Category Archives: Opinion

Interviewing the Queen

There is a lot of information out there and the information we mostly focus on isn’t around for very long. The news on your favourite radio station, your daughter’s Twitter feed, the thing everyone is talking about in the office leave few traces; only a small part of it gets printed before usually being chucked away after a few days. The old information doesn’t actually disappear, it just drifts down to the seabed of Ocean News. There may be some poking at “old” news every now and then, usually with the purpose of muddying the waters somehow or other but it is very rare indeed for there to be any continuity in the topics that are dealt with or in the people who narrate and comment them.

There is, however, one person I can think of, who has had access to information relating to one particular topic, in a fairly unchanged format, for many years: Queen Elizabeth II.

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BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives from Canada – Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip at the opening of parliament / La Reine Élizabeth II et le prince Philip à l’ouverture du parlement. Creator(s) / Créateur(s) : Gerald Thomas Richardson

 

The Queen has read every Speech from the Throne (which presents the government’s broad agenda for the year) at the State Opening of Parliament since 1952, except in 1959 and 1963 when Princes Andrew and Edward respectively were on their way. In addition, she holds weekly audiences with the Prime Minister in office. I think it would be an excellent idea if she were to be interviewed in a formal manner by a professional like a historian.

It’s probably useful for me to state at this point that I don’t support constitutional monarchy as a form of government, I prefer republics. I find that a system based on a monarch plus a parliament minus a written constitution is, on balance, more muddling than a republic. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking that it would be very interesting to get the Queen’s memories, thoughts and possible comments on this unparalleled data pool concerning a fairly important topic: the government of the United Kingdom.

The official Royal Family website helpfully notes that: “Although The Sovereign no longer has a political or executive role, he or she continues to play an important part in the life of the nation.” She does indeed. Personally, I find it impossible to imagine that she has merely read all these speeches, paying attention only to her delivery of them, or that she has met all these Prime Ministers and not come to some judgment about their performance.

 

If the interviews I propose were to actually yield any of the Queen’s opinions on governmental policies or the heads of government, I believe that any such information would need to be kept secret for a good long while. The publication of Prince Charles’s so-called “black spider memos” generated some disquiet. They did reveal some of his opinions on and indeed involvement in various matters of public interest, but he is not the Head of State. What I am proposing here is directed at gaining information from the Head of State and then to come to a decision on what is shared publicly and what is not. I’m not sure who should decide that but that would come under the “details to be sorted out later” category… Who knows, maybe if this idea were to be implemented, the interviews would one day become historical documents widely shared with future subjects (assuming UK citizens retain a monarchy), rather like the Georgian Papers Programme today.

But even in the absence of any comment on the content of the speeches the Queen has read and the audiences she has held, wouldn’t it be fascinating to have a record of her thoughts on the process in which she has been a key player? Wouldn’t it be interesting to get insight into how successive governments have gone about formulating their road map year after year? How the format of weekly audiences and pre-budget briefings might have evolved after time?

Of course, the Queen is not exactly a typical interviewee and the person selected to undertake the task I propose would need to demonstrate a range of talents. They would need to combine the rigorous search for evidence of a historian with the astuteness of a ghost writer collating material for a celebrated person’s memoirs. They would probably also need to have the sort of personality that would “fit” into the Royal household, given that their job, if it were to be done correctly, would require a number of fairly long meetings with her.

 

In a way, I feel that recording the Queen’s recollection of one of the duties she has diligently discharged over the years, and one that is most closely connected with the administration of the realm, is something that is owed to her. Rather than all the media coverage of her person and reign, including fanciful film and television productions, is she not entitled to be asked about her role in accompanying the business of government?

A view from 2179

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Extracts from Dawn of the Third Millennium, an analysis of the 1989-2053 period by Elena Ferris, published by Shandelgos University Press in 2179

Many of the people who lived in the 2010s and 2020s thought they were experiencing turbulent times and indeed the period is marked by a series of events that still divides historians today.

 

Some see the over-reaction to small-scale but exceedingly well publicised acts of terror in affluent countries as a blip in an otherwise remarkably long period of nations evolving and organising themselves peacefully – other analysts focus instead on the emergence of an entirely new dialectic in conflict management which occurred then, now often roughly summarised as “the Y2K culture clash”.

Noteworthy among these featured an upsurge of activity from a number of a wide range of extremist groups, claiming a legitimacy based on ideology and going by different (often tellingly aggressive) names. They generally operated in groups, guerrilla style, and also set the conditions for a number of similarly motivated individuals to act alone. Low budget low technology suicide bomb and knife attacks and vehicle ramming were all popular forms of terrorist activity.  Migrants were seen interchangeably as the perpetrators of terror or their victims. Indeed, “migration” was blamed for many things, even if those invoking it were generally in fact making reference to “cultural clashes.”

The intricate interplay of peoples, lands and cultures has always generated both tremendous creativity and wealth on the one hand and conflict on the other, often concurrently. The  violent events mentioned above brought to the fore deep, old and often painful racial and gender issues. At the start of the third millennium, humanity was still coping with these spectacularly incompetently. Progress in that field a few decades later did stabilise the situation somewhat, as evidenced for instance by new channels being created for the dissemination of science, trade and the arts; those were the fresh incarnations of the romantically named “silk route”, “caravans” and “silicon valley” of previous eras.

 

 

IMG_2437Other groups of historians single out the decision of one nation to remove itself from an international alliance it had joined 40 years previously as the most symbolic event of the period.

The Britons of 2016, who voted in a democratic referendum to arrive at that decision, certainly believed that this was the most critical issue of their time. Half the population (52%) hailed the fantastic new opportunity that this new found freedom would bring their country, enabling them to build on a glorious past and create an even brighter future; the other half (48%) insisted that this separation from a strong union of like-minded nations, which had a track record of improving the well-being and wealth of its members, was a grave mistake that Britain would repent at leisure. The prophets of doom were proved wrong: less than forty years later, in 2053, Britannia (officially known until 2029 as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) re-entered the European Union, as a full member, whereas it had during its first period of membership refused to take part in several key measures such as a shared currency. In the meantime, the Union had consolidated its harmonisation programmes considerably and introduced some fairly revolutionary social policies.

 

Yet another kind of historian prefers to track the shadowy progress of a group of people who could be described as a type of illuminati: the environmentalists. Their story began practically as an underground movement way back in the 20th century and they gained steady momentum throughout the next century, spreading the gospel of environmental awareness and activism over the decades. Although they conspicuously failed to organise themselves as a political party, they did successfully introduce their agenda to mainstream political parties of varying creeds. This led to the achievement of a number of significant results in the safeguarding of planet Earth, to some extent minimising the impact of some of the worst depredations in previous centuries.

 

(…)

 

Today, as I transfer these words to you directly from my brain to yours via the communication interfaces located somewhere in the region of your left temple and mine, the events described in previous chapters can justifiably be described as ranging from the ludicrous to the criminal.

It seems barely possible that human beings, equipped with sophisticated sensory equipment and cognitive skills, should have been the ones to instigate these events. It seems incredible that the many worthies who had attained a remarkable level of scientific understanding and technological craftsmanship, took so long to turn the tide. It seems amazing that poets and thinkers had to struggle so much to acknowledge that  humans share planet Earth with one another and also with other species and organisms.

To get our brains round this, we need to remind ourselves of the following facts: at the start of the period we are considering, the human race found itself able to generate, store, process, retrieve and transfer hitherto unimaginable quantities of data of all kinds. This all happened in a very short space of time indeed.

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Engineers, technicians and computer scientists had barely started building machines and writing code and they were already startling their contemporaries with talk of internet, quantum computers, online social media, augmented reality, data science and artificial intelligence. They were forging ahead, ignoring the fact that most of the human activities they were serving and sometimes replacing were organised fundamentally differently. Industry, education, retail, healthcare, education and many other vital human activities had until then tended to rely on a combination of complete separation between specialisms, skills, disciplines, sectors, and so on, endless varieties of hierarchical structures and a strictly linear approach to change.

 

Underpinning all this was a critical difference in the communication method used by the different players: those who clung to human languages only, some even quaintly insisting on the maintenance of arcane spelling, grammar and pronunciation rules, and those who were also capable of communicating in code, binary or otherwise. Incredibly, communicologists only finally took over from linguists in the 2070s.

 

 

With this in mind, it is perhaps a little easier to understand how humans required the best part of a century to assimilate these new functionalities, as it were, and use them to address the old problems that seemed to be felt particularly acutely by our predecessors in the 2010s and 2020s. Here they were, facing the same historical cycles of problems and progress that generations before them had faced (a favourite pastime of erudite people was to quote texts from ancient Roman authors proving this), here they were with the tantalising possibilities offered by amazing achievements: a peaceful international collaboration existed in space! a computer had beaten a go master! electric driverless vehicles had revolutionised transport! The disappointment and frustration of not being able to solve old problems, despite all these wonderful new feats, grabbed attention for a number of years.

 

 

In the next chapter, we will explore how a comprehensive and systematic review of these and other issues, starting from the 2030s, paved the way for the Bionic Revolution that was to follow. Brief histories of space travel and ball games in that period will serve to illustrate this analysis.

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Photos: Richard Wilkinson

Talking At Cross Purposes

My news feeds at the moment are filled with articles and papers on how and why people are increasingly disregarding facts, evidence, the scientific approach and preferring to believe what they hold to be true. What I read and hear ranges from incredulous reactions (only last week, I heard a podcast contributor for whom the light had only just dawned: “And you know what, they carry on believing Donald Trump! It’s really scary.” I felt like throttling her and yelling where have you been hiding? Do you walk around with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears?) to far more thoughtful analyses, including in some fairly meaty and academic research. A quick flick through this week’s New Yorker, for instance, offers this article by Elizabeth Kolbert, which reviews several pieces of research on just that topic.

But at the risk of sounding cynical, I am acutely reminded of the 1980s, when for a while you were submerged  with advice on how to avoid the then brand new bogey: AIDS. After a spate of adverts, awareness raising campaigns, sexual health promotion initiatives, a raft of articles came out. They all boiled down to this: when people are about to have sex, they’re not necessarily focused on being prudent and wise and cautious. Duh.

Coming back to the topic I introduced above, it’s not that amazing that people cling to their world view. It’s depressing, it doesn’t show us humans in a particularly favourable light, but it’s not difficult to understand. We like our comforts, and one of them is to maintain a belief system that feels right and fitting.

So I’m going to add my two pennies’ worth by writing a few pieces like this one. I’m starting with this essay on miscommunications, which is kind of tangential to this issue of the so-called post-factual era (a term I prefer to “post-truth era” because surely we can all at least agree that truth is eminently subjective?). Never mind misleading soundbites, quotes stripped of any context, pure inventions and fake news, we humans are not always that great at communicating in the most general sense.

It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time. I have often thought to myself “that’s not what they said exactly!” when involved in or overhearing a conversation or other communication. I often used to pick up on linguistic differences when French or English were used by non-native speakers and the habit extended to what I saw as blips in communication even where language proficiency wasn’t an issue. And when I felt involved enough and legitimate to clarify what I thought was unclear, I did so. I do so less nowadays, at least for anything other than what I feel are the more glaringly obvious misrepresentations. And even then I only do it when I think my reaction will be noticed, which sadly excludes most of the nonsense that is currently being bandied about.

Fundamentally, the main reason I don’t often try and “correct” miscommunication is that I’m very aware that my assessment of what is or isn’t a clear message might not be the only valid one…