Thursday 28 December 2017

Brexitwatch: we don't want a 'second referendum'....

In the EU referendum of 2016 one choice was a reality: remaining a member of the EU (though constantly misrepresented by those who control 80 per cent of the national press by readership). The other – leaving or Brexit – was a fantasy – a great empty screen onto which everyone could project their fantasy: an extra £350m a week for the NHS, less immigration, no immigration, keeping all the advantages of EU membership without having to obey any of the rules, signing up trade deals with major countries all over the world in the blink of an eye, etc, etc.

No wonder many people were frustrated by a debate from which reality seemed generally absent.

If we were to have a referendum on any agreement Theresa May manages to negotiate with the EU, or on her failure to reach one, that would be a very different matter. Yes, the extreme right wing press would continue its distortion, but it would be a choice between two realities – accepting the Leave terms negotiated or withdrawing Article 50 and staying in the EU.

It would be a ‘second referendum’ only if the Brexit deal fulfils all the promises made by the Leave campaign, and even the Brexiters themselves are now admitting this will not happen. We should stop talking about a ‘second referendum’. We haven't had the first one yet, unless you count the one that produced a two-to-one majority for staying in the EU.

Sunday 17 December 2017

London: Bethnal Green tube disaster memorial unveiled

A memorial has been unveiled to the 173 people who died in one of London’s deadliest single disasters of World War Two.   

On March 3, 1943, the BBC reported a 300 bomber raid on Berlin, and Londoners braced themselves for retaliation.   As sirens sounded, people headed for the shelters.   Then 500 yards from Bethnal Green tube station (pictured), a new battery of anti-aircraft rocket launchers opened fire.
There was a rush for the steps leading down to the station, and close to the bottom, a woman stumbled.     Others fell over her, and a deadly crush began.    Altogether 173 people were suffocated or crushed to death, including 62 children, and another 100 people were injured.    In fact, no bombs fell on the East End of London that night.
A survivor who was 8 at the time, said at today's ceremony that it was 'fantastic' to see the memorial finally unveiled 73 years after the event. He spent nine months in hospital after suffering injuries to his spleen, legs, neck and arms.

For more, see London's Disasters from Boudicca to the Banking Crisis. 

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Brexitwatch: write to your MP NOW. Support amendment 124 TOMORROW and keep us in the Single Market

Staying in the Single Market is the 'will of the people'. It is also the least damaging form of Brexit, and it solves the otherwise insoluble Irish border problem. This is what I have written to my MP.
Dear Sir Keir,
I know from your previous emails that Labour believes it has to support the Tories on Brexit, however damaging it may be, because it is the 'will of the people'. As you know from my previous emails, I disagree.
However, if you want policy to be dictated by the 'will of the people' that also means we must stay in the Single Market. Every Tory MP elected in 2015 stood on this promise and throughout the Referendum campaign, Leave campaginers such as Boris Johnson, Owen Paterson, Daniel Hannan, Arron Banks, even Nigel Farage, were falling over themselves to assure us we would stay in it.
With such a narrow majority for leaving the EU, it is plain there was a majority for staying in the Single Market. Happily that is also the kind of Brexit that will do least damage and it will solve the otherwise insoluble Irish border problem.
I know that amendment 124 is not a Labour amendment, but on this occasion, I trust you and your Labour colleagues will put country before party and vote for this amendment.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Brexitwatch. Make sure MPs get a MEANINGFUL vote on any Brexit deal

Theresa May's government still wants to present Parliament with only a take-it or leave-it vote on any Brexit deal with the EU. MPs will have to accept the deal she has made however bad it may be, or crash out with no deal - almost universally recognised to be a disaster.

Tomorrow MPs who support Parliamentary sovereignty rather than government dictatorship will try to pass Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill to ensure MPs get a meaningful vote. Even Brexiters are supposed to support Parliamentary sovereignty - indeed they told us that is why we are leaving the EU.

Write to your MP and demand they support Amendment 7. This is what I have sent to mine, Sir Keir Starmer:

Dear Sir Keir,
I am bitterly disappointed that Labour is still in coalition with the Tories on Brexit. I had hoped common sense would have prevailed by now. 
However, if you are still determined to block a referendum on the final deal (or lack of one) with the EU, I trust you will at least ensure that MPs get a meaningful vote.
It is crucial, therefore, that you and ALL Labour MPs back Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill. History will not forgive those MPs who fail their country in this dark hour.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Monday 11 December 2017

Brexitwatch; THIS AFTERNOON. MPs vote on giving us a referendum on terms of any Brexit deal

The debate is 1630 this afternoon. MPs have been forced to consider giving us a say on the terms by a petition signed by more than 130,000. Write to your MP to demand they support a referendum.

This is what I have sent to mine, who happens to be Sir Keir Starmer:

Dear Sir Keir,
In this afternoon's debate, I trust you will be supporting the demand for a referendum on any 'final' Brexit deal with the EU.
In spite of all the obfuscation from most Tory, and sadly some Labour, MPs Brexit could do terrible damage to our country. In the 2016 referendum, it is plain that many, if not most, voters had no real idea about its implications.
It is, therefore, vital that the British people are given a REAL choice rather than the fictitious one they were offered last year.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Saturday 9 December 2017

Brexitwatch: at last - a defeat for the fanatics!

Nigel Farage really hates it. So there must be something good about the deal Theresa May has done to allow the UK to, probably, move on to the real Brexit negotiations.

Of course, all she has actually done is to kick the can down the road. As to what trade deal we can get with the EU, what transition arrangement there will be to stop the UK economy collapsing in March 2019, how the unicorns can be persuaded to fly in formation so that there is no border at the border between the EU and the UK in Ireland – all these issues and many more have simply been deferred.

But at least the head-bangers, the Brexit fanatics, did not get their heart’s desire of a suicidal, no-deal walk-out. And that probably represents the first time Theresa May has stood up to them.

People voted for Brexit for many different reasons – a lot of them contradictory and irreconcilable. Now there is a chance to drive a wedge into perhaps the most important fault-line – the one that divides the fanatics of UKIP and the Tory right who couldn’t care less how much Brexit damages the economy and just want to leave whatever the cost, and the more pragmatic Brexit-ers who believe, wrongly in my view, that leaving the EU will somehow make us more prosperous.  

There is a long way to go, but this is an important setback for the fanatics.

Thursday 30 November 2017

Brexitwatch: let's try democracy!

One thing the Brexit referendum and its aftermath has surely illustrated is that even if we finally defeat Brexit, we cannot afford to just go back to things as they were. The UK needs a whole host of reforms - e.g. an elected Second Parliamentary Chamber, a fair and honest press, and a democratically elected House of Commons.

Because of our antiquated first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, UK governments are virtually always elected by a minority of the voters. That's right. The governments who wield almost absolute power over us are governments most people voted against. 

Below is an exchange of emails I have had with my MP, Sir Keir Starmer, on the need to switch to a proportional system in which if you get, say, 40 per cent of the vote, you get 40 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Feel free to use any of my arguments if you wish to pursue this important cause.

Dear Sir Keir, 
Thank you for your reply. I am encouraged that you do not oppose a fairer electoral system as many Labour and Conservative politicians unfortunately do, but, respectfully, I think the problem of a government and parliament that fails to reflect the way people voted is a bigger problem than you realise.
You say FPTP has 'a history of generally returning stable, single-party governments', but when such government enjoy the support of less than half the electorate, this is a weakness and not a strength. For it means that governments are constantly imposing things the majority of voters were against.
Often such policies are extremely damaging - the poll tax, the Iraq War, an extreme Brexit. No wonder people are disillusioned with politics!
If the constituency link is something you value, this can, of course, be preserved in proportional systems. However, it is easy to overstate the value of this supposed link. A survey in 2013 showed that barely a fifth of the people in the UK even knew who there MP was. And at the 2015 election, more than half of MPs failed to win an overall majority in their constituency. In other words, in the UK system, most MPs spend most of their time voting for things most people in their constituencies are against.
Of course, it is a good thing to ensure that people register to vote, and I do what I can on social media to encourage this. However, it is not an alternative to having a fair electoral system, and without a fair electoral system, it will not solve the disconnect between what people vote for and the government they end up getting.
As the EU referendum and its aftermath demonstrated, we cannot go on as we have been doing. Sir Keir, I urge you to get on the right side of history and become part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need a fair voting system NOW.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington
On 01 November 2017 at 12:06 STARMER, Keir wrote:
Thank you for contacting me recently regarding electoral reform.

I agree that Parliament needs to be representative of communities across Britain and to reflect different views and concerns. I also believe that we must start by making it easier for people to register to vote and to engage more regularly in politics and local decisions.

There are, of course, strengths and weaknesses to all voting systems. The First Past the Post system does have a history of generally returning stable, single-party governments and of retaining the constituency link, both of which I think are important benefits to our electoral system. I appreciate, however, that there is a case to look in detail at our electoral system and that forms of proportional representation are already used in the devolved administrations across the UK, as well as in many local authority elections.

I hope the parliamentary petition debate will allow an opportunity to consider these issues. I also believe more widely that we need to look at ways to ensure our politics connects and engages with the public. Thank you once again for writing to me and for sharing your views.

Best wishes,

Dear Sir Keir,
I trust you will be lending your support tomorrow to the introduction of democracy to elections to the House of Commons.
It is indefensible that UK governments are able to exercise virtually absolute power for five years having often won the support of little more than a third of voters and perhaps a quarter of the electorate.
No wonder the kind of disillusionment that produced the Brexit vote is rife. 
Our voting system was designed for a barely literate electorate. It is not fit for the 21st century. We need proportional representation NOW.
We have seen the imposition of too many divisive policies that most people oppose - the poll tax, the Iraq War, Brexit. We cannot afford another.
I appreciate that the Labour Party may be disadvantaged (though, of course, if it promotes policies that command majority support this will not happen). But this is a time when the interests of the country must come first.
I am counting on you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Brexit; quadruple (or more) whammy

Another bad week for Brexit. Here are a few of the lowlights.

The UK lost the EU medicines agency and banking authority in spite of rather bizarre assurances from Brexit secretary David Davis that in this instance, Brexit would not mean Brexit and they would stay in London. So up in smoke went more than 1,000 high quality jobs the UK had fought very hard to get, and our international prestige received a huge dent.

It was revealed that since the Brexit vote, European banks had dumped £350bn of UK-linked assets. That’s more than twice the entire NHS budget.

Brexit will cut government tax revenues by £42bn between 2019 and 2021. That’s about half the entire education budget. And because of the higher prices it has caused, Brexit has produced an effective £448 pay cut for every worker.

And one thing we can be sure of, until Theresa May changes course, there will be plenty more bad news.

Monday 20 November 2017

Prince Philip's rumoured affairs

Just as the Queen and Prince Philip prepare to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary, rumours about Philip's alleged affairs have resurfaced. 

One concerns British actress Pat Kirkwood, whose legs in her heyday were said to have been 'the eighth wonder of the world'. Kirkwood, who died in 2007, always denied there was an affair.

I interviewed her about the story in 1999 for a programme entitled Prince Philip - one step behind the Queen for the American television series Biography made by A&E Network.

She told me the rumours arose because she danced with Philip in a London night club in the late 1940s. As they were gliding across the floor, some people came in, spotted them, and looked rather cross. She continued:

'I said to Prince Philip: "Who are those people that have come in just now? They seem to be awfully disgusted with something." He said: "Oh them. They're the courtiers." Whereupon he started to imitate them, pulling his face into disgusted positions. It was so funny. So I said: "don't you think we'd better sit down now?" He said: "No. And that's an order."'

Thursday 16 November 2017

Brexitwatch. Parliament: We demand to be irrelevant!

When Theresa May had to hastily cobble together a White Paper to pretend she had some kind of ‘plan’ for Brexit, even she had to admit that while the UK has been in the EU, Parliament has remained ‘sovereign’, contradicting one of the major lies of the Leave campaign.

But now MPs are busily voting that after Brexit, they should no longer be sovereign. Do they want a say on workers’ rights? No, thank you. Animal rights, then? Certainly not!

And remember the 58 Brexit impact studies that Parliament is supposedly forcing the government to publish? Shouldn't MPs make sure they have a look at them before pushing Brexit through? Oh, no need for that, old chap.

Winston Churchill once remarked that the House of Commons would not be a truly representative body if it did not have its proportion of fools. Well, now the fools are in the majority. More than three hundred of them have been found to vote themselves into irrelevance.

You can understand why. I suspect most MPs realise Brexit will be a disaster, but if we complain to them, they will have the perfect excuse: ‘You voted for it!’ So why speak out and go through all the heartache of being abused by the extreme right and the newspapers they control? Better to just nod it through.

The trouble is: if our MPs keep voting that they should be irrelevant, that is what they will become. And the ‘people’ are likely to start asking what is the point of Parliament.

Sunday 12 November 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians': BBC Radio Essex interview and Lancashire Evening Post article

Interviewed by Tony Fisher of BBC Radio Essex on my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians' - how do you live to 100, what is it like if you get there, longevity myths, why do women survive better than men etc. The interview is here:

And a piece on the book from the Lancashire Evening Post: Britain's oldest killer, debut author and the last surviving member of the merchant navy from World War One:

Monday 6 November 2017

Brexitwatch: a bad week for the Brexiters

As I forecast in my post of June 21 (Brexit; a game of two halves), things were always going to get tough for the Brexiters once the negotiations began and the wild promises they had made started to hit the rocks of reality. But this has been a particularly bad week.

Theresa May’s Tory government has been desperate to keep hidden 58 studies it has done on how Brexit will affect the UK’s economy. Now Labour has successfully demanded they be published. No doubt May will keep wriggling, but if pro-democracy MPs keep fighting, the reports will surely be revealed.

And after a fair bit of foot-dragging, the Electoral Commission has finally agreed to investigate how the Leave Campaign was financed, just as investigative journalists begin to probe the involvement of Russia in securing the Brexit vote.

Brexit fanatic (and disgraced former defence secretary) Liam Fox had to admit that if we leave the EU, we will have to rip up trade deals with many other countries, leaving about 750 new agreements to be reached according to some estimates.

Then there was what Harold Macmillan used to call: ‘Events, dear boy’. A new disgraced former defence secretary, Michael Fallon, had to quit the government over his inappropriate treatment of women. And question marks have appeared over other MPs. At the moment, a minority Tory government needs by-elections, like a hole in the head or, say, a Leave vote in an EU referendum. 

Saturday 4 November 2017

Secrets of living to 100 and the world's oldest author

Interviewed this week by Debbie McCrory of BBC Radio Cornwall about my book Secrets of the Centenarians: what is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out? and about the world's oldest working author. Here it is:-

Ida Pollock from Lanreath, near Looe, was reckoned to hold the title when she died aged 105 in 2013, just before the publication of her 125th book. She used ten different pseudonyms to write romantic novels, of which she sold over a million, with titles such as Hotel Stardust and The Bay of Moonlight.

She wrote her first book at the age of fourteen, and became a full-time writer in her twenties. Over one five-year period, she produced 40 titles, and said she could finish a book in six weeks.

Many of her romantic heroes were said to be based on her husband Lt-Col. Hugh Pollock, who had previously been married to Enid Blyton. He died aged 82 in 1971.

Secrets of the Centenarians is published by Reaktion Books.

Monday 30 October 2017

The benefits of storms

Thirty years after the Great Storm of 1987 - Britain's worst since 1703 - it is worth considering some of the benefits of storms. It is a topic I tackle in my book Storm: Nature and Culture.

The tempest brought down about 15 million trees in Britain, and in one place that had been badly hit, Toys Hill in Kent, the National Trust did an experiment. One area was cleared and replanted, while an other was left alone so nature could take its course. This one did better, producing a far wider variety of trees and flowers.

In the US, some scientists said that while storms like Sandy and 'Snowtober' also felled trees, they too brought an explosion of biodiversity in animals, birds, insects, plants and fungi. Another benefit claimed for storms is that native species tend to survive them better than imported ones.

Lightning can liberate nitrogen atoms in the air which fall to the earth with water and act as natural fertilisers. While fires started by strikes clear undergrowth and debris from woods, turning it into nutrients, and they allow sunlight and water to penetrate through to germinating seeds on the forest floor.

For more, see Storm: Nature and Culture, published by Reaktion Books.

Saturday 28 October 2017

Swansea's longevity record

During the 1980s, Swansea boasted the oldest man and the oldest woman in Britain. Anna Williams lived to 114, and John Evans to 112, having become the oldest man ever to be fitted with a pacemaker and astounding the doctors by being fit to go home three days later.

I was lucky enough to interview John Evans, and a remarkable man he was. He had spent six decades as a coalminer, and complained that he only stopped working at 73 because they 'threw him out'.

His full story is my new book Secrets of the Centenarians (Reaktion). Below is the article the South Wales Evening Post wrote about Welsh centenarians based on the book.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Is there a limit to human life? My piece in i Newspaper

The number of centenarians has increased spectacularly over the last six decades. Back in 1954, there was only about 200 in the UK. By 2014, the figure was more than 14,000.

But even though we see an increase in the number of people reaching 100, is maximum life span going to change? After all, Jeanne Calment remains the only human being known to have lived past 120. She died back in 1997, and her record seems in no immediate danger, as the oldest human alive today is 'only' 117.

Here is my piece in i Newspaper based on my book Secrets of the Centenarians.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Radio interviews on the history of storms and 'Storm: Nature and Culture'

Interviewed on Talk Radio Europe last week by Dave Hodgson about the history and future of storms, how storms changed history, climate change, global warming and my book: Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion).

Interview is in two parts. Part 1 is here

And this is part 2

Sunday 8 October 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians' book signing + Lake Nyos disaster

Thank you to all who came to Waterstones, Camden High St for my talk and book signing. And thanks to Maxine Mawhinney for the photo.

Signed copies of Secrets of the Centenarians: What is it like to live for a century and who will survive to find out? (Reaktion Books) are still available at the store.

Meanwhile, El Espanol has written a piece based on my account of the Lake Nyos disaster from my book Historia mundial de los desastres (Turner Libros) which appeared in the UK as A Disastrous History of the World and in the US as Disaster!

By the way, El Espanol, thanks for the thought, but I'm not an Australian politician, so far as I know.

Friday 6 October 2017

How do you live to 100? FREE talk and book signing, TONIGHT London NW1

Book signing and free talk on Secrets of the Centenarians. What is it like to live for a Century and which of us will survive to find out? (Reaktion books) Waterstones, 128 Camden High St, London NW1 0LU tonight 1800-2000. Talk at about 1830.

All welcome!

Saturday 30 September 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians': interview on Talk Radio Europe and New Zealand newspaper excerpt

Interviewed this week by Dave Hodgson of Talk Radio Europe on my new book: Secrets of the Centenarians: What is it like to live for a century, and which of us will survive to find out?'

You can hear the interview here:

And the New Zealand Herald ran this long excerpt from the book:

Monday 25 September 2017

'Secrets of the Centenarians' book signing and free talk. October 6.

I'll be signing copies of my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians: what is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out?' at Waterstones, Camden High St, at 1800-2000 on October 6. I'll also be giving a brief talk. All welcome.

I'm also in the Books Etc September book Club:-

Friday 15 September 2017

Why do women live longer? Part 2 of Daily Mail serialisation of my 'Centenarians' book

Across the world, women have a four or five times better chance of reaching the age of 100 than men. Why?

Part 2 of the Daily Mail's serialisation of Secrets of the Centenarians (Reaktion)

Thursday 14 September 2017

Want to live to 100? Big piece from 'Daily Mail' on my 'Centenarians' book

How do you live to 100? A big piece from today's 'Daily Mail' based on my new book 'Secrets of the Centenarians' (Reaktion). Part two tomorrow!

Sunday 10 September 2017

The deadliest ever Atlantic hurricane

First there was Harvey (see my blog of Sept 4). Now we have Irma, and soon there will be Jose. Hurricane Irma is the fiercest Atlantic tropical storm in a decade. It has caused more than 30 deaths across a number of Caribbean islands, including Barbuda which is now said to be ‘barely habitable’. Next in its path is Florida.

But the deadliest Atlantic hurricane of all remains the Great Hurricane of 1780, which made landfall in Barbados on 10 October. Most buildings were destroyed or severely damaged and ‘a luxuriant fertile island’ turned into ‘the dreariest winter.’ The number killed was put at 4,500.

Next the storm moved on to St Lucia, where only two houses survived in the port city of Castries. Five Royal Navy ships that had been fighting in the American War of Independence were sunk and nine others severely damaged. The island’s death toll was estimated at 6,000.

On St Vincent, more than 580 out of 600 houses at Kingstown were destroyed. At Grenada, 19 Dutch ships were sunk, while off Martinique, 4,000 French sailors were drowned, and perhaps 9,000 people lost their lives on the island. The total death toll from the storm was put at around 30,000.

For the full story, see Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books).

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Brexitwatch: how the UK can have its cake and eat it

As members of the EU, we are able to trade freely in the richest market in the world. We can travel to, study in, work in, and retire to 27 fairly nearby democratic countries.

But not only that. The UK has special bespoke deals on a whole host of things – we are not in the euro, we are not in the Schengen area. We get a discount on the sum we should be paying into the EU, we have special opt outs in the areas of fundamental rights and freedom, security and justice, etc. In other words, we are ‘HAVING OUR CAKE AND EATING IT’.

But Theresa May and the Brexiters plan to throw away this unbelievably good deal. Instead, they are demanding all sorts of impossible arrangements like being in the Single Market without Freedom of Movement or leaving the Customs Union but having ‘frictionless trade’.

To the (confected on the part of the better-informed) outrage of the Brexit fanatics, the EU has made clear on numerous occasions that none of this is going to happen, but still the UK has no plan B.

Even now, though, there is a way of having our cake and eating it. Cancel Article 50 and stay in the EU. If we are foolish enough to leave, before long we will be begging to be let back in. But never again will we get a bespoke deal as good as the one we have now.

*Thanks to Elkhart Public Library, Indiana for this mention for my book - 'Disaster!'

Monday 4 September 2017

Hurricane Harvey: storms don't only devastate through strong winds

In my book, Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion), I discuss a number of ways in which a tropical storm can cause catastrophic damage.

The one usually focused on is the power of the winds, but in addition there is the way sea levels rise because of low air pressure, making flooding more devastating. And then there is heavy rainfall. This has been the biggest problem with Hurricane Harvey, which has been drenching Texas and Louisiana.

During the course of 4 days, some areas suffered more than 40 inches of rain, making Harvey the wettest tropical storm on record to hit the continental United States. At least 47 people have been killed, and 43,000 have had to be housed in temporary shelters. The storm has also been blamed for one death in Guyana.

Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has described it as the worst disaster in the history of Texas, with damage being estimated at anything up to $190 billion.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Brexitwatch: why May will stay

Not so long ago, the main interest of the Tory Party was winning elections. And they were rather good at it, so that of the first 50 years of my life, 39 were lived under Conservative governments. Their next (and closely related) big interest was running the economy efficiently.

In that Tory party, Theresa May, who called a completely unnecessary election and threw away a parliamentary majority, would not have lasted five minutes. But the modern Tory party seems quite uninterested in the economy or winning elections. Indeed, the only Conservative leader who has won one in the last 25 years was dumped barely a year later.

So in this new Tory party, expect to see Theresa May stay on for at least another couple of years. She has a crucial job – scapegoat. The vast majority of Tory MPs (including, I suspect, a number of those shouting loudly for Brexit) know that leaving the EU will be a disaster. So it is vital that May stays in office until Brexit is completed and all doubt about its disastrous consequences dispelled. Then she can be blamed for the disaster and cast aside, so that a new leader can fight the next general election.

But there is another reason why May is likely to stay. At the moment, It would be hard to prevent any Tory leadership election from turning into open war between supporters of moderate and extreme Brexit. But once we have left the EU, the question of how damaging a Brexit we choose will have been resolved, and with a bit of luck there will seem to be no point re-fighting old battles.

Whether any of this will save the Tories is another matter. With Labour finally threatening to show some common sense, Brexit is likely to be seen increasingly as a Conservative project. And the unprecedented incompetence with which it is being executed could do permanent damage to the Tory brand.

Friday 25 August 2017

My new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians'

This is how the publisher (Reaktion) describes my new book:-

Thursday 24 August 2017

The shipwreck that launched the shipping forecast

Dogger, Fisher, German Bight…..the Shipping Forecast is 150 years old today.

Its weather warnings began life as a response to the wreck of the Royal Charter off Anglesey on 26 October 1859, in which 450 people lost their lives. The disaster happened during what is considered the worst storm of the 19th century in the Irish Sea. Altogether, 69 ships were wrecked at a cost of nearly 800 lives.

The iron-hulled steam clipper was bringing emigrants and gold back from the goldfields of Australia to Liverpool. As the ship reached Holyhead, it ran into 100 mile-an-hour winds.

The captain tried to anchor the vessel, but at half past one in the morning, only hours from the end of its long voyage, the Royal Charter was dashed onto rocks and broke in two just 50 yards from land.

As people watched from the shore horrified, an able seaman, Joseph Rogers, leapt into the waves. Three times he was beaten back, but on his fourth try, he was able to tie the vessel to a rock. Twenty-eight local men formed a human chain and managed to rescue 41 of those on board.

For more, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Monday 21 August 2017

Brexit and borders: a fantasy

One of the reasons our economy is being subjected to death by Brexit is, Theresa May and the Leave fanatics keep telling us, so that we can ‘take control of our borders’.

If we are foolish enough to leave the EU, the only land frontier between the UK and the EU will be the one between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And how do the Brexiters propose to ‘take control’ of this border? By getting rid of it.

So while the Brexiters will proclaim they have slain the bete noire of Freedom of Movement in March 2019, any EU citizen who wants to enter the UK will simply have to go to the Irish Republic. Then they can take a bus, train, car, bicycle or just walk across the border into Northern Ireland and the UK is their oyster.

I heard some hapless government spokesman on the radio conceding that this was all true but saying it didn’t matter because the EU migrant would be detected by the authorities as soon as they tried to take a job or to rent a flat.

He wasn’t asked why then do we pay out millions and force people to wait in long queues to have their passports checked at Heathrow, other airports, ferry ports etc.

The Brexiters promised we could ‘take control’ of our borders but still have free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic. (Anything else would probably wreck Northern Ireland's economy and its peace process.) Fourteen months after the referendum they still have no credible plan as to how this is to be achieved. 

And even if they had, there is no guarantee it would be acceptable to the EU.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Deadly mudslides

At least 400 people have been killed by the mudslide that swept through Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, on Monday morning. Another 600 are still missing, as rescue workers desperately hunt for survivors.

Freetown is an overcrowded city of more than a million, many living in makeshift settlements which are easily washed away in frequent heavy rains and floods. A key objective at the moment is to avoid the disaster being made worse by water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea.

Probably the deadliest mudslide ever was the one that hit Venezuela in the dying days of the last millennium in December 1999. It effortlessly swept away the shanty towns precariously perched on ridges around the capital Caracas.

But smart apartment blocks also found themselves buried under the mud. Most estimates put the number killed at around 30,000, with 140,000 left homeless, and more than 20,000 homes destroyed. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

See also my post of 21 February 2010.

Sunday 13 August 2017

Brexitwatch. Hammond's surrender gives certainty. UK will be driven off a cliff

The last member of Theresa May’s cabinet who could give a passable imitation of having some grip on the reality of Brexit has caved in. Chancellor Philip Hammond, has surrendered to Brexit fanatic and disgraced former defence minister, Liam Fox.

After arguing for a meaningful transition phase after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 to spare us from the worst effects of Brexit, Hammond has now agreed that instead, we will jump off a cliff, leaving the Single Market and the customs union.

This is precisely what UK businesses feared and had been arguing against, but the modern day Tory party has little interest in jobs, the economy or prosperity. Many will see Hammond’s decision as the ‘certainty’ they have been asking for. Unfortunately for you and me, that ‘certainty’ will be that the UK is no longer a viable country in which to invest.

Fox and Hammond’s joint letter repeats the lie that in the referendum, voters voted to leave the Single Market. They did nothing of the kind, of course, and indeed a whole series of Leave campaigners promised we would stay in the Single Market. It is important that this lie is contradicted every time it is uttered.

This odd couple say we need the transitional arrangement so that goods can still cross borders, and businesses can still trade and recruit the staff they need. The corollary of that, of course, is that once the arrangement ends, these things will no longer be possible. What Liam Fox does not explain is why, if Brexit is as marvellous as he says, is it so important to delay its effects?