2021vii26, Monday: now read this.

Not my stuff, obviously. But the piece I’m linking to – entitled “I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say” – is breathtaking. Do yourself a favour. Please.

Someone is so, so right on the internet: Another short one. I’d say I’m making up for lost time, but that would sound – given the content of this scribble – as though I was trying to be ironic. And I’m really not.

Someone I love has recently had the kind of diagnosis which can fill you with despair. Make you scream at the universe for its uncaring cruelty. Stage 4 cancer. Damnation.

And yet, I won’t scream or gesticulate. I refuse to. Because they’re not. They’re marvelling at the blessing of a life well lived, that they’re still living well, and refusing to take this as anything but a thing that happens.

It helps that they have faith. That they’re sure, quietly but firmly, that it’s not the end of the road. Only the end of this one.

But that aside, the resolute acceptance, and the ongoing love for all those around them, is an example before which I’m humbled. I’ll honour it by reflecting it as best I can.

I mention this not for sympathy (I don’t need it, since this person doesn’t), but as a lead-in to a truly breathtaking piece of journalism to which John Naughton (bless the man) linked in his daily newsletter this morning. (He got it via Helen Lewis, whose newsletter is also a blessing.)

John called it his “Long Read, not just of the Day, or even the Year, but perhaps of a lifetime”.

I might not go that far. But I’m close. It’s stellar.

And it’s strange. I was sure I cleaned my glasses last night. Yet they’re all misty again.


Update: Nigel Morris-Cotterill, one of the foremost experts around on money laundering, shared his experiences with losing his father on LinkedIn after reading this. He wrote a book after his father’s death, entitled “Ten Things You Need to Know about Dealing with Death” (Amazon page hereNigel’s piece on LinkedIn about it here). I’ve only skimmed the list of the ten things, rather than the book itself, but I agree with them all. 


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2021vii25, Sunday: Take me home.

I spent my Saturday lost in music. Oh sweet Jesus. It was… wonderful.

I’ll make this brief.

Go to the cinema. Watch Summer of Soul. Soon as you can.


For those without the privilege to have encountered this superlative movie, the short version: in the summer of 1969, as hippies and drop-outs were converging on Woodstock in upstate New York, tens of thousands of New York’s Black folk were gathering in Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now Marcus Garvey Park) for the Harlem Cultural Festival. Six days, over six weekends, of the best of soul, jazz and gospel music. It was filmed. No-one wanted to use the footage. And it languished in a basement for half a century – until Questlove, from The Roots, rescued it and cut the best bits together into a documentary.

And oh, sweet Lord, it’s stunning. Sure, it was lovely to be back in the Barbican cinema to see it – a favourite place of our family, where we haven’t set foot in the best part of two years. But the true glory was to be lifted up by music that filled us all with joy wholly unconfined.

Now, soul music per se may mean nothing to you. (Although I just can’t imagine how that could be. Lord, what a life…)

But live footage, at the height of their powers, of Sly and the Family Stone? Stevie Wonder? Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln? Mahalia Jackson? Mavis Staples? (Hearing Sister Mahalia take the mic from Mavis and let raw emotion ride in Dr King’s favourite hymn, Precious Lord, Take Me Home… wow.) The Fifth Dimension? Gladys Knight and the Pips? Ray Barretto? Mongo Santamaria? And – with a performance of Backlash Blues that practically raised the roof of the cinema – Miss Nina Simone herself? All of this put in the context of 1969, at the end of the decade which saw so many lives taken, famous (think Dr King, Malcolm, the Kennedy brothers) and unknown alike – and Black Power find its voice?

Come on, people. It’s beyond glorious. If music does anything to you, if it even remotely has that trick of showing you parts of your heart that just don’t come out any other way, be kind to yourself. See this.

We’re already planning to see it again.

The only thing that hurt was thinking of all the hours of other footage still unseen. Just imagine if it could be digitised, put online. Oh my. What a dream that would be…


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2021vii8, Thursday: Passive, aggressive.

Apologies for the long gap. I may be pedantic, but some words have old meanings that carry genuine value – the more so because of the state we’re in.

I’m torn when it comes to language. 

On the one hand, I’m absolutely alongside the idea of seeing linguistic evolution on a prescriptive rather than normative basis. Language changes with usage. It always has. And one of the joys of English is how – generally – receptive it’s been to incoming influence. 

On the other, there are some usages that are on my “die in a ditch for this, even if it’s a hopeless cause” list.*

I know. These two stances are potentially mutually contradictory. But there’s sense in it, I think, so long as one limits the second stance to a few areas where there’s a genuine, practical justification. 

So, for example, I limit my reaction to “literally” meaning “figuratively” to a mild internal flinch, although I flatly refuse to use it that way myself.

But “disinterested” used in place of “uninterested”? Hell, no. Particularly in our polarised world ([cough]Hancock and others in government giving jobs to their mates [/cough]), the secondary meaning of “interested” – that is, not something which fascinates you, but something you have a stake in – is more important than ever. Finding someone genuinely disinterested – that is, someone who can stand apart from a dispute and see it dispassionately (another great word), or at least someone with sufficient humility and wisdom to seek that position – has huge value. I don’t know another word which captures it quite as effectively. “Neutral”? “Objective”? “Unbiased”? Nope. They don’t mean the same. 

So yes: that one I’ll keep fighting for.

Slightly differently, but on a similar note, misplaced passives drive me nuts. This isn’t just parroting the Strunk & White-style simplism (ooh, that’s another word to defend) that actives are better than passives – not least because of the number of times things that aren’t actually the passive mood are quoted in defence of the position. Grrr. Not least because sometimes a passive is right: when you want to place the stress on the victim of an action, the passive can help keep the focus where it belongs. 

But far too often, there’s the “mistakes were made, lessons were learned” usage: what I call the “institutional passive aggressive mood”. The usage that obscures the fact that people did things that were wrong. That people need to learn and change. And that accountability, as opposed to blame, is important. And, if anything, makes it look like it’s your fault, not theirs, if you’ve got any further problem with them.

You know what? Don’t just listen to me on this. Go to this link, where the near-unparalleled US satirical website McSweeney’s (second only to The Onion, which published the best story in the world on Steve Jobs’ death a decade ago) does a bang-up job putting this very special linguistic usage precisely in the context it demands, with some nice animation to boot. Read it. Enjoy it. Make sure you get to the end. And see how you feel about the institutional passive aggressive then.

*As for whoever wrote the advert on the side of a double-decker bus I saw earlier this week, which used the American spelling “labeled”: well, I’m not the one who should be dying in a ditch for that.


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2021vi28, Monday: Interest.

Accountability starts with keeping track of conflicts of interest. Fail to do that, and corruption comes next. As the Matt Hancock saga shows all too clearly.

Back in my banking days, part of my job – frankly, one of the less fun parts – was to help people understand not only what restrictions and controls applied to what they did, but why.

This was always, to my mind, critical. People might not agree with the “why”. Often, they didn’t. But you owe it to them to explain them. There’s a reason why “Because those are the rules” is on a list of “Things never to say to anyone, ever” in one of the most helpful books on interpersonal communication I ever read.* 

Often I could understand people’s questions. Not least because banking systems and controls frequently appeared to be designed by people who’d never, actually, met people before. Which broke Scott-Joynt’s First Rule of Policies and Procedures: don’t ever expect human beings not to behave like human beings; so design your systems with the grain of how people tick.

(The second rule, of course, is that policies are either written for people to use, or written to cover the organisation’s backside. Those written for the first purpose can often also achieve the second. Those written for the second, usually by lawyers like me, can never achieve the first. This is also the difference between focusing on risk and focusing on compliance; but that’s another discussion.)

But one set of questions always baffled me: those about conflicts of interest, and why they needed to be declared. Banker after angry banker would wave the form at me demanding why on earth the bank needed to know about the relationships they had and the businesses they were connected to. “None of this is relevant,” they’d grouch. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

They were probably right. And it didn’t matter. Because the whole point of conflicts checks and declarations – whether general ones, or requirements to declare an interest if you’re involved in a decision which could benefit someone or something close to you – is preventative, not detective. It’s to put transparency in place before it’s needed, so that conflicts never actually arise. Which is why the broad declarations are needed: to avoid situations where there might appear to be a conflict, and thus the risk – yes, you guessed it – of corruption.

It doesn’t work that way, of course. People don’t declare. Often it’s relatively innocent, in a way: people think they’re not the kind of person who’d act improperly, to act partially, so therefore they don’t need to declare anything. Only dishonest people need to do that. And they’re not.

Balderdash. Most of us have immense blind spots when it comes to favouring those in our circle. Because we’re human. Because that’s how humans tick. So it’s not a matter of trusting honesty. It’s a matter of building in solutions where problems might arise, shining a great big spotlight on them, verifying connections, and thus obviating the problem as far as possible.

Why has this sprung to mind? It’s fairly obvious, I think: the Hancock Half-Hour of shame. The embarrassing clinch and the shameful do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do in re social distancing regulations and guidance is bad enough. Certainly enough reason for anyone with the slightest integrity to have resigned instantly, or (when it comes to his boss) to have sacked him on the spot. As is the hypocrisy of having demanded the head of Neil Ferguson, and then going on to do even worse yourself. 

But the conflicts are to my mind far more serious. There’s the obvious one, and the less obvious one. 

  • The first: the fact that Hancock appears to have given a job to a woman he was having an affair with, in secret, as well as sending work to members of her family. All while – so it’s reported – keeping comms relevant to this kind of thing out of government systems and on a private Gmail account. When the job or the contract came up, the only ethical thing to do would have been to declare an interest. He didn’t. Draw your own conclusions. 
  • The second: the fact that the only person with the power to decide whether his actions were acceptable or not is the PM. Someone not only with ethics that make Hancock look honourable, but with an immense vested interest in the outcome. 

Conflicts matter. Because being accountable matters. (Not just paper accountability; real accountability, in the sense of submission to those whose interests are not aligned with yours, and who have authority separate from your own.) Because transparency matters. And without it, you have corruption, self-dealing and disgrace.

Always. 

*The book’s called “Verbal Judo”. Setting aside the unfortunate fact that the co-(ghost?) writer seems to be the bloke who later co-wrote the ghastly “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic cod-Christian guff, it’s excellent. Written from a police officer’s point of view, but with much wider application. If I mention that other phrases on that list include “you always/you never”, “come here”, “be reasonable”, and my personal favourite, “calm down”, I hope you’ll agree there’s some smart and thoughtful stuff there.


Note: what with the family stuff that’s going on, I’m going to experiment with just having a single item for each post. That should (a) allow me to post more regularly, by not feeling obliged to have multiple things each day and thus ending up not getting stuff out; (b) make it easier to link to specific pieces. Hope that’s OK. If not, let me know.


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2021vi23, Wednesday: “Important.”

Qualified good news about open justice – but with a significant sting in the tail. And a fascinating update on corruption definitions from an old friend.

Short thought: For anyone relatively new to the law (by which I mean the past half-dozen years or so) the idea of a life before BAILII is just incomprehensible. 

Seriously? No public access to judgments? Court decisions – which in our common law world define much of the law, and are absolutely critical to anyone resorting to it – only available at vast cost, or to the tiny minority of practitioners? Madness. Worse; injustice. 

(A good description of why this matters is in the case of R (Unison) v the Lord Chancellor. I’ll take any excuse to point to paras 65-73 because it’s one of the paradigm examples of judicial disdain, cloaked in perfect and elegant courtesy. In this case, the Supreme Court saying to the government minister in charge of the legal system: just sit down and shut up, while we explain your job to you. With pictures. And short, easy words. But the key paras for this purpose are 69-70, where the critical role of case law in our common law system is concisely and superbly outlined. With a sarcastic sting in the tail.)

So the fact that we have this resource, with vast numbers (if by no means all) of judgments from the Tribunals, via the High Court and Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court, freely available, and searchable, is not just desirable. It’s necessary.

Having “grown up” in the law with BAILII, I find the existence in the US of PACER both staggering and an outrage. A public database of federal court decisions – great. But not only is it charged for – but the charge is $0.10 a page! As any trial lawyer will tell you, researching a case often means looking at loads of authorities, many of which will prove ultimately to be useless or even counter-productive. Most are dozens of pages long. Some are hundreds. This is just as much an obstruction of justice as were the Employment Tribunal fees that the Unison case ultimately, and rightly, defeated.

All this said, it’s worth remembering that BAILII isn’t a public enterprise. It gets about a quarter of its £230,000-odd budget from the Ministry of Justice, but it’s a charity.

Some may see this as an anomaly. And change is on the way. The MoJ has just this week announced that the National Archives will from next year host an openly-available archive of “important” court and tribunal judgments, including “Judicial Review rulings, European case law, commercial judgments and many more cases of legal significance from the High Court, Upper Tier Tribunal, and the Court of Appeal”.

I’m not going to be a curmudgeon about this – at least, not immediately. This is an advance. It’s absolutely worth having. And putting it in the hands of the National Archives, rather than the MoJ, is the right move.

But there is a problem. The words “important” and “of legal significance” do a lot of heavy lifting. Again, any trial lawyer will tell you that it’s not always the obvious cases that are worth having. Sometimes, the “legal significance” won’t emerge for some time, till various authorities and competing bits of jurisprudence settle out over time. This could leave huge gaps. And I want to know: who gets to decide what’s “important”? 

I’m not alone in this. Smarter and better minds – such as Paul McGrath and Natalie Byrom – have beaten me to it.

The counter to which could be: BAILII will still be there. Well, yes… but as part of this new deal, the MoJ will stop its funding to BAILII from next year. That’s a huge slice of budget. I’m really worried about its future. And its loss would be a loss to us all.


Someone is right on the internet: As anyone foolish enough to expose their thinking online (but not irretrievably arrogant) will tell you, one of the greatest joys of this game is when something you write prompts someone smart to help you expand your mind.

Tristram Hicks, former Detective Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, has been kind enough to do that. Tristram, whom I’ve known on and off for a good long while, specialised during his policing career in economic crime: fraud, asset recovery, money laundering – and corruption. 

He’s reminded me firstly that I got the standard corruption definition wrong in my piece on Monday. I should have said: “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. That’s “private”, not “personal” as I had it. 

In the context in which I used it, I’m not sure there’s a great difference; “private” in the sense of “for the sake of the organisation itself, not for the sake of its mission” works better than my explanation, but perhaps not materially.

But Tristram points me to a piece he wrote for Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, which I commend to any reader of these pages as an excellent use of 10 minutes of their time. (It’s not long – less than 10 sides of A4.) Entitled “Why are there so few domestic corruption cases in the UK?”, it explores some of the familiar (no resources; no incentives; no measures) reasons why domestic corruption goes largely uninvestigated, unprotected and thus unpunished – but also some more unfamiliar ones. 

(He doesn’t mention my particularly caustic and cynical take: that successive governments are so wedded to the UK’s image as a “clean” place that except in certain specific locations, such as prisons and border control, there’s simply no incentive to lift the rocks and look underneath. In case we find anything…)

But alongside this, Tristram also points out that my mistaken definition is the one the Government adopted for its 2017-22 Anti-Corruption Strategy, although it wrongly attributed its wording to Transparency International (the source of the “private gain” one). And then it added a further gloss: the corruption, by the Government’s definition, had to “benefit a third party – an individual, business or other organisation”. Like Tristram, I don’t believe this is right. At its most basic level, the additional condition might be interpreted as ruling out people within the organisation in question – particularly those running it, whose motives might well be mixed up with or attributed to the organisation itself. And even if that’s not the case, this definition carefully exempts the kind of “institutional corruption” we were discussing on Monday.

Not good enough. We’re not as clean as we think we are. Narrowing the definitions to exclude some of the ways in which that manifests itself only makes things worse. Thanks, but no.


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2021vi21, Monday: It doesn’t have to be “personal” to be corruption.

Organisations can be corrupt, not just people. As a new report shows. And without an public duty to be transparent, that will be the rule, not the exception.

Short thought: There are a million definitions of corruption. It’s one of those “know it when you see it” kinds of words, and an exact definition is probably unhelpful. 

(Put up with me here. I’m going to wander off into a bit of a discursion. But I promise: it’ll come back to something current, and important. Something that ought to make you pretty angry. It did me.)

You can see this in one of the most common ones, which boils down to “the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain”. It’s not bad, so far as it goes. But there’s a lot of freight in those words, and in each of them – and that can lead us in unfortunate directions.

(One useful omission is any reference to “dishonesty”. For years, there’s been legal argument about whether dishonesty was an essential element in corruption. In the UK, it’s now pretty settled that it doesn’t – and that’s a good thing. “Corrupt” and “dishonest” are overlapping circles: you can be either without the other, although often they co-exist. Think, for instance, of blatant, balls-out abuse of power where someone simply takes advantage of their position without even bothering to hide what they’re doing. Not uncommon, and not in the slightest dishonest. But corrupt all the same.)

So what do I mean by “freight” in the words? This is where I behave like the stereotypical barrister: picking apart the language. But there’s a point, as I hope you’ll see. Taking it a step at a time:

  • Abuse”. Not all uses of power for personal gain are necessarily corrupt. A decision on behalf of your organisation might make you better off, but also be in the organisation’s best interests – and those of its stakeholders. No abuse there. No corruption.
  • Entrusted power”. An essential element in how law in England defined corruption used to be that an agency relationship needed to exist. This is still there in civil matters, to an extent: it’s trite law now (following FHB) that if someone acting for you takes a bribe, the law sees their gain as in fact yours, and which that agent (holding it in trust for you) therefore can’t lawfully use for themselves. As recently as 15 years ago, amid arguments over what ultimately became the Bribery Act 2010, many pushed for explicit inclusion of an agency requirement in the proposed new statute. Ultimately that idea died; but we still have the essential idea that bribery, at least (and corruption more generally) is about what you do with authority that you’ve been given and which you wield on others’ behalf.
  • Gain”. This is often misinterpreted as something strictly financial. In the UK, at least, that’s not the case, at least so long as bribery is concerned: the offences in the Bribery Act are committed for the gift or receipt of “financial or other advantage” (see for instance s1(2)(a) and s2(2)). Unlike in the Fraud Act 2006 s5, where “gain” has to be in property or something financial, an intangible advantage will qualify. Such as, for example, the preservation of a reputation, or the burying of bad news.
  • Personal”. This, I’d suggest, is also a dangerous one. It gives the impression that corruption is solely and always about individuals – whether acting in their own favour or for (for instance) their families or friends. 

Now we’re at the point. Sorry it took this long. The reason for this textual exegesis is the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel, whose report (all 1,200-odd pages of it) was finally released last week. For the uninitiated, it tells a thoroughly grubby tale of the grossly-incompetent investigation, over decades, by the Metropolitan Police of a 1980s murder of a journalist.

But worse than the incompetence is what the Panel’s report says is the Met’s “institutional corruption”. Partly because of the prevailing suspicion that Met officers were far too close to crooks for comfort, as they were with private investigators who hovered in the hinterland between the two. 

But mostly because of what appears to be an eight-year effort by the Met to obstruct the Inquiry, whether by failing to produce evidence, blocking access to systems, or otherwise. The Panel doesn’t mince words:

In failing to acknowledge its many failings over the 34 years since the murder of Daniel Morgan, the Metropolitan Police’s first objective was to protect itself. In so doing it compounded the suffering and trauma of the family.

…The lack of leadership, the reluctance to confront serious issues and the refusal to be publicly and internally candid about failings and deficiencies within the organisation, in this case and others, engenders distrust among the community served by the Metropolitan Police and within the organisation itself. The support of that community, and the confidence of good police officers in the organisation which they serve, is vital to the delivery of effective efficient policing. It is to be hoped that the findings and recommendations contained in this report will lead to a change of culture and ethos throughout the police service.

One could say that “institutional corruption” is a misuse of language. Is it really corruption for an organisation to drag its feet just to try to stifle criticism and keep its incompetence under wraps? That’s not “personal gain”, is it?

Wrong. What we’re talking about is, I think undoubtedly, the abuse of entrusted power. And it may not necessarily be for the individual gain of those making the decisions, but it’s definitely to aid the organisation at the cost of those it serves. Perhaps “personal” isn’t the right word; but to the extent that we’re talking about placing its own interests above the demands of its assigned duties and obligations, it fits. 

Another criticism might be: well, isn’t self-preservation an inevitable habit of any large institution? Of course it is. But there’s still a dividing line. We’re back to the “know it when you see it”. There’s vigorous PR. And then there’s this. They’re not the same. It’s facile, and I think foolish or in some cases dishonest, to suggest otherwise. 

The Morgan report is huge. Few will read it. But the summary is less than 20 pages. It tells an entirely unedifying story. And, to anyone concerned that those who protect us can be trusted not to privilege their own concerns over ours, it’s in my view essential reading.


Someone is right on the internet: A key recommendation in the Morgan report is the imposing of a “duty of candour” for public servants and public institutions. In other words, they would have a responsibility to be proactive in informing the people they claim to serve about what they’re doing and how.

This topic is picked up by David Allen Green in the latest of a set of posts concerning what he believes is a prerequisite for meaningful public service reform. David points out, perhaps slightly caustically, that calls for such reform are frequent (and the person voicing them is “usually Michael Gove”), but are rarely accompanied by any acknowledgement that without an imposition of transparency – that is, the obligation to disclose information they don’t want anyone to see – such calls are essentially meaningless. They are, he says, 

Nothing but sophistry and illusion.

I think he’s right. Governments (and public bodies) in general are loathe to let sunlight into what they do, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say our current administration takes this to an extreme: whether it’s changes to judicial review, or a backstairs bit of the Cabinet Office making sure freedom of information requests are hobbled, or an apparently academic disquisition on whether judges are trespassing on the rule of law in cases concerning (also) freedom of information, the trend is to lock down, not open up. To avoid scrutiny. To obscure transparency.

In a nutshell: to be unaccountable.

This cannot be right. Particularly in our majoritarian polity, where the combination of first-past-the-post elections and parliamentary supremacy puts immense power in the hands of the government of the day, trammelled only by conventions which this administration doesn’t seem to recognise, transparency is critical if those running the show are to be held to account. 

Mind you, I’d be saying the same thing were another party to be in power. Power corrupts. When it’s wielded without accountability, in the dark, its abuse is practically inevitable. 

Ah, you might say. But you’re forgetting Hanlon’s Razor: that wonderful (and I’ve always believed accurate) warning against assuming malice where something can just as easily be explained by incompetence. (More pithily put as: “Cock-up is far more common than conspiracy.”)

No. I haven’t. If anything, that’s still more important. Errors, mistakes and negligence only get learned from if they’re recognised. Institutional pressure to sweep cock-ups under the carpet is always intense: yes, partly for legal reasons, but as often simply to save face. Without transparency, the same errors happen. Over and over again. 

And we all pay.


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2021vi16, Wednesday: Domestication.

Pets deserve eulogies; cats especially so, given that it’s the junior partner in the relationship who’s writing them. And an example of the fake “war on woke”. From a silk, no less. For shame.

Someone is right on the internet: The relationship between cats and people is a nuanced one. That may be one of the reasons I’m more a cat person than a dog one. I recognise the beautiful straightforwardness of the dog-human connection: at its best, an honest mutual loyalty (albeit with a clear hierarchy as well). But the more mercurial, less owner/pet way that cats and the humans they cohabit with interact is more to my taste.

John Naughton captures that in a lovely elegy to Zoombini, one of his cats, who died last week. Should pets get eulogies? I can’t imagine why not. We may anthropomorphise shamelessly as a species, but we do so because – I think – we have an inbuilt need for relationships. And you can’t have a relationship with something unless you imbue it with some sort of self – even if it’s a partially imaginary, reflective one.

John writes:

She was a remarkable animal — the most intelligent cat I’ve ever known. She was wily, perceptive, affectionate, needy and could be imperious, so much so that we used to joke that she conformed to PG Wodehouse’s explanation of why cats are different from dogs — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. She could never understood why we — her servants — never rose at daybreak, and made her displeasure vocally plain. Although we had a perfectly good cat-flap, she would on occasion sit outside the back door yowling insistently — and of course I would eventually cave in and open the door, at which point she would strut in, purring ostentatiously at the triumph of the feline will.

This is instantly familiar to those of us with cats. Our own, Iroh (the name comes from here) who’s not quite a year old and has been with us for little more than seven months, is now wholly a member of the family. To lose her, even now, would leave a gap of significant proportions. For John and his family, with almost two decades of intimately shared existence, the gap will be huge. I feel for him.

John also observes – a day or two later – what appears to be a sense of deep loss in Zoombini’s sibling. I have no trouble in believing that there’s more to what he describes than mere instinct, or habit. A cat’s inner life is likely to be wildly different from our own. But I’m confident it’s there. And it’s definitely independent of us two-legs who give them house room. 

Much of John’s description of Zoombini maps directly onto Iroh – particularly her insistence, at sun-up, that the world should rise with her. And, of course, his insight about the direction of the cat-human relationship. As I’m not the first to notice, it’s clear to any thinking cat “owner” (such an inapposite term!) who, in fact, domesticated whom. 

I think it was Pratchett who observed that cats only tolerate us, amusedly, until someone invents a tin opener that can be operated by paw. That’s overdoing it: there’s definitely affection in the relationship, albeit perhaps the indulgent affection of a supreme monarch for minions she’s rather fond of. But Iroh, as the picture shows, is clearly a frustrated biped – and her frequent attempts to manipulate keys and door (and window) handles indicate that if anyone were ever to give her opposable thumbs, we’d be in deep trouble…


Someone is wrong on the internet: OK, OK. I promised myself I’d try not to do this – do a “SIWOTI”. But it’s so closely linked to what I wrote about on Monday concerning the weaponisation of culture wars for malign political ends that it feels obligatory.

The nutshell version, thanks to Joshua Rozenberg:

  1. Hardwicke Chambers, a long-standing commercial set of very high repute, announced yesterday that it was changing its name to Gatehouse. A year ago, it had come to recognise that Lord Hardwicke – after whom it was named – was the co-author of a 18th-century legal opinion which had played a significant role in buttressing the survival of slavery for many years. It decided it was time for a change.
  2. So far, so good. Until Lord Wolfson, a commercial silk himself and now – importantly, for this purpose – a justice minister, decided to wade in. In a series of tweets, he implied that this was a distraction from “the important business” of fighting racism and improving diversity – asking whether because Lincoln’s and Gray’s Inns (two of the four Inns of Court, to one of which all of us barristers must belong) were named after advisors to Edward I, and he’d expelled Jews from England in 1290, they should be renamed too.

There’s simply no meaningful comparison to be drawn between these two things. Lord Wolfson’s prowess as an advocate is not in doubt, so why he’s making such a snide, weak and tendentious argument is beyond me – unless, of course, he’s simply looking (or has been instructed) to score cheap and deliberately divisive political points in the name of the “war on woke”. 

For shame.


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2021vi14, Monday: Culture wars and small differences.

When you hear the phrase “war on woke”, it’s always worth looking around. What is someone trying to stop you from seeing – or thinking about?

Short thought: As I mentioned the other week, I mistrust and – frankly – despise anyone who decides to weaponise division to gain or keep power. 

Culture wars are a classic example – such as the “war on woke”. By this, I mean the deliberate pushing of people’s buttons by mischaracterising much of what is, in essence, an entirely reasonable desire on the part of those who are historically demeaned and disadvantaged to not have to put up with it any more as some malign, often Marxist, fifth column against “decent people everywhere”. 

It’s particularly depressing when one takes into account something I was recently reminded of: the “narcissism of small differences”. Frustratingly, I can’t remember where I saw the phrase – but it means a hyper-focus on minor divergences in view, ignoring (often) far wider areas of agreement. 

Why do I think of it? Because while of course there remains vast areas of prejudice, and discrimination, I tend to believe that the 10-80-10 rule applies here as in so much else. This, incidentally, is something that arose from my work in risk and compliance: the rule of thumb that 10% of people were saints and could be relied upon to do the right thing, and 10% were – well, let’s just say the opposite, and needed to be spotted and rooted out but weren’t really amenable to behavioural improvement. It’s the other 80% that you focus on in compliance: the ones who exist somewhere on a spectrum in between, and for whom environment, incentives, example and culture would tug them towards one extreme or the other. 

In society, too, it’s the 80% that are critical. They – we! – respond to tone. To the undercurrent of what appears to be socially acceptable. To whether angels or demons are seen as worth listening to. And thus to whether “we’re all in this together” or “it’s all their fault” is the song of the moment.

Often, our differences aren’t huge. Security. A decent life for self, kids and family. The ability to look in the mirror and be pleased at what you see. And often, if encouraged, a chance to hold out a hand and help.

Culture wars do it all wrong. On either side – but especially the right at present – they build walls, define enemies, assign blame. 

And, critically, rob society, and people, of the chance to be honest with themselves. This, too, was prompted by a recent piece on Jason Kottke’s wonderful linkblog (note more than 20 years old!), itself referencing a Washington Post article. It commented on one of those glorious German portmanteau words, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung: literally “working off the past”. In other words, the society-wide effort Germany has made in the past three quarters of a century to look itself in the face, be honest about what it did as a nation, and learn and grow. 

Is it perfect? No. The existence of the far right in German police and military, and the success of groups like AfD, show that. But has it been a triumphant example of societal success built on genuine self-examination? Absolutely.

I share a belief that a society that refuses to face its failures as well as embrace its successes is a deeply unhealthy one. That true patriotism requires honest examination, so that one’s country can learn and grow – not an angry denial that there’s anything wrong, and a piling-on of anyone who holds up a mirror.

That’s what culture wars prevent. They’re fundamentally dishonest. They’re damaging. They’re infantilising. And they make sure we focus on the small differences, not the huge and wicked problems which require our common commitment to resolve. 

As an investigator, often the question when confronted with wrongdoing was: fool or crook? Was someone acting stupidly or negligently – or with malign intent?

With culture wars button-pushers, it’s easy. They’re both.


Someone is right on the internet: This has gone the rounds, and you’ll have seen it. But it’s so good, I want to make sure I remember it.

As I’ve made clear, I have zero interest in football as a game. But I recognise its status as a cultural touchstone. And recognise also the threat that young footballers pose to culture warriors. 

So it’s good to see – for once – football authorities offering at least some support. Exemplified at its best by Gareth Southgate’s moving, thoughtful, principled and beautiful piece last week, supporting his players’ patriotism as shown by their desire for things to be better. Not for him the “just play the game” approach; rather, he sees his players willingly shoulder an obligation to be the exemplars they’re asked by so many to be – and commits to backing them in doing so:

Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people.

I have never believed that we should just stick to football. 

I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.

It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.

The whole piece goes directly to the patriotism vs nationalism question. Is love of country about wanting to make things better? Or is it about wanting to feel better than everyone else?

There’s also an ugly echo to the sound of those telling Southgate’s players that they’ve no business getting involved like this, that they should stick to the football, with the “leave politics at home” line pushed by some businesses. Most people in employment know they’re risking their livelihoods if they try to stand up for their rights, or what’s right. Southgate’s players are well-protected enough to take some of the weight for everyone else. No wonder some find that threatening. They can’t as easily be shouted down, or warned off, as the rest of us.

I still can’t really bring myself to care about what happens in Euro 2021 (or Euro 2020 as apparently we’re meant to call it). But this is the kind of patriotism I can always get behind. Get in, lads.


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2021vi9, Wednesday: Just one guy.

A friend made me cry over the weekend. I can’t thank him enough.

Short thought: It was the bags that did it for me.

An old friend, Andy Marshall, posted to his Twitter feed on Saturday a video from 1989.

I watched it. For what must be the hundredth time. And, as always, burst into tears.

So much about this video is beautiful, and terrible, and inspiring, and heartbreaking, all at once. 

But as I said, even more than the slight frame of the man making this astonishingly quiet, superlatively brave stance, even more than the simplicity of his dress – dark trousers, white shirt – what hits me are the bags. It’s hard to make out, but it looks like a briefcase in one hand and a shopping bag in the other.

Not only unarmed. But encumbered. Standing in front of a column of tanks. Because he feels he has to. 

Just watching it again as I write this, the tears are flowing once more. 

I knew next to nothing about China in 1989. I was 18. Doing my A-levels, hoping to get the results that would allow me to study Japanese at Cambridge. But even in my ignorance, everything that happened in China during May of that year filled me with a sense of possibility. That things could change. That people who hoped for the better – not just for themselves, but their fellows – could prevail.

And then came 4 June. Or May 35th, or any of the other date references now routinely blocked by the Great Firewall of China. As the tanks and troops rolled into Tiananmen Square. The protests were routed. Hundreds were killed. Something intangible died too. And in my teenage naïveté, I couldn’t stop weeping.

Then, the next day, came this guy. I don’t know what happened to him. I hope – somehow – he avoided the fate one fears was probably his. (Let’s face it. The traditional telling of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes finishes before the likely dénouement, where the little boy who yells out “I can see your bum in that!” is dragged off by soldiers who quietly explain to his parents that they never, actually, had a son in the first place, and any memory they may have to the contrary must be a fairy-tale.)

But when I cry at this video, it’s not just for the hopelessness. It’s for the opposite too. It’s at the thought that even in the darkest moments, when raw power smiles and shows its teeth, human beings exist who will say: No. Not this. Not now. Not me.

There’s hope in those tears. There’s faith – not just religious faith, but a faith that we frail, petty beings, with all our doubts and despondencies, our unerring ability to get the wrong end of the stick and listen to the demons whispering in our ear, can always find a way to step up. For as long as that’s true, there’s hope.


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2021vi4, Friday: People ≠ things.

What happens when you thingify people? Nothing good.

Apologies. As I mentioned, this week has been vacation, and has been busy with family matters. Without breaking anyone else’s confidentiality, suffice it to say that there’s a lot of complicated and slightly scary stuff happening to people I love. I’ll try to stick to three posts a week, but it may be two for the next little while. Please forgive.

Short thought: Evil begins, to paraphrase that great sage of our times Terry Pratchett, when you start treating people as things.

A bit trite, you might say. How can you run any society, any organisation with more than a handful of souls, without doing precisely that? Which, of course, is true. You have to abstract. You have to say: this many people take this much resource. This many people = this many sales, or (in the public sector) this much tax. Subtract one from the other: sustainable or not?

But this comes back to the heart of thingification. Do you do this as a planning tool, as a calculation shortcut? Or do you start to see the abstract instead of the people who comprise it? Do you somehow start to see some, if not all, people as worth less than others? Or, in the worst-case scenario, as simply pieces on the board?

Because that, I think, is what Pratchett was talking about. Particularly in ethics and politics, there’s a clanging alarm bell that I always look out for. Just as certainty warns of a closed mind, this is an indicator that people are being thingified – and evil is lurking.

And it’s terrifyingly common. It’s that easy tendency to build a community – political, religious, otherwise – around who you blame. Who you hate. Who you see as different. Who you treat as “other”.

In other words: who isn’t as truly human as you are.

It’s the thing I can’t trust. The thing that will, inexorably, drive me away from any group that manifests it, from any leadership which relies on it. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a convenient means to an end which is claimed to be laudable. Or if it’s a nod and a wink – “people will understand I don’t really mean it”.

Because it never stops there. This is the genie that never goes back in the bottle. We humans always find it fatally easy to put people in a box marked “not quite like us” – and then treat that box as a thing, with all the negative consequences. Every time we encourage that, we normalise this human tendency. So anyone who does so is, in my world, simply beyond the pale.

Back to Sir Terry. In one of his later books, he deals with the imminent explosion into hot war of a centuries-long enmity, as one side’s rhetoric turns vicious. Changing the wording a bit to minimise spoilers, someone finds the following on an old recording:

“The enemy is not one side nor the other. It is the baleful, the malign, the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good. Those we fought today, but the wilful fool is eternal and will say…”

“This is just a trick!” one of those present shouts. 

“…say this is a trick,” the recording concludes. 

Hatred is comforting. Nationalism or any other belief that defines itself by hatred, or against another, instead of seeking worth on its own terms, is comforting. But it’s deadly. It’s poison. It’s a parasite that not only destroys its host on its way to other minds, but pollutes the sea in which that host swims.

We’ll never win the fight against turning people into things. Not permanently. It’s too easy a trick to exploit, to abuse, to weaponise. 

But that only means we shouldn’t stop trying.


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