26 June 2016: the UK votes to leave the EU


Not since 1933 has a European democracy engaged in such self-indulgent and dangerous democratic vandalism.

This is an emotion-loaded moment and this is an emotionally-laden reaction. A more measured one will follow. Of course Brexit itself was driven by emotion, chiefly resentment, much more than it was inspired by hope or a vision for the future. The nation which was least shackled of all EU members convinced itself it was enslaved. The areas most dependent on EU handouts felt most ingratitude. Facts were trampled as though they had no more value than opinions.

But the market reaction speaks for itself, wiping 10% off people’s pensions and stripping the UK of its golden credit rating (and that alone will cost us far more than any savings from EU membership). We have betrayed our friends in Europe, we’re about to break up the United Kingdom and we will be lucky to win a single dispensation in our negotiations, all because the old and those who contribute least to our economy – including a majority of those who are a drain on it – betrayed the young and those who build our prosperity.


As Lord Ashcroft’s remarkable poll makes crystal clear, the retired and elderly, the fearful, mean-minded and unproductive have trumped the young, optimistic, open-minded and economically active. These are generalisations, of course, with many young and successful people expressing their dislike of immigration and many conservative country folk voting for Remain. But if anyone hoped the referendum would heal divisions it has aroused bitterness and created discord. Half the country has found itself on the wrong side of the referendum, and I guess that a good proportion of those who voted for Brexit now have regrets (or at any rate second thoughts).


Ironically the more prosperous and better educated are feather-bedded compared to the relatively disadvantaged. Those who found Brexit most appealing are the ones who will get most hurt.

The stock market has crashed, big businesses are reeling and foreign investors are frozen in their tracks, financial and manufacturing industries based here are already looking to relocate, and we will haemorrhage jobs as we are ejected from European institutions – including UK-centric institutions like the European Medicines Agency. And then there are all the unconsidered consequences such as a slump in tourism, one of our biggest exports, as we are expelled from the Europe-wide visa clearance scheme. The tumbling exchange rate will help exporters (so that’s why Dyson and Bamford wanted Brexit: to damage sterling) but from now on we have lost our seat at all the standard-setting institutions and Europe’s powerful bodies that make the rules for global trade. Worse still, hardly anyone in Whitehall has experience of negotiating bi-lateral trade treaties with other nations.


In any case – and this is no small matter – we have betrayed our partners, snubbed our closest allies, stimulated nationalists and far right extremists across the continent and done the work of Islamist fanatics by damaging the world’s economy and undermining Europe.

Here at home we will soon be plunged into constitutional crises. The SNP has already signalled a new call for breakaway, and heaven knows if the Brexit vote will reignite conflict in Northern Ireland. Across the kingdom people are more divided then before, not less, with many plunging into a state of disbelief and depression. I, for one, find myself feeling like a foreigner in my own country, bewildered at how the rural middle-classes could be so myopic, saddened at how working-class voters, once the model of progressiveness, could be drawn to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of UKIP. The very constituencies once thought Labour’s heartland, in the shipbuilding north-east and the coalmining valleys of Wales voted angrily with the toffs of Norfolk and the shires.


Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. We have seen the surge of right-wing and neo-fascist groups in France and even Germany and watched in amazement as the anti-intellectual demagoguery of Donald Trump propelled a loudmouth and inflammatory bigot towards the White House. Too many citizens feel powerless as the world changes around them in rising cadence. It is not that people don’t like change – far from it, we crave stimulation and dislike boredom – but when change happens we like to feel in control. We often don’t use our vote when we have it (for example, look at the elections for police and crime commissioners where almost none of us bothered) but even when we do few of us feel we have much influence. The constituencies for local councillors are now as big as they were 150 years ago for MPs. So never mind that the ‘unelected’ European Commission is said to be self-serving or out of control – it is appointed by elected government leaders and all its important decisions are subject to the European Parliament and to national vetoes – the sense of alienation transcends the technical realities.


Yet the return of sovereignty is a naïve illusion, a mirage in an increasingly interdependent and global world.

Worse, it is not as though the victors in this campaign have a clue about how to put globalisation back in its box. When the new leadership sweeps in it has no published plan and will have no answers to any of the problems it set out to solve, from immigration through fishing rights to the NHS, and it will face a battleground of crises of its own making.


We don’t have a parallel world so we cannot compare what actually happens with what would have happened, but we don’t need to be clairvoyants to recognise that our economy has taken a body blow and that the next few years will be bloody. Instead of increasing our authority and fighting our corner on assuming the Presidency of the European Council next year (due on July 1st) we will be pariahs.


However, we are where we are and we need to salvage what we can from the wreckage. One of the initiatives I’ve been funding is to promote evidence-based policy in government. We made progress under Cameron who personally indicated support and put me in touch with Cabinet Office people through whom we have some departments of State ready to sign up. We must fight to encourage the development of evidence-based public policy rather as doctors have increasingly embraced evidence-based medicine. It doesn’t inhibit politics, it doesn’t fight ideology; it simply asks that if civil servants (and by implication ministers) put up an idea, or quash one, they show their workings. We have a parallel movement in the US, led by Michael Bloomberg and I hope we will partner them here. We have just published a report [https://researchinquiry.org/] by Sir Stephen Sedley, a former judge in the Court of Appeal, into the need for more rigour and transparency in government research.


If only an evidence basis had been the bedrock of the Brexit debate.

Yet the risk is that the new government will have new SPADS (‘special’ political advisors chosen because they are believers) and a new and more ideological outlook – one which thus far indicates it is more interested in bombast than evidence.

I can honestly say that I have never, not even when living in the turmoil of a quasi-civil war in Belfast, been so depressed about politics and human stupidity. Yes, the turmoil will in time die down. There will be a phoney war when it seems it might not be so bad after all. But history will regard June 2016 as an exercise in self-inflicted harm and the beginning of one of the most difficult periods of peacetime British history.

AirAsia QZ8501: how could it happen?

AirAsia QZ8501: how could it happen?
4 January 2014
(see also Air France Flight 447: ‘Damn it, we’re going to crash’ )

Yet again a jetliner has crashed into the sea, this time with the loss of 162 passengers and crew. How can this happen; and – since flying is supposed to be so safe – how big is the risk?


The easy part to answer is the risk. It is almost infinitesimal. Commercial jets have been getting safer and safer for fifty years (although there was a blip in the 1980s due to terrorism). Nowadays the odds of being killed on a flight with reputable airlines is about one in twenty million. Even with the worst performing carriers you could expect to take a million and a half flights before being involved in any event in which somebody was killed. The global fatality rate about 1,000 a year, compared to over 1,000,000 deaths on the road, so mile for mile or minute for minute flying is much safer than driving. But the aviation industry can’t rest on its laurels. Every crash makes headlines so with passenger numbers rising five per cent each year the safety factor has to grow by five per cent simply to keep pace.

Hence the AirAsia disaster is not just a terrible tragedy for those involved, but a huge worry for the industry in general.

The safety authorities – like Britain’s Air Accident Investigation Branch – are usually tight-lipped at times like these. Hasty inquiries can miss key facts and jump to unjustified conclusions, apart from which official verdicts can ruin careers and prompt multi-million dollar law suits. Accordingly they try to stick to facts and avoid public speculation, usually taking months and sometimes years before they issue their reports.

That doesn’t stop the media, of course, which respond to public anxiety and to the human impulse to make sense of uncertainty. This can lead to wild conjecture in the early days but usually reporting converges over time so that there are few surprises by the time the official reports are published.

Initial radar tracks indicate the plane gained altitude at an alarming rate. If this is borne out by data from the flight recorder it might explain the crash, perhaps through jammed control surfaces, with such ascent creating catastrophic damage to the airframe, or simply causing loss of forward speed.

And yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that the aircrew climbed too steeply to avoid the storm. The theory sounds credible because it was just such pilot error that caused the loss of AF447, the Air France Airbus that disappeared into the Atlantic in 2009. One pilot’s relentless anxiety to climb slowed the plane so much that it stalled and fell out of the sky. There is, in my view, an intrinsic risk in the Airbus design that contributed to the A447 tragedy – a design that makes it harder for one pilot to see what the other one is doing so the error wasn’t spotted by the flying officer’s colleagues until it was too late – but the Air France crash was so seminal that every airline beefed up training and every commercial pilot in the world would be allergic to the danger. It would be both astonishing and scandalous if AirAsia’s crew remained somehow unenlightened.

What seems more plausible is that the storm itself caused the aircraft to malfunction. Thunderstorms can generate enormous updraft, although it’s hard to imagine a  current so sustained that could lift a 70-tonne fully-laden airliner for more than a few seconds.

Big jets like an Airbus are remarkably robust. They can be hit by lightening, buffeted by turbulence, baked by sun on the tarmac and frozen at high altitude. Their engines are so reliable they almost never fail. They can cope with huge variations in air temperature, rain, snow and with rare exceptions even ingesting foreign object such as after bird strikes.

At least one weather event has proved dangerous – one that is hard to predict and largely invisible to radar.

When moist air rises rapidly above tropical sea, supercooled droplets of water can freeze when they encounter the cold surfaces of a high-flying airframe. This is rarely a problem because small ice particles melt on impact with the heated windscreen and vaporise in the engines. But sometimes convection storms can cause moisture to freeze so rapidly it forms crystals, and these so-called convective crystals have been known to cause damage to planes and temporary power loss.

Each engine on an A320-200 Airbus like AirAsia’s QZ8501 sucks in around a ton of air each second. A very heavy concentration of ice crystals could conceivably overcome the enormous momentum of the turbines and kill off forward thrust. The pilots would than have to glide the aircraft while they fought to revive the engines. They would have ample time to do so. A wide-bodied jet can glide about eight miles for every 1,000 feet of altitude. Famously, in 1982 a British Airways jumbo flew for 13 minutes without power after flying through volcanic ash. It was still at 13,000 feet when first one and then the other engines came back on line. If convective crystals had done for QZ8501 what volcanic ash had done for BA09 two decades earlier then, depending on the weather, the Airbus should have had a range of at least 50 or 60 miles.

If the engines couldn’t be re-started then Captain Iriyanto would have had no option but to try landing in the sea. That would be hard enough in tranquil conditions on flat-calm water, like the ditching of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson six years ago. But QZ8501 would have come down in tumultuous turbulence into mountainous waves. At more than 70 tonnes and 37-metres long it would not have stood a chance.

The idea of a pancake landing in heavy seas would account for the fact that large pieces of the fuselage appear to be intact at that bodies have been found floating on the surface. Had the aircraft fallen vertically, as some reports suggest, it would impacted the water as though hitting a concrete wall.

flight path

On the other hand an attempted landing assumes that the pilots had control. Why in that case was there no Mayday call? Why was the crash site so close to where the last radio contact was made, suggesting the Airbus really had dropped rapidly? This brings us back to those reports that the plane rose more like a fighter plane that a commercial airliner, perhaps caught in freak updrafts and downdrafts which threw it around the sky and then hurled it into the Java Sea.

We will know the answers soon. Unlike Air Malaysia’s MH370, still missing in the southern Indian Ocean, the AirAsia wreckage is in water shallow enough even for recreational divers. Only foul weather, with 4 metre waves, strong currents and poor visibility, has been frustrating efforts to locate and recover the flight recorders located near the tail. Horrifying though the crash has been, it will soon yield its secrets and, though of little consolation to those who have been bereaved, it will contribute to make flying even safer than it is already.

The rape of Richard Dawkins

The ‘rape’ of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, the biologist and proselytising humanist, used the sensitive subject of rape to illustrate a logical point: that “to judge something bad and something else very bad is not an endorsement of the lesser of two evils. Both are bad.” This proved too much for some, who prefer to think in absolutes, and others for whom sexual crimes must be subject to absolutist condemnation.

Professor Dawkins’s Tweets included, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think,” and, “Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”

Few of his critics appear to have read his explanation for choosing sex crimes to illustrate his point: just because they are so often taboo. “Rationalists like us should be free to follow moral philosophic questions without emotion swooping in to cut off all discussion, however hypothetical.”

Poor Richard Dawkins. The reaction to his comments on rape quickly turned to angry and sometimes gleeful vilification. The Twittersphere and blogs revelled in sneering condemnation and people will be reluctant to come to his defence because they themselves will be courting trouble and be caricatured as defenders of the indefensible.

The vituperation would have taken aback a lesser man than Dawkins, as it did me when I was rounded on a year ago, plummeting instantly as one writer described it from national treasure to public enemy number one. In my case the Mail on Sunday, having serialised my book on Crime, confected a story which made me out to be a rape-condoning misogynist, and quoted an especially wounding comment from Jo Wood, a highly respected rape crisis campaigner. The media pounced on me as they have on Dawkins. Actually having read my book Jo Wood told me she felt she had been set up, that my words, far from being misogynistic had been twisted into sound bites and that when read in context, they “actually strengthen the arguments for sexual violence crimes to be treated with the empathy and respect that victims demand.” She went on: “I would seriously suggest anyone who still supports the furore that has broken out – takes time out to READ THE BOOK.”

The Mail On Sunday offered a right of reply – which it promptly buried under a repeat of the allegations against me, and no other newspaper bothered to rebalance its portrayal.

This time even the redoubtable and usually thoughtful Shami Chakrabarti allowed herself to be dragged in to the fray. What is disconcerting is that someone of her perceptiveness, sensitivity and intelligence should appear ready to join a chorus of angry abuse. It was a reaction that brooks no argument, and she, of all people, should not seek to close down a debate.

Let’s be clear what Professor Dawkins has been saying: that some crimes can be worse than others and that some victims’ experiences of a crime can be more terrible than others. He is urging us to shun absolutism. Had he illustrated his argument by citing homicide he might have won general assent. Even the law, which sometimes require us to see the world as binary, acknowledges differences between culpable murder, manslaughter and infanticide. But it is dangerous to voice anything outside the new orthodoxy when it comes to rape.

Dawkins used the word “mild” to describe the least intrusive spectrum of paedophilia – perhaps meaning those who yearn but do not touch. Never mind that in the cool logic of a philosophy tutorial his choice of adjective might have been reasonable. In the world of social media, where reflexes are often framed by sound bites, it was tantamount to incitement. It was widely, and wrongly, assumed that he’d used the word to describe penetrative rape. The resulting furore was an ironic illustration of precisely what he was trying to convey: that there are gradations in almost every human behaviour and experience but that such nuances are too often elbowed out.

There are reasons to be especially sensitive in discussing any sexual crimes. For many years victims were discouraged from complaining and if they persisted they were frequently debased by the police and humiliated by the courts. The growth in recorded sexual offences is testament to greater confidence in the system but trial by jury remains as much a trial for the principal witness in rape cases as it is for the defendant. In some cultures victims dare not speak out at all. It is entirely reasonable to be critical of anyone who belittles the crime of rape.

But that does not mean that all rapes are the same. Only those who think in slogans can say otherwise and it is not helpful to anyone to insist on a one-size-fits-all platitude. Abusing Dawkins down does not help us to frame more appropriate ways to tackle what is in reality a multitude of problems. But it is also deeply patronising to many victims with diverse experiences.

In fact it is not just those whom Shami Chakrabarti calls “clunky” men of a certain age who think rape isn’t always of the same severity. Several female commentators have also provoked outrage with similar observations. But above all, listen to the victims. I have met and worked with victims over many years and they do not accord to a simplistic model and did not all experience the same degree of trauma, revulsion, self-blame, or any other standardised emotion that campaigners sometimes seem to want to attribute to them. Nor is the evidence just anecdotal. A large scale survey revealed that around half of women who had penetrative sex against their will did not consider themselves to have been raped. They are wrong, of course, on any definition, but are we to drown out their experiences because they do not comply with the way we think they should think? Are we to accuse them of foolishness, or of letting the side down, or – worse – of not being victim enough?

Some countries take a more sophisticated view, with a graduated judicial approach which recognises differences between sexual assault and, say, aggravated assault with a weapon. We should go further and finally accept that conventional adversarial trials are not always the appropriate way to tackle intimate violence.

For more on this see the thoughtful response in The Times by Carol Sarler, who has been a victim both of date rape and serious sexual assault by a stranger, and who points out that, “they are so obviously different”.

Sexual harassment and predation will not be tackled through shouting down people like Richard Dawkins. If ever there was a subject that should recoil from insults and deserves rational reflection this is it.


Medical Innovation Bill

From The Daily Telegraph 2 June 2014

The ‘Saatchi Bill’: can a PR guru cure cancer?

Lord Saatchi’s medican innovations Bill won’t encourage good research – and, in its original form, could have opened the door for dangerous quackery

By Nick Ross

Lord Saatchi has promoted a private Bill whose supporters have implied it might help to cure cancer. Unsurprisingly his idea has drawn a lot of approval from the public, and even from the Telegraph. After all, who could be against innovation in medicine?

Sadly the Bill is misnamed and misguided. It will not promote invention, it will not help cure cancer or any other disease and it could be harmful. Thankfully it is being substantially revised, but even so it could well set the clock back.

How is that possible?

The answer is that Lord Saatchi, though a grieving widower and a PR genius, is not a medical researcher, or even a scientist. He believes that doctors are held back from prescribing innovative treatments out of fear of litigation. Many have told him there is an “invisible red light” which holds them back. But it is a fantasy, and if some doctors misunderstand the facts they need to be better advised. Neither he nor his supporters can cite a single instance where legitimate research has been hampered in this way. Medical research faces too much red tape but it is not besieged by hyena lawyers. The NHS Litigation Authority says such claims are vanishingly rare. In fact clinical research accounts for only 0.01 per cent of NHSLA payments, and these were cases where recklessness was alleged. The biggest defence group in the world which defends doctors against litigation is the Medical Protection Society and it too opposes the Bill. It says bluntly it has “seen no evidence that a fear of clinical negligence claims is holding back medical innovation”.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the Bill was simply unnecessary, but as first drafted it was positively dangerous. It proposed to give clinicians legal immunity if they try new things out. But breakthroughs in medical research are made systematically, one step at a time involving scrupulous trials with ethical oversight and peer review. It would be reckless to return to the age freelance have-a-go heroes who experiment on their patients. This would undermine evidence-based medicine.

ntil this week the Bill required that there must be “plausible reasons why the proposed treatment might be effective”. But it did not require scientifically plausible reasons. To quacks, faith healers, fools and conmen (and sadly even some qualified physicians) almost anything is plausible, including meridians, spirits, water memory and laying on of hands.

In any case, plausible theories can be, and have often proved to be, spectacularly and fatally misleading. Laying babies to sleep on their stomachs (so they don’t ingest vomit) was a plausible idea that resulted in thousands of cot deaths. Dozens of other half-baked ideas – giving oxygen to premature babies or steroids for brain injury – have taught how persuasively dangerous credible notions can be.

Maurice Saatchi invited me to discuss my concerns with him three months ago and graciously accepted that the Bill should be amended (a) to avoid opening the flood gates to quackery or to buccaneering experimentation on vulnerable patients; and (b) to provide for the essential importance of disseminating results.

Meanwhile, the magnificence of the Saatchi marketing machine has overshadowed the fact that bulk of the medical research community has since come out against the Bill including the NHS Health Research Authority, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, medical research charities such as Cancer Research UK, the General Medical Council, the Medical Protection Society the British Pharmacological Society and senior lawyers like Robert Francis QC. [You can see a selection of the opponents here.]

To his great credit Maurice Saatchi has been listening. His new version is to be published on Thursday and it will embody fundamental changes. For a start it will specifically exclude research – the very thing it was touted to be liberating. And, thank heavens, it will now require consultation with appropriately qualified colleagues, including any relevant multidisciplinary team. Of course if appropriately qualified doctors and multi-disciplinary teams are all outside the scientific consensus, as is the case in dubious clinics in Switzerland and Mexico for example, even downright quackery would be covered by this clause. But above all the revised Bill is likely to retreat from its founding principle, which was to insulate doctors from common law. It will now specifically acknowledge that nothing in the Bill is intended to stop patients suing doctors for negligence.

In essence then, the revised Bill will simply allow doctors to do what they can do already, which is to try out last-ditch remedies. But there will be an advance. Although it is not yet in the one-and-a-half-page draft to be published this week, his staff have made me a “copper-bottomed” promise that Lord Saatchi will make further amendments to seek to collect results of all these desperate measures and will disseminate results.

Since more work is to be done maybe the Bill could yet be turned to much greater advantage. I have proposed to Lord Saatchi that he could rebalance the Bill to tackle the real problem of healthcare litigation. This is the 99.99 per cent of claims that have nothing to do with innovation but drain the health service of £2.25 billion a year, are of serious concern to clinicians, create a burden on legal aid and cause a great deal of personal distress. Claims against surgeons and physicians range from the spurious, sometimes whipped up to a froth by greedy lawyers, to the tragic, which damaged patients sometimes find hard to pursue; but all of them are hugely expensive and a big distraction. The legal costs can dwarf the actual damages awards and they very frequently deter health authorities from challenging questionable claims.

Claims should first go to mediation or arbitration with some right of appeal to an ombudsman. The ombudsman’s decision would be binding but in turn he or she could, if a case was thought to be particularly serious or of public importance, refer the matter to the courts.

There are good precedents for legally binding arbitration, and the ombudsman system is well-established and highly regarded. But in any case the principles of reconciliation and escalation would be a big advance on the damaging adversarial process we now have. And it could save the NHS a ten figure sum each year.

Meanwhile a Bill which promises to free us from unnecessary restraint, and is riding the surf of a brilliant publicity campaign, misses the big picture to solve a problem which is largely just one of perception.

See www.stopthesaatchibill.co.uk/

Saatchi debate March 2015