My Cassandra Moment

Sometimes I feel a bit like Cassandra, remember her? She was the lady blessed with the gift of prophesy and the curse that no-one would believe her.
Today’s “news”:
1) Owen Smith warns that the Conservatives have ‘secret’ plans to privatise the NHS.
2) Some people have been taking too much money out of their pension pots.
On 1) I have been campaigning against the privatisation of the NHS for years. I successfully took an amendment on the subject to the Liberal Democrat National Conference in 2008. That was when Owen Smith’s New Labour colleagues were at it. And I fought hard against the Lansley sponsored Health and Social Care Act of 2012, a bill that was shamefully supported by Nick Clegg, Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb.
On 2) it was obvious (and I said so) that when the government allowed people to take out the capital from their pension funds some would leave themselves without an adequate pension. If you tell someone who feels poor that their pension fund is worth £100,000s some will be tempted to get their hands on it without realising that they will need that if they live another 30 years. It all seems rather cynical when one considers that those who have accessed funds in this way pay tax at their top rate.
In a rare departure from good sense Steve Webb even said he was quite happy if people drew out their pension funds and bought a Lamborghini.
So do you want to know what disasters I am predicting today?
No you don’t because you won’t believe them anyway.

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You can drive a car with three wheels, but why would you?

I have come to realise that I mustn’t go on beating myself up about the result of the EU referendum vote. If I spend all my time agonising about the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, or reading articles by other people who are agonising about it I shall make myself ill.

It is time to look on the bright side. There must be some good that could come out of it. Don’t get me wrong, I still regard the prospect of our leaving the European Union with great concern. I still believe that such a move will reduce jobs and trade, reduce our influence in Europe and the world and put up the cost of living in the UK. But we shall survive. It feels as though someone has removed a wheel from our motor car. You can drive a car with three wheels. They used to make three-wheeled cars, but they have less space and less grip, they are less stable and you can’t avoid potholes.

Three wheels anyone?

Three wheels anyone?

So you can drive a car with three wheels, but why would you when you could have a car with four.

But, and here comes the good news, I have found a bright spot to cheer myself up; and perhaps, I hope, to cheer you up a little too.
For many years I have argued that the world would be a better place and a safer place if it were more equal, just as this country would be a safer, happier and better place if it were more equal. Others have put the case in great detail and with greater authority than I can, but a good place to start would be by reading ‘The Spirit Level’.
When I was discussing ‘Brexit’ with an American lawyer friend he said:
“Oh, I don’t know, it won’t be too bad, we shall just see the managed decline of the UK which has been going on for a hundred years or more.”
I realised that he is right. In global terms Britain has been declining in influence, power and wealth for many years. With the loss of empire and the loss of status of Sterling as a world currency, with the loss of food production, motor manufacturing, white goods and television sets, Great Britain is not as great as we used to be, or perhaps as we used to think we were.
Maybe in global terms that is no bad thing. As fuel becomes more expensive and our disposable wealth falls we shall learn to use less oil. In global terms that would be no bad thing. The tricky thing about equality is persuading the wealthy that they need to reduce their wealth a bit and that in so doing they will benefit everyone. So maybe the continuing managed decline in UK PLC is no bad thing. Maybe the loss of some of the finance sector to Paris and Frankfurt would be no bad thing.

So we need to cheer up. The world will not end. We shall be poorer, but maybe, just maybe, the world will be a little bit fairer.

Some challenges remain of course. If the managed decline of the UK makes the world a fairer place, what do we need to do to make the UK a fairer country? That is a massive challenge, and with the current state of our political parties I am not sure how we do it.

There is also the challenge of social cohesion and peace on our streets and in our communities. We have seen how the intemperate language of politicians has permitted (I would say ‘encouraged’ but you may feel that that is going to far) a rise in hate crime and racism. We can all play our part in standing up to this dangerous inflammatory behaviour. Do not remain silent. Do not nod your head or walk by on the other side of the road. We must all speak out when we see intolerance, discrimination or hate raising its ugly head in our communities. This, I acknowledge, is a massive challenge and others may have more to offer on the subject than I can.

And so, Dear Reader, Cheer up and Good Luck.

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We needed a revolution, but not this one

It feels as if I am waking from a nightmare; a nightmare where we have turned out backs on our friends, we have turned our backs on cooperation over trade, culture, science, care of the environment, security and the control of crime. We have turned our backs on our neighbours. Worst of all we have turned out backs on an organisation that has promoted peace and the peaceful transition of totalitarian states to democracies.

And then I wake and realise that it was not a dream, we are living that nightmare.

I promised to come back with some thoughts on the outcome.

Some commentators, in an attempt to appear balanced have criticised the lack of honesty in both campaigns. The remain camp were accused of scaremongering. They said the pound would fall and the value of shares would fall. They said that the financial credibility of the UK would suffer. All three things happened. In addition we have plenty of anecdotes of small businesses and creative projects suffering either because EU grants have been withdrawn or customers from France and Germany have disappeared.
Some of the claims made in particular by the Chancellor seem to have ben exaggerated. He threatened us with an emergency budget that would need to increase taxes or cut spending. That has not happened yet.

The Leave campaigners promised an additional £350 million to the NHS.   Despite being

False promises to the NHS

What lies at the centre of the Leave Campaign!

challenged repeatedly over the figure itself (a large chunk of the notional £350 million is never sent to the EU at all, and even of the amount sent a large proportion comes back to the UK in grants) the leave campaign continued to make it a central plank of their campaign. It is perhaps of note that they also promised to spend that money on Cornwall and the regions, on farmers, on scientific research and on removing VAT

Iain Duncan Smith claims he never promised money to the NHS

Iain Duncan Smith claims he never promised money to the NHS

from domestic fuel bills. They now acknowledge that such promises were ‘a mistake’.
They promised to control immigration. They talk of a points system, which we already use for non-EU immigration. They said that we would never reduce net migration to below 100,000 if we stayed in the EU, conveniently ignoring the fact that we already have 180,000 non-EU immigrants, and they were claiming that in a post-Brexit UK migration from outside the EU would be easier. They now admit that they will not and cannot deliver this.
They claimed that Turkey was just about to join the EU and that millions of Turks would flood into the UK.
They promised more fish for fishermen. That too seems to have been a chimera.
And Lastly, they promised that the people of the UK would take back control, would return sovereignty to a democratic government in the UK from a non-democratic one in Europe.
Almost every part of this assertion is false.
The UK like every other State in the EU is already a sovereign State.
The System of government in the EU, whilst a little complex is notably more democratic than that of the UK.
And far from giving control to the people of Britain we seem set to transfer the reins of power from one product of Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club to another one.

Before I move to what might come next, there are two more predictions that, sadly, have come true.
Scotland does not wish to leave the EU. If the Scots’ wish to remain part of the EU is stronger than their wish to remain part of the UK we shall see the break up of the united Kingdom.
The second thing is even more sinister. We have seen, as predicted, a rise in hate-crime, xenophobia and rascism. After months of politicians talking about threats and possible violence some of the basest instincts of our compatriots have been released. Some of our citizens seem to have been given permission to give expression to their nastiest feelings.

If I now talk of dire threats and possibilities it is not because I believe or know that these things will happen, but because I believe that these things might happen, that history should teach us how to avoid making desperate mistakes, though history, alas suggests that we are poor learners.

I have made much of the EU as an organ of peace. No-one claims that the EU is perfect, but while we talk we do not fight. No-one would claim that all the nation states of the EU will always have nice liberal governments, but while the EU exerts a moderating influence the risks of extreme governments of either Right or Left is greatly reduced. The existence of the EU does not prevent one of the European Nations electing an extremist leader, but it would prevent such a person abolishing the democratic institutions of their country and setting up a dictatorship and it would almost certainly be able to contain or limit extremist behaviour. To put it in stark historical terms: the EU would not prevent a country electing another Hitler, but it would prevent him setting up a dictatorship and declaring war on his neighbours.

So what might happen?
We might see the collapse of the EU. There are other break-away groups would would love to hold referenda in their own countries.
We might see the rise of extremist far right governments.
We might see the rise of extremist far left governments, though I suspect that that is less likely.
We might see Russia flexing its muscles more aggressively and with Europe in disarray we would be less likely to stand up to such threats.
We might see the the rise of the far right in the UK, particularly as those who thought that Brexit would bring jobs and homes to everyone.
We are almost certain to become poorer as a country.
If we continue to have neo-liberal governments such as those of the last thirty years there will be a continued run down in public services, with Health and Welfare the first to go.

This contest, like all wars of the past has been fought with the lives and livelihoods of the poor to satisfy the ambitions of an elite. The ambitious politicians have played the same game as ambitious politicians for thousands of years. They have encouraged to poor to blame all their difficulties on the even poorer. The gap between the rich and the poor in Britain has been widening. Instead of the obvious explanation (that the rich are taking from the poor) somehow the elite have managed to peddle the myth that the poor of Hartlepool are poor because there are starving, homeless Syrians.


The Rich are getting richer, while the poor pay the price.

I shall leave you with two maps and a plea.
First a map of where the UK voted to leave.
Secondly a map of the ten richest and the ten poorest areas in Northern Europe.
And the plea? We have done a monumentally stupid thing. We must now all be constantly on oug guard against extremism, against hate-crime, and against simplistic attempts to blame ‘the other’ for our own misfortunes or disappointments.

Votes by region

Eu Referendum results


Rich and poor in Northern Europe

Rich and poor in Northern Europe

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Britain has just committed an act of self-harm

The title of an article by the economics editor of The Times caught my eye: “The poorest voted for Brexit, now they will bear the brunt of the cost“. How true, I thought and started reading.

The opening sentence brought me up short. “Britain has just committed an act of self-harm.” I remembered a girl I had admitted when I was a houseman. She had taken an overdose of Paracetamol after a row with her boyfriend. She did not intend to die. It was a protest.

Now you may know that Paracetamol is a particularly nasty drug with which to attempt, or threaten suicide. You do not go quietly to sleep either to wake later, or not wake. It is not particularly sedative, but it destroys your liver and you go jaundiced and die some days or even weeks later.

To my embarrassment I do not remember whether she did in fact die, but I shall never forget the look of terror in her eyes the next morning when she realised that death was the probable outcome.

Many of my fellow Britons have just made a protest vote. I have no doubt that the majority of them will come to regret it: but I know not how soon or how many. The drunken tweet sent in the early hours may have repercussions in hours. The unintended sexual encounter may show its effects in days or weeks. Trusting the Tories with the NHS may not prove fatal for ten or twenty years. I wonder how long it will take the poor downtrodden and exploited British voter to realise that they have simply been taken for a ride by different bunch of public school toffs.


The Poor will not gain from leaving the EU

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The Death of Europe, or just the UK?

I can’t believe that the sun is still shining this morning. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has just voted to leave the European Union. 52% of those voting chose to leave.

There will be pundits with more authority to write on why this happened and on what will, or might happen next, but maybe that does not invalidate my shared thoughts as I struggle to come to terms with what feels to me like an apocalyptic decision. After a decade in politics I had thought that the failure of the Liberal Democrats in coalition would be the nadir of my political experience, but what we have just experienced during EU referendum campaign is far worse. The cause, the course and the outcome have all been depressing, each one worse than the previous. I have almost come to despair of democracy.

The Cause.

The roots of the referendum lie in divisions within the Conservative Party and David Cameron’s attempts to keep it united.

As I have written previously with regard to the Liberal Democrats, all political parties are themselves a coalition of differing views, and there have always been tensions within the Conservative Party. It just so happens that they are so focussed on gaining and retaining power that they have developed a certain discipline that enables them to keep those divisions hidden from view for most of the time. The Tories have always been divided on Europe. Some leaders are more ‘pro’ and some more ‘anti’. The phrase that they used to paper over the differences was ‘eurosceptic’. We can all visualise being sceptical without being opposed to something. We even talk of healthy scepticism. The truth is that some Tories hated the EU and always wanted to leave. Their leaders kept the lid on the discontent in two ways: they criticised the EU in public and they talked vaguely of having a referendum. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election David Cameron decided that the best way to keep his own right wing on board and to fend off the increasing threat from UKIP was to make a firm offer to hold an “in/out” referendum if he was the next Prime Minister.

This may well have been a promise that he thought he would not have to deliver. None of the opinion polls predicted a Conservative majority, and if he were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats again he could always blame them for stopping him having a referendum. But, and here comes the first major blow to the democratic process in the saga, he did win an overall majority. Or did he? Was the election ‘stolen’? Or bought? The funding of British political parties and the electoral system is just one of the things that I believe to be wrong with our democracy, but we do have rules on election expenses and there are widespread allegations that the Conservative Party broke these rules. We know that their campaign focussed heavily on a number of marginal seats, and that the wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats was at least in part due to the intensive campaigning in those seats. The story is still unfolding, but it is possible that the Conservatives do not in fact have a legitimate majority.

Tory Battle Bus

“Police launch general election fraud probe” Daily Mail.

“Conservatives admit failure to declare election expenses” Channel 4 News

“What is the Tory election expenses story and why isn’t it bigger news?” Guardian

“Eight police forces investigating potential election expenses breaches

And so, to his surprise, David Cameron found that he was Prime Minister again, this time leading a Conservative government. He decided that he had no choice but to deliver his promised referendum. But first he would go through a charade of having tough negotiations with other European nations and come back with some concessions that would enable him to move from a position of relative euroscepticism to being an outright supporter of the EU.

The Course

I have seen the rough and tumble of political campaigning, and I have seen rival candidates stretch the truth to its limits, but I have never seen such an ill-tempered, ill-mannered and dishonest campaign. The remain camp engaged in some speculative exaggeration of what might happen if we leave the EU. But the dishonesty exhibited by the Brexit camp was breath-taking. From the claim that we send £350m a week to the EU, and coupled with it the implication that we could spend that money five times over (NHS, Farm subsidy, Regional grants, removing VAT from domestic fuel and Scientific research) to the implication that the whole population of Turkey was likely to flood into the UK we saw an astonishing number of ‘porkies’. Some were challenged by fact-checking web sites or by independent academics, but the Brexit campaigners carried on regardless. The whole situation was exacerbated by the BBC’s famous insistence of ‘balance’. The BBC seemed to think that each time an authoritative statement was made by an independent body, or a letter was published that bore the signature of hundreds of academics, it was necessary for the BBC to bring Farage, Gove, Johnson or Duncan-Smith into the studio to put their case. Their ‘case’ often amounted simply to denying the statement of the experts and repeating one of their sound-bite claims about bringing back sovereignty or faceless bureaucrats. One example of this was when the Michael O’Leary, the outspoken chief executive of Ryan Air, said that because we would lose access to the European open skies agreement air fares would rise. The Brexit response was simply that there is no question of air fares or holidays costing any more.

There were repeated attempts to conflate membership of the EU with the European Court of Human Rights (which was set up by the UK among others long before there even was an EU) and the euro (which is a currency that the UK does not use, and does not give any support to.) But the most inflammatory and dangerous language was used in relation to immigration. Nigel Farage threatened “violence on the streets” if immigration was not curbed. Cameron’s foolish claim that he could lower net migration to “tens of thousands” was thrown back at him, but the Brexit team alternately claimed that they could deliver it themselves and said that they would control migration with a points system that would allow more immigration, not less. It was conveniently ignored that there are already 180,000 immigrants from outside the EU where we already operate a points system, and deceitfully suggested that the UK’s creaky infrastructure was all due to immigrants from the EU. The evidence actually shows that EU migrants contribute more to the treasury than they cost, and as I have repeatedly written here and elsewhere, the problems being experienced by the NHS are the result of UK government policies. Before I leave the subject of immigration I might point out that Jeremy Corbyn proposed financial help for councils who took in significant numbers of immigrants. This statement, like much of what was said by the Labour Leader was conveniently ignored by most of the media, and significantly by the BBC. One might add that the previous Labour government had introduced just such a scheme and it was abolished by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.

The xenophobic demagogy we heard from the Brexit camp had the effect of permitting anger and hate to bubble up in individuals. The most extreme example of this hate was the awful murder of Jo Cox, but the aggressive and inflammatory language used by politicians had a more general effect of making acceptable, behaviour and language that would not normally be acceptable . I have a friend who was delivering leaflets when a man came charging out of his house and pursued him down the road shouting obscenities and calling him a traitor. 

One problem of the whole campaign was its asymmetry. There was, if you like an asymmetry of evidence and an asymmetry of truth, but there was an asymmetry of the whole underlying argument as well. The Remain camp seemed to concentrate on the economic benefits of EU membership to the exclusion of all else. I would regard the economic case as unanswerable, but the Brexit camp did not need to answer it. They appealed almost exclusively to emotions: fear, distrust, dislike of governments generally. Only occasionally did the Remain campaign point out that some of us love being part of Europe, some of us love the diversity and some of us love living at peace with our neighbours.

Sheila Hancock on peace and war in Europe.

Sheila Hancock on peace and war in Europe.

Gordon Brown in Coventry Cathedral

Gordon Brown in Coventry Cathedral

The outcome

I shall pause here, and post my thoughts on the outcome later. I do this for two reasons. First, I should acknowledge that my attempts to predict the future may be even more flawed than my attempts to chronicle what has happened and why.

And Second, I need to do something else today apart from thinking about this awful, awful state of affairs. Thank you for staying with me so far, if you have.

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Enough is enough.

Call me naïve if you like, but I still believe that most politicians go into the business because they want to make the world a better place. They may lose their way, become seduced by the sense of their own importance, carried away by the thrill of the chase or corrupted by the influence of big money and lobbyists, but mostly they start off with good intentions. that certainly is why I went into politics. As a GP I was in a position to help individuals, but so often I realised that it was the system that needed changing. I could not prescribe a house for the homeless or a job for the jobless, but as a politician I might, I just might be able to do these things.

My early experience of life as a politician was encouraging. In our District Council we Liberal Democrats ran the administration with the support of some independents. We pushed up our recycling rates to one of the highest in the country. We delivered more new affordable homes for our size than any other authority. We attracted inward investment in the arts and developed our sports and leisure services.  IMG_3416Things locally started to go downhill when we moved to Unitary Authority and the Conservatives took over, but by then I had moved on to the national political scene.

Nationally too, the position was optimistic. Party Conferences were a heady blend of idealism and optimism. Liberal Democrats had real influence and if leaders occasionally risked getting ‘too big for their boots’ there were plenty of stalwart members ready to remind them of the pledge enshrined in the Party constitution “to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society… in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

Then came May 2010: a hung parliament. Like the vast majority of members of the Party I supported the decision to go into coalition. We knew that it would damage the Party, but having sung the praises of coalition government for decades it would be bizarre not to accept the challenge when it was offered. By September 2010 we could see that it was going wrong. The hastily written coalition agreement was already being overtaken by policies that the Conservatives wanted to introduce. The Liberal Democrat Conference warned Nick Clegg that he needed to stand up more for Lib Dem values, that he did not need to agree to everything that his friend Dave wanted. At a private meeting of Local Party Chairs I tackled Nick on that subject. He argued that the most important thing was to give the public a united view. He had to hold the coalition together for the full five years. We disagreed.

The mistakes were many, but for those who know me it will be no surprise that the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 was for me the most catastrophic mistake. I worked closely for months with another doctor who was also chair of his Local Liberal Democrat Party. Graham Winyard had a public health background and had been Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Medical Director to the NHS. Between us we had experience of most parts of the NHS and we had contacts throughout the Service. We were in a position to give the Party Leadership authoritative advice. At no point did Nick Clegg agree to see us. He telephoned us once and spent an hour and a half detailing all the concessions he had wrung out of the Prime Minister after the so-called ‘Listening Pause’. Those apparent concessions started to unravel when the Department published the official response five days later, and within a couple of months it was clear that they did not amount to a can of beans. Graham Winyard resigned from the Party in frustration and disgust. I decided to fight on. I fought on through Liberal Democrat Conferences. Time and again the inner caucus of the Party would block my attempts to allow the Party members to debate the changes being imposed on the Health Service. If I did manage to get to through to the membership, I found great support from the members.

I fought on when the regulatory framework for the Health Act was published. I served on a policy working group that was preparing future policy options for Liberal Democrats with regard to delivering public services. Seven of us in that working group produced policy proposals that included the removal of the wasteful and destructive use of markets in the NHS. Those proposals were never debated. It seemed that Nick Clegg was actually in favour of breaking up the NHS and with the help of junior ministers Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb and with Shirley Williams in the House of Lords he was able to deliver the NHS on a plate to the Tories. Nick Clegg and Shirley Williams Nick Clegg and Shirley Williams voting in the Health debate at Conference

May 2015 saw the Liberal Democrats reap the reward for cozying up to the Tories. The Party was almost wiped out. But every challenge brings an opportunity. Tim Farron had long waxed eloquent on the need to return to the values of Beveridge. If the NHS was conceived by Beveridge and delivered by Bevan there might be hope that Liberal Democrats would rediscover that value of a single nationalised health service. Alas, Tim Farron has made no response to our policy proposals.

And now; and now the final blow. Tim Farron has lead his tiny bunch of MPs through the lobby to support Cameron in his madcap bombing escapade in Syria. Tim Farron Tim Farron in the debate on Syria

I shall not repeat all the arguments against escalating the war in Syria. Many others have put clearly the tactical, strategic, political and diplomatic arguments against escalating the violence there. I must, however, point out that war is a public health disaster. The purpose of bombing is to kill and injure, but over and above that, the damage to the infrastructure of a country leads to homelessness, poverty, starvation and disease. Mass migrations of terrified peoples then exacerbate and spread the suffering. No doctor can look on unmoved while their government or their political party deliberately causes so much illness, suffering and death, and I shall not do so. Enough is enough. I shall resign from the Liberal Democrat Party.


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Paris: Life goes on.


Place de La République: personal witness.

Three days on and Paris is very much ‘open for business’. Place de La République was packed. There were concentric circles round the statue: first flowers then small groups, couples and individuals whom I took to be family, friends and well-wishers. Next were the messages, chalked on the paving or spelt out in candles. Outside that were those of us who claimed no greater connection to this tragedy than the fact we see ourselves as part of  humanity and wanting, wishing and hoping to see a better world.

In the final, outermost circle were the media: cameras on tripods, floodlights and long fluffy microphones all tied by cables to vans with satellite dishes on their rooves.

Press and the media

Paris: the World bears witness


All was sombre and respectful, but Paris is not afraid. Paris lives on. Good luck Paris.


Daylight reveals the flowers and cards in the rain.

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