Our Election, Brexit, and Going Forward

  "Vote Here/Vote Aqui" sign in Orlando, Florida - 2008. Image Credit:  Erik (HASH) Hershman  via  Flickr   CC

"Vote Here/Vote Aqui" sign in Orlando, Florida - 2008. Image Credit: Erik (HASH) Hershman via Flickr CC

     So it all comes down to this. After arguably the most bruising, unconventional, and wild political campaign in American history, we are finally at the moment when we choose our next president.

     To be honest, it has been tough to get my head around it all, with so many twists and turns, ups and downs, allegations and innuendo being thrown around, facts and falsehoods being spouted about, claims and counter-claims being made, and just generally, the anxiety over the whole affair.

     As it stands, the choices we face as a country are both unpopular and with unprecedented high negative ratings. For many of us, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is one we would rather not have, for neither has been particularly inspiring and they both have heavy amounts of baggage – the contents of which have been exposed for us to see.

     Nevertheless, that’s those are choices we have and a choice must be made, for this election has come down to a referendum on the future – about what kind of country and society we wish to be, much like the UK’s referendum on the EU in June. Indeed, much commentary has been written and discussed about that referendum and what happened there in relation to our election. There are differences to be sure, but just as our election has pitted the wild card Trump against the more seasoned Clinton, the EU referendum pitted the unknowns of Britain leaving the EU against the what was known about staying in – in other words, the relative status quo vs a desired yet ill-defined change.

     What ought to be clear is that vast swathes of the people in both countries are not satisfied at all with where they are in their lives and with the state of our countries. There is the sense that the establishment has been failing them for years with policies appearing to benefit only those who are ingratiated with the system, such as the politicians, their families, wealthy campaign donors, corporate and other special interests, and just about anyone with inside connections to give them a leg up over everyone else.

     Along with the effects of 2007-2008 financial crisis, there have been the issues - repeated throughout the Western world - of globalization and how many people have been left behind as a result of it, changing economies and demographics which have clashed with the traditional structures and assurances of societies, and a general sense of uneasiness and the feeling that things are going downhill in many ways. Frustration with the status quo has allowed for the rise populism, which has fueled Trump in America and Brexit in Britain.

     That decision for Britain to leave the EU was a shock to everyone because it was figured that given the given the stark choice between the known and the unknown, Britons would stick with what they knew as a future in Europe as opposed to the unknowns outside of it. When the vote came, a slight majority of Britons decided that whatever unknowns there were outside the EU, they were worth it in the belief that the fortunes for themselves and the UK were better off outside.

     The mistake that some of the pro-EU campaigners made leading up to last June’s referendum was that they focused too much on the negatives of leaving, rather than the positives of staying, just as those advocating keeping the UK together during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum were criticized for accentuating the downsides of separation in order to get the people to vote “No”. This resulted in the “Yes” vote for separation being much higher than anticipated as the separatist campaign – appealing to positive platitudes if not solid facts – made inroads particularly among the working classes who felt they little to lose in choosing separation. Two years later, the Brexit campaigners did much of the same thing by portraying themselves as having new and bold solutions, as opposed to the stale answers offered up by the establishment. Similarly, a significant chunk of the American electorate appears prepared to risk uncertainty with Trump rather than go with what they know (and probably dislike more) about Clinton, who has been touting her experience and readiness for office in contrast to the unpredictability of Trump.

     Whatever happens, it is incumbent on our leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to commit themselves to getting things done for the great good. At everyone’s heart is the desire for a government that works effectively and efficiently, which works in the national interest while engaging with the world. Indeed, there is a lot that needs to be done domestically and internationally, and the people and political leaders must rise to the occasion as we do live in unprecedented times where people’s trust and confidence in government and other institutions are so low.

     This is the landscape facing the victor of the election tonight (or tomorrow) and on top of that, about half of the country not only voted against this person, but probably has a low opinion of them, to say the least. Whoever it is will have to work hard to unite the country as never before and provide answers to legitimate issues raised throughout the course of the campaign.

     As an optimist, I do not believe all will be lost regardless of who wins. Our country has gone through so much in over two centuries of existence, including an all-out civil war and presidential resignation, and we have shown the capacity to not only survive, but go on to be a better country than before. Our Constitution and hard-won democratic institutions are greater than any one person who temporarily occupies them for a few years at the pleasure of the people, and I believe the same to be true of the UK as well.

     That said, the choice we make does matter and I hope that people do consider the future carefully make a wise choice that we can be holistically comfortable with for generations to come.

Getting Rid of the BTP at All Costs

  British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit:  Gordon Joly  via  Flickr   CC

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit: Gordon Joly via Flickr CC

     This week in Scotland saw one of the more controversial aspects of the Smith Commission being brought up for discussion: the possible breakup of the British Transport Police, the specialist law enforcement force which is responsible for the policing of Britain’s railways.

     For those not familiar or needing a refresh, the Smith Commission was created in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum which saw the majority of Scots deciding to keep the United Kingdom together. In the closing days of the campaign, the three main pro-Union parties promised in the Daily Record (via the famous/infamous “Vow”) that with a “No” vote to separation, the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood would receive more powers to exercise in Scotland, as opposed to the UK Parliament at Westminster (with Scottish representation as there always has been) exercising those powers in Scotland as part of the overall United Kingdom. With separation rejected, the commission was formed to recommend what should be devolved and among them was the Scottish BTP functions, and this was pushed through as part of the Scotland Act 2016.

    Even before the final passage of the act, the SNP government had made clear its intentions to use this new power to absorb the BTP in Scotland into Police Scotland, the single national police force created by the SNP in 2013 by amalgamating the eight existing regional services. In September, the merger proposal was officially announced as part of the SNP’s program for government, and last Wednesday saw various police representatives in a round-table discussion about the merger plan with MSP’s on the Justice Committee at Holyrood.

    Already, three railway unions and the BTP Federation had stated their opposition to the plan, with the federation expressing anger at the Smith Commission recommendation soon after it was made in 2014, saying that it was “both unjustified and unjustifiable.” Their main concern has been the potential loss of the BTP’s specialism and expertise, which make it unique from a force based in a particular geographic area, as well as the integrity of cross-border travel safety. For this reason, the BTP has offered to continue its services as a separate force in Scotland, but with oversight from Holyrood, rather than Westminster.

     However, the SNP government has continued to press forward with the scheme in the belief that since all other policing in Scotland is under the jurisdiction of Police Scotland, then the Transport Police should be the same way and that integration would “ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland.”

     The more generous remarks given on the subject in favor of the SNP’s position came from Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who said the merger could work and that his force could police all the railways despite this being “massively complicated” and admitting that there would be “massive transition issues.” His statement broadly echoes that of the Scottish Government saying that specialist skills of the BTP would be maintained and could be achieved “from within our national police service.”  He also gave assurances that staffing levels would be maintained and potentially supplemented by Police Scotland officers.

  BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit:  Dave Connor  via  Flickr   CC

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit: Dave Connor via Flickr CC

     Such assurances were not enough for Nigel Goodband, chairman of the BTP Federation, who said that some of the experienced specialist transport officers would rather quit their jobs than not be BTP officers and that therefore, neither the SNP government nor Police Scotland could promise that the quality of service and expertise would be maintained. Some of this attitude stems from controversies with regard to the formation of Police Scotland and its handling of policing, and in its submission to the Justice Committee, the BTP Federation regarded the force as “still very much in its infancy” and that “no evidence to date has been able to state clearly what, if any, advantage there would be in dismantling the current BTP model of policing in Scotland and integrating it within a geographical routine form of policing.”

     BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock emphasized this point by stating that the BTP exists because its “specialism is so valued by the [rail] industry and passengers” and that railways required different policing from that of general law enforcement, which is specifically why it is difficult to merge into a geographic force (and why the federation is concerned about the possibility of transport officers being used to bolster Police Scotland). He was backed up by Nick Fyfe of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, who pointed to a “distinctive culture and ethos in policing the railways.”

     This culture and ethos is what makes the BST unique and allows it to transcend borders to provide a consistent specialist service, and for that reason, the federation is also concerned about the annual 21 million cross-border passengers and whether there may be interruptions to the “seamless” level of service they have come to expect.

     This leads to something on a more fundamental level, which is that the British Transport Police is a service used and shared by rail travelers throughout Great Britain – a service which is visibly recognizable and the relatively the same wherever anyone goes, whether from Glasgow to London, or Cardiff to Manchester, or Birmingham to Edinburgh, so as to ensure that people get to their destinations safely. It is therefore representative something “British”, not only because of the name, but because of its mandate, jurisdiction, and service it provides throughout the island. The United Kingdom does not have a national police force, so the Transport Police is as close to such a force in the country.

     All of this of course, is anathema for the SNP. Its members, including at senior levels, deny that Britain is a country and seek to characterize it as just a “state” or "invented construct" run from (big, bad) Westminster without a heart or soul, little in connection to people in Scotland, and certainly not doing anything of value or significance for them. It therefore suits the SNP government to fold the Transport Police north of the Border into Police Scotland and to not only extinguish a piece of shared Britishness – the closest thing to a national police force – from the Scottish landscape, but to effectively kill it entirely throughout the whole country and have one less relevant institution linking it together.

     Despite evidence that merging the Scottish BTP into Police Scotland would be very complex (at a time when the national force is still coming to terms with its own formation), may result in the loss of specialist capabilities, and simply is not necessary for effective policing, the SNP seems content with pressing forward for the purpose of simply creating another difference between Scotland and the rest of Britain.

     This is but probably a taste of the “independence at any cost” posture taken by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she claimed that separation “transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.” However, these are important issues which must be considered and cannot be ignored if there is to be another referendum like the one in 2014, just as the complexities and warning with regard to the dismantling of the BTP and merging it into Police Scotland cannot be dismissed. As far as can be told, the BTP works as a specialist force policing the railways of Britain, but the SNP government is pursuing a strategy of making Scotland feel as though it's not part of Britain at any cost.

     During his remarks at the Justice Committee discussion, BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock asked: “If it's not broken, what are we trying to fix?”

     That’s just it; there is nothing to fix.

  A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit:  C.S. Imming  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit: C.S. Imming via Wikimedia Commons CC

Tim Peake and Bringing a Country Together

  British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

     One of high points for the United Kingdom this year was Major Tim Peake's mission aboard the International Space Station, which began on December 15, 2015 and ended on June 18, 2016. During those six months, Major Peake fascinated and inspired people back home in Britain and throughout the world by carrying out mission objectives alongside his fellow ISS crew members from other countries, such as repairing a failed voltage regulator which made for Peake becoming the first British astronaut to participate in a spacewalk.

      Along the way, he kept everyone up-to-date with his engaging social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, including his participation in the London Marathon on a treadmill – making him the second person to run a marathon in space, various videos highlighting his life aboard the ISS, his support for British sports teams, and remarks for occasions such as New Year’s Day and the Queen’s 90th birthday.

     Perhaps my favorite aspect of Major Peake's journey was when he shared photographs of various locations in the US, UK, and throughout the world from the ISS, including fabulous views of picturesque auroras. It is indeed true that one cannot fully appreciate the world unless it is viewed from that vantage point.

     For Major Peake, it all must have been an incredible experience – one which he appeared to thoroughly enjoy for every minute. Even before he returned home, he was being celebrated as a hero throughout the UK and there was great interest in his mission from the public via several platforms, particularly social media. As the first British ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut and only the second Briton to wear the Union Flag patch in space, Peake was conferred the Freedom of the City by his hometown of Chichester and the Queen made him a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his services to research and scientific education – all while he was still aboard the ISS.

     Having returned from space, Major Peake now intends to embark on a tour of the United Kingdom this month, during which he will visit all four capital cities of the country (London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast), as well as Leicester, Manchester, Salford, and Glasgow. According to Principa, Major Peake will be “will be giving presentations at each city, giving his first-hand account about life onboard the ISS and talking about the important science experiments he conducted during his mission.”

     Alongside Major Peake for part of this tour will be our own Colonel Tim Kopra, a NASA astronaut who was a crewmate with Peake aboard the ISS. The two Tim’s (who look quite similar in appearance) will be in Belfast, Edinburgh, and London in what is expected to be an engaging series of events about their time working and living in space, as well as inspiring others to become astronauts, so that they may explore space and make new discoveries for the benefit of mankind. On a wider scale, there is the potential for Britain to develop its own spaceport and having more people interested in space and space travel may well provide additional impetus for such a spaceport to be built. With regard to Tim Peake, there has been an ambitious education and outreach initiative in which the UK Space Agency has invested £3 million to engage over a million young people into his mission and so this tour is also a way for him to thank the British public for their support.

  The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain)   - ISS047-E-017191

The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS047-E-017191

     On that matter, he remarked that he had been “extremely touched” by that support before, during, and after the ISS mission, and made a particular mention about watching the launch parties attended by so many in the four capitals as he ascended into space last December. Having viewed those celebrations, Major Peake now looks forward to the tour allowing him to partake in those celebrations himself and to thank as many people as possible.

     One hopes that he will receive hearty thanks from the people of a United Kingdom - wherever they live and are from - who are grateful for his service to the country. In these uncertain times, Peake shows what people ought to aspire to be, and is therefore an inspiration and an example to follow because of the hard work and dedication that has brought him this far, the grace and humility he has shown along with an uplifting personality, and for his love of country.

     Throughout his mission, Major Peake made it known that he was proud to be British – with his tribute to Her Majesty on her 90th birthday and frequently having the Union Flag nearby in his social media posts – and I do believe that this upcoming tour may be a way to celebrate what is good and decent about being British and sharing in the achievements of a British man which were made possible in part by the UK and its people at large. It may be asking too much for the Peake tour to be anything along the lines of what we have witnessed in the celebrations for Team GB and Paralympics GB following their dynamic performance at Rio 2016, but it ought to at least be something worthy of marking the achievements of Major Peake.

     Between these two – Tim Peake and the British Rio teams – there is a lot to be proud of as a citizen of the United Kingdom and they are examples of what can be achieved when the country comes together to make beautiful and extraordinary things happen and then commemorate them. With the country as divided as it is along several fault lines, it is sometimes a wonder that such things are able to occur, but I believe that this speaks to the enduring strength and resilience of a country that has withstood so much throughout its long existence. When there is a common sense of purpose, differences can be broken down to allow for synergy among different people (for the UK is a union of people as well as a nations) to work together as one, which instills pride in themselves as individuals and as something greater than themselves.

     Going forward, the virtue of working together, achieving together, and celebrating together as a United Kingdom will be invaluable as the country enters into uncharted territory. Perhaps the tour by Major Peake throughout the UK can help serve as a reminder to the British people of who they are and what they can aspire to become, while striving to build a better country, and indeed a better world, along the way.