Whither Democracy

•11 July, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” – attributed to Winston Churchill (but probably apocryphal)

I’m going to drop a bombshell. And the thing that really surprised me about this is that it’s going to be a bombshell to most of you.

What if I told you that we have never, ever, in the history of ever, elected a Prime Minister?

Apparently even people who think of themselves as politically aware, perhaps even savvy, don’t seem to appreciate this. So here is British parliamentary democracy 101:

When you put a cross in the little box on the ballot paper, you may have noticed that there is a person’s name next to it. That person is the person that you are voting for, out of a list of people that are volunteering to represent your views to Parliament. Your vote counts only for an election of a representative in your constituency. When all the constituencies have returned a representative to Parliament, a group of them will get together and their nominated leader will ask Her Majesty the Queen if they can form a government. You do not, and never did, get a say as to whom the leader of the political party is.

I appreciate that this probably doesn’t make you feel any better about the Tory leadership turning into a no-contest. I also appreciate that, if you’re a Labour supporter (official or not), this won’t make you feel any better about the Parliamentary Labour Party’s attempt to oust Corbyn. What I’m about to say here will not provide comfort either.

If you have used the phrase “unelected” over these last few days in relation to Mrs May possibly becoming Prime Minister, you are part of the problem. You are the reason that the parties get away with parachuting preferred candidates (i.e. the ones who have played internal politics the best) into safe seats. Constituents blindly voting for Labour without consideration of who the candidate actually is have certainly created the Labour Party’s current mess. They wanted a socialist Prime Minister, so they voted for any dickhead in a red tie in their constituency. As a Labour voter, unless your MP (or failed candidate from 2015) is an open Corbyn supporter, you personally have made this mess. The Scots got it right: Labour needed a damn good drubbing at the last election so that they could purge, reform and rethink. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and expecting different results, then the Parliamentary Labour Party are mad. Infighting lost them the last election, and it looks set to lose them the next one.

As a cold comfort, I can give advice for 2020: vote local. Actually look at who your preferred party’s candidate is. And if they don’t represent your views, vote for somebody else. When the division bell rings, you’re better off with a rebel from the other bench than a toady from your own. And when Parliament is full of members who truly represent their constituencies, maybe then they’ll choose the Prime Minister you would have elected.

Further Thoughts

•26 June, 2016 • 1 Comment

In these days of social media we are bombarded with our friends’ opinions. Many people succeed in making sure that those opinions match their own and delude themselves that everybody believes the same thing they do. Somehow, I’ve managed not to create an echo chamber. What I have succeeded in doing is surrounding myself on facebook with people that can argue civilly, for the most part.

One result of this is that my Brexiteer friends have been mostly silent. I’ve heard reports from other quarters that people of the racist/xenophobe type have become emboldened by the referendum result and are now really happy to sling their vile views about Johnny Foreigner around, but I’m lucky enough to have seen none of that. The majority of people I know have voted for thought-out reasons and have been classy enough not to crow. In fact, they’ve been mostly classy enough to stand back while the Remainers let out their collective wails of despair as the economy started tanking as a result of the turmoil.

Why am I writing this? Well, a lot has now been said by Remainers and Leavers on my Timeline over the last couple of days, and I’ve responded to it. So I’d like to gather together some of the things I’ve said to various parties in one place. Much of what I’ve said has been clarification of procedure and predictions of the future. If nothing else, it will be interesting to look back in two to five years and see whether or not I’ve been right.

There is one key thing to remember: the vote is advisory, not binding. In practical terms, what that means is that it’s up to the government whether and when they invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which is the EU legislation for a country’s exit.

As for predictions: the first item is the economy. One Leaver has said to me that Friday’s complete tanking of the pound (where it hit its lowest against the US dollar in 30 years) was something we’ll recover from. Well, put simply: we won’t. The evidence is already in as I write on Saturday night. There was a bounce back from the early Friday trough and it looked like things might swing back up quickly. However, things have settled and the pound has still firmly lost ground. It’s evened out at about $1.37 to the pound for now. Moody’s (one of three international banks that set countries’ borrowing rates) is suggesting that our credit rating is likely to go down, increasing the cost of national borrowing. And this is all down to uncertainty. An uncertainty that has been prolonged by Cameron resigning. We’ve got 3 months before we even know who’s running the country. After that, we don’t even know if or when the incoming leader of the Conservatives will trigger exit. According to Aticle 50, there is a two year timetable of exit negotiations even after that. And that can still be extended by any given other EU member state putting blocks in the process. And even after that, we won’t have the EU’s international trade deals and will have to renegotiate everything. This could take years – and we will be in an economic depression for that whole period, I have no doubt. No wonder the EU is demanding that we begin negotiations as soon as possible – we’re a big economy and our status will create uncertainty for the entire common market.

Are we leaving? We’re certainly acting like it. There’s an exit committee. Bizarrely, Nigel Farage feels snubbed that he’s not part of it. He’s not an MP and his party has one seat in the Commons. He’s an irrelevance to the process. He may try to throw his weight around the European Parliament, but I’m not convinced he’s got enough political weight to actually throw around. But really the decision rests with the government. And we haven’t technically got one.

Now that Cameron has resigned, a lot of things are up in the air. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 means that it’s very unlikely that an election will be called. It would need the agreement of two thirds of the Commons. So we’re getting whoever the Conservatives decide as Prime Minister. Clearly, judging by who jumped ship to the Leave campaign around Johnson, Boris is a serious contender with support within the party. But the party don’t necessarily choose the most logical candidate. The Conservatives live in a bubble and only their internal machinations matter. Given that he’s been the policy driver for some years, Osborne could be in a good position to take over the reins. Osborne and Johnson may even make an alliance (although my biggest fear right now is Osborne continuing as Chancellor, so I bloody hope not). The by-elections triggered by the electoral finance investigations (which I believe are ongoing) could leave the Conservatives as a minority government. This could cause legislative floundering for the next three years, and an actual exit from the EU would be defined by that context.

If Johnson does end up as PM, he indicated right at the beginning that his plan in leading the Leave campaign was to try to renegotiate with the EU, then go back to the British public with what’s on offer. He’s a Europhile and always has been, so it’s entirely possible that he’s intending to back out of an actual exit at the eleventh hour. It will be difficult. It will potentially alienate British voters. And it will irk EU leaders that we’ve caused an economic convulsion for nothing.

As for Scotland? That was a close referendum, too. One of the tipping points for them staying in the UK was that they would have to ask to come back in to the EU. Regionally, Scotland voted Remain this time round. The previous question of Scottish independence was framed in terms of a status quo that has now drastically changed. I think a second Scottish referendum is not only inevitable but reasonable. At least it would give them an opportunity to return to the common market. But much depends on further negotiations with a Westminster government that doesn’t currently exist.

The Count: Some Thoughts

•24 June, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I’ve started writing this at 3.10 am, as the votes are being counted. Leave is running at 50.8% of the vote, according to the BBC News website. I’ve got Radio 4 on as background noise. At this stage, I have a few thoughts and I want to get them down (if only to say, “I told you so” later).

Right now, it’s too close to call. I have friends on social media panicking that we’re going to leave, but it has to be borne in mind that, unlike a general election, it really is one “man” one vote. But these areas that have declared already are the easiest to count. The high population density areas are the ones that have the most EU immigrants, and therefore the ones that actually fear them least, haven’t declared yet. With its Polish population, I’ll be interested to see which way Wolverhampton jumps. Also, the high population density areas are the cosmopolitan areas and the student areas. They have a very different socio-economic make-up from the areas that have declared already. 50.8% could certainly swing the other way. I could be wrong: it’s now 51.2% leave.

One way or another, this will be seen as a vote of confidence/non-confidence in the government. Cameron will live or die on this. If we vote to leave, I expect a Conservative coup internally. The way certain Cabinet figures have jumped ship after Johnson declared for Leave makes me expect that coup to be spearheaded by Johnson with firm support. There could be a new Prime Minister within a fortnight. If we remain, Cameron and Osborne will milk it for all it’s worth. Bear in mind, however, that Osborne can make a play for leadership if Cameron steps down, and that he could still be in a position of power if Cameron steps down, depending on his internal support.

Of course, we still have the results of the electoral fraud enquiry looming. For international readers (I have a few): there have been accusations that there were false declarations of campaign spending in several constituencies by the winning Conservatives in the last general election. This could force a series of by-elections that could lose the government their slim majority. In combination with a Leave vote, this could force an actual vote of no confidence in the government and a snap election. Labour aren’t prepared to fight that election in reality, but Corbyn is no tactician and therefore might be hubristic enough to force that vote.

That said, a Leave vote might force a coup in the Labour party. Leave votes are coming in thick and fast in Labour heartlands and there will be recriminations. Already the accusation of a lack of passion is being laid at Corbyn’s door. In reality he has refused to share a platform with Cameron, which means that his media presence has been reduced. The result is that Labour’s less politically aware voters (i.e. the majority of them) have not necessarily received Labour’s pro-EU message. It would be just for Corbyn to shoulder the blame for that.

The time is 3.43 am. Leave is at 51.2%.

One thing that has always concerned me is voter apathy. In a world where we create echo chambers of our own opinions on social media (actually, I don’t. I have very politically varied friends. But I’m told that this is a thing) it’s very easy to take a back seat and not vote, thinking that the country as a whole will vote your way anyway. Given that the Remainers are generally leftist, and that the Left tend to have a smug sense of their own self-righteousness, it would not surprise me if the missing voters were mostly Remainers. We had a high turnout, but that was still only around 69% when only about 13% of the country (according to recent polls) were still undecided. Somebody with an opinion stayed home. Whoever you are, if you disagree with the result, you only have yourself to blame.

So what happens next? It has to be remembered that this vote is not binding. This is just a count of public opinion. Boris Johnson has declared right from the start that his hope is that a demonstration of our intention to leave will allow a harder renegotiation with Europe and a binding re-run in two years’ time. EU President Jean-Claude Juncker is having none of it. But, hey, the Stirling is spiralling downwards even as I type. Knowing that the mere anxiety is causing this kind of chaos in the markets, would any given government actually commit the genuine economic suicide of Brexit, regardless of the mood of the people?

The time is 3.57 am. 51.4% to Leave. May you live in interesting times.

On the EU Referendum

•21 June, 2016 • 3 Comments

After boring the tits off you for six weeks with my computer woes, it’s time to return to politics. I used to be a pretty political blogger, but I’ve stopped giving my two penn’orth on Nevermore simply because I’m tired. I don’t have the fire that I used to, and I don’t have the energy to deal with the nature of internet political discussion: all parties believing they are right and therefore confronting differing opinions by a strategy best described as “share, shame and flame”. However, I’d be a fool not to say something in the run up to the EU referendum.

My perspective is personal. If you never intend to travel and never intend to work abroad, then it’s easy to be a Little Englander. All that will matter to you post-Brexit is the nature of the trade deals done with mainland Europe and others. Farm gate prices will be all that affect you economically. I get it. However, I have chosen to work in a performance industry that, in terms of British economics, is broken.

The British don’t really “do” live music. The venues are being sold for, or closed as a result of, nearby development, but those that remain are getting no fuller. The British public tends to spend their money on names they’ve heard of or bands doing covers of names they’ve heard of. There is precious little money in original music, and in some towns the live scene is focussed on a single style. However in some European countries, venues pay for music. Besides which, the ability to work in European festivals opens up a wider horizon for exposure. And all I have to do to access fair pay for a performance and a European audience that may buy my t-shirts is show my passport to a Frenchman. This would be far harder if I had to fill out reams of paperwork for every country I wished to play in over a summer and pay out money for work permits.

But that doesn’t matter to the Little Englanders. They don’t travel for work and they don’t care about people who do. I had one bloke in a pub call me “selfish” for wanting access to the European labour market. But with an estimated 800,000 British people working in the EU (i.e. earning their whole livelihoods there), not to mention the swathes of pensioners retired to Spain and southern France, who’s really selfish here?

It also has to be remembered that pressure on housing and the NHS are not problems that will magically go away just because we boot the EU migrant workers out. The problems have been created by decades of mismanagement, and in the NHS’s case, real-term budget cuts to a health service we spend less of our GDP on than countries with privatised services. Believe me, if there is no will to fund the NHS properly, none of that alleged 350 million a week is going to be used to make up the shortfall.

K, Trusty?

•13 June, 2016 • Leave a Comment

So I’m running Kubuntu 14.04. Yeah, if you’ve been following my blog for the last five weeks, this will really seem like a massive step backwards. Fedora 23 and Gnome 3 were both driving me nuts, and really what I wanted most in life was KDE Plasma 4 back. I really liked it, and even when Plasma 5 becomes viable there is apparently now less focus on pointless-but-fun desktop widgets. Personally, although I don’t use the mouse-cursor-following eyes I like the fact that they exist. And my clock is this beast:

For the weight of KDE, if there is only as much junk to play with as XFCE (which has most of the features I need without some of the abstruse ways of working that KDE has) then I can live without KDE’s desktop animations.

When considering my next move, I did briefly toy with installing Gentoo, but even with the manual I’m not confident enough in my own ability to maintain that kind of system. As a rolling release distro, Sabayon was looking attractive and even had an option to use Plasma 4. I think it may be my next distro on some future computer.

As it happens, I thought the life of Kubuntu 14.04 was two years, not five, and my poking at options corrected my idiocy here. So given that I regard 5 years as the rough lifespan of my computers (I got my current one late in 2014), I thought I’d give Trusty another go.

It’ll do. There are niggles with it, but they’re things I can live with. The Bluetooth manager Kubuntu uses is crap. It finds my speakers and pretends to connect, meaning I have to manually disconnect and reconnect to get them started every time. And that was after I’d already made alterations to the Bluetooth setup just to get it working at all. I still had the sleep coma issue. I added the script I linked to two weeks ago, and that seemed to stop the problem – until I next ran updates. Then it came back with a vengeance. (Eventually some searching found me an extra command to give the script permission to run. It’s been fine so far since – touch wood.) Firefox is the default browser and it sits on the system like a hippo. In fact, it even seems to have been the root cause of an incident I had a few weeks ago where Kubuntu refused to shut down from the button clicks in a non-admin account. Needless to say, I’m using Chromium now. All of this I can tolerate – it’s still less gyp than any given edition of Windows has ever given me. Besides which, I’m just sick of reinstalling every few months. Hopefully I won’t now have to perform any more major operations until 2019.

My apologies for boring you to death with my computing woes for the last month and a half. Normal service will be resumed next week.

Adventures with a new Fedora

•7 June, 2016 • 1 Comment

When I first encountered KDE Plasma 5, the word on the street was that it wasn’t really ready. Having tried out other things, I read the latest word on it and found that one of the big issues for me, missing features from Plasma 4, had now been ported. Plasma was now at version 5.6. Maybe it was time to give the latest KDE a go. So I dismissed Mint 17.3 in favour of Fedora 23. And I got a nasty shock.

I usually like Fedora. It’s usually less buggy than Ubuntu and if Red Hat started putting out long term service Fedoras, I’d never look back. But the implementation of Plasma 5 on Fedora 23 left a lot to be desired. The fonts on everything were sized badly in the theme, leaving the labels clipped and mangled by the window and panel graphics. Apper was broken – it couldn’t seem to find the repositories so there was no graphical option for finding software. I can run DNF through the terminal, sure, but trawling through search results presented as blocks of monospaced text is frankly painful. I tried replacing Apper with Muon and that didn’t seem to be able to actually find programs either. Obviously something in DNF’s interaction with the GUIs was broken. Worse still, whatever I was doing with DNF, it wasn’t automatically suggesting or downloading dependencies. This meant that when I installed Libre Office, it did not play well at all with KDE.

You can’t win them all. It looked like Fedora 23 hadn’t implemented Plasma 5 well, so I thought that maybe I should try it with the desktop it was designed for. Gnome 3 could be an adventure.

It turned out that the DNF GUI issue wasn’t confined to KDE. I could live with that. What I couldn’t live with was the fact that Fedora 23 was as prone to sleep comas as Ubuntu and that Gnome 3 is a million miles away from the way I like to work. With virtually zero built in features, extensions have to be downloaded via Firefox just to get it to do basic things one expects from a desktop environment. And what the hell kind of Linux user downloads programs via a browser? Furthermore, the way Gnome works means that it takes me two to three clicks to do things that on virtually any other DE would take me one. I am genuinely baffled by the people who sing Gnome’s praises.

The whole thing was a train wreck, but I was now fed up of flitting between operating systems. So I decided that I wouldn’t get comfortable. I only had to get to June 2016 before I could move on to the next long term service Ubuntu (I like to wait two months from release for initial bug fixes). Maybe I’d try Plasma 5 again. Failing that, XFCE does everything that I want a desktop to do.

In the end, however, I flipped.

Linux Mint: Never Again

•1 June, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Due to a bad assumption, I had abandoned Mint 17.2 with KDE Plasma 4 and replaced it with Mint 17.3 and Cinnamon. The sleep function was still failing to work properly and I disliked Cinnamon as a desktop environment. And then the shit hit the fan with Mint’s security.

For those of you who don’t follow Linux news, in February this year someone managed to hack the Mint website and switch the download link to a version of Mint that they had modified to include a back door. Anyone who downloaded their copy of Mint 17.3 on the 20th had a compromised version and needed to download and reinstall a new copy. This didn’t affect me, but it gave me pause for thought.

Another pause for the thought came when I realised that Mint’s policy on Ubuntu updates meant that they do not update the Linux kernel. Their reasoning is sound – it’s usually unnecessary and if the update is bad it can make a real mess. However, there have been vulnerabilities found in the Linux kernel in the last couple of years, and they were fixed by patches. Was there any guarantee that Mint wouldn’t skip a necessary patch? I couldn’t remember whether the last kernel vulnerability was found before or after Ubuntu 14.04 (which Mint 17 is based on) was released. (EDIT: I just did a quick news search for a decent link as I was preparing this piece for upload and found this, published today!)

Then the final nail was put in my Mint coffin. It wasn’t the fact that my forum account was one of the ones compromised by the hack; it was the response that Mint made to the issue. The new password restrictions are of a laughable old school of password creation that makes it much harder to remember your own password but not much harder for a hacker to crack – as explained here. Not only that, but the new password policy wouldn’t prevent the hackers in this case doing exactly the same thing again – it was an inconvenience to users that wasn’t actually fixing the problem.

It’s a big enough ask to expect your user base to trust in your operating system after a security breach like the website hack. It’s quite another to expect a user base that on average has technical knowledge to trust you after a clearly bullshit response. I was confronted with the fact that Mint is not as secure as it might be because the people behind it simply don’t have a clue.

In the meantime, I did at least find a solution to the sleep issue.

This left me in a quandary. I wanted a longer-term solution to my computing needs, but I was unhappy with the current long term service variants of Ubuntu. With a Xenial Xerus now around the corner, maybe all I really needed was a stop gap while I waited until June (I always leave a couple of months after a new release). A few months on from last reading the reviews, I thought I may as well try out KDE Plasma 5. So I downloaded Fedora 23.