Rewriting history

There must be a Council election coming up, as a few politicians are starting to appear on the streets of West Hill Ward. As is traditional, they will seek to take credit for any positive developments over the last three and a bit years and doubtless people will make up their minds based on their engagement throughout that period.

One particular example of the rewriting of history is emerging. It is genuinely to Wandsworth’s great credit that the Borough is keeping its libraries open when so many other authorities are closing theirs. But the Conservatives in particular seem keen to obscure how we got here, sending round a tweet saying I had “told people they’d all be sold off”.

If anyone wants a reminder of what actually did happen they can see a very accurate account on mumsnet (https://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/local_wandsworth/2193134-Southfields-Library-at-risk-of-closure). Basically, the Conservative Group on June 23 2014 was told that a ‘major decision’ would involve ‘consideration of closure of non-town centre libraries’, which have left the Borough with five (Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth, Balham and Putney) and closed the others including Southfields. I sat on it for a couple of months as quite often these things disappear of their own accord but my discussions with the Leader, Cabinet Member responsible and Group Chairman made it clear that this was a real proposal. I could not just sit on my hands but it was made obvious to me that I could not speak freely and stay in the Conservatives. It was an extremely difficult decision after over 20 years but at the end of the day I could not sit back and take it so I did as I was told and resigned from the Group. I was very careful to say that I did not believe a decision on the libraries had yet been taken but that it would be more difficult to fight it if and when one was.

The Council – foolishly given the documentary evidence (which of course I still have) – went down the time-dishonoured route of saying there were ‘no plans’ for closure (politics-speak for ‘there are plans for closure’). Then a member of their own group – to this day I don’t know who – leaked the whole Group document to mumsnet. There was a powerful local campaign and sure enough the idea to shut the libraries was quietly dropped, unlike the other ‘major decisions’ in the June 1914 paper.

Frankly I don’t care who takes the credit for keeping the libraries going and as I say a lot of it of course belongs to the council. But I do hope that the election campaign doesn’t get bogged down in invented personal attacks, as even those which can be easily disproved become wearisome. Last week we saw some bizarre attacks on my Independent colleague Councillor James Cousins in his Shaftesbury Ward feedback meeting which again were demonstrably untrue. Let’s campaign on our tracks records and ideas.

Questions to the Housing Department on fire safety

I sent these questions to the Housing Department of Wandsworth Council this morning…

It would be extremely useful to have a briefing, perhaps in the form of a Q&A, on the current situation re our housing stock: I find it very frustrating to have to tell residents who are raising concerns that I only know what I have picked up through the mainstream media, particularly but not only about Wandsworth blocks failing the fire safety tests. I have emailed the Cabinet Member but received no answers or indeed acknowledgment.

In particular I have been asked:

Which two blocks have failed the tests (I presume Castlemaine is one of them)?

The Council told residents last week: “If you live in a high rise property you are not at more risk of a fire starting, living in a flat is not more dangerous than living in a house” (i.e. if you live in a house or by implication low/medium rise you are no safer than if you live in a tower block). Why is the Council only putting sprinklers in blocks of 10 or more storeys when those living in other types of property are just as much at risk of fire – is it just to save money? (One resident specifically asked about the fire in Turin Street in Bethnal Green on Saturday – why does the Council not intend to put sprinklers in properties like that?)

In particular (this is my question, not that of a resident), what technical evidence has been used to determine that residents living on the ground floor of a 10-storey block are more in need of a sprinkler than those living on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block? (An alternative approach, if the above advice on the risks of high rise versus other properties was indeed misleading, would be to install sprinklers in all flats above say 5 storeys no matter how high the block in question.) Can this evidence be made public?

Will the cost of the sprinklers be recharged to leaseholders? (A couple of leaseholders in high rise have said that although they realise there is no meaningful fire risk they are concerned about the value of their flat. Actually they were prepared to pay if necessary – less affluent leaseholders may not be in that position – but obviously would not object if the costs of installing what one called ‘cosmetic’ sprinklers to shore up their investment were taken away from Council tenants rather than them having to foot the bill themselves. I am sure that commercial companies owning dozens or hundreds of flats for rent across the Council’s housing stock would like similar assurances of a major public subsidy to their profit margins and asset base.)

When sprinklers malfunction (say through inadvertent overheating, freezing, mechanical damage, corrosion or manufacturing defects – the equivalent of setting the smoke alarm off by burning the toast), causing water damage, will the Council be responsible for putting the damage right or will it fall on tenants and leaseholders who may or may not be able to afford contents insurance?

How much will the exercise cost? How much would it cost to provide fire extinguishers for 6,400 flats? Which other HRA (Housing Revenue Account) schemes will be cancelled to pay for it? (It has been suggested to me that the HRA will just ‘borrow’ the money so no other schemes will be affected. However, I and I am sure many residents are sceptical that in effect there is a ‘magic money tree’ – indeed the Prime Minister herself has made this very point. It seems unlikely that the Council or the HRA can run up debt without placing an eventual burden on the next generation who will have to pay it back or service it, inevitably at the expense of services and/or investment projects. Of course if the sprinklers really can be installed without affecting any other schemes now or in the future then why stop at 10 storeys?)

What account was taken of the very different construction methods used in different high rise blocks across the Borough, with very different approaches to fire safety and therefore presumably very different potential risks? (Again, my question, not a resident’s.)

What consultation was done with residents, notably tenants, to make sure that they agreed that this was the best use of their rent money accrued in the HRA, given the Council’s previous assurances on safety?

Does the Council have legal powers to force tenants out of their homes unilaterally, without their consent or any consultation, as seems to be happening in Camden? Would there be any circumstances in which the Council would exercise any such powers? (One elderly resident has expressed fear that she is going to be removed from her flat and made to sleep in a B&B or on a mattress – she is also worried about what would happen to her dogs.)

There is something of an impression developing that the Council has succumbed to a badly thought out knee-jerk response. The announcement has obviously and inevitably created (in my view unnecessary) fears among residents in blocks below 10 storeys in my Ward who have been told by the Council that they are in just as much risk of fire as the higher blocks but are not going to get the sprinklers. I am sure this impression is exaggerated but answers to the above and other questions would go a long way to damping down the sense of chaos.

Grenfell House

As all of our hearts go out to the community of Grenfell House in Kensington & Chelsea (K&C) after the tragedy last week, the sense of public anger against the agencies that ‘allowed’ the accident to happen is entirely proper. Some aspects of the way the building was managed, and the response with which the events were met, need very careful scrutiny.

Nonetheless I find I have some concerns which, if they have any substance, may suggest we need to be very careful about how we interpret the tragedy and, more importantly, how we reduce the likelihood of it happening again.

West Hill Ward in Wandsworth, which I have represented since 1994, has a large number of tower blocks of 8 storeys or more (though none quite as high as Grenfell House – I think 14 floors is the largest, in Keevil Drive), some of which have suffered flat fires in recent times. The Ward has the very first social housing tower blocks in London, on the Ackroydon Estate. I also had a period chairing the Housing Committee on the Council, in which period we had the fire at Chillingford House in Tooting which could be seen from as far away as the Town Hall and which required the whole building to be evacuated for two days. The good news for residents is that on every occasion the building has done its job in isolating the fire to the flat in question or one or two neighbours.

However, there are two related issues which have not received a great deal of comment as yet. Ironically they stem from a desire to shift the power for taking decisions away from elected representatives and the mechanisms of government and towards empowering service users to take their own decisions about how those services are delivered and to what degree.

The first issue stems from one of the challenges of mixed tenure within most of our tower blocks. There are several categories of resident. There are Council tenants, placed by the Council and living in flats still owned and maintained by the Council. Then there are various groups of leaseholders. There are some of the original residents who bought their property under right-to-buy and are still living there. By the nature of things these residents are sometimes not particularly wealthy. There are owner-occupiers who have bought the lease from the original leaseholders or perhaps a subsequent owner and who live in the property themselves. And there are absentee landlords, maybe the original lessees who have moved away, maybe people who have bought the flat as an investment, maybe large property companies, who let the flat out to sub-tenants who can afford the rental values.

Let’s say that major works are being done which cost £10,000 per flat; there is an option to include a non-statutory improvement, let us say sprinklers, at an extra cost of £5,000 per flat.

For Council tenants it’s not all that much of an issue, as they would not have to find £10,000 or £15,000 up front. Their share would be taken from the central pool of housing money, the Housing Revenue Account, which consists of all the rents across the Borough plus some of the routine service charge payments from leaseholders and various grants from central government. In effect the tenants have already paid for the major works through their rents in the period since the last set of major works, typically 15 or 20 years previously. For them, therefore, the direct financial difference between a programme costing £10,000 or £15,000 per flat is extremely small.

For leaseholders it is very different. They must find the £10,000 or £15,000 directly. The Council may give them a year to pay (in instalments), they may be able to add the sum to their mortgages, but they have to find the cash quite quickly. And if the sprinklers are included they have to find an extra £5,000 pretty much straight away.

For the owner-occupiers this may be attractive – generally speaking those who can afford to buy a lease these days can also afford, and indeed would expect, to pay significant major work bills and would of course get the direct benefit of the improvement. For original leaseholders, however, the need to find an extra £5,000 may represent an enormous extra burden. As for the absentee landlords, in my experience when it comes to improvements like entrycall systems, from which by definition they will not benefit in their day-to-day lives and which rarely enhance the property value by as much as the cost incurred, they are often less than keen to support the added expenditure. Indeed, given the way many of the leases are worded leaseholders are specifically excluded from having to pay for anything which is deemed an ‘improvement’ rather than a ‘repair’.

So who should decide whether the sprinklers go in? If it is a ballot of residents then there is a significant likelihood that leaseholders will baulk at the proposals, notably in blocks where a high proportion of the flats are sublet by absentee landlords. Alternatively, should such decisions be taken away from the residents and once more imposed by the Council or its agency? And if so then who pays? If it could be shown in law that the introduction of non-statutory sprinklers constituted an ‘improvement’ then the whole cost might fall to the Housing Revenue Account – i.e. a huge transfer of wealth from Council tenants to private leaseholders (including property companies) – or it would fall at least in part on hard pressed original right-to-buy leaseholders?

The second issue concerns governance. In my Ward most of the housing estates are managed in-house by the Council. If residents have a difficulty they can raise it with me, I can raise it on their behalf and, to be fair to Council officers, I generally get effective action taken quickly by our excellent officer team. However, if proper action should not be forthcoming I can escalate the issue through the Council knowing that the buck stops with our officers.

However, I also have two estates, the Wimbledon Park and the Ackroydon East, where affairs are managed not by the Council but by a Tenant Management Organisation (TMO – in the case of Wimbledon Park it is called the Co-Op). In the mid-1990s residents were given the option of taking over some or most of their services from the Council (the Co-Op is actually rather older than that). As it happens both of the ones in my Ward are good and I am certainly not aware of residents in those two estates wanting to change things. However, although as a Ward Councillor I have good relations with both management organisations, inevitably I and Council officers do not have the same powers to challenge and correct any instances of poor service, or to take high-level decisions when those have been delegated to the TMOs. The collapse of the Alton Estate TMO in Roehampton cost the Housing Revenue Account hundreds of thousands of pounds. Checking the standard of service delivery in these effectively unaccountable organisations, including around safety, is obviously much more difficult for the local authority than when it is providing or managing the services directly.

As I understand it the residents of K&C’s housing estates voted to leave K&C Council and set up their own TMO, which was duly established in April 1996. The TMO has a management board of 15 people, of whom 8 are residents, four appointed by K&C Council and three independent. (The website currently shows 13 members, with apparent vacancies among the Council and independent members. Two of the three council-appointed members are councillors). It has largely been praised by officialdom, receiving three stars (out of a possible four) from the old Audit Commission before such external scrutiny was abolished by the Coalition government while its long-standing chair received the MBE for her services in 2012.

So the responsibility for the management of the nearly 10,000 Council properties in K&C lies not with the Council but with the TMO, with its built-in majority of residents. At present K&C Council seems to control just two of the 13 places.

The intention in setting up such organisations – free schools are another example – is a reasonable one, on the surface. It is based on the assumption that users of a service will always know better than the mere ‘professionals’ who have been trained to deliver it as to what is wanted and needed by the people concerned. People do often feel that they are not being listened to by the powers that be and this appears to be a way of breaking that cycle. However, it does mean that the elected representatives and their agencies have far less opportunity actually to intervene in practices that may be ineffective or, in the worst case, dangerous. The abolition of the Audit Commission, which cast an external eye over such matters, was a criminal act by Sir Eric Pickles and his colleagues and leaves us all in a more vulnerable position.

Grenfell House is being portrayed as a failure of officialdom, from the Central Government down through K&C Council, to take sufficient care of and concern for those in its charge. Yet the evidence suggests that maybe the opposite was the case – when locally elected, accountable representatives were in effect removed from responsibility for and powers over service provision, many of the mechanisms to protect residents were removed at the same time. The war on local government which has been waged by all parties of government for so long was bound to have casualties. We must do all we can to make sure that the difficult balance between professional expertise and service users’ desires does not swing too far in either direction.

A Little Bit of History (1)

A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

Southfields has a fascinating history. Putney, Roehampton and Wimbledon were all once part of Earl Spencer’s Wimbledon Park Estate, consisting of undeveloped fields, woodland and park. The Spencers stared to run out of money by the 1830s so in due course a large amount of land was sold to developer John Augustus Beaumont (who has two roads named after him). Several large houses were built along Park Side, Victoria Drive and Albert Road (as it then was). Park Side became home to mansions like Tudor Lodge, Crakehall Villa, Richmond House and Argyle Lodge. Only Fairlawns (home to Queen Victoria’s dentist Edwin Saunders) and Elmley House remain today, though the names of others like Albemarle, Spencer House and Chivelston live on in later developments (as do the names of Argyle Lodge in the Argyle Estate, and Belmont House which stood where the Southlands Estate, including Belmont Mews, is now). So, while the Grid (including Gartmoor, Southdean and Kingscliffe Gardens) was well developed by the 1910s, what is now West Hill Ward was characterised by open fields and large mansion houses until after the Second World War.

For example, the present Allenswood on the Wimbledon Park Estate is not the first building with that name to occupy the site. A large house, built initially for a barrister, became the home of a famous ‘finishing school’ for young women. The Allenswood Academy had originally been founded in 1864 in Paris by Mlle Marie Souvestre (1830-1905) and then recreated on Albert Road (as it was until 1936). The young ladies were taught exclusively in French and given a good grounding in the arts. English, French, German, Italian and music were taught along with domestic science, dancing and fencing. The girls wore long skirts (usually black), white ruffled blouses, a striped school tie and boaters when outside. They made their own beds (not such a big deal today but rare in those days!), had to empty their plates at every meal and went out on to the Common every day after breakfast, whatever the weather, before returning for classes. After lunch they had to lie on the floor for an hour and a half and fix their minds on a single thought which would then be discussed at teatime. They had exercise every afternoon, then more classes. A bell rang to tell them to dress for dinner. After that, Mlle Souvestre would embrace those most favoured, kiss others and extend her hand graciously to the rest.

Many celebrated families used the school, with names like Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Strachey and Webb. However, perhaps the most famous pupil was Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of US President Theodore Roosevelt (who was to be in office from 1901 to 1909). At the age of 15 (in 1899) she started a three-year stay at the school. In due course she became First Lady to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a distant cousin), whom she married in 1905 (and who had visited her during her time at Allenswood). After FDR’s death in office in 1945 (after twelve years in post) she was to continue as an international author, speaker, politician and activist, working to enhance the status of women. She was also a keen supporter of the United Nations and became a delegate there from 1945 until 1952, chairing  the committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. FDR’s successor President Harry S. Truman called her the “First Lady of the World”. Eleanor was by all accounts a model pupil and certainly one of Mlle Souvestre’s favourites but she did find some of the rules a bit odd. In particular she wasn’t impressed that students were only permitted three baths a week, none longer than ten minutes; that they had to confess upon entering the dining hall if they had uttered an English word during the day; and they were subject to the punishment of ‘bed-stripping’, having the entire contents of their dresser dumped on their bed if they misbehaved. Sadly Mlle Souvestre was to die just two weeks after the Roosevelts got married. The Academy continued under her deputy, Pauline Samia, alongside Florence Boyce, and subsequently Jeanne Dozat and then Enid Michell until it closed in the early 1950s.

There were also large houses on Albert Road called Ambleside (more or less where the current block of the same name stands) and Fernwood, which stood at the present location of Winterfold Close. Lydney and Peterstow Closes are built on land once occupied by another large house, Oaklands, hence the name of the estate. The house become home to St Gabriel’s College School of Languages. Florys Court was once the site of another house named simply Florys, while Struan was found where the Convent now stands.

ACKROYDON AND EDGECOMBE HALL

The Ackroydon Estate now covers an area from Princes Way around Windlesham Grove as far as Inner Park Road. The properties east of Victoria Drive are known as the Ackroydon East, those between Victoria Drive and IPR as the Ackroydon West.

Ackroydon, which lay more or less between where Wainford Close is today, was a grand house built in the early 20th century in the grounds of an older mansion, The Grove, which occupied land around where Admirals Court is now found. Above left is a view of the house from the Sunken Garden, which still survives as a public space behind the Ackroydon Hall on Montfort Place; below is the hall of the house (the first ‘Ackroydon Hall’!). The house was built for shipowner James Cairns, whose family came from Tyneside – his uncle, Thomas, was Liberal MP for Newcastle from 1906 to 1908 – by the short-lived architectural firm of Dunn, Watson and Curtis Green. The house was demolished after the Second World War and the Ackroydon Estate built between 1950 and 1953.

Edgecombe Hall was grander still, the house and its grounds covering an area stretching from the border of the orchards of the Royal Hospital and Home (roughly where Linstead Way and Bell Drive are today) all way down Beaumont Road to Augustus Road and also down ‘Leg of Mutton Hill’ to Sutherland Grove. The 1913 Ordnance Survey map shows no Whitlock Drive, Combemartin Road (though there was a footpath following its course), Skeena Hill or Girdwood Road. The Hall was probably built in the late 1850s for one Thomas Gabriel (1811-1891) who was Lord Mayor of London in 1866/7 and subsequently Baronet Gabriel of Edgecombe Hall in the County of Surrey – his great great great nephew is Peter Gabriel of Genesis fame (for those of you of my generation!). The Hall had large lakes where the Whitlock Drive pond is today, designed by celebrated Victorian and Edwardian landscape gardeners, James Pulham and Son.

Wandsworth once had a fine reputation for helping refugees. In June 1915 a garden party was held in the grounds of Edgecombe Hall on behalf of Belgian refugees from the First World War who had been accepted into the Borough. It was opened by HRH the Princess Henriette, Duchesse de Vendôme, sister of Belgium’s King Albert: she lived at Belmont on Wimbledon Park Side (where Chapman Square now stands). Tea was available, as were light refreshments ‘including Fruit Salads Ices, Strawberries and Cream, Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Coffee, Sandwiches &c’. Sadly, no sooner had the Duchess arrived than there was a clap of thunder and torrential rain started and continued for the rest of the afternoon. Nonetheless most of the entertainments carried on regardless. The girls from Putney County Secondary School on West Hill (now a block of flats called Mayfield) had to march over in the rain but reportedly gave a fine musical performance (luckily in the tent). One Winifred Crewe did particularly well in the sports, coming second in the 100 yards and the skipping race and first in both the egg & spoon and potato races. Edgecombe Hall’s owners, Mr and Mrs Richard Agar, opened the house up as well as the grounds and the Duchess took shelter there. The War was to be less kind to Private Leonard William Booker of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who lived with his sister Ada at the Lodge of Edgecombe Hall: he was killed in action in Flanders in August 2017.

What can nuclear power learn from Brexit?

BREXIT AND NEXIT

A tale of two campaigns

Malcolm Grimston

The recent decision by the UK population to leave the European Union offers some fascinating insights into political campaigning and the greater importance of winning hearts than minds when it comes to building public support for a position. In many respects the strategy of the Remain campaign can be compared to the long-term communication strategy of the nuclear power industry – with remarkably similar outcomes. In many countries the pressure for a ‘nuclear exit’ is even stronger than that for British exit from the EU. This brief note will seek to expand on these parallels and draw some communication conclusions for the nuclear industry and its supporters.

THE ISSUES

Both ‘Brexit’ – the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union – and ‘Nexit’ – the campaign to take nuclear power out of the fuel mix – have been issues which have sharply divided public opinion in the UK and elsewhere. (Brexit is obviously primarily a UK matter though even it has been controversial in a number of European countries and indeed further afield, with for example President Obama making his feelings very clear during the campaign.)

A further point of similarity between the two issues is that in each case the weight of expert opinion is/was very clearly on the side of ‘Remain’. In the case of nuclear this degree of support is now spreading into the ‘environmental’ movement which has tended to be oppositional for some decades (though support in the financial community has been falling); in the Brexit case almost all international and national financial authorities, plus large swathes of business and industry, argued that remaining in the EU would very probably be in Britain’s national interests, at least from an economic standpoint.

It is important to be clear about what this and does not mean. Expert opinion is not always right – it may be subject to systematic bias, there may be major discoveries yet to be made or the field may simply be subject to great uncertainty. There are many example of scientific orthodoxy being overturned, sometimes in the face of resistance from the scientific establishment itself. Even Einstein could not at first accept the implications of quantum theory (“God does not play dice with the universe”) despite his own work on the photoelectric effect having been a major starting point for the whole field. In 1917 he introduced a random ‘cosmological constant’ to neuter one of the key findings of his general relativity theory, that the universe is expanding – something which is generally thought now to be correct. Some of the calamities predicted to follow a Brexit vote by the Remain campaign have clearly not materialised.

But all else being equal, ‘expert opinion’ – which is probably better described as calculated and informed guesswork – is more likely to be ‘correct’, or at least near enough to be of practical use, than more mystical sources of ‘authority’ such as religion, celebrities, next-door neighbours, brothers-in-law or just an aversion to the views of people we don’t like.

The two issues are also similar in that they involve not just interpretations of factual matters but also an interplay of different values. There is no ‘factual’ answer to the question as to how to compare the economic benefits of having a supply of low cost labour say with the social disruption caused by large-scale immigration into relatively small communities – just as there is no ‘factual’ answer to the tension between the higher financial cost of investing in nuclear power and the environmental benefits it could bring.

A further point to note is that in each case the Remain point of view began in a strong position but its lead was eroded over time until the Leave campaign was ahead. At the point of the referendum on the EU the Leave lead was enough to deliver a Brexit verdict, by 51.9% to 48.1%. In the case of nuclear power early enthusiasm was followed by disillusion and opposition[1], though in the UK at least opinion has recovered from the low point registered around the turn of the millennium (the improvement coinciding with the decline of the nuclear industry’s large-scale ‘fact-based’ attempts to ‘educate’ the public). Nonetheless, reflecting on the failure of (EU) Remain’s communications strategy may yield some interesting pointers for the nuclear industry.

NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING

In the course of the debate leading up to the referendum the Remain campaign was dubbed ‘Project Fear’ by its opponents. The Leave campaigners portrayed Remain’s strategy as one based on creating fear round the economic uncertainties involved in leaving the EU, rather than seeking to inspire by citing the positive advantages of continuing membership. As the Brexit side edged into the lead in the weeks before the vote, the then Chancellor, George Osborne and his (Labour) predecessor Alistair Darling warned of a 2p rise in the basic rate, a 3p rise in the higher rate, a 5p rise in inheritance tax and a 5% rise in alcohol and petrol duties, coupled with a £2.5bn cut to the NHS, a £1.2bn cut to defence, a £1.15bn cut to education, a £2bn cut to pensions…

Brexit’s portrayal was not an unfair one. In April 2016 the government published a pro-Remain leaflet, Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best option for the UK.[2] The opening statement reads as follows:

“The UK has secured a special status in a reformed EU:

we will not join the euro;

  • we will keep our own border controls;
  • the UK will not be part of further European political integration;
  • there will be tough new restrictions on access to our welfare systems for new EU migrants;
  • we have a commitment to reduce EU red tape.”

One has to wait until page 12 (out of 16) before seeing the heading ‘The benefits of EU membership’. The first substantive point made here is: “The UK has kept the pound, will not join the euro and has kept control of UK borders”.

In other words, the most salient benefit that the UK government seemed to wish to get over was that the UK hadn’t got caught up in the (silly) project as deeply as others had and had remained on the sidelines, relatively speaking.

This is highly reminiscent of the nuclear industry’s historic obsession with leading with its weak points – full page advertisements on radioactive waste disposal and so on. ‘Safety is the top priority’ is a common pitch, as if safety were the product, that the case for nuclear power, rather like the case for remaining in the EU, is that it isn’t quite as bad as you think it is or that it might have been. Of course, if safety really is more important than making electricity, for example, or reducing carbon emissions then there is an obvious solution – stop doing it. Just as if avoiding so many of the consequences of full membership of the EU is the best that can be said for remaining then there is an obvious solution – leave.

By comparison, the EU Leave campaign focused largely on one positive theme – ‘taking back control’ (of borders, of laws, of the budget etc.) – backed up by a number of arguably simplistic statements and half-implications. Even if it could be deemed disingenuous, this approach nonetheless painted a positive picture of what life outside the EU might look like.

This being said, as discussed later the main problem with this leaflet was probably not its content. There is little evidence that significant numbers of people read it: many instead sent it back to the Prime Minister.[3] But the reek of negativity, the difficulty in clearly articulating a positive message and the consequent falling back onto attempts to persuade people that staying in wouldn’t be quite as bad as the Brexiters were claiming pervaded the whole campaign.

A MYERS-BRIGGS TYPE ANALYSIS

The “Myers-Briggs Type Indicators” is a trademarked psychometric test which identifies eight different personality preferences (in four ‘pairs’ or more accurately across four spectra).[4] Each of us has our own personality style or preference built from our positions on the continua between the potential extremes.

The four axes are described by the Myers-Briggs Foundation as:

Extraversion/Introversion (E/I) – do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world?

Sensing/Intuition (S/N) – do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning?

Thinking/Feeling (T/F) – when making decisions do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances?

Judging/Perceiving (J/F) – when dealing with the outside world do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?

For the purpose of this discussion the E/I axis may not be of particular interest. However, in the case of each of the three others evidence suggests that there are systematic differences between the Myers-Briggs profiles of those going into managerial, scientific/engineering and political occupations.[5]

S/N T/F J/P
UK public 76%/26% 46%/54% 58%/42%
Science/Engineering 58%/42% 88%/12% 71%/29%
R&D 55%/45% 81%/19% 63%/37%
Politicians 51%/49% 66%/34% 56%/44%

Distribution of Myers-Briggs characteristics

THE TF AXIS

One striking difference between those going into politics, science or R&D, when compared to the population at large, is that the ‘thinking’ mode – which has at its heart a belief that ‘facts’ should drive perceptions, and by extension that facts do drive perceptions (since for a T-type it is very difficult to conceive of the world through an F’s eyes and vice versa) – is much more heavily represented in comparison to the ‘feeling’ mode. The latter seems to have a small majority among the population (one remarkably similar to that achieved by the Leave campaign in the vote), while characterising perhaps a third of politicians and just one eighth of scientists and engineers. Stalin was not a classic F and in any case probably never said it but the often-cited quote attributed to him – “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – has some force when it comes to communications.

A case study

One seminal moment during the Brexit campaign came in April 2016 when, as noted above, the government spent £9 million of public money to publish its pro-Remain leaflet – Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best option for the UK – and send it to every household in the country. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, described the leaflet as ‘moderate and restrained’ – which in itself does not seem to be an entirely unfair description, as far as it goes. Nonetheless, the leaflet did not make any direct reference to any possible downside of Remaining (and the claims of ‘retaining control of UK borders’ sat uneasily with statistics published the following month showing near-record net migration figures in 2015, with the widespread recognition that the government had failed spectacularly in its pledge to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ rather than the 330,000 actually recorded).

Immediately there was a public and political furore. 220,000 people signed an online petition for the Prime Minister David Cameron to stop using taxpayer money on pro-EU content, leading to a debate in Parliament on May 9. In that debate the Leave campaign did not actually spend much time attacking the content of the leaflet[6]. The MP introducing the debate said that “the Treasury is publishing documents and the Government continue to have propaganda at the top of every gov.uk web page.” A second Leave-supporting MP said that that if voters decide to remain in the EU by a narrow margin, many “will feel that the result has been fiddled precisely because of this wasted document.” (Conservative) MP John Redwood, a veteran anti-EU campaigner and former Cabinet Minister, said: “No previous Labour or Conservative government have ever thought they should spend taxpayers’ money on promoting government policies ahead of a general election in the hope of getting a better result. Is that not exactly what the leaflet is doing, and is it not, therefore, a scandal?” Perhaps the two most high-profile campaigners in the official Leave campaign, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, respectively called for the £9.3 million bill for the ‘one-sided propaganda’ to be spent on the National Health Service; and accused the Prime Minister of reneging on his promise to ‘fight fair’ during the referendum because he was ‘losing the argument’.

Redwood suggested – surely correctly – that the leaflet would encourage more people to vote for Brexit as they would view it as an abuse of taxpayers’ cash and an ‘insult’ to voters. Another commentator rather more colourfully said: “Although it broke every Rule in the book and showed Mr. Cameron’s CHARACTER for what it is, I am GLAD he did it! This Political Fantasy booklet will PROVE to be the POLITICAL HOWLER OR ‘OWN GOAL’ if you prefer, OF THE CENTUARY!” One suspects that what this might lack in terms of conventional grammar it more than makes up for in terms of straightforward common sense.

In similar vein, Nigel Farage, Leader of UKIP, suggested that President Obama’s calls for the UK to stay in the EU, coupled with a threat that the UK would be at the ‘back of the queue’ when it came to negotiating a trade deal, during his visit in April 2016 did the Leave campaign more good than harm. “Threatening people too much insults their intelligence.A lot of people in Britain said, ‘How dare the American president come here and tell us what to do?’ It backfired. We got an Obama-Brexit bounce, because people do not want foreign leaders telling them how to think and vote.” Obama’s popularity rating with the UK public had always been high, yet all four major polls published after his visit showed a move towards Leave by between one and four percentage points. Between 55% and 60% of those polled expressed disapproval of Obama’s intervention: the popular response was expressed in a cartoon of Obama seated opposite the Queen at a Palace dining table saying “She’ll have the fish” as the Queen winces and the butler staggers back in horror.[7]

After the result had been announced Arron Banks, a key funder of the UK Independence Party and of the Leave campaign, referred to the success of Donald Trump in winning the Republican nomination for US President when he revealed: “What they [Brexit’s political strategists Goddard Gunster] said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it. The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”[8] Michael Gove’s take was “I think people in this country have had enough of experts:” Gisela Stuart MP said: “There is only one expert that matters and that’s you, the voter.” Nigel Farage claimed that many independent experts were actually in the pay of the government or the EU.[9] The Leave campaign also reminded voters of a pledge the previous year by Europe Minister David Lidington that there was “no question of the Government undertaking any paid advertising or promotions such as billboards, doorstops, leaflets or newspaper or digital advertising”. That the pledge technically applied only to the last 28 days of the campaign was all but irrelevant to its force as a message. What the Leave campaign grasped so firmly, and decisively, was that there was absolutely no need to challenge the ‘facts’ coming from the Remain side in any rigorous or systematic way. Much more effective was to attack the very concept of expertise, or the bona fides of particular individual pro-Remain ‘experts’, or the refusal of the government to ‘play fair’ (thereby portraying the Remain campaign as being afraid of a balanced debate). In playing to gut feeling rather than analysis the Leave campaigners came far closer to the worldview of the population than did the Remain campaign. One suspects that the outrage expressed in public by Leave campaigners over the leaflet was accompanied by the rubbing of hands in glee behind closed doors. How could the Remain campaign make such crass mistakes as to publish a one-sided leaflet, or bring a foreign leader in to the debate, thereby playing so solidly into the key emotional arguments being promulgated by the Leavers – that ‘they’ (the ‘establishment’, the ‘urban elite’, ‘Westminster’ or even ‘Londoners’) are forcing ‘us’ into taking a decision which benefits ‘them’ and therefore doesn’t benefit ‘us’; and that ‘the foreigners’ have far too much say over UK thinking and policy?

As another commentator put it: “The Brexiteers had a big story to tell — one of a proud people that must finally recognise it was high time to haul back its sovereignty from a faceless, bureaucratic Brussels apparatus that was undemocratic and spent its time passing regulations in opaque rounds of wheeling and dealing. What did the Remain campaign have at its disposal to counter these arguments? Prosaic facts. Britain would suffer economically. Only a unified Europe could compete globally. The message was not wrong, but it was cool and abstract by comparison.”[10]

The parallels with the nuclear industry’s historic obsession with ‘providing the facts’, ‘educating the public’ and so on – and with the antinuclear industry’s focus on frightening imagery (rather than statistics) and attacks on the bona fides of experts (except those with whom they agree) – are unmistakeable, as are the similarities in the outcomes. The population is much more likely to come to a decision based on feelings (as opposed to analysis) and emotion than is the political or managerial ‘establishment’. It is maybe too much to claim that ‘facts’, or at least sound arguments, are irrelevant, if only because citing an incorrect ‘datum’ might make one look even less trustworthy. But as the Leave campaign showed, repeatedly peddling the patently untrue claims that there would be ‘£350 million a week to spend on the National Health Service if the UK left the EU’ (a claim duly abandoned by the Leave campaign after it had done its job[11]) and that Turkey was on the point of being fast-tracked into membership of the EU did no harm at all: the emotional messages were both graspable and credible. (Indeed, it can be argued that when the Remain campaign did start to attack the £350 million figure, saying, correctly, that when the rebate and the money which comes back to the UK from various EU funds were taken into account the net figure, ignoring any wider economic consequences, was closer to £165 million per week, may have backfired. Polling suggests that many people simply did not believe the Remain campaign, while others said ‘well, ok, but that is still a huge number’. By engaging on the ‘facts’ the Remain campaign in effect validated the Leave argument – once again by unwillingly implying that Leave was basically right, we do contribute a literally inconceivably huge amount to the EU, just not quite as much as Leave says. What was presumably Remain’s real argument – that loss of business opportunities in Europe would wipe out any savings from the net contribution at a stroke – got entirely lost in the spat over the £350 million figure itself.)

As one person, from a northern city, told a reporter: “Well, everybody says something and everybody says something else and you find they’re all contradicting one another so who do you believe? I just thought we would be better without, so we just went with our hearts.”

THE NS AXIS

The Remain campaign talked about some big themes and ideals. The government leaflet says; “voting to leave the EU would create years of uncertainty and potential economic disruption”. One poster says: “Beware of what it means to leave the EU: dissolve the largest peace project in human history; support a right-wing movement; undo trade treaties for years to come”.

Such thoughts in themselves are of course quite pertinent to the debate and were doubtless attractive to the big-picture, abstract, theoretically minded N-types running the campaign. But what do they actually mean in terms of people’s everyday lives? After all only a quarter of the population draws its maps of the world from the top down – most people, according to MBTI research, are dominated in their thinking by concrete examples from everyday life.

The Leave campaign[12], by contrast, tended rather more to focus on concrete images and understandable, everyday situations. The infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster which was interpreted as portraying a queue of supposed EU residents waiting to get into the UK (though actually depicting Syrian refugees at the Slovenian border) was widely criticised as misleading and tasteless – to the extent, speculatively, that it may have been offputting to some Fs – but this is not to say that it was not effective in driving home a point.

Whether these claims were true and defensible or not did not seem to matter when it came to assessing their impact. Their messages were readily graspable.

Of course, it can be argued that the slogan ‘Take back control’ is rather abstract in itself, but it was always backed up by examples of what it was that ‘we’ would be ‘taking back’ by leaving the EU.

How often do nuclear proponents talk about abstract concepts like ‘energy security’, ‘the economy’ and so on, rather than making the message something more related to everyday life?

THE JP AXIS

The differences between population and those in the scientific and political spheres on this parameter are relatively narrow, so any conclusions must be approached cautiously. However, it does seem that the population may be slightly more comfortable with uncertainty and unpredictability than those who do things like promote Remain campaigns, in EU or nuclear fields.

It was clear that the key treasury claim – that the average UK household would be permanently £4,300 a year worse off if the UK left the EU – did not gain traction. An opinion poll a week before the referendum suggested that it was believed by only 17% of those polled. [13]

Speculatively, one of the problems with such figures is their faux-accuracy. Just two months before the referendum Chancellor Osborne announced that in 2015/2016 the UK economy had missed his borrowing target by £1.8bn, or £28 per head of the population, compared to the forecast issued just one month previously.[14] The incoming Coalition government in 2010 had pledged to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015 and reduce overall borrowing to £37bn: borrowing in the final financial year of the Parliament was, in fact, £92bn.[15] Even if only a tiny proportion of the population were aware of the precise numbers, the impossibility, or at least the extraordinarily poor track record, of making accurate predictions presumably made numbers stated with two-figure ‘accuracy’ in this way highly suspect. Similarly the frequent and quite reasonable claims by the Remain campaign that leaving the EU would be a huge step in the dark gained little ground. After all we (or at least the Ps in the population) know that the world is an uncertain place and rather like the fact. Britain has been used to dealing with uncertain and unexpected futures for far longer than we have been members of the EU.

Again, the nuclear industry’s messages, and those of associated campaigns such as that surrounding climate change, tend to give an impression of degrees of certainty which do not accord with most people’s experience. Sometimes saying ‘we don’t know’ or ‘chances are there will be good and bad if we do this’ might be more effective ways of engaging with the P half of the population.

THE IRRATIONAL PUBLIC

Accusations of public ‘irrationality’ proliferated before and, especially, after the vote. As one commentator said, in an article entitled Brexit and the politics of irrationality’: “There appears to be every sign that, in the South Wales valleys, thousands of people in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – one whose Less Developed Region status under EU rules means that it is a target for EU funding, for social projects like Sure Start as well as the better-known funding for industrial relocation, training and infrastructure – will vote to leave the EU.[16]

Claims of irrationality – that the public believes or acts a certain way for no reason at all – are never convincing. In reality, it is more likely that we make our decisions based on a wide range of factors, all of which make sense in a particular way, thus reinforcing the point that campaigns of facts alone can be not only ineffective but indeed, in some circumstances, counterproductive. Take one comment from a Leave voter from the North of England: “People from down south think they are a little bit better than us, they think they’re a little bit more educated than us, they think they are more well-to-do than us, that we’re just the working class common northerners who don’t know as much as they know. So everything is rammed down your throat, ‘we’re the more important, everyone who’s important lives here and works here’.” Or more succinctly, “If we’ve given London a bloody nose, that’s a bonus. I actually find it quite funny. It shows how detached they are from the real world.”[17]

An air of superiority, that anyone who holds an opposing view is stupid, ill-informed, irrational etc., is not unique to pro-Remain campaigners – it feels familiar to those who have observed nuclear industry communications over many years, with similar emotional consequences.

AN ALTERNATIVE REMAIN CAMPAIGN

How might a Remain campaign based on the above principles have looked?

For the present author, one of the most impressive contributions to the whole debate came from a small businessperson on the BBC radio phone-in programme Any Answers. He explained the Single Market in concrete terms: if he needed to buy a component from within the EU for his manufacturing business he could do so with very little bureaucracy and no extra tariffs – if he had to buy it from outside the EU he had to fill out import forms and pay a tariff through the postal service. This single brief contribution, based on a real-life, easily graspable example, was more effective than reams of theoretical discussion about the trade terms with Europe – discussion which required one largely to trust the messenger as the abstract concepts were difficult to grasp or verify.

The Remain campaign might have done better to tell the story of individual people who were benefitting or would benefit in the future from membership of the EU – those nearing retirement who currently had the freedom to settle say in Spain or the South of France; young people who had taken advantage of free movement of people to live in an EU country and had then come back enriched; people employed by small businesses whose family’s wellbeing depended on the company’s ability to trade freely with EU countries; universities which had been involved in the invention of something of clear direct benefit to people’s lives owing to an EU-funded collaboration with several other universities which would be much more difficult when outside the club. These people-focused, easily portrayable ideas, trumpeting the benefits of EU membership may have been considerably more appealing than claims that leaving the EU would lead to international conflict (hardly credible and certainly not easily graspable) or ‘potential economic disruption’, whatever that might mean.

CAVEATS

There is always a danger of pushing a comparison too far. Brexit and Nexit are not direct perfect parallels. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two issues, in perceptual terms, is that while there does not seem to have been a gender gap in voting over Brexit, in the case of nuclear there is a significant and enduring higher degree of support among men than among women. Older and younger voters seem are more likely to support nuclear power than those in the age range 20-50, while support for Brexit grew consistently as the age of the voter increased. This being said, support for both nuclear power and remaining in the EU was higher in social groups ABC1 than in C2DE.

Furthermore, over 48% of those who took party in the referendum voted to Remain, including several people who were won over to that side by the campaign. Clearly many in the population were convinced by, or at least not dissuaded by, the claims of the remain campaign about the economic consequences of leaving the EU, just as there was always a segment of the population which continued to support nuclear energy even when its overall popularity was at its lowest.

More strategically, Brexit’s aims were rather different from those of the nuclear industry and its supporters. It simply needed to get more people to vote for it on a particular day – it would not be responsible for any long-term policies or implications that arose from it (though some of its supporters might be). Nuclear power needs to develop a long-term constructive relationship with communities hosting nuclear facilities and at least a degree of passive acceptance (though not necessarily more) from the population at large. Wilful manipulation and exaggeration of the best information available is therefore not really an option for the nuclear industry even if it were morally acceptable, though it patently is for some of its opponents. The aim perhaps should be to continue to take decisions like an NT but to communicate them like an SF. Ironically, at least post-Fukushima rather too many decisions have been taken against available evidence, perhaps to seek to appease the Fs in the population, mainly in the form of systematic overreaction to the very modest health risks associated with radiation. The associated communication, though, has been too T-focused, expecting people to accept at face value a set of messages which look deeply suspicious – after all, who would really destroy so many people’s lives through evacuation and forced exclusion from their homes, destruction of local agriculture and fisheries etc. if the risks of not doing so were not in reality enormous?

A further key point must be considered. The Remain campaign sought to move the focus of the debate onto the economy, where it felt it had the strongest negative argument against Leave. But Leave also spent considerable effort on the issue of immigration and Remain never really came up with a convincing riposte. While the tactics of leading with what it regarded as its strongest issue was not wrong in itself, it does emphasise how important it is to have defensive arguments available against the pitch of the opponents. Simply ignoring Leave claims about the effects of immigration, or the antinuclear industries exaggerations about say nuclear safety or waste management, is going too far. The responses, though, need to be at least as much aimed at the Sensing Feelers – i.e. expressed in terms of benefits to people, human stories and readily graspable examples – as at the Intuitive Thinkers who might quite go for scientific, theoretical explanations.

CONCLUSIONS

It seems incontrovertible that the Leave campaigners won not only the vote but also the campaign. Opinion polls of their nature cannot be entirely accurate, as revealed perhaps most spectacularly by the failure to call the outcome of the 2015 General Election. However, tracking the same measure over time probably does reveal changes in attitudes. Looking at major polls published through the campaign there was a notable change in the expressed voting intentions of the electorate, especially in the last month of the campaign (perhaps suggesting that Leave won the day with those who had been undecided till the last minute).[18] In December 2015 the unweighted average of such polls gave the Remain position a lead of 8.8 percentage points over Leave; by June Leave was in the lead.

The whole Brexit story offers suggestions that an obsession with ‘facts’, especially when those facts have to be taken on trust because they are (allegedly) based on complex calculations and assumptions, is no guarantee of success even in a technical field and may even be offputting if it reinforces a perception that the communicator regards themselves as intellectually superior or simply does not think the same way as the ‘listener’. Even leaving aside the inevitable differences between the two cases, the failure of the Remain campaign may offer a comparative study which illuminates to a degree the parallel failure of nuclear communications over decades, which resulted in, or at least accompanied, the safest form of energy we have yet devised being regarded by large swathes of the population in many countries as too dangerous to be deployed. In a nutshell, a Myers-Briggs-influenced analysis suggests that to many public audiences, messages should be clothed in approaches which are:

about people not about things;

  • about instances not about concepts;
  • about uncertainty not about precision.

 

[1]http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=775426&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F5%2F16849%2F00775426.pdf%3Farnumber%3D775426

[2]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/515068/why-the-government-believes-that-voting-to-remain-in-the-european-union-is-the-best-decision-for-the-uk.pdf

[3]http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3533926/Return-Sender-Government-s-9m-pro-EU-leaflet-begins-land-doormats-today-sent-straight-Downing-Street.html

[4]http://www.myersbriggs.org/

[5]https://www.opp.com/download/item/082ac33389fb48d1a659066f56d972df

[6]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/07/politics-live-governments-9million-anti-brexit-letter-sparks-fur/

[7]http://www.nationalreview.com/article/434744/president-obamas-brexit-intervention

[8]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-news-donald-trump-leave-eu-campaign-facts-dont-work-arron-banks-lies-referendum-a7111001.html

[9]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/michael-goves-guide-to-britains-greatest-enemy-the-experts/

[10]http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/brexit-editorial-if-we-don-t-love-europe-we-will-lose-it-a-1099602.html

[11]http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/10/brexit-camp-abandons-350-million-pound-nhs-pledge

[12] There were two principal Leave campaigning groups – ‘Vote Leave’, which had official status, and ‘Leave.eu’ – and indeed a number of others. Broadly the former put more of an emphasis in sovereignty and the economy, the latter on immigration – at times relations between the two were fraught. Nonetheless each followed rather similar communications strategies in psychological terms.

[13]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nearly-half-of-britons-believe-vote-leaves-false-350-million-a-week-to-the-eu-claim-a7085016.html

[14]https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/21/uk-misses-borrowing-target-george-osborne-lydia-councils-spending

[15]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/Leading_business_story/the-chart-that-shows-osborne-has-missed-his-latest-borrowing-target-a6994016.html

[16]https://notesbrokensociety.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/brexit-and-the-politics-of-irrationality/

[17]http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-24/giving-london-a-bloody-nose-cheers-northerners-backing-brexit

[18]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36271589

In defeat, malice, in victory, revenge. IDS rides on.

Former Conservative Party leader Ian Duncan Smith has launched another nasty attack on ‘the Remainers’ – anyone who dared to hold a different view to him on the EU referendum (Conservative Home website, http://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2016/11/iain-duncan-smith-continuity-remain-are-fighting-a-desperate-rearguard-action-to-undermine-the-leave-vote.html).

There seem to be only two options in the mind of Mr Smith – someone either wants Brexit on whatever terms the government chooses and can get and should therefore just shut up and have no say on the matter; or someone wants to reverse the Brexit vote. There is no space for those who, in his trademark sneering terms, ‘accept’ the result but still believe in Parliament and the courts having a vital role to play in coming up with something that will value the needs of the Remain voters while delivering on the result for Leave voters. “I seemed to have conveniently forgotten that the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stated unequivocally just eleven days before the General Election that, ‘What the British public will be voting for is a Labour Government or a Conservative Government’.”

After the 2001 General Election, which delivered a (huge) Labour victory, my recollection is that far from ‘accepting the verdict of the British people’, Mr Smith actually argued and even voted against many of the proposals put forward by the Blair government. I wonder how he would now describe such behaviour – was he an ‘enemy of the people’? Was he subtly trying to reverse the result of the election? Or trying to dilute the Labour programme in some way – perhaps ‘soft’ Blairism – when the British people had decisively (much more decisively than in the referendum incidentally, not that that matters) voted for profligate public finances, gradual undermining of our traditions, special treatment for big Labour donors who fund racing cars and so on?

Or would Mr Smith argue, as I would, that it is the role of opposition not to seek to overturn the democratic vote but to represent the views of their constituents and seek to persuade the government of the day to change course to take other views into account? History shows that when we have had widespread consensus on any issue, to the extent that opposition is marginalised or ignored, things don’t always go well.

I completely expect a majority in the House of Commons (and the Lords, I hope) to trigger Article 50 when the time comes. I guess one type of democrat, those who support direct popular votes, would say that 341 MPs should argue for and vote to Leave and 317 to Remain (presuming Sinn Fein take part) – I don’t take that view as I believe we elect Parliamentarians to use their judgment on our behalf, not to vote as we dictate on any particular issue, but that doesn’t sit at all well with a referendum so I’m a bit lost. In any case I would expect a vigourous debate with a very significant number of MPs (not just the SNP) voting against leaving. I will be very disappointed if my MP, representing a constituency in which Remain got three quarters of the vote, does not vote against triggering Article 50, just as should Labour form a government I would be disappointed if any Conservative MP voted for an 80% top rate of tax or whatever John McDonnell was proposing that week.

Mr Smith seems determined to continue to provoke and anger the 48% who voted to remain. He is absolutely right in one respect – as a Remainer I went through the stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and am now well into acceptance and seeing the possible benefits alongside the possible downsides. I would be amazed if Mr Smith did not go through the same when he was sacked from the Party leadership – it is a well-documented human reaction to loss and has nothing to do with the EU referendum as such. Yet instead of generously recognising this, the ‘nasty party’ wing of the Conservatives would rather use it as a further weapon with which to bash and sneer at those who took a different view.

If all this has done one thing for me, I have come to realise that I may now be feeling like many of those who voted Leave and voted Trump might have felt – ignored and demonised by an elite which has no empathy with my feelings or sympathy with my interests. It’s quite a jolt but very good for my personal growth as a fully paid-up member of the metropolitan elite who has not always been open enough to other philosophies. But Mr Smith might reflect on the implications of treating a significant proportion of our nation in such a way. He comes over more as someone who wants to settle old scores than to take us forward to a better place.

Trump and Brexit – in defence of offensiveness

I am not making this up.

“The University of Reading’s students’ union voted not to take part in future episodes of the BBC2 quiz show after the presenter made an off-the-cuff remark about a team mascot during a break in recording.

Jeremy Paxman said: ‘There was a technical fault which meant we had to interrupt the recording, leaving all of us sitting at our desks in the studio while the problem was sorted out in the control gallery. To fill the void in a brightly lit studio, in front of all eight contestants, a full studio crew and an audience of several hundred spectators, I asked the Reading team about the mascot sitting on their desk. One of them said it was a hand-knitted Jeremy Paxman doll. Across the several yards separating the chairman’s desk from the teams, I asked the whole team whether they took it to bed with them.’

Samantha Buzzard, the Reading captain and a PhD student working on mathematical modelling of the surface melt of Antarctic ice shelves, was the team’s only woman and took offence. Writing in a blog, Niall Hamilton, education officer at Reading students’ union, said: ‘Misogyny and sexism are not about ‘offending’ contestants but undermining and oppressing individuals due to their gender. In such a historical and respected institution as University Challenge, these forms of oppression should not be taken lightly.'”

Yes, I know this is startlingly silly, a self-parody of a world where ‘safe spaces’ are created at universities – universities! – to protect the educated elite from the slightest risk of offence from opinions they don’t like; where the Leader of the Green party wants any government adviser who dares to challenge the majority view on climate change to be sacked; where cruel parody of some Christians for say being uncomfortable about same-sex marriage is almost required behaviour; where Benedict Cumberbatch, hardly the heir of Bernard Manning, arguing for more ethnic minority representation in the performing arts, gets slated for referring to ‘coloured people’ instead of ‘people of colour’.

But it is not so funny really. The metropolitan elite – I speak as a fully paid-up card-carrying member – has so persuaded itself of the moral superiority of its position on – well, on everything really – that the bigotry associated with claiming that the Trump-voting, Brexit-supporting majority in our two countries are ‘information-light’ (code for stupid), racist, xenophobic and so on has become invisible. Let’s remember what Hillary Clinton told us a couple of months ago: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Somehow the ‘liberal’ (by which I suspect I mean dictatorial) left fails to see that demonising a quarter of the US voting public in this way is every bit as offensive as some of the language used by the genuine racists, sexists and homophobes.

So if the bar for acceptable behaviour is not making a throwaway joke about a rag doll, we should not be surprised if those who don’t exhibit the childish self-righteous egotism of the Reading Students’ Union start to feel what the heck. If we’re going to be accused of misogyny almost whatever we do maybe we shouldn’t worry about going the whole hog and electing a genuine sexist – at least we won’t feel constantly looked down on and scorned.

This is a difficult point in time for me. Carlos and I are maybe going to get married this coming year. We might not bother as the civil partnership gives us everything we need in legal terms but it is nice to have the option, to feel fully part of the bourgeois norm. Yet clearly this issue is one that causes considerable discomfort to many in society. It is dawning on me that the interests of ‘people like me’ have ruled the roost for a long time. Feminist bloggers like Amy Glass can post articles entitled ‘I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry‘. Those women who actually rather like the traditional family pattern of the man going out to work and the woman as ‘the angel of the house’ are simply getting it wrong and their choice should not be tolerated. “Do people really think that a stay at home mom is really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself?” Well, the answer is yes, many people do think exactly that and may be more inclined to support an unsavoury candidate who does not denigrate them so roundly than yet another patronising self-styled intellectual.

If we are going to heal the almost exactly half-and-half split between (simplifying it a bit) urban and rural Britain (maybe I mean England), or its equivalent in the USA, we may need to start to be rather more accepting that other world-views are valid, while at the same time standing up against the genuine racism and sexism which seems to have been emboldened a little by Brexit and Trump victories. At the moment our right not be offended is being exercised in such a way as to maximise offence to those with a different approach to life. I have been pretty offended (British understatement) by a lot of what I have heard from the Farage/Trump worldview; but I can see why the Corbyn/Clinton alternative, with its disdain for the concerns of so many people outside our conurbations, must be equally offensive to those people.

So – can we call a truce? Can we recognise that the metropolitan elite has a point when it comes to unreconstructed sexist and racist behaviour but that it has massively exaggerated the issue to the point where so many of our fellow countrymen feel unvalued? Can we row back on nonsense like that of Reading Students’ Union or Amy Glass and recognise that one can abuse free speech just as much from the liberal left as one can from the unkind right? I have no idea how this would work in practice but constantly crying wolf – there is still a Facebook page entitle ‘Mitt Romney is a racist’ – always has a predictable outcome when a real wolf comes along. If it means people like me get a fairer share of being offended, well, that’s not too high a price to pay.

Our childish politicians

I eventually got a response to my previous letter to Paul Flynn, an MP who I discover sits for the Labour Party and spends much of his time badmouthing Labour colleagues like Stephen Doughty (whom he accused, either ironically or hypocritically, of using ‘wild and divisive language’ in a Twitter storm yesterday!), so I suppose I should not be surprised that I come in for some stick as well, based on invented ‘quotations’.

I say ‘response’ to my letter but there was no response to my arguments.  It is frustrating when instead of engaging me on the issues which I raised in my response to his attack on me in the Commons last year, based on fictional quotes which (of course) he fails to justify, he simply repeats the false claim that I am a ‘PR’ man.  This from someone who is very careful to take his ‘advice’ from people like David Lowry who have a black and white view of the nuclear issue and find it emotionally or psychologically impossible to recognise that atomic energy has its good points (in the way that I have always accepted it has its drawbacks).  Flynn says I am ‘derogative’ about renewables – well, yes, I am critical at times but always based on published science and always open to changing my mind if a better argument comes along.

I have drafted a letter in response but frankly I am not going to bother sending it.

“Thank you for your letter of the 9th inst.  I am not sure what you mean by saying I have ‘done a PR job for nuclear’ or describing me as a ‘PR person for nuclear’.  If you imply that I am simply mouthing someone else’s opinions and passing them off as my own then you are wrong – I only say things that I believe to be true, based on my reading of the evidence.  If on the other hand your objection is that I have come to some different conclusions from you as a result of that reading then you are right of course. (Whether this means that the media should be forced to inform the audience whether a particular person holds views which are approved of or disapproved of by Paul Flynn MP is less clear.)  I provided you with examples of my having said things during Fukushima that with the benefit of hindsight look alarmist yet you make no reference whatsoever to these.  You say I am ‘derogatory’ and ‘alarmist’ about renewables. But again, my analysis leads me to believe that to an extent we have all been taken in by clever messaging from the rich landowners and multinational capitalists who are enjoying the subsidies and have downplayed the importance of variability in output. This analysis is based solely on published evidence and my own reasoning.  I may be wrong – indeed, as a scientist I like being proved wrong anyway but on renewables I would very much love to be wrong as I am scared by climate change – but are you seriously saying that the very fact that someone is skeptical about some of the claims makes one unfit to express an opinion and is proof of a lack of good faith?

“I of course have respect for those who have well-reasoned views with which I happen to disagree. I note however that you steadfastly refuse to engage with me on the issues, instead preferring to repeat your personal attacks.  In my experience that reveals someone who is either so morally and intellectually arrogant as to dismiss out of hand the idea that other opinions can be honestly and informedly held, or someone who is so unsure of their own position that they are unwilling to submit it to scrutiny.  You will know better than me to which of these groups you belong.  However, you also point blank refuse to point me towards the source of your invention that I ‘praised the explosions of hydrogen [at Fukushima] as something of benefit’.  Indeed you seem to hold that from your exalted and privileged position you can simply make up things that I have never said and ridicule me for them and it is then my responsibility to find these non-existent quotes to refute them.  Can you at least give me the date and time when I said these things?  Well of course you can’t, you know as well as I do they are invented.  The planet deserves better than frivolous name-calling based on such fictions.

Yours sincerely,

 

MALCOLM GRIMSTON”

A terrible dilemma

The Labour Group is putting forward a motion at the full Council meeting tomorrow (October 14) noting that that the UK has only accepted 216 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme since its launch in January 2014, and 5,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 and calling, inter alia, for Wandsworth pledge to accommodate at least 10 refugee families urgently (if private accommodation is funded by central government), to put in place measures to become the first London ‘Borough of Sanctuary’ and authorise officers to accept refugees from Syria under the government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and am finding the situation far from clear.

On the one hand of course we should, and would wish to, play our full part in supporting the refugees from the African/Middle Eastern wars.  But at the same time there are several aspects of the issue which are equally worrying.  Perhaps most concerning is the observation that the family of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old whose tragic death so affected so many people, seem to have been living in Turkey for the last three years – not ideal for a Kurdish family, for sure, but not a situation in which their lives or even their quality of life was under direct threat.  A nagging question is why the family should choose this moment to leave a settled and essentially safe haven and take the risks which led to the tragedy.

I cannot help reflecting on the awful thought that the impression that Europe is about to open its borders – fostered by Germany’s disgraceful decision simply to rip up European agreements, unilaterally, on the matter – is contributing to the agony and the misery and encouraging some people to take these terrible risks.  I cannot escape a feeling that children like Alan are dying precisely because Europe is appearing likely to adopt almost a ‘no questions asked’ approach to taking anyone, be they genuine refugee or not, rather than because Europe is refusing to take anyone who has gone through the necessary procedure.  By this I mean being taken either directly from the Syrian refugee camps or from the list of those who have conformed to what was European protocol before the German action, i.e. registration at the point of entry to the EU followed by an orderly process of finding them a sanctuary.  I can only imagine the joy of the illegal traffickers being able to ply their evil trade by holding out a much greater prospect of ‘success’, illusory though that might ultimately be.

I believe, then, that the UK should be absolutely firm in saying that we will take genuine refugees who have played by the rules as set out above, and refuse to take anyone who has tried to bypass the process and has passed through Europe without conforming to the Dublin Regulation.  To do differently would in my view inevitably lead to more deaths at the hands of the people traffickers.  It seems a simple fact that since Australia has made it clear that it would turn back any boat found in its territorial waters nobody has drowned in that part of the world.  As I say I am absolutely not proposing that we close our borders in that way to genuine refugees but if preserving innocent life is one of our aims we cannot afford to ignore evidence of this nature.

As an Independent I have no particular axe to grind politically but I am not sure I agree that the British stance has been particularly bad.  The UK seems to be spending a higher proportion of our national income on international aid than any other developed country: a considerable and growing proportion of this has been spent on supporting potential Syrian refugees within Syria and at the border.  If we take the view that most of those leaving Syria would far rather stay there or return there when it is safe to do so then the eventual solution must involve work of that nature in and around Syria itself.

Of course there are plenty genuine refugees who do need help and we should help them.  But it would in my mind be a cruel mistake to give the impression that Europe was now abandoning rigorous checks on the bona fides of potential incomers.  Brutal as they have been about it, the Hungarians did seem to me to have been trying against huge odds to stick to European protocol and register those coming through their country. Germany, after pressurising the Hungarians to abandon those checks, soon found it had to close its own borders thereby creating the worst of both worlds – people being encouraged to chance their lives in bypassing the protocols followed by even those who have played by the rules being rejected.

In my opinion this is one of those situations in which if we want to fulfil our hearts’ desire to help those in need and not to make things worse, we need to follow our heads’ conclusions and apply commonsense as well.  I shall be arguing for the Council to take that stance when it comes to offering asylum to those whom of course we would all wish to help. 

Information in times of stress

I’ve just been told that one Paul Flynn, MP for Newport in Wales, had a go at me in the Commons a couple of months ago for my comments during the first days of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm150617/halltext/150617h0001.htm).

On looking the good Mr Flynn up I find that by all accounts he appears to be on the Left of the Labour Party. Yet, oddly, he seems to be a kind of antimatter version of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has approached the Labour leadership contest saying he will only focus on the substance of the arguments and will absolutely refuse to indulge in personal attacks: Flynn seems determined only to attack the integrity of anyone who holds a different view and will absolutely refuse to indulge in reasoned debate on the issues. I can only hope they do not end up in the same room together as the annihilation explosion could be devastating.

I am not too fussed as I don’t imagine many people will be interested in the views of an obscure backbencher but I have written to him in the following terms.

Dear Mr Flynn,

I note that in Hansard a couple of months ago you are quoted saying that at the time of the Fukushima accident I was on TV indulging in “ludicrous PR spin” and “praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit”.

I wonder if you are in a position to offer me a reference for this quotation, as I do not recognise it? If I recall correctly, after the hydrogen explosion at Unit 1 at Fukushima I said something along the lines of “Bizarre as this may sound, in the context of what is happening at the plant the hydrogen explosion wasn’t a terribly important event”. I stick to this statement – indeed I did not realise it was anything particularly controversial. Presumably, given your attack on me, you take the opposite position – i.e. that the hydrogen explosion was more serious than the threats offered by the risk of the containment vessels being breached at Units 1-3 or of serious uncovery of the spent fuel in the ponds especially of Unit 4 but also of the other five units at various times. I do not agree with this point of view – in my opinion either of these latter events would have been immeasurably more serious. The hydrogen explosions resulted in very little release of activity in the context of the accident as a whole and very little if any structural damage to either cores or fuel ponds – but of course as a scientist I am always happy to change my mind if new information comes along. I would be interested to know your reasons for holding that opposite view.

But in any case I cannot believe that I “praised the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit” in the way you state and certainly have no recollection of doing so. It is indeed my opinion that the alternative to venting the hydrogen and risking its exploding in the outer containment – which was to let the hydrogen pressure build up in the reactor pressure vessels until the seals blew, releasing vastly more radioactivity – would have been far worse. From this point of view the action made operational sense. But surely that is not “praising” these explosions in the way you seem to imply? (Again, I presume had you been in charge you would have taken the opposite course?)

Once again, then, I would be grateful if you could provide me with the source of the quote so I can check whether you have provided an honest and balanced reflection of my comments. In return, below I offer a couple of references for things I actually did say.

As a final point, I am not saying I got everything ‘right’ during that first month – information and misinformation were coming thick and fast and commentating was at times sheer guesswork (as I frequently made clear when commentating live – recorded soundbites rarely allow such uncertainty to be expressed of course). As one example, I said (it’s still on the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13017282): “At Reactor 4, where there was an unusually large amount of spent fuel in the pond, there seems to have been damage to the zirconium fuel rods, and, possibly, a release of hydrogen – there was at any rate another explosion, which damaged the outer building.” As events subsequently showed this was far too pessimistic – the spent fuel was fine and the hydrogen had come from Unit 3 through a shared vent – and I have to accept that in making this point and unjustifiably ‘talking up’ the seriousness of the situation I may have caused fears that later proved unfounded. No doubt at other points I may have said things that proved too optimistic: I do recall at one point saying I thought they may have turned the corner on controlling Unit 1 which turned out not to be the case.  Though I did not set out to exaggerate (or understate) the effects of the accident but to give a balanced picture as I saw things, such ‘errors’, if that they be (I think they made sense given the information at the time), are inevitable in real time. If the standard needed to avoid having one’s integrity impugned under the cloak of parliamentary privilege is 100% accurate foresight then I suspect very few would venture to give their honest opinion of unfolding events.

Incidentally, since you did not make reference to it in your Commons speech I presume you missed it but this is what I told Channel 4 News on March 30 2011 (still on Channel 4 website at http://www.channel4.com/news/fukushima-clean-up-will-take-decades-and-cost-billions). “Malcolm Grimston, energy specialist at think tank Chatham House, told Channel 4 News that the process [of decommissioning the reactors] could take years and cost billions – but stressed the Japanese would be entering uncharted waters. ‘This is uncharted territory, a lot of new technology will be developed to deal with these reactors. The closest to this we have is Three Mile Island, where there was a partial core meltdown – I think about 40 per cent. The clean-up process lasted from 1979 to 1993, so almost 15 years, and cost £1 billion. That was £1 billion in 1993 money, so obviously a lot more now,’ he said. ‘Also now we have got four reactors damaged, not just a single one like at Three Mile Island, and the complicating factor of what state the spent fuel is in the ponds. At the moment there are huge imponderables, but whatever happens, the answer is long and expensive.’ Apart from exaggerating the problem again – we haven’t really got four ‘reactors’ damaged as the reactor itself in Unit 4 is fine – I don’t see how you can describe this as “ludicrous PR spin”, even though I did work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority over 20 years ago.

An academic’s reputation is vital to their standing: I believe you have made a very unbalanced and unfair attack on mine, offering me no right of reply – I think you should at least justify that I actually said what you attribute to me.