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“May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

William Lenthall, 1591-1662, Speaker of the House of Commons


Introduction

It is likely that anyone who has taken a tour of Parliament, and certainly anyone who has worked in Parliament, will be familiar with the words of Speaker Lenthall (above). They are woven through the narrative that Parliament tells itself, and the world at large, about its sovereignty – the sovereignty that so much of the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union centred on.

Yet, on Wednesday 12 June 2019, we saw an abject failure by MPs to exercise that sovereignty and ensure Parliament is the vehicle by which the final decision on Brexit is made.

This was the opportunity for MPs to put the national interest ahead of narrow personal or party electoral interest and give Parliament the certainty of one more definite opportunity for a considered decision. Whether motivated by a desire to stop Brexit, to ensure Brexit only occurs with some semblance of a functional deal, to avoid dragging the Monarch into politics, or to simply ensure Parliament’s primacy in determining the destiny of the United Kingdom, yesterday was the most tangible chance left to MPs.

They blew it.

Some will have been nervous about their electoral prospects in their seats. The idea that voters in an October General Election would even remember a technical procedural vote held months before is for the birds, but such is how Brexit has warped any rational understanding of electoral dynamics in the current political debate. Whatever, the combination of Labour rebels and abstentions, and independents, together with whipped government MPs, were more than enough to defeat the combined opposition parties and the ten Conservative MPs who had the courage to rebel.

It is worth noting some commentary suggesting the difficulty for Conservative MPs was that this was a Labour Party Opposition Day Debate, held during a Conservative Party leadership contest. However, opportunities present themselves and need to be taken. With the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Conservative Party all represented in the top six names, there is no doubt this was clearly a cross-party motion.

The failure of MPs to seize the moment was underscored by Sir Oliver Letwin MP on the Today programme: “We have run out of all the possibilities that any of us can at the moment think of.”


Why have they blown it?

In recognising that MPs blew it, it is worth understanding the quiet magnitude of this failure to assert parliamentary sovereignty over a Brexit process that risks becoming the plaything of a Prime Minister elected by a Conservative Party membership that represents – according to its most recent published figures –just  0.27% of the electorate.

Like so much else in this torturous process, yesterday was about time – and who controls the time available to Parliament to debate issues of interest.

The big fear of many who are concerned about the direction of this debate, whether motivated by a desire to avert Brexit, manage Brexit or ensure Parliament retains control, is that one or other of the Conservative leadership candidates is serious about the potential of proroguing Parliament so that Parliament has no time available to it to prevent Britain leaving on October 31 with no deal.

Dominic Raab has been clear that this is an option. Today, Boris Johnson refused to rule it out.

Let that sink in. Potential Prime Ministers are actively considering subverting Parliament by drawing the Monarch into the most intense and toxic political debate this country has had in a generation.

So this is about time.

Yesterday’s debate was held in time that was given to the Official Opposition. Standing Order 14 (2) states that “Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, seventeen of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party; and matters selected on those days shall have precedence over government business…” Parliamentary obsessives will have noticed that this is the longest parliamentary session since the English Civil War (1642-51). The opposition days due under the Standing Order have long since been allocated and so additional days, to reflect the fact that you would ordinarily expect a session to last no more than a year, have been set aside for opposition business by agreement between the whips’ offices in ‘usual channels’.

You can immediately begin to see the significance of the problem.

Yesterday was a day allocated for the opposition’s business that, technically, the government did not need to provide. MPs, seized of the need to avert the possibility of a new Prime Minister simply silencing Parliament, tabled a motion that would have created time on June 26 for the House of Commons to take control of the Order Paper and table a business motion or bill that could potentially have curtailed the Prime Minister’s freedom to deny Parliament a say in Brexit.

It was (another) bold move and it was defeated.

Having tried and failed, it is inconceivable that a hostile Conservative government is going to agree to allocate a further day for opposition business in the name of the Leader of the Opposition or the leader of any other opposition party.

Instead, if MPs wish to challenge a Johnson or Raab who intends to shut down Parliament, they will have to test the elasticity of procedure to an even greater extent – and draw on history’s precedents to back them up.

There is hard truth to face, too.

By voting it down yesterday, MPs – perhaps concerned about the short-term optics of the decision – have significantly heightened the rhetoric in a highly-charged debate and risk placing Parliament’s already creaking procedures under even greater strain.

If anyone thinks the idea of this being dangerous is hyperbolic, Rory Stewart, a rival Conservative leadership candidate, has said that “he and other MPs were ready to sit as a parliament outside the Palace of Westminster if Mr Johnson took this step as PM.” He then made the direct comparison with the Civil War.

Think about that for a moment, too.

A candidate who has made it into the second round of voting to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is drawing parallels between the behaviour of the leading candidate to become Prime Minister and the actions of King Charles I that precipitated a bloody nine-year conflict that tore the country apart.

Stewart is suggesting that there is a cadre of MPs prepared to defy the Prime Minister and sit in an alternative Parliament, directly challenging the authority of the government.


Current political context

Just as then, so now we have a Speaker who has fuelled furious debate amongst commentators and experts by demonstrating a clear willingness to champion Parliament’s sovereignty and challenge the executive. But there are other parallels between the political situation at the time that Speaker Lenthall took his stand and now, beyond the flamboyance of the central personalities.

The country was seized by a charged and polarised political debate, the respective narratives driven by an authoritarian executive with contempt for Parliament, and parliamentarians were desperately attempting to use the constitution and parliamentary procedure to constrain that executive. In an article on the Long Parliament, Dr Vivienne Larminie notes how Speaker Lenthall’s tenure was set against a backdrop of “escalating uprising in Ireland and unrest on the streets of London.” In our own politically incendiary times, the centrality of the polarising debate around the backstop and Northern Ireland, and the anger of Remain voters manifesting in a million people marching through London, are a vivid reminder that history can indeed repeat itself.

There are parallels in a (slightly) more recent constitutional crisis, too, as well as possible clues to ways forward for MPs determined to challenge a Prime Minister hell-bent on circumventing Parliament.

Following the removal of the Fox-North coalition from government in 1783 and the installation of William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister (with the full connivance of George III), Pitt’s arch adversary, the radical Whig Charles James Fox, and his allies, including his friend Thomas Erskine, mounted numerous attempts to challenge a Prime Minister they believed would dissolve Parliament.

William Cobbett, in his journal The Parliamentary History of England, Vol. XXIV, records a debate on Mr Erskine’s Motion for an Address not to Dissolve Parliament (Columns 239-263). He then details the response from His Majesty (Columns 263-264):

It has been my constant object to employ the authority intrusted to me by the constitution, to its true and only end – the good of my people; and I am always happy in concurring with the wishes and opinions of my faithful Commons. I agree with you in thinking that the support of the public credit and revenue must demand your most urgent and vigilant care. The state of the East Indies is also an object of as much delicacy and importance as can exercise the wisdom and justice of Parliament. I trust you will proceed in these considerations with all convenient speed, after such an adjournment as the present circumstances may seem to require. And I assure you I shall not interrupt your meeting by any exercise of my prerogative, either of prorogation or dissolution.

There are significant elements here. The recognition of the primacy of the Commons. The need to act responsibly in the public interest. The expectation of the exercise of care and judgement on the part of Members of Parliament when considering complex and significant matters. The need for a timely resolution. And a clear assurance that the Monarch, even at a time when the role was still highly political, would not be drawn into politics.

The debate on Mr Erskine’s Address has another interesting parallel with contemporary machinations in that it details at quite some length the shifting complexities of the coalitions of interest on the parts of both government and opposition. The striking reference to “Coalition! Coalition! Cursed Coalition!” conjures up an image of a constitutional Marty McFly, witnessing the fallout of 2010-2015 before darting back in time to scribble a note.  Plus ça change.

However, these proceedings suggest that the device of the Humble Address has the potential for a broader application than is usually considered presently. Current understanding generally sees it as a rarely-used procedure to produce government documents. For instance, it was failure to act on the Humble Address of 13 November 2018, requesting the production of the full government legal advice in relation to Brexit, that led to the government being found in contempt of Parliament in December 2018.

But worth noting, too, are the efforts made by Fox in early 1784 to remove Pitt from office, on 2 February, 1 March and 8 March. The Journal of the House of Commons records the first at page 878 as an abstract motion:

However, the second and third, recorded on pages 965 and 977 of the Journal, and which were passed with decreasing majorities (the last, in a spooky foreshadowing of contemporary proceedings, by just one vote) use the device of the Humble Address. This final motion threatened to withhold supply from the government.

 Of course, it is worth emphasising that these parliamentary manoeuvres were ultimately unsuccessful.

A little like Theresa May suffering defeat after defeat, but clinging on, Pitt refused to resign. Eventually, later in March, after his third defeat, he went to the country. Pitt was victorious. [Winning campaigns aside, unkind commentators might also see a comparison with May in the view widely attributed to the historian Asa Briggs that Pitt’s “personality did not endear itself to the British mind, for Pitt was too solitary and too colourless, and too often exuded superiority.”]

However, the stark reality is that MPs are now going to have to dig deep into historical precedent, and get creative with their procedures, if they are to have another chance at creating time to insert Parliament into the Brexit process despite a hostile government.


Routes forward

As the Institute for Government has pointed out, there is no way of guaranteeing that MPs can stop Britain exiting the European Union without a deal.  By foregoing their most recent opportunity, they have made their job considerably harder.

Is Letwin right that MPs have exhausted the possibilities? I don’t know, but I think it is worth debating, if only to raise those issues that are as pertinent today as they were for Charles Fox: the primacy of the Commons, a responsibility for the public good and the need to keep the Monarch out of politics.

I should caution here that there are many others with significantly greater procedural and constitutional expertise, and I am very happy for the flaws in my thinking to be challenged. However, as far as I can see, there are now two major challenges for MPs:

  1. How do MPs create the time for Parliament to act?
  2. How does Parliament then use that time?

First task is to create the time.

The Speaker has been very clear that he is not prepared to see Parliament prorogued. That suggests a willingness to interpret the procedures and conventions of the House to attempt to block any effort.

One way of creating time would be through Standing Order 24. The Speaker has hinted that the opportunities for use of SO24 extend beyond a simple debate on a motion that the House has ‘considered’ a subject (as per, for example, the SNP debate on Brexit on 18 December).

The question then is, what would the substantive motion look like?

That might depend on where we are at in the timetable. Earlier, it might be to insert a business motion to take control of the Order Paper. Later, it might be to pass a Humble Address requesting that prorogation, that offers no procedural opportunities itself in the Commons, not take place – much in the manner of Mr Erskine’s Address.

What if those routes fail?

Then the stakes are raised even higher and the risks for MPs become even greater.

We are back in the territory of motions of ‘no confidence’ and ‘confidence’, and motions for a General Election, with all their attendant unpredictability and consequence.

There are potentially other, less obvious opportunities.

If the government chooses to ‘wash-up’ its legislation, rather than ditch it, then, as in 2015, there would need to be a timetable motion to make sure they could do so. That could be an avenue of attack.

There is also the question of what happens about the money supply for government. From time to time, the government passes Supply and Appropriation Bills to enable itself to spend the money identified in the Estimates. There has to be a question about whether the government could sustain its expenditure were it to prorogue in July (at least one expert I have spoken to suggests government only has enough revenue on account to sustain itself until mid-September). Whilst MPs cannot debate or amend such bills (yes, you read that correctly, take a look at Standing Order 56), were one brought forward they could vote it down and plunge the government into crisis, effectively demonstrating in very real terms that it no longer has the confidence of Parliament to govern. I am sure Charles Fox would have a glint in his eye.

In the most confrontational circumstances, in actions that would be redolent of the Civil War in their symbolism, the Speaker could slam the door of the Commons in the face of Black Rod and refuse to entertain the summons to attend the Royal Commission appointed to prorogue Parliament. Or as Rory Stewart suggests, Parliament could constitute itself separately to challenge the executive, without any constitutional authority other than that which it arrogates to itself on the basis of its members’ elected mandates.

All of these point towards one level or other of procedural or constitutional crisis. However, for any of them to be taken forward, there is another ingredient: the players.

By players, I mean those who are prepared to do, not just speak. As my grandmother would have said: “Fine words butter no parsnips.” And we have had a lot of fine words from people who are prepared to say a lot, in Parliament, in rallies, on the airwaves, but very few buttered parsnips.

An obvious key player is the Speaker.

Rightly or wrongly, comparisons have already been drawn between John Bercow and William Lenthall. Supporters point to his willingness to stand up to the executive. Detractors say he is anything but. What is indisputable is the fact he is an outspoken and driven individual who is not backwards in coming forward.

But where are the other players?

Who has the tenacity, the commitment and the cunning of Fox? Who has the eloquence and wit of Erskine? Corbyn is neither. The Liberal Democrats are currently leaderless. The Green Party is too small. The SNP has a secondary agenda that is too toxic. Stewart subordinated his principles and rhetoric on the perils of no deal to his interest in the leadership contest, voting down Parliament’s opportunity to take control.

Fine words butter no parsnips…


Where does this end?

Bluntly speaking, who knows where this will all end.

It is in the hands of 650 men and women that we have elected to represent us. Actions that once sounded preposterous are part of a conversation in which tens of millions of people feel passionately invested.

We should also be very alert to the toxic nature of this conversation, where narratives utilise the language of ‘fascist’ to describe one side and ‘traitor’ the other. Where journalists are mocked and jeered by politicians. Where the language of rape threats, throwing acid at politicians and donning khaki with a rifle in hand are normalised. Where those who feel their worldviews are summarised by one side of a Leave v. Remain narrative feel their very identity and the future of their children threatened by the other.

But there needs to be a resolution. And Parliament must own it.

Just as Leavers might do as Keir Starmer suggested and pause to consider that things did not end well for Charles I, so Remainers might note that that Charles Fox’s challenges to Pitt resulted in defeat and eighteen years out of power. At times, the current situation seems like the product of a student of constitutional history’s opium-induced nightmare, induced by binging on dystopian Netflix series and reality TV.

Neither civil war, nor eighteen years of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister are edifying prospects.

However, as much as it is incumbent on defenders of our parliamentary democracy to avoid either of those outcomes, it is also incumbent upon them to test parliament’s procedures to their very limits to protect its sovereignty. Our elected representatives must give themselves the chance to take a considered decision – even if that is to give the final say back to the people. Parliament must curb the authoritarian excesses of the hard Brexit cavaliers and the institutions of our democracy must not be usurped by a rogue Prime Minister.

Now, more than ever, we need our Charles Foxes and our Speaker Lenthall.



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Questioned on a people’s vote on Radio 4, she sounded weak and evasive, unable to address the chasm between her Labour members’ support for a people’s vote and her leader’s resistance to it

This article was written for The Independent and first appeared on Thursday 4 April 2019.

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I’ve always wanted to be in awe of the London Underground, with its complex network of services and its myriad stations that take in incredibly varied landscapes. From the ‘little boxes’ suburbia of Upminster, to the east end of West Ham, with its rejuvenated twin in Stratford, to the eerie Bladerunner majesty of Docklands and Canary Wharf, to the lush countryside of Amersham, the lines of the London Underground go to astonishingly different places.

Frankly, though, the customer experience (I don’t dare suggest we are passengers) is appalling. A single example from a single day:

I made a visit to Amersham to see family on Friday. On the way home,  I timed my journey to take a train selected specifically because it was going all the way to Aldgate. No sooner had it departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Harrow on the Hill as there was an issue at Baker Street. We were told we should board the Baker Street train at Harrow and terminate at Baker Street, picking up another train to Aldgate. We duly did so, trooping across the platform to an empty train (of course, that makes more sense than the one we are on continuing its journey). No sooner had that departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Wembley Park. We were advised to cross to the Jubilee Line (fine for those of us who could alter our routes and go south, but what about everyone else?). As we pulled in there was an empty Jubilee Line train waiting on the southbound platform. As soon as the doors open on our terminated Metropolitan Line train, the Jubilee Line train pulled out, before we could board. It left empty.

What kind of Kafka-esque service is this? Or is it run by people who really don’t give a stuff about providing a joined up service to those who pay for it? If that is my story, from a single journey, on a single day, what are the stories like of the tens of millions of other travellers through the year?

For me it was a minor inconvenience. Irritating, but I know my way around London and the Underground. For the old, the infirm, the visitor, this level of service is embarrassing and appalling.

Arbitrary changes of destination mid-journey. Unexplained halts for minutes on end. A lack of air-conditioning on many lines, with travellers becoming ill, hitting emergency buttons and so throwing travel into chaos. Appalling packing of commuters in sweltering conditions. Platform roulette, not knowing which train is leaving first.  Bored staff who resent being asked questions about destinations. No help with heavy luggage. Only now a grudging acceptance of running some lines through the night.

In any other business where we are told we are ‘customers’ we wouldn’t stand for it. If we went to the cinema and they made us change screen three times, without explanation, and the third time put us in on a totally different film, part way through, I can’t imagine any of us sitting idly by. We would be – rightly – angry that the film was not what we paid for and not up to scratch and we would seek compensation – often willingly given by cinemas keen to maintain their reputation. Yet when it comes to the tube, we simply take the crap that’s dished out as part and parcel of the package – even though the ticket can cost more than going to the cinema! We buy the tickets in advance of travelling, on the basis that they tell us that we will be able to use certain services at certain times to reach certain destinations. Yet there appears to be no mechanism to hold them to account when it doesn’t work according to the ‘offer’. We are told we are customers, but don’t behave like them – and we aren’t treated like them. Perhaps that is because we know the language is a con and that, deep down, we realise we are still passengers.

Don’t get me wrong. The London Underground is a remarkable feat of engineering. It is still an incredible mover of people. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to its embarrassing deficiencies or make us feel guilty for challenging a level of service which should not be acceptable in a rich, world-leading city like London in the twenty-first century.

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Note: this is a piece I began in 2013 but didn’t finished – until today

“When we lose our myths, we lose our place in the universe.” – Madeleine L’Engle

Detroit.

It meant little to me in substance. I knew it for cars, the home of the mighty Ford Motor Company. I was never a fan of Motown though I recognise its cultural significance for America. When my musical tastes broadened from the classical music I was raised on, I came across Kiss’s Detroit Rock City on the album Destroyer: an iconic American album from an iconic American band that incorporates the name of an iconic American city into its most iconic song (is it ironic that it was actually Beth,  the b-side of the single, that caused Destroyer to sell?).

No matter that I had no real understanding of the reasons for Detroit’s iconic status. It’s name was enough.

Detroit, like other cities, simply meant “America” – a metropolis whose very name sounds hard on the tongue and conjured association with other “hard” words. Tough. Big. Violent. A place that I had no desire to visit but which part-reaffirmed the mythical status of America by simple fact of its existence – a fact which, to the casual observer, never had reason to be questioned.

So it was little more than a name to me in my childhood, another label pinned on a part of that vast country an ocean away that defined much of my cultural frame of reference. How much of cultural frame of reference? More than I am comfortable with, if I am honest.

America was prevalent everywhere, through film, music, television, brands, gaming and the 1980s proliferation of fast food joints and increasingly glitzy steak houses. And alongside the brash Saturday tea-time noise of Glen A. Larson and Aaron Spelling, the ruthless ambition of Dallas, the black humour of M.A.S.H. that re-wrote an American and Vietnamese foreign policy tragedy, the anime mash-ups of the likes of Battle of the Planets, voiced over with breathless Hollywood voices, the wonder of Spielberg and the crash of Guns n’Roses, Bon Jovi and Metallica, we could be forgiven, in our childish naivety, for being wowed and considering our own pop culture creations dull by comparison. We were youngsters raised on John Wayne’s gunfighters and left breathless by the iconic space operas of George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, and, for those of us who bought the product, America was the place to go.

Of course, we were brought up to be contemptuous of this endless consumption and the excess we were witness to, both of which could be argued to have fuelled the supplanting of ambitions for long-term fulfilment with the desire for immediate gratification. That upbringing has, naturally, coloured our political, social and cultural filters. But despite paying lip service to European (and particularly English) superiority, we were still left hungering for this place that was vast and apparently advanced and where you could become a star – that ultimate Atlantic distillation of the American Dream.

And yet.

Even in the spectacle of a society that venerates the bombast of celebrity over the tragedy of history, not least due to the relative brevity of its history, we could sense there was another story: of striving, of achievement, of endurance. There was another side that was not immediately apparent in the cartoons and toys and guns and end-of-episode gurning laughter.

Some of us became confused. We were not sure whether to be infuriated or envious. We were not sure whether to cheer or groan or howl with outrage.

This obsession with condemning, celebrating and coveting our cousins, coupled with the fact that transatlantic flights are out of reach for many of us, is perhaps why we have sought in recent years to bring the American experience to the United Kingdom. To attempt to remake it in our image. We see it in the way that Lakeside and Blue Water have recreated the mall experience of the Midwest in the chalk pits of south-east England. Perhaps we see it in the way a generation of architects, town planners and local councillors, raised on a diet of American cultural soup have created leisure parks like Bas Vegas, trying to capture the eating, drinking, dancing, bowling and movie experience we witnessed – or thought we witnessed – on screens big and small growing up.

I think this American fascination has realised itself in these conscious and unconscious expressions of architecture, art, music and both economic and social organisation. I also think it is reinforced by the near mythical qualities of the labels which we use to define its geography.

Los Angeles. San Francisco. New York. Philadelphia. Chicago. Seattle. Pittsburgh. Oakland. Washington. Atlanta.

And Detroit.

All of these places have been part-defined in the European psyche by their portrayal in popular culture. We have an observers’ view of them, informed, also, by the way their inhabitants express their own identities. There is an uncomfortable truth in that. Our views are part-shaped by an expression of identity where historical accuracy is an unnecessary complication (see Mike Davis’s stunning City of Quartz for a ferocious dissection of the myths of Los Angeles) and the news industry, in the sinister forms of Fox and friends, has, in a post-ironic indulgence that subordinates accuracy to earnest prejudice, become a living, breathing Hollywood-imagined monster that renders parody redundant.

In my imagination, Detroit stood tall among these mythical giants. It was as powerful and eternal as any of its kin. I didn’t see the giant slayer of economic ruin.

I stopped in my tracks when I heard the report on the BBC. (It seemed ironic that I was on a footpath in a country park, looking out across the great vista of the Thames towards what had once been the site of the industrial powerhouse of the Shell Haven refinery, now levelled, and of which no evidence remains.)

Detroit was filing for bankruptcy.

The prospects are stark. It is the largest every U.S. city to file for bankruptcy, with an estimated $18.5 billion debt. (That statement brought me up short. I had missed the fact that others already had, including San Barnadino County and Stockton) . Court papers list over 100,000 creditors to the city. The story of Detroit’s decline is frightening – and sobering in that it started long before it fixed itself as an icon of American success in my juvenile mind:

  • Its population has declined over 60% since 1950;
  • Its unemployment rate is the highest of the 50 largest US cities at 23.1%;
  • It is the most impoverished of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics 71 rated cities, with rates for individuals living below the poverty level at 36.4% and the rate for families at 31.3%;
  • It has at least 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses, and 90,000 vacant lots;
  • The average price of homes sold in Detroit in 2012 was $7,500; 47 houses in Detroit were listed for $500 or less, with five properties listed for $1;
  • More than half of Detroit property owners did not pay taxes in 2012, at a loss of $246.5 million to the city;
  • It some of the highest crime rates in the United States, with a rate of 62.18 per 1,000 residents for property crimes, and 16.73 per 1,000 for violent crimes (compared to national figures of 32 per 1,000 for property crimes and 5 per 1,000 for violent crime in 2008);
  • Nearly two-thirds of all murders in Michigan in 2008 occurred in Detroit;
  • A 2012 Forbes report named Detroit as the most dangerous city in the United States for the fourth year in a row.

Those figures are eye-watering.

How did we not see the potential for tragedy? Did our faith in the myths of America mean we paid less regard to the stories coming out of Detroit, unable to believe that the Motor City could be driven out of business?

Madeleine L’Engle’s prescient lecture to the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, the Mythical Bible, sought to set the Christian faith in the context of its myths and their relatively recent deconstruction. She points to the modern phenomena of literalism in Christian belief as the way that people have attempted to cope with fear, making faith less wild and wonderful and instead a practical answer to the problems that trouble them. In doing so, we denigrate the power of myth to help us live beyond ourselves, to be more than the sum of our possessions. It is, she says, why we tell stories about ourselves, to explain what we believe and who we are.

The question for me is how does that myth, of an invincible America, that perhaps in part laid the foundations for this unfolding tragedy, come to the aid of a city on the brink of catastrophe? Can it help its inhabitants live beyond the tragedy of the moment and build something from the ruin of Detroit? With our compulsion for telling stories about ourselves, will we write a new myth, of how an American giant was toppled by a file of paper, before rising to new glories? Or will we see it fade to legend, a lost city to captivate the imagination of two thousand years’ time? Or perhaps the new myths of Detroit are being written in the way we are capturing its decline in photographs and essays?

Can the story of Detroit help avert similar disaster in Chicago and Philadelphia?

Whatever the answer proves to be, the hauntingly beautiful photographs of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre below are part of the reality of Detroit, Michigan and the literalism of economic reality that is killing the American myth that captivated this writer as a boy.

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I still recall from my childhood Fred the Postman, pulling up in his smart van, stepping out in his smart suit, smiling broadly as he stepped up to the front door and handed over a bundle of letters. He was older than many of his colleagues, more experienced, and he had the ‘prestige’ route, out in the countryside of Langdon Hills. He conveyed pride and importance, not in himself, but in a service that was vital in keeping us all connected. At that point, too, it was a single service.

Of course, Royal Mail and the Post Office are synonymous for me, just as I think they are for many people. 1986 saw Post Office Counters Ltd created as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Royal Mail, so we didn’t really notice the difference. We didn’t notice when Post office Counters Ltd became Post Office Ltd in 2001. We did notice when TPTB decided to rename the Post Office Group (Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd) to Consignia, but we soon settled back into a misplaced sense of cosy familiarity when that went disastrously wrong and the Royal Mail rose like a phoenix, in name at least.

It was only the contortions of government-imposed reform in 2011 that forced us to recognise that they are really quite different entities, with Post Office Ltd being made independent from Royal Mail (confusingly, Fred would still be a ‘postman’, even though he would be nothing to do with the post office anymore).

Today, Royal Mail post people pitch up in private cars, wear shorts and generally undertake a thankless task (‘I ordered this three days ago!’) in more comfort. Things move on and often for the better, though there is a part of me that hankers after the confidence and security conveyed by a liveried van and a smartly dressed individual walking to the door.

Whilst Royal Mail appears to be able to turn a profit, albeit with some cost-cutting, Post Office Ltd is not doing so well, with profits down.

And herein lies the rub. The eternal tension between public service and private, profit-making entity. The demands of the latter are slowly strangling the services available in the former. So, for instance, from July 31st, savers will no longer be able to buy premium bonds in branches of the Post Office. A small thing. Most of us don’t own premium bonds. But it is another example of the service aspect being chipped away.

On Tuesday I went to town to post off – recorded delivery – some important paperwork. I used to be able to walk around to my local shops, but that option went a long time ago. You used to be able to go to the large Crown Post Office in the town centre. That has been closed and moved into a branch of WH Smith. I walked into Smith’s – scene of many childhood purchases – and noticed it was shrouded in darkness. The Post Office is at the back of the store. A handwritten sign on a cheap plastic chair announced that they were closed due to a power cut.

I asked where the nearest Post Office was. The two staff, still behind the counter, looked visibly irritated by the question. They debated for a while.

There was one in Tesco in Pitsea. Or at Stacey’s Corner. Or one at Whitmore Way.

From years delivering Focus leaflets, I realised after I left that the closest wasn’t any of those, but actually at a local newsagent. When I got there, situated, luckily, on my route to the gym, I asked about posting by recorded delivery. The person behind the counter mocked the difference between Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™ and Royal Mail Signed For® 1st Class (and I gasped at the price difference – over six pounds for a single sheet of paper for Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™). The other person, on the till, didn’t know how to work the machine. When I explained the Post Office in Smith’s was closed, they grumbled and complained it simply meant that everyone would come up to them and they would run out of money. (I didn’t have the heart to tell them the Post Office staff didn’t know they existed.)

I was struck by the contrast with Fred the Postman, and the pride he showed in an integrated service. The Post Office as a resolute symbol of our need to communicate, with the men and women of the Royal Mail, like Fred, out in rain and sun and snow and wind.

I could feel the spirit of Fred as he turned in his grave.

In Basildon, despite the loss of a separate Crown Post Office, something I find unconscionable in a town of over 100,000, at least there are options. There are plenty of places to bury post office counters behind sad racks of sweets and lottery tickets, staffed by shop staff who regret taking on the onerous burden of providing a service with limited resources, even if the Post Office don’t know where they are. In rural areas, however, the options are much more limited and the Post Office retains much more of its powerful symbolism of our need to be in touch.

In 2012, a ten year business agreement was signed between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd to allow the Post Office to continue issuing stamps and handling parcels for Royal Mail (and Parcelforce). Three years of that have passed and in seven years’ time we will be in new territory altogether. Will the spectre of mass post office closures raise its head again?

The Post Office, as a concept and an institution, deserves to be more than a bone, ripped at by the twin dogs of left-wing union militancy and right-wing privatisation dogma. Today’s world is a hard-line one of pounds and pence, where cash transactions are being supplanted by card and automatic payments, and where profitability is seen as a requirement of public service. Those who care about the future of their post offices should be organising now to prevent the coming decimation of a network that is critical to our rural communities and has the potential to be a first rate supplier of public services in our towns and conurbations. We need an investment of creative energy, as well as money, to ensure that the Post Office thrives and becomes a modern institution that embraces the challenges of the 21st  century.

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product_thumbnailI am very excited to be able to say that I have finally published my collected poems in a single volume. Like my blog, it is also called ‘Fragments and Reflections’ and is available in hard copy, under my Lone Crow Publications label, direct from Lulu and also from Amazon. For those of you who prefer an eBook, you can buy Fragments and Reflections from Amazon, Barnes & Noble (nook), iBooks and Kobo. You can download the free sampler here.

What kind of poetry is it? I would describe it as a collection of modern verse for every facet of life and for every emotion. There are poems born out of love, of dreams, of wandering in the countryside, of working in the city and of generally raging against the world. Nature, the city, love, lust, betrayal, war, death, homelessness, spaniels… You will find them all inside.

If you take a peek inside, I hope you find something that speaks to you.

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Today’s Guardian carries an article by Charles Arthur entitled ‘Did the Tories and Lib Dems live up to their 2010 tech manifesto pledges?

In usual Guardian preachy style, Arthur offers up a scorecard. At least, he calls it a scorecard but there are no scores on it – merely a commentary. One or two of his observations bear closer scrutiny.

On scrapping ID cards, he offers the following bizarre criticism of the commitment in the Conservative manifesto, failing to even acknowledge that it was also in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto:

‘There were no ID cards to scrap. No national ID register was set up.’

Oh?

It must be an alternate universe where The Guardian reported on 27 May 2010:

‘The 15,000 identity cards already issued are to be cancelled without any refund of the £30 fee to holders within a month of the legislation reaching the statute book.’

Or where The Guardian on 10 Feb 2011 showed images of Damian Green shredding hard drives with the caption ‘Minister helps destroys the national identity register’.

If he could be arsed to read the Annual Report and Accounts of the Identity and Passport Service 2010-2011, he would see that it cost taxpayers rather a lot of money to scrap a scheme that apparently didn’t exist. (Note 2a on page 41 if you are really interested – which incidentally suggests the figure of cards issued wasn’t 15,000, as reported by The Guardian.)

Arthur makes the following disingenuous statement about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act:

‘The use of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) by councils to spy on people was forestalled to some extent, but the coalition tried to introduce an extensive surveillance act in July 2014 – leaning on RIPA – that outraged privacy campaigners, especially in the light of the Snowden revelations over surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA of internet communications.’

Arthur misrepresents what actually made it to the statute book, using the weaselly form of words ‘tried to introduce’, whilst failing to report any of the safeguards that were secured by the Liberal Democrats and reported in – guess where? – The Guardian on 10 July 2014:

Those measures that could prove crucial in the longer term include:

• The “tip to toe” review of Ripa, the foundation stone of the surveillance state, to be completed by 2016, could prove particularly potent in ensuring that such state snooping in the name of counter-terrorism and serious crime is brought strictly under control. Debate is still going on whether it should be an “expert review” led by David Anderson, the counter-terror law watchdog, or a joint committee of peers and MPs.

It will issue an interim report before the general election on whether there are sufficient privacy safeguards in the post-Snowden age and whether there should be a major shakeup of the oversight regime for the security services.

• The creation of a US-style privacy and civil liberties board to ensure that civil liberties are a foundation stone of counter-terrorism legislation, rather than an afterthought. Bolstered by annual transparency reports from the state agencies, it could be the alarm system that the current oversight regime has failed to provide. It will effectively be a major expansion of the current one-man role of David Anderson.

• The appointment of a senior diplomat to lead discussions with the US government and companies to establish a new international agreement for sharing data across boundaries is also significant. This would smooth the way where US wiretap laws conflict with UK Ripa laws but also could provide a way of expanding the existing mutual legal assistance treaty rather than a “snooper’s charter” that sees British ministers issuing demands that US companies hand over ever more personal data on UK citizens.

This is a major package, albeit rushed, that will shape how we live and work in the digital world. It may just “safeguard the existing position” – these powers have been in use in Britain since 2009 – but it also provides an opportunity to introduce some civil liberties elements that up until now were missing.

Funny how there is no mention of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board by Arthur, perhaps one of the most significant legislative developments as far as surveillance goes. This is the body that The Guardian itself described on 16 October 2014 as one of ‘several embryonic cautiously hopeful signs’ in the wake of the Snowden affair – and was duly legislated for this year. A more constructive use of column inches might have been to challenge the next government to put those provisions into action.

In specific criticism of the Liberal Democrats Arthur claims there was no Freedoms Bill – omitting entirely to visit the Protection of Freedoms Act from 2010-12. If you care to look at the Act and Arthur’s criticisms, you will see that a substantial number are addressed.

Ros Taylor, former editor of guardian.co.uk/law described the Protection of Freedoms Act as a ‘a small but significant piece of legislation’:

‘This assortment of measures was intended to allay fears about DNA retention, CCTV, police and local authority powers and a number of other infringements of individual liberty (including, and very laudably, the right of men convicted of buggery to have their conviction disregarded).’

Where can you find Taylor’s comments? In The Guardian on 10 May 2012.

Arthur also states that ‘Fingerprinting of children continues, but parents can opt out of having their children take part.’ Our manifesto commitment – which he quotes just before – said ‘stop children being fingerprinted at school without their parents’ permission’. I struggle to see how what we did is inconsistent with what we committed to.

I am proud of what my own party, which has civil liberties at its core, achieved during five years of government with less than 60 MPs out of 650. Critics should remember: we were in coalition with a party that isn’t known first and foremost for its whole-hearted embrace of civil liberties, following thirteen years of a Labour government that had no regard for personal freedom and made us one of the most surveilled countries in the western world.

I have no problem when someone wishes to challenge the record of parties in government. I have no problem with someone who wishes to challenge me as a Liberal Democrat on my party’s record.

However, when readers rely on ‘quality’ newspapers to be informed, there is no excuse for such shoddy and misleading journalism in a paper that proudly boasts to the world that it won the Pulitzer prize for journalism in 2014.

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