Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ghostwatch - 25 years on

Tonight is the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the most notorious of all BBC broadcasts - Ghostwatch. To a casual viewer it looked like a live investigation of alleged paranormal activities, completely with a Crimewatch style studio of presenters and a live phone in. It was fronted by known presenters Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles, along with an academic expert. It even questioned whether the events were a hoax. But over the course of the night things got odder and odder, culminating in the realisation a mass seance had unleashed a poltergeist across the whole country. It ended with the outside broadcast going chaotic, Sarah Greene seemingly dying, the studio collapsing into darkness and Michael Parkinson possessed.

Ghostwatch was in fact a fiction. But it presented itself in the style of reality television, complete with faces known mostly for presenting rather than acting (with the possible exception of Craig Charles), and seemed real. And the giveaways that it wasn't were easy to miss. The BBC subsequently protested that there was a cast list in the Radio Times but this was a year after the deregulation of TV listings that made the magazine less widespread (and in any case it had never had a 100% circulation). There was a caption at the start of the show but many missed this or tuned in after the start. The slot it was broadcast in normally contained drama - but few viewers either followed the schedule in such detail or would have made the connection given the special nature of the night. Not everybody called the telephone number given (which was the standard BBC number - 081 811 8181 - used on real shows like Going Live and Crimewatch). And there were no EPGs then to automatically display information when turning on or over, whilst many television sets, especially bedroom ones, did not have Ceefax.

Did I think it was real? To be honest - sort of yes. At first it seemed as though the family at the house were fooling the BBC and the nation and this double-bluff did convince many. But towards the end things went off the rails and I think it was my sister who realised this was all a fantasy. It's easy to see why so many believed this was a genuine thing and caused such an upcry.

So a lot of people were taken in and there was uproar on a scale not seen perhaps since Orson Welles's adaptation of The War of the Worlds (which was also broadcast at Halloween). For many years the tape of Ghostwatch was confined to a restricted part of the BBC archive, to never be seen again, though they've since relaxed and it's now available on DVD. But it remains unrepeated on British television.

For a whole generation it remains one of the strangest things they've ever seen broadcast. And some rewatch it on cue - tonight look out for #Ghostwatch on Twitter as many replay it at the exact anniversary.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Ukip splinter parties

It's happened yet again. Another new party is to be created by a prominent figure leaving Ukip. How many times has this happened now?

Here's my best attempt at a list, limiting it solely to those created by MEPs, Assembly Members and leadership contenders:
  • Veritas - founded by Robert Kilroy-Silk MEP in 2005
  • One London - co-founded by Peter Hulme-Cross, London Assembly Member, in 2005 *
  • We Demand a Referendum Now - founded by Nikki Sinclaire MEP in 2012
  • An Independence from Europe (and various other names) - founded by Mike Nattrass MEP in 2012
  • New Deal - founded by Alan Sked, Ukip's founder and first leader, in 2013
  • Affinity - currently being founded by John Rees-Evans, leadership contender in 2017
  • "For Britain" - currently being founded by Anne Marie Waters, leadership contender in 2017

(* Lest anyone argue this is actually a splint from Veritas, this one's convoluted because Hulme-Cross's party was confused for a while. When fellow Ukip AM Damian Hockney defected to Veritas there was concern that with one member each neither party would be recognised as a grouping on the London Assembly with access to resources. A "Veritas-Ukip" group was formed to overcome this obstacle but Ukip weren't happy and kicked Hulme-Cross out. Subsequently Hockney left Veritas and the two founded this party together, hence it appears on this list.)

No less than seven.

And that's without including the numerous MEPs who've left to become either independents or join other parties over the years. Or the various other parties formed by local candidates that haven't gained as much prominence.

Have I forgotten any? I'll update this post where necessary.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Who looked for "the 75%"?

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Welsh devolution referendum. Today Welsh devolution seems fully entrenched, with calls for abolition limited to the margins - Ukip were the last significant party to oppose devolution and they ditched that several years back. Last year a group called Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party/Plaid Diddymu Cynulliad Cymru took less than 5% of the vote. Whatever the debate over the detail of powers, devolution looks set to stay.

But devolution wasn't always so popular.

Back in 1997 the referendum passed by just 6721 votes. On a turnout of 50.22%, 50.3% of voters voted for the assembly. This is, I think, the narrowest margin of victory in a referendum ever in the history of the UK.

There are many parallels to the more recent Brexit referendum. A narrow margin of victory. Disagreement about the franchise used for the referendum (it used the local government franchise rather than the Westminster). Dissatisfaction about the timing of the vote (particularly holding it a week after the Scottish vote in the seeming hope of harnessing momentum to encourage a yes vote). A belief the campaigning was one sided with the government of the day promoting their view. Fear that the outcome would inadvertently lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. And so on.

But at the time very little of this meaningfully manifested after the vote. Some of the controversies had arisen during the passage of the legislation to hold the referendums, but the government of the day was highly dismissive and frequently just pointed to its recent election victory as meaning critics should just shut up. The main controversy about the resource imbalance of the campaigns came over a year later when Lord Neill of Bladen's report into political funding said that "a fairer campaign might well have resulted in a different outcome". (12.32 - a PDF of the full report: The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom.)

Notably there was no great attempt after the vote to set it aside. Nobody talked of "the 50%" or "the 75%" or even "the 81%" who hadn't voted for it. The media did not search for regretful voters to hold up as "proof" the mandate had lapsed. There were no noticeable cries of "advisory" or appeals for Parliament to disregard the outcome. When the Neill report came out a year later there was only a minor flurry about its findings and no overturning of the Government of Wales Act, which was already on the statute book.

The odd voice was raised in objection but was invariably dismissed with reference to the democratic outcome. Demands to rethink or review were dismissed. In this regard, it should be unsurprising that more recent referendums have seen much the same attitude after the event.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why we keep remembering Diana

With the twentieth anniversary of her death there's been an inevitable round of revisiting the life of Diana, Princess of Wales and once more revisiting her death. And naturally many wonder why we do this - surely this isn't the British way? Shouldn't we all have moved on?

But this misses much of the point of that strange week twenty years ago. In many ways it was the closest the UK has come to a revolution in my time. People were sad but also angry. And in particular they were angry at being told what was the "proper" way to do things.

At the time it manifested itself in the uproar about the lack of a flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. This was down to "protocol". But much of the public neither knew this protocol nor cared for it. Diana had broken the mould in many ways in life and a large section of the public would not accept old moulds in death. I was one of many in the crowds outside Westminster Abbey and remember the surge of emotion when Earl Spencer delivered his eulogy. The massive applause was the crowd agreeing that the old ways would not return.

That act of rebelling against protocol and tradition has continued. And by its nature people who still commemorate Diana's life and death are not going to meekly stop when someone tells them how things are supposed to be done.

Diana's death was also perhaps the last time the country seemed to be as one. This was probably the last big news story before the internet really took off and gave a platform for alternate and dissident voices. Instead the broadcast and print media still gave most of us the news and there were few ways to say "Not all of us!" Thus for perhaps the final time a single mass mentality could truly drive events. And it rejected traditional steering.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Explaining "Hexit" in maps

For those who haven't seen it, a motion has been tabled in Havering council for the borough to renegotiate its relationship with London. (More details in the Evening Standard: "'Hexit' vote to be held in bid to solve London borough's 'identity crisis'".) Dubbed "Hexit", this proposal, submitted by a Ukip councillor, has generated some interesting posts.

One that caught my eye is Jonn Elledge's piece in CityMetric "The threat of Hexit: could the London Borough of Havering really be about to secede from the capital?". In it he suggests this is because Havering's demographics are far removed from the rest of London. However there are some more obvious reasons why many in that borough in particular haven't always felt part of London.

Havering, for those wondering, is the eastern most London borough. It's named after a royal manor (recorded in the Domesday Book as "Haueringas") which in turn gave its name to a palace and then the village of Havering-atte-Bower ("atte-Bower" means "at the royal residence"). As with a number of other London boroughs, "Havering" is a compromise name, in this case using the name of a small settlement rather than dealing with the rivalries between Hornchurch, Rainham, Romford and Upminster. (Merton and Haringey are similar examples.)

(To save time in the rest of this post, I'll use "Havering" to refer to the area of the current borough, including before its formation.)

Greater London has been around since 1965 but a glance at various maps (all from Wikipeda) will show how both before and afterwards various definitions of "London" have missed out Havering. Let's start with the Metropolitan Police District, which before 1965 was often used as a formal definition of "Greater London" when urbanisation took the natural metropolis beyond the London County Council boundaries.

(The Wikipedia file for this map is confused as to whether it's for 1933 or 1946, but for this post's purpose the relevant part of the boundary is the same.)

Note that in the years leading up to 1965 the Metropolitan Police District incorporated nearly all of what came under the Greater London Council (and some parts that didn't), but there is one conspicuous exception on the map. In the original proposals, it wasn't the only one, but Esher was one of a number of authorities around the edge of the proposed Greater London that were initially to be included but which successfully secured exclusion. Romford, however, tried and failed.

But in day to day life the most significant indicators of where someone lives have tended to be in communications. Landline uptake and usage is now in steady decline, but the London telephone numbers have been a significant indicator. There's been no significant external change to their area since 1959 (the less said about the internal split and re-merger of the 1990s, the better). And so here is a map of the London phone numbers (in red) overlaid on a map of the London borough boundaries:

Note that almost he whole of Havering is outside the London phone code. Sure it's not the only area but it's the only omission that almost completely aligns to a single borough.

A smaller area is the London postal district. Postal addresses are often confusing because they haven't always been adjusted with local government changes, and London is one of the worst areas for this, not having been revised in the 1960s, partially due to funding, partially due to potential confusion between the LONDON postal town and a Greater London postal county. (MANCHESTER and Greater Manchester suffer similar problems.) As a result, the LONDON postal address covers a smaller area than the whole of Greater London:

Havering is one of three boroughs that have no "LONDON" addresses in them at all. (The other two are Hillingdon and Sutton. Some of the other boroughs have only very slight coverage - as little as one road in the case of Harrow.) A related issue is the continued use of "Essex" in addresses. Until 1996 it was a requirement in much of the UK for postal addresses to include the county of the postal town used, even when the postal counties no longer aligned to administrative boundaries. (The Wikipedia article Postal counties of the United Kingdom has the basics.) One curiosity is that "Essex" was never actually needed for address in the ROMFORD postal town. It was one of the 110 towns that did not require a county due to their size (or giving their name to the county).

The requirement for a county was formally dropped in 1996, largely due to a change to optical character recognition technology that did not need it. (But also, another round of local government reorganisation can't have enthused Royal Mail, especially given the confusing situation of some counties like Berkshire continuing to exist without a county council but others like Humberside being almost completely abolished. Just to make matters worse, the changes came in stages.)

One other minor point stands out from some of these maps. The M25 motorway is often wrongly assumed to be the division between London and the rest of the country, to the especial annoyance of many who live or have lived between London and the motorway. Havering is right up against the motorway and even has the biggest chunk of London that's outside it.

Now these maps are obviously not the be-all and end-all of the situation and there are many other ways in which Havering gets the London experience (Freedom Passes for a start). But they do show some of the problems in forging the London identity when not every institution and service uses the same boundaries and thus for many residents "London" is not an ever present part of their own home lives, instead often being something elsewhere. And whereas in much of Greater London the 1965 expansion was clearly a case of administration catching up with the expansion of the metropolis, in the case of Havering London-wide bodies all suddenly arrived at once. It's surprising how long it's taken the 1965 changes, both to the London boundary and the individual boroughs, to settle in. Even today you can find boroughs still pursuing policies to integrate their separate components, such as "one borough" mottos or locating new council buildings directly on the old internal boundaries.

If the postal addresses and telephone codes had been adjusted back in the 1960s then it's probable this issue wouldn't have come up. That, rather than the demographics, seems the more likely explanation for the underlying issues behind this, even though the Hexit vote itself feels more like posturing by a political party in severe decline.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Arrival of the Cybermen

For those who enjoyed this evening's Doctor Who, here's a special blast from the past - the first full introduction of the Cybermen from The Tenth Planet back in 1966:



Note that you can see the actors' eyes under those masks. With any other monster fans would cry out. But with the Cybermen it's very appropriate...

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The This Week election introduction...

Well the one from 2005. They haven't done a recurring one since, so here's a reminder of a different age.

Unfortunately embedding is disabled (perhaps someone's trying to hide it?) so here's a link to Andrew Neil Amarillo spoof song.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

There's an election on...

...so my apologies for not posting much this month. In the meantime, here's the classic election video:



But if you're a candidate or agent, please remember that this represents several serious breaches of election law. Can you spot them all?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Shadow Cabinet turnover

I prepared this post for the next Shadow Cabinet resignation as they've come so frequently, but with a new general election now looming it's best to post these statistics now.

Since the last general election there have been:
  • 5 Shadow Business Secretaries
  • 5 Shadow Culture, Media and Sports Secretaries
  • 5 Shadow Defence Secretaries
  • 5 Shadow Welsh Secretaries
  • 4 Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretaries with a fifth to come
  • 4 Shadow Attorney Generals plus a vacant period
  • 4 Shadow Chief Secretaries to the Treasury
  • 4 Shadow Education Secretaries
  • 4 Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretaries
  • 4 Shadow Health Secretaries
  • 4 Shadow Leaders of the House of Commons
  • 4 Shadow Ministers for Women and Equalities
  • 3 Shadow Home Secretaries
  • 3 Shadow International Development Secretaries
  • 3 Shadow Ministers for the Cabinet Office
  • 3 Shadow Ministers without Portfolio
  • 3 Shadow Northern Ireland Secretaries
  • 3 Shadow Transport Secretaries
  • 3 Shadow Work and Pensions Secretaries
  • 2 Shadow Chancellors
  • 2 Shadow Foreign Secretaries
  • 2 Shadow Housing Secretaries, plus a period of being vacant before the previous holder returned
  • 2 Shadow Justice Secretaries
  • 2 Shadow Scottish Secretaries
  • 2 Chief Whips in the Commons
  • 1 Shadow Leader of the House of Lords
  • 1 Chief Whip in the Lords
Posts created since the start of the current Parliament:
  • 2 Shadow Brexit Secretaries
  • 2 Shadow Ministers for Mental Health and vacant for a period in the middle
  • 2 Shadow Ministers for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs
  • 1 Shadow International Trade Secretary
  • 1 Shadow Lord President of the Council
Posts abolished mid Parliament:
  • 3 Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretaries
Posts created and (apparently) abolished mid Parliament:
  • 1 Shadow Minister for Diverse Communities
Posted without comment.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

With apologies to General de Gaulle

We don't say it enough but Charles de Gaulle was right to say "Non".

Yes he was primarily concerned with France's national interest. That's not a bad thing for a national leader to be concerned with. But he also spotted when interests were different and incompatible. When he vetoed our original membership application for what was then the European Economic Community he stated:
England [sic] in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.
It's a statement that could have been made by almost any British Eurosceptic over the last fifty years. And it's ultimately proved correct.

The United Kingdom never shared the vision of the European Union as a whole. That's why we ultimately could never be satisfied. When we did eventually get in (Georges Pompidou was wrong to say "Oui"), we kept needing to be satisfied. Either the project had to be transformed to our approval or the UK had to go places it really didn't want to. And so began endless fudges - renegotiations, rebates, opt-outs, Europe a la carte etc... even while the project as a whole advanced. The situation became ever more messy. In fact, I'm surprised the EU never decided to throw us out.

For sure not everyone in the UK took the same view. Some embraced the European dream. Others came to see it as the wrong direction. And some tried to fudge it for the advantages, but the benefits and drawbacks were not shared evenly. The result was debate over decades as the EU increasingly headed onwards, crippled by a lack of a direct democratic mandate for what it had now become. Holding a referendum on staying under the 1975 renegotiation meant the door of direct democracy had been opened on this. Promises of further referendums never materialised despite expectations being raised. At some point one would have come, forcing the issue to be settled.

Today we trigger Article 50 and begin the process of extracting ourselves. And it's also time to posthumously apologise to De Gaulle for spending so long trying to prove he was wrong.

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