Why is it OK to be ignorant?

13 09 2010

Why, in the 21st century, is it still socially acceptable to be ignorant about science?

Recently, on BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme Today, I heard a piece explaining why genes inherited along the maternal line might promote selfishness. The scientist responsible for the research under discussion explained his findings clearly and in a way that was easily understood.

All human bodies are carriers of genes. One might imagine that genes will always cause the bodies which house them to act selfishly in order that the genes are protected and then transmitted to future generations via reproduction.  Altruistic behaviour might be beneficial if it promotes the survival of copies of the genes held in other bodies, ie the bodies of those to whom we’re related.  JBS Haldane in his discussion of Kin Selection famously explained that, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”

It would seem that in our distant past that it was the women who dispersed when finding mates and tended to live in family groups with the fathers family. The woman, therefore, was not related to anyone else in that family group; shared no genes with the group. Selfish attributes in genes carried by women may have proliferated under these circumstances in the maternal line.

Now, this is a fascinating idea and not difficult to understand, is it?

The interviewer on the Today programme reduced debate to “Ha Ha, blame your mother” There was no attempt to  understand and explain the findings – just a rush to the ‘amusing’ punch line – blame your mother.

It was perfectly acceptable for the well educated journalist to show a complete ignorance of science – to take the “if it’s too hard I wont understand it” approach. It should not be acceptable to be proud of such ignorance. Imagine had a scholar come onto the programme to talk about Shakespeare or Michelangelo. You can be sure that not only would the radio presenters have spoken to the expert in hushed, reverential tones, they would have been keen to show off their own knowledge of the arts.

It would not have been acceptable to be unaware that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel and created the sculpture of David sited outside The Ufizzi in Florence.  But it is OK not to have the vaguest idea of the laws of science that allow the universe to exist. It is socially unacceptable to be unfamiliar with the novels of Dickens but perfectly acceptable if you cannot recite Newtons Law of Motion. And further, such ignorance of science is often a badge worn with pride – as if it is beneath the dignity of artists to sully their intellect with base technological knowledge.

It is not good enough and it should not be allowed to persist.

I am a scientist and am well read. I am proud that I have a broad knowledge. It enriches my life.  Journalists, and the rest, who refuse to engage with science should be ashamed of the gaps in their knowledge and not feel able to flout their ignorance.

It is important that this is not allowed to persist.

While young people are still getting the message that maths is hard, science is dull, chemistry boring, then we as a society will continue to struggle to get enough people to take science at university and to consider a career in technology.  The economy will suffer in the increasingly technology driven 21st century if we do not produce enough scientists and enough lay folk with a pride in the understanding of science.

For this reason it is important that we do not allow ignorance of science to be a badge of honour.

Why I’m a vegetarian

25 08 2010

Lots of people ask me why I’m a vegetarian so I’m writing this blog so that, in future, I can in the style of our politicians, refer questioners to the answer I gave a moment ago.

I’ve been a vegetarian, on and off, but mainly on, for about 25 years and while the question arises less often than it used to, probably because there are more of us about, but it still arises surprisingly frequently.

The reasons, in fact, have changed over the years and each casts a light onto the way I view the world in which we live.

I decided to become a vegetarian when I first had to commute to work. It was not a commute as is probably visualised now…three lane carriageways completely blocked by cars wedged bumper to bumper..but it was a 25 mile trip from my home to work. I was young, early 20’s, had my first company car and was always dashing from one important meeting to another. My drive to work took me through the Cheshire countryside and I became aware of the dead bodies of creatures, mainly rabbits and hedgehogs but including foxes and badgers and birds, strewn across the roads. For me their flattened bodies became a symbol of the way that we all race about with little or no concern for the world around us.

Becoming a vegetarian gave me daily thinking time – a physical reminder that my actions were not without consequence.

My job took me into factories, hospitals and, crucially in this context, food factories. Here comes the second reason.

The casual cruelty inflicted on pigs waiting for slaughter at a bacon factory was shocking – animals being tormented and teased in their pens.  Once again it was the thoughtlessness that affected me. I don’t think that the guys were being deliberately cruel..they just didn’t think at all.

The third reason came later when considering the role of industrial scale farming.

Millions of acres turned over to rearing animals for meat. Even at a hugely simplistic level this cannot be energy efficient. If we eat a vegetable the energy stored in the vegetable turns into energy that can be used by the human body. If animals eat vegetables the energy is converted into animal body. We kill the animal and eat some bits so, also taking into account the loss of energy in sustaining the animal up to the point of slaughter, the use of energy is less efficient by having the animal as a middle man.

So vast areas of the world dedicated to rearing livestock rather than growing crops … but I do eat dairy products and I expect that dairy cattle farming is a responsible for more acreage than beef cattle so I don’t totally follow my conscience here …. but I am aware of the conflict.

And where are the animals reared? Beef flown to the UK from Argentina and lamb from New Zealand.  Now I know that this is true for vegetable products, the only apples I was able to buy in a small store in the north of Shetland had been grown in Brazil, but it was the transport of meat that first made me think about the excessive air miles needed to get cheap food on our tables.

So my arguments for being a vegetarian are not really about animal welfare, I  agree with limited animal testing of pharmaceuticals in certain circumstances,  for instance. but they are about THINKING.

We don’t do enough of it.

We should think and not just rush headlong through our lives, filling our trolleys at Tescos with barely a thought for the impact of our purchasing decisions, hurtling through the countryside without any consideration for the world around us.

So rather thatn asking me “Why are you a vegetarian” as yourself why you’re not.  Or ask yourself do you really need lamb from New Zealand…or apples from Brazil.


19 08 2010

Tony Blair put education at the forefront of his first election campaign. While he now shuffles around the world in search of his legacy it was education that was his first hope for booking his place in history.

It wasn’t just about raising standards in education. His strategy had a focus on entrepreneurship at it’s core. Those early, cringe-worthy Brit-Pop meetings at Number 10 were not only so Tony could meet his heroes. The aim was to encourage government to connect with youth culture and through it encourage a more enterprising generation. The big idea was to inject the spirit of enterprise into a tired, old schools sector.

So how did innovation and enterprise come to be forgotten and the focus to narrow even further on exam results and school league tables?

In my view the error came right at the start when the emphasis was put on pupils rather than teachers.

Programmes were developed to encourage pupil entrepreneurship. These, supported by the huge expansion in personal access to information driven by the growth of the internet in the 90’s and into the 21st century, allowed pupils to be put at the centre of their learning experience. This is perfectly right and proper. In theory.

But while there is so little room for enterprise within the teaching profession – being solely driven by academic achievement and league tables and commonly having no work/life experience beyond the education system – enterprise is squeezed out of the curriculum. How many times have we heard that teachers train children to pass exams rather than educating them?

The focus on academic achievement has meant that vocational training has been sidelined by successive governments. After much debate 14-19 years diplomas have been introduced in subjects such as construction and media but the initial intention of offering vocational study options in mainstream subjects such as English and modern languages has been shelved. This has meant that vocational courses are still seen as the poor relation to academic study.

Free schools, much vaunted by Michael Gove, may improve the situation by giving schools more control over the curriculum. However, looking at the experience with the current free schools, the city academies, they have been accused of doing away with ‘harder‘ academic subjects to focus on ‘softer‘ vocational options to improve the performance and position on school league tables.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

While we have this differential thinking that equates academic to difficult and vocational to easy how will we ever be able to give equal value to practical study and to properly introduce courses such as enterprise and entrepreneurship into our schools.

In my own recent experience I contacted the Determined to Succeed Team here in Scotland. This is a great programme and driven by talented and committed individuals. The programme, however, is delivered via the local education bodies. I was able to offer my own skills, and those of hundreds of entrepreneurs who are involved in the3rdi magazine, free of charge, to support enterprise and work experience initiatives within schools.

To my huge disappointment, but not surprise as my own son has recently left the education system in Scotland, not one school in Perth and Kinross, not one – primary or secondary, thought that they could benefit from this opportunity. They were all too busy, focussed solely on year tests and final examination results. All too blinkered. My own son had not a single class on enterprise in his whole secondary education. Fortunately he has lots of role models outside the classroom but most kids aren’t that lucky and rely entirely on schools for the totality of their education, academic or otherwise.

We are now working with Glasgow schools and so maybe all is not doom and gloom.

If you want to share your thoughts on this issue, follow the3rdimagazine on twitter or the3rdi group on linkedin or join our fans on facebook.

Mumpreneurs – new thing or just what we’ve always done?

22 06 2010

The July issue of the3rdi magazine will focus on working from home and in advance of that we have posted to find out about different peoples experiences and opinions.

As part of this process, and to stimulate debate, I thought that I should wade into the area of mumpreneurs. Well, when I say wade in I really mean jump in with both feet.

Firstly, I dislike the word. I am an entrepreneur. Really. I am. I have started at least 5 businesses in different business areas, using different skills and different technologies.  This qualifies me to use the term entrepreneur. And I am a mum. These are separate and unrelated parts of my life. The two do not fuse. I am a mum and I am an entrepreneur.

The prefix mum, it seems to me, has been deliberately chosen to confer some sort of protective shield around the word and hence the person. Everyone loves mums, like we all love apple pie, don’t we. It’s a given. And woebetide anyone who critises mums.  How many times have you heard the question asked, “Do you have kids?” and if the answer is “no” the respondent is given a sympathetic look and told, “You’ll understand when you have kids of your own.” It’s as if having a child, as long as you are not one of those demonised single-parents on sink estates, confers a cloak of invincibility. This is plainly nonsense.

For me the act of childbearing is a natural act unique to my gender due entirely to an aspect of physiology. Having a child may have altered my perspective on what was important in life but it did not change my understanding of business, the universe and everything and did not raise my intellect by a single IQ point. In other words being a mum had no affect on my entrepreneurial abilities.

As women we are often reluctant to criticise other women, especially mums and the mumpreneur seems particularly immune from critisism. I’m going to buck the trend.

Let’s accept that those that call themselves mumpreneurs are, in fact, mums. Many display their kids on their websites, blogs, books and across social media platforms so I’ll accept that the mum part is true. But are they also entrepreneurs? In the main I think not.

There is a huge difference between entrepreneurship and enterprise.

Lots of women decide that they are unwilling or unable to follow a career in full-time, paid employment once they have had a child. This is completely understandable as the demands placed on home, family and a full-time career can be intolerable. It is not surprising, however, that the previously successful and energetic woman, finding herself at home 24/7, should seek to find something to occupy them beyond changing nappies and watching ceebeebies. So many mums start a home-based business.

But here’s the thing. This is nothing new! This is home-working. Women have done this for generations. They have taken in washing, done ironing, dress making, knitting, book-keeping, writing kids books from home for decades. They use the skills that they had at work to make money from home. This is not entrepreneurship – this is enterprise.

My own mother started a number of very successful playgroups when my brothers were small. She took what she knew, looking after kids, and turned it into a home-based business. She would not consider herself to be entrepreneurial and neither would I. She was extraordinarily enterprising –  and successful.

Modern stay at home mums have the benefit of new technology to access larger markets for their enterprise but the principle is the same. If you write a book about bring up baby you are an author not an entrepreneur. To get that book reviewed on Womans Hour is enterprising, not entrepreneurial.

For me an entrepreneur sees new market opportunities and develops and grows businesses and business skills to exploit those opportunities. An enterprising individual builds a single business on the skills they already have. For example, someone who has worked in the HR department of a large corporate and goes on to run a small HR company from home while bringing up kids is enterprising not entrepreneurial.

Now I should say that I am not being derogatory about enterprise. Far, far from it. Enterprise is hugely important and I value enterprise just as much as entrepreneurship. Enterprise can find a new angle, a new niche a new way of working and build strong businesses. Entrepreneurship requires a different skill set and while it may have bigger rewards there are often larger risks. Mums are often unwilling to take these risks, which is why they focus, quite properly, on enterprise.

I know mumenterpriser isn’t as catchy as mumpreneur but it is nearer to the truth. The use of entrepreneur when we mean enterprise devalues both.


16 06 2010

What an odd word and an even stranger concept.

I was listening to the Today Programme on my way to the station this morning and the discussion centered around The report of the Saville Enquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings. Several people who were there at the time or who had been involved in the process of reconciliation since were asked whether the publication of th ereport could provide closure for those whose loved ones were killed in 1972.

I had been thinking about the concept of closure and how you could possibly hope to recover from such a violent and unexpected change to your life following the recent shootings in Cumbria. Closure for those left in the wake of the Cumbria murders cannot be achieved by the burial of their loved ones and clearly this ritual did not in any way constitute closure in Northern Ireland in the early 70’s.

So, is closure about finding an answer to shocking, dramatic and unexpected events? In 1972 thousands took to the streets in a Civil Rights march and hundreds were caught up in the violence and 13 people never returned home, having been shot by British soldiers. The heightened stress that soldiers will have felt in the atmosphere of fear, distrust and hatred in 1970’s Northern Ireland is well documented but is insufficient explanation or excuse for the decisions that the soldiers and their commanders took in opening fire on unarmed civilians. The investigation should shed light on who fired, when and why. It has taken 12 years of the Saville Enquiry and almost 40 years of campaigning and protest from those directly affected by the killings to get close to answering these questions.

But even if the answers found are clear cut and accepted across all off the communities involved, will that be sufficient to allow closure? I suspect not, and that prosecutions will be sought and prison sentences given to those who fired the fatal shots before closure will be achieved. Answers and punishment for the guilty are probably what most people are looking to establish before a tragic event can considered to be closed.

And so to the events in Cumbria. How can we possibly know what was going on in the head of the killer? We can  guess at what drove him to kill those he knew but what of the victims selected apparently at random? If the killer himself appeared to have no reason how can we possibly get answers for the loved ones of the victims? And with the killer dead any retribution that society may have deemed to be appropriate cannot be administered.  So if we accept that closure comes from answers and punishment then how can you achieve closure here?

And if closure is attained in this way, is it lasting?  What about when the guilty are released? The mother of Lesley Ann Downey, victim of Moors Murderers in the 1960’s, often stated that the only reason she lived was to kill Myra Hindley if she was ever released from prison. So is the death sentence for killers the answer?

In the Zen Buddhist tradition there is encouragement to live in the moment. The past cannot be changed and the future cannot be guaranteed so let go of the agonies of the past and don’t worry about what the future might bring.

Perhaps, in that context, closure is the answering of sufficient questions for us to be able to put aside the wrongs of the past and to get on with living our lives…to not let an event, however awful, define us.  From the moment that Lesley Ann Downey was killed her mother became defined by that event. It consumed her. It became her life to the exclusion of everything else. With the killing of Lesley her mothers life ended too.  I know two women who were widowed tragically early and very suddenly. One is a widow and has lived her life in the shadow of that event. The other is a woman getting on with the rest of her life.

I hope that the survivors of the soldiers actions and those whose lives have been suddenly and tragically affected by the killings in Cumbria do find enough closure to allow them to continue with their lives and not forever be defined by these events forever.

Net-working beats networking

7 06 2010

When I think of networking I think of the plethora of networking events and in this respect I am neither a natural or enthusiastic networker. I say this knowing that to most of the hundreds of people I meet each month this will come as a big surprise and may even be heretical for someone in my position, particularly this month, when networking is the theme of the magazine.

I attend many networking events, as delegate or speaker, and have no difficulty approaching people and chatting away. This doesn’t mean that I enjoy the whole networking thing. I don’t. But I do love meeting people. I am genuinely interested in people, how they think, what makes them tick, their hopes and aspirations. This is one of the reasons I love working with the3rdi magazine. There are so many interesting women and businesses out there, all with their own fascinating stories. However, you rarely meet people for long enough at most networking events to gain these sort of insights. I make an exception here for Athena. I am a fan. Here there are small groups within the larger grouping and there is a real opportunity to establish long-term business relationships.

However, most networking events are like mornings in the zoo; lots of voices clamouring for attention, all needing to get heard in order to get their reward. In the zoo this is breakfast. For the networker this is the exchange of business cards.

The swapping of contact details, rather than listening to the other person, is the driving factor. Most events will exhort you to bring £10 for coffee and lots of business cards when attending an event. They are more speed dating than long-term relationship. That’s not to say that it is not possible to make a great new contact at a networking event but surely there is a better way to meet your prince than kissing hundreds of frogs?

And that brings me to social networking. What I am going to say is counter-intuitive. I know that as only 6 months ago I was a complete sceptic, no more than that, I was a denier. One of my first blog posts was called Twitter Ye Not, and I detailed my objections to social media in general and twitter in particular. As you can read, I was unconvinced but you will see from the postscript added a couple of months ago, I am now persuaded of the value of social networking for business.

And actually it is more than that. Twitter suits me!

When I first considered the benefit of hearing what anyone had to say in just 140 characters I thought it unlikely that they could say anything of interest in that few words. I reckoned without human ingenuity…..and most communication is managed without annoying teenage textspeak abbreviations. You do have to pick the accounts you follow carefully. The amount of banality and vacuuos nonsense out there is truly mindblowing – there are only so many times I can read “today is the first day of the rest of your life” and other such ludicrous platitudes before I want to throw myself out of the window, taking the tweeter with me!

But the big positive for me is that by following short posts on twitter over a period of a couple of days you can get a far better insight into the person than you can in the business card frenzy that is the networking breakfast. You can choose, from the comfort of your own seat, whether to engage with that person or not, as opposed to being wedged into a corner of a second-rate hote room by a used car salesman or aromatherapist. And most posts come with a link so that you can instantly find out more about the issue, business or person. At an event you have to wait until you get back home and visit the website described on the business card to find out that the international grain merchant you spent the whole event talking to actually runs a bird seed shop in Peckham.

So, I’m a convert, to twitter at least.

If you have got a twitter account yourself then let us know and we can follow each other.

You can follow me at http://www.twitter.com/kebirch and the3rdi at www.twitter.com/the3rdimagazine

See you there

Time flies, drags and waits for no man.

31 05 2010

I am fascinated by the concept of time.

My bookcases are crammed with titles such as Times Arrow, Achilles in the Quantum Universe and Time travel in Einstein’s Universe.

So what is time?

It is common to suggest that time is the 4th dimension. We can measure the other three directly – we can reach out and touch three dimensional objects. Our physical bodies exist in a three dimensions. But we cannot touch time. I am aware of it’s effect when I look in the mirror. I look older. And time is always heading in the same direction. I am never going to grow younger.

This effect – times arrow – is scientifically founded in entropy. As we go “forward” in time, the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a system tends to increase or remain the same; it will never decrease. Entropy measurement can, therefore, be thought of as a kind of clock. However entropy is the only quantity in the physical sciences that seems to imply a particular direction for time. In other cases, other equations, time does not assume a particular direction. But it is this perception of time passing that resonates in our everyday life.

We experience time in different ways. We talk about time flying, time dragging, time weighing heavily. It’s passage is rarely, if ever, seen as regular, even or linear.

I heard a short story recently – more of a mind exercise really – where people in heaven relived their lives in the exact proportions they did on earth, but not in the same sequence. So if they had spent an hour a day on the train to work then in heaven they would spend 9,600 hours consecutively, without a break, sitting on a train. Bizarre thought but it does make you reassess how you spend time here on earth.
I had a perfect example yesterday. I have an iphone on which I play Bejeweled. I was trying to find the high scores when I came across a statistics page that suggested that I had played the game for 5 days – 5 whole days!! I’ve only had the phone for 7 months. Surely not?! I only play in those dead moments, waiting for a train, waiting for the kettle to boil so let’s assume i play 4 times a day, 10 minutes a time; 40 mins a day over 7 months is 8520 minutes – almost 6 days!! To my horror it is possible!!

And every Wednesday I sit. I sit in a world where time in the way I normally experience it just doesn’t exist. I help a guy who is the same age as I am and who has dementia. He has no coherent sense of time as his memory is fragmented and unreliable.

He knows that he knows me. He recognises me as a friend but can’t remember my name. He asks where I am from at about half hourly intervals. And so we sit and cycle through simple, often asked questions and responses throughout the evening.

He gets tired and he sleeps; he gets hungry and so he eats. There is a rhythm to his day which marks the massage of time but all of the memories of what has passed are vague and jumbled. Time is flattened as all his experiences have happened at the sane time: yesterday, last week, last year are indistinguishable and lumped together as being past.

In my life and when I teach yoga or meditation I encourage myself and others to live in the moment. Things that have happened are gone, cannot be changed and should not be dwelt upon. Things in the future are beyond our control and should not be worried over.

I do believe that this is true but to be trapped in the present is not to live in the moment. Rather it is to be timeless. To be adrift in your own life.

Working with someone with dementia has added hugely to my understanding of time. It can fly, it can drag and it can be lost completely.

What we know and what we think we know

20 05 2010

To say that I am not a fan of Donald Rumsfeld would be to dramatically understate the case. But I do find his description of knowns, unknowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns compelling.

The realm of what is known and what us unknown is ever changing. As we learn new things more becomes known, clearly, but things that we know can change too. Look at thecareas if healthy eating. A couple of years ago I knew that I could only eat a couple if eggs a week as they contained the wrong type of cholesterol. Now it seems I can eat as many as I like. My earlier knowledge has now been surplanted by new information.

I was thinking about this while listening to Womans Hour on my way down to Edinburgh during a piece where a neuroscientist tried to explain the concept of evidential gap that exists between neuroscience research that shows that brains of boys develop differently to those of girls to an educationalist who asserted that this must mean that they should be taught differently.

What we know from research in one field cannot simply be transposed onto a new one without filling that evidential gap. Don’t get me started on the number of alternative therapists who insist that quantum level uncetainty proves that their particular quakery had foundations in science.

But on reading two articles in the New Statesman of 17th May I must question what I think I know on two levels.

Firstly, I know that in order to reduce global warming we must reduce carbon emissions and that means carbon dioxide. But, according to Oliver Tickell, we are missing the bigger picture. Black carbon – soot to me and you – plays a huge role in climate change. He claims that a typical tonne of soot spends about 2 weeks in the atmosphere and causes the same amount of warming as 1600 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 20 years.

This has particular resonance for me as I collect wood to burn on my open fire, thinking that I was being environmentally responsible as I did so.
What I thought I knew I now do not.

And then to Michael Brookes article discussing the first Reith Lecture given by Michael Rees which looked at how confident we can be in the claims made by scientists as they uncover Rumsfeld’s known unknowns.

For example, did you know that in re-runs of published health studies the results were only replicated 5% of the time?

As a student I relied on the term ‘statistically significant ‘ a great deal. Essentially a result is deemed to be significant if there is only a 5% chance that it was generated by random chance. But this only holds true when examining a single variable. If you look at lots of things at once or only decide what it is we are looking for after the data has been collected then any conclusions drawn are unreliable.

This is often why so many published studies reach conclusions diametrically opposed to one another. The world is a very complex place and it is often virtually impossible to isolate a single variable and reach totally sound conclusions.

So even a time served rationalist like me has to accept that scientific evidence may not be all that it appears to be – that what we know, what we have shown to be true, may be unknowable. Maybe everything is an unknown known!

This just doesn’t FEEL right

18 05 2010

Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you that I am Spock like in my application of logic and intellectual rigour to problem solving.

But this just doesn’t feel right.

For the past 30 years I have been a supporter of the Liberal Party and, more recently, the Liberal Democrats. For all of that time my politics have been to the left of centre and for most of the last 20 years I have found myself to the left of New Labour as it strove to occupy the centre of Britsh politics. I cannot bring to mind anytime that I have found myself agreeing with any policy put forward by the Conservative Party.

Yet I now find the Liberal Democrats in a formal coalition with the Conservative party, one which seeks to keep a Tory Prime Minister in Downing Street for the next 5 years.

It just doesn’t feel right,  so I’ll revert to type. Let’s  bring some intellectual rigour to bear. Let’s look at the evidence.

A YouGov poll asked people whether they would consider themselves to be left, centre or to the right of the British political spectrum. 54% of Labour supporters put themselves firmly on the left, as did 43% of LibDem supporters. By contrast, 57% of Tory supporters put themselves out on the right. So it would appear that most British voters would, like me, put themselves to the left of centre.

This is confirmed by the actual voting figures, around 60% of voters putting their cross next to parties of the progressive left. So while Nick Clegg had said that he would talk to the party with the most seats/greatest individual share of the vote,  there does seem to have been plenty of scope for him to have sought to form a coalition of the left, with Labour and parties such as the SNP, with whom they have worked successfully in Scotland for a number of years, and Plaid Cymru.

So what made Nick Clegg decide to throw in his lot with David Cameron?

What has he agreed to? Trident stays, there will be huge cuts in public spending this year, Tory immigration policy remains untouched, Teresa May and George Osborne have posts of influence in the cabinet.

What has he gained? A referendum on voting reform, ID cards scrapped, a voice in cabinet for Vence Cable et al and a fabby new job for himself (but lest we get carried away, John Prescott was deputy PM!).

For any Liberal voting reform is a hugely important issue but will a referendum actually result in a change tio the voting system? The different types of voting system that might be adopted all offer a degree of proportionality but all are notoriously difficult to explain. Might the electorate, when faced with a complex array of options, simply revert to ” I don’t understand it, so I don’t trust it, better leave things as they are.” This past election seems to suggest that while the electorate may express a desire for change, Cleggmania, when it comes down to it many lose their nerve. Some 1m people who said that they were going to vote LibDem actually reverted to the Labour or Tory tribalism on the day of the election.

But even if electoral reform is delivered will it be at a price worth paying? Trident will remain, public services will have been slashed and foreign policy will remain in the hands of the xenophobic right.

I’m not sure…but it doesn’t FEEL right to me.

Confessions of a politics addict

11 05 2010

Politics has formed the backbone of my life.

Some of my earliest memories are of my father, grandfather and fiesty grandmother discussing politics and religion.

My grandparents had been involved in the early trade union movement in the north west of England. They are/were lifelong labour supporters. Old Labour that is. I cannot imagine that my nana would have approved of Blair, Campbell and Mandelson, though she probably would have voted for them as she believed that the working man had been given the vote so that they could vote Labour.

For my part I won the 1974 election on behalf of the Liberal Party. It was held in my school and I was swept to power…not bad as, at that time, you could fit the whole parliamentary Liberal Party  in a very small minibus.

During my teens, when my parents moved from Liverpool to Cheshire, a move my nana saw as a defection until her dying day, I was marooned in the Winterton fiefdom of Congleton. As a student my boyfriend and I consoled ourselves by selling copies of the Socialist Worker on the streets of Oxford and to campaigning for Gwyneth Dunwoody in the nearby constituency of Crewe.

The eighties were a disaster with Margaret Thatcher snatching free school milk and anything else she could get her hands on. When I moved to Scotland the spectre of the poll tax haunted Scotland and still makes the Tories unelectable north of the border.

I have always stayed up on election night, even before I could vote. Partly this is my interest in politics but mainly it is due to my love of competition. It is like watching the cup final! I sit there with wine in hand, plenty of snacks and a comfy chair and settle in for the long haul. I was up for Portillo and I was up to see Jaquie Smith lose her seat this time; both falls from grace that were thoroughly deserved.

This is the only benefit of the first past the post system; that the voters can get rid of individuals that they dislike – as shown by the voters of Montgomery.  Unfortunately this is the major drawback too, as most MPs occupy seats that have such huge majorities that they cannot, in practice, ever be removed – like the Wintertons when they squatted in Cheshire.  No matter how many excesses were exposed and how seldom Nicholas actually visited the Houses of Parliament (his lack of attendence even became a standing joke in the Tory friendly Daily Telegraph), he remained as the local MP. I had a twitter exchange with someone recently who felt that public sector workers were lazy, overpaid and had jobs for life. I begged to differ but certainly a lot of MPs, public sector workers, do fit this description.

I was glued to the TV until about 4am on Friday morning when it became obvious that the position was actually no clearer than when I sat down at 10pm. In fact it was exactly as was predicted before the campaign had even started! But since Friday morning it has been compulsive viewing and listening for election addicts like myself.

Will Nick Clegg take the Tory shilling?

Will Gordon stay or will he go?

Will the Tory grandees suffer any compromise?

And for a lifelong Liberal these are heady times! The Lib-Lab pact was an interesting time. The formation of the SDP brought huge hopes for a progressive coalition. Power sharing in Scotland under Jim Wallace offered the glimpse of what might be. And here we are – the prospect of change to an outdated electoral system, of fair taxation,  a zero carbon economy, the removal of trident and the scrapping of the surveillance society, as exemplified in Labours ID card system, are all within grasp.

If Nick Clegg hasn’t seen Braveheart then he should…..hold, hold, hold

Hold your nerve for all our sakes.