Ideas which won’t work

Time to make myself unpopular with some people…

Following the awful events in Manchester on Monday evening emotions are, understandably, running high. Sadly the same cannot be said for thought processes – although this hardly uncommon even when 22 men, women and children haven’t been brutally slain by a religious fanatic. Ignoring the usual twaddle about false flags and the like which always surface after an event like this, those who are thinking with their hearts rather than their brains have come out with the usual selection of bright ideas about where we go from here. Whilst I don’t myself know how to tackle this issue sensibly (Tom and Pete offer different suggestions), it’s rather easier to spot the less sensible suggestions such as those mentioned below.

Surveillance

One of the things which most enrages people after an event such Manchester is how it turns out that the perpetrator was known to the authorities all along. This is taken to mean that they knew he (or she) was a mass murdering wannabe and therefore should have been under 24/7 surveillance, if not already rotting in a gaol cell. It should come as no surprise (but will) to learn that being known to the authorities can mean anything from knowing someone who knows someone who is considered a higher risk to being a low-level petty crook through to being someone who went to Libya on a family holiday.

The number of people on the UK’s terrorism watch list is, at present, in the region of 3,500 people. The Police and the Security Service simply do not have the manpower to keep that number of people under physical surveillance on a 24/7 basis.

Contrary to what is shown on screen, whether big or small, keeping tabs on a single person takes more than a couple of coppers hiding behind a newspaper in an unmarked car. For something more realistic think 3 teams of multiple people operating in 8 hour shifts. Once things like illness and holidays are factored in, physical surveillance of a single person can easily require two dozen people. 24 people for each of the 3,500 potential terrorists would require 84,000 bodies – and that’s before you factor in all of the analysts and other office types who occupy that building on Millbank. That figure is, very roughly, an order of magnitude above the numbers currently employed by MI5 and about two-thirds of the number of police officers across England and Wales.

Full time surveillance of each and every potential suspect there is impossible without a lot of new people (who’ll require training) and the money to pay them (unless you’re using figures suggested by Diane Abbott). The other problem which must be considered here is that in the vast majority of cases the ethnicity of those on the watch list is likely to be other than caucasian and that they will live in areas which are not predominantly occupied by melanin deficient types such as the author. Thus, in order for your surveillance teams not to stand out like a black man at a KKK rally, you’ll need to recruit people with similar skin tones who can fit in to the local communities without too much suspicion. 84,000 people from approximately 3 million UK muslims? Good luck with that.

This is why the Security Service grades those on the watch list by potential risk and focuses most of its efforts on those deemed to be most risky. Mistakes will, of course, be made and, if press reports about the suicidal criminal involved in Monday’s attack are accurate, incompetence can also not be ruled out. It will be interesting to see what the internal investigation (should we get to read any of it) has to say in this case.

Internment

Another favourite idea is to round-up all of those on the watch list and put them in a camp somewhere. Where that somewhere might be is conveniently not mentioned (unless you’re Tommy Robinson in which case you think sending them to the far side of the world is a sensible suggestion).

The UK hasn’t used internment camps in over 40 years, having last tried them in NI during the troubles with rather limited success and over the course of that particular iteration less than 2,000 people were interned. 3,500 people is a lot of people to put somewhere – or, more realistically, various somewheres since even the UK’s largest gaol (Wandsworth, since you ask) only has space for about 1,800 souls. Given how difficult it is to build new housing in this country, building 10 or 20 new sites to house that many people is not going to happen quickly. Does the State, one of the biggest land owners in the country, have the necessary amount of (now unused) land which could be repurposed in a shorter space of time?

This discussion of where to put all these is people though is somewhat secondary. Short of taking a scythe to the law of the land (to the applause, no doubt, of William Roper) such measures would be thrown out by the judiciary in short order should they somehow manage to pass through parliament.

Deportation

If surveillance and internment won’t work, surely offshoring (to borrow a phrase) the problem would work? As with internment this idea runs in to the twin problems of legality and location. If, like the person responsible for the attack in Manchester, they are a British national with no other nationality to their name then there is no country of origin to send them to and the Geneva Convention of 1961 (of which the UK is a signatory) precludes rendering someone stateless.

For those who aren’t British nationals or who have dual nationality then the system would at least know where to send them, subject to proving in a court of law that their deportation is justified. Since the security services will not disclose what information they have on such people to an open court it is rather unlikely that this will happen.

Conclusion

As I said in my introduction, I don’t have any answers as to how to solve this particular problem. There are somethings which could help (an Islamic reformation; weaning ourselves off of our dependence on Saudi Arabian oil; stability, rule of law and economic growth in places like Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan) but those are long-term strategic goals rather than immediate tactical objectives.

A problem we can solve

Over at City Metric, John Elledge is telling London commuters to stop worrying and learn to love today’s tube strike and the unions involved in it. Whilst he correctly notes that it’s not just the drivers who have withdrawn their labour, he has this paean to why what is a mostly dull (but occasionally very awful) job is worth the money:

It’s also a reward for the fact that it’s a pretty miserable job. Not as miserable as being a soldier, admittedly – but certainly more miserable than being, say, a newspaper columnist.

Think about what driving a tube train actually involves. It’s shift work, so sometimes you’ll start at 5am and others you’re working til gone midnight. Whatever time you start, you’ll be spending approximately eight hours in a small box on your own, doing a series of mind numbingly repetitive tasks, but unable to lose concentration for even a moment.

In that time, you can’t read a newspaper. You can’t waste 20 minutes chatting with a colleague. You certainly can’t tweet about how bored you are. On certain lines, you’ll barely see daylight. And there’s a not insignificant chance that, one day, someone will jump in front of your train, and you’ll have to live with the guilt.

Lord knows there are some terrible jobs out there that don’t come with £50k pay packets, but… I’m kind of okay with paying people well to do that job. A lot of the people who’ll be spending today whining, “Well I don’t earn that much” also don’t have jobs that are quite that shitty.

Dull? Boring? Repetitive? Best Transport for London gets on with automating the entire network then and frees up the drivers to do something more enjoyable.

The price of a soul

Judas sold out for the sum of 30 pieces of silver. Two millennia later it would appear that the former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, has decided that her price is a peerage and a position in the shadow cabinet.

Is that, adjusted for inflation, more or less than Judas got?

The EU Referendum Question

Having been thoroughly disparaging about the campaigns themselves, let me now turn my attention to the matter under discussion…

The question before us, come June 23rd, is:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Now go and read it again before continuing. Think carefully about what it says.

A Venn diagram showing the political organisations of Europe

The political organisations of Europe and how they overlap.

This is not a vote to leave the European Economic Area (EEA), aka single market. Nor is it one to leave Customs Union or the Council of Europe. Voting to leave will not remove us from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). If any of these were on the table then I’ve no doubt that the Electoral Commission would have ensured that the question said so. Our MPs, whether you like it or not, have also made it clear that any move to leave all of the European political organisations would never make it through the House of Commons even if the government was minded to propose such an option – which it won’t be.

That no shortage of people on the ‘Leave’ side believe that a successful vote means we will be able to, in short order, wave goodbye to all of the European political institutions is but a demonstration of how foolish this entire discussion has been. I won’t say become because, frankly, it was dire even before the campaign began. Complete withdrawal – a notion not discouraged by the leading public faces of the ‘Leave’ campaign – might play well with their more fervent supporters but it does not sway undecided voters to the cause. It also plays in to the hands of the ‘Remain’ camp by allowing them to portray those of us who wish to leave the EU as extremists and isolationists, however false those generalisations might be, and point to the various reports (of varying credibility) that detail how bad (the organisations that produced them think) such a course of action would be.

Traffic light comparison of EU and EEA status

How EU and EEA membership compares

All a vote to ‘Leave’ will do is inform our elected representatives in the House of Commons that the majority (however slim) of the electorate who voted wish to depart the EU. Assuming that the government chooses to listen (which, since it is not a binding vote, they don’t have to) then the sensible course of action would be to negotiate the UK’s departure in such a way to cause the least possible disruption, i.e. move it to the next ring out on the Venn diagram above. Such a move leave the UK free to rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), along side Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland, and the UK’s membership of that organisation would result in it becoming the fourth largest trade block in the world.

Brexit will not lead to an immediate bonfire of EU regulations since these things will take time (read years) to untangle and Article 50 only provides for a two-year negotiation window. Nor will it result in the closing of the borders to immigration or the ejection of EU, EEA and EFTA migrants already here – however much some may fantasize that it will. The idea that only by remaining can the Tories be stopped from destroying the welfare state and returning us to the 1930s is equally as fanciful since there is no hope of any party being able to push such legislation through both houses without significant rebellions and general outrage even if they were brave enough to propose it.

A flow chart of Global Governance

How EU and EFTA members states interact with global organisations

What leaving the EU does mean is that the UK would be able to retake its seats at global bodies such as the World Trade organisation (WTO) where the EU has assumed exclusive competence. It would also once again be free to act in its own interests rather than being overruled and having to follow the party line in organisations where the EU insists on shared competence and block voting. This would allow it to have its say on new regulations before they reach the EU for rubber stamping.

Remaining in the EU is not a vote for the status quo. Whilst politicians on that side of the fence may pretend otherwise, ever closer union is the goal and the UK, having a permanent opt-out of the Euro (along with Denmark), will become increasingly isolated within the decision-making process as the EU will continue to favour the expanding membership of the single currency, a group that will eventually include all recent (and future) members since their ascension treaties stipulate that they must eventually join it. The only way for the UK to have any chance of increasing its ability to influence this would be for it to go all in…

Whether we ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ in the EU the UK will still be a member of NATO and one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, it will control one of the most powerful military forces on the planet as well as being one of the few nuclear powers, and be a member of the Five Eyes signals intelligence initiative (amongst other things).

The UK’s position as a global power will not go away if the UK remains but leaving will allow it to regain some influence in the world at large since doing so will once again allow it to speak freely at all of the world’s top tables as a leading economic power and trading nation should.

This was originally posted at Libertarian Home last Thursday (June 16th).

Lies, damned lies and the EU referendum campaign

With only a few days to go now, the end of the European Union referendum campaign is, after four months, finally (and many would say thankfully) within sight. At the moment of writing the polls are saying that it is too close to call although the bookies still reckon ‘Remain’ will win. Judging by some of the recent output from the ‘Remain’ camp, the tightening polls have seemingly put the wind up them as they awake to the possibility that this whole business is not necessarily going to be the cakewalk they may have thought it would be.

To say that this has been an awful campaign characterised by deliberate disinformation, half-truths, scare tactics, poppycock, threats and outright lies would be to understate exactly how bad the approach by each side has been. Between daft statements about the future of our national religion the NHS, inflated estimates of what our annual contribution to the EU budget is, xenophobic dog-whistles regarding immigration, warnings from the great and the good (as well as the not as good)* about an economic downturn to rival that of 2008, and the potential outbreak of another global conflict (to name but a few) there has been little sensible discussion from the vast majority of the political establishment and the commentariat that feed upon them.

With the most prominent figures in both official campaigns all being Conservatives MPs, one could be forgiven for thinking that the other parties are barely involved given how lacklustre their contributions have generally been. Even Nigel Farage has, at least in media terms, been quieter than one might have expected. This apparent lack of input (or attention paid to it anyway) does little to dissuade the more cynical that this whole thing is, in some quarters, less about our relationship with Europe and its political bodies and more an extended hustings over who gets to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister at some point between now and the next scheduled general election in 2020. (Putting my prognostication cap on for a moment, I would say that it is highly unlikely that any of the prominent individuals involved, i.e. Osborne, Johnson and Gove, will get the job.)

Away from the internal Conservative squabbles, both official campaigns often seem to think that they are fighting a general election with wild spending promises of what we could do with our annual contributions instead (Leave) matched by calls for a credible exit plan (Remain) rather than a referendum one. This nonsensical approach is perhaps because the UK doesn’t (despite this being the third prominent one in five years) have much experience with referenda and so the major participants are taking what they do know and trying to see if all of the skill set is transferable.**

Whatever the eventual result, the last few days are going to be full of plenty more twaddle and there is going to be a lot of nail-biting on both sides before the result is announced come the 24th.

This was originally posted at Libertarian Home last Monday (June 13th before the Labour MP Jo Cox was killed. Her murder, senseless as it was, and the aftermath of it have only reinforced my opinions about the contemptible behaviour of both campaigns.

* As an aside, how many favours has David Cameron had to call in and how many does he now owe as a result?

** Yes, I’m aware that Matthew Elliott ran the ‘No’ campaign in the AV referendum but there is a difference between fighting for the status quo (as he was then) and against it*** when you have to make all the running.

*** Not that ‘Remain’ is a vote for the status quo.

Lying with numbers (Kat Banyard Edition)

In a rather desperate screed that is apparently an extract from a book that she is flogging, sex work abolitionist Kat Banyard suggests that:

On average, a woman was paid for sex by 76 men each week.

Exactly how many active sex-workers there are in the UK is unknown but estimates range between 50,000 and 100,000 – and all come with various caveats attached. The most widely quoted figure is 80,000, an estimate from 1999 for the European Network for HIV/STD Prevention in Prostitution (EUROPAP) project and was derived by Hilary Kinnell.

In a 2006 census in New Zealand (the only country where sex work has been fully decriminalised), 0.285% of the female population declared themselves to be active prostitutes. According to a 2015 report from the Office for National Statistics the estimated female population of the UK in mid 2014 was 32,803,100. Assuming a similar percentage of sex workers as New Zealand this gives us an approximate figure of 93,500.

Sex work is a broad brush term that covers everything from cam and phone girls, strippers, dancers, some masseuses, dominants as well as the obvious. If we assume that only the latter category are what Kat meant by ‘paid for sex’ then we would need to reduce our estimates to match. With, once again, no way of knowing what the ratio is I’m going to make an assumption that its 50%. I would, frankly, imagine it to be higher but let us be as generous to Kat as we can.

If we apply that 50% to the oft-quoted Kinnell number then that’s 40,000 women each being paid by 76 men a week or somewhere around 3 million commercial sex encounters a week… or almost 10% of the current male population of the country. Replace that 40,000 figure with 25,000 (50% of the lowest estimate) and you have 1.9 million transactions per week (or approximately 6% of males). Does anyone seriously think that this is the case?

Thus Kat Banyard is, to put it politely, talking utter rubbish… but then what else can you expect from someone who thinks that all sex work is violence against women?*

* Quite how this is the works in instances where men pay other men for sex escapes me.

Versailles

No torrential rain and a shorter (albeit by about 90mins) journey meant that this leg of the trip was less arduous than that of the previous day. With no memorable scenery the only highlight of the drive was watching the trip counter pass 3,000 miles during the second stage – followed shortly afterwards by the moment which marked the trip equalling one tenth of the car’s total mileage. The latter fact being of little interest to anyone – except those of us with a more nerdish nature.

Bassin de Latone (2003) A mid-afternoon arrival in what was once the defacto capital of France was followed by a visit to the reason why: the Palace of Versailles. Le Roi-Soleil moved the court (and by extension the government) there once he’d finished upgrading his father’s hunting lodge and it remained there until the revolution forced his great great grandson to move everything back to Paris just over a century later.

I’d been to the palace before, back in 2003 when my dad celebrated his 50th by taking the family and some of his closest friends to Paris for a long weekend, and at that point the signs of neglect were obvious. Vicky and I didn’t go inside the palace, choosing instead to wander around a portion of the massive 800ha gardens*, but from the outside it was very noticeable that things have changed over the last 13 years. The two pictures of the Bassin de Latone shown in this post are from my first and second visits respectively and you can see the difference.

Bassin de Latone (2016) With Vicky meeting up with an old colleague, I was on my own for dinner so decided to ask the twitter hive mind for recommedations. This did, of course, mean that some people suggested I try the local McDonalds (you know who you are) but also produced a couple of more sensible ideas. One of those was L’Aparthe and I had, once again, a very pleasant meal and a carafe of red wine.

All good things come to an end however and the 0600ish wake up the next morning to ensure that we made the ferry out of Le Harve at 1100 was a sign that that point had been reached. :(

* To lapse in to journalism measurements for a moment this is approximately the equivalent of 800 Trafalgar Squares

North to Clermont-Ferrand

Clermont Cathedral (Interior) Sadly we had to depart the warm, sunny interlude that was Nice and head north because we do have a ferry to catch on Friday. I already had commitments for this weekend when the trip was planned else we’d probably have aimed to cross back to Blighty on either Saturday or Sunday in order to ease our passage across France.

With Vicky meeting a friend in Versailles on Thursday, we’d picked Clermont-Ferrand as a suitable place to stop between the two places. Whereas our daily drives had, up until now, been between 3.5 to 5 hours (including breaks), today was going to be about 6 hours before coffee breaks. With the torrential rain that we encountered on the approach to Lyon this only went up since muggins here was not about to do 110km/h on the wrong side of the road in someone else’s right-hand drive car when the windscreen wipers are going full blast.

By the time we rolled in to town night was falling so taking a walk around was clearly out of the question – and we were also tired after spending so long in the car – thus it was simply a question of where to eat once we’d had a rest. The rest turned out to be a bit longer than expected as Vicky had become lost in google map geekery and so was oblivious to the passage of time. I shouldn’t complain since I’ve spent plenty of occasions myself lost in code and suddenly looked up to realise that an afternoon has passed and I’ve neglected to eat or drink.

Clermont Cathedral (Exterior) Unlike Nice, we opted for the first place we found in the old town (since that was where all of the restuarants seemed to be) – and that was not in any way a bad choice. If you do find yourself in the city and wish to eat somewhere that is approved of by two obviously bonkers Englishwomen then L’instantané Restaurant is the place to go.

Thursday morning was rather colder than it had been the previous day on the south coast but dry unlike our departures from Venice and Pisa and so we took the opportunity to have the stroll that our late arrival the previous day had ruled out. The cathedral in the centre of the old town is most impressive – both inside and out – and was producing feelings of déjà vu in the driver. This was, in turns out, because she and Clare had briefly stopped in on their way out but this had been forgotten thanks to the multitude of places she has visited over the intervening 16 days.

Photographs taken, it was time to continue our trip northwards…

Nice to see you, to see you Nice…

Mountains (as seen from the road) After briefly delaying our departure from Pisa so that we could have a cold shower or, more accurately, walk around the city in the rain in search of postcards, a cash machine and a post box, we left in search of another toll road and the penultimate country of our journey: France.

Much of the road can be summed up in one word: tunnels. Genoa might be worth seeing, it might not, but given that they’ve tunnelled under it and through it, I barely saw any of the city from the road as we went through (strictly obeying the speed limit of course).

Unlike my travelling companion it is my first time on the south coast of France (having previously only visited Paris and Dunkirk or passed through the country in a coach on my way to Austria to go skiing) so we’d decided to stop in Nice for the night. With a hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean and the sun in the sky, we unloaded the car and then set out for a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais (yes, the English are entirely to thank/blame for Nice having an esplanade) after passing through the marina with its risible set of luxury yachts belonging to the more impoverished billionaire oligarch*.

Nice Coastline With the sun going down we sat and looked out over the sea for while, including watching traffic out of the airport, before heading back up the seafront and then in to streets behind it for a spot of dinner. With Vicky happy to try the first eatery we come across (unless it’s a chain), I’m the fussy one who will happily wander around in search of a place she likes the look of. What I eventually settled on was a place called Daddies Bistro. Empty when we entered, it filled up a bit later with locals (always a good sign) who were apparently well-known to the staff (an even better sign). The food did not in any way disappoint. Indeed I would go as far to say that it was one of the best meals I’ve had on this trip and I’d recommend the establishment to anyone passing through Nice.

Not, all told, the most exciting day of the trip but a very relaxing one.

* Warning: snark

Pisa de Résistance

The morn when first it thunders in March,
The eel in the pond gives a leap, they say;
As I leaned and looked over the aloed arch
Of the villa-gate this warm March day,
No flash snapped, no dumb thunder rolled
In the valley beneath where, white and wide
And washed by the morning water-gold,
Florence lay out on the mountain-side.
Old Pictures In Florence — Robert Browning

A Leaning Tower in Pisa Florence: the birthplace of the Renaissance, once one of the richest places on earth back when it was a trading and financial centre, now considered to be a World Heritage Site… with crumbling streets and, annoyingly for myself and Vicky, a hotel which was now a building site – the very hotel we’d booked for the night of our next stop. Ooops!

But first…

Setting off from Venice in the pouring rain our intention was to drive to Florence and spend the afternoon walking around taking in some of its history. Sticking to the fast roads, as we have mostly done since leaving Split, we spent much of the journey on Autostrada del Sole (literally “Motorway of the Sun”). Obviously this piece of trivia is of little interest in and of itself and I wouldn’t have bothered but for the new stretch of the route, the Variante Di Valico.

Built with the aim of reducing to travel time through the Apennine Mountains (and thus fuel consumption and pollution) this ‘bypass’ only opened fully on 23rd December 2015. It is 66.6km in length, of which 49% runs through tunnels, 18% on viaducts with the remaining third not needing any assistance. The longest tunnel on the route is approximately 8.6km long, had a working face of 180m² and required 10.2 million m³ of material to be removed.

That’s not a bad feat of engineering.

Pisa Cathedral at night Arriving in Florence we couldn’t find our chosen hotel until one of us (me) got out and went looking for it on foot. What I found was a sign on a wall outside of what was more of an apartment block undergoing renovation than a hotel and certainly no sign of a reception desk. Upon communicating this to my driver it was decided that it would be a good idea to cancel the booking and look elsewhere… an approach which lasted until we were reunited in the car and I threw out the suggestion of trying Pisa instead.

The driver considered this, decided it was acceptable, and so we found ourselves, less than a couple of hours later (including time taken to book a new hotel), standing outside of a campanile with a rather bad list. However as nice as the tower is, we were both of the opinion that two of the other items in the complex, namely the cathedral and the baptistery, are much better.