Could a people’s vote reverse the Brexit decision?

June 6th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

This week, I attended the first annual lecture to commemorate the distinguished former European Commission official Julian Priestley (1950-2017) whom I knew briefly in the mid 1970s. The speech – a low-key but heartfelt address – was given by Richard Corbett, a long time Member of the European Parliament and leader of the British Labour Party in the Parliament, and I found myself sitting next to Neil and Glenys Kinnock.

Corbett argued that “Brexit should not be considered to be a settled issue” and that “There are good reasons for Britain to reconsider Brexit”.  He insisted that “The emerging Brexit deal bears no comparison with what was promised in the referendum”. He acknowledged that opinion polls suggested that support for Brexit has only fallen slightly since the referendum, but he compared this position with the expectation that the public – like so many politicians – would swing behind Brexit as a settled issue in principle.

In the discussion which followed, there was recognition of the complexities around a rethink on Brexit with one contributor referring to the position of other Member States and pointing out that “It takes 28 to tango”. But there was wide support for a second referendum which would give citizens a vote on the actual deal once concluded and a belief that the rest of the EU would grant the UK a reasonable period to hold such a referendum and would accept a rejection of Brexit even at that late stage.

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (0)

A (very) short history of broadband Britain

June 5th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Can you remember those early, exciting days when you moved from narrowband to broadband for your Internet connection? Instead of having to dial up each time, you were always on and, instead of a speed of as low as 28.8 kilobits per second (kps), you jumped to at least 128 kbps.

A lot has happened since then. Where are we now and where are we going? In my latest column on IT issues, I’ve explained why and how the Government – with advice from the regulator Ofcom – will be introducing a broadband universal service obligation (USO).

Posted in Science & technology | Comments (0)

“A Very English Scandal” was a very English success

June 4th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I spent part of this weekend watching all three one-hour episodes in the BBC1 drama series “A Very English Scandal”. This provides an account of the gay relationship between Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe and model Norman Scott and the trial of Thorpe and others on the charge of conspiracy to murder Scott.

Although I lived through all the political and public events depicted in the series, I still found it incredible that it could have happened. Hugh Grant is brilliant as Thorpe and Ben Wishaw is excellent as Scott. Writer Russell T Davies and director Stephen Frears tell the tale as black comedy which means that by turns it is hilarious and tragic.

If you haven’t see the series, you can catch it on the BBC site.

If you want to check how close the script is to the reality, look at this Wikipedia page.

Posted in Cultural issues, History | Comments (0)

A genuine democracy needs effective trade unions

June 3rd, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I spent 24 years working professionally as a national trade union official, so I know the vital role that unions play in counterbalancing the power of employers and exploitation at the workplace and I know the reluctance of unions to take strike action especially when this is so heavily circumscribed by law.

Last week, an article in the  “Guardian”newspaper highlighted new data on trade unionism in Britain.

The Office for National Statistics revealed that there were just 79 strikes last year, the lowest figure since records began in 1891. Just 33,000 workers were involved in labour disputes, the lowest number since 1893.

It is not just the number of strikes that has fallen. Trade union membership has too. The latest figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy show that just 23.2% of employees were unionised in 2017, half that of the late 1970s.

All this is happening at a time when average pay is yet to recover to levels before the financial crisis a decade ago and workers are going through the worst period for wage growth since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 – well before the labour dispute records began. The use of zero-hours contracts and the rise of the gig economy has rightly fuelled fears over a decline in working conditions in recent years.

In an article in the “Observer” newspaper today, Kenan Malik reviews these trends and concludes:

“Not only have unions been drained of much of their power, but the workers that most need help are the least likely to be organised. The very character of the new, fragmented labour market makes organisation more difficult. The state of traditional trade unionism only compounds the problem.

Much has been written about the crisis of social democratic parties throughout Europe that have abandoned their old working-class constituencies and as a result have largely imploded. Much less thought has been given to similar trends within traditional trade unionism.

Yet, the crisis of trade unionism is as great as that of social democratic politics. The two are inextricably linked. To address the crisis of working-class politics, we need to address questions of working-class organisation and solidarity, too.”

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A review of “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

June 1st, 2018 by Roger Darlington

This is the 10th “Star Wars” movie, the second in the anthology, and the first origin story. It arrives only half a year after “The Last Jedi” – clearly Disney, as the new owners of the franchise, are seeking to exploit the potential of the box office – and after a troubled production (notably a change of director to Ron Howard).

It’s an enjoyable romp with almost an excess of action but, for me, it lacks originality and surprise. We know that Han Solo is going to meet the wookie Chewbacca, that he is going to win the Millennium Falcon from the rogue Lando Calrissian, and even that he is going to do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. We have lots of familiar scenes, such as another cantina-type sequence, but – and this was the real magic of the saga – there is no Force, no Jedi, and (virtually) no lightsabres.

What is new are the actors playing the young Han and the young Lando and Alden Ehrenreich is suitably charming and swaggering in the eponymous role while Donald Glover is cool as the original owner of the Falcon. Interestingly, most of the other leading roles are taken by British actors: Paul Bettany as the chief baddie Dryden Vos, Emilia Clarke as the mysterious Qi’ra, an underused Thandie Newton, and unrecognisable Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Many see the “Star Wars” story as a space western but this episode is also a kind of inclusive rom-com with Han fancying Qi’ra, Han bromancing Chewbacca, and Lando getting emotional over a droid called L3-37. So something for everyone then, but not quite enough for me.

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Northern Ireland: 1968 and now

May 31st, 2018 by Roger Darlington

1968 was a momentous year around the world and there are all sorts of events marking its 50th anniversary. So, earlier this week, I was at the British Library in London for a talk sponsored by the Political Studies Association when the speaker was Bernadette McAliskey (nee Devlin).  She came to fame with the outbreak of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland in 1968 and became the then youngest ever Member of Parliament the next year.

I have a particular interest in this period and in this conflict. In 1969, the week after the troops went onto the streets in Northern Ireland, as a then university student I went over there for a week to walk the streets of Belfast and Londonderry to see for myself what was happening. Some years, later, I became professionally involved in the Northern Ireland situation when I worked at the House of Commons (1972-1974) and the Northern Ireland Office (1974-1976) for Meryln Rees, Opposition Frontbencher and then Secretary of State.

Bernadette McAliskey spoke without a text and seemingly without even notes in a long, fluent and passionate address. She has clearly given this speech before but in slightly different versions. It was a nuanced address and I want to be careful that I do not misrepresent her.

She was clearly against the campaigns of violence on both sides: “War doesn’t work”. But she was critical of the Good Friday Agreement: “We lied to win the peace”. She is a socialist and a republican and takes a class approach to politics, so she asserted: “There is not a nationalist bone in my body”.

She said that the terms of the eventual settlement were essentially available in 1972 (I agree) and that she could not understand why it took almost 30 years of war and almost 4,000 deaths for agreement to be reached (I think I do).

In my view, in 1972 the IRA could not have been persuaded to lay down their guns because they believed – and the Troops Out Movement in Britain encouraged them in this fantasy – that, with sufficient violence, Britain would give up on Northern Ireland, In 1974, the IRA somehow believed – on no credible basis – that a Labour Goverment would be willing to agree to a united Ireland. Sadly it took a long time for them to see that violence was not going to achieve their aims.

As a socialist, Bernadette McAliskey is deeply critical of the whole concept of the European Union but she voted remain (I believe) because it was best for the people of Ireland.

She made two forecasts: that Britain would leave the EU without an agreed deal for Brexit and that, in the face of such a hard departure, the people of Northern Ireland would find a way to vote themselves into a united Ireland.  Personally I do not believe that either event will happen. If Brexit does take place, there will be a deal – however messy and however transitional – and a way will be found to minimise the complications on the Northern Ireland/Republic border. The unification of Ireland is nowhere near.

Posted in History | Comments (0)

What is the secret of health and happiness?

May 30th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

“For some, eating alone can be a joyous thing: forking mouthfuls of pasta straight from the pan, peanut butter licked off a spoon, the unbridled pleasure of walking home from the chippie alone on a cold night. But regularly eating meals in isolation is a different story. This one factor is more strongly associated with unhappiness than any other apart from (unsurprisingly) having a mental illness. This is according to a new study by Oxford Economics that found, in a survey of 8,250 British adults, that people who always eat alone score 7.9 points lower, in terms of happiness, than the national average.

This research is far from the first to suggest a link between eating with others and happiness. Researchers at the University of Oxford last year found that the more that people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives. The study also found that people who eat socially are more likely to feel better about themselves and have wider social and emotional support networks.”

These are the opening paragraphs of a recent piece in the “Guardian” newspaper. The message may seem obvious but it is still vitally important.

Posted in Miscellaneous | Comments (0)

A review of the movie “Hidden Figures” and the story of three remarkable African-American women

May 29th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

In some ways, “Hidden Figures” (2016) is a (belated) companion piece to “THe Right Stuff” (1983). Both tell the story of the herculean effort by the United States – which failed – to beat the Soviet Union to put a man in space.

Whereas “The Right Stuff” focused on the first seven America astronauts who had the so-called ‘right stuff’, “Hidden Figures” concentrates on the huge team of scientists, technologists, mathematicians and managers (mostly white men) ‘hidden’ behind these astronauts and, most especially, highlights the largely unappreciated contribution of African-American women through the experience of three of them: mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).

The only stars in this film are white: Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, a character largely based on Robert C. Gilruth, the head of the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center, and Kirsten Dunst as a character who reflects the views and attitudes of some of the white women who served in managerial roles at that time but was not an actual historical person.

The movie makes clear the everyday discrimination faced by staff of colour in the NASA of the early 1960s, not least the provision of bathrooms for coloureds. In another interpretation of the title, the film underlines how much complicated mathematics is involved in planning a space launch and return.

Like many other great stories of NASA employees, NASA has been sharing this story for years. In fact, the author of the book on which the film is based, Margot Lee Shetterly, has noted the title is “something of a misnomer.” The women at the centre of the story were not so much hidden as unseen. If this film helps to correct that, it has served its cause since it commemorates the achievments of some remarkable women in a worthy work.

However, even though the movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as cinema it is rather pedestrian and by the numbers. For sheer entertainment, “The Right Stuff” is much the better film.

Katherine Johnson biography click here
Mary Jackson biography click here
Dorothy Vaughan biography click here

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If you’re confused about the current crisis in Italian politics …

May 28th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

… it’s not surprising. The country has effectively had no government in the two and a half months since a general election and it is possible that a new set of elections will now have to be called.

The proposed new governing alliance is an unlikely combination of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which has most of its support in the south, and the far-Right League, which has most of its support in the north. This alliance nominated as Prime Minister a virtually unknown law professor with no political experience but, in a matter of day, he has stepped down over the refusal of the President to accept a nomination for Finance Minister of a fierce critic of Italy’s membership of the Eurozone.

Italy is a founder member of the European Union and the Eurozone and this crisis impacts the whole of the EU and of course Britain. At a time when we need a strong Europe to counterbalance the chaos coming from the current occupant of the White House, the Italian crisis has worldwide implications.

You might find it helpful to see the current constitutional conflict in the context of a short guide to the Italian political system which I have written here.

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A review of the 2015 documentary “He Named Me Malala”

May 26th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

‘Me’ is of course Malala Yousafai, the inspirational Pakistani girl who aged 15 was the subject of an assassination attempt by the Taliban. ‘He’ is her father Ziauddin who, in his own way, is a remarkable individual and who – contrary to what she states in this moving film – gave her much more than the name of a Pashtun heroine from history.

This cinematic work was inspired by the biography “I Am Malala” which I have read [for my review click here], but acclaimed American documentary maker Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) tells the story of Malala’s life before and after the shooting through a mixture of hand-drawn animation, archive footage, and filming over a year and a half at her English home in Birmingham and on visits to Nigeria and Jordan.

The film demonstrates the passion, bravery, humility, intelligence and fluency of this young woman who at just 17 became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate as production was concluding. Her story has just begun …

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