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Russell Brand and the media

It is almost pointless in writing an article about Russell Brand. Opinions are so divided about him that his haters seem to eat up every criticism of him no matter how stupid while his supporters seem to shrug off any criticism as if it’s all some grand conspiracy.

I’m not a Russell Brand fan, and at some point I may well bore on at length about why. For now though, I’m going to focus on his latest spat on Channel 4 News with reporter Paraic O’Brien.

Outside 10 Downing Street where Russell Brand was presenting a petition with residents from the New Era estate in protest at Westbrook Partners buying up their homes, O’Brien pressed Brand over his own living arrangements. An visibly irritated Brand evaded all questioning on the matter, pulled a protester into the shot to defend him and then stalked off, calling O’Brien a “snide”.

So far, so predictably divisive. Brand’s critics will leap on this as evidence of his hypocrisy, Brand’s supporters will attack it as the media attempting to discredit it so as to continue their neoliberal agenda.

Yet the fact is that if you watch the full report shown on Channel 4 News, it by no means focused on Brand. Instead, it was a genuine attempt to draw out the bigger picture. Leaving aside boring accusations of hypocrisy, the fact is that London’s inflated rental market is the real story here, making Russell Brand’s own living arrangements relevant. These wider issues are now struggling to gain attention, with Russell Brand’s behaviour in front of a camera once again dominating the story.

I would genuinely suggest to Brand that he gets some media training. The thing is, not only were Paraic O’Brien’s questions reasonable, but with a bit of preparation, Brand could have responded with something reasonable. He could have said something along the lines of “I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford my rent but if Westbrook are allowed to put up the rents of residents on this Estate, many people will be forced out of their homes. There are wider problems about the cost of housing in London which urgently need to be tackled and hopefully this campaign can help force this issue up the agenda and force politicians to listen.” If pressed, he could have said something like, “Yes, the amount of rent I’m able to pay for my luxury flat is part of the problem; so is the cost of your home. Ultimately this isn’t about one home or even one housing estate, but the bigger issue of housing in London.”

Okay, maybe it lacks a certain Russell Brand panache. Indeed, the fact it is a little dull is kind of the point.

Of course, this practice of staying on message is exactly the sort of thing politicians do. I can understand that might feel that indulging in such practices would be to play the media game. But it seems to me that if you want publicity (and he could quite easily evade publicity if he wanted) you have two choices: play the game or get played. The latter is what seems to be happening. Unless it was Brand’s intention all along to steal the limelight from the New Era residents, he can’t possibly be happy with the press his interview has garnered, which relegates the actual issue to paragraph 8. If he’d kept his calm, the New Era protestors might have been deemed less newsworthy, but at least it wouldn’t have been used simply to deflect attention away from the actual issue.

Of course, all this assumes that Brand actually believes there is a wider picture about London housing, and that the New Era estate controversy is the part of something greater and not just a unique story about corporate greed.

Even leaving aside the tactics of it all, one thing I don’t understand is how it squares up with Brand’s own calls for greater spirituality. Because surely the spiritual answer to “are you part of the problem” is always “yes”? Surely the solution always starts with the individual? Yet despite hearing Brand talk endlessly in abstract about how we are all one, and that our egos, greed and selfishness ultimately only work against us, when it comes to politics, he only ever seems to talk about Them vs Us. I’m genuinely mystified about how he can reconcile the two, because on the surface of it his political agenda is less spiritual than the most cynical Westminster hack. Perhaps I should read his book, but by all accounts it won’t actually answer my question.

Box art of the Alchemists board game

Games I love: Alchemists

I have a bad habit of dismissing games based on the fact that they sound boring, only to go onto try them and love them. This years was particularly bad as I first dismissed Splendor, fell in love with it, was furious when is failed to win the Spiel Des Jahre, which went to Camel Up, a game which I also thought sounded lame before playing it and realising it totally deserved the award. The thing is, until you try games out, you never know which ones you’re going to love and which ones will send you to sleep. And you never have enough time to test them all out, which can be very frustrating.

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of Alchemists, another game which didn’t interest me when I first heard about it but which I am happy to report is an excellent addition to my collection. In Alchemists, you play an alchemist working in a medieval university attempting to discover the essential nature of the eight “alchemicals” – ingredients which you can use to make magical potions and poisons.

Box art of the Alchemists board game

At the heart of the game is a concept which will be very familiar to players of logic puzzles and, er, Cluedo. When you test two ingredients together they will either result in producing a “positive” potion, a “negative” poison, or a very tasty soup which does nothing whatsoever. You understand the underlying alchemistry (is that a word? It is now) behind it all and so the more information you have, the more you can narrow down the possibilities about each ingredients’ essential qualities. If you had the time and resources to test all the ingredients, fame and academic prestige would be all yours. But you don’t have the resources, and you have a number of rivals each trying the same thing.

At the heart of the game is a phone app which you use to test the ingredients and a number of other actions. Board games which rely on apps (as opposed to apps which keep score or replace basic functions such as rolling dice) are quite a new thing – as far as I know only Alchemists and the upcoming XCOM board game have taken this step. They’re controversial as there are concerns that it is just a gimmick. While this possibility is not inconceivable, I can say that with Alchemists it adds a new dimension to the game which wouldn’t be possible without the app. The game is in fact playable without the app, but it relies on having one person play a facilitator. It’s clear that the app opens up new possibilities for gameplay, which is why this game feels so fresh. Probably the best thing I can about the app is that it doesn’t get in the way. It’s straightforward to use and allows you to concentrate on the game itself (I suspect having a human facilitator would be far more intrusive).

Screenshot from Alchemists app demonstrating it identifying cardsScreenshot from app showing the reaction from the previous image

The best aspect of this game is the way it parodies academic life. The goal of the game is to finish with the highest academic reputation, but that’s an ephemeral thing. You can concentrate on research, but will quickly find yourself cash strapped. You can sell out and flog your potions to passing adventurers for their own nefarious purposes, but risk your reputation. Most research is done by exploiting students, but if you poison them then they demanding money; you can test potions on yourself for free, but that means you have to suffer all the negative consequences if they turn out to be poison. If you don’t publish enough theses before the two academic conferences in the game take place, you will lose reputation and you can gain reputation by debunking your rivals’ theses. You can spend the game riding the coat-tails of the players doing the real research and do very well for yourself. Both times I’ve played it, I’ve found myself getting extremely caught up in the theme.

Indeed, the way the theme and the game mechanisms mesh – aided by the app of course – is remarkable. While it takes a while explaining the logic behind the alchemicals and there are some basic rules that need explaining, once you get that out of the way it really is a very smooth game to play. Not all the rules need to be learned in round one, which means you can progressively explain them as they come up. For a game with as many moving parts as this one has, that really is something.

Before I get too hung up on the game’s brilliance, I do have a couple of criticisms. The pieces you use to keep track of the results of your various experiments don’t fit into the board they are intended to be inserted into. There’s a knack to wedge them in, but a lot of players seem to really struggle with them. Fortunately, the publishers CGE have announced that they will be replacing these with slightly smaller counters. A bigger issue however are the pads which you are supposed to record your results on. The various symbols on these are quite small have been faded out. I struggle to see them clearly, and my partially sighted wife has a real problem. I plan to mock up my own laminated versions soon.

These production niggles however don’t interfere with what is a really great game which, while having some very familiar mechanics feels remarkably fresh and original. The theme and app make it surprisingly accessible for a game of this length and complexity. If board games with apps are going to be a thing, Alchemists really does point the way forward and give us cause for optimism.

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Star Wars Episode VII: your republic is my empire

The teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII is out and it is causing much excitement, ridicule and exasperation at all the excitement and ridicule (delete as applicable):

One of the things that has got a lot of people buzzing is the presence of stormtroopers, albeit Apple circa 2001 stormtroopers. Wasn’t the Empire destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi? How can they still be around?

It strikes me that there are two possibilities. One is boring as all hell. The other is much more interesting.

The boring option is the one they went for with the now defunct Expanded Universe (disclaimer: I haven’t read much post-Jedi EU; I just didn’t like what I did read): after the Emperor was killed a breakaway group of Admirals split off to form their own Imperial Remnant who continued to bother the good guys for years afterwards. This is sort of how I would have imagined things when I was nine and presupposes a simplistic goodies vs baddies approach. And while it’s true that George Lucas himself rather encourages this with his focus on the dark and light side of the Force, in reality there is a lot more ambiguity even in the original film series, with bored stormtroopers having casual conversations and careerist generals doing their best to manage Darth Vader’s mood swings in Empire Strikes Back. The implication that there are enough true believers in the Imperial Navy to break off and form a significant threat to the New Republic just doesn’t make any sense to me. There isn’t much of a (real world) historical precedent to suggest that this is what is likely to happen either.

What is more interesting to me is this: after the fall of Palpatine, the entire galaxy is likely to erupt into civil war. After all, immediately preceding his rise to power, the galaxy bubbling under with petty disputes and this was stoked by Palpatine and Dooku which lead to the Clone Wars. It is unlikely that after 20+ years of oppressive dictatorship that the Empire would simply turn into a happy clappy New Republic, much more likely that the vast majority of planets will either declare independence or form new alliances of their own. It is very unlikely that even after 30 years there wouldn’t still be tensions and trade disputes across the galaxy.

The people taking over the New Republic, who we might speculate are lead by Mon Mothma and Princess Leia, are unlikely to dismantle everything they’ve inherited. Whoever takes over as Commander in Chief is going to have to immediately make some very difficult decisions: do we let planet X invade planet Y or do we try to maintain the peace? Are these people really freedom fighters or are they pirates? Democratic ideals only get you so far. There are going to be a lot of people who, having won the war, are going to be deeply disaffected by the subsequent regime and its tough choices.

So while I think it is very likely that there will be some stringent measures to de-Sithify the Imperial armed forces, at the end of the day they are unlikely to be decommissioned. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to people: after all, during the prequels the stormtrooper’s predecessors the clone troopers were the good guys (gliding over Order 66 for a second there).

George Lucas got an awful lot wrong with the prequels, but much of the world building was spot on. People derided the focus on politics and trade disputes, but that made it feel much more real to me. Scratch behind the surface and the prequels aren’t a simplistic battle between the light and the dark, but a much more subtle tale of a decadent republic reaching the end of its usefulness, dominated by a religious order, the Jedi, who had become horrifically complacent and meddling in political affairs they should have left well alone. These themes are all there in the films and explored in greater depth in the Clone Wars (the irony of this being achieved in a watchable kids’ show is not lost on me).

The key thing that concerns me about these new films is that they will look at the criticism of the prequels and seek to simplify that political situation. If they do, my suspicion is that the films themselves will feel quite vacuous and empty. I’m not suggesting that the films should be about affairs of state and politicking in the way that I would agree that the prequels focus too much on scenes from the Galactic Senate which would have been better relegated to the background and opening crawls. But if they open with Luke and Leia doing everything right and bringing back and idyllic New Republic that only starts to go wrong when a new bad guy emerges, I will be deeply disappointed.

So, to summarise, I’m hoping those Stormtroopers are under the command of Leia who, if not an actual villain, is certainly worn down after decades of making hard choices and not getting everything right. That’s drama right there, that is.

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Police probe into Lords fraud should start with ex-cop

The police are said to be launching an investigation into expenses fraud in the House of Lords a year after the Mirror caught disgraced peer Lord Hanningfield claiming £300 expenses before immediately leaving.

This is a year after the Mirror investigation, but the scandal has been well known years before that. My old organisation Unlock Democracy revealed dozens of questionable cases in 2012, and working peers have reported people clocking in and sodding off for years. It’s almost as if they were somewhat reluctant to investigate for some reason.

Allow me to introduce you to the Earl of Rosslyn, aka Peter Loughborough.

For years, the Earl has worked in the Metropolitan police as the head of royal protection. Unlock Democracy uncovered that he had clocked up over £15,000 in daily allowances in 2011 despite not voting at all or being a member of any committees. In fact, up until that point, he had only voted seven times in the Lords in total, five of which in 2007 when democratic reform of the Lords came up. He was, of course, against.

Between April 2013 and March 2014, he claimed a further £8,700. He still doesn’t sit on any committees, and he has not voted at all since 2007. As a senior policeman, he had a full time job, and it’s genuinely bemusing how he can justify these claims. According to the official register he also claimed “Ministerial and Office Holder Secretarial Expenses” (quantity undetermined), but he holds no ministerial or parliamentary office. If his attendance was as part of his police duties, the cost of him walking for five minutes from Scotland Yard to the Houses of Parliament is already covered by his salary.

According to the Daily Mail, earlier this year he left his police role to become the head of Prince Charles’s household. He has not apparently attended the House of Lords since taking on this role (accurate up to June 2014). Clarence House is, of course, much further to walk to Parliament from than Scotland Yard.

I’m sure it is a complete coincidence that this investigation has only started six months after a potential suspect has left the senior ranks of the Metropolitan Police, and I’m sure they will demonstrate this fact by taking Peter Loughborough in for questioning.

Twilight Imperium

Games I love: Twilight Imperium

I held off from getting into Twilight Imperium for years. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition (“TI3″) – I never tried the earlier editions – is by definition a pretty preposterous game. The main thing it is famous for is it’s length. The longest it’s taken me to play the basic game is 14 hours, including setup time. The shortest, this weekend, was 8 – although that doesn’t include me procrastinating the night before setting up as much of the game as possible before the players were due to arrive the next morning.

Straight off the bat, if you don’t like long games this is not the game for you. This is something you want to play if you like the idea of an intense, full day of negotiation and strategising, as much a test of endurance as it is a contest of skill. Most games I’ve played have included a mid-game lull in which all the players are exhausted and bamboozled, unclear about what the hell they’re doing. It’s a mark of the game’s quality that no-one has ever walked out at that point, preferring to stick it out to the bitter end.

So what’s it about? The setting of TI3 is a decayed galactic empire in the far future. A race of four armed aliens, the Lazax, ruled the galaxy for millennia but were eventually overthrown and vanished in a cosmic huff. Each player runs one of the remaining factions as they attempt to realise their own imperialist ambitions and take over. The game involves building up fleets of spaceships, discovering new worlds, warring with rival factions and politicking in the galactic assembly. Everyone has their own secret objectives and a series of public objectives are revealed as the game goes on. Meeting those objectives earns you points, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game.

It looks beautiful. The artwork on the cards and hexes (the game uses a modular board of hexes which is different each game) is beautiful, as are the space ships. It’s huge. Admittedly, we tend to play using the “larger map” option, but our dining room table cannot really accommodate more than four players – last time a friend of mine ended up bringing over a couple of desks to give us somewhere to put stuff on.

Mechanically, the game is interesting. I read an article yesterday in which Scott Nicholson argues that the current boom in tabletop gaming is due to a fusion of European (resource management, economic, somewhat abstract, strategic) and American (thematic, conflict oriented, dice-heavy) styles of games. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before but I think it’s true, and nowhere is it more apparent than in TI3 which blends the two to the nth degree.

On the one hand, it is the ultimate “Ameritrash” game, yet at its heart is a game in which you have to carefully make use of the planets in your empire’s limited resources, and one of the main mechanics is “role allocation” – a mechanic that first came to prominence in the classic Euro game Puerto Rico. As such, you can play the game as a roleplaying game or a strategy game. In reality, most players tend to do a bit of both.

It isn’t a perfect game by any means. The game length is, frankly, because of its flabbiness. Some will find that lack of sleek design a real turn-off. Personally, I don’t mind. What I mind somewhat more is that some of the factions/alien races are significantly weaker than others, and that the system for politics is underwhelming. The latter is something that I am the most disappointed with. A number of games “do politics” better than this one. Warrior Knights and even the Game of Thrones board game has a more interesting system, and I just received my copy of Democracy: Majority Rules which focuses on this aspect, which I will hopefully get round to reviewing soon. Yet what promises to be a really exciting central aspect of TI3 – there are dozens of “politics cards” which you can potentially use in the game, all of which include a proposition the galactic council must vote on which adds new rules or even gives individual players additional points – all too often falls completely flat.

But one of the great things about TI3 is that it is so modular. The base game and especially its two expansions include a whole series of options which you can include or omit. I have to admit that I’m a bit of an all in kind of player, and prefer to include as many as possible. Introducing house rules is not only straightforward but, I get the impression, almost required for any group which plays the game regularly. If you’re going to spend an entire Saturday playing, it only makes sense that you would want to play it “your” way. Because of its modular nature, hacking a new rule is quite straightforward – as will probably be the case with politics the next time we play (I shall certainly be making use of the Democracy: Majority Rules gavel!).

Interestingly, Twilight Imperium itself is responsible for the creation of an empire. It’s designer Christian T. Peterson is the founder and CEO of Fantasy Flight Games and its initial success is what gave that company the start it needed. I’m always a little surprised that they haven’t tried making more of its IP than they have. In the early days it had a spin off RPG and a collectable card game, but these days only Rex: Final Days of an Empire, itself a reimplentation of the classic Dune board game, is in print. I would probably buy a Twilight Imperium Living Card Game in a hot second. I suppose Star Wars fills this slot for FFG these days.

This game is not for everyone, but if you like the idea of spending a day – or even a weekend – immersing yourself in a grand space opera, there is no other game that quite delivers in the way TI3 does. You won’t get to play it every week, but every time you do play it will feel special and you will be thinking about it for days afterwards.

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Jack Monroe and “Hodge’s killer baby adverts”

One of the latest things to trend on Twitter is the hashtag #CameronMustGo and the celebrity chef Jack Monroe waded in with a series of tweets, the most notable one of which was “Because he uses stories about his dead son as misty-eyed rhetoric to legitimise selling our NHS to his friends #CameronMustGo”.

As is usually the case with Twitter, whatever you think of the original tweet the backlash has been far worse, with Ms Monroe reporting death threats, rape threats and, without irony, threats to her son.

The thing is though, she has a point. As far back as March 2012, Alex Andreou wrote a rather famous blog post titled “We Need to Talk About Ivan” which discussed this phenomenon in some detail. At this year’s party conference, David Cameron did it again, saying:

And for me, this is personal. I am someone who has relied on the NHS – whose family knows more than most how important it is…who knows what it’s like to go to hospital night after night with a child in your arms…knowing that when you get there, you have people who will care for that child and love that child like their own. How dare they suggest I would ever put that at risk for other people’s children?

I’m sorry, but arguing that because you had a sick child you should be able to shrug off scrutiny of how you, as Prime Minister, are treating the NHS is pretty repugnant. Calling him out on this is perfectly legitimate and the fact that doing so itself results in a huge storm of controversy, only demonstrates how this is not something David Cameron should be indulging in. I can’t think of any other politician who uses their children in quite this way; it is extraordinary.

What really got my goat last night however was the decision by Dan Hodges to wade into the debate. Mr Hodges has been undergoing a bit of a rehabilitation recently, having rather self consciously transformed himself from Blairite attack dog to tree hugging liberal. But for me, he’ll always be the man behind, to use his exact words “Hodge’s killer baby adverts” during the AV referendum.

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If you ever doubted the degree to which this outrage about Jack Monroe’s tweet is manufactured, you only need to look at this picture. So please spare me the high moral tone.

England toilet paper

Have we reached peak flag?

There are some days when I couldn’t feel more alienated from UK politics, and today is one of them. While we are still struggling to comprehend why the people of Rochester and Strood just re-elected an MP who is a virtual caricature of every worst Westminster character trait imaginable in what they seem to think is a defiant anti-Westminster rebuff, Labour opted to lose it completely. They sacked Emily Thornberry from the front bench for posting a picture of a house with three England flags in the window alongside in a way that might be construed as mildly passive-aggressive. Sacked immediately by an apparently furious Ed Miliband, we’ve been bombarded today by pictures of the house’s occupant, nicknamed “White Van Dan” riding around Islington in his van, which has now been covered by Sun newspaper stickers. Meanwhile, asked what he thinks whenever he sees a white van, Ed Miliband came up with the ultimate Thick-Of-It-ism by replying “respect“.

Hanging over all this is the spectre of Gillian Duffy, the pensioner from Rochdale who Gordon Brown unwisely called a bigoted woman while wearing a live microphone during the 2010 general election campaign. In both cases, the response has seemed as out of touch if less authentic than the original offence. In fact, the only thing less authentic is the manufactured outrage whipped up by the media and Labour’s rivals which caused the apologies in the first place.

Labour aren’t just the victims of this. Just yesterday, Labour’s new anti-Green unit had managed to get the Evening Standard to publish a story attacking Green Party leader Natalie Bennett for the apparently egregious offence of travelling across Europe in a comfortable train instead of the indignity of squatting in one of those flying toilets that passes for a RyanAir plane. As someone who did something rather similar last month, albeit mostly out of a desire for comfort rather than wanting to minimise carbon emissions, I struggle to understand what the fuss is about. I certainly struggle to understand why Labour thinks this is going to alienate potential voters from the Green Party.

Much of what I wrote about Norman Baker’s treatment following his resignation earlier this month also applies to this latest debacle. I’m growing increasingly despairing of politicians’ craven need to indulge every reactionary twinge, as long as it emerges from a housing estate. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is genuine concern for the poor and marginalised in society however; I have no idea if White Van Dan receives benefits or not, but under different circumstances he is exactly the kind of bloke that the Sun typically vilifies for being a scrounger, with Labour cheerleading behind it. If you’re poor, the political class hate you; yet if you say something like “it’s not racist to want to kick brown people out of the country”, you are fêted and patronised as the authentic voice of the working classes. Meanwhile, the under-25s are looking at having their benefits slashed regardless of whether Labour or the Tories win a plurality at the next general election. And despite housing being one of the biggest single causes of poverty and social immobility, none of the parties appear to be interest in doing much about it.

The thing is, as a strategy for marginalising the far right, it doesn’t work, at all, as Ukip’s surge in recent years and the BNP’s upswing before that has repeatedly demonstrated. We are fortunate in this country in that most of our far right parties are so venal that they tend to turn in on themselves as soon as they get a whiff of success (helped along by organisations like Hope Not Hate). The BNP and English Defence League both spectacularly self-destructed, as indeed did Ukip 10 years ago following Robert Kilroy Silk’s attempts at a takeover. And looking at the oddballs which Ukip got elected as MEPs this year, there’s a good chance they will self-destruct again.

But by not challenging the very thing they stand for, all the main parties have achieved is to grow the reactionary core vote. As parties collapse, new ones rise up and quickly take their place. If Nigel Farage does self-immolate at some point, you can bet that there’s another smooth talking, slimy public former public schoolboy ready to take his place.

As it is, when people say idiotic things like immigration is a taboo subject in British politics, the main parties all nod their heads sagely, despite knowing that it’s all they ever talk about. I’m hardly the first person to notice that “Ukip are right, don’t vote for them” has spectacularly failed as a political message. And while politicians are falling over themselves to come up with ever harsher anti-immigration policies, whilst straining to appear non-racist, immigrants themselves meanwhile are shoring up the NHS, the treasury and our cultural life.

With the vast majority of the public not willing to even consider voting Ukip, is it really that inconceivable to actually challenge their bullshit? I don’t mean in a mealy mouthed, apologetic way as Labour currently practices, but in a robust and pro-active way. It did not, admittedly, work particularly well for the Lib Dems during the last European elections, but their credibility has been shot to pieces. Imagine if Ed Miliband had decided to take Ukip to task at his party conference this September, instead of spending the last couple of months indulging them? He certainly wouldn’t be in a worse position than he is at the moment. I suspect that his failure to do so has more to do with the rise in Green Party popularity than any newfound concern for the environment.

I’m not a fan of nationalism, but I will confess that some people seem to be capable of practising genuine civic nationalism, and I respect them for it. In the run up and aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, I came across dozens of examples of it campaigning for Yes. As someone who has always been quite dismissive of SNP claims to be this generous form of nationalism, as opposed to the defensive, hateful kind, this has represented something of a challenge for me (for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting that all SNP supporters are twinkly civic nationalists; far from it).

The Anglo-British political class however seem to be reacting to the nationalist challenge by adopting an equally reactionary form of nationalism. Throughout the Scottish independence referendum campaign, my twitterfeed seemed to be dominated by No campaigners and English politicos talking about how a Yes vote would force them to erect a border between Scotland and England – not to keep the nationalists out, you understand, but all the dreadful immigrants that the SNP was going to be willing to accept into the country. Self-defined lefties, progressives and Europhiles were talking about Schengen in increasingly shrill tones. This seems to be all that British nationalism has to offer; togevverness in the face of the awful outside world, and nothing but spite for Scotland if it chose to go its own way. As someone who simply doesn’t understand why I should treat Scots as any more or less comradely than the French or Danes – or Liberians for that matter, I found it weirdly alienating.

The Ango-British are really bad at nationalism, not least of all because no-one seems to be able to decide whether to wrap themselves in the English or British flag. I don’t doubt the integrity of people like Billy Bragg wanting an English civic nationalism, but even he isn’t very good at articulating it, and no-one is really listening to him in any case. Instead of trying to invent something that isn’t there, the progressive, civic nationalist thing to do is to simply not worry too much about it, and instead focus on values such as mutual respect and solidarity. Those ought to be our starting points, not a concern about alienating people who have become intoxicated with nationalist lies.

There’s a possibility that Labour might actually realise this over the next couple of months and respond accordingly, but I’m not going to be holding my breath. If they don’t however, I suspect that all we’ll see is a further fragmentation of the Labour vote as haemorrhages between the Greens and Ukip. In many ways, this isn’t a bad thing – the collapse of the established political order is looking increasingly inevitable. But while it might be a positive thing in the long term, in the short term we are likely to just see British politics adrift on a tide of racist and hateful effluent.

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Freedom of speech and the right to protest

People are screaming “censorship!” today again after a student debate was cancelled. The ridiculously named Oxford Students for Life attempted to stage a debate about abortion, with Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley arguing against and fellow Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill arguing for. It didn’t happen after a horde of students threatened to disrupt the debate with (presumably musical rather than gynaecological) “instruments”.

Cue manufactured outrage, with Brendan O’Neill’s article on the topic making the front page of this week’s Spectator. But what’s really going on here? Who has been silenced? Not the well paid journalists, and certainly not Brendan O’Neill who has managed to make a quick buck out of it. Not the Oxford Students for Life, who are now being discussed up and down the country. Not the feminists who protested against the debate, who have also received a media platform from which to air their views.

It is clear that the debate was calculated to offend. That’s what you do when you put Brendan O’Neill on stage, who if you don’t know is a sort of Katie Hopkins for dullards – especially when you invite the notorious misogynist to speak in favour of abortion. They might have wanted the debate to go ahead, but you can bet they wanted people to be making a noise about it. For O’Neill, this is his meat and drink, and he’s managed to churn out another lazy article drawing huge generalised conclusions out of a single incident.

What we’re actually looking at is a well functioning, democratic discourse. Something to be celebrated. Paradoxically however, the only way this discourse is maintained is by everyone running around insisting that important democratic principles have been chucked in the gutter. Let’s assume for a minute that no-one had been offended about anything in this incident. The debate would have happened, listened to by a desultory bunch of spotty Herberts, and it would never have entered the public imagination. A couple of well paid men in suits would have got to play a game for 60 minutes, that’s all. It’s bizarre that O’Neill and the Spectator’s assistant editor Isabel Hardman think that freedom of speech is really that dismal, and disregard everything else that has happened over the past couple of days as just noise. But then, this is by no means the first time that I’ve seen journalists imply that freedom of speech is a thing only to be valued when it comes to the views of professional journalists.

It is very lazy indeed, not to mention potentially dangerous, to equate protest – especially disruptive, effective protest – with state censorship. It leads you down the dangerous path, which governments are quick to encourage, that protest should be silenced. The next step is that the only people who’s views are allowed to enter the public realm are those well paid men in suits, while the noisy, dirty – and yes, sometimes idiotic – masses get their heads bashed in.

If you genuinely believe in freedom of expression, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to tolerate the fact that it works both ways. And sometimes it even inconveniences privileged men.

Myleene Klass and Ed Miliband

Myleene Klass and political failure

Myleene Klass may be deeply confused about how the mansion tax will work in practice, but she probably isn’t the only one. As a supporter of land value taxation, it is no surprise that I think it is a flawed policy, but what’s really problematic is the way both Labour and the Lib Dems are attempting to sell it.

In many ways, Klass’s tustle with Ed Miliband sums up the problem. She seems to think that, as a tax which will only apply to properties worth £2m and over, that in parts of London that applies to garages. She’s wrong. The £2m figure was calculated to be as painless to as many people as possible. In fact, under Vince Cable’s original proposals in 2009, the tax was to apply to properties worth £1m and over. This was quickly adjusted following an outcry from Cable’s fellow South West London MPs who feared a backlash (and even £1m is a bit steep for a garage, Myleene).

The UK – and London in particular – has a real problem with rising house prices. Home ownership has reached extremely low levels compared to recent history and the fears of another housing price bubble, despite the views of fantasists like Danny Alexander, are very real. The UK ought to be having a very serious conversation about how it tackles this.

Instead, we try to kid ourselves that this is just a problem for the very rich. Hence the mansion tax’s £2m threshold. We ought to be having a national conversation about restructuring our economy to avoid property bubbles. We ought to be talking about a property tax which kicks in at much lower levels. But we’re too busy blaming everything on immigrants and the poor.

Meanwhile, our existing domestic property tax, the council tax, has not been revalued in England since 1991. If our politicians lack the courage to even do that, what hope is there for us to have a serious conversation about what’s needed.

Ironically, the Lib Dems in particular, are in a better place than they have been in years to make the case. 10 years ago, they were transfixed with the idea of scrapping all property taxes and making taxes on employment take up even more of the strain. Now they are making the case for more taxes on property and taking people out of income tax altogether. Yet there is no narrative connective tissue between the two. They aren’t making the case for a fairer society and stronger economy in which a hard day’s work is taxed less and wealth is taxed more.

Ignore policy for a minute, which is largely irrelevant these days in a world of coalition government. What a liberal party ought to be making the case for right now is a new economy with significantly different priorities. It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done over time, piecemeal. There can be a direction of travel. It can’t however be done by stealth; the public need to buy into it or it will fall apart after the first Daily Mail headline.

The mansion tax could be step one of a new economic plan; as it is, it’s a policy cul de sac. Assuming it eventually happens, it will probably suffer the same indignity as council tax, and never be touched again. Or worse, start going up by inflation to ensure that only a tiny minority ever pay it and its true revenue potential is never realised. It’s emblematic of the political malaise; instead of dealing with the big political issues of the day, we’re reduced to soundbites.

Star Wars card game

How JJ Abrams could severely hurt tabletop gaming

Typical. Just after I write a blog post praising Fantasy Flight Games, they go and do something that makes me wary. Yesterday, FFG announced their intention to be taken over by French board game company Asmodée. This comes just months after Asmodée took over Days of Wonder, publishers of the enormously successful Ticket To Ride board game (among many others).

The Days of Wonder/Asmodée takeover didn’t especially concern me as, despite their success with a number of product lines, Days of Wonder seems to have been struggling for some time to come up with another big hit; I can see how that merger could potentially be in their interests. Fantasy Flight on the other hand is a much larger company currently in its prime; it isn’t immediately obvious what they’re getting out of this, but I assume they have their reasons.

I’m especially nervous about this because Asmodée itself is part of the Eurazeo group, a publicly listed investment company with its fingers in a large number of different pies. To say the board game industry has had a fairly difficult relationship with the stock market would be an understatement. The most notorious example is that of Hasbro’s buyout of Wizards of the Coast and Avalon Hill. Hasbro began the 2000s owning the largest war games company (Avalon Hill), RPG (Dungeons and Dragons) and card game (Magic: the Gathering). It ended that decade having royally screwed all of them up, although Magic has since clawed its way back and D&D has just had a successful relaunch.

The problem is that PLCs’ main focus is on shareholder value, not necessarily on delivering good product for consumers. Add to that the fact that they almost always have to borrow to afford these buyouts and the focus within those companies inexorably becomes about profit. And if they don’t return the right numbers to keep the board happy, they have their work cut out explaining how their business works to a bunch of people with no knowledge of the industry. The result, if Wizards is anything to go by, is creatives getting the chop, gouging and a company which is less viable than it was before the takeover.

With all that said, as I said before, Fantasy Flight have always seemed like a sensible company which has learnt from the mistakes of its predecessors. It’s entirely possible that their current business model, with several highly successful product lines and more on the way, are the perfect fit for a PLC and that all this takeover will mean for them is access to resources and in particular capital to allow them to expand. There is a bigger question in continental Europe where a lot of FFG’s games are licensed to companies which are not part of the Asmodée group and what will happen to those companies (either merger or they’ll take a big hit being the most likely answer), but generally, this could be all steam ahead for FFG.

What makes me worry though is this: it has already been clear for quite some time that FFG have been lining their ducks in a row in anticipation for Star Wars: Episode 7. They currently publish or will soon be publishing three Star Wars roleplaying games, two Star Wars card games and three Star Wars miniatures games. Of these, Star Wars LCG and X-Wing are two of their biggest sellers, and the incoming Imperial Assault looks set to be as popular if not more so than these two. Like Disney-Lucasfilm, they have opted to ditch support for the prequels-era in favour of a line of products that very much harken back to the original films.

By December 2015, all these product lines will be very firmly established, and no doubt FFG are keen to have these games on the shelves of every supermarket, toy and book shop in time for Black Friday next year. No doubt, Asmodée’s takeover will help them in that respect (let’s ignore the plight of the specialist retailer here for a second), and there is a good chance they will be wildly successful. If, as everyone hopes, Episode VII is a hit and results in a new mega-franchise to rival Marvel’s (owned by the same company), then this could result in a significant boost for the company.

But there are two things that concern me here. Firstly, what if the new JJ Abrams’ film is rubbish? I’m sure it will make a lot of money either way, but a weak film will lack the sort of fanbase that FFG are hoping for. They’ll probably be safe for Christmas 2015 either way, but Christmas 2016 will be another story if the film is widely perceived to be another Phantom Menace. That potential will dry up and if any of those games are produced in large, unsellable numbers, a lot of money will be lost.

If the film is good, there’s still the question of what happens when the franchise winds down. Again, past precedent is not encouraging. Games Workshop almost collapsed in the mid-2000s when their cash cow in the form of the Lord of the Rings films came to an end. If FFG get big based on a film franchise, they are unlikely to be able to convert huge amounts of the mass market over to buying Twilight Imperium 4; they’ll be dependent on more franchises.

Under either scenario, there will come a point in which the company, while still profitable, will need to contract compared to its height, at which point the money men step in. And that’s when I get nervous. When Asmodée’s expansionist plans were limited to companies like Ticket To Ride, we weren’t looking at an investment company navigating its way through a boom (as distinct from a more sustainable period of growth). Now the fortunes of what amounts to a very large chunk of the industry is going to be at their mercy.

Hopefully, Episode VII will be a success and FFG will find the success it is hoping for for several years before it reaches that crossroad, by which point the relationship with the money men will have matured enough to avoid any panics making things worse during the inevitable lean years. But as of yesterday, an awful lot of my hobby suddenly became hitched to the fortunes of JJ Abrams’ film career, and so I’m nervous.