Could football and hockey learn more from each other on rule changes?

Just over a year ago I wrote this piece on the difference between officiating (association) football and (field) hockey. It touched at the end on what the two sports could learn from each other. As both sports embark on a round of rule changes, are they doing any learning?

Football

The changes to the Laws of the Game to apply from June have been poorly reported, as some expected changes (notably to the penalty kick) have not in fact been accepted.

The outright changes to the laws are that:

  • from a goal kick or defensive free kick in the penalty area, the ball will no longer have to leave the area to be in play;
  • substituted players will leave the field by the nearest boundary line; and
  • yellow and red cards will be available as sanctions to team officials as well as players.

How thrilling.

The real changes are, as ever, to the interpretations and explanations of existing laws and procedures. Most notably, the laws of the game now clarify what may be described as “gaining an unintentional advantage” (my phrase) as one of the three instances:

  • a change of possession;
  • the creation of a “promising attack”; and
  • the scoring of a goal.

A team “gaining an unintentional advantage” so defined will be penalised if it comes about due to the ball striking the hand and will cause a dropped ball if the ball strikes a match official.

This means that even an unintentional handball will be penalised if it leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal. It also means that if the ball hits a match official (most obviously the referee), play will no longer automatically continue; if this leads to a change of possession, the creation of a “promising attack”, or the scoring of a goal then play will re-start with a dropped ball. Notably, “handball” is itself more specifically defined (players must not make their body bigger unnaturally or hold their hands above their heads or they are liable to concede the offence of the ball hits the hand or arm) and the procedure for a “dropped ball” is amended so that it is not longer contested (possession returns to the team which last touched the ball except in the penalty area, where possession automatically goes to the goalkeeper regardless of last touch; note the laws were amended in 2012 so that no goal can be scored direct from a dropped ball).

There are some other technical changes too, perhaps most notably that:

  • forwards will not be able to interfere with a defensive “wall” at a free kick;
  • goalkeepers will be required only to have one foot on the line at a penalty kick; and
  • the team winning the toss will be able to choose to kick off (with the other team then choosing ends).

The IFAB (the International Laws Committee, in effect) also highlighted the requirement for captains to be responsible for the conduct of their team and for respect for referees, but made no specific amendments in this area.

Hockey

Hockey’s new rules are officially already in force although, as with football, in practice they will only apply from next season.

There are two highlight changes:

  • the game will be played in four quarters (maximum 15 minutes) with time stoppages at penalty corners at all levels (although the precise nature of that stoppage will still vary between levels); and
  • the “kicking back” (ahem, “player with goalkeeping privileges”) is abolished, albeit technically as an experiment.

In fact, there are some other subtle changes which are less reported by will likely make more difference to game play, notably the allowing of a free hit for an offence inside the circle to be taken anywhere in the circle and the abolition of shadowing inside the circle of attacking free hits just outside the circle except where they are taken immediately. There are also some very minor amendments to the permitting of the propelling of the ball by any part of the body by the goalkeeper (this was previously restricted to feet and kickers), the penalising specifically of the taker of a penalty corner (the gloriously named “injector”) for any attacking encroachment into the circle, and (usefully for umpires) the specification that an offence must be by definition “against an opponent”. There is also some tidying up over the end of a penalty corner, which is now consistent at all times for all purposes (with common sense on face masks still being worn briefly after the penalty corner ends also being written into the rules).

Rejected changes

A proposed change to the laws of football which was widely expected to proceed by some reporters but did not happen was to the end of the penalty kick. There was an experiment in some leagues that the penalty kick would end as soon as it was saved or hit the frame of the goal, with play then restarted with a goal kick. This would have brought penalty kicks taken in regulation into line with penalty kicks taken in shootouts (and also right at the end of the game or half) – and interestingly also with penalty strokes in hockey.

Hockey-like experiments with “sin bins” (i.e. temporary suspensions from play) and rolling substitutes are ongoing.

Alignment

The most obvious alignment above concerns the coin toss before the match. As they were before 1997, football captains will again, like hockey captains, be entitled to choose to start the game (but doing so cedes the right to choose ends). Interestingly, the justification given for this was the amendment to the kick-off rule in 2016 which brought the kick-off in football almost exactly into line with hockey’s centre-pass (or “pushback” or “passback” as it is still more commonly known, even though the ball need not be pushed and can be played forwards).

However, for me the most interesting trend is the notion (again, note this is my phrasing) of “gaining an unintentional advantage” with regard to handball. This is not a million miles away from hockey’s rule that any contact with the ball by the body is an offence, but (like any offence in hockey) is penalised only if it causes a disadvantage to an opponent. Could football be heading in the same direction with handball (or even, in the longer term, more generally)?

Both sports are also introducing procedures to speed up the restart when the defending team receives a free in its own defensive area.

Divergence

Some of the changes will in fact cause divergence. Hockey will, for example, keep the rule that play simply continues if the ball strikes an umpire. Hockey also retains the requirement that players leave (as well as enter) the field on the same side within three metres of the centre-line for substitutions, which will be specifically contrary to football. Hockey goalkeepers will also still be required specifically to have both feet on the goal-line for penalty strokes.

Football is also introducing cards for team officials, something hockey abolished. There is also little prospect of football moving towards quarters, which hockey will at all levels (at least so far as the rule book is concerned) from next season.

Future

The football authorities are better than their hockey counterparts at explaining the precise reasoning for changes to the laws. Agree with the changes or not, their purpose is clearly outlined in football; it is arguable whether this is so with hockey. The amendment to require all hockey matches to be played over four quarters with time stoppages for penalty corners has raised particular concern because, to many, it is an unnecessary time-keeping complication at lower levels with no clear purpose.

The outcome of the way changes are presented is that it is easier to see where football may be going (hence the interesting idea that it may be heading towards a more hockey-like interpretation of an offence as needing to cause a disadvantage to an opponent, at least in some instances, before it is penalised).

There has been some discussion in football of moving to rolling substitutes as hockey did in the 1990s (at the same time, in fact, that it removed offside). However, with the changes to the requirements for leaving the field for substitutions just introduced, this would appear now to be unlikely in the short term.

The report (by former referee David Elleray) which recommended the ball be put directly back into play from goal kicks (now adopted) and that penalty kicks not have rebounds (which was expected to be adopted but was not) also included two further proposals taken directly and overtly from hockey. One was to have the game shorted to two halves of thirty minutes but with time stopped for all breaks in play (not exactly as hockey but close); and the other was to allow “self-passes” at free kicks (i.e. remove the restriction that a player taking a set piece cannot play the ball again until it has been touched by another player). However, neither of these has even reached experimental status.

The likeliest convergence for me, therefore, is the possibly reasonably imminent introduction of “sin bins” (temporary suspensions from play) at all levels of football, although exactly how this will be done is anyone’s guess.

Fundamentally it seems, for now at least, that there is as much divergence as convergence between the sports when it comes to the rules.

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“Liberals” need to work out how to oppose appalling populism more positively

We humans are emotional beings. It makes us all the more interesting. Most of the best things in life are emotional (and irrational) after all – from romantic love to supporting a sports team. These things do not make sense when considered in a reasoned way, but they are what drive our passions and thus they are the basis of our art, our music and our culture.

Psychologically some would suggest we human beings fall broadly into one of two categories – fast-mode or slow-mode thinker. 

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This brings us not to Brexit (though it very well could), but to a recent leaflet sent around the Botanic DEA of Belfast by one of the DUP candidates for the forthcoming local election.

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To me and to almost anyone in my social circle, this leaflet is clearly appalling. However, almost everyone in my social circle is a “slow-mode” thinker when it comes to such things.

To a “fast-mode” thinker when it comes to politics, on the other hand, that leaflet is so appalling as to be likely to work. After all, a “fast-mode” thinker might say, are we seriously suggesting local homes shouldn’t go to local people? That we shouldn’t control immigration? That there shouldn’t be more funding for Loyalist areas in need? 

The fast, automatic, unconscious response to such a leaflet is in fact to agree with it instinctively. From any sort of Unionist viewpoint, make any of the proposals negative and they are clearly wrong. This is why groups whose governmental record is atrocious but whose electoral record is good resort to such leaflets at election time – they draw the fast, automatic, unconscious response to agree, and thus they win support and votes (enabling them to continue to make a mess in government but get away with it electorally).

From a slow-mode thinker’s point of view, such a leaflet is extraordinarily difficult to counter, for two prime reasons. Firstly, those of us who engage with politics (and thus in “slow-mode” thought around political issues) and thus make the effort to consider the complexities of such things can see the appalling reality of what such a leaflet is trying to achieve – just a little reflection on it has us recognising that segregating society into “in-groups” and “out-groups” (and setting one against the other for apparently finite resources), exactly as that leaflet intends, rarely has happy consequences. Secondly, and worse still, we arrive at that conclusion so quickly (given our experience as “slow-mode” thinkers in politics) that we simply cannot comprehend how anyone else would not arrive at it. What a “slow-mode” thinker sees as obvious, a “fast-mode” thinker simply does not see at all – and vice-versa. 

Ultimately, most people are too busy to spend vast amounts of time thinking about politics. That is for others to do (hence they often disparage “politicians” as a group, despite being responsible for electing them – politicians are supposed to be trusted to get on with their job while the res tof us get on with ours). This is a fundamental division which populists are brilliant at exploiting. They play to pre-conceptions (and worse) to deliver emotional appeals to “fast-mode” thinking which, without pause for consideration, seem obvious and incontrovertible. Slogans such as “Take back control” or “Make America Great Again” are perfect for this, appealing additionally to a sense of loss and an instinctive desire to put things right without really having to spend time thinking about the hows and whys. 

“Liberals”, often academics or professionals who spend longer comtemplating government and politics, have not even yet worked out what is happening as they simply cannot comprehend the appeal of electoral slogans and promises which, to “slow-mode” thinking, are so obviously wrong. Furthermore, they also find it harder to deliver the same sort of unity the populists seem (initially at least) able to rely on. As “slow-mode” thinkers with regard to politics, these Liberals fall out with each other over details (last year the British Liberal Democrats even managed to lose one of their 12 remaining MPs over their European policy, previously their most defining and unifying policy area) and thus end up arguing with each other over minor side points. They have no influence over these minor side points anyway because, as political “slow-mode” thinkers, they cannot fathom the electoral appeal of cases made to “fast-mode” thinkers and thus keep losing elections.

I myself have no idea what the answer to this conundrum is, or I would long ago have shared it! What I do know is that political “slow-mode” thinkers have to get cuter than simply pointing to appalling leaflets and assuming that what is obvious to them will be obvious to everyone. My own suspicion is that “Liberals” will have to become less relentlessly negative, particularly apparently about those who engage in “fast-mode” thinking politically, and instead make appeals to them through more positive messaging on the key issues. For example, instead of pointing out how appalling an anti-immigration message is, they should attempt to sell immigration as a good thing; instead of pointing to the blatant sectarianism of prioritising only “Loyalist” areas in need, make the case for a deal for all areas in need and that they can achieve far more by working together rather than apart. Ultimately the task is to change the instinctive immediate response on issues such as immigration and sectarianism so those who have no time for political “slow-mode” thinking nevertheless share the instincts of those who have.

In short, “Liberals” too need to come to terms with the fact we are not primarily rational, but rather emotional animals. After all, that is what unites us and we are all the more interesting for it…

Updated slightly after a correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, linked to Kahneman hypothesis of “fast” versus “slow”; I am no psychologist but it is worth noting Kahneman’s early research was on “loss aversion” also referenced above as a key electoral driver, and that he also wrote extensively on the “illusion of control” (hence the success of the slogan).

Should football learn from hockey on video reviews

In this article, “football” means soccer and “hockey” means field hockey. (As they rank first and third globally in terms both of sports participated in and sports attended, this is as it should be…!)

In the recent Champions’ League fixture in Gelsenkirchen between Schalke and Manchester City, six minutes were taken up by the referee trying to establish if a handball incident should result in a penalty, in part because it turned out the in-stadium video replay was not working so he had to go “blind”, taking the word of the video replay assistant team. A similar rigmarole (albeit with the system working) took place even in the World Cup Final. While “VAR” has generally been applauded for making decisions more accurate, it has been challenged by those who feel it takes too long (or does not account sufficiently for the speed at which the game is played particularly with reference to handball decisions – a clear example occurred last night, when Napoli was awarded a ludicrous penalty via VAR more or less for kicking the ball at the arm from close range in a Serie A game against Juventus).

It does seem to be an unwieldy system. Not only can it take a considerable length of time for a decision to be reached, but typically five video assistant referees are involved. That is a lot of effort, combined with significant opportunities for things to go wrong (the assistants are often located remotely, sometimes several hundred miles from the stadium).

In parts of the world where rugby is known, some have suggested a “TMO” system would work better, but I have argued before here that it too takes too long and, particularly, that it has led to on-field referees becoming over-reliant on the technology. Even the award of clear scores can be delayed, at the expense of time and indeed the base emotion which is the very reason many of us attend and enjoy sport.

Hockey’s system is not absolutely perfect either, but seems to offer a happy medium. In that case, a “video referral” is made to a single video umpire in a booth after an on-field decision has already been made, and the video umpire may be asked only very specific questions (“I am looking for a foot in the circle”; “I need to check if it hit an attacker’s stick”; or similar). The video umpire then responds essentially affirmatively, negatively, or with the line “I can see no clear reason to change your decision”.

The key difference is that, although hockey umpires may themselves make a referral (particularly in the case of goal versus no goal), each team also has the right to ask for reviews. In each half, each team may request a referral for major decisions as many times as it likes until it is wrong (in which case it loses the right for the rest of the half). Therefore, umpires are less inclined to make their own referrals but can quite openly ask teams appealing for or against a major decision “Do you want to refer it?”

The other difference versus football is that the on-field umpire is bound by the video umpire’s decision if one is clearly given either way (which is effectively what had to happen at Schalke when the video system at the side of the field was not working). Football has long had the culture of the referee’s decision is final, so “VAR” has been constructed to enable that. How important is that, really?

Clearly, there are differences. Football has offside to consider; hockey has two types of major decision (penalty stroke and penalty corner) as well as goal or no goal. Match timing is different too (in football time keeps running for reviews and is then added on; in hockey the clock stops). However, would it not be easier if football abandoned all the extra video assistants checking for everything and instead went for team referrals? It’s a question worth considering, anyway!

Schools should teach “language”, not languages

This drop in the number of school pupils taking or even being offered languages in Northern Ireland is fairly typical of the UK as a whole (although not, in fact, of Ireland).

At one level it is indeed alarming. Living solely in English is to cut off access to other cultures and other ways of doing things in every walk of life. It is even unhealthy.

However, a drop in the number of languages on offer in schools is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads to a long needed correction. In fact, the way languages are taught in schools is outdated and, for most pupils, hopeless. This could well be the reason fewer schools are even offering them.

Firstly, the process on language teaching itself needs to be reformed. As I have written many times here, “vocabulary lists” and “dry grammar” are no way to learn a language. Asking for vanilla ice cream when you know you would prefer strawberry, or saying you have two sisters and one brother when you’re an only child, is the final straw in the inevitable loss of interest. This is even more the case when it all seems so pointless.

Secondly, however, the very notion of teaching each language as a separate subject needs to be challenged. Do we teach probability separately from trigonometry? No, we teach mathematics. So why teach languages separately?

Many of the basic principles of Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, or all four of those languages together are the same. We could even learn Esperanto first as an introduction to get pupils interested. Some of the principles of Indo-European as a whole are interesting. Even the broad notion of language (that some use compass directions for left and right, or others use relevance rather than time as the key verb distinction) can draw attention. Keep it interesting and pupils will learn.

It is time to think again about the whole thing. It is not that pupils are any less interested in languages in principle. The problem is the way they are taught fundamentally does not work.

The original post ended there, but it is worth adding the first comment to the text at this point. Edward McCambley writes:

The difficulty is with time. Perhaps the greatest act of educational vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries was the Labour Goverment’s decision to abandon school study of a modern language GCSE. This meant, in effect, for many pupils, a modern language for two years. This is worthless.

The way forward is to do what Irish medium schools do. Make a language other than English central to the curriculum. And before the True Brits get worked up: I am not (sadly) an Irish language speaker. I might add that the abandonment of modern language study by that well known local business, Queen’s University, in its pursuit of Asian money, does not help.

Whether that way forward is viable is debatable. However, it is worth noting that pupils are already leaving some Irish-medium primary schools with GCSEs in two languages (typically Irish and Spanish). Parents are told that it is for them to ensure English-language competence is maintained. That must be food for thought?

Colour clashes becoming ridiculous in top-level football

In next week’s “Super Bowl”, a toss-up will decide which team wears white and which team wears a colour. The teams will be easily distinguishable even where reception is poor or even in black and white.

Sheffield Wednesday in black, with the goalkeeper in purple, defend against Chelsea in blue. How “easily distinguishable” are these colours?!

Yesterday’s FA Cup tie between Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday was yet another example of (association) football failing to do the bleedin’ obvious. Blue faced black with one goalkeeper in purple. None of these was easily distinguishable, as required by Law 4, particularly the visiting goalkeeper from his own team mates. It was ridiculous.

It used to be so much easier. Referees wore black, goalkeepers generally wore green (or generally yellow in the unlikely event that a team chose to wear green), and teams were easily distinguished. This was managed despite each club maintaining only two kits for outfielders.

These days, despite clubs being allowed three or sometimes more kits, colour clashes are common, particularly between dark colours (black versus blue or claret, for example). Goalkeepers often wear shirts which are barely distinguishable from their own team – Arsenal’s has even contrived to wear dark pink at home, blatantly clashing with red. Even if the referee is satisfied at the distinction (and I would not be), the viewers at home can hardly be. What is more, it is all so unnecessary.

In the name of rampant commercialism, we have made a simple thing complicated. If goalkeepers wore green and referees wore black, one team could wear a predominantly dark colour (just not black or green) and the other light. Why make it all so hard?!

How to learn languages Review (repost)

Every Friday this year, I have run through how to learn the major Western European languages.

General

It is important to emphasise that, in terms of learning, the story starts with this general vocabulary list and overall introduction. Without it, the other introductions to each individual language and language group make sense, but have limited value.

Indo-European

Then we need to note that all the languages referred to – the entirely of  both the Romance/Latinate and the Germanic language family (as well as many others) – derive from a single language known by modern linguists as Proto-Indo-European.

Esperanto

Anyone embarking on learning several languages – particularly if these are Romance/Latinate, Germanic and/or Slavic – may consider first learning the constructed language Esperanto. This is relatively simple, but offers some introduction to the principles and complexities/challenges/fun of language learning (from tricky phonology to the subjunctive mood, alongside some unintentional irregularities). It can also be useful for vocabulary, drawn as it is largely from Latin or Latin-based languages but also in significant part from Germanic and Slavic.

Romance/Latinate

What are usually referred to as “Romance” languages are those derived from Latin – among national languages, this means (from west to east in Europe) Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian. They all carry over complex verb systems (with three tenses and a range of moods, and full verbal agreement) and two noun genders (with full adjectival agreement). In fact, almost half the linguistic change between Classical Latin and each of those languages had occurred by the time they split apart; thus they are not only derived from the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar but in fact from the Late Latin still in some use at the time of Charlemagne – having some comprehension of that late version (also known as “Vulgar Latin”) is a huge advantage to anyone wishing to learn any Romance language, and particularly to anyone wishing to learn more than one.

All other things being equal, perhaps the best Romance language to start with is Italian. It is the most conservative of the main national Romance languages, and therefore includes most of the features found in the others.

On the basis that it is easier to learn a relatively complex language before a structurally more straightforward one, next may be Portuguese. From a purely European point of view, this one seems marginal, but the growing role of Brazil as a regional power perhaps gives it as much significance as any other in the modern world.

Structurally more straightforward (comparatively) is arguably the most useful foreign language for English speakers to learn, Spanish. The main complication is that the phonology of Spanish has changed markedly since the Golden Age, although spelling has (broadly at least) kept up. With almost half a billion native speakers worldwide, and a significant role also within the United States, this is rapidly becoming the first language in schools in the English-speaking world with good reason. Its only drawback is that learning other languages having learned Spanish generally takes longer than the other way around.

For all that, in the British Isles French generally remains the first foreign language, with its remarkable cultural power and astonishing phonological development. This is not particularly linguistically helpful, however, as its distinct phonology (a product, at least in part, of notable early Germanic influence) means French is further from the other three modern Romance languages looked at here than any of the other three is from any of the others.

Germanic 

Germanic languages derive from what is referred to by linguists as “Proto-Germanic”, spoken at the same time as Classical Latin. They display simpler verb forms (with only two tenses, rare use of subjunctive mood and even in some cases elimination or near elimination of verbal and some adjectival agreement) but a broadly more complex noun (albeit simplified in some modern standards), with the neuter case maintained at least in some form across the board. The first major written text in Germanic is in fact in the now extinct East Germanic language of Gothic, contemporaneous with the Roman emperor Constantine.

The first written version of any Germanic language still in existence was in fact the West Germanic language of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, from which modern English (and also Scots) is derived. Old English bears almost no more relation to modern English than Gothic does, but the intermediate period gave us the language of the first great English literary figure, Chaucer. This is known as Middle English, but is markedly further removed from the modern language that the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as the speed of language change slowed down after the invention of the printing press.

Modern English is, of course, something of a hybrid given the influence on it of Latin, Norman French and other languages; like French, it is complicated by the fact it is written to reflect medieval rather than modern pronunciation, and there has been a sound shift since. The most widely spoken West Germanic language other than English, and the most conservative and obviously Germanic language still widely used, is German, with the remarkable ongoing complexity of its noun system; it is grammatically complex, but at least its written form reflects its sound shifts.

Another less complex West Germanic language is Dutch, interesting in its own right but also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter language spoken in Southern Africa, Afrikaans. This is the nearest national language in existence to English (but the reverse does not apply).

There is also a group of North Germanic languages, split between the Western or Insular ones (Icelandic, Faroese and arguably one standard of Norwegian) and the Eastern or Scandinavian ones (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). To some degree each group of these is mutually intelligible (they are significantly more conservative as you move northwest), but Danish is outstanding for its remarkably reduced/progressed phonology.

Review

It has been my contention throughout that tying the knowledge of the basic vocabulary at the outset to an overall historical overview and then a fundamental grammatical outline gives us a much faster route to becoming at least proficient in several foreign languages without having to learn each from scratch. This way, language learning need not be such a chore, and in fact takes on a much more interesting route.

Nevertheless, as ever, I am open to any corrections, queries or contrary views!

#Brexit thread from November 2017

A Twitter thread I wrote on 16 November 2017 has begun attracting attention again – probably because so little of the Government’s thinking has meaningfully changed since! It ran like this…

This evening in Germany, David Davis has demonstrated a frankly humiliating misunderstanding of even the basics of the EU. A quick thread. 1/

Firstly, even if somehow Angela Merkel were scared that the German economy could be crippled by, er, not being able to export freely to a smaller country like the UK, she cannot intervene to offer the UK a special deal. No one can. 2/

Let us repeat: the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU. Let us also repeat: the Single Market is a market of *rules*. This is the fundamental point David Davis has still failed to grasp. 3/

For that reason, participation in the Single Market by any non-EU State is determined by which rules that State is willing to adopt. And that is the end of it.

(Norway adopts nearly all of them, for example; Moldova just a few.) 4/

David Davis therefore still hasn’t grasped that this negotiation is not “We give a bit, you give a bit”. It is essentially “Here are the rules of the Single Market; tell us which ones you no longer wish to apply and that will determine your level of participation in it.” 5/

This really should be obvious. How otherwise could a 27/28-member bloc function if it did not have *rules*? And those rules cannot be amended other than with the support of the whole bloc. 6/

This is all to leave quite aside that David Davis vastly overstates the UK’s economic importance. Germany sells many multiples more cars in China and the US, for example. That is a basic matter of fact. 7/

UK really should have worked out by now, more than halfway between Referendum Day and Brexit Day, that this whole “They’ll bend to our will” stuff is a *myth*. It can’t happen – and wouldn’t, even if it could. 8/

And for any UK Minister to go anywhere else and tell the locals not to put “politics before prosperity” is, right now, to set a new world record in gross hypocrisy. For that is precisely and embarrassingly what the UK alone is doing with #Brexit. 9/

David Davis’ call for co-operation in the interests of mutual prosperity was met with an obvious first question from a German journalist.

“If that is what you want, why are you leaving?”

Quite.

10/10

UK has profound crisis of government which goes beyond Brexit

I have pulled this blog from retirement again because I remain unsure that media coverage of the latest political farce really does justice to the scale of the breakdown. Brexit is merely a symptom of a much larger problem in the UK – the political system is broken, and quite profoundly.

This is for a number of reasons which include, but are far from limited to:

  • a “London bubble” – from the Civil Service to the broadcast media, the focus is astonishingly biased towards London, which leads to a very genuine sense in much of the rest of England of being distant from power (hence “take back control” resonated so strongly);
  • coverage as a “soap opera” – there is a tendency to cover politics rather than government, and to promote to positions of media prominence people are are entertaining in preference to those who are knowledgeable (and to cover issues in terms of their political rather than social consequences, hence even Brexit becomes all about jostling for position rather than educated debates about its impact on food on shelves, welfare budgets or health recruitment);
  • a farcical education system – which, as The Economist puts it, means positions in senior office all too often go to people from a small number of schools and universities whose position is in fact based on pure confidence and bluster rather than on actual competence and knowledge;
  • a lack of civic input and engagement – that same education system also does not teach people even the basics of politics and government, meaning people all too often leave it to others;
  • the electoral system – which, in England at least, promotes two large parties unable to respond to the range of complex interests which now exist in plain view across the country.

The result is that we need to ask far more profound questions even than “Who will lead the Conservative Party?” or “What sort of Brexit will we have?”

We are now in a position where neither large party can ever conceivably be coherent enough to form a parliamentary majority of MPs with genuine confidence in its Leader. There is literally not a single MP who could command the confidence of the House of Commons now. Even a new election would be little use. For as long as the electoral system remains as it is, each party will remain a grossly unstable coalition unable practically to govern with any coherence. Only a German-style PR system, allowing MPs to form coalitions after the election based on the priorities of the day, can restore any coherence. Yet there is scant prospect of that.

Thus the only hope is to return decision making to the people, but even this is fraught with danger given the aforementioned point that, in the UK, the people are not used to such decisions (“They didn’t do enough to inform us” was a familiar cry in 2016 – which should immediately make you wonder who “they” are who should be doing the “informing”). Returning decision making to the people requires tools other than just crude binary referendums. Cititzens’ Conventions and other forms of local deliberative democracy are surely necessary to counter the distance and gridlock of Westminster.

This is a deep and profound crisis not just of politics but of Government itself. In fact, bluntly, the UK has become ungovernable. It will take radical thinking and an ability to work across partisan lines for the greater good to overcome this.

 

Remainers need to *think*

I have largely retired this blog, but I did feel it necessary to write one brief piece stating my concern that far too few people on either side of the Brexit debate are actually thinking.

Brexit is a far more profound shift than, for example, Suez, with which it is often equated. If carried out, it marks a complete change in direction for the UK from its foreign and trade policy since the War. It will have a profound impact on everything from recruiting staff for the Health Service (making a purely taxpayer-funded service an impossibility) to satellite navigation systems. It may well force the UK itself to break up.

Yet in public debate it is still seen too often like a football match, with “fans” of “Leave” and “Remain” debating it in much the same way as Arsenal and Spurs fans or Liverpool and Everton fans debate the outcome of Sunday’s derby matches. All that matters is winning, and never mind the practical social and economic consequences for millions of people up and down the country. A lot of people are to blame for that – from a media which seem intent on reporting politics like a soap opera to politicians themselves who are so caught up in the Westminster bubble they have lost all connection with the daily lives of the citizens they claim to represent (witness this weekend’s incredible episode of Conservative MPs visiting foodbanks to applaud rather than bemoan their existence). It is worth noting that Brexit is in fact a symptom of a gradual political failure, not the cause of it.

One reason the whole thing has become so ludicrous is that it has become so tribal – and each side merely blames the other for making it so, rather than taking responsibility for the necessary “de-tribalisation”. Here, generally speaking, the broadly “Remain” side is guilty too; this is something it will need to fix if it is ultimately to save us from the calamity lying ahead.

Having a go at Leavers for being stupid on social media does not constitute a serious (or successful) campaign strategy. Many people voted Leave with good reason – ranging from a very genuine concern about the distance of decision makers in Brussels from those affected by the decisions, to a more emotional but no less genuine one about the scale of immigration into an already very densely populated country. It is not wrong to be concerned about the quality of democracy when it is so distance (although I do think it is hypocritical to be so without being concerned about the quality of democracy in London, which is “distant” from most parts of the UK); nor is it even wrong to ask a question about whether levels of immigration into such a densely populated country are sustainable (although I look at it the other way around; the UK needs to invest hugely in infrastructure, particularly housing, in order to accommodate what will, inevitably, be a rapidly growing population). A bit of understanding – and remembering that we have two ears and one mouth and we should probably use them in that proportion – would do no harm.

Most fundamentally, whatever we think of the lies told during the campaign or indeed of the illegal funding activity around it, the fact will always remain that a clear snapshot of public opinion in the UK in June 2016 returned a majority preference for not being in the EU. There is little doubt, for me, that that was a fair reflection of the public view, however unfairly I think it was arrived at, because there were also people who voted “Remain” not particularly because they loved the EU but because they wanted to avoid chaos (ahem, how right they were).

Yet it looks as though the “Remain” side may be on the verge, whether through luck or skill, of securing a further vote of some kind. However, in just the same way that Leavers had not thought through the detail of what leaving would actually entail and how it should look, I have heard little detail from Remainers about what exactly the next vote should ask.

The assumption, at this stage (and assumptions are always dangerous), is that the Prime Minister’s deal will not clear the Commons. I am a hugely reluctant convert to the case for a further referendum (in a democracy with parliamentary supremacy I am unclear what purpose any referendum is supposed to serve), but if the Prime Minister’s deal fails it is clear too that Brexit has failed. In June 2016 people may have voted to leave the EU, but only a tiny minority thought this meant doing so with absolutely no future relationship in place; and it is not unreasonable to suggest that had “Leave” specifically meant leaving with no such relationship, more than the few hundred thousand necessary to switch sides for a “Remain” victory would have done so (and of course if there is any doubt about that, it is reasonable to test it now – the very case for a further referendum).

However, it would be as ludicrous as anything else to go back to the people with a straightforward second choice of “Remain” versus “Leave” where the former means continued membership of the EU with no further questions asked and the latter means leaving with no arrangements at all in place (to secure not just future trade, but also relationships in all kinds of other areas from aviation to health research). Those two options are simply far too far apart for either of them to be a reasonable way forward likely to earn a broad consensus of support.

For me, the question has to be more clearly something like this:

The UK is negotiating a new relationship with the EU. To enable the basis for this negotiation to continue, should the UK now:

REMAIN in the European Union

LEAVE the European Union

This clearly states that the status quo ante is not an option and that consideration will continue to be given to the outcome in 2016 (as no such renegotiation would be necessary without that vote having gone the way it did). However, it also offers the people the frankly safer choice of remaining in the EU while a new relationship is sorted, with the people able to assess whether they are happy about that renegotiation at future elections.

It is just a first thought and I could well be persuaded from it, but the key point is this – both sides need to stop trying to “win”, and instead start to think.

Ryder Cup 2018 was an annihilation – US need game to go global

The 2018 Ryder Cup was in some ways the most one-sided since the current format (28 matches with Europe) was introduced in 1979.

Europe in fact won 29 more holes than the United States (more than one per individual match), the biggest gap ever under the format. Typically, a gap of that nature would have seen the largest ever match score, of around 19-9. In other words, 17-10 was comprehensive – but actually kind to the Americans.

In this sense, the competition has changed and now Europe is unquestionably the dominant team. In five Ryder Cups staged in Europe this century, not only have the Americans lost all five but they have in fact been thrashed four times.

This is different from thirty years ago or so when, even though Europe won on several occasions, the Americans were still in general equal to or even better than their opponents. In fact, from 1987 thru 1999, the Americans actually won more holes in every single Cup (even though they lost three times out of seven and tied once). What was happening then was that the Americans were in fact scoring marginally better, but the Europeans performed better under pressure in clutch situations (thus tending to win the huge majority of close matches).

It remains a quirk that Europe has never lost the Ryder Cup having won more holes, but has quite often won or at least retained it while losing more.

With the extraordinary exception of 2012 (the Miracle or Meltdown at Medinah, depending on your view) when the Americans actually won in terms of holes more heavily than they had since 1981 but contrived to lose overall, this century has belonged clearly to the European side no matter how you calculate it, and is becoming more so. The team which has won more holes has also won the Cup on every single occasion otherwise (and that has been Europe six times in eight) and the overall match score has rarely been close (whereas the previous seven and eight of the previous nine had been settled by two overall match points or fewer).

Why is this? The most obvious reason, which has already been discussed, is that the American locker room had a reminder to “leave egos at the door” but as ever it was the Europeans who actually did so. Tied to this is, however, the potential reason that the Americans are not actually as good as the rankings suggest.

We should remember that three of the four majors and most of the other biggest tournaments (world championship events, the Tour Championship etc) are hosted in the United States. These carry the highest ranking points, with Americans having an in-built advantage of playing at home.

The Americans have to consider, therefore, whether it would be good for the global game and even for their own Ryder Cup team if more high-ranking events (including all World Golf Championship events and quite possibly the PGA Championship) were hosted away from the United States. This would take Americans out of their comfort zone if they want to earn the big rankings points, and would get them used to playing away from home. Such a move would surely then give them the experience required so that no future United States team goes an entire generation without winning a Ryder Cup in Europe…

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