A flag by any other name?

It has been some time since the NAP has surfaced and even longer since it has gone into print. For the uninitiated here follows a brief history of the NAP.

In 2011 I was talking to a friend (Jo Mitchell) on a minor point of detail about a subject now long forgotten. The detail was important to us but we were far from typical. A passing colleague asked if we were the annual meeting of the NPA? – He then explained this referred to the National Pedants Association.  Not wishing to disappoint we explained it was more correctly known as the National Association for Pedantry and so the NPA was born. A small number of life memberships have since been granted, most notably to my husband and Mr Andrew Tovell of Luga Barooga.



The United Kingdom flag

This morning, a friend posted a comment on social media relating to the visit of Prince William to Poland. During a walkabout, the national flag was referred to by William as the ‘Union Jack’.


The post which spurred me to call an emergency sitting of the NAP included the lines “Prince William greeting Polish children teaching them that they’re holding the ‘Union Jack’, it’s the Union Flag you idiot. We pay you a fortune, at least learn the basics!”.  Immediately I ran for my copies of fun with flags (Sheldon Cooper 2015) and Flags for Dummies (a minor volume of my own currently in progress).

Before going any further, I should declare our respective interests. Tony is, unfortunately, a declared Republican. In contrast, I sit here in my national flag pyjamas, wearing my Jubilee slippers fashioning a 1:50 scale replica of the late Queen Mother crafted from gin labels. Actually, put that difference aside as I don’t think it’s particularly relevant, but is this really just a flag by any other name?

You may think I’m putting the jack back in Jackanory or attempting to wrap myself in a flag of a particular style, I’m not. However, was William incorrect in calling the national flag the Union Jack? Of course whatever I now write is subject to varying opinions but here is one sourced view of the world that suggests not.



Queen Anne’s heraldic emblem showing the Tudor rose and Scottish thistle growing from the same stem.

As no story today is complete without a nod to Brexit, here’s mine. If you think getting out of an organisation is tough to achieve in two years, read your history. It is nothing, compared to the union of England and Scotland. (Although being a monarchist isn’t necessarily cool and fashionable it does give you some great historical sources from which to draw).


When James VI of Scotland acceded to the throne of England in 1603 (James I) the two crowns became united. Job done you might think? Far from it. Over a century later the union of nations was still incomplete only being agreed in 1707 with the Acts of Union (good luck Mssrs Barnier, Juncker, Tusk and Verhofstadt)

It was in this period of instability, where trade, diplomacy and the occasional pillaging still needed to take place, that the first joint flags became evident. The most obvious examples of this were ships passing at sea and needing to know if the vessel ahead was friendly or not.



English Naval Jack 1643

The solution was to fly both the flag of England and Scotland on naval vessels. James I gave a Royal decree in 1606 that the ships of the Kingdom of Great Britain “shall bear on their maintops the red cross commonly known as St George’s cross and the white cross commonly called St Andrew’s cross”


This is exactly what happened – this example dates from 1643 [Source: National Maritime Museum, National Archives] and shows both national flags of the time side by side. (Note the red cross of St George touching the blue of the Saltire, it’s relevant later).

This was referred to as the Naval Jack – however, so were flags before and after. The term jack referring to any flag flown in a specific part of the rigging for a particular purpose, namely identifying the nationality (akin to modern registration) of a Tudor, Stuart or later vessel.

Jack: “A ship’s flag of smaller size then the ensign, used at sea as a signal, or as a mark of distinction; the small flag which is flown from the jack-staff at the bow of a vessel (formerly at the sprit-sail topmast head) and by which the nationality of a ship is indicated, as in British Jack, Dutch Jack, French Jack” [Source: OED]

However, these jacks were not and could not be flags in their technical heraldic sense. So when flown correctly on a ship it may be a jack, but the instance above could not be a flag. Why? – Well, it comes down to that pesky touching of the red and the blue. In heraldry and on heraldic flags, that’s like french kissing your granny infront of the Queen .. it just can’t happen. No two colours may touch. This led to the white border being added to the cross of St George in later incarnations.


Union flag 1606

Union Flag 1606

A solution could have been to adopt the heraldic Union flag of 1606 (note no diagonal red cross). However, that had been ‘knocked together’ rapidly – the equivalent of a couple of pages photoshopping it the evening before the coronation. It was altogether too new and quirky.


Apart from that, there was the small matter of a Royal decree which specified something different. Now I don’t know about you but Tudor monarchs weren’t perhaps at the top of the ‘open to suggestion’ listings so why should the new Stuart King be any different? Hardly surprising his decree held sway.

However, with Queen Anne coming to the throne in 1705, the navy was presented with the Union Flag (above) to be flown as the jack (that was on the sprit-sail of vessels). This was what was flow during coronation celebrations. Two years later the Acts of Union were finally passed in both countries.
On 28th July 1707, Queen Ann issued a Royal proclamation that ‘this flag shall be the National flag of Great Britain, for use ashore and afloat’ – So from that point it could be both a flag and a jack.

This led to the belief that it was a flag on land and a jack when flown on vessels. The proclamation referred to ‘this flag’ and that was the Naval Jack becoming the ‘National flag’. Nowhere is Union Jack or Union Flag mentioned. Technically, and deliberately, neither Union Jack or Union flag was adopted by either the Monarch, Parliament or the Navy.



The National Flag of the United Kingdom


The navy simply refers to the national flag as ‘The Union’ – the truncation being very deliberate.

Statute, proclamation and naval orders continue to refer to the National Flag.

The Union flag does of course exist but it isn’t this flag. It is the 1606 Union Flag which has no red diagonal cross (representing Ireland) and if you want to start waving that around anytime soon .. good luck in Derry/Londonderry. The Union Jack is similarly wrong although it remains at least colloquially the most common nomenclature for the national flag of the United Kingdom.

So you can certainly say William was wrong – the Union Jack is a convenient fabrication to cover over centuries old fragilities between England, Ireland and Scotland. But, equally so was my esteemed colleague. It is no more the Union Flag than it is the Union Jack … whether flown on land, sea or out of your bedroom window.

Whatever it is, I better make sure all my pictures are in their correct orientation or I’ll be drummed out of the NAP.

Are we all separated by a common language?

rsn2016I’m sure I can’t be the only person who has annual landmarks that witness the passing of the year. For me, one has become the six nations rugby championships. As they draw to a close each year, I know that spring has arrived and lighter, longer days will soon be on their way.

This year, as England try to achieve their first Grand Slam since 2003, it is perhaps appropriate (and entirely coincidental) that my first blog for some time should have a rugby connection. However, the inspiration originated far from the rugby field and has more to link it to Ireland or Australia than England, but accepting that, it still brought me back to blogging.

Yesterday, my Australian partner posted an update on social media in which he said how annoyed he was to have lost his Irish rugby jersey, particularly given that it is Saint Patrick’s day and would therefore have been his clothing item of choice.

Little had he (or I) expected this to be so controversial. Enquiries from his mum wondered “What is this jersey business? You turning into an Englishman? … It’s either a rugby jumper or a wind cheater.” A friend, Caroline explained “Posh people call it a jersey. Us lowlies call it a jumper!” This led to a friend of mine correctly assuming that Caroline was northern claiming “Jumpers north of Birmingham, pull-overs south”

Add to this comments made to me saying they were all wrong and it’s a shirt and I started to wonder just how divided we are by words to describe the same fairly innocuous item.


New Zealand rugby ‘top’

So what exactly is this item (please note the carefully observed national neutrality). So far we have offerings of Jersey, Jumper, Shirt, Pull-over and wind-cheater. Perhaps more interestingly what drives these differences. Clearly nationality plays a part; I remember once asking someone to pass me my jumper in San Francisco – not a mistake I shall make twice.

To save you getting some very dubious search results, I should point out that in American English a jumper is most commonly a sleeveless dress that’s made to be worn over a blouse or other top. That would make it both different to the ‘woolly pully’ I had been wearing and totally out of place on the rugby field.

So I turned to a friend who has worked as a lexicographer since the 1990’s for some clarity. This comes with the caveat that it’s a British viewpoint and other linguistic branches may lead to different destinations.

windcheaterThat said, wind-cheater is perhaps the easiest to exclude in the UK. Here, a wind-cheater is a comparatively new phrase and is a wind proof jacket with a tight fitting neck, waistband and cuffs. The rubgy ‘top’ has a tight fitting neck, waistband and cuffs but isn’t a jacket (has no closable opening the full length of the front) so that’s one down off the list.

Similarly. pullover (although technically applicable can be excluded being a warm item of clothing usually woollen with long sleeves worn on the upper part of the body. It is pulled on over the head. However, it is typically social/leisure wear and not in a sporting context.

Then, according to the lexicographers, it becomes trickier and linguistics needs to be supported with history and a spattering of inherited misnomers.


Rev. William Webb Ellis

So, jumper, jersey, or shirt? Here the history of rugby itself becomes relevant. In 1823, during a game of football at Rugby School in England, legend has it that 16 year old student William Webb Ellis, caught the ball and ran with it rather than following the rules of the times of catching and kicking the ball only leading to the birth of the game.

However, it was too physical in an unregulated form for most being most popular with railway navvies who played it between working. It was 1871 before the first ‘kit’ was defined. You certainly wouldn’t recognise it today. The uniform was vest, normal white shirt with bow tie, trousers and stout walking boots.  Although very different the generic term ‘rugby shirt’ stems from the very birth of the game and persists today.

As sport developed in the early 2oth century the work shirt morphed into what we would now recognise as a cross between a grandad shirt and a vest. This rapidly became too light and cold for the newly formed game.

Whilst the precise origin is unknown, these then changed to knitted long sleeved rugby tops thought to have come from the Channel Islands who spotted a potential market for their declining woollen industry. These became known as rugby ‘jerseys’ named after the style of the knit. – Interestingly, those remaining look more like guernsey’s but putting your guernsey on doesn’t sound quite right does it?  However, all retained the formal collar style in a nod to the original formal shirts – something I’d never quite understood until researching the subject.


The last piece of the jigsaw to consider when deciding on your preferred choice is snobbery and the class system.

Whilst a jumper certainly fits the definition (a warm often woollen long sleeved item of clothing), the very type of  schools that saw the birth of rugby were some of the places that took a strong dislike to the word. Why? Well there are two schools of thought.

It could be that jumpers first became popular as a term in the 1850’s. Then they were derived from the french word joup which can best be described as an artist or workman’s smock. Alternatively, when these ‘jumpers’ became popular, they did so in the very working class northern mill towns, usually with a close association to the wool trade. Either way, certainly not what 19th century public schoolboys should aspire to be wearing.

So in my most Dr Sheldon Cooper stylee, I have to discount wind-cheater and pull-over on the grounds of definitions. Jersey goes because it’s not a jersey, I might as well call it an Aran and down that road leads madness.Jumper would have been ok if it were woollen so I’ll go with the generic and historically consistent ‘shirt’.

Others are of course welcome to make their own choices. However, dipping my toe into this entomology shows me just how much we remain bound by nationality, class prejudice, regionality and history. So my thanks to Cynthia, Vaughan and Caroline for sparking my interest and to James for help with the lexicography. Isn’t language just fascinating?

Syria: Substantive issue or sideshow?

This week in the UK has seen an understandable focus on the Parliamentary debate concerning the bombing of ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh positions in Syria. The decision to commit UK air power as part of the international coalition followed a ten hour debate in the House of Commons and a free vote.

MPs voted by 397 to 223 in favour of sending Tornado and Typhoon jets to seek out Isis targets in Syria. Less than an hour later, jets were scrambled from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus bombing the Omar oilfield. Additional jets and support aircraft have been arriving during the course of the last 12 hours.

Whatever your view on the outcome of the vote, the process must surely be an improvement on the run up to previous ‘wars’. In those cases (most notably Iraq), forces were committed by the Prime minister using prerogative powers. Having watched large portions of the debate, I was at least encouraged by the quality of some of the debate of both sides of the argument. At least decisions of this magnitude are being taken by the elected commons.

That said, much has been made about the bombing of positions in Syria. I certainly don’t seek to reduce the significance of committing UK air power to another conflict. However, I am increasingly worried that this is just another step in a range of events which has remarkable similarities to the run up to global conflicts.

As significant a step as the bombing of Syria by UK forces is, it may be worth putting the current coalition activities against ISIS in context against other conflicts. It doesn’t diminish the importance of the decision, but it does raise another question. In none of the other conflicts all of which had much heavier air force engagement were any won without significant ground forces being committed.

The decision to send RAF planes to Syria can be seen as an almost inexorable progression towards ground forces being the next logical step. In that sense, this week’s decision is important but merely a precursor to a far greater commitment and escalation.

Important as engaging in a new conflict is, I can’t help but see some wider similarities with a gradual reduction in civil liberties, labelling of minorities and increasingly blunt instruments being applied in the name of security.

Looking at the first world war, there was an increasing reluctance in the UK to be seen as being of German descent. Thousands of families Anglicised their names to be seen as more socially acceptable. Perhaps the most notable being King George V. His proclamation of 1917 changing the House of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg Gotha to the House of Windsor. Worryingly, the first signs of Muslim families Anglicising their names was seen as early as 2002 following the attack on the twin towers.

More recently the same phenomenon has been observed in Europe and Canada. In his recent book Muslims in Australia, author Nahid Kabir notes the same process happening in Australia.

Of course, many other actions were taken against minorities in the run up to World War II. At least we don’t have those extreme measures being carried out – or do we?

At the outbreak of World War II there were around 80,000 potential enemy aliens in Britain who, it was feared, could be spies, or willing to assist Britain’s enemies in the event of an invasion. All Germans and Austrians over the age of 16 were called before special tribunals and were divided into one of three groups:

‘A’ – high security risks, numbering just under 600, who were immediately interned;
‘B’ – ‘doubtful cases’, numbering around 6,500, who were supervised and subject to restrictions;
‘C’ – ‘no security risk’, numbering around 64,000, who were left at liberty. More than 55,000 of category ‘C’ were recognised as refugees from Nazi oppression. The vast majority of these were Jewish.

Donald TrumpAlthough no such steps have been taken in the UK or elsewhere, there is a worrying trend emerging in some quarters. U.S. Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump recently called for a register of all  Muslims resident in the United States to be created.

The next step was the simplistic thinking from some in the first and second world wars that all Germans were a national security threat and should be excluded from Allied countries.

How far away from that thinking is the Twitter comment issued by Donald Trump on 19th November in which he said “Eight Syrians were just caught on the southern border trying to get into the U.S. ISIS maybe? I told you so. WE NEED A BIG & BEAUTIFUL WALL!”

Of course the views of one radical politician don’t indicate a groundswell of opinion. However, the fact that he feels confident enough to voice such thoughts is in itself telling.

Religious FreedomSome of the legislation being considered and passed in the UK and elsewhere has some worrying similarities with legislation of the late 1930’s.

In the run up to World War II the Dutch Government required citizens to register their religion. Similarly, pre war Germany required leading non Christian leaders to register with the State. These laws and requirements were some of the first ‘impositions on personal liberties’ to be swept away in post war reconstruction and during the founding of the embryonic European project.

Given this it is perhaps troubling that the UK Government is consulting on legislative changes requiring religious leaders of all nominations to register with the State. I certainly don’t seek to encourage or defend religious extremists of any creed, but I would be one of the first to defend anyone’s right to the freedom of religious belief (or lack thereof).

East End ShopFinally, a picture of a rally in Madrid reminded me of the actions taken by Russian and Polish immigrants in both World War I and II.

Those families with Germanic sounding names often found their shops and premises subject to attacks and isolation. This became so problematic that many of the families wrote their nationality on their premises to avoid attack and victimisation.

Whilst it appears these tactics were often successful it shows a deeply ingrained air of mistrust and suspicion which can have done nothing to build social cohesion and inclusion.

terrorA recent rally in Madrid showing support for the victims of attacks in Paris showed some worrying parallels. A young Muslim woman held a card in an act she described as silent reassurance. It read ‘Keep calm. I’m Muslim not a terrorist.”

None of these incidents in isolation mark an indication of immediate conflict. However, it does worry me that a number of these together show striking similarities with the descent to major conflicts of the past.

I fear that steps taken this week will ultimately lead to ground forces being committed in the medium term. I have no idea whether it will make the people of the UK or elsewhere any safer. However, I fear this is merely the start of something far more complex.

My hope is that we have learned some of the lessons of past global conflicts and we can recognise that ISIS doesn’t equate to Muslim and not all liberties are worth sacrificing in the name of security.



Are we all going the way of the knocker-uppers?

As someone who has spent some time researching my family history, I remember the surprise when I found a distant relative of mine had been a dog-whipper in the mid 1700’s.

The Dog Whipper

The Dog Whipper

As an avid dog lover this was something of a horrific finding. In fact, after a little research although not wonderful, I found that this late in century there was no longer any whipping involved. In fact, this job was a type of church-warden who’s role was to chase off (or in extremis remove) dogs during church services.

Historically, it had not been uncommon for dogs to accompany their owners to church, often with interesting consequences. The preferred tools of the trade were actually a large pair of wooden tongs often padded with leather pads  or netting with which to remove the errant hounds. The dog whippers had disappeared shortly afterwards as it became socially unacceptable to take dogs into churches.

Searching through census returns of the last hundred years it started to become something of a side interest when I found a particularly interesting occupation.



The most likely reason for the disappearance of occupations before the industrial revolution was a change in social convention. However, after the industrial revolution the introduction of technology takes over and makes roles which were once considered indispensable redundant.

One of the more common roles was the lamplighter who wandered the streets of 19th century towns lighting and extinguishing the gas lamps of the time. It was seen as one of the more secure semi-skilled jobs of the time – after all what could replace gas lights. When automated town gas and early electric lighting emerged, this didn’t stop the occupation from disappearing in little over 10 years.

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

This then brings us to the deliciously named knocker-uppers who were key to the maintenance of an effective workforce until well into the Victorian era.

Shared houses held several families, clocks and watches cost the equivalent of several weeks wages and those late for work were simply replaced by willing replacements queuing for work at factory offices. Given that, for our Victorian forebears, having a reliable timepiece could provide one of the most lucrative if antisocial jobs of the time.

Charging each household a weekly fee of between a farthing and sixpence, the household could ensure that they would be woken (or knocked) up in time for them to start work. Some contemporary authors indicate that the knocker-upper was often paid second only to the landlord. Without turning up on time the likelihood of the workhouse or penury increased beyond measure. This role continued to be vital until the introduction of factory clocks and systems such as steam whistles indicating the start of the working day. However, the demise of this job is perhaps the most sudden with the role disappearing entirely within a period of three to five years.

Fleet Street Typesetters

Fleet Street Typesetters

Of course, those with skilled occupations have managed to fight off the rise of technology for longer. The dexterity, attention to detail speed and ability to work in reversed text had made the typesetter a skilled occupation from Tudor times until well into the 1980’s.

However, this has changed with the growth of computerised technology, mobile working and the introduction of laser and thermal printing.  These developments have seen the typesetter consigned to the list of historic occupations. It was perhaps the earliest example of technology moving into and replacing skilled workers.

Despite these advances, the rise of technology was typically limited to replacement technologies or the introduction of computer processing making many administrative roles redundant. Until recent years, it was more uncommon to see more complex functions replaced. That may soon change with a new range of robotics making new inroads into areas previously very much the domain of a human workforce.

In this Sept. 2, 2015, photo, a cow voluntarily gets milked by a robot at Lambert Farm in Graniteville, Vt. With trouble finding reliable labor and technology more readable available, some family dairy farms from the Northeast to the Midwest are turning to robots to milk cows to stay competitive. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Now, robots are making significant inroads into the workplace, again following the same pattern with less skilled work. Farmhands, milkers, stockmen and cattle herders are being replaced across the United States and Europe.

Cattle no longer graze in fields with scheduled milking times but instead attend a robotic milking parlour when they want food. On arrival a robotic milking arm identifies the specific cow, scans the udder to ensure the optimum milking technique for the particular animal. It then applies a milking cup and orders food for the cow to be dispensed.

Meanwhile a second robot monitors the feed ensuring waste is reduced by sweeping feed back towards the cattle and dispensing food only to the bays where cattle are waiting. Whilst farmers report up to 30% increase in yield these advances have been far from universally popular. Concerns over the welfare of grazing animals being permanently ‘housed’ and significant reductions in workforce make this an innovation feared by many. The parlour can replace a team of 5-6 herdsmen with a single ipod or tablet control.

amazonWith increasing amounts of retail transactions completed online we have already seen retail jobs reducing as large warehouses servicing internet orders increasingly take their place.

Even here, human interaction is becoming entirely optional. The new Amazon warehousing systems have replaced significant numbers of fork lift drivers, warehouse workers, packers and dispatchers. Automated pallet, storage and picking robots ensure that goods are picked within seconds of an order having been placed. It even has hidden impacts such as the fact that fewer safety/health and safety officers are required as the warehouse spaces have effectively become human free zones reducing the opportunity for injury significantly.

robot2Now, using similar technology, the robots are starting to breach the semi-skilled and skilled environments. Hospitals are now reducing the number of pharmacists as medicine storage, replenishment, distribution and delivery are run via a fully robotic pharmacy.

Two new build  hospitals in the United Kingdom also have an underground level with robotic porters. Guided beds are integrated with the door and lift controls and the underground level allows access across the entire hospital site.

The question for most of us remains, how liable is my job or occupation to be overtaken by automation. Of course in the past this would have been something a consultant or business analyst may have helped you assess. Now, the groundwork has been done and published on the web. (Another role bites the dust).

In recent years the questions being asked were around what we would do with all the spare time automation would give us. Now, it seems to me that we are more likely to be asking what on earth will people still be employed to do? Other than those selling or servicing robotic workforces, there is also the question of how we will earn money to buy whatever is being mechanically produced, sold and distributed. It’s a shame robots don’t need knocker-uppers !

Does Germany still have a ‘special responsibility’?

This last weekend saw my fourth visit to Berlin over the past two years. Although I had previously been to the city a couple of times pre-unification, these had been more ‘passing through with work’. It has only been over the last four visits that I have really come to like the city in a similar way to my existing love of Paris.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

However, it is certainly my view that Berlin has changed quite noticeably in those visits. This weekend, I became aware of a strong and growing social resentment. At the risk of falling into a Fawlty Towers cliché, this is, in my view related to Germany’s psyche and specifically its continued sensitivities about its wartime history.

If you visit Berlin, the city carries these scars quite obviously. The Jewish memorial is justifiably prominent, deeply moving and thought provoking. However, arguably, it has become the singular physical representation of the nations consciousness. There is an emotional and sometimes a physical blanking out of the war years. The equally striking and emotionally charged Russian war memorial is comparatively unknown.

Berlin2If you are lucky enough to visit the revamped 1930’s Olympic stadium you will notice the almost Egyptian chiselling of historic symbols from the fabric of the building. Hardly surprising as nobody least of all me would want to see Swastikas retained for historic integrity. However, this has served as a strong symbol reflecting the ongoing sensitivities.

Within the rebuilt German Parliament, you will read a brief summary of the war years and an explanation that this history gives Germany a ‘special responsibility’ towards minorities and victims of religious or political persecution. This can appear to a non German national who wasn’t alive during the war to be over-compensation. Nobody would equate modern Germany with the days of the Nazi regime. Few consider the German people responsible for the actions of its political ruling class at the time. I have certainly seen nothing but a progressive, friendly, open and very welcoming country. I believe the rest of the world has come to terms with the actions of 1940’s Germany – I for one would like Germany to do the same.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

The current mass migrations from Syria led to a reiteration of this special responsibility with an open door policy announced for any Syrian refugees. It was notable on the day before I left that the definition of refugee in German media was becoming an issue. Should it be limited to the UN or legal definitions or more broadly move to what others would refer to as economic migrants.

I hasten to say that I have great sympathy and an natural impulse to accept genuine refugees (those with a genuine fear of loss of life/persecution). The current position with mass migrations across Europe is an appalling one, however, does that make all concerned refugees? The knee-jerk instinctive reaction from  German political leaders means these questions were simply not addressed.

German Protesters against refugees

German Protesters against refugees

This weekend, in Berlin, I was amazed at what appeared to be a vault face based on atypical political naivety.

In an amazing demonstration of surprise, Germany changed it’s approach on border controls stating it was surprised at the number of refugees arriving. Munich was reported by the German press as failing to cope with 30,000 people having arrived in 2 days. I wonder what was expected when you effectively announce an open door policy? Whether you agree with the policy or not, surely you can and should hardly be surprised when people offered a place in Germany head to Germany.

More worryingly, I detected a change in tone among the German public (at least those reported in the press and in the café society of Berlin. Demonstrators took to the streets in Freital, Germany demonstrating against the provision of accommodation being provided to refugees. It appeared this was a criticism of the unstructured nature of the governments policy.  Whilst protestors accepted refugees and those seeking asylum they strongly resisted economic migration on such a scale.

Alarmingly Rhabbi Barkhan, Director of one of Germany’s leading Jewish support charities spoke out publically about the concerns of the German Jewish community being able to accommodate and integrate upwards of 800,000 people with what they perceived to be a natural hostility towards them.

“We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… there are children from war-torn countries. But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists. As Jews, we are supporting Israel and our people. Here, they don’t need us,”

Whether or not you agree with these concerns, many in Germany clearly believe these internal frictions could have been avoided with a little more thought and reconsidering what Germany’s special responsibility means in the current climate.

Berlin5What I noticed during my most recent visit was the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets. Many of the budget hotels were being used to home migrants without any obvious support or assistance to integrate or even understand their surroundings.

When travelling back from an evening out in Berlin, I was amazed at the sea of bodies on either side of the river. Sheltering under boxes, blankets and plastic, these refugees whilst safer than in Syria had found a far less favourable Germany than they had anticipated.

During the day, numerous migrants were collecting discarded bottles, cans and plastics to sell in order to support themselves. A few days after announcing a welcome to all, Germany had closed it’s borders, reinforced it’s most porous borders with the military and called on the rest of Europe to accept mandated immigration quotas to help support Germany’s special responsibility. As a visitor in Berlin, it didn’t look promising at this point. Following Hungary, Austria and Serbia announcing that they were not bound by Germany’s open door policy all border controls in those countries were strengthened.

Berlin6On my last day in Berlin, the  news covered the border closures. A German couple at breakfast surprised me by saying ‘It won’t be long before they start shooting at them’. Prophetic words indeed. After landing back in the UK I remembered these words as Hungary deployed water cannon and CS spray to disperse those seeking to cross the border to Germany.

So how much has a default and instinctive belief in a special responsibility helped those attempting to cross the continent. I for one am uncertain that  it has done much to solve the underlying issues.

I hope that Germany will reconsider it’s position. Seventy years after the end of World War II the special responsibility is no longer appropriate as a default position. The impact has been much wider than Germany itself and continues to impact neighbouring states. Ironically, it may already have increased the likelihood of conflict within existing minority communities. A more controlled implementation, (which need not mean fewer people accepted) may allow the impact of a generous humanitarian policy to be more measured and less challenging for all concerned.

Memories of Manhatten

It isn’t often that I find myself literally stopping in my tracks. However, a short and powerful animation has done just that. Originally intended for broadcast on Children’s BBC in the UK, I have no hesitation is saying I found it thought provoking, dramatic and very moving. It was on Saturday of the recent weekend when I accidentally flicked to a channel showing the material. Although it was part way through I was so engaged with it that I watched to the end and then found it online to watch from the start.

Little Boy

Little Boy

The last week marked seventy years since the detonation of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The innocently named ‘little boy’ was released at around 32.000 feet from the Enola Gay at 08.15 local time.  After falling for just over 40 seconds it’s detonation arguably led to the shortening of World War II and undoubtedly shaping the military geopolitics of the next 50 years.

In the second following detonation 70,000 people were killed by the force of the detonation simply vaporised by the explosive power of the device. Over the next days and weeks a further 100,000 died from the fallout and radiation poisoning.

The ‘little boy’ had an explosive payload of 15 kilotones, that being the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. At the time, this destructive power was simply beyond the comprehension of many hearing of the explosion.

In fact, the second detonation at Nagasaki was larger. The ‘big man’ device was closer to 20 kilotones and given the geography and make up of Nagasaki was considerably more destructive. Knowing this, how can you make an animation detailing the events of that day?  Simply put, by humanising the story, putting the viewpoint of a young girl who found herself on the outskirts of Hiroshima on that fateful morning.

The skill of the animators in sympathetically presenting those events was based on the real life experiences of a now well known Japanese poet. However this powerful example of the impact of such weapons has done little within Japan to silence the growing voices for the re-introduction  of Japan’s capacity to wield such weapons as a nation.

Prime Minister Abe

Prime Minister Abe

Following its defeat at the end of world war II, Japan introduced a greatly revised pacifist constitution. This prevented aggressive armed forces (although it allowed the country to retain a greatly reduced self protection force).

Last year, Prime Ministe Abe reinterpreted aspects of the constitution to broaden the definition of self defence. As a result, Japan could and has now publically stated would come to the support of American forces if attacked by growing Chinese power in the region.

Similarly, weaponry seen as unconstitutional just ten years ago  is now permitted. These include long range anti aircraft and anti missile defensive weapons.

This move had the unforeseen result of bringing traditionalist and nationalist Japanese voices joining in a call for the ultimate self-defence  capability , nuclear weapons.

Whilst current anti-proliferation laws and the political balance of the country is unlikely to see Japan develop these, it might see further deployment of strategic weaponry from allies such as the United States.

Hiroshima building

Hiroshima building

The fact that a nation has a right to defend itself and its people is not in dispute. However, the irony of Japanese protester demanding nuclear weapons outside the shell of the most famous surviving building in Hiroshima seems lost on those taking part.

A fact which may give pause for thought for those calling for this type of rearmament relates to the growth in power of weapons  since 1945.

The ‘little boy’ explosion flattened an area of some ten square miles. Even allowing for the construction methods of Japanese housing at the time this was devastating force which virtually nothing hit by the blast wall was able to withstand.

The ‘standard’ yield on most atomic weapons is no longer the 15 kilotons of the little boy. Most carry an explosive force of 15,000 kilotons. I wonder if those in all countries who call for the ultimate protection of nuclear weapons could look at Hiroshima and imagine something one thousand times as destructive.

I for one hope that in the week in which the events of 70 years ago are remembered, we might all consider the futility of weapons that are now so powerful they could not be used tactically and would ensure joint annihilation. We may not be able to unlearn the knowledge coming out of the Manhatten project, but we can all play a part in preventing further reliance and proliferation.

Can a ‘Good European’ support the Conservative view on the Human Rights Act?

Magna Carta

Magna Carta 1215

I suspect if you ask most Brits what they understood by Human Rights, they would be very clear in their answer. I also suspect most people regardless of their political view would be opposed to such practices as torture, being held without charge, fair trials, freedom of speech and the like.

It is also a commonly held view that Human Rights in the United Kingdom were somehow introduced by ‘requiring’ King John into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. Whilst that is one view of history, it isn’t entirely supported by the facts.

Magna Carter (the Great Charter) of 1215 could be seen as tackling Human Rights of its day. In particular, it dealt with protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown.

However, these rights were hardly universal – note it only protected Barons from illegal imprisonment and access to swift justice. The lesser known fact is that even this charter was restating existing rights which had existed from Norman times.

English Bill of Rights 1689

English Bill of Rights 1689

In recent weeks and months the focus of debate has settled on the protection of the Human Rights Act 1998 (ECHR) which incorporated the rights contained within the European Convention of Human Rights into UK Law.

Whatever your view on the ECHR it has sometimes been presented as if there had been no human rights in Britain prior to 1998. It also, in my opinion, overlooks the contribution to protecting the citizen made by the Bill of Rights 1689, the Petition of Rights, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. These taken in the round form the basis of the unwritten British constitution.

In fact, the English (as it then was) Bill of Rights is considered to have strongly influenced the United States Bill of Rights and the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights itself.

With the new conservative led government promising to replace the European Convention with a new British Bill of Rights, this whole area has become politically charged and wrapped up with views on Europe and Britain’s place (or not) in the European Union.

Whilst to some extent that connection is inevitable, is it possible to feel (as I do) that I am both British and European – albeit that my European identity is a geographic belonging above anything else. If so, can I still feel a good European and have some sympathy with the desire for national Courts to have the final say on some aspects of law, potentially including the definition of Human Rights?

One of the difficulties in discussing this whole area is the complexity of the various European Courts, their relationship with national Courts and how conventions fit within that framework. This rather etherial and in some senses technical miasma makes the rational discussion of options difficult to find.

Whilst I never thought I would be recommending Jacob Rees-Mogg (a member of Parliament recently described as a walking anachronism) as a clear and objective reference point, this is the position in which I find myself. Whether or not you agree with his arguments, this interview is the closest I have found to a rational outline of the available options. For those interested in the detail of the debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg discusses the possibilities here in a clip from the BBC’s Daily Politics.

So given the Gordian knot that is likely to be found in an attempt to amend the status quo, what exactly is wrong with the current state of affairs. Well, again that depends on your political and personal perspective on such matters as judicial accountability and the role of the nation state v. the European Union.

catThe most commonly cited example may be that of the half Bolivian cat. Although somewhat over-egged, it is an example used by those who think that ‘foreign’ judges have taken the concept of Human Rights a little too far. In this case (2009) a Bolivian found himself about to be deported. (It is unclear whether this was for a criminal matter or over staying his visa etc). However, he appealed his deportation on the basis that it breached his Human Rights – namely the right to a family life.

The case revolved around his relationship (of roughly six months). As part of this relationship, he had purchased a cat which was used as contributory evidence to prove that he had fully integrated into the country. Whilst the role of the cat is often over-stated, the relationship was found to be sufficient to prevent his deportation on Human Rights Grounds.

Others, of which I’m usually  but not consistently one, believe that a sovereign nation’s Supreme Court should be just that. For me it isn’t a question of ‘johnny foreigner’ having over-extended the legislation or not, it’s more a question of national sovereignty. I have no issue with eminently sensible conventions (including ECHR and those of the UN for example) being referenced and considered as required. I just happen to think that should be done by each Nation State.

starbucksIf the Convention on Human Rights was a little more focused I might take a different view. One might think, for example, that Human Rights applied to Humans – but they apply equally to bodies Corporate – so companies such as IBM, HSBC and Starbucks find themselves protected by Human Rights conventions.

Whilst I have no issue with robust legal protection for companies in terms of their intellectual property, copyright, trading etc, it is hard to see how I can impact on the Human RIghts of a corporate body.

What is clear, whether you make the national sovereignty argument, object to the ‘stretching’ of legal definitions or simply object to a supra-national Court this topic is set to dominate British politics over the next 3-4 months, As is often the case, you wait some time for a contentious Human Rights case and then three come along all at once.

Over the next few weeks, three high profile cases could provide further fuel to the fire and reinvigorate the calls (at least in the right wing of the Conservative party) to exit from the Court or the Convention or both.

The first case referred to the grand chamber involves three men who attempted to carry out suicide bombings in the London Underground. They received sentences of 40 years. However, during their arrest they were initially refused access to a lawyer to allow for an urgent interview (the ticking bomb interview). Initially, the Court held that they had not been prevented from having a fair trial. However, this is now being appealed to Strasbourg

The second matter relates to “whole-life tariffs” – life sentences, where the defendant is told they will never be released from Jail. In essence, the European Court will assess whether this sits well with the words of lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgieddwhen he said that “the law of England and Wales provides an offender hope, or the possibility of release, in exceptional circumstances” If they find this is not the case, this could end whole-life tariffs in their current form.

The final case relates to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by Metropolitan police officers in . Lawyers representing his family claim that the failure to prosecute individual officers for the shooting breached Menezes’s rights under article 2 of the human rights convention.

With such incendiary cases about to reach the Courts, Human Rights may again be next month’s political football, Given this, my qualms over wishing to see these decisions made at a national level can sit on the back burner until I see exactly which way the legal winds are blowing.

One thing is fairly certain – we better get used to the news being heavily focused on what we mean by and how we interpret Human Rights.