Decision day approaches

I settled on my EU referendum decision yesterday.
It was genuinely challenging. I have read two books and hundreds of commentaries in pursuit of my answer, whilst engaging in debate here and elsewhere.
Due to the nature of my employment – and a need for impartiality – I have restricted my comments on Facebook and Twitter to address issues of process, tactics and strategy rather than the core arguments for and against our membership of the EU. Suffice to say there has been plenty to say about both official campaigns and other people’s commentary.
Whilst the debate itself has been unedifying, I accept that the interest of many key players is divergent from those of the British people. On both sides, the job of campaigners is to win the referendum. There are no prizes for coming second, however honourable the defeat. So while I despise the campaign methods, I have some sympathy for the motivations.
This is not a decision where we vote for the best debater or the strongest campaign. Instead we must decide what is best for ourselves, or our children, or the UK or indeed Europe as a whole. In this respect the quality of the background debate is almost incidental.
My own decision is personal to me – a product of my worldview, my own personal biases and the research that has brought me here. It pays surprisingly little heed to what the campaigns on either side would like me to focus on.
For those of you yet to decide, good luck.
If you cannot bring yourself to vote one way or the other, please at least turn up and spoil your vote. It sends its own valuable signal. But if you lean one way or the other, even slightly, please vote in that spirit. So many of our brothers and sisters across the nation will be driven by ignorance or spurious motivations. Your voice carries equal weight. Make sure it is heard.

Why such a public malaise on migration?

It’s little wonder we in the UK seem to feel so much concern over immigration. It’s not – generally – the migrants themselves who trouble such a tolerant nation, but the state’s inability to grow infrastructure to keep up with population growth.

“No one told the supermarkets,” writes Fraser Nelson, “that there would be 4 million more mouths to feed since the turn of the century, but we haven’t run out of food.” But ministers “have struggled to provide the school places and the doctors clinics for all those who arrived.”

“It’s time to stop treating high immigration as a constantly-surprising blip.”

We need to better understand why immigration troubles people – typically (but not only) working class people of the left and right. It’s very often not xenophobia. People don’t blame migrants for immigration any more than we blame the water for an incoming tide. But when the state (at national or local level) fails to meet the infrastructure needs of the nation we shouldn’t be surprised so many voters want to turn off the population tap. Clearly that impacts our attitude to immigration and by extension our attitude to the EU, and (quite separately) the refugee crisis.

There is a public malaise on migration. Successive governments should reflect upon why they might be largely responsible for that.

Update: We’ve just learned that Rochdale’s Gillian Duffy has left the Labour Party and plans to vote Brexit in the forthcoming referendum.

Mrs Duffy rose to fame during the 2010 general election. Gordon Brown infamously described her as “just a sort of bigoted woman” after chatting to her on the campaign trail about (amongst other things) immigration from eastern Europe. I had her in mind as I wrote this blog post.

What reading to do on Brexit?

A few of you have been wondering where to find some decent impartial material on the merits or otherwise of us leaving the European Union. This is tough, because the facts which are uncontested by both sides tend to be so mundane as to be essentially worthless (eg How many nations are in the EU? How does QMV work? Who is the President of the European Commission). Other facts, while incontrovertibly true, may be contested by one side or the other because they are devoid of context and in isolation they might conceal a more important truth. Or perhaps one selection of facts favours one side of the argument more than the other.

It’s quite reasonable for each side in the debate to favour those facts which sell their case best, and therefore to take issue with a supposedly ‘impartial’ presentation which offers up only the others. Consider, for example the Government’s pro-EU leaflet: Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK. That document (as you might expect) is a demonstratively selective presentation of the facts and various media organisations have enjoyed dissecting them for closer inspection – see Full Fact here, for example.

In this debate ‘truth’ is absolutely crucial, but ‘facts’ are often easier to pin down. Truth is subjective. It depends upon a blend of objective facts and a context built through someone’s human fallibility.

To anyone who will listen, I am recommending this book by David Charter – Europe: In or Out? It lays out a broad explanation of the main arguments for and against, and explores the facts and (in some cases) myths presented by both sides.

Perhaps you won’t have time for a whole book. This BBC News Q&A provides an excellent exploration of many of the key questions.

But the arguments are important too. It is not enough, in my view, to understand the facts and truth alone. We need to hear why some truths matter more than others. So for me it is valuable to listen to a variety of voices and to read sincerely biased blogs from folks on both sides of the argument. Some of the most interesting/persuasive voices on the subject include Alan Johnson MP, Nick Clegg MP, Fraser Nelson (all remain supporters), Dan Hannan MEP, Steve Baker MP & Kate Hoey MP (all leave supporters).

A few days ago, The Spectator hosted a debate on the subject with three speakers on each side (including some of those above). This write-up (£) includes some detailed commentary on the debate along with audio from each of the participants’ opening speeches. It’s well worth 30 minutes of your time. NB Use an incognito browser if you don’t have a Spectator subscription.

The Spectator debate (hosted at the London Palladium, with a 2200 audience) concluded with a narrow victory for the ‘leave’ side. In mitigation, perhaps a Spectator audience would lean that way(?) even though its editor Fraser Nelson is a ‘remain’ supporter.

If reduced to its technical complexities, this is a tremendously difficult decision. There are so many facts and competing truths, along with a few lies too. But this is not just a technocratic decision, or it would have been left to our civil servants – and certainly not to us. It is about our hearts and our vision for this nation. Do we feel more British or more European? Is our European identity best met through the EU? Is our engagement with the world best delivered through the EU or independently? Is our future as an independent nation better understood through risks or opportunities? Are there more risks or opportunities if we stay in the EU? Do we have a responsibility to our European neighbours (or to the USA), and is that best met through the EU or not?

Most of us have a fairly clear view of whether we should be in or out. A significant proportion of us will remain undecided well into June. But our views are no less important. Indeed for those of us still struggling to decide, we have a responsibility to get there. Too many of our neighbours reached their conclusion on gut alone.

This decision deserves whatever agonising you need to do!

Addendum, from a specifically Christian perspective.

Theologian Ian Paul offers these thoughts on the dichotomy between “It hurts to go away,” and “It’s impossible to stay.”

And if you pray, consider this:

Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism alliance raises more questions than it answers

Saudi Arabia’s 34-nation Islamic military alliance against terrorism includes some nations who learned of their apparent involvement through news reports. Others (such as Uganda and Gabon) are Christian-majority nations. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and (the world’s most populated Muslim nation) Indonesia aren’t involved.

Iran and Iraq are both Shia-majority nations, unlike the rest of the Islamic world. While that seems to explain their lack of involvement, it doesn’t excuse any arrangement which excludes them, particularly when so much terror in the region is sectarian in nature (Sunni vs Shia).

How Saudi Arabia defines terrorism is critical. Atheism and any views critical of Saudi Arabia’s government or Wahhabi ideology might be classed as terrorism.

Within the territory of the so-called Islamic State, it’s hard to see what Daesh activity might be understood as terrorism. There is considerable overlap in domestic policy between Daesh and Saudi Arabia. It seems to me they are more rivals than enemies. One sees itself as the new caliphate, the other is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

It seems to me that a united Arab response to terrorism in the Middle East would be A Good Thing. Saudi Arabia’s solution raises more questions than it answers and I fear it would pose more fresh problems than it would solve.

The reported members of the alliance: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinians, Qatar, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

A momentous day for Labour

Update (at 1406 on 30 Nov): The Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn will give his MPs a free vote on the question of airstrikes over Syria. The commentary I posted below about the wider context stands, though obviously the central question has now been answered. It does give us some insight into Mr Corbyn’s leadership strategy and the extent to which he wishes to hold the party together:

Today Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet will wrestle with the thorny question of whether to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs over airstrikes in Syria.

Inevitably Mr Corbyn is against military action (as he has been against wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere). It seems that most of the Shadow Cabinet are in favour of the proposed airstrikes, along with a significant minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They could hold a free vote, allowing all Labour MPs to vote with their conscience.

Or they could whip the matter. There seems to be some confusion over whether (under Labour rules) a whipping decision lies in the hands of the Leader or the wider Shadow Cabinet.

If that authority lies with the Shadow Cabinet, and they decide to impose a whip in line with the judgement of the Shadow Cabinet (ie in favour of airstrikes), then Mr Corbyn would be placed under the absurd obligation to decide whether to fall in line (against his conscience) or resign from his own Shadow Cabinet. I think it is untenable that they would put Mr Corbyn in this position (elected as he was so recently and with with such a large mandate). Were they to do so, rather than resign, Mr Corbyn would have little option but disband his Shadow Cabinet and start again.

But Mr Corbyn is himself assuming the authority, as leader, on whether to whip his party. If he is able to do so, Shadow Cabinet members must either fall in line or resign. There is potential for multiple resignations if shadow ministers conclude they cannot back the leader who has rebelled against his own party 533 times since 1997.

Given Mr Corbyn’s own voting record, many MPs may feel they are not meaningfully bound by a three-line whip imposed by him.

The Government has a tiny parliamentary majority and there are a number of Conservative rebels – it could easily be defeated by a united opposition. But Labour is not united. There is every chance the Government could win a vote on its motion regardless of whether Labour grants a free vote or not.

Thus far, the Defence Secretary has played down the Government’s prospects of success, while he and others have been working to persuade Labour MPs one by one to support the Government motion. The Prime Minister does not want egg on his face, given fresh memories of his parliamentary knockdown on Syria in 2013.

Depending on how this plays out, this could be one of the most momentous weeks in the modern history of the Labour Party. In my view, the impact on the integrity of the party could be even greater than that of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September. However he proceeds, this will be a key factor in his decision.

Spectre – less than the sum of its parts

I dressed up in black tie (as I always do) and went off to see the latest Bond movie on its opening night. Unable to blag tickets to the premiere, I crammed into the Odeon on Tottenham Court Road with Vanessa and a few other friends and sat back with great hope and expectation.

Here was my preview of Spectre.

Beware – ahead there be spoilers.

I enjoyed the movie, but I didn’t love it. I felt positive after the final credits rolled, but on a little more reflection, I find myself a bit disappointed. I think it’s up there among the better third of Bond movies – while some of the action sequences are brilliant, they are let down by the way they’re pulled together. Sadly, against the consensus of many critics, I feel the final product is less than the sum of its parts.

All ready for 007

All ready for 007

I knew before I stepped into the cinema we would see the return of the gun barrel opener, back in its rightful place for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s disappointing final outing, Die Another Day. I explained in my preview that its absence in recent movies “was excusable in Casino Royale, less so in Quantum of Solace, and a real let-down at the top of Skyfall.” There is, at least, an editorial reason why it was absent from Casino Royale, as that opens before Bond earns his 00-status.

I recently learned that Sam Mendes intended to include it at the beginning of Skyfall, but…

“…the film starts with Bond walking down a corridor towards camera and lifting a gun. And of course the gun barrel is him walking, stopping and lifting a gun. When I put the two together, it looked ridiculous!”
(Sam Mendes, speaking in 2012)

Maybe so, but if it was so ill-planned at the storyboard stage it should have been reworked.

I can’t fault the way Spectre opens. The gun barrel sequence is there and it gives way to a stunning Dia de los Muertos street party in Mexico City. It’s a five-minute apparently cut-free tracking sequence following Bond and his partner through the crowds as he makes his way towards his first kill. From the collapse of two buildings, including Bond’s comic landing on a sofa to the amazing helicopter aerial stunts and then the credit sequence scored by Sam Smith, it is spot on.

Bond is given a proper dressing down by the brilliant new M, Ralph Fiennes, who takes him off duty (ironically giving him the freedom to get on with his work). Q (Ben Whishaw) helps him ‘disappear’, and off we go!

So far, so good.

The main actors perform well. Bond, M & Q are expertly played. The appearance of Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is all too short. Monica Belluci, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are all brilliant in their respective roles. It’s great to see a kick-ass henchman as portrayed through Mr Hinx (Bautista) that harks back to an earlier era. I’m less convinced by Max Denbigh in the role of C – too young and a little too obviously shaken when Bond throws a verbal dig.

Bond's final showdown with Mr White

Bond’s final showdown with Mr White

As the main villain, Christope Waltz is excellent, bringing all his Oscar-winning talent to bear. But his character, be it Franz Oberhauser or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is pathetic, psychologically incapable of running a global criminal conglomeration without distracting himself by needling an unwelcome foster brother from his childhood, decades on.

I loved the Spectre boardroom scene – a great way to introduce Oberhauser, and the terrifying Mr Hinx. It neatly brings Oberhauser and Bond face to face (from a distance) for the first time on screen. The Spectre organisation is established as a force to be reckoned with.

But outside the boardroom, it would appear to fall short of its promise.

Towards the end, Oberhauser operates from a small complex of buildings in north Africa inside a meteor crater. It’s a throwback to You Only Live Twice, but a pale imitation of that Blofeld’s volcano lair. I also prefer the Piz Gloria venue in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the oil rig in Diamonds Are Forever. I certainly preferred Raoul Silva’s deserted island in Skyfall.

The journey – by luxury train and a vintage Rolls Royce – was considerably better than the destination, perhaps more so for the viewer than for Bond, given his tussle with Mr Hinx. Though there is a payoff for Bond after the fight.

At the meteor lair, Oberhauser (now revealed as Blofeld) conducts a strange torture scene with Bond as his subject. The objective is ill-explained and the method is faulty. Blofeld operates as the torture technician – can’t he instruct a minion to do this for him? Ultimately, whatever he was trying to do fails and with Bond essentially incapacitated throughout, it makes Blofeld look like a fool – not a good look. And Bond’s escape with Madeleine Swann seems remarkably straightforward.

The final showdown in central London takes place across two locations, with parallel showdowns between Blofeld and Bond at the derelict MI6 headquarters, while M & Q face C at the latter’s new office. It’s good to see M & Q at the heart of the action, as we’ve seen now and again before, most notably in Octopussy, The World is Not Enough and Skyfall. While all the elements are fairly strong, the two scenarios unfolding concurrently don’t work as well as they could. They interlock weakly and the suspense is unnecessarily diluted.

Finally escaping MI6 HQ, Bond (with Swann) bursts onto the Thames in a speedboat and chases Blofeld’s helicopter downriver, somehow shooting it down with his Walther PPK. I don’t doubt that this might be mathematically possible, but it seems improbable and a little too convenient at this stage in the narrative.

He should have been allowed to escape.

Moments later, standing over his injured nemesis, Bond predictably – and rightly – spares his life, reminding us of a line from M much earlier in the film, in which he declares that a licence to kill is also “a licence not to kill”. So instead of being killed off, Blofeld is arrested by M, while Bond walks off into the night with Dr Swann.

In his previous incarnation, Blofeld was such a key figure in the James Bond universe, it would have been a travesty to see him killed off in Spectre. In the past he was played by Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray. They brought such different portrayals to the role it was downright weird.

Spectre the film and Spectre the crime syndicate were both a letdown to me, because they fell so far short of their immense promise. But the film has some decent nostalgic value: an exploding watch, an Aston Martin with a built-in ejector seat, a deadly fight on a posh train, Blofeld’s white cat and – my favourite – the scar on his face, clearly a nod to You Only Live Twice.

Donald Pleasence sets the Blofeld standard in You Only Live Twice (1967)

Donald Pleasence set the Blofeld standard in 1967

I’m keen to see more. The wider Spectre saga can be rescued. It would be implausible for the organisation depicted in Rome to have been brought to its knees so easily, despite Blofeld’s flaws. Let us see the tentacles of a truly powerful Spectre, headed as before by Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. Perhaps the pre-credit sequence could show the super-villain’s prison escape? Or a courtroom breakout at the point of sentencing?

But if Waltz is back as Blofeld, then Craig must come back as Bond. He said he’d “rather slash my wrists” than play Bond a fifth time, but I pray that’s attention-seeking self-indulgence.

Let’s have an encore Mr Craig.

Movember 2015

Movember is upon us – that month of the year wedged between October and December, when hundreds of thousands of men across the world seek to grow a moustache in aid of men’s health.

At the time of writing, 35,812 men in the UK have registered to take part – including me for the second time.

The first time was while I was living in Geneva in 2011 – more on the story here. My Dad had been given a dire prognosis for aggressive prostate cancer earlier that year. “You’ve got four years,” said his consultant, rather bluntly and without being asked.

We were shocked and upset. My understanding is that the proffered time-frame factored in the impact of treatment. But after surgery and a course of radiotherapy, the cancer went into remission and – though it needs regular monitoring – it is not an active threat.

The end of Movember

Movember 2011

We are four years on from my first Movember and so we can now say – officially – the consultant was pessimistic (or optimistic, depending on how much he wanted to see the back of his patient.)

So far, so good.

But prostate cancer is still with us. The Movember Foundation says:

  • 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lives.
  • Every hour one man dies from prostate cancer in the UK.
  • Each year over 42,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in the UK.

Now the Movember focus on men’s health seems to be more holistic than in the past. The foundation bemoans the fact that “on average, across the world, men die 6 years earlier than women.” In addition to the threat of prostate and testicular cancer, the World Health Organisation estimates that 510,000 men take their own lives every year. That’s more than one every minute.

There is much work to be done.

My Movember page is here. Please give generously!