As I was saying ...
Updated: Jun 4
I really don’t know where to begin with this. You are now reading from my ‘new’ web site at www.petegrose.com. At the urging of my then British publisher, I set up my ‘old’ web site at www,petergrose.net way back in 2014. I built both web sites myself, and my hope for them both was that they would help people to find me – Google does this well, for instance – and contact me. My other hope was that the blog would give me a way of communicating directly with everyone without having to ‘sell’ my stuff to a magazine or newspaper before it could see the light of day. I look enviously at those people who have set up their own TV channels on YouTube, but it’s not for me. My basic rule for this blog was that I would write only about subjects that interested me, and if that sometimes meant a long time-gap between entries, so be it. The daily grind of turning out brilliant YouTube content, as do the likes of David Pakman and Brian Tyler Cohen, was never going to be for me.
I have to blame Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, for what happened next. Towards the end of 2019 Apple announced that it would no longer support its in-house web site software iWeb, which I had used to build the ‘old’ site. iWeb came as part of a package created by Apple in 2008 called iLife, which included iPhoto, iMovie, iWeb, iDVD and Garage Band. Garage Band and iMovie are now freebies integrated into the new Mac OS, iPhoto has lost an 'i' and gained an 's' and become simply Photos. It is also a freeby integrated into the Mac OS. The fate of iDVD is unknown to me, and iWeb has disappeared from the planet.
So I needed new software. I asked my computer whizz nephew Andy in Australia what he recommended, and he suggested Wix. Wix and I have been living together happily ever since. Indeed, this blog entry was created with Wix software. However …
All good things are said to be doomed to come to an end, and I’m afraid one of the casualties of all this is my old web site. It will go off the air on 14 May 2021, as will its associated e-mail address email@example.com. If you’ve got that address in your contact list, please remove it. It won’t work after 14 May. However this web site will continue to function for the foreseeable future, including the e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Incidentally, notice that the ‘new’ web site and e-mail address use PETE Grose, not PETER Grose. That’s how I was able to get the coveted ‘.com’ for both.
Now, as I hope is apparent, I take a lot of trouble with my blog. It seemed a pity just to junk the old stuff. So I have copied selected old blog entries and turned them it into this single entry, with a date slug on the various ramblings that make up the whole thing. I haven’t transferred the entire old blog, just some of it. So you have until 14 May to read the rest. After that, this entry will be all that remains of the old blog. I’ve kept most of the political stuff, and the stuff about life in France. As for the rest … well, it’s there until 14 May.
Sunday 3 November 2019
Sympathetic French friends keep asking me about Brexit. They are, it goes without saying, incredulous. How could an otherwise sane and stable nation like Britain have got its knickers into such an imperial twist? They’d laugh if they didn’t think I might be offended.
So where are we? The answer is that there will be a general election in Britain on 12 December and that is meant to solve everything. As the pundits keep writing and saying, there has never been so much uncertainty. With every election I can remember, there has always been at the start a favourite and an underdog. Sometimes the result was a surprise and the underdog won, but mostly not. This time, anybody who says with confidence that they can tell you what will happen is a charlatan to be ignored. Nobody knows.
Let’s start by looking at the political parties and what they stand for. Let me preface this by saying that 40% of the British electorate rates Brexit as the decisive issue in the election, so the parties’ policy towards Brexit is going to determine almost half the votes. Here’s where they stand:
The Conservative Party is nominally in power though it has a majority of minus 45 and has an impressive recent track record for losing votes in the House of Commons - six out of eight lost so far under Boris Johnson’s leadership. Conservative governments have now negotiated two deals with the Europeans for Brexit. The first deal, under Prime Minister Theresa May, was repeatedly rejected by hardline Brexiteers until Mrs May resigned and was replaced by Boris Johnson. The new Prime Minister has ‘negotiated’ a second deal which is slightly worse than Mrs May’s deal but is nevertheless hailed as some kind of breakthrough by the largely pro-Brexit press. So Boris Johnson will campaign on a policy of getting Brexit ‘done’, meaning voters who vote for him are also voting for his new deal. His offer to ‘die in a ditch’ if he could not get Brexit ‘done’ by 31 October has not been delivered. Boris will also campaign, so ‘tis said, on the notion that parliament has somehow wrecked Brexit by refusing to endorse Theresa May’s deal (three times) and Boris’s deal (once). This overlooks the slightly embarrassing fact that it was Boris’s mates, otherwise known as hardline Brexiteers, who were the ringleaders rejecting May’s deal. So it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that the fault for failing to deliver Brexit somehow rests with the Remain side. Nevertheless that is the widely endorsed view ... take a look at the British national newspaper The Daily Telegraph if you don’t believe me.
The Labour Party has a policy on Brexit, but only those who find the Delphic Oracle’s pronouncements both transparent and simple will know what it is. Me, I think it goes something like this: if Labour wins the election they will ‘renegotiate’ with the Europeans and come up with a Brexit proposal which will cure rabies, rid the world of poverty and reverse climate change in a stroke. Or not. Or if they’re lucky. Meanwhile, as soon as they have a proposal it will be put to a referendum, with Remain as the other option, and the People can decide. Labour will be the only party firmly committed to a referendum. Are they for Brexit, or against it? Answer: unequivocally no, they're not. They're neither for nor against.
The Liberal Democrats are a centrist party with a long history of support for British membership of the EU. Their policy can be reduced to their slogan Bollocks to Brexit, and they have declared that if they win power (which they last did just under 100 years ago) they will cancel Brexit and Britain will thus remain in the EU. Pigs may also fly.
The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, is the big unknown. It is a rebranding of the old United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). It has never contested a British general election before, so there is no history to consult. In this year’s European elections, as opposed to the forthcoming British election, they actually won in Britain by taking the biggest share of the vote and pushing the Conservatives into fifth place. So they are by no means a fringe party. They are the hardest of the hard Brexiteers, and their founder and leader Nigel Farage has already declared that Boris Johnson’s new deal isn’t Brexit at all in their purist eyes. Farage has offered Boris Johnson an electoral deal (of which more later) on the condition that Boris drops his current deal and goes for a ‘hard’ Brexit, otherwise known as crashing out. Boris Johnson has told him to shove it, and that’s how things stand at the moment. Farage has added that if there is no deal with the Conservatives, he will field a candidate in every seat in England, Scotland and Wales. Previous experience has shown that Farage party candidates take twice as many votes off the Conservatives as they do from Labour.
The Scottish Nationalists (SNP) are in favour of two related policies. They would like to remain in the European Union. Behind this is the knowledge that the Scots voted heavily in favour of Remain in the 2016 referendum. The SNP has also said it will fight for and win Scottish independence if Brexit goes ahead, and would then presumably apply to rejoin the EU as an independent nation.
Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, offers a watered down version of the SNP line. They are opposed to Boris Johnson’s new deal, and would prefer to remain in the EU. However they are not as vociferous as the SNP.
The Green Party has come out in favour of Remain.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland was founded by Ian Paisley and is resolutely opposed to just about everything, particularly everything European and with a hint of Popery. They speak for almost nobody but can’t be ignored because at one point their 10 members of parliament were propping up the Conservative government. As Theresa May’s deal was thought by them to be a sell-out, and Boris Johnson’s deal is transparently worse for them, they can be relied upon to complain loudly about any and every proposition put forward by anybody unless it guarantees a return to the old Protestant ascendancy in Northern Ireland.
The Monster Raving Loony Party (no kidding!) has said it already has candidates in place in 24 seats and is asking for more people to come forward as candidates. They often poll better than some of the mainstream parties described above, so don’t rule them out. They have not yet announced a policy towards Brexit, but given the party’s name and previous track record, they will almost certainly come up with a better and more coherent policy than any of those set out in the preceding paragraphs.
Finally, there’s the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) which still exists although most of its old support has migrated to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. They will probably poll in single figures, but in a tight race they will put pressure on the two other Brexit parties, so they can’t be ignored.
* * *
That’s where the various parties stand. Now let’s look at the long list of Great Unknowns. First is the changing demographic of the electorate. In a very close referendum result, Brexit was mostly supported by old white voters from northern England, some of them in Labour constituencies. As old people are wont to do, they are dying. Meanwhile a new batch of youngsters has turned 18 since the Brexit referendum in 2016, and they are overwhelmingly for Remain. According to the opinion polls, the original referendum result of 52-48 for Brexit has been neatly reversed, and the electorate is now 52-48 for Remain. This is not to say that the voters have changed their minds. The old Brexit voters have simply been replaced by new voters of a different persuasion, and that has tipped the balance. But, see next two paragraphs.
There’s the December election factor. Britain hasn’t held an election in December since 1923 for the perfectly sound reason that the weather in Britain in December is 100% reliable: it’s always freezing cold, wet and windy and it gets dark early. So canvassing is horrible, and it’s hard to get people to turn out for public meetings. It’s also hard to get them out of their warm houses to vote. Lousy weather is usually said to favour Conservatives, but insofar as Boris Johnson’s hopes rest on getting pro-Brexit Labour voters in northern England to switch their vote to him, this supposed bias may work against him. It’s easy to imagine older Labour Brexit supporters deciding not to risk pneumonia by heading for the polling station on the Big Day.
There’s also the university factor. Most British university students live away from home in colleges or ‘digs’. They are registered to vote in their university town, not at their old home address. But they will largely be ‘on vacation’ on 12 December and back home with their parents for Christmas. So they will not be able to vote unless they arrange for a postal vote or unless they go back to their university town on the day. University towns like Oxford and Cambridge voted overwhelmingly for Remain in the 2016 referendum. So the 12 December election date is likely to disenfranchise a lot of young Remain voters. However my advice to Boris Johnson is that he shouldn’t put too much trust in this. My highly scientific survey of university student opinion - a brief chat with my granddaughter Dot, who started at Cambridge in October - suggests that the student population is pretty steamed up about all this, and isn’t going to let itself be cheated out of voting. Students are already applying for postal votes, and are deciding in which constituency their vote will carry most weight. Dot will vote in Cambridge because it’s pretty marginal, so her vote will count for more. Other students from Tory constituencies have chosen to register at home, so their vote can give Boris maximum grief.
After that comes the split vote factor. People who want to remain in the EU could make a perfectly good case for voting Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist, Plaid Cymru, Green and perhaps even Monster Raving Loony. So there is at the moment no solid bloc of Remain supporters. But the Brexiteers have a similar problem. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are competing fiercely for the Brexit vote. If they finish up sharing it more or less equally, then under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system that might let a party with as little as 30% of the vote slip past the two Brexit champions to claim victory. Bear in mind that Farage’s Brexit party had the biggest share of the vote in the European Parliament elections (what hypocrisy, but let that pass!) and trashed the Conservatives into fifth place, behind the Lib Dems, Labour and even the Greens. It’s fair to say that with all these splits, somebody is bound to get hurt. But who?
Next comes the question of changing loyalties. As previously noted Brexit is the sole issue for about 40% of the electorate. So their vote will be determined by its impact on Brexit. But the parties are split. While there are plenty of noisy Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, there is also a solid bloc of comparatively shy pro-Europeans. These Conservative Remainers are capable of switching their vote, for instance to the Lib Dems. Similarly, amongst Labour supporters there are plenty of Remainers who are disgusted by their party’s fumbling equivocation. They could easily find their way to the Lib Dems or to the Green party. So the old British two-party system is one of the casualties of the Brexit wrangle. It matters because Boris Johnson’s calculation, so we are told, is that the Conservatives will lose seats to Labour in pro-Remain cities like London, but they will pick up Labour seats in northern England when Labour Brexit voters switch to the Conservatives. And if Boris has the numbers right, he will win more seats from Labour than he will lose to them. The opposing view is that tribal loyalties are strong, and a lot of those northern English Labour voters would rather die in a ditch than vote Conservative. This has even given rise to a new political label: ‘Workington man.’ The towns where these Labour Brexit supporters hang out are also cloth cap failing northern industrial towns like Wigan and St Helens, where plebeian Rugby League is the dominant winter sport. Will Workington man desert Labour and abandon watching the League on the TV to go out and vote for Boris? Or would he rather die in a ditch than vote Conservative? We shall see.
While political forecasting is a mug’s game, I’ll nevertheless chance my arm. I think the decisive factor in the election will be what happens between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. If they can reach an electoral deal and not split the Brexit vote, then a pro-Brexit parliament will very likely be the result. If they can’t reach a deal, and the omens for Boris are not good, then it’s wide open. And that’s all I’m saying.
Saturday 19 October 2019
I’m sure every country in the world has an equivalent expression. In Australia, ‘the bush’ is a synonym for remote countryside, full of naive and ignorant people. Think of ‘boondocks’, or the ‘booneys’. The use of ‘bush’ leads to the expression: “You can take the girl out of the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the girl.” In other words, if you are born and raised in ignorance and stupidity, you’ll stay that way for the rest of your life, never mind your Nobel Prize in medicine. (For the record, I think this is tosh.)
Well, you can take the boy out of Le Chambon, but you can’t take Le Chambon out of the boy. As you can read in other parts of this web site, I wrote a book A Good Place To Hide about the rescue of refugees, notably Jews, in the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and surrounding communities during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Le Chambon seldom disappears from my life for more than a few weeks at a time, and it reappeared this week in the nicest possible way.
I had an e-mail from my American friend, the novelist and lecturer Ruth Glover, saying: have you seen this? ‘This’ turned out to be an announcement of a 10-part podcast about Le Chambon available on the web site of a United States non-profit organisation called ‘Waging Non-violence”, which broadcast its first episode on 15 October. If you want to read the text of the podcast you can find it by by clicking here. If you’d like to hear the podcast itself, try clicking here and then press the usual ‘play’ button on the sound icon, which appears on the first page..
Having spent several years of my life trying to get the Le Chambon story straight, I can highly recommend this whole new enterprise. It’s not easy to dodge the various pits and traps telling the story: see my blog entry for 20 November 2014, which you can find by clicking here. I wrote a comment on the Waging Nonviolence web site congratulating the reporter Bryan Farrell on his accuracy and sensitivity. I had a nice and unexpected reply, including the following words: “Your book became my most trusted resource. I turned to it whenever I needed the most accurate version of events.” So if you want to hear another accurate version of the story of Le Chambon, and in particular if you’d like to hear the real voices of André Trocmé and Nelly Trocmé, go listen (or read).
Wednesday 18 September 2019
I’ve never met Nick Devaux, but I’d like to. Meanwhile let’s salute the obsessives of the world. Without them historic buildings would never be saved, pub quiz statistics (who scored the most runs in the England-Australia Cricket Test series in 1953) would never be compiled, and nobody would remember all the rules of trigonometry.
Nick won’t thank me for saying this, but in the nicest way he’s an obsessive. His late father Cyril Devaux trained as a fighter pilot in World War 2, but never quite managed to fire a shot in anger (not for lack of trying: when the war in Europe ended in May 1945 he asked to be transferred to the Pacific where Japan was still fighting). By one of life’s little coincidences, after completing his initial flying training he was stationed at Sywell, the nearest airfield to Northampton, England. Sywell is a regular entry in my pilot’s log book, because Northampton was the home of Australian Consolidate Press (UK) when I worked for them, and I would occasionally break the boredom of driving myself up the M1 from London to Northampton by flying myself instead.
As a tribute to Cyril, Nick has been circulating his father’s old pilot’s log book to those he calls ‘a random sample of war veterans and civilian witnesses’, asking them all to sign and write a small message. The picture above shows your humble scribe with logbook in hand. Nick found me after hearing about my book A Good Place To Hide and asked me to help to get the signatures of survivors of the Holocaust who had found shelter in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and surrounding French villages. That didn’t work too well, but Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List, signed. Among other luminous signatories is Dame Vera Lynn, ‘the Forces sweetheart’, who immortalised those bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, and promised the world We’ll Meet Again (don’t know where, don’t know when).
Below is Tom Keneally’s signature. He also signed for his wife Judy, whose brother was a pathfinder who flew 90 missions over Europe (a Bomber Command pilot did well to survive 30 missions). It is a measure of both the fair-mindedness of Nick’s choice of signatories and the sheer futility of war that Judy’s brother marked the targets for the firestorm bombing of Dresden, while another signatory Victor Gregg was in Dresden on the fateful night (and survived).
Monday 12 August 2019
Say hello to shrinkflation.
Every so often an opportunity emerges which needs to be grabbed with both hands. Here’s one. I came across the word ‘shrinkflation’ for the first time this week. For those uninitiated in the black arts of marketing, it works like this ...
Suppose you have a product - let’s call it Birds Eye fish fingers - which can be sold in huge quantities at a particular price point, let’s call that £2 in a British supermarket for a medium-sized pack (12 fish fingers). Now a lot of the contents of the pack have to be imported, not least the fish itself. So the cost to Birds Eye has risen because sterling is losing value as Brexit looms. What can Birds Eye do? Pass the extra cost on to the consumer so that the pack now costs, say, £2.40? That would lead to a drop in sales because, while anything up to £2 is a what-the-hell price point, £2.40 sounds like it might weigh a bit heavily on a tight budget, especially at a time when when pay is low and times are tough.
That’s where shrinkflation comes in. Birds Eye’s answer: keep the £2 price point, but reduce the number of fish fingers in a box from 12 to 10. Britain’s Office of National Statistics has been monitoring prices for the last few years, and they found over 200 cases of shrinkflation, including the Birds Eye example quoted above. Shrinkflation has hit hardest in the food sector, particularly where chocolate is involved. Mars has reduced the number of Maltesers in a pack. Toblerone briefly widened the gap between its chocolate chunks before reverting to the original shape and putting up the price instead. (See pictures below.)
It’s not just chocolate. Tropicana has reduced the size of its fruit juice packs, while McVities cut the number of Jaffa cakes in a box from 12 to 10. Toilet rolls are smaller, as are toothpaste tubes. And so on, more than 200 times.
So where’s the opportunity, you ask? Well, imagine if the boot was on the other foot. Suppose that the wicked Brussels bureaucrats had somehow imposed some new regulation which led to all these changes. Newspapers would have seen it as a perfect stick with which to beat Europe. We can imagine the headlines in the anti-EU popular newspapers. HEY EU, HANDS OFF MY CHOCOLATES (The Sun); EU LIGHT FINGERS HAVE NICKED YOUR FISH FINGERS (Daily Mail); HAVE A JAFFA? NOT IF EU CAN HELP IT (Daily Express).
So here’s my suggestion. Let those who, like me, don’t want Brexit to go ahead run a poster or social media campaign with headlines like DON’T LET BORIS STEAL YOUR CHOCKIES. Let’s seize this as a popular issue and point out that this is a first taste (sorry!) of what’s to come if Brexit goes ahead.
Thursday 27 June 2019
The French use a single collective noun volaille for all edible poultry. It covers everything from turkey to chicken, and it pretty much translates as ‘poultry’. Australians use the word chook a bit more narrowly, to include everything from domestic hens to chickens and roosters. I’ll stick with the Australian word for the minute.
I have just discovered, through no less august a source than The New York Times, that I now have the most famous chook in the world for a neighbour. The chook in question is a rooster named Maurice, the property of Mme Corinne Fesseau of this parish. Ms Fesseau and Maurice, are residents of Saint-Pierre d’Oléron, the French commune where I live. Maurice has featured on French television news, in various French newspapers, and even had a special by-law passed to secure his right to lead a normal chook life. He has now scaled unprecedented heights of international fame by having a whole feature in The New York Times devoted to his cause.
And what is his cause, you might well ask? He crows like any other rooster, doesn’t he? That, gentle reader, is the problem. Two of Ms Fesseau’s neighbours have asked a court to order the rooster removed. It wakes them up too early, they claim. This might have been passed over as a small-time tiff between neighbours if it hadn’t been for the fact that the complaining neighbours occupy their house for only a few weeks of the year, whereas Ms Fesseau and Maurice are there all the time. The neighbours live in Toulouse, and this is their holiday home (‘maison secondaire’).
The complaining neighbours are not alone keeping a maison secondaire on our island: at the last count, some 52% of houses on Oléron were second homes. In January in the depths of winter Oléron has a population of about 22,500. In the July and August holiday saison last year an unofficial count put the population at 350,000. These extra people are mostly French, and they pour into camping and caravan sites, second homes, small homes to let (‘gites’) and even the very few hotels on the island. They then proceed to cause horrendous traffic jams on our under-funded roads, huge queues at supermarket check-outs and generally stretch the island’s very limited resources. The permanent residents understandably resent them.
Not that this is the stated basis for the rush of support for Maurice the rooster. The New York Times saw the whole argument as part of the historic clash between France’s rural and urban traditions. As the newspaper loftily claimed in a picture caption: “St.-Pierre-d’Oléron, off France’s western coast, is popular with summer vacationers.” The only problem with this was that it wasn’t a picture of Saint-Pierre at all, but a picture of the entirely separate Oléron port of La Cotiniere. Still, nobody’s perfect. Maurice has gathered quite remarkable support. A petition calling on the court to reject the case attracted 85,000 signatures. And the mayor of St Pierre, Christophe Sueur passed a special law to “preserve the rural character” of St Pierre and thus Maurice’s right to crow as loudly as he wanted whenever he wanted. Support for Maurice has circled the globe. The NYT article was sent to me by my San Franciscan friend Cyra McFadden. And my New York friend Paul Kutner, who is staying with us on Oléron at the moment, promised on his Facebook page: “We are monitoring this situation closely.” In fact I just saw him walk past my window, off to do a bit of monitoring.
Post Script 5 September 2019: A court in nearby Rochefort today upheld Maurice’s right to crow whenever he likes at whatever volume he chooses. The chook wins! Yesssss!!
Monday 20 May 2019
It’s a pity Australian elections aren’t watched more closely by the rest of the world. There was an election in Australia on 18 May, at which the right-wing Liberal-National Party Coalition scored an unexpected win. Already the story has disappeared from the international press. The New York Times, for instance, rated it not worth a mention today, let alone an analytical piece dissecting the result.
Ignoring for the minute Scott Morrison’s unexpected win and the boost it has given to Aussie share prices generally and to fossil fuel industries in particular, there were three results that merit a closer look. The first was Warringah on the north side of Sydney Harbour. Warringah includes the hilly and expensive harbour suburb of Mosman, much beloved by Sydney’s doctors, lawyers and accountants, as well as the increasingly fashionable beach suburb of Manly. There the climate change denier and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was defending one of the largest and safest Coalition majorities in the country at 11.1%. He lost in something of a landslide to the oddly named Zali Steggall, a barrister and former Olympic skier. Running as an Independent, Ms Steggall beat him 58-42, a swing against Tony Abbott of 13%. Ms Steggall fought largely on the issue of climate change.
Then there was Wentworth, another expensive Sydney suburb, this time on the south side of the harbour. It was won seven months ago in a by-election by Dr Kerryn Phelps, another Independent (see my blog entry for 23 November 2019} who overturned a 20% Coalition margin to take the seat away from the governing party for the first time in 119 years. It looks as though Dr Phelps has lost this time, though at the time of writing there was not much in it and there were still votes to be counted. Whatever the final result, it will be pretty close, meaning that what was once the safest Coalition seat in the country is now marginal and winnable by anti-Coalition forces. Again, climate change was the big issue.
Finally, there was Dickson in Queensland, where the hard-right sitting MP Peter Dutton, another climate change denier, fought off a strong campaign by the opposition Labour Party and actually increased his majority over the Labour Party’s Ali France. Ms France lost 46-54.
So what conclusions flow from this? The first is that there has been a tectonic shift of sentiment amongst middle-class voters. They no longer accept the argument that climate change is some kind of left wing hoax. They are now actually worried by the fires, floods, droughts and hurricanes they see on the television news every night. They worry about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit. These worries now run deep enough to shake political allegiances.
But there is a more subtle message hidden in the three results above. I would argue that they show that tribal sentiment still matters. Lifelong voting habits are simply too powerful to lead middle-class Australians to make the leap from, say, the right-wing Liberal-National Party coalition to the left-wing Labour Party. We can infer from this that middle-class American voters will not jump from voting Republican to voting Democrat, and middle-class Brits will not stop voting Conservative and start voting Labour, however much the Democrats and the Labour party sound off on climate change. That mammoth switch, quite simply, is a chasm too deep and too wide for those middle-class voters to cross in a single leap.
What they will do, however, is vote for someone with no political label who looks and sounds a bit like themselves. It is no coincidence that the two seats that actually changed hands went to a barrister and a doctor, both running as Independents. The comfortable middle-class voters of Warringah and Wentworth weren’t ready to break the habit of a lifetime and embrace the Labour Party, or the Green Party or, indeed, any other party. But they could just about face voting for a doctor or a lawyer who wore the politically neutral Independent label.
Led by the activist organisation GetUp, Tony Abbott in Warringah, Dave Sharma in Wentworth and Peter Dutton in Dickson all faced similar ferocious campaigns. As a result, Tony Abbott lost to an Independent barrister, Dave Sharma was run pretty close by an Independent doctor, and Peter Dutton actually increased his majority over a Labour Party journalist. The conclusion is obvious. Yes, the middle class has come a long way on the issue of climate change, but not far enough to switch votes from Right to Left. However they’ll desert the right-wing climate change deniers in droves if they are offered the chance to vote for a respectable Independent.
For those of us who think climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the world, the Australian results might be a signpost towards a more effective way to use the ballot box to bring about change.
Saturday 4 May 2019
Political spin is a wonderful thing. (Please don’t show your age by calling it lying. Sooo 1950s.) Britain has just held local government elections, and the results are in. How were they received? And spun?
Let’s look at what happened first. There were no elections in Scotland, Wales or London, but some 9,000 local government seats were up for grabs in 248 local councils in England and Northern Ireland. Of the major parties, the Conservatives (Tories) are the most vocally pro-Brexit party as well as forming the government which has been in charge of the stalled Brexit negotiations. The Tories lost a net 1,269 seats. The Labour Party are publicly ambiguous about Brexit, though their leader Jeremy Corbyn has been pro-Brexit for years. They lost a net 63 seats. Ukip is a one-issue minor party leading the Brexit charge. They previously held 67 seats. They lost 56 of them, held 11, and gained 20, for a net loss of 36. So the pro-Brexit parties did not exactly cover themselves in glory.
What of the others? Well, the biggest gains went to the Liberal Democrats, who are the only major party fighting against Brexit and arguing that Britain should remain in the European Union. They had a net gain of 676 seats, and won control of a number of councils from the Tories. The smaller Green Party, which is also pro-Remain, gained a net 185 seats. The other big gain went to independents, who mostly campaigned on local issues but who pushed hard the idea that they weren’t Labour and they weren’t Tories. They gained 285 seats. So it was a good night for we Remainers.
And how was this spun? Theresa May, the British Prime Minister and Tory leader, claimed the voters had sent a clear message: “Just get on and deliver Brexit.” If you, dear reader, can find that message in any of the above numbers, please write to me at email@example.com and explain, because I can’t see it.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the arch-Brexiteer from the Tory backbenches, even managed to find a silver lining where others saw mostly cloud. He told the pro-Tory and pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph: “These disastrous local elections could be a blessing in disguise for the Conservatives.” Again, if anybody can see through the disguise to the blessing underneath, please write to me and explain that too, because I see only the disaster. (I offer one possible silver lining. The local council in Rees-Mogg’s constituency switched from solidly true blue Tory to Liberal Democrat, a historic first. So maybe the voters will stay consistent and Rees-Mogg will be defeated at his next election. Now that would be a blessing, and not in disguise!)
It seems to me that some truth-telling is long overdue, and not all of it is helpful to we Remainers. The first thing Remainers should acknowledge is that the Brexiteers won a referendum fair and square in 2016. The question on the ballot paper was not exactly nuanced. It asked: should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? In response 17,410,742 said leave and 16,141,241 said stay, a split of 51.89% to 48.11%.
We Remainers should also face up to what those 17,410,742 electors actually voted for. They voted to get away from laws imposed on Britain by the collective of countries of the EU. As endless victorious Brexiters told TV vox pop news crews after the Brexit vote: ‘We’ve got our country back.’ As well, they voted to keep out European migrants, particularly from possible future EU member countries like Albania (a near certainty for future membership) or Turkey (a long-odds possibility), both of which have large Muslim populations. Under existing EU rules, the ‘single market’ and ‘customs union’ meant that all European citizens had an absolute right to live and work anywhere they chose in the EU, rather as Texans can move to Minnesota or Tasmanians can move to Queensland or Scots can move to London. If that meant a whole lot of Polish plumbers could find more lucrative work in the UK (as they could) then they were free to move there, no questions asked and no need for visas, work permits. or anything else. The fact that the single market in particular was largely the creation of the Brexiteer’s heroine Margaret Thatcher could be dismissed as an aberration: nobody’s perfect. And anyway nobody was much in the business of reminding them of Thatcher’s role in all this.
So what is currently on offer to the victorious Brexiteers? Answer: nothing like what they voted for. The rules of the game provided for a clearly defined process. Under Article 50 of the 2009 European Union Lisbon Treaty (an agreement accepted and adopted by all EU members) any country wishing lo leave the EU had to give notice. From the day notice was given there would be a two-year negotiation while the terms of departure were worked out. If two years turned out to be not enough time, then the non-departing EU members could give their departing colleague an extension of time. However any extension would have to be agreed unanimously by the non-departing countries. There are currently 28 countries in the EU, so any extension of the negotiating period for the United Kingdom must be agreed unanimously by the 27 countries that have chosen to remain. The United Kingdom gave Article 50 notice on 29 March 2017, so the two-year period ended on 29 March 2019. The 27 agreed an extension, so the UK is currently living in what would be called injury time if this were a game of football.
The EU negotiators and the UK finally came up with a deal on 13 November 2018. Under the terms of the deal there could be no ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland (an independent country and part of the EU). EU nationals living in Britain would have the right to remain there, as would UK nationals living in Europe. And the UK would have to cough up roughly £40 billion to pay its share of future European projects already agreed by the UK but not yet completed or paid for. Finally, there would be a two-year transition period while the people of the UK learned to get along without ‘ongoing police and judicial co-operation’ and various other benefits of EU membership. In return for these concessions, the United Kingdom got exactly nothing.
Now this wasn’t what the Brexit voters had been promised, and it certainly wasn’t what they wanted. It looked like they would still have to conform to a fair bit of EU law emanating from Brussels, while having no say in writing it, and they would have to continue to accept EU migrants whether they liked it or not. They would also have to cough up £40 billion in cash. However they would lose free access to the EU single market, which currently accounts for roughly half of UK exports. So it all looked like the end of ‘getting our country back’, as well as the end of blocking streams of migrants from the EU, plus an end to saving £350 million a week in EU contributions, money which could be better spent on hospitals and doctors.
So why did anybody vote for Brexit? The answer, quite simply, is that Brexit voters had been promised quite a different outcome. They were told German car manufacturers had too much at stake in the UK market to allow any impediment to the free movement of goods and services from Europe to the UK. And the whole of Europe was too fond of Scotch whisky to allow anything to block its free flow across European borders. We’ve nothing to lose, Brexit voters were told. Let’s just get these idiots out of our way, and watch us take the world by storm.
Wrong. Wrong. WRONG. None of these promises came true. So the only deal available has now been voted down three times in the UK Parliament, largely by those in favour of a ‘hard’ or total or complete or whatever you want to call it Brexit (which, after all, is what a slim majority of people who wanted Brexit voted for), and nobody knows where to go next. For the record, Parliament has also voted to block the aforementioned ‘hard’ Brexit (also known as ‘crashing out’) because it would be prohibitively expensive, self-destructive and stupid. So the options come down to a mere two: some variation on the already negotiated deal - and the new deal would have to be acceptable to every one of the remaining 27 countries - or else dropping the whole lunatic enterprise and staying in the EU as a full member. The European Court has already ruled that the UK could unilaterally choose to stay, without the need for any consent from the other 27. All the UK would have to do is send a letter to the European Union saying whoops, sorry, we’ve changed our minds, and the whole misjudged episode would disappear into history.
However there’s another point. It’s entirely subjective on my part, but it comes down to a question of what is the best way forward consistent with democratic ideals. We should be absolutely clear that Theresa May’s 13 November Brexit deal is not what Brexit supporters voted for. They voted to end unfettered European migration to the UK, and they voted to end Brussels regulations imposed on the UK from the outside. May’s deal gives them neither. Now this is simply my opinion, but I would contend that if May gets some kind of deal through the UK parliament then that will not be the Brexit 17,410,742 UK citizens voted for. So before it can go ahead it will need to be approved in a new referendum. Those 17,410,742 people essentially voted to crash out, and democracy requires that they be asked politely if they are willing to accept something less. Parliament has already ruled out crashing out. So the only alternative to May’s triumphant deal would be Remain.
So here’s my manifesto. May should continue to try to get some sort of deal though Parliament, until she finally succeeds. She should then ask the electorate: should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union under the terms of the deal approved by the UK parliament? If that question were put, it’s my hope that Remain would win. In saying this I’m not suggesting that substantial numbers of the 17,410,742 have changed their minds. There’s no evidence to suggest they have, just as there’s no evidence that substantial numbers of the old Remain voters have now moved to the other side. Some have, but the overwhelming majority have not.
However there has been a significant change. All the evidence points to the fact that the original Brexit referendum was won by older voters. Between June 2016 and the present, significant numbers of them have died. Meanwhile a whole lot of young voters have turned 18 and joined the electoral roll. And all the evidence points to the fact that the overwhelming majority of young voters are Remainers. All opinion polls say that the population shift has produced a majority for Remain. Those who argue against a second referendum are arguing, in effect, for the proposition that the dead should continue to inflict a miserable future on the living. If that’s their idea of democracy, it’s not mine.
Thursday 7 March 2019
We’re just half way through an amazing couple of weeks in Japan. It’s the first time we’ve been there and we are loving it. It’s an entirely new - and attractive - culture and every day brings surprises.
One of the first surprises was the Japanese loo. I’ve spent my life with largely low-tech loos, so the loos in hotels and even guest houses in Japan were an amazing surprise. For a start, the seats are warmed electrically. (Who says Japanese society is totally macho and geared to male comfort only?)
Secondly, they offer an amazing array of electric supplements including a bidet and spray. The photo at the top of this blog entry shows a typical control panel. There are also instructions under the lid.
All of this shouldn’t cause too many problems for the average Japanese-speaking Boeing 747 pilot, but for we mortals used to flush and forget, it is impressive to say the least. The instructions are commendably non-discriminatory. The keen-eyed will notice that the push buttons on the control panel at the top are labelled in Braille as well as Japanese.
Not that the various warm water streams arrive with quite the force suggested by the illustration at the top of this entry. The Japanese as a race are in general more lightly built than we Europeans (Sumo wrestlers are an aberration), but I doubt if even the most forceful loo stream could have quite the elevating effect on the occupant as is shown in the illustration.
There is also a very simple and ingenious others-please-copy innovation. The water which flows into the cistern arrives from a tap above a basin built into the top of the loo. So it is possible to wash your hands in the same water that fills the cistern, making for a planet-saving economy all round.
Japanese society has much to admire. But I’d have to say the loos are unequivocal world-beaters.
Friday 23rd November 2018
I had a nice e-mail yesterday from Dr Christine Blasey Ford. That’s her above, testifying before the US Senate confirmation hearing on Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment as a Supreme Court judge. Well, it wasn’t exactly a personal e-mail. I suspect it went out to as many as 13,969 people. It began: ‘Words are not adequate to thank all of you who supported me.’ Why me? Well I’d sent $50 via GoFundMe to help her to pay her legal and security bills.
The e-mail revealed some astonishing figures. She had set out to raise $150,000. In fact she received $647,610 from a total of 13,969 donors. That’s an average of $46.36 per donor. In her words, the funds ‘allowed us to take reasonable steps to protect ourselves against frightening threats, including physical protection and security for me and my family, and to enhance the security for our home. We used your generous contributions to pay for a security service, which began on September 19 and has recently begun to taper off; a home security system; housing and security costs incurred in Washington DC, and local housing for part of the time we have been displaced. Part of the time we have been able to stay with our security team in a residence generously loaned to us.’
What will happen to the unused money? Dr Ford again: ‘All funds unused after completion of security expenditures will be donated to organisations that support trauma survivors. I am currently researching organisations where the funds can best be used. We will use this space to let you know when that process is complete.’ When she does let me know, I’ll pass on her words through this blog. Meanwhile, she closed the fund yesterday.
It’s worth taking time to look at this new phenomenon, of which Dr Ford’s fund is a single - if singular - example. It was striking that in the mid-term elections just held in the US, the Democrats were able to outspend the Republicans, largely using small donations from a huge mass of people. The internet allowed a wave of small donations to swamp the big, corporate donors who fund the Republicans and their super-PAC cheer-leaders. We cannot know whether this money, spent mostly on TV, telephone and internet advertising, changed anybody’s mind or had any effect on the outcome. However we do know that well-funded Democrats won in seats that are usually counted as safe Republican.
We tend to look askance at the internet’s impact on politics. The headlines go to stories about Russian spooks spreading fake news via Facebook and Twitter, or to transparent lies tweeted and repeated across social networks. But there is an increasingly sophisticated use of the internet by liberals and progressives, and it’s starting to terrify the populist right.
There was a brilliant example in Australia a few weeks ago. The dumping of the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull by the far right of the ruling Liberal Party (a giant misnomer, for those unfamiliar with Australian politics) made world headlines. But little attention was paid outside Australia to what happened next. Malcolm Turnbull resigned from parliament, which left vacant his ‘seat’ of Wentworth in Sydney’s comfortably rich Eastern Suburbs. Wentworth was regarded as the safest Liberal seat in Australia, with a 20% Liberal majority at the last election. It had been a Liberal seat for 117 years.
An online pressure group called GetUp responded brilliantly to this sudden opportunity. Their polling had shown that climate change was a dominant concern to the genteel middle class voters of Wentworth, living in leafy harbour-side suburbs like Vaucluse and Double Bay. What’s the use of a 5-million-dollar mansion with a view of the harbour if you can’t see it through the pollution? So GetUp campaigned on the central issue of climate change, which the dominant ultra-right faction of the Liberal Party assured voters was a hoax.
GetUp called for volunteers to man phone banks and make individual calls to electors. Other volunteers stood outside polling booths and handed out how-to-vote cards. These were not the usual party hacks but unpaid helpers, many of them activists for the first time in their lives. They didn’t support any single political party. They simply said: If you want to stop climate change, don’t vote Liberal.
The result was astonishing. The Liberal candidate Dave Sharma lost. Under Australia’s single transferrable vote system, the seat was won after distriubution of ‘preferences’ by an independent Kerryn Phelps, who garnered a bit over 51% of the vote against Sharma’s 49%. Dr Phelps’ victory was even more remarkable, given that she is well and truly ‘out’ as a lesbian, who publicly and touchingly thanked her wife Jackie Stricker for her support throughout.
But GetUp’s style of activism doesn’t end there. They have amassed a remarkable war chest. In the last year they have received AU$10,232,078 (US$7,409,716 or 6,511,187 € at today’s exchange rate) in donations from 44,449 donors, an average of A$230 per donor. They spend this money with real sophistication. Yes, they organise marches and demonstrations, and wave their placards. Yes, they organise online petitions. But more often their battles are in the courts. They have been the driving force behind a campaign to block a huge open-cut coal mine in Queensland, with the spoil from the mine being dumped on the Great Barrier Reef. The Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Site as well as a huge earner of tourist dollars for Australia. This fight has mostly taken place in the courts, and so far they keep on winning.
So next time you debate the question of whether the internet is the devil’s invention, spare a moment to think about GetUp, Avaaz, We Move and all the other online agitators. The internet is neither good nor evil. But if we all let the bad guys dominate it when it is provably usable in a good cause, we have only ourselves to blame. Ask Christine Blasey Ford.
Wednesday 11 July 2018
How the other half lives
Suppose you could take yourself back to June 2003. And suppose you were one of the following worthies: George W. Bush (US), Tony Blair (UK), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Jacques Chirac (France), Gerhard Schröder (Germany), Silvio Berlusconi (Italy), Jean Chrétien (Canada), Junichiro Koizumi (Japan) or Romano Prodi (European Union).
Can’t see yourself as one of them? Then what about representing twelve other lesser countries ranging alphabetically from Algeria to Switzerland? You wouldn’t have a vote but you might be invited to speak. Or can you see yourself representing the UN (Kofi Annan), the World Bank (James Wolfensohn), the International Monetary Fund (Horst Köhler) or the World Health Organisation (Supachai Panitchpakdi).
Still can’t imagine it? I can. For the last couple of days I’ve been living as they must have when they came here for the G8 summit in June 2003. They stayed at the Hotel Royal, Evian-les-bains, France. I hope their room was as good as mine, with a view of Lake Geneva. Mine cost someone - I wasn’t paying - 1,000 € a night.
And what do you get for your 1,000 € ? Well, you get a big room plus big bathroom with an amazing view out over the lake (see photo above). You also get some quite touching touches.
If you look below, you’ll see a picture of two bottles of water. Look closely. Evian is, of course, famed for its water, which is bottled and sold in supermarkets all over the world. However not even the best supermarkets manage to personalise the water in the way the Hotel Royal does. These two bottles of water were waiting on our bedside tables when we arrived.
If you look below, you’ll also see the sunny terrace where we all had breakfast, and an unusual photo of me wearing a tie for the first time in perhaps 10 years. Then read on.
Why were we there? Well, 80 years ago President Roosevelt of the US called a conference of 32 countries to see what could be done to accommodate Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The delegations all assembled at the luxurious and famous Hotel Royal in Evian to thrash out an answer. And what did these worthies come up with to justify the luxury rooms, fine wines and fine food? A big, fat nothing. The only country that said it would take refugees was the Dominican Republic, which offered to take 100,000. In fact 800 arrived there, and set up home in the republic’s town of Sosua.
As for the other 31 countries, well they couldn’t do anything just right now. Huge sympathy for the plight of the Jews, or course. But, as luck would have it, this turned out to be the very week when the chap in charge of looking after refugees was away on annual leave. But as soon as he got back and had attended to all the other urgent stuff piling up on his desk, he'd definitely take a look at it.. Led by the UK and the US, every country represented there came up with reasons for doing nothing. Hitler crowed that nobody wanted Europe’s Jewish ‘criminals’, and felt free to do his worst. Kristallnacht rapidly followed, then the ‘final solution’. So the Hotel Royal was an important stepping stone on the road to Auschwitz and Belsen.
And why me? I was there with Denise Vallat, the deputy mayor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, to tell the story of that rescue village and what can be done when human decency trumps indifference. So we held a Second Evian Conference with speakers ranging from Dr Shimon Samuels, European head of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation, to the provocative documentary film maker Joachim Schroeder, and even your humble scribe. If you’d like to see Denise's and my contribution, click here.
We were treated to a splendid dinner, washed down by fine wine, while we listened to 12 speakers talk about the horrors of the past, the shameful plight of refugees in the present, and what might be done about it all in the future. We all got on well, agreed that the hotel was magnificent, and that it would be great to meet there again for a further Evian conference.
So it would. And let’s hope that the Third Evian Conference might outdo its two predecessors and produce some genuine change. We can’t just leave it to the G8 (now reduced to the G7 after the expulsion of Russia) to eat all the foie gras and do all the talking.
Friday 22 June 2018
The maire's tale
Mayors of French towns and villages have a unique role. They do all the usual mayoral things like presiding over meetings of the local council. But their unstated role is as fixers. If you have a problem, share it with the mayor. He or she will go out of his or her way to help. The best mayor’s story I ever heard was of a man who had gone to see his mayor on some legitimate mission. While he was in the mayor’s office the phone rang with a very distressed elderly lady on the end of the line. Her rabbits were listless, she explained. Could the mayor do something? The mayor leapt into action and called a vet on her behalf, who presumably then livened up the rabbits. My informant asked the mayor if he saw rabbit-restoration as one of his mayoral duties. “Certainly,” the mayor replied, adding with a sigh: “And I know for a fact she didn’t even vote for me.” Well, the picture above is a good example of mayoral fixing. I’ve written before about the Fête de la musique (“Festival of music”) which takes place every year all over France on 21 June, otherwise mid-summer’s day and therefore the longest day of the year. The day and especially the evening is devoted to live music, and there are public concerts all over France, usually free. It is celebrated in our house because (a) it’s fun; and (b) it’s the anniversary of the day I first met my wife in London, back in 1965. So we went with the neighbours to a local restaurant with outside tables in the big square of our local village, within easy earshot of a live concert. It was lively stuff. If you look very closely at the picture below you’ll see that the pony-tailed singer is actually in mid-air while in full song. You can’t ask for much livelier than that (listless rabbits, take note).
So where does the mayor fit into all this? The answer is with the picture at the top of the page. I’d decided to take a pic of us all at our long table with full glasses and about to eat. I’d just taken my picture when the man at the next table leapt up and motioned me to sit back in my place while he took a picture of all of us. And who was this kindly stranger? No less a person than our local maire Christophe Sueur, performing the traditional mayoral role of fixer-in-chief. So thank you, monsieur le maire. And no, I didn’t vote for you, but I might next time.
Saturday 31 March 2018
I’m not much good at family stuff, so if you can tell me (answers by e-mail please to firstname.lastname@example.org) what relation my grandfather’s aunt is to me - I’ve always thought of her as a great aunt twice removed - then that’s my connection to the lady in the portrait above. She’s Millicent Symons Grose, a minor Victorian water-colourist, who usually signed her paintings Melicent S. Grose. Her most famous painting is called A Bowl Of Pink Roses. You get the picture. However she was not without substance. Her portrait of Samuel Pepys still hangs in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
I don’t know much about her, but she must have been a game old bird. I’ve got nine of her paintings, and their locations range from Honfleur in Northern France - a great haunt of the Impressionists - to St Ives in Cornwall to Paris to Venice to Lake Annecy on the French-Swiss border. So she must have been one of those Victorian women who made something of a career of travelling. She lived in Paris for a long time. and at Pont-Aven on the southern coast of Brittany, near Quimper. She did a series of paintings of Brittany and Bretons, some of which were exhibited in the Royal Academy in London. While she lived in Pont-Aven, she might easily have met Paul Gaugin, who lived there around the same time. For those who don’t know Pont-Aven, it has never got over the excitement of playing host to Gaugin. There are still bars in this otherwise traditional Breton village improbably called Bar Tahiti.
The portrait above was painted by Burr Nicholls, a minor American artist pictured below left.
Millicent, or Melicent, was born in Truro, Cornwall, in 1844 and died in 1923. There’s no date on the painting above, but she looks a bit under 40 so it must have been painted around 1880. Nichols himself is an interesting story. He was an early loser in the crusade for sexual equality. His second wife (he had three) was called Rhoda Holmes Nicholls, also a painter. They both entered paintings in the Paris Salon of 1897. Rhoda’s was accepted, with honourable mention. Burr’s was rejected. This led to such domestic tension that the marriage eventually ended in a messy and widely publicised divorce. It just goes to show ... something.
Anyway, Great Aunt Milly’s portrait above arrived from Australia yesterday, and is now hanging over my desk in France. She’d be happy there.