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Back to the trees


The state of the Brexit debate reminded me of “The Evolution Man” (a very funny read by Roy Lewis, also entitled “The Evolution Man or why I ate my father”), which is centred on a protohomonim family that invents many new things, including fire and cooking. Uncle Vanya, whose teeth are not what they were, loves to come down from the trees and eat cooked meat, but he castigates all progress and his catchphrase is “Back to the trees”.

 

Uncle Vanya is a prototypical Brexiter. He would die if were not for the invention of cooking by his brother’s family, because poor teeth mean reduced consumption of raw food, which can only result in death. Uncle Vanya is a true mirror of the Brexiter in the UK and their homologues elsewhere. Despite reality check after reality check, they continue to fantasise about a world that cannot exist.

 

The level of fantasy is quite remarkable. For example, Andrea Leadsom stated that a central plank of the new Brexit UK economy would be tea, biscuits and marmalade. Many of the ingredients are produced elsewhere; oranges, sugar (if from cane), wheat (ours having too low a protein content, we need to cut our flour with that made from imported wheat) and, of course, tea itself. Global warming will be insufficient to allow us to growth these crops in the UK. Our 18th Century ventures into greenhouse culture of exotic fruits only succeeded due to Dutch help. Worse, a few meters of sea level rise (coming late this century) will wipe out a substantial part of our wheat belt (go to http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/ select 3 m and check out East Anglia). Salinity from one little flood will cause havoc with yields.

 

The refusal to engage in any sort of debate and to acknowledge that a number of things do not add up is seen in the HE Bill’s passage through Parliament. Outright rejection of all amendments from opposition MPs, despite the obvious fact that one possible future outcome of the Bill, is a UK version of Lysenkoism, a consequence of which was mass starvation in the USSR. It would seem appropriate for Parliament to consider such an outcome and ensure new legislation is proof against it.

 

Threads relating to the Article 50 court case are quite remarkable –  Brexiters paint this as Remainers whingeing and filibustering. Ears are firmly shut against the fact there are indeed points of law the relate deeply to our democracy – can the executive remove statutory rights of citizens without the agreement of Parliament? If it can, then the Parliamentary democracy that we are ceases to exist. We may, as a nation, agree on this course, but surely it merits discussion?

 

This refusal to listen and engage in constructive debate is worse than in the most opinionated toddler.

 

The term “post truth’ has been coined. This is a euphemism. It is simple delusional lying. The motivations behind the behaviour will vary in individuals. Two clues come from the political importance of panis et circenses in the Roman Republic and 1984. Those in power and with ambitions of power will look to all means to provide at least the illusion that bread and circuses are more plentiful and better than before.  In a time when they are manifestly not (austerity), build an illusion.  For the illusion to work, you need to be at war. Permanent war is the dream of political power seekers (as opposed to political problem solvers). So create an enemy that is permanent, weak and unable to fight back: the immigrant.

 

So this is where we are. Raging toddlers at the helm, with a posse of toddlers in tow. The outcome? We cannot tell, but there are two extremes.

 

The power ambitious continue to run the country (=Brexit). The consequence will be a decline in the UK as an economic, intellectual and political power. While the break up of the UK is not a given, it is certain that over time the country (UK or England and Wales) will become less attractive and net emigration will result: our best and brightest will leave, when their personal circumstances allow and few will wish to come.

 

The problem solving politicians come to the fore. No Brexit, some hard truths to swallow about being British (where are the billions of tax unpaid by that small number of wonderful patriotic citizens of ours?) and a lot of hard work (e.g., getting 90% of that tax into the treasury). The country then becomes extremely attractive and we will need take leadership of solving the problems that cause masses of people to leave their homes: war, global warming, etc.

 

So delusional toddlerdom or work.

 

I did say I was going to leave. I will at some point if the country choses delusional toddlerdom. Toddlers are great, but if you let them rule the home, you are lost.


Monty Python sum up what I think here. Leave voters?  A dose of Derek and  Clive might be useful.

Otherwise, some thoughts on the Brexit referendum

1. We now have our freedom they trumpet. From what? Where is this new freedom of mine? Not being able to travel and work freely across 27 other countries? Not being able to travel because we are too poor to afford the cheapest Ryanair deal? No one from Leave is able to say what freedoms I gain in exchange for those I have lost.

2. There is plenty of room at the bottom. We had the 5th largest economy in the world, because we were part of the EU. We are now the 6th. I am no fan of the square mile, but the big financial houses are making contingency plans. Once made, even if we remain, they will see the benefit of derisking operations and shifting some of them elsewhere in the EU. If we do leave, they are gone. As for what is left of manufacturing, building business takes years. Cut off that business and it’s benefit street for you. The country can head down through the relegation zone into the conference and below. It takes 25 to 50 years to rebuild and you never get back what you had.

3. But we have all our money back. Sure, but it’s peanuts and isn’t enough to fix the potholes. Check the estimates for fixing the UK’s basic infrastructure. Plus, our brilliant chancellor has hypothecated our taxes, so he is using taxes he will collect in coming years to pay the bills today. That way he doesn’t have to collect tax from the tax-dodgers, like his good pro-Brexit mate who owns the Daily Mail. The country was in financial trouble in 2008, it has been borrowing heavily since in a variety of ways and now is broke, broke, broke. Any money will go into George Osbourne’s black hole.

4. UKIP is a lie. Does anyone actually think that an individual as corrupt as Nigel Farage, whose only job is a UK MEP, wants to sacrifice his substantial tax free income from his MEP seat, as well as his wife’s tax free income – he employs her at European taxpayers’ expense? If we Leave, he loses his job and so does his wife. I very much doubt that our Nige wants to travel economy with the rest of us stinking peasants or claim benefit. Remember he has no other job and isn’t going to get one – he has repeatedly failed to get a seat in Parliament. Answer that one.

5. Leave was a lie. No one leading the Leave campaign thought they would win, but they acted like it and you followed, venting your frustration at the London elite. Who are the London elite? Well they include the leaders of the Leave campaign. They had no plan, no idea what to do and also no idea of what is required to Leave.

6. What is required to leave?
(i) Invoke Article 50
(ii) Perhaps ratification by parliament, because the referendum was advisory and parliament was and is sovereign (Brussels never had any sovereignty).
(iii) Ratification by the Scottish Parliament and probably the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is written into the devolution laws passed by the UK Parliament.

7. There are a lot of angry people in the UK, because their future, for which they have worked their socks off has been taken away. In the UK, they are taking action to save what they can from the sinking ship. Consider this: Ian Paisley’s son, a good Unionist, has publicly stated that the people of Northern Ireland should take out Irish passports. Once you make people consider the impossible, they realize it has significant advantages. The irony of the Conservative and Unionist Party possibly causing a future reunification of Ireland will not be lost on those who know a little history. In any event there will be an exodus from the UK and you won’t get their jobs, because you are not qualified. There is no one able to replace them, because we don’t train enough people. A good many of the young we do train will emigrate, as this is no longer ‘their’ country.

8. There are a lot of angry people in the EU and elsewhere. Junker is pissing in the wind when he says he wants to start leave negotiations now (remember, our government has to invoke article 50). However, the 27 member states are really pissed off at us. This is not a good starting point for any negotiation, whether we remain or leave. Elsewhere in the world? Well they are simply re-targeting their business, looking to shift their factory into one of the other 27 countries.

How did we get here?

9. The Thatcher-Major-Blair-Cameron project to destroy the working class bears its fruit. Note I include Blair here, because more production jobs were lost during his time as PM, and he was no friend of Trades Unions. The groundwork was laid by Thatcher, through destruction of heavy industry and Trades Unions, and enabling the take over of British companies (GD Searle, Wellcome, Cadbury’s to name a few). Alongside the economic destruction is social destruction, particularly in terms of values and the importance of education as a means of social and economic betterment.

10. TV media with Reithian principles have been replaced by a dystopian feed of bread and circuses. The latter were always there, but with just a few TV channels, there was plenty of other material. Now this is so diluted as to have little effect.

11. Most other media belong to tycoons (nothing new there) with an agenda – their agenda is to make money and they need political control. So they promote weak and venal politicians.

12. Previously politicians were happy to sacrifice members of the armed forces, but not the country. Now politicians are willing to sacrifice all for their own ambitions. I may be wrong, and I would appreciate a comment on this from a historian. My feeling is that it has been over a century (perhaps even before Cromwell’s revolution?) since politicians (or monarchs) have been willing to sacrifice large swathes of the country for their own ambition.

Where next?

13. Article 50 has not been invoked – see here for a lucid analysis by David Allen Green. This analysis suggests that it will never be invoked. The argument rests entirely on reading the Lisbon Treaty and from a legal standpoint and is absolutely correct.

14. However, politics is not the law and political pressure can result in very stupid decisions. It is clear that as of yesterday the other 27 EU countries were pretty pissed off with the UK. This has been brewing since the time of Thatcher, few or no countries have been as annoying as the UK at the negotiating table.

Edit 26 June: an excellent analysis of the balance of law and political pressure is here.

15. We have lost our voice in Brussels, since Lord Hill has resigned as the UK government appointed Commissioner.

16. We have no government, virtually no opposition and the civil service have no idea what to do. Cameron has resigned. Osbourne seems to have gone fishing. The ministers and MPs on the Leave bus are hiding under the duvet. Corbyn remains paralysed or looking for political gain in the narrow sense. Only one politician in England has stood up – Sadiq Khan, but with respect, he is only mayor of London, not a government minister. He can try to stabilize the ship, but he is not at the helm. Politicians in Scotland and Northern Ireland are considering their options.

Time to shift a few deckchairs. Or consider a rosier view here, to which I subscribe to some extent.

Update 22.25: Excellent new piece by David Allen Green on his Jack of Kent blog. The issues now are perhaps a little simpler: Brexit has flushed into the open the fascist side of the UK; is there a politician (for we clearly have no stateswomen or statesmen) likely to succeed David Cameron willing to actually invoke article 50?


Thank you Liverpool

Liverpool, like some, but not all Northern cities, voted to Remain. My adopted city for 28 years has once again stood up against fascism. Remember, this is the part of the country that was most heavily bombed in WW II, not Coventry not London. Liverpool, Bootle…. Continue Reading »


My late father was a Desert Rat. He didn’t have to fight, the South African army was comprised entirely of volunteers. He recounted how in the 1930s, listening to Hilter on the radio gave him more than sufficient evidence as to the deep evil of fascism. So when South Africa declared war on Germany (itself an interesting political event), he left his job as a primary school teacher for the uncertainty of life as a soldier. There were hundreds of thousands like him across the world. The monuments on Liverpool’s waterfront to the sailors of different nationalities who died in the merchant navy during the battle of the Atlantic provide an everyday reminder to these volunteers. Continue Reading »


I made my first New Year’s resolution on December 31, 2013: to only undertake reviews for open access and learned society journals.  This I have stuck to well, as I noted a year later for the simple reasons that it makes sense and it frees up my time.

Today I had a request to review a manuscript for Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports, and I realised that I need to clarify my position.

I am on strike. Continue Reading »


Changye Sun and Yong Li, who successfully defended their PhD theses in November have published a paper each in Open Biology on the interactions of fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) with glycosaminoglycans:

Heparin binding preference and structures in the fibroblast growth factor family parallel their evolutionary diversification

and

Selectivity in glycosaminoglycan binding dictates the distribution and diffusion of fibroblast growth factors in the pericellular matrix.

Continue Reading »


This is a question raised at the end of the excellent article by @Amy_Harmon regarding Open Access and preprints is can biomedical scientists evaluate each other without journals?

The short answer is a resounding yes.  Physical scientists and mathematicians have been posting much of their research as preprints on arXiv for a few decades, with no prejudice to their ability to evaluate the quality of work or of individuals.

The counter argument raised by many in biomedical sciences, from scientists to some journal editors can be boiled down quite simply: We are special and cannot possibly do this.

Various arguments are put forward, from competition (=fear of scooping) to intellectual property. These arguments are heard in many biomedical/biology departments, sometimes leading to quite heated discussions. It is also interesting to note that the defenders of the status quo are not necessarily the older members of the community.

There is a simple answer. Yes you are special, but not in the good sense of the word. Continue Reading »