If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Unfortunately, politics in the UK is broken and requires more than a sticking plaster.

A minority Conservative government under Prime Minister Theresa May has been rent asunder by Brexit. The draft withdrawal deal announced yesterday already appears dead in the water. Although the Cabinet ‘approved’ the draft text at a marathon meeting yesterday, and immediately there were reports that as many as nine cabinet members were opposed, although apparently going along with the whole charade.

It’s now just before noon, and already two Cabinet members have resigned, including the second idiot in charge of the Brexit negotiations, Dominic Raab. And several junior ministers have gone as well. More are expected. Theresa May is entering a dark place.

Immediately on release of the draft agreement, the Brexiteer vultures began to circle. Without having read the text (a 580 page document, which was published online later in the evening), they rejected the draft out of hand. It has not found favor with Remainers either. In speaking briefly to the assembled press outside No 10, Theresa May said it was her deal, no deal, or no Brexit. Hope lingers eternal that if Parliament rejects the draft, a sane way out of this chaos might yet be found. One thing is clear. Theresa May is going to struggle to win support for the agreement in the House of Commons. Opinion is too divided.

May lost her overall parliamentary majority in the disastrous 2017 General Election (for the Conservatives anyway), and has since been kept in power by 10 members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But even they are preparing to abandon the May Brexit ship, despite having accepted a £1 billion ‘bribe’ after the General Election to provide May with a working majority under a confidence-and-supply agreement. They are even more blinkered than usual. It has not been a pretty sight, especially as the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic became the major sticking point in the withdrawal agreement negotiations with the European Union (EU).

Given the ‘civil war’ within the ranks of the Conservative Party, Labour should have won the 2017 election, hands down. Or perhaps I should say it could have won the election if its stance on Brexit had been unequivocally in favor of Remain. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn, has consistently proved just what a weak and prevaricating leader of the Labour Party he is. Certainly there is now a clear majority of Labour supporters—in every Labour-held constituency—in favor of remaining, as evidenced by a nationwide poll of 20,090 people that Channel 4 commissioned recently. Even regions of the UK that voted heavily in favor of Brexit: the northeast, Wales, and the southwest, now have majorities in favor of remaining members of the EU.

Referendums are, to some extent, a clumsy democratic tool. However, in Switzerland they are used all the time. But, if social mores change, then the Swiss can change their minds, and this shift in opinion can be reflected in another referendum. Referendums are employed in California to guide opportunities to change the law (such as the legalization of cannabis), if I understand that situation correctly.

The Brexit referendum was different. Why? Although it was ‘advisory’, it is now seen (on the Brexiteer side) as immutable, the ‘will of the British people’, cast in stone, never to be challenged or overturned. But clearly public opinion has moved on, now that the actual consequences of Brexit are becoming clearer, already realized in some instances.

On the other hand, referendums have one important aspect that normal elections (at least in the UK) do not have. Every vote counts. For example, with our first-past-the-post electoral system, there’s hardly any chance that my vote ever counts in parliamentary elections in our Bromsgrove constituency, held by the Conservatives with a comfortable majority; Home Secretary Sajid Javid is the sitting MP.

So, the 2016 referendum result, 51.9-48.1% in favor of leaving the EU was an accurate reflection of those who voted. But since only 72.2% of the electorate turned out to vote (actually high by other election standards), those explicitly in favor of leaving were only about 37%. I’ve always maintained that for this referendum that would have such economic, political, constitutional, and social implications, there had to be a minimum agreed voter turnout for the referendum to be valid in the first place (which I think would be the case for 2016), and an overall majority of the electorate (not just those who voted).

Goodness knows what the outcome is going to be. Politics has become so tribal, factional, and disjointed, I have no idea where the country is heading – except down the bowl, perhaps. The extremes of politics, on the right and on the left, are center stage right now. It’s time to claim back the center ground, but that’s increasingly difficult with our first-past-the-post system.

Reluctantly—and I never thought I would ever come to this position—I do believe it’s time to take really hard and serious look at proportional voting and representation. Compromise is denigrated quite often in politics today, but working to reach compromise does focus minds.

Proportional representation in many European countries most often leads to coalition governments that take months to agree a parliamentary agenda. Is that such a bad thing? Is coalition government per se such a bad thing?

After the 2010 election the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservatives and, based on reaction to at least one key decision in government (student tuition fees), the Liberal Democrats were hammered in the 2015 General Election. But was their participation in the coalition so terrible? I sincerely believe that they did help reduce the impact of the hard right (who hated the Lib-Dems with a vengeance), and the natural orientations of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne.

I, for one, would be willing to give coalition government a try once again. And if that means introducing proportional representation, then that’s what needs to be done. After all, future governments can always reverse that decision, something that apparently we are unable or powerless (forbidden?) to effect now to steer a course away from the omnishambles that Brexit has become.

Changes to how we elect our politicians would certainly be more than a sticking plaster.

Brexiteers are like turkeys voting for Christmas

But it’s Remain supporters who are getting plucked and stuffed.

I’ve tried hard over the past two years not to disparage the views of those who voted, in the June 2016 referendum, for the UK to leave the European Union, many of whom continue to support that aim. After all, civilized debate is (or should be) what it’s all about.

Now, however, the gloves are off! Because the negative social, economic, political, and constitutional consequences of Brexit, and especially a no-deal Brexit, are too grim to contemplate. In the long term, the nation will survive but not without self-inflicted pain and hardship.

Unless, this silly trajectory can be halted.

Brexiteers. Makes them sound like a bunch of mischievous rogues. But they are not. Many politician Brexiteers are dangerous, self-interested, ignorant, bigoted, and short-sighted individuals. All for one and one for all. Gobble, gobble.

Short-sighted, except one, perhaps. Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for the 18th Century, has conceded that the nation shouldn’t expect any real economic benefits from Brexit for a long time, perhaps 50 years. He’s obviously playing the long game, cushioned by the sort of wealth that most of us can never imagine.

50 years! Good grief. My grandchildren will be approaching pensionable age by then. Are we so callous, stupid even, to condemn the youth of this country to such an uncertain future?

I can’t remember, during my lifetime (I’ll be 70 in a month’s time), the nation ever being polarized by a single issue such as Brexit. The referendum result revealed an almost equally divided electorate, with a small majority on the Leave side. In my opinion they were conned, taken in by the lies and false promises (and illegality) of the Leave campaign.

I don’t deny that some Leavers’ views were (and are) deeply held. As I have followed the debate about Brexit since the referendum, and particularly during the last few months, I watch and hear Remainers clearly and considerately lay out scenarios, based on evidence, for a Brexit outcome. In contrast, what do we hear from the Brexiteers? Project Fear! they cry.

And that’s what gets me, I’m afraid: the continuing inability of Brexit-supporting politicians and public to clearly spell out what they expect from Brexit, and what their plans are, instead of just repeating, ad nauseam, that we will be taking back control of our borders, our money, and our laws, and that it’s the will of the people.

When it comes to the law, I haven’t seen Parliament resting on its laurels because there is a continuous stream of new legislation. It seems more to do with their prejudiced view about the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) with respect to the EU’s regulatory framework. But if we trade under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules post-Brexit, we’ll still be subject to external controls. Not from the ECJ, but instead from the unelected WTO bureaucrats in Geneva who will hold our collective feet to the fire.

We always had control of our borders. It’s just that successive governments chose not to apply existing EU regulations to manage immigration into the UK from EU countries. Incidentally, very little is mentioned in the immigration/free movement context that immigration from countries outside the EU runs many times higher than from EU countries. Nigel Farage, bless his cotton socks, racist that he is, played the immigration card to great effect during the referendum campaign.

When it comes to money, the UK chose not to join the euro, and has, for many years, been the recipient of a healthy annual rebate after paying into the EU budget. Assuming that Brexit does indeed go ahead, one possible scenario is the UK asking to re-join the EU at some later date. But it won’t be, I believe, on the same favorable terms we currently enjoy: we’d have to join the Euro, budget rebates would be less generous or non-existent, and I guess we’d also have to become a Schengen country and abolish all border controls with other EU members.

The other point that gets my goat is the referendum result being the ‘will of the people’ (it was ‘advisory’), and must therefore be respected as though no-one is permitted to change their mind, ever. Recent polls indicate however, that if the referendum were held today, based on what we know now and what was just speculation or false promises in 2016, there would be a majority to Remain in the EU. Voters are changing their minds – in both directions. The outcome might still be close.

Maybe some of the 27+% who didn’t exercise their democratic right in 2016 will come to understand the consequences of the Leave vote. Those who were too young to vote last time are already expressing their desire for continued membership of the EU. Older voters (part of my demographic that overwhelmingly voted Leave – but not me, I hasten to add) have died since the referendum. The balance of the electorate is not what it was.

The electorate deserves, demands even, the right to pass judgment on whatever Theresa May salvages from her negotiations with the EU. And one of the options must be the right to Remain.

It’s time for the electorate to take a second look, hold a #People’sVote. And for that cause, a major demonstration will be held in London tomorrow (which I am unable to attend).

I can however express my support through this blog.


 

I was angry (still am), but now I’m also embarrassed

Embarrassed . . . to be British. But come autumn 2019, however, I’ll be able to thumb my nose at the world with my new iconic blue and gold passport (to be manufactured, apparently, in France – oh the irony!). Even though I might not be able to visit as many countries, visa-free, as UK citizens currently enjoy under membership of the European Union (EU).

Let’s go back a couple of years.

I woke up on the morning of Friday 24 June 2016 and, as was my wont, tuned into BBC Radio 4’s Today news program at 06:00. I say ‘wont’ because I seldom listen nowadays. But more of that later.

From: the Daily Express, 3 February 2016

I was keen to hear the result of the previous day’s referendum on continuing membership of the EU, expecting a majority in favor. How cruel reality can be!

I was amazed, bewildered, dismayed even, when the result sank in. The nation was divided, voting 52-48% (a difference of 1,269,501 votes on a turnout of 72.2%) to leave the EU. Brexit was now on the cards. Or was it?

I just couldn’t believe that the electorate had turned its back on an institution it had been part of, and benefited from, for over 40 years. Leave supporters had swallowed the false promises, mistruths, downright lies even (and, as we now know, the illegality) of the Leave campaign.

But since the referendum was not legally binding (just check the legislation that gave substance to the referendum) I thought (misguidedly as it has transpired) everyone would come their senses and reach a suitable compromise, allowing us to stay in the EU. However, the ‘will of the people’ has become almost an article of faith that cannot (may not), under any circumstances if you are a Brexiteer, be challenged.

I’ve long argued that since the referendum would potentially have far-reaching social, economic, and constitutional consequences, the bar should have been set much higher. By this I mean that a minimum voter turnout must have been reached, e.g. 75%, and that the margin voting to Leave should have been >50% of the electorate, not just those who voted. I guess I can be accused of wanting it both ways: heads I win, tails you lose. But the referendum was to decide a fundamental transformation of this (once proud) nation. So, if the voter turnout did not meet the agreed threshold, or less than 50% of the electorate (22,750,063 in June 2016) voted to leave, then the referendum would have been declared null and void.

That, unfortunately was not the case, because former Prime Minister David Cameron was too complacent during the whole referendum campaign and the lead up to its implementation. Holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was a political sop to the right wing of the Conservative Party. He never imagined that he would have to contend with the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the Leave side, never mind Nigel Farage of UKIP, who had few if any scruples about telling like it wasn’t. And he expected to win. Having lost, he bowed out of politics leaving the consequences for an even more incompetent Prime Minister to address.

It didn’t take long for my dismay to turn to anger. But now I’m also embarrassed. Embarrassed by the complete shambles (I could use stronger language) of the way that Theresa May’s inept (but ostensibly ‘stable and strong’) government has attempted to reflect the ‘will of the British people’ in a withdrawal agreement with and from the EU, and establish a new relationship post-Brexit. The UK has become a laughing stock among the nations of the world. We are on a trajectory to becoming an irrelevant little island off the coast of Europe. Under those circumstances, can (should?) the UK still lay claim, for example, to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council? Its status will be diminished. Yes, for many, the UK will become an irrelevance.

I say ‘attempted to reflect’ because almost 2½ years on from the referendum, we still seem to have no idea of what the UK’s post-Brexit status will be. Given the growing prospect that no deal is agreed by the Brexit date (29 March 2019, just five months away), the government apparently has no plan, but has started to publish grim impact papers of what a no deal or hard Brexit would encompass. But ask any of the Brexiteers what their reaction is (more of ‘Project Fear’) or their plan, and you are faced with the same old platitudes: we’re taking back control of our borders, money, and laws. Hang the economic, social and constitutional consequences. What a parlous state we have reached.

All I can assume is that when Theresa May invoked Article 50 on 29 March 2017 (triggering the process to leave the EU), she thought that any agreement with the EU would be done and dusted in a matter of weeks. In fact, former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis (now there’s a clown of a politician if ever I saw one), stated that this agreement would be one of the easiest to achieve.

From Twitter on 19 June 2018: Robert Campbell #FBPE Deeply Unhelpful @madman2. David Davis with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier.

Theresa May didn’t have to invoke Article 50 in March 2017, but she did. And we were then locked into a situation that seems to be heading for failure. She must have assumed that the EU members would simply accede to any of the ‘having our cake and eat it’ proposals put forward by the British government. In fact, I’m surprised that the other 27 members hadn’t shown the door to the British a long time ago.

It seems to me that Brexiteers feel the EU owes us something. Nonsense! We’re the ones asking to leave; or at least some of us are (don’t count me among them). It’s been made crystal clear that the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit cannot be equal to what we currently enjoy as full members: frictionless trade, freedom of movement, and the like. Indeed as a ‘third country’ post-Brexit, we will be at a serious disadvantage, and all those trade and other agreements that the UK participates in as a member of the EU will have to be renegotiated, one by one. A Canada +++ agreement to fill the void? Canada +++, my backside!

Brexiteers simply talk about an independent UK outside the EU in terms of trade, and their desire to negotiate free trade agreements (FTA) on our own terms, notwithstanding that we already have FTAs with more than 60 counties or blocks of countries through membership of the EU. At 11 pm on 29 March next we lose all of those. Brexiteers object to the role of the European Court of Justice overseeing the EU’s regulatory framework. But even operating under the rules of the World Trade Organization we will still be subject to the authority of that body, and trading under far less favorable conditions than at present. It doesn’t take Economics 101 to see that. But at least our Secretary of State for International Trade will be able to travel globally on his new blue passport to negotiate all those trade deals that he assures us are just waiting to be signed.

Membership of the EU has brought so much more. For one thing, the EU has, among its members ensured peace in Europe over many decades. Joint membership of the EU by the UK and Republic of Ireland is one of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. The future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is one of the main stumbling blocks of further progress in the withdrawal agreement, as it was long foreseen by many on the Remain side but discounted by Brexiteers, chief among them Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In the early 2000s, when I was working at IRRI in the Philippines, risk assessment was one of the conditions insisted upon by the donors to the international agricultural research centers to continue receiving overseas development assistance support. It’s ironic that the UK government, through the Department for International Development, DFID, was one of the leading proponents of such conditions. And clearly, as far as Brexit is concerned, the government does not appear to have made an appropriate risk assessment or developed a contingency plan. Or if it has, it’s not telling anyone.

I still live in some hope that a #PeoplesVote will be held to pass judgment on any agreement that the government brings back from Brussels, and that one of the options would be to remain in the EU. But I’m not holding my breath.

Once the bastion of impartiality and independent journalism, the BBC is now perceived as taking a very partisan, pro-government stance on Brexit. For a long time now I have deplored the presenting and interviewing style of the program’s senior broadcaster, John Humphrys. Not only does he come across as a self-opinionated bully, but also as favoring one side (i.e. Brexit) over another in his interviews, often lacking a basic understanding of the issues. It’s time for Humphrys to be superannuated.

In perpetuity . . . or longer (updated 17 October 2018)

The airwaves yesterday were full of the news¹ about the secure, in perpetuity funding that the Crop Trust has awarded (annually USD1.4 million) to support the operations of the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The genebank conserves the largest and most genetically diverse collection of rice genetic resources that is the genetic base of rice improvement programs worldwide. It’s the first genebank to receive this sort of funding commitment.

In perpetuity! Forever! That’s a long time. In some ways, of course, it’s not a completely open-ended commitment. The agreement (to be signed on World Food Day, 16 October², during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore) will, I understand, be subject to five-year reviews, and the development of a business plan that will guide how, where and what will get done. That plan must inevitably evolve over time, as new technologies not only enhance how rice seeds can be better preserved but also how they can be used in rice improvement. Not that I can see IRRI screwing up and losing the funding. That behavior is not in the institutional DNA!

The collection holds more than 130,000 seed samples or accessions of landrace varieties, wild species, and other research materials, among others. You can check the status of the IRRI collection (and many more genebanks in the Genesys database).

My congratulations to Genebank Head and compatriot, Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton and his key genebank lieutenants, Genebank Manager Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Sr Associate Scientist Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño, for guiding the genebank to this happy state.

It has been a long journey, almost 60 years, from 1960 when IRRI was founded and Dr TT Chang (the first head of the genebank) began to assemble a collection of rice varieties that soon became the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC).

L-R: Dr TT Chang was head of the International Rice Germplasm Center from 1962-1990; Mike Jackson served as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (here with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug) from 1991-2001; and Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton joined IRRI in 2002.

There was a significant change of direction, so to speak, to the genebank and its operations in 1991 after my appointment as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (the IRGC acronym was subsequently changed to International Rice Genebank Collection) with a mandate to rationalize and upgrade the genebank’s operations. I held that position for the next decade before moving on to the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications in 2001. Ruaraidh joined IRRI in 2002 and has been at the helm ever since.

In other stories posted on this blog I have described what it entails to run a genebank for rice, and some of the important changes we made to modernize genebank management and operations, especially how they were impacted with respect to the institute’s international obligations to FAO and subsequently under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 2015 I made my own video to illustrate many of the different operations of the genebank, some of which have been modified in the light of new research concerning the handling of rice seeds post-harvest. Nevertheless, the video reflects the changes I introduced during my tenure as head of the International Rice Genebank, many of which still prevail.

Ruaraidh built upon the changes I introduced, bar-coding all samples for example, and linking the collection with others in the CGIAR through the Genebank Platform. There have been further improvements to how data about the collection are managed, and seed management was enhanced through the research of former employee and seed physiologist Dr Fiona Hay and her PhD student Kath (now Dr) Whitehouse.

Ruaraidh has also successfully steered IRRI and its genetic resources through the turbulent currents of international germplasm politics that culminated in the entering into force of the International Treaty in June 2004, and the subsequent negotiations over access and benefit sharing. I can’t deny I was quite happy to leave these ‘political’ aspects behind when I left GRC in 2001. Management and use of genetic resources in the 1990s were increasingly affected by the various negotiations that affected access to and sharing of biodiversity after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in December 1993. To some extent they were a distraction (but an important one) from the technical aspects of rice genetic resources that I tackling.

It’s quite humbling that for generations to come, I will have been a part of securing the genetic heritage of rice. Besides making the necessary technical changes to genebank structure and operations in the 1990s, I’m particularly proud of the personnel structures I introduced. These permitted staff to really fulfill their potential.

I quickly recognized that Pola should be placed in the role of Genebank Manger, and Ato given responsibility for all field operations. We built a team that believed in a culture of mutual support.

Ken McNally

Another aspect was the recognition, way back in 1998, of the power of genomics and molecular genetics to unravel the secrets of rice diversity. To that end I had organized an international workshop in The Hague in September 1999, which is described about two-thirds through this blog post. I was fortunate to hire Dr Ken McNally as a molecular geneticist in this respect, and he has taken the study of rice genetic diversity to another level, supported by someone who I believed in from my early days at IRRI, Dr Elizabeth Naredo.

But the genebank is also facing some changes. Ruaraidh is expected to retire in the near future, and Pola and Ato can’t be far off retirement. No-one is irreplaceable, but they will be a hard act to follow. Finding individuals with the same breadth of experience, commitment to genetic resources conservation, and work ethic will certainly be a challenge. Other staff from my era have already retired; the genebank did not fall apart. With this secure funding from the Crop Trust the genebank can, for the first time in its 60 year history, set itself on a trajectory into the future in a way that was always uncertain in the past (because of year-to-year funding), but always the Holy Grail of genetic resources conservation.

I also hope that IRRI will step up to the plate and secure other funds to build a completely new genebank appropriate for the 21st century. After all, the facilities I ‘inherited’ from TT Chang are approaching 40-50 years, and even those I improved are 25 years old. Relieving the institute of the genebank annual operating budget should open up other opportunities.

Congratulations to IRRI, and on behalf of the genetic resources community (especially those depending on rice) a big thank you to the Crop Trust!


¹ BBC, Nature, and New Food Magazine, among others.

² My friend and former IRRI colleague, Gene Hettel, kindly sent me some photos and videos from yesterday’s signing ceremony in Singapore between IRRI and the Crop Trust.

Crop Trust Executive Director Marie Haga and IRRI Director General Matthew Morell sign the agreement assuring in perpetuity funding for the International Rice Genebank.

Head of the genebank Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton speaking after the signing of the agreement. On the left is Charlotte Lusty, Head of Programs and Genebank Platform Coordinator at the Crop Trust.

One very nice touch during the ceremony was the recognition of Pola de Guzman’s 40 years dedicated service to genetic conservation at IRRI.

Well done, Pola!

 

 

The emperor has no clothes . . .

I have the Brexit blues.

While I probably can’t add much to the debate, I feel I have to express my frustration, angst even, about the Brexit state of play, and what it portends for this (soon to be impoverished) nation of ours. And hopefully explain to many of my blog followers and readers overseas what Brexit means. I offer no apologies for being decidedly pro-European Union (EU).

Just over a month ago I returned from a five week vacation in the USA. Prior to traveling I had become increasingly depressed about the whole Brexit fiasco and where this incompetent Tory government was leading us. I’d even decreased my exposure to Twitter as the exasperation that I read there only fueled my own anxieties. So, I took a break from the news and Twitter for five weeks. My spirits revived.

Five weeks on and I feel myself sinking into a state of despair once again. We’re still getting the Brexit is Brexit line from the government, and taking back control of our border, laws, and money. Following the publication of the ‘agreed’ but soon unraveling Chequers Plan that Theresa May foisted on her Cabinet, it’s clear that Leavers also  don’t have a plan for what happens following Brexit, be it a Cliff-edge Brexit, a Hard or a Soft one. Ask them to put it down on paper or explain in detail what the future holds under each scenario and they have little to say. Even the future status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic—a key sticking point in the negotiations with the EU—remains unresolved. Government and Parliament is paralyzed. The only solution is to ask the electorate again.


I need someone to square the circle for me and explain why Brexiteers can still claim that leaving the European Union is akin to entering the land of milk and honey. Facing the real risk of a no deal Brexit, HM Government has now started to publish technical notes (two years too late) outlining (and often short on crucial details) what will be the consequences of the UK leaving the EU next March without a withdrawal agreement. The government has even suggested that businesses should consult the Irish government regarding trade across the border post-Brexit. Talk about dereliction of duty.

It feels as though most of my waking hours are pervaded by Brexit news, and the half-truths as well as the outright mendacity of those on the Leave side of the referendum campaign who sold us (illegally, as it turned out) an illusion.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Even the most optimistic commentators and partners now fear that the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal. That would be disastrous. The Tory Party is at war with itself. Theresa May’s Chequers Plan has been dismissed by Hard Brexiteers on the right of the Tory party like Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) cronies. The talk is all about trade and how we will be better off striking our own trade deals. No mention of the other benefits of EU membership that we will forfeit at 11 pm on 29 March next year if there is no deal.

Nigel Farage

Two years on, Brexiteers are unable to provide any details or are extremely vague about what a post-Brexit United Kingdom will look like, and what actual benefits we will gain. Arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage (MEP and former leader of UKIP) claims he never said that the UK would be better off outside the EU: I made ONE absolute promise in that campaign … We will be in control … for good or for bad … I never promised it would be a huge success, I never said it would be a failure, I just said we’d be in control. Independent, and with blue passports! Rees-Mogg has unequivocally stated that it might take 50 years for any benefits to accrue. Good grief! This is not the vision that the electorate was sold during the referendum campaign.

Jeremy Corbyn

Even Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn can’t—or won’t—state categorically whether we’d be better off or not outside the EU. What a pathetic politician. But that’s for another post some other time.

With nothing better to say, It’s the same old mantra of taking back control of our border, laws, and money. Well, I thought we always had control of our borders; there’s more immigration from countries outside the EU than from EU countries. In terms of laws, it comes down to alignment with EU frameworks and regulations, and oversight by the European Court of Justice (that’s anathema to Brexiteers). Furthermore, Parliament seems always to be busy, passing sovereign legislation on one thing or another. Even outside the EU we will still be subject to oversight by external bodies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). That’s what peaceful coexistence means: compliance to agreed rules and standards. And while we make a financial contribution to the EU, we have successfully negotiated favorable rebates, we have our own currency, and many parts of the country (even those that voted overwhelmingly to Leave) have benefited from inward investment from the EU in ways that a UK government wouldn’t or couldn’t make.


It seems to me that we face four options:

  • No Withdrawal Deal, Catastrophic Brexit (it’s not just about trade), increasingly likely
  • Withdrawal Deal, Hard Brexit, beloved by many Brexiteers
  • Withdrawal Deal, Soft Brexit – but for some on the Brexit side, it will be like the curate’s egg, good (or softer) in parts: retaining membership of the Customs Union (CU), or the Single Market (SM), or both (but having no say in how regulation of the CU or SM continue to operate)
  • NO BREXIT – an aspiration that is growing. Having looked at what’s really on offer, not the illusion that was offered on the side of a large red bus during the referendum campaign, the electorate should be given the opportunity to pass judgment in a second referendum. This is only way to break the impasse of Parliament, and for the electorate to confirm its decision to leave the EU if that’s how the majority still feel.

Michael Morpurgo

Democracy is, however, also about changing one’s mind, and there is growing polling data to indicate that many who voted to Leave the EU now regret their decision. The problem is that many Brexiteers claim that the ‘British people’ have spoken, and there can be no reversal of that decision (even though it was taken without the necessary knowledge—or understanding—of what Brexit would entail). However, just a few years ago, even Rees-Mogg favored a second referendum once the terms of a withdrawal deal were known. Here’s a Twitter link that shows Rees-Mogg speaking to that effect in the House of Commons in 2011. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Radio 4 and heard this Point of View by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo. It lasts almost 10 minutes, but is well worth taking time out to listen to his words of wisdom. He makes a strong case for thinking again.


The Brexit lies continue. Just a few days ago (17 August) I saw an official tweet from the Department for International Trade about the UK’s trading links with the USA. Liam Fox (Secretary of State at the DIT) claimed that the USA was the UK’s single largest trading partner. Lie!

Yes, we have exports of almost £100 billion to the USA, according to the Office for National Statistics (2016 data published in 2017). And from what I can determine the USA is the largest country we trade with in terms of exports. But the DIT/Fox said trading partner, and the UK’s largest trading partner is the European Union (EU), with UK exports valued at £235.8 billion through seamless trading (compared with £284.1 billion with the Rest of the World, mostly conducted through trade agreements negotiated through our membership of the EU).

But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good Brexit lie. Fox’s focus on expanding trade with the USA—some might say obsession—is a major part of his Brexit narrative about seizing opportunities to trade with other nations around the world on our terms, not the EU’s. However, these Brexiteers seem to forget (conveniently so) that negotiations are two-sided, and the completion of any trade agreement will require concessions on both sides. Would the price of an agreement with the USA lead for example to imports of food produced to lower standards than we currently enjoy under the EU, or more US healthcare company involvement in the NHS, for example?

It never ceases to amaze me that Brexiteers seem to imply that it’s only under post-Brexit trade deals that we can increase our exports. Even a recent trade deal with China was touted as an example of what the UK could achieve, notwithstanding it was signed under the trade agreement we already have with China through the EU. Liam Fox is certainly economic with the truth.

Post-Brexit, we will have to develop all the schedules to operate under WTO rules and, in any case, deals could take years to negotiate. Furthermore, I can see no reason why manufacturers are already unable to expand exports under the umbrella of existing trade agreements negotiated by the EU. Maybe increased exporting capacity is non-existent. We are no longer a manufacturing nation.

There’s hardly been mention of financial services, which account for about half of our exports. There are serious implications of leaving the EU without an agreement. Just listen to an experienced trade negotiator on James O’Brien‘s LBC show.

The focus has been/is almost entirely on trade post-Brexit, but there’s so much more to our membership of the EU that is not covered—and never will be—by the WTO. These are all the many frameworks and agreements that have brought 28 nations together (and probably more cost effectively than if they had acted independently) that regulate aviation and safety, nuclear fuels and isotopes, environmental protection, animal welfare, food standards, and employment law, to list just a few. I have yet to hear any of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Iain Duncan-Smith, David Davis, Peter Bone, Bernard Jenkin, not even Theresa May, raise any concerns or offer any perspectives on these issues that are as important—perhaps even more important—than the trade issues.

The Government’s narrative is that its Chequers Plan should be accepted, lock, stock and barrel, by the EU. Sorry Theresa, it doesn’t work like that any more. Gun boat diplomacy died with the Empire.


Although there is a groundswell of support for a second referendum, or at least a say on any agreement negotiated with Brussels, there’s no certainty that one will be held. For one thing the practicalities of legislating for a referendum rule out the possibilities before Article 50 becomes a reality next March, crashing, hard or soft.

Nevertheless, there does need to be some sort of People’s Vote. Furthermore, for an issue that has such long-lasting constitutional, economic, and social implications for the future of this country, politicians need to put the welfare of the country ahead of their own party political considerations. The fact that we have a divided and incompetent governing party, and an Opposition that’s equally divided, with a leader who’s inept and misguided in the face of what many Labour supporters are saying, is perhaps unprecedented. Political turmoil is the last thing that’s needed right now.

I’m sure many who voted to Leave did not foresee or expect many of the scenarios that are looming before us. For example, the National Health Service (NHS) will not reap any ‘Brexit Dividend’. Why? There simply is no dividend. Brexit will impact almost every aspect of our lives for years to come.

There. I’ve said it. I’ve expressed my frustrations. I don’t expect to write much more about Brexit. But once 29 March 2019 has come and gone, I expect I’ll have plenty more to say, no doubt.


 

Development aid is under threat . . . and Brexit isn’t helping

The United Kingdom is one of just a handful of countries that has committed to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on overseas development assistance (ODA or foreign aid) in support of the UN’s development goals. In fact that 0.7% target commitment is enshrined in UK law passed in 2015 (under a Conservative government), and the target has been met in every year since 2013. That’s something we should be proud of. Even the Tories should be proud of that. It seems, however, that many aren’t.

For a variety of reasons, the aid budget is under threat. After years of government austerity and the decline of home-grown services (NHS, police, education, and the like) through under-funding, and as we lurch towards Brexit, the right-wing media and politicians are seizing every opportunity to ignore (or actively distort, even trivialize) the objectives of development aid and what it has achieved around the world.  Or maybe they just lack understanding.

In 2016, the UK’s ODA budget, administered by the Department for International Development (DFID), was just over £13 billion (almost USD20 billion). Check this link to see where DFID works and on what sort of projects it spends its budget. That budget has ‘soared’, according to a recent claim by The Daily Mail.

In the post-Brexit referendum febrile atmosphere, the whole topic of development aid has seemingly become toxic with increasing calls among the right-wing media, headed by The Daily Mail (and supported by The Daily Express and The Telegraph) for the development budget to be reduced and instead spent on hiring more doctors and nurses, and other home-based services and projects, pandering to the prejudices of its readers. Such simplistic messages are grist to the mill for anyone troubled by the UK’s engagement with the world.

From: John Stevens and Daniel Martin for the Daily Mail, published at 22:42, 5 April 2018 | Updated: 23:34, 5 April 2018

There is unfortunately little understanding of what development assistance is all about, and right-wing politicians who really should know better, like the Member for Northeast Somerset (and the Eighteenth Century), Jacob Rees-Mogg have jumped on the anti-aid bandwagon, making statements such as: Protecting the overseas aid budget continues to be a costly mistake when there are so many other pressing demands on the budget.

Now there are calls for that 2015 Act of Parliament to be looked at again. Indeed, I just came across an online petition just yesterday calling on Parliament to debate a reduction of the development aid budget to just 0.2% of GNI. However, 100,000 signatures are needed to trigger a debate, and as I checked this morning it didn’t seem to be gaining much traction.

I agree it would be inaccurate to claim that all development aid spending has been wise, reached its ultimate beneficiaries, or achieved the impacts and outcomes intended. Some has undoubtedly ended up in the coffers of corrupt politicians.

I cannot agree however, with Conservative MP for Wellingborough and arch-Brexiteer, Peter Bone, who is reported as stating: Much of the money is not spent properly … What I want to see is more of that money spent in our own country … The way to improve the situation in developing countries is to trade with them.

As an example of the trivialization by the media of what development aid is intended for, let me highlight one example that achieved some notoriety, and was seized upon to discredit development aid.

What was particularly irksome apparently, with a frenzy whipped up by The Daily Mail and others, was the perceived frivolous donation (as high as £9 million, I have read) to a project that included the girl band Yegna, dubbed the Ethiopian Spice Girls, whose aim is to [inspire] positive behavior change for girls in Ethiopia through drama and music.

I do not know whether this aid did represent value for money; but I have read that the program did receive some positive reviews. However, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact raised some concerns as far back as 2012 about the Girl Effect project (known as Girl Hub then).

From their blinkered perspectives, various politicians have found it convenient to follow The Daily Mail narrative. What, it seems to me, they failed to comprehend (nor articulate for their constituencies) was how media strategies like the Girl Effect project can effectively target (and reach) millions of girls (and women) with messages fundamental to their welfare and well-being. After being in the media spotlight, and highlighted as an example of ‘misuse’ of the aid budget, the support was ended.

In a recent policy brief known as a ‘Green Paper’, A World for the Many Not the Few, a future Labour government has pledged to put women at the heart of British aid efforts, and broaden what has been described by much of the right-wing media as a left-wing agenda. Unsurprisingly this has received widespread criticism from those who want to reduce the ODA budget or cut it altogether.

But in many of the poorest countries of the world, development aid from the UK and other countries has brought about real change, particularly in the agricultural development arena, one with which I’m familiar, through the work carried out in 15 international agricultural research centers around the world supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR that was founded in 1971, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network.

In a review article¹ published in Food Policy in 2010, agricultural economists Mitch Renkow and Derek Byerlee stated that CGIAR research contributions in crop genetic improvement, pest management, natural resources management, and policy research have, in the aggregate, yielded strongly  positive impacts relative to investment, and appear likely to continue doing so. Crop genetic improvement research stands out as having had the most profound documented positive impacts. Substantial evidence exists that other research areas within the CGIAR have had large beneficial impacts although often locally and nationally rather than internationally.

In terms of crop genetic improvement (CGI) they further stated that . . . estimates of the overall benefits of CGIAR’s contribution to CGI are extraordinarily large – in the billions of dollars. Most of these benefits are produced by the three main cereals [wheat, maize, and rice] . . . average annual benefits for CGIAR research for spring bread wheat, rice (Asia only), and maize (CIMMYT only) of $2.5, $10.8 and $0.6–0.8 billion, respectively . . . estimated rates of return to the CGIAR’s investment in CGI research ranging from 39% in Latin America to over 100% in Asia and MENA [Middle east and North Africa].

DFID continues to be a major supporter of the CGIAR research agenda, making the third largest contribution (click on the image above to open the full financial report for 2016) after the USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At £43.3 million (in 2016), DFID’s contribution to the CGIAR is a drop in the ocean compared to its overall aid budget. Yet the impact goes beyond the size of the contribution.

I don’t believe it’s unrealistic to claim that the CGIAR has been a major ODA success over the past 47 years. International agricultural research for development has bought time, and fewer people go to bed hungry each night.

Nevertheless, ODA is under threat everywhere. I am concerned that in the clamour to reduce (even scrap) the UK’s ODA international collaborations like the CGIAR will face even more funding challenges. In Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ dystopia there is no certainty that enormous support provided by USAID will continue at the same level.

Most of my professional career was concerned with international agricultural research for development, in South and Central America (with the International Potato Center, or CIP, from 1973 to 1981) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines (from 1991 to 2010). The conservation of plant genetic resources or  agrobiodiversity in international genebanks (that I have highlighted in many stories on this blog) is supported through ODA. The crop improvement programs of the CGIAR centers like CIMMYT, IRRI, ICARDA and ICRISAT have released numerous improved varieties for use in agricultural systems around the world. Innovative research is combating the threats of new crop diseases or the difficulties of growing crops in areas subject to flooding or drought².

This research (often with critical links back into research institutes and universities in donor countries) has led to improvements in the lives of countless millions of poor people around the world. But the job is not finished. Populations continue to grow, with more mouths to feed. Civil unrest and conflicts continue to blight some of the poorest countries in the world. And biology and environment continue to throw challenges at us in the form of new disease strains or a changing climate, for example. Continued investment in ODA is essential and necessary to support agricultural research for development.

Agriculture is just one sector on the development spectrum.  Let’s not allow the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, or The Daily Mail to capture the development debate for what appear to be their own xenophobic purposes.

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¹ Renkow, M and D Byerlee, 2010. The impacts of CGIAR research: A review of recent evidence. Food Policy 35 (5), 391-402. doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.04.006

² In another blog post I will describe some of this innovative research and how the funding of agricultural research for development and greater accountability for ODA has become rather complicated over the past couple of decades.

Fashion, so said Louis XIV, is the mirror of history

Amber Butchart (photo by Jo Duck – used with permission)

Just when you least expect it, a real gem of a television series comes along. You’re gathered in. Then you’re hooked!

And that was our experience with fashion historian Amber Butchart’s six part series, A Stitch In Time, recently screened on BBC4.

This is what Amber has to say about the series on her blog: Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, throughout A Stitch in Time I get to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore, while key garments are recreated using the original techniques.

She peers into the mirror and helps us to interpret the costume clues held within Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini portrait, the role of hand-me-downs among 18th century workers, the impact of cotton on British life, a flamboyant armorial piece which sits at odds with the allegedly brutal nature of its wearer and the impact a scandalously informal gown would have on an already unpopular queen.

What an eye-opener A Stitch in Time has been! And from what I’ve seen in various media, we are not alone in being enthralled by the series.

My wife Steph and I enjoy watching almost any history-related program, so tuned into the first episode on 3 January almost by default. We had no idea what to expect, and we’d never heard of Amber Butchart (herself a fashion icon) even though (as I’ve now discovered) she has broadcast regularly over the past four or five years on BBC radio.

To recreate the items of clothing, Amber relied on the talents and experience of historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila  and her team, Harriet Waterhouse and Hannah Marples. It was amazing to see how every item of clothing was hand stitched. Not a sewing machine is sight, nor an electric iron.

L to R: Harriet, Ninya, Amber, and Hannah

In each program Amber talked about a particular painting—and a tomb effigy in one program—and what each tells us about the person(s) portrayed, how their clothing speaks to us about their social status, and the society in which they lived. And then she enjoyed modeling each of the recreated costumes.

She also delved into other background issues that are part of the story, none perhaps more emotive than that of Dido Belle, born in 1761 the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave, who moved in the highest circles of English aristocracy since her great uncle was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. I was already familiar with her story having read the 2014 book that same year by Paula Byrne.

Choosing the topics
I asked Amber how she came to choose the six subjects for the series. She replied: I wanted to show a real range of clothing from history—not just womenswear and royalty. I also wanted to touch on stories that are harder to uncover, to show the difficulties that can be part of the process when looking at marginalised histories. So I chose the artworks for a mixture of these reasons—plus some which are more well known within fashion history, such as Marie Antoinette and Charles II.

Charles was the subject of the first program (depicted receiving a pineapple from his head gardener, in a painting from around 1667, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and “how he used fashion as propaganda with an outfit that foreshadowed the three piece suit”. From what appeared a rather drab suit of clothes in the painting, the completed reconstruction was extremely elegant, with its shot silk lining and black silk ‘bows’ on the trousers, shoulder and sleeves. The other fashion statement is the fantastic number of handmade buttons and their corresponding button-holes.The second program considered the famous Arnolfini portrait by Van Eyck from 1434, that hangs today in the National Gallery.

Once thought to portray a pregnant Mrs Arnolfini, wife of a wealthy merchant, this is no longer believed to be the case. She’s just holding up the rather large amount of cloth that went into making her dress—just because she could, a sign of the family’s wealth. The resulting recreation was stunning, and it was also interesting to watch how the green dye was made. Not for those of a weak olfactory constitution!

The ‘common man’ was the subject of the third program, depicted in a full-size portrait at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Portraits of working men are uncommon. Just take a visit to any National Trust property, as Steph and I do all year round, and there are a thousand and one portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery. Such statements of power and fashion!

But The Hedge Cutter at Broughton shows a working man wearing a hand-me-down leather coat, evidently worn by several  generations and generously patched. It’s dark and stained, tattered in places.

The coat expertly recreated by Ninya and her team from soft, pale leather was a delight to behold. Even more compelling were the sewing techniques they had to employ to join the expensive pieces of leather together.

The story of Dido Belle in Program 4, was particularly interesting. In the painting of Dido (with Lady Elizabeth Murray), on display at Scone Palace in Scotland, not all of her dress can be seen, so Ninya and her team had to interpret how it might have been made.

Calling upon all their knowledge and experience, they recreated a dress that they believe was close to the original. Ninya confirmed to me that Dido’s clothes were the biggest challenge to research, mainly because so much of them are obscured in the painting, and because very little survives in the way of informal dress. Loose, voluminous garments made from expensive silk are prime targets for being made over, cut and reused. As we said in the programme, we were very happy with the results, but there were definitely several possible answers for how this gown was actually cut and constructed!

The Black Prince, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and Amber took us to look at the prince’s gilt-bronze tomb effigy, which shows the item of clothing that was the focus of this episode. The prince is wearing a jupon, a close-fitting tunic worn over a suit of armor and bearing heraldic arms. Warriors wore such an item of clothing in battle so they could be recognized and serve as a rallying point for their troops.

What was particularly interesting about this program (5) is that the prince’s original jupon still exists although no longer on display. After 600 years it’s just too fragile. But after his death in 1376, the jupon was hung above the prince’s tomb and remained there for centuries. Now stored carefully away in a box at the cathedral, the jupon no longer displays its vibrant colors, and although there was perhaps less interpretation needed to reconstruct it, there were still some challenges. The principal one was how to sew the cotton protective wadding between the layers of linen as a backing and the red and blue velvet of the outer layer.

Nevertheless, the completed garment was the most exuberant of the series. As Ninya told me: I loved working on the Black Prince’s jupon. It was an incredibly time-consuming process but it was so rewarding seeing it emerge in all its brightly coloured, gold-embellished glory!

Apparently the gold embroidery alone took 900 hours to complete, stitched on to a linen backing, cut out, and then sewn on to the jupon. Stunning!

In the final programme, Amber explained the court reaction to the most unroyal-like muslin dress (chemise de la reine) worn by the unpopular Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in an infamous portrait painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Such was the uproar, that the artist had to paint another portrait in a more appropriate dress worthy of a French queen. Muslin was used for undergarments, not for royal portraits. Vigée Le Brun painted more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette.

The recreation was an elegant, free-flowing gown, but not (to our modern eyes) the scandalous display for which Marie Antoinette was censured. She would have worn this type of dress in informal settings such as her retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the Petit Trianon, surrounded by intimates. Underneath the dress Marie Antoinette would have worn stays, and these were also part of the recreation. Ninya told me: . . . the silk damask stays that Harriet made for Marie Antoinette were ridiculously beautiful. There was an elegant sash at the waist, made by Hannah.

Even though the dress looks simple in style, it would nevertheless have been costly to make in the 18th century, as was demonstrated in its reconstruction. Ninya also gave a useful tip to all budding seamstresses on how to make a level hem. Tip of the series!

Perspectives
On reflection, I found the story of Dido Belle the most compelling. And while her dress appeared the most simple among the six, it was, as Ninya told me, a challenge for her team.

But as I think back on the last program and the beautiful dress that was worn by Marie Antoinette, I have to say that was my favorite. Elegant in its ‘simplicity’.

I asked Amber which costume she found the most challenging. This is what she told me: The most challenging to research in many ways was Dido Belle, and also the Hedge Cutter. Researching working dress can be difficult as it doesn’t tend to be kept in museums and wasn’t seriously written about until relatively recently. Dido has a really compelling story, and the transatlantic slave trade played a huge part in our history but is often overlooked. It runs like a thread through fashion history as it relates to cotton, and so I felt it needed to be addressed.

But what was her favorite costume? Having discovered online (from an interview she once gave) that green is apparently her favorite color, I expected her to choose the Arnolfini dress. But no!

In terms of aesthetic, I love the Charles II suit and would absolutely wear it, she replied (in the photo above it does really look elegant on her). In terms of uniqueness of experience, she continued, and historical revelation, it would be the Black Prince’s jupon. Such an incredible experience to literally walk in his shoes, and so far from the clothing that we’re used to today. Experimental archaeology at its best!

So there you have it.

I don’t think I’ll look at a portrait again in quite the same way during one of my many National Trust visits. This series has certainly opened my eyes to another aspect of social history that had, until now, passed me by.

If I have one criticism of the series, it would be this. Each program was short by about 15 minutes, that would have allowed just a little more time to explore the background story, and to focus in on some more detail of the actual techniques for making the costumes. BBC producers take note!

So, I hope that the BBC will commission another series, and allocate sufficient air time to do justice to this fascinating subject. Amber Butchart’s A Stitch in Time has been a joy to watch. This is why we willingly pay the TV licence fee.