Professor Grayling on the Brexit Referendum

A.C. Grayling is an important figure in British intellectual life. He is a highly rated philosopher and has become a media figure who comments on all kinds of issues, mostly through progressive outlets. When the late Christopher Hitchens died it was AC-Grayling-Screenshot-800x430seriously suggested that Professor Grayling should now be accounted the new fourth horseman of militant atheism in the English speaking world, alongside Richard Dawkins and the rest.

Among the debates into which he has entered  has been that about Brexit. Like Richard Dawkins, Grayling is a strong advocate of Britain’s membership of the European Union. He has addressed this issue on several occasions recently on his own web site. His thinking on the subject can usefully be broken down into two halves, which are linked together by his underlying conviction that despite the result of the referendum that Britain should nevertheless remain a member of the E.U.

Grayling essentially claims that in the referendum campaign the Leave campaigners behaved dishonestly, that those who voted for Leave were only just over a third of the electorate, and that anyway the majority for Leave was too small to justify so radical and damaging a change in Britain’s constitutional arrangements. These views are clearly controversial, but he is certainly not alone in holding them, and any discussion of them would have to be very extended. They might be worth tackling in some future contribution about the whole Brexit debate.

At this juncture I want to focus attention on what seems to be Professor Grayling’s distinctive and “specific” contribution to the debate, if only because if shows just how far some Remain intellectuals are prepared to go to justify their last-ditch opposition to Brexit . The gist of Professor Grayling’s reasoning is that the referendum held in June 2015 was really only a glorified opinion poll; that did not provide the government with any mandate to trigger Brexit by invoking article fifty of the Lisbon Treaty. On the face of it there are many obvious objections to this view. For example if the referendum was really only advisory why did David Cameroncameron resigns resign when he lost it? And why did he hire

Jim Messina ( President Obama’s big data expert ) if it was really open to him to ignore the result if the wrong side won? Above all if the referendum was really  just a consultation which provided no mandate why did rich men on both sides spend huge sums trying to influence the result? Would they really have wasted their money on a consultative exercise of the kind envisaged by Professor Grayling?

These considerations though do not seem to have occurred to Professor Grayling who has developed his own rather different chain of reasoning. Perhaps we had better explore it. Professor Grayling  has summarised his case in this way: “Recall,” he says, “that the referendum was specifically intended to be advisory and consultative only. Briefing paper  07212 issued to members of both Houses of Parliament on June 3rd 2015 in advance of the debate on the Referendum Bill says in section 5 that the referendum is non-binding, advisory, consultative; and section 6 points out that if there were to be any suggestion otherwise, there would need to be a supermajority requirement. In the House of Commons in the debate on the E.U. referendum Bill the Minister for Europe, Mr. David Lidington, told the House that “the legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory.” ( Hansard for 16 June 2015 )

Professor Grayling then goes on to employ some very choice language in which the word “thieves” appears to describe the way in which “the Brexit cabal have treated the outcome as binding and mandating, in defiance of the explicit nature of the Referendum Act itself.”

There are then two parts to Professor Grayling’s argument, the first derived from the briefing paper prepared by the House of Commons Library, and the second from the statement made by Mr David Lidington, who was, of course, the minister responsible for introducing the legislation which authorised the referendum.

The passage in the briefing paper which Professor Grayling refers to (p.25) reads as follows:

“It [ the Bill ] does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor to set a time limit by which a vote to leave the E.U. would be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as a pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion WHICH INFLUENCES THE GOVERNMENT IN ITS POLICY DECISIONS.” [ The words in capital letters- which I have supplied- appear in the original but not in Professor Grayling’s version.]

Since Professor Grayling quotation was strangely truncated it is no surprise that he did not find it necessary to ask- as I think we must- how  a government could properly be said to have been influenced by the result of a referendum if it did not abide by it ? Professor Grayling would surely have been outraged had the Remain triumphed in the referendum, and if then the prime minister had announced that he was leaving the E.U!

Next we come the remarks made by Mr.David Lidingtondavid-lidingtonMP when he introduced the legislation in question.  Professor Grayling quotes Mr. Lidington as saying that: “the legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory.” So far as it goes this is an accurate quotation. But, once again,  Professor Grayling has not read far enough.  The words which immediately follow the end of his quotation from Mr. Lidington are as follows: “…as was the case for both the 1975 referendum on Europe and the Scottish independence vote last year.” Is Professor Grayling really asserting that the UK government could have overturned  the result of September 2014 referendum  in Scotland? I so, I can only observe that in so doing he would have embarked on a voyage across the dark ocean from which there can be no return.

Even this does not exhaust the difficulties of Professor Grayling’s interpretation of Mr. Lidington’s remarks. Towards the end of his contribution to the debate Mr. Lidington noted- in words that seem to have eluded Professor Grayling’s observation-that “the referendum is taking place as a result of clear manifesto commitment to negotiate the terms of the U.K.’s relationship with the European Union and to put them to the people in a referendum.”

In other words  Mr. Lidington was stressing that the government was morally bound by the pledge contained in the manifesto on which it had been elected to power, only a month earlier. And what was this commitment? The Conservative manifesto for the May 2015 could not have been clearer (p.72) . It was as follows: “Only the Conservatives can and will deliver an in-out referendum.” “We will legislate in the first session of the new Parliament [ i.e. the one in which Mr. Lidington was speaking ] for an in-out referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the E.U. before the end of 2017. We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the E.U. And then we will ask the British people whether they want to stay in on that basis, or leave. We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome.”

This pledge, I am afraid, make a terrible hash of Professor Grayling’s suggestion that the referendum provided no mandate for Brexit. No one reading the Conservative manifesto would have thought this. I was not privy to the drafting which must have preceded the publication of the manifesto, but it is at least possible that the slightly unwieldy term “in-out referendum” was designed precisely to exclude the sort of reasoning that our philosopher has engaged in.

Professor Grayling owes his readers an apology- otherwise he might start giving his profession, a bad name.


Despite my efforts this post is complicated enough so I’m relegating three points to this appendix.

1] For those who want to get a feel for the referendum campaign the best book I’ve seen so far is Tim Shipman’s “All Out War, the full story of how Brexit sank Britain’s political class” ( London, 2016 )All out war During the campaign Shipman was the political editor of The Sunday Times which supported Remain. Perhaps his greatest coup is to publish the text of the speech which David Cameron would have given had Remain won the referendum ( p. 619-622)  Also writing from the Remain perspective is Ian Dunn’s “ Brexit, what the hell happens now?” ( London, 2016). For one,  ( but by no means the only)  Leave “take” on the Referendum, see Arron Banks, “The Bad Boys of Brexit, Tales of Mischief, Mayhem, and Guerrilla warfare in the E.U. Referendum Campaign” ( London, 2016). One of the most notable facts about the Leave campaign, insufficiently emphasised by Professor Grayling were the deep divisions within it. It was no tightly knit cabal.

2] In the course of his discussion of the House of Common’s Library paper about the referendum, Professor Grayling refers to the section (p. 26-27) which deals with the super majority thresholds that are sometimes required in referenda about constitutional matters. The paper points out that “discussion of the need  for some form of threshold usually arises in the context of ensuing the legitimacy and acceptance of the outcome of a referendum.” But since the paper does not suggest that such “super-majority” or turn out thresholds are necessary conditions for a valid constitutional referendum, I fail to see the relevance of the passage in question to Professor Grayling’s argument, more especially since no such requirement was included in the 1975 referendum which copperbottomed Britain’s membership of the E.U. in the first place. In this business sauce for the goose really must surely be sauce for the gander! Nor, it should be remembered, did the absence of such thresholds prevent the setting up of the Welsh Assembly, the proposal for which only passed by a very small majority.  It might, I suppose have been better had some such threshold been built into the legislation, but this would have undermined the democratic credentials of the whole exercise. Professor Grayling’s suggestion that the result of the referendum should be put aside because it lacked such thresholds therefore lacks credibility. Indeed I am prompted to ask if he would really have been arguing in this way if Remain had won?

3] While in this instance I disagree with Professor Grayling I do not think that his discussion of thresholds is altogether misplaced.  What would have happened had the majority either way been very small? As Professor Grayling points out this was a possibility which was raised during the campaign by Nigel Farage- who was expecting a narrow win for Remain.Nigel_Farage_MEP


Just how credible would the result ( in either direction ) have been had there only been ( say ) eight hundred votes  in it after several recounts? It seems to me that this is an issue which should be addressed by British legislators the next time that they vote to hold a referendum. Similarly there should probably be an amendment to the Irish Constitution which addresses this hitherto neglected issue. ( There is also the related issue which showed up in our second divorce referendum of extreme weather conditions suppressing turnout in one part of the country…)

Richard Miller


Sir Walter Scott on fundamentalism, and Islam?

I tell thee, the Word slayeth- that is, the text alone, read with unskilled eyes and unhallowed lips, is like those strong medicines which sick men take by the advice of the learned. Such patients recover and thrive, while those dealing in their own hand shall perish by the own deed.

Taken from The Monastery, in which novel the words are those of a priest.

Tuam- again

The recent revelations about the bodies that have been found in the burial site attached to the former Mother and Baby “home” in Tuam are deeply troubling. They are not though unexpected. But we don’t yet know the full facts. The investigation must be carried on, not just at Tuam, but in all the other relevant places, both in this state and in Northern Ireland. There must be no further cover ups. There have been quite enough already.

So far the state here has paid for the investigations in Tuam. This is only right. But should it not also be joined by the religious organizations concerned- Catholic and Protestant alike who ran the homes? It could also be that the British government has a role to play in this respect; as we on this site have  published evidence which suggests that the shocking mal administration of these institutions pre dated our current political arrangements. (See our post, “A Critical Error,” published in September 2016 – which we have reposted below.)

Life Story

By Robert C.B. Miller

Is life rare or is it common? The search for life on Mars, elsewhere in the solar system and in the Milky Way continues apace. Planets on nearby and quite distant stars have been discovered and investigated to determine whether they are in the habitable zone where life is possible – not too far from their star so that they are not too cold and not too close so that they are not too hot. Hope is expressed that life may be found in the water beneath the ice shells of Europa, Enceladus and Titan the moons moons of jupiterrespectively of Jupiter and Saturn.

Searchers, some funded by internet billionaires, are checking the electro-magnetic spectrum for radio signals which are artefacts and the product of intelligent life. Leading public intellectuals, such as Stephen Hawking, have opined on the risk that alien intelligent life might discover us and do us harm. So far no convincing evidence of life has been found.

But there is a puzzle about life. Biologists have difficulty in explaining how abiogenesis, the emergence of living from non-living material, is possible. It is now often forgotten that one of the great triumphs of modern science was the discovery that life could only come from life. No longer could it be believed that life could just emerged from non-living material as Aristotle thought. 220px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575But in turn this discovery created a problem. If life did not emerge from the non-living, how is it that the world is full of living things? One apparently obvious solution to this puzzle is that it was the result of evolution. But this cannot be the case, evolution presupposes the existence of life on which the Darwinian machinery of mutation and adaptation can work.

Much energy has been used by biologists to discover how life originated and it was expected that this would be a relatively simple matter. Life, it was thought, could be shown to be the result of a chemical process that converted bare chemistry into biochemistry. But after much effort and theorising, none of the putative accounts developed have been accepted and all remain controversial. The origin of life remains an unsolved problem for chemists and biologists. In any case any the all must remain what cautious biologists call ‘Just So Stories’. The reason is that there is very clear evidence that abiogenesis occurred in the extremely distant past and consequently that almost all evidence of the process must have long disappeared.

But two related facts are clear, however life originated. First all life uses the same DNA building blocks and second all life descended from a single common ancestor. This means that the ‘tree of life’ with species branching from a common origin in a hierarchy pruned by extinction and expanded by well-known evolutionary processes is a well-established conclusion of biology.

The Two Strange Two Facts about Life

This leads us to two remarkable facts about life on earth which deserve much more attention for the extraordinary facts that they are.

First, that the appearance of life on earth took place a very long time ago – give or take a few hundred million years – between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago. This great age is significant as it seems that life appeared on earth very shortly about 600 million years after the planet formed 4.54 billion years ago and an even shorter period, perhaps a few hundred million years, after the earth became habitable. This distant date should be put in the perspective of the age of the universe which is estimated at about 13.8 billion years. This means that life appeared at about 70% of the age of the universe on a planet which had only just become habitable for life.dejas_first_evidence_of_life_biology_timeline_v1

Second, there is very strong evidence that life appeared on earth only once. This is guaranteed by the ‘tree of life’ and the common DNA building blocks of all life. There is evidence on earth of only one kind of life and no evidence of any others.

In one sense there is of course nothing extraordinary about these facts. If life was to appear there seems no reason for it to appear at any one time rather than another provided conditions were right. Thus if life appeared as the result of a highly unlikely series of events and conditions then it would appear reasonably for it to appear 70% through the existence of the universe rather that at the beginning. The more unlikely are life producing events and conditions then it is more likely to appear latter rather than sooner. Thus if I have six fair dice then I am more likely to have roiled six sixes by the 100,000 roll than I am at the first roll. But while this argument may appear reasonable in the perspective of the life of the universe, it seems extraordinary in the context of life of the earth. It looks as if someone rolled six sixes on the very first roll of the dice.

But now the argument gets strange. As we have seen there is strong evidence that life emerged on earth only once. Given that life emerged on earth almost as soon as it became possible, it seems that it was the ideal environment for the appearance of life. But if life emerged rapidly in an ideal environment it is deeply puzzling why it has not emerged again in the 3.8 billion years since it first appeared. If it has emerged once, then why not twice or indeed many times? If life appeared so soon after it became possible then it suggests that the odds were not as long as was thought and that it might only be necessary to roll a single six rather than six sixes for life to appear. But if that is the case and the die was kept rolling then one would expect a regular supply of sixes after the first die roll. But as we have seen this appears not to have been the case. Why indeed are there not multiple forms of life? Why is there not a strand of life on earth based on silicon rather than carbon, or even boron? Why are there not a number of different types of carbon based life? There are none and no evidence that that any ever existed. 

The evidence leads to contradictory conclusions. Life appears to be the result of a natural process which operates rapidly (or even immediately) when conditions are right. But in that case it is puzzling that it has emerged only once on earth. But its single emergence seems to suggest that conditions and process that leads to the appearance of life are extraordinarily rare. In other words, life appeared once on earth almost as soon as it became habitable, suggesting that it a high probability event. But since it has not appeared since this implies it was a very low probability event.

What is (or was) going on?

Could the puzzle be resolved by the fact that life did not emerge on earth until about 70% of the age of the universe had elapsed. This might suggest that the odds of life appearing are very long, given both the size and the duration of the universe. It is some 92 billion light years in diameter and has perhaps 100 billion galaxies each with 100 billion stars.

But the early appearance of life in the history of earth, a few hundred years after it became possible suggests that life should emerge similarly rapidly implying that the galaxy and the universe should be teeming with life. Wherever it can be sustained life should appear rapidly. But here we run into a version of the Fermi paradox. There appears as yet to be no evidence of any kind to suggest that there is any other life outside the solar system. This may change with, for instance, the discovery of significant amounts of oxygen in an exoplanet. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that signs of life are discovered on a significant number of exoplanets within the Milky Way.exoplanets Would it dissolve the paradox that the appearance of life on earth seems both probable and improbable at the same time?

Plainly it would not solve the puzzle and it would actually exacerbate it. The appearance of life on exoplanets would shorten the odds of life appearing on earth – and indeed on all habitable planets in this and other galaxies. What it would not do is to explain why life appeared only once on earth at the very beginning of earth’s habitable period. If the odds of life appearing are so short why has it only appeared once in the (evidently) ideal conditions of earth? The paradox remains, indeed it is more puzzling than it was before. Life appears highly probable – its emergence being evidently a short odds event. But if the odds are short, why has it only appeared once in the 3.9 billion period of earth’s habitability – a period which amounts to 30% of the lifetime of the universe? As we argued above one would expect that there would be a series of new appearances of life. The evidence is clear, there have been none.

The Paradox of Life

Where does the paradox of life leave us? One remote possibility is that new versions of life might be discovered on earth – suggesting that the appearance of life was really a short odds event. But this solution does not look promising. As we have seen all life has the same DNA structure and the tree of life with descent from a common ancestor appears a very robust conclusion of biology.

What then? One possibility is that the appearance of life may not be subject to the same probabilistic causal regime as other biological events.  It may just be odd, but that is indeed an odd conclusion.

Down in dumps about Europe


…or what is NOT happening nearly frequently enough!

I had missed it, and I bet you had too! But in 2003 the European Parliament passed legislation for the collection of statistics about housing conditions in the E. U. Only they didn’t put quite like that. They put this way… “regulation ( E.C. ) No 11772003 established a common framework for the systematic production of European statistics on income and living conditions, in order to ensure that comparable and up- to- date cross-sectional and longitudinal data on income and on the level and composition of poverty and social exclusion are available at national and Union level.”

Apparently article 15 of this regulation laid down that measures were to be adopted every year “to specify the target secondary areas and variables to be included in the cross-sectional component of EU-SILC [ i.e. the regulation concerned ] that year.”

Consequently the time has now come- so I read on the EUR-Lex web site- for “the             implementing measures specifying the target secondary variables and their identifiers for the 2018 module on material deprivation, well-being and housing difficulties [ to]… be adopted.”

The statistical variables involved are set out in an annex to implementing regulation in the form of the questions that a representative sample of the Union’s population are to be asked. The annex states that “the mode of collection is [a] personal interview with the household respondent.” (So be warned, your privacy may be about to be invaded!)

Some of the questions are merely designed to elicit the sort of information about living conditions that government statisticians have always loved collecting. Do you have a washing machine? Do you have a colour T.V? Do you have a telephone? The only oddity here being that there is apparently no reference to internet access which I should have thought was important. But no doubt it will be included next year!

The longer section of the proposed survey concerns well-being. Here the questions become broader, much broader…far too broad.

“…overall life satisfaction, from 0 (Not at all satisfied ) to 10 ( Completely satisfied )”

and goes in much the same vein…

“ Perceived social exclusion?”

“Satisfaction with financial situation?”

Satisfaction with amount of leisure time?

“Trust in others?”

“Feeling lonely?”

“Feeling calm and peaceful?”

“Feeling downhearted or depressed?”

“Feeling down in the dumps?”

….and so forth, and so forth..

Me? I’m feeling down in the dumps about Europe. I’m feeling down in the dumps about a bureaucracy which can produce such nonsense with apparent equanimitye u parliament 2 and even pride. I am feeling depressed about a system which apparently has no understanding of the proper role of the state in a free society. And, above all, I am angry that the European Parliament is incapable of stopping this idiocy.


Oswald Spengler… on London?

I am not a fan of meta historians, like Toynbee, Marx, and the rest. Their work is too vague for my taste.oswald-spengler More especially I am no supporter of Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” and certainly  not of its very metaphysical first volume- which I have found quite impossible to read, despite several attempts. But I was browsing in the second volume of that massive work when I found this in his discussion of cities. Spengler may have been trying to read far too much into the data of history. However as this passage proves, he could insightful. He may not have been thinking of London when he wrote. But he captured its spirit.

decline of west lates

( New York, 1932 ) Vol. 2, p.354

“Now supervened the city with its own soul, first emancipating itself from the soul of the countryside, then setting up as an equal to it, and finally seeking to suppress and extinguish it. But this evolution accomplishes itself in kinds of life, and it also, therefore, is part of the history of the estates. The city-life of life, as such emerges- through the inhabitants of these small settlements acquiring a common soul, and becoming conscious that the life within is something different from the life outside- and once the spell of personal freedom begins to operate and to attract within the walls life-streams of more and more new kinds. There sets in a sort of passion for becoming urban and for propagating urban life. It is this, and not material considerations, that produced the fever of the colonization period in the classical world, which is still recognizable to us in the last of its last offshoots, and which it is not quite exact to speak of as colonization at all. For it was a creative enthusiasm in the man of the city that from the tenth century B.C ( and “contemporaneously” in other Cultures )  drew generation after generation under the spell of a new life, with which there emerges for the first time in human history the idea of freedom. This idea is not of political ( still less abstract ) origin, but is something bringing to expression the fact that within the city walls plantlike attachment to a soil has ceased, and that the threads that run through the whole life of the countryside have been snapped. And consequently the freedom-idea ever contains a negative; it looses, redeems, defends, always frees a man from something. Of this freedom the city is the expression; the city-spirit is understanding become free, and everything in the way of intellectual, social, and national movements that burst forth in Late periods under name of Freedom leads back to an origin in this one prime fact of detachment from the land.”

WELL, which ever way you cook it hat is a thought provoking paragraph!

Mr Stephen Miller

To avoid any possible misunderstanding I should like to make it clear that I am not related to, or have any connection with, the Mr Stephen Miller, who has recently been appointed to a senior position in the Trump administration. This is despite the fact that we were both educated at Duke University in North Carolina, although at quite different times. Moreover I have no connection with Mr Richard Spencer, also a graduate of Duke, who has apparently done much to further Mr Stephen Miller’s career.

I have also been authorised to state that Mr Charles Miller, a director of The Edmund Burke Institute, who incidentally is no relation of mine, is also unconnected in any way with Mr Stephen Miller. R.M.

On liberty and virtue

Liberty is by no means an invitation to indifference or to irresponsible power; nor is it the promise of unlimited well being without a counterpart of toil and effort. It supposes application, perpetual effort, strict  government of self, sacrifice in contingencies, civic and private virtues. It is therefore more difficult to live as a free man than to live as a slave, and that is why men so often renounce their freedom; for freedom is in its way an invitation to a life of courage, and sometimes of heroism, as the freedom of the Christian is an invitation to a life of sainthood.

The concluding lines of Georges Lefebvre’s “The Coming of the French Revolution” translated from the French by R.R. Palmer ( Princeton, 1947 )

The Prison of American Optimism

…watching the inauguration of President Trump with me were two friends…The former Chairman of a Conservative constituency association, and his wife- an Anglo- Irish women, an ardent Brexiter ( unlike her husband!) and huge fan of “The Donald.”

As the new President gave the speech the former conservative activist kept saying “He’s boxing himself in.” And  so he was with every additional promise. To put it at its mildest the new President was doing nothing to lower expectations of his followers. Rather he was increasing them- as did President Obama in 2008- “Yes we can!” But could we? Should we?

Why is this? Why do American politicians feel obliged to speak in these terms. Why are they so imprisoned by optimism that realism sounds like treachery? Why do they do so little to inject even a hint of the difficulties that are inherent in the political process and even the human condition itself into their discourse? It is, I think,  because The United States is a young country based on the facile hopes of the enlightenment. Is it cynical to ask if  the real promise of America will only be discovered when this compulsory optimism ( which can never be realized on this earth ) has been replaced by a more soundly based rhetoric? “Blood, sweat and tears” is more like it!…Or am I denying people hope, as one of my friends said as I read them the draft of this.