It’s a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. It really shouldn’t be.


Today is a chance for major con­sti­tu­tional change in the UK. If ‘yes’ wins, then the res­ult would be a shock for both sides. Given the choice Devo-Max, Scotland would stay in the UK. A party with one MP in Scotland decided this couldn’t be an option as it would be a win for the oppos­i­tion, so it’s a gamble all or nothing.

Roulette wheel with ball in thirteen slot

Cameron’s Scottish Policy. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

There’s vari­ous reas­ons it’s come to this, but one is that there is no pro­vi­sion for pain­less con­sti­tu­tional change in the UK. This is stupid.

The unwrit­ten con­sti­tu­tion of the UK is a mish-mash of arrange­ments built over hun­dreds of years. The idea that some­thing that worked a couple of cen­tur­ies ago should be immut­able is simply ridicu­lous. Communications, edu­ca­tion, soci­ety have all changed. We are gov­erned in a sys­tem which haven’t con­sen­ted to and have little legal oppor­tun­ity to change unless someone can man­u­fac­ture a crisis. So we let prob­lems fester till we lurch from one place to another.

Plaid Cymru are ask­ing for ideas to gov­ern Wales. I have one, but I’d be happy for any party to take it up for the UK. It’s this: There should be a con­sti­tu­tional con­fer­ence every 25 years.

Too fre­quent and the rules become a free for all, but too infre­quent and there’s no gradual evol­u­tion of the state and every change becomes a trauma. Twenty-five years is up for dis­cus­sion but it’s close enough that a reas­on­ably young adult could have hope of being con­sul­ted on their par­ti­cip­a­tion in a demo­cracy. It also means that there is (rel­at­ively) recent pre­ced­ent so the next con­fer­ence isn’t a com­plete shock to the polit­ical body.

Moving fun­da­mental polit­ical ques­tions, like con­stitu­ency sizes, how often should gen­eral elec­tions be, how to the mem­ber coun­tries relate to the UK, onto a sched­uled basis would remove them from being laid down by an ad-hocracy.

Whatever the res­ult today, it’s the pay­off of a massive gamble by David Cameron who’s put everything on Red (White and Blue) and is hop­ing the right num­ber comes up. There’s got to be a bet­ter way to man­age a con­sti­tu­tion than that.

In the UK? Science (might) need You!


This week I finally met my local MP for the first time. If I’d been on the ball I’d even have got a photo to prove it, but it’s just as well I didn’t as I was hav­ing an ill day, so I would have simply looked sick and sweaty next to him. Instead here’s some concept art you can pre­tend sym­bol­ises polit­ics and science.

Back off, it's SCIENCE. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

Back off, it’s SCIENCE. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

The reason I was meet­ing him was an inter­view for the Evidence Information Service. I first heard of this back in March and thought I ought to do some­thing about it. The idea is that while the civil ser­vice and par­lia­ment­ary research­ers can do a good job, they’re not experts on everything. It wouldn’t be sane to expect them to be. The Evidence Information Service is a pro­posal that there could be a sys­tem to provide MPs with expert advice on top­ics. The first step for such a ser­vice would be work­ing out what MPs want and what they could use.

This is where you and I come in.

The EIS is look­ing for local cham­pi­ons to inter­view their MPs (and AMs if you live in Wales). There’s a ques­tion­naire to see what it is that MPs are look­ing for. They already have plenty of people lin­ing up to give them inform­a­tion. Is there a way that sci­ent­ists can con­trib­ute more sig­nal than noise?

This obvi­ously isn’t March. I was busy at the time and things like this tend to get put off into the to-do list and then for­got­ten as more stuff gets added. The spur to sign up and get it done came via Kevin Folta. In par­tic­u­lar the first image in this post.

It’s not reas­on­able to assume MPs and AMs will pick up my dis­ap­proval of poor sci­ence through some kind of psychic osmosis. There are many reas­ons why fringe ideas might get pushed. Sincere belief and mis­un­der­stand­ing is one. Another reason might be eco­nomic interest. Taking a small step to counter-balance this seemed more pro­duct­ive to me than put­ting an X in a box every five years, as a polit­ical action.

As it hap­pens it was a reas­on­ably pain­less exer­cise. The EIS provided a basic ques­tion­naire, and Roger Williams made time for me at the local con­stitu­ency office. As it hap­pens Brecon and Radnorshire is the largest con­stitu­ency out­side Scotland in the UK, so local was a bit farther for me that it might be for you, but it was simple enough.

I can’t say what he said, as the res­ults are going to be anonymised. But I did find him and his office very open and help­ful. It’s a reminder of what a bad advert for MPs the House of Commons is. I cer­tainly learned some things about how Politics works that made my head spin.

If you are keen for bet­ter sci­ence in polit­ics, then it’s worth check­ing out the EIS wel­come let­ter and see­ing if you live in a con­stitu­ency without a local cham­pion. If mys­ti­cism in Westminster makes you grumpy, then you can at least be sat­is­fied you’ve done your bit.

Is ‘No’ campaigning to a London audience?


It cer­tainly was yes­ter­day, with Michael Gove among the people cam­paign­ing against Scottish inde­pend­ence in London. It might be an example of where the Unionists have mis­un­der­stood both the oppos­i­tion and their own campaign.

The ‘No’ cam­paign is a cam­paign against nation­al­ism. It’s a cam­paign against quite a dated idea of nation­al­ism. One of the suc­cesses of Scotland is that they have built a civic nation­al­ism, so eth­nic minor­it­ies aren’t excluded from being Scottish in the way that they seem to be excluded (or avoid­ing) being English in England. No doubt there are some Anglophobes vot­ing to get rid of the English, but that’s nowhere near enough to account for the pop­ular­ity of the Yes side. What inde­pend­ence offers is John Major’s catch­phrase sub­si­di­ar­ity. It moves decision mak­ing down loc­ally from a dis­tant gov­ern­ment to admin­is­tra­tion that has to sit in the mess it makes. Defence and for­eign policy could be made at the UK level, but given we work within the EU and NATO there is some­thing to be said for cut­ting out Westminster as the middle-man.

If the UK gov­ern­ment had offered Devo-max, then there’s little doubt that would have won the ref­er­en­dum. The inab­il­ity of Westminster to see it is prob­lem in the UK that caus­ing it so much trouble. Another prob­lem No has is that it cam­paigns against itself. The form of nation­al­ism they’re against is, in a dif­fer­ent col­our, the form of nation­al­ism they cling to.

It’s dif­fi­cult call­ing reas­on­able people British nation­al­ists, because the phrase is so closely asso­ci­ated with being a mem­ber of the BNP (a fas­cist party, for non-UK people). However, when Cameron made his plea for the union, wrapped in the flag at the velo­drome, he was being a nation­al­ist. When Ed Miliband briefly flir­ted with the idea of post­ing bor­der guards at Hadrian’s Wall, it was the act of a nation­al­ist. That rally in London yes­ter­day with Clegg and Gove? It’s nation­al­ist.

Not only that, but it’s the dated form of nation­al­ism that the SNP and Plaid Cymru have been mov­ing from. The SNP and PC both want to man­age most policy loc­ally. Defence and for­eign policy might be more dif­fi­cult, but these are nego­ti­ated with the EU and NATO. Westminster isn’t going to uni­lat­er­ally solve prob­lems like Ukraine. So if eco­nomy and justice can be man­aged loc­ally, Westminster looks like an unne­ces­sary middle­man. It’s an inter­na­tion­al­ist nation­al­ism that makes Unionist appeals to people liv­ing on the same island look a bit tired and parochial.

However, the Unionists haven’t con­sidered tak­ing the inde­pend­ence move­ment ser­i­ously till very recently, because they thought it impossible. If they weren’t react­ing to the Yes cam­paign then what were they geared to fight?

I’m won­der­ing if the refusal to offer ser­i­ous powers on the bal­lot wasn’t about Scotland, but about the other devolved powers. More power to Scotland, and to the Welsh Assembly, would inev­it­ably lead to renewed calls for devol­u­tion in England. What powers would the London Assembly, and other regional assem­blies, have? Whatever was ceded to Scotland could be deman­ded by London, and the greater the inde­pend­ence for London, the more dif­fi­cult life becomes for the national gov­ern­ment in Westminster. I don’t think there’s a con­scious anti-regions cam­paign in Westminster, but a long held desire to accu­mu­late power in the centre. It wasn’t enough for Westminster to win the vote, they wanted to con­cede as little as possible.

This is not a plan.

Even now, work­ing out the rela­tion­ship between England and the UK is being left to the fringe. The Barnett Formula the three lead­ers have pledged to uphold was a quick fix in for 1979. Scottish and Welsh devolved cham­bers came in 1999. There’s still no reform of the House of Lords bey­ond the 1999 bodge. For all the com­plaints that Salmond has no plan B, no leader of the big three parties has a Plan A for the Union if they win.

Win or lose, the Unionists need rethink how demo­cracy works in the ®UK and that will mean mov­ing out­side cent­ral London.

I’m more excited by Formula E than Formula 1 at the moment


The first Formula E race is due at the week­end. On paper the FIA’s elec­tric series isn’t a match for Formula 1, and the F1 racing has been good at the front. However when Virgin announced their driver line-up for Formula E, it under­lined F1’s big problem.

Virgin Drivers

Virgin Racing press material.

The one on the left is Jaime Alguersuari. He was quite good racing in F1 in Toro Rosso and was sacked at very short notice for two even younger drivers. With a bit more notice he might have found another team and still be racing in F1 today. The driver on the right is Sam Bird. He came second in the GP2 cham­pi­on­ship, miss­ing out on the title in the last race to Fabio Leimer, who also isn’t in F1. It’s hard to tell if he’s good enough for F1. Marcus Ericsson, 6th last year in GP2, has a seat with Caterham, where he’s doing noth­ing much — but that could be partly the car.

They are good drivers, and while F1 fans might say they’re not the best in the world, if you were draw­ing up a list of the best avail­able drivers, these two would be on it. The Formula E teams seem to be hir­ing the best they can. In con­trast if you look at the F1 grid, half the F1 teams have at least one driver who is the most prof­it­able a team can hire, not the best. What keeps Alguersuari and Bird off the F1 grid is a lack of money, not talent.

You can say that about a quite a few of the drivers in Formula E. There’s a few ex-F1 drivers like Trulli, Heidfeld, Senna and Chandhok

Formula E testing

A Virgin car chases an ABT at Donington testing.

I’m not sure about the cars. They look the part, but it’s hard to be sure about speed. The times at the first test were slow, but there was almost a road­b­lock by the Old Hairpin. Buemi fin­ished day five of test­ing 1m31.792s, and for com­par­ison the lap record for Formula 4 is 1m31.603s. However, the Formula E cars won’t race on GP cir­cuits, so head­line speed might not be the issue.
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The Marathon Conspiracy by Gary Corby


MarathonConspiracy Digital Review: 1.

The Marathon Conspiracy is the fourth out­ing for ancient Greek proto-sleuth Nicolaos, and the first since his debut to spend much time in Athens. I was inter­ested to see how this went as the first time I thought Gary Corby’s Athens wasn’t quite as grim as I’d ima­gined it.

Either I’ve lightened up, or else this time round Athens is a little more cyn­ical. Not a lot, but it feels more like a func­tion­ing city. One of the reas­ons is that the book has a bit more depth in the lives of the cit­izens, par­tic­u­larly the women. The story is that the body of Hippias, last tyr­ant of Athens is found by two girls stay­ing at the temple in Brauron, in the east of Athens’s ter­rit­ory. However it seems that a scroll found with the body has gone miss­ing and one of the girls is found murdered. Nicolaos is put on the case to find out what the truth about the body is, and if the other girl is dead or captured.

The set­ting at the sanc­tu­ary in Brauron means that the female side of Athens is an import­ant part of the story. This poses a couple of prob­lems. One is that female his­tory for the period is poor. History was writ­ten by men, for men, about men. Women don’t appear much in it. Gary Corby has done an excel­lent job nego­ti­at­ing his way round this, but he also has another big­ger problem.

Being female in ancient Greece was lousy. It was effect­ively a life­time of being treated like a child. A good woman would be indoors weav­ing. It doesn’t sit well with mod­ern sens­ib­il­it­ies. So for example Nicolaos is get­ting mar­ried in the book to long­time squeeze Diotima. They’re both roughly 20s. In real­ity a Greek man 30+ would get mar­ried to a fif­teen year-old. In the books it’s clear that Nico and Diotima’s rela­tion­ship is highly irreg­u­lar. The slightly freak­ish social pos­i­tion of Diotima means that she can take a far more act­ive role in the story than real­ist­ic­ally you’d expect. It works. However while Corby bends real­ity for his heroine, many of the other women in the story have a worse time.

The domestic start to the story made it feel a little slower than the other books for me. Also the set­ting in Athens this time round made the place feel like more famil­iar ter­rit­ory. Nico wasn’t as isol­ated as he has been in The Ionia Sanction or Sacred Games. On the other the con­tinu­ity of the place sug­gests that Nico’s actions could have long-term con­sequences for him, which might add more peril in fol­low­ing books.

The book is a grower and the con­clu­sion works well. The threads are laid out before Corby pulls them together and there’s no dra­matic volte-face so that someone isn’t found to have wildly implaus­ible secret after all. There is per­haps one rev­el­a­tion that the reader doesn’t know about, but it doesn’t affect the main mys­tery. Finishing up, I got the sense that a story with Nicolaos as a Columbo-like fig­ure har­ry­ing and cajol­ing a sus­pect would play to Corby’s strengths of intrigue, social inter­play and his­tor­ical detail.

There could have been a danger that The Marathon Conspiracy would be a retread of The Pericles Commission. It’s not and it looks like the series could build impress­ively. I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing Death Ex Machina next year.

You can read more reviews of The Marathon Conspiracy at Goodreads.