(come to think of it, actually, a bit) EXCLUSIVE: Nick Clegg talks to Quaequam Blog! (finished at last)

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Originally posted 4pm, Monday 19 November.

This morning, the small group who interviewed Chris Huhne a fortnight ago (see part 1 and part 2) finally got a chance to put our questions to Nick Clegg – this time with Linda Jack but without Jonny Wroght. I’m running late doing this because I spent this afternoon having my hair cut so I now look like a human pinhead, and also because the sound quality on my iPod is appalling (something to do with the electrical equipment at Portcullis House I suspect – my recording of the Huhne interview at the Atrium down the road is fine). I’m thus going to liveblog this until I’ve finished – so keep coming back! So without further ado…

On Comfort Zones
First of all, Millennium’s Daddy Richard asked Clegg what specifically he thought we should do to get outside of the party’s so-called “comfort zone”.

Clegg began by saying that a party that is hovering between 11 per cent and 14 per cent in the polls needs to rediscover the ability to talk to people in their terms and on issues that matter to them, rather than the issues which we think should matter to them or we hope would matter to them.

He singled out the issues which he spelt out in his “manifesto speech” at the National Liberal Club in October: a sense of powerlessness, social stagnation over equality, the politics of fear (note – not “balancing liberty and security“), social justice, the environment – why is this still only regarded as a priority by 6 per cent of the population? – and globalisation. These, he feels are the issues that the party must address over the coming years and that, particularly in the case of the sense of powerlessness, are issues which the other main parties have little to say.

He went on to talk about how politics has changed over the past 20 years from being totally dominated by economics, which lent itself well to a left-right dialectic, to what we have now almost overnight.

My view: This answer doesn’t actually get us much further than Nick’s speech at the NLC last month. If you want my more comprehensive views on that, see my earlier posting.

Chris Huhne and opportunism
Never one for subtlety, I now had an opportunity to ask a question and I went straight for the issue that was on everybody’s minds: given Chris Huhne’s constant attacks over Trident and school vouchers, and the “Calamity Clegg” dossier, did Clegg feel his views at the last leadership election branding Huhne as “opportunistic” to now be vindicated.

Nick swatted this aside, returning to the point he made yesterday on the Politics Show that it would be foolish for anyone to win a leadership election on terms that are wholly incomprehensible to the British public. In an internal election such as this it is important to strike the right balance between the party’s internal preoccupations and the wider public’s concerns and that for this reason he is determined to not get drawn into the debate but rather concentrate on articulating the party’s policies and values in ways that will appeal to people outside of the party.

I asked a supplementary question: does Clegg accept that some of this bad blood has formed as a result of how the last leadership election was conducted in which Huhne was much more the target, not least of all by Clegg himself, and that possibly he shouldn’t have made those comments then.

His argument was that his comments then were politely worded, constrained to a few policy positions, emphasised that he wasn’t a candidate then and had been a Guardian columnist for years. He thought that it was wholly different to what is going on now.

My view: This wasn’t the mea culpa that I was hoping for, and I think Clegg’s emphasis on him merely calling it as he saw it as a Guardian columnist was rather over-egging it. Clegg was very much seen as Ming’s right hand man in the last election campaign, standing in for him in numerous hustings around the country. And while his remarks were always impeccably polite, they did indeed include phrases which struck me at the time as the very “innuendo” that Clegg is now objecting to, as I wrote at the time (prompting Clegg himself to join the throng in the comments section).

With all that said, I don’t disagree with him here about how Huhne’s continued emphasis on a few areas where Clegg appears to have made some mildly ambiguous comments which have been misinterpreted by journalists is ultimately self-destructive. I’d just like there to be a broader recognition that this knockabout stuff hasn’t been entirely one-way.

Comfort Zones 2: moving onto specifics
Paul Walter, clearly not satisfied with Clegg’s answer to Richard’s question, pressed the candidate on specific ways in which he proposes the party should move outside of its comfort zone.

First, Clegg replied, he felt that the Westminster Parliamentary Party had become unduly obsessed with Westminster politics. He lamented the degree to which colleagues spend time concentrating on tabling amendments, making speeches and sitting on green leather benches rather than, as a campaigning party, using the party structures to campaign more effectively. He said that as leader he would restructure the Parliamentary Party.

He drew an explicit contrast with how the party campaigns at a local level, where the party relentlessly campaigns to push out its messages, with how the party campaigns at a national level, where we allow our message to dissipate. The “massive restructuring” he has in mind he is confident will be uncomfortable for a lot of people.

Pressed by Paul to talk about a specific area in which he feels the party should adopt this kind of approach on, Clegg cited housing, where the party has the policy but hasn’t pushed its message home.

At this point, Clegg became emphatic on one thing: it isn’t policy that is the issue. If policy alone was so important, he said, we would have won every single election since the war. Getting policy through conference should be the start of something, not the end point, which is how it is all too often perceived. He stressed that he would not change the party’s policy making “very much” at all.

Moving onto the media and returning to the theme of how our MP’s should organise, he said that we needed to place much more emphasis on getting our message across in local and regional newpapers and radio. He said that MPs need to learn to pipe down on some issues while turning up the volume on others, citing his own experience under Kennedy and Campbell’s tenures that he was never once asked to stand aside because the party was intending to relentlessly talk about health (as an example) during that week; we need to think much more strategically about using the media.

He criticised the start of Ming’s tenure as too diffident: having appointed the senior shadow cabinet members, he left them to do their stuff when it was crucial during the first few weeks and months for the leader to make an impact.

My view: finally – some meat! I’ve often been hard of Clegg on this blog; I can honestly say that if he had been talking about this sort of thing a few weeks ago with the clarity and authority that he did this morning, my overall tone would have been very different indeed.

This answer puts an entirely different perspective on the Clegg exhortation to move outside of our comfort zone and what I labeled his “Marc Anthony” approach to Ming. Some of it, it has to be said, sounds like a sinner repenting; he was quite happy with Campbell’s “bridge to the future” approach at the time if I recall. But that’s by the by: this is a very clear summary of what the party’s communication strategy ought to be and I commend it unequivocally.

I was very conscious that he added the rider that he didn’t want the party’s policy making process changed “very much”. A potential hostage to fortune? Maybe, but if change is to happen, let’s have a serious conversation about it. I’ve added my tuppence on this area; if the debate is centred around the party’s campaign priorities rather than the Parliamentary Party’s vanity, then it can only be positive.

School Vouchers and Health Insurance
Linda Jack asked Clegg to clarify his position on school vouchers and health insurance. In light of the nature of the debate on these issues, and given that I was the only person with a recorder in the room, I thought I’d write up the response here more or less verbatim (caveat – I’ve made some slight judicious edits here because the spoken word rarely works well written down. Before some bright spark decides they’ve nailed Clegg on something I’ve typed here, save us all a bit of trouble and run it by me first okay?):

“Okay, on vouchers. Here are the facts. In two interviews – one in the Observer, one in the Telegraph – the pupil premium policy (which is party policy by the way), was described not by me but by the journalists as a voucher system.

“When I first heard Chris pick me up on this, which was at the hustings in the South East a month ago, I went up to him privately and said ‘Chris, I just want to be clear: I didn’t use the word vouchers and I don’t believe in vouchers.’

“My office on that same day said to his office that we had a full recorded transcript of both interviews, which we do. My office then also got in touch with the two journalists and they both confirmed that I never used the word ‘voucher’.

“I’ve said it at every single hustings that I’ve been asked that I do not support a voucher. What I have said, is that I believe the pupil premium policy, which is one that I’m closely associated with – I care about it, started the ball rolling on it many years ago with Richard Grayson in a book we wrote, loosely modelling it on the Dutch system, I think it is an excellent policy – I want it to go further. I got myself into a little difficulty in a particular interview trying to explain where I would find the money from (I think we can, but I wasn’t clear enough about it then). But the point is that I want to build on the pupil premium policy and find that £2.5bn now, not in two elections time, to raise spending on poorer students to private school levels.

“Now why this is self-evidently not a voucher system is because a voucher system is an entitlement that the parents hold in their hand and that is portable across the system. The system that I’m advocating is where the money goes to the school. So the school has an incentive to enroll more kids from poorer backgrounds – and that is what I care about.”

“On insurance. I’ve never advocated social insurance. I have said in the past, but years ago when I think Chris was chairing the commission, that we need to be open minded at how Europe seems to arrive at much better health outcomes and in certain places more progressive health systems than we do. I’m someone who’s had two children born in hospitals in Belgium, my mum’s Dutch, my wife’s Spanish, I’ve lived in Europe, worked in Europe for ten years… I don’t like the idea that we should not aspire to the sort of health service that the Danes get, the Swedes get, the French get…

“Does that mean I think you can transplant wholesale the system of France or Spain? Of course it doesn’t. But I am interested in outcomes, the public is interested in outcomes and I think they intuitively would like to see a system which has the same degree of patient satisfaction and the same sense of patient empowerment that you get in other systems.

“Now. Where we all agree (because it’s party policy and it’s been party policy for yonks) is that to do that and result in a system that’s responsive and owned by people and communities rather than bureaucrats in London, you need to devolve. That’s why I’m quite explicit; the next major innovation on health policy is that the function of the Primary Care Trusts, in particular in their new consolidated form, needs to be transferred pretty well wholesale into a democratic body.

“I can now do a big diversion about the arrogance and the insensitivity of Primary Care Trusts. In Sheffield I am day in day out appalled at a system where you’ve got a bunch of unelected bureaucrats telling me whether my constituents can have their treatment covered on the NHS or not without an input at all from me as an elected politician or they as a patient. I want to change that dramatically.

“So that’s the bit we can agree on. The bit that I’m quite interested in beyond that is that there’s no point in us as devolutionists and decentralisers advocating the handing over of power from politicians and bureaucrats in Westminster and Whitehall to politicians and bureaucrats in the town hall unless you can prove that it makes people more empowered every day, not just on the day they get to cast their vote at the ballot box. And this is where I think the interesting debate lies. And that’s why I’ve been talking very openly about, not social insurance, but about why I think we need to expand the pilot projects which are popping up around the country on what is called direct budgeting.

“This is where people with long term conditions, particularly those who are dependent on funds from both the health care and social care budgets, get a consolidated budget in their own hands, to be spent in the way they feel is best. Of course you can’t do this across the board; you certainly couldn’t do it with A&E or critical conditions. But in the cases of the elderly with long term conditions, chronic diabetics, mental health, social care budgets with disabled kids…

“I’ve seen some really interesting work by [Charles Leadbetter – Clegg couldn’t remember here but recalled his name in the middle of Mary Reid’s answer so I thought I’d cut to the chase] about a pilot programme called In Control how if you give parents direct budgeting for special needs kids what you find is that they spend less, clinical outcomes tend to improve and spiritual, emotional and psychological factors improve.

“I think that agenda for personal empowerment is a liberal agenda, and for the life of me don’t understand why we would say that all we should do is devolve the mechanics. No! I want a health system where people should be put in the driving seat as much as possible. With political will we could really make this into a big issue. Does it mean social insurance? No it doesn’t. But it does mean being endlessly imaginitive.

“There’s no place in British politics for another party that basically defends the status quo. We’ve got to be restless in how we want to see further improvements in health and education. We might get it wrong, we might get it right. But I do want to lead a party which is underpinned by a sense of restlessness; that the situation as it is just isn’t good enough.

“That to me is the starting point and I think the starting point of many British people. The NHS does a fantastic job; I depend on it, my family depends on it. People who go into hospitals with critical conditions invariably come out singing the praises of the NHS. The problem I think lies with long term conditions, with prevention, with public health, accountability and personal empowerment.”

Phew! Got all that?

My view: I really don’t believe that anyone can read the above and believe that Clegg supports a schools voucher system or a system of personal health insurance. I also really don’t believe that anyone can read the above and be in any doubt at all that this is an area that he has thought about in great detail, both in terms of analysing the problem and in terms of coming up with workable policy solutions. He is a veritable walking textbook on the subject.

It adds a human dimension to a topic which is otherwise in danger of being quite dry. It includes a couple of distinct differences between himself and Chris Huhne. Clegg wants a Pupil Premium system that would bring funding for the poorest children up to public school levels within one Parliament; Huhne wants the spending on all pupils to be raised up to public school levels within two Parliaments. Clegg has made it explicit that he wants to further explore direct budgeting; Huhne has focussed solely on devolving to local government.

If Chris Huhne hadn’t pushed this issue on so many occasions, I would have paid less attention. In light of what Clegg said this morning, I can unequivocally say that Clegg is stronger, more passionate and more articulate about this issue than his rival. Once again, I needed to see real meat from Nick Clegg and I’ve finally got it.

Local government and empowerment
Mary Reid commented that Labour has “stolen” the Lib Dem’s rhetoric about citizen empowerment; what is the liberal response?

Clegg answer: many Liberal Democrats have lead the way in terms of community empowerment and transparency. We are devolutionists whose thoughts don’t stop at the town hall and endlessly innovative, such as Liverpool’s use of IT to provide a round the clock advice line (not a hotline, hem hem). We are all about personalising and humanising public services, which is classical liberal territory.

My view: this is all a bit be-nice-to-local-government which is all very well but thus almost identical to Huhne’s answer to virtually the same question. Still, his previous answer contained much more substance on this area.

The Obligatory Monarchy Question
Alex Wilcock found a new way of asking about whether the candidate would abolish the monarchy, by way of referring to the Queen’s diamond wedding anniversary, which happens to be today.

Clegg’s response was predictable and to the point: Alex referred to it as the top job, and Clegg said he didn’t regard it in that way. The monarchy has been gutted of all its meaningful political authority; it remains very powerful in symbolic terms.

He is no great fanatical monarchist, but nor does he see any great merit in the party launching great broadsides against an institution which people find, on the whole, fairly benign and harmless.

My view: I agree, and Huhne does too. So that’s great.

The Obligatory Cannabis Question Freedoms and restrictions
Alex’s follow up question was perhaps more compelling: what would Clegg ban, what would he unban, and specifically, does he support the party’s existing line to legalise cannabis in the long term.

In terms of what he would ban, he chose advertising aimed as children. In doing so, he cited how his own children come away from watching a children’s TV channel and can recall what adverts they saw (and thus what toys they want daddy to buy them) but not the programmes themselves. He acknowledged that this was a tricky area to get into and that there was a big debate to be had about where you draw the line but ultimately he said he didn’t see a great deal of difference between wanting to protect the integrity of the individual by scrapping identity cards with wanting to protect the innocence of a three year old from heavy handed and intrusive advertising.

In terms of what he would reverse, he merely cited the Freedom Bill, an issue he has championed as Shadow Home Secretary (which I’m sure Huhne supporters will want me to point out their candidate advocated in the 2006 leadership election), so I won’t go into it here.

On cannabis, he said that he believed that the debate over cannabis can no longer be conducted in the way that it was a few years ago in light of the rise of high potency skunk playing a major role on housing estates in terms of leading to increases in crime and drug dependency. He is wary of going down what he described as the “Labour minister route” of singling out a specific drug and calling for its categorisation to be change; we need to be much more radical.

Instead, he cited the model laid out by the Science and Technology Committee (chaired by Phil Willis);we should have a scientific evidence-based categorisation system in which both legal and illegal drugs are included. The Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs should be given far more resources and put on a statutory footing, including a statutory mandate that their overall goal must be harm reduction, and you give them the powers to categorise, ranging from tough sanctions for the “hardest” drugs and legal drugs at the other. He accepted that it was hypocritical to have legal drugs not on the scale when alcohol, nicotine and others can have such debilitating effects. Ultimately however, he does not see Home Secretaries or political parties having a role in setting policy on specific drugs.

My view: Hmmm… well, overall this was a better response than Huhne’s one to Jonny Wright’s comparable question. The stuff about skunk I am highly sceptical about; I suggested to Clegg that he might want to read some of Ben Goldacre’s stuff to put it in greater perspective. The idea of taking it wholly out of the hands of politicians is superficially attractive, but I wonder about genuine independence. Ultimately, scientists are people too. We see time and again how “independent” commissions come up with advice which is immensely convenient to the government (c.f. ad nauseum); I’m not convinced such a venture is worth starting with unless you banned anyone who ever sat on the Advisory Board from being a potential recipient of an honour, for example. And isn’t this the sort of impersonal, technocratic approach that gets people so worked up about NICE?

Finally, this formulation seems to ignore a crucial factor: many illegal drugs are harmful precisely because they are illegal. Skunk is a perfect example (notwithstanding the caveats that its dangers appear to have been exaggerated) of what happens when you prohibit the sale of a relatively innocuous drug; moonshine liquor in 1920s USA is another; the story doing the rounds today about shooting galleries is another. Ultimately I simply don’t believe that you can ever entirely remove politicians from this debate, nor should you.

Nick was afraid I wouldn’t like his answer (due to some furtive glances coming from Alex in my direction apparently), and he is half right. But at least he is attempting to be consistent and taking the debate outside of the usual Daily Mail (or even worse, the Independent on Sunday), territory.

Foreign Affairs
Richard asked Clegg to spell out a distinctively liberal foreign policy.

Clegg responded by saying that he believed that foreign policy would hinge around a number of axies over the next few years. The first, is the tension between what he called the “Pavlovian” Atlanticist response of the British establishment and our shifting geo-strategic interests. If this Atlanticism has short changed Britain in the past, it is in danger of completely misreading the future. Power is shifting to China, India and regional powers such as Brazil, and the hegemonic power of the US is shifting with it. The Lib Dems must not go down the shrill route of anti-Americanism but we must spell it out clearly: the conceit that Britain can pretend it acts as a bridge between the US and Europe is fiction. Throwing all our eggs into the US basket has real costs.

He cited a specific example: the “fateful” decision of Gordon Brown to sign the UK up to the so-called Son of Star Wars, and to do it by way of a written statement submitted to the House of Commons library just a day before the summer recess began. This, in his view, is immeasurably more important than a spat between Huhne and Clegg over Trident. As a direct result of this policy, Clegg argued, Putin is putting ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad – an enclave surrounded by the European Union – and in Belarus. He emphasised that he is not an apologist for Russia and said that we need to be robust in our dealings with them on matters such as oil and gas, but said that it was “sheer stupidity” for a British government to sign up to a platform which is technologically unproven and which you know will destabilise relations with Russia. This is an area where our interests conflict with US interests; no-one in Washington is affected by Russian trade policies with regard to oil and gas, yet we are liable to pay the price for their machismo. Clegg concluded by pledging that one of his first questions in Prime Minister Questions would be to press Brown on this issue.

He talked about the role the EU can play in projecting European values beyond our borders, citing the example of how liberal democracy has been successfully imported into central and eastern Europe and looking to how this might be extended to Turkey and North Africa.

He concluded by saying how he felt that in Gordon Brown and David Cameron we have two extraordinarily parochial politicians. Both are monolingual, all their allies seem to be based in Washington, they seem oblivious to the tremendous change to the context in which the UK now operates. As leader, Clegg intends to make a great contrast between their parochialism and his internationalism.

My view: Again, like the answer on public services, Clegg impressed with his grasp of detail. I’m not entirely sure where this got us in terms of specific policy (the Son of Star Wars stuff notwithstanding). He needs to hone his message on this area much more, spelling out exactly how we sees the UK’s relationship with the US evolving and going into more detail about the global shift in power to countries such as India and China.

The “Diversity” Academy
For my final question, I wanted to push Clegg on his proposals to set up an “academy” to improve our record in terms of female and ethnically diverse candidates. My concern is less about the policy and more with implementation: as a member of the party’s Federal Executive, I tried unsuccessfully to secure greater funding for projects such as the Campaign for Gender Balance. During the 2006 leadership election I ran Reflecting Britain, extracting pledges from the three contenders; yet despite Simon Hughes’ position as party president and Ming Campbell’s position as party leader, the CGB actually had its funding cut for 2007. In short: show me the money.

Clegg’s response, quite simply, was to give us an assurance that he has done. He has identified two individuals (or to be precise “one and a half”) who are interested in giving money to the party specifically for this project. He has found a facility from which to base the academy’s activities.

He was emphatic that to tackle this issue, we will need money to do so. On the issue of money more generally, he said that he was determined to use the initial honeymoon period if elected to raise as much money as possible.

My view: This is a clearer and more confidence-raising answer than anything we received in the last leadership election when I’m afraid both Hughes and Campbell gave answers that didn’t fill be with confidence (Huhne was much less equivocal I hasten to add but was in no position to do anything about it after the contest). The talk of a specific facility and of 1.5 donors already secured to fund it has a ring of authenticity about it. It isn’t the only reason for me to support a candidate, but it will be a very major factor.

Immigration
Clegg concluded by returning to Paul Walter’s question about comfort zones, citing his experience of persuading the Parliamentary Party to let him tackle the issue of immigration. This was an issue, he said, which the public considers to be highly important but that the average party member has far lower on their list of priorities. Coming up with genuinely liberal responses to issues of concern to the public, he concluded, was precisely the sort of thing he was referring to.

My view: fair enough, but I haven’t personally detected any great shuffling of feet inside the wider party about Clegg tackling this issue; so long as the policy is liberal I don’t think anyone minds. If on the other hand there is a major problem inside the Parliamentary Party about us tackling issues such as this, that might explain a few other things.

Conclusion
When Clegg first arrived, the first thought that struck me was how tired he looked. This does not seem to have been a campaign that has given him much sleep.

In terms of the content of what he had to say, I was much more impressed than I was expecting to be. I may have misjudged him; alternatively you might argue that he has signally failed to get his message across. It is certainly the case that had we held this meeting two weeks earlier I would have had much more to go on.

It turns out that he has a lot of interesting things to say when it comes to specifics on public services and on foreign policy; both things that Huhne has been attacking him on. It is unfortunate that Huhne has attacked him in the way that he has done in my view. But Clegg’s team should have come up with ways to rebut this much more effectively than they had done.

Bottom line: Clegg is much less focussed and clear than Huhne, but his passion and instincts strike me as stronger. I don’t believe Clegg has all the answers, but he is asking the right questions. This interview, combined with the unedifying spectacle on Sunday, has really given me a whole new perspective on the whole campaign. Before I could imagine myself voting for Clegg by default, but never with enthusiasm. After this interview…? Perhaps.

I need to sleep on it.

(Sorry Stephen – more tease I’m afraid!)

More soon…

16 thoughts on “(come to think of it, actually, a bit) EXCLUSIVE: Nick Clegg talks to Quaequam Blog! (finished at last)

  1. A point well made Jo. I sincerely wish we had held this interview much earlier in the campaign (for the record: both invitations were sent out simultaneously) as it did clear up a lot of my questions.

  2. Comfort Zones 2: Specifics.. I agree. Meat!! Very glad you collectively got this information out of him. I have to say, this is something I’ve been desperate to see.

    What I like about Nick in general is that he seems to have the more realistic assessment of what’s gone wrong in the past and, really, what we’re all waiting for is what he’s going to do about it. It’s a start if it’s not too late.

  3. This was very interesting! Particularly over where Menzies went wrong.
    If you look at Gordon Brown, he came to power and managed to turn the ratings round by being busy and doing a lot in public (changed now, but worked at the time). It seems as if Nick recognises that this is where Menzies went wrong… and I agree. If winning elections was about getting the ‘background’ right, Menzies would have been riding high in the polls. The reality is that its about how the press portray you every single minute of the day. Nick has my vote.

  4. That is a truly excellent article and has really raised my spirits!

    Someone really needs to be thinking harder about ways to boil down Clegg’s enthusiasm for change, his passion for empowering people, and his incredible grasp of policy into something that comes across well on TV screens.

    He has the skills to put it across, but the language isn’t quite there – yet. Something seems to get lost in the translation between this and the quickfire format of the TV studio. I can’t help but feel that that’s such an easy thing to fix.

    I worry constantly that he’s getting bad advice on this (and not enough sleep!)

    Still, let’s see how he does on Newsnight tomorrow…

  5. Many thanks to our team of blogger interviewers for that. Perhaps the events of Sunday did have some use after all, in that Nick seems clearer now about what he is saying (and what he is not saying)…

    I hope when they meet Paxman this evening, their hardest punches will be aimed at Brown, Cameron and Murdoch.

  6. Joe, I think the language on change, the status quo and restlessness is all there. Just a question of using it.

    Thanks, James, for typing all this up in such detail.

  7. This Huhne and Clegg thing is all very well, but (and I never thought I’d say this) we’ve actually got a really good leader. On the Saudi visit and Northern Rock, Vince Cable keeps making distinctive, principled, and (potentially) popular calls.

  8. James, thanks for the comprehensive report back. Its reaffirmed my support for Nick. He seems to be far more thoughtful, reflective, and actually thinking through his response to the main issues facing the party. I’m always suspicious of people who have got all the answers off pat.
    Nick also set out his ideas on the diversity issue from the off set, whilst I have only just seen Chris write about this in the last few days, as if he’s been reminded to mention this.

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