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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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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2021v10, Monday: Put yourself in the picture.

No-one gets elected unless they can tell a story enough people want to be part of. Will Labour ever learn that lesson again?

Short thought: Those bored to tears with me banging on about stories should look away now. Because in the wake of last week’s local elections in the UK, here we go again.

I don’t know what a Labour-run country would look like. They haven’t told me. Or if they have, I’ve missed it. And I’m really not oblivious enough to news to have overlooked it.

I know what the Tories want me to think a Tory-run country (which is what we currently have) looks like. I don’t believe they’re either willing or (more importantly) capable of producing the levelled-up, non-London-centric future they’re describing. I think an administration based on flagrant lying, gaslighting and corruption will probably get found out one day.*

But I at least see the picture they’re painting. And I can understand, particularly in areas which have been so much at the back of the queue for decades that the front is only visible with a telescope (and having grown up partly in Stoke-on-Trent, this isn’t just theoretical to me), how it seems far better than any alternative.

That’s the thing. Yes, there’s the vaccine bounce. Yes, there’s the relief of re-opening – and incumbents (let’s not forget that many Labour and other incumbent administrations actually did quite well) almost always benefit when there’s an economic or social upswing.

But political parties are social engines. They’re powered by human attention and (to some extent) trust. And trust and attention are – yes, here we go again – narrative-driven.

Put simply: you vote for someone when they tell a story that enough people feel they either want, or need, to be a part of. And to do that, you need to act, not just react; and you need to find ways of telling your own story, on your own turf; not the turf the other parties define.

Labour has forgotten this. It forgot in 2010-2015, when it allowed the “Labour spent all the money, so austerity is inevitable” lie to take root. It forgot between 2015 and 2019, when Corbynmania had a story of sorts – but one which seemed explicitly to discard or disdain large numbers of people whose votes, to be frank, Labour needed if it was to win power.

And national Labour, at least, seems to have forgotten it now. It focuses on the stories it tells itself (bring back Corbynism! No, Blairism for the win!) instead of the stories it needs to tell the rest of us. And that’s disastrous.

I want to know how we free up the country outside London. I want to know how a post-pandemic UK could find ways of making sure a kid growing up in Southend, or Wigan, or Warwick, or their Scots or Welsh equivalents, doesn’t have to move to London to have the life they deserve, keeping their cash local and their community thriving. I want to know how workers can be protected and their employers encouraged and incentivised to avoid zero-sum games. I want to know how we can integrate facing down the climate threat into this new model. I want to know how despite all this London can remain the thriving, bubbling, economic and social wonder that it is – but not at the cost of elsewhere. (Other countries manage to be truly multi-centred nations; why not us?) I want to know how we can see the rest of the world and its peoples as opportunities, not threats, and love difference as the vital ingredient of life that it is, without using it as a weapon. How we can stop using the EU as a bogeyman, stop pretending that other trade arrangements will wholly replace the ones we’ve shut the door on, and start making Britain after Brexit work without constantly lying about it.

(For the climate in particular: I warmly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, a new book telling – as if in retrospect – one story of how the world dealt with impending climate catastrophe. It’s fiction, sure; but it’s an example of how to paint a word picture that one wants to climb into. As Todd Tucker puts it: it should be “required reading for anyone that writes white papers for a living”.)

All this can fit into a grand narrative. One which is doable, so long as you’re in power. And almost none of this is going to come from this government, which prefers pork-barrel to policy.

Here’s a picture I want to paint myself into. A story I want to be a character in. A future I’d like to believe in.

But I’m not hearing it. Not from anyone. And that makes me cry.

*Although I always bear in mind the investing dictum that the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. The same can apply to the electability of incompetent narcissist populists, I fear.


Someone is right on the internet: I’ve been sleeping appallingly recently. Insomnia’s been a plague for years, but the past few months? Worse than I can remember. It’s left me often incapable of functioning after about 4pm. And then I wake up before 4 the following morning… and the cycle continues.

There are things I can and should do. Meditate more. Eat better. Talk things through. Exercise. Read rather than rely on devices. I’ll be working on them all.

And on the subject of reading, having something thought-provoking about sleep may not help, but it sure feels as though it might. So this, from Wired on how octopuses seem to dream, is perfect.

The answer appears to be: they have REM sleep, but only for a fraction of the period that we do. Could it be because, as they seem to dream, it affects their skin colouration – normally an expression of mood and a defensive tool for camouflage? Is the evolutionary risk of a long REM period just too high?

No idea. But it’s great to think about. And in any case: sleep study and cephalopods, all in one. Two absorbing interests covered at the same time. What’s not to like?


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2021v3, Monday: Miscellany.

It’s a bank holiday. I have to work. So I’m afraid a linkfest will have to do. With a quick shout about sleaze at the end.

Incidentally: do subscribe at http://remoteaccessbar.substack.com if you fancy getting this automatically. Now, advert over. Let’s get on.

Someones are right on the internet: It’s the early May bank holiday, and I’ve got a hearing tomorrow at 10 for which the papers only arrived late last week. Life at the Bar… so I fear this will have to be a brief canter through some stuff worth (I think) reading:

  • First up, a rather nice discussion of why an absence of good faith doesn’t equal bad faith, relating to a 2019 case, by someone I’m up against in an ET case soon. Scouting out your upcoming opponents is always a good idea. Not least because, as here, you can always learn something.
  • Next, an absolutely stellar piece of writing from one of the UK’s foremost experts on constitutional law, Professor Mark Elliott. He reviews the Government’s apparent intention to legislate on judicial review (going far beyond what its own review advised), and identifies the view of the constitution which seems to underpin it. Which is, to say the least, a rather heterodox and – to these untutored eyes – deeply untrustworthy one.
  • And finally, the wonderful Separated by a Common Language (a site which looks at different usages in English, particularly but not exclusively across the Atlantic), examines the word sleaze. As I may have mentioned before, I hate the word as it’s used here in the UK. Far too often it’s a synonym for corruption, and thus a way of avoiding having to face up to just how bent parts (not all, thank goodness, but critical parts) of our polity actually are.

Short thought: I wasn’t going to editorialise beyond the links, but I have to mention something here. Out walking back from the pub (an actual pub! Wow) with a mate, he commented on how much of a time-waste it felt like the whole “Boris’s flat” thing felt like, given everything else around. I can empathise with his view. But the point of the “flat thing”, and indeed all the rest of the miasma of misconduct, arrogance and downright crookedness that envelops Johnson is not that it’s a one-off, but that it’s symptomatic. Symptomatic of incompetence. Of greed. Of a rules-don’t-apply-to-me mentality which disdains accountability, in favour of a kind of 21st century droit de seigneur. Of an almost feudal sense of right, without any of the balancing obligations which underpinned, at least in theory, every feudal system which has ever survived more than a handful of years, and belies Johnson’s claim to be any kind of real historian.

And why is that important? Because all of the critical stuff that my friend, justifiably, wants to hear about – and still more wants those in charge to get on with, and get right – needs competence, and transparency, and accountability, if it’s to be done at all well. More than ever, in the wake of the past hateful year, we need people for whom the public interest means something beyond “what makes me win the next election” or “what owns the libs”.

That’s why the flat thing matters. That’s why the Arcuri affair matters. That’s why the refusal to take misconduct (Patel) or incompetence (Williamson) seriously matters. That’s why the “VIP lane” for Covid kit matters. That’s why the utterly unserious approach to what would be called “corruption” if it happened in a country at the bottom of the Transparency International CPI index matters.

Because they all point to an administration to whom you, and I, and anyone else outside the charmed circle of mates and muckers, don’t matter – except on voting day. And even then, not often.

That’s not how to solve our huge problems. It’s how to make them worse.

(By the way: it’ll come as no surprise to anyone reading this that I’m not exactly a fan of the current government. Right now, though, I don’t care about Labour vs Conservative. Even though I’m something of a leftie, I’d take a competent, relatively honest Conservative government over an incompetent, dishonest Labour one, because we’ve got work to do. But our current administration is neither competent nor honest. And shows no signs of ever being either.)


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2021v1, Saturday: What’s measured matters.

When measures become targets, they’re useless as measures. But when something isn’t measured at all, it’s invisible…

Short thought: a rare day off yesterday with spouse. So nothing written. Catching up today, I spotted one of the terrifying number of tabs I currently have open and awaiting attention, which dealt with Goodhart’s law. And that took my mind to fraud.

Yes, I know: for me, that’s a fairly short leap from practically anywhere. But bear with me for a moment. Goodhart’s Law, named after economist Charles Goodhart, holds that “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Or, more simply and pithily: measures become useless as measures once you start using them as targets.

Why is this? Because measures are diagnostic: things that help you understand a situation. They’re therefore only any use as long as they’re objective. And as soon as people start being graded according to that measure, it will be gamed. Think hospital waiting lists, or A&E waiting times, or paying teachers (or funding schools) by kids’ school grades. Or stack ranking in workplaces.

Which means I have mixed feelings about this story in the Times (£, sorry). It talks of six metrics by which police forces will be ranked. None of them, predictably, explicitly deals with fraud – the single largest crime problem the UK faces, yet the one with probably the least amount of focused resource and attention.

This brings back memories. In 2007-8 I spent a short amount of time working with people at what was then the (short-lived) National Fraud Strategic Authority. One thing that passed across the NFSA’s desk was a proposed set of police performance indicates. There were 147 of them, I recall – and not a single one dealt with fraud. Most were obviously chosen because they were things that were easy to count, rather than things that would genuinely make a difference in the effectiveness of policing.

So on the one hand, having just six – and high-level at that (homicide, serious violence, drug supply, neighbourhood violence, cybercrime and “victim satisfaction”) – is a step up. As is a Home Office source’s comment that “I wouldn’t classify them as targets.”

So not a Goodhart problem, then?

Hardly. Because the next sentence is: “It’s about tracking progress — we’re giving forces extra officers and now we want to see outcomes.”

So it’s directly a Goodhart problem. As has been the case before, forces will game their resource spend to make sure the Home Office is happy.

And fraud, as ever, will be forgotten. As will its millions of victims. Because, to be cynical, their problems cost too much to fix.

(Yes, yes. “Cybercrime” could be interpreted to include a lot of fraud. But it’s not the same thing. And how is “dealing with cybercrime” to be measured? I have no idea, and I’m pretty sure the Home Office doesn’t either.)


Someone is right on the internet: This is the third piece in a row in which I’ve mentioned the Horizon scandal. I won’t apologise. This is disgraceful, and it deserves a lot of noise.

So today I’ll simply point to someone who, if we had Pulitzers in this country, would deserve one for his coverage of this: Nick Wallis. This piece by him in Private Eye describes the scandal in great detail. Read every word. And then get very angry. And then decide how the issues that arise herein might arise elsewhere – and start thinking about who should be held to account for not making this a priority.

One quick sideline: I should have mentioned when writing about Horizon that the Post Office – shortly before Mr Justice Fraser tore Horizon to shreds – agreed to a £58m settlement of many postmasters’ claims. You can make your own mind up as to whether sociopathy on this level can be satisfied by that, or whether individuals should also be held to account.


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