Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Cropredy 2016 Review - Day 3

There's an old joke about a favourite broom (or axe) where the owner won't use anything else, and it's the best one he's ever had - he's only changed the handle once and the head twice. It did make me wonder whether a band can survive in any meaningful way, having none of its original line-up in place. Fortunately, that's not (yet) an issue for Fairport Convention. Simon Nicol is the only remaining founding member in the band, although Dave Pegg has been in the band since 1969, and seems an institution in his own right. Also at this festival the original Fairport singer, Judy Dyble, was on-site for a signing session, although she didn't perform.

Comedian and singer-songwriter Richard Digance got Saturday underway. A clear favourite of Cropredy regulars, his set included witty and poignant songs and also a traditional ritual of waving hankies / tissues during one song of his set. All slightly bizarre, but clearly an established tradition for the Cropredy faithful.

Maia were next. Sci-fi folk, apparently (or possibly alt folk) - and from the North West. A band featuring two guys who could easily audition for an adult Harry Potter part. Again a band where they were clearly able musicians, but it just didn't connect with me. But that might be my fault. Gilmore and Roberts are a folk/acoustic duo, who came with supporting musicians. Kat Gilmore has a great clear folk voice and got their songs across well. Current album is Conflict Tourism.

The Pierce Brothers turned out to be a real highlight of the day. Australian acoustic with terrific energy, some pretty acrobatic percussion and using a didgeridoo without sounding naff ought to commend them to anyone. At the end of the set, the whole arena were on their feet applauding, and it was well-deserved. The Cropredy photo is already on their website. Usually one on guitar and one percussion and sharing vocals, they had compelling energy and likeability. One moment one brother was drumming on the other one's acoustic guitar whilst he was singing and playing; the next moment he is holding his brother's harmonica, whilst facing in the opposite direction, playing the didgeridoo. This was the last date before returning to Oz, and it was the biggest audience they had ever performed to. It was a lovely moment as they took their ovation and were genuinely overcome.

Demon Barbers XL were up next. Folk with street dance. Are you confused? I was a bit. It was a tough call following the brilliant Pierce Brothers, so maybe my memory is distorted by that, but apart from the fact that they featured dancers, I'm afraid I don't remember a lot about the set. Babylon Circus (from Lyon) followed with a very upbeat French take on folk, influenced by reggae, and ska. Some nice comic touches with energy and great musicianship.

What can I say about Ralph McTell that adds anything meaningful? Lots of people know he wrote that song, but his story goes back much further than that. Without any sense of showiness he dropped in a mention of sharing a bill with Paul Simon in the early 60s. I've seen him on a stories and songs tour here in Morecambe, and his connections and pedigree in folk and blues is extraordinary. Catch him if you can. His set at Cropredy had a few restrictions, as Fairport wanted to play one or two of his songs! But we were in the company of a genuine legend of the acoustic scene and it was great to see him again.

By the time Fairport came on to give their finale, the sun was setting, so we were treated to a great sunset over to our right, whilst on stage the band treated us to a full set. The set featured songs by Richard Thompson, and also the late Sandy Denny who is still clearly missed by the band. There was also a tribute to Fairport violinist Dave Swarbrick, who died in June.

At the end of the set, they followed their usual Cropredy pattern of marking the close of the concert with Meet on the Ledge, again a Thompson song.

It was great to be there, and such a friendly group of people. My clothes may have been more conventional than most as a 'Cropredy virgin', but there was no real sense of an 'in' crowd, just a field full of people looking forward to sharing the experience of some great live music.

I'm a convert.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Cropredy 2016 Review - Day 2

I loved the way the whole village seemed to embrace the festival. There may be some objectors, but it's so well established that buying a house in the village must require accepting that there will be a lot of extra people around for a few days each year. The primary school and the church raise funds providing breakfasts for campers, and the pub clearly does rather well out of it too. Meanwhile in the arena field, there were lots of food stalls - including a few old friends from Greenbelt. I finally had a Goan fish curry.

We got on site in good time to find a decent spot to set up our seats and 12 hours of music followed in mainly sunshine. Anthony John Clarke (the festival compere) and Fairport veteran Dave Pegg got us underway, followed by talented piper from Edinburgh, Brìghde Chaimbeul, who recently won the BBC Radio 2 young folk award.

The excellent duo Sound of the Sirens followed, providing a more upbeat folk/rock set of songs which was definitely the highlight for me of the first half of the day. Great songs and energy well-performed. Lifesigns, a prog rock band, who have supported Marillion were on next. The musicianship was certainly there, but the music didn't grab me.

However, the next band were a real treat. To be a good 3-piece band needs everyone to pull their weight, and that was certainly the case with Wille and the Bandits, who may be familiar to Greenbelt regulars. Hard to pigeon-hole, they can play blues, folk-rock and even Latin-influenced music. There was some terrific guitar work, but none of it played on a 'conventional' electric guitar. Although effects were definitely in play, all guitar was played on an acoustic, or on a Weissenborn type lap slide guitar. I've never seen or heard anything quite like it, but the overall sound was very impressive.

Wille and the Bandits at Cropredy 2016
The problem with such a well-received quality set, is that someone has to follow it, and that job fell to Headspace. Sadly, it didn't go so well for them. Again, the instruments were played well, but their rock set just lacked something in its musicality and also rapport with the audience. It felt like they were just trying a bit too hard, and it ended up being counter-productive. The rather muted applause at the end of the set indicated to me that my friends and I were not alone in having that opinion. Maybe it was just the wrong setting and context for them.

All I can remember of Steeleye Span are their two hit singles from the 70s - Gaudete, and All Around My Hat. I do own a Christmas album by Maddy Prior, and I have always admired her voice, so I was intrigued to see if they could still deliver the goods. Although much more 'folky' than other bands in the line-up, they certainly showed their instrumental and vocal quality, and although Maddy Prior's voice sounds older, it still had that distinctive tone and clarity. I'm glad I got the chance to see them.

Day 2 ended with something I wasn't sure about - The Bootleg Beatles. It seemed a strange choice for Cropredy. Essentially it's a live set of Beatles classics performed by a quartet each playing the part of a member of the band. It was actually much more enjoyable and fun than I expected, with very good performances and arrangements both of the early era material which was played live, and also later tracks which never featured in live sets.

Bootleg Beatles setlist

Supporting musicians enabled an authentic sound for the more complex songs (eg the piccolo trumpet solo on Penny Lane). Obviously, it's not the same as really being there, but for those of us who couldn't, it gave a taste of how good those songs were live, and also what some of the later material might have felt like as part of a concert set. And, of course, most of us there knew all the words. It actually provided a lighter and fun conclusion to a day that had had patches which were pretty heavy going. I would never have chosen to go to a Bootleg Beatles gig, but I'm glad to have experienced one.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Cropredy 2016 Review - day 1

I'm just back from a great weekend with my friends Bon and Ann at the Cropredy Festival 2016. It was very civilised, as they live nearby, so we did the festival thing, but had proper accommodation and facilities to go home to each night.

I wouldn't count myself a proper 'folkie', although quite a lot of what is normally called acoustic music features in my playlists. However, I had always associated Cropredy with being a bit more full-on as a folk festival. In fact, it turned out to be more varied than that. That's not to say it didn't have its fair share of characters with crazy hats and wild hair and beards in the crowd and on stage (my friend observed that not all of them were very good at disguising themselves as muggles). And, of course, it has Fairport Convention at the heart of it - starting it off, choosing the acts, and providing the grand finale.

There's just the one stage, with a programme running from midday (4pm on Thu) to 11 or midnight. It's very friendly and probably a lot calmer than many music festivals, and the clientele is on average older, although there were younger people and families there too.

Day 1 illustrated the variety well. Fairport kicked off with a short set. Next came Gryphon, who were a folky prog rock outfit in the early 70s and reformed in 2009. Dreamy music that obviously meant a lot to those playing it, but I guess it would have meant more to those who knew the albums first time around. I took the opportunity to browse the excellent range of food stalls, find the beer tent and generally take in the venue. However, they were the first band I have ever seen use a krumhorn, which really ought to be a Harry Potter prop.

Things soon took an upbeat turn, with CoCo and the Butterfields. Any band that includes violin, acoustic guitar, beat box, banjo, bass, and drums as its instrumentation ought to be interesting, and they were. Great energy and rhythm with powerful vocals. Full marks to lead vocalist and violinist Dulcima Showan for carrying on having knocked a piece of wood out her violin playing so vigorously. Even more respect to the violin maker, as it stayed in tune and sounded fine.

One of the highlights for me came next when Hayseed Dixie provided what was, for me, the performance of the day. The basic idea is that they play rock songs with bluegrass instruments - hence their name is a play on AC/DC. But the energy, musicianship, vocals and sheer commitment to live performance is something else. They were absolutely extraordinary, and great fun to watch. I gather the band's line-up has changed a lot over the years; all I can say is that the present team are brilliant. Probably not a band to listen to a lot on CD, but a live must-see.

The first day was rounded off with Madness. They gave us a tour of their career with a setlist of greatest hits, and were very tight as a band. In some ways it was slightly less engaging with the audience than previous acts - they were following the Hayseeds - but if you grew up with the hits, it was a treat.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Why I oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent

As there is a vote coming up about the renewal of the Trident system, I felt it was important to write to my MP, although I anticipate he, along with the majority of MPs, will back renewal. However, regardless of the side one takes, this is a bad time to make a big decision, and I still question how much impartial research has been done into whether this is a cost-effective choice, even for those who are pro-deterrent. With a sinking pound and public finances squeezed, this is an issue which could have very real knock-on effects on our doorsteps. My letter also omitted the very real question of how a deterrent so reliant on US support can be truly independent

Here is my letter with added hyperlinks to sources:

Dear Mr Morris,

I understand that there will be a vote in Parliament as to whether the United Kingdom should renew its Trident nuclear submarine fleet. Regardless of the side one takes, I feel this debate is badly timed, taking place in the turmoil of the formation of a new government and the aftermath of the referendum result. I strongly believe there would be wisdom taking more time, following our nation’s recent trauma.

However, I expect the debate and vote will happen, so I feel I must write to you. I must state up front that I have huge moral objections to nuclear weapons, so I'd be glad to see the end of a UK nuclear deterrent. However, even if one doesn’t have that over-riding moral objection, it's hard to see the justification for a new Trident system strategically, financially or militarily. Here are my reasons:

The official cost estimates in 2010 were £15-20 billion, although many believe it will be much higher. As there is US input, and the pound has devalued against the dollar by around 10% since the referendum, this is bound to rise. Ongoing operational costs and maintenance will take this total much higher.

Over my adult lifetime, there have been many examples where it was believed that our conventional forces on active duty were imperilled by shortages – of ammunition, helicopters, body armour, and using vulnerable Land Rovers due to a lack of armoured personnel carriers. The savings from abandoning Trident could ensure that does not happen again. I’m not a pacifist, so I feel that when our personnel are deployed it’s vital they actually have all the resources they need, decent houses to come home to, and proper support for those injured or traumatised, along with their families.

Military Strategy
The point is often made that Trident is for our security – to make us safe. Is this well-founded?

The British nuclear deterrent was conceived to ensure the UK had the independent means to deter the USSR during the Cold War. We couldn't hope to win a conventional war against the USSR, so it was to ensure the UK could not be intimidated, and an aggressor would pay for using nuclear weapons on the UK, if it ever came to that. As I’m sure you know, the British deterrent (whether Vulcans, Polaris or Trident) was always a 'second strike' weapon. They would be deployed once Britain was about to be devastated by an incoming attack, or after such an attack had done its worst. In the Cold War scenario, it was assumed the USSR would be the aggressor, and it was very hard to imagine circumstances where Trident would be fired in isolation from a US response, or that as a NATO ally, they would simply watch European allies attacked. This is presumably why, apart from France, no other European country has nuclear weapons. The difference 'our' deterrent makes to that overall scenario is more symbolic than significant.

So at most, Polaris and Trident would have been a kind of posthumous revenge. In his old age, Denis Healey once admitted that back in the 60s if he had been in bunker after a Soviet attack, he wouldn't have launched Polaris. What would the point have been in slaughtering millions of Russians after the damage was done?

The same surely applies now with regard to the big nuclear powers. Russia (and China) might have too much at stake to risk such a war with the West, but don't we need a deterrent to protect us from Iran, North Korea et al? The answer is the same: a nuclear strike by any 'rogue state' would certainly get a US response (possibly with support from Russia/China), so if that doesn't deter them, will a couple of Trident submarines? Furthermore, if the UK is seeking to discourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it reduces the credibility of that stance by renewing Trident.

Probably the most pressing threat to national security is terrorism. Nuclear deterrence is no use against such a threat. We don't know where they are, and the best hope of stopping them will be through good police and intelligence work. Many terrorists are happy to die in their cause; indeed some actively seek it. The Cold War peace was said to be maintained by the dangerous balance of mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the USA and USSR. However, if one side is happy to die, that balance is destroyed.

I don’t expect you will agree with me, as I know your party seeks Trident renewal. However, it isn’t as simple as a left/right issue. Military chiefs and even Michael Portillo (hardly a lily-livered lefty!) have questioned spending these huge sums of money to maintain a nuclear deterrent, when there are so many other pressing needs on our nation (including other military requirements).

Last night I was at a local public meeting seeking to keep Morecambe Library and 3 Childrens’ Centres open, which are threatened because of the cuts Lancashire County Council must make. Austerity is biting very hard locally, so it’s very hard to understand why such an expensive prestige project remains a priority.

Trident represents a lot of money that could be used to:

a) invest in the towns like Barrow affected by the cancellation. Employment is important, but Trident is a very expensive way to keep people employed.
b) ensure the conventional forces being deployed actually have all they need and decent houses to come home to.
c) contribute to deficit reduction, instead of closing vital local facilities.

Even the lowest estimate of £15bn is a lot of money to spend on something you hope you never use.

I hope you have time to read and weigh these arguments. At the very least, I would ask you to support deferring the decision until things settle down, I think a proper impartial strategic review of the value of a UK deterrent would be very helpful, balancing the different threats we face. Of course I must also ask you to vote against renewal for the reasons I have outlined.

Yours Sincerely

Mike Peatman

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The trouble with referendums

As a nation we're only just absorbing the full importance of the recent referendum on EU membership. In a previous blog post before the vote, I suggested what a win for brexit would mean for the ensuing negotiations:

"Our future will be in the hands of a yet unknown Prime Minister and Chancellor, working with an unknown budget, under unknown market conditions, taking an unknown proposal for a trade deal, with unknown conditions about fees and movement of people."

That looks about right, so what went so wrong for David Cameron & Co, such that it came to this? I've been musing about the whole idea of holding a referendum at all, and I've come to a few conclusions. I'm not suggesting a re-run of what we have just had, as you can't re-write history, and the way the vote was framed would contain the same flaws. However, I think there were lessons from previous votes, as well as this one.

A referendum is not an election

In a general election, each party has a manifesto, with pledges and commitments as to what they would do, should they win the vote. We know politicians lie, exaggerate and wriggle out of commitments, but they can be held accountable at the next election. If you don't think that works, remember that the Lib Dems suffered badly at the last election for a) being in the coalition at all, and b) promising to abolish tuition fees and failing - even though other pledges were acted upon.

A referendum has no such accountability. It's a single vote, and if promises are made around that vote, that is not the same. In the recent vote, they were being made by people who didn't have the power to put them into action, and who appear to have had no intention to do so. For example, Iain Duncan Smith is now denying he ever promised to spend £350 million on the NHS, despite riding on the bus that said precisely that.

Keep the question as closed as possible. Avoid open questions.

Connected to that is how open-ended the option to leave the EU actually was. If you voted to leave, that new status of "not in the EU" was completely undefined. To some extent that accounts for the diversity of people who supported it, ranging from extreme right groups through to traditional socialists. The problem was that when people voted leave, they couldn't know what they were voting for, only what they were against. The turmoil we are now seeing is the inevitable fall-out from such an open-ended change.

Contrast that with the referendum on the alternative vote system. It was a simple choice: stay as we are, or use this new system. There was a debate, and no doubt some politicians saying things with varying amounts of credibility, but the choice was pretty straightforward. It couldn't acquire a whole set of other agendas and promises.

Constitutional matters are more complex, but it can be done. The 1979 Scottish devolution vote had a set of legislation in place that needed ratifying by referendum before it became law. I don't suppose for a minute that everyone read the full plan, but it was available, had they wished to do so, and so there was a document campaigners could quote to verify their claims. Likewise in the recent Scottish independence referendum, the White Paper was available, although the issues were even more far-reaching and complex.

Consider what level of support will legitimise the result

There has been a referendum in Britain where the option that got the most votes didn't happen. It was the 1979 Scottish devolution vote I mentioned earlier. 51.6% of the vote supported the legislation, but before the poll took place, a threshold was set, stating that a 'yes' vote would only be valid if 40% of the eligible voters supported it. On a 64% turnout, it meant only 32.9% of the Scottish electorate had actually voted 'yes', and it was not taken forward. It ended SNP support for the Labour government and led to an election. For comparison, the equivalent figure for the recent EU poll was that 37.47% of the electorate supported 'Leave'. But then, as I noted a while ago, 24.3% of the electorate gave the Conservatives an overall majority at the last election.

The reason for thresholds is to be sure that there is a critical mass of people supporting change from the status quo. In the Church of England, major decisions, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood vote in 1992 required 2/3 of each of the houses of General Synod to approve. Even then, there was major division and discord for years to come. Likewise, many clubs and societies set a threshold for change in rules and constitution. Looking back, David Cameron may wish he had done the same with this vote, given how relatively close it was.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Post-Referendum hymn

Strictly speaking, not a full hymn - just a verse.

Whatever the result is tomorrow, there are going to be a lot of upset people around. At Church we recently sang the hymn "For the healing of the nations" and it struck me that an extra verse would be helpful.

Here's my attempt:

For the healing of our nation,
Lord, we pray with heart and mind.
Following such deep division,
May we peace and friendship find.
Help us banish bitter feuding,
Discovering the deeper ties that bind.

In the unlikely event of anyone wanting to use this, please feel free. Anyone else got a new song for Sunday?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Brexit: who would take the decisions, and what would they want to do next?

After Brexit, we will...

Sound familiar? There do seem to be a lot of promises flying around, and also a lot of unsubstantiated suggestions. Had another leaflet this morning saying the mythical £350 million per week paid to the EU could (notice the word carefully) be spent on the NHS. Of course, by putting that figure on his bus, Boris Johnson forgot his beloved Mrs Thatcher's rebate, let alone the money that flows back to farms, Universities, deprived areas of the UK, research and development, etc. If all went well, there would be less than half of that in practise. And it's worth noting that Johnson, Gove, Duncan-Smith and Farage have all made proposals in the past that undermine the core principles of the NHS.

Ok you've heard all that a hundred times, so I'll stop there. But before you switch off, note that it isn't a promise to spend more on the NHS, and that much money wouldn't be available anyway, even if everything went really well. A lot of commitments have been made by the brexit team, but they haven't come from anyone who currently hold the relevant office to put them into practise, so are they worth anything?

That prompted a few questions, so here they are:

1) After a Brexit, who will be in charge?

I've seen a lot of promises from politicians on both sides of the argument. The difference is that if brexit won, it is assumed David Cameron would stand down soon after. Everything would then be in limbo while the Conservative Party has a leadership election. The smart money is on Boris Johnson winning in such an instance, but that's not guaranteed. If he did, he would then have to manage a divided party and a generally 'remain' parliament in order to proceed with leaving the EU.

2) Who would be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer? They and the new PM would have to navigate the complex process of exit, and handle the budgetary consequences.

If Article 50 is activated, Britain has 2 years to negotiate its exit. At the end of that, the aforementioned EU payments to farms, fishing, etc would need to end. We wouldn't necessarily need a crisis budget, but we'd need a Budget to reallocate money to those areas, which will gobble up a large part of the EU subs we gain by no longer being a member. There are also payments to the private sector in research grants, so a decision would be needed about honouring them or not.

That money would then need to be distributed, so that means setting up a UK process for claims, assessment, grant-making, appeals, etc. In other words we would need a bureaucracy of our own, which costs additional money to set up and run. Would the new Prime Minister and Chancellor have sufficient political will to ensure that is done, and done quickly? The alternative is hardship in rural and fishing communities, and a shrinking of research in universities and companies.

Meanwhile, market conditions may mean the tax take is down, spending is rising and the room to make the grants is more restricted.

3) What would the negotiating position of the UK be for future trade relationships?

A lot has been written about the deals that Norway and Switzerland have with the EU. It's well documented elsewhere that a similar deal for the UK would require a fee (using up more of the money reallocated from EU subs) and freedom of movement. The 'Leave' campaign has put a lot of emphasis on the cost of the EU and the problems of free movement, so it would be weird if they suddenly embraced a deal that addressed neither of their key concerns, and left us with no say as to how the single market worked. So what would the UK be pitching for? The answers have tended to be a selection of suggestions, rather than a specific plan. That doesn't inspire confidence.

Remaining in the EU has its uncertainties, but we have a reasonable idea what they are. Furthermore, we could always revisit the question of our continuing membership at a future date if significant questions couldn't be resolved through the usual negotiating processes.

Leaving has a finality about it. And it also carries more profound uncertainties. Our future will be in the hands of a yet unknown Prime Minister and Chancellor, working with an unknown budget, under unknown market conditions, taking an unknown proposal for a trade deal, with unknown conditions about fees and movement of people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The problem of selling 'Remain'

Someone asked a question on Facebook the other day: what would we gain by voting remain? It had a nice rhyming vibe to it, and it highlighted a key problem for people (like me) who want to persuade the floating voter to choose to vote for the United Kingdom to Remain in the European Union.

In fact it highlighted several problems. Let me explain.

It's hard to make the choice to continue as we are sound very exciting. Although Brexit campaigners are trying to scare us about what staying might do, Remain is, by its nature, the 'stay as you are' option. Choosing to leave sounds like action, remain can sound complacent. Flouncing out of a room is much more memorable and eye-catching than staying put. Remaining, for me, is the right option, but it just doesn't sound very, well, active.

It also doesn't sound like we gain anything; we simply retain what we have. It's a problem with the way the question has been formulated. "Recommit to active participation in Europe" sounds much more exciting, but it won't be on the ballot paper.

Try this as an analogy. Shall I choose to remain a member of the AA, or shall I choose to exit? If I remain, I don't gain anything. I continue to pay my subs and I carry on getting roadside assistance, a few discount offers, and some marketing email just like I did before. In the brave new world of AAexit, I am a membership fee better off each year, and I have the added excitement of whether I will actually get home (which could prove more expensive, but I don't know for sure). Remaining won't gain me anything in an obvious way, but it would get me started or home, and protects me from worse fates and bigger bills.

I'm not suggesting the EU membership is simply an insurance scheme for the UK. It's simply the problem of selling 'remain' that I'm trying to illustrate.

There's a second problem, and that's the word "we". Who are "we"? Does it actually mean "I", or does it mean close family, friends, locality, community, town, region or nation? In the context I came across the question, it seemed to mean either just the person or them and their household. I'm not especially interested in the impact on me - I am concerned about a choice that might slow down the economy, which always hits the poor most. Fear of brexit made the pound and stock market lose ground. The real thing is very likely to see a bigger reaction. That will mean even more austerity for longer to deal with the widening deficit. I am certainly seeing plenty of the effects of current austerity here in Morecambe, and I fear what further cuts could do.

What do we gain from remain? Wrong question. It's better to reflect on the benefits the EU has already given us, from cleaner beaches and concerted action on the environment, to better workers rights and an open and collaborative relationship with nations we had been in conflict with for centuries previously. You might not gain much by voting to keep that, but it's a lot to lose for our communities and our nation if you vote the other way.

Friday, May 27, 2016

EU Referendum: Are we asking the right questions?

The public discussion around the forthcoming referendum has been pretty disappointing, noisy, full of hyperbole and, as Ian Hislop noted on a recent episode of Have I Got News For You, at times has degenerated into someone from each side saying the other is a bit like Hitler.

This referendum (and recent elections) have vented a lot of steam on which choice would mean we are 'better off'. That got me thinking about what a Christian analysis of that question might look like.

First of all, what do we mean by 'better off'? Do we mean that voting this way or that will result in personal financial gain? For me that is a very inadequate assessment of the value of a choice. At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I think most people would acknowledge there are are things in life worth more than money. What if a choice that left me with the same, or even less money, led to a fairer or more just society? What about human rights, freedom, the environment, personal well-being etc? From a faith-based point of view, focussing purely on material (and especially financial) satisfaction is a wholly inadequate account of human flourishing.

Even if we restrict the debate to finance, the question we are left with is who is going to be financially better off? Economists and politicians are on the air a lot debating the effects on economic growth in the short and long term of staying in vs. leaving the EU. History would suggest that if our economy suffers significant decline, it's likely to hit the poorest and most vulnerable. However, when the economy has grown, concern has grown about the widening gap between the least and most affluent, and that the economic benefits of growth have disproportionately gone to the wealthy. How does our discussion about 'better off' relate to a Christian understanding of concern for the poor.

Even if we can identify which voting choice will bring the most growth, will it enrich the lives of those who most need it? That will depend on our own government's domestic policies and priorities, and the people at the helm of the Conservative Party, and hence the government until 2020 may well be decided by the outcome of this vote (unless 2/3 of MPs vote to dissolve Parliament early).

And I am also concerned that the economic discussion seems to have been limited to the impact of choices and policy simply for the UK (or even England). What impact might the decision we are taking have on the wider world, especially the poorest in the developing world? Will remain or leave be the choice that opens up the best opportunities for the peoples of our world who most need them? Where do our global neighbours feature in the debate?

In Luke's gospel, at the start of his public ministry, Jesus is recorded as reading this in the synagogue:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Would it be too much to ask to have some thoughtful engagement with some of those issues? I fear I already know the answer.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The EU Referendum: Should I [vote] stay or should I go?

Dave, George, Nigel, Boris, Beaky, Mick and Titch. Ok I made up the last 3 for the sake of the joke. I wonder who you believe and which way you will vote? I'm going to vote to stay in the EU and play a positive part in shaping it into a fairer and more effective community of nations. However, it's not an easy question to settle, despite the simplistic slogans that abound on both sides.

We're being bombarded with exaggerated statistics and threats about migrants, threats to jobs, the cost of staying in, the cost of leaving. There's plenty of rhetoric about wanting our country back, some xenophobia and sadly not a little racism. Little short of civil war seems to be raging in the Conservative Party, and the referendum result will define the careers of a lot of Conservative politicians (and possibly others).

You can get some sanity. The BBC and Channel 4 news both have useful fact-checker sections that analyse the claims, and give a rather more balanced take on what might really happen. For example, the £18.8 billion we are supposed to be paying the EU turns out to be nearer £6bn when you take into account rebate, support for farming etc., and support for non-governmental organisations. You can see the Channel 4 analysis here.

The level of emotion the issue raises, particularly from those who advocate Brexit, is fascinating. I'm intrigued as to why it evokes such passion and even anger. It seems to touch a raw nationalist nerve. Of course, if the UK does remain, it could always consider leaving in the future; if we leave, it's almost certainly a final decision. That makes this vote one of the most important ones for decades.

The polls are rather inconclusive. There seems to be a narrow majority in favour of staying in the EU, but a lot of people are still saying they don't know. To muddy the waters further, younger voters are much more likely to vote to remain in the EU, but are less likely to vote at all.  Many younger people may not even be registered to vote, since changes were made in the way registration takes place. If you don't get a poll card soon, go to You could change history!

Woven through the whole debate so far, is the internal conflict in the Conservative Party. There are, of course, Eurosceptics in other parties, but this issue has plagued the Tories for years. From my uninformed viewpoint, the vote looks like an attempt by the Prime Minister to deal with his party's Brexit advocates once and for all, and to secure the leadership succession for someone from his own perspective. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is clearly using his new-found zeal for the Brexit case to make his pitch to be a future leader, should the vote go his way.

The hippy in me rather likes the idea of everyone working together, and removing the things that separate us. That will already distance me from those who wave the flag more passionately than I do (unless it's football, when I share the despair of England fans everywhere). 'Britain needs to be free to make its own decisions', say the Brexit team. For them it would free from our shackles, and we would regain control of our national life and not be "ruled by Brussels".

It sounds rousing, but is it true? It invokes an idea of sovereignty that doesn't actually tally with reality. The UK is signed up to many international treaties, including the EU ones. Membership of the UN and NATO are obvious and large commitments, but there are many more. Treaties can either be honoured or ignored - that is our sovereign right as a nation. However, decisions on complying with a treaty or not can change the course of history. Who, in 1839, when signing the Treaty of London could have foreseen it would be the reason Britain would declare war on Germany in 1914? Treaties hold a nation accountable to other nations for their actions, and can have enormous consequences. So we are never completely independent, and in or out of the EU, the UK will still have to take into account all kinds of treaties and trade agreements and abide by their conditions.

Before the UK was in the EU, the Suez crisis showed that Britain was far from fully independent, even though it still had considerable military capability. The United States forced British and French withdrawal by using its economic power. Was the UK really that independent before it entered the EEC, and how realistic are the hopes of those who want us to leave now? Would we end up depending more heavily on other large economies, having to comply with their policies and wishes? Membership of the EU means the UK has a say in decisions and votes in its committees, councils and parliament. Leaving could leave us powerless to influence larger nations, economies or even corporations.

And why shouldn't our government participate in a community where we are mutually accountable? European nations which were once been dictatorships, are now stable democracies within the union. The notion of international law is often perceived in Britain as a way of civilising parts of the world that have suffered under dictatorships, and a way of bringing tyrants to account. But it works two ways, and there may come a time when that accountability protects our freedoms too.

The Brexit campaign makes a lot of the UK's contribution to the EU, which I referred to earlier. Whatever figure you go with, the debate really starts when you try and assess whether staying in is actually worth that contribution. The EU is a key trade partner for the UK, and vice versa. EU countries won't want to lose the UK as a market, but surely we have to assume there will be some loss of privileges for leaving the club. Some point to Norway as an example of a thriving non-EU country. Norway contributes in order to have EU market access, and has to abide by EU regulations to sell products. The UK would have to negotiate a deal, and if successful, pay the fee and follow the rules, with no say as to how they are formulated.

I doubt there would be immediate economic meltdown, and some of the George Osborne's predictions about Brexit need careful scrutiny. Many think the pound is likely to sink in value, at least initially, but other effects may take time. We do know that investment in the UK by large manufacturers, like Nissan, were encouraged by the fact that the UK was within the EU single market. Cars could be exported from the UK to mainland Europe, without facing the same barriers as vehicles from Japan. Nissan, Toyota, Honda, etc. won't shut the shop immediately, but decisions about future investments would have to take into account whether or not the UK was still in the EU, or at least in a trade agreement with good access to EU markets.

Of course, not all benefits of EU membership have been about trade figures. The EU took on Microsoft about anti-competitive practices, following complaints from competitors. It resulted in huge fines and a change of practice by Microsoft. When dealing with corporations that have turnovers larger than small countries, it sometimes needs an agency the size of the EU to be effective. Mobile roaming charges are another example of where the EU is changing the market.

In the end, if you really want 'out', you'll take the economic hit, and if you really want 'in', the membership fee will seem reasonable for the benefits received.

People supporting Brexit are a diverse bunch. They range from some on the extreme right, such as Britain First and the EDL through to those on the left who follow in the footsteps of Tony Benn, who advocated leaving at the last referendum. The right play up patriotism and fear of the foreigner; the left tend to highlight the way that the EU can favour business interests over the democratic will of the people. For example, the Greek government weren't allowed to implement the policies that got them elected, due to the financial restraints imposed by the EU.

So what is the democratic accountability of the EU? Of course the answer is that it is complex. We elect MEPs, we appoint a share of officials, and our elected leaders participate in councils, conferences and negotiations. There is accountability, but it's not straightforward, and it's also not as clear as it would be in a genuine united states of Europe.

Having said that, our own elected government still passes the vast majority of legislation that affects us, and has a vote or veto on many issues. And, as I covered earlier under Independence, our nation is accountable to other nations (who we didn't elect) for all kinds of issues, from human rights to using CFCs in aerosols. And if the Greek situation concerns us, remember that the IMF would impose all kinds of economic restrictions on the UK, if crisis hit, as it did in 1976, forcing chancellor Healey to change the UK government's economic policy. Many would argue that staying in the EU makes such a crisis less likely, and as the UK is not part of the Eurozone, the European Central bank doesn't have the same power over the UK as it had over Greece.

Conclusion - stay in and play an active part.
We have to be honest and say that we can't know what the consequences of leaving will be. We can be a little more confident about what staying might involve, but even there it's uncertain. Attitudes are changing in Europe to migration, nationalism and more. However, the EU holds 28 nations with a history of conflict together in a unique community.

It is far from perfect, and many issues need to be addressed and resolved. We know that's possible - even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall can get policy changed (which is more than Nigel Farage managed in 14 years on the Fisheries Committee). I want my country to be in there, challenging and shaping it to be fair, just, and a community that not only benefits its members, but also the poorest parts of our world. Withdrawal would mean retreating into a more isolated way of understanding ourselves as a nation, take away our place at the table, and has the potential to threaten the livelihoods of us all.

Oh, and by the way, there aren't 26,911 words of EU regulations on the sale of cabbages. In fact, there aren't any.