OLD MONEY

 

The Conservative press are currently doing everything they can to pander to the irrational beliefs of the Brexiters.  This week’s hilarious piece of rose-tinted nonsense is the possibility of bringing back Imperial weights and measures for consumer transactions.  In spite of the fact that we no longer buy all of our food from local shops where they weigh it out in front of us, and that most people don’t even think about pack size in more detail than “big”, “small” or “serves 4”, the desire of the blue-rinse brigade is to take our shopping experience back to the 1950s.  And who can forget those halcyon days when we had polio, an outside loo, and no telly?

Apparently there are also rumblings about restoring pre-decimal currency, and since we’ve already begun devaluing the pound by voting for economic hari-kiri, we might as well go one step further and properly screw things up by taking the economy back to the 1970s.  My dad often claims that imperial weights & measures are simpler to use, and that “old money” is easier to understand.  The argument goes along the lines of:

“Well, when I was younger, that’d cost two-and-six.  You can’t get that in new money, eh?”

“You can, it’s 30p.”

“Well, that’s devalued because there used to be 240d in a pound and now it’s only 100p.”

“The two systems use different base units and you also have to take account of inflation.”

“You’re talking a load of mumbo-jumbo there, it was all a con, old money was worth more, etc, etc.”

and then…

“But how can decimal measures be more accurate?  I used to go to the butcher’s and ask for 2lb of lamb chops and now they sell me 908g, or 902, or 976 – what’s accurate about that?”

“Well, that’s more accurate….”

Anyone who’s grown up with the metric system, or works with it every day in their study or employment, will know that YOU LITERALLY JUST DIVIDE AND MULTIPLY EVERYTHING BY TEN; IT’S THAT SIMPLE.  But apparently it’s easier to work in a combination of base 12, 14 and 16, than base 10 in which you add or remove zeroes.  Well, obviously this isn’t true, but there’s a reason older folk are clinging to pounds, shillings pence, feet, yards, and furlongs.

Well, a few reasons.  But look at how they see the problem.  Up until 1971 (and for a good while after), they were using a familiar system that had “nice” round values, like “roughly 1lb of jam”, or “just over a quarter of humbugs”.  And then they had to change to a system that turned their simple approximations into intimidating not-whole numbers.  Even though the quantity was exactly the same, this new degree of precision came across as an unnecessary complication.

And it was a change foisted upon them.  I don’t know much of the popular public opinion in the early 1970s, because I wasn’t born then – so the fuss may not have been as great as legend makes it out to be.  I know plenty of older people who are quite happy with the metric system and decimal currency, but there’s a sizeable amount of older people who aren’t.  Articles like the one I linked to in the first paragraph serve to garner sentiment that the old ways were better, and so we end up with the situation we have now.  It makes little sense to those of us who think the metric system is so wonderful, but it’s become an emotional argument out of a practical one.  Initially, it was a change that took time getting used to, and was probably met with some resistance.  But now its become a movement to restore things to the way they “should” be, tied up in rhetoric about the The Good Old Days that never really existed.

From a business and scientific perspective a return to Imperial weights & measures, and pre-decimal currency, would be an expensive mistake.  But we know exactly what the British public think of experts (as evidenced by the outcome of the referendum, among other things), and so that argument carries little weight.  While I disagree with their views, I do think it’s important to listen to the Blue Rinsers thoughts on this, and have conversations with them.  Much of the EU referendum campaign was people from both sides yelling into the void and not engaging in discussions with their opponents.  Changing people’s minds is really bloody hard, and ultimately you have to allow them to do it themselves.  But our present tactics failed us, and we’re in a bit of a pickle now, aren’t we?

 

NOTES FROM A SMALLER ISLAND

 

A while back, I posted about UK immigration policy (this was pre-Brexit, before Brexit was a twinkle in Boris Johnson’s eye, even) and I mooted the idea that our government might be steering the UK towards a lower, and hopefully sustainable, population with a correspondingly smaller economy.  Well, recent events suggest that this could be a possibility.

I attended an event held by GMSS, on “Misrepresenting Reality” – a critique of the information provided by the Leave campaign (most of which turned out to be lies and/or appeals to nostalgia).  Well, I say attended, what I mean is that I missed the whole talk but snuck in during the extended Q&A (hey, I have a demanding job).

One of the questions asked of the speaker (who is a Professor in European Law, so they know their stuff) was whether they had heard any good arguments in support of Brexit.  They said no, but there was one possibility that no-one has mentioned – that Brexit would result in the UK’s population and economy reducing in size and resulting in a smaller, sustainable nation with comfortable living standards but no aspirations to be anything greater.

Personally, I don’t think that would be a good thing, but it would be an argument that actually held some water, in comparison to jingoistic ranting and slogans painted on buses.  It seems that there are decisions happening as to where our country is headed.  I see it as being in one of two broad directions:

  1. Economic growth, high population, high output – We aim to keep producing, innovating, and competing as a first-world player.  We take an active role on the world stage, with diplomatic and military influence and an international outlook.  In order for this to happen, our infrastructure and population need to consistently grow, and we have to be able to maintain this growth against competitor nations who may have an advantage in terms of efficiency in terms of production and labour costs (I’m looking at you, China and India).  High immigration is necessary to bolster the population, due to the below-replacement birth rate of indigenous Brits.
  2. Declining economy, low population, low output – we accept that other countries will overtake us, and we make the decision to go quietly.  We reduce our population by curbing immigration, and continuing with policies designed to discourage people from having large families.  We maintain a decent quality of life by relying more on our own industries, with some overseas trade in specialised products and services.  We maintain a foothold in international politics, but our role is far less significant.  The capacity of our armed services is whittled down even further and take a more ceremonial and/or peacekeeping role.

You may decide that you prefer one or other of those options, or neither, or you might not have any strong feelings on it.  But one thing we do know is that this was not the Brexit Britain we were promised.  We’re not going to bring The Empire back – and I’m sure there will be many disappointed Leavers who feel they got sold a pup.

 

PROUD EUROPEAN – TATTOO STORIES PART 2

 

Wow, we actually did it.  I honestly didn’t think the Great British Public would fall for the Brexit rhetoric.  But, collectively we did, and now we’re in a right pickle.  All those things that the Remain campaign, and pretty much every economist everywhere, said would happen – well, they’re starting to happen.

In the space of one week, an MP was murdered, we potentially instigated the break-up of the Union, destabilised the largest peace project in the world, screwed the economy, and the Prime Minister resigned.  Good job, Britain.

Wearing my heart on my sleeve (well, abdomen).
Wearing my heart on my sleeve (well, abdomen).

My first act of rebellion (against the collective poor decision-making of the UK public) and coping (with a momentous, yet daunting, political outcome) was to have a Brexit tattoo.  I tend to have body modifications to mark major events in my life, a bit like collecting merit badges.  I already had the navel piercing, and a replica of the teardrop EU flag going around on Facebook was easy to fashion from it.

But something that we’re all coming to realise is that by acting smart, we actually weren’t so smart.  It was obvious to us intellectuals that Brexit was a bad idea.  We had the facts, and they supported the arguments made against leaving the EU.  We assumed that others would make a carefully-considered rational choice, like we would.

NOPE.

While the public shouldn’t be patronised, we also have to be careful not to overestimate them.  Sure there are a ton of thickos in the UK, but that’s only half the story.  Intelligent people can be swayed by appeals to emotion and patriotism, convincing themselves that the rhetoric is reasonable.  The heart is more powerful than the head of an untrained mind, and there are many emotive goings on in the UK right now.  It’s interesting to hear people’s reasons for voting to Leave.  There’s much talk of people regretting their vote, but data on actual numbers of “Bregretters” is scant.

So what’s going on?  We know that those who thought that leaving the EU would reduce immigration / send everyone back to where they came from were wrong – this was stated by numerous sources in the run-up to the vote.

What about those who wanted to “take back control” and be “free”?  Take back control from whom, give it to whom, and what constitutes freedom?  “Taking back control” and “freedom” are nebulous phrases, and my sceptical eye saw right through them.  Maybe Brexiters found meaning where I didn’t.

From the behaviour exhibited in the last two weeks, it seems that people voted along tribal lines.  It was as though Remain was a vote for The Establishment, and Leave would somehow Stick It To The Man.  And we had a handy scapegoat ready: immigrants.  Yes, those saying that the Brexit vote was about immigration were right, but not quite in the way we expect.

The UK is a terrifyingly racist and xenophobic place, with casual discrimination rife.  But that’s the kind of stuff that accumulates, so that any single instance seems minor, and easily dismissable.  But Brexit brought that right out in to the open.  The anti-immigration slurs, the racist stereotyping, the “just saying what everyone else is thinking” was given legitimacy by the outcome of the vote.

But is this problem actually about racism?  Yes, and No.

Indeed, it’s likely that the racists all voted Leave (even if not all Leave-ers are racist), and the event has opened a Pandora’s box of underlying fear & hatred.  There had to be latent racism in the first place for things to develop as they have.

However, if you look at the demographic of those most likely to vote Leave, we see that this lines up with some of the most disenfranchised and impoverished people in the country.  And they have been targeted with anti-foreigner propaganda by the mainstream media (tabloid and broadsheet alike).  Added to this is the class problem of not wanting to be pushed around by one’s “betters” (the proliferation of conspiracy theories illustrates this point nicely).  The working classes have had a rough deal from the government in the past, and there is a distrust of those who claim they know what’s good for us (Michael Gove was actually correct when he said that people were “sick of experts”, although he didn’t seem to mean it in that way).

So, are the poor all a bunch of angry racists? No, of course not. But unresolved social problems have led to a culture where immigrants are an easy target for abuse, and with an absence of relatable voices to counter this, it seems logical from where the poor are sitting. Of course there is huge diversity among working-class people. Those fortunate enough to have a good education, and supportive home environment, might see the world differently (I fell very much into this camp, & it was one of the drivers for me wanting to go to University – I just didn’t fit in mentally and ideologically with most of my peer group). Sometimes age and experience bring the realisation that the Dream Of The Meritocracy is just a dream – that life’s not fair and it might not be one’s fault that their circumstances aren’t great.

I feel this is one of the greatest injustices meted on the poor – that it is their fault for their lack of social mobility – if only they’d work a bit harder, or aim a bit higher, they too can make it.  Sure there are numerous examples of such individuals – and thousands more who didn’t make it.  The message coming from higher in the food chain is that they only have themselves to blame, and what can you do with a message like that?  You’re doing everything within your power to improve your lot, and it will never be good enough.  With no encouragement from the wealthier society, and no way out for most, a scapegoat often is the only route to alleviate the pain of knowing that you’ll always have it rough.  Maybe if we acknowledged the struggles of those in the lower social classes, stopped talking down to them, and were honest with them, we wouldn’t have so many uninformed views about immigration.

The UK has been terrible at selling the benefits of political collaboration and immigration to its people, in a way that doesn’t happen in other EU countries.  Most UK residents are fed tall tales of Red Tape and Restrictions On Our Liberty, which are a load of made-up bollocks.  Immigration is spoken of as if it were a threat, when the truth is that we either have to decide whether to promote growth through immigration, or allow our falling birthrate to accompany a corresponding reduction in output.

This site is incredible [clicky!]; it debunks the Euro-bollocks spouted by the popular press.  When you understand the ways that the (almost always) innocuous truth has been twisted to make a good story, our collective impression of the EU begins to look ridiculous.  Amazing what a few pesky facts can do.

Our government has historically been one of the most restrictive 1st world countries in terms of personal freedoms.  We have governed by carefully allowing the public access to just enough information to present the illusion of liberty, while heavily censoring certain other information.  For goodness sake, we put a book on trial in 1960, and we’ve barely moved on from that in 2016!  The lack of trust in the minds of the public is a breeding ground for prejudice and conspiracy theories.  A lack of control over one’s life begets a search for meaning, and without answers there are numerous rabbit holes to fall down.

So was the Brexit vote about racism?  Yes and No.  Was it about classism?  YES.  And until we face up to that, the problem will not go away.

 

HOW WILL THE UK VOTE IN TOMORROW’S EU REFERENDUM?

 

We’ve already seen evidence of what happens if you allow the Great British Public to vote on anything important, with the RRS Sir David Attenborough saga. (Click here for an article taking itself waaaaaay too seriously)

How many spoiled papers are going to be for "Votey McVoteface"? I feel an FOI Request coming on!

So why are we even voting on one of the most politically destabilising issues of our time?  Both sides have made good points and bad, and some downright hilarious ones too.  But if we are to believe the Remain campaign (and our own Prime Minister), then leaving the EU is a terrible idea.  And this question has been put to a population that cares more about a cake contest than who will run the country for the next four years.  Even if you’re politically opposed to the EU and would like the UK to be “independent”, it makes no sense to vote “out”, because we’d still have to obey EU laws and pay the fees, but we’d have no say on those laws.  So we’d be literally choosing taxation with no representation – unless the UK goes totally renegade (and who knows what would happen with This Guy in charge).

But I have heard so many “Brexit” voices, all believing the same untruths, ignoring the facts and complex details of how the EU actually works (who wants to listen to the workings of the Council of the EU, when the Daily Mail’s going on about straight bananas and bent cucumbers?), that I’m scared it’s a genuine possibility, nay, probability.

So, you’ve probably guessed that I, like a lot of other EU scientists, want to remain in the EU. On a purely selfish level, I want to keep my EU citizenship, and I may have to go live abroad and become a citizen of somewhere else if we vote to leave. Mind you, if we become a miniature version of the Empire, with our own tin-pot Trump as leader, it might not be worth staying anyway.

I love to discuss this issue with people I know, both pro- and anti-EU types, but I know that it’s very unlikely that I will change many people’s minds – those who have decided are fixed in their opinions, and for those who are undecided, I am just one voice in a sea of many.  Most ordinary citizens (and even those working in sectors with outcomes affected by the vote) don’t know all of the issues, and I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can say with confidence that they know what is best for Britain (except for John Major, who is in a better position to advise than pretty much anyone else).

Either way – get out there and vote!  Whether you think the EU is about democracy or dictatorship (again, I bet that 99% of the UK population can’t define these terms), your vote matters.  Do you really want to not even make it on to the losing side, because you were sat about on the substitute’s bench?  At the very least, do your research on the issues and become more politically aware.  There’s no excuse – more information is available to us than ever before.

Take care, All.

AND VOTE!