O'Really?

July 1, 2016

Dear Europeans, do you know who your MEP is and what they do?

eu-flagAlong with 16 million other people on the 23rd June 2016 I voted to remain in the European Union (EU). I believe the benefits of EU membership exceed the costs. Free trade and free movement have been beneficial to me personally, many of those around me, as well as the wider UK economy [1]. I even married an EU migrant too, so I love Europe in more ways that one. Life outside the EU is very difficult to imagine, professionally, financially, culturally and personally.

So when I woke up to Brexit EuroDoom last Friday, to find I was in a minority outnumbered by 17 million leavers who disagreed, I felt sick. After a gloomy week of miserable soul searching, I realised I didn’t have the foggiest notion who my Member of European Parliament (MEP) was or how they got elected. Although not a student of (or expert in) politics or economics, I don’t believe I am apathetic or unaware. I follow the news, vote in general elections and write letters to my MP. I try to understand what is going on in politics and bend my head around the dismal science of economics. But until this week, I had little or no idea how the European Parliament (EP), let alone the European Commission (EC) or lots of other acronyms starting with E, actually work in practice.

Now if you are also a participant in the failing (?) European project, do YOU know who your MEP is? Any idea what they actually do? The chances are you don’t because Euroignorance is widespread [2]. Fortunately, Professor Google can help us. In Manchester, the MEPs for the North West Region of the UK comprising Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire are:

Unfortunately, I’d only heard of two of those MEPs beforehand, and neither of them because of their activity during the EU referendum. Nuttall I’d heard of because the comedian Stewart Lee performed a brilliant satirical piece mocking Nuttall’s views on immigration [3]. Woolfe I’d heard of because his campaign leaflet came through my letterbox during the 2015 general election. How did they get elected as MEPs because I can’t remember seeing their names on a ballot paper?

MEPs are elected using the D’Hondt method [4], a form of proportional representation (PR) used in the European elections in 2014 and elsewhere. As of 2016, the three largest UK parties in the European Parliament are: UKIP (24 MEPs), Labour (20 MEPs) and The Conservatives (19 MEPs). Isn’t it remarkable that so many of these MEPS were neither seen or heard during the almost entirely fact-free® debate [1] preceding the UK EU referendum?

So what is the nature of an MEPs power? Back in 1998, a politician by the name of Tony Benn proposed five democratic questions to understand the powerful:

“If one meets a powerful person–Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler–one can ask five questions:

  1. what power do you have?
  2. where did you get it?
  3. in whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. to whom are you accountable?
  5. how can we get rid of you?”

According to Benn, anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. [5] Personally, I’d like to get rid of UKIP from the European parliament. How can I do this? While I can’t vote for individuals, I can vote for political parties. However, turnout in european elections is often embarrassingly low, in the UK a pathetic 35.6% showed up in 2014. Which means two thirds of UK voters were unaware or didn’t care who their MEP was, including me. My bad. You could call this democratic deficit, not one where people can’t vote but one where people are unaware or don’t bother.

Right now, it is really hard to see how any good can come of what is unfolding in Great Britain and Europe. Brexit leaves the sector I work in, and many others, facing huge uncertainty [6,7,8]. Let’s hope one thing will happen, a reformed EU where those in power are more engaged and accountable to the people they claim to represent. Personally, I am not in a position to judge if the European Union has a democratic deficit or not [9,10]. Neither can I judge if the European Union is as anti-democratic as some eurosceptics have suggested [11, 12,13]. But I do know something has gone badly wrong with the EU if many europeans have no idea of who their parliamentary representatives are and how they can exercise their democratic rights to get rid of them using the ballot box.

If you are staying in the European Union you have a duty to find out who your MEP is and ask them the five democratic questions above. You better do it quickly before risking a Frexit, Czechout, Swexit, Departugal, Grexit, Bygium, Italeave or bidding Austria La Vista.

References

  1. Zanny Minton Beddoes (2016) The Brexit Briefs: The 17 things you need to know before Britain’s #EUref—in one handy guide, The Economist
  2. Oana Lungescu (2001) EU Poll reveals huge ignorance, BBC News
  3. Stewart Lee (2014) Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Series 2: England
  4. Jeremy Vine (2009) D’Hondt Explainer, BBC News
  5. Anon (1998)  House of Commons Debates, Hansard, parliament.uk
  6. Anon (2016) Brexit vote sparks huge uncertainty for UK universities, Times Higher Education
  7. Alison Abbott, Daniel Cressey, Richard Van Noorden (2016) UK scientists in limbo after Brexit shock: Researchers organize to lobby for science as country prepares for life outside the EU Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 597-598, DOI:10.1038/534597a
  8. Anon (2016) Brexit vote highlights lack of leaving plan: Scientists — just like everybody else — have little idea what will happen now that the United Kingdom has voted to exit the European Union. Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 589-589, DOI:10.1038/534589a
  9. Andrew Moravcsik (2008) The Myth of Europe’s “Democratic Deficit” Intereconomics, Volume 43, Issue 6, pp 316–340 DOI:10.1007/s10272-008-0266-7
  10. Michael Dougan (2016) The UK’s position following vote to leave the EU, University of Liverpool, School of Law and Social Justice
  11. Tony Benn (2013) Tony Benn speaks at the Oxford Union on Euroscepticism, The Oxford Union.
  12. Martin Durkin (2016) Brexit: The Movie (warning: contains Nigel Farage and dubious opinions europhiles will find offensive, factual content is highly questionable in places)
  13. Tony Benn (1975) Letter from Tony Benn to his constituents about the UK European referendum of 1975, The Spectator, Coffee House

* Disclaimer, like I’ve already said, my grasp of politics and economics is pretty basic. I have made every reasonable effort to get the facts right but correct any mistakes I might have made below. These are personal views, which do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

June 18, 2012

An Open Letter to David Rutley MP on the Geek Manifesto

The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson

Mr David Rutley MP
House of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

Dear David,

The “Geek Manifesto” and the importance of science in politics

Please find enclosed a copy of a new book by Mark Henderson, titled “The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters”. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

According to the Financial Times:

The Geek Manifesto is the most compelling, engaging and entertaining account I’ve read of the relationship between science and politics. ” —James Wilsdon

The book laments the undervalued role of science in politics on pressing issues such as the global economy, healthcare, education, justice and the environment. For many politicians, science is a tool to be exploited when it supports an existing policy position, and an inconvenience to be discarded when it does not. As Henderson puts it, the cynical quest for policy-based evidence has trumped the desperate need for evidence-based policy. This is not surprising since only 1 in 650 British MPs has a Science qualification and his name is Julian Huppert. Your conservative colleague Adam Afriyie is proposing compulsory science literacy lessons for MPs in order to tackle this serious problem, but there is still a long way to go before science becomes integral to political decision making.

As well as the serious issues the book raises, it is also very positive and inspiring. The state of affairs it describes can not be blamed politicians alone. It is also the fault of people who value science and evidence based decision making – the “geeks”. We geeks must engage in the political process, not stand on the sidelines and moan – this is the geek manifesto.

This thinking led me to join a campaign for people to buy a copy of this book and send it to every MP in the UK set up by Dave Watts. The book you now have is a direct result of this campaign, which you and 649 other members of parliament now have a copy of. Despite the recession and challenging economic circumstances, over 300 ordinary voters like me have spent their own time and money in order to send you these books.

Please take the time to read your copy of the book. If politicians can learn from geeks, and geeks can learn from politicians, we will all get wiser and decision making can only improve. I would be especially interested to hear if and how this book has changed your decision making and will post any of your replies here on my blog.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Duncan Hull

School of Computer Science
University of Manchester

P.S. A copy of this letter has been sent by post accompanied by a hardback copy of the Geek Manifesto. Another copy of this letter has been emailed to david.rutley.mp@parliament.uk. Some of the content of this post has been adapted from letters authored by Dave Watts and Chris Chambers.

Update, David Rutley sent a written reply (below) dated the 22nd June 2012, which didn’t reach me until the middle of July:


Dear Dr. Hull

Re: The Geek Manifesto

Thank you for your email of 18th June and letter enclosing a copy of the Geek Manifesto.

It was very thoughtful of you to think of me and I appreciate you sending me a copy of the book.

Like you, I believe it is important that science subjects are well represented in the House of Commons and society as a whole. It is important that young people are encouraged to study STEM subjects, so that the UK can compete on the international stage and our universities can continue to be world leaders in scientific research.

I will be sure to bear the views put forward in the Geek Manifesto in mind during my work in the House of Commons and in my conversations with Ministers.

Thank you once again for taking the time to send me a copy of the Geek Manifesto. I look forward to reading my copy.

With best wishes,

David Rutley MP

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