Tag: Comment

Pity the Poor MP

Pity the Poor MP

The journalist Ben Goldacre has a favourite saying, and now the title of one his books:  “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.” It applies to many things, but most of all to politics.

We ask a lot of our politicians. They work long days, and unless they escape somewhere far away, they’re never really on holiday. Family life is difficult and the divorce rate is high. A UK MP’s salary, currently £84,000, seems high, but that’s not so high if we’re trying to attract candidates who have already proved themselves highly competent in their own fields. At least it’s not if we expect them to give up their second jobs and become full-time MPs.

Once upon a time, the great majority of MPs were lawyers, doctors, farmers, journalists, trade union officials and so on, who were allowed to continue their extra-parliamentary activities so long as it didn’t interfere with their Commons work. I accept that there were MPs who effectively treated Westminster as their second job, and that wasn’t right. However, Parliament now seems filled with full-time career politicians, which can have unintended consequences. Some of those consequences are being seen now.

Nowadays, if an MP loses his or her seat at an election, they’re unemployed. Out of a job. On the dole, receiving benefits. There’s a short three-month parachute payment, but after that…? If there’s a landslide defeat, and many MPs suddenly all come onto the labour market at the same time, it can be really hard to find work. When the Conservatives were swept out of office in 1997, half of all the defeated MPs were still out of work six months later. Some lost their homes. It’s a genuinely scary prospect for an MP. As the Tory MP Charles Walker put it, “There’s nothing so ‘ex’ as an ex-MP.” That’s particularly the case in today’s job market.

So they’ll do anything they can to stop becoming ‘ex’. If that means defending the indefensible, they’ll do it. If it means supporting some dimwit to become party leader, they’ll do it. If they’re asked questions on party policy by media journalists, they’ll talk gibberish in support of the party line rather than give the honest, considered answer they’d really prefer to offer.

Most MPs – of all parties – are usually described by their constituents as “hard-working on behalf of their constituents”. They enjoy attending uncontroversial local events, or helping individual constituents with housing or financial problems. I can’t imagine they enjoy being ordered to give open public support to tripe.

Many of these MPs know there should be an election. They’ve had enough, but they’ve nowhere to go, the inevitable result of our insistence that politicians work full time. Perhaps the time has come to provide a softer landing for ex-MPs. It’s not the first thing that comes into your head when you look at the current circus act that calls itself Westminster politics. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

A Funny Thing (Well, Two Funny Things) Popped Into My Email Inbox Yesterday

I was innocently checking my emails last night: it was a Thursday, so there are always quite a few Friday Flash Fiction submissions to process. Once I’d dealt with those, I turned to the emails that are directed to my “writer” persona.

Right at the top was a blog notification from Caron Allen, a crime mystery writer I’ve only met once, but with whom I’ve shared a bit of correspondence. On this occasion, Caron’s blog – which comes highly recommended – reminisced over the (almost) ten years since the publication of her first novel, Criss Cross.

She’s actually slightly newer to the novel-writing process then I am – the “10th Anniversary Edition” of Four Old Geezers and a Valkyrie came out at the start of 2022. Much of her article relates how she tried, and failed, to land a conventional publisher, and ended up turning to self-publishing. As I’ve touched in other places, it’s quite possible that might have been Caron’s lucky break. Very, very few writers make any money from their work; all most should aim for is: to keep expenses to a minimum and not lose money; gain a bit of satisfaction; and most of all, enjoy those special moments when a reader tells you that they “found your book wonderful”. It does happen.

By those measures, I suspect Caron’s done quite well. Her books are cleverly pitched at readers who looking for old-fashioned escapist crime mysteries; the messy, gritty detail of death don’t feature much. As such, they’re slightly out of fashion, but readers like them – if that makes the slightest sense.

So I turned to the next email, which was from a company that claims to assist authors self-publish. I won’t mention the firm’s name, although I’m not sure it really deserves anonymity. Coincidentally, this one was also about self-publishing, and advertising a 10-week online Zoom course. I’ll leave you to study it for yourself.

In case you hadn’t bothered to do the calculation, that’s also an EXTRA £440 they charge for splitting the payment across six months. And if you look at the application form itself, you have to tick a box agreeing that “you might need to spend extra money on outsourcing other assets like book covers, editorial work, website building.” It’s a blank cheque.

As the drug campaigns say, just say no.

PS – If you want to save £2499.01, why not try my own Self-Publishing: The Total Beginner’s Guide? Cheapest of all here at this link.

*Also an excellent opportunity for shameless self-promotion.

Rights Come with Responsibilities

Rights Come with Responsibilities

Looking at the events on Capitol Hill on 6th January 2021 from the other side of the Pond.

Before I started writing, I was a Modern Studies teacher in an Edinburgh high school. For those who live outside Scotland, that means I taught Politics, a subject that it’s possible to teach at a surprisingly basic level to even the youngest children, and to exam at all levels, including university. Although the contexts obviously change over time, the syllabus always centres on a number of basic concepts – ‘power’, ‘representation’, ‘equality’ and so on.

A key concept is ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. It’s seen as one single entity, not two, so that students of all ages are expected to understand that with every right comes responsibilities. Even at the most basic levels, that understanding is tested in external examinations: candidates might be asked what responsibilities go with ‘the right to drive a car’ (e.g. drive safely/not too fast/not while drunk) or ‘the right to keep a pet’ (take care of it properly). Even the least able student understands that the right to vote comes with the responsibilities to use your vote wisely and to accept the result of elections; and that the right of freedom of speech comes with the responsibility not to offend or defame, and to accept that others might disagree.

When it came to elections, I used to spend quite a bit of time explaining to my students that the true miracle of democracy is not that everyone gets a say (although that’s true), but that in a democracy, the losers accept the result and don’t try to overthrow it. Most election results are actually quite close – even where there’s an apparent landslide victory, it’s usually a trick of the election system. In the UK in 2019, Boris Johnson didn’t even manage a majority of the vote at all, despite his commanding parliamentary majority. Yet the losing voters accepted it. In the US Presidential Elections of 2000 and 2016, it was the same story.

The reason why losers accept the result is twofold. First, most people don’t like violence, they just want to get on with their lives in peace. They can mutter in private about the government they don’t like, but their everyday lives aren’t that much affected by who runs the country until they get another chance to change things in four years’ time.

The second reason is that winners are expected to represent not only those who voted for them, but the entire electorate. A win by a small majority is not a mandate for a leader to do whatever he or she likes: that would be dictatorship. Obama clearly wanted to bring in greater gun controls and more healthcare protection during his term of office, but he was forced to water those plans down to take account of opposition views. All elected representatives in a democracy – Presidents and Prime Ministers, Senators, MPs, Mayors, councillors, all the way down to elected school governors – are expected to take account of everyone’s view, not just those who voted for them. It’s an unwritten contract that all elected politicians enter into with their electorate.

That contract has been broken on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly, when the outgoing President is actively encouraging his supporters to rise up against the pillars of the state in order to overthrow the result of an election, he’s not respecting democracy, but neither has he done so in the preceding four years: all he wants is enough votes to win another term in office. Losers don’t count. We’ve not seen that before in the USA, and George W. Bush made an effort to be ‘Presidential’, in other words, speak for all of America. Whether you think he was successful or otherwise isn’t the point: Dubya was trying. Trump made no effort at all to be anything other than contemptuous of ‘losers’.

We have seen similar problems here in the UK. 52%-48% on a one-off Brexit vote was never a mandate to tear up 47 years of history; all it showed was that the UK was dissatisfied with the existing relationship with the EU. (Remainers like me need to acknowledge that there were problems, but that’s for another essay.) In Scotland, 45% of the electorate voting for independence in 2014 can’t be swept away as a footnote in history. Yet that’s what’s happening. Both in Brexit and the Scottish independence debate, there was an overwhelming argument for a further vote, yet the winners simply refused to allow it. They were scared of losing, of course.

Something has gone badly wrong with our understanding of ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ in large areas of western democracy. Why so many have lost sight of the concept of ‘Responsibility’ is hard to say: perhaps they were never taught Modern Studies, Politics, civics or their equivalent; perhaps they were taught poorly, by insufficiently-trained teachers; perhaps they just forgot what they ever learned; or perhaps they’re just not very bright. There’s some evidence that all four have played a part.

Arguably, though, the worst offenders are neither our educators nor our voters. Our worst offenders are those demagogue politicians who foster and foment the worst instincts in our society –  violence, racism, xenophobia, intolerance, lack of concern for the less fortunate, and many other evils – in order to grab power for themselves. For the most part, but not exclusively, the right seems to have cornered this market for themselves. It’s hard to see a Democrat calling for insurrection, and Nigel Farage specifically said before the Brexit referendum that he wouldn’t accept a 52/48 vote against him. So much for democracy.

We in the west are inclined to sneer at the subservient culture of citizens in many Far East countries, but people over there do seem to have a better grasp of responsibility to the greater community. Freedom of expression is never something to take for granted. Those who seek that right have to keep their side of the bargain, too.

The Camera Never Lies?

Photo: Getty Images

The UK and Scotland Government’s strategy and advice on the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt be analysed ad nauseum in the future when no one is becoming ill any more. As I write this, the UK is in ‘lockdown’ – although Boris Johnson prefers to avoid the term – in response to a fairly extraordinary weekend following the closure of schools, restaurants, and the instruction to the population to work from home as much as possible.

It was unfortunate, then, that the next thing happened was the first decent weather spell in weeks. A minority of the public simply didn’t get ‘social distancing’, some pubs refused to close and some groups of idiots were filmed behaving unspeakably, coronavirus or otherwise. But what seems to have triggered the response to go to lockdown was that so many pictures were published in the media of people ‘having a good time in the sun’. They simply weren’t far enough apart.

Let me be clear that, personally, I think it’s the right decision to try these draconian measures, although it will have a massive impact on my lifestyle. But I’m unsure about the way the photos are being used to justify government policy.

Let’s take the one at the top*, widely used as an example of poor UK public behaviour on Sunday. It appears to show an overcrowded park. But look a little more closely and the photo reveals something very strange: it must be the best-lit path in London. The lamp-posts are amazingly close together.

Of course that’s not the case. This photo has been taken with a decent-sized telephoto lens, which not only brings the subjects closer but also foreshortens the gaps between the people. There’s at least 50m between the lamp-posts. Look again and you’ll see that, by and large, there are only a couple of groups in each 50m stretch. Some of those groups are families or couples, of course, but that’s OK. These people are probably socially-distancing not too badly.

Here’s another one:

Photo: Getty Images

Once again this is being presented as “crowded” when a closer look shows that, thanks to the telephoto lens, the public appear far closer to each other than they really are. You can actually see many people trying to ‘socially distance’.

Another picture, from two days earlier, seems to show a crowded street at the end of the school day:

Photo: BBC News

This time, you can actually count the groups in the picture – four. On the extreme left is a couple, presumably with a child hidden behind the turquoise carrier bag; then there’s the family of four with the girls wearing pink and purple coats; then there’s a woman on her own; and finally what appears to be a father with two boys. There’s a huge distance between each group.

On the other hand this is both madness and inexcusable: hillwalkers in Snowdonia on Sunday.

Photo: Daily Post

It’s clearly not been distorted by a telephoto lens. (That said, the group appears  to consist entirely of young males, and there might be more to the scene than meets the eye.)

Finally, here’s a photo taken on the very same day that the lockdown was announced:

Photo: Getty Images

For those living on the planet Mars, that’s former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, ‘forearm-bumping’ with his lawyer after being aquitted of sexual assault charges.

Nobody in the media made any reference to the improper greeting. Do you reckon that’s what’s meant by ‘social distancing’, or are these men perhaps too powerful to catch COVID-19?

None of this is the photographer’s fault, of course. Agencies like Getty, Alamy and Reuters simply upload photos of parks, etc., tagged #crowds, #parks, #coronavirus and so on and let the media make their own choices.

This time, shoot the messenger.


*Note to Getty Images et al. I recognise that these photos are your copyright, but they’re being used for legitimate academic study of photography and I make no money from their inclusion. Please regard their use as good advertising for your services, but if there any problems, let me know.