Data Protection

There’s been a bit of fuss about data protection lately and I’ve had several emails on the subject, as a result of which my email inbox will be much quieter from now on (being restricted to friends, family and the one company which just updated its privacy policy instead of sending me patronising emails that begged to be deleted).

This unfortunately means that no longer will I come home to phone calls from people who want to recover my PPI payments for me and get puzzled when my first question is “Where did you get this number?” to which the not wholly satisfactory answer was “You must have not ticked a box at some point. Now why don’t you want to tell me you had PPI?”

(I eventually worked out who was distributing my telephone number to the extent that I would have got fewer unexpected calls had I posted it on here, which was that some relatively-reputable-looking survey body that UCAS signed me up for, possibly without asking, got me to do a survey from some seemingly reputable body willing to pay something for it which included a mobile number for follow-up surveys, which I foolishly provided, which follow-up surveys turned out to be working out which probably not reputable organisations – including Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospice, British Gas and the aforementioned PPI people – I would like my details selling to so the said organisations could cold-call me. The follow-up surveys seemed to consider they were doing me a favour and were unwilling to accept either my requests to be removed from their database or my pleas that I was busy, particularly as I say this a lot (well, I usually am). Having worked out what they were up to, and during a particularly insistent call taking the view that I could not possibly be busy at three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, I may have used only very slightly better couched terms to tell the surveying caller to sod off and this they have obligingly done.)

As an amusing feature, I thought I’d take a look at one of the organisations which has been asking me for permission to keep emailing me and examine exactly how this relationship has gone.

Organisation: The Labour Party.

Modus Operandi: In 2015 I went onto the Labour Party website to discover what their policies were for the forthcoming General Election (beyond putting up blocks of concrete in Hastings car parks – not, alas, across the entrance). On the website was a questionnaire about my views on Labour’s policies. Thinking this might prove interesting, I clicked on the link and was prompted to input my email address in order to complete the questionnaire. (The questionnaire is discussed at the bottom of this blogpost, in case you missed it at the time; unfortunately the questionnaire itself has outlived its usefulness, the General Election being over, and is no more.)

Comments made at time of collecting data: Nothing terribly memorable.

Upshot: 90 emails (so far, over three years) inviting me to get excited about the activities of the Labour Party (including six on the 7th May 2015, which may have been in part because I live in a marginal seat, and seventeen over the course of the EU referendum campaign, which perhaps I should have paid more attention to). Included offers to buy postcards, calendars and a vote in the leadership elections. Also some slightly more random though highly worthy stuff, like a recent one for joining the campaign to ban bee-slaughtering neonicotinoid insect sprays.

Approach to new data protection laws: Recipients need to opt-in again. (As I can’t recall actually opting-in to communications in the first place, beyond a default assumption that putting an email address into an organisation’s box that asks for one counts as an opt-in to spam, this may actually have been a sensible attitude to take.)

Incentives: It’s Jeremy Corbyn’s birthday this weekend (it is indeed – tomorrow – he’ll be 69) and he’ll be terribly upset if his email database has shrunk.

Response: Actually, this one might have been tempting as the Party’s rather naive assumption that their database consists of supporters, instead of random people who went to look at their website at the wrong moment, is rather touching and the resultant emails quite amusing. Alas, I also have a latent desire to annoy Jeremy Corbyn, for various reasons which I will withhold on data protection grounds.

Thinking of the PPI cold caller, one of the organisations the Press have picked up on that is particularly affected by these rule changes works by harvesting your data from your email inbox and selling it to random people that they meet in the street. They are terribly upset not to be able to offer this service to citizens of the European Union any more. It takes a lot to get me to make cynical comments about capitalists, but in this case I can’t help feeling the sorrow should be directed to the shareholders rather than the erstwhile customers. (Ironically that organisation’s work is now fairly obsolete in the EU, as it was dedicated to removing people from mailing lists – something that the mailing list owners have mostly now done for themselves.)



Some people may be feeling left behind at UK news lately, so here is a summary.

Thursday 23rd June 2016

  • Referendum is held on membership of European Union. Exit polls suggest a narrow Remain win.

Friday 24th

  • UK wakes up to news that vote went to leave the EU by 17million votes to 15million;
  • Pound collapses;
  • Stock market plunges;
  • Nigel Farage goes on ITV to deny that £350million promised by Leave battlebus for National Health Service will go anywhere near the National Health Service;
  • Other notable Leave campaigners suggest continued single market presence and no cut in immigration;
  • EU top brass ask for things to be tidied quickly;
  • Leading Conservative Party “Leave” campaigners (Boris Johnson, ex Mayor of London, and Michael Gove, Justice Secretary) call on Prime Minister to stay on;
  • David Cameron resigns as Leader of Conservative Party and announces intention to resign as Prime Minister when new leader is elected in October;
  • Cameron kindly leaves triggering departure from the EU to his successor;
  • Boris and Gove hold press conference where they stand around looking like they don’t really know what to do, weren’t expecting the result and have been steamrollered out of existence;
  • Both suggest a period of calm and that there is no need to rush the result they had been anxiously fighting for;
  • Scottish top brass say angry things;
  • Boris is abused for his support for Leave.

Saturday 25th

  • Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, suggests that EU exit talks will be nice and friendly;
  • Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition, denies he is going to quit too as various people blame him for not delivering a Labour block vote for Remain.

Sunday 26th

  • Jeremy Corbyn fires his Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn;
  • Reports that half Corbyn’s top team will now resign feel overblown;
  • Petition for a second EU referendum set up by a Leave supporter expecting to lose is overladen with support, some of it created by computer programmes written by people who fancied making computers repeatedly sign petitions;
  • England win at rugby against Australia;
  • 12 of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet members quit in protest at his continued leadership, including most of the people who voters might have heard of for moderately good reasons (and the woman who said that Ed Miliband carving his vacuous election pledges in a bit of stone last year didn’t mean he wasn’t going to break them).

Monday 27th

  • Most of the rest of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet quits, leaving some of his mates, an ex-girlfriend, two people who can’t resign but promised to stop attending and a former party leadership contender whose attitudes bear a certain resemblance to a drowned sponge;
  • Angela Eagle, one of those resigning, breaks down in tears on television;
  • Corbyn recruits most of his remaining supporters/ people who would rather not have a Labour leadership contest to his Shadow Cabinet, filling roughly half the vacancies;
  • Names include such widely-known figures as Pat Glass MP;
  • Nick Clegg, once Liberal-Democratic Party leader and former Deputy Prime Minister, suggests an early election but is told by David Cameron that someone called Nick Clegg got a law passed about fixed-term Parliaments so he can’t go back to the country;
  • Anti-foreign sentiment in UK post-referendum prompts concern;
  • Corbyn heckled and told he faces a leadership contest at Labour party meeting;
  • He goes to a rally of his supporters afterwards;
  • Tory party reckons it should manage its leadership contest by 2nd September;
  • England knocked out of Euro 2016 football tournament (by… err… Iceland);
  • Panda gives birth to twins in China.

Tuesday 28th

  • Nigel Farage, man who has done very little worth commenting on except complaining about the European Union and getting stuck in M4 traffic jams, accuses European Parliament members of having never had proper jobs;
  • Pound continues to fall;
  • Pat Glass MP decides she can’t face being MP for another term and tells her local party she will stand down at the next election;
  • Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President, observes that people leaving the EU are, for obvious reasons, going to be outside the EU;
  • Corbyn massively loses an unofficial vote of confidence in his leadership by 172 votes to 40;
  • General feeling that nobody else from Corbyn’s cabinet will resign now.

Wednesday 29th

  • Pat Glass MP resigns from Shadow Cabinet;
  • Tory Party launches leadership contest. Anyone can stand if they can get two people to nominate them in 24 hours. Immediate appearance by Stephen Crabbe, Work and Pensions Secretary;
  • Corbyn mocked at Prime Minister’s Questions and told to resign by Cameron;
  • Gibralter begins looking at options for not totally uncoupling from the EU;
  • It is announced that Angela Eagle will spend Thursday challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership.

Thursday 30th

  • Theresa May, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom quietly launch Tory leadership campaigns;
  • Michael Gove announces that despite years of not wanting to be Prime Minister and being totally unsuited to the role he regrettably considers it his duty to stand because Boris is incapable;
  • Boris spends a press conference thought to be intended to launch his leadership bid, sets out his aims for the country and then closes by saying he won’t stand, leaving a distinct impression that he has given up on the premiership and his remaining political ambition is the Chiltern Hundreds;
  • Gove has to spend the first bits of his leadership campaign explaining why he knifed Johnson in several places;
  • The Eagle does not launch.

Friday 1st July

  • Some debate over how to handle EU negotiations;
  • Labour top brass reject calls for their party to back a second referendum or ignore the result of the first if they win any early election;
  • George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, gives up on his delayed budget surplus targets;
  • Wales goes through to the semi-finals of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

Saturday 2nd

  • Shadow Cabinet look at ways to lever Corbyn out;
  • Neil Kinnock tells Corbyn to go;
  • Protest in London against democracy (specifically the referendum result).

Sunday 3rd

  • Andrea Leadsom says we should get on with leaving the EU;
  • Theresa May says there is no rush and people want a good prime minister for PM, not specifically a Brexiteer.

Monday 4th

  • Nigel Farage resigns from UK Independence Party leadership – to jubilation from his Parliamentary party, who had a UKIP MPs meeting on Brexit arrangements and agreed unanimously with himself;
  • Chris Evans resigns from his short-lived job hosting BBC2 show Top Gear – to jubilation from his predecessors, who were out in the sticks somewhere filming their new show for Amazon;
  • Jeremy Corbyn does not resign – to the continued jubilation of his supporters;
  • Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond says Theresa May is quite right not to guarantee EU citizen residency rights in UK (useful bargaining chip for British citizen residency rights in the EU and a general sign that the UK is reverting to the good old foreign policy approach that saw it sink the French fleet in 1940).

Tuesday 5th

  • Teachers go on strike;
  • Tory MPs vote on their leadership candidate preferences;
  • Ken Clarke, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, is filmed making caustic remarks about “anyone but Gove” and how Theresa May is a “bloody difficult woman, but then you and I worked for Margaret Thatcher”;
  • His interlocutor Malcolm Rifkind remarks that he and Ken would happily have had that conversation on the record if Sky had asked them to;
  • Liam Fox knocked out of contest;
  • Stephen Crabbe withdraws;
  • Theresa May leads by some margin;
  • Next round on Thursday;
  • Twentieth anniversary of Dolly the Sheep, the first clone of an adult mammal.

Wednesday 6th

  • Chilcot report into Iraq War published. Broadly speaking, Blair got carried away and deluded himself but with no dishonest intent;
  • Tony defends himself;
  • Wales knocked out of Euro 2016 tournament.

Thursday 7th

  • Tony defends himself some more;
  • Questions continue as to how much we want to leave the EU;
  • Tony says world is a better place without Saddam;
  • Gove supporters try to drum up support by suggesting that Andrea Leadsom, who hardly anyone had heard of a month or so previously, is not suitable leadership material;
  • It is generally agreed that Tony Blair is probably not going to prison over Iraq;
  • Ian Hislop spends a Question Time appearance arguing that just because Remain lost the referendum doesn’t mean it should be ignored forever more;
  • Michael Gove, to the surprise of very few people, is knocked out of the Tory leadership contest;
  • Tory party seems to generally incline towards his previous view that he is unsuited to be Prime Minister, and does not want him to put himself out unnecessarily;
  • In the process of leaving he guarantees that the new Prime Minister will be a woman, for only the second time in the exceptionally long history of the Tory Party.

Friday 8th

  • The actor who played Sulu in 1960s Star Trek is upset that Sulu has been outed as gay in the latest film (ironic, as Takei is also gay);
  • Andrea Leadsom gives the Times an interview in which she says she won’t make the leadership contest about how she’s a mother and May isn’t because that would be “horrible” before going on to explain how as a mother she is making an investment in the future for her children.

Saturday 9th

  • Andrea Leadsom sees the morning’s Times and takes issue with the headline saying that she thinks that as a mother she is making an investment in the future for her children;
  • Italian foreign minister suggests UK might not leave the EU;
  • Labour begins looking at nuclear deterrent options for its defence review;
  • Tories announce plan to break up already wrecked Labour Party by having a vote on Trident renewal (which the Tories are largely in favour of, but Labour’s leader isn’t);
  • The Eagle to fly on Monday;
  • Still no candidate for UKIP leadership contest.

Sunday 10th

  • Conservative Party wins general election (foreign news from Australia);
  • Ongoing controversy over whether being a mother is a qualification for the role of Prime Minister, battering Leadsom in the process;
  • John Prescott, once Tony Blair’s Deputy Prime Minister, announces the Iraq War to be illegal (some 13¼ years after he could have stopped it by resigning);
  • Corbyn tries to calm critics by saying he voted to Remain;
  • Chris Evans backs American co-host Matt LeBlanc to anchor next series of Top Gear;
  • Andy Murray wins Wimbledon.

Monday 11th

  • Theresa May goes to Birmingham to make a speech about why she should be Tory leader;
  • Angela Eagle gets all the nation’s political press into a room to announce her Labour leadership bid;
  • This means the Press all discover simultaneously that they want to be over at Andrea Leadsom’s house, where she is coming onto her doorstep to announce the end of her leadership bid;
  • Eagle finishes her speech, turns to questions and finds the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky political editors have all run away;
  • Leadsom says she can’t be leader without more support from the Parliamentary party [and a vastly thicker skin] and wishes May success as sole remaining Tory leadership candidate;
  • May has achieved this mostly by making a joke about Boris buying water cannon and not self-immolating;
  • Southern Railway cancels 341 trains from its timetable so that customers have some idea of what’s not going to run while it finishes managing the Government’s dispute with a trade union;
  • Tory Party backbencher leader Graham Brady, technically the Chair of the 1922 Committee, announces that there need to be some internal discussions as to how to manage a leadership contest with one candidate;
  • Discussions conclude Theresa May is the winner;
  • Labour put out two press releases almost simultaneously, one demanding an immediate General Election and the other announcing a leadership election between two candidates of such polar opposites that they would be unable to agree a manifesto;
  • Cameron comes out of No. 10 Downing Street to announce he will be resigning as Prime Minister after Prime Minister’s Questions on the 13th and expects to be replaced by Theresa May, after which he goes back inside humming the opening chords of “Braid the Raven Hair” from The Mikado.

Tuesday 12th

  • David Cameron hosts his final Cabinet meeting;
  • Angela Eagle’s office is vandalised;
  • Jeremy Corbyn appeals for calm and for him to be on the Labour leadership ballot paper without needing to seek nominations;
  • Neil Kinnock repeats previous observations that when Corbyn’s mate Tony Benn stood against him for the leadership in the 1980s Kinnock had to scuttle round for nominations;
  • Petition on second EU referendum to be debated on 5th September in Parliament;
  • Bernie Sanders backs Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America after a contest that began a year or so ago;
  • Jeremy Corbyn is announced to be on the ballot for the Labour leadership without needing nominations.

Wednesday 13th

  • Sun headline is about the BBC “faking” a “live” TV programme about trains by featuring a bit of film submitted by a viewer that was taking in February, thereby getting a picture of a Class 66 on the front of a national paper;
  • The Japanese Emperor announces he intends to abdicate;
  • The Prime Minister David Cameron lays into Labour for not being able to decide the rules of their leadership contest in the time it’s taken the Tories to have a leadership contest, praises Theresa May, claims he doesn’t hate the Downing Street cat, makes a speech thanking everyone in front of TV cameras, aides, his children and SamCam, goes to Buckingham Palace and quits;
  • Theresa May goes to Buckingham Palace and accepts an invitation to form a Government;
  • The Prime Minister Theresa May makes shorter speech than Cameron’s outside No.10 which doesn’t so much park tanks on Labour’s lawn as blow up their house, ransack the garden and build a new garden wall that confines the Opposition to the compost heap;
  • Speech is noted as being rather like the one Ed Miliband would probably have made if he won last year’s election;
  • Labour is too busy discussing if Pontypridd MP Owen Smith should be on the leadership election ballot paper to notice;
  • The Mays refuse demands from the Press to kiss on live international television;
  • George Osborne is encouraged to resign before he can outstay his welcome;
  • New Government appointed with Philip Hammond as Chancellor (he was Osborne’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury until May 2010, when David Lawes got the full job and Hammond was banished to Transport), Boris as Foreign Secretary (he could have been Prime Minister in three years’ time if he’d backed Remain), Amber Rudd as Home Secretary and David Davis (not the MP for Monmouth) as Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union.

Note for Posterity

The above all actually happened and occurred in the timeframe specified.

Remaining points

One question remains. David Cameron had a house of his own in London which was tenanted. The tenants have apparently been given notice.

We have not heard enough about these tenants.

Did they know who their landlord was? If they did, they have presumably been packing since Friday 24th.

If not, one can picture them cheering his resignation when the phone rings.

“Sorry,” says the estate agent, “I’m afraid you’ve been given notice. Landlord needs his house back.”


“He’s got to leave his place in a hurry after he quit his job.”

“What job was that?”

“Prime Minister.”


And finally…

Here is a mid-winter picture of a bridge in Maidenhead, our new Prime Minister’s constituency:Maidenhead Bridge 1 JPG.jpg

Maidenhead is one of the richest constituencies in the country. Jerome described the town as “too snobby to be pleasant” but added that the stretch of the Thames up to Cookham is “unbroken loveliness … perhaps, the sweetest stretch of all the river”.Thames near Maidenhead 1 JPG.jpg

Of course our previous Prime Minister was based in Witney, incorporating Charlbury and Hanborough, on the North-western side of Oxford.Combe 2 JPG.jpg

Seasonal Area October 2013

The October 2013 Seasonal Area page, which has been online for the usual dubiously lengthy period of time before being mentioned here, is the most northerly to feature on the website to date. (Until August this year the page had never even been to Scotland.)

There’s a bit of scope left for going further north in next October’s picture without leaving the British mainland.

Forsinard Bog is an oddly pleasant place. There’s not much there, especially now the trees are coming out, and on a good day the result is a feeling of peace and solitude. On a wet day the result is of course liable to be exceedingly bleak and unpleasant. In winter snows the area is notoriously remote; trains get stuck up there from time to time, with the odd particularly dire occasion requiring passengers to be airlifted by helicopter. The single-line block section from Helmsdale to Forsinard, at some 48 miles, is the longest section of single line (and the longest individual signalling section) in the country – which has the upshot that in the time between a snow-clearing locomotive reaching Forsinard and the passenger train getting there after being cleared to leave Helmsdale it is entirely possible for the snow to block the line again.

The road, meanwhile, just goes on and on and on through the landscape, rolling idly over dips and hillocks in a pretty straight line overall, though on the ground it turns out to mix the rolling gradient with twists and bends. Like the railway, it is mostly single track.

The fact that there is only one surfaced road for miles means that the South side of OE449, the Ordnance Survey Explorer map for the area, has the possibly unique accolade of featuring almost the same mileage of railway as road.

Seasonal Area September 2013

The campaign to get Seasonal Area update notes to appear on here is proceeding punctually. October’s page should be going up sometime this week; meanwhile September’s is still available for viewing here.

This years Annual Stupidly Long Walk failed to get into the Forest of Dean, which does leave a small hole in the picture archive for September next year. The picture may therefore, for the first time in a few years, not be of somewhere in the Forest of Dean.


Meanwhile the war on Syria is proceeding nicely – in so far as it looks very unlikely to happen. The press must be rather disappointed. After the Parliamentary vote against war the terrifying idea was that the UK should abandon any military pretensions because it would never be relevant again. At least one trade paper was delighted at this because it would mean much more cash being available for the paper’s pet projects.

In the event we’ve had one of those terrifying little moments, as with a former President of Iran blaming a severe bout of rioting on the BBC, when a distinct impression is given that Britain being irrelevant is a convenient storyline for a handful of newspaper editors, a few politicians and the US Government. Within days Obama was also promising a legislature vote on Syrian war which he was widely expected to lose. Now we have Assad offering to hand over his weapons stockpile, the UN Security Council agreeing on something (almost unprecedented) and a general sweet impression that war isn’t going to happen after all. The Islamic terrorists have got so desperate they’ve gone to Kenya instead.

And this is all because the Leader of the Opposition decided to be political. Imagine what would happen if the Prime Minister had an idea.

Imagine what the world would have been like now if Blair or Iain Duncan-Smith had gone against war in Iraq and Afghanistan too.

And whatever anyone says about defence systems based on the output of white flag factories, such factories do produce a much more flexible product than the average munitions factory. You can use white flags as sheets, togas, blankets, costumes for tacky ghost tours or the base for more colourful flags too. If you really have to go to war you can use them to bag up bricks before dropping them on the enemy. The bricks can be used for rebuilding the war-torn nation afterwards while the white flags will put in their way the means to surrender, resolving any issues of enemy combatants who would like to give up and go home but have no white flags to hand. Also constantly having white flags dropped on you may be mildly annoying. (Seeing as dropping bombs on the modern enemy combatant seems to mildly annoy them at best, we might as well save money on the deal.)


On a lighter note, I’m doing a spot of recycling. A strange compulsive habit to have something to do away from a computer screen involving creating imaginary worlds results in me littering any flat surface in the house with 1:76ish scale models of things. The latest bit of fun is converting a Daz laundry power box into a model engine shed. (The box is made of very thick card and handing it over to the council seemed to be something of a waste.)

I’d like to say “other laundry powder available” but unfortunately all the other brands I can think of at this hour come in sachets or plastic bottles, which are not nearly as suited to hacking apart with a craft knife into industrial buildings.

Seasonal Area August 2013 and Foreign Affairs

The Seasonal Area picture for August 2013 has been online for the best part of a month now, so once I’ve finished writing this it’ll probably be time to settle down and write the September one.

Nice place, Edinburgh, though the lemonade is abominable and costs a small fortune. I also say “nice place” despite my visits being as a guest of someone and so made without having to research the city’s accommodation costs.


Last night’s bit of Parliamentary excitement was broadly exciting. It’s nice to see a Government being put in its place after many long years of Governments doing whatever they want. It’s also worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition also got put in his place – his little motion wasn’t terribly popular either and is strangely lacking from today’s news – so perhaps the best way forward is for all three party leaders to resign on the basis that their schemes cannot command the support of a reasonable number of their honourable members.

Long-term the best outlook for Cameron is probably that posterity will view him as encountering a situation that he felt he could do something about and duly asking Parliament whether he should. Parliament has said no and so he’s said that he won’t. So long as he doesn’t do anything, he should come out moderately well. It’s much better than Anthony Eden invading Suez until the US President said no and Eden then deciding that he wouldn’t. Lord Ashdown was already politically dead so his rumblings are less important. (Of the other obsolete politicians, Major seems to have retired and Blair tried to say that he was in favour, which is as good a reason to oppose something as any.) Clegg seems to have just fought in favour of something that he previously opposed, but that is fairly usual for him so is hardly noticed. Nobody can remember what Milliband’s position was 48 hours ago, though rumour has it that he was actually fairly keen on guns blazing which would serve to undermine the principled element of his opposition somewhat. Other countries now have to bear in mind that UK Government promises are subject to ratification by the legislature, which is no bad thing. Obama may find that with a key ally sitting this one out he has much greater difficulty with the UN, Congress and selling matters to his own people.

There is of course the usual reflection on Cameron that he is oddly good at getting things to blow up in his face, though this has been so tidily bungled (the case would look much better or have blown over by Monday) that it’s tempting to assign him enough intelligence for this to be a deliberate move to get out of a domestically tricky war.

The line from his spin doctor/ communications director about Milliband’s siding with the opinion polls being bare-faced politicking, or words to that effect, does not reflect well on the spin doctor. The Government may wish to find a new one.

There’s much note of Britain being dragged into an isolationist stance. It would be interesting to know how much the British people have ever been keen on foreign wars. The politicians are in favour, obviously, and after a successful war against the unbeatable odds of a Second or Third World country sans nuclear weaponry or decent military leadership any politician is naturally going to experience a certain bounce in popularity amongst those who admire good judgement, a confident approach and a fighting streak.

But Iraq was marked by massive demonstrations, widescale protest and a general view that this was Blair’s little war, not actually something for the nation to get behind. Blair’s legacy has perhaps been at its most marked in the last few days – whereas before there might have been a large-scale grudging acceptance that the politician had a point, there is now a large-scale firm opposition regardless of any suggestions about subsequent votes, high-quality published evidence and “no boots on the ground”. There were demonstrations outside the House of Commons without any immediate prospect of British troops getting any closer to Syria than is required for the USA to launch a cruise missile from a submarine.

There is the question of the exact point of a “no boots on the ground” approach, raised by a large number of leading politicians and commentators who are deeply intrigued as to exactly what a warning bomb will do in the way of diffusing the situation. Simon Jenkins points out in the Guardian that blowing up a chemical dump will presumably release the chemicals. Blowing up troops is a tricky exercise from a submarine in the Mediterranean. Blowing up innocent civilians is vastly easier, since they can be found scattered all over the place, but may not necessarily overly interest the theoretical government of a nation alleged to be using chemical weapons – though it may make the rebels less interested in listening to Western suggestions regarding the frequency of elections. Blowing up bits of miscellaneous uninhabited Syrian landscape is not an exercise likely to inspire obedience. Blowing up Mr Assad will naturally be inclined to shorten his reign but will also turn the nation over to whoever seizes control first. With Syria being, to put it mildly, something of a hotbed of discontent at present, whoever seizes control is unlikely to be the sort of person who we want to seize control. They will be the sort of person who in a moment of chaos can bring an army into a commanding position and use the facilities at their disposal to persuade the dispossessed that it is in their best interests, at least on an immediate-term basis, to go back to work. The facilities at their disposal will happen to include whatever remains of the chemical weapons stockpile. They may be the sort of person who wishes to utilise a chemical weapons stockpile for its apparently intended purpose on any near neighbours who they happen to disagree with.

We have some interesting international legal principles here too. One of Mr Obama’s predecessors deployed atomic bombs on another country. Both US and British governments detonated practice nuclear bombs in positions rather too close to their own troops for comfort in the years after the Second World War. Britain, the USSR, the USA and Japan have all managed to pollute their landscape with radioactive materials, albeit with wildly-ranging degrees of alarm – the Japanese are looking forward to finding their seawater filled with glowing decopuses, while Britain merely engaged in a wholly routine disposal of one morning’s Cumbrian milk production down the nearest drain.

None of these gestures have been held to be against international law. Nor, indeed, has Mr Mugabe’s casual conversion of a relatively prosperous if racist breadbasket colony into a distinctly not prosperous and still racist basketcase regime. Apparently Mr Kim’s recent decision to have his ex-girlfriend riddled with bullet-holes before sending her family to a gulag for guilt by association is also entirely clean and above board. Readers planning on crushing rebellions in their countries within the constraints of international law may also wish to note that the police force of this world has no known fundamental, game-changing objection to massacring whole villages with flint axes.

Just avoid the mustard gas.

Why this fundamental objection to chemical weapons? They’re obviously a relatively rapid way to kill people, in a general spirit of ranking the relative enjoyment of various methods of artificially-induced death, because they’re a weapon of choice for hard-pressed governments. In the good old days such governments had to resort to surrounding the rebels and waiting for them to starve to death, as was deployed elsewhere in the Middle East at the city of Masada (circa 73). Had the Assad government pursued a starvation policy and then left the opposition to finish themselves off, apparently no red lines would have been crossed and there would still be no plans for international military action.

And we are assuming that Mr Assad’s administration actually used the gas; one of the less desirable allegations circulating is that the rebels are engaging in a strategic round of public relations by borrowing the gas from a supportive local nation and using it in a way for which Mr Assad naturally takes the flack.

Aside from all the fuss over the exact reasoning for bombing Syria at this moment rather than, say, two years ago, and merely bombing the country rather than, say, invading with tanks and half the Army under blanket air-cover as a “peace-keeping” force, there are also good reasons for staying out on a general level. Firstly, the observation of who ends up in command after Mr Assad. This person is an unknown quantity. Changeovers in Zimbabwe (1979-80), Egypt and Libya (both 2011) have not gone particularly well. The removal of the Kaiser of Germany after the First World War resulted in years of political instability followed by the rise of the late Corporal Hitler Esq. while the demise of the French monarchs in 1792 was followed by the rise of the similarly late Napoleon Bonaparte. All-in-all, from an international point of view, the phrase “better the devil you know” springs to mind, even if we do feel that we have no spoons long enough to safely sup with him.

There is also the small matter of expense. In a world where we apparently cannot afford to provide ourselves with a working transport system it is hardly a moot point to say that we do not have the loose change floating around to blow up the Syrian transport system. This country is living off its debts. If Mr Hollande and Mr Obama have full treasuries then they are of course welcome to charitably put the Syrians out of their misery.

There is no way of saying for how long we might get tangled up in the affair. The Libyan matter was settled relatively calmly, but that was more a European than an US one and accordingly featured minimal escalation – in traditional Imperial style, we sent in the gunboats, blew a few things up and left the locals to pick up the pieces. Syria will feature US forces and US organisation – the people who managed to drop two expensive helicopters into Somalia and killed more people while recovering the helicopter crews than if all on board had been killed on impact, who took 10 years to organise a simple cutting-out operation on the late Mr Bin Laden (who was arguably an egotistical irrelevance when they started and was widely thought to be already dead by the time they finished) and who sent a few dozen military advisors into Vietnam for a few months in the early Sixties only to end up withdrawing a large, demoralised and mangled army from defeat at the hands of some Communist villagers in mud huts 15 years later.

There is also the element of a man being known by the company he keeps. There is a certain temptation to say that any friend of Russia and China must be an enemy of the West. Except the Middle East is in Russia’s neck of the woods; in the same way as the US got terribly upset whenever Communists were rumoured to be circulating in Latin America, Russia is liable to get very jumpy when it sees US troops and US missiles floating around on its borders. And Russia is likely to develop working relations with the governments of the area; Assad’s relatively cosy relationship with Putin (Assad probably keeps a long spoon handy for their meetings too) merely means that he is pragmatic enough not to cut himself off from the local superpower. Russia for its part sticks up for his right as a Government leader to manage his country and its sectarian strife in his own way.

Ultimately, it should be remembered that there is some uncertainty, including within Israel, as to the exact legitimacy of the party of Sicarii Zealot Jews slaughtered at the conclusion of the Siege of Masada in 73. Mr Hitler made various moves against his Government before 1933 with bands of thugs in his vicinity and it is hard to argue that the world would have been better if we had arranged for him to take power in 1923. Sometimes rebels are not actually very nice people. Mr Assad may have used chemical weapons on people on his soil and this is an evil thing to do. But – and this is admittedly speaking as someone who has never been to Syria and whose knowledge of Syrian residents comes indirectly through Arthur Ransome – are we confident that Mr Assad was not in fact acting against a rebellion involving people who, given the reins of power, would commit greater evils still?