Archive for the 'General' Category


Into the political void opened between Brexit Tories and Corbynite Labour there came … no-one

Saturday, April 7th, 2018

What’s happened to the Others?

“Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government!” David Steel’s rather premature exhortation to his activists at the 1981 Liberal Conference is remembered – to the extent that it’s remembered at all – as a classic example of over-optimism verging into hubris. It shouldn’t be. For a brief moment, there really was a genuine chance that the old Lab-Con dominance had been broken. At the last poll before the conference, the SDP-Liberal Alliance had pushed the Conservatives into third place; by the end of the year, they would record an astonishing 50.5% with Gallup.

As we know, that surge would prove ephemeral – they were already on the slide before they were overwhelmed the next year by the Falklands factor – but when the Alliance score settled down, it did so into the low-20s that would be a decent benchmark for the Lib Dems through to the point when they finally succeeded in entering government. It did, however, prove that there were a huge number of people willing to support parties other than the old Big Two, even if in the end they didn’t actually do so.

Furthermore, as the years went on, and other parties such as the Greens, UKIP and the SNP became stronger, the narrative of the breakdown of the Two Party System became an acknowledged truth. By 2010, the share of the two big parties was down to 65%.

And then something odd happened: the smaller parties suddenly lost half their votes. That of itself wasn’t all that odd: the combination of the Coalition and Brexit was always likely to prove extremely challenging for Lib Dems and UKIP respectively.

No, the odd thing is that despite the political world moving on at an unusually rapid pace, despite Labour being led by an over-promoted rebellious far-left backbencher, and despite the Tories being headed by an chief administrator rather than a leader, Labour and the Conservatives continue to poll 80-85%. Even with all the opportunities of those circumstances, the rest have made no impact as all.

Why so? One obvious answer remains that the other parties remain unusually irrelevant. UKIP might have been struggling for a purpose even if it weren’t so chaotic and rudderless – though we shouldn’t be too certain on that point: the government’s Brexit is likely to take longer, cost more and be softer than many Leave voters would have liked. A well-run UKIP could have made something of that, though it wouldn’t have the same potency as advocating Leave itself; Europe remains a niche subject.

And just as the Tories have adopted UKIP’s central policy, so the Greens have found Labour tanks all over their lawn (and one or two of Michael Gove’s too). It’s not at all obvious what Caroline Lucas offers that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t.

But the biggest conundrum is the Lib Dems. As in the 1980s, the drift of the two larger parties to their respective outer wings should be an opportunity for them, yet their poll rating has more-or-less flatlined at around the 7% they scored at the 2017 election. The Coalition might be part of that explanation but at best it is only part of it. From around December 2016 through to the end of April 2017 – after the general election was announced – the Lib Dems averaged around 10-11%. This was in the same May/Corbyn/Brexit/post-Coalition era we’re in now (apart from the collapse of UKIP: that didn’t happen until the 2017 election was called). If people were being attracted back to the Lib Dems then, it can’t be that a legacy of the Coalition is putting them off now; we have to conclude that it’s some other pull factor keeping them with the Tories or Labour, or some new push factor keeping them from returning to the Lib Dems again – or both.

We can explain a good deal of the Lib Dems’ decline during the 2017 campaign in terms of voters who’d previously defected from Labour returning to that party. What’s harder to explain is why neither they (nor other members of Labour’s coalition), nor Tory voters from 2017 have switched since. Apart from in a few pockets, it seems that Tory Remainers have gone straight to Labour, despite Corbyn’s own ambivalence to Brexit (and indeed, his other policies). The unexpectedly quiet leadership of Vince Cable can’t have helped.

Perhaps also, the changed nature of the Lib Dems is also a factor. It’s been much remarked that more than half of Labour’s membership has joined since 2015, so changing greatly the internal dynamics of that party. But the same is true of the Lib Dems too. I wonder whether the new members are not the same sort of pavement politicians who traditionally built up the Lib Dem profile locally, and that the enhanced membership numbers isn’t translating into community action.

    For all that, I don’t think it can go on. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum – and a big gap in the centre with the Lib Dems on 7-8% is near-enough a vacuum. What I’m not so sure of is what fills it.

One possibility is that the Lib Dems themselves do, for which they’d have to win votes from both Tories and Labour.

Another is that in a re-run of the 1980s, a new SDP breaks off from Labour: that’s far from impossible but nor should we get carried away by speculation. Emotional and practical ties bind MPs of all parties to their movement.

A third possibility is that the Tories make a pitch for the ground. For all the talk of the Tories heading to the right, when it comes down to it, there’s only really Brexit which stands that contention up; on domestic and fiscal matters, the Tories are, if anything, drifting left. If May or her successor can make good on the intentions she laid out when she entered Downing Street, it’ll impress a lot of centrist floating voters – though that means not getting too distracted by Brexit or allowing it to undermine taxes excessively, as well as tackling and making progress on difficult and ingrained social problems.

And the final (and least likely) possibility is that Labour does, as Blair did. It might seem implausible now given the left’s ascendency but sometimes the wheel turns quickly and one thing about short-term members is that disillusion can easily turn to departure, from where many things become possible.

The problem is that none of these look particularly likely and yet surely something has to give, somewhere.

David Herdson


A message to political leaders – Remember, you are mortal.

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Curiously, the reasons why some political leaders fall from office is linked to what was once their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Callaghan’s closeness to the unions was seen as one reason why he (rather than the confrontational Heath or strident Castle) would be better able to reach a workable accommodation with them, to the country’s benefit. Having undermined the “In Place of Strife” proposals it was poetic justice that it was the unions’ behaviour which destroyed his (and Labour’s) USP, forever associating the Callaghan premiership with the Winter of Discontent. Similarly, Thatcher – a politician priding herself on speaking up for ordinary taxpayers – was brought down her hubristic refusal to understand the outrage and sense of unfairness which the poll tax (an attempt to protect her beloved ratepayers) engendered.

And so to two apparently very different politicians: Blair and Corbyn. Blair’s USP was that he seemed like a trustworthy “one of us” ordinary guy, able to understand the desire for a nice house, better car, foreign holidays, unthreatening to those with assets and comfortable with the modern globalising world. Out with beards, scruffy dressing, Conference motions and old-fashioned socialism. In with branding, pledge cards, multi-culturalism and investment in public services. In the words of Rupert Everett, we could now enjoy “all-day drinking in our burkas”. Blair may not have been Labour born and bred (no Welsh mining valleys for him to reference in his rhetorical flourishes) and was perhaps more admired than loved but he was a winner.

And yet, even then, there were signs that he was rather more evasive, more slippery, less trustworthy than the image so carefully created and nurtured. When questions were raised about whether Labour policies had been changed to suit one of the party’s funders, he told us that people thought he was a pretty straight sort of guy. And then he confirmed to us that he was indeed such a guy.

He was satisfied he was honest so no reason for any of us to question the truth of what he told us. And, indeed, no-one did and anyone who tried was simply not listened to. But in that indomitable self-belief lay the hubris which eventually brought him down.

Even more worryingly, the cult of Blair – the belief that he was a winner, that there was no alternative – and that any questioning of his policies and motives was unacceptable – meant that when, finally, Blair’s beliefs finally met reality (in the Iraq war, the revelations of how the intelligence dossier had come about, the unquestioning support of the US, the apparently casual approach to the war’s legality) the betrayal and loss of trust was (and is still being) felt all the more keenly.

Corbyn’s view of Labour and personal style are diametrically opposed to Blair’s vision. His USP is socialism, old-fashioned campaigning and a principled – and very British – concern for the underdog and oppressed. It is this last which, his supporters say, explains his unfortunate tendency to be so often found in the company of or supporting those with some very unpleasant Fascistic, even Nazi-like, views, situations from which he requires the sort of careful extraction usually reserved for unexploded WW2 bombs found decades later.

In truth, Corbyn’s sympathy for the oppressed is a very qualified one. His sympathies are engaged most actively when people are oppressed by those he dislikes most. And those he dislikes most are Western imperialists and colonialists. A cynic might say that it is really the oppressor which matters to him not the victim. (The former can do nothing right; the latter nothing wrong.)

Like most politicians, he believes in dialogue with even the most unpleasant of opponents (Putin, Assad) and with anyone in order to achieve peace (hence his meetings with Hamas, a designated terrorist organisation) but curiously this privilege is not extended to those he disagrees with (“criminal” Israeli politicians, in his words, for instance). There was little sympathy for the Yazidis or Syrian or Iraqi Christians or those children poisoned by Assad or those oppressed by the Taliban. Nor in earlier years for Northern Irish Protestants killed by the IRA or Jews killed by Palestinian terrorists nor for Bosnian or Kosovan Muslims oppressed by Serbs and (eventually) rescued by Western imperialists. Still, the country has had enough of foreign interventions and Corbyn’s refusal to agree that the UK must always intervene and follow the US’s lead is popular and may also on occasion be right, however mixed or morally dubious his motives may be.

Like Blair in his prime, Corbyn’s followers will brook no dissent, no criticism, no scepticism, no forensic scrutiny. Corbyn is a good man and therefore there must always be an explanation which exculpates him, even if it makes him look like a simpleton who cannot see or read or understand what is in front of him.

The alternatives – that he may not be quite as good as he – or his supporters – think, that he can be as evasive and untruthful as most politicians or that even good men do bad things are not to be borne. The latest row about Labour anti-semitism is fundamentally seen as a PR issue, to be cured by statements rather than actions, let alone a smidgen of self-criticism or changed behaviour.

Does this matter? Probably not, electorally at least. As Mr Weinstein might ruefully observe, moral compasses are not needed by the powerful or those on a winning streak. And they can be seen as an unhelpful irrelevance to those keen for a change of government.

Corbyn dominates his party; he has been more electorally successful than many imagined; he may well end up PM. Who needs criticism, especially from those who are not true believers?

But the risk is that one day – like the Blair his party no longer cares for – his self-belief, his Nelsonian blind eye to any faults in those he campaigns for or alongside, his flexible principles, his faithful supporters’ aggressive silencing or cowing of critics, his Chamberlain-like belief in the value of dialogue even with those acting in bad faith may come face to face with reality and prove his and the Labour party’s undoing. And, possibly, the country’s.



MPs’ proxy voting can and should go further

Saturday, March 10th, 2018

Catering for extended absences would mean fewer by-elections though

Parliament took another small step towards the 21st Century last month, when it voted without opposition to allow MPs who are new parents to nominate a colleague to cast proxy votes on their behalf, meaning that they can more meaningfully take maternity or paternity leave without having to worry too much about the effect that doing so would have on the government’s majority.

Some might argue that MPs occupy an unusual position that’s not comparable to normal jobs; that they are elected by their public and have not only a mandate but also a duty to represent their constituents. As such, giving their vote to a colleague abdicates that responsibility and undermines democracy.

There is a little in that argument but surely the stronger point is that parliament should ideally represent the country at large. Two under-represented groups are women and the under-35s and making Westminster more family-friendly might address some of the structural reasons that result in those imbalances.

However, if parliament is going to consider the principle that someone who wasn’t elected to represent a given constituency can cast votes on behalf of the MP who was, why limit it just to sitting MPs? After all, much of an MP’s job is done outside the voting lobbies – receiving and responding to constituency mail; tabling questions, amendments, EDMs and so on; speaking in the Chamber; serving on Select and other Committees. Some of those roles could be filled by either the MP’s office acting on an understanding of what the member would want, and for the larger parties, many points that a given MP might make could likely be made by a colleague but that needn’t be true for smaller parties, for example.

Also, why limit the proxy system to just parental leave? Sheffield Hallam effectively went without an MP for several months when Jared O’Mara went on what amounted to a self-declared long-term sick. His case might have been a little unusual in its specifics but it’s far from unknown for MPs to function at far below the normal capacity due to illness, particularly where it’s a terminal one but also when the MP might be recovering from a serious accident, illness or other medical event. On the one hand, their constituents deserve representation; on the other, it simply might not be possible or if it is, it might be unreasonable to expect it.

One argument would be that MPs in such positions should resign and let someone who can do the work take over. But such a case ignores both a basic humanity and also practical politics. MPs are unlikely to resign where they think their party might lose the seat – especially when the numbers in parliament are poised as the currently are. Also, where the MP recovers, or expects to, it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect him or her to resign.

It’s not unreasonable, however, for the voters to expect their voice to be heard in Westminster. How to square the circle? I’d suggest that it ought to be possible for an MP to nominate a substitute to act as a proxy, with full powers and for up to six months at a time, subject to a confirmatory vote in the Commons. That condition might give a little scope for mischief but there would have to be some sort of check on the system.

The limited proposals for parental leave are a good baby step in the right direction but they could, and should, go a lot further.

David Herdson


Given the appalling weather let’s be thankful that yesterday wasn’t a general election or a referendum

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

There were 4 by-election taking place local councils yesterday and the results should make interesting reading because these happened on the worst Thursday for the weather across the country in decades.

Who would have thought, for instance, that one of the biggest Premier League matches of the season, Arsenal vs Manchester City, would take place in what appeared to be a half empty Stadium. A lot of people with tickets, and they are not cheap at the Emirates, simply didn’t turn up.

If people who had laid out possibly three figure sums on tickets for a football match were deterred from attending what are the chances for participation in an election in such conditions.

The one result that we’ve got from Devon the turnout was just. 12.4% and my guess is that quite a lot of those votes would have been postals.

This is a reminder why the machines of all the parties love postal votes which can all be handled in advance and take away the risk that something might deter voting on the day.

The weather has forced Downing Street to shift the venue of today’s big TMay speech from Newcastle to London.

Whenever there have been studies on the impact of the weather on election days the analysis has shown that it has had very little impact. But yesterday clearly was something very different and far worse.

Mike Smithson


Alastair Meeks gives his thoughts on university pensions

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

My first boss was the source of many wise words, some of which I use to this day. “Alastair”, she would often say, “there is no problem in the world that cannot be made to go away with money”. It’s not strictly true, of course, but it is truer more often than is usually appreciated.

That was 25 years ago, at a time when pension schemes almost all had surpluses and the question I was most commonly asked was what the employer and trustees needed to do with it. Nowadays, most pension schemes have deficits and the pensions problems that I am asked to advise on often revolve around how best to deal with the funding hole. This is far more fraught: If you don’t have money, problems don’t go away anything like as easily.

University Pensions deficit

There aren’t many pension schemes bigger than the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). And the deficit of the USS is correspondingly gargantuan: It was most recently estimated at £6.1bn. That’s the sort of number that would make anyone blanch. To put this in context, the Scheme had assets of £60bn, giving the scheme a funding ratio of 91% on these assumptions. But, on the assumptions previously used, the deficit was estimated at £12.6bn. We are talking huge numbers here, and they are significantly influenced by what actuaries decide they feel comfortable with at any given moment.

Changes proposed

Against this background, the employers are proposing benefit changes for future service, bringing final salary benefits to a close for future service from 1 April 2019 (at the earliest), and introducing a money purchase benefit that would be considered generous by most standards.

These proposals have been agreed with member representatives. However, as the current strikes show, some member representatives seem to be out of step with large parts of the membership. For now, the pension scheme members seem to have the students firmly on their side in principle, with over 60% supporting their actions.

Dispelling the myths

It’s time to despatch a whole shoal of red herrings. First, the salaries of vice-chancellors are not going to plug this gap. Their combined annual remuneration represents a tiny rounding error compared with this deficit.

Next, the proposals for future service are not going to plug the existing deficit. The past and the future are two different things. The past service deficit cannot directly be used as a justification for these changes. That hole still needs plugging, regardless of what is done for the future.

Next, there is nothing inherently bad about money purchase. In fact, for some USS members, particularly younger members whose career trajectory is unlikely to be stellar, the changes might well represent an improvement for them in the short term at least. Defined benefit schemes give cross–subsidies all over the place, with the bulk of the cost of future service provision going towards providing the benefits of those close to retirement. Some of the younger employees on the picket line might reasonably ask themselves who they are striking for. It’s also worth noting that the oldest employees also have little to fear – they’ve already substantially completed their accrual of benefits. The group who really get clobbered are in their 40s and early 50s.

And finally, many bystanders, many of whom curiously do not have final salary pensions, have developed schadenfreude at the very definition of ivory tower elitists being confronted with this change. But USS’s own figures show that on average this is a big hit for employees. USS estimates the present cost of future final salary provision at 37.4% of payroll (of which the employees pay just 8%). The future service money purchase benefits are 17.25% or 21.25% of pay (of which employees would pay 4% or 8%). Treating pension as part of the pay package, this means that members are being asked to swallow a cut in their remuneration of, on average, over 12%. Anyone else care gladly to volunteer for that?

To date, the employers have not proposed any kind of transitional measures. Age discrimination laws make targeted assistance difficult, though not impossible. And the members might also focus more on the funding of the past service deficit. A pension promise is all well and good, but it needs the funds to back it up. Right now, the USS still has a substantial deficit. And there isn’t the money immediately available to make that problem go away.

Alastair Meeks


The big one: Cyclefree announces her Political Awards for 2017

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

The “Did Somebody Really Budget for This?” Award

It is perhaps inevitable in a country with a government which thinks that the colour of its passport matters that the British Army should have spent money on trying to change its “Be the Best” motto. To what, one wonders? “Be Mediocre”, perhaps or “Best at Being Third-Rate”, maybe. Still, a workforce can only be regarded as sufficiently diverse if a significant proportion is unsuitable for the job.

So, despite the Defence Secretary’s last-minute decision to cancel the change, the Army Marketing Department wins this award for their courageous – if thwarted – attempt to move with the times and turn away from grand foreign concepts such as elitism. I’d say well done but that’s not the spirit at all.

The “Why Classics Matter” Award

This was previously known as The Ken Livingstone Award for Trashing One’s Reputation. Still, rebranding is all these days and university Classics Departments need a boost at a time when education, like much else, is viewed only through the prism of the financial rewards it brings.

Universities should be erecting statues (in place of all the ones being pulled down) in honour of the only possible winner of this one – Mrs Theresa May.

A big hand for the politician who showed us all, in so many ways and in so many locations (from Millom square following Trudy Harrison’s election in February to the lonely drive back to No 10 in June, the sacking of her two loathed advisors and the cough ridden speech at conference in Manchester), the meaning of “hubris” and “nemesis”. And all packed into 9 short months. Who says the Tories don’t understand how to appeal to the younger generation’s desire for instant gratification?

An honourable mention must go to Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s PM, who copied Mrs May’s example to the letter (willy-waving election, speeches before hand-picked audiences in closed venues and humiliating defeat followed by a tenacious hanging onto power). Britain’s influence on its European neighbours is not dead! Hurrah!!

The Chakrabarti Award For Not Understanding Your Own Principles

Only one winner here. Mr Nigel Farage. I know, I know: did he qualify by having any principles? Bear with me: from his remarks on Jewish influence to his interventions on US matters to his cosying up to Germany’s AfD, Nige showed that he utterly failed to understand that the British values he so loudly proclaims mean opposing fascism not imitating it. When Laurence Olivier was given an acting award late in life he acidly thanked the US donors by saying that it would give him great encouragement in his career. This award is given in the opposite spirit: in the hope that the winner will never be heard from or, at least, not taken seriously again.

The Great Escape Award

With one bound he was free! He may not have won the election but Jeremy Corbyn slipped the bonds which had previously held him back (his inability to manage his party, build a shadow Cabinet, inspire respect amongst his colleagues, come up with a consistent policy on the important questions of the day, ask a simple question) as deftly as any Houdini and showed unexpectedly attractive political skills.

A surprise to many (though not the estimable Mr Herdson, who wins the Electrifying Post of The Year Award) nor the poster who wrote this in December 2016 – “Maybe he will turn into the Tortoise of British politics.”

Still, Corbyn has yet to win a race. And his opposite number provides a good example of the perils of taking the result for granted. Less of the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” and more “Come On, Jeremy!” if he is to fulfil his promise.

The Empty Vessel Award

Three main contenders here: Donald Trump, David Davis and Boris Johnson. But some late legislative achievements by Trump disqualified him. So our Brexit and Foreign Secretaries jointly win this for their unparalleled ability to open their mouths and talk nonsense, tell untruths, distort the meaning of plain English words and casually insult others. A period of silence from them would be very welcome. Even better would be May copying Attlee’s dismissal of a junior minister by telling them “Afraid you’re not up to it”.

The No Grace under Pressure Award

Responding to questions from journalists is a pretty basic political skill. A smile and “l’ll get back to you” can’t be that hard, surely? So congratulations to Tulip Siddiq who, despite politics being a family business, spectacularly failed to deflect a question, made snarling threats and topped it all with a bitchy remark to a pregnant woman. (Members of the Women and Equalities Select Committee have to really earn their place after all) And all on prime time TV (well, Channel 4, but let’s not be fussy). What a girl! Someone should remove the reference to Ken Livingstone, the master in such matters, from the Labour Party’s Training Manual for new MPs.

Hopeful Development of the Year

IS can still inspire others to kill, sadly, but the loss of its lands in Iraq and Syria was a long time coming and all the more welcome for it. Christian and other minority communities in those benighted lands have long been shamefully ignored by the West (being seen, in Regis Debray’s words, as “Too Christian for the Left and too foreign for the Right”) but are, very slowly, starting to return. Peace may still be far off. But perhaps there will be less unimaginable cruelty. We can but hope.

Hero of the Year

PC Keith Palmer and Tobias Ellwood MP win this. The former showed us what public service can, at its most extreme, mean. The latter demonstrated what real character is. Both men an implicit rebuke to some of their sleazier and less scrupulous colleagues and an example to others. Both were trained by the Army. Maybe aiming for the best is not so pointless?

But that is where I came in. So time to say goodbye to 2017 and wish everyone a happy, prosperous and fulfilling 2018!



Christmas Day on PB wouldn’t be Christmas without the St. John Christmas Crossword

Monday, December 25th, 2017


1 Isn’t a rotten borough firstly one that favours a politician? (10)

6 War intelligence protects soldiers (4)

9 Former Tory MP Gilmour opposed such squalid conditions (10)

10 Bute for example had his lead cut (4)

12 OK to spoil then invent urban regeneration? (6,3,5)

14 Black out resulting from left wing legislation (6)

15 Poll contest before each point of government (8)

17 Built on a Latin state (8)

19 In May she was here (2,4)

22 Socialist Blair half knew in Scottish village as Prime Minister (9,5)

24 Art gallery abandoned by toothless politician (4)

25 I once chased a maiden over to pass the cricket test? (10)

26 Principal candidate for the Presidency once (4)

27 Dangerous driver in a former Irish system of government (10)


 1 Present day church welcomes a rebel (4)

2 King Henry drowned in alcohol (7)

3 Type to cover disturbance involving European Member of Parliament (6,6)

4 Mad monarch half heartedly supported in Sweden (6)

5 Political group still drinking gin before a reversal (3,5)

7 Hold back minister again (7)

8 War as Ascot’s race takes off (5,5)

11 Lincoln for instance drunk one during a blessing; it’s ridiculous (12)

13 Open department for politician (5,5)

16 A film society hosted by academic Tory (8)

18 In that case it’s May (7)

20 Bush’s unfashionable following (7)

21 Tusk oddly omitted extra description of Brexit voting area (2-4)

23 Roosevelt’s only self-referential term (4)

Thanks to StJohn for once again producing his Christmas Crossword. It has become an excellent tradition.

Happy Christmas to all PBers.

Mike Smithson


The dangers of reverse-reasoning: a Christmas parable

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Beware starting from a conclusion and working backwards

“This time next year, we’ll be running the country”, as Jeremy Corbyn didn’t quite say a few days ago in his interview with Grazia. It’s a near-repetition of his prediction at Glastonbury this June – except that there he was talking about Christmas 2017 rather than 2018 – and for those not favourably inclined towards him, might bear a passing resemblance to the unsubstantiated optimism of another Christmas staple. Admittedly, Del Boy did eventually become a millionaire but it took him 15 years and an extraordinary slice of luck. Corbyn may also end up being right but if he is, it too will be more down to luck than judgement. The error in his prediction is in starting with a conclusion he wants to be true and working backwards from there.

Not that this is anything new. The original Christmas story should be warning enough of the dangers of reverse-reasoning, if we discount heavenly interventions.

The Sky At Night broadcast a good Christmas Special two years ago, investigating what the real Star of Bethlehem might have been and considering six astronomical options. Three stood out: a triple-conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a nova, and a comet. All three have solid evidence behind them (though the nova and the comet are an either-or as the historical reference, from the Chinese, is to a ‘broom star’, which could be either).

If we transport ourselves back a little over 2000 years, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn would be astrologically significant: the planets representing the gods of kings and of change. A rare triple-conjunction – where the pair followed each other through the sky for some months, as they did in 6BC – would re-emphasise that significance. But how to apply that knowledge? The appearance of a nova or a comet the next year would provide that answer. The rarity of the conjunction, the astrological nature of the planets involved and the sudden appearance of a guesting celestial body shortly afterwards would be exactly the sort of thing that would send wise men – as those who studied and interpreted the heavens would be – scurrying west.

Would it be enough to find a specific child? Herein lies the problem of having already reached the conclusion. If you follow the stars west and then south, as the heavens might well have guided the magi, you could indeed end up at Bethlehem and, having so arrived, would no doubt be able to find a child born at the relevant time, after local enquiries. The biblical story may well be true in as far as the visit of the wise men is concerned (and if it was, it’s the sort of thing that would have been well-documented as well as being remembered locally – particularly if Herod’s response is as the Bible records – so could well have formed the basis of a Gospel written 70 years later), but just because they set off to find a child and were successful in so doing, that wasn’t necessarily of any greater significance.

Put another way, on a purely rational basis, the logic suggests that extraordinary astronomical events did not appear because of the birth of Christ; instead, Christ was born (or identified) because of extraordinary astronomical events.

We could take this further and suggest that given the paucity of historical evidence for Christ’s early life and the likelihood that if the Bethlehem story is grounded in fact then it would have been remembered thirty or so years later, then it wouldn’t be too difficult for a would-be prophet of about the right age to assume the identity of the child the magi found: why not harness the power of the prophesy? But here we enter controversial and speculative territory.

The relevance to today – or to any time – is simply in the message that it is all too easy to start with a conclusion you want to be true and then rationalise the supporting analysis and logic; for the wish to be father to the thought. Mostly, that just ends up with bad bets. Sometimes though, it changes worlds.

David Herdson