Cameron’s Human Rights Headache?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in the Department of Politics

Human-RightsAs a newly elected Prime Minister, you wait around for one European problem then two come along at once. While David Cameron is trying to deal with his EU referendum promise, another ‘European’ problem has reared its head in the Queen’s Speech. The Conservatives promised to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights-see this full fact analysis for background. The Conservative manifesto stated that:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights

The Conservatives would draw up a new Bill of Rights that ended the controversial link with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, treating their rulings as advisory and giving power back to the UK’s Supreme Court. But it looks like the commitment has at least been slowed down – to a promise to consult rather than, as was suggested, to have proposals ready in the first 100 days.

What’s caused the re-think?

The Human Rights Act is surrounded by layers of myths and half-truths. The claim is that the Act creates a set of new rights (it doesn’t, it just adds them to UK law), that it allows judges, and particularly judges from the European Court of Human Rights, to challenge and change British law (it doesn’t really, just lets them declare it ‘incompatible’) and undermines Parliament’s power (which is actually preserves)-see this famous speech by Lord Bingham. This guide to the Act concluded ‘the Government also acknowledged that a series of damaging myths about the Act had taken root in the popular imagination’.

However, the Human Rights Act has become a symbol of ‘European’ interference in ‘our’ politics and abuse of laws designed to protect us. So David Cameron is trying to change something because of what people think it is doing rather than what it is.

So why has Cameron slowed down?

Like any good politician, Cameron has looked across the battlefield and foreseen what could happen. Let’s run a little thought experiment and imagine that he and Michael Gove can draw up a new Bill of British Rights and Responsibilities, one that better reflects British values (putting aside whether it breaks any treaty obligations etc). They can send it, at least in a draft form, to Parliament and repeal the Human Rights Act. At this point, the fun would begin.

In the House of Commons, his own party is deeply divided-and even invoking the classic ‘what would Winston Churchill say’ line hasn’t helped. Some Conservatives oppose any ‘reduction’ in human rights, with one ‘senior’ politician this weekend rumoured to be considering resigning and a group of influential conservative MPs ready to oppose anything they see as a ‘weakening’ of rights.

On the other side, his Eurosceptic [or Euroexit] MPs are keen for something very different that ‘breaks’ the ‘formal link’ with the ECHR and reflects UK values. So the new Bill would have to be a masterpiece that balances these two viewpoints – different from the old Act but not giving less protection.

The truce is fragile

Dr Ben Worthy

Dr Ben Worthy

Cameron’s party, for the moment, is holding off rebellions but the truce is fragile and one issue they do like rebelling about is Europe. Just to make things more tricky for a Prime Minister with a small majority, opposite his own party the new block of 56 SNP MPs, 8 Lib-Dems and the whole of the Labour party are all firmly against scrapping the Act.

Then we get to the House of Lords. Technically the House of Lords cannot block anything promised in a manifesto-but in this case it isn’t so clear cut. The government can’t rush them to any decisions and the Lords can block legislation for some time and even ‘filibuster’ (talk until legislation is dropped).

In the House of Lords the Conservatives do not have a majority and there’s a big healthy dollop of Labour and angry Lib-Dems (there’s only 8 Lib Dem MPs but 104 highly engaged Lib-Dem Peers). Added to this, it’s full of lawyers and experts who see themselves as protectors of civil liberties. The second chamber has already issued warnings that any repeal or new bill won’t get through.

Cameron’s headache may become a migraine

So, piloting this through the House of Lords and House of Commons is very tricky. It’s at this point that Cameron’s Human Rights headache may become a migraine. The Human Rights Act 1998 is deeply tied up in the devolution settlement to Scotland, Wales and, especially, Northern Ireland, where it is embedded in the peace process.

Legally, as Mark Elliot points out, it seems Westminster can just about push a new Bill of Rights across the UK. But politically it will be extremely difficult and it’s possible that Scotland may refuse to co-operate. The ultimate danger is that, as pointed out here, a British Bill, opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could become an English Bill.

So what could Cameron do? Playing for time seems a good idea. How about a referendum?

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Saddam in Starbucks

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

You are probably used to it by now, but the first time you ordered a coffee in Starbucks and were asked for your name, were you a little taken aback? I certainly was.

Saddam in StarbucksWe are used to being asked for our great aunt’s middle name, when our first milk tooth fell out etc etc when contacting a bank or paying for something online. But must we really reveal our name TO BUY A COFFEE??

Of course, there is method in this madness: writing a name on the paper cup makes it easier to know who ordered a double caramel macchiato and who wanted an organic Colombian espresso at the end of the line. But for a Brit there is still something a little bit too intimate about giving a first name to a complete stranger who you will probably never see again. Deborah Cameron has written brilliantly about this ‘commodification’ of language in her books ‘Verbal Hygiene’ and ‘Talking from 9 to 5′.

Starbucks, of course, are not alone. If you phone a restaurant in London to book a table, you give your surname, but 9 times out of 10 you are then asked for your first name too. Why?! One friend systematically replies: ‘Why do you need it? We are not going on a date, are we?’

Your reaction to all this probably depends on your age. If you grew up in an age when no-one in a service industry ever addressed you with anything other than with your title and last name, this is all a big issue. On the other hand, if you are under 25, you have probably never known any other way to do business, so none of this seems at all important.

Ways of addressing have always varied according to cultural conventions, and the American culture of Starbucks is one which emphasises solidarity rather than status. These were the two dimensions picked out as most relevant to such choices in Brown and Gilman’s famous 1960 article on pronouns of address.

For different reasons, at Birkbeck, where students are often taught by lecturers younger than themselves, students and staff are usually on first name terms – and this has been so for 35 years to my certain knowledge.

But I still have students from some European and non-European countries who would never dream of calling me anything other than Professor Gardner-Chloros. To them, it would be highly disrespectful to do anything else, but I am always a little embarrassed since I call all students by their first name.

But let us return to our skinny double caramel macchiatos. I have got round my discomfort in Starbucks by giving a variety of names in Starbucks – anything but my own. Usually I choose a really appalling dictator – Hitler, Stalin etc, to make it quite obvious that I find the question a tad inappropriate.

Stalin works just as well as Penelope for identifying my coffee, after all. I also hope to raise a slightly less perfunctory smile from the poor employees who have to work all day in this artificially matey, Disneyfied ambiance. Some are so ‘well trained’ – or just plain exhausted – that they scarcely notice and just dutifully write Stalin or Pol Pot on the cup. Others give me a quick look of surprise. Very rarely is there any comment.

This week, I was Saddam in Starbucks. There was no queue so there was in fact no real need for a name at all. The assistant – sorry, ‘team member’- had more time to chat.

‘Saddam?’ she repeated, looking up. Then she smiled. ‘Why not? I have served Batman and Superman, so why not Saddam?’

She thought again. ‘And if we can’t have a bit of a laugh, what is the point of it all?’

She was right. Saddam does not matter, and nor does Penelope, but sharing a joke is really important. The lovely thing about language is that as well as allowing us to express ourselves, it also gives us such interesting issues to talk ABOUT.

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How can immigration law and remittance companies help Nepal recover?

This post was contributed by Michael Boampong, PhD candidate in Development Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS)

Days after the devastating earthquake in Nepal that has left over 5000 people dead, many are injured and lacking essentials such as food, water, and shelter.

There has, however, been generous response in terms of media attention and aid mobilization for rescue and recovery efforts. Within this scope, there has been a profound attention on the need to avoid the mistakes made during and after the Haiti earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami.

While some attention has focused on the return of Nepalese migrants from Gulf States, little attention has centred on how migration policies and financial institutions (including banks and money transfer operators) can help in the recovery process.

Here are some practical ideas:

  • In the short-term, offer temporary protected status for Nepalese abroad. This can allow Nepalese in stable destination countries to stay and work for an amount of time and send money back to their relations who have been displaced by the quake. With the Nepalese government already struggling to meet relief needs, allowing migrants to stay seems plausible. In fact, reported tensions are likely to worsen if people are forced to return home under such dire conditions.

Migrant-world-bank

  • Restore remittance services and waive transfer cost. Migrants are one of the first responders to natural disasters and they are more likely to send money to relatives who are in need. However, the question arises over the means of transfer when the physical infrastructure has been damaged.

Remittances to Nepal are estimated at $5 billion per annum and remain a crucial part of household livelihoods. Restoring services – and perhaps waiving or reducing the cost of transfer – to affected communities can increase access to finance, thereby enabling recipient households to rebuild their livelihoods with remittances from relatives overseas.

Of course, these ideas are not the silver bullet for the present situation in Nepal; however, it brings to light the lack of disaster preparedness in a country that is earthquake prone, has poorly regulated urbanization and housing – often built with migrant remittances – and that has failed to adhere to building codes as expected in the government-spearheaded National Plan of Action on Safer Buildings.

Helping the government to ensure the implementation of this framework should be a priority in the coming months.

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Cameron girds up for titanic battles on Scotland and the EU

This post was contributed by Ben Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally posted on May 11 at The Conversation

David Cameron’s 2015 election victory is all the more powerful for being almost completely unexpected. But as the euphoria dissipates, the obstacles in his path are coming into focus. Above all, he faces two tricky and complex problems: the promised EU referendum and future arrangements with Scotland (and by extension, the other parts of the UK).

The EU referendum was in large part a gamble to see off UKIP and settle his party, but now he looks likely to do it as soon as possible, perhaps even in 2016, banking on a status quo bias to keep us in. And on Scotland, he has committed to implement further devolution and push through the jointly agreed Smith Commission proposals. In both cases, the devil’s in the detail.

On the EU, lots of the specifics are unclear. We don’t yet know what the question on the referendum ballot might be, or what “reforms” to the EU will convince us to stay – and the coming struggles over them promises to be vicious.

On Scotland, it is about giving the new SNP stronghold “the strongest devolved government in the world” – but there will be a need, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, to discuss these issues in more detail (and ditto for Wales). Devolution may also flow back into the Europe debate – Cameron has already refused a separate EU referendum for Scotland but could he hold that line?

On both these pressing matters, Cameron is up against assorted bodies and people who could make his life harder. They can all be dealt with separately, but if they join forces, they could drain Cameron’s political energy and time – the two things a prime minster can least afford to lose.

Houses divided

Cameron’s majority is 12 (or actually eight or 16, as Colin Talbot points out. This is far better than most expected, but it depends on the solidarity of an increasingly rebellious party.

The trouble for Cameron is that parliamentary rebellion is habit-forming: the more you rebel more likely you are to do it again in the future. And the last parliament was the most rebellious since 1945 (here are its top seven rebellions against him).

This bad news gets worse: the two biggest issues that Conservatives rebelled over were constitutional matters and Europe – the two most urgent problems for the next five years. Party management and discipline will be crucial, but even that may not stave off problems if Cameron’s majority is whittled away over time. Just ask John Major, whose 22-seat advantage in 1992 withered to zero by the end of 1996.

The new block of 56 SNP MPs has limited practical power in the Commons, but its members can still use their electoral dominance and high media profile to keep Scotland high up the agenda. And in the event of a Tory rebellion, or a vanishing majority, the opposition parties’ ability to co-ordinate could determine Cameron’s room for manoeuvre.

Don’t forget the House of Lords

The House of Lords is often overlooked, but its potential power to delay and disrupt a government agenda is great – and growing. As Meg Russell demonstrated, since 1999 the Lords has clearly started to feel more legitimate and more prepared to defeat the government: its members did so 11 times in 2014-2015 and 14 times in 2013-14.

The Conservatives are now heavily outgunned in the House of Lords, with 224 peers facing off against 214 Labour ones, and 101 (presumably livid) Liberal Democrats and 174 cross-benchers.

The Lords will be duty-bound to pass an EU referendum bill due to the Salisbury Convention, which means the Lords have to pass manifesto policies. However, there are plenty of other venues for lawmakers to vent their anger or disrupt the government’s timetable for other parts of its reform programme. Select committees in both the Lords and Commons expressed concerns at the lack of consultation on the Smith proposals, boding ill for the constitutional arguments ahead. Concern in one house triggers worries in the other, so wherever it crops up, Cameron will need to take it seriously.

Outside parliament, it remains to be seen whether the eurosceptic right-wing media will be satisfied with any concessions or reforms Cameron gets from Brussels. It may prefer to give the oxygen of publicity to the SNP (particularly the very media-savvy Salmond) and treat us to a long and fascinating Cameron-vs-Sturgeon battle royale.

Cameron also invoked English nationalism in the election campaign, going so far as to launch an England-only manifesto, but it remains to be seen if he can channel and control the mounting pro-English clamour in the right-wing press over the coming months while simultaneously making concessions to Europe or Scotland.

Circling vultures

Behind Cameron are a number of senior Conservatives with at least semi-public leadership ambitions. He’ll have to manage them with precision. In the almost certain event of an EU referendum, he would have to make a very tough choice: whether to ask all ministers to all support staying in, or as Harold Wilson did in the 1975 referendum, to let everyone temporarily agree to disagree.

Equally, there’s no knowing how Cameron’s discontents and potential rivals might react to new devolution settlements. Perhaps the future leadership contenders are already plotting to court English nationalism for party and media favour.

Cameron’s leadership capital is high for the time being, but with so little room for division, his promise to step down by the 2020 election may come back to haunt him. As he seeks to deal with the “Scottish lion” and slay the EU dragon – or at least negotiate with it – everything could get complicated and intensely political very quickly. And the chances of success (whatever that is) are almost impossible to gauge.

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Bilingualism in Malta

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

I recently had the pleasant experience of being invited to Malta for the International Conference on Bilingualism. Not having been there before, this provided an excuse to visit the country and to find out a bit more about its fascinating history and linguistic situation. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Roman alphabet. It derives from the Arabic spoken in Sicily between the 9th and 12th century, but its lexical stock is largely made up of Italian/Sicilian and other Romance borrowings. As it was under British rule for more than 170 years, gaining independence in 1964, English is a co-official language with Maltese and there are now large numbers of English borrowings. Much of the population is bilingual in Maltese and English.

Maltese postboxThe photograph of a – typically British – Maltese letterbox illustrates the situation. The text in Maltese is made up of Arabic elements, including the days of the week. Blended seamlessly into this are Italian expressions which are equally integrated parts of the language: underneath ‘3pm’ we read about “oggetti ta’ valur”,  “posta registrata” and lower down “festi pubblici” – all very recognizably Italian. English is also represented, being a co-official language, resulting in a code-switched text which represents the various origins and layers of the language, viewed through the lens of officialdom. Bi/trilingual documents as such are commonplace in many countries. But here the admixture of Romance, both entirely traceable and distinct from the Arabic, is reminiscent of so-called ‘mixed languages’: due to specific historical circumstances, a few unusual languages, such as Michif (French and Cree) or Media Lingua (Spanish and Quechua) take their lexis and grammar from different sources.

Given all these circumstances, the contemporary issue of code-switching, where people alternate languages on a daily basis, is a fact of life in Malta. It was also an important focus at the conference. I myself have rarely met a non-linguist who has heard of code-switching; but on visiting a small restaurant in Malta, and explaining to the affable owner that I was there for a Bilingualism conference, she remarked casually that bilingualism was a big issue in Malta – “and”, she continued, “we also do a lot of code-switching”. Having recovered from the shock of finding a normal person who had heard of my specialism, I went back to the conference and listened to a talk by a young researcher who had carried out a linguistic survey among 120 or so Maltese informants. She reported that one sub-group – considered by others to be snobbish or show-offs – code-switched copiously. Her talk gave rise to the most impassioned and vituperative argument I have ever heard at an academic conference – so impassioned, in fact, that I found it difficult to establish the exact basis of the disagreement. Suffice it to say that it was about who code-switched to whom in Malta, why and when. One elderly participant in the discussion, somewhat alarmingly, threatened to have a heart attack on the spot.

The organisers later apologized for their colleagues’ tempestuous reaction and behaviour. But I myself came out strangely energised by the thought that my little corner of academia could give rise to such passions. Malta may be a small country, but it is a – still under-researched – treasure trove for linguists, and it is invigorating to witness a linguistic debate which so clearly carries on into the street.

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Sherlock Holmes: the man who never lived and will never die

This article was contributed by Mike Berlin, a specialist in the social history of early modern London in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and ArchaeologyBirkbeck is holding a study day on Saturday 14 March to coincide with the Museum of London‘s landmark exhibition on Sherlock Holmes. The afternoon  will feature contributions from Alex Werner, Sherlock Holmes exhibition curator, Dr Nathalie Morris, Senior Curator of Special Collections at the BFI National Archive, and Emeritus Professor John Stokes of King’s College London. 

"The air of London is the sweeter for my presence." Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. ©Museum of London

“The air of London is the sweeter for my presence.” Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. ©Museum of London

Though the pipe and deerstalker have been replaced by a waxed Belstaff jacket,  new generation of Londoners  continues  to be captivated  of Conan Doyle’s original creation. What was it about the figure of Holmes that holds such fascination in the minds of generations of readers, film goers and now television viewers?

For many people the Holmes stories, originally published in the Strand Magazine with illustrations by Sidney Paget, are synonymous with Victorian London. The atmosphere of back alleys, dense pea soup fogs, hackney cabs and Bradshaw’s railway guides are the epitome of our image of the teeming city, a city of concealment, social mixing and crime.

The original fascination of Conan Doyle’s audience went with a deep-seeded fear of crime.  The world’s largest city in 1900, an imperial capital that brought people and goods together from all corners of the globe, London was the perfect setting for a series of tales that mixed bourgeois morality with fear of the mysterious and foreign. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the imperial exoticism of the world’s greatest port, including the swamp adder and baboon of The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

It is no accident that Holmes’ opponents are mostly aliens. For late Victorian Londoners the ‘alien menace’ , associated in the popular imagination with the infamous Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, were a direct threat to the city’s greatness. Conon Doyle perfectly encapsulated a sense of anxiety about the menaces of ‘the city of the dreadful night’. It is an anxiety that is decidedly masculine and middleclass, his eponymous hero allowing the reader to overcome fears of crime via cold forensic logic, disguise and confident elegance.  Holmes and Watson, independent men of science, defeat the forces of unreason and evil with the skills of the Victorian social investigator, the slummer, who is willing to visit the criminal purlieus of the city in the search for truth.

The gas lamps have gone but the fascination remains. How do we account for Holmes’ appeal  ver the last century and beyond. In the 20s and 30s film helped to perpetuate Conan Doyle’s image of London. Different eras have re-created the Holmes that was needed. The detective was enlisted by Hollywood in the fight against the Nazis.  Perhaps our age, with its own anxieties about threats from ‘outsiders’ and desire to master the supposed chaos of the urban experience via the appliance of science helps to explain why Holmes will never die.

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‘Cash for access’ scandal: What impact will Miliband’s proposals have on MPs and the public?

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, two senior MPs were snared in a sting by the Telegraph in which they appeared to offer access for cash. The Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband has responded by calling for stringent new limits on MPs extra earnings and work. In this article, Ben Worthy investigates the practicalities of Miliband’s proposals and asks whether they will increase trust in MPs among the public.

In the wake of the latest ‘Cash for Access’ revelation, Ed Miliband has committed to limit MPs’ outside earnings to £10,000 per year and introduce a ban on all second jobs. The Labour party will start tomorrow, using its opposition day to propose a bill on the subject. These proposals fit with a series of steps since the 1990s designed to open up and regulate this area as controversy has grown about extra earnings and work. But how will these latest changes impact on MPs and the public?

In terms of MPs, the two issues are whether the new proposals will be implemented and whether they will work. Implementing a ‘cap’ and (eventual) ban on outside earnings would represent an easy win for a new Labour government in 2015, a symbolic step that would have ‘signalling effect’ for the new government’s attitude towards such behaviour. On a more partisan level, it will hit Conservatives much harder than Labour. Research by the Guardian indicates that this would impact on 63, or 1 in 5, Conservative MPs who currently earn over £63,000 as against only 20, or 1 in 12, Labour MPs. You can see more numbers from the Telegraph here.

However, it all may depend on whether Ed Miliband has the numbers in the new House and what politics exists around the change. As Meg Russell pointed out, a number of things need to align for any reform of Parliament to happen – a mixture of a relevant crisis, political will and the right context. Remember David Cameron’s cutting down of the House of Commons to 600 MPs?

The second question for MPs is whether it will work. The reforms are part of a longer trajectory of change towards regulation and transparency. The danger of is that such change can drive poor activity into hard to reach places, away from publicity and into dark corners. It could also trigger other unwanted debate, such as around what MPs do with their time or, more disturbingly, Members getting a pay rise – new Prime Minister Miliband is not likely to want to propose bumping up salaries to £150,000.

What of the public? The new proposals are designed to help increase trust and put an end to lobbying scandals. One basic question is whether the public will notice. It is claimed that few even know the name of their MP, though recent research has challenged this. The public does support a complete ban on second jobs (see page 6 of this polling) and, as research by Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley shows, they do not approve of wealthy MPs, objecting to both the ‘sums and the source’, with a particular dislike of directorships. Their experiment concluded that any sum of money earned while an MP, whether above or below the cap, is problematic.

Whether this will then increase public trust is a far bigger and more complex question. It may reduce the space or room for manoeuvre in this one area. However, hopes of ‘improving trust’ over-simplify how we think and process information – the MPs’ expenses scandal ‘confirmed’ to many that MPs were corrupt rather than ‘revealed’ it to them. Voters generally suffer from  a negativity bias and the continual string of ‘cash for…’ revelations are likely to have fed already deeply held views about UK politics. Nor will it end other sources of Parliamentary controversy, from the revolving door to the picking of leaves. So while it may help change behaviour, looking at the graph below, it appears unlikely any one thing can dramatically improve trust in MPs.

Worthy fig 1

Source: Ipsos Mori; House of Commons Library Research
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Call me Madame

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

A few days ago, I phoned to arrange a repair to my washing machine. Having got through to the relevant person – a young woman – who could arrange the appointment, I was asked, as question number one, whether I was Miss or Mrs. This question is of course a standard one in this country, where ‘Ms’ has failed to catch on, unlike the position in the United States. As someone who teaches Language and Gender, I am aware that the way you address someone not only reflects the prevalent social structures, but also shapes and perpetuates them. Classifying women from the outset by their marital status is an instance of ‘everyday sexism’, as a certain massively successful web forum is called. Honestly, why should I have to disclose whether I am married or not to someone I have never met and will never meet, just in order to arrange a washing machine repair?

So I gave my standard reply: ‘Ms’. The reply to that was that this was not a title that would allow the relevant form to be completed. Since my (then teenage) son once filled in his title from a drop-down menu as ‘the Right Reverend Monsignor’, it was not clear to me why this form could not offer this third option. Irritated, I said “In that case please use ‘Professor’ “. I don’t like using my ‘rank’ outside academia, but desperate measures were needed. Once again, computer said no. This was an academic title, and so no use on the form. My Chinese horoscope says I am a tree, and trees do not budge. For a few moments it appeared that the washing machine would just have to keep leaking.

To break the deadlock, I launched into my normal little lecture given in such circumstances, about how there was no need for anyone to know my marital status, how this would not be required if I were a man in such a context, and how this was, as another teenager once said, SO unfair. I added that the person taking my details also being a woman, she ought to understand the need for equal treatment.

“Well yes”, she replied, getting tired of this difficult customer, “but it’s been like that ever since ever, so it’s a bit late to change it now”. I pointed out that in other countries, such as France and Germany, they had managed to make the change, and that now in France for official purposes everyone was “Madame” and in Germany everyone was “Frau”, the terms for “Miss” having been abandoned in both countries. I should also have pointed out that the company she was working for, Siemens, was German. On hearing this, her tone changed from one of mild irritation to an interested purr: “Oooh”, she said. “I’d rather like to be called ‘Madame’!”

A mini-triumph for the tree?

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The Imitation Game gets gay life in 40s and 50s Britain spot on

This post was written by Dr Andy Harvey – a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The Imitation Game has scooped up eight Oscar nominations this year, including the coveted Best Picture. Since its release in autumn 2014 the film has attracted widespread positive critical appraisal and commercial success.

Its story of British mathematical genius Alan Turing who broke the German Enigma codes in World War II is now widely known. Equally well-known, at least in Britain, is the fact that Turing was gay, a homosexual, to use the terminology of the day, and that he reputedly committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41 after receiving hormone therapy as a result of a conviction in 1952 for gross indecency. He was posthumously pardoned for his “offence” – in 2013.

The film has also attracted criticism in some quarters for underplaying Turing’s homosexuality, and foregrounding a (non-sexual) relationship with fellow mathematician, Joan Clarke, played by British actress Keira Knightley. But besides such personal details, the film’s more general portrayal of homosexual life in the 1940s and 1950s does stand up to critical scrutiny.

Wartime liaisons

Blackout during wartime afforded opportunities for homosexual liaisons that many wouldn’t have experienced before. Men could find each other under the cover of complete darkness and, no doubt, because the authorities had more pressing matters to hand.

However, homosexuality remained illegal under the hated “Labouchère” amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885, which outlawed “gross indecency” between men. This was the law that sent Oscar Wilde to jail for two years of hard labour – and which was used to prosecute Turing. It was widely regarded as a blackmailer’s charter. And so although the scene in which Turing is blackmailed by the Russian spy John Cairncross may not be historically correct, it is certainly a good reflection on the times. In this sense the film captures the perpetual threat that homosexual men had to live with.

The war years may have been relatively kind to homosexual men but prosecutions for sexual crimes increased in the period immediately after the war, reaching a peak in 1961. Police tactics were often rebarbative and generated genuine fear. The police pursuit of Turing in The Imitation Game provides an insight into the importance the police gave to prosecuting homosexual “crimes”.

Men often went to great lengths to cover their tracks. A groundbreaking study by Michael Schofield, published in 1960, revealed the diversity of homosexual lives in the period and the myriad ways they negotiated through the undeniable difficulties they often faced. In his autobiography, London journalist Peter Wildeblood, who was another high profile victim of homophobic laws and police tactics, claimed it was necessary for him to watch every word he spoke, every gesture that he made. Turing’s sexual discreetness in The Imitation Game is an accurate representation of how most homosexual men had to behave.

Tolerance, conviction

There has been a growing appreciation in queer academia that there was often tolerance and acceptance of men leading homosexual lives at a domestic level, not just from immediate families and local communities, but also from landlords and landladies. There was widespread public disquiet at these draconian laws. Sympathy for another famous victim caught up in a police sting saw actor John Gielgud receive a standing ovation when he returned to the stage in Liverpool after his conviction for gross indecency in 1953 secured lurid headlines in the newspapers.

But while there may have been a certain degree of tolerance toward homosexuality, especially for those men who lived “respectable” and quiet lives, criminal proceedings remained a real threat for many. Patrick Higgins’s review of court cases in Heterosexual Dictatorships (1996) shows that homosexual lives continued to be led across the breadth of the country throughout the 1950s, albeit in the shadow of the law, and involved men from all walks of life. For example, the court records show a case from Rotherham, Yorkshire, where 17 unskilled and semi-skilled men pleaded guilty to 41 charges of homosexual acts. In the same year in Barnsley, 12 men confessed to homosexual acts. Prosecution was widespread.

Despite, or rather because of the occasional high-profile trial and the number of less famous prosecutions, homosexuality was largely pushed into the dark recesses of society. Paradoxically, its very invisibility acted as a cloak for those seeking liaisons with other men. In practice no-one suspected other people of being homosexual. Again, the presumption that Turing could not possibly be gay comes across in the film if only as a minor sub-plot, but it strikes a true chord.

The Imitation Game may play fast and loose with a great deal of historical accuracy, as films are entitled to do. But the artistic portrayal speaks to a greater truth. In the light of what we know about homosexual life at the time, The Imitation Game mostly gets it right. The Conversation

Other blog posts by Dr Andy Harvey

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Invisible Women

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on the LRB blog.

I heard that the octogenarian Joan Didion was to be the ‘new face’ of the Parisian luxury brand Céline when I was in the middle of commenting on a new monograph by Margaret Gullette called How Not to Shoot Old People. It documents countless grim instances of neglect and contempt for the elderly across a vast ageist spectrum. We oldies live in schizoid times.

Old fashionistas are suddenly all the rage (if hardly plentiful) at Vogueand Dolce & Gabbana. Living longer, old people can be encouraged to consume more, especially by cosmetic and fashion industries promising to keep us looking streamlined and elegant. We may, undesirably, be no longer young, but we can at least dutifully defer to the dictates of fashion. Didion even has the skinny look of a fashion model: hardly an inch of flesh, mere bones on which to hang clothes and accessories.

Meanwhile, social media trolls pour forth hate speech against the elderly. Only occasionally is it directed at those with the resources to resist, such as Mary Beard. Older women in need of care regularly report being treated with impatience or disdain, but only the most scandalous cases of neglect attract public notice. There were mild complaints five years ago when Martin Amis, in the Sunday Times, called for euthanasia booths to deal with the threatening ‘silver tsunami’ of old people who would soon be ‘stinking out’ the streets of London. He said he could ‘imagine a sort of civil war between the old and the young in 10 or 15 years’ time’. His words resonate with the constant hum of alarm – almost panic – about the increasing numbers of elderly people, with our distinctive needs.

The most terrifying images of old age – the witch, hag, harridan – have always had a female face, whether in myth, folktale or horror movie. This can have stark material consequences. Women are twice as likely as men to end up living alone in old age, with no companion to care for them. Their pensions are generally smaller, too, as they are confined to fewer areas of the labour market, paid less, and more likely to have taken time out from their jobs to look after other people. In September 2013, the Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women provided stark evidence of the continuing invisibility of older women in public life. Eighty-two per cent of BBC presenters over the age of 50 are men. More generally, unemployment among women aged between 50 and 64 had increased by 41 per cent cent in the previous two and a half years, compared with 1 per cent overall.

In this dismal landscape, it is pleasing that ‘Fabulous Fashionistas’, older women with a flair for bright, distinctive dressing, were sought out and celebrated on TV last year. They were presented as role models for invisible women everywhere. The programme’s producer, Sue Bourne,confessed it had taken her two years to find the half dozen confidently colourful and stylish older women in the UK, but she’s hoping they are setting a trend. Perhaps Didion will boost that trend: her chic self-presentation mirrors her precise, elegant prose. Didion will never frighten the children, unlike the ‘old woman of skin and bones’ in the playground song, who goes ‘to the closet to get her broom’, and may fatten them up for supper. Didion represents instead the cheery resilience that the government and media look for in those older women who are allowed a certain visibility to tell us all how to grow old gracefully. We must all keep looking healthy and feisty; making few demands on others, and least of all on the public purse.

Didion offers the ironic detachment of a woman able to see through the duplicities and deceptions that any celebration of ageing cloaks, knowing that our culture continues to worship youth, and youth alone. Let’s rejoice that she can ride these contradictions, at least for now. As one young fashion model said, ‘It’s so cool, it hurts.’ Quite.

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