Brexit ruling: senior Tories advise May to scrap article 50 appeal

1 month, 1 day ago

Letwin, Grieve and Garnier call for appeal against Brexit ruling to be dropped to avoid legal dangers and save hour and money

Senior Tories have exhorted Theresa May to scrap the governments appeal against a high court ruling which states that parliament must vote on leaving the EU.

Oliver Letwin, the former head of the governments Brexit preparations, has called on the prime minister to abandon its supreme court appeal over government decisions on article 50, existing mechanisms that triggers exit negotiations.

The former us attorney general Dominic Grieve and former solicitor-general Sir Edward Garnier also said May should avoid taking the lawsuit to the UKs highest court.

The three Conservatives, who all supported the remain campaign, said they wanted the process to start as soon as possible with a bill in parliament.

Garnier told BBC Radio 4s Today programme on Saturday: That route you avoid an unnecessary legal row, you avoid a lot of unnecessary expenditure, but you also avoid an opportunity for ill-motivated people to assault the judiciary, to misunderstand the motives of both parties to the lawsuit, and you provide certainty.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Don’t worry about AI running bad- the minds behind it are the hazard | John Naughton

1 month, 3 days ago

Killer robots remain a thing of futuristic nightmare. The real menace from artificial intelligence is far more immediate

As the science fiction novelist William Gibson famously find:” The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed .” I wish people would pay more attention to that adage whenever the subject of artificial intelligence( AI) comes up. Public discourse about it invariably focuses on the threat( or promise, depending on your point of view) of “superintelligent” machines, ie ones that display human-level general intelligence, even though such devices have been 20 to 50 years away ever since we first started worrying about them. The likelihood( or mirage) of such machines still remains a remote prospect, a phase made by the leading AI researcher Andrew Ng, who said that he worries about superintelligence in the same route that he frets about overpopulation on Mars.

That seems about right to me. If one were a conspiracy theorist, one might ask if our obsession with a highly speculative future has been intentionally orchestrated to divert attention from the fact- pace Mr Gibson- that lower-level but exceedingly powerful AI is already here and playing an ever-expanding role in shaping our economies, societies and politics. This technology is a combination of machine learning and big data and it’s everywhere, controlled and deployed by a handful of powerful corporations, with occasional walk-on components assigned to national security agencies.

These corporations consider this version of “weak” AI as the biggest thing since sliced bread. The CEO of Google burbles about” AI everywhere” in his company’s offerings. Same goes for the other digital giants. In the face of this hype onslaught, it takes a certain amount of heroism to stand up and ask awkward topics. If this stuff is so powerful, then surely we ought to be looking at how it is being used, asking whether it’s legal, ethical and good for society- and thinking about what will happen when it gets into the hands of people who are even worse than the folks who run the big tech firms. Because it will.

Fortunately, there are scholars who have started to ask these awkward topics. There are, for example, the researchers who work at AI Now, a research institute at New York University focused on the social implications of AI. Their 2017 report attains interesting reading. Last week assured the publication of more in the same vein- a new critique of the technology by 26 experts from six major universities, plus a number of independent thinktanks and NGOs.

Its title- The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention and Mitigation- tells it all. The report fills a serious gap in our thinking about this stuff. We’ve heard the hype, corporate and governmental, about the wonderful things AI can supposedly do and we’ve begun to pay attention to the unintentional downsides of legitimate applications of the technology. Now the time has come to pay attention to the really malign things bad actors could do with it.

The report looks at three main “domains” in which we can expect problems. One is digital security. The utilize of AI to automate chores involved in carrying out cyber-attacks will alleviate the existing trade-off between the scale and efficacy of attacks. We can also expect assaults that exploit human vulnerabilities( for example, through the use of speech synthesis for impersonation ), existing software vulnerabilities( through automated hacking) or the vulnerabilities of legitimate AI systems( through corruption of the data rivers on which machine learning depends ).

A second threat domain is physical security- assaults with dronings and autonomous weapons systems.( Think v2. 0 of the hobbyist dronings that Isis deployed, but this time with face-recognition technology on board .) We can also expect new various kinds of attacks that subvert physical systems- causing autonomous vehicles to accident, say- or ones deploying physical systems that would be impossible to remotely control from a distance: a thousand-strong swarm of micro-drones, for example.

Finally, there’s what the authors call” political security”- using AI to automate tasks involved in surveillance, persuasion( creating targeted propaganda) and misrepresentation( eg, manipulating videos ). We can also expect new kinds of attack based on machine-learning’s capability to infer human behaviours, moods and beliefs from available data. This technology will obviously be welcomed by authoritarian countries, but it will also further undermine the capacities of republics to sustain truthful public debates. The bots and fake Facebook accounts that currently pollute our public sphere will look awfully amateurish in a couple of years.

The report is available as a free download and is worth read in full. If it were about the dangers of future or speculative technologies, then it might be reasonable to reject it as academic scare-mongering. The alarming thing is most of the problematic capabilities that its authors envisage are already available and in many cases are currently embedded in many of the networked services that we use every day. William Gibson was right: the future has already arrived.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Women’s rights are on the retreat yet again. Why? | Barbara Ellen

2 months, 7 days ago

Donald Trumps ruling attaining it easier for companies to opt out of providing free family planning highlightings the need for vigilance

When modern females are ultimately fitted with their regulation compulsory chastity belts, dare one dream that they’ll come in a range of fairly colours, delightful the documentation and snazzy designs? Or would it simply be the old-school medieval iron trad models? Hey, little ladies, do you think we’d be allowed to choose?

I muse facetiously because, in the US, President Trump has issued a ruling that makes it far easier for companies and insurers to opt out of free birth control to employees on the grounds of religious and moral beliefs, rolling back a key feature of Obamacare. Now that it will become easier to opt out, many more will do so, with the health risks to affect 55 million females. The American Civil Liberties Union( ACLU) and the National Women’s Law Center have announced that they will sue the government over the decision.

Obamacare provisions also encompassed treatment for gynaecological conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Now, many girls will be worried about being able to afford such therapies. However, these unfortunate girls probably just count as collateral injury. Apart from the huge amount of money that big business will save, the real target there are sexual autonomy, doubtless all sexual independence, but specifically the female kind that a certain mindset have all along wanted to control.

Contraception, though imperfect, was one of the chief liberators of women, taking much of the dread out of sex. Thus, this removal of free family planning could only be about putting the dread back into sexuality. At the least, putting an end to the corporate bankrolling of the more liberal, humanist, proactive and protective approaches to sex.

It should come as no surprise that among the reasons cited for the change were findings that access to contraception incited” risky sex behaviour “. Eh? One would have thought that reduced access to contraception was far riskier and that, for both sexualities, access to barrier contraception would be the least “risky” of all?

However, even believing like this is to participate in the delusion that this is about people enjoying themselves safely. Take away the figleaf of social responsibility and this becomes about stopping people being able to enjoy sexuality when they want, with whom they want, without anxiety of the results of unwanted pregnancy. And when I say ” people”, I mainly mean women.

Not that things are so peachy for reproductive rights back in Europe. Even as an Irish abortion reform referendum is under discussion for next year, a poll has revealed that only 24% of Irish people are in favour of legalising terminations in nearly all cases. Meanwhile, Prof Lesley Regan, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has argued that parts of the 1967 Abortion Act are outdated and that females need faster, safer access to abortion, without the necessity of achieving the approval of two separate physicians- thus far to no avail. The lesson seems to be that it will never be over- there will always be laws that need to be updated and, where needed, protected. Where the Trump contraceptive ruling is concerned, it’s scary enough that it’s such a backward step- yet scarier that it has been so slyly done.

It’s an example of how a quite subtle shifting of legislative emphasis- simply making something easy( the opt-out) that had previously been difficult- could be enough to undermine, or even destroy, major sociopolitical progress, with far-reaching repercussions for women. The imminence of chastity belts or not, this appears to be an era when there’s a real need for women to stay alert- when hard-fought gains could be eroded in an instant with the quiet swish of a departmental pen.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

When Nigel Farage met Julian Assange

2 months, 16 days ago

Why did Ukips ex-leader want to slip in unnoticed to satisfy the WikiLeaks chief at the Ecuadorian embassy?

On 9 March 2017, an ordinary Thursday morning, Ian Stubbings, a 35 -year-old Londoner, was walking down the street near its term of office in South Kensington when he spotted a familiar face. He turned and saw a human entering the redbrick terrace which houses the Ecuadorian embassy, where the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up since 2012. And the familiar face? It was Nigel Farage, the person who is spearheaded Britains exit from the European Union.

I thought hang in a moment, Stubbings says. That appears a little bit dodgy. I knew the building was the embassy because I often ensure camera crews outside. But there was no one else around. I was the only person whod seen him. And I didnt know what the significance was and I still dont actually but I thought: thats got to be worth telling and I was the only person whod witnessed it.

So, at 11.22 am, he tweeted it. His handle is @custardgannet and he wrote: Genuine scoop: merely saw Nigel Farage enter the Ecuadorian embassy. Moments later, a reporter from BuzzFeed, who happened to follow him on Twitter, picked it up and tweeted him back, and Stubbings told her: No press or cameras around.

No press or cameras around, that is, until BuzzFeed turned up just in time to catch Farage leaving, 40 minutes later. Nigel Farage Just Visited the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, the headline said. Asked by BuzzFeed News if hed been visiting Julian Assange, the former Ukip leader said he could not remember what he had been doing in the building.

And that was how the world found out, by collision, that the founder of WikiLeaks, the organisation which published Hillary Clintons leaked emails a decisive advantage for Donald Trumps campaign and Farage, a friend of Donald Trump, were mutually acquainted.

In Britain, we routinely treat Farage as if he were Widow Twankey in “the member states national” pantomime that is Ukip politics. And Widow Twankey dropping by on the man who lives in the Ecuadorian embassy broom cupboard seemed just one more weird moment in the weird times in which we now live; six weeks on, it had faded into yet another episode in the surreality show that now passes for normality.

But in a week that find two major developments on either side of the Atlantic regarding the respective roles that Assange and Farage played in the US election and the EU referendum the same week in which a UK general election was announced it is an attitude that needs urgent re-examination.

For if you were to pick three the persons who have the most decisive impact on that most decisive of years, 2016, it would be hard to see beyond Trump, Assange and Farage. What was not known until Ian Stubbings decided to go for an early lunch is that there is a channel of communication between them.

Last week brought this more clearly into focus. Because in a shock developing last Thursday, the US justice department announced it had prepared charges with a view to arresting Assange. A day subsequently, the Electoral Commission announced it was investigating Leave.EU the Brexit campaign Farage headed.

Significantly, the commission said its investigation was focused on whether one or more gifts including of services accepted by Leave.EU was impermissible.

One of the grounds on which a gift can be deemed impermissible is that it comes from abroad. A fundamental principle of British democracy and our elections law is that foreign citizens and foreign companies cannot buy influence in British elections via campaign donations.

The
The Ecuadorian embassy in west London. Photo: Will Oliver/ EPA

Robert Mercer, the billionaire hedge fund proprietor, bankrolled the Trump campaign and his company, Cambridge Analytica, the Observer has disclosed , donated services to Leave.EU. If this issue forms part of the Electoral Commission investigation, this isnt simply a lawsuit of maybe breaking regulations by overspending a few pounds. It goes to the heart of the integrity of our democratic system. Did Leave.EU seek to obtain foreign support for a British election? And, if so, does this constitute foreign subversion?

What did or didnt happen on 9 March may perhaps expose clues to understanding this. To unravelling the links between WikiLeaks, the UK and the Trump administration an administration embroiled in ever deeper connections to the Russian state. Between Trump whose campaign was financed by Mercer and who came to power with the help of the same analytics firm now under investigation for its work with Leave.EU and Brexit.

And 9 March was the working day that all these worlds came together when the cyber-libertarian movement that Assange represents collided headfirst with the global rightwing libertarian movement that Farage represents. When Nigel Farage tripped down the steps of the Ecuadorian embassy a visit that he did not expect to be photographed or documented a beam of light was shone on a previously concealed world: a political alignment between WikiLeaks ideology, Ukips ideology and Trumps ideology that is not inevitably simply an affinity. It is also, potentially, a channel of communication.

David Golumbia, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in the US who has studied WikiLeaks, describes it as the moment when the lines abruptly become visible. He says: It was like the picture suddenly came into focus. There is this worldwide, rightwing, nationalistic movement that is counter to the EU, and this is present in the US and Europe and Russia, and we are just starting to understand how they do all seem to be in communication and co-ordination with each other.

In many styles, it wasnt a astonish. There are clear ideological similarities between Assange and Farage. They have both been regulars on RT, Russias state-sponsored news channel. They have both been paid indirectly by the Russian state to appear on it. Ben Nimmo, a defense analyst with the Atlantic Councils Digital Forensic Research Lab, points out that Farage has voted systematically in favour of Russian interests in the European parliament. There is very, very strong support for the Kremlin among the far right in Europe. And Farage is squarely in that bloc with the likes of the Front National in France and Jobbik in Hungary.

In February, when I started my investigation into Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica, I fulfilled Andy Wigmore, its director of communications, for a coffee and he told him that Farage was in the US, where he was going to be making a big platform speech at CPAC, the US conservative conference. And its not going to be his normal Mr Brexit speech, he told. Hes going to be talking about the need for closer relations with Russia. Really? I told. That sounds odd.

Julian
Julian Assange making a speech from the balcony of the embassy last year. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/ Reuters

What? No route. Farage has been across the subject for years in the European parliament. It didnt make much sense at the time and, in fact, that wasnt the speech that Farage built. On 24 February, he told the crowd: Our real friends in the world speak English. The next evening he had dinner with Trump at the Washington Trump hotel and tweeted a photo of him with the Donald in the early hours of the morning.

Eleven days later, he headed off to the Ecuadorian embassy. BuzzFeeds story dropped at 1.31 pm. And, 57 minutes later, at 2.28 pm, WikiLeaks made an announcement: it would host a live press conference by Julian Assange about his latest leak, Vault 7.

The timing of this was lost in the isnt that bizarre? tone of the coverage. And, perhaps, also, its only with distance that it raises significant questions not least because the complex web of connections between the Trump administration is a challenge for even hardened US newshounds to follow.

Nearly every day of 2017 brought along forth some new nugget of fact about Trump-Russia but this was a tough week for Trump, even by his standards. The witch-hunt, as hes worded it, was collecting pace. On 2 March, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Trump-Russia investigation and, on 4 March, Trump retaliated in a tweetstorm which accused Obama of wiretapping him.

And then, on 7 March, he finally caught a transgres. Some other news came along to knock him off the front page. For more than a month, WikiLeaks had been periodically issuing cryptic tweets about Vault 7. A month passed before it eventually landed: a leak that, whether by accident or design, embarrassed the CIA.

WikiLeaks data trove had come from what it “ve called the” CIAs global hacking force, its Center for Cyber Intelligence. CIA scrambles to contain injury from WikiLeaks documents, said the headline in what Trump calls the failing New York Times . The documents apparently showed that the CIA had the capability to hack a huge number of devices , not only telephones but also TVs. In the midst of the most serious investigation of foreign cyber-interference in a current administration in US history, vivid revelations about the USs similar capability to interfere abroad had hit the headlines.

US us attorney general Jeff Sessions on WikiLeaks: Well seek to set people in jail

A highly placed linked with links to US intelligence told the Observer : When the heat is turned up and all electronic communication, you have to assume, is being intensely monitored, then those are the times when intelligence communication falls back on human couriers. Where you have individuals passing datum in ways and places that cannot be monitored.

When asked about the session in the embassy, Farage said: I never discuss where I go or who I see.

In October, Roger Stone, a Republican strategist whose links to Russia are currently under investigation by the FBI, told a local CBS reporter about a back-channel communications with Assange, because we have a good reciprocal friend that friend travels back and forth from the United States to London and we talk. Asked directly by the Observer if Nigel Farage was that friend, his spokesman said: Definitely not.

Arron
Arron Banks with Nigel Farage in 2014. Photograph: Matt Cardy/ Getty Images

And in some way, this may not be the phase. A channel exists. In the perfect blizzard of fake news, disinformation and social media in which we now live, WikiLeaks is, in many ways, the swirling vortex at the centre of everything. Farages relationship with the organisation is just one of a whole host of questions to which we currently have no answer.

Some of those questions dog Arron Banks, the Bristol businessman who bankrolled Leave.EU and who announced last week that he is standing during the elections in Clacton. When I interviewed him last month, he said: Not a single penny of Russian money has been put into Brexit though that wasnt a question I had asked him.

He is, however, openly pro-Putin and anti-democracy. Its not possible to run that entire country[ Russia] as a pure republic, he told. When asked about the investigation into Leave.EUs campaign finances, he told me: I dont dedicate a monkey about the Electoral Commission.

On Friday night, he released a letter saying that he would no longer co-operate with the commission a body mandated by parliament to uphold UK electoral law and said he would watch them in court.

As Britain lunges towards a general election to choose a government that they are able to take us out of the European union, this may be the moment be recognised that Nigel Farage is not Widow Twankey, and that this is not a pantomime. Farages politics and his relationships are more complicated than we, the British press, have previously realised. His relationship to Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the same firm that helped Trump to power, is now under official investigation. Every day, more and more questions are being asked about that administration.

Yet, here in Britain, we plunge blindly on. Real, hard topics need to asked about what exactly these relationships are and what they mean. Dont they?

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Neoliberalism: the deep narrative that lies beneath Donald Trump’s triumph | George Monbiot

3 months, 3 days ago

How a ruthless network of super-rich ideologues killed choice and destroyed people faith in politics

The events that led to Donald Trumps election started in England in 1975. At a meeting a few months after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, one of her colleagues, or so the narrative runs, was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She snapped open her handbag, pulled out a dog-eared book, and slammed it on the table. This is what we believe, she told. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun.

The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publishing, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It considered competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of wins and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant taxation, regulation, trade union activities activity or country provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would percolate down to everyone.

This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly shall be financed by multimillionaires who find the doctrine as an instrument of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal program advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.

He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible notion of liberty: a lack of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands.

Democracy, by contrast, is not an ultimate or absolute value. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exerting choice over the direction that politics and communities might take.

He justifies its own position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, expending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific innovators. Only as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion.

The ultra rich are scouts, experimenting with new styles of living, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The advance of society depends on the liberty of these independents to gain as much fund as they want and expend it how there is a desire to. All that is good and useful, hence, arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward , no distinction constructed between earned and unearned income, and no limit to the rents they can charge.

Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: the idle rich, who dont have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and notions. Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but aimless showing, they are in fact acting as societies vanguard.

Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and tries by the country to create the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is an overwhelming suit against a free health service for all and rejected the conservation of natural resources. It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics.

By the time Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayeks doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the worlds richest people and industries, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant impact, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayeks anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme.

The
The ideologies Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan espoused were just two facets of neoliberalism. Photo: Bettmann/ Bettmann Archive

Thatcherism and Reaganism were not ideologies in their own: they were just two faces of neoliberalism. Their massive taxation cuts for the rich, crushing of trade unions, reduction in public housing, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services were all proposed by Hayek and his followers. But the real victory of this network was not its capture for the human rights, but its colonisation of parties that once stood for everything Hayek detested.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not possess a narrative of their own. Rather than develop a new political narrative, they thought it was sufficient to triangulate. In other terms, they extracted a few cases elements of what their parties had once believed, mixed them with elements of what their adversaries believed, and developed from this unlikely combining a third way.

It was inevitable that the blaze, insurrectionary confidence of neoliberalism would exert a stronger gravitational pulling than the dying superstar of social democracy. Hayeks triumph could be witnessed everywhere from Blairs expansion of the private finance initiative to Clintons repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which had governed the financial sector. For all his grace and touch, Barack Obama, who didnt possess a narrative either( except hope ), was slowly reeled in by those who owned the means of persuasion.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Imagine there’s no Sgt Pepper. It’s all too easy in the era of Trump and May | John Harris

4 months, 1 day ago

This great Beatles album is as thrilling a listen as ever on its 50 th anniversary: but its a melancholy day for the one-world counterculture the record soundtracked

At the time Sgt Pepper was released, the American writer Langdon Winner once recalled, I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend the tunes wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi For a brief while, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the west was unified, at the least in the minds of the young.

How far away it all seems. On 26 May the 50th anniversary of the Beatles Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band( it actually falls on 1 June) is likely to be marked by the release of remixed and repackaged versions of the original album. With his characteristically jolly meeknes, Paul McCartney insists in the latest issue of Mojo magazine that its only a record but its gained in notoriety over the years. The truth is that Sgt Pepper might be the most confident, boundary-pushing record British rock musicians had already been generated, and it is worth revisiting again.

We might also think about the era the album crystallised, and its long legacy. Sgt Pepper is not quite the quintessentially psychedelic, love-and-peace artefact of historical cliche: streaked through its multicoloured astonish is a very Beatle-ish various kinds of melancholy, partly rooted in the bands decidedly unpsychedelic postwar childhoods. But the wider culture moment, and the Beatles place at its heart, were indeed replete with beads, buzzers and a wide-eyed optimism.

Three weeks after the album came out, the band were the biggest attraction in the worlds first global satellite TV demonstrate, singing All You Need Is Love to an audience of as many as 350 million. Meanwhile, on both the US west coast and in swinging London, young people on the cutting edge genuinely were trying to push into a future very different from the one their parents had envisaged.

The so-called counterculture may not initially have reached much beyond its urban nerve centres and campuses. But the basic ideas Sgt Pepper soundtracked soon acquired enough influence to begin no end of social revolutions. A new emphasis on self-expression was manifested in the decisive arrival of feminism and gay liberation. Countries and borders came a distant second to the idea of one world.

Such shibboleths as matrimony until death and a job for life were quickly weakened. Once the leftist unrest of 1968 was out of the way, the shift continued away from the old-fashioned politics of systems and social structures towards the idea of freeing ones mind everything coloured with an essentially optimistic position of the future.

Two years after Sgt Peppers release, a young alumnu at Wellesley College, a women-only institution in Massachusetts, dedicated a speech. Our persisting acquisitive and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us, she said. Were searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living. And so our topics, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue.

Her name was Hillary Rodham, and her journey says a lot about where 1960 s values eventually resulted us. To quote the music novelist Charles Shaar Murray, the line from hippy to yuppie was not nearly as convoluted as some people subsequently liked to believe and once the love decades more ambitious alumni reached positions of power, the origin of many of their notions was as clear as day.

Their professed distaste for corporate values fell away, but the hippy individualism summed up in the future Hillary Clintons insistence on immediate and ecstatic ways of life lived on, as did a questioning attitude to tradition, and to the stifling the limit of the old-fashioned nation state.

After the anti-6 0s backlash symbolised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, by the mid-9 0s such notions were shaping a new political establishment, exemplified by Bill Clinton, and Blair and Browns New Labour. I am a modern man, from the rocknroll generation. The Beatles, colour TV, thats my generation, said Blair. Clinton honked away at his saxophone and ended his rallies with a song by Fleetwood Mac.

It is not hard to read across from these legislators ideals to what they soaked up in their formative years. In 2005 Blair, who fronted a long-haired band while at Oxford University, told the Labour party conference that people should be swift to adapt, slow to complain open, willing and able to change. Collectivity was yesterdays thing; against a background of globalisation and all-enveloping liberalism, governments task was to encourage people to be as flexible and self-questioning as possible.

John Lennons response to the rebels of 68: the Beatles build Revolution rock

Go back 50 years, and you perhaps hear early stirrings of those ideas, soaked in patchouli petroleum and put to tape at EMIs Abbey Road studios. Try George Harrisons Indian-flavoured Within You Without You: Try to realise its all within yourself/ No one else can construct you change . Or what about John Lennons response to the rebels of 68 in Revolution( on the so-called White Album )? You tell me its the institution/ Well, you know/ Youd better free your intellect instead . As for a picture of globalised utopia, after the Beatles had broken up, Lennon released that saccharine anthem Imagine, with its key line: Imagine theres no countries .

And now? If youre a citizen of the world, youre a citizen of nowhere, says our new “ministers “. If we do indeed live in the post-liberal times endlessly analysed in academic papers, it is the inheritance of the 60 s that is in question. For sure, many of the changes that originated then have become irreversibly embedded in millions of lives. Positions to marriage, sexuality and matters such as race are seemingly more liberal than ever; wherever you go, youre never very far from the whiff of marijuana smoke.

But the dominance of post-6 0s individualism and globalisation is being weakened by the resurgence of collective identities meant to have withered away: class, nation, region. And if the events of 2016 and 2017 are anything to go by, political success now often goes to people whose values seem the polar opposite of the old counterculture.

Duty, nationhood, and regular trips to church: whatever values Theresa May affects to represent, they are surely redolent of a world that existed long before the 1960 s( consider also her parliamentary record, which includes votes against equalising the age of permission, lesbian adoption and the repeal of section 28 ).

Last year, a New York Post article contrasted Hillary Clintons embodiment of the campus 1960 s with the sense that Donald Trump was an unexpected throwback to the Rat Pack, those macho exemplars of everything the hippies wanted to sweep away. Trump, said the author, represented pre-Feminist Man, the guy who boasts about never having changed a nappy and expects subservience from his wives.

Sgt Pepper arrived two decades after the second world wars objective: approximately the same historical distance that separates the Brexit/ Trump age from the high point of the Clinton/ Blair era. Devote a 21 st-century polish, the albums music voices as thrilling as ever, though with a bittersweet sense of a credo abruptly falling victim to a counter-revolution.

On the last track of the old side two, the bell-like piano chords that begin A Day in the Life are applied to sound like the death knell of all the inward-looking, fusty, moralistic ideas the Beatles came to do away with. How strange to tune in half a century afterwards and find all that stuff back with a vengeance.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Inner-city living builds for healthier, happier people, study determines

4 months, 8 days ago

Residents of higher-density areas are more active, more socially engaged and less obese than people who live in the sprawl of suburbia

Contrary to popular belief, busy city centres beat suburban living when it is necessary to human wellbeing, as socialising and walking make for happier, healthier people, according to a new report.

Downtown residents- packed together in tight row houses or apartment blocks- become active and socially engaged than people who live in the sprawl of suburbia, according to a report that aims to challenge popular beliefs about city life.

Its authors said their findings should encourage legislators to promote the benefits of built-up city living.

” If we can persuade policy makers that this is a public health possibility, we can construct well-designed communities, and in the long term you have made a big difference in the area of health outcomes ,” its co-author Chinmoy Sarkar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

” With evidence, we can scheme multi-functional, attractive neighborhoods that promote physical activity, promote social interaction, and shield from negatives such as pollution and impression unsafe .”

The examine- by Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong( UHK)- showed that in 22 British cities people living in built-up residential area had lower levels of obesity and exercised more than residents in scattered, suburban homes.

” As cities get more and more compact, they become more walkable. In denser residential areas they are better designed and most attractive destinations. We are less dependent on our automobiles and use public transport more ,” he said.

Sarkar, assistant prof at UHK, said policies and planning needed to catch up with the data, rather than relying on urban myths about what attains cities work.

The study showed that areas of suburban sprawl with about 18 homes per hectare- such as poorly designed neighborhoods near motorways, where driving is the only option- had the greatest rates of obesity and lowest rates of exercise.

Suburban areas with few homes- often privileged communities with big gardens and open spaces- were healthier than this but lagged behind the most densely populated areas in inner cities.

Walking constructed the biggest change, said Sarkar, and social interaction and physical activity flourished best in compact communities.

The analyse compared more than 400,000 residents of cities- including London, Glasgow, and Cardiff- and procured the best health came in areas with more than 32 homes per hectare, the average density for new building in Britain.

This level, typical of developments of standalone semi-detached suburban homes, is less than a one-quarter of the density of Georgian terraces of London’s desirable Islington and Notting Hill neighbourhoods.

Sarkar called into question British policies- such as statutes to curtail suburban homes from dividing their plots and filling in more homes in gardens- which have sought to preserve suburbia’s open and emptier spaces.

In January the government announced it would construct 17 new towns and villages across the countryside in a bid to ease a chronic housing shortage. But Sarkar said policy makers should think again before building on green fields.

Despite spiralling home costs and government targets to build a million homes by 2020, Britain’s restrictive scheming system has prevented high-density, urban planning due to fears that it would lead to high-rise, low-quality blocks of flats, according to a government paper released in February.

London remains one of Europe’s most sparsely populated major cities, with less than half the density of Madrid, Barcelona and Paris, and below the level of Milan, Berlin and Rome.

The paper recommended local authorities to reverse their long-standing opposition to built-up residential areas by highlighting London’s mansion blocks and terraced streets, all of which promote a strong sense of neighbourhood.

On Wednesday the prime minister, Theresa May, said the government would give PS2bn( US $2.6 bn) to local government authorities to build 25,000 homes for rental in the social housing sector, which urgently requires new properties.

The the administration has invest a further PS10bn in a strategy that aims to boost home ownership by helping people buy a new-build home with only a small deposit.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Prince George arrives for first day at PS18, 000 -a-year prep school

4 months, 17 days ago

Choice of Thomass Battersea stimulates four-year-old prince the first direct royal heir to be educated south of the river in London

Prince George has started school; a royal enrolment that has upped the desirability of properties in the well-heeled environs of the south-west London prep school chosen to tutor the four-year-old.

Plans for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to accompany their firstborn on his first day were changed due to her recently announced pregnancy and the severe morning sickness “shes been” experiencing. Instead the duke did the school operate solo.

A crowd of well-wishers had met outside the school gate to watch. The young prince arrived shortly before 8.50 am and was driven through a side entrance and a security gate shut behind them.

The third in line to the throne arrived for his first day at PS18, 000 -a-year Thomas’s Battersea, where he will learn to” be kind”, acquire” confidence, leadership and humility” and not have a best friend to prevent other children having hurt feelings.

Holding his dad’s hand and seeming a little apprehensive, George strolled from the car and then had a formal handshake with Helen Haslem, head of lower school. the duke was holding his son’s school bag.

It was a low-level arrival as far as media were concerned. Unlike William’s first day, which was witnessed by a bank of photographers, the ferociously protective Cambridges stipulated only one TV camera and one photographer would be there to capture the moment of George’s first day.

The newest and most famous pupil, who will be known as George Cambridge, was escorted into the reception class.

Kitted out in his John Lewis uniform( also available at Peter Jones in Sloane Square)- winter and summertime uniforms, red art smock, and PE kit including black ballet shoes total more than PS365- the young prince can look forward to a broad education.

Prince
Prince George arrives with the Duke of Cambridge at Thomas’s Battersea in London. Photo: Kensington Palace/ PA

Along with maths, English and science, the curriculum includes class in” understanding the world”,” expressive arts and design” and” communication and speech “. Art, ballet, drama, ICT, French, music, and PE are all taught from day one.

If, like his great-uncle Edward, he inclines towards thespianism, the school performs eight different productions and a nativity play every year, and has its own sound and illuminating crew. Any musical leanings will be encouraged enthusiastically through weekly concerts and summer and wintertime galas.

He may, of course, prefer to simply charge around the rooftop playground, with climbing frames and stunning opinions across the river Thames and Battersea Park.

Ben Thomas, principal of Thomas’s London Day School, who was headteacher at Thomas’s Battersea for 18 years, said he hoped George would learn to be himself.

” The whole aim of these precious early years of education is to give children that confidence in who they are. So we are not going to try and mould him into any kind of particular person and we wouldn’t do that with any of our pupils.

” I hope he will have the confidence to be himself with all his oddities and his idiosyncrasies and characteristics.”

The choice of Thomas’s Battersea constructs him the first direct royal heir to be educated south of the river, but then he is only the third-generation heir to attend public school.

His father, the Duke of Cambridge, attended Wetherby school in Notting Hill, west London, gaily waving to photographers on his first day, and leaving the establishment with the distinction of winning the Grunfield Cup for the child with the best swimming style.

Diana,
Diana, Princess of Wales, following her sons Prince Harry( right ), then five, and Prince William, then seven, on Harry’s first day at the Wetherby school in Notting Hill. Photograph: Ron Bell/ PA

His paternal grandfather, the Prince of Wales, then the Duke of Cornwall, did not start at Hill House school, Knightsbridge, until the age of eight. On his first day, he painted a painting. Breathless newspaper reports, based on the imaginative accounts of witness, describing him variously as a red and blue seascape, a green ship running under Tower Bridge, or the royal yacht Britannia.” One thing is clear, on his first day at school the Duke of Cornwall painted a image ,” the Manchester Guardian reported.

With simply 560 boys and girls between the ages of four and 13, Thomas’s Battersea school, in a Grade II-listed building, parts of which date to 1700, has a ballet room, science labs, a pottery room, two libraries and a one-acre playground with AstroTurf.

Morning snacks include organic milk, freshly cooked ache aux raisins and wholewheat breadsticks. For lunch, pupils are promised freshly cooked meals which, whenever possible, include organic meat, vegetables and dairy, all of which grandpapa Charles will certainly approve.

According to the Good Schools Guide, it has a wide-ranging mixture of international parents, with 19 different foreign languages spoken at home. Competitive and oversubscribed, it is looking for children who” have a measure of confidence, are responsive, sociable, and with a sunlight in their eyes “.

It is “busy” and” slightly chaotic” and for cosmopolitan parents who want” the best English education fund can buy”, the guidebook continues.” That is what they want and, to a large degree, that is what they get .” It adds:” Withdrawn forms might find it all overwhelming .”

Tatler advises to get children’s names down at birth. According to the society magazine, new headmaster Simon O’Malley, who, like George, starts this September, is a” silver fox” whose previously stated mission is for pupils to leave school” confident and comfy, the sort of people others turn to “.

Handout
Duke of Cambridge with his son Prince George on his first day of school. Photograph: Chris Jackson/ Kensington Palace

Known for his attention to detail, O’Malley once told the Daily Telegraph how it was the interesting thing that count: such as emailing the parent of an expat pupil to say they performed a great rugby tackle because the parent is not at the match to see it and say ” well done “.

The school, whose alumni include model and performer Cara Delevingne and singer Florence Welch, is said to discourage pupils from having best friends, instead encouraging lots of friends to stop others having their impressions hurt.

Its website stress along with the” highest academic standards”, the school’s” ethos, aims and values actively support the upholding of republic, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

” These are British values which we cherish and which equip pupils for life in modern Britain .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

No holds barred and funny as hell: the fierce humor of Margaret Cho

4 months, 25 days ago

One of Americas most politically outspoken standups is eventually bringing her barbarian brand of comedy to Britain

If you have never heard of Margaret Cho, believe the caustic, crude slapstick of Joan Rivers, the politically-charged gibe of Bill Hicks and the quick-witted improvisation of Robin Williams- all rolled into one but with a feisty Korean spin. Now the US comedian is about to embark on a UK tour, starting in Edinburgh on 25 November and ending at the O2 Shepherd’ s Bush Empire on 10 December.

Cho is a five-time Grammy and Emmy nominee and a household name in America, and earlier this year Rolling Stone magazine named her as one of the 50 best standup comics of all time. She has worked with all the above comics, and others such as Jerry Seinfeld, but says her greatest mentor and influence was Rivers.” I try to carry on her legacy ,” she says.” I feel like I learned everything I know from her .”

For a comedian like the openly bisexual Cho, famous for her brazen take on sex and politics, there has never been a better time to hit the road.

With the daily tweet-fest that is the presidency of Donald Trump and the sexual harassment revelations rocking Hollywood, Cho says the material is flowing like never before.

” There’s a lot about Trump, a lot about race and sexuality, and politics. I get to talk about all that various kinds of stuff, which I think is really important ,” she says.

Cho, 48, is also open about having been sexually assaulted and raped by a family friend as a adolescent. The accusations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have inevitably brought that back- but for her, slapstick is healing.

” I never believed I would see anything like this in my lifetime. I’m a survivor of this kind of stuff so it’s really amazing to see it happening ,” she says.

” It’s disgusting, but that’s what’s great about comedy. You can take something really terrible and make it funny. And that’s magical, that’s what we all strive for, to take things so dark and so difficult and construct them very light ,” she says. Dealing with difficult subjects, sometimes in difficult circumstances, is trademark Cho.

At a recent fundraising bash in Washington DC she was waiting in the wings with fellow headliners Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno when one of the theatre reps rushed up and whispered in her ear:” Whatever you do, don’t talk about Trump !”

Cho remembers:” Everyone suddenly seemed really scared. It was so weird .” At first she thought it might be the president himself. But as she seemed out into the audience, Cho clocked his daughter, Ivanka, with spouse Jared Kushner, one of Trump’s closest aides.

She thought about it for a split second, but carried on regardless- lambasting, with her signature barbarian humor, Trump, Weinstein and” all the bad in national societies “.” I won’t be asked back ,” she says, giggling.” But that’s OK with me .”

Cho is now looking forward to getting better acquainted with Britain.” Britons know their comedians very well. You watch comedians change their demonstrates and come back with a new demonstrate every year. So there’s a connection that they have with their audience.

” Comedy in saloon is actually there to be the social instigator, and get people talking to each other and get the social feedback running. Comedians have a different role in society there than they do in America. It’s definitely much more involved .”

Cho depicts heavily on her childhood growing up in and around a lesbian bookstore in San Francisco, which her parents bought when she was seven.

” We sold a lot of gay porn, and that’s pretty crazy for a very Conservative Korean household !” she jokes. It was here, though, that she learned the ache of losing friends, most of them to Aids.

” Aids changed my whole world. That’s the thing I haven’t is dealing with as a performer yet. I hadn’t figured out a way to talk about it- up to now .”

Like many comedians, it’s her own troubled past that has perhaps been most influential in Cho’s work- including with regard to her struggle with medication and alcohol abuse.

” Comedy is really about coping. It’s about coping with your own suffering, and your own pain. How do we find a way through that? That’s what slapstick is in general. It’s a way to cope. It’s finding a way to survive with all of this happening ,” she says.

Sometimes that suffering has spilled over on to the stage. At one sell-out gigin New Jersey last year half the crowd strolled out midway through when she appeared to slur and forget her punchlines. Grainy video footage of the event indicates battles breaking out and Cho ranting at” over-privileged white people “. At the time she put the fiasco down to sorrow over the death of fellow comedian Garry Shandling, but not long afterwards she dropped off the circuit altogether.

” I spent about a year and a half in a very closed-off rehab”, she says.” I just didn’t want to go back into the world .”

Now she feels like she’s” come out of the craziness and into the sun”, and is ready to attain her most troubling experiences part of her standup routine.” The worse the subject the funnier it is, that’s what I believe ,” she says.

The title of her new indicate- Fresh Off the Bloat – is itself a reference to being fresh off medications, alcohol and” the verge of suicide “. For the UK demonstrates, Cho has been busy rewriting a big chunk of her act to catch up with the constant flow of sexual harassment accusations dogging the entertainment industry.

She’s no stranger to Hollywood herself. She was in the film Face/ Off with John Travolta and had her own TV sitcom in the 90 s, All-American Girl , where she played the rebellious daughter in a traditional Korean-American household. Former boyfriend Quentin Tarantino famously directed one of the episodes.

The pair, she says, lately “was talkin about a” the Weinstein allegations and their wider impact.” It’s very difficult because it involves all this amazing cinematographic history too. But I think it’s going to be a continual reminder that there’s a lot of bad in our society, and particularly in industries like amusement where there’s so much feeling of absolute power that people have. So I think there’s a lot more to come out. I feel like this is just the beginning, and I’m really grateful for that .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

‘A tale of decay’: the Houses of Parliament are falling down

5 months, 5 days ago

The long read: As politicians dither over repairs, the risk of fire, inundation or a spate of sewage merely increases. But fixing the Palace of Westminster might change British politics for good which is the last thing many of its residents want

Britain’s Parliament is broken. It is a flame danger. It is insanitary. Asbestos worms its route through the building. Many of the tubes and cables that carry heat, water, energy and gas were installed just after the war and should have been replaced in the 1970 s; some of them date from the 19 th century. The older the steam pipe become, the more likely they are to cracking or leak. When high-temperature, high-pressure steam enters the ambiance, it expands at velocity, generating huge, explosive energy. Such force could be fatal for anyone close; it could also disturb asbestos and send it flying through the ventilation system, to be inhaled by palace employees. The house caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012. Last year, a malfunctioning light on an obscure part of the roof caused an electrical fire that could have spread rapidly, had it not been detected at once. Whatever else happens in the Palace of Westminster, that great neo-Gothic pile on the Thames, one thing is constant. Every hour of every day, four or five members of the fire-safety squad are patrolling the palace, hunting for flames.

Away from the grand chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords, away from the lofty passageways, away from the imposing committee rooms with their carved doorways, the palace is tatty, dirty and infested with vermin. Its lavatories stink, its drains leak. Some of the external stonework has not been cleaned since it was built in the 1840 s, and is encrusted with a thick coat of tarry black that is eating away at the masonry. Inside the building, intricate fan vaulting is flaking off, was affected by oozing rainwater and leaking pipes. Its Gothic-revival artworks are decaying: in the Lords chamber, the once-golden statues of the barons who signed the Magna Carta are now dull gray, pitted and corroded.

Beyond its country of disrepair, the building is all too obviously a remnant of a predemocratic age. It was constructed not to welcome its populace in, but to impress them with its fortress-like grandeur. It was designed when women were, at best, crinoline-wearing spectators of parliamentary life, consigned to the public gallery. With its chilly colonnades of sculptures of male politicians, its heavy, ecclesiastical furnishings and gentlemen’s-club atmosphere, it provides the perfect stage-set for Britain’s” very aggressive, very masculine, very power-hoarding republic”, as political scientist Matthew Flinders put it.

The
The Lords Chamber in the Palace of Westminster. Photo: David Levene for the Guardian

Nevertheless, the Palace of Westminster is seductive. It wants to beguile those who encounter it with its fiction of Britishness. The national mythology that the palace promotes from every frescoed wall is of a country where Good Queen Bess eternally reigns, where the knights of the round table still quest for the Grail. Conservative backbencher Sir Edward Leigh told me that in his intellect the building is inextricably linked with British freedom.” We are the only important country in Europe that has never been a police state, never had a police state imposed on us. We are the oldest functioning democracy of any major country- to me this should be valued. This is not just an office block. It’s the symbolic centre of the nation .”

Leigh is right that the palace is more than a only a build. It is the place- grand and tawdry, magnificent and squalid- that symbolises everything, both good and bad, about Britain and its democracy. Now it is dilapidated, ramshackle and dangerous. And no one seems willing, or able, to fix it.

” If you look back over day, there has been no famine of people saying that something should be done ,” said crossbench peer Lord Lisvane who, in his previous guise as Sir Robert Rogers, clerk of the Commons , commissioned a report into the state of the palace in 2012.” And then you look at the excuses for not doing anything: too expensive, too embarrassing, too soon after the war- which gives you a very vivid impression of how long this has been going on .”( The administration of the parliamentary estate, which includes a number of satellite buildings, is overseen by commissions of the Lords and Commons, akin to boards of directors, although the ruler still officially retains control over portions of the palace. There is no single chief executive figure, and a complex tangle of departments are dealing here with the buildings’ upkeep .)

Screeds of farther analyzes, papers and parliamentary inquiries have warned, bleakly, of a” loom crisis”, of a” narrative of disintegration, disrepair and dilapidation “. The Cassandras who have authored these reports( most recently a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament) warn of constant danger of flood, of the” ever-present threat” presented by asbestos, and, most urgently,” a risk of a major conflagration “. With a hint of desperation, the committee, in its findings of 2016, compared the difficulty of trying to keep the palace safe, despite continual” aggressive maintenance” to” trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole at the other aim “.

What is needed, the report argues, is a thoroughgoing renovation programme, preferably undertaken over about six years in an empty palace. The body that actually gets to decide on how to proceed is parliament itself, and in January, MPs will debate whether to set up a delivery authority- an arm’s-length body akin to the organisation that ran the London Olympics– to oversee the works. It will be the first time the question of the palace renovations has come before parliament.

Visible
Visible damage on the roof. Last year, a malfunctioning roof light caused an electrical flame. Photo: David Levene for the Guardian

The problem is that MPs are caught in a trap. The renovations, it was estimated in June 2015, will cost a minimum of PS3. 5bn.( If parliamentarians choose to stay in the building, the work could take 40 years and cost PS5. 7bn .) Spending vast amounts of fund on their own workplace feelings, to many, politically impossible. Some of them fear that moving out of the Palace of Westminster could indelibly alter parliament’s culture. Flinders said:” There are those who realise that if they permit new intakes of MPs to go into a new chamber, with new ambiances, further ways of doing things, places for everyone to sit, new procedures, new ways of talking, they may refuse to go back into what may to them feel like an antique store .”

The temptation for parliamentarians is to stall. But doing nothing is also a choice. Every year of delay increases the cost of the works by an estimated PS100m. Every day that passes makes a catastrophe more likely. Tom Healey, head of restoration and renewal at the palace, told him that the palace’s mechanical and engineering services- all those tubes and ducts and cables- are classified according to likelihood of failure.” By 2020, 40% of them will be at critical or high risk. By 2025, the above figures will be 52%. By 2025, most of the building services in the palace will be at a very high risk of failing. It’s a bit like driving a automobile with 40 -year-old brakes: you can’t say when they’ll fail. But health risks is pretty high .” As hour grinds on- the projected date of the start of works has already slipped from 2020 to the mid-2 020 s- so grows the risk of” either a single, catastrophic event, or a succession of incremental failings in essential systems, which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to sit in the palace”, as the 2016 report set it. And if that happens, said Healey,” we have a very big problem “.


So many people are in denial about the state of the Houses of Parliament because the peril is largely invisible- both to the public and to most of its 8,000 or so workers. Most guests watch merely its grandeur- enchanting still, despite the scaffolding that encompasses so much of the building while mends are made to the roof and to the Elizabeth Tower, home of the great buzzer, Big Ben. The first thing most visitors encounter is the vast, echoing space of the medieval Westminster Hall, whose great timber ceiling is carven with 26 rising angels. Then, passing beneath a new stained-glass window commemorating women’s suffrage, one of the few markers of a female presence in the palace, you enter St Stephen’s Hall. You are now in the 19 th-century portion of the building: Charles Barry’s masterpiece of planning, each space flowing gracefully to the next, hectically embellished with Augustus Pugin’s neo-gothic detailing, from the gilded wallpaper to the ornate floor tiles. From here you reach the vaulted Central Lobby, from which radiate passageways leading to all the palace’s 1,100 rooms, seven floors, 100 staircases, and 31 lifts- merely one of which is fully wheelchair-compliant.( When I visited, it was out of use .)

It is two floors down, however, in the out-of-bounds expanses of the cellar- the principal home of the palace’s outmoded cables and ducts- that lurks the most likely source of disaster. Depending on the tides, you might now be beneath the level of the Thames. It is crepuscular; it is stultifyingly hot. The smell of fat is intense as kitchen waste works its style towards the drainages. A layer of dust and grime coats the floor.

A labyrinth of passages runs the 300 m length of the building, each so thickly lined with ducts and wires that they have become narrow and low. When I visited a few weeks ago, Andrew Piper, the head of design for restoration and renewal, operated his hands across a jumble of cables and tubes, naming each in turn:” That’s data, that’s the fire alarm, that’s security systems, that’s optics for broadcasting, that’s heating, that’s cooling, that’s steam, that’s water. We are particularly keen to get rid of the old steam pipe ,” he said.” If you have a steam leak, there can be real damage caused to people. High-pressure steam can cut through bone .”

Something sticky dripped on to my hand.” This is grease and fat from the kitchens. It seems to be leaking on to electrical pipework ,” Piper said. The Victorian palace was not designed, he added, to accommodate the sheer amount of water, kitchen waste and sewage that now flows through its drains. Down a gloomy corridor and a further series of damp steps, announced by a different kind of odour, are two vast, cast-iron vessels- the palace sewage ejectors, in which the effluent being developed by parliamentarians and staff gathers before it is pushed into the city drainages. They were installed in 1888.” One of them could easily crack ,” said Piper.” We get sewage leaks throughout the palace .” Lord Lisvane told me that one of the palace’s disaster-planning exercisings, undertaken when he was clerk of the Commons, had imagined a failure of the sewage system.” In that scenario, we had 36 hours before we had to evacuate the building. Aside from all the rather unpleasant stuff about the rising high levels of sewage, the fact is that when it hits the high-tension electricity cables, the electricity is out, you don’t have any fresh water, and you are done for .”

All big builds have their grubby, behind-the-scenes engine rooms. What builds this one exceptional, said Piper, is the sheer, bewildering intricacy of it all. There is, he said, never enough time to remove defunct systems, since parliamentary recesses are too short for major works, and the chambers have to be ready for occupation at 48 hours’ notification, in case parliament is suddenly recollected( as it has been 29 hours since 1948 ). That means the ducts and cables simply pile up, one on top of the other.” The number-one fire danger is all these ageing electrical services, issues with leaks, wet pipework running over old electrical systems ,” he said. The virtually inaccessible labyrinth of Victorian shafts, through which these services pass, could, he said, offer routes for a conflagration to move quickly and unpredictably; “were not receiving” proper system of flame compartmentalisation.” That is my biggest fear ,” he said.” That’s how you could lose a big proportion of the building .”


The Palace of Westminster is not just a citadel (” the citadel of British autonomy”, said Churchill ), it is a country unto itself. It operates by its own decide of recondite laws, rituals and conventions. Once you are inside, beyond the security cordon, nearly all human needs are met. There is a post office. There is a hairdresser( a Newsnight-ready blow-dry costs PS30 ). There is a nursery, which opened in 2010. There is a gym( with sunbed ). At the foot of the stairs to the Strangers’ Gallery( or public gallery) in the House of Lords hangs a written notice- now encompassed, though you can find it if you know how- pointing the way to the old rifle range, where special branch officers offered shooting lessons to parliamentarians as recently as 2015.

Travelling around this strange land is a fraught business. One is constantly committing mysterious, minor infractions. It is like is available on a country where the language is comprehensible, but the codes of behaviour are opaque. From the Central Lobby, for example, four corridors radiate. There is no sign to tell you that you cannot take the one that leads to the House of Commons: but if you accidentally stray there, you are able to get an imperious ticking-off from one of the Palace doorkeepers( 59 are employed by the Commons, and 23 by the Lords ). There have been doorkeepers here since the 14 th century: garmented in white tie, they control the movements of others with punctilious energy. I was reprimanded for loitering” on the blue carpet” in the Prince’s Chamber, and for spoke of the Royal Robing Room, which is sometimes let and sometimes not. Doorkeepers are also sources of gossip, humor and speculative histories of the palace. One I fulfilled indicated disapprovingly that “Comrade Corbyn” would soon be selling off Pugin’s wildly over-the-top royal throne in the House of Lords” if he has his style “. Another told him that lions illustrated on the floor of a certain passageway” have their eyes shut so they can’t look up the ladies’ skirts “. Floors, as it happens, are important: green carpets mean you are in the part of the building owned by the Commons; red carpets entail the Lords.

Directions
Directions to the now-defunct rifle range, where special branch officers used to offer shooting lessons to MPs. Photo: David Levene for the Guardian

Notices pinned everywhere contribute extra layers of admonition and exhortation. There’s a staircase that may be used only by MPs; a lift that cannot be used if the Lords are in division – that is, voting by strolling into separate foyers. The yeoman usher, described on parliament’s website as” the deputy to the gentleman usher of the black rod “, has a parking space reserved exclusively for his bicycle; a sign told you so. In one courtyard there is even a sign advising parliamentarians what to do if they come across a grounded adolescent peregrine, which is try to hurl a cardboard box over it.( A pair of the falcons nests on the roof .) The Lords, naturally, specialises in arcane forms of movement control.” Spouses of peers’ eldest sons ,” reads one notification,” and marriage daughters of peers and peeresses in their own right, before taking a place in the peers’ married daughters’ box, are requested to leave their names with the doorkeeper at the brass gates .” A different decide of rules, needless to say, governs the movement of peers’ unmarried daughters.

The place is full of mysterious, concealed spaces. Recently, when historian Lord Hennessy, a crossbench peer, was indicating me around what he inevitably called ” Hogwarts”, he abruptly darted out of sight- up a narrow, red-carpeted staircase that led to his tiny, turreted office. On the upper floors, linenfold panelling turns out to hide secret doorways leading to the roof. In Central Lobby, behind a statue of the 19 th-century Liberal prime minister Lord John Russell, is an inconspicuous doorway. From here, 82 steps spiral up to the cavernous, dark space that houses the winding gear for the mighty chandelier hanging below. Being here is like standing in the dome of a cathedral. High above you a great spire rises, with apertures open to the sky, once intended as part of the ventilation system. These days, rainfall falls softly in here-” very romantic as it comes down “, according to parliamentary archivist and historian Mark Collins.( Less romantic is the damage the water causes to Central Lobby’s gilded ceiling .) Someone had been here before us: wire from a champagne bottle lay discarded on the ground. When I asked Julian Flannery, the lead designer on the restoration program, how well he knew the building, he said:” No one knows their style around the whole place- except for the locksmiths .” Two such tradesmen are employed in the palace, he told me.

Hennessy is, he said, unashamedly romantic about the palace and its past:” When I pad the corridors if I am here late and everybody else has run, I sometimes have a sense of the ancestral voices ,” he said.( As he told me this, “were in” sipping stewed tea in the peers’ dining room; a waiter had brought eclairs on a silver tray .) Others are less enthusiastic. The Labour MP Chris Bryant, himself a historian of the members of parliament, and a member of the joint committee, snorted at the idea that the place was romantic. The loos stink, he said. Still, he loves the place: he and his partner were the first couple to have a civil partnership rite here. One parliamentary clerk told me of the dampness from the Thames in winter and the overwhelming heat in the summer, of the mice that infest the place, of the difficulty of finding a wifi signal, of the general feeling of grubbiness she feels at the end of each day. But, she said,” the place get under your scalp. It’s like having two homes .”

In
In the Norman Porch, intricate fan vaulting is flaking away, damaged by oozing rainwater and leaking pipes. Photo: David Levene for the Guardian

Some argue that the restoration and renewal programme could be a chance not only to build the building safe, but to induce radical changes that could improve Britain’s political culture. Among them is Sarah Childs, who, as a visiting academic to parliament, published The Good Parliament report last year. It is not just that the building is deeply gendered, she argues- heavy, unwieldy doorways; an overwhelming number of artworks depicting humen; darknes, intimidating bars; seats from which shorter, female legs dangle without reaching the ground. It is, she says, that” the building facilitates, valorises, and rewards certain specific types of behaviours and performances that are disproportionately practised by some humen- and omit others .” One might glance, for example, towards the unlovely weekly sight of prime minister’s topics, with its hollering, barracking and bullying, particularly of women. When the House of Commons was bombed in the second world war, Winston Churchill insisted it was rebuilt exactly as it was before.” We shape our buildings, and afterwards our builds shape us ,” he said. Some might ask: is the palace shaping the the kind of politics Britain actually requires?


The House of Commons chamber, where politicians glare at each other across an aisle like hostile choristers, looks the way it does through historical collision. In the 16 th century, Edward VI offered the deconsecrated St Stephen’s chapel, with its facing ranks of seat, to parliament as its permanent home; it has hitherto sat in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey. The basic layout of the chamber has followed exactly the same design since. Today it is in a terrible nation. Leaving aside the problem that it has too few seats( 427 for 650 MPs) and space for only one wheelchair, there is the fact that the concrete substructure on which it sits has asbestos-lined air ducts operating through it. The only way to remove it safely, said head of restoration and renewal Tom Healey, is to break it out of the cement in which it is embedded.” We’d have to dismantle the chamber panel by panel ,” he said. He is also worried about the electrical cables, installed after the blitz.” A lot of them here still have vulcanised india rubber insulation. That eventually turns to dust inside the wall- then you have dust around your cables, and that is obviously a fire hazard .”

It is in this chamber that MPs will argue about how to renovate the palace. The debate is much delayed: it was supposed to happen in late 2016, then December 2017, and now it has slipped again to January 2018. In fact , no opportunity for procrastination has been expended during the course of its entire process. The publication of the 2016 report was itself delayed, at the request of the government: first because of the EU referendum, then because of the UK’s abrupt change of “ministers “. Yet more delay will be built in by the government’s motion. MPs will not be asked simply to endorse a” full decant” of the palace, as the report recommended.( Such a move would involve constructing temporary chambers nearby: Richmond House, the present Department of Health building, was proposed by the joint committee for the Commons; the QE2 conference centre for the Lords .) Instead, the motion will empower a delivery committee to mull over the options once again- whether to choose the” full decant”, whether the Lords and Commons should depart in turn, or whether parliament should retain a “foothold” in Westminster Hall for ceremonial occasions. According to Bryant, this latest explosion of stalling is” risky, and it’s adding millions to the final bill “.

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‘ The No 1 flame hazard is all the ageing electrical services, issues with leaks, wet pipework running over old electrical systems ,’ said one of the restoration squad. Photo: David Levene for the Guardian

The ordinary citizen may be left wondering: if the most important point decision-making body in the country cannot make a decision, then what? If parliament cannot run its own build, then what hope the country?

Logically speaking, the doubt about what to do seems incomprehensible. It is arguably the most complex building in the country: it is parliament’s workplace, a royal palace, a Unesco World Heritage site, has myriad security needs, contains chambers and committee rooms that double up as television studios, and performs a role as a tourist attraction and as the symbolic centre of British democracy. Its precious artworks and building fabric all need conservation. It needs to be made a better workplace. It is, above all, dangerous. The symbolism would be terrible if there were a disaster: imagine news footage of smoke curling out of a hastily evacuated palace at a moment when Britain is struggling to establish a semblance of post-Brexit stability. Of course you tackle it. And of course you move out, because that way the work will happen faster, and more safely, which will be cheaper.

But this is Westminster. This is the world not of reason, but of politics, with all the hedging, compromises, self-interest, short-termism and sheer pig-headedness that that implies. According to Lady Stowell, the former leader of the House of Lords who co-chaired the joint committee, and prefers getting on with the works with a full decant, there is a nervousness among some of her colleagues” that, as legislators, “weve already” detested, and so what sensible legislator would agree to expend millions of pounds on our building ?”

Because of the postpones, and because “ministers ” Theresa May’s minority government is so weak, opposition to leaving the building has gained momentum. A group of Conservative backbenchers, including Sir Edward Leigh and Shailesh Vara, are contemplating an amendment to the government motion. They object to the building of a “folly” of a replica chamber at great expense; they deprecate the views of the “experts” and “officials” who have recommended moving out. They argue that, with what Vara calls a” can-do stance”, the run could be done with parliament in situ, largely through triple-shift working during parliamentary recess.

The language they use is precisely that of the committed Brexiteer: if only their scheme is gone at with sufficient verve then everything will be fine; the problem is nothing like as complex as it seems; the experts are pulling the woolen over everyone’s eyes. In short, they are in refusal.” If parliament really really wants to stay ,” said Tom Healey,” we will devise a route of doing it, but it’s important for parliament to understand what that entails: several decades of really serious interruption, lifts being to turn, catering facilities closing, the chambers closed for two to four years .”

Stowell and Bryant guess the project could be turned to the good: as a major infrastructural project, it will create jobs, and could be used as a boost for apprenticeships in the many trades and crafts that will be needed to nurse this Victorian masterpiece back to health. It could even, said Stowell, become a positive statement of intent in a post-Brexit Britain, when what some regard as a newly sovereign British parliament establishes itself.” We parliamentarians could use it as a route of reevaluating our relationship with the people ,” she said.

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The Commons Chamber, which has 427 seats for 650 MPs. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Others take a darker view. Leigh predicts that the costs are bound to escalate. It will, he says, be” a feeding feast for architects and consultants and builders that has never been imagined before “. He may fear other kinds of feast, too. Westminster, these days, is a byword for many things, nearly all of them awful. The MPs’ expenses scandal still looms big in the public imagination. Trust in politicians is low. Westminster is considered out of touch, a bubble. The Grenfell Tower disaster has drawn attention to the human costs of austerity, and some politicians fear the consequences of appearing to put their own safety above that of constituents.( Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is alert to this: a recent letter to supporters contrasted the sprinkler system currently being fitted in the palace basement with the inadequate fire-safety arrangements in much of Britain’s council housing .) Recent revelations about the sleaze and harassment have not helped. Private Eye summed it up on a recent encompas.” House of Commons to Relocate During Building Works”, it said. Below, was a picture of a sex shop.


Underlying the postpones and the stalling and the being-in-denial, it is possible to see a more fundamental nervousnes among parliamentarians than the fear of frittering away taxpayers’ money. It is the fear of an old order passing away. It is the the dreaded of a separation from a bizarre, rationally indefensible, yet alluring theater of politics that seems so inextricably linked to British identity and history. It is a anxiety of bringing in new structures and spaces and behaviours- ones less likely to prop up the white male upper-clas who predominate parliament.” I think there is an agenda with restoration and renewal ,” said Leigh.” In kicking us out, the whole thing will change. Inevitably it will change. If you are out for years, institutional memory will die very quickly .”

Some would welcome that. There are parliamentary rituals that would look distinctly odd in a new or temporary building. For example, the speaker’s daily procession through the palace before opening parliamentary proceedings, accompanied by the chaplain, the trainbearer, the secretary, the serjeant-at-arms and shouts of” Hats off, strangers !” Or the tradition of MPs physically dragging a newly appointed speaker to the speaker’s chair. Or the doorkeepers’ sob of” Who goes home ?” as the house rises. Or the boxes of snuff placed outside the chambers. Or the placing of a prayer card on a Commons’ seat to reserve a place, like a towel on a sunlounger. Or the pink ribbons hanging from coat hangers in the peers’ cloakroom, from which to suspend one’s imaginary sword.

As for the Lords,” If we do decant, we will lose some of the elders of the tribe ,” predicted historian Lord Hennessy. In a gerontocratic house that the late Lord Peston once said ran on” rumor and the exchange of medical symptoms”, some will resign from the Lord before suffering the upheaval of a move; nor will they wish to swap their panelled rooms and deep leather armchairs for a conference centre.” The peculiar combination of people in here will be remixed. The average age will drop ,” said Hennessy.( It is currently 69.) Flinders said:” Some in the Lords are worried that they are going to come back and find the locks have been changed “.

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