To Save Westminster


The glorious Palace of Westminister, home of the British Parliament, is falling apart (remarkable photos here) and simultaneously sinking into the underlying clay-rich earth. An independent report places the cost of repairs at £3.5 Billion. Presuming the planning fallacy holds, the actual costs will be even higher (for example, one wonders if the cost estimate considers the likelihood that digging under the foundation will uncover historical/architectural treasures that have to be preserved).

Matthew Flinders is not interested in restoring the building for the government’s use:

The Palace of Westminster should be a museum, not the institutional heart of British politics.

… it is dark and dank. It is as if it has been designed to be off-putting and impenetrable. It is ‘Hogwarts on Thames’ which is great if you have been brought up in an elite public school environment but bad if you did not. It has that smell – you know the one I mean – the smell of private privilege, of a very male environment, of money and assumptions of ‘class’. It is not ‘fit for purpose’ and everyone knows it.

Flinders sees an opportunity to redesign politics along with creating a new, differently designed building to house those who practice it:

if we really want to breathe new life into British democracy then the dilapidation of the Palace of Westminster offers huge opportunities. The 2015 General Election is therefore something of a distraction from the more basic issue of how we design for democracy in the twenty-first century. Less MPs but with more resources? Less shouting and more listening? A chamber that can actually seat all of its members? Why not base Parliament outside of London and in one of the new ‘Northern powerhouses’ (Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, but definitely not Leeds) that politicians seem suddenly so keen on?…let’s be very un-British in our approach, let’s design for democracy – Let’s do it! Let’s rip it up and start again!

I agree with Flinders that physical spaces shape our behavior, our emotions and how we treat each other. Indeed, that is precisely why I do not want Parliament moved to some antiseptic modern office building in Sheffield. The Palace of Westminster and the spot on which its predecessor structures stood are sacred democratic ground. This is where a land ruled through Divine Right of Monarchs evolved to become one of the world’s leading democratic societies. The building itself does not belong to the politicians inside it but to the British people, and it should therefore be a beautiful, awe-inspiring place worthy of their greatness. And I want their elected officials to walk by the statues, the windows, the crypts and the carvings that convey the weight of history and with it the current generation’s comparatively small role in it (As President Obama says “We just try to get our paragraph right”). To wipe out that history will lead politicians to think that history starts with them, and that’s a perilous concept for democracy.

Dementia and Criminal Responsibility

A remarkable legal case unfolding in the U.K. raises intriguing legal and ethical questions about dementia and the assignment of guilt. A Labour party grandee, Lord Greville Janner, will be tried for pedophilia. Nine men have come forward with allegations that Janner sexually abused them when they were children.

The assaults were alleged to have occurred 30-50 years ago. Janner, now 86-years old, was diagnosed with dementia 6 years ago and has been judged incompetent to participate in his own defense. The court will thus take the unusual step of holding a “trial of the facts” in which evidence is heard and conclusions about its credibility drawn, but no declaration of criminal guilt will be made and no criminal sentence can be given.

There is ferocious debate underway about whether Janner’s high position in the Establishment led to a cover up at the time the abuse was occurring, and also over whether it violates human rights to try a person for terrible crimes when they cannot defend themselves. Those are very much debates worth having, but my own mind keeps dwelling on a different point.

My friend and fellow RBC blogger Mark Kleiman makes a case against extremely long criminal sentences (e.g., 30 years of incarceration for murder) by arguing that when enough time has gone by, the person who is behind bars is no longer really the same person who committed the crime. If one can make that case in general, I would think it would apply even more to someone who is demented. That is, even assuming that it is known in advance that someone who is now demented committed a crime while they still retained their faculties, is it fair to punish them if a disease has erased much or all of their personality, memories and identity?

I took care of patients with dementia when I worked in hospice, and watched grieving relatives (spouses and adult children) slowly come to terms with the fact that while their loved one’s heart was still beating and lungs still functioning, the person they knew and loved was gone. The person who was a good spouse or parent was not really there to thank, the person who was a poor spouse or parent was not really there to blame.

I would think courts would have to come to terms with these realities too. It wouldn’t mean that whatever the accused did wrong in their life was morally acceptable, rather that the perpetrator is no longer with us and therefore beyond the reach of punishment.

p.s. Some commentators have asserted that Janner’s dementia is faked, pointing to a 1991 fake (and egregiously mishandled) case involving convicted fraudster Ernest Saunders. Given that Saunders was 56 at the time and Janner is 86 (i.e., risk of dementia over 200 times higher), and that neurological scanning technology has come a long way in the past quarter century, and that Janner has been examined by 4 medical experts and Saunders was diagnosed by one, that’s a facile comparison. But in any case, it’s not relevant to my ethical question: If someone truly is demented, should we still punish them for what they did when they were intact?

The Trials of British Psephology

The 2015 UK Election wasn’t just a nightmare for the Liberal Democrats and Labour, it was also a disaster for British psephologists. In the closing weeks of the election, all the major pollsters repeatedly predicted a hung parliament, with the Tories and Labour netting approximately the same number of seats. In the wake of Conservatives’ stunning victory, pollsters have been defending their methods and trying to determine how they got the election outcome so wrong.

My initial reaction to the pollsters was sympathetic. 2015 was an usual year: There were more parties than ever with a credible shot of winning seats, the rise of Scottish nationalism was a novel and powerful force, and the number of homes still using ye olde telephone landline was at an unprecedented low. But then I found the video below, showing that in a much simpler election landscape the pollsters muffed the catch in eerily similar fashion in 1992, again failing to predict the Conservative majority that the voters delivered.

I don’t claim to know the full explanation for these polling errors, but this candid admission by Damien Lyons Lowe, head of Survation, suggests that rational herding is part of the problem. This is his description of the poll Survation completed on the eve of the election:

Survation Telephone, Ballot Paper Prompt:
CON 37%
LAB 31%
LD 10
Others (including the SNP) 6%

Which would have been very close to the final result.

We had flagged that we were conducting this poll to the Daily Mirror as something we might share as an interesting check on our online vs our telephone methodology, but the results seemed so “out of line” with all the polling conducted by ourselves and our peers – what poll commentators would term an “outlier” – that I “chickened out” of publishing the figures – something I’m sure I’ll always regret.

Courtiers and tweetstorms

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?

On Social Media, There is No One to Whom to Apologize

After his sexist, unfunny comments went viral and provoked a social media firestorm, Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt has been forced to resign from his honorary professorship and been kicked off the European Research Council. His wife, Professor Mary Collins, likewise a distinguished scientist, has also been personally and professionally battered:

their house was doorstepped by reporters, says Collins. “One of them said that his paper had found my ex-husband.

He said it was all very juicy and I needed to get a response in. I didn’t, but I still had a sleepless night. In fact, it wasn’t that juicy. It was a story of a woman, me, who divorced one man and then married another, Tim. But it was still horrible.”

In addition, bodies such as the Royal Society – of which Hunt is a fellow – were pressing for him to make a fuller apology for his remarks in Korea. Within two days, the pressure had become desperate for both scientists. “Tim sat on the sofa and started crying,” says Collins. “Then I started crying. We just held on to each other.”

In watching another one of these social media condemnation cycles, it occurred to me that once these get going there really isn’t any way to stop them. When there were three television networks, you could do an interview with Cronkite and say that yes, you behaved terribly and you were sorry. The finite, definable, public figures and organizations who were criticizing you could then accept the apology and call off the dogs (particularly if you took the trouble to meet with them personally and apologize again). Your reputation would be deservedly dented, but at least your career and family weren’t destroyed.

Today, because thousands of people (maybe tens of thousands) are independently condemning the target of social media firestorms, there really isn’t any way to stanch the flames by owning up to your mistake. If you went on a TV show and apologized, most of the people who were gunning for you would probably never see it, and it would be practically impossible for you to craft individual apologies to every angry email writer and Twitter critic. All you can really do is wait for the storm to move on to the next target.

Remembering Charles Kennedy

A remarkable political talent, Charles Kennedy, has passed away suddenly at the age of 55. He led the UK Liberal Democrats to their greatest heights. Because Nick Clegg did well in the television debates in the 2010 election and ultimately became Deputy Prime Minister, many people inaccurately reconstruct the LibDem peak as 2010. But remember, it lost seats in that election, and indeed other than a tiny gain a few months after Clegg became leader in 2007, the LibDems started losing local elections well before the 2010 national election, and has lost every one of them since. This was topped off with the 2015 slaughter, which also deprived Kennedy of his seat.

Because of what I do for a living, I always take particular note of how people with addictions manage their lives and careers. Kennedy sadly was brought low by his drink problem, and apparently never got into stable recovery (He was drunk on Question Time this March). Whether his drinking and the immolation of the Liberal Democrats hastened his death we cannot know, but in any event it’s hard not to wonder how much more he might have achieved with different flaps of the butterfly’s wings.

Templeton Prize for an Advocate for People with Disabilities

At a joyful and moving ceremony last night at St Martin-in-the-fields, the extraordinary Jean Vanier accepted The Templeton Prize. I have heard a number of people say that after meeting him they wanted to become a better person. I now understand why.

Over a half century ago, he visited a horrid psychiatric institution in France, and a resident with intellectual disabilities asked him “Will you be my friend?”.

What would you have done in this situation? I think I would have engaged in an awkward interaction and then moved on. Vanier in contrast invited two residents to come live with him, initiating a movement that now includes 147 communities in 35 countries. In L’Arche communities, people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives. Perhaps the most striking — indeed radical — aspect of the Vanier’s vision was his expectation that those without intellectual disabilities would benefit as much as those with them. It’s a complete departure from the typical medical model in which designated experts apply clinical techniques to designated helpees.

At 86, Vanier remains a marvelously eloquent, funny and inspiring speaker. This is his answer to the eternal question: What does it mean to be fully human?

The Lesson of Scotland: Give the People Something to Vote For

Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon, happy warrior

The scale of the electoral slaughter in Scotland yesterday was truly astonishing. The Scottish National Party (SNP) didn’t just take almost every single Labour seat, they took them by swings that have no precedent in electoral history. Turnout was over 80% in some constituencies! Even a 20-year old SNP candidate was enough to sweep aside a seasoned Labour politician. Forgive me for quoting myself regarding what things were like on the ground:

I ran into a Scottish friend recently, a diehard Socialist and Nationalist, who was not in the least discouraged by the recent negative vote on independence. “It was like the old days” he told me, with excitement in his voice “People standing on street corners talking about politics, complete strangers debating each other in the pub about the future of Scotland, the whole country came alive!”. Thinking about the default cynicism and political disengagement in most of the developed world, I had to admit that it sounded vivifying.

The unmistakable difference between Labour Party and SNP supporters this year is how many more of the latter were voting positively. When I asked my friends who supported Labour why they did so, they could almost never speak even two sentences without attacking the Tories. Some couldn’t even get two words out without mentioning them,

Q: “What do you like about Labour?”

A: “The damn Tories…”.

Q: “I know you don’t like them, but what would your party do if it won?”

A: “We’d kick out the damn Tories!”

In contrast, my SNP supporting friends rarely mentioned either of the major parties in explaining their votes. Instead, they talked about what they dreamed a Scottish nation could become under SNP rule, almost always with a smile on their face and hope in their voice.

Parties can certainly win elections entirely by saying what they don’t stand for, who they are against, and how they are not as bad as their opponents. But if all you have going for you is such negative voting motivations, you are completely ill-equipped to handle an opponent whose support comes not from what they aren’t, but from what they are. The positive vision of the SNP drew a huge number of people into the political process who had previously been disengaged and energized long-time voters who were used to pulling the lever while holding their nose with the other hand.

In the U.S., we all bemoan the level of political alienation in the electorate and the negative tone of our politics. The SNP experience shows that there is a possible solution: Candidates and parties that give people something to vote for rather than merely vote against.

The Presidentification of U.K. Politics

A small but irritating sentence from the FT:

On most projections Mr Cameron is expected to win more seats than Mr Miliband, although the race is tight.

In fact, any sensible projection would have Cameron and Miliband winning the same number of seats: One each.

In the U.S. System, the nation does indeed vote on one individual versus another for the top job. But in the Westminster system you vote for a party. Unless you happen to live in his/her constituency, you do not vote for or against a prime minister at all. Further, the party you voted for can throw its PM out of office at any time and go right on governing, and even if they keep their leader, s/he has (unlike a president) little independent power apart from the party. But between the UK’s wrongheaded adoption of our tiresome televised candidate debates and the relentless focus of the press on the party leaders’ personalities, families and lifestyles (even, their eating habits), you’d think the British public are about to vote for the next President of the United Kingdom.