The B Word and the D Word

There is an unwritten rule for this blog which was, within reason, to stick to evergreen topics as much as possible to keep articles from becoming dated. Relevant to the topic I’m about to write about however is a conflicting rule: I want to write about things that I am passionate about. This essay has been burning in my belly for some time now, but current events have brought it up to the figurative boil.

For historical context, I write on the 1st of September 2019. The current UK government has declared that Parliament shall be prorogued from the 9th of September 2019 to the 14th of October to, in their words, deliver a Queen’s Speech laying out their future business. In reality, the biggest impact of this prorogation (the longest in decades) will be to limit the available time for Parliament to legislate against the Government’s current policy of trying to ‘run down the clock’ and allow the UK to leave the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement. This weekend has seen mass protests across the UK with citizens in outrage of the proposed prorogation, viewing it as an affront to our democracy. Just this morning Minister without Portfolio, Michael Gove has publicly admitted that should the UK Parliament manage to pass legislation to prevent the UK leaving without a Withdrawal Agreement, the Government may choose to simply ignore it.

In simpler words, the Government might choose to ignore UK law if it serves its interests. This is a Very Bad Thing.

For many reasons it is very difficult to express a balanced view of the current state of UK politics, and how it is viewed by the wider public. For instance:

1. The animosity between either side of the Brexit debate is fierce. To express an opinion counter to the extremes of either group is to brand yourself a ‘traitor’. The language being used to describe people across the political spectrum is venomous, dehumanising, and massively unhelpful.

2. Because of this resentful divide, it becomes difficult for people to decouple actions or words that benefit their partisan aims from actions that are shortsighted, divisive, or unlawful.

3. As a result of this difficulty, there is a wide and particularly problematic misunderstanding of the already vague word ‘democracy’.

So before we talk about why the current UK Government is doing demonstrably terrible things with obvious and avoidable negative consequences for the UK as a whole, we need to talk about The D Word.


What even is democracy?

Depends who you ask doesn’t it? In the UK we operate a Parliamentary Democracy. Under this system, to massively oversimplify, our country is divided into small areas called constituencies, and each constituency elects a representative (Member of Parliament, or MP for short) who then divides their time between their local area, and time in London at the UK Parliament.

First point of confusion. Many people disagree about whether or not their MP is simply meant to ‘tell Parliament what the majority of people in the constituency think’ or whether they are meant to act in the best interests of the constituents even if their best interests run counter to locally held opinions on the matter.

The wording in the YouGov poll isn’t precisely the way I would have put it, but you can see the broad strokes.

The wording in the YouGov poll isn’t precisely the way I would have put it, but you can see the broad strokes.

In my opinion, this should not be up for debate. The reason we elect representatives, is because we can task them with taking the time to understand and therefore vote in good conscience on issues we neither have the time nor the capacity (on average) to do so. I like to think myself a relatively intelligent person, but do I want to spend dozens of hours poring over fishing policies, proposals on changes to inheritance laws, or defence budgets? No, frankly I don’t. I have taken the time to vote for a representative who will do so on my behalf. Neither do MPs operate in a vacuum: when I have opinions on upcoming policy I can make an appointment to visit my MP to inform them, or write a letter, or send an email.

But the fact remains, that a significant portion of the public are of the belief that their MP should just ‘do as they’re told’ (aside: do you think people who hold that opinion would want to be an MP?). So even before we move onto ad-hoc referenda which are in conflict with our already ‘established’ version of democracy, we already have a difference of opinion over what our country’s version of it is.


Our next flavour of democracy is the Referendum. I am sure all readers are aware we had one of those not so long ago, and ever since then its effects are inescapable. Let’s face it, as you read this very text you are metaphorically entwined in its betentacled clutches.

You right now.

You right now.

In the UK, a referendum is a nationwide vote on a particular issue which is meant to be binding on the government of the day. It is very understandable version of democracy, a question is asked or a policy is put forward to be either rejected or accepted, and winner takes all.

This simplicity, I would argue, is part of what makes some of the current language, propaganda, and slogans being used so attractive to people, in particular those who voted to Leave the EU. A very simple argument to form is “we won the referendum, do as your told and leave the EU”. It will be relevant to note that the referendum chose by a narrow, and now famous margin of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. It was not a resounding victory by any means.

There are fundamental questions to be asked regarding the way the 2016 EU referendum was crafted, because with a little more care and forethought, the very real economic, and now Constitutional uncertainty caused by it could have been avoided. The open-ended question of *exactly how* the UK was to leave the EU, should the populace choose to do, so is the very reason there is now such confusion about democracy.

Democracy vs. Democracy

I am emphatically not a lawyer, so I am utterly unqualified to debate the merits of which of these two forms of democracy should trump the other, but it is obvious for all to see that there is an ongoing conflict between two competing democracies, and for the purposes of this essay, and being able to correctly judge the UK Government’s recent actions, that there is an unresolved conflict is all that matters.

It is easy to find comments on websites, placards at rallies, and quotes on vox pops on the news saying that to protest against the prorogation of Parliament is “anti-democratic”, because it subverts the “will of the people”. This is plainly only part of the story, because as we know there are two democracies in play. One of the democracies chose the direction of travel - that is the Referendum chose to leave - and the other democracy, our Parliamentary democracy, has been left to figure out exactly how it is should be done. Both are legitimate, and neither can or should be ignored.

The most obvious way to get around this fundamental impasse would be some sort of compromise: the UK would leave the EU in a way which the 48% of the public who wished to remain can be in some way placated. Unfortunately for fans of practical solutions that might just about please everyone a little bit, three successive UK Governments have by negligence and choice made compromise essentially impossible.

The slow death of compromise

The Cameron government devised the 2016 referendum badly, and then failed in the campaign to call out lies by the Leave campaign in at attempt to avoid damaging inter-party public arguments. This allowed the Vote Leave campaign in particular the latitude to frame the arguments in the most base and false ways, and marked the start of a ratcheting of rhetoric across the whole of the debate. Compromise was already under threat from the uncontrolled lies spread by Leave UK and the combative and negative tone they set.

The May government was the first to actively choose to throw compromise in the figurative bin. After an initial period marked by silence and evasion, May decided to trigger a snap election, actively seeking a mandate to enact her Brexit strategy. The election resulted in May losing her majority, with a return to a hung Parliament. The country effectively said, “we don’t particularly want what you’re offering, and we feel much the same about the opposition”. At this point, May ought to have recognised the country’s need for compromise, but instead veered maniacally into a brick wall as she began to behave as if she’d won a thumping majority. The UK was to leave on what was, in terms of all referendum campaigning and political speculation since 2016, the very hardest of Brexits. The ratchet moved another tooth on its travel.

Now we arrive at the Johnson government, and in the space of a few short weeks we’ve moved from May’s policy of Very Hard Brexit, to Johnson’s policy of seeking to leave without a Withdrawal Agreement at all. It is important to note that under the May government, MPs from all parties voted for and passed legislation demonstrating a firm rejection of taking this action, deeming it economic suicide. A similar group of MPs are planning to do so again.

I feel I need to remind everyone, that this where public opinion was in 2016.

I feel I need to remind everyone, that this where public opinion was in 2016.

So, compromise is dead, and Winner-takes-all politics becoming the new norm under PM Johnson, probably due in part to the success of President Trump. Political norms can no longer be taken for granted, as a politician operating with wrecking tactics simply ask themselves “what are the costs of breaking these rules?”.

Bollocks to the rules

Prime Minister Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings has been held in contempt of Parliament, yet is now one of the most powerful people in Whitehall. What tangible, life-affecting cost has been borne of his being held in contempt? None. He probably has an official letter telling him as such, which he has either framed, or shredded.

Johnson and his team under Dominic Cummings will be looking at every gentleman’s convention that can be waived, every prerogative power that can be abused, and now any laws which can be simply ignored and asking themselves: “what can be gained by doing this, and what will it cost us?”. As with Cummings’ contempt, many of the costs will be “none at all” and many will be “none in the short term”.

Except not.

Because this returns us to our first question: what is democracy? We might not be able to get anywhere near a consensus on what democracy is, but we can agree what it is not.

It is not sending the voting body away for 5 weeks because they might force you to do something you don’t want to.

It is not ignoring laws which do not suit you.

It is not (as is currently reported as a possibility) sacking and deselecting any MPs which vote against the government.

(Note: this is one of the reasons I want to get this out now, before it’s outdated. By tomorrow lunchtime there might be a bloody general election on the cards and all this becomes somewhat redundant)

All these moves have a cost, and that cost is the erosion of our Parliamentary Democracy. Whichever way you voted in the referendum, allowing a government to act in this way allows all future governments to do the same, and any one of those next times they will probably do something you disagree with.

And yet you may cry: doesn’t allowing MPs to block No Deal defy the other democracy; the referendum result? Well no, it doesn’t at all. All the referendum result does is declare that we should leave, not how. The method of leaving has been left to the Parliamentary democracy, and Parliament must be allowed to operate.

Anything less is not democracy.

The year of the move

It’s been a busy time at Pie Towers recently. Pies Mr, Mrs and Mini have been trying to move house for some months now, which at the best of times is tricky but as it turns out our timing was… well let’s say that the timing has been deeply unhelpful.

It’s time for a barely edited ramble:

My wife and I had earmarked 2019 as the year we would leave our beloved mid-terrace just outside of York city centre and try to find something a little bigger with more separation of living spaces. We knew we couldn’t bear to leave our central location as we are utterly spoilt for schools, for the community, for the much beloved high street round the corner, and for almost car free living outside of my work. Essentially, we were looking for exactly what we already had, exactly where we already were, but… a bit bigger. So far, so simple, but also so constrained.

As luck would have it, exactly what we were looking for was in fact right on our doorstep. We found a beautiful end-terrace we could afford with loads of corridors and twists and turns just up the road. It was perfect: all we had to do was get our house sold.

And therein laid the rub.

Overshadowing our whole adventure was our country’s dalliance with unprecedented international self harm. The ‘B’ word. The Bad Thing.

We had sold our house subject to contract after just a few weeks of viewings. At the time it was interesting to watch how certain events in Brexit Calendar affected the mood of house buyers. The week leading up to the much delayed ‘meaningful’ vote depressed viewings to effectively zero. Once the drama had passed, viewings were up to a half dozen every ten days or so. If I spoke to people about The B word, respondents fell broadly into two categories: the first were just depressed about the whole thing, and subsequently couldn’t imagine buying or selling a house under such circumstances; and the other group were of the opinion that it would all come to nothing, and no tangible effect would ever be felt.

Then the Big One hit home. Three weeks before our intended move date in early April, our buyer pulled out, citing Brexit uncertainty as one of their main reasons for deciding not to buy.

What followed was two months of frantically trying to find a new buyer in time to keep our upward chain intact, despite the omnipresent B word. Mrs Pie and I would typically spend a good hour to ninety minutes preparing our house for a viewing and looking back through my calendar I can see we did this no less than thirty times over the whole period from January to today. I dread to think how much time I’ve spent on the phone to our estate agent, and that of our vendors in this time, as well as time spent conducting viewings our agent couldn’t attend (Sundays, Bank holidays, and times that just didn’t work) and writing emails to everyone involved.

Fast forward to this weekend, and for now, the worst is over. After all the effort we do have a new buyer in place, and despite the fact that nothing is stopping this new buyer from pulling out, I’m going to let myself enjoy this period of what feels like both emphatic victory in the face of insurmountable odds and also relative calm after a frankly atrocious couple of months. Our whole upward chain remained intact, in part because our vendors withheld from going back on the market for weeks to allow us as much time as they could, despite the house they were intending to buy was put back up for sale within a week of our buyer walking.

We are very grateful. Even if things do fall apart again, I’ll take the hit from allowing myself to just believe that things will go well this time. That’s my choice as an optimist. I think that’s easier than the alternative.

So tonight I look forward to a week at work where I am no longer in two mental places rather than one for the first time in what feels like six months, but in reality has only been about eight or ten weeks. And maybe in the evenings I can start to think about the fun parts of moving: getting rid of old junk, figuring out how we’re going to actually live in the space, and I can definitely see this as a great hide-and-seek house. Someone mentioned a housewarming party the other day; if this all goes through, I can tell you that there will be a hell of a party once we’re moved in.

Fingers crossed for us?


Bonus video content

Things have not gone well with our house move (thanks, Brexit), so here’s a time lapse video of me assembling the Lego Creator James Bond Aston Martin DB5.

Stick around till the end for the added bonus of seeing my contemptuous cat eyeballing the ejector seat in slow motion with his typical disregard for all human activity.

I had to film it over two nights owing to an evil stomach flu. You’ll notice a slice of my birthday cake going uneaten across the first half of the video. I also blame that for the mistake I make with the ejector seat mechanism…

An Open Letter

The below is a copy of a letter I sent to the IStructE this evening in response to a letter published in the Verulam pages in the February Issue. I reproduce it here lest it not make the cut - I expect there will be quite a few letters in response to this one.

It’s difficult to know exactly what to write in response to the letter by Cliff Billington in the February 2019 issue of The Structural Engineer, owing to my conflicting desires. I would on the one hand like my words on the matter to be printed, but not to the exclusion of any writers who have things to say on the matter, crucially those who are not men.

I should like to examine a few key passages of Mr Billington’s which I have issues with:

“A recent Viewpoint article stated that ‘One of the biggest problems in our profession is a lack of gender balance’. Since when?”

Not being an expert on the detailed history of our profession, the most specific answer I can give to this question is “since the very beginning”. The idea that any profession could possibly be somehow improved by doing nothing to reduce the exclusion of half the population is utter madness.

Then we arrive at a passage which I expect will inflame many, many people:

“Maybe young women simply do not want to be engineers - standing in mud and being cold, and wet, on site, in foul weather - and would rather embark on a different career?”

Maybe we should begin by not presuming to know the inner workings of the minds of an entire group of people? Maybe that presumption is incredibly offensive, and is fuelled by hurtful, inaccurate, lazy stereotypes of the worst kind?

Maybe we should consider the systemic barriers in all our workplaces that inhibit the career progression of women? Maybe we should start by examining our long-held prejudices, which have been left unchecked to spread like a disease over generations and are now finally being exposed across many fields, from science and academia, to the media.

With few exceptions, the smartest people I have worked with as a colleague, or worked with as part of a design team, or studied with in my university days are women. We must do everything we can to promote gender equality for the sake of all, and not be distracted by spurious arguments about failings in the “whizz-kid[s] with finite element analysis or advanced computer packages”. Such problems may be real, but they are a fixable thin end of a relatively new wedge, as opposed to a glaring, fundamental error the entire construction industry has been making en masse for decades.

I would have liked my first letter to Verulam to have been more positive, but I could not let such outdated views go unchallenged.

Martyn Pysanczyn

Bonus Content - Paper Aeroplanes!

When I was about 10 or so, my grandma once gave me a copy of a magazine; I'm fairly sure it was a Reader's Digest. Within those pages were the instructions to make a paper aeroplane - I vaguely recall it was some sort of competition winner or record holder. I committed the design to memory, and ever since it's been my go-to design for airborne paper hijinks.

I spent a futile 15 minutes this weekend trying to find some record of it online with the idea of first showing it to some family who were staying this weekend, then secondly of putting it up on Twitter. However, my Google-Fu let me down, so I decided I'd draw up a set of instructions of my own and post them here instead.

If anyone who sees this can find any proper attribution for the design, I'll happily update to include it, but for now, here we go...

Aeroplane - 01.png
Aeroplane - 02.png
  1. Fold down one of the top corners to its opposite side, make the crease sharp, then unfold.
  2. Repeat for the other corner.
  3. Fold horizontally back over, make a nice sharp crease, then unfold again.
  4. Bring the points all labelled 3 together, which should collapse all the pink area into the shape of the blue triangle.
  5. Fold up the loose flaps into the shape shown.
  6. Fold in the the corners again to create a kite shape.
  7. Step 7 I now realise (much too late to change it) is inexplicably a copy of step 6. You may safely ignore it and move onto step 8.
  8. Fold down the point as shown.
  9. This is the tricky bit. Unfold the pink parts - the top ones only - then tuck them into the pockets you find in the tip you folded over on step 8. You might need to bend them a little to get the in, but once you've got them slid in and flattened down then the whole thing will hold itself together solidly.
  10. Flip the paper over so you're now looking at the top of the plane - all the work you've done so far was on the underside - then make the folds as shown; these will be winglets. To get these folds exactly right it helps to use a ruler*.
  11. Fold the edges of the winglets back on themselves and then give them a gentle tug so they don't lie too flat to the body of the plane.
  12. Hold it by finger and thumb on the little pocket on the underside, and give a throw! It works best if you give it more of a deliberate straight push (a bit like a dart) than a throw.

Note: Don't bend it or fold it in half - the whole thing is a wing.

If you want, you can post photos your attempts to follow my hastily compiled instructions to twitter and mention me on @martynpie or you can be a crazy person and email me at

*I know, I know, rulers again. Sorry.