Friday, 20 September 2019

Hello? Is there anyone there?


I don’t know how I could possibly have missed it – after all, it’s not as if there’s anything else going on – but apparently the results of a global opinion poll were published a few days ago on whether we should respond to an approach, if and when it comes, from an alien civilisation.

In the UK, two-thirds of the men said Yes, but more than half of the women said No. Globally, the split was pretty much 50-50. Me? I’m with the fellas: if ET gets in touch, yes, definitely, let’s pick up the phone. And I know what my first words would be: ‘I think we could do with some help.’

So let’s think this through. Let’s suppose that one of the international consortia of space scientists – the NASA-backed SETI institute in California, for example (SETI = Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), or the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project – pick up signals that could only have come from some form of intelligent life far, far away. What’s more, by some miracle of computational gee-whizzery, they can decipher what the signals say.

‘Hello? Is there anyone out there?’ And guess what, although it’s not quite as easy as hitting the Reply button, the earthling scientists work out how to respond.

Why wouldn’t they? ‘Hello, we’re here. The little blue planet, third one out from the G2V star on the inner edge of the Orion arm of the Milky Way galaxy, about 26,500 light years from the Galactic Centre. If you can’t find us, presumably you have an equivalent of Google Maps.’

To me, it’s a no-brainer. But some scientists think we’d be crazy to tell anyone where we are. The science commentator Anjana Ahuja wrote in the Financial Times the other day that it would be ‘madness on a galactic scale’. ‘An alien lifeform extending the tentacle of friendship is likely to be reaching out from a position of technological, if not intellectual, superiority,’ she wrote. ‘The history of explorers pinpointing distant lands is one of plunder and conquest. Parading our presence could unleash interplanetary pandemonium.’

The astrophysicist Duncan Forgan is similarly fearful. ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea to speak to someone when you have no idea who they are. I’m not convinced we should be advertising the human race at this point in our existence.’

I understand their position. The way they see it, we earthling human life-forms are the galactic equivalent of First Nation Americans or the indigenous peoples of Australia when unfriendly foreign explorers landed on their shores. Shouldn’t we learn from their experience?

Having recently discovered that a planet called K2-18b orbiting in the ‘habitable zone’ of a distant star has evidence of the presence of water in its atmosphere – and therefore, in theory, might be capable of supporting life as we understand it – should we tread very carefully before making our existence known to whoever, or whatever, might be living there?

I am no scientist, but I think the sceptics are being too cautious. It’s not as if we are so confident of our long-term survival prospects that we might not benefit from a bit of help from our intellectual or technological superiors. And if they were to decide that we’re so useless at looking after ourselves and our planet that they’d be better off annihilating us and starting all over again, well, I’m not sure I’d blame them.

On the other hand, if they ask to be taken to our leader, I’d immediately put them in touch with David Attenborough – he has plenty of experience of dealing with non-human life forms, and he might even be able to persuade our alien visitors that we’re not as useless as we seem.

I know, I know. You’re wondering why I have chosen to write about extra-terrestrial intelligence this week of all weeks. I would have thought it was obvious. I’m desperately hoping that there’s someone – something – out there who can help us resolve … but no, I promised myself I wouldn’t even mention the B word this week. So you’ll have to work it out for yourself.

And, ET, if you’re reading this, you know where to find me.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Heading towards a culture war


They both have ridiculous hairstyles, they are both inveterate liars, and they are both adept at riding populist waves. They also, to our immense misfortune, are both, for the time being, leaders of their countries.

Yes, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have much in common. So too do their supporters. After all, just look at the campaign slogans that won them high office: ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control.’ And focus on two words in particular: ‘again’ and ‘back’.

Both words encourage voters to hark back to a supposedly more glorious past. They are an appeal to nostalgia, to the days of voters’ youth when they were healthier and happier and the world, at least when viewed through their favourite rose-tinted glasses, was a much, much better place.

In America, it was a time before they lost the war in Vietnam, before President Richard Nixon had been forced to resign in disgrace, before millions of jobs in heavy industries were lost. In the UK, it was before we lost an empire, before the death of the coal, steel and ship-building industries, before immigrants with different coloured skins arrived on our shores.

And – of course – it was a time before we joined the Common Market, which then became the European Economic Community, and then became the European Union. Hence Brexit. Hence a political and constitutional crisis deeper than any since the fierce debates over Irish Home Rule more than a hundred years ago.

Brexit is about so much more than how we organise our international trading relationships. It is about how we think of ourselves, and how we think of our country. I have come to the view that the reason Remainers and Leavers can barely speak to each other any more is that they are talking about the wrong things.

I have been taking another look at the detailed research findings published by the pollster and Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft immediately after the Brexit referendum. He interviewed more than twelve thousand voters, far more than is usual in exercises of this kind, and his findings revealed a vast attitudinal gulf between the two sides of the Brexit divide.

For example: Leave voters were far more pessimistic about their children’s futures than Remainers. They were also far more likely to take the view that life in Britain today is worse than it was thirty years ago. The figures are startling: nearly three quarters of Remainers thought life was better than it used to be; more than half of the Leave voters thought it was worse. Substantial majorities of Leave voters also thought that multi-culturalism, social liberalism, feminism, the green movement, globalisation and immigration were all forces for ill. Remainers thought exactly the opposite.

I grew up in the 1960s. It was a time when abortion and male homosexuality were legalised, capital punishment was abolished, and the feminist movement took off. To some, it was the age of the ‘permissive society’, an age when the ‘old morality’ was replaced by what they called the ‘new immorality’. During my schooldays, there was a far-right movement, a precursor to the National Front, called the League of Empire Loyalists, rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-Communist, which campaigned forlornly for the preservation of the British empire. There is nothing new about nostalgia, even if, as the old joke has it, it’s nothing like it used to be.

I bring all this up now because I fear that in the cauldron of the current Brexit melt-down, we are in danger of ignoring the very real divisions in British society that go far beyond Brexit itself. As the political debate becomes increasingly polarised, with each side accusing the other of betrayal, treachery and worse, there is an increasing danger that we are moving ever closer to what in different circumstances would be called a culture war.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, I have discerned some tiny glimmers of hope over the past few days. Whereas fifteen months ago I was writing in fury about what I called the ‘shame of our cowardly MPs’, now I have come to admire at least those who have put conscience before party loyalty, even at the risk of their careers. I also admire our still independent judiciary – even as I watched in horror as the business minister Kwasi Kwarteng told Andrew Neil last Wednesday that although, of course, he himself believes that judges are impartial, ‘many people up and down the country are beginning to question their partiality.’

I have also been encouraged – oh, all right, just a little bit encouraged – by the conclusion of Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform and one of our most respected EU analysts, after two days of talks with EU, member state and UK officials, that a deal is ‘more likely than I had thought.’

For what it’s worth, I still believe Boris Johnson desperately wants a deal, even at the cost of being branded a traitor by the so-called Spartans of his own party. All he needs is a rabbit out of the hat at the EU Council meeting in mid-October, the support of a couple of dozen of pro-Brexit Labour MPs, and he’ll be basking in the glory of an adoring Conservative party.

Which, of course, is what he always wanted. He hates being hated – I have rarely seen him look as miserable as he has done recently – so I suspect he’ll soon be parting company with his sinister adviser, Dominic (Svengali) Cummings, who likes nothing better.

I don’t believe that he’ll break the law over seeking an Article 50 extension, but I do think he’ll resign as prime minister rather than go through with it if he hasn’t got a deal. So if you can’t bear the thought of any more high octane Westminster drama, I suggest you go somewhere far away between 19 and 31 October. My blogpost on 1 November will tell you whether it’s safe to come home.

Friday, 6 September 2019

A PM who has swallowed the Kool-Aid of populism


Guess what: serial liars who are known to be serial liars tend not to be believed. Not even by their own brother. Even if they happen to be prime minister.

They are not believed when they say they don’t want to call a snap election. Nor are they believed when they say their Brexit negotiations are going well in Brussels. Nor when they claim that a decision to ask the Queen to prorogue parliament has nothing to do with Brexit.

Their credibility is further shot to pieces when their supposed effortless charm and charisma vanishes into thin air as soon as they are tested, whether in the House of Commons, or in a rambling, incoherent, positively Trumpian speech in front of bemused police recruits in Wakefield, Yorkshire.

To help out, I have drafted a new version of the standard police caution, which inexplicably our hero tried, and failed, to remember: ‘You do not have to say anything – indeed, it might be much better if you said nothing. But it may harm your electoral prospects if you say when questioned something which you then immediately contradict. Anything you do say may be quoted in full and result in you being mocked mercilessly.’

(Incidentally, to deliver what was meant to be an election campaign speech in front of an audience of hapless police recruits is straight out of the Trump playbook. Whether we should now expect huge rallies of adoring Johnsonian supporters remains to be seen.)

The last words I wrote before I disappeared for my extended summer break – yes, lovely, thanks, did I miss anything? – were: ‘Make the most of the sunshine, because I suspect it’s going to be a very bumpy autumn.’ Bumpy? Did I say bumpy? What on earth could I have been thinking?

I’m going to be honest with you: I am having enormous difficulty making any sense of what is going on at Westminster. The shifting sands shift so rapidly that I can’t keep up; likewise the prime minister’s defeats in parliament, which have already, after a mere three days of parliamentary debate, reached the same number as Tony Blair’s over a period of ten years.

Well, of course, they have, you might say. That’s what happens when you have a minority government. It is also what happens when a majority of voters decide in a referendum to approve a course of action which a majority of MPs think would be deeply damaging to the national interest. The UK’s political system has shattered under the strain and left us floundering about with no relevant rulebook in the middle of a hurricane. One day, we’re going to have to do something about that.

A couple of days after the Brexit referendum in June 2016, I wrote this: ‘The people have spoken, and the people’s will must be respected … This is the Lustig timetable for a brighter future: first, a new Labour leader, and then a general election, a new deal and a new referendum.’ It seemed to make good sense at the time, and I think it still makes good sense now.

But there is no point in ‘If only …’ We are now heading for a general election, the second to be called since the referendum, possibly within the next six weeks but almost certainly before Christmas. If it’s in mid-October, and if Boris Johnson wins with a decent majority, he will presumably immediately ask parliament to repeal the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act, which was passed yesterday in the House of Commons, is due to be passed in the House of Lords today, Friday, and receive Royal Assent on Monday. That’s why there is a lot to be said for the idea currently under consideration of calling a vote of no confidence next week, and forcing him out well before the 31 October Brexit deadline.

This is a deeply divided country in the throes of a nervous breakdown. It can’t decide what to do, or which way to turn. It is a country whose prime minister has swallowed the Kool-Aid of populism: identify the enemy, pit the ‘people’ against the ‘elite’ and smash the established political norms. Boris Johnson’s decision to expel his party opponents left no doubt: he intends to cast himself as an indomitable national warrior (yes, that’s ‘dom’ as in ‘Dominic’), vanquishing all foes until he bestrides the battlefield unchallenged.

So far, it has to be said, it’s not going terribly well. (In sporting terms, played four, lost four.) Just as the Italian hard-line populist Matteo Salvini has also found, clever stratagems designed to wrong-foot your opponents can easily blow up in your face. But be warned: neither here nor in Italy are the battles over yet, and elections, as we have seen, can result in wholly unexpected outcomes.

Over the past few weeks, friends and acquaintances have repeatedly asked me the same two questions. What do I fear most about where this might be heading – and what, in an ideal world, would I like to happen? I find both questions extremely difficult to answer, but here goes.

What do I fear most? That the forthcoming election will result in another hung parliament and a continuation of the current impasse, leading to even more widespread popular discontent with the political class and a rise in violent political rhetoric on both sides. Anybody who knows anything about Europe’s recent history will know where that can lead.

What would I like to happen? I would like the Lib Dems, Greens, and independent Tories, plus the SNP in Scotland, to cooperate in the forthcoming election campaign by not fielding candidates in constituencies where one of them has a clear electoral advantage. I would also like local Conservative associations to refuse to mount a serious challenge against incumbent expelled Tories who decide to stand as independents.

And then, maybe, the post-election arithmetic would allow the formation of a coalition administration which would (a) renegotiate a withdrawal deal with Brussels, almost certainly along much the same lines as Mrs May’s ill-fated deal, but without the DUP and ERG standing in the way, and (b) put it to a confirmatory referendum: Are you in favour of withdrawing from the EU on these terms, or do you wish the UK to remain a member of the EU?

Who would be the prime minister of such a coalition? Not Mr Corbyn, I’m afraid, as I doubt that the other parties would accept him, although of course he would be perfectly entitled to try. Keir Starmer, Hilary Benn, or Yvette Cooper would all have a better chance of making a go of it.

As of now, however, I fear we’re still a long, long way from seeing the end of the Brexit breakdown. And if you want a nice succinct summary of where things stand now, I can do no better than quote the words of Matt Chorley of the Red Box political newsletter: ‘We don’t have a government, we will have an election, but we don’t know where, we don’t know when. But I know we will vote again some sunny day.’ (Click here for the Vera Lynn version.)