Brent on Obama

newstatesman.com' s weekly tour of the political blogosphere with your guide Paul Evans

Dawn breaking

Like many people, I drank a six-pack of Coors to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama this week. His elevation to leader of the free nations may have be causing ripples around the world – but he could hardly have anticipated the impact it would have on the streets of Brent.

Boundary changes have left sitting MPs Dawn Butler and diminutive Lib Dem Sarah Teather engaged in an increasingly desperate battle to win the new seat of Brent Central at the next general election.

But has gone OTT with her online announcement of an exclusive endorsement from Barack Obama, containing lines as astonishingly awful as:

“I say to the people of Brent you should have the audacity of hope and when someone asks you can she do it, you respond yes we can.”

Iain Dale was quickly on the case, asking: “Surely Barack Obama wouldn't have written such a trite and self serving paragraph himself? Would he?” adding caustically: “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.

The authenticity of the saccharine note, printed on House of Commons paper, soon came under scrutiny, courtesy of the Unity on Liberal Conspiracy who reckoned a “bonehead stunt” had been perpetuated using Photoshop. Under pressure from the Standard blogger Paul Waugh, Butler stuck to her guns – claiming that Obama had pre-agreed the wording prior to meeting her at Downing Street, and then signed the endorsement.

Belfast-based xetera thought that this strange episode was symptomatic of the “Obama juice” phenomenon, where politicians desperately claw for a link to the President in “...the hope that, like some sort of secret potion, a tenuous connection to the man will provide a little personal boost”.

Whatever the truth, the endorsement is inaccurate. The claim that Butler is one of just two black women in parliament ignores the fact that there are two Houses of Parliament, and that one of them was led for several years by Valerie Amos.

What have we learned this week?

It isn't just Brent that is touched by Obama's magic – the Emerald Isle has been similarly transformed, as we learn via the ever-magnificent Slugger O'Toole.

Around the World

Jahanshah Rashidian on Rotten Gods gives some interesting history on the leftist factions in post-revolution Iran who perhaps unwittingly sold out the working classes to maintain strategic alliances with right-wing Islamic groups. He recounts:

“Their new independent trade unions were banned and replaced by Islamic societies formed by the Ministry of Labour. Their profit share and bonuses which were established under the Shah were nullified. The right of strike was rejected. Wages stayed low, many factories were shut down; and their workers were fired without any unemployment benefit.”

Today, Iran's left faces a steep challenge to assert itself as a secular and pro-union force. The Haft Tapeh sugar cane workers strike of last summer was met with characteristic brutality by state (five strike leaders were recently charged with propagandising against the government) but undeterred, efforts continue to secure better pay and conditions. Iran's loss is Britain's gain, as exile Maryam Namazi continues to prove, as one of the country's most passionate and articulate advocates of free expression and secularism.

Videos of the Week

In honour of the return of Ken Clarke to the fray, let us enjoy the sounds of the Kenny Clarke quartet.

Quote of the Week

“Brent Central was always going to be a dirty fight - Dawn has now provided the ammunition to make it even dirtier.”

Mike Smithson on Political Betting

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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How will British science survive Brexit?

What the future of science and tech looks like in the UK, without the European Union.

Science and tech are two industries most likely to be affected by Brexit. British science and tech companies were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining. A Brexit survey run in March by Nature found that of the 907 UK researchers who were polled, around 83 per cent believed the UK should remain in the EU.

UK scientists receive close to £1bn annually for research from the EU – a testament to the quality and influence of the work done on British soil. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK sector supported EU projects by spending €5.4bn, and was rewarded in return with funds of around €8.8bn; it’s a give and take relationship that has seen growth for both.

The combined science and tech sector has laid down the framework and investment for some of the most important research projects in the world. To date, the brightest minds in the UK and Europe have combined to work on highly influential projects: the Large Hadron Collider headed by CERN discovered the Higgs Boson particle, the Human Brain Project set itself the gargantuan goal of unravelling the mysteries of the human brain, and the European Space Agency has helped expand space exploration as European and British astronauts have headed into the ether.

In May 2016, chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Sir Michael Sterling announced that UK scientist Professor John Womersley will lead Europe's next major science project – the European Spallation Source  which is a "multi-disciplinary research centre based on the world's most powerful neutron source." It's the type of project that creates openings and opportunities for researchers, in all fields of science, to really materialise their most ingenious ideas.

The organisation techUK, which according to their website represents more than 900 companies, said in a statement that the result has created many uncertainties but has attempted to appease concerns by declaring that the UK tech sector “will play its part in helping the UK to prepare, adapt and thrive in a future outside the European Union.”

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has reinforced techUK’s concerns surrounding uncertainty, highlighting areas which need to be addressed as soon as possible. The institute believes that discussions with the EU should focus on ensuring access to digital markets, freedom to innovate and growth of “our academic research base and industrial collaborations in computing . . . to shore up and build on a major driver of UK economic success and international influence in the digital sphere”.

Confusion over the UK’s position in the EU single market has prompted questions about the freedom of movement of labour, raising concerns among researchers from Europe about their future role in UK-based projects. The naturally collaborative nature of STEM research, the cross-breeding of ideas which foster scientific and technological advancement, could be severely hampered if limitations are imposed as a result the UK’s separation from the single market.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and director of The Francis Crick Institute said: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science." The Royal Society reports that researchers at UK universities house more than 31,000 researchers of EU origin. The danger of losing much of that support is now imminent.

Many other leading voices in the community chimed in too. Paul Drayson, former Minister of Science in the Department for Business, told Scientific American: “The very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.” Remain advocate Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities and science (and brother to the leave campaign’s front man, Boris Johnson), stated his concerns to a House of Lords committee of there being very little means to make up for severed EU finances. The referendum result means that a solution to replace that money from a different source must now be sought. He also tweeted:

Despite the science and tech sector favouring a Remain vote, there were some who were leaning towards Brexit pre-referendum. Scientists for Britain, a group of UK scientists who, according to their website were “concerned that pro-EU campaigners are misusing science for political gain”, issued a statement after the referendum. They thanked leave voters for sharing their vision of the UK “outside the political structures of the European Union.”

Though there are many new policies which will need to be drawn up, it is evident that the UK’s requirement to prop itself up once outside the EU will only serve to hinder science and tech growth. The industries best served through European and global outreach are now at risk of being marginalised.

Currently in place is “Horizon 2020” – an enterprise touted as “the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever” as almost €80 million is available to researchers seeking to take their ideas “from the lab to the market”. Once Article 50 is invoked, it is crucial that any negotiations that take place ensure the UK’s spot within the programme is maintained.

There are options to maintain some European integration; gaining an “associated country” status like Switzerland could continue to strengthen the STEM sector, for example. But prioritisation of science and tech seems bleaker by the day. As a new landscape takes shape post-Brexit, we must work tirelessly to prevent our most progressive and forward-thinking frontiers caving in.