This forum is about wrong numbers in science, politics and the media. It respects good science and good English.
The reason to have a head of state elected by popular vote is that if we vote in an idiot, said idiot is presumably representative of the electorate and we get what we deserve by voting for them. If we have an idiot foisted on us by accident of birth (and Chuck is a world-class idiot) we can disown responsibility for his or her words and actions. The electorate should take more responsibility for what our "leaders" (actually servants) do (and this is equally applicable to the current situation where they do more or less what they want and everyone just ignores them), not less. The prospect of Chuck as head of state is about as appealing as having Jade Goody or Wayne Rooney as head of state. At least if we actually voted one of those in (and we wouldn't be the first country to elect minor celebrities to the role), it would be entirely our own fault.
If you really don't trust the electorate then you could have the German system of parliament appointing the president. The German head of state is and should be a total nonentity. You'd have to murder half of the MPs for him to have any real power. I don't even know what his name is, and I should do.
The main reason monarchy is still tolerated in the UK is that the current incumbent is actually a nice lass (though one can't say the same about her taste in men). Shame about how the kids turned out, but that's the entire problem with a constitutional and supposedly apolitical monarchy. It would be even nicer if she proposed that the current system be brought to an end on her death.
"The reason to have a head of state elected by popular vote is that if we vote in an idiot, said idiot is presumably representative of the electorate and we get what we deserve by voting for them."
All fine in theory, but there is little point in having a nonentity as a head of state. One might as well have a golden calf. In practice, "democracy" (as practised today totally unrecognisable by an Athenian of 400BC) simply means a beauty contest at best. There is absolutely no reason why the Head of State should be representative of the people as a whole and several good ones why not. The representatives of the people are by definition the members of parliament, and we can judge from them the mentality of the general population!
" (and Chuck is a world-class idiot)" Any evidence for that (libellous) statement? I hear he speaks very well of you. Personally, given a choice between such titans of democracy as Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Stalin and the late unlamented Herr Hitler and a blob of protoplasm, I know my preference.
The great advantage of choosing the HoS by accident of birth is that it places the post beyond reach of ambition, and all the vicious infighting that that implies. (Think the Civil War, Wars of the Roses, Monmouth, etc.) Another major one is the fact that the next or next-but-one Monarch is known and trained from birth (poor sod).
There are many things wrong with the current British Constitution, mainly to do with excessive "Democracy". A popular vote is an excellent way to determine what the people want, but as even James might agree, that is not usually what they need. Since being ruled by a person who "knows" what is good for us (see above Dramatis Personae, plus Tony Bliar and Flash Gordon) is quite unacceptable, the best answer might well be a constructive tension between an elected parliament, an hereditary upper house (from self-interest taking the longer-term view) and a monarch holding the ring. Provided all statutes are only passed by agreement of all three parties that should ensure that spiteful, partisan laws like the Game Laws and the Hunting with dogs Act would never make it into law but any necessary legislation should pass with ease.
Anyway, must stop now as I have to plot to become Dictator!
The one you will need, it looks like, is Prince Harry
To a Prince
When some stalwarts to battle go,
To fight the enemy and foe,
There wil be some who will complain,
that the battle itself is all in vain.
But let the enemy break through,
and the target suddenly is you,
Then to your knees you will descend,
To pray for such stout hearted men
For only their unselfish deeds,
Will give your nation what it needs.
When day of payment comes to hand.
Support that fine bold minded man.
Good on you, Harry, as Brits say
You have made this old man's day.
'Tis wonderful to see and hear,
Such bravery from someone so dear
To his country's heart and ear, for
Being a real man, knowing fear.
From such bold princes are best kings made,
Who have earned such accolade..
God and the soldier we alike adore,
When on the brink of danger, not before;
The danger past, both are alike requited,
God is forgotten and the soldier slighted
adapted from Euricius Cordus (1486-1535)
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy go away"
but it's "Thank you Mister Atkins" when the band begins to play.
When people resort to poetry they know they've lost the rational end of the argument.
I expect someone will quote from the Bible (King James version of course) in response.
I'll stick to your main point.
Having the head of state selected by birth does not by any means place the position beyond ambition. How many kings and queens have been murdered by close relatives? And even if it does place the post beyond ambition, well that's one less post of several million for people to aim at. Big deal.
Democracy has many faults but it is an improvement on ever having a world-class idiot at the helm. The suggestion that democracy could be improved upon or replaced with something better is worth considering. The suggestion that democracy should be replaced with the essentially feudal system you suggest is laughable.
Regicide by close relatives is indeed a risk, as history has shown. However, the number and range of candidates is automatically limited, and the classic police "whodunnit" question is comparatively easy to solve.
How is democracy an improvement? Historically mob rule (let's use english) has never lasted long and has usually been distinctly uncomfortable to live through.
The essential point is the concentration of power. Up to the (latest) civil war the monarch had too much effective power, and indeed lost his head over it.
Far from being a feudal system, what I propose is the division of power. The US constitution attempts this, probably more successfully than most others, but is hung up on this idea of democracy so that all the four centres of power (President, Senate, Congress and Supreme Court) are selected on the basis of popularity alone. What I propose merely seeks to apply different criteria for each base so as to get a more balanced and longer-sighted government. Even if a world class idiot were to take the throne (which alone is subject to the vagaries of chance since it is necessarily a single-occupancy post), the British Constitution has evolved mechanisms to cope with such events, such as George III's "madness". Provided the rest of the legislature and executive are functioning there is no major problem.
Pardon my ignorance but, is there a British constitution?
Not a written one.
However that may not matter since EUcreep will make such a document rather meaningless unless it duplicates the EU 'Treaty' that is supposed to replace the EU Constitution that was rejected by the people of a couple of countries a year or two back.
And so is history re-interpreted to fit the now.
The Lisbon treaty is dead and won't be coming back in any recognisable form. Even the most hardened eurocrat knows they can't pull the same fast one a third time (I hope).
The EU promised us a short, sharp, succinct constitution and we got a thousand pages of technobabble. It deserved to be thrown back. That said, this was supposed to be a European issue, so why have 27 different processes for its approval (some of which were bound to fail) rather than a single ballot put to the whole EU electorate? I think it would have failed even then, which would have given its rejection far more legitimacy, and prevented the Irish from getting picked on for giving the wrong answer.
As for the technical reforms all that is needed is to give the European parliament legislative primacy and abolish the commission (or rather the commissioners, and relegate the real commission to the civil service it was always supposed to be) in favour of a senate with three members from each state regardless of size (this way we accommodate the interests of the people as a whole and of the states), and write a constitution outlining the (limited) powers of the EU parliament and senate - i.e. what policy areas should be left to the states and what the parliament can legitimately pass legislation on. Establish a constitutional court to police this. The constitution should be amendable only by two thirds majority in both houses and the amendmnet put to a single EU-wide referendum. Following a constitutional amendment, any state should be able to secede from the EU if demanded by referendum.
But that will never happen!
It's just occurred to me that my proposal is far too democratic for the tastes of some of the other contributors.
We can't trust the electorate you know, we should leave it to the kings and queens and other established vested interests. The lords and ladies know best what we want. Don't they? We - the people - should leave the decision making to our betters and keep our noses out of politics. Funny the same doesn't go for unelected lords and ladies at the European level, isn't it?
I don't object that it is too democratic, but, as James himself admits, unworkable. An elected Senate will inevitably be filled with superannuated professional politicians who have schemed and weaseled their way into power (unless, of course, like the President of Germany, the post carries no power at all, in which case why have an institution which is neither use nor ornament?)
A less superficial reading might reveal that I do not support an hereditary "upper" house out of reverence for privilege or in any belief that hereditary peers are more politically aware or capable, but simply because the self-interest of people selected by accident of birth will differ from that of those whose overwhelming desire to meddle with other peoples' live drives them to the degradation that is modern political life. In short, because those born "to the purple" have never had to become crowd-pleasers and can therefore take the long view in anticipation of passing property down to their descendants. We have tried the entire government being run by such people in the past, and although the results were predictable I'm rather surprised how moderate they were. Nevertheless such a scheme lacks the ability to respond to the immediate concerns of the people as a whole, so a blend of the two types of government seems to offer the best compromise.
The Bliar years in UK have shown the truth of Lord Acton's famous dictum, with the implicit assumption that the government has an absolute right to pass whatever laws it wishes at whim. See that writ large over the whole EU and we're in serious trouble.
I like having a monarchy and I like the monarchy we have.
I also liked having a house of lords.
The problem, it seems to me, is that in a bicameral system where both parts are elected is that the short term views dominate and are dominated by a need to be re-elected (except the house of lords).
If you elect a head of state, and a set of peoples representatives, why have two lots?
Why have a prime minister and a president?
Why have a senate and a congress?
In many respects I think the UK has had and still does have the best solution of htose employed (not necessarily the best possible solution which perhaps is unattainable).
A head of state with no real powers and unelected is fine because we then have the power vested in one person.
I begin to see the advantages, vis a vis Liar and the Brun, of the American system of limited terms in office (an amendment to the constitution was added to limit the terms; just as one might be introduced to allow the Governator to become president despite being AUstrian by birth, and just as one might be needed to modify the language to allow women to become president - the language in the constitution and amendments is quite genderised in favour of men) to prevent some kind of perpetuation into a dictatorial system and we have seen, paradoxically, Phoney Tony lapse into a presidential style of government and GDubya a cabinet style, but of the two, it is Gdubya who, whether he likes it or not is out. Tony jumped and could have been pushed, but by pushed by his party; the electorate had little opportunity to give him the heave ho.
However much some of us may dislike Phoney Tony and his heir, we the system we have is where the prime minister is the elected head of state and he alone. Our first past the post system also means we have strong government. It may be wrong, but rarely extreme as is the case with the many proportional representational systems where the minorities, often extreme, end up with disproportionate power, the power to to make coalitions.
In Russia we see President Putin has solved part of the President Vs Prime Minister problem by ensuring a successor who is apparently subservient to the man and not the position. And yes, we have dynastic families even in elected politicians.
So what is better, a dynasty with actual power or a symbolic power?
The problem with the house of lords, for the NuLabour, it seems is that i did what it was intended to do all too often i.e. act as a brake on the more ludicrous policies created in the lower house. Of course, the life peers approach tends to mitigate against some of the advantages but then since neither is perfect what we hope to have is a balance of benefits.
Prince of Fools?
Easy to criticise. Some, indeed much of what he says, is actually quite a good reflection of the general opinions of the populace. Of course, he doesn't get that good a press, especially in silly season, and especially with much of the press owned by republican auslanders, but when ever did the royals get a good press.
At some time or other it is open season on pretty well any of the royal family except Princess Diana...
Can Prince Charles be wrong? yes. Can he say stupid things sometimes? yes. We all do. Not as often as politicians perhaps and his main fault might be that he is too honest and lets us see too much of his real thoughts. God forbid we should find fault with that.
Yes, the sort of monarchy we have suits me fine. Much as I dislike the present government our present form of government is pretty good. We don't seem to have Euan Blair already warmed up to take over his fathers grasp on the reins of power nor do we expect the Brun's progeny to assume power.
Sure, we do have political interest and some form of political responsibility appear in successive generations but not with anything like the same danger as in other countries. If you have to have hereditary positions, lets make the best use of them we can. I think that on the whole, the hereditary nature of the house of lords was a benefit tempered by sensible life peers (and the nature of the debate is far more sensible and civilised than in the commons).
Prince Charles is an easy target. I suspect he will be no worse than anyone else as head of state. Probably much better but he has the misfortune to be heir to a family which has set some high standards.
We don't want Ivan the Terrible just as we don't want a Putin style government nor even, I suspect, a US style government. Recognise the faults but please look at the benefits.
Excellent stuff, Sir.
I'm sure the mention of the Prime Minister as Head of State was just a slip - s/he is Head of Government.
My only real disagreement is over "Life Peers". These were only created as part of a plan to cripple the House of Lords, and are now purely a patronage tool of the Prime Minister. If they are genuinely valuable, let them (continue to) stand as Members of the Commons. Otherwise, away with the whole boiling of them!
For those of our readers who are not British Suspects, the problem is that an hereditary peerage cannot be created overnight. In the case of the UK and other old monarchies it evolved over blood-soaked centuries from armoured thugs on horseback. America is now showng signs of developing its own from greedy capitalists and bankers. I have no problem with either set of descendants - all that is required is a coherent group whose self-interest requires a long-term view (decades ) and whose power is balanced by the short-termism inherent in those whose comfortable lifestyle depends on pleasing the mob.
I'm sorry that this has developed a life of its own well off the topic for this forum, so for any further discussion, please contact me direct at
The author of the article, Vandana Shiva, is one of the world's leading environmental activists, so she can hardly be considered to be objective. In a poll of Britain's top Greenies conducted by the Environment Agency a couple of years ago she came 13th out of the top 100 people who are deemed to have contributed to 'saving the planet'. She runs a sort of Indian equivalent of the UK's Soil Association called Navdanya.
So informing us that Vandana Shiva supports Prince Charles on this issue is a bit like informing us that Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth support Charles' remarks.
The evolution of the scientific method seems essentially one that is based on observation of something that pre-exists.
Theories then arise that attempt to explain that observation.
The theory is good for so long as it explains the observation and predictions can made and tested.
It doesn't really matter if the theory is wrong because as soon as it is shown to be wrong or inadquate a new theory will be created that accounts for all the related observations.
Whatever the theory is, whether it is right or wrong, doesn't impact on the phenomena and the phenomena carries on just as it would whether we understood it or not.
However, when we start to create things based on theory, we introduce something into the environment that did not pre-exist.
If our theory is wrong then is when we may be in trouble.
Introducing rabbits to Australia. Kudzu to the US.
Seemed like a good idea at the time?
Rabbits in the UK, well it doesn't matter whether we think they are a good idea or not, they pre-exist for us today and whether we understand them or not doesn't matter to anyone starting a rabbit farm.
Coypu, mink releases, beaver released into Scotland, proposals to re-introduce the wolf, bears etc. Those are more problematic no matter if they existed here in the past because the environment has moved on and they no longer exist here. Re-introduction could have serious consequences.
GM seems to have both environmental and social consequences that we appear only to be guessing at the more obvious problems so far. It concerns me that patent law an intellectual rights in genetics are complex. Is it right that a company can patent someones DNA sequence?
As always, n science, in medicine and in life, because we can do something does not mean that we should do something nor that it is right to do so.
I note the point about the referenced activist. But while it is helpful to note the bias of any commentator, it isn't who they are that counts but what they say. One of the criticisms expressed in these fora and on this website is the personal attacks on opponents of AGW and a need to address the science.
The attacks on Prince Charles are quite revealing as they are often, in the media and elsewhere, based not so much on what he says as who he is. I don't, myself agree with all he says but I do have a sympathy with much of what he says.
I am very uneasy about the science and the social impacts of GM. Like the splitting of the atom, there may well be beneficial outcomes but there are also potentially negative outcomes.
So yes, let us regard the support of known activists as a cautionary sign but let us question what they say objectively.
I made a mistake, I thought some discussion of the issue would arise and not simply that an attack on the person was the only objective.
One might add the the examples of intentional introductions that have had unintended consequences - there seem to be many to choose from. Indeed I'm not sure I recall ever reading about an intentional introduction that did not have some form of negative consequence. However that may just be media selection bias.
In theory GM is far more precise that other forms of genetic manipulation (selective breeding) that have historic roots (so to speak). However it seems to me that because the selective breeding methods are 'natural' they may be less rigourously assessed than more Lab based approaches - like GM.
GM, it is claimed, is more closely monitored than any other breeding technology and rightly so on the basis of the specific effects the science workers are trying to achieve which go beyond strength and yield. However it is perhaps because the results could and can be much more comprehensively measured that they attract such attention. The target is well definer, constrained and assessable. 'Natural' breeding is far more hit and miss and potential side effects may well not be identified simply because they are lost in the noise or no one thought to look.
Over time the same results might be achieved - just more slowly. And with less control over the results.
So the 16 spot ladybirds introduced to mainland Europe for some specific purpose a few years ago have now spread to most of the UK, easting the indigenous 7 spot variety as they go. This is, potentially, not good news. On the other hand my plum tree has less leaf curl this year than I can ever remember from past years. Is that due to the unintended hunger of the 16 spot Ladybird or some effect of the weather? Or possibly that I sprayed the tree in January, though doing so has never been that successful in past years.
Or maybe the aphids have elected to go elsewhere this year.
As for farmer suicides - a tenuous connection to GM. UK farmers are also amongst those with high suicide rates - plenty of easy access to suitable locations and methods. In the case of the UK the reasons may be similar to India - financial woes. However the reason seems more often related to Government enforced controls (foot and mouth, BSE and so on) and slow payment of compensation and EU support subsidies. The net effect is the same no matter what the cause. As I understand it in India there are some serious problems with land ownership and usage rights, partly because most farms are small and so susceptible to financial and social pressure (families wanting their cut). To associate the problems solely with GM seems to be a problematic view.
I could imagine the benefits of small scale farming would be very appealing to the Optimum Population Trust people.
All that said if we allow 'Laws' to distort the purpose of the development for non-productive commercial reasons - patented DNA sequences would be an example - then we clearly have some learning to do. That sociological angle does not really change the relevance of the scientific work.
Similarly letting risk assessment standards slip when control seems so much more possible than with traditional methods would also be unacceptable.
"In theory GM is far more precise that other forms of genetic manipulation (selective breeding) that have historic roots (so to speak). However it seems to me that because the selective breeding methods are 'natural' they may be less rigourously assessed than more Lab based approaches - like GM."
I can think of a lab-based genetic manipulation procedure which strangely does not attract any significant criticism or attention. The one I'm talking about is the use of high levels of radiation to create mutant seed varieties, which has been going on for 50 years.
For people not familiar with this idea, this newspaper article gives a fairly good description:
Radiation bombardment speeds up the natural mutation process by orders of magnitude, so it's more likely to come up with a potentially 'dangerous' mutation than normal selective breeding. But what surprises me is that the Green lobby, and consequently the environmental journalists in the news media, completely ignore this practice. It's not as though the public aren't aware that radiation can cause mutations, as it forms the basis of nearly every TV comedian's joke about Sellafield. The irradiation is carried out using Cobalt-60, which is widely used in medical applications, and so is presumably a politically correct radiation source as far as the Green lobby are concerned.
I seem to recall some concern expressed about irradiating packaged food to kill off bacteria.
I think the main concern was that irradiating pre-packaged food after the bacteria had had time to play was that while the bacteria might be dead, the toxins they produced would still be there.
Don't know what came of the argument. I suspect that once the furor abated they went ahead and did it anyway, which seems to be the response to all things unpopular with the public. e.g. road tolls.
Thank you, Dave for making that pertinent point. It might also be good to mention that man has been manipulating the genes of livestock animals and plants since the DAWN of AGRICULTURE (emphasis intended, I can't shout that loudly enough). All of the varieties available today, even "heirloom" and "organic" varieties have been genetically manipulated. As Grant said, manipulation in ancient times was done on a macro scale instead of the micro scale that is achievable today. Considering that we have managed not to totally poison our food even during the times when we had little knowledge, I doubt that modern genetic manipulation of our food source is harmful in any way. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it is extremely necessary if we are to feed the world with as little impact to the environment as possible. Highly efficient crops are very friendly to the environment because they allow you to get more food/product per acre farmed. The antiquated low yield farming techniques endorsed by ignorant greens do not help the environment or help us feed the world, they just raise the price of produce.
And don't get me started on how silly it is to consider a clone to be a different and suddenly harmful organism.
On the issue of irradiation of food to kill microbes. The issue you bring up has some validity with respect to Staph aureus poisoning wherein the bacteria produce a heat stable toxin that causes the associated food poisoning. Botulism toxin is not at issue because it's caused by a strict anaerobe that would not be hanging around anywhere that oxygen is present. Other cases of food poisoning are due to infections of the actual bacteria themselves and irradiation would be of immesurable help in this area. Think about the fact that we get food from all over the world and that many countries (especially the cheaper ones) may not have all the sanitary safeguards in place that we do. Does anyone know if Mexico or Chile or Peru has laws to ensure safety of food products and inspections to enforce those laws? I'd sure like a way to kill lurking bacteria without cooking the food, wouldn't you?
Although many bacterial food pathogens enter our food chain through feces contamination, Staph aureus is more likely to enter during the food preparation and handling stage. It is fairly common for people to carry this bacteria without exhibiting symptoms of sickness. It can be passed on through salivary and nasal secretions. If the food they accidently sneezed on is eaten quickly, no real problem. But if it's left to sit, then there might be a toxin buildup to levels that would poison someone.