Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Thoughts on the Referendum

These are tough times to be a supporter of the European Union. For decades the EU and its predecessors were rightly held up as a guardian of peace and prosperity of Europe. Then came the global financial crisis, and the Euro currency, the totemic symbol of European integration, became a "machine from hell" (in the words of one German official), ripping apart the fabric of Europe that the EU had previously done so much to stitch together.

The Eurozone crisis remains unresolved to this day, stuck between the very reasonable desire of creditor countries not to risk their own finances in bailing out the debtor countries, and the very reasonable desire of debtor countries not to have their people ground into the dust by the lunatic austerity regimes imposed by the creditors. Why then should we stay in an institution that has pursued such a reckless experiment?

For starters, obviously, we are not in the Eurozone and its tribulations will affect us no more or less if we vote to leave. As a result the economic argument is conclusively in favour of Remain. No reasonable observer can argue that we will not suffer a serious hit to our economy as a result of leaving, particularly if we forgo the "Norway option" and lose our access to the European single market.

There are other solid, pragmatic reasons for voting Remain if you are of a left-wing persuasion, as my esteemed friend Squid points out. Curious to test my own views against the Leave side's supposedly killer arguments, I watched Brexit - The Movie with gradually increasing astonishment at how overtly right-wing its agenda is. It certainly gave me a fascinating insight into the world of UKIP, from the ultra-Thatcherite spin on Britain's history in the 20th century to the genuinely jaw-dropping whinge about EU steel tariffs in the immediate wake of the Port Talbot debacle. This from a film which professes to inspire "as many people as possible" to vote Leave.

It would be wrong to characterise Leaving as a purely right-wing obsession, however, as is obvious from the last time we had a referendum on this issue. In 1975 the debate was the precise mirror image of the one we have today, with the Labour party split down the middle while the Conservatives were solidly for staying in. The case for leaving, advanced most notably by Tony Benn, centred around lack of democratic accountability of the EEC. In Benn's view it was wrong for parliament to give the power to write laws to Europe regardless of whether Europe is benign or not, because we cannot get rid of the people who make European laws. Better a bad parliament than a good king.

It is a shame Benn is not still around to lend some dignity to the contemptible Leave campaign. His critique is far more robust than anything advanced this time round, and all Remain supporters ought to consider his arguments carefully, particularly his fear of Britain becoming an island province in an anti-democratic European empire. We live in a hugely over-centralised country with a far too dominant role played by London, and I can understand completely why Scotland in particular is so keen on the EU as a counterweight to Westminster. But nothing is achieved if an even more remote and out-of-touch capital is established in Brussels.

I do not however think his argument is grounds to leave now, and in some ways it holds less force now than it did back then. As the largest EU country not in the Euro, Britain is now the standard-bearer for a looser community of nations than the one envisaged by the union's founding fathers. I think there is something more innovative and even noble about Britain's stubbornly different vision for the EU, one where the states of Europe work closely together where it makes sense but are at the same time free to pursue their own national destinies to the greatest feasible extent; a polycentric continent that can nevertheless hold its own beside the giant countries of the world. By staying inside the EU, we have the opportunity to shape its future to that template, if we're willing to take a lead. And there are many signs that the EU as a whole, chastened by the Euro experience, is heading tentatively in this direction. Besides, if Britain's position become unsustainable somewhere down the line, there will be nothing to stop us leaving then. It is madness to take the economic hit now when there is absolutely no pressing reason to do so, purely to settle an internal Tory row.

Oh, but what about immigration? As if we could possibly forget. Again, these are tough times to be a supporter of the EU. The evidence may show that immigrants contribute more to the UK economy than they take out, but plenty of people feel otherwise and the Leave campaign has been shamelessly stoking their fears. It's no use pointing out that it was the UK that pressed for enlargement to eastern Europe after the end of the cold war (and bringing the ex-communist countries into the fold was one of the EU's greatest triumphs), or that the EU has perfectly sensible transitional controls on migration for new entrants which the UK chose not to use in 2004. Or that pressure on schools and hospitals has nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with our own excessive self-imposed austerity. None of that matters. It's all Europe's fault.

This is a sad state of affairs. I have personally benefited from the chance to live and work in another EU country, just as my European colleagues have benefited from coming to work here. That, for me, is the European Dream. Clearly it is not a vote winner in the current political climate - indeed, it's a vote loser - but I will be voting Remain to keep that dream alive, in the hope that there will come a time when everybody believes in it.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

AIPL: Aquababy

If you have not had the privilege of looking after a baby on a full time basis, you may wonder how you fill the endless hours of leisure between wakey-wakey and beddy-byes. I too fondly imagined time stretching to infinity between little strolls around the park and long naps as I perfected my guitar technique or wrote the great American novel.

The awful truth is that there is time to achieve perhaps one goal during the day that is not directly related to your baby's survival, and only then if you're quick about it. Not only that but there is no time to think about what the goal should be. Thankfully there are a staggering number of pre-organised activities to build your day around, and the only thought required is how to get to them taking into account naps, meals, badly-timed nappy disasters, &c.

Baby activities can be divided into two broad groups, namely swimming and not swimming. I was thrown straight into the shallow end on day one of my leave as it happened to coincide with swimming day. E had already been swimming for some time with Mrs Tomsk, who had left us detailed instructions for how to get to the special baby pool somewhere in the depths of Sale and what to do when we got there, involving complex door codes, clothes baskets, special swim nappies and post-swim milk. Somehow I managed to navigate all of these requirements while maintaining an unshakeable air of knowing what I was doing (I don't think E fell for it).

The other mums in the class had been warned that I would be taking over and were very welcoming, as was the friendly teacher who quickly brought me up to speed with what they were doing (a feat as we were almost at the end of the term). E of course was a veteran and took it all in her stride, except for changing which she is never too keen on.

One perk of being a dad is having a whole changing room to yourself, though this is a double-edged sword as it also means having no-one to hand over E to at any of the ten thousand awkward points in the changing process. This makes showering a bit like one of those logic puzzles involving transporting a load of animals and vegetables across a body of water intact. Acknowledging this there's a recommended order of showering pinned to wall to help you out, with best practice guidelines for the adjacent playpen and the use of many towels. All of this in a searing heat which at least E appreciated.

In fact there were two periods when I was not the only dad in the place. In the first lesson of the following term another guy with an older daughter turned up, but he switched soon after as she was better suited to a beginner's class. The first time he showed up was a little disconcerting as his wife followed him in to the male changing room to help out; I guess I was not the only one expecting to have the changing room to myself. Dad Three came a few times during our last term and like me had taken over from his wife, who was going back to work. He owned his own business which meant he was able to nip out for a couple of hours to go swimming on a regular basis. His daughter and Elspedoodle were going through a clingy phase at the same time so we could commiserate with each other about our traumatic changing and swimming experiences.

I wasn't sure how I would get on with the swimming lessons as I barely tolerate being in an a pool myself, but I soon learnt that I could stand around enjoying the pleasantly warm water while E did all the hard work. It became a firm favourite before long as it felt like a proper expedition out, so much so that I was really disappointed when E was too ill to go, or the car refused to start, or on one memorable occasion she decided to eat and choke on a small piece of silvered paper just before we were meant to leave.

When we did manage to get there E was happy to try most things providing she was in the mood. She already knew how to swim underwater from earlier lessons and was usually tolerant of me dunking her in.  Most of the time I guided her standing up although occasionally we would swim together holding a float, which ended badly the first time when my back cramped up and I inadvertently submerged  both of us.She didn't care much for being pushed off a float face-first by the teacher either (we were assured this was essential safety training). On one occasion we were invited to put on goggles and go underwater together with her, but not only do I have no clue how to stay underwater but she was really scared of me wearing goggles for some reason. Thankfully we didn't do it again. We always rounded off the lessons with singing which we all enjoyed especially the Little Green Frog and jumping off the side to Humpty Dumpty.

By the end of my leave E was doing all sorts of advanced stuff like turns under the water and swimming on her own. She did go through phases of not enjoying it, especially after missing a lesson, and in the final term we were put together with a more experienced class which was not ideal. So it was a good time to take a break. We finally got our act together recently to go swimming in the new public pool down the road and after a hesitant start she is enjoying it a lot (especially with her wet suit to make up for the non-baby friendly temperature). So much so that the mere mention of the word 'swimming' has her dancing round the house in excitement demanding to get changed. It'll be a while before we're brave enough to do more than a quick dunk underwater though.

Next time: not swimming.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Scottish experiment

Before Corbyn was elected I noted that the results of the Scottish election would be a fascinating natural test of his leadership and some assumptions often made about the Scottish electorate, namely:

1. Scotland is more left-wing than the rest of the UK (look how they don't vote for Tories!)
2. Labour is losing support because it isn't left wing enough (unlike those lovable lefty nationalists)

The alternative hypothesis - that since the referendum Scottish voting preferences have been determined mainly by attitude towards independence - was fiercely disputed by some people, predominantly ex-Labour voters north of the border, safe in the knowledge that there was no easy way of determining which explanation was correct.

With Corbyn at the helm, however, there is no longer any ambiguity. Labour could hardly have chosen a more left-wing leader, and this year Scottish Labour ran on an overtly more left-wing platform than the SNP. For their pains they have been reduced to third place in the Scottish parliament, for the first time behind the Tories who gained 11% in the list vote and are now the main opposition to the SNP.

The results of the experiment could not be clearer. 46% voted SNP in constituencies, almost exactly the same as voted for independence. In the regional vote 48% voted for the SNP and pro-independence Greens. The remainder voted Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem in similar proportions to the projected vote share in England. There can be no doubt that Scottish elections are divided along nationalist lines and will be for years to come.

This election was in the end not a test on Corbyn; we now know that no other Labour leader could have made a significant difference, because Labour's stance in the independence referendum will not be forgotten or forgiven by a huge proportion of its electorate. It was a test of Scotland, and it has forever killed the myth of Scotland's left-wing exceptionalism.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

AIPL: When numbers lie

I shouldn't let this week go by without noting the supremely dodgy statistic, as reported by ITV, Sky, the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph etc. that only 1% of men are taking shared parental leave in the first year since its introduction. Cue much speculation over why the figure is so low.

As many others have pointed out, however, this figure, from a survey by My Family Care, is a percentage of all male employees and not, say, those who have actually had a baby and are therefore eligible for shared parental leave. (See More or Less for a dramatic reconstruction of the survey).

The takeup of SPL might yet turn out to be disappointing, as any idiot could predict, but these reports prove nothing other than the inability of journalists to get their facts straight. Worse than that, it sends out a misleading signal that sharing leave is the preserve of a tiny minority which could well cause less people to take it up in future. Perhaps not the best way to celebrate the anniversary.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

AIPL: Poppropriation

It is a scientific fact that while looking after an infant 50% of your unconscious brain activity is devoted to modifying song lyrics to fit your current circumstances. This begins right from when baby comes back from the hospital, when early hits such as Petula Clark's Downstairs and school assembly favourite Clean Clean Nappy (On Her Bottom) first burst onto the airwaves.

Mid-period classics tended to focus on either getting food into the Elspedoodle (Oasis's pub-rock anthem (You've Got To) Drink Your Milk) or further ruminations on what comes out (Do We Need To Change Your Nappy? from Disney's Frozen). Many dozens on similar themes were created and sadly forgotten about.

Late-period works often succumbed to baroque excess, culminating in the Kinks' nostalgic The E------ Appreciation Society. A full set of alternative lyrics exists for this song but have been embargoed under the 30 year rule [1]. 

By the end of my leave period almost the entire Western pop canon had been transformed in this way.

[1] One line leaked to the NME gives a flavour: # We Are The E------ Nutritional Consultancy / God Bless Jumbo Oats, Pitta Hummus and Broccoli #