Archive for EU referendum

The Quantum Mechanics of Voting

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2017 by telescoper

Now that I’ve finished a marathon session of report-writing I thought I’d take a few minutes out this Friday afternoon, have a cup of tea and pass on a rather silly thought I had the other day about the relationship between Quantum Mechanics (and specifically the behaviour of spin therein) and voting behaviour in elections and referendums.

Gratuitous picture of a Stern-Gerlach experiment

For a start here’s a brief summary of the usual quantum-mechanical context as it relates to, e.g., electrons (rather than elections). Being fermions, electrons possess half-integer spin. This attribute has the property that a measurement of its component in any direction has only two possible values, ±½ in units of Planck’s constant. In the Stern-Gerlach experiment illustrated above, which measures the spin in the vertical direction of silver atoms emerging from a source, the outcome is either “up” or “down”, not some spread of values in between. Silver has a single unpaired electron which is why its atoms behave in this respect in the same way as an individual electron.

The way this is often described in physics textbooks is to say that the operator corresponding to spin in the z-direction has only two eigenstates  (call these ↑ and ↓) ; the act of measurement has to select one of them, not some intermediate state. If the source is thermal then the spins of individual atoms have no preferred direction so 50% turn out to be ↑ and 50% to be ↓ as shown in the cartoon.

Once such measurement has been made, a given particle remains in the same eigenstate, which means that if it is passed through another similar measuring device it will always turn out to have spin pointing in the same direction. If you like, the particle has been `prepared’ in a given state by the act of measurement.

This applies as long as no attempt is made to make a measurement of the spin in a different direction, which is when the fun starts. If we start with a particle in the ↑ state and then pass it through an experiment that measures spin (say) with respect to the x-axis instead of the z-axis then the two allowed eigenstates are then not ↑ and ↓ but ← and →.  A particle that was definitely spin-up would then be forced to decide between spin-left and spin-right (each would have a  50% probability).

Suppose now we took our long-suffering particle that began with spin ↑ after a measurement in the z-direction, then turned out to be spin → when we measured it in the x-direction. What would happen if we repeated the z-measurement? The answer is that “preparing” the particle in the → state destroys the information about the fact that it was previously prepared in the ↑ state –  the outcome of this second z-measurement is that the particle that was previously definitely ↑ now has a 50% chance of being either ↑ or ↓.

So what does all this have to do with voting? It is clear than an election (or a referendum) is very far from a simple act of measurement. During the campaign the various sides of the debate make attempts to prepare a given voter in a given state. In the case of last year’s EU referendum the choice of eigenstates was `Leave’ or `Remain’;  no other possibilities were allowed. The referendum then `prepared’ each voter in one or other of these possibilities.

If voters behaved quantum mechanically each would stay in their chosen state until some other measurement were attempted. But that’s exactly what did happen. Earlier this month there was a General Election. More than two parties were represented, but let’s simplify and assume there were only two options, `Labour’ and `Conservative’.

Now it is true that the `Leave’ camp was dominated by the right wing of the Conservative party, and the majority of Labour voters voted `Remain’, but there were a significant number of Labour Leave voters and a significant number of Tories voted Remain. While these pairs of states are therefore not exactly orthogonal, they are clearly not measuring the same thing so the situation is somewhat analogous to the spin measurement problem.

So along came the General Election result which `prepared’ voters in a state of `Labour’ or `Conservative’, with a slight preference for the latter whereas the earlier referendum had prepared a them in a state of `Leave’ versus `Remain’ with a slight preference for the former. From a quantum mechanical perspective, however, you can further argue that the General Election prepared the voters in such a way that should have erased memories of their vote in the referendum so the previous BrExit vote is now invalid.

There’s only one way to test this quantum-mechanical interpretation of voting patterns, and that is by repeating the EU Referendum…

Hard BrExit Reality Bites UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by telescoper

Before lunch today I listened to the Prime Minister’s much-heralded speech (full text here) at Lancaster House giving a bit more detail about the UK government’s approach to forthcoming negotiations to leave the European Union. As I had expected the speech was mainly concerned with stating the obvious – especially about the UK leaving the so-called Single Market – though there was an interesting, if rather muddled, discussion of some kind of associate membership of the Customs Union.

As I said when I blogged about the EU Referendum result back in June last year

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people.

The EU has made it perfectly clear all along that it will not compromise on the “four freedoms” that represent the principles on which the Single Market (correct name; “Internal Market”) is based. The UK government has also made it clear that it is running scared of the anti-immigration lobby in the Conservative Party and UKIP, despite the mountain of evidence (e.g. here) that immigration actually benefits the UK economy rather than harming it. A so-called “hard BrExit” approach has therefore been inevitable from the outset.

In any case, it always seemed to me that leaving the EU (and therefore giving up democratic representation on the bodies that govern the single market) but remaining in the Single Market would be completely illogical to anyone motivated by the issue of “sovereignty” (whatever that means).  So I think it always was – and still is – a choice between a hard BrExit and no BrExit at all. There’s no question in my mind – and Theresa May’s speech has hardened my views considerably – that remaining in the EU is by far the best option for the UK. That outcome is looking unlikely now, but there is still a long way to go and many questions have still to be answered, including whether the Article 50 notification can be revoked and whether the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Northern Ireland have to give separate consent. Interestingly, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 General Election included a commitment to work within the Single Market, so it would be within the constitutional limits on the House of Lords to vote down any attempt to leave it.

Overall, I felt the speech was worthwhile insofar as it gave a bit of clarity on some issues, but it was also full of contradictions on others. For example, early on the PM stated:

Parliamentary sovereignty is the basis of our constitution.

Correct, but in that case why did the UK government appeal the High Court’s decision that this was the case (i.e. that Parliamentary consent was needed to invoke Article 50)? Moreover, why if she thinks Parliament is so important did she not give today’s speech in the House of Commons?

This brings me to what the speech might imply for British science in a post-BrExit era. Here’s what I said in June 2016:

It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

I’m by no means always right, but I think I was right about that. It is now clear that UK scientists will not be eligible for EU funding under the Horizon 2020 programme.  Switzerland (which is in the Single Market) wasn’t allowed to remain in Horizon 2020 without freedom of movement, and neither will the UK. If the PM does indeed trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017 then we will leave the EU by April 2019. That means that existing EU projects and funding will probably be stopped at that point, although the UK government has pledged to provide short-term replacement funding for grants already awarded. From now on it seems likely that EU teams will seek to exclude UK scientists.

This exclusion is not an unexpected outcome, but still disappointing. The PM’s speech states:

One of our great strengths as a nation is the breadth and depth of our academic and scientific communities, backed up by some of the world’s best universities. And we have a proud history of leading and supporting cutting-edge research and innovation.

So we will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.

From space exploration to clean energy to medical technologies, Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.

Warm words, but it’s hard to reconcile them with reality.  We used to be “leading” EU collaborative teams. In a few years we’ll  be left standing on the touchlines. The future looks very challenging for science, and especially for fundamental science, in the UK.

But the politics around EU science programmes pales into insignificance compared the toxic atmosphere of xenophobia that has engulfed much of the UK. The overt policy of the government to treat EU citizens in the UK as bargaining chips will cause untold stress, as will the Home Office’s heavy-handed approach to those who seek to confirm the permanent residence they will otherwise lose when the UK leaves the EU. Why should anyone – scientist or otherwise – stay in this country to be treated in such a way? 

All of this makes me think those scientists I know who have already left the UK for EU institutions probably made the right decision. The question is how many more will follow?

Judgment Day on Article 50

Posted in Politics with tags , , on November 3, 2016 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick comment on today’s ruling by the High Court that the Prime Minister cannot trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (and thus begin the process of taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union) without the approval of Parliament. The case was brought by Gina Miller and Deir Tozetti Dos Santos (the claimants) and has important constitutional implications because it limits the use of the Royal Prerogative.

I’m not by any means a legal expert but reading the full judgment it strikes me that this unanimous decision represents a comprehensive defeat for the Government’s lawyers. The crucial paragraphs of the judgment are 92-94 if you wish to refer to them in the full judgment. Interestingly, the ruling  does not really rest on the claimants’ case at all but instead is based on a complete rejection of the main point of the Government’s submission. It looks like the Government’s lawyers bungled it pretty badly. Although the Government has indicated that it will appeal the result, it’s not obvious what the grounds for such an appeal might be. The appeal will be heard some time in December.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I am in favour of the United Kingdom remaining inside the European Union. Events since the referendum – especially the collapse of the pound – have strengthened that opinion, in fact.

I am baffled by the extreme reaction of many “Leave” voters to this judgment, especially those who voted that way in order to “restore Parliamentary sovereignty”. Some such individuals are claiming that this ruling is somehow anti-democratic. I don’t think that view is at all rational. If you voted Leave in order to get your sovereignty back then you should be very happy with this decision. In fact whichever side of the referendum debate you were on you should welcome this decision.

We live in a parliamentary democracy. That means that sovereignty rests in Parliament, not in the Prime Minister. This ruling merely asserts that fact. It does not overturn the referendum result  nor does it prevent Article 50 being triggered. It does assert that the Prime Minister’s chosen way to approach BrExit is unlawful. Democracy is nothing without the rule of law.

Incidentally, the judgment also contains the following statement which I think is worth quoting here:

The 2015 Referendum Act was passed against a background including a very clear briefing paper to Parliamentarians explaining that the referendum would have advisory effect only. Moreover, Parliament must have appreciated that the referendum was intended to be only advisory as the result of a vote in the referendum in favour of leaving the European Union would inevitably leave for future decision many important questions relating to the legal implementation of withdrawal from the European Union.

In other words the referendum in itself has no constitutional force and was specifically intended not to.

The government plans to appeal the Article 50 decision to the Supreme Court, at which point it may or may not be overturned. If the appeal fails, then there is one higher authority: the European Court of Justice. It would be a delicious irony if the UK government were forced to appeal there in order to proceed!

Supposing, though, that all appeals are exhausted and the Government is forced to debate Article 50 in Parliament. What would happen next?

Although a majority of MPs in the House of Commons were in favour of remaining in the European Union, circumstances have changed since the referendum and many would be reluctant to vote against the outcome. However, I can imagine a situation in which Parliament refuses to give approval to an Article 50 until it has sufficient knowledge of the Government’s negotiating position to be assured that the Government is not planning something reckless that would endanger the UK economically and/or politically. It is my personal belief that “something reckless” is precisely what the Government is planning, and that is why they were so keen not to have a vote in Parliament.

There was only one question on the ballot paper for the EU referendum – whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave it. But what, if any, of the rights and benefits that currently accrue as a consequence of our membership of the EU can the UK keep if and when it leaves?  Who decides what rights can be removed from UK citizens?

There has been a lot of talk about “Hard BrExit” versus “Soft BrExit”. My personal view is that “Soft BrExit” (by which we would end up in a situation something like Norway) – which a sizable number of Leave voters envisaged when they voted – is not on the agenda at all. I think the Government is headed for a “Hard BrExit”, i.e. no membership of the internal market, no freedom of movement, no free movement of people, etc. That’s partly because of the ideological beliefs of the Tory cabinet and partly because that’s what the process pretty much guarantees. Article 50 is just about the UK leaving the European Union. That process has to be completed before any trade deals with the EU or other countries can be negotiated; such deals could take years to complete and in the meantime our economy will suffer. In the interim, we’ll be out with whatever the EU decides to allow us. I don’t think that will be very much at all.

I think that the Government knows that this outcome is not what a majority voted for, that it will have serious  economic consequences, and will produce a considerable political backlash. That is why the Government want to charge ahead as quickly as possible (in secret) so that nobody can stop them until it’s too late. In other words, they’re planning to use the referendum result as a pretext to further their own agenda. In order to this to work they have to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny. The High Court ruling – if it stands – effectively rules out this strategy. It is a victory for democracy.







The BrExit Threat to British Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on June 29, 2016 by telescoper

After a couple of days away dealing with some personal business I’ve now time to make a few comments about the ongoing repercussions following last week’s referendum vote to Leave the European Union.

First of all on the general situation. Legally speaking the referendum decision by itself changes nothing at all. Referendums have no constitutional status in the United Kingdom and are not legally binding. The Prime Minister David Cameron has declined to activate (the now famous) Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which would initiate a two-year negotiated withdrawal, preferring to leave this to whomever succeeds him following his resignation. None of the likely contenders for the unenviable position of next Prime Minister seems keen to pull the trigger very quickly either. The United Kingdom therefore remains a member of the European Union and there is no clear picture of when that might change.

The rest of the European Union obviously wants the UK to leave as soon as possible, not just because we’ve indicated that we want to, but because  we have always been never been very committed or reliable partners. In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker: ‘It is not an amicable divorce, but it was not an intimate love affair anyway.’

I don’t blame the 27 remaining members for wanting us to get on with getting out, because uncertainty is bad for business. Two years is more than enough time for big European businesses to write British producers out of their supply chains and for international companies now based in the United Kingdom to relocate to continental Europe. The current gridlock at Westminster merely defers this inevitable exodus. In the meantime inward investment is falling as companies defer decisions on future plans, casting a planningblight over the UK economy.

My own view, however, is that the longer the UK waits before invoking Article 50 the greater the probability that it will never be invoked at all.  This is because the next PM – probably Boris Johnson – surely knows that he will simply not be able to deliver on any of the promises he has made.

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people. There won’t be £350 million per week extra for the NHS either, because our GDP is falling and we never sent £350 million anyway.  All the possible deals will be so obviously far worse than the status quo that I don’t think Parliament will ever pass legislation to accept a situation is so clearly against the national interest. I may be wrong, of course, but I think the likeliest scenario is that the referendum decision is kicked into the long grass for at least the duration of the current Parliament.

That doesn’t solve the issue of BrExit blight, however. Which brings me to British science in a possible post-BrExit era. It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

It has been guaranteed that funding commitments will be honoured until the end of Horizon 2020, but that assumes that holders of such grants don’t leave the UK taking the grants with them. I know of four cases of this happening already. They won’t come back even if we’re still in the European Union then.

Another probable outcomes are that:

  1. the shrinking economy will cause the UK government to abandon its ring-fence on science funding, which will  lead to cuts in domestic provision also;
  2. a steep decline in EU students (and associated income) will halt the expansion of UK science departments, and may cause some to shrink or even close;
  3. non-UK EU scientists working in the UK decide to leave anyway because the atmosphere of this country has already been poisoned by xenophobic rhetoric.

British science may “endure” after BrExit but it definitely won’t prosper. What is the least bad solution, if we cannot remain?

Answers through the comments box please!




Six Things We Know About EU Referendum Campaigns

Posted in Politics with tags , on May 11, 2016 by telescoper

Interesting comments on referendums authored by academics from the University of Sussex, although it seems to me that the thing that most affects the outcome of a referendum is how many people vote on each side…



Kai Oppermann and Paul Taggart

Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’. Looking systematically at referendums and at the experience of these in Europe, we can learn from what has happened in other European referendums to help us in looking at what may happen in the UK’s referendum on EU membership. There may be uncertainty ahead but we can know what we don’t know from previous experience. We suggest that there are six lessons we can learn

  1. Referendum outcomes are hard to predict

The one ‘known known’ we have is the state of the polls at the outset. But early in the campaign, opinion polls tell us very little about what the outcome of the referendum will be on 23 June. Around 20% of voters are still undecided. More than that, voting behaviour in referendums is much less settled and more fluid than in general elections. This…

View original post 1,298 more words

Why the EU is Vital to UK Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on February 22, 2016 by telescoper

The EU referendum campaign may only just have started but already there have been deliberate attempts to mislead the electorate about the realitites of  EU membership. I know that people will consider a wide range of issues before casting their vote in the forthcoming referendum. I am glad there is to be a referendum because there is at least a chance that some truth will emerge as these topics are discussed publicly over the next four months.

My views on the wider questions raised by the referendum are of no greater value than anyone else’s so I am going to restrict myself here to one issue that I do know something about: the importance of continued EU membership to UK Science. Before going on I will state, for the record, that I am not in receipt of any grants or other income from the EU. Not that this should matter. I deeply resent the snide implications of the “out” campaign that  ERC or other EU grants represent some form of gravy train. They don’t. Such awards are highly competitive and subject to strict accounting rules. They are used to fund research not to generate personal wealth. Scientists are not bankers.

Anyway, I believe that it would be a disaster for science if the UK were to quit the EU. In the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex around one-quarter of our research income comes via the EU. Without that cash we would have to make drastic cuts which would certainly lead to redundancies. And I don’t for one minute believe that such funding would be replaced by increases from the UK government. It has been a hard slog just to get level cash settlements for science over the last two Parliaments, and that has led to steady real-terms attrition of support for scientific research. Meanwhile, the EU has, wisely for the future of the European economy, been increasing its science budget in real terms. Many research groups are only viable because of the EU’s strategic vision. We have in front of us the very real prospect of the devastation of our science base if Brexit becomes a reality.

But it’s not just about loss of funding. It’s also about the loss of influence. The UK benefits from EU membership because it has representatives around the table when funding priorities are decided. We provide scientific leadership to many projects, which reflects well on our reputation in the world and attracts significant inward investment. This loss of influence is, of course, not only the case for science but also for other areas of policy. The “out” campaign’s desire for isolationism would leave Britain with even less influence on its own destiny than it has now.

Of course these are personal views and you are free to disregard them. On the other hand, they are also the views of most UK scientists. Here are the key conclusions of  a recent survey and report:

  • 93% of researchers asked in the CaSE and EPC survey agreed that EU membership is a major benefit to UK.
  • Some regions of the UK are more dependent than others on EU funding in maintaining research capacity and infrastructure, and as a result could suffer disproportionate adverse impacts if this source was withdrawn.
  • The ability to attract academic staff to the UK through free movement of labour is important, particularly in science and engineering.
  • The role and benefits of EU membership to UK research is considered by researchers to be broader than just the funding for research that EU projects bring to the UK. The improvement in quality, reach and impact, facilitated by EU collaboration and coordination, helps to solve “Grand Challenge” problems in a way that would be much harder for any one country to achieve alone.

My only surprise with these survey results is that the fraction quoted in the first bullet point is as low as 93%. In my experience strong support for the EU is practically universal amongst scientific researchers across the entire spectrum of disciplines.

I realise science funding is unlikely to be the decisive issue for many people when it comes to casting their vote, but it is a topic I feel strongly about and it angers me greatly when campaigners deliberately misrepresent the view of real scientists. That is one of the reasons why I am a strong supporter of Scientists for the EU and I shall be campaigning strongly for Britain to remain at the heart of a Europe committed to science for the benefit of all its citizens.