Theresa May: Skyfall or Die Another Day?

As UK elections go, the 2017 vote will probably be scrutinised by psephologists more than most. Described as a ‘dead woman walking’ Theresa May is seen by many as a lost cause soon to be replaced. The election itself has been described as cynically opportunistic producing a result that produces a Government with no legitimacy. But is this anything more than froth and bluster whilst the underlying political process does what is should?

It may seem a very long time ago when Theresa May called a snap election although it is barely six weeks. Of course, the whole idea of a snap election ran against the idea of fixed term Parliament’s introduced (with support from members of most parties) by her predecessor, David Cameron.

April May

Stop press: Politician is driven by self-interest?

In that sense, elections other than on fixed 5-year terms should have been a thing of the past.  To vary this would take an exceptional circumstance (for the possibility to be suggested), a vote in Parliament and the agreement of two-thirds of MP’s before any ‘snap’ election could take place.

Like it or not, that’s what happened and MP’s from all parties voted for a snap election on 8th June. Many have complained, (often insincerely in my view) about ‘Tory opportunism’ in calling an election when they thought they could win. They seem surprised any political leader could stoop so low as to put short-term party gain over National interest. The alternative, I presume, would be to call an election when it provides no advantage when you think you can’t win or when it suits your political opponents?

To those complaining about cynical tactics, I would recommend reading Machiavelli’s The Prince as an excellent and timeless introduction to the art of retaining power. Alternatively, Joan River’s cry of ‘Oh grow up!‘ springs to mind.

Do I think those complaining about opportunism have a point? – Yes, but twas ever thus. Do I think it makes sense for politicians to act in that way? – Absolutely, it can do (from their perspective) and has suited all parties dating back to at least the 19th century.  Does it give me grounds for complaint? – Not at all. I may as well complain about the local priest/vicar always rattling on about religion, or a thief’s propensity to steal. – It’s in their nature and to expect something different doesn’t recognise the nature of the beast.

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Harold Wilson (Labour)

Theresa May’s opportunistic (and ultimately losing) bet that her reported lead of 20 percentage points was unassailable, is nothing particularly new.  The Tories have done this before. Many observers cite Margaret Thatcher as taking advantage of her popularity following the Falkland’s conflict to win the general election in 1983.

However, before you rush to label this as typical Tory tactics, consider no lesser a figure that William Gladstone (Liberal). He lost no time in calling an election to take advantage of the increased franchise (and a resulting increase in supporters favouring his party) following the newly passed Reform Act of 1857. So, this behaviour has been going on for over a century and a half.

Similarly,  this month’s election has strong similarities to the snap election of 1966 called by Harold Wilson (Labour). He took advantage of a Tory opposition in disarray with an unproven leader (Edward Heath) perceived at the time as being weak and unelectable. Wilson called an election having seen a possible window to increase his slender working majority (sound familiar at all?). The only difference being that Wilson pulled off the job moving from a majority of 4 to one of 96.

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There’s nothing like mature debate…

So, I for one remain unconvinced that this election is any more opportunistic than some of those that have preceeded it. So what of the charge that a government resulting from the election would have no legitimacy?

Of course, terms like democratic legitimacy are bandied about fairly easily, in most cases by one of the more comic like newspapers. Presumably, the legitimacy referred to in those instances is measured by the degree to which it aligns with the political view of the proprietor, editor or reporter. However, there is a widely accepted academic definition.

“Democratic legitimacy is the accepted right to exercise power. Where it has been achieved through a democratic route it is conferred by the people and also through the accepted political framework of the State”

(Source: Legitimacy and Politics – Cambridge University Press)

Using this definition, it seems clear that any viable government resulting from the democratic route of the general election is likely to be accepted by the political frameworks of the State. If that is true, any party or parties able to command the confidence of the House has democratic legitimacy and a mandate.  That doesn’t mean we have to like them, nor does it mean they are necessary ethical, moral or otherwise exemplary parties. However, it does mean the Government formed is not dependent on its political shade or makeup but is legitimate due to the manner of its election and construction.

This definition would support previous coalitions including the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970’s and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of 2010. Despite his protestations, the one model it wouldn’t support is Jeremy Corbyn’s slightly strange claim last weekend that he could still be Prime Minister. His wish to propose an alternative minority Government and have the House vote on this during the Queens Speech debate falls foul of the accepted political framework of the State. In this case, the incumbent Prime Minister (by Convention) gets first attempt to form a Government that can gain the support of the House.

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Recent satire focuses unfavourably on the para military history of the DUP

The history of British satirical comment has been strong since Hogarth’s sketches of the 1740’s. In recent days, the tone of debate has changed slightly suggesting (in this case) that the Conservatives are not worthy of governing if they rely on the Democratic Unionist Party for confidence and supply.

 

My problem with this position is that the DUP is a lawful and established (if somewhat fundamentalist) political party operating in Northern Ireland.  It is true that the Democratic Unionist Party has a past that has been questionable at times and had links to paramilitary groups. That doesn’t make them unique in the province. Sinn Fein among others have a similar history.
Sinn Fein have been sufficiently rehabilitated to have shared political power with unionist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If that’s acceptable and welcomed (which judging by the assorted peace prize nominations it is) I really don’t see the issue with the DUP in England.

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Recent alterations to wall ends in Ulster

Some observers feel a UK Government containing one of the Northern Ireland parties is bound to fail as it would remove the impartial position taken by the UK Government since the Good Friday agreement was signed. They hold that issues surrounding border controls and tax avoidance across Non-EU boundaries could even rekindle the troubles and destroy the peace process.

 

What I think this misses is the strongly stated and re-stated positions of all parties within the Island of Ireland that a solution must be found to the border question given its particular relevance to the peace process. Interestingly, a position also held by not only the British and Irish Governments but also the EU itself. Nobody is going to place a border before peace.
Also, there is the small matter of the populations of both communities in Northern Ireland being unwilling to see a return to the violence of the troubles. If it did return, it wouldn’t be because of this issue where community cohesion (on this narrow point) is strong.

To this point, there seems nothing in the arguments put forward to suggest Theresa May’s Government is ‘stillborn’. A more recent claim by the Liberal Democrats that the Prime Minister should be ashamed of carrying on seems utterly bizarre. It seems to completely misunderstand the option of a coalition government. That in itself is strange given the Lib Dems were part of the most recent coalition. The same process of trying to form a grouping that can command the support of the house that brought them to power in 2010 is the same process being criticised by them now.

 

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The House of Commons – certainly reflects a two party system.

Some of the comments in the media (social and otherwise) and from politicians gets close to suggesting that the process of building support is somehow ‘grubby’ and unworthy of politics.

 

However, I would support any party in their attempt to form a workable government. It’s not been seen frequently in the UK Parliament but it’s absolutely part of the way the British Parliamentary System evolves, produces a workable government or causes an unworkable government to fail. It’s hard to see how this whole period, however unusual and tense, is anything more than the Parliamentary system doing what it should do.

I may not have bottomless reserves of faith in politicians (of any party) but I have much more faith in a quirky, organically grown, flawed but reliable parliamentary process to produce a result which although we may not agree with it, is workable at least for a while.

For these reasons, I don’t know whether the May Government will survive through a number of years or fall in a matter of weeks. Whatever the outcome, the reason won’t be because of a broken system, I would argue it will be because that system imperfect as it is, constantly tests a Government as being fit for purpose and that will decide the outcome.

I’m reminded of the quote (origin disputed) that ‘we get the Governments we deserve’. Maybe this is a perfect example of just that assertion.

A very British reaction to terrorism

A shorter than usual blog post today. This response to the terrorist incidents in Manchester and London stood out as somehow quintessentially British in its quirkiness and refusal to be worn down.  It also provided a simple way of showing support and carrying on regardless.

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Cake, along with a cup of tea. Often the British initial response to any crisis

Amid the large and charitable responses is a strange, understated and very British idea. Welcome to the second annual Cake-along.
Organised from a small Wiltshire town, this is a very simple but personal statement that normality must prevail.
Normality, in this case, is taking time out for a piece of cake tomorrow Sunday (11th June).

This may, of course, include the near obligatory cup of tea and ideally, be shared with friends. There is no set location, anyone can take part anywhere around the world. People are being encouraged to aim for 4 pm local. However, the choice to take part is more important than strict adherence to a particular time on Sunday.

The only request is that people think about the importance of retaining the usual pattern of life and not losing it as a result of terror or disproportionate responses to their acts. Everyone taking part is asked to record the moment in a picture which should be sent to cakealong02@gmail.com where they will be used to produce an overall record of the day.

A simple idea but a powerful statement. There is already interest from places far further afield than London where I will be on Sunday. It is interesting to think that people will be taking the time to pause for thought on Sunday, triggered by that very British reaction, a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I’ll make sure I’ve something appropriate.

Is DNA splicing – the biggest breakthrough since antibiotics?

For those of us lucky enough to have been in our late teens or early twenties during the 1980’s nothing can have been more shocking or frankly frightening than the UK government’s AIDS awareness campaigns.  Hard hitting (for the time), the adverts featured funereal images including tombstones, lilies and coffins. All had the stark message, AIDS: Don’t die of ignorance

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1980’s Don’t die of ignorance campaign

The messaging within these adverts was equally shocking, making it very clear that this illness was incurable and would lead to death. Little was held back in terms of the danger HIV and AIDS posed to the nation’s health. In short, they were designed to scare the bejeezus out of you and did a very good job of doing just that.

 

For a period of time in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the HIV virus was a terrifying spectre hanging over everyone but focused particularly on gay men, sex workers and intravenous drug users. Many of these groups were seen as bringing the disease on themselves by their lifestyles. Funding for HIV research was challenging, having to overcome a ‘worthiness’ barrier among some donors.

It’s hard to describe to those who didn’t live through that period just how all-pervasive the fear of HIV and AIDS became. The ‘gay plague’ as some called it was in the long tradition of killer conditions dating back to consumption (tuberculosis) and the black death. Given this, it’s equally hard for those who experienced this to imagine a time where HIV was eradicated or made harmless to the body it infected. However, that prospect is no longer pure science fiction but is a strong possibility in the not too distant future.

The HIV Virus

The initial treatment regimes for HIV were little more than palliative, with many being highly toxic to the body. The modern era of treatment with the first protease inhibitors being introduced as recently as 1995. This development led to the introduction of increasingly effective combination therapies as the new millennium dawned. Yet despite these significant and life changing improvements, the virus remains present in the patient albeit at very low levels and in reservoir tissues such as bone marrow.  However, for the majority of HIV patients in 2017, a positive status signifies a condition which is usually entirely manageable with medication. In addition, the life expectancy of an HIV+ person on current treatments is virtually identical to that of an uninfected person (all other things being equal).

HIV Entry

HIV cell entry mechanism

In a simplified summary, the HIV virus infects cells by first binding itself to one of the host’s own immune cells (in the case of humans a CD4 cell). This then allows the virus to attach itself to healthy cells unchallenged by the immune system of the host. Ultimately the virus will enter those cells and reproduce releasing further copies of the virus into the body. They in turn bind to a CD4 cell and the cycle continues. The ‘hijacking’ of the host’s CD4 cell means the body sees the infected cell and the virus as being part of the host and the HIV virus is effectively made invisible to the host’s immune system. This mechanism of stripping and stealing host DNA to mask the virus was initially considered so devious, it was often used as evidence that the virus must be man made. It was asserted, nature wouldn’t design something so ‘evil’.

 

However, researchers in both the fields of medicine and nanotechnologies have long been interested in this type of mechanism. Some felt that as an immune cell could be ‘tricked’ into seeing a virus as part of the host, perhaps it could also be ‘tricked’ into seeing them as a virus again. Some even suggested the virus itself may be ‘tricked’ into receiving some form of targetted treatment – the much vaunted ‘silver bullet‘ medication aimed just at the HIV virus. Now, for the first time, this is more than a pipe dream.

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The dream of targetted gene therapy

Researchers have long hoped to achieve the dream of replacing portions of defective DNA in various types of gene therapy. This would allow treatments to target just target cells without damaging surrounding tissue/structures. It would also hold out the prospect of offering a more general delivery mechanism which could transfer into other areas of medicine. Some years ago, researchers in HIV treatment took the embryonic gene-editing tools of 2012 (byproducts of the Human Genome project) and linked this to the use of enzymes and proteins to ‘target’ specific cells types. This HIV research has now created some remarkable laboratory results.

 

In simple terms. they have developed a technique called CRISPR (pronounced crisper) which splices an enzyme into the DNA of a virus. In turn, this causes the virus to replicate its own RNA. This has the benefit of increasing the visibility of these cells to auto-immune processes without increasing the infective components of the virus. Although these early techniques don’t remove the virus they do take away one of its great strengths – invisibility.

Since 2015 when the possibilities of this approach began to interest the wider research communities there have been many parallel streams of research activity all producing similarly encouraging laboratory trials first in cell studies and more recently in live animal trials.

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Studies have been successful in mice

Researchers at the Louis Katz school of medicine and the University of Pittsburgh conducted experiments in which mice were given HIV-1 cells causing acute HIV infection responses. In humans, this equates to the period in which the HIV virus is most infectious. However, when the CRISPR therapy was used on the infected mice, the rate of cell replication fell dramatically, by between 60 and 95%. This was so successful it was classed as a successful genetic inactivation of the HIV-1 virus in living animals.

 

If this success transfers to other species well (early trials on primates suggest similar success rates), this could mean someone infected with HIV could be treated prior to systemic infection has taken place. Even more amazing is the possibility of a person living with HIV having the virus ‘removed’ from the body post infection.

Then, things became even more interesting when combined with advances from what might be considered an unrelated area of science, criminology.  In the late 1990’s a number of criminal cases were detected thanks to improvements in DNA identification techniques. Those techniques took small amounts of DNA and effectively ‘magnified’ them by a form of cellular replication. When researchers at MIT and Harvard employed this technique alongside CRISPR splicing they found they could ‘zoom in’ on traditionally hard to find viruses. The same RNA replication used in DNA magnification meant viruses and cells could be identified and targetted even when levels in the body are remarkably low.

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Other viruses are now in scope of this therapy

We have now reached the point at which viruses which have previously eluded testing start coming within the scope of this technique. The first two to fall in this space are Dengue virus (responsible for Dengue fever) and the Zika virus which has been causing birth defects most recently in South America.

 

When Zika and similar viruses was seen as in the scope of treatment, researchers into some of the more elusive cancers also began to take a strong interest. At present, the research which originated in HIV is providing new treatment possibilities for a range of infectious diseases and increasingly ways to target historically difficult cancers.

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Cancer cells are the next targets

In the same way that proteins and enzymes have allowed medications to enter cells in a targetted way for HIV and potentially Zika, the same method could apply for other conditions.

 

Research in this space is currently underway for the treatment of advanced breast and cervical cancer in women and advanced prostate cancer in men. This could, at last, be the practical delivery mechanism to target specific cells alone. The magic or silver bullet could indeed have been found.

I wonder how many of those who felt the money spent on HIV was somehow less worthy or deserved would still hold those views. I suspect very few if they had known just how many unrelated illnesses could benefit in the long run. It just goes to prove you never know where research will lead and how it will be applied.

Whilst their loss would still be as terrible, the thought that those who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS may have led to research that may defeat Dengue, Zika and potentially many cancers, would perhaps, be some consolation.