Sunday, 14 January 2018

Quora Question: Should there be a second EU referendum in the UK?

Advocates of a second referendum seem to hold simultaneously two incompatible propositions:

1) The issues involved in the first referendum were too complex for the masses to understand.
2) The complex terms of an eventual exit deal can be put to the electorate in the form of a simple yes / no question.

Among the grounds for holding a second referendum is a claim that only one side misrepresented the facts in the first referendum. It seems we have forgotten Project Fear, with its immediate recession, emergency punishment budget, World War Three etc.

As a general rule I am not an enthusiast for referenda. Experience shows them to be socially divisive blunt instruments, splitting families and communities, reducing complex shades of grey to simple black and white and arousing passions that are not easy to quell after the event. General elections, by contrast,  give almost every voter some sort of stake in the outcome; few are left utterly without representation. A referendum is winner takes all, however small the majority.

However, the EU Referendum eventually became necessary because all the major political parties of the UK supported membership and selected parliamentarians to reflect that policy.  For forty years opponents had no opportunity to vote against a process that steadily eroded the sovereignty of their country. I suspect a majority of voters might still support membership of the sort of Common Market that we were told we were joining in 1973, but not of an inexorably advancing European superstate, To rage against the result of the first popular vote on this issue in four decades carries more than a whiff of anti-democratic elitism.

Inevitably the ordinary citizen, who has his own life to live, is not an expert. That doesn’t make him ignorant of how his own life is affected by the issues. The failing of our modern system of representative democracy has been the emergence of a class of professional politicians with no experience of the normal world in which their constituents live. In consequence three quarters of parliament were Remainers but the country as a whole voted Leave.

Given that almost all the political, commercial and financial elite spent months predicting chaos, it is a tribute to the resilience of the UK's economic system that the immediate aftermath of the Referendum was not vastly greater instability than in fact occurred.

Just as in the Scottish Referendum, the losers are immediately enthusiastic for a re-run. Economically speaking, nothing could be worse than the prolongation of uncertainty. It damages business, deters inward investment and is a self-inflicted wound which the country can do without. Business can adjust to in or out but not to an eternal argument.

Because the truth is, a second referendum will by no means show a clear and settled popular will. Is it not far more likely the national mood will swing periodically against the status quo just as it tends to do in general elections? How many referenda will be a sufficient number? I very much doubt that agitation for a re-run will ever be quelled if we once start along this road.

Let us instead look for the opportunities of a potential worldwide future rather than hankering after a primarily EU past.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Quora Question:
Is it time for the British to come into the 21st century and have an elected Head of State?

Let’s begin by distinguishing the role of head of state from the role of head of government.

The minimum function of a head of state is to symbolise the unity of the nation and to exercise that symbolic role in representative, ritual and ceremonial ways that help keep the body politic together. It is difficult for a partisan figure to symbolise national unity; by definition he or she has supported one political viewpoint and opposed others in the past and his or her one-time opponents may be reluctant to give such a figure the benefit of any doubt.

The function of a head of government by contrast is to serve as head of the executive, that is to say to be in charge of getting the work of government done. In a democracy this role does not require unanimous support; customarily it is supported by a majority or the largest minority, though there are exceptions to this principle.

Some constitutions combine the two roles, though not always comfortably. These are known as executive presidencies. They range from what are effectively autocracies to highly polarised and divided democracies, though sometimes you do find an individual capable of transcending party animosity and becoming a genuinely national leader. Where such a figure fails to emerge there is no obvious alternative as a national unifying force. The role may fall to an independent judiciary or sometimes society may suffer a loss of cohesion.

For this reason there is merit in keeping the roles of head of state and head of government separate. Since the head of government is elected it is probably best if the head of state is not, because you don’t want a struggle between rival mandates.

The virtues of a monarchical system include new incumbents having experienced an apprenticeship, sometimes accepting an increasing share of royal duties as the reigning parent ages; it is rare for a complete ingénu to ascend the throne not knowing how to behave. As long as the restrictions upon this role are understood by all it is nowadays rarely controversial.

By contrast it is quite common for incoming political heads of government to lack experience or knowledge, resulting in errors of policy in early years.

You probably couldn’t introduce a monarchical system today, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer fit for purpose or could easily be improved upon. Remember the guiding principle of management by exception - ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

What's wrong with Sheffield Wednesday?

Football is a ritualised form of tribal combat. Desmond Morris pointed that out long ago. When political units outgrew regions and became countries, it was no longer considered acceptable for the warriors of one region to attack and pillage the homes of neighbouring tribes. But that doesn’t mean the tribal mentality has been eradicated; it is merely sublimated.

English football has become big business, earning huge sums in television revenue and sponsorship, paying to its star players the sort of wages that ordinary people can’t even dream of.

Nevertheless it is a fundamental error to regard football clubs as simply companies like other commercial operations and their supporters as customers. The typical football fan is not able to switch to another supplier of this product if he doesn’t like some aspect of the way his current team is run. His football club is more than his family, it is his tribe; it is part of his identity; its successes and failures are essentially his own successes and failures.

Like all tribes, football clubs have totems. In the minds of supporters these totems are invested with mystical, magical properties. Listen to disgruntled fans singing that their current crop of players are “not fit to wear the shirt” and you get some sense of this. The shirt is the greatest of all totems. It has a hallowed tradition and new owners of clubs interfere with that totem at their peril.

For example, just because Cardiff City was acquired by an owner who considered red a lucky colour didn’t mean the ‘Bluebirds’ team shirts could be changed from blue; this move was insulting to the tribal gods. Not only would disaster and discontent follow hard on the heels of this unwise change, such evils would continue until tradition was restored and the tribal gods appeased.

To me therefore the reason for Sheffield Wednesday’s travails this season after two consecutive appearances in the promotion play-offs is painfully obvious. They stopped playing in blue and white stripes. Worse, they did this in the club’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary season.

Vulcan is displeased. All the gods of steel-making are displeased. Their wrath is terrible. The tribal totem has been disrespected and good times will not return until proper tradition has been re-established.

Don’t wait until next season, club-owner Mr Chansiri. Blue and white stripes should be restored at once. The tribal gods won’t wait.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Waiting Room

Third and Starlight is finally on sale. Yes, the anthology you've been waiting for if you missed the first opportunity to read my story 'The Waiting Room' in Flame Tree's 'Chilling Ghost Stories' anthology of 2015!

This book is rather special, since all its contributors are finalists or semi-finalists in the Writers of the Future Competition. Never having quite cracked the final eight in that competition I can tell you it's not an easy thing to do. Those who achieve this distinction really can write. I am honoured that my story should have been included in such company.

'The Waiting Room' was quite an appropriate title for my first ever UK sale. I had to wait quite a while for that one and quite a while for the next one too. Though I've now had a total of eighteen short stories published, (ignoring reprints), this year's 'Heavy Weather' in the Flame Tree 'Pirates and Ghosts' anthology was only my second in the UK.

So, if UK fans of my work actually exist, this year you have two chances to obtain it!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Eligible For Short Story Awards 2017


I'm not sure why I publish this list each year. But in case anyone does want to know what stories written by Philip Brian Hall were published during 2017, here is the list:

The Hard Stuff 6300 SF Unbound II: Changed Worlds
The Ship of Theseus 7400 SF Phantaxis
Iron Hail 4500 SF All Hail Our Robot Conquerors (ZNB)
The Black Horse 3000 Hist F Strange Beasties (Third Flatiron)
Heavy Weather 4200 Hist F Pirates & Ghosts (Flame Tree)
Conspiracy of Silence 1800 Mod F More Alternative Truths

Friday, 15 December 2017

Nationality and Geography

Considerably to my surprise, my first attempt to produce an answer, as opposed to a comment, on a Quora Question has resulted in over 12,000 views and 1,000 upvotes. In part my surprise derives from the fact that I first published my thoughts about Sir William Wallace on this blog in 2013. For some strange reason it appears more people get involved on Quora than read my blog - well, I never!

Anway, in response to my view that the so-called Scottish Wars of Independence were really an argument amongst competing Frenchmen, one reader suggested that a national element in these wars was undeniable. I replied thus:

Although today we understand nationality as having some sort of link with a geographical ‘home’, it is not at all clear to me that the same mindset applied in The Middle Ages. Let us remember The Dark Ages saw a continual series of great national migrations across Europe, including the Scots themselves who came originally from Ireland and did not establish military control over most of what is now called Scotland until the tenth century. The new Scots rulers imposed themselves on a diverse range of pre-existing peoples, including Brythonic, Angles, Pictish, Norse etc. The contemporary sense of group identity was mostly a function of tribe, and geography relevant only in the sense of the domain that a particular warlord was able to dominate. Fixed ‘national’ borders in the modern sense were not yet established.

Great Norman families held estates on both sides of what is now considered the Scottish border and hedged their bets by supporting both sides when claimants to the kingship of England and of Scotland clashed. De Brus himself changed sides back and forth, suggesting political expediency was more important to him than any principled sense of Scottish nationhood.

In this respect it is interesting to compare him with El Cid, now lauded as a Spanish patriot, who also switched sides more than once. Although the Cid’s successors in the struggle developed the notion that the Moors were foreign oppressors in order to unify their own side, it seems clear the Cid himself did not take that view.

A similar phenomenon during The 100 Years War was able to call forth a French identity distinct from the Norman French overlordship of much territory in what is now France.

I suggest it is more probable in all three cases that the geographical notion of ‘nationhood’ evolved and was deliberately cultivated by warlords during the wars of The Middle Ages and was thus an effect rather than a cause of those wars.

But any historical enquiry is best guided by evidence from contemporary sources. If (as is almost certain) I’ve overlooked some in the above theory, I’m only too happy to have it brought to my attention.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Pirates and Ghosts

Nicely in time for Christmas shopping, here is the exciting new Flame Tree anthology Pirates & Ghosts.

This features my story Heavy Weather, a tale of the Royal Navy during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), in which an impecunious lieutenant gets more than he bargains for when appointed salvage master of an unmanned vessel.

As usual from this publisher it's a beautiful hardback book that anyone would be delighted to own.

I don’t know whether it’s some kind of genetic inheritance from my sailor father, who died while I was still a toddler, but I've always been fascinated by the sea, and particularly by the age of sail. 

With all our technological advantages today, the sea can still catch us out if we don’t treat it with respect. The daring of the men who challenged the sea in ships made of wood, at the mercy of wind and weather, finding their way by measuring the angle of the sun and the stars, deserves our admiration. And if the way to hear a tall tale in a dockyard tavern is to stand an ancient mariner a glass or two of rum, by my reckoning it’s cheap at the price.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Sovereignty of Parliament

In the UK, the sovereignty of parliament derives from the people. It was historically asserted against the arbitrary use of prerogative powers by the monarch, who was the hereditary head of the executive, and it was steadily strengthened after The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights.

At the end of the eighteenth century Edmund Burke asserted that an MP was not a delegate but owed his electors the benefit of his advice. This doctrine is still asserted today when MPs wish to establish their independence from the electorate.

However Burke was writing long before the democratic extensions of the franchise that began in the nineteenth century. The electors he had in mind were the bourgeoisie, not the working classes who had no votes. It might be reasonably supposed that a full time parliamentarian in those days had a better grasp of current issues than a voter who could only learn of them from the newspapers and was only consulted at corrupt elections.

A general election is a blunt instrument anyway. Voters choose a representative; they do not pronounce on individual issues. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the political innovation of referendums has altered the relationship between voters and representatives. The MP now knows his constituents’ wishes on specific issues, as well as the will of the electorate at large.

Those opposing Brexit in Parliament might therefore be considered somewhat disingenuous. For forty years all major parties supported EU membership. They naturally selected a substantial majority of parliamentarians who also supported membership.

In the 2016 referendum the public rejected membership despite all major parties campaigning in favour.

In the 2017 election all major UK-wide parties campaigned on a platform of implementing the popular will as expressed in the referendum.

What we actually see is an effort to sabotage Brexit in a suddenly rediscovered enthusiasm for the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. However this is no longer asserted against the arbitrary whims of a hereditary monarch but against the declared wishes of a sovereign people.

Is sovereignty of parliament to be the new tyranny of the elite?

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Carlisle – Calais without a passport

Scotland has a drink problem. Alcohol-related diseases, domestic violence, road accidents and other social problems are fuelled by booze to a level higher than other countries. Something must be done, obviously.

The Scottish government, famed for its keen grasp of basic economics, is reaching for minimum pricing as its solution. At a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, the retail price of some currently-inexpensive strong drink will double.

Of course this will only apply to alcohol purchased within Scotland.

Obviously it will not occur to any canny Scots that there are fair-sized cities just south of the border, where the price of alcohol will not increase.

Nobody will order cases of wine from English wine merchants.

There are no border patrols to prevent the import of English booze, so absolutely no-one will take up a lucrative new career running alcohol.

Similarly no cash-and-carry warehouses will be set up in northern England to exploit the situation.

Since there won’t be trucks full of liquor crossing the border in a northerly direction, no cheap alcohol will conveniently fall off the backs of lorries in the vicinity of unlicensed premises.

And in future all the whisky drunk in Scotland will be made in Scotland, driven over the border, sold, bought and driven back first.

I do hope the police force and the inspection authorities are currently underworked or that there is lots of money available for their expansion.

No? Didn’t think so.

On second thoughts, maybe I’m confusing the government’s alcohol-limitation programme with a job creation scheme.