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On a breezy December morning in 1903, humanity witnessed the first heavier-than-air manned flight. Less than 70 years later, our species made its debut on the moon.

Photo: Paloma Baytelman  (www.flickr.com/palomabaytelman)

Tim Hunt. Photo: Paloma Baytelman (www.flickr.com/palomabaytelman)

This prodigious progress – or giant leap, if you will – was owed in no small part[1] to a former Nazi, whose wartime missile programme led to the deaths of 21,000 people.

And while the extent of Wernher von Braun’s belief in National Socalism is debatable, that he was a Sturmbannführer in the SS – and had blood on his hands – is undeniable.

Despite this, the rocket scientist was never punished[2]. Right or wrong, he was left to get on with his work. No such luck for the scientist who made a sexist joke.

Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winner, was frogmarched out of his roles at UCL and the European Research Council for his remarks about women in the lab.

To sum them up: girls in the lab are distracting, they fall in love with you, you fall in love with them and they cry when criticised. Stupid, yes, but worth sacking someone over?

In any case, his dismissal was applauded by a virtual mob which then turned its anger on the Royal Society, of which Hunt remains – for however long – a fellow.

Hunt is, of course, not the first scientist to fall victim to this mob. Tuning in for an update on the Philae comet landing last year, I watched astounded as a physicist broke down in tears halfway through the briefing, grovelling his apologies.

Wondering what mistake could have elicited such a reaction, I expected some careless blunder on his part had endangered the whole decade-long mission. Not so.

The scientist, Dr Matt Taylor, had worn a shirt adorned with women in risqué dress – a birthday gift he received from a friend. Taylor and she received a torrent of abuse over the “sexist” garb.

Even if one accepts some wrongdoing here, the fact remains that history is littered with people of great achievement, but poor judgement.

Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-semite, Eric Clapton drunkenly threw around the terms “wog” and “coon”, but their music is no less moving for it.

One doesn’t have to agree with Clapton on immigration, or Hunt on gender issues, in order to accept that they might make great contributions to music or science.

Their talent doesn’t put them above censure, true, still it is increasingly accepted that those at the forefront of any field must have the preferred opinions in every field.

Meanwhile, the extent to which off-the-cuff remarks are assumed to be one’s fully-formed opinion is growing.

Cambridge professors Dame Athene Donald and Ottoline Leyser defended Hunt’s attitude towards women in science, yet these views – the views of women who worked with him – were ignored in favour of his rash remarks.

This is to be expected in the transient world of social media, but the decision to give someone the boot is one with a lasting effect on their life and work, and deserves more consideration.

In any case, there is a difference between word and deed, and the line is being blurred. When people are sacked for holding an unpopular opinion, it shouldn’t matter what that opinion is for us to be concerned.

Once the principle is established we all become prisoners of fortune, because the measure of acceptability can change, leaving you in the firing line.


[1] Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher Von Braun, by Bob Ward, giving view of Apollo Program director Sam Phillips on p.167
[2] Making it in America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans, by Elliott Robert Barkan, p. 396

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Photo: Dave Radcliffe (www.flickr.com/photos/libdems)

Photo: Dave Radcliffe (www.flickr.com/photos/libdems)

Whatever one may think of the current Labour Party, there’s no denying that it knows how to lose an election.

The morning of May 8 brought a crushing defeat, but for all the upset there was no time wasted. Miliband resigned and straight away conversations started about what could be done differently – and under who – to win in 2020.

Coming, as it did, on the morning the party hoped to walk victorious into Downing Street, this was admirably resilient. But what of the night’s other losers, the Liberal Democrats?

While there is no consensus on why Labour lost it, the Liberal Democrats can be under no illusions: five years of propping up a Tory government had ground voter support down to a nub.

Yet somehow, the party seems to have missed this message. Its leaders speak as if the electorate lost the election, not them – as if no mistakes have been made, save for by the voters.

Nick Clegg, stepping down, said the results had been “crushing and unkind.” Paddy Ashdown said the outcome was “cruel.” You’d think the public had failed to support them out of spite.

Clegg went on to say his MPs had lost their seats because of “forces entirely beyond their control” and that the “politics of fear” had cost them – the latter point was echoed by Vince Cable.

In a moment of undisguised contempt for the electorate, Clegg evoked a Liberal Democrat councillor who, on losing his seat, said he wholeheartedly accepted the voters’ verdict if it was their thanks for the scraps begged from the Tory table.

The notion that the coalition might have been a mistake, meanwhile, is not indulged at all. The party is agreed – it was brave and selfless to leap at power like a dog after a stick, and a move all should admire.

If a failure must be considered, it’s that the party did not adequately communicate its greatness. Yet this too can be someone else’s fault. One councillor told me they blamed the lack of a Liberal Democrat mouthpiece on Fleet Street.

Even Norman Lamb, who at least accepts some wrongdoing, seems to only give ground on the tuition fee U-turn, otherwise defending the Liberal Democrats’ time in Toryland.

One might expect something like humility from a party that lost 85 per cent of its MPs, but the talk is mainly of rebuilding, and – with the coalition not disavowed – it’s on these toxic foundations.

The year after entering the Conservative coalition, Lib Dem party membership plummeted 25 per cent. Herein lies the key.

The Liberal Democrat voter base was, in no small part, composed of people on the centre-left. Did Clegg and co really expect to get into bed with a right wing party and retain that support?

For many, this loss will seem well earned and richly deserved. Here is a party that not only helped the Tories into power, but continued to support them even when its own values were the cost.

Whether or not the party did the right thing by sporting a Tory leash (it didn’t) is neither here nor there. The voters have decided it was wrong and, until the survivors distance themselves from the decision, they will be starved of support.

Clegg may mourn a sad result for liberalism, but liberalism is alive and well. Its followers didn’t abandon his party, his party abandoned them.

What matters now is who liberals choose to support in the future and, at this stage, it’s not the Liberal Democrats.

Let me take you back. It’s September 2014 and David Cameron faces the very real prospect of being the Prime Minister who oversaw the demise of the United Kingdom.

Scotland is to vote on independence and the polls are horrifyingly close. Cameron the hard-nosed Tory melts away and his soggy leftovers entreat the Scots to stay.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Scottish Government (www.flickr.com/photos/scottishgovernment)

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Scottish Government (www.flickr.com/photos/scottishgovernment)

Yet if a week is a long time in politics, imagine seven months. Those who agitated for independence lost the vote, but still the Tories have surrendered Scotland to them.

The Conservative campaign now takes it as given that the Scottish National Party will win the Caledonian constituencies, leaving Labour short of a majority on May 7.

What’s more, Cameron and co continue to insist that Labour will make a deal with the SNP, no matter how often or loudly Ed Miliband denies it.

This is partly about winning Tory votes in England – reaffirming unionist values on one hand, while implying Labour links with secessionists on the other.

Just as important though is the effect on Scottish voters. Every anti-Tory is being told you can vote SNP and get Labour just the same – no need to be tactical.

Under normal circumstances, anything that puts your rivals further from power is par for the course, but this loss is not a Conservative gain – the SNP get the spoils.

I won’t be voting for them, but I know Labour are the last levee against the nationalist flood and I would rather they ran the UK, than the Tories ran what’s left of it.

Besides, how woeful is the Conservative offering that they must endanger the union, not even to get a majority, but merely to keep its opponents from one?

Nor would a Tory majority, were it possible, protect our United Kingdom.

Only the blue team will hold a referendum on EU membership and only something like an EU exit would enable Nicola Sturgeon to push for another independence vote.

Plus there’s no doubt that a Conservative government would benefit the SNP – their independence rhetoric is laced with anti-Tory bluster which Labour would neutralise.

It’s doubtless true that the reds will take a beating in Scotland. Miliband may also go back on his word and jump into bed with the SNP, as his rivals say he will.

The political realities are what they are and merit discussion, but the Tory party and its supporters in the press have gone beyond this.

The Sun warns against the SNP in England, but rallies behind them in Scotland. After a debate, Conservative leaders praised Sturgeon for her performance.

This party wants to carve up our country. It deserves our contempt.

Make no mistake, the referendum has not settled the independence question “for a generation.” It has left a cut across the throat of our country – one that may not heal.

One people has started to think of itself as two. SNP membership has quadrupled and, in England, English votes for English laws and even a new Parliament are talked about.

With such a close result, nationalists will want the question asked again and again until they get the answer they want – it’s the neverendum.

Nationalism is the politics of division, left or right. Now is the time for our country to heal; to emphasise what unites us, not what separates us.

The election is done in a day. The United Kingdom must continue.

While politicos and pundits throw around statistics and debate policy, a great number of people are feeling right now the way I feel on match days – bored.

Photo: Bart Heird (www.flickr.com/photos/chicagobart)

Photo: Bart Heird (www.flickr.com/photos/chicagobart)

Every election I find myself trying to convince people I know to go out and vote, and every time I hear this argument: they’re all the same, none of them represent me.

At this point, some would try and push their party of choice, while others might try and give an unbiased account of each side. My problem is, I kind of get the argument.

In 2010, those who weren’t voting Labour or Conservative had a moderate third option in the Liberal Democrats and their centre-left manifesto.

But five years later, any Liberal manifesto is a risky proposition. Enacting higher tuition fees, party brass made clear that pre-election pledges count for nothing until Clegg gets a majority – a notion so far-fetched that the Dems can promise whatever they want.

Nor have teams red and blue become more attractive in the meantime. National debt, soaring under Labour, reached giddy new heights under the Coalition and though the economy is growing, so is wealth inequality, foodbank use and insecure employment.

Small parties offer one alternative, but each has its electoral baggage – from bigots to hippies – and you can only do so much to separate the two.

In any case, all options would require me to settle. Where I agree with a party on one thing, it’s negated by disagreement elsewhere. Besides, my vote makes precisely no difference in my staunchly Tory constituency.

If all this seems to be building to some puerile argument for refusing to take part altogether, rest assured it’s not, I’m simply saying we should vote for Batman.

A self-starter, the aforementioned Bruce Wayne recovered from personal tragedy and built a business empire, he recognises the value of investing in technology and takes a hardline on crime. He’s community minded.

I mean, I only saw the films, but that’s what I got from it.

Granted, he’s a fictional character – one that’s ominously quiet about the deficit and foreign policy – yet if I’m wasting my vote anyway, why not make a point of it?

With any other approach, it’s an all-or-nothing game. Don’t vote and you appear not to care, however principled your abstention. Vote for a party and you may as well support it heart and soul.

In my university days, there was a way to take part in student democracy without voting for the self-important twerps who’d plastered their faces on every building.

His name was RON, meaning re-open nominations, and every year he ran for every position. He never won, but I liked his resilience and, like Batman, he had a use.

Those in power don’t concern themselves with non-voters. It’s no coincidence that so much policy is geared towards older people, who hit the polling booths in big numbers, while so little is aimed at young people, who don’t.

Snub the polls and they’ll govern like you aren’t watching, snub the parties and they’ll know that you are.

By voting for Batman – or more accurately, by scrawling the bat logo over the whole paper – you say: “Yes, I’ll vote, but not for any of this lot.”

It was nearly 2,000 years ago that the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ to satirise the politics of his day.

In the years since, the words have come to describe the sort of crowd-pleasing distractions that are used to preoccupy proles while the societal scenery collapses.

Photo: Nico Hogg (www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg)

Photo: Nico Hogg (www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg)

For some, it’s a description that would fit The Benefits Estate; a documentary gawping at the poor which was borrowed from Irish TV and given a more demeaning name by Channel 5.

At a time when tax-dodging and lobbying scandals are making headlines it’s easy to argue that such programming, so often emphasising petty crime and bad judgement amongst the poor, is a sideshow.

But when Juvenal wrote his satires his anger was not at the establishment – it was at the people. They had given up their power. They had abandoned their responsibility. All they wanted in return was shallow appeasement.

Channel 5 alone has aired shows called Benefits, Benefits Britain: Life On The Dole, On Benefits And Proud and – for those who want two prejudices satisfied at once – Gypsies On Benefits And Proud.

These programmes may serve the interests of the wealthiest, but their prevalence is the fault of the Great British public.

People of my generation may remember the MTV show, My Super Sweet 16.  In it, the horrifyingly out-of-touch offspring of the super-rich were shown organising opulent parties, while prancing to and fro inviting and disinviting friends as if choosing who lives and dies.

The appeal of the programme, so far as I could make out, was it made you feel better about yourself. Watching idiots living extravagantly with money they did nothing to earn makes you feel grounded.

Imagine then the delicious mix of self-righteousness and outrage that comes with watching someone live extravagantly off taxpayer cash that you – yes you – had hard earned and nobly sacrificed.

And the threshold for luxury is low for those living off the state. One shot shows a mum moaning about money while another shows her son on the Xbox. Look at them – living like normal people!

In our minds, benefit claimants should look like Oliver Twist; clothed in rags, permanently hungry and sporting a forlorn (if hopeful) expression. Well, for my part, I’m glad that the poorest in our society aren’t living like those of Hogarth’s London.

That’s not to say that change isn’t due. Elderly people who find themselves in need of help could have paid taxes all their working lives, but face sacrificing their children’s inheritance if they want the government to chip in for social care.

Nor do I deny that there are benefit claimants in dire need of a reality check. If you wear only designer clothes and have the latest Mac, MacBook and iPhone, then face it, things could be worse.

Yet our national obsession with benefits – and its commensurate coverage – is completely disproportionate.

Figures from November show that dosh dished out to the poor or unemployed accounts for six per cent of state spending. Meanwhile, one calculation for what we lose in uncollected tax suggests a number roughly equivalent to 17 per cent of the public purse, £119bn.

Within that welfare spend on the jobless and deprived are an honest majority of claimants whose deservedness most would never query, but still we focus on the minority and let them influence our views.

At the same time, someone at the other end of society complains that £67,000 of taxpayer cash is just not good enough.

Documentaries about benefits and those who get them can be insightful, but when you’re tuning in for a thrill it’s poverty porn – so do remember to feel a tad ashamed when the credits roll.

Picture this, the editor of a left-wing publication is dragged before a bench of politicians, having upset his government. He is asked: “Do you love this country?”

This is not a committee on un-American activities in the 1950s. This is Westminster interrogating Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian little more than a year ago.

Alan Rusbridger (Photo via www.flickr.com/photos/internaz)

Alan Rusbridger (Photo via http://www.flickr.com/photos/internaz)

To his credit, Mr Rusbridger’s (evidently exasperated) reply was to tell the prosecutorial panel that what he loved in his country was its free press, but it often appears that this is not something the nation itself values.

As if to illustrate the point, comic John Cleese compared journalists to murderers at a public meeting, but the only person called a cretin by those present was the hack who shared the remark on Twitter.

Ordered first to stand up, then to sit down and shut up, the beleaguered reporter was at a gathering held by Hacked Off, a pressure group campaigning for state regulation of the press.

Of the emails I got from this group before becoming disillusioned with it, precisely none called for action against the police over phone hacking, despite reports of officers knowingly failing to act on it and selling stories for profit.

Nor do I recall any politicians being arrested amid the Leveson hysteria, despite one of those convicted being on the staff of the Prime Minister.

When it comes to the media though, Hacked Off is tireless, never forgetting to mention the hacking scandal; a failing of the few used to justify unprecedented regulation for the many.

We are constantly reminded of the value of a free press. This past week alone has offered the example of the cash-for-access scandal, while even phone-hacking itself was first unearthed by The Guardian.

Still, as a nation we are scornful of journalists, especially since 2011. For the politicians, this is a blessing.

It’s telling that the one thing our squabbling MPs can agree on is the Royal Charter, cooked up by themselves, setting out the rules for any future press regulator.

Waved through by all parties in the small hours of the morning (and definitely not over pizza with Hacked Off) this charter means exemplary court damages for titles refusing regulation whilst making them liable, even in victory, for their accuser’s legal costs.

Had any publication gone along with it, this charter could have ended centuries of press freedom. Not that the Prime Minister was slow to encourage the sceptical media to bow to it, warning of “hideous” regulation should they not.

Of course, nothing in the charter was necessary to prevent horrors like phone hacking anyway. The acts which outraged us all are illegal and were at the time; they needed only to be punished.

Instead we are now faced with a government-approved system which chastises naughty and nice alike.

Pushed as a way to reign in tawdry tabloids, the charter actually puts the honest majority at risk, including the regional press, community-run newspapers, blogs, charities and magazines like Private Eye.

Sadder still, it does so with public approval.

David Cameron. Photo: Number 10 (www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov)

David Cameron. Photo: Number 10 (www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov)

Like so many of the foot soldiers in my inglorious profession, the trudge to the bottom of my career ladder felt a long one.

In the years before my first journalism job, I cleared tables, washed dishes, stacked shelves, sold suits and even (on one particularly fragrant occasion) scrubbed clean the walls of a recently vacated stable. Glamorous? No. Paid? Certainly.

Yet it wasn’t all fun and games. I remember well the reactions of Jobcentre staff to any aspirations above menial labour; I recall the time wasted on tailoring applications that were not even acknowledged with a refusal.

The life of a jobseeker is not that of a bon viveur. It wasn’t when I graduated amid a deep recession, nor is it today. Still, there was once a basic dignity in it if you were making an effort. Not for much longer it would seem.

David Cameron, our ever-sympathetic Prime Minister, has announced plans to force the jobless to do community work in exchange for their benefits.

If the measure sounds familiar, that’s because the words ‘community work’ very nearly describe a punishment meted out to petty criminals. It’s also not the first time people have been penalised by the coalition for struggling to find employment.

Under the government’s workfare scheme, jobless graduates worked unskilled roles on a full-time basis for big-money bosses. Their reward? Their paltry Jobseeker’s Allowance – an hourly rate of pay outrageously short of the minimum.

The premise, as ever, was to get more people into jobs by building their experience, but the logic was daft. What employer would create a paid position when there’s a massive free workforce available?

Thinking of it, I’m reminded of something my dad told me – one of those ‘back in the day’ stories about how he had left school on a Friday and walked into his first job on a Monday. Is investment in an untried young person now too onerous for employers?

Not that the taste is so sweet for those who are promoted into paid roles. I know people who work full time when their contracts stipulate a day’s worth of work. Their hours could be slashed at any moment, but they’re expected to keep the week free.

One of these people was berated by a previous boss for having the audacity to go home on time, being told their breaks (to which they’re statutorily entitled) obliged them to stay late. Clocking out times were, however, altered for staff to reflect their contracted hours.

Meanwhile, those plucky upstarts who would trouble their chiefs with tribunals have been dealt a blow, with steep fees enacted for those starting a case and smaller rewards for those who win them.

In the past, I’ve put this change in the workplace down to the economy – too many souls for too few jobs. But the much-proclaimed recovery we’re all supposed to be enjoying (which definitely isn’t debt fuelled) hasn’t abated things. Why?

Now I don’t consider myself a bolshy crusader or even particularly left wing, but the question I feel compelled to ask now seems an increasingly controversial one – can we not reward an honest day’s work with an honest day’s pay?