennium Dome and the Scottish Parliament building before back tracking slightly to relate in the final two essays to structures which highlight the main two aspects of his theme.

The first of these is that these islands have a history of bloody conflict and that:

We have arrived where we are in these islands at the end of a long and bloody road… The path back to that chaos is quick and straight and easily taken. Like it or not, believe it or not, we live protected by a shelter made only of our old mistakes. (p. 403)

And, we might add, for as long as we continue to recognise those mistakes as such.

Secondly, standing on the shingle beach at Dungeness ‘under the weight of the biggest, bluest sky… pebbles slipping and sliding beneath my feet while the sea rolls’, is that these islands are fragile, at ‘nature’s mercy most of all.’ (p. 406)

Published in 2018, amidst a risingly intemperate political discourse about our post-Brexit future and against a background of increasing concern about climate change, manifest to island nations most evidently in rising sea levels and plastic pollution, it is easy to identify the prompts for the centrality of such themes.

Oliver is not a trained historian and this is not a work of scholarship – he studied and worked firstly as an archaeologist before re-training as a journalist and finding his niche in broadcasting – and the language of the writing, as the above quotes testify, is poetic, often spiritual in nature and even romantic (as, perhaps, befits what is a self-confessed ‘love letter to the British Isles’ and p. 410). The essays – from two up to (rarely) eight pages – start with some contextual, frequently contemporary, analysis as well as descriptive detail about the selected location before Oliver seeks to use his undoubted empathy to put himself not only in that place but in that time, to use his imagination to project what it would have been like there, at that particular point, and then to provide some observations about the significance and continuing resonance of the site. Nevertheless, this is never an over-romanticised piece of work.

Oliver is careful with his choices, ensuring that the nations and regions which make up the British Isles are fairly represented (Ireland and Wales each have eight selections and Scotland 22, while the islands in our archipelago are represented by Orkney, Isle of Man, Skye and Iona, the Channel Islands and the Aran Islands), and that London and its immediately surrounding area (with ten) do not dominate. Frequently, the choices are coastal – for evident reasons of maritime history and the invasion, raiding and incursions, and plantations to which these islands have been subject – thus ensuring that the ‘peripheries’ occupy the central locations they deserve.  He is also careful with his language, often referring – as he acknowledges – to ‘these islands’, partly as a result of the evident political challenges of naming and labelling conventions and border issues; but also because he has come to the view, as a result of his travels, that the shared histories of the people of the ‘long island’, the flow of the population movements which have resulted during that history and the sheer longevity of the land in the face of the brevity of such human concepts as borders across a topography, nations and national identities, are such that:

Instead of any sense of different countries, I see only one place. (p. 409)

A view that will, no doubt, continue to prove as controversial as Oliver himself has been in recent years. Clearly, a perspective of someone who is, first and foremost, an archaeologist. He is, nevertheless, also absolutely correct to recognise that ‘The flow of new arrivals has never stopped’ (p. 407); we are all migrants, and we always have been. At a time when the far right is seeking to ‘claim’ sites such as Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy (the latter not covered by Oliver here) simply because they are representative of the melting pot of cultures and traditions that migration represents, this is an important assertion.

The collection is evidently an entirely personal one – the final selection mostly self-selecting as a result of some places registering with him more than others during his almost constant travelling around these islands. As such, there is almost zero point in personal quibbles with Oliver’s choice of locations to tell the story that he himself wants to tell. (I can claim to have visited no more than one-third of the hundred sites selected.)

Nevertheless, there is a heavy focus on politics and power struggles, and military might, somewhat to the exclusion of social and economic history and the selection is therefore a little conservative. The history of people is clearly there – it underpins many of the essays – and, while there are entries for the great famine in Ireland (Abbeystrewry Cemetery, Skibbereen), the highland (and island) clearances (Bettyhill), on the struggle for workers’ rights (Tolpuddle) and on the birth of the industrial revolution (Ironbridge), entries on the creative and literary tradition outnumber these. To tell a more rounded tale, I would have liked to see something on Peterloo (and see other references passim on Keith’s site), the 200th anniversary of which only just post-dated the publication of this work, or the Chartist Movement or on suffragettes, in which Emmeline Pankhurst’s youth at the outset of her involvement (she was just 14 when she attended her first meeting of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage) also bears a striking resonance with some of today’s environmental activists, not least in reactions to them.

This is not just a personal preference, however: protest – and reactions to it – to achieve social change is also part of our bloody history, and a major one at that. Furthermore, it’s also a part of the mistakes that we’ve made which help to shape the shelter under which we live today, while the accommodations that we have reached as a result of such actions amount to one of the reasons why the social peace that we enjoy in general is both hard-won and often fractured as a result of the mistakes that societies like ours, still ridden with class and other hierarchical structures, continue to make.

There remains plenty of room for protest action as we continue to shape the social aspects of our shared destiny, and anywhere that it is absent from the pages of history books represents an unfortunate omission, whatever the qualities of the surrounding work.

Communications in transition – the continuing need for dialogue

The third of my columns for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU, the union for creative ambition, appeared in the Autumn 2019 issue (‘Celebrating Young Creatives’). Members of BECTU can download the magazine from the website – I’m on p. 24. Now the Winter issue has hit the streets, I thought it was about time to re-publish the text of #3, minus Tony Kelly‘s cartoon pointing up my words. Not a member of the union and want to see the text in all its glory? Here’s how to join.

For 15 years now, Ofcom – the regulator for the communications industry – has published an annual overview of the state of things in its Communications Market Report. This has always been required reading for its broad-sweeping analysis and its essential facts and figures on what remains a rapidly changing industry. Continuing a trend began last year, though, it is now truer to say that it’s required viewing: the comprehensive report of yore has gone the way of ‘big data’ with the 2019 CMR now consisting of a set of charts, each accompanied by a ‘key message’ bullet point.

A picture might well be worth 1,000 words – but art consisting of little more than graphics is going to leave the reviewer somewhat unfulfilled. It might suit the view that today’s wealth of access to news, stories, comment and images, along with too little time, has left us with the attention span of a goldfish. Or that, to capture people’s attention in these days, you have to hit them up with something punchy and direct. I don’t necessarily buy either one, although there are elements of truth in both. More prosaically, the reason for the switch is likely to be a lack of available resources. And that’s a shame.

Some of the key points to emerge from the 2019 CMR are:

  • telecoms prices and revenues continue to fall in real terms
  • there is a continued shift away from fixed-line to mobiles for telephone calls; and from mobile to web-based messaging services for text communications
  • revenues are static for commercial TV broadcasters, amidst a reduction in advertising revenues associated with a drop in viewing hours
  • public service broadcasters continue to spend less on generating new UK content (excepting the effects of the 2018 World Cup)
  • the reach for radio remains high and the time we spend listening to the radio nevertheless remains the same year-on-year, while digital radio broadcasting continues to expand.

Right across communications, the internet continues to wreak (creative) havoc. Telecoms companies and TV and radio broadcasters alike are facing continued declines in revenues while somehow justifying the substantial investment required, whether this lies in generating new content or in the pipes and airwaves that carry that content to us, at home or on the move. Rightly, we expect that experience to be seamless and to deliver us the same quality wherever we are even though we have been enticed into a world in which we expect to pay increasingly less for it.

Substantial investment is taking place, of course: in telecoms, more and more fixed broadband connections are ‘superfast’ and more of us are on faster mobile connections.

But investors demand both absolute dividends and predictability in them over time. And, when revenues are declining and there are plenty of free-riders around, continuing that level of share-out can only come from squeezing more and more out of workers whether this be in terms of effort or in terms of demands for further and greater concessions in our terms and conditions of employment.

Indeed, the share of national income going to workers continues to fall, with impacts in left-behind communities and in more of us in work feeling the pinch. And, when more of us are in work than ever, that’s a disgrace.

Just as in the transition to a low-carbon world, workers in communications are in transition too. This presents difficulties, and these can only be confronted, and resolved, through dialogue. In organised trade unions, we are not only aware of the importance of this, but we have the opportunity to do something about it. However, the message of dialogue needs to be more widely understood if workers are to start increasing their share.

Election 2019 (2)

Disappointed, bruised and sore.

That a manifesto seeking to tackle social and economic injustice was rejected in favour of empty slogans; that lies, and the practise of lying, have been rewarded; that our democracy is incapable of dealing effectively with obfuscation and the deliberate avoidance of scrutiny; and that the healing which these nations which make up the UK need has been cast aside, to be replaced by further division, hatred and exploitation.

It was indeed a ‘grim’ night in which the balloon of my hope and optimism was punctured at about 22:01, before I finally called it a night just after 04:00. The only bright spot all night (there were two, really, but the failure of The Brexit Party to gain any seats, especially in Hartlepool, is rather meaningless in the circumstances) was the success of Matt Rodda in Reading East, the constituency of my birth. Rodda has been around for a while and his Tory opponent was new, and this might provide a partial explanation to his increased majority. However, a marginal drop in the Labour vote share seems to indicate that, whatever the situation nationally, Rodda – surely confronted with the same issues on his doorstep – is doing something right from which Labour might learn once its – essential – review gets underway.

Here’s a few initial thoughts about the implications of what happened last night.

1. Brexit will happen on 31 January 2020. There’s no way that this will not now take place. This was, after all, a Brexit election and Johnson’s determination to talk about nothing else than ‘get Brexit done’ – when he elected to speak at all, that is – clearly permeated into people’s consciousness, at least in key Tory target areas. Ultimately, this was a successful strategy, pains me though it does to say it. ‘Brexit, stupid’, as someone else might once have said, and keeping it simple, clearly worked.

However, we should note that Brexit remains a democratically-unpopular option. The votes cast for ‘leave’ parties added up to 14.98m, according to my quick calculations from the BBC election results website this morning, compared to a vote for parties committed to a re-negotiation/second referendum or remain of 16.63m (among the 16 largest parties attracting votes of 10,000+). So Johnson’s sloganeering was, across the UK as a whole, not successful. In the meantime, this therefore remains an utterly divided nation (note: the breakdown in favour of re-negotiate/remain is 53:47).

2. Labour’s pivot to re-negotiate to provide a Brexit which hit jobs and living standards less, and then to put this to a second referendum, was clearly not a success. It was either not understood or else it was dismissed – it doesn’t really matter at this point which. In hindsight – though some will claim foresight on this – this was perhaps only likely to work as part of a coalition (or understanding) between ‘remain’ parties. That was never going to happen and there is an argument that, looking at Brexit in isolation, Labour would consequently have been better on a platform that was, at least audibly, closer to one which ‘respected’ the 2016 referendum.

3. In the absence of any such understanding, tactical voting to keep the Tories out was a clear failure. The notion that tactical voting had more traction that it evidently did underpinned my optimism in my post below, as well as my anticipation of the fall of some big (Tory) guns. Neither happened. Evidence published only on Monday this week that people were quite attracted by the idea, though had little idea of the online tools available, ought to have provided sufficient warning (not least of the need to escape your own social media bubble once in a while). Nevertheless, it was not even close for any of the big guns – Raab, Duncan-Smith, Redwood and Johnson himself – and this looks a failure of the MRP technique which, at constituency level, had given gaps to the nearest challenger in these cases as low as one percentage point, whatever its apparent success at UK-wide level in predicting the scale of the Tory majority. In short, MRP got a little lucky.

4. We are heading for a constitutional crisis sometime in the life of this (up to) five-year mandate, once Brexit occurs. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum; yet Northern Ireland now has more Sinn Féin/SDLP MPs (the former of course not taking their seats in Westminster) than unionist ones, while the SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland was 45% (a rather interesting figure in the light of the 2014 outcome of IndyRef1).

Much here depends on just what sort of government Johnson actually leads – and it is, by the way, a disgrace to democracy that Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor, can post on the BBC Live pages this morning, and having interviewed Johnson only a week last Sunday, that ‘The biggest question in British politics this morning is, who is Boris Johnson politically?’ (at 07:34, currently p. 5/21). A ‘softer’ Brexit than the one envisaged under the previous government would, to some degree, head off some aspects of this challenge, in the sense of minimising the impacts of a Brexit which left us isolated from the EU. Were we to end up at the end of the transition process without a sensible free trade deal with the EU – i.e. one which protected jobs, working conditions and environmental standards – then Brexit will increase these constitutional pressures.

In that context, there would be a clear argument under which lending a vote to a nationalist project, where the focus was a re-joining of international social and economic structures in the face of a disastrous Brexit, may well have merit in terms of protecting the Scottish working class against such impacts. The SNP has a platform of seeking IndyRef2 in 2020, but that’s not incompatible with the timetable under which a free trade deal with the EU would need to be approved. It’s also quite clear that the only free trade deal with the EU which can be negotiated in that timescale is one which effectively minimises the impact of Brexit. Whether Johnson can cast aside his erstwhile buddies in the ERG to deliver that remains to be seen. So, ‘wait and see’ before making any such pivot would be a wise move – but, for me, it remains a more substantial possibility than hitherto.

5. A rather thin Tory manifesto contained a particular hostage in its promise to ‘look at’ judicial review from the perspective of ‘ensuring that [it] is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays‘ (p. 48; emphasis added). This is a clear reference to the – evidently embarrassing – cases brought by anti-Brexit campaigners this summer (Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham. That the cases were won against the government is evidently troubling were any such ‘look’ now to emerge with restrictions on the courts’ capacity to hold the executive to account. This is one of the essential checks and balances in any democracy and, where these are cut back, democracy will suffer. Any look at the example of Poland, where the governing party is attacking the judiciary, much to the consternation of at least the previous European Commission, is clearly illustrative. A UK outside the EU would, clearly, mean no such censure were the government to embark on such action after January 2020. This is clearly not the reason for Brexit, but a government that turns out to be hardline will see it as one of the bonuses of leaving.

In the meantime, I’m off to listen to some Smoove. Loud, I think.

Election 2019

This has certainly been one of the more interesting election campaigns in recent memory. By turns chaotic and mendacious, but nevertheless enthralling, I’m looking forward to an outcome on Friday morning which proves it (as well as to enjoying plenty of Portillo moments).

The last 24 hours has perhaps seen the worst of things as regards the dark arts with the beginning of the Tory advertising blitz via Facebook, coinciding with the re-generation of sock puppet accounts as a diversionary tactic to the horror of a boy lying on a hospital floor as there was no bed for him, and in the face of Johnson’s own dissembling and point blank refusal to look at the image when faced with it (now with 11m views…), coupled with a non-story about an adviser being punched.

From a policy point of view, there are two issues that need to be addressed here: firstly, the willing take-up of Dominic Cummings’s rouble-sourced bait by journalists who ought to know better; and secondly the dominance of the social media platforms, especially Facebook but also, albeit to a lesser extent, Twitter, in terms of the news we see and what, in a time-pressed world, we come to regard as truth.

Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg ought to know better, but rather than pin the blame on them in a conspiracy theory about the modern state of the BBC in the clutches of a vile government, I think the main problem lies with the failures of journalism under pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. Before t’internet came along, the time pressures where a journalist had a story to break would be somewhat less and publishing timetables tended to lend more time for fact checking in advance of publication or broadcast. Nowadays, journalists making their living in the field, and who have a story but fear being scooped, tend to report everything and then – occasionally – backtrack when proved wrong. Evidently, that’s often too late once tweets and posts have been shared and then amplified via individual networks.

Journalists need to be less afraid of being scooped and to take greater time to establish the facts before engaging with their social media accounts – or at least to qualify their messages with an acknowledgment that the situation is still being checked. I for one am quite happy if the news comes to me fact-checked and accurate, if a little slower; although I acknowledge that this understates the adrenaline rush realised by those among us who are the ‘first’ to tell us something. We also need to break the consensus that people spreading such stories are not ‘sources’ in the accepted journalistic sense and can be identified in the public interest. That might, however, need a little more solidarity between journalists if the cosy relationship between spinners and relayers is to be broken.

Secondly, James Mitchinson, Editor of the Yorkshire Post, got it spot-on yesterday in his response to one reader who took issue with his paper’s coverage of the story of what happened at Leeds General Infirmary. In a discombobulating world, when we do not know who to trust and when we have been led actively to distrust those institutions to which we formerly looked for honesty, it is very easy to be led astray. This is of course where Facebook – particularly – comes in since it has scooped up much of the local advertising revenues on which local journalism used to rely and whose loss has starved local papers of resources and journalists. The dispute over job cuts at the Herald has much to comment on this, also.

The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, but the unchecked abuse of its powers out in the wild can and should be better controlled, not least in terms of the potential for the manipulation of opinions during an election, as well as in terms of the stealing of identities and their use by/sale to hackers. When Facebook has such control but so little interest in exercising it responsibly – sock puppet accounts are as good as any other when it comes to the numbers proving continued growth to the investors – the only answer can be better regulation. Clearly it’s own – largely algorithm-based – actions to remove false accounts are not working and neither, does it seems, are its fraud reporting mechanisms (while Twitter’s are scarcely any better) while certainly it needs to have something in place which stops people impersonating and misrepresenting others and stealing data. This means that Facebook itself also has to put more of those advertising revenues into human intervention to ensure its user accounts are genuine.

(And the government needs to publish that Intelligence and Security Committee report into meddling in UK referendums and elections – it’s clearly already too late for this election, but there are lessons to be learned in respect of future ones.)

The Western Isles electoral seat – Scotland’s smallest, and a protected constituency under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 – was held in the last parliament by the SNP, with a majority of about 1,000 votes over Labour in second (and the rest nowhere). In Alison MacCorquodale, we have a good candidate from North Uist (and an active trade unionist, to boot) highly capable of building on the efforts of Ealasaid MacDonald in 2017 in making this a two-way, non-Tory marginal. Touring this southern end of the constituency at the weekend, the equal matching of red and yellow lamp-post favours was highly encouraging. All of which means I can vote Labour with both my heart and my head. Only Labour has the manifesto committed to ending austerity, re-building the NHS (and keeping Trump’s hands off it) and achieving real change for people.

Other people don’t have that luxury where a Labour candidate is neither the sitting MP nor the nearest challenger. If that’s you, and especially in those narrow marginals which will make a substantial difference to the outcome on Thursday, do vote for the candidate best placed to eject the Tory. There is a plethora of tactical voting websites to help you make your mind up, the latest addition being the @ledbydonkeys campaign to GetJohnsonGone. Others include Best for Britain’s tactical voting site Get Voting.

Do consult at least one of them and, even if you do, for one reason or another, have to hold your nose while putting your ‘x’ in that box, ensure that we wake up on Friday morning with a series of ‘Were you up when…?’ exits, Johnson gone, advisers with egg all over their faces and a future awaiting us in which we can together start to put right the things that have gone so wrong in the last nine years. Vote for hope.

Book Review: Cartes Postales from Greece

I dug out Victoria Hislop’s 2016 collection of short stories from my unread bookshelf to take on our recent trip to Crete. Popularly described as one of the UK’s most ardent philhellenes, and these days at least a part-time resident of Crete, Hislop is a well-qualified companion with whom to discuss – over the written page – modern Greece and its tragedies, as well as its heroism, its lyricism and its love of songs and stories.

The stories in Cartes Postales – quite simply, postcards – were mostly written while Hislop was travelling in Greece, alongside Alexandros, a photographer whose images lavish the pages. They were not taken to illustrate, but to act as a prompt with Hislop tending to spin her stories out of the things that they both saw on the journey. Some of the latter are new, some are modern twists on old stories (the Venus di Milo makes an appearance as does, from a Cretan perspective, Icarus and Daedalus), others are founded in the continuousness of the search for meaning in natural signs with which to prompt human decisions at various crossroads (such as at the Oracle at Delphi). As such, most of the stories have a timeless appeal, even if imbued through a modern lens, not to say a glass of wine.

As in any short story collection, some of them work (Je Reviens being a particularly good example, twisting the fortunes of the people who inhabit modern Greece with the threads of its recent past; while Et In Arcadio Ego is menacing and disturbing), while others do not (Air on a G String is filled with the dreadful romanticism that Hislop seems to have rescued from the floor of Richard Curtis‘s writing room). We encompass otherwise the macabre (Honeymoon), the elegiac (Man On A Mountaintop) and the dramatic (The Boy In The Silvery Suit).

The difference to most normal collections are that the short stories are all linked, all being tales told to a traveller in tavernas, guest houses and in town squares. The traveller in question is not Hislop, except perhaps by some kind of displacement, but Anthony, a man on the run from a failed relationship but whose process of letting go entails the sending of a series of postcards, and finally a notebook, from each stopping point to the address of his lost lover, who has since moved away. There, they are received instead by Ellie, a young woman at something of a crossroads herself; and, intrigued, she decides to head for Greece. After that, well, Richard Curtis may yet be on the phone.

So here we have the first problem: the conceit of the structural idea is bold, but its execution in practice is breathlessly, remorselessly romantic in tone. The contrast between this and many of the stories is sharp, but the effect is not interesting since the romanticism of what is essentially the plot – and a rather thin one, at that – both undermines and subtracts from the stories themselves.

The second problem is a minor, practical one: Anthony is on the run but spends the year finishing writing a book on the sculptures of the Cyclades which, as it transpires, actually plays little role in his re-building of his sense of self. The difficulty is, he spends no time in the Cyclades on his journey, which is based virtually entirely on the mainland, and precious little of that in Athens – and, even there, he doesn’t appear to go to the museum where Cycladic art has been stolen re-located. Perhaps his research notes were all complete but, if it was me, I’d be wanting to visit one, probably both, and regularly, as I was finalising my work. Consequently, the threading of the stories relies on a hook which is both extremely insecure and which, ultimately, actually has little meaning.

Thirdly, the ageless appearance of the stories is fine at a superficial level, but it leaves the characters on the page inhabiting a yesterday world. This affects particularly the women characters who are disappointingly realised, being usually young girls, femme fatales or old crones (while the men are, although not as ubiquitously, portrayed either as weak-minded old fools or young, strong and silent types). There is nothing new about such an objectification of women (and, indeed, men) in literature, although I choose to read modern women writers to escape that sort of thing. It’s not as though Greece – and specifically Crete – has no examples of strong women, both in revolution and in modern times, on which Hislop could draw but the collection here ignores those in favour of sexist stereotypes. Easier, for sure, but ultimately a lot less challenging. I would have liked to see Hislop go a lot further in the direction where Et In Arcadio Ego seemed to be taking her.

In this yesterday world, modern Greece does appear, but only in the linking sections between the stories whereas a collection which really wanted to tell a story of the modern realities of the country would have made the old stories resonate in a more contemporary fashion with some of the photographs. All we are left with, therefore, is a flavour, a taste of the Greece of kafenion and zacharoplasteion – but one drawn more from the Greece of the travel pages than the reality of the modern stories told, to take just one example, by the graffiti-laden walls which we could see even in downtown, and somewhat sleepy, Rethymnon on our visit. The impression is thus of a throwback; of a recall of, and desire for, happier times; and, ultimately, of somewhat middle-class concerns and mores and standards.

Even for holiday reading, I’m looking for a bit more than that.

So, as this is also a bit of a postcard, as well as a review, here’s some graffiti on a bit of shabby house. I’m a little nervous about capturing graffiti in a foreign language because impressions can mislead and my Greek is, well, holiday Greek. Here, however, I think the loose translation would be ‘Under Heavy Manners’. And absolutely right, too.

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Death in the morning

A little after eight this morning. I pad through, dressed, to the kitchen where the sun, already two-thirds of the way across its path between the turbines and the low hills to the south, is already fully up above the horizon. It’s one of the last times I see this before the hills obscure the sunrise until much later in the day, and I rejoice in the scene and its warmth. Slightly further north and east, a small rain shower casts down in long, thin, smears of dark grey as the sun, a full disc but nevertheless hazy, casts its warm glow into the kitchen, illuminating with a timeless orange light the surfaces and the walls. There is little wind and the rain, a brief interlude in what will be a warm, almost cloudless, balmy day, is soon gone.

Overhead, one of the headland’s flock of ravens floats down towards the bay, feet dangling below, but held so, in a straight line from which, given the lack of wind, it barely deviates. I imagine it, a few seconds ahead, landing on one of the rocks exposed by the retreating tide, to bask in the sun and, maybe, plan its day just as I am doing. Though it does, already, appear a little more purposeful.

It lands. Not on a rock, though. It has already planned its day and breakfast is its next item. It lands on top of something on the sand and immediately jabs downwards. Its target moves. It’s not dead. Shocked out of my slumber by the violence of the thrust and by the – clearly erroneous – belief that ravens prefer their food already matured as opposed to fresh, I grab my binoculars from the lounge window shelf. Its prey continues to struggle as its adversary continues its stabbing motions, irregularly and infrequently, long moments between, like each one was already the last.

The prey continues to move. It’s a bird, of some kind – though I can’t make out what, even with the binoculars. It staggers about in its own defence, under the weight of the raven on its back, looking like a young, unfledged chick, though it surely can’t be, not at this time of year. Then the raven flies off, landing ten yards or so to the left, its back turned nonchalantly on its prey, bored with the struggle or else regaining strength before returning to the affray. The target vainly continues to flap its wings, ineffectively, seeking to make progress in any direction and I’m reminded somehow of the lumbering efforts on land of a penguin. It seeks, slowly, to raise itself to a height, to convince its attackers that it is not injured, that it is proud and able to defend itself, and capable of doing so.

It does not convince, or make progress. For whatever reason (an earlier assault, most likely), it cannot fly away. A second raven joins the fight – except that this already uneven contest is not a fair fight. The two are not evenly matched in a struggle for supremacy, with death the honourable outcome for the loser. If it’s a murder of crows, then what is it of ravens, joining up in a tag team against something already weak and virtually defenceless?

The ravens do not compete. They work together. The second one also stabs away at the prey, infrequently and irregularly, surprised at having to make another attempt to subdue, until the first attacker rejoins it. They stand side-by-side, momentarily in converse about what to do next. It cannot get away. It will not. The second raven, too, flies away a short distance before the original bird resumes the attack. Steady, not frenzied. Determined and resolute, not panicky. Remorseless, and not giving up.

The prey continues to struggle, long wings flapping, lurching about, trying to martial something, anything, with which to respond to the onslaught it is under, the raven’s beak continuing, repeatedly but oddly irregularly, its stabbing motions, interspersed with periods of rest, as a fighter in between rounds. Gulls circle overhead – but they do not join in. A flock of fifteen or so dunlin edge closer across the sand in wedge formation, interested onlookers to the scene before them but perhaps, mostly, glad it’s not them. The prey is significantly larger than them and, as it moves, I see a longer bill and am reminded of a cormorant.

The bird spins, facing its attacker and, for a moment, I imagine that this is its best chance, to use its own bill in its own defence. Inwardly, I cheer it. Except that it has not spun round; it has been spun. And its beak is no match for that of a raven which, eventually, delivers some sort of coup de grace before, again, flying away some short distance to recuperate, to distance itself from the murder it has had to commit, to quieten its senses.

Called briefly away from the scene, I return some time later. The prey is now headless, its neck a bloody stump, its body slumped behind like the contents of a small sack. The ravens are long gone. With a white chest and black body, I think, after all, it was probably a guillemot. I’m reminded of how defenceless it appeared and cannot escape the thought that it was a chick. It would not be the first time this year that I have watched a predation, but this one has left me oddly and disturbingly moved. Most likely, the bird was already injured – in some way – and the ravens, opportunistic scavengers, have moved in to finish the job and, perhaps, have been surprised by how long it took them.

A surround of white feathers on the sand, lying so many and motionless in the lack of wind, bears testimony to its plucking and appear, in some way, in small tribute to its last stand. Not the white feathers of cowardice, these. Meanwhile, the gulls continue to fly overhead, not interested in the murder committed on the sands below them, or apparently in its product, before the rising tide eventually sweeps away the body, and the evidence, and the feathery tributes, out to sea and into the wider food chain, and all returns to peaceful normality.

Cretan Hop

(No, not that one – Ed). A title I’ve had which has been in search of a post since, well, ages.

One of my blogs below referenced thinking about warmer climes – and we have just come back from two weeks in Crete with temperatures in the mid to high 20Cs (that’s 70-80F if you like old money). Indeed, it was a bit of a chilly and cold-inducing shock coming back to a Scotland with clear skies (though with someone having stolen all our wind – for three days now!) and icing sugar snow dusting the mountain tops of most things north of Ben Lomond.

So, Crete: my second visit, but this time to the west near the historic city of Rethymno, having spent one week out to the east at Elounda in 2005. This time, e-bike cycling tours; walking; gorges; mountain villages; olive groves; more (rebuilt) monasteries and churches than you can shake a stick at; history (and yet more history); elliniki kafe sketo; learning a bit of Greek; history; 800 photographs (give or take); a beach or two; olive groves; ouzo and raki; lighting candles; the holy trinity of church, taverna and kafenion; mantinades (a form of Cretan rap music) and a bit of Cretan folkloric dancing; wonderful food; wars and liberations; and olive groves. Oh, and some history – wrapped not least around some more monasteries. Here’s a side door to one of them – evidently still in use and looking out towards the monastery’s inevitable olive groves.

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Further photos may follow, once I’ve sorted them out a bit.

But for now, on the beer front, it was a little disappointing to see that the craft beer revolution largely continues to pass Greece by (this being my first visit to any of the Greek islands since 2008); Greek breweries – even local ones on Crete – continuing to churn out the sorts of lager which has the merit in a hot country of being cold and wet – though that’s about the limits of it. There was rumours on some restaurant menus of a locally-brewed dark (‘red’) beer but no actual sign of it, at least not this late in the year. A few hops are always welcome and, on return to Glasgow, I enjoyed a taste of what a few hops can do for a lager with Drygate Breweries Bear Face, available on draught even at the airport.

It was also somewhat disappointing to discover that the Greek government apparently has financial schemes to assist with renovating village houses in the Venetian style [NB no actual links to anything have yet been found after my return for the purposes of this post] – a noticeable bit of revisionism which ignores both the centuries-longer Ottoman period as well as that the Venetians were also occupiers, albeit apparently somewhat more enlightened as well as less repressive. Of course, to take such a view clearly understates the sensitivities concerning the role played by the Ottomans in recent Cretan history and around the key events in its liberation struggle – and, as it seems, not only then. Back to the future, then (’twas ever thus). The key is no doubt the physical association of Crete with Europe and European values which, some 120 years after Crete gained its independence, and only after a bloody and lengthy struggle, is still regarded, taking the long-term view of history, as something which needs to be asserted.

There may also have been some dancing (happy 60th birthday, Seema!). After all, what’s a holiday without a hop or two? I don’t think there’ll be photos of that, though.