Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Terrestrialists – Bruno Latour’s new-materialists

Regular readers will know that I have taken a little time out away from my regular work to read a few books to try to get an understanding of where we are, how we got here and how we might get out of here. Alive. Some discomforting answers are supplied in the reading of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on nationalist populism; the latter, I think, can be extracted from Bruno Latour and his new book (left). I am sure there are many others, however (for example, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and Diane Coyle’s (2014) unpackaging of GDP as a measure of  national wellbeing).

Both Eatwell and Goodwin and Latour are pretty clear that liberal democracy is a cause. Moreover, we must keep reminding ourselves, for example, that liberal democracy is relatively new in human history. Baby boomers and their offspring (myself included here), however, have no experience of other forms of democracy, illiberal or otherwise (illiberal democracies are now to be found in Hungary, Poland and increasingly in Italy). It has been the underpinning of economic growth and – what seemed until recently to be – inexorable globalisation. I am grateful to a single essay by John Gray to help me with this also.

I have not really had much reason to consider Latour’s work; I have probably been more scared of it than I should have been. I was nudged towards it after reading an article in the NYT magazine about him, his methodological perspective (actor network theory) and its applications. Often seen as post-modern French philosophy – now conveniently rebranded by others as a philosophy of post-truth – it can be inaccessible.

Bruno Latour, 2017

There are four major events that Latour uses in constructing what he deems to be a hypothesis. Hypothesis because he does not try to prove anything. He recognises that he comes from a landed bourgeois family and is, himself, a boomer. But dismiss him – or his reasoning – at our peril, I sense. So, the events are: the Brexit vote in the UK; the election of Trump in the USA; the resumption of mass migrations caused by wars, failed attempts at economic development and climate change. The fourth event, however, is the most significant for Latour and it, itself, comes in two parts. First, the signing in Paris on 12 December 2015 of the Climate Change Accord; second, Trump’s policy to withdraw from the Accord.

On the former Latour says: “…on that December day, all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.” (p. 5). On the second, “By pulling out of the Paris Accord, Trump explicitly triggered, if not a world war, at least a war over what constitutes the theater of operations. “We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!”” (p. 3).

Latour’s method is systematic, if a little post-modern and hence, non-linear. Liberal democracy is capable of delivering the Climate Accord, but not implementation. Even if all signatories tried to implement the Accord, liberal democracy with its growth, modernisation, globalisation and universal wealth (measured in material terms) philosophy is incompatible with delivery. At some point, leaders – obscurantists, in Latour’s parlance – have to tell electorates that under the current economic and political models, “climatic catastrophe” is unavoidable. Latour, however, interprets Trump in an interesting way. I have often thought that climate change deniers actually believe that climate change is not caused by human activity out of ignorance and failure to look at the evidence. For them, it is merely a natural phenomenon that governments need to prepare for. Depriving people of the benefits of capitalist modes of production, trade and consumption would, therefore, not help the environment. However, my naïvety, as is often the case, is clear. The actuality is that the climate change deniers are of two kinds – literally for Latour – the “Out-of-this-World” types who care little for evidence (p. 34, and maybe Trump is the cheerleader here?) and those who know only too well that human activity is the cause not only of climate change, but also of the increased rate of change and the cause of the 6th Great Extinction.

Let us add more to this; socialism is no better at dealing with climate change than is economic liberalism. The left, just like the right, is bi-directional. There are those deep internationalists who believe that modernisation, which usually incorporates economic and political globalisation, is equally important for the socialist realisation of equality (just like the economic liberals). There are also those who think about the local – tradition, the familiar, predictable, local production, etc. Increasingly this perspective captures the so-called “left behind” or “abandoned” on the left who seek controls on immigration, protection for strategic industries and sovereignty (whatever that is). As Latour puts it, “those who value ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticism”  (p. 53). The UK Labour Party is trying to reconcile these two perspectives against the backdrop of Brexit and goes some way towards explaining the Labour leadership’s support for withdrawal. Many modern social democratic parties in Europe are trying to do the same but losing out to overtly populist parties and Greens alike. For Latour, they are un-reconcilable in one party.

So far there have been three “Attractors” – global and local (both with plus and minus elements, winners and losers) and “Out-of-this-world” those for whom reality triangulated by science and presented by educated elites, scientists, publishers and seemingly opaque institutes has no meaning. There is one more Attractor; namely the Terrestrial (p. 40). This is neither left nor right. In Actor Network terms, Latour’s thing, the Terrestrial is an actor itself. The other attractors are all about human history, human geography, human advancement, the modernisation of the human condition. The Terrestrial, argues Latour, puts human beings back into nature. That nature includes living things as well as the biosphere. It is the critical zone on the planet that makes life – human, animal and plant – possible. The Terrestrial, therefore, is an actor because, in Latour’s terms, it has agency and fights back (p. 41) – or at least responds to stimuli, largely human induced. Civilisation (human of course) is the product of the last 10 millennia of human (often brutal) interaction.

Terrestrialism is, essentially, a third-way. We’ve seen third-ways before. New Labour in the UK was packaged as such back in the late 1990s informed by the work of Anthony Giddens. But that was perhaps a third way in name only. It was an old consensus, a neo-liberal one at that. Latour’s Terrestrialism is a third way not between left and right, but between global and local, plus and minus and climatic catastrophe. Nice theory, but as Latour honestly notes, this is an essay written from the comfort of a Paris residence with no empirical underpinning. There are a few suggestions for how “we” might become Terrestrialists. That is the subject of another – later – blog entry.

References:

Diane Coyle. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014

Anthony Giddens. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 1998

Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 2018

Picture: Latour KOKUYO

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Some final thoughts before the end of the year

I spent New Year’s Eve last year in Seville. At the stroke of midnight we drank wine and ate grapes – twelve are required to do it properly. Not sure we quite managed that. Maybe that is why the year has struggled to live up to its potential. I’ve always been a shade reticent with “celebrating” the new year; not only is time – as Douglas Adams would say – “an illusion” (in particular with reference to lunchtime) and hence not particularly meaningful, but also it was clear that 2018 was going to be a disappointment. I certainly had no expectation relating to the competence of the British Government to deal with Brexit, and so it proved. Celebrations for 2019, therefore, are likely to be strained as, once again, the expectations are low. Even lower.

That does not stop me from trying to understand what is going on. We are being assaulted in so many directions and not dealing with it. As I write, drones are disrupting the operation of Gatwick Airport. It is an attack and the “authorities” are finding it very difficult to deal with it, despite the resources at their disposal. Moreover, last evening I read that a senior, well published and prize-winning journalist, Claas Relotius, working for Der Spiegel amongst other mainstream news outlets, has been faking his stories for 8 years without editors noticing. These stories and investigations have been covering important issues, but it turns out to be fake news. These are supposed to be the people that we rely on to inform us. Undermining to say the least.

But how do I understand Brexit and the rise of the Right? I have turned to the work of Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (above left) in my ongoing book reading – which is one of the positives of 2018 after I committed to buying books from a local independent bookshop rather than buying from the destructive behemoth, Amazon.

It is not easy reading, despite being written in the classic, accessible style of Pelican Books. It is not easy reading because there are some truths that are demonstrated empirically that prick the bubble that I live in, working in a university as I do. First of all, populism and fascism are not the same thing. However much I want to label Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, a fascist, he’s not (currently). He is a national populist, the distinctions are real and important.

Equally disturbing is the realisation that liberal democracy is not the norm and not necessarily desirable (certainly not for the majority who are not particularly well-served by it). I recall after the Brexit referendum a series of short talks by intellectuals on BBC radio reflecting on the causes of the result. I remember John Gray providing a particularly troubling insight making this very point. Human history is not defined by liberal democracy and is not humanity’s end point.

Eatwell and Goodwin also provide a useful history lesson of the 20th Century. In particular, they trace the development of the EU from its initial foundations, expansion (for example, the UK in 1973) as the EEC, the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and further deepening with proposals for shared foreign policy and possibly armed forces. What is clear from this history is that the people, the citizens, did not get much of a say in the key decisions and treaties. In just six cases were referendums held, and even then, they provided only tepid endorsement. Elites have indeed run the EU. The European Parliament, we must remember, does not initiate legislation. Not surprising then that it has been held in contempt by national electorates when its members are chosen every five years.

Hence the backlash from the disenfranchised, goes the argument, was inevitable. Aided and abetted by some rather opaque finance being spent by avowed racist populists using social media platforms, the outcome is lose-lose apart for the very few who specialise in disaster capitalism and bigotry. Moreover, the calibre of politicians that we have in a time of crisis such as the British in particular are in, is risible. Liberal democracy is culpable here. On the one hand it is the democratic form that underpins capitalism. It is – possibly counter-intuitively – captured by elites and perpetuates the inequalities that are currently tearing societies apart.

I read on. No grapes this year, as I will not be in Seville. The weather is looking good, though. Happy new year!

Even my football team is at the bottom of the league

My home team, Hull City, have twice competed in the English Premier League, and twice through incompetence been relegated. The team is now working hard to get relegated to the third league. Conceding a 93rd minute goal against a relegation challenger on Saturday sums it up.

As Douglas Adams might have said, “but that’s as nothing compared to Brexit” (he actually likened the dimensions of space with a walk down the road to the chemist/pharmacy). Talking of which, if the incompetence of the government and the paralysis of the UK Parliament persists, there will be no point in walking to the pharmacy because there will be no drugs. Or the supermarket, for that matter, as there will not be any food. It is coming a bit of a cliche on Twitter to say things like, “I cannot believe I am saying this in 2018” in the context of food and drug shortages.

But of course, we are.

Not in my lifetime have I experienced the British political system so dysfunctional. I was well aware – if not of voting age – when the IMF bailed out the UK economy in the 1970s. I remember the limited excitement of the 3-Day week and power cuts. We had a gas fire with an electrical timer without which the fire would not work. How nuts was that? I lived through Thatcher, the miners’ strike. I was there with the million others trying to prevent war in Iraq. But I never felt that the polity was in crisis, only that I was on the wrong side. This time is different.

Competition over the tracks: the EU seems to learn nothing from the British experience?

Back in the 1990s I a wrote a PhD thesis. It was about railways. The privatisation of the UK rail system. Actually, it was two theses. The first part was about privatisation; the second, contrasting part, was about the Beeching years where the network was significantly reduced. Anyone wanting to read it can do so here.

The UK passenger rail industry was privatised using a franching model. The infrastructure management was separated from the provision of train services. Contrived competition came as a result of competition for 7-year franchises, not between trains running over the same track. However, there was to be limited “open access” whereby new operators could have rights over train paths in competition with franchise holders. Out of that provision came Hull Trains (now owned by FirstGroup) and Grand Central (Deutsche Bahn) linking towns and cities that were essentially cut from the Intercity services on privatisation. These open access services have been, arguably, some of the successes of rail privatisation.

I remember at the time the “blame” for privatisation by advocates as coming from the EU. It was true, back in 1991, the EU required national rail operators – largely state-owned providers – to account for infrastructure separately to train services. All in the name of transparency, seemingly. What the EU did not require was wholesale route or infrastructure privatisation. The UK got both; though after a spate of accidents, the privatised infrastructure provider, Railtrack, collapsed and the assets were re-nationalised. The rest is history.

It would seem, however, that the EU’s intention was, after all, to force national operators to liberalise their services and, by implication, allow competitors access to all routes, not just the minor ones as is common at the moment. In Bavaria, for example, Transdev, the French multinational, has run the BayrisheOberlandBahn (BOB, left) under this limited franchising model since 1998. Deutsche Bahn bought Arriva in 2010 but had to sell its German Arriva rail franchises to comply with EU competition policy.

The current European scenario is familiar to British rail observers. In Germany the new operators may well be major coach operators. Now coach operation is a relatively new thing in Germany. Who needs a national coach network when there is a comprehensive national rail network with connecting buses to non-connected locations? Well, one was created and, as might be anticipated, there was a flurry of new operators which, over not very much time, consolidated into a new dominant operator. In particular, I point to Flixbus. In the UK it was Stagecoach, FirstBus and GoAhead leading the bus-to-rail charge.

Flixbus was founded in 2013, has three main backers (General Atlantic, Holtzbrinck Ventures and Silver Lake Partners) and operates throughout Europe and in the United States. Taking on Deutsche Bahn is an interesting diversification. Another entrant is thought to be Leo Express, a Prague-based start-up. But more interesting is perhaps competition from other state operators. In Germany, for example, we might expect the French national operator, SNCF, Dutch national railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen), Trenitalia and Spain’s RENFE to enter?

The EU’s position seems to be championing of customers. The argument goes something like this:

  • rail travel is too expensive across Europe;
  • monopoly providers keep fares artificially high due to producer interests at the expense of passengers;
  • more competition leads to lower fares.

Lower fares have implications. In this case, as has been seen in the UK, national operators subsidise their existing operations by taking on potentially lucrative operations in other countries. In the UK, services run by Deutsche Bahn/Arriva and Dutch state railways (Abellio/Nederlandse Spoorwegen) qualify in this respect.

Cheerleading this nonsense, as ever, is the Economist. Take the case of the Czech Republic: “new operators have achieved costs per seat kilometre that are 30-50% lower than those of the state operator. Passengers are benefiting: the average ticket price from Prague to Ostrava has fallen by 61% since 2011, when the state rail firm lost its monopoly.” The Economist notes also that it leads to greater yield pricing similar to what airlines use. The closer to time of travel – or on particularly-known busy times – prices go up to choke off demand. Great! OK, the opposite is also true, fares go down at quieter times. But trains are not like planes; people use them because they have to and have limited flexibility. Rail has a social purpose, planes, largely not. Innovation is not what is needed per se. Reliability is what is needed.

The Economist goes on. Nederlandse Spoorwegen carry more passengers in the UK than in the Netherlands!  Scotrail had to be bailed out by its parent, Deutsche Bahn, to the tune of £10m, presumably making services in Germany even less-well funded? Liberalisation and privatisation fracture national networks and reduces network effects (the Germans already know about declining network benefits; British passengers have understood this since privatisation).

The Economist then highlights what it knows about such firms when put under pressure. Surprisingly they use their control and knowledge over the infrastructure to gain an advantage. They collude. They even sever track across borders (Lithuanian Railways on rail link with neighbouring Latvia – detailed in the Economist article).

Let us finish on Economist optimism: “And the high costs involved in starting a new railway firm mean that it will take time for the full benefits of competition to be felt by EU passengers, says Lorenzo Casullo of the OECD, a think-tank. Europe’s railways are on a long journey, but commuters will surely be better off down the line.” Same old, same old.

Economist article published 30 June 2018

Photos: Flixbus: Florian Fèvre

Unconscious bias

As a lecturer at a university, I am confronted on a daily basis with my own biases. After all, I’m a middle-aged white male in a relatively powerful position vis-a-vis my students (a discussion about relative-ness, is for another time). As a course leader, I am charged with achieving inclusivity targets (however it is measured) and widening participation. These are good things, but achieving them is very hard indeed. I’ve been on the training courses, studied exemplars and worked with knowledgeable colleagues. To some extent, it is not for us to define. One cannot wish into existence wider participation, for example, in a climate – economic and political – that is structurally biased against the very people we are trying to include.

Last week I was driving home listening to an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis, entitled: Why are even women biased against women? As a white male, naturally, I’m looking to get off the hook. In my head, I can hear things like, “well, if women are biased against themselves then I’m ok”, etc. And so I listen. The programme is presented by former Times journalist, Mary-Ann Sieghart, but that is not significant other than her admitting to her own biases against women.

In the programme are two scenarios. I was listening whilst driving paying reasonable attention. I am mortified that I got caught out by both of them. I have been naughty taking a bit of BBC intellectual property and posting it on to my blog. But as Sieghart says, not only are we complicit in our unconcious bias on a daily basis (the conscious bias is another question), but we must find ways of exposing ourselves to our biases on a daily basis also. So here goes:

Scenario 1: 

Scenario 2: 

So, how did you get on?

If readers want to try something else, go to the Harvard Implicit Bias project website and do the test. I did it myself (before the Analysis programme) expecting the worst. I came out of it neutral. But as my failure in Scenarios 1 and 2 demonstrates, there are no laurels to rest on.

 

Why would you do that?

I have not written about Brexit for some time. I have watched incredulously as the UK’s chief negotiator, David Davis, has failed to understand that the EU is a rule-based organisation that works linearly, meets 4 times per year and delegates work to qualified people such as EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. I have also “enjoyed” reading in the Guardian John Crace’s sketches – yesterday being a case in point.

This morning the British Government – though I am being generous by describing it thus after a week when the now redundant Overseas Development Minister, Priti Patel, has been making her own foreign policy whilst on holiday, wheeled out another former minister, Theresa Villiers (left), to argue that the EU – Barnier – is being unreasonable in putting a two-week deadline on the UK sorting out the divorce bill as the final EU leaders’ meeting of the year is fast-approaching and he will have to make recommendations to them regarding exit progress. I’ve heard the arguments again – the EU is not negotiating. Trade policy is important for the British and Europeans. How can you negotiate the border between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland before knowing what the trade agreement will be? etc. I do recall that Davis – and presumably what constitutes the UK Government – agreed to this on the first day of negotiation back in June 2017. Why agree to something that negotiators cannot honour?

But then this week, the UK’s illustrious and creative Prime Minister, Theresa May, decides that the leaving date, 29 March 2019 will be enshrined in law. Oh and the time will be 2300 (a recognition that the European Continent is on the whole, one hour ahead of the UK). My question is, when there is so much uncertainty about outcomes, why would a so-called leader commit herself – or successors – to such an absolute date and time? Politics was always the art of the possible. When negotiating with 27 countries whom the UK has alienated and distracted from more important global matters, this is unhelpful? Surely?

 

 

 

Picture Theresa Villiers: Chris McAndrew

I passed an examination!

Since getting back from holidays in the Alps in August, it has been quite busy. The start of an academic year is always busy; this year had its own challenges. And they are persistent. Apologies to my readers. Something had to give.

I have, however, now passed my Goethe Institut B1 German exam. It was quite an experience. I have not taken a formal examination for maybe 20 years (since completing my undergraduate degree). So, I had to prepare. The Goethe Institut offers plenty of mock examination materials for that purpose. I have spent the best part of a year trying to improve my mock scores. Examinations are as much about technique as they are content. Answering the question helps – though because the questions and/or instructions are in German, that makes it a shade more tricky to get right. I practised hard answering questions alone and with my tutor.

Kaffee und Kuchen nach der Prüfung

I have to say that I thought – confidently – that I had failed the listening part of the examination. In my training, this was my weakest discipline. One has to listen to a cod radio-discussion programme and identify who said what. There is little concession to speed. Some of the voices seem similar and, as was in my case, in the first instance, I had no idea what the theme was! But somehow, I passed that part with a creditable 77 (84 overall from four disciplines).

Anyone is doing this examination in Munich, be advised that the online “pass checker” tool may not work. After two weeks the Institut wrote to me to ask when I was going to pick up my certificate! And against their own guidelines, they sent it to an address in Munich for me to retrieve rather than have to attend in person. At 200 Euros, it is not a cheap option. But I am unexpectedly proud.

The Economist and the UK General Election – what a squirm

Two years ago I critiqued the Economist’s advocacy of the Conservative Party to form the next UK Government under David Cameron. The magazine, in my opinion, disingenuously dismissed Ed Miliband’s programme in favour of the “stability” offered by more economic-liberal austerity by the Conservatives. The magazine overlooked the commitment to an in-out referendum on Europe despite its avowed support for the European Union, at least in the context of a single market and customs union.

Fast-forward 2 years and here we are with another General Election having been called – we are told by Theresa May – to protect the will of the people translated as her vision of Brexit from those who would oppose it (saboteurs according to the Daily Mail), like parliamentary oppositions are supposed to do under the Country’s usefully unwritten constitution. May, not being a democrat, or not one that I recognise, duly called her General Election after having been on a walking holiday. Though I am minded that she first had a word with the architect of the Conservatives’ last election victory, the benighted Lynton Crosby.

I was waiting to see what stance The Economist would take this time. Let me have a look. First of all, the leader of the opposition is called “ineffectual”. However, that is not the real story. May looks to achieve a landslide victory and increase her majority from the current 17 to something approaching 100. “For the 48% of voters who, like this newspaper, opposed Brexit, this may look ominous” says the Economist, un-reassuringly. However, we have mis-read this. Indeed, argues the newspaper, “[i]nfact, it offers an opportunity for those who believe in a more open, Liberal Britain”. Really? We need to know more.

If I read it correct, if May gets her increased majority, she will fear the Commons less when it comes to the final deal. The House of Commons fought hard to have a say on the final deal and would, if the “deal” was not as good as what the country has at the moment with EU membership, tell her to go back and try harder. One assumes she is particularly fearful of her “hard Brexit” backbenchers. If she has a bigger majority, goes the argument, she can accommodate their wrath as well as that coming from the depleted opposition benches. This means, continues the argument, that she is more likely to be able to make compromises with the EU with this safety net. And that means a softer Brexit. Brilliant!

Dear Economist, that is nonsense. May wants to close the borders. Only a hard version of Brexit will enable that. Plus Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, has himself described it as a “power grab”. Moreover, she also does not want to be bound by the current manifesto of her party written by her predecessor. So, her Finance Minister, Philip Hammond, who suffered ignominy when his budget tax increase was rejected, can now make this a manifesto commitment. Also, May herself is obsessed with selective education and already has in train a return to grammar schools at the expense of children from less privileged backgrounds. The Economist thinks that Theresa May with a majority can fix the housing shortage and make good the “funding crisis in social care”. Bearing in mind that her party is the cause of these two problems and policies so far pursued seek to make it worse, not better (for example, right-to-buy housing association dwellings).

We should not be surprised by this spin and support for the Conservative Party; but we are where we are because of the Conservative Party (austerity policies and THAT referendum). The solutions and future must lie elsewhere.

Brenda says…

Brenda is just an ordinary woman in Bristol. She was questioned on the street by a BBC journalist and she said that she was fed up with politics – there is too much of it about at the moment – and she just wanted to live her life in peace. That is a bit of a paraphrase, but only a bit.

Let me be clear, I do not want an election. What is the point in a fixed-term parliament if an insecure Prime Minister decides that she needs a personal mandate for her mendacity and push for majoritarianism and the limited state? However, if we are going to have one – precipitated to some extent by the EU’s interregnum over exit terms – then so be it. But this is no ordinary election. I’m 53 and I believe this is the most important election in my lifetime. We can let the Conservative Party for the foreseable future dominate the executive and legislature (not to say judiciary if recent experience is anything to go by) or we can stand up for something bigger.

This is not a party-political election in the normal sense. Notwithstanding Brexit, this is an election to stand up for public services, the NHS, education, housing, social care, the environment, liberty and decency. All of these things the Conservative Party seem to be willing to denude or abolish in pursuit of power. Not the public good.

This will be an ugly island if May achieves her aim. All opposition parties have to work together on this one. This is not about Labour, LibDems, SNP, Green. This is about a future. Brenda needs to engage, vote and learn.

End.

 

The nonsense of anti-trade union legislation

My trade union, the UCU, is in dispute with my employer. My employer seems reluctant to discuss the issues at the heart of the dispute, so the Union organised a ballot if members managed by the Electoral Reform Society, the experts in balloting and the law. The result was a legally acceptable (relative to current law) percentage of members agreeing to take strike action. The Union then called a two-day strike only to find that under the new law, before labour can be withdrawn, two weeks’ notice has to be given to employers. The strike had to be postponed.

We are getting close to the Easter non-teaching period. To withdraw one’s labour in a non-teaching period is a bit of a waste of time (and money). But to leave it until the start of the new term renders the ballot void. So, here we have a piece of legislation that forces members to strike in order to keep the legal mandate to strike. So, at the end of the coming week, we are going to withdraw our labour – symbolically – for half a day in order to strike on another two days later in late April. Brilliant.