Tag Archives: Mike Assenti

On the need for radical constitutional reform

This is a guest post from Mike Assenti (yes that Mike Assenti) who writes on the need for radical constitutional reform in not just Scotland but also Wales, Northern Ireland and even England!

Geoffrey Clifton Brown MP - one of many comfortable conservative backbenchers

Geoffrey Clifton Brown MP – one of many comfortable conservative backbenchers

The votes are in and Scotland has (just about) voted against independence. This makes me feel a curious combination of relief and disappointment – relief as I think the union is the best outcome when looking at it rationally; disappointment for the Scots in that they have missed a golden opportunity to break from the dysfunctional, condescending Westminster.

Some support for the No vote came about in part because of the last minute scramble by the establishment to promise further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. This was met with the response by many (particularly on the English right) that we should see wider constitutional reform than just Scottish devolution, with further devolution for Wales and Northern Ireland, and even some form of English devolution.

In this, I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with the likes of John Redwood and Nigel Farage.

It’s a little disconcerting.

However, much of the focus of how this should be achieved seems to be on answering the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’. Posed in 1977 by the anti-devolution Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, this issue is about whether non-English MPs should be allowed to vote on matters that only affect the English. As more and more devolution has taken place, this question has taken on more importance, with England ‘missing out’ on being able to set its own agenda.

There is no good answer to this question as it is currently posed. One proposed solution would be to bar non-English MPs from voting or debating on purely English matters. This would see the creation of two tiers of MPs – the English able to vote on everything, and the non-English who are restricted on certain matters. Where would this leave perfectly capable non-English MPs who form part of the government? Where would this leave any non-English Prime Minister? Would it have been possible for Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling to be PM and Chancellor if they were prevented from participating in ‘English only’ issues?

I cannot see how this solution is anything other than completely unworkable.

The problem is that this question is being asked with the wrong mind-set. A contributing factor the Scottish Independence movement is the perception of being ruled by the English. Historically the English conquered Wales and Ireland, and these countries were then ruled by the English. When parliament deposed James II/VII in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for the crimes of being Catholic and promoting religious tolerance, they ended the reign of the House of Stuart that had united the Scottish and English thrones in the first place.

Throughout the history of the United Kingdom, the English have been, at best, the senior partners, and at worst, the absolute rulers of the other nations. Even within England, there is a perception (rightly or wrongly) that everything is skewed towards the South, and in particular London. If we can face up to and try to fix this mind-set, then we can have successful devolution that would leave a far greater proportion of the population feeling enfranchised, with the same powers available for all of the UK’s member nations.

Here’s my proposal of how we might achieve this.

We continue to have a Westminster based House of Commons and House of Lords. This is the British Parliament, and the seat of the British government. They are responsible for dealing with matters that affect the entirety of the UK, such as foreign policy, high level monetary policy, etc etc. The size of a constituency is made far, far larger, such that there are of the order of 25 constituencies across the UK. Each constituency elects around 10 or so members via a PR system (STV?), leading to around 250 MPs – less than half the current number.

We continue to have national assemblies for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we create a new national assembly for England. These assemblies are responsible for dealing with matters that affect each individual nation. Each assembly is devolved the same amount of power.

No one can serve on both a national assembly and in the British parliament at the same time. Each assembly is free to choose their own electoral system based on the wishes of the electorate. I would personally favour STV for the English assembly, with around 30 constituencies electing around 150 members. The English Assembly should not be based at Westminster, and ideally shouldn’t even be in London. Choosing Manchester or Leeds would have the beneficial effects of moving some power away from its current ludicrous concentration in London, as well as providing a boost for that area and helping to close the North/South divide.

Of course, we all know none of this will happen.

Challenging the status quo is not an easy thing in this country, and those in charge have extremely vested interests in avoiding change. The hallowed, ancient systems of government currently in place are revered by the old guard, with all their pomp and tradition better suited to the 18th than 21st century.

A system of PR would drastically reduce the number of both Tory and Labour MPs, as well as removing safe seats for idle back benchers of the ilk of Geoffrey Clifton Brown. Forcing members to choose between UK politics or English politics is also unlikely to be popular with MPs used to being in charge of the whole lot. Reducing the number of MPs will obviously result in many losing their jobs, but this would be necessary to help to pay for the change. It would of course be expensive as well, but that in itself should not be a barrier to long over-due constitutional reform that would be a huge investment in the politics of the future.

Whilst we’re on the subject of constitutional reform, maybe it would be a good idea to actually write a constitution. The UK is one of very few countries worldwide without one – the others being Israel, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia.

The Scottish Independence referendum has brought the question of what our United Kingdom is and what it should be into the foreground, and perhaps now is a good time for all Brits to discuss and agree on these issues. If we really are Better Together, then let’s explicitly define our relationship, making sure that everybody is represented, that power is fairly distributed and that the restrictions and legacies of the past are not all that define our common future.

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When The Daily Mail asks to use a photograph you’ve taken this is how you respond

Very proud of my good friend and occasional Hynd’s Blog contributor, Mike Assenti, for this wonderful response to the Daily Mail when the paper approached him asking to use one of his photographs.

Mike

Follow Mike on twitter @ClipOnMike.

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Mike Assenti on the need to change the political climate around flooding

With half of the Somerset Levels currently underwater and thousands of lives and livelihoods put on hold, a huge argument has erupted around the Enviornment Agency and what it should have done to prevent the situation.  Mike Assenti writes for Hynd’s blog on climate change, flooding and his growing frustration with the political establishment.

Somerset-floods_2802176b
Suddenly, it seems everybody is an expert in flood management.

Why weren’t the rivers dredged? Should the rivers even be dredged? Did the Environment Agency give the government bad advice, as Eric Pickles has claimed? Is the Environment Agency’s policy the direct result of the Treasury’s rules, as the EA’s Chairman Chris Smith has countered?

Frankly I don’t know.

Unlike Mr Pickles, I’m more than happy to admit that I’m really not well versed on the evidence on the effects of dredging, and I’m most certainly not an expert in flood defences. But, if you’re interested, George Monbiot wrote a fascinating article on the subject last month for the Guardian.

The media is understandably mostly concerned with the striking images of the effects of this weather, and with the terrible personal stories of those affected. (Now that it is the Home Counties which are facing some serious flooding, the tension seems to have ratcheted even higher…but this is a subject for another, more cynical post.)

Much of the focus has been given to the short term effects of the flooding, and even to the medium term causes and preventative measures. Of course, the fact that there is now a political row attached to this aspect will undoubtedly drive further superficial analysis.

What has had far less attention though are the long term causes of this extreme weather. Whether or not this current batch of weather is definitively linked to climate change is almost impossible to say for certain, but the MET Office Chief Scientist, Dame Julie Slingo has stated that, “All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change“.

Regardless of the provenance of this current batch of storms, climate scientists broadly agree that one effect of climate change is likely to be the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather.

We have spent years hearing the horror stories of climate change, and even seeing what are supposedly some of the early effects. Agreements have been made as to how best to tackle it, carbon targets set, carbon targets postponed, reduced, and missed. Subsidies have been introduced to encourage the development and installation of renewable power sources, said subsidies then reduced or removed. The leader of a government which came to power claiming to be ‘the greenest ever’, has since been quoted demanding the removal of ‘all the green crap’ from utilities bills.

As an Engineer, I am reluctant to point out a problem without also suggesting a solution. However, in this case my frustration with the attitudes of those in power (both politically and commercially), as well as with a large part of the general public has spilled over from indignant rage into resigned apathy. I don’t know how more clearly the scale of the problem and nature of the solutions to climate change need to be stated before we start to take it seriously. Dozens of solutions to this problem have been mooted, but all of them require a fundamental shift in thinking by those in charge.

Instead of paying lip service to those campaigning for solutions to climate change, we need to start seeing some real action. We need to see real investment in renewables and local storage, rather than incentivising fracking. Countering the assertion of the energy companies that green subsidies are to blame for increasing bills not with (the totally accurate) explanation of how little these subsidies are, but with an explanation of why it is fair that they are paid. Taking more control of public transport, to make it economical to travel by train or bus rather than driving. Appointing an Environment Secretary who isn’t a climate change skeptic would be a good start, not to mention ditching a chancellor who wants the UK to be behind Europe on tackling climate change.

For years now the images of the effects of climate change have been of floods in Bangladesh, typhoons in the Far East and rising sea levels in the Maldives. Now that affluent villages in the South West of England are under water, will we start to see a shift in attitude?

Sadly, I suspect that we will continue treating the symptoms rather than the root cause.

I recently heard an excellent description of climate change skeptics who cite the cold weather in the US as evidence against climate change as standing on the Titanic, claiming, “The ship can’t be sinking – my end is 500 feet in the air”.

Here in the UK, we are ignoring the oncoming icebergs while we argue about drying the bed linen.

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A response to: “May the wicked scum responsible for bombing the Boston marathon rot in hell”

This a guest post by my very good friend, Mike Assenti.

Yesterday someone I have a great deal of respect for posted the following on Facebook not long after the news broke of the Boston Marathon bombing:

“May the wicked scum responsible for bombing the Boston marathon rot in hell.”

This really pissed me off.

Far be it from me to undermine the serious and tragic nature of this horrific act – having run a couple of half marathons I know very well the fantastic and generous atmosphere of these sporting events, and can think of few times when so many people who have worked so hard to raise money for charity are all gathered in one place. At the time of writing, 3 people have died and over 150 have been injured, many terribly, and I feel nothing but compassion and pity for those affected. However, something about the extremity of the hate in this kneejerk reaction has really gotten under my skin, particularly given my affection for the person concerned. Unfortunately, they are far from alone, and so this blogpost is an attempt to counter the attitudes present in this and many other reactions to these and similar events.

There are a number of issues here, one of which is the general response to atrocities that take place in the West compared with the far more everyday occurrences elsewhere in the world. In the run up to elections this weekend in Iraq, a spate of car bombs have killed dozens (http://goo.gl/22imY), and injured hundreds more, but the mundanity of these events demotes the story way below Boston and Thatcher, and I have no reason to think that it won’t continue to do so.

I can’t remember seeing a single Facebook update from my friends or family on these bombings. To be clear, I am not making any sort of judgment on those people who have not erupted in outpourings of sympathy for those victims in Iraq – I am as guilty as anyone else of allowing the whole event to pass by as another unfortunate background event. Lurking somewhere in the back of my head is the Scroobius Pip lyric from ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’ (http://goo.gl/JFGV)

“Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries, as to those that occur in English speaking countries”.

Another issue is the condemnation of this attack when considered next to other, ongoing killings, such as continuing US drone strikes. This is summarised, amongst other related issues, far more eloquently by Glenn Greenwald in his first point from this article: http://goo.gl/wKgbK. He writes,

…”it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid.”

There are a number of pretty astonishing statistics when you look at the death tolls from US drone strikes, not least the 174 children killed in drone strikes in Pakistan alone over the last decade (http://goo.gl/QU1qi). The quantities of these attacks have ballooned under Obama’s presidency, no doubt devastating countless lives and families, the vast majority of which are civilians caught in the crossfire. Should President Obama be held accountable for these deaths? There’s certainly a strong argument that he should, but until recently the silence on the issue of the very principle of these drone strikes has been deafening.

I think that the most important part of this is the need to refrain from jumping to conclusions before there is sufficient evidence to form an opinion. Already many in the American media have been unable to resist speculating whether this is an Islamic Jihadi attack (http://goo.gl/tVtz6) in the same vein as 9/11, despite there currently being no evidence to support this. Having said that, the sheer lack of evidence so far in this incident means that most have little choice but to remain open minded at this point. We simply do not know who set off these bombs or why they did so.

In Norway in 2011, Anders Breivik set off a car bomb killing 8 people, and shot a further 69 at a youth camp, most of which were teenagers. In response to his ultra-right wing views and apparent lack of remorse during his fair and open trial, the vast majority of Norwegian people displayed astonishing courage and conviction by maintaining their support for the democracy and tolerance to which Breivik was so opposed (http://goo.gl/ZRF1H). They reacted to a terrible tragedy calmly and sensibly, with compassion for the victims and justice for the perpetrator (true justice, not a mob lynching), and in doing so displayed remarkable strength as a society.

Whatever the investigation into these bombings reveals, it is likely that the reasons behind this attack are complex and multi-faceted. Obama’s drone program takes place for a multitude of reasons, many of which would seem reasonable to those of us in the West, but likely less so to the victims of a drone strike.

In my personal opinion, little is gained from the expression of hate by ANY party, whether verbally or through violence. The attack on Boston last weekend was a despicable, tragic, pointless act, and those responsible must face justice in a fair, transparent way with all of the complex evidence present, whoever they are. Similarly, we must try to look through this same prism when considering these other acts around the world, regardless of their frequency, and regardless of who commits such acts. Better still, the people of Norway have demonstrated that it is possible to do so with courage and magnanimity even in the face of great tragedy and loss.

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Filed under Far-right politics, Human rights, Middle East, Politics, Social comment