Category Archives: Law/Politics/Government

Britain’s National Health Service, or Socialized Medicine is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Lately I’ve been seeing a fair few doctors, which is far from an ideal way to live.  For one thing, I’d produce more blog posts if I weren’t spending so much time being prodded by this one or sitting in the waiting room to see that one.  But when I need the care of doctors, I’m tremendously grateful that I’m in the hands of the British National Health Service.  Coming from the US, where even in affluent, high-tech Silicon Valley I had serious problems getting the care I needed via employee plans and HMOs, the NHS seems nearly miraculous.  It’s given me excellent care, and given me far and away the best access to care I’ve ever had.

What follows the first image below is a post about the NHS that I wrote in March 2012  when I was guest blogger at Vie Hebdomadaires.

If all remains well, I’ll be back in the saddle here next week, with new posts about my Anglo-American Experience, but for now, here’s a bit about the wonderful ‘socialized’ health service that keeps me going:

The main entrance to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, the big local hospital which I'd rather see a bit less of, though I'm grateful to have it!

The main entrance to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, the big local hospital which I’d rather see a bit less of, though I’m grateful to have it!

When health care was a hot topic during the 2008 presidential campaign, I made some remark on Facebook about getting fabulous government-paid-for health care here in the UK, and how I wished everybody in the US could have the same.  But a friend in New England popped up to say “Go ahead and ask for socialized medicine, if you want Americans to have the same crappy health care you get over there.”


Why would she think I would go to the trouble of posting a recommendation for a system that’s not any good?  Okay, we can agree to disagree about where healthcare should come from—no problem there—but why would she think that I would say the UK’s National Health Service is great if it isn’t?  Her belief that government health care must be bad seemed to be so strong that it was easier for her to believe I would say “vote for socialized medicine, even though it’s awful” than for her to believe that I get great health care from Britain’s National Health Services (NHS).

It was and is great to be at some remove from the US election process, but it can be difficult when my British neighbors ask me to explain American views and all I can say is that I don’t get it, either.  Most British people can’t understand why Americans don’t want a government-funded health care system.  We have roads, don’t we?  And nobody complains about socialized road maintenance, do they?  Isn’t peoples’ health more important than the roads?

(One of the presidential candidates spoke during the primaries for the 2008 election about how we aren’t willing to pay $150 to care for a diabetic’s feet but we’ll pay $30,000 when that uninsured diabetic has to have a foot amputated at the county general hospital.  I mentioned that to a friend who got quiet and then eventually told me “That very thing happened to my mother in New York”.  All the doctors except the anaesthesiologist waived their fees in that case because her mother couldn’t pay anything—laudable, but not really very fair to anyone, and wouldn’t it be better if we’d paid less and the lady kept both feet?)

A British mother with two toddlers said to me “Surely there’s health care for children, though, isn’t there?”  I explained that there was a proposal to extend a Medicare-type program to children, but President Bush vetoed it.  She kept saying “But the little children…” in a way that would have been comical if she hadn’t been so obviously shaken by the idea that there are children in the developed world who don’t get health care because their families can’t afford it, and that the society they live in, given the choice, allows that situation to continue.

(A friend in California was pregnant a few years ago when her company changed health care systems.  She had a choice of two plans, but her long-time family GP was on one and her obstetrician was on the other.  She couldn’t keep seeing them both.)

We may not be living in a total paradise here, but I definitely get care as good as I’ve ever had in my life, and without doubt I have awesomely, unbelievably better access to doctors and hospitals and scans and all kinds of medical services than I ever had when I lived in either Kentucky or California.

Yesterday was my birthday.  Now, it’s not very festive to run errands on your birthday, but off I went to get things done, and my first tasks were to schedule an eye test—which is free, because I have a family history of glaucoma—and to pick up my refilled prescriptions—also free.

(I’ve read that over 40% of US bankruptcies are caused by medical debt.  Almost no one in the UK goes bankrupt because of medical bills.)

The Fairlands Medical and Dental Centre, home to my GP's practice

The Fairlands Medical and Dental Centre, home to my GP’s practice; the blue sign on the right-hand side is for the in-house pharmacy.

Prescriptions are free here to everyone under 16 or over 60, anyone who’s pregnant or recently had a baby, who’s undergoing cancer treatment, who is permanently disabled with certain disabilities, or who has certain medical conditions. I get free prescriptions because I take thyroid hormones, but it could be diabetes, or epilepsy, or any of several particular conditions.  If you have to have thyroid supplements to live, they’re willing to give them to you, and for other prescriptions, well, the NHS thinks it’s cheaper and more fair to pay for all of your prescriptions, because who can say which of your other ailments aren’t ultimately a result of your thyroid problem?

(A cousin of mine in the US, in his 40s and employed full time with benefits, has just had to go on insulin, and the cost of prescriptions means he can no longer afford to live on his own, so he’s moved back in with his parents.)

I have never once since moving to the UK asked to see a GP and not gotten in the same day, though of course I don’t ask for an immediate appointment unless it’s urgent.  I won’t necessarily see my own GP, but I’ll see another partner in the practice, and that’s fine with me.  I haven’t run into a dud yet.

(At the California HMO I had last, before I moved here, I usually had to wait three weeks to see the doctor.  For recurring painful problems, she told me to write to her by fax because her staff wouldn’t screen out faxes from patients like they screen out phone calls from patients, and she could then phone the pharmacy with a prescription for what I needed.  If we didn’t do an end-run around her staff, I’d have to go to Urgent Care.)

Here in the UK there are restrictions on what doctor you can see, but they might not be ones you’d expect.  Mainly, there is a defined “catchment area” for my doctor’s surgery (US: doctor’s office); they won’t take you on as a patient if you don’t live within that area.  Why?  They make house calls.  NHS GPs generally do.  I’ve never seen a US doctor who made house calls; it’s something from the mythic past, tales handed down from grandparents.  And my doctor’s practice is not the only one operating in my neighborhood; I’ve got a lot of choice.

(The first HMO I belonged to in California didn’t allow me to switch doctors until the yearly open enrollment period in October, but when October rolled around one year, I wasn’t allowed to switch doctors because none of the other doctors in my area who were on my company’s plan were taking new patients. I had to stay, for another whole year, with a doctor I didn’t like.)

Life is just…completely different when you don’t worry about pre-existing conditions, or losing your health care along with your job.  If you get laid off in the UK, you’re still completely covered. You can change jobs at will and—here’s one for “job creators”—you can start your own business without wondering how you’re going to pay the doctor if something happens, or provide health care to employees.

(An American uncle retired to Colorado to be near his grandchildren, but it turned out his retirement health care plan from his employer only paid for care in the state in which he’d been employed, even though the same provider operated in Colorado. Oops.)

This is our village clinic--a little satellite of the larger clinic at Fairlands (in previous photo).  The sign says Glaziers Lane Surgery; the doctors from Fairlands cycle through this surgery (also called the Normandy Surgery), and we have a small dispensary there for prescriptions.  The staff there is second to none!

This is our village clinic–a little satellite of the larger clinic at Fairlands (in previous photo). The sign says Glaziers Lane Surgery; the doctors from Fairlands cycle through this surgery (also called the Normandy Surgery), and we have a small dispensary there for prescriptions. The staff there is second to none!

But you’ve probably heard we have horrendous waiting times for operations here.  Well, we used to.  That’s outdated information, but you don’t get headlines screaming “No unreasonable delays for health care in Britain anymore”.

And admittedly, there is a so-called postcode lottery, which means that depending on where you live, the NHS might provide better care or worse care than the average.  I’ve never been dissatisfied with the care, so I don’t have anything to offer except that most large services do have local variations, though you hope that everything meets at least minimum standards.

When minimum standards aren’t upheld, it’s national news and the headlines are huge.  A few years ago someone who wasn’t happy with the hospital care for her elderly mother ran up to the prime minister while cameras were rolling and asked him what he was going to do about it.  If the care isn’t good, you can write to your member of parliament, who can get involved in your case.  The newspapers like nothing better than to ask why the government isn’t doing more to help some sick and vulnerable person.

And you may have heard that some large percentage of British people are unsatisfied with the NHS.  There are lots of British people; some probably are dissatisfied at any given time.  But one study a couple of years ago asked people whether the NHS was doing a good job, and people said no, a terrible job, the hospitals aren’t sanitary, the waiting times are long.  But when the same people were asked what they thought of the care they got personally, they said it was great!  Their local doctor?  Just fine.  Local hospital?  Doing a first class job.  Maybe it’s a case of people believing the worst, or at least fearing the worst.

(Another California friend told her husband he’d have to give up his consulting business and get a job with benefits, because medical insurance was costing them as much as some people make in a year and covered just the parents and one child—the other kid had asthma, and she couldn’t find insurance that would take him—and keeping up with the claim paperwork had turned into a half time job for her.)

I have heard religious people in the Bible belt say that the government has no responsibility to help the sick, and that Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that we should perform personal acts of charity; it has nothing to do with the government.

Well, I can’t personally go out and help everybody who needs care, so I’m very happy that the government will do that for me.

Yes, we pay high taxes here, but those taxes buy me a lot of obviously good things, including knowing that I and all my neighbors will have medical care free at the point of delivery.  I don’t worry about other government services being “socialized”—paving the roads, training firefighters, policing the streets—so why should “socialized medicine” be seen as such a threat?  I’m here to tell you, socialized medicine is great where I live.

The first time after we moved here that I walked out of an NHS doctor’s surgery (US: doctor’s office), I kept looking over my shoulder.  Were they going to come chasing after me?  I couldn’t just leave, surely; I went back in and asked at the desk.  Was there really no co-payment?  Nope, nothing to pay.  Don’t I at least have to sign something, or fill in a form?  No, no forms, you can just go on with your day.


It’s really the people who make the NHS what it is, and I regret that I didn’t get permission to use photos of the staff at the wonderful Glaziers Lane/Normandy surgery.  Maybe next time!  For now, I apologize for only offering you photos of buildings.



Filed under Culture, Law/Politics/Government, My Life & Stuff That Happened

Supreme Court 3: JCPC

When is the Supreme Court not the Supreme Court?  When sitting as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC).  This post on the JCPC wraps up the series sparked by my recent visit to the Supreme Court building in London.

Court 3 in the Supreme Court building, where the Justices hear JCPC cases. When in use, the little flags--just there to give visitors an idea of the countries which bring cases here--are removed, and a full-sized flag from the country whose case is to be discussed hangs from a full-sized flagpole.

The USA’s judicial system is a streamlined modern marvel compared to Britain’s—unsurprisingly, since the American version was planned and instituted so recently, something over 200 years ago. The British system has evolved over at least ten centuries,  accruing bits as the world modernized and the British empire grew, dropping bits as the colonies became independent, obliged to take into account all kinds of ancient rights and privileges.  The upshot is that the Crown-in-Council—that is, the monarch, aided by advisers called the Privy Council, which was the ultimate appellate court for the Empire—has been left with the final word on cases from a surprising mishmash of jurisdictions, including some in foreign countries.

Today’s Privy Council has 600 members, and all of those who are judges are technically on the Judicial Committee, the body that hears Queen-in-Council cases.  In practice it’s almost always Supreme Court Justices who sit as the JCPC in Court 3 of the building (the first two courtrooms are described here).  These come from some deliciously named lesser-known courts, the most archaic-sounding being the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports, which deals only with naval law as administered along a certain stretch of the south coast.  And the JCPC hears appeals from other military courts, such as those in Sovereign Base Areas, though there are only two of those left, and they’re on Cyprus.  Then there are prize courts, for cases concerning ships or other spoils seized legally (ahem) in wartime; I don’t know when such a court last convened, much less referred a case to the Queen-in-Council, but it must have been a while ago.

The 19th century (but Tudor-inspired) front door.

A few ecclesiastical courts can still send cases: the Church Commissioners, who handle investments and real estate of the Church of England; and the Chancery Court and the Arches Court, which handle disciplinary matters among English clergy. The Chancery Court of York covers the northernmost third of the country; the Arches Court of Canterbury in reality covers the rest although theoretically it has authority over only the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London peculiar—a peculiar being an area not subject to the bishop of its local diocese.  (This particular peculiar consists of 13 parishes in London.)

I can’t imagine cases come up often; I’ve just included all of this because I thought that bit about the peculiar was so wonderfully…peculiar.  The bulk of the JCPC’s caseload comes from Crown Dependencies, British Overseas Territories, and former colonies.

Each Crown Dependency has a different legal relationship to the Crown, but in general they recognize the Queen’s authority and depend upon her for defense and such, but they are not part of the United Kingdom.  The best-known are the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks (a bailiwick being the jurisdiction of a bailiff) of Jersey and Guernsey, two little clutches of islands off the coast of France.  It remains to be seen whether anyone will take seriously the 2008 claim by the (putative) owner of Forewick Holm that this Shetland island, which he’s renamed Forvik Island, is a Crown Dependency and therefore not subject to laws passed by Parliament.

And here's another door, an interior one, leading to... the coffee shop. This has to be the most elegant coffee shop entrance in London. I peeked in at first, unsure whether I was really allowed to open it. Odd that the only place I felt might be off-limits, and wasn't sure I was welcome, was the coffee shop; that just points up how open and welcoming the Supreme Court is about its work.

British Overseas Territories range from the British Antarctic, inhabited only by researchers, to the British Indian Ocean Area, the world’s largest marine reserve.  (It has no civilian inhabitants except fish, because the UK evicted all the civilians for military reasons, alas.)  There are twelve other British Overseas Territories, all of them small islands: Pitcairn, Montserrat, and so on.

And then there are several independent countries that find it useful to appeal cases to the JCPC rather than to fund and run their own ultimate appeals courts.  On any given day, the JCPC may hear cases from Jamaica (in the Caribbean), the Falklands (off the tip of South America), Mauritius (off Reunion Island, which is off of Madagascar, which is off of Mozambique, in case you need reminding), or Kiribati (32 South Pacific atolls plus one honest-to-goodness island, which I’m tempted to say are in the middle of nowhere except that they are really quite close to the intersection of the International Date Line and the equator, which is—in cartographical terms, anyway—probably the antithesis of nowhere).

It may no longer be valid to say that the sun never sets on the British Empire, but at one time—presumably when India and Canada participated—one quarter of the world could appeal cases to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.  Even drafting in senior judges from the countries involved to help, Justices still had to grapple with legal niceties of (here I can’t do better than quote from the JCPC’s website):

  • Roman Dutch law from South Africa, British Guyana and Salome
  • Spanish law from Trinidad
  • pre-revolutionary French law from Quebec
  • the Napoleonic code from Mauritius
  • old Sardinian law from Malta
  • Venetian law from the Ionian islands
  • medieval Norman [French] law from the Channel Islands
  • acts of the Oirwachtas from the Irish Free States
  • Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu law from India
  • Ottoman law from Turkey, Cyprus and Egypt
  • Chinese law from British courts in Shanghai
  • tribal law from Africa

This is the lawyer's suite, where lawyers can confer and prepare. The room seats over 30 lawyers who are in the building for cases at either the JCPC or the Supreme Court, and sometimes there are that many involved in a single case.

Though some countries listed have now withdrawn from the British system, that’s also not a complete catalog.  It leaves off Brunei, for example, even though the JCPC hears cases for the Sultan from time to time as a courtesy, reporting back to him rather than reporting, as is usual for the Privy Council, to the Queen.

Lastly, in one more improbable legacy of history, appealed cases from the Disciplinary Committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons go to the JCPC.  (There must be a good story—possibly a shaggy dog story—of how that came about.)

All of these can have their cases heard in Court 3 by right. The Committee cannot refuse such appellants; unlike the Supreme Court, the JCPC doesn’t get to chose which cases are worth tackling, and there are a lot of cases to get through.  Almost half the cases the Justices of the Supreme Court heard last year were JCPC cases from other countries.

In another strange twist, even though Britain doesn’t have the death penalty, the JCPC rules on points of law which can mean life or death for appellants from countries that do.  In one of the last cases to come from Belize, the Justices decided that a judge there had acted unlawfully in the way he applied the death penalty, and as a result a condemned man’s sentence was converted to life in prison.

There are fewer countries participating all the time; Belize withdrew from the system last year, and before that New Zealand left in 2004.  But even without them, and even without obstinate priests and obstreperous soldiers, dubious veterinarians and debatable spoils of war, it’s unlikely that the Justices will be idle.  Even though the British like to accuse the US of being excessively litigious, plenty of British people do turn up in court. I reckon there’ll be enough homegrown cases to keep the Justices in business for a few more centuries.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, History, Law/Politics/Government

Supreme Court 2: The Court’s in Session

Both the US and the UK Supreme Courts opened new terms on Monday, but the openings, like the courts themselves, were rather different.

The Justices of the UK Supreme Court, gathered for the swearing-in of a new colleague, Lord Wilson, in May 2011. Used by permission (c) UK Supreme Court 2011

Actually the entire British judicial system began a new legal year on Monday, and it opened with a Church of England service in Westminster Abbey—as I’ve mentioned before, there’s no official separation of church and state here.* Afterwards the judges crossed Parliament Square for the Lord Chancellor’s Breakfast, nowadays more of a reception with a buffet.  The  custom began in the Middle Ages when the judges were required to fast before the service,  and had to parade with empty stomachs nearly 2 miles to the Abbey in the first place. Most now arrive by car, but the Justices of the Supreme Court, who only had to cross the street, walked over to the Abbey on Monday in their formal finery: black robes heavily embroidered with real gold thread, generally only worn for this opening service and at the State Opening of Parliament.

You may have seen lawyers in British courtroom dramas on TV wearing black robes and with little white wigs perched on top of their heads, with judges wearing even more elaborate get-ups.  Wearing wigs only dates back only to the 17th century, when wigs for men became the popular fashion; gowns date back at least to the Middle Ages, when they were worn by all students and most educated professional men.  There’s been a lot of discussion in the legal profession here about whether to continue these traditions, but the Supreme Court, being new and making up its own rules, decided to go wigless. Even in the procession on Monday, the Justices wore no wigs, although Lady Hale, the only female Justice, wears on these occasions a hat she had designed for the purpose.   (It is much more usual for women in the UK to wear hats for formal ceremonies than it is in the US. Women’s hats are so common at special events, especially church weddings, that one woman who asks another “Will I need a new hat?” is understood to be asking “Are you getting married?”)

The Supreme Court's front door (with friendly doorman just discernible). The carvings over the door depict Westminster Abbey receiving its Royal Charter in 1560, a suitably medieval subject for the neo-Gothic building (although it's very late neo-Gothic, completed in 1913).

Maybe Lady Hale just felt that the gravitas of the court demanded headgear. That’s apparently what the lawyers who appear before the court felt; given the choice, they decided to continue with wigs and gowns. Our tour guide (see previous post) suggested that the lawyers might feel the gowns and wigs bolster their courage, because speaking in front of the Supreme Court must be pretty intimidating, no matter what the Justices wear when they’re sitting.

These sittings take place during four terms every year: Michaelmas, Hilary, Easter, and Trinity—names used on similar calendars at some of the major historic universities, and all obviously derived from the calendar of the Christian church. Michaelmas—September 29, the feast of St Michael the Archangel—is one of 4 traditional quarter days in England, used at one time as the days rents were due or quarterly meetings held, the other quarter days being Lady Day (March 25, meaning the Feast of the Annunciation for the church, and meaning something else entirely for fans of Billie Holiday), Midsummer Day (June 24), and Christmas Day (December 25).**

The average person on the street in London probably wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly which day is Michaelmas, but they’d know that the word Michaelmas means autumn, so the guide who took us around the Supreme Court building could mention the Michaelmas term and be comfortable that people would know what she meant. Heads around me nodded; I was probably the only one who had to go home and look it up.

Another frieze from the front of the Supreme Court's building, this one showing King John and the barons at the signing of the Magna Carta, 1512. The Magna Carta is the foundation of the British constitution, which is not written, but which you might say is actually made up of history, consisting as it does of case law, conventions, and customs.

In any case, Monday’s procession in full regalia is a rare event. Most days the Justices, in ordinary business clothes (possibly plus one hat), come in, sit down, and get to work—except that they don’t all work at the same time. In the US, all 9 Supreme Court Justices are expected to hear every case, but in the UK, depending on the importance of each case and what areas of the law apply, they assign a panel of 5, 7 or 9 Justices. It’s a good thing they don’t always need all twelve Justices at once, because right now there are only ten; they’re waiting for the independent commission that selects new Justices to come up with replacements. From time to time the Court drafts in retired Justices, or judges from certain lower courts, when particular people have experience pertinent to some case, but that doesn’t have to do with filling vacancies, just with getting the best heads available to work on the problem.  That seems to me admirably practical, but I can’t imagine the US Supreme Court doing it; nobody but the 9 Senate-confirmed Justices is welcome at their deliberations.

Today’s Justices may make up the first court in the UK to be called the Supreme Court, but since supreme is just the name for the highest court that hears appeals, every judicial system has some court that qualifies. Until the 1870s, the highest court here was the House of Lords itself—the whole House, which today has 824 members (I’ve had trouble pinning down how big the House was in the 1870s). The equivalent in the US would be to have all of the Senate hear legal cases—and even if the US Senate were to do that, then the court would have only (only!) 100 judges. With so many Lords participating, it’s no surprise that the system became too cumbersome, so certain Lords were designated Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, more commonly called Law Lords.  The Law Lords met separately from the rest of the House to hear appeals as highest court.

And just for some color after those pictures of monochrome carvings, here's a close-up of the carpet with the motif featuring the rose, flax, thistle and leek of the Supreme Court's logo as designed by Peter Blake of Sgt Pepper's album cover fame.

But that system still allowed conflicts of interest that the US separation of powers prevents.   Our guide cited the controversial 2004 law banning hunting with dogs (widely considered a ban on fox hunting, although many types of hunting were affected). The Law Lords by custom do not vote on legislation, but officially there was nothing to stop them, and two of the Law Lords who felt strongly about hunting did vote. It would have been possible for them to go downstairs to the House, vote on the law, and then walk upstairs to the Law Lords’ committee room and decide cases based on that law.

Almost as much of a problem, using that committee room made it difficult for the public to see what went on.  The room couldn’t accommodate many spectators, it was difficult for the public to get to, and it couldn’t accommodate filming.  (Almost all of the proceedings of the Supreme Court are now filmed, with the footage sometimes aired by major networks or streamed on the web.)

Nowadays the public can go see what happens in all three very public courtrooms in the Supreme Court building—but so far I’ve only told you about two of them. That’s because Court 3 is not for the Supreme Court at all, but for the Justices in their other hats (or other wigs?), when they sit as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC).

And just like my series on the English habit of drinking tea, in which one post turned into two, and two became three, I’m finding that the tale grows in the telling. I’ll have to let you in on the activities of the JCPC in the next post.

In the meantime, here’s the poem the Poet Laureate wrote for the UK’s first Supreme Court.

Lines for The Supreme Court

Tides tumbled sand through seas long-lost to earth;
Sand hardened into-stone – stone cut, then brought
To frame the letter of our four nations’ law
And square the circle of a single court.
Here Justice sits and lifts her steady scales
Within the Abbey’s sight and Parliaments
But independent of them both. And bound
By truth of principle and argument.
A thousand years of judgment stretch behind –
The weight of rights and freedoms balancing
With fairness and with duty to the world:
The clarity time-honoured thinking brings.
New structures but an old foundation stone:
The mind of Justice still at liberty
Four nations separate but linked as one:
The light of reason falling equally.

— Andrew Motion

* Despite separation of church and state, the Catholic Church has provided a special mass to which all the US Supreme Court Justices and some guests are invited, the Sunday before the term opens in the autumn, every year since 1953. Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously does not attend, but other non-Catholic Justices often do. At the moment, the US Supreme Court is made up of 6 Catholics and 3 Jews, a tally which by no means reflects the religious habits of the country as a whole!

** Scotland traditionally had different quarter days: Candlemas (February 2), Whit Sunday (May 15), Lammas (August 1), and Martinmas (November 11). You get used to hearing “except in Scotland” about a lot of things when you talk about traditions and laws in the United Kingdom.


Filed under Architecture, Culture, History, Law/Politics/Government

Supreme Court 1: The Court and its Building

A school group crosses in front of the Supreme Court Building in Parliament Square, London

One of the paradoxes of the UK is the way that some things stay the same for centuries and other things change at the drop of a hat.

Men in Abbotts Bromley in Staffordshire have danced their peculiar Horn Dance every year since 1288, the Ceremony of the Keys has closed the Tower of London every evening for over 700 years, and my friend’s local (the pub near your house where you go all the time is your local) has walked a horse through the building on Christmas Day for so long no one seems to know when the tradition began.

But governments can change fundamental public systems at lightning speed, and in 2009 lawmakers changed the shape of the judiciary by creating a Supreme Court—just like that, without the public seeming to take much notice.

The statue outside the Supreme Court building is of Abraham Lincoln, but not for any justice-related reason; the statue has been there since the 1920s, one of several statues of statesmen (and they are all men) in Parliament Square. The most recent addition to the lineup is Nelson Mandela.

Last week I  toured the Supreme Court building, and couldn’t have been more impressed.  It’s not just that you’re allowed to go in; it’s that everything about the place is designed, purposely, to get you to come see what happens inside, from the welcoming doorman who kept trying to invite me in even though I was way too early for my tour, to the…well, I’ll get to all the rest.  In fact, I’ll get to all the rest in two different posts, there’s so much.

When it was about time for my tour, I passed by the statue of Abraham  Lincoln (see photo for explanation), and a pair of stone benches inscribed with the poem written for the first Supreme Court by then-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and let the smiling doorman sweep me through the beautiful faux-Tudor doors.  On the other side of the security checkpoint my group, members of the Friends of the British Library, were gathering for a little good-natured grousing about what had set off the metal detectors.  (In my case it was a pocket torch, that is, a flashlight.)

The main staircase, with its copper handrail. The stained glass shows the arms of various sheriffs of the county of Middlesex, leftover from when the building was the Middlesex Guildhall.

A video came first, in which Lord Phillips, President of the Court (rather than Chief Justice, as in the US) emphasized how welcome we were and how much they all wanted us to come back when we could hear the Justices discussing cases.

When we do we must be sure, said Lord Phillips (on the screen), to pick up free leaflets at the front desk that explain what the cases are about, prepared each day so the public can understand what’s going on.  A staff member later told me it’s rare to have so many spectators that they fill the courtroom; when that happens, they set up folding chairs in the lobby for the overflow, so they don’t have to turn people away.  (Somehow, I don’t see that happening at the US Supreme Court.)

Court 1, from behind the solicitors' chairs

Courtroom 1 used to be the debating chamber of the Middlesex County council when the building was the Middlesex Guildhall, Middlesex being one of the counties that was re-organized out of existence a while back in one of those changes I find astonishing.  (Can you imagine the outcry if the US government decided, for example, to merge New York and Pennsylvania, or to divide Texas?)  The room has no witness box (US: witness stand); just as in the US, the Supreme Court considers points of law and does not hear witnesses.  The room is set up for discussion, with a curved table for Justices and a curved table for barristers (lawyers), facing each other across an oval space.  Behind the barristers sit the solicitors (a different kind of lawyer; that’s a topic for another time) and behind the Justices sit their assistants, young lawyers who would be called clerks in the US.  The public sits behind the solicitors in seats like church pews, and in an elevated gallery (US: balcony), as well.

In Courtroom 1, looking up. The portraits are those leftover from Middlesex Guildhall days, the large one here showing the Duke of Wellington.

We filed out of Court 1, walking on carpet of a pattern used throughout the building, designed by pop artist Peter Blake, famous for the cover for the Beatles Sgt Pepper album.  It shows the four emblems of the countries in the United Kingdom: the leek for Wales, the rose for England, the thistle for Scotland and the flax flower for Northern Ireland (not a shamrock because the shamrock symbolizes all of Ireland, and the British Supreme Court has no jurisdiction in the Republic).

The emblem of the UK Supreme Court dominates Court 2. The Tudor rose symbolizes England; the thistle, Scotland, the flax--the little blue one--for Ireland, and all are connected by the leaves of the leek, a symbol of Wales. The medallion of flowers is surrounded by the Greek letter omega, meaning the end, as the Supreme Court has the final say in the legal cases it decides.

Those four flowers (well, the leek is only represented by leaves) make up most of the crest of the Court, an emblem that dominates Court 2 (see photo).  Court 2 is double height, sleek and modern, with huge windows (one side looks out onto Westminster Abbey).  It’s light and airy, and said to be the Justices’ favorite court room.

The glass back wall of Court 2

The back wall is glass, as are several walls in the building, designed to emphasize the idea that the Supreme Court’s work is open to everyone.  Most of the new artwork in the building takes the form of quotations etched into glass walls; the one in the back of Court 2 reads “Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.”  Appropriately, it’s etched into the glass twice: once facing in and once facing out.  And who said it?  Eleanor Roosevelt.

The middle and upper floors of the library.

Quotations come thick and fast in the Supreme Court’s library, which isn’t ordinarily open to the public (but the magic of being with a group from the Friends of the British Library is that the doors of a lot of private libraries will open to you sooner or later).  In fact, the books have already outgrown the library, and bits of the collection are housed in nooks and crannies all over the building.  Those in the Library itself make a beautiful display, with the glass wall showing quotations from prominent people from Aristotle to Martin Luther King.  (They’re listed at the end of this post.)

Middle floor of 3-story library, looking down to the lower floor, with quotations etched in glass

And that was the tour—if you don’t count stopping for a cup of tea.  Yes, there’s a cafe in the building, and that’s open to the public, too.  It’s run by Costa—a local chain that competes with Starbucks.  If you’re in London, you can just stop in to the Supreme Court for a cappuccino, as long as you don’t mind going through security.

Costa cafe on a lower floor. Next time you're in London you can drop into the Supreme Court for coffee

The way out is through the final glass wall, which is inscribed with phrases from the oath that UK judges at all levels swear or affirm.  New judges who elect to swear can swear by Almighty God (for Christians and Jews), by Allah (for Moslems), by Gita (for Hindus) or by Guru Nanak (for Sikhs), but all of them pledge to “do right by all manner of people, after the law and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”

The glass walls stand for the transparency of the judiciary, that is, for a system in which—in a phrase often used by British public figures—justice is not only done, but is seen to be done.  That is one of the reasons Parliament created the Supreme Court.  But I’ll go into that, and into the use of the third court room, in the next post.

The final door: "to do right by all manner of people, after the law and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will."

Finally, here are the quotations, chosen by the original panel of 12 Justices, for the library:

  • ‘Law is order and good law is good order’ – Aristotle
  • ‘He who commits injustice is ever more wretched than he who suffers it’ – Plato
  • ‘These having not the law are law unto themselves’ – Romans 2:14
  • ‘Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly’ – Martin Luther King
  • ‘The first duty of a man is the seeking after and the investigation of truth’ – Cicero
  • ‘Justice is truth in action’ – Disraeli
  • ‘Where is there any book of law so clear to each man as that written in his heart?’ – Tolstoy
  • ‘Justice is far from being a natural concept. The closer one gets to the state of nature, the less does one find’ – Megarry
  • ‘Man is a little thing while he works by and for himself but when he gives voice to the rules of love and justice he is godlike’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • ‘It is in justice that the ordering of society is centred’ – Aristotle
  • ‘Laws were made to prevent the strong from always having their way’ – Ovid

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Culture, History, Law/Politics/Government, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

AV: A Horse of a Different Colour

Front of the official non-partisan brochure sent to all households with voters by the Electoral Commission.

Until recently, the letters AV had only one meaning as far as I knew: audiovisual. This shows my age, I suppose; IT has replaced AV. School AV Clubs had a reputation as a haven for losers (UK: saddos) who, when they weren’t hanging out at Radio Shack, met in the basement to share tips on vacuum tubes. (Okay, maybe not vacuum tubes.) Information technology students, it seems, are more likely to wear trendy sunglasses and compose PowerPoint presentations about how they’ve hooked the electric can opener to the internet and use their iPhone to feed the cat.

But AV is the acronym of the moment here: it means the Alternative Vote. British voters go to the polls on May 5 not only to elect representatives for local government, but to decide whether we should change the way votes are counted in future elections.

This is made complicated by the fact that media types—radio, television, and print—keep telling us how complicated AV is. This is increasingly irksome, because the proposed new system isn’t complicated. And there’s other incorrect information out there; even the BBC web site’s explanation says that under the current system, “it’s the person who gets the most votes who wins, but that could all change”. Wrong—in AV, the person with the most votes wins, too; what could change is how the votes are counted or, in effect, which candidates are taken seriously.

The traditional system is known here as “first past the post”, which I’m going to call FPTP to save typing. It’s a misnomer anyway, because an election is not about who can reach some goal first; in fact, the analogy to horseracing that people use here just confuses the issue further.

In FPTP, the ballot paper is printed with a list of names, and each voter makes an X (here called a cross) next to the name of one person; there’s no risk of hanging chads or rigged voting machinery since we use a simpler, cheaper technology: each voting booth has a little pencil on the end of a string. In AV, the ballot looks the same but voters may rank the names 1, 2, 3, and so on, if they want to. (You’re not required to rank them all.)

In FPTP, there’s one round of vote counting, so even if the person with the most votes gets nowhere near a majority (majority being more than 50%) of the votes, that person wins. In AV, if nobody gets a majority, they throw the person with the fewest votes out of the running, and count again. They repeat that until somebody gets an actual majority of over 50%. See? Not difficult.

Cover of a "NO on AV" leaflet I received, coming out swinging with "One Person, One Vote". I didn't get any "YES on AV" literature, so can't give it equal treatment.

Say nobody got a majority and you voted for the person who got the fewest votes. Your candidate is history. And since your first-choice candidate is now out of the running, when they recount the ballots, your vote goes to the candidate you marked as your second choice. Not so hard, is it?

In the UK’s last national election the Conservatives (aka Tories) got 36.1% of the popular vote, Labour got 29% and the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) got 23%, with 11.9% shared among smaller parties. Nobody got anywhere near a majority. The one thing you can be sure of in an AV system, like it or not, is that the candidate who wins will have more than 50% of the votes; the winner will be someone that at least doesn’t make more than half the country feel we’d be better off with a potted plant in charge. (Note: in the UK that would be a pot plant, and isn’t that confusing? What is a “pot plant” to an American is I think a “cannabis plant” here.)

(Now for some fine print – or as the British say, some small print: In the US, the significance of the popular vote in a national election is muddied by the Electoral College; in the UK the muddying comes in because the popular vote is not as important as how many individual Members of Parliament win for each party. But this doesn’t change how FPTP and AV work, so don’t worry about it now.)

American readers can think of this as the Republicans getting, hypothetically, 45%, Democrats 40% and an independent, say, Ralph Nader, getting 15% (fewer Americans than Britons vote for smaller parties so I’ve adjusted the numbers, and no, Nader’s never gotten close to 15%, but just stay with me here). It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of Nader voters would prefer a Democratic president to a Republican president, but the Republican would win even though that would give the country a president that most of the voters did not want. Under AV, Nader’s votes would be thrown out and, assuming I’m right that most of them would go Democratic as a second choice, the final result would be in the neighbourhood of Republicans 45%, Democrats 55% and the majority really would rule.

So the bottom line, the reason for considering an AV system, is that under FPTP you can win even if the majority of voters hate you and the horse you rode in on (there’s another horsy figure of speech) while an AV system can mean that the person with the most votes in the first round may not win, but you can be sure that the winning candidate is someone the majority of the voters actually have some confidence in. (Small/fine print: yes, we have a coalition government here, with two parties sharing power—supposedly—but the coalition resulted from political horse-trading between the parties after the election—equine metaphors are everywhere!—and is not the direct result of how the voters actually voted).

Note that I’m saying this is the reason to consider using AV, not that AV is the fairest system; you can make a good case for either of these systems being more fair than the other, but neither side here seems to be doing that; instead, when they stop the blathering and buzzwords, their arguments—especially those from the “No on AV” side—are enough to make a horse laugh (there she goes again).

Those who like FPTP say that in AV some voters get to vote multiple times, and we’d be abandoning “one man, one vote”. Wrong. In every count and in the final count, every voter would get one vote only; we’d just be throwing out the no-hopers and counting votes only for serious contenders. The “Yes on AV” people say in response that AV saves third-party voters from throwing their vote away or having to vote tactically (as in “I want to vote for the UK Independence Party but they can’t possibly win and I really hate Labour, so I’d better vote Conservative”), and that if the voters know they can’t vote for the person or party they want, because it doesn’t have a chance, they often don’t vote at all (as in “I want to vote for the Green Party but they can’t possibly win so I won’t bother”).

Think if we put a picture of a doctor on it, voters will think it must be good for them?

I’ve also heard the “No on AV” crowd say we must not change the voting system because some voters may not understand it and therefore will only vote for one candidate; opponents say the “No on AV” people think voters are too stupid to count to three. Let’s face it: the clueless (to paraphrase Jesus Christ on this Easter Sunday afternoon) will always be with us, and we can hardly optimize a voting system for people who don’t have two neurons to rub together. If a voter only marks the ballot paper for one person, it may be that they find only that candidate acceptable, and that’s their right.

Only three other countries in the world use AV in national elections—Australia, Fiji, and Papua-New Guinea, and it isn’t universally loved even in those places—although some smaller elections, even within the UK, already used AV. Some people seriously suggest that the mere fact that so few other countries use AV means we shouldn’t consider using it here. When a Conservative MP made that suggestion on TV last week the editor of Private Eye (a long-established periodical satirizing politics here) replied that “most of the rest of the world is starving”, then, must be a “pretty solid argument for not eating.” After the laughter, he went on to say “I don’t know why I said that, I’m more or less on your side, but it’s such a terrible argument.”

And that’s what’s surprising about the run-up to this election. (Note: run-up is not necessarily anything to do with horses.) The arguments put forth by both sides, but particularly by the “No” side, are mainly flimsy or nonsensical.

The “No” campaign funded paid political broadcasts and advertisements in the days just after the Grand National—the most important steeplechase here, comparable in importance to the Kentucky Derby, but with 30 fences to jump—and one that Americans outside the racing world might well have heard of, especially if they remember Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet”. The political broadcast included an imaginary jockey being interviewed after the race, saying he’d thought he’d won, but the judges tell him he didn’t win after all. Seemed pretty stupid to me; I don’t vote for political candidates based on how fast they can run.

More irritating is the one in which a teacher, who obviously doesn’t understand AV, gives a garbled explanation to students, writing random numbers on the board, which none of them can understand. I really resent the idea that numbers are inherently confusing and the average person is terrified of dealing with percentages, especially when understanding AV requires only one such figure: 50%.

It's really sad that the "No" campaign would play on people's confusion by using the racing metaphor, which has nothing to do with elections unless you want to give up on voting and use footraces to determine who gets to be in Parliament.

They’re counting on us being blinded by numbers in other ways, too, because their own numbers don’t add up; they complain that an AV system will make elections more expensive to run than an FPTP system, but they add into their calculation the cost of the referendum vote. I’m slightly in danger of voting for AV simply on grounds that the “No” people are so irritating.

Still, I think the “No on AV” campaign will probably win. Change is always difficult and confused people usually stay with the devil they know; in this case the media, often accused of a liberal bias, was on the side of conservatives in convincing the public that AV is big, scary and difficult and totally beyond our tiny minds.  And the “No on AV” campaign has more money; FPTP is liable to keep those who’ve always been in power in their offices, and those who support what Americans call “third parties” don’t have as much money for campaigning.  (I didn’t even get a “Yes on AV” leaflet, or I’d probably be irritate with their shading of the truth and poor arguments, too.)

In any case, AV now crops up in all kinds of conversations, from “Are you going to watch the royal wedding?” to “Did you remember to set up the iPhone to feed Mr PawPaws, dear?”.  On May 5 we’ll find out which the voters prefer, first-past-the-post or the proposed alternative vote. Until then, it’s neck and neck and it’s anybody’s horserace.


Filed under Culture, Current events, Law/Politics/Government

’Elf and Safety

Boris Johnson—Mayor of London, former Member of Parliament, journalist, and well-known cycling enthusiast—wrote a piece in the Telegraph recently in support of parents who allow their kids to bicycle to school by themselves. A head teacher (US: principal) had threatened to report parents to social services for putting their children’s safety at risk by allowing them to bike to school without adult protection; Johnson called the parents “heroes”, who “have taken the sword of common sense to the great bloated encephalopathic sacred cow of elf and safety.”

You’ve got to love a politician who can churn out that kind of verbiage, but some American readers may be wondering about the final phrase. 

It’s usually spelled ’elf; if we’ve gotten to the point that educated people like Johnson are dropping the apostrophe, then the phrase has well and truly entered the language. ’Elf stands for health, a compromise between a phonetic spelling and punctuation to show that the h ought to be there at the front, but isn’t. It’s health the way Cockneys and some other English speakers would pronounce it. Such a person with, let’s suppose, a brother called Keith might say “The doc told Keef ’e’s got to give up ’is ciggies, they’re bad for ’is ’elf.” 

The phrase health and safety is shorthand for the mass of laws and regulations created to protect us. If you’re not a Cockney you can mock the term by saying ’elf and safety instead, to show you think regulations have gone far beyond where common sense might expect them to stop. (Cockneys can do that, too, it’s just that you can’t tell they’re mocking since they’d say it that way anyhow.) 

Editorials also rail against the nanny state—a phrase suggesting we’re burdened by laws and regulatory safeguards, as if we can’t take care of ourselves so the government has to do it—or the compensation culture—a phrase used by those who think people don’t take responsibility for their personal actions any more, but feel that if anything at all goes wrong, someone ought to pay them for it. Together with ’elf and safety, the phrases suggest an attitude toward minimizing risk that comes close to saying that life should have no risks, that bad things shouldn’t happen, and that if they do, it’s always someone’s fault.   

Duke Humfrey's Library at the Bodleian, Oxford

 I didn’t pay a lot of attention to any of these until they hit me where it hurts: in a library.

The Bodleian, the University of Oxford’s main research library, is the oldest library in the country and one of the oldest in Europe. It was founded in 1602—the year Shakespeare was writing Alls Well That Ends Well, the year before Elizabeth I died, and almost two decades before someone on the Mayflower said, “Look, chaps! I do believe I see some sort of land or something over there.”

Being historic doesn’t get you any slack from ’elf and safety. The Bodleian’s oldest reading room, called Duke Humfrey’s Library, looks like my idea of heaven. The Harry Potter filmmakers cast it as Hogwarts’ library. But ’elf and safety staff banned the centuries-old practice of using stepladders to get to the topmost shelves on the gallery (a sort of mezzanine); the gallery railing, it seems, is too low, and someone falling off a stepladder could fall all the way to the floor below.   

Problem: the library doesn’t want to re-locate the books. Those books have been there for centuries, and that’s where the library thinks they belong.  So it’s stalemate.  Until some compromise is reached (if I may suggest the obvious, there are ladders with safety cages around them) students can look up and see the books, but that’s it. The next-nearest copy of most of those volumes is going to be at the British Library in London, since these aren’t the kind of things you pick up from a rack next to the latest Dan Brown at the public library; Duke Humfrey’s Library concentrates on manuscripts—and papyri—produced before 1641.

That story piqued my interest because I’m a library junkie. Now almost every week I notice new stories in the press: packages of nuts that must by law be marked “May Contain Nuts” for the safety of allergy sufferers who might accidentally ingest a nut while they’re eating their package of nuts; bilingual (English-Welsh) “No Smoking” signs sent to freelancers to be posted, presumably, over their desks in converted attics, to remind everyone that workplaces are now smoke-free. (Actually the law doesn’t apply to those working at home so long as delivery workers don’t enter the building, and fewer than two employees who do not live there come onto the premises.  This led one freelancer I know to ask why you’re allowed to poison one secretary, but not two.)

’Elf and safety has become such a hot topic that in the rush to give the public examples to tut-tut over, lots of stories appear that don’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, it’s not true, although it was widely reported, that schools now require children to wear goggles when playing conkers.

There is no US equivalent of playing conkers as far as I know; Wikipedia says that Americans play the game, but I only know it as a British phenomenon. Conkers are the beautiful hard seeds you find inside the spiky balls that fall from horse chestnut trees; where I grew up, we called them buckeyes. You force a hole through a conker/buckeye, thread a string or a shoelace through the hole, and take turns swinging your conker against somebody else’s until one of them shatters—thus the perceived need for goggles. Players try various schemes to harden their conkers—I’m told soaking in vinegar is popular—though chemically treated conkers aren’t considered strictly fair play.  

It turns out no such goggle requirement existed: a single safety-conscious head teacher (US: principal) bought goggles for conker-playing children at his school, by some reports the kids thought the goggles were fun, and it all happened years ago anyway. What does seem to be true, from what I can tell, is that horse chestnut trees have been lopped, totally removed, or had their seeds harvested by council (US: local government) workers in a variety of places across the country and for a long list of reasons: risk of children being struck by cars while gathering conkers, risk of children falling from trees ditto, risk of pedestrians slipping in the mulch of conker shells on the pavement (US: sidewalk) below, risk of concussion from falling conkers, and so on.  

While it may seem that cutting down trees is overkill, each institution has to interpret for itself how the health and safety regulations apply. In the case of the Bodleian, university officials rather than government officials banned the ladders, but did so in an effort to comply with legislation one  section of which, headed “Avoidance of risks from work at height”, says employers must take “suitable and sufficient” measures to ensure the safety of workers on ladders. That being rather vague, and with our increasing tendency towards litigation, you can hardly blame the poor ’elf and safety officer. Presumably the head teacher who won’t let the kids bicycle to school alone was doing his or her best to comply, too.

Myth of the Month from the Health and Safety Authority myth-busting website

In part to separate urban myths from truth, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an arm of the government’s Department of Work and Pensions, has set up a website, complete with a myth of the month; this July they debunk the story going around that HSE banned sticks in candy floss (US: cotton candy). I mentioned a while back that at our church fête this year, the candy floss was sold in plastic bags and not on sticks, but apparently this is neither down to ’elf and safety or “the nanny state gone mad” (a much-used phrase), but with what’s cheaper for the candy floss seller.

The HSE also defends itself against charges of requiring trapeze acrobats to wear hardhats, prohibiting graduates from throwing mortarboards into the air, banning poles in fire stations, and prohibiting the strange—to me—local practice of hanging teddy bears and similar toys on the front grilles of rubbish lorries (US: the front grills of garbage trucks). Any number of eccentric British traditions have been plagued with rumours of cancellation due to ’elf and safety, including pancake races and cheese rollings. 

I don’t really mind most of those things—though I suppose the world would be a sadder place if firefighters couldn’t shimmy down poles—as long as they don’t mess with the availability of books. If there’s been any resolution to the Bodleian’s dilemma in Duke Humfrey’s Library, I haven’t read it in the papers or found it on the web, but apparently most of the content of those unreachable volumes is available electronically. Book lovers know that’s not the same, though. You miss the texture and the smell. Anybody lucky enough toget to work with medieval manuscripts shouldn’t be blocked by ’elf and safety from the thrill of turning real pages. That can’t be reproduced—and neither can the excitement of riding your bike to school for the first time all by yourself.

UPDATE:  Just found the response of the headteacher in the conkers story.  He says that it was the kids’ idea to wear goggles and that after publication of the story about his school, the World Junior Conkers Championships on the Isle of Wight began requiring players to be goggled.


Filed under Culture, Law/Politics/Government

Taking Sides

If the BP oil disaster had happened in the English Channel. Picture courtesy of; to link to this map use

I wrote playfully on my About page that my dual nationality ought to be no problem as long as the US and the UK don’t “descend into open warfare”. With the FIFA World Cup US vs. UK match scheduled for tonight, figuring out which team to cheer for was the worst conflict of interest I thought I’d be liable to run up against.

But then came the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently the press coverage here took a strange turn, with reports of politicians and prominent figures accusing Obama and his administration of spouting “anti-British rhetoric”, with calls for the British Prime Minister to “protect BP”. What on earth were they talking about?

On Thursday evening, radio and television reports began to air the view that Obama is painting the problem as BP’s fault in order to deflect criticism from himself. But surely Obama paints the leak as BP’s fault because it was not Obama’s oil rig that failed, but BP’s.

A former British trade minister interviewed on BBC radio Friday said that he was afraid the situation was being hijacked by American political posturing having to do with the midterm elections. Well, actually he said he “didn’t want BP to fall foul of domestic pork-barrel politics with midterm elections coming up”, but I don’t think he actually knows what “pork-barrel politics” means, because there’s no pork-barrel involved in this issue.

Things began to fall into place when I realized that these speakers were reacting to the BP spill as if it were only a matter of politics. It isn’t; the oil is real. All the politicking in the world doesn’t change the fact that 40 thousand barrels of oil a day (or whatever figure you trust from the variety seen in print) is fouling fishing grounds, beaches, and wildlife refuges.

As for “anti-British rhetoric”, nobody in the Obama administration has said anything against the British people or the British nation. In fact, I have not been able to find examples of any anti-British message coming from anybody in the US government—or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough, but if I haven’t, neither has British Foreign Secretary William Haig, who has said that he hasn’t heard anything from Americans that he would class as anti-British.

So where’s this anti-British rhetoric? The only example I can find is ludicrous: Obama and other administration figures have slipped up and called the company British Petroleum instead of BP, which many people here take as “anti-British”. Surely this is a desperate grasp for the flimsiest of straws. It seems hardly possible that while poison spreads, people could be so appallingly hypersensitive to correct forms of address, or wouldn’t give the benefit of doubt to Americans who don’t know that the initials BP have lost their referrents, that BP—after having been known as British Petroleum since 1954—officially changed its name in 1998.

Some commentators here have suggested that holding BP responsible for the disaster is anti-British because if BP goes bankrupt, it will devastate the British economy. This is in part because so many pension funds here have their money invested in BP shares. I’m sorry that pensioners may lose money because of BP’s practices, or even because of BP’s bad luck, but I’m sorrier about the enormous damage to New Orleans’ culture and way of life (because this goes far beyond its economy) and to wildlife. If the hurricane season spreads the oil over hundreds of miles, it’s not the British economy I’ll be thinking of first, nor the need to “protect BP”.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, said “OK, [BP] has presided over a catastrophic accident, which it is trying to remedy, but ultimately it cannot be faulted because it was an accident that took place and BP, I think, is paying a very, very heavy price indeed.”

Can BP really be that easily absolved? Here’s another British voice: Andrew Sullivan, a conservative British columnist who lives in the USA, wrote in last Sunday’s Times (that’s the one in London, not the New York Times) about US authorities citing BP and other multinational oil companies for negligence and corner-cutting; in the past three years, counting only “egregious, wilful” violations, they cited Sunoco and ConocoPhillips 8 times each, while Citgo had 2 violations, and Exxon had 1. Oh, and BP? 760 violations.

So compared to the next-worst multinational oil companies, BP had almost 100 times as many egregious, willful (“wilful” is the UK spelling) violations of regulations. Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidence, then, that the accident happened to BP rather than to one of the others, and it’s not unreasonable to lay responsibility at BP’s door.

And if paying for the cleanup bankrupts BP? It may well be true that in the long run it would be unwise to require BP to pay every penny in cleanup costs and compensation that they should, but that does not make simply calling for BP to be held accountable an anti-British stance, any more than it is an anti-British stance to make the mistake of calling the company British Petroleum.

BP could have carried insurance to cover the costs of a catastrophic failure, which would have given it further defenses against bankruptcy; the company decided not to carry that insurance. They decided instead to self-insure, which just means they are uninsured. Perhaps BP believed its own press, and didn’t think a catastrophe like this could happen. The problem is that they didn’t just bet their company on that; they bet the lives of millions of aquatic and marsh creatures and the livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of people who depend for their living on either tourism or on seafood: catching it, cooking it, feeding and housing tourists who come to the Gulf and eat it.

In the end, charges of anti-Americanism or anti-Britishism waste time and energy. Taking offence because Americans don’t know that BP is no longer meant to stand for British Petroleum does not save a single family fishing business, a single pelican, not even a single oyster. The problem isn’t the British economy, pensioners, or mid-term elections; it’s the cold hard facts of one of the largest man-made environmental disasters ever seen.

And it’s that size, the enormous scope of the disaster, that is another reason, I believe, that some British politicians are content to handle this as if it were merely a political problem: they simply don’t get how big this is. I’ve had ample evidence over the last decade that most British people do not grasp the vastness of the USA; at this point, I don’t think some of the commentators over here realize the scope of the oil problem. It’s in the Gulf of Mexico, right? That doesn’t sound so bad. How big can it be?

Apparently Shaun Ley, an anchorman on BBC Radio 4’s main mid-day news programme, “The World At One”, hasn’t quite taken in the areas involved. He referred Friday to the “oil leak off the coast of Mexico”. Yes, the oil spill in the Gulf is huge, but the Gulf is 1000 miles wide. There are 4000 miles of coastline around the Gulf from the tip of Florida to Cancun, and New Orleans isn’t anywhere near Mexico.

The map at the top of this post may help put the size of things into perspective. If this “spill” were to have a twin in the English Channel, it would reach from Norwich almost 400 miles around the south coast of England to Portsmouth. It would coat all of Kent, East Sussex, and West Sussex, plus parts of Surrey, Hampshire, Middlesex and Berkshire. Oil would go up the Thames and inland past Reading. It would fill the Channel almost entirely, washing into France to contaminate Dunkirk and Calais and pretty much all of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardie. That is the scale of the devastation.

The final frustration is hearing people claim that Obama’s intention to hold BP responsible is nationalism. On Friday’s “World At One” broadcast, Shaun Ley spoke to former trade minister Lord Digby Jones, who began by saying that he didn’t want the discourse to “descend into nationalism”, but followed that straightaway with this:

It was an American company that built this.
It was an American company that operated it.
It’s an American regulator that told these people not to go on shallow [sic] but to go out deep where the technology is at the border of what we can do.
It’s an American population that, the, that takes the black stuff and turns it into their gas guzzlers.
It’s an American Fed that takes the tax dollars—

At that point, Mr Ley cut him off, and asked Lord Jones what he wanted from the Prime Minister. He answered:

I want the Prime Minister to stand up and be counted to take this away from nationalism and make it understood that, you know, 40% of the dividends that come out of BP are going into American pension funds.

And the English stereotype holds that Americans have no sense of irony! Then again, perhaps Lord Jones doesn’t mind nationalism as long as it isn’t American nationalism.

Given that I’ve heard British people blame the USA for everything they dislike right down to too many brochures coming packaged with British magazines, I imagine the outcry here would be as bad or worse, and would be decidedly nationalistic, if a US-based multinational were to cause environmental damage of any kind in UK waters, much less something of epic scale. (I refer to a “US-based multinational” because there have been claims here that BP, being a multinational, cannot validly be called a British company.)

I still haven’t decided which team I’ll cheer tonight in the World Cup match. As for the BP oil leak, I’m not going to take a nationalistic stance; I’m on the side of clean waters, oil-free wildlife, good fishing, and seafood gumbo. I believe that BP made the mess and BP should take responsibility to the fullest extent it can. If that makes people think I’m anti-British, so be it.


Filed under Current events, Language, Law/Politics/Government