Voskhod instruments by Tom Royal on Flickr
Valentina Tereshkova with Vostok 6 by Tom Royal on Flickr
Voskhod Capsule by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Heron by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr

You're using a very old version of Internet Explorer which can't show the photos that should be in this box. Please consider upgrading to a newer version of IE or an alternative such as Firefox. Thanks.

On Republicanism, and kicking puppies

June 5th, 2012

In which we actually demonstrate

This Sunday I attended the Jubilee Protest, organised by the Republic campaign for a democratic alternative to the monarchy in the UK. And so this week I have had, on a couple of occasions, been asked to explain just why I support the Republican movement (no relation to the GOP). This is actually rather difficult, because:

A) If you believe that the monarchy is fundamentally undemocratic, and you’re asked why, it’s a little like being asked ‘Why don’t you agree with kicking puppy dogs in the face?’. The answer seems so screamingly obvious that it’s tempting to be glib or sarcastic and not even answer properly. And:

B) Some people assume that, by nature of not wanting the queen as an unelected head of state, you also must wish bodily harm or humiliation on her. Which, given that she’s a lady of some years, is especially horrible. So they assume that you’re probably the kind of person who would probably quite enjoy kicking puppy dogs in the face*, and don’t really want to discuss constitutional issues with you.

Neither is particularly condusive to a civilised discussion on the subject. So, for the sake of a proper discussion, here’s why I care about this enough to go and stand in the pouring rain for five hours when I should have been at home fussing the cats, finishing Skyward Sword on the Wii or studying intransitive verb patterns in Japanese.

1) Democracy

I like democracy. I think that, given the alternatives, the most intellectually defensible system of government in this day and age is one where the actions of a country are determined by its citizens. Direct democracy by constant referrenda is effectively unworkable, so the tried and tested method is to use elected representatives.

We already have this, to an extent, in the form of local democracy and an elected chamber in Parliament, but ultimately our Prime Minister and Government act by the grace of the monarch. Parliament is opened by the Queen, who reads out the intentions of ‘her government’. Laws voted for by Parliament only become law once given Royal Assent.

The monarch also has, among his or her reserve powers, the ability to prevent a bill being debated in parliament. It’s common belief that such intervention is a matter of ancient history, but this was last invoked in 1999.

And kind of role is not reserved to the sitting monarch. Prince Charles has an effective right of veto over issues that might concern his interests, and has been repeatedly accused of meddling** in matters with which he disagrees.

So at the moment UK citizens may vote for whoever they like, but one particular lady can, by virtue of birth alone, overrule them all. I’d suggest it’s not a huge mental leap to think that this is a bad thing.

Obviously, the role of the monarchy isn’t the only part of the UK democratic process that is, in fact, deeply undemocratic. I’m also in favour of an elected second chamber and a form of proportional representation for the lower chamber.

2) Money

Secondary to the issue of democracy, there’s the cost. Hit hard by the global financial crisis, the UK’s health service and education system are under huge strain. The monarchy reports its own costs per annum at around £32 million, but this excludes huge expenses such as the cost of security (Republic uses a figure of £100m for that, but it comes from press reports and is likely to be a finger-in-air estimate).

The Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall both provide a huge income directly to the monarchy, growing year on year (for example, DO Cornwall, 2009-10, £17.2m), and yet direct funding from taxpayers via the Civil List has almost trebled (or doubled, accounting for inflation), since 1991 (under £5m to around £15m/annum).

Put simply, this is a system that takes money from taxpayers and hands it, by the tens-of-millions, to a family who are already millionnaires. At a time when the Government is cutting benefits for the disabled because we ‘can’t afford them. It’s obscene.

Question 1: What about the tourism?

Democracy and money are the reasons I’d like to see the monarchy replaced by a republic. The most common counter-argument, at least to the latter, is tourism – doesn’t the Royal Family bring lots of tourists to the UK to spend cash? This seems to make sense, but when you look at the numbers, the palaces rank fairly low on the UK’s top tourist draws. Last year Buckingham Palace, boosted by the wedding, attracted a record-breaking almost 600,000 visitors, beaten by Windsor at 680,000 – the British Musem and National Gallery, meanwhile, recorded over 5 million apiece.

If anything, opening the palaces up full time would be a huge boost to tourist spending – the Palace of Versailles, notably free of monarchy for some time, attracts millions of visitors each year (estimates vary between 5m and 15m). People come here for the history, and the monarchy belongs as a part of that – something for visitors to read about in the Buckingham Palace museum (we’re really not about to knock it over and build a car park, now.)

Question 2: What about Tradition?

This is less compelling, as simply having taken place for some time does not make something right. It’s also interesting to note that many of the ‘ancient’ ceremonies associated with the UK monarchy are relatively modern inventions.

Question 3: What about the Queen?

Many people admire the queen and her many years of work. They ask who would replace her diplomatic role, but the answer to that is pretty straightforward – the United States is not, after all, noted for its inability to conduct dimplomatic meetings and visits, despite a lack or monarch. In fact, it seems to be doing relatively well on the international stage.

As for the future of the house of self-styled house of Windsor, that’s one of the trickier questions – such a system cannot be unwound overnight. I would be in favour of transferring a substantial part of one of the Dutchies to the family, granting them both privacy and funds, so long as they declaim all right to their former titles in perpetuity. Any attempt to act as a kind of monarchy in exile would void the agreement, with the lands and money reclaimed by the state.

Question 4: Would you prefer President Blair?

Yes, if the country actually voted for him again. I’d suggest this is unlikely. Ditto Thatcher.

And that’s about the size of it. No guillotines, and no kicked puppies. And if you disagree with me, the good news is that you’re in the majority – for now – and, as a believer in democracy, I don’t advocate any change until the majority of citizens support it.

Just wait until you see King Charles, though..


* For the record: I do not.

** For the record: great word, meddle.

Exposed: the Coalition Government’s secret policy planner

June 21st, 2011

Apropos this latest round of ill conceived nonsense, I found this in my notebook where I scribbled it over lunch on the floor outside Number 10, or something. Enjoy.

Cameron’s “complicated AV” con

February 18th, 2011

David Cameron, today, on the AV system:

Yes, there’s a superficial simplicity in getting people to rank candidates in an order of preference…

…and redistributing votes until someone gets fifty percent.

But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Here’s a passage from a book detailing how the Alternative Vote system works:

“As the process continues the preferences allocated to the remaining candidates may not be the second choices of those electors whose first-choice candidates have been eliminated. It may be that after three candidates have been eliminated, say, when a fourth candidate is removed from the contest one of the electors who gave her first preference to him gave her second, third and fourth preferences to the three other candidates who have already been eliminated, so her fifth preference is then allocated to one of the remaining candidates.”

Do you understand that?

I didn’t. And I’ve read it many times.

This could mean one of two things. Either Cameron is a liar, and does in fact understand that paragraph perfectly well, or he’s not really very smart. I’d tend towards the former.

But more to the point: this whole argument is a straw man. What the paragraph he quotes really means is simply this:

If several rounds of counting fail to identify a candidate with a majority, then people who managed to vote for all the least popular candidates may find that their lower preferences are counted.

.. which is, of course, really quite simple and obvious in a system that takes account of second, third (and so on) preferences. Quoting a needlessly technical explanation in an effort to scare and confuse people is simply pathetic.

The Defenders

May 23rd, 2010

Galaxy Magazine, Vol 3 No 5, 1953

While waiting for the film to start yesterday we had a rifle through the south bank book market outside the NFT, and I came across this. It’s from early 1953 and contains one of Philip K Dick’s earliest published short stories – it’s listed seventh in my rather battered copy of Beyond Lies the Wub, which is a must-buy if you like his stuff. The cover art is by Ed Emshwiller.

The story (or ‘novelet’, as it’s billed)  includes three black-and-white illustrations, also by Emshwiller, which you can see scanned nicely in this Project Gutenberg edition (HTML). It’s a classic cold war science fiction piece in which humanity has retreated underground while robots fight on their behalf up above, and was used as the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth.

(Massive spoiler warning here – if you haven’t yet read the story, please do so!)

I first read this story in maybe 1993 – in fact, I tore through the entire anthology, and then the next three volumes. I still have the books, although they’re now so faded that it took a while to find them this morning. I can remember enjoying the clever twists in so many of these early tales, including The Defenders, but what leaps out reading them over 15 years (plus most of high school, a degree and a few jobs) later is the political context.

The story was published in the middle of the McCarthy Senate Committee era, and yet portrays a conclusion to the cold war (it’s not even thinly disguised – one side is American, the other Russian, both have spheres of influence in Europe) in which, having nuked the hell out of one another, soldiers from the US and USSR are convinced that it’s in their best interest to set aside weapons and differences and work together:

The Russians waited while the Americans made up their minds.

“I see what the leadys mean about diplomacy becoming outmoded,” Franks said at last. “People who work together don’t need diplomats. They solve their problems on the operational level instead of at a conference table.”

The leady led them toward the ship. “It is the goal of history, unifying the world. From family to tribe to city-state to nation to hemisphere, the direction has been toward unification. Now the hemispheres will be joined and—”

Taylor stopped listening and glanced back at the location of the Tube. Mary was undersurface there. He hated to leave her, even though he couldn’t see her again until the Tube was unsealed. But then he shrugged and followed the others.

If this tiny amalgam of former enemies was a good example, it wouldn’t be too long before he and Mary and the rest of humanity would be living on the surface like rational human beings instead of blindly hating moles.

“It has taken thousands of generations to achieve,” the A-class leady concluded. “Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history.”

“The conquest of space,” breathed Colonel Borodoy.

“The meaning of life,” Moss added.

“Eliminating hunger and poverty,” said Taylor.

The leady opened the door of the ship. “All that and more. How much more? We cannot foresee it any more than the first men who formed a tribe could foresee this day. But it will be unimaginably great.”

The door closed and the ship took off toward their new home.

I think I’m going to have to go back and do some re-reading of his other stories – who knows what I’ve missed.

Cowboys and Indians

June 15th, 2008

A recommendation: last night I switched on the TV half way through Rich Hall’s documentary “How the West was Lost” on BBC4. It was fantastic – a look at the frontier mythology and its importance in the American psyche as well as a timeline of western films and how they are informed by / reflect / relate to the politics of the era. It’s apparently not yet on iPlayer, but if it does show up I’d entirely recommend watching it.