Monday, January 28, 2019

Experiments with Instagram

Alright, so I’ve written some fine words about social media, which rather means that I ought to practice as I preach. And it dawns on me that I can dredge up something that I had experimented with in the past, i.e. hyper local reporting.

My life is multi-faceted. Whilst I am discouraged from talking about my work, for what are probably good reasons (despite the fact that I am surveyed by my employer each year, asking amongst other things whether or not I am proud to tell people that I work for it), the rest of my public existence is a bit obscure. Many of the things that I do are, in truth, hardly mainstream, but I like to think that most of them are valuable in their way, and contribute to the maintenance of civil society.

So, Instagram, allied to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, offers a means to shed a little light on the life of a Parish Council Chair, for example. It might also allow me to reach out to members regarding my Party activities, which seems like a good thing too.

There are some rules;
  • no including other people without their permission, so I won’t be reporting on other people’s activities unless they are a matter of public record
  • no release of confidential or secret information
I’ll probably come up with some other rules as I experiment, so the restrictions on the material I publish may expand. We’ll see.

So, if you are on Instagram, look out for me at honladymark (just like my Twitter handle)...

Sunday, January 27, 2019

FIRC: thoughts on getting a message out there

It’s now the third year of my three-year term as a member of Federal International Relations Committee, and regular readers will be aware that it hasn’t always entirely gone to plan. I would argue that we haven’t (formally) communicated as well as we might, and having proposed and had accepted a communications plan which didn’t really take off - it did to some extent rely on my enthusiasm as Secretary, and a sense of buy-in which didn’t entirely materialise - I do feel some sense of responsibility.

And so, this week, I have been stirred to think about it again. Ironically, this had nothing to do with events at Federal International Relations Committee itself, but instead has been inspired by the online course that I’m taking, “Diplomacy in the 21st Century”. This week’s module has been about digital diplomacy, with particular reference to the use of social media by diplomats and ministries.

One particularly prominent suggestion is that, for such diplomacy to work, it has to be active, rather than passive. My sense is that FIRC combines two ‘misfortunes’, the first being that the intention to use the Party website for communication with members is doomed by the inability of the Party to maintain a reasonably up to date website due to a lack of human resource.

For example, can you find the minutes of Federal Committee meetings on the website? I can’t. Or identify the members of any Committee other than the Federal Board? Now you might reasonably suggest that such matters are of little import to outsiders, the sort of people who might seek the website to find out what we think, or what we’re campaigning for, and I’m sympathetic to that. What resources there are are certainly best targeted towards activities to help get Liberal Democrats elected.

But, if you want an informed democracy, you need to be able to access information and, if you want to influence the work of the Party, you need to be able to reach decision makers. I would argue that we make that quite hard.

I am, I fear, in danger of digressing though. So, how can FIRC reach out to potentially interested Liberal Democrat members if the Party website isn’t an option? The obvious answer is to create its own social media presence, something that Party committees haven’t done much, if at all. And this offers up a new question - how do you do this, and can it be done to a sufficient standard?

Party committees tend towards a certain age profile, one that is less enthusiastic about social media, and probably less likely to take up video chats, Instagram or any of the other cutting edge media. And yet, if you want to bring in a new generation of activists (and, whisper it quietly, bureaucrats), you have to reach out in a manner that will grab their attention/interest.

Ironically, a few of my FIRC colleagues are quite active on Twitter, Robert Woodthorpe Browne (@robertbrowne1), our Chair, being one of them. He’s a bit more combative than I am (bureaucrat, see), but entertaining in an occasionally frustrated way (and who can blame him?). Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, my successor as Secretary, is prominent on Facebook, albeit that his life is far more glamorous than mine and thus more obviously interesting.

But, for the most part, social media can feel a bit like a ‘contractual obligation’ than a valued communication tool, and if we are to reach out effectively, we need to have a team approach to doing so.

So, here’s a question for my readers. If FIRC had to pick one social media tool to reach out, what would it be, and what should be prioritised? Do let me know in the comments...

Thursday, January 24, 2019

If the still voice of despair can be replaced by faith...

It’s been a trying day on Planet Bureaucrat for reasons not worth expanding upon but, at the end of the day, one must put it all into perspective. And music can help that, so here’s something to lift the spirits, some German Church music from 1643, “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”, by Heinrich Schütz.

My favourite part is possibly the fourth verse...

Auch wenn die Welt vergehet
mit ihrem stolzen Pracht,
wed’r Ehr noch Gut bestehet
welchs vor war gross geacht
wit werden nach dem Tod 
tief in der Erd begraben,
wenn wir geschlafen haben
will uns erwecken Gott.

The world may disappear
with its proud splendour
Neither glory nor goods last
What we once thought mattered,
may after our death
be buried deep in the ground,
If we sleep,
God will wake us.

Daniel Kawczynski - a sign that our politics is in critical condition?

There is much talk of treason in the air, most of it from people who define treason as being “a view or act which doesn’t concur with mine”. For, whilst I may disagree with those who want Brexit, I cannot easily conclude that they don’t have what they perceive to be the country’s best interests at heart. Wrong, maybe, but not malicious.

Yes, there are exceptions, I suspect, but they are only likely to be a very small proportion of those who still believe.

All of us want the best for the United Kingdom, most of us support the notion of Parliamentary democracy (even if many have a limited concept of what that might mean in reality). But young Daniel Kawczynski appears to think that it is acceptable to approach a foreign government, seeking to persuade it to oppose the settled will of the Parliament of which he is a member.

It does lead you to ask three questions;
  1. In whose interests does he think he is acting?
  2. Why should a foreign government allow itself to be overtly influenced by a Parliamentarian of another country?
  3. Why the silence from those who claim that Brexit is intended to return sovereignty to this country?
Perhaps we have reached the end stage, where the delivery of Brexit is so urgent that it overrides one’s loyalty to the Parliamentary democracy which Brexit is intended to restore? Principles, what principles?

I am reminded, as so often over the past three years that our politics has been reduced to the base calculation that the means by which an outcome is achieved  don’t matter, that misrepresentation and exaggeration are perfectly justified if you win.

Trust, integrity, the notion of public policy making as a consensual, thoughtful exercise, these seem to be dead letters, with the damage to our democracy only too obvious. If you are an ordinary voter, seeking evidence upon which to base your voting choice, you’ve got no chance. Easier to appeal to the tribe and trash the opposition, whoever they are.

As a Parish Councillor, if I mislead my electorate and get caught, it would be better to resign, as I have to live amongst them. And yes, the absence of party politics means that the tribal element is missing, thus reducing the sense of conflict to personalities rather than ideology, but I have to rely on demonstrating my integrity and general goodwill. I also need to persuade, rather than browbeat.

It’s so much more satisfying...

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Creeting St Peter: a little light reading matter

One of the great worries of any Parish Council, and perhaps especially for its Chair, is the prospect of housing development. Increasingly, we see speculative applications for housing, on sites that might not otherwise be obviously suitable, because the local District Council doesn’t have a five year housing land supply set aside. In reality, even if it does, the onus is on the District to prove that it meets the requirements as laid down by the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Here in Mid Suffolk, we were told last summer that the District was in good shape, having carried out a lot of work to locate suitable sites, calculate likely building rates and future proof their estimates against an expected increase in the Local Housing Need, as calculated by the Housing Delivery Test. At the time, I questioned whether there was enough elbow room to survive an expected increase, and was reassured that, whilst it might be a bit tight, Mid Suffolk was expected to remain compliant.

As it turned out, the Planning Team were wrong. The increase was rather more than they had expected, and their numbers weren’t perhaps as robust as they thought. At the first challenge, a planning inspector found against the Council’s confident claim that the five year supply was there, and the fears of a number of  our neighbouring and near neighbouring Parishes were realised.

It was back to the drawing board for the District Council, and they have now launched a consultation, inviting interested parties, as set out in the NPPF (small and large developers, land promoters, private and public land owners, infrastructure providers (such as utility providers, highways, etc), upper tier authorities (county councils) and neighbouring authorities with adjourning or cross-boundary sites) to comment on the Draft Mid Suffolk Housing Land Supply Position Statement for 2018/2019.

You’ll notice that this doesn’t include Parish Councils, although it has been sent to us, and I do feel a duty to read it.

I suspect that this might have something to do with the likely scale of anger that, having had our hopes of relief raised, they were then dashed so soon.

Now I will admit that, as it currently stands, there seems little prospect of large scale development in Creeting St Peter. At least, if the planning envelope is to be respected, there isn’t. But, with Stowmarket having already annexed part of the Parish to build (one day) a business and enterprise park, and with other parishes having suffered similar losses for new housing, one has reason to fear being swallowed up by our increasingly urban neighbour.

Mid Suffolk is expected to ensure that 590 new dwellings are built each year to handle the increasing demand - partly societal but also a measure of Suffolk’s population growth relative to the country. They’ve got to go somewhere, but with increasing pressure on schools, NHS facilities and infrastructure, there is increasing unhappiness at Parish level. If you’ve got a railway station, like Elmswell, Needham Market or Thurston, you can expect new housing. Even large villages with poor public transport, such as Stowupland, are seeing sizeable new developments. Combine that with the cuts imposed on County and District Councils, and the scope for problems is obvious.

I have a bad feeling about this...

Monday, January 21, 2019

Creeting St Peter: we may be small, but we’re perfectly formed...

It’s certainly a cold and frosty evening in the Creetings, but regardless, Parish Council got through, with me in the role of compère and continuity.

We weren’t at full strength due to illness and injury, but with the need to adopt a budget for 2019/20, and to set a precept, I was keen to get through the business briskly.

A very prompt start as the clock reached the half-hour, and we were off, racing through apologies, declarations of interest and applications for dispensations (none of the latter two, I’m pleased to note), before we adopted the minutes - it’s so much easier when Council read them in advance - allowing us to move on to the County and District Councillor reports.

As usual, Keith Welham had submitted, well in advance, his detailed report, which he added to with some last minute updates, and, as usual, we didn’t get a report from our County Councillor, although he had e-mailed a very last minute apology for absence.

We’ll miss Keith after the election, but boundary changes have separated Stowupland and Creeting St Peter, and he has not unreasonably chosen to contest the ward he lives in. Instead, we’ll have the two new councillors for Needham Market, who will hopefully be friendly.

We had already considered a draft budget in November, and with little need for alterations apparent, it was adopted without further discussion. This means that we’ll be seeking an increase in our share of the Council Tax which feels about right, close to the level of inflation.

There is little progress on the planning front, although we were slightly surprised to hear that the application to put signs up on the A1120 link road had been refused. It is, I admit, not something that bothered us either way, as it is more of a concern for residents of Cedars Park, but it is vaguely reassuring to know that the District Council don’t just wave everything through.

And that was pretty much that, apart from a few items of any other business, including the leak affecting Pound Road heading south from the village - particularly treacherous in icy conditions. Anglian Water rather need to do something about that...

The meeting was wrapped up in thirty-three minutes, in line with my stance that I’d rather have Councillors free to spend their time productively, and to enjoy their young families. As long as everyone has a meaningful opportunity to express themselves, and that we can discuss issues fully...

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Battle of Wounded Elbow

One of the more unpleasant aspects of this “growing old” malarkey is that bits of me start to fail or, at least, work less effectively than they used to. And that’s only to be expected, I suppose, what with all of the wear and tear that accrues from not having always paid a terrible amount of attention to my personal wellbeing.

Losing some weight helped a bit - the back is less of a problem, as are the knees - but my eyesight continues to deteriorate slowly but surely, and my eye tests are something to be approached with, if not apprehension, then at least an expectation of expense.

But for the past few weeks, my hitherto uncomplaining left elbow has been, well, grumbling. It is stiff, or sore, or both. Sometimes, the pain is around the joint, sometimes part way down the forearm, and occasionally nearer the shoulder. My gut instinct, and it’s such a male thing to do, is to dose it with ibuprofen and leave it to mend itself.

Ros is not impressed. She thinks that I should at least have it looked at by a physiotherapist - after all, what harm can it do, and it might even do some good. Naturally, I was slow to acknowledge her usual good sense, and put it off for a week. “It will get better and I don’t need to waste my time or that of a physiotherapist.”, was my evasive reasoning.

But it still hurts, and whilst it won’t kill me, it is a distraction, and so I have made an appointment for my very first ever physiotherapy session, next week. And whilst I fully expect to be told that I need to rest it, and possibly even do some exercises, what’s the worst that can happen...

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Life as an ambulatory traffic calmer

Winter. Dark, cold, but mostly dark. And that means that, in order to get my ten thousand steps in each day, I spend some time each evening walking around the village. Well, I say “around”, but given that the village consists of two roads, one of which is a cul de sac, that means walking a T-shape to the edges of the lit part of the village.

Pavements or, to be more accurate, footways, are not part of our local infrastructure, so I am obliged to walk in the road. And, as I am a responsible adult, I wear an orange hi-vis gilet, so that motorists can easily see me.

One of the side effects of this is that, on seeing me, drivers often slow down to obey the twenty miles per hour speed limit, on the off chance that I might be either a police officer or a community speedwatch patrol.

I’m not complaining.

Given that we are probably one of the most lightly policed counties in England, and that we don’t have a community speedwatch patrol - the road through the village is ill-suited to the use of a speed gun - I probably am the most effective way of enforcing the recently instituted speed limit.

It is well-signed, with big speed restriction signs on the entrances to the village, and repeater signs spaced evenly between the two, but, until recently, the road was still displaying the old thirty miles per hour limit, contradicting the signs. Now, however, that has been remedied, with additional surface decals emphasising the limit, which I’m pleased about.

Nonetheless, I suspect that my days of walking the mean streets of Creeting St Peter in darkness will still require the use of a hi-vis gilet, and traffic will still slow as it passes.

Just another job for the Chair of the Parish Council...

Friday, January 18, 2019

Making sense of a new home gadget

We’ve bought a Google Home Hub for the house. Now I ought to admit that it hadn’t been something that had insinuated itself into my thought processes up until now, but as a means of organising our lives, and being generally useful, I’m beginning to see some advantages.

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of a bureaucrat-made cup of tea will know that, having gone to the trouble of boiling water in a kettle and pouring it over a teabag pre-placed in a mug, I am perfectly capable of then forgetting all about it. This is, especially for people who were quite keen on having me make them a cup of tea, quite annoying. Now, having successfully completed the first two elements of the task, the Home Hub can be instructed to remind me to complete the project.

I can also instruct it to play walrus videos on demand, or tunes I enjoy, or advise as to whether or not I need an umbrella, or a coat.

That all sounds a bit, well, inadequate, but Ros can leave me reminders to do things, we can coordinate diaries, and it will give me up to date news, train delay information, simply by shouting at it. It is, I imagine, a bit like having a personal assistant, not that I’ve ever had one of those...

It could be easy to find all of this a bit, well, banal, but it is a reminder of how technology has changed our lives. Information is now readily at hand without the need for a vast library, and I don’t have to lift a finger to access it. It will, I guess, do all sorts of things if I learn how, and potentially make my life a little easier, leaving me with more time for leisure. And that’s a good thing, right?

It was always suggested that, as technology developed greater and greater ability to carry out tasks previously done by humans, we would become less and less necessary for production, with the mundane stuff being done by robots and computers. That hasn’t yet come to pass, and even were it to do so, we would have to make the psychological adjustment to not being defined by our job in the same way that some of us currently are.

As jobs that require physical labour slowly disappear, we have adapted to a society where more and more people provide services to each other. Everything from personal shoppers to accountants, few of which are entirely necessary, but who by helping us to do things we’d rather not do ourselves, free us up to do more enjoyable things in exchange for a fee.

I admit that I’ve been a bit slow to adapt to this. Perhaps it is a mark of my upbringing that I hesitate to spend money on something that is a bit of a ‘frippery’, when it could be saved or invested. But in an increasingly complex world, paying someone to do something properly, far more quickly and efficiently than I could do it, makes sense. I can also obtain pleasure by being pampered a little - not too often mind, for my slightly Catholic sense of guilt acts as a restraint.

And so, little by little, technology plays a bigger role in our lives, both at work and in our leisure time. It’s almost certainly a good thing, as long as we remember what the potential costs are.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Margaret Thatcher might not recognise this set of Tories...

Brexit is difficult - as a bureaucrat, I get that. There are a whole series of competing demands, made yet more challenging by the existence of a series of red lines that constrain the range of solutions yet create even more problems.

Is this the best deal that could be obtained given Theresa May’s stubborn, if inconsistent, stance on met inward migration? It possibly is, though that in itself is hardly a convincing reason for agreeing to it. After all, she was the Home Secretary who failed to keep even non-EU migration under the global 100,000 target she arbitrarily set. She couldn’t even persuade her own colleagues that it was credible or viable.

And let’s set aside the foolishness of setting a target in isolation of the needs of the economy.

But it is a deal that nobody wants. For those demanding control/sovereignty, it actually subjects from our influence level, taking away our votes at European Council and Parliament, whilst requiring us to adhere to the terms of trade agreements and directives. In terms of democratic accountability, it is an outrage. Young Rees-Mogg and his Committee for the Eighteenth Century have every reason to reject it. As for the Free Traders, they have less than they had before. At least our interests were represented...

For those who want to control our borders, and hadn’t noticed that we were outside Schengen, the fact that we have never lost our right to limit those coming into the country from beyond the EU, and have chosen not to do so (and I again turn towards you, Theresa), seem not to be particularly interested in defining why we need to get be up a bunch of rights in order to do something we could already do. Indeed, whilst they’re abundantly clear about what they want in the generality, the specifics are somewhat lacking. In those terms, the deal on offer offers little specificity. I’d be intrigued to see the net migration figure for the European Union, suspecting as I do that it isn’t that high.

And so, it’s all about Project Fear. No, not about what happens if we leave, but now about what happens if we don’t leave at all, or if we don’t sign up to the deal on offer. If we leave without a deal, we are told that medicine supplies can’t be guaranteed, and that food rationing might be necessary. That isn’t exactly what the British people were promised. Blood, sweat and tears, possibly, but someone else, not mine - “There may be some setbacks along the way but, in the end, it’ll be worth it.”. If anyone was going to suffer, it wouldn’t be you and yours.

If we don’t leave, we are threatened with the emergence of far-right political forces. I dimly recall Margaret Thatcher facing down what she described as the far left, and any administration confident in its actions will do likewise with the far right. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”, she said. Chris Grayling evidently lacks that sort of will. He’ll find that the British people do. Besides, if your democracy is so vulnerable to a handful of extremists, it isn’t a democracy, it’s a hostage.

In a Parliamentary democracy, Parliament gets to decide. I, and the rest of the voting public, get to decide who makes up Parliament (albeit that the system for doing so sucks). Anything that gets passed by Parliament is, by extension, what we decide and, if we don’t like that, we can theoretically throw out the person we last sent and replace them with someone else. We don’t threaten the peace of the kingdom if we don’t get what we want.

So, Project Fear, Mark II, be damned. If Parliament allows itself to be cowed by a theoretical threat of violence, our country is far more screwed than any impact of Brexit. And for the likes of Chris Grayling, a reminder - it was a democratic process which put you where you are, and you’re not willing to defend it, you ought to step aside for someone who will.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Taking a step back from the front line of Liberal Democracy

I am not a fanatical anything, not even a fanatical Liberal Democrat. That is, in some quarters, an admission of a lack of commitment, but I find it hard to maintain a high level of enthusiasm for many things other than Ros. Regardless of the circumstances, my desire to do things comes in waves, rather than in a constant flow.

I first joined the Liberal Party in 1984, and it was fun. I did a whole bunch of things, met a slew of interesting people and had some amazing experiences. And then, after about eight years, I drifted away from everyday activity. Yes, I carried on with a few things, mostly one-off jobs like being a Returning Officer, or candidate assessing, but I didn’t hold office at any level really, and didn’t miss it that much. Yes, I had other distractions, and I wasn’t exactly adrift from politics altogether, but I wasn’t what you would call fully engaged in the wonderful world of the Liberal Democrats.

That changed when I became single again. The Party came searching for me in the guise of Flick Rea, the then London Region Administrator. It started with merely stewarding a rally, but before long I was waist-deep in the Party organisation. I dislike disorder, and have never met the political body yet that couldn’t be improved by an understanding of bureaucracy, its limits and its merits. And I am, on my day, a pretty good bureaucrat.

I met Ros. That was life-changing, and wouldn’t have happened had I retained my distance. And, in truth, she is my primary focus.

But it’s been nearly fifteen years now, and my enthusiasm for political bureaucracy is waning a bit. Not for Liberal Democracy, you understand, but for carrying out jobs over a period of time. And, when that happens, it’s time to step back a little. And so, I advised my beloved Local Party that I would be standing down as Treasurer at the end of the year.

At our Annual General Meeting, I presented my report, and explained that I thought that my enthusiasm for the job was not what it might be, and that, as a result, it would be better if I stood down. They were very understanding, I thought, until they concluded that there was a vacancy for Chair, and might I be interested in filling it?

It didn’t take me long to turn the offer down. I’ve been a Local Party Chair, and I know how that book ends. It was, on reflection, nice to be asked though, as it implied that I might be thought capable of doing a half-decent job.

And so I’ve gained a number of midweek evenings, and lost a monthly task of updating and reconciling the accounts. It isn’t an arduous job, but it could be done better - a more ambitious fundraising effort (not one of my strengths, I fear) might be valuable.

The Local Party know where to find me if they need me, and if I can help, I will. But it’s time for a break, to recharge the batteries of enthusiasm, and let my mind wander just a little. And, in time, and if they want me, I’ll be back. You should never turn your back on your friends, and Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats are, I’m proud to say, my friends.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A chance to find out how diplomacy works...

Just after Christmas, Ros forwarded something on to me, an invitation to take up an short course of study, “Diplomacy in the 21st Century”, offered by the Open University in co-operation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I pondered the matter for a week or so and then thought, “Why not?”.

The course is, I admit, intended for;
... all UK government staff working on international issues, in the UK and overseas and colleagues from other Diplomatic Academies and Ministries of Foreign Affairs worldwide. It will also be suitable for people working in thinktanks, academics and professionals in any sector whose work has a close relation to diplomacy, students in fields such as diplomatic studies, and anybody interested in the nature of a diplomatic career.
but, with my interest in foreign policy and international affairs, it should prove to be, if not useful, then interesting.

And I really ought to find ways of keeping the little grey cells active. I’ve given up being Treasurer of Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats, indeed I’m not even on the Executive Committee (but that’s a story for another day), and I have some time on my hands. What I’d rather not take on is an ‘everyday’ long term commitment, so a short course is ideal, particularly with the long winter evenings to fill.

So, what is the subject matter? Well, we’ll be covering;
  • Overview of modern diplomatic representation
  • The new tools of social media and wider digital diplomacy
  • The history of women in British diplomacy and the gender equality agenda
  • Overview of some key theories of diplomacy
  • The challenges of expeditionary diplomacy and leadership in a diplomatic context
  • Diplomatic tradecraft including protocol, networking and reporting
From that, it seems that I might be able to develop (in some cases, obtain) some useful skills. The likelihood of me ending up in the Diplomatic Service is, I accept, highly unlikely, but as a member of the Federal International Relations Committee, it might help me to be more effective when working with sister parties, or at ALDE Party events.

I’ve met some of our Ambassadors close up - Armenia, Chile and Cuba - and been impressed both by their commitment and their willingness to explain and answer questions. Finding out some more of the background to their work will be interesting...

The course doesn’t start until Monday though, and there are, it seems, still places. So, if you fancy joining me, here’s the link.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Some music to soothe the troubled breast

I’ve found a new album to enjoy, and so I feel that I ought to share this.

So, here is Misia, a Portuguese fado singer, accompanied by L’Arpeggiata, with “Rosa negra no meu peito”...

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The utter confidence of “Everybody knows that...”

I’ve been arguing on Twitter today. Yes, I know, a complete waste of time for the most part, but it keeps my mental agility intact, and gives me a better understanding of what, and how, other people think.

The argument is about fishing rights in the North Sea, not a subject I claim expertise on, but I know a little. So, when someone claims that hill farmers don’t matter because, post-Brexit, we’ll have a hugely expanded fishing industry, my sense of scepticism was triggered.

Let’s put aside the bizarre notion that all those bankrupt hill farmers can be retrained as offshore fisherman, and consider the claim, “we have 60% of the North Sea and after Brexit, wouldn’t have to share the fish therein with anyone”. My adversary started by suggesting that we share the North Sea with Norway. That wasn’t a great start, as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands all have North Sea coasts. And, of course, fish move (sneaky devils that they are). My new friend ignored that point but, when pressed, was relaxed about the ability of the Norwegians to hoover up most of the cod as they migrate south, which rather makes you wonder what fish might be left for British fisherman to catch.

I perhaps naively assume that fish stocks are a pooled resource, that the actions of one North Sea state impact on the others. Not according to my friend. Fish are a sovereign asset, he claims.

And on and on it went, with him making assertion after assertion, almost entirely unsupported by any evidence, until the argument, “my father was a trawler skipper in Grimsby” emerged. I can’t say that I was impressed. My father was highly successful in the advertising industry but I don’t claim any more than a superficial understanding of it.

But his certainty reminds me of the danger that being reasonable offers up. I am open to doubt about the impact of Brexit in various parts of the economy, because whilst any action may have consequences, a sensible government can mitigate against them to some extent. That mitigation may in turn have consequences but to govern is to choose. If the Government were to invest money into the fishing industry, or negotiate a good deal with other countries, or, perhaps less likely, it turned out that North Sea fish were disproportionately found in British waters, the fishing industry might thrive. On the other hand, it might be impacted by tariffs set by its major customer (the European Union) or there might not be enough Britons who fancy the hard life that is that of an offshore fisherman, and be damaged.

The problem is that, increasingly, much of life is complex and interrelated, and rather than think about that, it’s easier to fall back in the “everybody knows” argument. So, for example, everybody knows that migrants get favourable access to council housing. You might polite question that, noting that local councils use a points-based system for determining eligibility and relative need, and ask if the person is aware of the local council’s criteria? Naturally, they won’t know, hardly anyone does, but that’s what they’ve been told so it must be true.

Everybody knows that the European Union is a hugely bureaucratic organisation, running roughshod over ordinary British people. The fact that, in order to have confidence over the fitness for consumption of, say, a sausage, or that I can obtain free access to healthcare in Plovdiv as I can in Ipswich, requires some jointly agreed rules, determined by a democratic body, is obvious when you think about it, but complex to explain in terms of nuts and bolts.

And sovereignty is not absolute. Everybody knows that, if we leave the European Union, we’ll be a sovereign nation again. The vast array of international bodies that the United Kingdom is a member of makes clear the lie of absolute sovereignty. Who elects the International Maritime Organisation, or NATO, or ICANN? Would direct elections make them more, or less, efficient or effective?

Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not you see the outside world as something to be feared, fought or worked with. As a liberal, I tend to the third option, but I understand that it requires a certain element of faith in your neighbours, and a willingness to pool sovereignty for mutual advantage. Otherwise, why would you sign treaties on anything?

But, if we are to get a second referendum (and I’m not confident that, even if we do, it will be won), we’re going to have to work really hard to make the case for working with our neighbours for mutual advantage, that the rights we gain as part of the European Union make our communities stronger, wealthier and more peaceful. Because everybody knows that the United Kingdom is the greatest country in the world, and we don’t need foreigners coming here and telling us what to do, right?

Monday, January 07, 2019

Day 1055 - the trek continues...

Yes, I’m still walking 10,000 steps each day, and haven’t missed a day for nearly three years now. That is, I guess, an awful lot of steps, but it is now a thoroughly engrained habit, despite the hurdles in the way - blizzards, being (small) shipbound, long-haul flights, for example.

It has occasionally required some rather cute scheduling, and imaginative solutions - the multiple laps of a rather small, overcrowded corporate jet lounge at Stansted required persistence and an acute resistance to boredom - plus some luck - if the sea had been rough the day we sailed to the edge of the polar pack ice, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed on deck to walk the many laps of the ship that I did.

But small changes of habit have made it easier. Walking up and down railway platforms when arriving early for my train, getting out to walk around Ipswich during my lunch break, these make the task that bit less daunting.

In turn, as I walk more, walking becomes easier, and journeys I might otherwise have made by public transport are now done on foot. It often surprises me how close together places are when you walk between them.

I accept that it isn’t for everyone. You do need to set aside time, and not everybody can do that. For others, health and physical wellbeing are serious hurdles to getting out and about. But for me, walking allows me to listen to some music, allow my mind to wander a bit, and just relax. Sometimes, something that has been rattling around in the back of my head emerges blinking into the light, and I come up with a solution.

But, most of all, it has enabled me to shed some of the excess weight I’d put on, and make clothes buying something less of a hassle as I return to a more well provided for size. I feel a bit better for it in health terms, although I’d probably feel even better if I lost another forty-five pounds. But let’s not get carried away here...

And so, I carry on, getting the steps done each day, feeling good for having maintained some discipline and persistence. It does feel pretty good...

Sunday, January 06, 2019

A reflection on the prospects of Parliament giving us a second referendum

I’m a democrat, which means that the public should get what it votes for. And whilst that also means that it gets to change its collective mind if it chooses to, the question of who decides how to test that is left with Parliament, within the limits of Parliamentary terms and the ability to form a government.

We have, it could be argued, the worst of all worlds - a government that has no majority except that lent to it by other parties, and unable to agree amongst itself as to the best course of action. At the same time, we have an Official Opposition that is in a similar state, with a leader whose personal convictions lead him to go along with the will of the people as expressed in June 2016 but whose party membership is overwhelmingly against that notion.

You do wonder how we got into this mess, and how we might extricate ourselves from it, one way or the other. Evidently, we need to find a way to a Parliamentary coalition in the Commons that can select a route out of the impasse and deliver it. But why might it be too difficult to achieve?

For Conservatives, the news that their membership is overwhelmingly in favour of a stance - no deal - which is so contrary to the polling of the public at large is a reminder that, if you’re an MP with a job for life, as is the case for my two local Conservatives, Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds) and Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich), your private thoughts on the sensibility of crashing out without a deal must be tempered by the possibility that you’ll be deselected if you try to take a different path. It is the ultimate country versus party versus career dilemma and whilst, for non-politicians, the answer might seem obvious, if you sacrificed so much to become an MP in the first place, might you so easily walk away from that?

I’d like to think that I would, but my views and the views of my Party are not so conflicted that, were I to be put in that situation, I would be as troubled.

And we must assume that the likes of Jo Churchill and Dan Poulter are deeply conflicted. They did campaign for Remain prior to the referendum, so presumably thought that we were better off staying in the European Union - let’s assume that they were sincere because the alternative is too ghastly to countenance.

And there is a strong tendency amongst most Conservative MPs to be loyal to the Leader, at least as long as the Leader has power and patronage, which for all the criticism of Theresa May, she still has following her survival of the vote of no confidence last month.

As for Labour, so many of their MPs represent seats which voted to leave that they appear as rabbits stuck in the headlights. Given how divisive the issue has become, and the division at the top of the party, which way do you jump, especially if your Constituency Labour Party is a Corbyn fan club? And, whilst opinion may have shifted nationally (if polls are to be believed), has it shifted that much in places where the benefits of European Union membership seem more esoteric?

Doing what is right, as opposed to what is best personally, isn’t as obvious a call as you might like to think, especially when the consequences are personal rather then philosophical.

For Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Greens, the dilemma doesn’t exist for the most part - they represent more outward-looking communities who see the value of European integration. It’s a pity that there are only fifty or so of them out of six-hundred and fifty...

Saturday, January 05, 2019

For what we are about to give up, may we be truly nervous...

Malta is the smallest Member State of the European Union, just 122 square miles in area, with a population of about 400,000, on the frontier between Europe and Africa. On its own, fairly insignificant, especially now that there is peace in Europe and the North African states pose little threat. But the Maltese mostly agree that membership of the European Union is a good thing.

Our taxi driver on Thursday evening noted that, prior to joining, Maltese emigration was to the distant Commonwealth - Canada and Australia, as well as the United Kingdom. Now, young Maltese can travel to Europe in search of opportunity. And the reverse is true. Our Dutch tour guide, whose partner she described as her Maltese knight, or our Estonian waiter in Mdina, who had come with his girlfriend to gain an experience of another culture and whose parents had already moved to Malta.

For what they have is freedom, the freedom to explore new cultures, to meet new people and, perhaps, fall in love with them, to have a choice of where they might put down roots, raise a family, build a career or launch a business.

It is that freedom that the referendum vote risks taking away from our young people.

I accept that, if you are happy and settled where you are, or even unhappy and fearful for your prospects, the idea of upping sticks and moving somewhere where they speak another language, or have different customs might seem entirely irrelevant. But even if you don’t intend to use the rights you have, one wonders why you might be so relaxed about taking them away from others, especially if there is no obvious loss to you if they do use them.

It’s a bit like holding an entire generation hostage in order to quell your fears.

Of course, you have to appreciate that there is a risk of loss, and I keep hearing stories of people who voted for Brexit, knowing that they intended to retire to Cyprus, or Spain, assuming that the ending of freedom of movement was only directed into the United Kingdom - it wouldn’t affect them. It’s that good old fashioned (predominantly) English exceptionalism at play again.

My patriotism is that of someone who believes that my country is a good one, able to influence world affairs, outward-looking and confident, but it seems that it’s a form of patriotism that is out of fashion. The preferred versions being either a more fearful one, where foreigners are a threat or a burden, or a delusional one, where the world owes us not only a living, but a whole bunch of privileges that we need not reciprocate.

I fear that our nation will find out the hard way that neither is sustainable in a multilateral world where trading blocs negotiate with each other rather than with individual nations, and where specialisation allows more effective use of scarce resource.

Of course, we could always change our minds, but as I noted yesterday, the route to a second referendum is a tortuous one, and time, and the European Union’s patience, is beginning to run out...

Friday, January 04, 2019

It’s a Conservative Party free-for-all...

If it wasn’t abundantly clear that the contest to replace Theresa May as Leader of the Conservative Party, and probably Prime Minister was underway, events this week have made it utterly obvious. Any sense of discipline appears to have been tossed aside in favour of raw ambition, as this can be the only explanation for the utter inconsistency of statements from senior Government figures.

Gavin Williamson has been talking about offering moral leadership to other nations sharing our values. And, whilst I am sceptical that our recent acts as a nation have given much of a lead, that can’t be helped by Sajid Javid’s response to a few dozen Iranian migrants attempting to cross the English Channel in small boats.

Now it may well be that he is entirely consistent with Conservative Party thinking, but the problem with being in power is that words matter. You have legislative power as a minister and, if you suggest that a refugee who might be claiming asylum status is ineligible despite there being no evidence to consider, you might well be seen to be prejudicing their case. Courts can take a dim view of such things.

It’s also not a good look to be tough on migrants when your parents were migrants. “Pulling up the drawbridge” looks selfish. It’s better to simply express the rules, encourage them to be fairly and efficiently applied, and leave it at that. At this stage, we don’t know what their circumstances are.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt is swearing his love of Singapore as a guide to a positive future for the United Kingdom. I’ll set aside the minor detail that Singapore is a city state rather than a collection of islands off of the coast of Europe, and simply note that it isn’t exactly democratic, has high levels of income inequality and houses 80% of its population in high-rise public housing.

And yes, Singaporeans are freer that citizens of other countries. But those freedoms they do possess are at the cost of freedoms that we in the United Kingdom take for granted - the right to oppose the Government by democratic means without sanction, as a basic example.

Jeremy Hunt appears to be suggesting that relative economic well-being trumps a whole bunch of other rights, which just goes to show how some Conservatives view freedom, i.e. as conditional.

And the problem is that there is, for the time being, no sense that the Government has an agreed agenda on anything relating to the nation’s future. And, given that if they get their way on Brexit, the nation’s future is, to a great extent, up for grabs, that might be troubling.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Becoming stranded in Valletta

So, I had got back to Valletta having retrieved my debit card, taking the ferry from Birgu and thought that it might be nice to cross Valletta and catch the ferry over to Sliema as a more interesting route to San Giljan.

That meant a ride up the lift at Barrakka, and a stroll past the old opera house and down the slope to the ferry terminal. When I arrived, I discovered that there were no ferries operating until 4 p.m., so I trudged back up the hill, thinking that I could simply catch a bus.

It was only when I reached the bus station at the gateway to Valletta that I discovered one of the quirky features of Malta. Lunch on New Year’s Day is a big thing. So big, indeed, that public transport shuts down completely for about four hours. That’s fine if you know about it, but not so great for tourists like me.

I was thus forced to get a taxi, and the local drivers had naturally concluded that supply and demand was very much in their favour. I suspect that I was lucky to get as cheap a fare as I did, merely paying a 50% mark-up on the usual fare.

So, a valuable lesson learnt, and a happy cab driver. And, should I be here for Christmas in future, apparently Christmas Eve is the same...

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

The kindness of strangers, Maltese version...

You know that terrible sinking feeling you get when you are about to pay for something and realise that the debit card you thought was in your wallet... isn’t? Well, I had one of those moments on New Year’s Eve.

And then, there’s that moment of hope. “Perhaps I’ve left it in another jacket/other item of clothing etc.?”, only to find that hope extinguished.

And then Ros had an idea. “Could you have left it at the restaurant we had lunch in yesterday?”, she mused. “Unlikely,”, I thought, “but it’s worth a go.”. The only question was, what was the name of the restaurant? Trip Advisor turned out to be my friend, entering the suburb - Birgu - and “pizza”, brought up “Il Bacino”.

I gave them a ring, and asked if I had left my debit card there. “Yes, Mr Valladares, we found it. You’d left it in the pouch after paying your bill.”, was the reply. Note that I had not offered my name yet, but nonetheless, relief was the primary thought. “When are you open? I’ll come and collect it tomorrow, if that suits.”, I replied.

And so it was arranged. Yesterday morning, I caught a bus from near the hotel which took be on a crescent-shaped route away from the shoreline through a series of suburbs, past the main hospital at Mater Dei, a large Lidl and a bus wash, before connecting onto another bus to Birgu.

I arrived at the restaurant, and was greeted by a friendly waitress who advised that she had found the debit card, and that it was safe. Unfortunately, she couldn’t immediately find it. Cue a series of telephone calls before, eventually, it was located. I thanked her and left something for the staff as a sign of my gratitude, only to be offered a liquour. Alright, a bit early in the morning, but why not? The waitress called out to her colleague, “Make that a double!”.

And so I found myself discussing Maltese politics and the impact of Brexit on Malta - she was worried that it would be bad for Malta, even as the economy is currently doing well under the Labour Government. It was very civilised.

But, eventually, we had to part, her to her work, me to return to San Giljan. That turned out to be rather harder work than the journey out...

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The largest dome you’ve never heard of...

Malta, not a big place, right? Thus, not likely to have anything big, is it? Well, it seems that we were both wrong, for just as Invercargill, New Zealand is the location of the largest pyramid in the Southern Hemisphere, Malta possesses, it is claimed, the third-largest unsupported dome in the world, at Mosta.

We visited it as part of a tour to Mdina, the so-called Silent City, and it is a rather impressive sight, with splendid acoustics. It is also a minor basilica, following what can only be described as a miracle. If you look very closely at the picture, you will see a slightly scruffy looking section - it isn’t very large.

On 9 April 1942, during one of the many Luftwaffe raids on Malta, three 500kg high-explosive bombs fell on the church whilst three hundred or so parishioners were gathered in anticipation of the early evening mass. Two of them were deflected and fell outside, but the third penetrated the dome, falling amongst the gathered throng. It didn’t go off. The Royal Engineers bomb disposal team were able to retrieve it, make it safe and dispose of it in the sea.

But our main mission was to see Mdina, probably the most significant tourist attraction in Malta. Mdina was an Arab city built on the ruins of a much larger Roman one, and then a Palace for the head of the Order of Saint John, and has a similar feel to the Old City of Jerusalem, but without the craziness that Jerusalem possesses. Indeed, it has only 250 permanent residents, thus once the tourists have gone, it becomes quiet, almost empty.

And it is rather something, atmospheric and intriguing, with huge doorways, a cathedral, and narrow twisting alleyways designed to make a successful attack all the more difficult.

It was, unfortunately, fairly crowded with people standing around, oblivious to what was going on around them, getting in the way of the traffic, spoiling other people’s attempts to take photographs, and whilst this may sound a bit awful, you got the impression that, for some people, it was simply the tourist equivalent of a contractual obligation.

We’ve decided to come back later in the trip, with dinner in a nice restaurant the purpose, but which should allow us to get a better sense of the place.