Generally Speaking

‘Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging.’

Thank you for helping me to remember that.

I don’t think I said very much.  I was looking at the little horse

I had suggested we stopped walking for a moment, ostensibly to look at the little horse (and photograph it, complete with its stumpy legs, as you see in the picture), but actually so that I could write down my precious new idea before I forgot it again.

Something about Reason – that was what I had been saying as we walked together yesterday morning – Authority, and what was happening in today’s world to Truth. There was some new way of putting it together that had come to me suddenly last night when I was in the last stage of consciousness before going to sleep. Too close to sleep to summon the willpower to rouse myself and write it down. In case it evaporated in the night.

Which of course it did.

A few hundred yards back, as our path emerged from the woods, I had started talking about the funny sense you get of some idea that you’ve lost – a feeling, a sort of fleeting glimpse. And the way the more you look to clarify what it was, to try to pin it down and bring it back, the more it retreats. Like some shy animal into a hole. Or like a pea stuck up a child’s nostril in our health centre treatment room years ago (I always think of that one, for some reason) and all you’ve done is drive it further into hiding, until even the elusive sense you had of it has evaporated as well. (I also think of it as the left hemisphere of my brain struggling to pin down and fossilise something that is semi-consciously, shimmeringly, alive in the right. But I’ll come back to that.)

This time, for once, and thanks to her, my idea did come back. But as I whooped and spoke out loud my flash of amazing insight, and then spoke it again, louder, her response was disappointingly low-key. Despite her having been my life-long soul-mate and collaborator, who has had, as I often say, ‘all my best ideas’, this shining new inspiration of mine had struck less of a spark with her than, let me admit it, the little horse.

When we got home I was still delighted with my idea and no less convinced that it would find receptive minds somewhere, so I sat straight down and posted it as one of my rather infrequent tweets. My Twitter profile tells me that I have just passed 300 followers, but my offerings rarely if ever provoke a response. But this one, I felt, would be special, and I took care in highlighting some key words as hashtags, and adding a line of explanation ‒ shrewdly judged, I thought, to hint at both its originality and its importance. Like this:

The above screenshot was taken two days later, and as you can see from the empty icons along the bottom, once again I had failed to make any impression, let alone spark some new kind of viral pandemic.

But I consoled myself with something I learned years ago from reading Edward do Bono – that genuinely new ideas always seem strange, or funny, or off-the-wall, otherwise people would know them already.  So, I told myself, this was all a good sign, my idea really was new. But another time perhaps I might try to spell it out a little more carefully.

Sure enough, another time presented itself lower down the same Twitter feed.  An item by the indefatigable James O’Brian caught my eye. (@mrjamesob ‒ he of the 755.1K followers!) His tweet was about Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming in parliament that Boris Johnson was ‘the most freedom-loving prime minister… for at least 100 years’:

O’Brien commented: ‘He’s going to go nuts when he finds out what’s happened to our freedom of movement’

Aah – the ambiguity of the word ‘Freedom’! Just the kind of cue I needed. So I added my idea, carefully reframed, to the comments underneath:

I am thinking that the ‘Freedom’ populists talk about includes freedom from what can seem the terrible Authority of Evidence, Reason, and Truth itself.
I am wondering whether this is an explanation for these people’s otherwise incomprehensible immunity from popular censure.

It was one of some 250 others, but in spite that, this time there was a response. Within 24 hours it had been flagged as Liked by no less than 21 people, and one of them had passed it on to their followers.

So now I’m going to take this to another stage. I’m going to use this blog to ‘unpack’ the idea that was phrased in the words of my late-night inspiration, as they came back to me the next morning on our walk, and to try to tease out and pin down why it seemed, and still seems, so meaningful to me.

Not just for readers who are kind enough to have got this far, but for me. Because, believe me, I am not writing this stuff straight off. I am using the writing of it, over what is turning out to be the best part of a week, to test out, confirm, and hopefully to explain, why somewhere in this idea I had is lurking a truth which is worth sharing. And here I return to the idea that this is a matter of using words as a left-brain tool to tease out and pin down a richly complex but amorphous conception in the right (see Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece, The Master and His Emissary, for his definitive account of the divided brain).

It was this process that I discovered three or four decades ago when it dawned on me that my Amstrad personal computer could be used as a revolutionary tool for recording ideas in a new form, a form that was fixed and provisional at the same time, and which then made it easy to progressively hone them.

That was when I was still deeply immersed in the life and work of a family doctor, with a stable list of patients whom I knew extremely well, in many cases over decades and several generations. Out of this experience, which in the modern world was already almost unique, I began to draw what I called ‘notes and jottings’, setting down things that struck me as surprising during my daily consultations. Surprise, I already knew from my reading De Bono, was another of his signals that something you’ve noticed conflicts with your existing picture of the world, and therefore that you should be paying it attention (because your existing ideas might be wrong)..

For years I worked like this on what I called my ‘project’. Just for fun, just out of private curiosity. But gradually I began to believe I had something worth contributing, so that my humble collection of thoughts developed until it was accepted for publication as my book, The Paradox of Progress. And after that, for me, the rest was history.

Although that digression does have some relevance to what I am getting at, it was mainly about the method I’m going to use. So, back to the short sentence I started with and let me try to work out why I found it so meaningful:

Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging’.

First I should recall that as I went to sleep that night my preoccupation was still with the mystery I had been addressing here just a few days earlier: why almost half of America voted to give Donald Trump a second term, in spite of his record in his first. And I knew from the appreciative comments I was receiving, and indeed from the hit count on the blog ‒ by far the highest since the travelogue I posted here four years ago from our Golden Wedding trip up the west coast of North America – that I did seem to be able to contribute usefully on this subject.

So, that was the context, let’s start by asking who I was thinking of when I said ‘they’?

Easy – I meant the populists, specifically Trump. From the outset he set out to challenge authority, and his followers loved him for it. Because that picked up on a deep-seated, human resentment of authority. Which we can all understand because, to a greater of lesser extent, we share that feeling.

We hate our lives being constrained by rules, originally from our parents ‒ however much we loved and needed them ‒ later at school – then in adult life, both at the workplace and outside it ‒ e.g. speed limits on roads or the latest footling regulations on the use of garden pesticides.

And there is a tension in all of us between on the one hand our realisation that these constraints on our freedom are essential in a civilised society ‒ we know we can’t all choose which side of the road to drive on, or the voltage of our electricity supply ‒ and on the other hand our human desire for autonomy and freedom of action ‒ for the dignity and challenge of basing our actions on our own decisions.

It is that freedom that is at the heart of Americans’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of their ‘sweet land of liberty’.  Perhaps my two formative years at High School in Washington DC ‒- mentioned in another earlier post – has made that assumption second nature to me as well.

This kind of resentment of authority is more acute when such constraints on our freedom come from a source which we perceive to be alien. Which is why so many British resented ‘Brussels’, however generously we have been represented in the decisions taken there, and why the Westerner we met in the canyon in Capitol Reef National Park so bitterly resented being prevented from exercising his dogs in that fragile environment by distant ‘Washington!’.

But I also meant authority as a concept, in the way that Shakespeare personifies Love in his song, Who is Sylvia? – ‘Love doth to her eyes repair/To help him of his blindness/And, being helped, inhabits there’.

Which is why I spelled Authority with a capital A.

Trump attacked Authority in all these senses. He didn’t just rail against the Washington ‘swamp’. He didn’t just tell his followers, as Michael Gove told his in the UK, that they had ‘had enough of experts’. He didn’t just sack officials who failed to echo his every, self-contradictory whim. All of that is obvious, all of that has been rehearsed endlessly by critics. With zero effect on his followers.

The deeper idea that struck me as I went to sleep that night was that Trump went much further ‒ he attacked the very concept of Authority by attacking the foundations upon which legitimate Authority rested. His cheerful and absolute disregard for Reason and for Truth (which I also capitalised in my sentence) made him wildly popular with great swathes of supporters precisely because, as I suddenly realised, Truth and Reason were themselves aspects of the overbearing authority which had, step by ratchet-step throughout the modern era, progressively constrained their freedom of action, and even freedom of thought.

Here again, I have my own reasons for understanding this. My freedom of action as a doctor was progressively subjected to more and more constraints as my career went by. That was the background story to my forty years as a doctor. And that, and my attempt to resolve the resulting conflicts, was largely the subject of the book I wrote as I approached retirement.

On the instant I qualified as a doctor the way I was perceived by society changed. This was symbolised by my moving from the highest risk category for car insurance (as a medical student) to the lowest.

As my years as a junior hospital doctor progressed, I acquired steadily more freedom of action, but the ultimate clinical responsibility always rested with the consultant who headed the team–my ‘chief’. It was the chief who, at least in theory, faced the music when something went wrong.

And eventually, when I became a GP with my own list of patients, I took on that mantle of responsibility myself. I had nobody over me and nobody under me ‒ one of the many things I loved about the role. I also loved, although it was as daunting as it was stimulating, what now seems the extraordinary privilege of ‘clinical freedom’.

Clinical freedom did have its boundaries, which were policed with notorious severity by the General Medical Council. But that august body mainly concerned itself with drugs, sex, alcohol, and criminality. Freedom to treat our patients in whatever way we judged best remained to all intents and purposes absolute.

It made for a heady time when being trusted brought out the best in us a great deal of the time. But it also left too wide the door for bad practice and, crucially, for ignorance of what was an ever increasing cascade of scientific advances.

The end of those days can be traced with some accuracy to an editorial in the British Medical Journal of Saturday 29 October 1983. Headed The end of clinical freedom Its opening paragraph summarises what was a pivotal moment in medical history:

Clinical freedom is dead, and no one need regret its passing. Clinical freedom was the right‒some seemed to believe the divine right‒of doctors to do whatever in their opinion was best for their patients. In the days when investigation was non-existent and treatment as harmless as it was ineffective the doctor’s opinion was all that there was, but now opinion is not good enough. If we do not have the resources to do all that is technically possible then medical care must be limited to what is of proved value, and the medical profession will have to set opinion aside.

From then on, the changes were relentless. The god of Clinical Freedom was dead, only to be replaced by the god of Evidence Based Medicine. For the first time, government ‒ specifically Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, a year which my generation of GPs remembered for ever after as ‘when the darkness came’ ‒ saw its opportunity, as paymasters of the National Health Service, to call in what had been, ever since 1948, the independent contractor status of GPs. So began the imposition of more and more external rules and constraints on our practice. This, I have to say, was with the enthusiastic support of our Royal College, the academic body of British general practice, which saw nothing in the trend but progress.

And, writing this now, another new thought strikes me. For the first time I have an uncomfortable realisation that the success of my book, for success it undoubtedly was, may have been because it struck ‒ surely not, heaven help me, like Trump! ‒ a populist chord with fellow GPs.

It also struck a chord amongst people from outside medicine who happened to come across it. Perhaps that was populism as well? One of them, for example, wrote from a ballet school in Switzerland to thank me for it, saying it was ‘just the same for them’. Quite recently a farmer in the North of England emailed me out of the blue to say the same.

So, this ‘paradox of progress’ that I tried to analyse in the context of NHS general practice, seemed to pervade more generally. Throughout contemporary society there seemed to be a perception that making things better was making them worse.

Perhaps my own sense of impotence in the face of the terrible authority of our increasingly systematised world was lurking somewhere in the background to my supposed flash of inspiration into the mystery of Donald Trump?

Perhaps it was like this: Many of us feel trapped by the inescapable Authority of Logic and Reason which underlies Progress ‒ what Trump did, which accounts for his astonishing immunity from censure by half of a vast and superbly educated nation, was simply to throw Logic and Reason out of the window.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   “They are merely conventional signs!

Extract from The Hunting of the Snark Lewis Carrol 1832-98

And can’t you just see the attraction! What do you do when some clever clogs ‘fact-checker’ keeps some tedious count and says your hero has just passed 20,000 lies on the public record? You say, ‘I don’t believe they were lies – that’s just another opinion, there are alternative facts which say the opposite.’    On with the party!

Just the same with the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Just the same with Covid-19 when it manifestly didn’t ‘vanish like magic’. Just the same with the ‘hoax’ of climate change. Just the same with dozens of wild claims over the last four surreal years.

But Trump’s truly radical innovation, I think I now see, is to take things one stage beyond this: He says ‘what the heck do numbers matter ‒ they are just numbers ‒ they are ‘merely conventional signs’. What is this stuff called ‘truth’ which you keep throwing at me? What is this thing called ‘reason’? It is time to cast ourselves free from the shackles of these outdated concepts which have enslaved us for so long! Time to see this monster ‘science’ for what it is –a conspiracy against our heritage of freedom, which preachifies of nothing but encumbrances to our rights to frontier lives, to the drilling of oilwells, to the driving of giant cars, to the building of private armouries of guns. Americans were born free. Born to think freely, like birds up in the air. Yet everywhere their consciences have been chained by this foul imposter ‘evidence’! 

And once a leader convinces people that their chains are mere illusion, and gives them permission to ignore such outmoded constraints, to think without the shackles of reason, and to believe everything they want to believe is true, the people are wildly grateful. Wey hey, let the good times roll! It is the coming of a new Messiah.

Of course such a leader can do no wrong, for in this new New World, wrong is meaningless and has nothing to do with the case.

Perhaps it is time to return to the little horse, and leave further consideration of this for another day…

‘I’ve always had my doubts about you lot’

Mending things

I just mended my grand-daughter’s clarinet.

One of the notes wasn’t sounding and we played around until we’d tracked it down to one of the bottom key covers not closing snugly onto its sound-hole. (Apologies if this isn’t the correct nomenclature, I’m an amateur) When you looked closely you could see a fatal gap remaining under the pad when you pressed its key higher up the instrument. If you held the cover down directly with your finger (we discovered) the note came out perfectly. Lift it off again and it stopped. You could play a little trill like that. And we did.

The diagnosis was clear – the ‘close that cover’ message wasn’t making it through the intricate arrangement of shiny levers.

Part of the ‘complicated system of levers’

There was a concert imminent and phone calls were being made to try to find a spare clarinet. People were unhappy.


Now I have something of a reputation for this sort of thing which I cherish. Ever since, many years ago, when I did some trivial mending job – putting a wheel back on a toy car or something – and its little owner went toddling around the house holding it up to people and explaining ‘Gran’pa fix it‘.

Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that.


But now that treasured reputation was on the line – musical instruments being on a different level of delicacy and complexity from model cars. The best I could come up with was to suggest weakly that the pad might be dry (did that happen with clarinets?) perhaps we could make it plumper by moistening it with something? The young owner mentioned the special grease she used for the cork-lined joints of the instrument, and that sounded the sort of thing. I duly smeared some of that about with a wooden toothpick.

Absolutely useless.

So I put the instrument down while we attended to other things. Until stubborn curiosity drew me back for another look. And this time, as I pressed the keys idly up and down, I saw something new – one of the pivots seemed to be slightly sloppy. It looked, it seemed to me, like wear in that joint. Did that happen with clarinets? Were they supposed to be oiled?

Not sure, but it never had been.

Perhaps that was it?

One way or another, it was looking like a professional job.

But again I couldn’t resist one more look, and suddenly the penny dropped – that glorious eureka! moment: A little silver rod projecting from the mechanism, which I had noticed earlier and assumed was meant to be like that, was in fact the axle of the faulty key which had become detached from its socket. So the whole bearing wobbled slightly when you worked the key. I pressed on the end of the little rod with my finger and sure enough it started to move. Not the whole way in, but that was OK because I could now see a tiny screw slot across its end. All I needed, I announced to the company, was a suitable screwdriver to finish the job.

While my wife was searching in her handbag for the little glasses-repair kit she always carries (!) our young musician remembered that her equipment did indeed include a tiny screwdriver, for which she had never found a use. Exactly what I needed, this enabled me to screw the little axle securely home, completely abolishing the fatal floppiness.

And lo, the clarinet was sounded, and a torrent of melodious arpeggios poured into the grateful air.


Emboldened by a similar success with a drain plug in our bathroom sink (not to mention the hall clock triumph which I described in an earlier post) I recently volunteered my lack of expertise for the new Repair Café at our Community Centre.

Arriving with a few tools on the inaugural morning I was so conscious of the presumptuousness of what I was doing that I very nearly turned away and went back home.

But I did go in, and the first person in the queue happened to be a former patient of mine who greeted me like a old friend. And before I had time to demur, he and his broken item – his Father’s old mantelpiece clock – had been allotted to me.

The clock had three problems – it hadn’t run for 25 years, two pieces of wooden molding had become unglued from its case, and it needed a thorough clean.

Just the case left to mend.

I told him I had absolutely no expertise with clocks and he urged me to go ahead anyway – it was broken and there was nothing to lose. So I freed up the nuts that held the movement in place and eased it out.

Far from my comfort zone

It appeared to be fully wound, and as I gently prodded the balance wheel it oscillated a few times before slowing and stopping. It seemed to me that somewhere the mechanism was sticking. So I told him I did have a cheap and cheerful fix which had worked with a clock at home, and again he told me to go ahead.

So I gave it one judicious blast of WD40.

And that was that. It worked. I prodded the balance wheel again (this, I suspect, is again not a technical term) and this time it didn’t stop. I set the hands and it was still showing the right time when he left.

Dismantling the face, cleaning it, and replacing the fiddly-little screws that held it in place was the second and by far the longest job. And then it came to mending the wooden case.

It was obviously a simple gluing job, but I didn’t want to send him home with everything swathed in tape while it set. So I used a tip I once found on the web: we didn’t seem to have any PVA glue, so I mixed up some Araldite (epoxy resin) which we did have, and put a good blob of that in the middle of each piece of loose moulding. Then, and this is the clever bit, I put superglue in several different places on the same joints, and then pressed the pieces together until the superglue held. Handled gently, this would give time for the epoxy resin to develop its tremendous strength. Bingo!

Well. To say he was delighted is putting it very mildly. He wrote the most fulsome and heartwarming letter of appreciation anyone received that day.

Satisfied customer

Our Member of Parliament turned up at the next Repair Café the following month. Recognising me as a retired doctor and a persistent correspondent about issues very far removed from the mending of clocks he expressed surprise to see me there as one of the repairers.

But I pointed out that I had been a GP – a generalist – and that the mending of people in general practice had meant that doing things for the first time, using that amazing thing, educated common sense, had been the daily currency of that job. Or words to that effect. And that was why I had loved it so much.

I opened my book The Paradox of Progress with an anecdote about mending a dislocated kneecap (for the first and only time in my career) on a house call in the middle of one night, to make a similar point. It is here for anyone who is interested.

A lot on my mind

It just occurred to me to count up the number of poster/flyer projects for different events that I am currently designing, negotiating and getting printed. Four! Each for a different event I am currently involved in.

Until I made the effort to think of them all at once – and it was a real effort – I simply hadn’t realised there were that many. So that at least explained why I was getting the stages they were at – drafting – seeking comments & redrafting (repeat ad lib) – posting online – arranging printing – a bit muddled in my mind.

Read more…

Further evidence that Brexit is going ahead on a false premise

This new report of massive alien (Russian) interference in the 2016 EU Referendum  has excited far less comment in Britain than reports of similar interference in American democracy have excited over there. ‘New analysis by 89up.org confirms the scale of Russian Media influence during Brexit vote dwarfed the main Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns, driving anti-EU propaganda, disinformation and fake news to influence voters’

This is yet another reason why the ‘Brexit’ vote cannot be said to represent the democratic ‘will of the people’ to add to those given in the post immediately below this one.


Meanwhile, among the many messages of agreement that I have received since that November post, I quote here a particularly powerful comment, quoting Edmund Burke, from a friend who happens to be a very distinguished American academic:


“I am so glad to see you pursuing the truth and logic of this lamentable situation. There is one overarching principle that is completely misconstrued by many members of parliament. It is so evident that you do not bother to state it (taking it as a tacit given). 

“Greek democracy involved the ability of a broad swath of citizens (not slaves or women) to directly vote on laws and regulations. This rapidly became untenable as populations grew and issues to be decided became almost hopelessly complex. The modern world—the UK included—has entirely replaced the direct democracy of the Greeks by representative democracy, in which a small set of legislators is deputized by an election process to make laws and decisions for the country. The technical inability of the average citizen to understand the detailed consequences of most laws, foreign relation treaties, business regulations, defense policies, … makes direct democracy an impossible form of government today.

“So instead, the UK has representative democracy. The duty of a representative was well stated by Edmund Burke:

“It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

“Forget for the moment the fact that popular referendum is an utterly inappropriate way to make a decision on so complex an issue; forget the fact that the voters were lied to and were lamentably ignorant of the likely consequences of an ‘exit’. Burke eloquently points out that the fundamental duty of a member of Commons is to decide the issue on the analysis of the likely consequences of Brexit for her/his constituents. The members of parliament who bleat ‘we must carry out the will of the people as expressed in the referendum vote and exit the EU’ and use this as the basis for their vote in Commons on Brexit are failing at a fundamental level in their moral obligation to the voters. Their voting should be determined by a rational analysis of consequences to the people they represent, regardless of how it might influence the likelihood of their being reelected, and regardless of the ‘expressed wishes’ of an uninformed electorate.”

Britain’s exit from the EU is going ahead on a false premise – 10 more reasons why what is happening now is not, and never was, ‘the will of the people’

3 November 2017

Theresa May says the reason she is continuing to lead Britain out of the European Union is that she is “delivering on the will of the people “.  This is in spite of her previous convictions, eloquently expressed two years ago, and very probably in spite of her better judgement today. The same can be said of the many MPs—including my own, Damian Hinds—who previously made up the parliamentary majority for Remain but who now claim this same justification for their altered course. Even pro-EU newspapers, the Observer for example, have declined to question the validity of the June 2016 vote as a democratic expression of the will of the people.

But I question it. I questioned it immediately after the referendum, writing a letter to our local paper pointing out that the Leave camp had secured its result

  1. by telling lies,
  2. by deliberately inciting hatred and xenophobia,
  3. by allowing its media to give an exclusively partisan account of the issues,
  4. and by shamelessly urging voters to discount the wisdom of ‘experts’“.

For these and other reasons I said that calling the result  ‘the will of the people’, would be “to say the least, disingenuous” and it would be irresponsible not to question its validity. My letter was given prominence in the Alton Herald and a great many people, not just in the town, went out of their way to thank me for it and tell me how strongly they agreed with me.

Since then nothing has happened  to raise the slightest doubt in my mind about the points that I made. On the contrary, some have been strongly reinforced. To give one example, deep in a long Spectator article describing how the referendum was won, the director of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, asked himself the question  “Would we have won without £350m/NHS?” and replied ” All our research and the close result strongly suggests No“.

But now, with a YouGov poll showing a majority believing Britain was wrong to back Brexit (final point below), a whole list of additional reasons have accumulated to make it even clearer that what is happening was never the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the 2016 referendum, and that the government is pursuing its ‘Brexit’ agenda on a false premise. Here is my attempt to set out these further arguments:

  1. Anecdotal but widespread evidence that people’s votes were cast for reasons which had nothing to do with the real issue (and, let us not forget, in the general expectation of Remain winning.)
    • Everyone was in ignorance of the immensely complex implications. (This was inevitable and entirely understandable. It is now quite clear that nobody understood these implications.)
    • Some voted as a general reaction against irksome restrictions/regulations/safeguards which are inevitable in any modern society, but which for years, encouraged by the overwhelmingly Europhobic media, people had been habitually blaming on ‘Brussels’.
      There was the notorious  bendy bananas myth, but a better example of this was the staged banning, of obsolete, inefficient (in other words hot) light-bulbs. The Daily Mail and others campaigned against this, ignoring the fact that pressure for this reform largely originated in Britain and that it was in fact a triumph of enlightened international action, enabled by the EU, of which we should all be extremely proud!
    • Many voted as a general protest against austerity,  the Conservative government, David Cameron, George Osborne, and against what was probably perceived, especially in strongly Leave-voting areas, as a posh metropolitan elite.
    • Some older people voted because they couldn’t forgive the Germans for the Second World War—one of these is a dear friend of mine who made sure of getting her postal vote in early. Two others separately gave this as their reason while talking to fellow-canvassers in our High Street (extrapolate that to the whole country!).
    • There was even ignorance of what the EU actually was (for a brief period after the announcement of the result ‘What is the EU?‘ became the second commonest search term on Google.)
  2. Subsequent arrogant and bullying behaviour by the triumphant Leavers.
    • Attempted suppression of comment and debate, including debate in parliament.
    • The extension of the hate campaign which had been so successful against foreigners to include the ‘remoaners’, ‘whingers’, ‘traitors’, ‘enemies of the people’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘citizens of nowhere’people like me in factwho had the courage to speak out for almost half the nation.
    • The appropriation of our national flag and the very names ‘Democracy’ , ‘Patriotism’—even ‘decent people‘—by the divisive anti-EU cause, which still tries to deny the fact that people can be loyal and proud members of a hierarchy of nested communities – family, locality, country, continent, planet, and so on.
    • Vicious attacks and threats against individual MPs and senior members of the judiciary for scrupulously and courageously doing what is unequivocally their duty and their job.  To take a relatively mild example of this, instead of answering the legitimate arguments of the Governor of the Bank of England, they repeated try  to ‘shout him into silence’.
      (It seems to me that the failure by any of the prominent advocates of Leave to repudiate these outrageous abuses lays them open to the charge of complicity, and casts grave doubts on their fitness to be responsible leaders of a law-abiding society.
      If I were a convinced Leaver I would, at the very least, be apologising to my fellow citizens for this behaviour and seeking to build bridges instead of acting in ways that exacerbate division.)
  3. Things have changed since the votes were cast.
    • The election of Donald Trump in America—a possibility which seemed remote or even impossible at the time of the referendum—and the unfolding story of his erratic behaviour in office, has produced a fundamental change in the international geopolitical environment. Carol Cadwalladr puts it neatly: “Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade – in a radical and alarming way.”
    • The undermining of confidence in objective truth in public life and especially in journalism. This phenomenon blossomed during and after the American presidential election, but was already established in this country during the referendum campaign. Social and print media are thus employed to disseminate blatant and deliberate misinformation. Having established this environment of distrust, any opinion or fact that is challenging or inconvenient (not just the size of an inauguration crowd) can then be routinely attacked and neutralised by the label ‘fake news’.
  4. “Not what we voted for.”—unforeseen consequences of the Brexit process:
    • Contrary to sweeping promises, the exit process is not easy and is not going well.
    • We are not in a strong position in negotiations with Europe. It is increasingly clear that we need Europe more than it needs us.
    • We are not in a strong position in negotiations with anyone else.
    • Far from hastening a predicted disintegration of the EU, the example of Britain’s referendum appears to have strengthened Europe and weakened anti-EU sentiment within the populations of the remaining 27.
    • ‘Hard’, ‘crash-out’, or ‘no-deal’ Brexit, i.e. leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, was specifically ruled out:  Daniel Hannan, a leading behind-the-scenes architect of Leave, declared “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market” Yet the extreme  advocates of Brexit are now demanding that the 2016 vote be treated as an unquestionable instruction to do exactly that.
    • The NHS is losing large numbers of precious EU staff, as are agriculture and other vital sectors of our economy. The ill-effects of making these people feel unwelcome in Britain are incalculable.
    • The NHS may be opened up to US investors as a necessary sweetener for a new trade deal.
    • The unfolding evidence of unpreparedness and incompetence, even delusion, on the part of the small group of politicians who have been entrusted with the implementation of the Brexit process.
    • The fact that, rather than a balanced, cross-party group of the most competent people available, the future of the country is being decided, potentially for generations to come, by a small, unrepresentative group defined by their obsessional anti-EU convictions.
    • Previously unacceptable public expressions of xenophobic hatred have been unleashed and to some extent legitimised.
      The deliberate cultivation of hatred is something that has been suppressed in this country and elsewhere for a long time, partly because it is so easy to do, so powerful, and so corrupting. George Saunders, in his 2017 Man Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo speaks of “our revived human proclivity for hatred-inspired action“.
      The notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster appeared, as it turned out, on the same day that the British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a zealot in a frenzy of xenophobic hatred. Its image of Nigel Farage, in front of a picture of desperate refugees fleeing the war in Syria, had nothing to do with the EU or with Brexit but was deliberately designed to incite this gut reaction.  “This was not done on the hoof,”  boasted Arron Banks afterwards, “We played to win – we weren’t going to play Queensberry rules.
      This explosive growth of targeted hatred has been intensified by the new ubiquity of social media. Its almost simultaneous appearance during the United States presidential election, again employed overwhelmingly by only one of the two sides, is one of the features that may account the widely-perceived similarities between the Leave and the Trump campaigns.
    • Although there are indications they may soon be forced to back down, the government has persistently refused to release 58 studies of the economic impact of leaving the EU (on the grounds that to do so would weaken our negotiating position). However, we do know that:
      · the UK government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds, and hiring around 3,000 bureaucrats and lawyers, to cope with Brexit.
      · Chancellor Philip Hammond admits that a Brexit ‘no deal’ will mean less money for NHS and social care. (Thus even further undermining the £350m a week slogan which Boris Johnson has recently reiterated).
  5. Possible subversion of the democratic process by a new and largely hidden technique of ‘data mining’ which enables the targeting of individual people whose susceptibility to persuasion is revealed by personality profiles derived from the analysis of millions of Facebook posts.
    • This new technique was used by one side only.
    • Vote Leave and Leave.UK paid millions of pounds to tech companies Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ for these services and subsequently claimed that they had swung the referendum (In the same way that these techniques and companies were subsequently claimed to have secured the election of Donald Trump).
    • Vote Leave’s director Dominic Cummings has said: “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ.  We couldn’t have done it without them.”
    • This was allegedly enabled by an American billionaire, Robert Mercer,  partly as a trial run for the subsequent Presidential campaign.
  6. Questions about the use of ‘dark money’, and possible illegality in the funding of the Leave campaign which have been raised in Parliament and described by Andrea Leadsom, replying for the Government, as ‘incredibly important‘.
    The fact that the almost £9m which Aaron (also Arron, amongst other names) Banks says he contributed in cash, loans and services to pro-Brexit causes was the biggest donation in British political history.
    And Banks’ reported comments: “We were just cleverer than the regulators and the politicians. Of course we were”, adding that he didn’t break the law, rather that he “pushed the boundary of everything, right to the edge. It was war.
  7. The fact that the agenda continues to be set, and popular perceptions continue to be distorted, by a predominantly anti-EU national press which is owned by a handful of extremely rich, foreign or foreign-domiciled men, whose motives for fighting  relentlessly for Brexit are obscure.
    Joris Luyendijk, a Netherlander who is leaving Britain after living here with his family for five years, puts it this way in the November 2017 edition of Prospect Magazine:  “…Not only the division, but the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about ‘foreign judges’ and the need to ‘take back control’ when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?”
  8. On the day when Theresa May triggered Article 50, Nigel Farage reportedly raised his pint glass to toast “Well done Bannon, Well done, Breitbart. You helped with this hugely.
    If true, this bizarre tribute to two leaders of the American far right is a disturbing pointer to what is alleged to be a pattern of cooperation between avowed opponents of liberal democracy on both sides of the Atlantic and possibly in Russia, suggesting that they may have conspired together to influence our EU referendum.
  9. We now know that the scheme for securing the economic future of Britain which the advocates of Brexit envisage rests in large part on the reduction of taxation and public services and on the rescinding of regulations, environmental / domestic / workplace safeguards, and of workers’ rights. That such a ‘bonfire of regulations‘ would be against the interests of the majority of ordinary people is surely beyond dispute.
  10.  Electoral issues
    • Remain: 16,141,241 (48.1%)
      Leave: 17,410,742 (51.9%)
      Total Electorate: 46,500,001
      Turnout: 72.2%
      Rejected Ballots: 25,359
      Didn’t vote: 12,948,018
      Therefore: Didn’t vote for Brexit: 29,089,259 (63% of the electorate)
    • Polls suggest that of those who didn’t vote (possibly because some accepted the predictions that Remain was bound to win) a large majority would have chosen Remain.
    • 16-18 year olds, who overwhelmingly would have chosen to Remain, have a strong case that they should have been enfranchised in a vote so crucial for their futures.
    • Slightly less clear-cut is the argument that the 2.5 million EU nationals resident in Britain should also have been given a vote. Probably a large majority of these would also have voted Remain.
    • MPs who raised their concerns about the disenfranchisement of these two groups prior to the vote  are said to have been reassured on the grounds that the referendum result would be advisory rather than binding. I have raised this with my MP and in his reply he did not deny it.
    • A recent YouGov poll indicates there is now an overall majority for Remain.  This adds to a pattern of poll evidence that a majority of the British electorate almost certainly want to remain in the EU. As time passes and the population ages, this majority is likely to increase.

Of course there will be faults and omissions in this list –  it is no more than the honest product of my common sense. But at least it can’t be written off on the grounds that I am an expert.

What is clear is that several of these factors could have swung the vote sufficiently to produce the marginal victory for Leave. Indeed, as I have shown, several of them were triumphantly claimed to have done so. Acting together, however, they overwhelmingly invalidate the pretence that it is, or ever was, the ‘will of the people’ to separate Britain from the European Union at all, let alone unconditionally. If politicians continue to use the 2016 vote as an excuse for switching off their judgement and their responsibility to do what is best for our country, not to mention the wider world, let them be warned that a better list than this will be raised by history against their memory.


I have found writing this piece uncomfortable and disturbing. Parts of the story strike me as being profoundly sinister. I am also aware of the hatred and abuse that such things provoke in the current polarised environment (see above). Nonetheless, they are things which need to be said and yet, on the whole, are not being said. It seems obvious to me that they need to be heard and thought about by responsible Leavers much more than by Remainers. Unpleasant though the task has been I have felt compelled to persist with it because I see some very, very important issues at stake for our democracy and for our country, which extend far beyond the issue of EU membership, crucial though that obviously is. And for some reason I have a ridiculous idea that I might actually make a tiny difference.

All my life, ever since my two years as an embassy child in America, I have been intensely patriotic. Attending a conference in Reykjavik this summer, however, I felt, for the first time in my life, actually humiliated by my nationality. I do not like that feeling, and I do not want our foreign friends to think that some of us were aware all along of the emptiness and folly of the reasons being given for the mistake we were making, but were too lazy, intimidated, or—most un-British of all—fatalistic to speak out. That really would be something to be ashamed about.


26 February 2018 : I have now added an eleventh item for this list in a further post  whilst at the same time quoting a particularly thoughtful and pertinent reaction I have received from America.

A tribute to Robert M. Pirsig

Photo by Ian Glendinning at Chester, England on 7th July 2005

Talking in some depth about things that seem important – by J A R Willis


This article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Medical Humanities in the series Medicine through the Novel.  It is repeated here as a tribute to one of my greatest inspirations – Robert M. Pirsig – who died two days ago (24 April 2017)


‘Unless you are fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you’re in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling that you are losing time.’ (p 17 of 416)

The gentle voice is incredibly familiar, heard now for the third time, a voice that seems to have got itself into my deepest being. Read more…

Grandmother’s clock

grandmas-clock-caseThe old hall clock struck four at twenty minutes to six this morning. And then five at six. It’s almost like a code – but, as my wife points out, without that element of consistency which codes require to make them really useful.
I mention this because, endearingly, the old thing behaved itself perfectly all through this Christmas. I had finally given up on it a couple of years ago (when it struck something like twenty five at something like seventeen minutes past three) and since then it had stood, a beloved but silent sentinel, in the hall of our home. But this year, when I was putting the seasonal holly and tinsel in its hair, I suddenly had a whim to give it another try.
I hauled the weight up on its chain and circled the ancient hands to set the time, and as I did so I noticed with surprise that the correct number rang out as they passed each hour. So I gave the pendulum its little push and tiptoed away, pleased that I had restored, if only for a short time, the house’s ticking heart. But, as I’ve just said, it then surprised us by keeping time and striking the hours correctly right through the new year, asking only to be wound each night on my way upstairs to bed.
The way this happened was really quite weird, because now the festive season is over and we have hit 2017, it immediately reverted to being just as erratic as ever.

Read more…

Tomorrow’s EU referendum- the need to listen to the experts

Does the panel agree with Michael Gove that we’ve had enough of experts?

That was the question I submitted in advance for the EU referendum debate in Alton Assembly Rooms this Monday evening. Unfortunately it was left to the very end – in fact five minutes after the very end (timed for the England/Slovenia match) – and the panel were asked to give it a one-word answer.

I had been hoping for more than that.

I had chosen my question, after much thought, specifically to Read more…

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