Thursday, 25 August 2016

Ostrich Churchyard

Is the UK going to leave the EU?  Despite a referendum on the topic, the fall of a Prime Minister, and the installation of a pro-Leave cabinet, there is still a lot of chat about whether it will happen at all.  There have been dozens of front page articles on this topic written by "journalists".  My two posts on this topic are conclusive and definitive, surely, and why-oh-why have they not stopped all of this nonsense in its tracks?  Hah, I have fallen foul of blogger arrogance and I'm only 20 posts in.  I will be completely insufferable should I ever reach 100.  Somebody stop me.

It's time for a pop video with a semi-appropriate song title to get us in the mood for a mercifully short article about recent developments in the UK's press.

Here is today's article pondering whether the UK will ever leave the EU.   Add to that some recent chit-chat from Michael Heseltine,  some from Patience Wheatcroft (in the House of Lords, apparently), some by "journalists" and some from bloggers I hold in high regard.  Most recently, an eminent historian added to the mix. The story of the UK not exiting the EU simply refuses to die.  There has been so much of this and it appears to be so resilient I am starting to wonder if I am in the wrong.  I just need 80 more posts to hit the magic 100 and that kind of self-doubt will be consigned to the bin of history. 

The trajectory of blogger self-doubt.
What could prevent the UK from leaving the EU?  I can understand a short delay before triggering Article 50 but I'm interested in something that could take us at least 1 year into the next Parliament, so around 2021.  I'm open to all ideas. Right now, I can only think of inter-galactic warfare and some kind of evolutionary shift event giving rise to a new type of human like those in "The Midwich Cuckoos".  Oh, and don't forget the societal impact of those sex robots.  They're just around the corner.

Over and out,


PS Some more blogs brewing to big-up EU membership.  Wowzer, what a tease.

PPS While I'm on the topic of the UK's press, has anyone read this? What the actual potato is she going on about?  First class clowning around, if you ask me.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Tape your head on

I was clearing out a cupboard the other day and I came across some red tape.  A sudden feeling of untramelled anger and rage overtook me until my head started to hurt and I had to go for a lie down.  As soon as I felt a bit better I immediately set fire to the red tape with an industrial blowtorch that I keep for such occasions. No trace of this evil will remain in my abode.  Stupid red tape, coming over here from the EU without being asked, making presents and gifts look better than they really are, decorating things that don't rightfully need decorated.  Incineration is too good for red tape.  It needs to be cut first.  Cut, cut, cut away all the red tape until there is none left, until we have even forgotten about the concept of red tape, until we obliterate the collective memory that the wrapping of gifts and presents used to be more complicated than it ever needed to be.
We all hate red tape.  I advise fatally wounding it with a knife before giving it a speedy cremation.
This post is going to be about EU red tape.  If you are a UK manufacturer, importer or retailer of red tape you might want to know if you will still have a business in 2019.  You might want to know what kind of red tape will govern your red tape business interests in a post-red tape world.  You might even want to know if you can secure all that defunct red tape by tying it up with red tape.  Personally, I recommend using Union Jack tape for all your office needs.

When politicans say that they want to "cut away all that EU red tape" what do they really mean?  It's rare to hear UK politicians expanding on the meaning of unnecessary regulation by pin-pointing a specific directive that might serve as a barrier to British glory.  Instead, general attacks on EU regulation seem to follow the pattern of attacks on the ECHR.  The attacks just keep coming unchecked until an idea forms in the hive UK mind that regulation and human rights are the biggest threats to wealth and happiness.

Can you imagine a politican arguing for more regulation?  It's bad, right?  Is it still bad when it sets safety standards or regulates the operation of a free market?  It depresses me when I hear politicos attacking the  EU regulatory framework without first considering what might replace it.  After all, pre-industrial Europe wasn't exactly over-burdened by regulation.  Do they really imagine an idyllic land where, freed from all that EU fuss and nonsense, you can have your teeth extracted at the barbers and still have enough money left over for "something for the weekend" that may or may not be box-fresh.

It is true that there is a lot of regulation in the EU.  Should we be surprised?  There is a lot of regulation in Australia and Canada as well.  Could anyone from Auckland tell me every single New Zealand regulation affecting employee relations, import restrictions, river water standards, bankruptcy procedure, adoption, food preparation or airport noise monitoring.  I could go on but this blog is supposed to be an entertaining read.  The EU certainly has a lot of directives and regulations.  In that regard, it is a bit like tiny Switzerland, a country that pretty much quotes the national constitution in your electricity contract.  It is also one of the wealthiest countries per head of population.  These two facts are surely not uncorrelated.

Let's have a look at some of this EU red tape and see how it might impede the progress of society.  Here is a completely random example of some EU legislation - Directive 2012/28/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2012 on certain permitted uses of orphan works.   This seems like a pretty good idea to me.  All that has happened here is that the EU laid down some rules about the use of copyrighted material.  More specifically, the EU has formalised the steps that need to be taken to identify and classify an orphaned work.  To aid that process it has even compiled a database of orphaned works.  If you are worried that your business might be misusing copyright and leaving the door open to later legal challenges then worry no more because the EU has given you the legislatory tools to protect your business.  On the other hand, if you are a rights holder and make a claim of copyright misuse then you know exactly what documentary trail the defendant should have left behind if they had acted honourably throughout.

Let's imagine you run a smoking hot media company in Scunthorpe and you're worried about using some copyrighted material in a promotional video of the local blast furnace.  Maybe you found a recording of some of that incredible dissonant-harmonic Bulgarian choir music and wanted to bung it lazily over the end credits.  The problem you face is that you're not sure if it is Bulgarian or Romanian.  Hmm, what are the rules for orphaned works in Bulgaria?  What are they in Romania?  If you only distribute the video in the UK how does any of that apply to your business?   What if you wanted to sell the video at Bochum Marktplatz? Time to call the lawyers in all 4 countries.  If only there was some kind of centralised regulatory body that unified the legislation of orphaned copyright throughout Continental Europe.  If only that existed you could avoid 28 searches through 28 independent frameworks of legal red tape.  If only we had something like that. If only.

It's diaphonic, antiphonal, microtonal and free-metered but who does it belong to?
I know it's boring but let's imagine for a bit longer that you run a smoking hot media company in Scunthorpe.  It really is rather boring so let's sex it up a bit: the UK has now left the EU.  That got your attention, didn't it?  In order to take back control, the UK has replaced the EU directive on orphaned works with its own.  It's not exactly the same, though, because that would make everyone look a bit stupid.  Maybe the UK maintains its own database of orphaned works.   Maybe it even maintains its own database of copyrighted works.  Suddenly, you need to interface with two separate systems to get legal clearance for your video.  That's a bit annoying, isn't it? Uh oh, there's a problem.  The UK database has revealed a UK-wide holder of the copyright, while the EU database identifies it as an orphaned work.  Ok, just do the video without the Bulgarian choir.  No, don't do that because they go crazy for that antiphonal shit in Bochum - sales will collapse without the diaphonic crescendo.  You know full well that the good burghers of Bochum just can't get enough of free-metered Balkan polyphony on the end credits of a blast furnace promotional video.  Do two videos, then: one edit for the EU and overdub Scarborough Fair performed by the King's Singers on the end of the UK version. Uh oh, another problem.  The edit department is now demanding more money to do two edits.  The lawyer is demanding more money for two database searches.  The video print company is demanding more money to print two different versions. I could go on and on here but I'm sure you get the picture.  If only there was some kind of centralised regulatory body that unified the legislation of orphaned copyright throughout Continental Europe and all of the UK and Ireland.  If only that existed. If only.

This pattern can be repeated for aerosol packagingfood weights and measures,  and hazardous substances in electronic equipment.  I could go on and on and on like this but I can hear you all yawning and that dog isn't doing to stop barking till you take it for a walk.  The truth is we live in a highly regulated world where it is not allowed for businesses to poison the environment or kill their customers.  Also, when you buy a Class II cucumber at the supermarket you should know exactly what you are getting.  Unifying all of this makes it easier for everyone.  

If the UK wants to continue sellling any of its products and services to the EU it is going to have to adopt quite a lot of its regulations and directives.  Just like Switzerland, the UK will work out that having two sets of standards makes no sense at all.  Johnny and Joan Taxpayer might not realise it but they will still be under the cosh of those modern-day EU folkdevils in Strasbourg and Brussels.  This shouldn't be a surprise: what kind of market is it where a single participant sets the price and the terms and the conditions of all of their sales and all of their purchases?  The answer is some weird kind of fantasy market dreamt up by David Davis back when he was a hopeful Leave campaigner.

David Davis lives in a fantasy land where the EU simply doesn't exist and British standards have been universally adopted.
I find it strange that campaigners most against unilateral nuclear disarmament seem to be the ones who campaign most strongly for ulilateral withdrawal from the EU.  Yet, we've just seen that unilateral withdrawal makes no strategic sense at all if you run a smoking hot media company in Scunthorpe.  In fact, the worst thing that could happen for your business is that the EU implodes because that is the outcome that leaves you dealing with the most red tape.   Sure, the EU has a lot of red tape but it is a heck of a lot less than the alternative.  Assuming that David Davis isn't dreaming of a Max Max-style dystopian future, leaving the EU means that UK businesses face dealing with more red tape than ever before.  This is certain to make them less competitive than their German and French and Austrian counterparts.  How could the UK get back its competitive edge?  Hmm, we're back to workers' rights, I'm afraid.

No one likes red tape, right? Cut it, burn it, cut it, burn it, cut it, burn it. Repeat this mantra till your arm is severed by an unregulated threshing machine.   

Over and out,


PS Please remember this post if you ever get the chance to vote UK or EU in a second Scottish Independence referendum.  Leaving the EU makes no sense at all.

PPS I wrote  "... overdub Scarborough Fair performed by the King's Singers" without knowing if that actually existed.  It really was just two random things put together. Of course it exists!  This is life in 2016.  What a time to be alive.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Timeline of Life and its Entropic Consequences

I am figuratively frothing at the mouth, metaphorically tearing my hair out.  Today, I read a report in The Independent about the Labour Party's leadership election.  I was only vaguely reading it because I'm really not all that interested in the topic.  Yes, this is how I fill my valuable time in 2016 while waiting for some potatoes to come to the boil.  Then I hit the second sentence in the following paragraph -

That is quite a sentence, isn' it.   Let's deconstruct that for a couple of paragraphs like the career semioticians we always wanted to be as teenagers.   First, it is unattributed.  We have absolutely no idea who said it or why that combination of words formed in their mouth and/or brain. Did it form in the mouth before or after it formed in the brain?  Did a GMB activist say it?  Did a "journalist" at The Independent say it? Did it come from a contestant or was it shouted out in joyful chorus?  I don't think Jeremy Corbyn talks about himself in the third person but did he say it?  I've no idea but answers on a postcard labelled "blame" to the usual address.  It's worse than that, though, because it is worded as though it has already been reported in The Independent but without supplying a link. It just says that the same newspaper has already reported the unattributed quote.   It is odd for a digital-only newspaper not to supply a link to its own content.  Maybe the original article reports the owner of the quote.  Probably not, though.  I think the best part is that the report came "afterwards".  Of course it came afterwards you blithering "journalist" dimwit.  It could hardly come before because that would be a prediction rather than a report.  Reports of events always come after the events themselves.  I do know how the timeline of life works, you know.  Not quite so sure about The Independent.

Before all that recursion and time-shifting makes my head hurt, let's move on to the final assault on human dignity.  "If the audience were representative of the public at large, every home on the planet would have a sex robot", reported The Independent at the sex robot users' club annual convention.  "If the audience were representative of the public at large, every single dog in Sunderland would enjoy the healing benefits of hypnotism", reported The Independent at the dog hypnotism (Sunderland branch) society jamboree.  "If the audience were representative of the public at large, literally everyone would have joined a religious cult and escaped its vice-like grip using only a laser gun and a jetpack and a pencil", reported The Independent at the jetpack and laser gun workshop for European pen-phobic cult survivors.  Please, someone tell the junior reporter at The Independent or the GMB or Jeremy Corbyn or whoever the potato it was that contributed to a universal increase in non-recoverable entropy about the importance of population sampling.  Just saying.

I think some random at the meeting is responsible for the quote but bloody heck it is time for a lie down so that I can forget I ever clapped eyes on the thing. And relax.  Zzzzzzzzzzz.   Argh, no way, the potatoes have totally turned to mush now.  Grrrrrrrr.

Over and out,

PS Tomorrow is red tape day.  Thrilling stuff, indeed. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Entoure Shame Metric Tool

The following is an advertorial for the Entoure Foundation, a for-profit political think-tank. 


The Entoure Shame Metric Tool



In your post as political advisor have you ever been involved in the comeback of a disgraced poltician and wondered how to minimise the time they spend out of power?   Just imagine a disgraced politican comes to you and indicates that he/she might like to have another stab at the political limelight. It might be a disgraced former councillor, or a disgraced MP.  It might even be multiply-disgraced former and now not former Minister Liam Fox. This happens all the time, right?  Your job is to work out when exactly enough time has passed for the shame factor to recede by just enough to make a comeback possible.  If you underestimate, the comeback bid will fail and probably end in ignominy for all involved.  If you overestimate then valuable time will be wasted in the political desert and valuable political capital will continue its steady decline.  It's your job to get it just right.  Let's meet the Entoure Shame Metric Tool (ESMT), a system founded on firm science that will surely prove an invaluable tool for the ambitious political advisor.  Contact details and licensing terms are available at the end of the post.

Shame Mechanics  


Let's start with the basic mechanics of disgrace and shame.  Each event of disgrace is associated with  an initial shame factor (ISF) that may be attributed at the time of resignation.  Prior to the resignation time, levels of shame typically rise towards a crisis point coincident with a resignation event.  The EMST concerns itself with post-resignation shame levels and takes the ISF as the starting point of the model.  Typically, the worse the disgrace event, the higher the ISF.  Over time, the shame factor associated with the disgrace event reduces from the ISF and eventually approaches the population average.  A critical value is reached some time before the population average is achieved. Any value of shame below the critical value permits a successful comeback.  On the other hand, any value of shame above the threshold will result in a failed comeback.  The ESMT is a complete system that estimates the critical time (tc) that must pass after the resignation event for the associated shame (S) to decay from the initial factor (ISF) down to the critical value (Sc).

David Mellor clung on for longer but his political capital dissipated faster than his shame. Don't let this happen to you.

Entoure Laws of Shame

It's time for the science of shame.  The EMTS computes the dynamics of shame with precise physical models. Just think, global money markets have been tamed, stabilised and simplified by teams of eager PhD physicists and mathematicians.  Methodologies borrowed from the world of physics can be applied with precision to any field of human endeavour.  Do you want access to this risk-free power?  Read on for some applied science.  Of course it is hard to comprehend - intellectual breakthroughs of this magnitude usually are.

It seems natural that the intantaneous rate of shame reduction is linear with the shame value itself.  Immediately prior to the resignation event there might be "journalists" following the shamed figure around, perhaps camping outside their house.  Analysis of photographer and newspaper headline count demonstrates that this quickly dissipates to zero over a matter of days, suggesting that high levels of shame result in high rates of shame reduction.  In contrast, towards the end of the shame period lingering feelings of doubt and antipathy remain in the mind of the average voter.  This can take weeks, if not months, to shift.  It seems safe to say that rates of shame reduction are low when the shame itself is relatively low.  A linear relationship between shame and shame reduction rate is amply supported by the evidence.

Entoure's First Law of Shame states that the instantaneous rate of shame reduction (dS/dt) is linear in shame (S),

dS/dt = - γ x S,

where γ denotes the rate of decay of shame.

Entoure's Second Law of Shame follows the First Law by integrating S with respect to time and applying the initial condition immediately after the resignation event,

S(t) = ISF x e(-γ x t).

Entoure's Third Law of Shame reposes the Second Law in terms of tc,

tc = -ln(Sc/ISF)/γ.

The Entoure Shame Metric Tool

Given estimates for γ, Sc and ISF, the value of tc may be readily computed with sophisticated software utilising the latest random number techniques. The ESMT is a complete software system that provides case-by-case estimates for γ, Sc, and ISF.  The package comes complete with advanced software technology required to accurately solve the Third Law.  Hundreds of disgrace events have been used to callibrate and test the system.


Estimation of ISF

The value of ISF may be estimated by analysing immediate press reaction to the disgrace event.  A catalogue of thousands of disgrace events allows the value of ISF to be predicted as a multi-variate function of observables such as paparazzi magnitude, column inches, headline font size, time separation from UK's so-called "silly" season, and the temporal interference with the previous and next disgrace event.


Estimation of γ

For short times after the disgrace event the Second Law may be linearised in time without loss of accuracy.

S(Limit: t→ 0) = ISF * (1 - γ * t)

Key signifiers in the first days after a disgrace event, such as decline in paparazzi magnitude and increase in offered directorships, act as trackers of shame magnitude.  Assuming an ergodic process, a weighted average of these reference phenomena reveals an estimate for γ.  Millions of disgrace events have been used to verify the validity of the model.


Estimation of Sc

By analysing billions of discrete disgrace events it is possible to place an estimate on the lower bound on Sc, the critical shame value, for any disgrace event.  


The EMST is available for licensing today.  Packages start for as little as £100,000.  Further applications include prisoner parole approximation.  Please contact the switchboard at HMP Barlinnie and leave a message for Terry.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

For Fox's Sake

I have been reading up about Euro red tape (where will it go, who manufactures it, what kind of legislation governs the manufacture of EU red tape?).  That post is still some days away so here is a quickie about Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade.  

Liam Fox is a politician who has repeatedly helped himself to extra helpings of disgrace. Thanks to his sterling work as a Leave campaigner he will be heavily involved in the Brexit negotiations with the EU.  Boris Johnson and David Davis will be his political companions on trips to Brussels.  I bet they all really hate each other, which is some consolation. 

Everyone remembers that Liam Fox left his last Cabinet post in some kind of disgrace a few years ago but hardly anyone mentions the details.  I have certainly completely forgotten, yet the details are as pertinent now as they were back in 2010.  This is how politics works these days:  just wait around on the back benches until everyone has forgotten that embarrassing event when you ingloriously demonstrated your low repute.  Then when you think the coast is clear make it known you are available for the next Cabinet reshuffle.  Everyone said that Andrew Mitchell had ended his career when it was found that he lied in court and that he did in fact tell a policeman to, "Best you learn your fucking place. You don't run this fucking government ... You're fucking plebs". I bet even he'll make it back in the end.  If he didn't intend to make it back to the top he wouldn't have stood for Parliament in the 2015 election.  He was re-elected with a slightly increased percentage, by the way.  This is UK democracy in the 21st Century.

I wanted to remind myself about the very nature of Liam Fox's disgrace.  If you are a clued-in member of society then I recommend you just skip the rest of this post because you will learn nothing at all - I'm really just rehashing what I learnt on the internet.  I'd like to be able to say I have the inside track to the Fox mindset but I don't.  I suppose I could just invent a not-hilarious anecdote like a "journalist" but I honestly can't be bothered.

I told you I am long-winded: four paragraphs in and I still haven't reminded you what Liam Fox did that left him in disgrace. Liam Fox used to be Defence Secretary.  While conducting his duties, he took an unvetted and completely unofficial "self-styled" advisor called Andrew Werrity to a number of meetings that involved issues of national security. Even after public officials made it clear to Liam Fox that taking personal friends, family members, business partners and fellow ukelele enthusiasts to meetings of national importance wasn't the done thing, he just carried on.  It is even claimed that his friend and business partner was working for a foreign power at the time of those meetings.  Just like John Profumo, he had to resign his position. Unlike John Profumo, he didn't go on to resign as an MP and then see out his days as a volunteer at an anti-poverty charity.  How times change.

The funny thing is that before Liam Fox became known as disgraced Liam Fox he was already in disgrace due to the expenses scandal.   We should really refer to him as multiply-disgraced Liam Fox rather than just plain old disgraced Liam Fox.  With luck we can start an internet meme.  Let's start now: multiply-disgraced Liam Fox is Secretary of State for International Trade.  I feel better already. I know it's a a bit of a mouthful but this is even more precise:  multiply-disgraced former and now not former Minsister Liam Fox.  This is UK democracy in the 21st Century.

To pile disgrace upon disgrace, Liam Fox has also been caught taking thousands of pounds from the Azeri government, while at the same complaining about human rights being a waste of money for the UK taxpayer.  Curiously, he didn't think his book was a waste of money for Azeri taxpayers. I don't know why this story made today's paper because it was common knowledge back in 2012.  See how quickly we forget?

We shouldn't forget the disgraceful acts of politicians, should we?  I mean, disgrace and shame are functions of the collective morality of society rather than society's collective memory.  What Liam Fox did in 2010 is just as bad today as it was back then.  He's just lucky that there is so much shame and disgrace in political circles that we can't keep up with it or remember any of it.  We need handy mnemonics to keep all of this squalor in our human brains.   Try it out for size one more time - multiply-disgraced former and now not former Minsister Liam Fox.  I'll admit it is not a very good memory aid but let's take it as a starting point.

To wrap this up here's a pop video from a band with a semi-appropriate name.  The singer is Ben Goldacre's Mum.  It is an excellent song and she did obviously did a great job parenting-wise so let's end on a high note. This was pop in the 20th Century.

Over and out,


Friday, 5 August 2016

Time Gentlemen, Please

Have you ever had a particularly long and stressful week at work and wished you'd had more spare time to learn Ukulele strum techniques and conjugate German verbs? This kind of thing used to happen to me all the time when I lived in the UK. It's probably happened to you as well, except for the Ukulele playing and German verb part. If you are also a fan of Ukulele strum techniques and German verb conjugations then we should probably meet up in the real world. Maybe we'd have too much in common, though, and actually have nothing to say to each other. Life is like that sometimes.

This post is going to be about the EU Working Time Directive. Please come back! Really, please come back because this is not as dull as it sounds. I can't pretend it is riveting either but there is lots to think about for when the UK finally leaves the EU. If you don't want to leave the EU then you might get to choose between the EU and the UK in a second Scottish Independence referendum. I really hope I can convince you that being an EU citizen is basically awesome and that you don't want to lose the protections of the Working Time Directive.   The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

The difference in attitudes to work between Continental Europe and the UK is really quite startling. Guess which is the most workaholic? Correctamundo, UK "wins" again. There is a German word "Feierabend", which means something like "celebrated evening". Feierabend is much more than the plain old evening that we have in the UK - this is something to celebrate and cherish. It's not even a special evening or anything like that: every single evening is Feierabend. I'm enjoying my Feierabend as I write this. Feierabend is really part of the culture in Germany, Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. The only thing you need to know about Feierabend is that it is most definitely not a time for working. Work stops at a certain time and then an evening of activity and family time can begin. Just look at this musical German family getting all teary-eyed about it.

Wow, if you don't have something in your eye after that beautiful song you must be a cold fish. I really thought the old boy was going to keel over and die at one point.  What a performance.  Really pulled off all that German Sehnsucht with true aplomb.

Could us Brits have Feierabend too? I wish we could. I'd like Feierabend to become as much a part of the English language as Schadenfreude or Lager. I suspect, though, that leaving the EU will kill all chances of this becoming a reality. Once that happens we will no longer be protected by the Working Time Directive. 

The Working Time Directive is no more than EU legislation that guarantees workers' rights. It mainly deals with minimum holiday entitlement and working hours.  Take a quick squizz here and here.  Not bad, huh?  A minimum 11 hours rest every 24 hours, 20 days holiday guaranteed per year, a minimum of 1 day off each week.  If you have ever considered a career in North America you will know that the rest of the world does not enjoy this kind of protection.  In fact, if you've ever met a US citizen on their grand tour of Europe you might understand why they whizz around at breakneck speed without pausing for breath - you would too if you get less than 10 days off per year.  I work for a US firm and employees in the US get 0 days annual entitlement.  That wasn't a typo.  I really meant 0 days.  I work for a respected Silicon Valley business that employs highly skilled workers at graduate and PhD level.  It even wins awards for the way they treat employees, yet every time colleagues in the US want time off they have to ask their boss for permission.  I often hear complaints that the company doesn't schedule for time off so they end up having to catch up with extra hours when they get back from holiday.  This is all perfectly legal because there is no entitlement to holidays or free time or weekends in the "land of the free".  I used to work for another US company that named and shamed employees in the US office who didn't come in at weekends or left at a time deemed too early, perhaps to look after their kids or just collapse in a heap on the floor.  This is the kind of treatment that is meted out to highly qualified workers in the US.  An ex-colleague who worked at Electronic Arts told me that the official policy there was that nobody should work more than 21 days straight because only at that point do they become unproductive.  They are probably the lucky ones. I don't even want to think what kind of working culture you have to endure if you work as a cleaner in Cleveland or in textiles in Texas.

You might argue that the UK led the way with workers' rights.  I would argue that too.  Going right back to the Labour movement of the early 20th century and forward to the years of the post-war consensus, the UK had relatively progressive attitudes.  The key point in all of this, though, is that those freedoms were underpinned by the power of collective labour.  Those days are gone.  After all, who looks to the Labour Party as a party for the workers these days?  You only have to compare Tony Benn with Hilary Benn to see how much has changed in a single generation.  As it stands, the single most powerful institution that protects workers' rights in the UK is the European Union.  The Working Time Directive is a key part of that.

The post-war consensus ended suddenly with the Thatcher government and then had its once-beautiful face stamped on by every single government ever since.  Why would a UK government try to protect the rights of workers when it can protect the rights of businesses instead?  Yes, the Labour Party, I mean you as well.  In fact, Labour Party, I specifically mean you.  It was the last Labour Government that campaigned against the Working Time Directive and heroically secured an opt-out for the UK.  Here is Pat McFadden MP back in 2009 when he was Labour Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs: "We refused to be pushed into a bad deal for Britain. We have said consistently that we will not give up the opt-out and we have delivered on that pledge".  I don't see any "bad deal" in the Working Time Directive.  Didn't we want to build an economy more like Germany around that time?  Well, Germany has some of the best protections for workers in the whole of Europe. Being more like Germany means evenings in the beer garden and roller-skating on Sundays and trips to the mountains.  Being more like Germany means having more spare time to engage in evening and weekend activities.  It does not mean working all hours, having no holidays, not seeing your kids, and not having enough time to practice ukulele strum techniques.   Ok, you have to endure all that terrible Schlager music but Germany is really a pretty good place to work.  I even lived there for 2 years and developed a tolerance for Schlager. 

Pat McFadden (left) hacking away joyously at all that Euro red tape. Just look at his happy face.
 Maybe you want to learn more about this opt-out before dismissing it, as I just did with an uncharacteristic flash of anger.  The good news is that the opt-out is entirely voluntary.  You can opt in and then opt out and then back in again as you see fit.  Do you see that working in practice?  It probably has limited success in some industries, less so in mine.  Employers are tricky buggers with a legal duty to shareholders to optimise share price. If they can find a way round it, they will.  How they might do that?  Well, almost nobody in my industry gets sacked these days.  What happens instead is that employers make conditions unbearable for you, perhaps through micro-management or continually picking away at your performance. This is all perfectly legal.  They do this until you accept the incentives on offer for you to leave.  Eventually you agree to leave with a couple of months pay and a wholly positive reference so that you may begin again elsewhere. For my own amusement I googled "fired by google" and came up with exactly that kind of story

When I worked for that US employer who named and shamed, we were issued with opt-out forms in the UK office. Did I sign it?  Yes, to my eternal shame I did.  I think you know the reasons why.  The "voluntary" part of the opt-out is nothing of the sort.  If I signal to my employer that I no longer intend to work unlimited hours they might start playing all sorts of games with me.  This was, after all, not an employer famed for worrying about the well-being of their staff.  In fact, their loose attitude to staff well-being is probably one of the things that enabled the shareholders to make billions and billions of dollars between them.  Why would they change when they don't have to?  And the opt-out means they certainly don't have to.  Thank you Pat McFadden MP for giving me the "freedom" to work repeatedly late into the night for a US employer so that huge profits could be shared on the Nasdaq exchange.  I'm sure that is exactly what Kier Hardie had in mind.

Here's Pat chuckling to himself after I told him about my hellish day at work.
I got a bit angry again, there. Time to calm down and wrap this up.  One of the reasons I left the UK was to get a bit more of that Feierabend Kultur.  I was over-worked and not getting enough spare time to enjoy life.  I really can't complain now - I even have enough time to write this light-hearted blog for an exclusive a very limited readership.  Having said that I don't want to go back to the UK work culture, especially one where the protections of the Working Time Directive are pointlessly squandered by the opt-out.  The thought of losing even those limited protections is terrifying and depressing all at once.  Remember, this is exactly what David Davis means when he says he is going to cut all that EU red tape.

Over and out,


PS You can find more about WTD opt-outs here.  Malta, Cyprus and the UK are the only EU nations not to place any upper bound on weekly work.  The remaining opt-outs are rather technical in nature and, to my mind,  don't infringe the spirit of the Directive.  The German limited opt-out, for example, appears to place extra restrictions on working hours by forcing employers to give time back when the 8 hr day is repeatedly exceeded (by a maximum of 2 hrs). Why does the UK think it is so special?

PS What is all this mysterious EU red tape, where did id come from and where will it go?  I am going to try and find out. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

A Rights Mess

I am just back from a few relaxing days in Freiburg in the Black Forest. On the train ride home I started thinking about the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and what might happen after the UK leaves the EU. Actually, that is a downright lie. It is all that remains of a not-hilarious fictional anecdote that started in Freiburg, wound its way through not very much of interest and ended with the Human Rights Act (HRA) .  In reality, I read 50 pages of a crime novel and had a bit of a kip. It was the perfect end to a long weekend. Enough of my holiday cogitations, there is serious work to be done if I am to remain a citizen of the EU.

As you might have already guessed, this post is going to be about the ECHR, why it matters, and why leaving the EU might have serious consequences for human rights in the UK. If you're Scottish maybe the arguments presented here will help you or someone you know choose the EU over the UK.  We're going to find out that Tony Blair's government wasn't entirely bad, how life in the UK has been transformed as a consequence of the HRA, and then think about why the current crop of Cabinet Brexiteers might bring an enlightened policy to a horrible, depressing and messy end. If you're still reeling with shock at the combination of "Tony Blair" and "not all bad" please do read on. Really, in his first term he implemented two policies that were actually pretty good. One was the Human Rights Act and the other was the Scottish Parliament. It's just a pity he didn't place the Iraq War in a human rights framework, as he did with the Scottish Parliament, before destroying his reputation along with a large chunk of the middle east.

The ECHR is no more than a set of human rights laid out in a legal document. If you've not done so already then I urge you to take a gander at it. I've read through it a couple of times and it seems to me to be quite uncontroversial. To save you the bother of reading all that dry text I'll summarise a few just for you: the right to life, the right to live free from torture, the right to a fair trial, and the right to freedom of thought. Nowhere in that document does it grant rights to be addressed at all times as the Glorious Eternal Emperor of Uranus or to habitually dress up in a lion costume at your job as a tax advisor. If anyone can find a controversial item in there I shall send you any issue you like from my extensive collection of Commando Comics.

This could be yours if you beat me at ECHR bingo.
Every nation of the EU is a signatory to the ECHR. This means that citizens of EU nations can ultimately take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHr), where the Convention is upheld. Tony Blair's government noticed that it was actually quite difficult and expensive for UK nationals to take their case to the ECtHr in Strasbourg. Now, it does seem a bit of an injustice if your rights are denied due to the legal system being complex, expensive and time-consuming. If these human rights are so uncontroversial shouldn't we bring the framework of human rights of the ECHR into the UK justice system? It sounds quite sensible to me. How about you? There is a Commando Comic in it if you have a convincing counter-argument so do get in touch.  This is a genuine offer even if I am the judge and arbiter of my own competition.  Yeah, go complain to Jacques Delors if you don't like the rules. 

Instead of judges in Strasbourg deliberating on UK legal cases it seems a much better idea just to have UK judges take the ECHR into account before they make a ruling. Isn't that going to lead to an avalanche of litigants taking their local council to court because they, for example, failed to provide key services vital to their human rights? Well, it would have if Tony Blair's government hadn't enshrined human rights at the centre of every public institution. That's right, public institutions must act in accordance with the ECHR. If they don't you can take them to any UK court and your rights in the ECHR will be respected. You  might have heard of a recent case involving the Named Person policy.  The Scottish Government lost the case because they were not acting in accordance with Article 8 of the ECHR.  They will need to think again because the ECHR is something that we should all value and not just when it suits us.  If, on the other hand,  you fail in a UK court and believe you still have a case you can still traipse over to the European Court in Strasbourg. Your chances are rather low, though, because the UK government generally wins. I see this as a positive because it means that UK courts are typically doing a good job with human rights.

These changes were all introduced in the Human Rights Act by Tony Blair, family man and reputed war criminal. Please don't let his involvement put you off. It would be fair to say that the UK was transformed for the better as a consequence of the HRA. For example, wheelchair access to shops and key services for the disabled and elderly have all been improved. What's not to like? 

I ended that last paragraph rather cleverly, didn't I? I'm getting the hang of this blogging lark. You've guessed it, not everybody seems all that keen on the ECHR. You probably read about it when you learnt that that HRA prevented a criminal being deported because he owned a cat. Maybe you read about it again when Theresa May repeatedly tried and failed to deport a man with rather unpleasant views who may actually be no worse than a terrible choice for a guest at a dinner party. There are countless examples of this kind of misinformation due to a campaign that seemed to spread across tabloid-land whereby human rights became a dark force intent on destroying Britishness itself. I'm not going to debunk any of these tabloid tales because it is done with much more authority here and here and here.

One thing I'd like to say about the ECHR is that is is very easy to understand.  Thousands and thousands of cases have been prosecuted successfully without any bluster or fury from a "journalist".  If you're a fan of Occam's Razor then you'll know not to throw away all your hard work just because you get some noise in your graph.  Even if a criminal couldn't be deported because he had a cat I still wouldn't throw away an entire legal system based on a single event.  Obviously, that whole cat thing was a sham but I'm sure you get the idea.  The simplicity of the ECHR is surely its real power, even if it does result in the odd ruling that might be cast in a negative light by an angry tabloid editor and their team of "journalists". They should save their outrage for the time when the general case stops working due to their "suggestions for improvement".  Then they should go to see "A Man For all Seasons", which tackles the thorny issue of legal complexity with a cunning forest leitmotif. Ha, I should get a job on The Late Review. What, it's not on the TV any more?  Gutted.

There's been a lot of talk about withdrawing from the ECHR entirely and introducing a British Bill of Rights. This is a real possibility now that the UK is leaving the EU. If Theresa May wants to take back control, she could focus her attention on the courts. We need to ask ourselves why anyone would do this. After all, it would surely still involve UK judges making rulings after taking a  framework of human rights into account. No change there, then. The messy disaster of human interaction is likely to throw up the same kinds of edge cases with a British Bill of Rights as it does with the ECHR. No change there, either, unless David Davis thinks he can somehow better encode the same human rights to, perhaps, a more orthogonal set. I don't have any confidence that David Davis understands orthogonality or would do a better job than the original architects of the ECHR, who, after all, were mainly British themselves. So, no change there. Tabloid editors will still feign outrage when a judge occasionally makes a decision that can be skewed with Fleet Street fury. So, no change there, either.

What could materially change if the UK withdrew from the ECHR and then repealed the HRA? I suppose a few things could change. The first might be that courts don't incorporate the British Bill of Rights into their judgements. Perhaps the Bill of Rights would be reserved for a higher court. This does not sound like a good way to protect the human rights of UK citizens. Next, public institutions may be freed from acting in accordance with the Bill of Rights. Released from the feedback mechanism of court action they might as well just do what they want. This does not sound like a good way to protect the human rights of UK citizens. Third, the human rights encoded in the British Bill of Rights might not be such a comprehensive set of rights as those in the ECHR. Maybe they take out the right to work or the right to life or the right to a fair trial.  No matter the answer, this does not sound like a good way to protect the human rights of UK citizens.  You may have noticed that I put the main thrust of this paragraph in bold in case I hadn't made the point well.  If I had access to an internet hammer from the future I would have used it instead. What are those VR boffins wasting their time on? I need internet hammers now.

I'm not sure why the current crop of Brexiteers seem so keen on withdrawing from the ECHR.  I can imagine a scenario where the right to life is qualified in order to open the door for the reintroduction of the death penalty.  I can also imagine a scenario where the right to privacy is tempered to see off challenges to the Investigatory Powers Bill. None of these sound like positive steps.  Perhaps they just don't like the Euro element of the ECHR and like to play to the camera spouting the word "British" again and again in the hope that makes everything better.  Depressingly, that is actually quite a good way to win elections and referenda right now. I'm not sure it is such a good background for drafting an entire human rights framework.  One way or the other, I fear that a British Bill of Rights would be a step backwards for human rights in the UK, either by design or simple  incompetence.

"The glorious leaders of the 2016 Leave campaign battle against the rapacious Euro empire". Actually, somewhere in Minsk (not in the ECHR).  Is this what you want above John Menzies?
It's been a long journey from Freiburg, to Tony Blair, and then Occam's Razor.  And that Monkees song was bloody awful, wasn't it?  Maybe I'm just tired but leaving the ECHR is actually a terrifying prospect. As a consequence, leaving the EU is also a terrifying prospect. I'm Scottish so I'm clinging to the hope of Scottish Independence and continuing membership of the EU. If I had to choose between the UK and the EU I wouldn't hestitate to choose the EU. Human Rights is one of the reasons behind my choice: I simply do not want to live in a country like Belarus, the only nation on the European continent that is not a signatory to the ECHR.

Over and out,


PS Being a citizen of the EU brings all sorts of rights that could easily be repealed after Brexit. I'm going to blog about these too.  Stay tuned for a thrilling discourse on the working time directive.  

PPS I have been to Belarus on holiday. It is by far the most foreign place I have ever visited. Maybe those human rights help to shape a nation's civic culture. Fancy that.