“You are failing us!” Greta Thunberg throws down the gauntlet to world leaders.


Climate campaign leader channels the voices of millions of protesters across the world and blasts world leaders to their faces.

Some of you may have seen the speech by 15 year old Jean Hinchliffe in Sydney. If not, see below. It’s electrifying:

It’s the UN Climate Summit 2019 as well as the Labour Party Conference. At the same time the big travel agent Thomas Cook has gone into administration, “leading to the biggest repatriation of holiday makers in peacetime” the BBC has just said. In the meantime, The Prime Minister has got himself involved in a sex-and-sleaze-and-why-hasn’t-he-resigned-already scandal. The media can’t decide over whether to have fun 1990s sex scandal style or whether it’s something far more serious involving public money and overruling officials doing their job to ensure propriety. And the Supreme Court rules 24 hours later on whether the Prime Minister lied to the Queen and/or unlawfully suspended Parliament.

“So….we’ve all been screwed by Boris then?”


“It’s like a TV series!”

Careful – it’s the final run in of the disaster series: The UK. It’s got everything! High stakes, real suspense – no one knowing how it’ll end!”

And everyone is watching. Even Greta.

Greta Thunberg: “You have absolutely no idea what I am about to hit world leaders with!”

The last time world leaders were brought trembling over their failures by a teenage girl, Joan of Arc was on the battlefield. Patriarchy is a powerful institution. (*Actually, there are numerous other examples since then, but such figures don’t get publicity in popular history).

Earlier this year, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP (who was the first MP to start following Puffles on Twitter back in early 2011!) was asked by Andrew Marr over his meeting with activists from Extinction Rebellion.

And today Mr McDonnell praised climate activists – including the school climate strikers and Extinction Rebellion, before outlining some of the measures he said a future Labour Government would take to deal with Climate Change.

John McDonnell’s speech starts at 1:38:22.

Minutes after Mr McDonnell made that speech, Greta Thunberg followed that up with this speech where she crushed world leaders with her rhetoric – breaking the convention that children and young people are only supposed to say nice and polite things at such gatherings.

Ms Thunberg’s speech begins at 40:30.

At the same time, Greta Thunberg and 15 fellow young campaigners filed a lawsuit against five countries over the climate emergency.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UK ratified the treaty in the early 1990s and is now in force in the UK – and has been since 1992. But the Rights of the Child go back a long way – from before the United Nations was founded. Some of you will be aware that the original declaration was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. Despite the ultimate failure of the League to prevent World War 2, its more successful institutions were carried over into the United Nations – including that 1924 declaration.

And who wrote it? None other than Lost Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb.

Eglantyne Jebb Palmer Clarke Low Res_3 colourised Ivory Dress

Hero – Eglantyne Jebb, author of “Cambridge: A brief study in social questions” (and founder of a charity you might have heard of – Save the Children). (Image from the Cambridgeshire Collection colourised by Nick Harris of Photo Restoration Services)

Save The Children wrote about her legacy here.

Personally speaking, I think it’s wonderful to see one of my contemporary political heroes making use of the legal tools made for her by one of my historical political heroes. If someone is able to turn that into an image – of Eglantyne handing the treaty over to Greta, let me know.

In the meantime, this week is going to see a series of actions on climate change and the climate emergency. This week will be a *very long week* in politics. And Parliament isn’t even sitting.


The day the children roared for nature

Perhaps Troy McLure put it best regarding our previous mindset with this starter:

“Hi! I’m Troy McLure! You may remember me from nature shows such as… “Man vs Nature: The Road to Victory!””

On Friday 20 Sept 2019 there was a massive global climate strike inspired & organised by the movement that was kick-started by Greta Thunberg’s school climate strike (See her column in The Guardian from 26 November 2018). I’m not going to go into detail about her story – far better people have already done a better job than I could do. The politicians cannot say they did not see it coming. But looking at this footage from Congress when 17 year old student Jamie Margolin (one of the lead young climate activists in the USA) took members of Congress (in particular one congressman) to task, it looks like some of them really didn’t.

A few months before her appearance at Congress, Greta Thunberg was in London at the Marble Arch occupation which she gave the speech below:

Me and Puffles also went down to the occupation – if only for the day.

Puffles with Marble Arch in the background during the occupation by Extinction Rebellion activists, including a large contingent from Cambridge. 

But I’m now at a stage in life (40 years) and a situation where the best thing for me to do is to bear witness – with camera and camcorder.  During my university years 20 years ago in Brighton, I spent many an hour volunteering at the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre. It is still going (at different premises from my day), even though the people have inevitably moved on. But the experience & knowledge stayed with me both inside the civil service during a 1 year stint as a policy adviser on climate change, and outside of it later on filming local political meetings, council meetings, and protests.

Above – Dr Rupert Read and the Cambridge Green Party at the Cambridge Central Library, from the 2015 general election that resulted in the highest vote in Cambridge for the Green Party in its history. 

The extended heatwave and drought of the summer of 2018 seemed like a turning point – and not long after, Extinction Rebellion made their presence known.

…and the children of Cambridge started making their presence felt the following year – marching in March 2019 – and forming a new Cambridge Schools Eco Council.

…and when it became clear that children across the country were threatening to have another school strike, the disgraced former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson (sacked by Theresa May for leaking confidential documents but appointed Education Secretary by Mr Johnson) decided to intervene.

And how did the children respond? With the biggest climate strike the country had ever seen. In the case of Cambridge, the children who took part in the strike in March 2019 returned six months later with a few extra friends. Or rather, a few thousand extra friends.

And this is what they had to say.

Above: Speeches by the Cambridge Schools Eco Council: 20 Sept 2019 on King’s Parade.

You can watch the speeches by the adults, starting with Daniel Zeichner MP for Cambridge.

In the meantime I caught part of the speech of Australian climate activist Jean Hinchliffe – aged 15.

Back in Cambridge…

This was also followed up the following day by another protest/piece of performance art by the Cambridge Collective of the Red Rebel Brigade in the Grand Arcade Shopping Centre. Filming it I noticed how differently the shoppers and passers by reacted to the presence of the women in red.

This wasn’t their first protest, as their protest on Castle Hill, covered by Mike Scialom for the Cambridge Independent shows. Don’t for a moment think that everyone who saw what was going on was supportive – absolutely not. One of the things I’ve learnt about any political movement is that the people who are the most involved in them over-estimate the knowledge and understanding that the general public has of what they are doing – irrespective of the intellectual capabilities of individuals. It’s ever so easy to assume that everyone else has the same level of awareness, knowledge and passion for an issue that you do. (I found this out the hard way standing for election with Puffles back in 2014). Hence the use of political parties of slick, easy-to-remember slogans.

The other really important aspect – perhaps easily overlooked, is that Cambridge is full of visitors from all over the world at any time of year. In particular from countries where protesting is banned and/or involves violent reprisals from oppressive regimes. Hence for global issues such as the climate emergency, I can’t help but feel that Cambridge is one of the places that needs to be hosting, holding and organising such demonstrations so that the impact gets out beyond national borders.

“What next for the children?”

The next six weeks will be absolutely crucial – and not just because of the Brexit count down clock. From now the students return to university. The schools and further education colleges are already back. Existing local parties and campaign groups are going to have to figure out a way of how best to involve the newly politicised children and teenagers in their campaigns. I wouldn’t know where to start on how to do this, nor do I think that it’s my place to tell them. Again, I see my role not just creating the digital footage for the people of the city and beyond, but also for the historical archives too. Community reporting with the mindset of a local historian.

Having had such a busy summer and with political turmoil still in Westminster, we’re in for a turbulent autumn.




The changing of party political positions on leaving the EU


At the start of the political party conference season, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, stated that she did not forgive former Prime Minister David Cameron for calling a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. (See the video here.) Yet as many pointed out, the Liberal Democrats called for such a referendum as far back as 2008. The Green Party called for a referendum in 2013. And interim party leader Harriet Harman committed Labour to agree to a referendum in 2015.

Fast forward to 2019 

And “Bo-Jo-No-Show”

…while the musicians and satirists have been active:

This in reference to the ruling by the highest court in Scotland ruling the suspension of Parliament was unlawful (see here).

In the meantime, Captain Ska returned with an uncompromising message to Johnson with particular reference to the latter’s inflammatory articles on immigration and minority communities.

Captain Ska ft Rubi Dan above

There’s no going back to a pre-Brexit world

This point was powerfully put by Jess O’Brien, the Cambridge University Students’ Union’s Disabled Students’ Officer at a meeting in Cambridge last week. Her point – and I agree with her on this – is that people voted the way they did based on the information they had at the time and on the life experiences that they had experienced – in particular in relation to austerity.

Furthermore, Ms O’Brien made the case that the only options that were on the table were ‘Cameron’s Deal’ or leaving ‘with a deal’. There was no ‘left wing remain’ or ‘green remain’ alternatives. Stung by what happened to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, in the Independence Referendum the previous year, Mr Corbyn stayed well away from the official Remain campaign. Back in 2015 after the general election, the Liberal Democrats were a spent force, having lost all but eight of their MPs.

Much has changed since the EU Referendum

Whether it’s the revelations of who was doing what on social media with what money, through to the rapid rise of Extinction Rebellion and the very visible symptoms of the climate crisis, ecocide, and the tide of plastic waste, we are in a very different place collectively. I think it was Ms O’Brien who also commented that ‘Remain’ was also the wrong branding to use for those that wanted to stay in the European Union, as it implied no movement, no change, no improvements for those who had borne the brunt of austerity – many of the people living in those areas voting to leave because amongst other things it was the only thing that was ‘different’ to keeping on business as usual. And who could blame them?

Locally here in Cambridge things have changed. For a start, the MP for South Cambridgeshire Heidi Allen quit the Conservatives and for now stands alone as an independent MP. The district council – for decades officially Conservative or run by ‘independent’ councillors who were Conservative-leaning, is now run by the Liberal Democrats with 66% of the seats for the next few years. More sinisterly, the selection of Ms Allen’s replacement has caused more than a little concern in these parts – especially with his past record of inflammatory articles about immigration and people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Finally, there has been a welcome rise in the number of people who are learning about and getting involved in politics and local democracy. On the flip side we saw this counter demo against a pro-EU rally in Parliament Square.

…which feels incredibly dangerous – and is a reason why I think twice about going down to London for political marches.

There has also been population and demographic changes – one that could affect the result of any ‘people’s vote’ or second referendum. The UK’s annual death rate is over 500,000 per year. That means around 1.5million people will have passed away since 2016, the vast majority over the age of 65 given the UK’s ageing population. At the same time, three cohorts of teenagers who could not vote in 2016 (aged 15-17) will be able to vote in such a second referendum that might happen in 2020. Given how politicised that generation has become not just through the EU referendum result but also the climate emergency, that demographic change alone could swing the result back the other way all other things being equal. That last bit being a ***very strong assumption*** because so many other things will affect how a person might vote in a second referendum.

Politicians need to be honest with the public about why they have changed their policies on leaving the EU.

That applies to both pro and anti-EU groups.

Ministers in Cameron’s past government need to account properly for why they did not commission the civil service to do any of the contingency planning, scenario planning or the hosting of public meetings across the country where the public could cross-examine politicians and experts in the field.

On the pro-EU side, politicians need to acknowledge, understand and empathise with those that voted leave where that vote was not driven by hatred and prejudice, but by things like austerity and/or the failure of public and political institutions. Furthermore they also need to explain what politicians tried to do to implement the decision of the electorate in 2016, and explain why Westminster has ended up in a place of political paralysis. Even if it means acknowledging that things politicians did not understand prior to the referendum have since emerged that makes leaving the EU much more difficult as a bureaucratic task, or much more expensive financially that it changes the assessment of the merits of leaving or staying in the EU.

So in the case of Jo Swinson MP and her Q&A session she needed to explain in that Q&A session. (See the link here that takes you to a video at the start of the full Q&A session). Note Mr Corbyn has been accused of changing his mind over triggering Article 50 – see the BBC Reality Check here. Then there is the disgraced former Defence Secretary stating how easy it would be to get a trade deal with the EU in an article from 2017.

And finally…

The current Home Secretary on capital punishment.

With the public now able to verify such things ***in real time*** (something I predicted as far back as 2011) it’s far better for politicians to explain why they have changed their mind on something rather than to pretend they have always had the same opinion come what may throughout their political lives. Otherwise everyone ends up going round in circles over who said what and when rather than getting to the root of problems in society – which is what we use the political processes and political institutions to resolve.

Heidi Allen MP & South Cambs Lib Dems need to decide what their plan is – and quickly


Will South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats stand down their candidate Ian Sollom and back incumbent Independent MP Heidi Allen against a close Johnson ally with a record of writing inflammatory articles on immigration and race relations?

Today has been full of speculation about when the date of the next general election will be, the Prime Minister plays a political game with very high stakes for the rest of us on whether the UK will crash out of the EU with ‘No Deal’. The latest is that opposition party leaders have declined his request to have a general election before the European Council meeting when any final request for an extension can be put.

Mr Sollom says the next election will be crucial:

South Cambridgeshire will be very difficult to call because there are so many uncertainties – alongside a rapidly changing and growing constituency that saw South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats crush their Conservative opponents on South Cambs District Council in 2018, securing 66% of the seats until the next round of elections in 2022.

With the exception of Samuel Montagu (Liberal) and Albert Stubbs (Labour), the lands around Cambridge have only ever had Conservative MPs – and the former was part of the coalition under Lloyd George that teamed up with the Conservatives in the latter part of the First World War and the immediate years after. So the current situation of not having control of either the district council or the parliamentary seat is something of a constitutional outrage in the context of the past 200 years of local history. Ditto the case for Cambridge itself – hence why ministers still rock up to the place pretending like it’s still a safe Conservative constituency.

Whatever Ms Allen and the South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats decide, they need to decide quickly because their main political opponent is already campaigning.

It remains to be seen what the opposition parties choose to do in South East Cambridgeshire next door, where the incumbent MP is Solicitor General Lucy Frazer QC MP. Given her public support for Mr Johnson in the leadership campaign despite representing a constituency that voted Remain, the Liberal Democrats see a possible upset in a constituency that straddles part of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s area.

We live in interesting times.


Where were you when Ken Clarke got kicked out of the Tory Party in the Commons?


Even the news people can’t believe it.

Actually, this show down was a very long time coming. The warning shots were fired ages ago, but ultimately Theresa May’s administration prevailed. But today, against Mr Johnson, they didn’t – and backbench MPs took control of the Order Paper.

So, having taken control of the order paper, they hope (with the help of the House of Lords) legally prevent the UK leaving the EU without a deal. If this law is passed, Mr Corbyn has said that he will support a general election, but *not before the law is passed* on blocking a ‘No Deal’. This looks like a success for lots of people who leant on Mr Corbyn to make such a move.

All of these now ex-Tory MPs have had their party whip removed.

…which includes two former chancellors of the exchequer and a host of former cabinet ministers. This is not normal. Count them. Twenty-one. Even Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames went.

It’s a bit like the expenses scandal that got rid of so many long-standing MPs. At the same time it’ll be interesting to see which MPs choose to contest their seats without the Conservative backing.

At a more local level, in South Cambridgeshire the Liberal Democrats have a decision to make – and quickly: Do they oppose Heidi Allen MP with their own candidate against chum of Boris and writer of inflammatory articles Mr Browne, or do they unite behind her against a candidate even less suitable for the county than Andrew effing Lansley? Browne has written more than a few articles that have whipped up prejudice against immigrants. Hence why I find him utterly unsuitable to represent a seat with Addenbrooke’s hospital in it. But then that’s the new Tory party under Messrs Johnson and Cummings.

More defending democracy protests

One or two people on the pro-leave side have complained to me about the fanaticism of some of the Remain side – forgetting that actual convicted racists have been out in support of Mr Johnson and co.

Then there was this incredible headline below:

…which is an incredibly irresponsible thing to do for any politician, but as we’ve discovered, the ‘normal rules’ have been suspended if not wrecked, and as Caroline Lucas said in a speech scathing of Mr Rees Mogg, the only solution is a written constitution.

You can watch Caroline’s Speech here.

Also, Puffles told everyone – with a snapshot.

…and the notifications went into meltdown.

This does not automatically mean there will be a general election this autumn, that the UK will get a second referendum, or even that the UK will ultimately remain in the EU.

Events are moving incredibly quickly on this issue – while other urgent and important policy areas are put on the back burner. At the same time, a lot of people are getting a crash course in parliamentary democracy. That said, our laws need an urgent update before we go into a general election. Read this by Full Fact.

There’s not long in which to table and pass such a bill through Parliament.

Defending democracy protests in Cambridge – August 2019


More people protesting in Cambridge. What happens next?

Isabel Hardman outlines the options here:

Jon Worth thinks these are the options:

…and on what he thinks *should* happen

…while Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government reminds us who is really responsible – and where the buck stops.

Advisers advise, ministers decide.

In the meantime, Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner was back amongst constituents on Saturday.

The playlist of videos is here.

On the pro-leave side, I’ve seen a number of posts similar to this one by Alicia Kearns.

The one thing that has muddied the water somewhat is who is under what obligation regarding the 2016 referendum.

For me, the problems we see today that the political class is struggling with, were of their own making. This is irrespective of whether they align with a strong leave, strong remain, somewhere in the middle, or just a big “meh.”

For the general public, I don’t see what obligation anyone has on having to change their opinions and views as a result of any referendum. In the Scottish Independence Referendum the debate is still going even though the pro-Remain in the UK side (backed by the three main Westminster parties) won 55%-45%.

Should the pro-leavers be directing their anger at those at the top of the Conservative Party for calling the general election of 2017 instead? They had the Parliamentary majority to see through the negotiations and leaving process all the way through to May 2020 under the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

One of the other points raised is whether continuing to oppose the UK leaving the EU is undemocratic or not, I wrote the following in response to some comments on FB.

“A single referendum at a single point in history is not the same as democracy. Democracy encompasses far more than that, including but not limited to:

  • 1) general elections,
  • 2) lobbying, asking questions of said elected persons to parliaments & councils,
  • 3) signing petitions,
  • 4) turning up to local public meetings to state your issues,
  • 5) taking part in protest marches and non-violent activities.

“The Conservatives created this mess – Cameron ran away from it followed by Osborne & a host of other politicians who exited stage right. Theresa May had *three secretaries of state* (Boris, Liam Fox & David Davis) and *three departments of state* (Foreign Office, Brexit Dept & International Trade Dept) to make Brexit work – and could not. Nothing to do with Remainers.

“The Tories could not get the deal past their own MPs – the pro-Brexit wing voting it down.  Opposition MPs are under no obligation to support the Govt’s Deal – why should they? Their job is to oppose. Irrespective of merit, Labour had their own proposals to negotiate as is their right in opposition.

“There was nothing on the ballot paper that said “…and everyone opposing leaving the EU will be banned from speaking about, protesting & campaigning for Remain ever ever ever. Brexit is for the Tories to deliver. If they can’t do it they only have themselves to blame. Shutting down Parliament also means MPs cannot scrutinise all of the other non-Brexit policies & work of Government- not an insignificant list of things. That really is undemocratic.

Splits in the pro-leave side and the pro-remain side.

I can’t recall a time when both the party in government and the lead opposition party appeared so split. Interestingly, the move by the Prime Minister to suspend/prorogue Parliament has hardened the splits between what’s left of the one nation tradition in the Tory Party vs the pro-Leave side, while bringing together wildly different factions not just within the Labour Party, but also those to the left of Labour and those to the right of it. Seeing dozens of Liberal Democrats protesting under the same umbrella as far left paper sellers was a surreal sight in Cambridge today. Yet all it takes is an inflammatory remark from one political sect against another and all hell can break loose.

Going beyond defending democracy, to building and strengthening it – Mrs Keynes sets the example

If I was going to make a speech on that theme, it would have been one that referred to the example of Florence Ada Keynes – someone who spent her adult life building democracy in Cambridge as well as influencing Westminster. In 1914 she persuaded Parliament to remove the ban on married women from standing for election. A few weeks later, the people of Fitzwilliam ward elected her to become our first woman councillor – persuading the Conservatives not to stand against her given that war had just broken out.

321230 FlorenceAdaKeynesTheVoteFrontPage

Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

In 1932, she was elected our second woman mayor following Eva Hartree in 1924. She got our present guildhall built – one from the inside at least that was suitable for modern local government and with a large enough council chamber. That was despite the huge opposition (who could not unify behind an alternative).

Eglantyne Jebb building democracy

The founder of Save The Children researched and wrote the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge’s history. Published in 1906, it busted many myths about what caused it – the menfolk attributing much of it to ‘ladies with loose morals’. Eglantyne, along with Margaret Keynes (Florence’s daughter) and Gwen Darwin (later Raverat – and a grand daughter of Charles Darwin) did the data collection and analysis, and demonstrated that it was poor town planning and poor public health.

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small PicA hero and a pioneer – Eglantyne Jebb, using a social scientific approach to public policy in Cambridge in the early 1900s. Photo: Cambridgeshire Collection.

My take is that there is much we can learn from the example of the Women who made modern Cambridge so far as strengthening our democracy is concerned. It’s not all about speeches and marches, important as they are for raising awareness. I’ll be speaking about Florence, Eglantyne and their network of friends, relatives and activists who transformed our city for the better, at the Open Cambridge Festival. Details of my talk at Anglia Ruskin University are here.

A convergence of multiple political storms

Summary: The Prime Minister shuts down Parliament at a time when Parliamentarians need to be in Parliament scrutinising the Government – and not just on leaving the EU.

I’m not intending on using this post to re-hash the debates on the UK’s attempts at leaving the EU and opposing politicians’ arguments to stay in. This is more about the multiple political storms occurring at the same time in an era where no one in Westminster seems in control of events – and its fallout local to me.

One of the things I’ve noticed that has been smashed to pieces in Westminster are the unwritten conventions that supposedly keep the place running.

…and my conclusion was that the longer term response to this was a written constitution. The trust needed to keep the existing political system going has gone, and ironically it is the Conservative Party that has smashed them.

In the meantime, the petition against the suspension of Parliament has shot to over a million signatures on the back of the news this morning.

In the meantime… Greta has sailed into New York

…while in and around Cambridge, it’s our river and her tributaries & streams we’re worried about – with over-extraction being blamed.

I made a further video on Hobson’s Brook below:

In the west-facing footage you should normally be able to see a stream and a small waterfall that flows out of a man-made pond, part of the landscaping for the open park by the new housing east of the new Trumpington Community College.

The domestic crises of public services

The headline in Tuesday’s Telegraph contrasts with the many new spending commitments that the Prime Minister seems to have made in recent times. Which bodes ill for schools, hospitals and everything that local councils do.

Whether the UK leaves with or without a deal, the upheaval caused by the changes needed to be made by institutions will be huge and painful – they already are.

Combine those upheavals with the changes that will be forced upon us by the climate emergency, combined with the opportunities & challenges that technological advances have brought us means that our present institutions will struggle – if not collapse in their existing forms. And don’t think that means more cuts, slogans with ‘doing more with less’, bringing in expensive management consultants, and more privatisation is going to do the trick either. Such things have been the default position of ministers of various political colours when dealing with failures in public service delivery.


The illustration of this talk by Dr Rupert Read speaks volumes.

Dr Read was the Green Party’s candidate in Cambridge for the 2015 general election, where he polled over 4,000 votes, nearly 8% of the vote – the party’s highest ever in the city. 

Dr Read wrote on Deep Adaptation to the climate crisis for The Ecologist. I remain of the view that as things currently stand, locally in Cambridge we have absolutely no comprehension of the huge changes we will have to make individually and collectively in the face of the global climate crisis. Whether it’s melting glaciers in Greenland or the Andes in South America, desertification in Africa, rainforest fires in South America and sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia – you’ve seen the smogs – through to the fires in Siberia, this is a crisis of global proportions yet day-to-day in Cambridge I’ve seen little evidence of systematic adaptation and behavioural change.

We still have people driving in cars with illegally modified engines – ones that risk invalidating their insurance policies which risks a prosecution of driving without insurance. We still have diesel buses. We don’t have the mass transits despite years of discussions. We still have the mass consumerism. Take a train ride out of Cambridge and whichever way you head you see fields without hedgerows – despite years of warnings about the impact of soil erosion and the collapse of insect life.

Then we have another round of job-losses in the face of even more automation – 1.5million at the last count by the ONS. Think of all of the supermarkets that have installed automatic/self-service check outs. In the convenience food shops in Cambridge I compare it to when I had my first part-time job over two decades ago – where being on a check-out week in week out you would get to know your regular customers. Working at a grocers, pub or restaurant was kind of a local right-of-passage that most of us went through. I just don’t see the striking up of conversations between customers and staff that was so familiar just before the Millennium. Something exacerbated by the increased turnover in population in South Cambridge that has also happened in the intervening period. (A combination of the rise in student accommodation and university/research contracts being fixed term – harder for people to stick around).

Protests on other issues lined up

There’s a big one on school funding lined up – Cambridgeshire schools are some of the lowest funded in the country.

The county receives £400 less per child than the average funded authority and £1,600 less per child than Westminster.

Now compare the council tax levels:

A stupid-crazy-stupid system for local taxation where what you pay is based on your home’s value based on house prices on 01 April 1991. Instead of getting involved in the mess that is Brexit, it would have been far better for ministers to have sorted out a much more sustainable and fairer system for local council funding – one that didn’t involve so much micro-management from Westminster. And I write as one of those former micro-managers! But as this article states, it is ‘politically unpopular’


Our systems of governance from local to international are not fit to face 21stC challenges


It’s not just dealing with the world of all things online that our present institutions are struggling with.

One of the most wise and high calibre people I’ve ever met, Dr Catherine Howe, tipped us off on this blogpost about governance by former New Labour supremo Geoff Mulgan, one of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s key policy advisers the 1990s & 2000s.

The paper is published by Nesta – formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts (an organisation spun out of the Dept for Culture, Media and Sport).

Mr Mulgan writes:

“In the 19th and 20th centuries, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation initially had disastrous results for millions as they moved to cities blighted by pollution, high crime and disease. In response, societies created a plethora of new institutions – from police to public health, from universal education to inspectorates, from trade unions to microcredit, and from welfare states to regulators.”

For those of you familiar with my Lost Cambridge blog, the above sounds very familiar. Shortly after Parliament passed the necessary legislation, we got our first police station. Fast forward to the present day and the Conservatives want to close Cambridge’s last police station, leaving the city without a permanent police base inside the city boundaries for the first time since Cambridge Borough Council voted to create and fund a borough police force.

Things Cambridge got to deal with social problems over the past 200 years.

We also got a new courthouse in 1843 at the top of Castle Hill.

Shire Hall Court House 28543 Photo

…but this was at the expense of the last remaining building of the old Cambridge Castle.

410804 Remains of castle hill gatehouse demolished_1 1841

…and the Liberal-supporting Cambridge General Advertiser was not slow on who to blame for this.

410804 Remains of castle hill gatehouse demolished_2 1841.jpeg

In the end, we lost both to that glorious 20th Century invention, the Car Park.

As an aside, the Commons Science & Technology Committee have recommended that the Government bans the sale of cars powered by fossil fuels by 2035. So they’ll need to find another use for that car park – like an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

This was also a time of growing museum and library expansion – Cambridge legend John Pink got us our first public library.

181016 First Free Public Library Jesus Lane Friends Meeting House

…and stuck around for the next half century to build it into an institution with purpose-built premises.

And for all the criticism of Victorian prisons, what we had before them was even worse. William Milner Fawcett‘s prison on Castle Hill was quite modern.

Cambridge County Jail

This was the site that would see Cambridge’s last public hanging.

We also got a big post office in town.

181006 Petty Cury Post Office 1900

This was on the corner of Petty Cury & St Andrew’s Street – long since demolished for the Lion Yard redevelopment. In the various housing crises we got inter-war council housing

271130 Cambridge Housing Soc new homes

…and in the post-war crisis my neighbourhood got pre-fabs.

461018 Lichfield Rd prefabs Neville Rd Nissan huts

When we started running out of burial ground space we got a new crematorium.


…but it took us decades to begin to address our town’s car parking problem – we’re still struggling.

360323 First Car Parking signs in Cambridge 1936

…This new ‘street furniture’ was quite controversial that it became the subject of local satire – alongside what is now the current guildhall in the mid-1930s.

360919 Ronald Searle road signs as vegetables

Newspaper images from the Cambridgeshire Collection – founded by John Pink!

In post-war Cambridge, demands for new retail and shopping facilities led to many a plan put in place by Gordon Logie – all of which seem to have been rejected.

180930 Gordon Logie in Reeve_2 1960s

From The Cambridge that never was, by Reeve. (1976) 

While we didn’t lose gems such as Robert Sayle’s premises, we didn’t get the fun stuff we were promised such as two new civic halls and an international centre.

“What does all of the above point to?”

Political institutions & actors engaging with civic society to invent institutions (and buildings to house them) to solve social problems in a rapidly-changing society.

Mr Mulgan writes about the challenges of long term social care in an ageing society. Lifelong learning is another – covered by Nesta here. With no more ‘jobs for life’ the idea that the individual has to pay to retrain over-and-over again to get to a high-skilled level – in an era of very high housing costs, is clearly utterly unsustainable. Something’s got to give.

Climate emergencies and ecocide

The forest fires in The Amazon, as well as those in Alaska and Siberia amongst other places have rung serious alarm bells. Earlier this evening I took part in a very large cycling critical mass ride through Cambridge – one of the largest I’ve seen. As I said to one of my fellow riders, fascist heads of state setting rainforests on fire is one of my big red lines.

And no, EUR20m is not nearly enough to fight the fires, let alone pay for the recovery costs.

I have no clue how to respond to any of this

As an individual I feel utterly bewildered at the scale of what is happening to our environment and climate. It’s similar to what Laurie Penny mentioned in her thread here on the impact that this is all having on our collective mental health.

There are also similarities to similar dark times in decades and centuries gone by, and how people and organisations responded. The example I have is how the Cambridge Daily News reported what was happening in international politics in the 1930s, and how it and local people responded to them – something rarely covered in conventional history books. In summer 2018 during the heatwave, I spent a whole month in the Cambridgeshire Collection going through every copy of the Cambridge Daily News between 1935-39. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. What’s clear to me is that people and institutions were grappling with phenomena they had never had to deal with before.

With the two historical blogposts, focus on the local reaction to the events rather than the events themselves – which inevitably carry a huge amount of historical and political baggage as we know what happened. The people writing and reading the newspapers at the time did not. For example, while the British Government had given up on the League of Nations as an institution, the people of Cambridge clearly had not – for our League of Nations Union was still meeting.

381111 Cambridge League of Nations Association.jpg

Cambridge had its share of peace meetings – this one below from 1936 with a soon to be famous face, Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS as Minister for Health in Attlee’s postwar government.

360303 Peace Meeting with Aneurin Bevan.JPG

Above – both from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Cambridge – a protesting city

I wrote about the number and variety of protests that had already taken place at the start of the year in this blogpost. The news of the Amazon fires increased the turnout of cyclists at the latest critical mass by XR Cambridge.

A list of protests on issues beyond Brexit and the Environment, such as funding for schools and health have already been organised locally for the autumn. And yet for all of the protests outside of the Guildhall, the seat of Cambridge City Council, that council has perilously few powers and even fewer resources to respond to the crises that are afflicting our city – from homelessness to air pollution to the state of public transport. Which is why it doesn’t matter how much money the Prime Minister is able to release to the list of towns awarded high street funding, the institutional structures that caused many of the problems linked to austerity are still there. But which political party has the courage to bring in much needed local government reform – radical reform?

The United Nations – or just a talking shop for executive branches of nation states?

What the UN (whether through the General Assembly or the Security Council, or other agencies that makes it up) is not – and never was, was an assembly containing representatives of the people. For a start more than a few of the member states represented on the UN are dictatorships.

The idea of a global parliamentary assembly is not a new one. It was one of the ideas put forward when the League of Nations was constituted over a century ago. The concept was in part introduced to us in Cambridge by Lella Secor Florence when she moved to Cambridge shortly after the First World War.


Hero: Lella Secor Florence a few years before her marriage to soon-to-be Cambridge economist Philip Florence. 

A genuine internationalist, she was previously been a member of the Women’s Peace Party in the United States of America -an organisation that amongst other things demanded a World Federation – as one of the photos in this blogpost shows.

As we go forward, the historian in me hopes that we learn from the successes, failures, and actions of those that tried to solve similar overwhelming problems in the past – for example those women in Cambridge who made the case for women having an equal basis in international diplomacy as men at the end of the First World War. (We’re still waiting for this to be achieved – institutionalised sexism being stubbornly resilient).


Saving the River Cam

Summary: Our river is struggling due to over extraction and the climate emergency – and the proposed level of house building isn’t going to make things any better.

Tony Juniper, the Chair of Natural England posted the following:

The article by Donna Ferguson for The Guardian is here.

At the same time, our county has an ambition to double the geographical area of rich wildlife areas and natural open spaces from 8% to 16% by the year 2050. One of the reasons it is so low is because so much of the county is used for food production.

Having read Donna’s report, one of the first things I thought of was why so many of our buildings in Cambridge & county were not incorporating things like rainwater harvesting, and greywater harvesting – something I remember being discussed in civil service circles in the early part of my career in the mid-2000s.

I also picked up on the point musician Feargal Sharkey (yes, that one) made about the poor enforcement of privatised water companies over-extracting from chalk streams. This was something that came up in a debate in the House of Commons two months ago when the MP for Broxbourne Charles Walker in an adjournment debate – which unusually had contributions from other MPs. Watch the debate here.

So I cycled down to my nearest chalk stream in Cherry Hinton – Cherry Hinton Brook. I made a video on what I saw:

Cherry Hinton Brook – a struggling chalk stream

It’s not just Cherry Hinton Brook – which flows into the River Cam.

Mr Sharkey quotes local poet Rupert Brooke.

This was also the same Rupert Brooke who spoke in favour of nationalising the land in a lecture in Cambridge in 1910 on Democracy & the Arts.

180829 Rupert Brook on democratizing the land 1910

…and in the same year after campaigning against the Conservatives in the general elections of 1910…

“I have cut off the only man in Rugby I know at all well, for he was a Tory and very wicked just now.” Rupert Brooke in “Letters of Rupert Brooke” edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes [younger son of Florence Ada Keynes]

which made this choice of VIP a controversial one to unveil a statue of him in Granchester!

***Roooopert, you communist!!!***

But as one of the MPs in the Commons debate alluded to, it doesn’t really matter what your political persuasion is when it comes to responding to the climate emergency. We’re all going to be doomed by it if we do nothing. Also, nationalising water companies by itself won’t automatically save the chalk streams. (Much as I quite like the principles on the grounds that water is a natural monopoly and also essential to life). The mechanisms for preventing over extraction – and also reducing demand, need examining.

“So, what are we going to do to save the Cam?”

One of the things that I’m due to post in a future blogpost is how we do not have the institutions to respond to the climate and political crises. Governance sinkholes if you will. Whether it’s burning rainforests in the Amazon – (and yes I want the President of Brazil hauled before an International Court to answer charges of Crimes Against Humanity and Ecocide) to the state of the River Cam (the authority for the river I’d incorporate into an expanded & empowered unitary council for Cambridge), we don’t have the structures, systems or processes.

“Is that why you went on that protest bike ride through town?”


This is Cambridge – cycling is what we do.

Environmental activism over the past 12 or so months with XR Cambridge has grown a life and a dynamism of the like I’ve not seen before in Cambridge. The next few months will be crucial with the climax of the Brexit shambles, further scheduled climate protests following Greta Thunberg’s call, and a general election all happening.

Commons Science and Technology Committee calls for a ban on petrol/diesel motorcars by 2035 – including hybrids

In a nutshell, collectively we haven’t a clue about the huge changes that we will have to make to our villages, towns and cities to cope with the changing climate. Have a look at the recommendations here. If MPs are recommending to ministers that no new petrol or diesel cars should be on sale by 2035 – just over 15 years away, then think about the huge infrastructure changes we will have to make. It’s not just about where charging points might go. Replacing like-for-like the UK’s motor car fleet with electric cars will require two-thirds of the world’s cobalt supply.

And ministers want to go ahead with a new Oxford-Cambridge motorway to open in the year 2030? Madness.

Retrofitting existing buildings.

Look at New York’s approach to glass and steel towers that we’ve become familiar with. What will the approach be to retrofitting homes and offices? Note that one of the most prominent of glass towers in Cambridge is the Mills and Reeve one – which won an award in 2013…while also being featured as a piece of ‘hideous’ architecture in Hideous Cambridge by Jones and Hall.


Botanic House at the corner of Hills Road/Station Road – photo Cambridge Network.

Just by looking at it you can see it will need a major retrofit in the next decade or so should we get much tighter energy efficiency requirements on existing buildings. Furthermore, on the brick-faced south side of the building, there are no solar panels even though they have a huge canvass on which to fit lots of them on – and many buildings surrounding it that could benefit from that renewable power – not least the greenhouses of the Botanic Gardens next door.

“Isn’t it all too late?”

It feels like it – and Laurie Penny wrote an interesting thread on the mental health impact of the climate and ecological crisis.

…It’s worth reading her posts on the thread in full.

One of the saddest things from my perspective was that successive ministers (as well as the rest of us) knew about this from 1990. It was when Blue Peter on Children’s BBC published their Green Book. This was in the day of no internet and only four channels on TV – channels that also closed broadcasting overnight. Therefore the publicity this book got was massive.

We knew what was happening. But it’ll only be future generations who can know whether humanity succeeded in preventing an environmental catastrophe. And at the moment things are not looking good. Not looking good at all.