Common ground

Donald Trump’s recent flip-flopping on whether to allow the importation of elephant hunting trophies into the US has led to people taking to Twitter to put forward the economic case for hunting as an aid to preservation.

helmer hunting

The argument goes like this:

  1. If elephant hunting is allowed then people will come to hunt elephants
  2. This brings money into local economies
  3. It’s therefore in the interest of locals to preserve the supply of elephants

This seems pretty straightforward and irrefutable. Nobody wants to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs (unless it would look really good mounted on your wall). Where it comes unstuck – the argument, not the goose-head on your wall – is with an economic theory called the tragedy of the commons.

As a named theory the tragedy of the commons has been around since the 1830s, but it’s essentially a re-writing of a principle that is familiar to non-economists; left to their own devices people are dicks. When there is a shared resource people act in their own self-interest, even if doing so will harm the long-term interests of the group as a whole.

It happens on a large-scale – such as the, seemingly inexhaustible, supply of North Atlantic cod, which we fished almost to be point of extinction – and it happens on a small-scale; we’ve all worked in an office where a little perk has been removed or regulated, because some people take the piss.

As the old joke has it, when something is needed by everyone, and could be done by anyone, most of the time it’s done by no-one.

Helmer himself shows exactly how this works. On literally the same page of his Twitter timeline as the quoted tweet above he retweets the message at the top of this image:

roger tl

Here he’s RTing someone who’s arguing that because we’re not the major contributor to oceanic plastic waste – the oceans being, of course, a huge shared resource – we shouldn’t be doing what we can to help solve the problem.

This is the tragedy of the commons writ large. This is the individual rationalisation that the problem isn’t with me, it’s with all those other bastards who are much worse. This is the logic that would, one day, lead to somebody whose wallet is far fuller than their soul pointing their gun at the last wild elephant and telling themselves, as they pull the trigger, that they’re no worse than the thousands who did the same thing before them.

Yeah, they don’t call it the tragedy of the commons for nothing.


Activate Steals! Fire photon torpedoes!

I write because I enjoy doing it, and because it genuinely makes me happy when people like what I write. Because it’s not my living I’m not massively precious about what I write. Everybody who’s ever asked me if they can use my work has been told that they can. I don’t even mind when, occasionally, it turns up on Facebook, stripped of attributions; it’s nice to know that something I wrote is still making people smile, and Facebook friends (who’ve been putting up with my wittering a lot longer than most of you) often ask, “Is this one of yours?”.

The week before last, however, something different happened, somebody straight-up stole something I’d written. On the day where it looked like the government might realise readacted Brexit impact statements I wrote and tweeted this:

brexit impact statement

It’s a fairly obvious joke – many other tweeters had similar ideas – and it’s not exactly subtle. All I did was type up a Word document with a load of swear words in and then draw black rectangles over them in MS-Paint (yes, really), but that’s my version of that joke.

Three hours after my tweet, this tweet appeared…

If you follow the link you’ll see that they’ve posted the image that I created. The image of the document that I wrote. And they added it to a tweet that heavily implies it was their work.

They’re not some new-to-Twitter run-of-the-mill user looking for a few retweets either, they’re a verified account, with 16.5k followers (nearly 3 times my count), claiming to represent young Conservatives in the UK. Yet they couldn’t just retweet or quote tweet me, or ask my permission to reuse my material, or even credit me in their post.

Who’d have thought that Conservatives would behave like that, eh?

Still, I didn’t write this blog to complain about them. I wrote it to say how wonderful it was to see so many of the replies to their tweet from people complaining that they’d stolen it from me. My most sincere thanks to each and every one of you who took the time to chide them, it was lovely and really touched me.

I may never have earned a penny from my writing, but it has earned me the most wonderful Twitter followers I could ever wish for.

Spannergate IV: Drip-feeding clues

Since the dawn of human history man has stared into the night sky and asked, “Who is Brian Spanner?”

brian stars
The eternal question, pictured yesterday

Now, at last, I believe we have enough evidence to finally come up with an answer.

Let’s look at the facts. Firstly, it is self-evident that the SNP are a strong, progressive party who only have Scotland’s best interests at heart. It’s also a fact that, dog-food vendors bamboozling them with  Imperialist maths aside, independence is the only path that a true Scot would support.

Yet Brian not only supports the union, but is often critical of the SNP! To be ignorant on one of these subjects may be written off to a simple error, probably borne of a sub-standard English education, but to be wrong on both of them surely suggests something more sinister at play.

We’ve also known for some time that “Brian” is a composite of the work of many different writers. This could, doubtless, be proved with basic forensic textual analysis, but there’s no need for that, because we have the word of no less an auspicious and erudite figure than John Nicolson himself, writing in The National (the newspaper that dares to tell the truth) last August.

nicolson on spanner

Naturally, with typical Scottish egalitarianism, we have always been drawn to imagine this group as being one of equals, working towards a common goal. However, there is just as much evidence to support the theory that they are a hierarchical team, working to the dictates of a single malevolent figure.

Then we add in to the mix the shocking new revelations that Brian has been able to take photographs from inside the SNP conference and this…

nicolson on spanner


Obviously no right-thinking person would ever read Spanner’s tweets, let alone re-read them, so this will have to be assumed to be true.

When one thinks of a figure who loves the hated union, hates the loved SNP, can afford a team of writers and is not a man then one naturally thinks of moderately well-know children’s author Josephine Rowling.

The case against Rowling is strong – she has supported the union, publicly disagreed with people – even though they were SNP MPs or MSPs (!), lives in Scotland despite there being documented evidence that she’s English, and she’s known to communicate with, and even defend, Spanner on Twitter.

However, Spanner is best known as a misogynist. Part of misogyny is treating women as sexual objects and Rowling, who is married and suspected to have children, doesn’t seem to lean in that direction. Unlike this powerful, pro-Union, anti-SNP figure…

davidson anderson

When you think about it all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together like a well-played game of chess. Davidson IS pro-union, she IS anti-SNP, she PROBABLY DOES have a team of staff working for her, she HAS powerful political connections who’d MOST LIKELY be able to smuggle her into the SNP’s secret conference, she’s CLEARLY misogynistic, she’d OBVIOUSLY know a lot of the journalists, celebrities and associated hangers-on with whom “Brian” regularly chats, and she makes NO SECRET of being a Tory…god, she even seems proud of it!

Think of the value that the Spanner account would have to her. She’d be able to spread pernicious facts about the SNP, safe from behind her cloak of anonymity. She could openly communicate with and rally enemies of Scotland. If she wished to she could even look at twitter accounts offering pornographic services – and can it just be a coincidence that so many of “Brian’s” tweets have been liked by accounts offering links to explicit sexual chat?

The icing on the cake is looking at how many people follow both Ruth and Brian. Why would they be following the same person twice, unless they knew that “Brian” was saying all the things that Ruth couldn’t, because of politic? It’s this final little detail that makes the case water-tight.

Finally then we can, with 100% certainty, be the first to reveal to the world a true photo of the infamous “Brian Spanner” troll.

ruth davidson

Gosh, “he” doesn’t look happy about it, does he?


A long, long time ago I wrote a blog criticising an Abi Wilkinson article, so it’s probably only fair that I now write one praising her.

I refer, of course, to her first piece for Esquire, ‘If you don’t like this article you’re a dick’ – that isn’t actually what it’s called, of course, but that’s the gist of it. And fair play to Abi, because I suspect that’s the not-so-hidden sub-title to every article that everybody writes.

What’s more noteworthy is what a transformation we see in this article because, whatever your opinion of Abi as a journalist, you have to admit that she makes an absolutely first-rate propagandist.

This is the watershed moment when the writers of the left, who have long since given up criticising Corbynism, find that they no longer have to even attempt to justify it. Corbyn is offering the only show in town that’s cool, support it wholeheartedly or you’re uncool.

While her male colleagues still flounder trying to explain that New-Old-Labour isn’t a cult, Abi has realised that debate doesn’t even need to happen. If she said nobody treats Corbynism like a cult then critics would find counterexamples. If she said that people are right to to make Corbyn a cult figure then she’d be called wrong or misguided. Instead she simply makes it uncool to mention cultism, and 70 years of teenagers as a distinct social group have done the heavy lifting for her…nobody argues with a younger person about what is or is not cool.

And with good reason

This is truly a brilliant piece of picking the right battleground and not taking on your enemy on their own terms. Make them a figure of fun, so that it no longer matters what they say, they are an idiot just for opening their mouth.

Abi is generous, though. If you don’t want to be an idiot the proscribed subjects are clearly laid out. You can choose to speak with Corbyn on them, or you can shut up about them, and perhaps people will still think you cool.  Your old road is rapidly ageing, the article seems to say, so get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand…this is a radical new thinking, not for the lovers of crusty old dad-ballads.

Ultimately propaganda wins hearts and minds, and political power and Abi has beautifully set the stage for Labour’s triumph. It’s not a political party’s place to debate issues, or win-over critics, the road to power lies in shutting them up, devaluing their contribution, making them unpersons and Abi should, rightly, be very proud of the groundwork she has done today in making that possible.

And, of course, if you don’t agree with this article you’re a dick.

Brexit: An optimist speaks out

I am one of life’s optimists; my glass is always half-full, every cloud has a silver lining, it’s an ill wind…and so on, ad nauseam. As a looker on the bright side I’ve been disappointed by how negative paintings of Britain’s post-Brexit future have been. Even the daily announcements from The Express, about how much richer we’re going to be when we leave the EU, are based on things like papers from Economists for Free-Trade (formerly Economists for Brexit, and against literally everything else), which boast impressive GDP growth, but also gloomily mention that UK agriculture and manufacturing are going to be wiped out.

Is that the British way? Is that patriotism? Is that what we want to tell our grandchildren when they pause from gnawing on their rats bones and, eyes wide and twinkling with faith in us, ask, “What did you do in Brexit, granddad?”

No. No it’s ruddy well not!

very british

Let us then be optimistic. We’ll start by throwing out all of the economics (which is nothing more than guess-work hidden under A-level maths) and politics (which is just economics without the maths) and, instead, look at the longer term.

We tend to think of evolution as a continuous process, happening all of the time, but at a rate too slow to be perceptible within a human life-time. However, some time ago, Stephen Gould – or possibly Elliott Gould – proposed an evolutionary theory called ‘punctuated equilibrium’, which suggests that evolution might do not much for ages, and then suddenly happen a lot when circumstances change.

Think of it like this; thousands of years ago lived a herd of things-that-would-eventually-become-giraffes. They didn’t have big long necks, just regular necks, and they ate the leaves off of trees. In times when there were lots of leaves a proto-giraffe with a slightly longer neck wouldn’t have a big advantage. Sure, they could eat leaves that were a bit higher up, but they’d also have low self-esteem, from people/giraffes-to-be making fun of their freaky neck, so wouldn’t be any more likely to breed.

Then, when times are hard and there aren’t so many leaves, suddenly Geoffrey’s freak neck is the thing to have, and the lady antegiraffes are all like, “Hey, Geoffrey, come over here and get me some leaves, and afterwards we can do hot sexing and have baby long-necked freaks.”

It’s basically the story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, but with more prehistoric giraffe sex.

How does this relate to Brexit, I hear you ask (not unreasonably, it must be said)? Well, we currently live in a society where scarcity is, paradoxically, rare. With the invention of pizza delivery and Ocado (relatively recently, in evolutionary terms) it no longer matters how lazy or unfit we are, we can still survive and procreate.

Brexit is going to change all of that. By reintroducing scarcity into our lives, along with the long-missed daily threat of violence, we will be breeding a future British population that is stronger, fitter, more cunning and significantly rarer.

brexit giraffes

Not only that, but because the aims of Brexit are to keep the foreigners out and those of us already here too poor to leave, we will be massively increasing the level of interbreeding – almost to European-royal-family levels. This will make beneficial mutations quicker to establish, as we fight each other tooth and claw for the last cat with a bit of meat on its bones.

Obviously evolution is still a slow process, and it’s too much to hope that our children or grandchildren will be 12ft tall, bulletproof and able to breathe fire, but with only the modest level of optimism that Economists for Free-Trade use in their GDP forecasts, it’s easy to envisage our great-grandchildren being well on their way to those goals.

Then they – the next step in human evolution, Homo Brexitus – will fall upon a world weakened by 70 years of sloth and laughing at us, and claim it as their own. Although they will be a different species to us, and will view us as little more than lardy chimpanzees, they will still carry our genetics and the history we have taught them, and they will take these to all four corners of the world, driving Homo Sapiens to extinction before them. And that is how Brexit will be the making of the New British Empire.

Also, jam exports are likely to rise slightly.

Parc fer me

(or What I did on my summer holidays)


Today I have returned from my first ever visit to a Centre Parcs. My previous experience of Centre Parcs consisted of people telling me that they were going there, that they’d just been there, or that they went there every year. Often in that order, over a period of a couple of years. The progression seemed inexorable. Once you’d been it was only a matter of time before it became your sole holiday destination.

I have now been. If you haven’t then let me help out.

It’s a bit like the Green Party started designing a Utopia, but then out-sourced the economic policy to the Tories. Or maybe it was a white, middle-class UKIP dream, but they needed Lib Dem votes, so agreed that everyone would walk or cycle everywhere.

More likely the place was designed by a feral group of children who wanted to do all of the things that kids normally do – to swim, to shoot bows & arrows, to ride bikes or horses, to climb through trees – and they were sick of the adult excuses; it’s too far away, I tried to book but they’re closed, there’s nowhere to park, it’s not open today, etc.

These children set up the world’s slickest operation for removing these excuses. I have never seen commerce work as efficiently when it comes to separating people from their money. There is no air of malice to it, it simply removes every possible barrier between a child wanting to do something and an adult handing over money for them to do it. The only excuse left is that something it too expensive, and what kind of middle-class parent pleads poverty to their children under the gaze of other middle-class parents whose children are engaged in fun activities? It is the leisure-themed weaponization of keeping-up-with-the-Jones.

This slickness comes at a price, of course. The accommodation costs more than you’d pay elsewhere, the activities cost more than you’d pay elsewhere, the food costs more than elsewhere, the supermarket certainly costs more. You could, in theory, leave during the day and just go elsewhere, but the entry procedure – with the bay you drive your car into, automatics doors sliding shut behind you – seems to wordlessly inform you that if you should leave then getting back in will involve some modicum of hassle, and the car-park is so remote that even the thought of getting to and from your car is enough to dissuade you.

Plus, you’re paying a premium for the traffic-free roads within the parc…if your idea of traffic-free is roads populated entirely by people who seem to never have cycled before and are entirely unfamiliar with ideas such as cycling on a particular side of the road, giving way, looking before they change course or giving the slightest indication that they are, without apparent motive, about to come to a complete stop.

What you’re really paying for, the only gratuity in the whole experience, is limitless access to the swimming pool.

And swimming pools are dreadful, dreadful places.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against swimming. It’s way better than, for example, drowning needlessly, but I like to swim in the sea. The sea is interesting. It has unexpected waves. Mysterious things brush over your feet. There is joy to be found in floating on your back, letting the current gently bob you. There is tranquillity. There is endless space to choose to be near only the other humans you wish to be near (as I predominately swim in the North Sea the nearest they normally get is the shore, and that suits me fine).

The Centre Parcs swimming pool has none of these things. It has manufactured features – waves and rapids – that are carefully regulated. It has so many children per square foot that it feels like that old Star Trek episode about overpopulation. You cannot swim, because to do so would almost certainly involve giving another 3 or 4 holiday makers a hearty kick. You cannot float on your back, because 0.4 seconds into the experience a pre-teen child will cannonball onto your head.

They do have waterslides, of course; the sea doesn’t have them. This is because nobody has ever looked at a beautiful beach and thought, “Hmmm, what we need here is something that combines the joy of queuing, while cold and wet, with the thrill of being waterboarded”.  Not that I imagine Professor Alvin ‘Splash’ Waterslide was thinking that when he invented them. No, I imagine he was thinking, “What could I get swimming ladies to do that might make their boobies fall out of their costumes?”. How terrible, then, that morgue-chic sterile tiling and omnipresent life-guards should conspire to suggest that simply spending a whole day hanging around the bottom of the waterslide for that happy eventually will be frowned upon.

The worst part is that the hellish pool, the suicycling, the sensation of spending every waking hour shovelling bank-notes into a furnace, didn’t stop us having a lovely time. Before we were even two days into our stay my wife was making comments like, “A lot of the girls at work come here for winter breaks”, “I bet it’s lovely in the winter”, “They give you a discount if you book within 28 days of your last stay” (I assume 28 days is the median length of time it takes for Stockholm Syndrome to wear off).

So, doubtless, we’ll be back. Joining the throngs of people who go there every year. Well, at least it will give me a chance to improve my bowling score.


Interviewing Sir Humphrey


Sir Humphrey Appleby, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service during Jim Hacker’s premiership, has rarely granted interviews since his retirement. I was extremely fortunate to manage to arrange a short meeting with him at his club, to discuss his views on Brexit]

INTERVIEWER: Sir Humphrey, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. If I may I’d like to jump straight in.

SIR HUMPHREY: By all means.

INT: Obviously the biggest issue of the day is Brexit. What are your feelings about it?

H: I rather think I’m still in shock about the whole issue.

INT: Shocked that people voted to leave?

H: No, shocked that they were allowed to vote at all. I’ve no idea what Jeremy [Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary] was thinking, allowing that to happen.

INT: You don’t believe in direct democracy?

H: Good lord, no. The general public aren’t qualified to run a country. It’s bad enough that we let them interfere with our plans by voting for a new government every 4 or 5 years.

INT: It’s not valuable to ask the people for their views on major decisions about their country?

H: It’s absolutely fine to ask them their views. It’s agreeing to do something based upon them that is ruinous.

INT: But…

H: Opinion polls ask people their views all of the time, and are an invaluable way to steer truculent ministers. Isn’t that enough?

INT: But opinion polls don’t allow the public to directly control government policy.

H: Not directly, no. That’s the purpose of the civil service.

INT: To turn opinion polls into government policy?

H: [chuckles] No, to use opinion polls to turn civil service policy into government policy.

INT: I’m sorry, sir Humphrey, but you’ve lost me.

H: Look, it’s perfectly straightforward. The general population are completely unfit to govern. Most of them didn’t go to good schools, hardly any of them would pass the civil service entry exam, and most of them seem to be constantly drunk or stoned [pause] Vox populi, vox cannabis, one might say.

INT: I’m sorry, Sir Humphrey, I don’t speak Latin.

H: My point entirely, dear boy. [He sips his drink] Popularity is the enemy of the civil service. If a policy is good, but unpopular, then we can implement it terribly well and, if we’re questioned about it, we can say that it was the will of our political masters.

INT: Do you say that about bad policy as well?

H: No need. If a policy is bad and unpopular we can either stall it forever, or gradually change it until it’s good. Either way nobody really cares, because nobody really liked it anyway.

INT: What about popular policies?

H: Policies that are bad, yet popular, are where opinion polls are so important. Every good civil servant knows how to use opinion polls to make a popular opinion look unpopular. In practice, of course, it’s rarely necessary to do so.

INT: Why?

H: One can normally rely upon the average cabinet minister to make the popular unpopular simply by speaking in support of it. Referendums are different, however. Opinion polls change all of the time. If an opinion poll doesn’t show the result you want then there’ll be another one along in a few minutes which does. A referendum is like a trump in bridge; it can only be beaten by another trump.

INT: So what would happen if a policy was both good and popular?

H: Do you know, the question has never arisen.

INT: You don’t think Brexit is a good idea then?

H: I think the idea of Brexit is excellent, a truly marvellous policy. The girl [The Right Honourable Theresa May, MP, Prime Minister of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland] handled it so well to start off with; two new government departments created, expectations of massive civil service spending, decade’s worth of planning and strategy papers to be written…

INT: I sense a ‘but’ coming here.

H: But she’s letting the politicians run things, and run them to their timetable. A measured civil service approach would have allowed time for the options to be considered, the ramifications to be measured, the risks evaluated and the rewards quantified.

INT: How much time are you talking about here?

H: Hardly any time at all.

INT: But, how much?

H: Well, I’m a classicist, not a trade expert, but from my experience we’d be talking about being ready to leave in no more than 25 years…30 at the absolute outside.

INT: You feel that Mrs May is rushing things?

H: I feel that all historical evidence suggests that it’s folly to have government policy dictated by the leaders in The Daily Mail.

INT: Would you rather see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister?

H: Yes. Yes, I think he’d make a very good PM.

INT: Really? He doesn’t seem like your sort of person.

H: Naturally I wouldn’t want him running the country…

INT: But you just said that he’d make a good prime minister.

H: Yes. Why do you imagine that’s the same as him running the country?

INT: Ah, you think that the civil service could ‘manage’ him.

H: I learned long ago that nobody is easier to steer than an ideologue. They’re so obsessed with the carrot that they don’t see you making the stick longer.

INT: But Mr Corbyn’s supporters say that he’s principled and determined. Perhaps he wouldn’t be as malleable as you think.

H: Nonsense, just look at him when he became leader of the opposition; scruffy suit, no tie, refusing to sing the national anthem. That was the authentic ‘him’. Since then somebody’s told him that he has to “play the game” if he wants to reach his goals. The idiot children he surrounds himself with have already made him a completely different person, and he hasn’t even met the civil service yet.

INT: Finally then, Sir Humphrey, can I have a simple yes or no answer. Do you think Brexit is going to be good for Britain?

H: I think that when all of the relevant factors are taken into consideration, including the factors that we do not yet know are relevant, and the factors which we considered relevant which may, on closer inspection, turn out to be irrelevant, and giving due consideration to the matters in hand, the handling of the matters due, and the unduly underhand manner in which some of the matters have been handled, my feeling is that not all that matters has been handled, not all that has been handled matters, and that that, on consideration, more consideration should have been given to the handling of what matters most and less to our dues.

INT: Is that a ‘no’?

H: Yes

INT: Thank you, sir…

H: …and no.

INT: Thank you, Sir Humphrey. It’s been an education.

H: Who knows, a little more of that and we may end up with a policy that’s popular and good.