A new chapter

As I leave work tomorrow, for the first time in over fifteen years I am unsure whether or when I will be returning. It is scary but also liberating.
I have an idea of a direction of travel. I know my responsibilities. I want to give time to my children. I am blessed with a supportive husband.
But for the first time, I am not thinking about my profession, climbing the career ladder. I am Leaning Out.
Or am I leaning in? Much as I dislike the onus being put on women to achieve in business via the Lean In concept, Sheryl Sandberg is right that for women mid-career, it’s not a ladder but a jungle gym.
So I will be playing in the ball pit for a while.
I am a rubbish house wife, I am too in touch with my inner child and will live with the mess if there’s dressing up to be done.
I’m not totally opting out of the adult world- I have voluntary things that also fill my time.
And if you are a publisher looking for Relationship Lit rather than 50 shades, send me an email and we can talk Jake’s Ghost.
But there are little people that need me. It shouldn’t have to be something to worry about, wanting to raise my children. It shouldn’t mean a permanent set back in my career. It shouldn’t be that my worth is determined by my paid work activity- why is caring for my own children not socially useful? It shouldn’t be that only richer households can choose in this way to opt out for a while.
There are votes out there for parties willing to recognise that raising your own children is a worthwhile pursuit for both women and men, that childcare availability is not the only family issue that people want to hear about, and that this is something that should be an affordable option no matter what your family set up. We talk about education but forget to value parenting.
It is a new chapter for me, a choice not an imposition. I know how lucky I am.
But that doesn’t stop it being just a little bit scary.

A cup of tea for Jesus

I was listening to a sermon.
Shocking, I know, if you watch church services on TV you would assume that sermons are the dull bit of a church service where most people doze or daydream. (Maybe I watch The Simpsons too much).

Anyway the passage being preached was Matthew 25:43, the verse that was being preached to was the bit where Jesus says (in the ESV):

I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.

This is a challenge.
We live in a world where political dialogue is about the “other” – the limitations needed on immigration, who is worthy of state support. Actually accepting a stranger into your household would be a risk deemed foolhardy- murder, rape or robbery would surely follow.
And with headlines about crises in the prison service, and prison guards having to get hep jabs just in case, who would visit unless they had to?
And as with hospital visiting unless it is friends or relatives who has the time?

I know myself – I’m not a spiritual hero.
So the sermon got me thinking and I recognised that while I clothe the needy (usually donating clothes via charities), and donate to our food bank (with some unease- I heard the CEO say he wanted a food bank in every town but I would prefer that our brilliant welfare state be properly funded to support those in need rather than a return to the pre-20th century approach that the church and civil society should provide), this sermon was a challenge to me.
What if it was Jesus sitting at the roadside? He of course says it is him (Matthew 25 again):

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

So how can I do nothing with this clear message in front of me?

I can argue I don’t do nothing- I worked for a homelessness charity and would always donate money to them rather than hand over cash because of the risk of fuelling self-destructive drink and drugs.
I can think about the charity donations and the churchgiving, and maybe I can feel I do my bit and be thankful for the life I have that means I can do the giving.
But that’s Pharisee thinking.

Jesus as always makes things a bit less comfortable.
So with this sermon still ringing in my ears, I got off the bus to walk to work. There was a man there in a battered old leather jacket: “spare any change for a cup of tea?”
I walked on. But I felt awful.
He was there the next day too. I walked past.
And the next- I took a different route.

Then I considered what I was doing.
I was so bothered by what a sermon at church asked me to think about that a specific situation was calling on me to act.

So what to do?

The next morning I stopped at a coffee shop and got two cups of tea.
“Oh, yeah, I guess.”
I took a handful and a stirrer and got on my bus.
On the way I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing.
What should I do, hand it over and walk off?
Stay for a chat?
What if he refused it? Maybe he doesn’t actually want tea?
Would it just be massively embarrassing for both of us?
What if I got mugged for my bag/ phone etc. through showing I was a soft touch?
What if once I had done this once he expected a cup of tea every day?

He wasn’t there.

So I did the same the next day.
And the next.

But he hasn’t been back.

I can reflect that God gave me a chance to see how I react to a specific challenge from a specific sermon.

Or I can think, I hope that man is ok. I hope he has a good reason for not being at the bus stop asking for change for a cup of tea and that his life has changed for the better. I hope his story has a happy ending.

And if I see him again I will buy him that cup of tea.

Cars with character

My son got me thinking. When we changed car, he cried and he hugged the old one goodbye. He wanted to know where it lives now, whether the garage who took it as part exchange is treating it well and whether, crucially, as the new one is a different marque, would it get a chance to be with ones the same or have to get used to being the odd one out?
We tried explaining that, as a car and not a person or animal, it wouldn’t notice, but he was insistent.
He noticed that the new car’s face – two headlamps, grill and number plate – was lower and wider than the old one, and it looked less open and friendly. He is right. The old one was an SPV, an designed to be loved by families. The new one is designed for drivers who happen to need to transport their family and lots of stuff. Its face is rakish, louche , all twirling moustache and controlled power under the bonnet. This is not a family friendly face, and it is so much more fun to drive!
A week or so after changing car, singing Buck Rogers every time we get in, I asked my son if he missed the old car. “No. Can we open the sun roof and get out the cup holders?”

How to remove a Dart Tag

This may seem like a bit of a departure for my blog, but here’s something really practical…
As you may know, Dart Tag is going, being replaced by Dart Charge. As this is to be a London Congestion Charge style payment system, there will be no need for a physical device to make automatic payments.
Regardless of the reasoning behind deciding to keep charging for an infrastructure project now paid for, something else was bothering my husband: how on earth do you get the Dart Tag holder off the windscreen of the car?
The Dart Tag holder is stuck on with a 3M sticky pad, which seems to be equivalent of No More Nails… Really pretty difficult to shift. My husband had pulled at it, but it was stuck fast. He was afraid he was going to crack the windscreen, or the holder (who wants broken plastic glued to their windscreen?)
Google was my friend. I found several suggestions, but one from the Australian E tag company rang a bell. I dredged up from the back of my mind that, to separate layers glued together with a pad, you need to twist one layer gently from side to side, repeating with increasing pressure and twist to break the seal. The Aussie site suggested putting the tag back into the holder for added leverage…
Success! Tag holder removed and the method is so efficient it didn’t even leave the sticky residue behind in enough quantity to require a cleaning wipe.

Ashford is no picture postcard town, apparently

photo 2

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot going on in Ashford that I think is positive. I think the planning for Ashford 2030 looks sensible although I have views on the planning of housing (and not that it should all be stopped).
I like the farmer’s market, craft events, Revelation St Mary, Create music festival and the real love and effort put in by everyone to make these things work and attract people to the town.

But oh dear.  I’m going to share my frustrating morning.

I was trying to find a postcard of my town to send to a friend in Africa. Nothing fancy, I thought, just the church and churchyard (as above), Willesborough Windmill, or the tank, or Middle Row. WH Smith? Nothing. Savia? Nope. Where else? The Museum? I was on my way there when I remembered that the tourist office is no longer next door to the Museum. I was not aided in this by the fact that the tourist information signs still direct you as if it is.

photo 3

Instead, the tourist office is on the second floor of the gateway plus centre. I’ve lived in Ashford a lot of my life and I still had to think hard about where that was – most people still call it “the library.” But to hide the Tourist Information Centre on the second floor of a municipal building – what are we saying to potential tourists? Hey guys, want to know what to look at in this pleasant market town? Why not do the treasure hunt to find the tourist office wasting half your time here in the process? This isn’t serious behaviour for a town with a Eurostar station that could be the gateway to the Garden of England in terms of potential tourists.

Mercifully there is a lift to the second floor (not lazy – just accompanied by toddler in pushchair and child on school holidays). On arrival, I searched for the postcards. This is what I found:
- two postcards with castles of Kent (Ashford has a Castle Street but has never had a castle);
- one visit Kent postcard (no Ashford);
- four postcards with hand drawn historic bucolic scenes with hay carts;
- one postcard of Lille Europe Station with a Eurostar and a TGV on it (yes, that would be in FRANCE);
- one postcard of Ashford and Tenterden which, on closer inspection, turned out to have images of Biddenden and Tenterden but not Ashford!
Finally I found a postcard proporting to photo 1be Ashford but I didn’t recognise the images.  The lady at the desk had a look with me and we worked out that it was two shots of the houses around the churchyard and one of the fountain on the lower high street. Two pictures of the churchyard but no church? Is this some kind of militant atheism in postcard production?! (It is pictured here, no copyright infringement intended, please purchase your own version if you like it and are less incredulous about the fact that THIS IS THE ONLY POSTCARD OF ASHFORD AVAILABLE IN ASHFORD than I am…)

But seriously, this is a ridiculous situation. I asked and was told that there had indeed been a degree of frustration expressed by the tourists that had eventually made it to the second floor. Angry tourists – just what every town needs to encourage repeat visits.

At this point I should say that, twenty years ago I did a placement at Ashford Tourist Information Centre. I was studying French and Spanish, and we had to do a voluntary community citizenship placement thingy: most girls went to help with reading in primary schools an hour or two a week but I had been helping my mum with that sort of thing in her classes and wanted to do something different. We worked hard to make sure that tourism in Ashford wasn’t just “hello! Yes we have a windmill but not in the town centre, and have you considered visiting Canterbury?” But knowing something about an issue doesn’t automatically make you wrong, despite the evidence of a deep distrust of expertise in British culture at present.

Ashford mustn’t just be a place to pass through, to leave from to go to somewhere else.

It is fantastic that we have the Designer Outlet centre and can attract people to the Ashford area to shop: footfall of several million a year. That’s a lot of out of town visitors who could also potentially visit the town centre. Perhaps it is worth a tourist office there?
It’ll be even better of course when there is some kind of connection between the outlet and the town especially as there is no free bus any more. I hope that plans for a connecting business quarter and a plaza that more clearly uses the station as the link will also help. Even then, it is a hell of a walk between the ASDA-end of the outlet and the town centre – some kind of mini tourist train (think Le Touquet seafront or York Station to the Minster) or something might work and even be an attraction in itself?

If I recall correctly, there will soon be interactive maps with apps to download to your phone to give you your tourist information for historic Ashford. I guess ultimately this approach means that a tourist office is just a big cupboard for flyers that can be taken put on display somewhere else – hopefully somewhere that tourists can actually find and use them.

It’s starting to feel like, if you want something done properly…


Leaps of Imagination

Image from tupian.sucaitianxia.com

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Richard Dawkins said that reading fairytales to children was “rather pernicious” because it encouraged them to accept the supernatural. He apparently said it was “statistically improbable” that a frog if kissed would turn into a prince.
I think he may rather have shot himself in the foot with this one. He now says he has no more to say on the  subject of fairy tales.
Scientists, in order to make discoveries often need to make leaps of the imagination.

The reason we tell our children tales of princes and princesses, dragons and witches, talking animals, flying carpets and magical objects is not to get the to believe in these things.
It’s part cultural – we have a shared national and international culture of sharing traditional tales. We all come from people who told stories – Terry Pratchett talked about humans as not as homo sapiens but as pans narrativius, the storytelling ape. Our ability to communicate ideas and abstract thought unconnected to our immediate environment is stimulated in children, and adults, through fiction and fantasy.  In the times before mass literacy, oral history was essential to show us where we came from and where we are going. Telling stories is what makes us us.
It’s partly about ethics – telling stories helps us develop empathy – putting ourselves in the place of others. Children love larger than life characters and creatures, knowing whether to help someone even though they are an elf is vital to understanding that even though someone doesn’t look like you, they are still worth your time. Cautionary tales too, and graphically horrible things you would hope never to see – a wolf sliced open and the live grandmother hopping out – are also useful in encouraging thought about the implication of situations without scaring the hell out of the children*.
And it’s partly about building imagination. Scientists need imagination to make breakthroughs, even to start from the simple question “what if…?”

Oh, and on the way to school yesterday, I asked my son if he thought a frog, if kissed, really could turn into a prince.
“No,” he said, “but a caterpillar can turn into a butterfly.”
How long did it take humankind to work out that a caterpillar and a butterfly were two stages of the same creature, transformed in the chrysalis? There were probably many dissected chrysalises along the way. I don’t know, but I bet whoever worked it out grew up listening to fairy tales.

* PS delighted to hear that as someone raising my children with knowledge of the faith that shapes my life, this is not now said to be considered by Dawkins to be tantamount to child abuse. I would also agree that a parent threatening a child with burning in hell for not minding their Ps and Qs is not acceptable, but nor is it what Christians should be doing if following Jesus.

What is it good for?

This is a weird year to think about war, peace and the world we live in.

The first world war broke out 100 years ago – millions died in “the great war”, “the war to end all wars”.
But then 70 years ago today was D-day. 22,000 British flags marked thank you have been placed in Normandy reminding us of the sacrifices made for our freedom, liberty and democracy.

Did these two world wars end all war? No, every year since, there has been a war somewhere in the world. It’s easy to forget this from our lives here in western Europe, peaceful even if in times of austerity.
But we have these lives because people like us, in my grandparents and great grand parents generations were willing to fight, plan, drive ambulances, tend the wounded, see the deal to make peace – to serve.

They did this, sometimes willingly, sometimes through conscription. Why?
In the long term, so that none of us would ever have to again.
In the short term, they fought to stop the spread of a nationalistic, fascist ideology that turned people against their neighbours.  In seeking to find someone to blame for economic and social problems, this ideology scapegoated the “other” whether foreigners, gay people, disabled people, trade unionists, Roma people or Jewish people. Scapegoating turned to persecution, persecution to death on a massive scale.
We can pretend that similar ideologies didn’t have any traction here in the UK. They did – the British Union of Fascists claimed 50,000 members in 1934. But they didn’t win out, partly because the BUF was unable to hold a large scale rally without mass brawling, and partly because of horror at the Night of the Long Knives in Germany which cause a big drop in the BUF’s membership.  Don’t forget that Oswald Mosely wanted negotiated settlement, a publicly popular stance until the invasion of Norway. The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, also favoured appeasement. If it hadn’t been for Wallis Simpson being a divorcee, our history could have been very different.

Some may have fought because they believed in their country right or wrong.  Some may not have given one jot about the things we talk about when describing our country e.g. monarchy, but they fought anyway. Because they thought it was the right thing to do. Becuase they were asked to.  But they came from the whole spectrum of political belief. They fought alongside men from the empire, flew alongside Polish and Czech pilots.
They killed and were killed, with civilians dying as well as the forces in numbers never before seen.
The flag waving crowds after the war certainly seemed to be proud to be British. It’s not a sin to be pleased where the accident of your birth has landed you, and as Cecil Rhodes is supposed to have said “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life” (NB at that time English and British were used as synonyms. Uncomfortable now, but true. Must be, heard it on QI). But I guess what I’m trying to get at is that it takes a big leap from feeling pleased about it to believing you are somehow inherently better than other people because of it.
And it is uncomfortable to realise that in times of economic austerity, we again face choices.

What happened after the wars is really important.
After the first world war, as much pain as possible was inflicted on the losers – starvation, economic disaster and humiliation which as we now know lead to the rise of feelings of unfairness, seeking to blame anyone that is “other” and turning neighbours against each other while looking for someone to stand up for them.
The response to the first world war sowed the seeds of a second.

Thomas Picketty describes the period of the mid to late twentieth century as an aberration, a period in which poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity were addressed in a way that had not been before. Things couldn’t go back to the way they were. In war, traditional social class had been stripped back a bit, and the post-war election resulted in a victory for an ideology promising a fair distribution of resources and the creation of the National Health Service, which even today has resonance as a symbol of this access for all.

So there was more opportunity and equality in the late twentieth century than ever before. Or since.
Today we talk about social inequality, we talk about diversity and inclusion and we try to value difference and use it as an asset to our economy and our society. But we are already in a world of greater inequality with a gulf between the super-rich and the workers which is bigger than at any time since the 1930s, and are apparently on our way to making this irrevocable before 2050. Workers?  Well, unless you are hugely senior in financial services, a pop or film star, a business magnate or inherit a fortune, that means you. The prediction is that we are the last of the middle classes that may actually achieve the dream of a comfortable life.
We need to think about whether this is what we want. We have let the post-war dream of more equality slip from us a bit, and we need to decide if that is what we as voters and workers and a community and as individuals actually want.

Closing ourselves off will not help us.  We may be an island, but we are not a boat. We can’t just up anchor and sail off into the mid-Atlantic. The world carries on around us and we have to engage with it in order to have an economy that allows us to access the way of life we hope to have.
That means we need to talk about the EU.
I would say just for a minute, but I’d be lying. We need to talk about it a lot, because as an issue this one is certainly a bit more complicated.

Belonging to the EU costs us about £1.81 per household per day in the UK (that’s £3 if you insist on the often quoted £55 million a day figure which is gross not net). Not belonging wouldn’t give you all of that £1.81-£3 back in your pocket, by the way. There are costs to handling everything ourselves too, we’re just being told that’s not important right now because the principle of independence is self-evidently more important.

There seems to be a body of people in the UK that think that we are dictated to by a EU superstate and that this is not what all those lives, 100 years ago, 70 years ago, were spent saving us from.
The differences between a brutal, fascist dictatorship and the EU should be obvious.  A few years ago I would have said it was – obviously it still is, but it gets complicated when the EU does things that look dictatorial in the context of the Euro. More of that in a minute.

But for the UK, which is not in the Euro, there is a clear difference. We have a say in EU rules, we have a British Commissioner, British representatives in the European Parliament, British officials in the Commission and other EU bodies, our Ministers are in the Council of Ministers and our Prime Minister in the European Parliament.
As a big member state, we have a big number of votes in the Council. We can “get our way” by working together. We build coalitions. And yet the last four years has shown that we have a long way to go before we are able to discuss the concept of coalitions in political power in any sensible way without screams of selling out.
As a big member state we also have a large number of seats in the Parliament. And yet we say that we are dictated to? We send as our representatives people who say they are not going to represent us in the discussions that take place because they are ideologically opposed to those discussions taking place? We did this to ourselves.
France has done the same, of course, voting Front National. And in so doing, two of the three big member states have weakened their position in the Parliament, and the third member big member state has the most seats in the largest parliamentary group. With supreme irony, give the context, that member state is Germany.
So if you didn’t vote, perhaps inspired by Russell Brand saying not voting is sticking it to the man or just because meh, thank you. Your lack of interest means that those who did turn out have a disproportionate level of political power.
Think about it this way.
We say we want people that will stand up for Britain. We do, at every level of the EU. We’ve even negotiated to ensure Eurozone decisions don’t adversely affect us.
Since when did standing up for Britain have to be No, No, No? Oh that’s right. Handbag time. Right outcome, unfortunate long lasting effect on what “we” expect to see in negotiation.
Why isn’t getting the right deals in negotiations without threatening to walk away also seen as standing up for Britain? Because it is, in a much less polemic way. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it?

We can’t isolate ourselves, because the world will not let us.
It’s actually simple, but it looks complicated when you explain it.
If we are in business and want to trade there are international rules, and there are different standards required of the products we make. We have to meet those standards.
The difference being in the EU makes to us there is that we pool our agreement to a certain set of standards so that our products that we make for our home market are also automatically in line with the massive trading bloc from which we sit 23 miles off the coast of the main landmass (and share a land border in the island on the other side) – a single or common market, if you like.
Then, as a bigger bloc, we have more clout in agreeing standards with other big markets: the USA, China, India, the BRICs.
If we left the EU to set our own standards, we would be unaligned with the bloc next door and would basically be told what the standards would be both by them and by the other big markets. We hear that other, smaller-than-us countries than us have successfully made deals, but for some reason we never look at the quality of those deals. Chile’s deal with the USA was just time to comply with US standards!
So what would we gain? The freedom to be told what to do by other big markets.

We also need to work together to combat bigger challenges: the environment, foreign policy issues that affect us all, crimes where the perpetrator tries to use going abroad to escape arrest and prosecution (the costa del crime?). We can say that there is no man made problem with our environment (despite greater than 95% scientific consensus that there is).  We can say we can handle everything else bilaterally with other countries. But the EU is an existing mechanism for dealing with these things and costs us very little really- if we are worried that everything costs a lot, it seems strange to want to duplicate effort in this way.

One price is seen as unfettered EU immigration. There’s a lot of myths out there about what EU migrants to the UK can “get”, much of it untrue, some true, but the government seems to be acting to close some of the gaps in UK legislation so that we are bolted down to the max. But if EU migrants contribute £1.34 to the economy for every £1 of benefit given out, are more likely to start businesses than indigenous Brits, and are roughly proportionate in number to the Brits living in other EU countries, why is there so much vitriol?  If the problem is we have pressure on our public services, surely we should be asking why we are not spending that 34% economic contribution equivalent on providing more school places, hospital beds and GP appointments? Why are we not pressuring house builders to build more houses? May be it’s not that we are full but that we have stopped building the homes we need (less than 10% of the UK is urban, once you add in gardens, parks etc, you are still at an amazingly small percentage, 13% of land designated greenbelt, that still sounds like a lot of potential brownfield and non-greenbelt potential out there…)! I digress, but when it comes right down to it, we seem to be unable to discuss immigration without one side saying “racist” and the other saying “we’re full and they don’t speak our language”.

I’m not saying that the EU is in any way perfect.

Some of the things that have been done recently are so far from the freedom, liberty and equality that are supposed to be at the core of the EU that I feel queasy. Imposing a government, when economic turmoil in one country could have brought down the economy of 17 others? Ok it was short term, emergency and only in a coupe of countries and saved the day and elected governments are now in place, but this is not the democratic dream, is it? And if your past is full of dictatorship or puppet governments, as is the case for many now-EU members, this is not what you want your membership of the EU to mean.
Nor is the European Parliament’s power grab ideal for selling the idea of the EU as getting more democratic. The spitzencandidate process was an attempt to choose the Commission President by the Parliament choosing in advance individuals that would be backed by the major European Political party groupings.
But this looks like it goes beyond the constitutional rights of the European Parliament, surely? The Treaty says that the outcome of the EP elections should be taken into account by the Council, that is to say the Heads of State and Government, but that is not the same thing as imposition of a specified individual because of their party affiliation regardless of experience. Traditionally, EU leaders have sought a consensus figure. All that is required under the Treaty is for the one they chose to reflect the appropriate political background. And with a lack of decent coverage of this process in the media, not just in the UK, most voters across the EU showed a complete lack of understanding that their vote for a party equalled support for an individual of that party to be the Commission president. I do understand that this was about getting a link to the electorate, but really this seems a very ham-fisted way of attempting to retrofit a democratic element into selection of the Commission President.  As I write, debate on who will take up the role of Commission President is ongoing. It may work, it may be accepted as the way to do things in the future. Or it may not. We’ll have to wait and see.

Then there’s the Common Fisheries Policy (much better now), the Common Agricultural Policy (needs a big shake up still), the waste of money that is the monthly Parliament trip to Strasbourg, the Euro (it didn’t have to be this way but the Euro is to blame for a lot of the undemocratic stuff mentioned above), the embedding of liberal free market principles in binding supranational law… hang on, why are the right wing commentators complaining about that bit? Oh no, that’s left wing commentators.

That’s a lot of downsides, right?  But being in means you can negotiate to make the bits your are less keen on better. As long as you build your alliances.

And there are big benefits well worth £1.81-£3 a day to my household.
Any pro EU list always starts with clean bathing water, no rip-off roaming charges…
I’d also say increased GDP; being a magnet for inward investment from companies from the rest of the world looking to access the EU market brings jobs; a community intellectual property and trademark, competition law, only having to deal with one set of rules rather than 28; better air travel with more routes and rights if your flight gets cancelled; the right to travel, study, work and live anywhere across the Member States, including in retirement; medical treatment on NHS terms anywhere in the EU if you have an EHIC card; guaranteeing social rights including parental leave and equal pay (a big deal for workers – especially women- in employment, but might not mean much to the self-employed I guess); and finally enhancing our chances of prosperity while Germany shows us that membership is not what hampers us from increasing our trade with the rest of the world (they export a higher percentage of their goods outside the EU than we do and don’t even have the headstart that the Commonwealth* could offer).

But there’s a really big benefit that is worth remembering today. The EU is all about making war between us impossible.
After the second world war, there was a push to get European countries to recognise that for peace and prosperity they needed to work together.
There was a requirement to work together to get aid under the Marshall Plan.
And the pooling of resources, starting with coal and steel, meaning that the Member States did not have the capacity to go to war with each other again formed that very first ECSC Treaty. The EEC, the European Economic Community that followed, encouraged working together with common values include liberty, democracy, a respect for human rights and basic civil liberties, and rule by law.
This shows us that the EU is rooted in trying to ensure peace across our continent. Yes, ours. The one we sit just 23 miles off the coast of. The one that was accessible by foot 9000 years ago and is now, if you really had to and could walk through the tunnels without getting flattened by a train. And arrested. I digress again.

Working together with our neighbours in an organisation in which we have a say in the decision-making is not betraying what our forefathers fought and died for. But we need to make sure that organisation cannot become something that does not represent us and our values, those founding values, of liberty, democracy, human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law that came out of those dreadful wars. We can do that from the inside.

We are also free to choose to have none of it – decide that we are too different to our neighbours, we want to pull up the drawbridge, and that when we encounter difficulties those that are “other” are the ones to blame for our economic or social woes… (it’s strange how those words keep coming back).  The reality is that it wouldn’t change the globalised world we live in, nor will it mean others won’t have power over us in terms of trade, finance, what our currency is worth. We’d just be that bit less influential in setting the terms.

I would not dare to presume to know whether those that died on D-day, or in the first world war, would have been in favour of the EU if they had survived to see it.

But thanks to them, we will settle these decisions on who we are and what our role is in the world with pens and paper, not guns and bombs. Words, not violence so everyone can make decisions that affect their lives freely and fairly. That’s what they fought for. Restoring that is all that war can ever be good for.


* Just as an aside, on the Commonwealth, why does it have to be EU or Commonwealth as a focus for trade? Why can’t it be both/ and? And given that Australia – rather than feeling rejected by the UK as one of its ministers said when Britain joined the EEC in 1973- views itself as an Asian economy these days, who says Commonwealth countries are looking to become bigger trading partners with a EU outside the EU?  Churchill may have had a vision of a United States of Europe (with Britain outside heading her empire of course) but the Commonwealth is not the empire and it feels sometimes that the lack of appreciation of the change of the UK’s global status that is what’s stopping us really getting into the EU. We are a significant world economy, a G7 member, but we’re not head of a global empire any more. And it is not unpatriotic to say so.


EU so misunderstood…

Debating the EU is tricky because it’s always easier to listen to those shouting: 
“EU, EU, EU – out! out! out!”
than to those saying: 
“What do we want?
A technical yet plain language discussion of the practical implications of the benefits and costs of addressing issues at different levels of political decision-making including European level, reappraisal of each and an institutional structure that faciliates this, accessible for and engaging with all!

When do we want it?
Within a reasonable timescale that allows for genuine debate without dragging on!”

I’ve been having a debate on the EU on Facebook. Dangerous I know, but sometimes I can’t help myself. After all, while I will always defend everyone’s right to free speech, I sort of feel that statements made about the EU should try to be based on fact rather than just statements. Facebook does not allow for the expansion of arguments and referencing that are needed in this sort of discussion so I’ve brought the discussion over here.

The FB status that I replied to read: TOTALLY SHOCKED! I did not know that the European Parliament only votes on laws proposed by the unelected commission, it can’t make or propose any laws itself! Democracy… NOT. Millions spent in the pursuit of jobs for the boys (& girls)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly sensible position for someone that believes in democracy to take.
Most political systems allow for the legislature as well as the executive to propose legislation (and the USA only the legislature).
But the EU is not a state, it is a different sort of entity, governed by Treaty and where the administration holds the right of initiative in order that there is a balance of power between the governments of the Member States and the European Parliament.
I wanted to know too who the “jobs for the boys and girls” refers to – given recruitment to the EU institutions is through open competition? If it refers to appointment of the Commissioners, well, yes, that does come about from appointment of candidates by governments, but more on that later.

So I replied:
I used to teach EU and constitutional politics. We are looking at a different separation of powers at EU level than in the UK. It’s in three parts: European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (member state governments, also called the European Council when heads of state and government are the ones attending).
The EU is not the USA – in the USA it is indeed congress and not the executive that proposes legislation. 
In the UK, legislation is proposed by the government, drafted by the civil service (parliamentary counsels, the specialist legislation drafters). Only private members bills are proposed by the parliamentarians themselves, and only stand a chance of becoming law if supported by the government (i.e. the drafters can be made available). The EP has a process of own initiative reports which are usually incorporated into the Commission proposals on any related issue and also has the right to ask for specific legislation to be introduced. 
The Commission has the official right of initiative to keep the balance between the directly elected EP, and the member state governments, to whom electorates usually say they feel closer. Its five year work programme is agreed with the EP and also with the Member States in the Council of Ministers, and a refreshed version each year in-between. That doesn’t mean nothing but the work programme happens, but it means that anyone elected and looking to get something specific done can get it done. 
The European Commission is for the most part a civil service, and is quite small given what it does (there are more people working for the UK Home Office than the European Commission). This is muddied by the appointment of politicians from different member states to the top level who we in the UK insist on describing as a kind of government (EP get a veto on those appointments). 
I’ll shut up now, but basically I don’t think that the EP constitutional set up on the right of initiative is shocking. Other stuff yes, but this seems not to be far out of line with what happens in Member States…

What I don’t think I expected was the response I got.
Er…. those proposing life changing rules, are not elected or accountable, just have very big expense accounts and pensions. What I don’t understand [rose22joh], is why you defend them so passionately?

What have the expense allowances and pensions of the European Commission officials got to do with who proposes legislation? I thought about this for a while. I guess you could say that, by paying people well, you make them out of touch with “real life”.
But equally, in proposing legislation that affects the lives of nearly 500 million people, I would want the people proposing it to be intelligent, well informed, realise the impacts of what they propose on real people’s businesses and employment, and to get them to be able to do all this, and without encouraging corruption with financial incentives from interest groups, I would pay them well and have strict rules on ethics and propriety. As for their relative value compared with others in other jobs, that’s another debate for another time.

By the way, I don’t think all lobbying is a bad thing. When it comes to making legislation, you have a choice:
i) have it drafted by people that don’t work in the affected sectors and with no contact with those sectors (such as politicians, civil servants or academics), so that it is “pure” but might have unexpected consequences;
ii) have it drafted by people in those sectors, but who come with vested interests for the status quo or particular change that would advantage one group over another;
iii) have it drafted by the first disinterested group but with input from that sector, and other groups with an interest, balancing the relative arguments and impacts and constructing a way forward that takes them into account, or not, depending on the political directions given.
Lobbying is a process for getting the information from experts to people drafting legislation. If it is more than that, with financial incentive for example, then it is bad and wrong, but I don’t believe it is wrong for knowledge and expertise to be shared.

Would it be better if it was all done by elected people? Well, I don’t think so, but then I fully recognise that I’m a bit of a technocrat. There’s an art to drafting legislation, and it needs to be learnt precisely so that you don’t end up unintentionally impacting people’s lives and livelihoods.
Are elected people able to be less beholden to self enrichment and interest groups than technocrats? Er, no. The evidence is pretty clear from the duck house and paperclips claims in the UK and all the various stings by newspapers. This might be due to the sort of people that are willing to put themselves forward for election, or the notion that power corrupts, or other factors.

However, simply getting a proposal out is the beginning of a long and complex process. And I believe in good administration, it is something I feel passionately about.
So I replied:

I’m not defending, I’m explaining. The proposal is important but not the end of the process. The proposal goes through three detailed complicated negotiations, with the EP and the governments views negotiated separately and together. The end result can be very different from the initial proposal and legislation can fall if it is not actually acceptable to the parties involved. You can vote for your government, you can vote for your MEPs, those are the people that decide on the legislation, not the Commission. If you want a directly elected Commission, that’s a very different sort of Europe (I don’t necessarily think it would be a bad thing, but I’d be a half-hearted member of a very tiny minority of people if I wanted to campaign for that!)
I care because simply the fact that we pay people to do a responsible job is not to me scandalous. I do believe we underpay other people doing very important and valuable work in society that affect the lives and quality of life for many people, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

I pretty much guessed what the response would be:
I have no time for unelected law proposers who cost us a fortune and are part of an organisation where massive and corrupt expense claims are the norm I’m in favour of a Euro Parliament in some form. The corrupt, interfering gravy train we have ended up with should not be defended. They are a disgrace.

I didn’t defend it, I explained it. Defending it would be to say that this is an amazing system. It’s not, it’s just a system although actually it allows for more of the aspects of the legislation to be debated than the UK two chamber parliamentary system does, which can sometimes leave chunks of text under-scrutinised.
And I could go back with a step by step rebuttal, but do you know, I’m getting fed up with it because once you get to this “corrupt interfering gravy train” line of argument that frankly can be applied to any political system, then you know that it is not an argument you are going to win.

So instead a few related thoughts:

  • It costs me 41p a day to be part of the EU. I don’t think that’s a fortune considering what I get out of it (see this video).
  • What massive and corrupt expense claims? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – not defending, remember – but I’d like to see the evidence of this. Is it a reference to Edith Cresson’s dentist eleven years ago? The Commission has cleaned up its act a bit since then, introducing OLAF, not a big strong Swedish guy to fight the bad guys, but an anti-fraud office. Corruption seems to be a massive problem across the EU including the UK, but the EU institutions need to be seen to be above reproach and leaving them out of the EU-wide corruption report feels like an own goal.
  • It is intensely difficult as someone that sees so much good coming from our EU membership when the EU does things that seem completely indefensible from a democratic point of view – even if done for a “common good” beyond national democratic boundaries – installation of an emergency Prime Minister in Italy, say and much of what happened in Greece since 2008. I’ve blogged before about the new issues of democracy that this raises. Also sometimes its Member States re-run referendums to get “the right result” (Ireland).
  • The EU is not close to the people (what organisation covering 500 million people can be without a pledge of allegiance???), and when the people do have a chance to vote for a directly elected representative, they often either don’t turn out or vote on national issues, or choose to vote for people that say explicitly that they will not actually represent their interests there because they don’t believe in the process. Then they say the EU does nothing for them.
  • The voting system puts power in the hands of the political parties – so it seems that party loyalty is a more important quality than being able to actually secure decent legislation?

In conclusion, I am glad my friend agreed we need a European Parliament.
We need decent MEPs because basically what I can’t get across is just how important that amending of legislation proposed by the European Commission actually is.

The entire structure of a piece of legislation can be changed, and the legislators, that is the directly elected people in the European Parliament, do that. They do it in Committees – becoming report leaders (“rapporteurs”) and by submitting amendments. They do it as Committee chairs. They can also submit amendments as non-Committee members in Plenary session, that is, gatherings of all MEPs at which they vote on the drafts produced in the Committee.
But if you don’t know that, don’t understand that, then the system could seem as if the power rests in the unelected, unaccountable Commission.
On most things it doesn’t.
Now, the Council of Ministers, that is a whole other story…

The ten surprising things about being a parent

I am a mum of two. As the littlest one is now old enough to be fun, I joined in my local NCT’s challenge to talk about the things that surprise you as a parent.

I’m not surprised at the love, protectiveness, fun and joy involved in being a parent, but here’s some things that have surprised me most…

1) changing your own children’s nappies is not nearly as bad as you imagined, and is good training for laughing off the potential disasters you’ll deal with potty training.

2) going in to see teachers at school is scary, even though you are a grown up, work, have friends or family that are teachers etc. etc.

3) it genuinely is easier with a second child because you have the confidence and not because they are easier…

4) you will find yourself saying things you never thought you would have to:
“please don’t lick the sculptures”
“she is not a wookie, take that furry hat off your sister’s back”
“you’ll turn into a chicken nugget”

5) you might be more upset by your child trotting happily into nursery without a backwards glance to you than by tears and clinging!

6) you do eventually learn to sleep again, a whole night, in your own bed with only the person you chose to get into it with…

7) even if you want to be your kids’ friend, you have to be the grown up. Even if you don’t feel like it. It is your kids’ turn to be the children. (This one can be really hard to accept)

8) but you may not have buried your inner child as deep as you thought. Doing messy and silly stuff with you kids is fun!

9) you will be able to explain anything through the medium of star wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Horrible Histories or whatever else they get obsessed by.

10) everyone will say how much your kids are like you/ your partner/ other relatives in looks and personality. It is fun for a bit but ultimately they are their own people and your job is to love them unconditionally, to help them to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be. Everything else is method.

Jake Goodman’s 5 EU predictions

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to introduce a guest blogger today, Mr Jake Goodman. I won’t say much more, as he is more than capable of blowing his own trumpet…

Thanks Rose22joh. Hello, Jake here, novelist, comic, basically I write for a living. That means I spend a lot of time tapping at my computer. Then I turn off Twitter and stare out the window. Then I write at midnight. Much to my wife’s irritation.
Rose22joh’s “about” section suggests I should add married father of two, atheist, serial philande – better stop there. Busy mind. I have albums of stamps from childhood.

I wanted to write about the EU. Are you still there?

I read a TV producer saying they often get pitches for TV series set in the EU institutions. A bit Yes Prime Minister, a drop of Alan B’Stard, six parts The Thick of It, a smidgen of Mr Bean, Erin Brockovich, Legally Blonde (thanks, wife, for that reference).
They always turn it down. The EU isn’t recognisable enough to the public to be of interest, and much of what happens is beyond satire.

But this shit is important, as they say.
It is easy to mock the EU (I hear Stephen Fry’s Professor Trefusis in my head as I write that. The Liar, page 68.Oddly enough though I’ve never found it easy to mock anything of value. Only things that are tawdry and fatuous. Perhaps it’s just me”).
On this I disagree with the eloquent philologist. It is also easy to mock that which is poorly understood, little known and on which you can write just about anything, add the words “barmy eurocrats want YOU to” in front of it and people believe it.
The EU is an organisation that has helped stop war and foster prosperity, with no more or less corruption than other administrations, not all that tawdry and fatuous. Post 2008, the crash when the Euro’s poor planning was revealed for all to see, I come over all Trefusis. No, forget I said that, unfortunate phrasing.
The EU can be a comedian’s dream. If you add in cherman axents for spokesmen, beer drinking nationalists in every member state saying how different they are from each other and a French President having an affaire with an actress and you can see why us comics are itching to get that first script approved!
I’m digressing. Rose22joh was in Italy being an ancient Roman and asked me to come up with something so I said I would make five EU predictions.
Let me put my serious face and newsreader glasses on. The clairvoyant headscarf doesn’t suit me.

1) UKIP will win the 2014 European elections
Fish in a barrel, this one. Fourth in 2002, third in 2006, second in 2010, so maths says first in 2014.
People normally use European elections to punish the government midterm in a consequence free environment. They don’t usually vote on Europe in the European elections. I reckon they will this year, but the majority of don’t cares won’t turn out so UKIP will do well on a low turn out.
An extra prediction for you. The Lib Dems will LOSE a lot of votes but not by as much as it looks like at the moment, percentage wise. Europhiles that are not Labour activists don’t have much choice on who else to vote for and are going to want to make some sort of statement. That assumes europhiles are pragmatists and are not so depressed at the moment they cannot get out of bed.

2) UK influence in the EU will decrease after the 2014 European elections
You don’t think the EU does anything worthwhile for the UK so you send MEPs there that don’t vote. Or vote NO to everything (even if it might have been good for the UK). They don’t get any of the powerful Committee chair or rapporteur roles because that would be playing the game they don’t believe in.
Bingo! You have created a self-fulfilling prophesy. The votes in the parliament therefore don’t take the UK into account and the UK has decreased influence. No wonder rules made there seem like diktats.
You weren’t there when they were being discussed. Better places to be. Like off drinking beer alongside the other nationalists whom you have nothing at all in common with save a wish not to be making rules in Strasbourg or Brussels.
The next parliament is going to be a bit different. Not all of those fellow beer drinking nationalists are nice affable chaps who don’t mind the economy dropping off as long as the drawbridge can be pulled up. No, many of them are far right.
That means that UKIP could find itself isolated as the far right groups form a bigger group to the right of them. Or they may join it but that wouldn’t fit the nice bloke Dad’s Army image.
Also the ECR (the group the UK Conservatives are in) could vanish as the Conservative vote goes to UKIP and their partner parties either rejoin the EPP centre right group or align themselves further to the right. Without as many members in their group and isolated from the main centre right group, the UK Conservatives could have fewer committee chairs and places and rapporteur roles. So less influence.
The swing to the nationalist parties across the EU means this could therefore be the least “federalist” (in the UK sense meaning centralising) parliament ever.
Of course the rise of the extremes could mean a grand coalition of centrist parties pushing ever closer union.
Or it could mean less legislation getting through, or more nation state focused policy but with the UK voice missing. Irony, much?

3) No renegotiation will ever be enough
The problem here is that I want an elephant and a lion as pets. I don’t care that rules say I can’t keep them in my house, rules don’t matter to me when they’re not fair and I want something.
I don’t want to go to the zoo with everyone else with loads of other animals there too. I don’t care that I help fund the zoo by providing the elephant and lion and a few more animals. I don’t care that the zoo’s elephants and lions keep mine company and can breed more elephants and lions. But I want my own elephant and lion and I am not going to pay for that zoo any more.
Everyone else will still want to see them if I take them away, and they’ll still want to let me in the zoo without paying the entrance fee because I’m their best customer and come loads of times. But I can take my elephant and lion to all the other zoos everywhere and you can’t stop me. I know you regard it as a safari park and are all taking them everywhere anyway, but my elephant and lion being at what I consider a zoo stops me doing anything else with them, don’t you think?
So what good does it do me if you reckon you can get me a llama and a sheep back? I can get a herd of sheep, a spittoon of llamas. And I could feed them to my bloody lion if I had him back.

4) Labour will commit to an in/out EU referendum
Rose22joh last blogged on fairy tales.
Here is mine.
Once upon a time, a man had a nightmare. “It was awful. Labour won the 2015 election, just,and that wasn’t the worst bit. Cameron stepped down and several ran for leader, but all lost to Boris who took Cameron’s seat in the by-election. Boris was popular, witty and free from the responsibilities of government, it was left to Labour to make the case for Europe and do any renegotiating needed. The Opposition adopted the ‘better off out’ line their backbenchers loved so much and which could attract back the voters lost to UKIP in the 2014 European election and 2015 general election.
Labour was goaded by the Conservatives and the press, and  with their pollsters warning that they were losing the white, working class vote to UKIP over immigration, they matched the pledge for a 2017 in/out EU referendum. But like every government of recent times, they liked to portray success in the EU as a fight against the odds, the EU system, inferior to Westminster democracy, and they just didn’t have the time or the media support for the carefully nuanced explanation of EU benefits that was needed, or to persuade the other member states of how serious this situation was. That meant the 2017 referendum was basically fought as a YES from the decimated Lib Dems, a qualified YES from business and the Labour government, and a NO from the right, some of Labour’s backbenchers and the media.
Somehow, staying in was presented as less predictable than leaving the biggest and nearest political and trade bloc to us with absolutely no idea of what this would mean for the economy or our political future.
We suddenly found ourselves outside the EU. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”.
He woke up and found it was still 2014. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
When you look at it from the outside like a fairy tale, Labour promising a referendum as a way of winning the 2015 election, and then winning the election, is the most likely scenario for Brexit (Britain’s exiting the EU), in accordance with the law of unintended consequences.

5) Scotland makes everything even more unpredictable
Oh Scotland. We English love you really with your gorgeous scenery and distinctive culture that doesn’t find my comedy funny enough for a show at the fringe… But enough about me.
We agree with you to allocate quite a lot of money under the Barnet formula and suspect that if you were offered devo max you’d vote for that.
Business are warning they don’t think they can be based in you if you go it alone. You’ve big dreams of a resurgent economy. You’ll have new partners across the world that we stop you from having. You’ll have an international role in the organisations you want on your own terms. You’ll not only be civil with your ex partner but share with us the things you want, again on your terms, naturally.
The arguments for Scottish independence and for Brexit are basically identical.
Yet those on the right argue in favour of Scotland in the UK and against the UK in the EU.
They try to say that a vote for Scottish independence is a vote for the unpredictable. A vote to leave the EU, on the other hand, is the safe option as the EU itself is unpredictable.
It is as if the UK is the perfect size of nation state, and Westminster is the epitome of governance. The former is clearly bollocks – China and New Zealand are both valid nation states despite their population size difference. But seriously, where was this latter argument during the expenses scandal I call Duckhouse-gate?
The Scottish vote is before the general election. If it goes independent, we will need a new flag. Let’s do the Welsh dragon hugging St George and with a St Patrick’s cross sunset! Or just relabel the saltire’s blue as the sea, the white cross as the white cliffs and so no change necessary.
Losing Scotland means the UK, rather than being the EU’s largest member state by 2025 as is predicted, will be smaller than Germany and France and could lose Council votes and European Parliament seats. And therefore influence in decision making.
So Scottish independence makes the europhobe’s argument truer? It’s no joke. Maybe an independent Scotland would offer nationality to Brits that didn’t want to leave the EU, assuming the Spanish would ever let them in again.

That’s five predictions. Turns out there is a bit less humour in here than I intended. Leaving the EU suddenly seems no laughing matter.
Stuff that me and my mates take for granted is not a given,  it is part of being in the EU. Everyone keeps saying its no risk, but seriously, how do they know? The question is do you trust our political class to negotiate to keep them all and not get screwed over by the French? Or insert other belligerent, jilted European here. And we’d be dealing with the rest of the world as a country of fifty, sixty million rather than 300 million.
Bloody hell. I had better make sure I am registered to vote. Oi, Rose22joh, you knew this would happen!

I’ve been Jake Goodman and you’ve made it to the end of my euroramblings. You deserve a champagne. Or a whisky. Or an ouzo. But probably not by the pint. Goodnight!