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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

If you want to be welcome, do not demand entry

The ceremonial of the State Opening of Parliament includes a moment when Black Rod, the Queen’s representative, approaches the door of the Commons to summon MPs for the Queen’s Speech. Tradition demands that he – or in 2019, she – has the door slammed in her face to symbolise the independence of the Commons from the Crown. Only after knocking three times is Black Rod allowed to enter.

The door closed to a demand but open to a request is a powerful symbol.

In the election we have just had, one of the most contentious issues was immigration and nationality. As stated in its manifesto Labour’s policy was to give the vote to “all UK residents”, and not just the vote, automatic citizenship, according to the Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey. Labour did not exactly shout about the fact that “UK residents” includes foreign citizens, but several people including the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings did notice. He then informed the nation in his own inimitable style: “BATSIGNAL!! DON’T LET CORBYN-STURGEON CHEAT A SECOND REFERENDUM WITH MILLIONS OF FOREIGN VOTES”.

But underneath the all-caps headline he made a fair point:

Before the 23 June 2016, many such as the Economist and FT predicted a Leave win would boost extremists and make immigration the central issue in politics. VL said the opposite would happen: that once people know there’ll be democratic control, it will quickly fade as an issue and attitudes towards immigrants will improve. VL was right, the FT was wrong — as all academic research shows. If you want immigration to fade from politics, then democratic control is the answer. If you go with Corbyn and free movement for the whole world, then immigration will be all over the news and extremism will grow. A system like Australia’s will be fairer, good for the economy and take the heat out of the issue.

Imagine that Corbyn had won, formed a coalition government, enacted Labour’s manifesto promise to give the vote to EU citizens and others, and held a second referendum in which their 2.4 million votes for Remain swept away the majority for Leave among British citizens. Imagine if the ignored and scorned people of Leave-voting towns in what were once Labour heartlands saw that Labour had imported a new foreign electorate to replace them. Some may not like that wording but it would have been accurate. Imagine the bitterness towards foreign residents in the UK if that had happened.

It didn’t, thanks in no small measure to Mr Cummings himself. In a month or two the Guardian will report that public hostility to immigration has gone down and attribute it to a burgeoning movement to rejoin the EU. But the real reason will be that people will feel that at some level the wishes of the existing citizens of the UK control who else comes in the country. When you know you can close the door you become more willing to open it in welcome.

Having written the above, I remembered that this is not the first post of mine with a title that uses the metaphor of knocking on a door. Rather than be embarrassed at repeating myself, I will assert that it is a metaphor with several applications. Here is the old post: “To knock on the door is better than booting it in”. It is about relations between transgender and cisgender women.

Galileo in darkness

Kieren McCarthy has written an article for the Register that brings together two themes of interest to many Samizdata readers:

“One man’s mistake, missing backups and complete reboot: The tale of Europe’s Galileo satellites going dark”

In mid-July, the agency in charge of the network of 26 satellites, the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (EGSA), warned of a “service degradation” but assured everyone that it would quickly be resolved.

It wasn’t resolved however, and six days later the system was not only still down but getting increasingly inaccurate, with satellites reporting that they were in completely different positions in orbit than they were supposed to be – a big problem for a system whose entire purpose is to provide state-of-the-art positional accuracy to within 20 centimeters.

Billions of organizations, individuals, phones, apps and so on from across the globe simply stopped listening to Galileo. It’s hard to imagine a bigger mess, aside from the satellites crashing down to Earth.

The article concludes,

In the meantime, a dangerous amount of political maneuvering means all the engineers are keeping their heads down. Which is a shame because by all accounts, there is a lot of good work going on, not helped by organizational silos.

In short, Galileo is a classic European venture: a great idea with talented people that has turned into a bureaucratic mess in which no one wants to take the blame for problems caused by unnecessary organizational complexity.

The Way into the Planned Economy

If anyone can suddenly get a loan with a negative interest rate, then it is to be expected that the credit demand will get out of hand. To prevent this from happening, the ECB will have to resort to credit rationing: It determines in advance how many new loans it wishes to hand out, and then allocates this amount of credit. The credit market no longer decides who gets what and when and on what terms and conditions; those decisions are made by the ECB.

According to which criteria should loans be allocated? Should anyone who asks for credit get something? Should employment-intensive economic sectors be favored? Should the new loans only go to ‘the industries of the future’? Should weakening industries be supported with additional credit? Or should Southern Europe get more than Northern Europe? These questions already indicate that the planned economy is established through a policy of negative interest rates.

More than ever it will be the ECB that reigns over credit: It will effectively determine what will be financed and produced and where and when; it will determine who will be in a position to buy and consume on credit. As a central planning authority, the ECB — or the groups that greatly influence its decisions — determines everything: which industries will be promoted or suppressed; which economies are allowed to grow stronger than others; which national commercial banks are allowed to survive and which are not. Welcome to the planned economy in the Eurozone!

Thorsten Polleit

Ars longa, vita brevis

The Guardian reports, “Sculptor Antony Gormley plans Brexit giants off the French coast”:

Now, on the eve of Britain’s potential departure from Europe, Gormley is planning a new and dramatic intervention on the beaches of northern France. He wants to erect a group of seven huge sculptures, made from iron slabs, on the coast of Brittany. They will look towards Britain, the lost island of Europe.

There is something in that image that can appeal to both sides. I think Mr Gormley might make better art than his predictable opinions might lead one to suppose:

Gormley describes Brexit as “a stupid moment of collective fibrillation” and argues that such an imposed separation from the rest of Europe will be damaging and false. “We belong to Europe, geologically as much as anything else. We were only separated five thousand years ago. The whole idea that somehow we can go it alone by making greater relationships with the former Commonwealth and with our friends and cousins in America is just ridiculous,” he tells Wilson.

Mind you, it will take about thirty seconds flat for some wag to call these figures standing on the coast of France as they wistfully look towards Albion “the illegal immigrants”.

An unmissable podcast

I am sure the Samizdatistas and the Samizdata commentariat alike are familiar with Brendan O’Neill of Spiked Online, as well as the brilliant and rather naughty David Starkey. Starkey appears as a guest on O’Neill’s most recent podcast. Put aside an hour and listen to their conversation – you will be very glad you did. It contains enough SQOTDs to last a year.

Update: the Starkey interview may be in the process of going viral. When I first stumbled across it, it had clocked up a not-insubstantial 25,000 views or so. Fast forward a few hours to now and it’s almost at 40,000. Excellent, and may that number continue to rise sharply. It deserves wide dissemination.

A reminder to Conservatives of why they should not abridge the right to keep electronic communications private

Boris Johnson’s aides say they’ll ignore a vote ordering them to hand over WhatsApps and Emails

Buzzfeed have been quick; the vote in Parliament to which the story refers took place only a few minutes ago. It may all be theatre: according to the Guardian‘s Andrew Sparrow, the government will probably say it does not have the legal power to comply with the vote even if it wanted to. It could reasonably cite the European Court of Human Rights (and before you ask, that court is not part of the European Union, though as Paul Marks is fond of observing, the two are intertwined).

What a farrago. I did consider posting this in Samizdata’s sister blog, The Great Realignment, but although this vote is part of yet another Parliamentary scheme to stop Brexit happening, its implications for civil liberties are what interest me most. In the era of the Twitter flash mob, it is within the realms of possibility that even obscure folk like you and me could be the next targets of public rage, and the Right Honourable Members are not averse to putting themselves at the head of the crowd. How would you like it if a fishing expedition by a bare majority of MPs could force you to turn over your emails and WhatsApp messages?

Don’t think of it as a “power cut”, think of it as an “electricity holiday”

The BBC reports that the National Grid will “learn the lessons” after nearly one million people across England and Wales lost power on Friday.

But what lessons will those be?

The power outage happened at about 17:00 BST on Friday, National Grid said, with blackouts across the Midlands, the South East, South West, North West and north east of England, and Wales.

Industry experts said that a gas-fired power station at Little Barford, Bedfordshire, failed at 16.58, followed two minutes later by the Hornsea offshore wind farm disconnecting from the grid.

The National Grid director of operations quoted in this BBC article, Duncan Burt, has said that “he did not believe that a cyber-attack or unpredictable wind power generation were to blame”.

I do not know whether to disbelieve his disbelief. Those concerned with managing the UK’s power supply might have good reasons to keep mum about our vulnerability to cyber attack, and less good reasons for playing down the unpredictability of wind power.

Tim Worstall speculates,

One reading could be……wind farm closes down immediately as wind speed is too high. Gas plant on idle can’t spin up for some reason. Drax is low capacity because it’s burning wood chips, not coal.

On the cyber front, even if this power outage was entirely an Act of God in the insurance sense, the next one might not be. The bad guys have seen how much more damaging power cuts have become now that we are so reliant on the internet. As cashless payments become more common it will only get worse. I love cashless payments! What bliss to no longer have to worry about finding change when you’ve just found the last space in a crowded car park, manoeuvred into it with incredible difficulty while holding up the rest of the traffic, and only then remembered that you have to pay for the damn thing. But an entirely cashless society, as they seem to be moving towards in Sweden, might turn out to have its Orwellian nature tempered only by its lack of resilience.

A final observation: I have read a lot of comments from supporters of remaining in the European Union along the lines of “You think a few hours delay on the railways was bad? Just you wait until we leave the EU without a deal.” However, just as with the chaos caused by the Gatwick drone shutdown, that argument cuts both ways. All their frantic efforts to say “No Deal” must not be allowed to happen because it will cause vast queues at the ports and airports start to look a little silly when the same consequences seem likely to arise every time the wind surges or a cyber attacker gets lucky.

Tears before bedtime

“Widdecombe’s ‘outlandish’ EU speech leaves Green MEPs ‘in tears'”, reports Somerset Live.

A Green Party MEP has said that some of her colleagues were left “in tears” after a speech by Anne Widdecombe.

Widdecombe, Brexit Party MEP for the south west, stood up in front of the EU Parliament to give a speech today (July 4) as proceedings got underway following the appointment of Italian left-centre MEP David Maria-Sassoli’s as president.

The speech, branded “outlandish” and “shameful” by the Green Party, was cheered by fellow Brexit Party MEPs and others in the European Parliament.

Related posts: “Noooooooo!” and “Let’s get thrown out of the EU!”

If you can bear to watch the speech in question, Guido has video (TW).

Two takes on the decline of foreign languages in British schools

“Brexit ‘hitting foreign languages in schools'” says the BBC, quoting its kindred spirits in the British Council – which for those that don’t know is the Muggle Wizengamot a worthy body formed in the 1930s, a decade after the BBC, in order to promote British culture and the teaching of the English language abroad and of foreign languages in the UK.

Brexit is causing poorer children to fall further behind in learning foreign languages, says the British Council.

Parents in disadvantaged areas are telling teachers languages will be less useful after Brexit, it says.

The graph that comes with BBC story gives no support whatsoever to the claim that Brexit is hitting foreign languages in schools.

It is true that the number of English, Welsh and Northern Irish pupils taking a foreign language at GCSE level is in apparently inexorable decline. Why? Because of the rise of English as a world language. However the inexorable decline is, er…, exored at two points.

The first break in the downward slope of the graph comes about half a year after the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010. Despite its name the Bacc is not an educational qualification. It is a performance measure that the government imposed on schools. The aim is to stop schools gaming the system by putting the pupils in for lots of easy exams. To this end schools, not pupils, are marked on how many pupils get decent grades in proper subjects, including foreign languages. “That which is measured, improves”, as the saying goes – and that explains the uptick after 2010. But by 2013 or so (the unmarked horizontal axis of that graph is an abomination) the downward trend returns.

The second, lesser pause in the decline happens about six months after Brexit. The line flattens. Allowing for the same time lag as followed the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, Brexit if anything seems to have stemmed the decline in numbers of British pupils studying foreign languages. Perhaps some kids calculate that if there will be fewer native speakers of those languages around to compete with after Brexit, then any linguistic skills they might obtain will be more in demand.

OK, OK, correlation is not causation. But at least that hypothesis actually has some correlation to wave a hand hopefully at, unlike the preferred hypothesis of the BBC and the British Council:

The British Council report also describes a shift in attitude, with some parents saying languages are “little use” as the UK is due to leave the European Union.

Teresa Tinsley, the report author, says secondary schools in poorer areas are reporting a very definite Brexit effect, which could lead to an even sharper decline in language learning.

Brexit has superpowers: it could do almost anything.

Scattered at random among the single-paragraph sentences of this BBC report there are two that point to a more likely possible culprit than Brexit-bourne viral xenophobia:

It warns that GCSEs and A-level languages in England are seen as being hard subjects in which to get a good grade.

and

It warns of growing concern that GCSEs and A-levels in modern foreign languages are seen as harder than other subjects.

That, unlike Brexit, is something they really do talk about at the school gates.

But why are the grade boundaries in language exams getting harsher? That is the point that the Times has chosen to focus on in its piece on the same British Council report: “Bilingual pupils distort results in language exams”

Schools are enabling pupils to take foreign language exams in their native tongue, making it harder for everyone else to get the top grades, a report has found.

The British Council’s annual Language Trend Survey found that more than 80 per cent of schools now arrange for pupils to take exams for the language they speak at home, with the most common being Polish and Portuguese. Often pupils need only a few lessons in exam technique rather than any formal lessons in the language itself.

In the report teachers expressed disquiet at this growing trend. “In some languages, for example Italian, the number of native speakers taking the GCSE and A-level exams are skewing the grade boundaries hugely — why is this allowed?” said one.

The finding comes alongside a warning by the British Council that the newly reformed and tougher GCSE and A levels were putting pupils off languages, with many believing they stand a far better chance of gaining top grades in almost any other subject.

I do not see any easy way round this. Any attempt to make separate exams for native and non-native speakers will be bedevilled by edge cases. And there is a harsh logic to the idea that if you hold an examination to measure how well someone speaks Italian, for example, then if it shows Italians speaking Italian better than all but a few non-Italians it probably means that the examination is functioning correctly. I certainly do not propose that the government shove its oar in.

I was merely interested to see what very different structures the BBC and the Times built upon the same foundation of that British Council report.

Added later: The Guardian’s treatment of the same story, “Brexit ‘putting pupils off modern foreign languages'” , displays the same oddities in its structure and choice of headline as did the BBC article. It briefly mentions that far more of the teachers surveyed cited the difficulty of the exams as the cause of the reduced interest from pupils in taking GCSEs in foreign languages than had cited Brexit. Then it goes on at length about Brexit.

While more than two-thirds of teachers surveyed by the British Council said the difficulty of the exams was causing concern, one in four said Brexit had “cast a pall” over pupils learning any foreign languages, with some parents actively discouraging their children.

Teachers told researchers that they have seen a shift in attitudes since the Brexit referendum, with one reporting: “We have had parents mention that they do not believe their son or daughter should be studying a language as it is little to no use to them now that we are leaving the European Union.”

Another teacher noted comments from pupils, “obviously heard at home, such as now we’ve left/are leaving the EU you won’t need this any more”.

If it saves just one life…

We have to do it, right? Politico reports,

Some U.K. lawmakers think they’ve found a way to reduce British smoking deaths: Brexit.

Large numbers of British cigarette smokers will switch to vaping once the U.K. leaves the bloc, they argue, if looser British tobacco laws replace tighter EU limits on nicotine advertising and packaging.

Why is Russia trying to influence other countries’ elections by means of targeted advertising wrong?

“Nick Clegg denies misuse of Facebook influenced Brexit vote”, reports the Guardian.

Umm, okay. A lot of people are saying “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”.

Sir Nick Clegg, for those readers who have forgotten this rather forgettable chap, used to be leader of the Liberal Democrats and was Deputy Prime Minister for a while, back when the Lib Dems were in coalition with the Conservatives. He lost his seat in the 2017 election, which made him sad. Then he got a “communications” job with Facebook at a salary that probably made him feel better.

So nine years after Cleggmania, here he is back on our TV screens again. The Times report on the same story says,

The former Liberal Democrat leader said that social media could not be blamed for the vote to leave the European Union.

He said: “Much though I understand why people want to reduce that eruption in British politics to some kind of plot or conspiracy — or some use of new social media through opaque means — I’m afraid the roots to British Euroscepticism go very, very deep.”

Sir Nick added: “Yes, Facebook has a heavy responsibility to protect the integrity of elections from outside interference. I also think we have a duty to explain fact from some of the allegations that have been made.”

Calling for greater regulation of the internet, he said: “We forget that though these companies are huge and affect every aspect of our lives — our social lives, our business lives — nonetheless it has all happened in such a short period of time.

It is no surprise to find Nick Clegg “calling for “greater regulation of the internet”. Not only was more regulation of corporations his schtick when he was a politico, it also suits his current employers very well. Facebook can buy another twenty floors of lawyers whenever it needs them; struggling new startups cannot.

But to hear such a lifelong Europhile admit that the roots of British Euroscepticism go deep was a surprise. He is right. Russia’s puny efforts to interfere in the EU referendum were the equivalent of the eternally slandered King Canute calling the tide forward.

But in all this debate about how effective or ineffective Russia’s “outside interference” in the referendum was I have not yet heard a convincing explanation of what exactly is wrong with “outside interference” anyway.

I need not list the real crimes – waging unjust wars, murders, domestic repression – that can be laid at Putin’s door. On an infinitely smaller scale, making use of harvested data that people did not agree to make available is a bad if commonplace thing. But what is bad in principle about Russia trying to persuade British people to vote a particular way by advertising? Where did this idea come from that only British ideas are allowed to enter British brains during an election or referendum campaign? In a democracy you are allowed to vote on any criteria you like. You can vote for a candidate because you carefully researched his or her voting record and found that it best aligned with your political beliefs, or because your family has always voted for the Reds or the Blues, or because you think the candidate has nice eyes, or because your imam told you which way to vote, or because Vladimir Putin did. They all count equally. If we were to operate a system of Juche when it comes to political thought, would that not also exclude political ideas originating in the European Union?

The real fix facing Boris

I am going to assume for the purposes of argument that Boris Johnson will shortly become leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.

I am also going to assume that Parliament will prevent Boris from taking the UK out of the European Union. Even if he makes it a matter of confidence.

At this point the usual response would be to call a general election.

B-B-But… Nige. And his Brexit Party. Nige is not going to go away. Nige doesn’t want to go away. He did that once and it didn’t go well. And he has won a national election. And he beat the Conservatives into third place in a recent by-election.

All things being equal if a general election is called, the Brexit Party will stand and split the Conservative vote while the Conservative Party will stand and split the Brexit vote. Yeah, I know the Brexit Party will get some votes from former Labour supporters but mostly it will come from the Conservatives. So, the vote will be split, Labour will win and we’re all off to the Gulag.

Boris knows this, Nige knows this. Or, at least I hope they do. Therefore, they must avoid splitting the vote and they must make a deal (with one another, not the EU, that is).

B-B-But… I can’t think of two people less likely to make a deal. They are both political entrepreneurs. They are both outsiders who have achieved their position on their own terms and they like being in charge. They are NOT team players and yet a deal requires team playing. This is not looking good.

Britain this time next year

Esprit d’escalier: it occurs to me that the Queen might ask someone else to form a government rather than dissolving Parliament and holding a general election. Ach! Scrub that. There is no one else who could come even remotely close to commanding a majority. Ooh hang about! What about Cooper or Grieve or both? A sort of Chuk 2? Is it a possibility? Would it make any difference?