Category: Politics

Unelectable opinions, no.2: the ineptness of rule sets for Coronavirus lockdown

Unelectable opinions, no.2: the ineptness of rule sets for Coronavirus lockdown

Last Wednesday, tennis players across England celebrated being given permission to return on court – for singles, that is. Tennis coaches celebrated getting their earnings back and ceasing to rely on the prospect of government handouts.

But why, you might ask, was singles tennis banned in the first place? It’s one of the most socially distanced sports one can imagine, with players spending the vast majority of the game over 20 metres apart. Compare that to someone jogging along a narrow track, breathing heavily without wearing a mask, which pretty much guarantees that anyone coming the other way is going to breathe in their potentially virus-laden droplets. Yet running was actively encouraged at a time when tennis and golf (another sport with built-in social distancing) were banned.

Of itself, tennis isn’t the biggest issue in the world. But it’s an example of a more significant problem: the UK government’s rules on lockdown – and, indeed, those of most other countries – have seemed full of inconsistencies, creating consequences that just seemed to fly in the face of common sense. Why limit going out of the house to an hour? Why was this supposedly  the same if you lived in the middle of a busy city as if you lived in an isolated farmhouse?

The underlying problem is this: rather than carefully lining up the rules with the principles of what we were trying to achieve, the government preferred to make simple, prescriptive rules about individual points of behaviour. And that was always going to create idiocies which would bring the rules into disrepute and prompt people to ignore them.

The rules that we actually want are these:

  1. Don’t breathe on anyone else. To help guide you: when breathing normally, your breath travels under a metre, when speaking, it’s more like 2m, when breathing heavily as a result of strenuous exercise, it can easily reach 4m. Wearing a face covering – pretty much any sort, it doesn’t have to be surgical – reduces this to under 1m with acceptable probability.
  2. Don’t put yourself in a position where other people can’t avoid coming into range of you breathing on them. Guideline: your breath hangs in the air for around 15 minutes, or somewhat longer in stagnant air indoors.
  3. If you touch anything that someone else may have breathed on within the last 24-48 hours (in practise, almost anything outdoors), don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth before you have washed your hands thoroughly.

    (By the way, if you’re living in the same household and you get infected, everyone else in the household probably will too. So exclude them from “anyone” in the above rules).

Consider what this means for going out and meeting people. If you want to go out and meet your friends, it’s fine: you can meet as many of them as you like as long as (a) you’re keeping a couple of metres apart at all times (less if you’re wearing masks) and (b) you’re not standing somewhere making it impossible for other people to get past you. Getting together in a circle with your friends in the middle of a field is just fine. And it really doesn’t matter how long you spend. Sunbathing in the middle of a park – for any length of time, as long as there’s space – is fine, sunbathing on a park bench next to a path is not, especially if you’re talking.

For the runners I’ve mentioned above, this would have various implications to stop them breathing heavily into confined spaces – which is profoundly antisocial at the moment. Firstly, if they can, they should avoid narrow spaces: pavements, alleys, pathways with walls or trees either side. If that’s impossible, at the very least, they should wear a mask and do their best to steer clear of people coming the other way. Local governments could help by marking out official one-way lanes for runners in local parks, much as our larger supermarkets have done for shoppers pushing trolleys.

I’m not going to overburden this post with more examples: suffice to say that I could write hundreds of words going through irrational inconsistencies even within my own small area of life. What I’m more interested is the principle: why did government officials think that it was a better idea to micro-manage individual activities rather than explain the problem to people and expect them to make good decisions?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I have my suspicion and I don’t like it. My best guess is that the rulemakers think the majority of people are too fundamentally stupid and/or irresponsible to take a simple set of principles and deduce how they should behave. It’s an incredibly patronising attitude, which fails to recognise that it cuts both ways: for everyone too stupid to understand a principle, there’s someone else who recognises a stupid rule when they see one and draws the conclusion that all rules are stupid and should therefore be ignored. It also fails to realise that the really irresponsible people are going to be as irresponsible on detailed rules as they are on the big picture.

Our tennis coaches are mainly self-employed and will have been filing their claims under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme when it opened – at exactly the time that the rumblings over “how are we going to pay for all this debt” have started increasing. Those claims were completely unnecessary: a result of poorly targeted rulemaking. I’m sure there are thousands of other examples.

Dear Government, please start treating people with some respect and make the rules line up with what we’re all trying to achieve, to minimise the havoc caused by this epidemic. Otherwise, you waste everyone’s time and resources and bring yourselves into disrepute.


In my guidance to rule 1, I don’t know whether 1, 2 and 4 metres are the best numbers to use: better scientists than me equipped with the latest evidence might choose different thresholds.

I’m talking about guidance to the public here. Obviously, there are many types of environment where there’s a need for clear guidance specific to that environment – hospitals, schools, offices, building sites and many more.

This all assumes that we agree with the basic strategy of “we need lockdown in order to minimise transmission of the virus”. Not everyone does, but that’s another story which needs to be explored separately.

Unelectable opinions: Prevention of Faceless Bureaucracy Act

I would love to change our country and our world for the better. But there’s one overriding reason that I don’t go into politics: there are too many things that I think should be done that will never get taken up by any of our major political parties. So whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you.

Kafka portrayed it better than anyone: the common man, faced with a bureaucracy which is unreasonable, impenetrable, which denies you access to the people who might resolve your problem, an entanglement of petty obstacles which exhausts your will to stand up for your rights.

In the course of the last decade, UK government departments have been making enthusiastic efforts to turn Kafka’s vision into reality. This post isn’t about the big deliberate policies like Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, iniquitous that it was. Rather, what I’m talking about is this: every government agency, one at a time, has changed its operational policies in ways that make it more difficult, frustrating and time consuming for individuals to deal with them, while increasingly allowing government officials to engage in unfair behaviour without sanction.

I’ll start by quoting two examples from my own direct experience.

My company occasionally sells services to public bodies in Poland. For some reason, in order to pay our invoices, these bodies require a Certificate of Residence which is produced by HMRC. Back in 2011, the procedure was fairly straightforward: you phoned your assigned HMRC office, they told you what you needed to put in a letter to them and when you did this, they sent you back a signed certificate. Job done, invoices duly got paid.

By 2017, the process had changed. There was now an online form filled with jargon that was hard to understand unless you were an international tax expert (I’m not). Several weeks later, a certificate was sent, but this contained a laser printed signature which was unacceptable under Polish law. I couldn’t phone the HMRC office any more: all I could do was to get through to a call centre operator who refused to deal with the problem, saying that “HMRC no longer issue documents with wet signatures”. In the end, we wrote off a significant sum of Polish withholding tax.

My second example is with the Valuation Office Agency – the bit of government which assesses the rateable value of a business property, who set our business rates at several thousand pounds higher than the correct amount (they used a wrong measurement). Once again, we were banned from speaking to the person dealing with the case: our only possible contact was via the call centre – lots of time waiting in voice mail jail, followed by speaking to a person with no authority to even read the full case documents, let alone actually take action.

And here’s the beef: when I submitted a complaint, the complaints office passed it on to someone inside the VOA, but refused to initiate a formal complaints process on the grounds that their Code of Practice states that I should have started by “contacting the person you are dealing with”. Since the VOA specifically made this impossible, this is a Catch-22.

What’s happened in both these cases is happening across just about every government department: where the old process involved assigning your case to an identified person who would read your letter or answer your call, the new process deliberately makes it as difficult as possible for you to do contact any person with any level of authority to assess and deal with your individual case. It’s done in the name of cost reduction, but what’s actually happening is to transfer cost from the government to the individual while ignoring the increased risk of unfairness.

I’m fortunate that on the grand scale of things, these examples are minor and that I’m literate enough to deal with them (in contrast to HMRC, by the way, the VOA dealt with my complaint properly). But the bureaucratic mechanics at play – the replacement of individual responsibility by rigidly automated processes – are the same ones that cause genuine hardship to vulnerable people, as shown in this article from the Guardian and this harrowing story from the Liverpool Echo. People are actually dying as a result of this trend.

Please don’t think I’m a luddite. I’ve designed and sold customer-facing IT systems and use them happily every day. This is not a complaint against automating routine processes: it’s a complaint against government officials being encouraged to hide behind a mask of anonymity and the shield of a call centre. “I was only following orders” has been replaced by “I followed the process”. Officials should not be encouraged (or even forced) to behave in ways that are blatantly unfair or inhumane as a result of supposed efficiency measures. And my (admittedly untutored) guess is that if you account for the duplication of effort from multiple people reviewing a given case and the time wasted by members of the public in jumping through hoops, the cost savings are illusory.

I believe we should have a Prevention of Faceless Bureaucracy Act which grants any citizen dealing with any government department the right to the name, email address and direct telephone number of the official dealing with their case, with a defined level of responsiveness required from that official and a defined process for escalation if that responsiveness is not met. For good measure, let’s add a requirement that senior department officials should be required to meet those responsiveness levels as a condition of any bonuses.

This idea isn’t glamorous and is probably tricky to implement. But I honestly believe that the attitudinal change involved would make a big difference, most of all to those too vulnerable and/or IT-illiterate to deal with the systems and processes now being rolled out. We must not allow the current dehumanising trend to continue.

What the EU referendum says about our democracy

I campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, and I’m extremely upset that we voted to leave. But the fact of leaving isn’t the thing that’s most depressing: far worse is what it has told me about our democracy. Successful Leave campaigners should be every bit as worried as I am about some of the things I’m about to discuss.

The first thing that alarms me is the way the referendum was allowed to operate. Anyone on either side of the argument was able to make any statement, however outlandish, however false, with total impunity. After a parliamentary or local government election, voters can punish a false campaign promise by voting against the person who makes it (or at least against their party) at future elections. In the referendum, campaigners could tell whatever lies they wanted to in the knowledge that all they had to do was to get 50.00001% of the votes on the day, and that once that was over, nothing else mattered.

Both sides indulged in outrageously indefensible rhetoric. I happen to think that the Leave side’s was particularly egregious, but that’s not the point: the problem is that a major decision that will affect our country for decades and maybe more was made after a campaign characterised by a tissue of lies.

I’m also disturbed by the referendum’s reduction of the highly complex matter of our relationship with Europe to a single In/Out question, without in any way defining what “Out” meant. Are we talking about “the Norwegian Solution” of remaining in the free trade agreement while continuing to comply with EU regulations? The “Swiss solution” of continuing to contribute to the EU budget? Or a total withdrawal from the free trade zone? Whichever of these options is chosen, the Prime Minister who implements Brexit risks a huge backlash from whichever part of the leave constituency had assumed either (a) we’re going to have fewer rules from Brussels, (b) we can stop contributing to the EU budget or (c) we can continue to be in the free trade block. Because truly, if anyone thinks we’re so important to the EU that they will continue to grant all of our former privileges while releasing us from all of the rules an obligations, they are living in a delusive state. All this means that far from resolving the EU debate, this referendum has merely fired its starting gun.

Why was it constitutionally OK for a political party in government to propose such a simplistic referendum? Of the reasons for doing so, it is now reasonably clear that (a) Cameron had no intention of putting out EU membership at risk and thought he was taking a safe bet; (b) the principal intent was to resolve tensions within the Conservative party and (c) Cameron and his aides didn’t think the electorate were intelligent enough to understand a more nuanced set of questions (I’m guessing on this last one, admittedly, but I think it’s a fairly safe guess). I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that Cameron called the referendum because he genuinely believed that “the people deserved their say”: I’ve never yet seen a referendum called for that reason and I don’t expect to.

Having spoken to a lot of people in the days leading up to June 23rd, I don’t think the majority of voters made a serious attempt to research and understand the facts. The most intelligent conversation I had with a probable Leave voter was with a doctor of African extraction who is deeply unhappy with EU policy in Africa, which she had checked out in a great deal of detail. Every other conversation showed rampant confirmation bias: people were simply not interested even in discussing their reasons for voting in detail and certainly didn’t want to understand the views of anyone on the opposing side.

One of the important arguments on the Leave side is the idea that outside the EU, we can regain total control of our democratic process. But that’s small comfort when you see the immediate effect of the referendum on that process. The first thing that is going to happen is that from around October, the country will be run for close to four years by an unelected Prime Minister – and probably, in the circumstances, by a Prime Minister of a very different complexion from the one who we voted for a year ago. How was it OK for Cameron to omit to mention that he would be resigning if he lost the referendum?

Early on Friday, I was pretty much in the #AshamedToBeBritish camp, living in the wonderful, open city that London is, but surrounded by a country full of racists. I’ve calmed down from that view, but I still fear greatly that most people who voted leave (not all, of course) did so because they were looking for someone to blame for twenty years of stagnant disposable incomes and ever reducing job opportunities. And the easiest people to blame were “everyone except us” – the immigrants and the foreigners. How much easier to blame a Brussels bureaucrat than to accept that we’ve lagged the world in productivity improvements, that a rash of people got into debt they couldn’t afford, or that the Blairite expansion of university places wasn’t fundable without either increasing taxes or making the students pay for it.

Indulging in arbitrary blame without being prepared to debate the facts isn’t a good way to make important decisions. Allowing a party’s internal issues to have such a huge and immediate impact on our future is worrying. So is having an unelected Prime Minister at what will now be a critical moment in history. And our permitting of demagogues – racist or otherwise – to tell a pack of lies with impunity is the scariest of all.





Can someone now start the real EU debate, please?

We arrived home from holiday last week to find campaign literature from both sides of the EU referendum campaign in the letterbox. I was dismayed by both: the arguments presented were dubious, to say the least, and it seemed to me that neither side dares to say what it really believes.

Humans are tribal creatures and the EU debate is ultimately about the size of the tribe. Do we want a tribe which is large and strong (if possibly fragmented and slightly fractious), or do we want our tribe to be small and cohesive (if possibly short of resources and clout)?

The Eurosceptic viewpoint seems to me to be driven by two fundamentals. The first is the image of Gulliver strapped down by the Lilliputians: Eurosceptics hark back to the days when the United Kingdom was a great power in its own right and feel that it could be so again if it were not enmeshed in a web of European bureaucracy and compromise. The second is a deep discomfort with immigrants, the idea that we are losing our country to invaders and not even putting up a fight over it.

European history My own beliefs are the opposite. I was born in 1958, which makes me pretty much the first generation for as long as anyone can remember to live sixty years without a major European war, and I attribute this not merely to nuclear weapons but largely to the EU – not to its specific institutions, but to the change in mindset that makes European governments start with an assumption of co-operation.

I don’t buy the “UK can be great again” argument. The UK is great: I love my country for the creativity, humour and fundamental sense of decency of its people, not its empire – which was lost not because of the EU but because the UK bankrupted itself over two world wars and because the prevailing ethical climate made it impossible to continue with the colonialist principles on which that empire was built. I’m only too pleased that historical episodes such as slavery, the opium wars and the salt tax  are well behind us, and if a Brit ever feels the need to preach to the world about genocide, they would do well first to consider the question “why are there no aborigines in Tasmania.” (Answer: because we killed them all). And I fundamentally believe in government by compromise – at the European or the UK level. To get technical for a moment, I actually believe in stuff like pooled sovereignty and subsidiarity.

Turning from those who hark to the olden days to those who merely say that Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and can stand perfectly well on its own, I would reply “yes, but for how long?” As education globalises, can a heavily populated small country with depleted natural resources really maintain the productivity lead that we have had in the past?

These are huge issues, and I’m more than happy to debate them with an open mind – and I believe we should be debating them. In my view, it is neither evil nor racist to feel uncomfortable at living in a city where you often can’t understand the language of the majority of the people in your street, or to be concerned at democratic deficit. But that’s not the debate we’re having.

Rather, on both sides, the debate so far has been about nickels and dimes, with statements being made that are deeply misleading. Consider this one, from the “Leave EU” side:

“We can remove our politicians who are answerable to us. Unlike unelected European commissioners”.

European commissioners are the equivalent of our senior civil servants, who are every bit as unelected. The laws in the UK are written by civil servants and voted on by politicians, just as EU laws are written by commissioners (and their staff) and voted on by the Council of Ministers and/or the European Parliament, who are people we elect. At heart, it’s not the existence of appointed officials that Eurosceptics dislike – otherwise, they should be trying to get rid of the whole of Whitehall – it’s the idea of appointments being made by what they consider to be the wrong people.

The Stay camp hardly fares better. “AA warns of pain at the pump with possible 19p rise if Britain leaves EU,” trumpets the leaflet, quoting the authoritative source of The Sun. Really? Even if it’s true, which sounds highly dubious, is the future of our country’s international relations really to be decided on the basis of motorists’ worries about their next petrol bill?

Or “Good for women, with the EU protecting women’s rights in the workplace, including vital anti-discrimination and equal pay laws”. I’m sorry, I may be an ardent supporter of the staying in campaign, but I can’t accept the idea that the UK Parliament is in some way incapable of enacting wise gender equality laws without having to rely on the EU to police it.

So please, let’s debate the real issues. Will a Brexit do irreparable damage to our relationship with European countries? Can an independent UK continue indefinitely to punch above its weight economically? Is it real or illusory that ordinary people will gain more control over the decisions that affect them? Should we wean ourselves off immigration, which we have relied on to cope with the economics of an ageing population? And if the answer is yes, is it feasible for an independent UK go about doing so?

For me, the answer is simple and emotional. It lies in a clip from the unashamedly anti-Brexit Great European Disaster Movie, in which a German lady lays out on her table a series of Iron Crosses, each representing a parent / grandparent / great-grandparent who died in a European war. She is of the first generation not to add to that list, and is unspeakably proud of it. Long may that trend continue. Being part of a whole, peaceful Europe enhances my life.

Semi-ethics and blowback

It was in my business software days that I first came across the concept of a “semi-ethical” policy. We were looking at companies who wrote software for lawyers, and I remember with complete clarity one of their product managers explaining to me that you could have a “fully ethical” timesheet system (where the system printed precisely the time recorded on each job), a “non-ethical” system (where the lawyer could write in whatever time they wanted) or a “semi-ethical” system, which defaulted to the actual time recorded but then allowed the lawyer to modify the results before sending them on to the client. My younger and more naive self was shocked, not so much by the fact that the systems (or indeed the lawyers) behaved in this way, but by the brazenness of the nomenclature.

The late Robin Cook caused some seriously raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles when, upon becoming foreign secretary in 1997, he appeared to suggest that our future foreign policy should be an ethical one. But Cook’s exact wording was more nuanced: he said that our foreign policy should “have an ethical dimension” – in a speech that explicitly placed security as the first goal of foreign policy and included a commitment to “resolutely defend British interests”. A semi-ethical policy, in other words.

A couple of decades later, it strikes me that a semi-ethical policy is precisely what we are pursuing in the Middle East, and that this is a major cause of our present levels of confusion and muddle. The problem is that we’re prepared to be ethical, but only in isolated compartments (and, one suspects, when it suits us for other reasons). For example:

  1. Saddam Hussein is an evil tyrant, so something must be done. For the sake of his people, we must overthrow him at all costs.
  2. Bashar al-Assad is an evil tyrant, so something must….(repeat above)
  3. The Soviet Union was an evil empire, so when we had an opportunity to damage it at little risk to ourselves (such as in Afghanistan), it had to be seized at all costs.

The point here is that regardless of the ethical choice that you’re making (if, by the way, you accept the principle of self-determination, you have to be pretty doubtful about both 1 and 2), such choices made in isolation have a nasty habit of leading to results that are at best unpredictable and at worst seriously counterproductive.

The term “blowback” was originally coined to refer to the effect of battlefield poison gas when the wind changed and brought the gas back onto one’s own soldiers. Semi-ethical policies – or, to be more precise, policies in which one’s reliance on one’s ethics are limited to a particular, narrowly drawn issue, are particularly vulnerable to blowback. Our support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan created the conditions in which Osama bin-Laden founded Al Qaeda. It turned out that the undoubtedly evil Saddam Hussein had been effectively keeping the lid on an explosive sectarian conflict, and it’s easy to trace the rise of IS directly to his removal. Our insistence on the deposition of Assad as a primary policy goal has led to the current crisis in Syrian refugees.

The difficulty faced by policy-makers is that most fully ethical policies look just as unappealing as ever, whereas in 21st century democracies, policies which disregard ethics altogether are becoming almost as unviable.

A fully ethical policy with the ability to prevent the Syrian crisis would have required the prevention of the global warming that caused or at least exacerbated the multi-year drought that triggered the crisis in the first place (see this graphic); our direct involvement could probably have been avoided only by getting rid of our dependence on Middle East oil, enabling us to be genuinely disinterested brokers. Both of the these things required sacrifices in lifestyle that Western electorates have found and continue to find unacceptable.

In the 19th century, ethics would have played little part in anyone’s thinking: a British or US government would have achieved its ends by a combination of overwhelming military force and diplomatic deviousness (there’s a reason for the name “Perfidious Albion”), without batting an eyelid. But times are different: as Robin Cook pointed out in that 1997 speech, “We are instant witness in our sitting rooms through the medium of television to human tragedy in distant lands.” The results of total ruthlessness in foreign policy are visible with considerable ease both to other nations and to our own electorates. Tony Blair’s prime ministership was very much a success until the Iraq invasion: for many, the results of the invasion and particularly the shenanigans surrounding the “dodgy dossier” that was used to justify it have turned Blair into a figure of hate.

So the chances are that semi-ethics will win, and that the processes of media spin and intensive muddling through will continue. At any given crisis, the cries of “something must be done” will be heeded and something will be done – even in the Middle East. But there’s little indication that the something will be the foundation of fair and lasting peace: that’s going to take a lot of luck, a commodity that’s been in short supply in the region.