Politics: Britain Votes and Canada Celebrates 150 Years

On the 8th of June Britain went to the polls. Theresa May called an early election in the expectation that she would strengthen her hand ahead of the Brexit negotiations. In her mind she would be returned to power with an increased majority. Two months ahead of the election the press was united in the view that this would happen, and the Labour Party, under the leadership of the demonised Jeremy Corbyn, would be crushed. Well that did not materialise. The Tories (Conservatives) won just 317 seats, and as there are 650 seats in the House of Commons this is not a majority. Labour gained 30 seats, giving them 262. It is now generally felt the winners lost and the losers won.

This election saw a numbers of firsts for me. I felt really strongly the Tories should be voted out of power after the appalling outcome of the referendum, and the almost certainty that the UK will leave the European Union. I entered the discussion as something other than just an observer and voter. I posted on my Facebook page urging people to engage and vote strategically.

The biggest change though was that in this election I voted Labour for the first time in my life. At least I believe I did because Ailsa had my proxy vote. It was clear that the election needed strategic voting, effectively whoever was the most likely opposition candidate needed the vote. That meant although I would normally support the Liberal Democrats, there was no way they would win in our constituency, Norwich North. We have had a conservative MP since 2009. In the 2015 General Election she held the seat with a majority of about 5000, in 2017 this was reduced to just over 500. I felt my vote really mattered and counted.

Because May is governing through a coalition the general consensus is that there will be, at some point soon, a vote of confidence which she will lose and there will have to be another election. I am quite uncertain as to what will happen, but I hope that now Labour have a sense that they could win, and with any luck we will see a change in government. In my view that would mean a move towards significantly more social spending and higher taxes. Both would be good thing. Of course Britain’s departure from the EU is going to hit the economy hard, the value of the pound has already fallen significantly.

I travelled to England on the 30th of June, thereby missing a big celebration in Canada. The country celebrated 150 years as a Confederation. The provinces that formed the confederation in 1867 were the colonies of Canada (this province then divided into Ontario and Quebec); Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The current structure has ten provinces and three territories, Newfoundland only joined in 1949, before this it was a crown colony ruled by a British governor.

I have to admit to not fully understanding the system of governance in Canada. It is fully independent and a member of the British Commonwealth. According to Wikipedia – that font of all knowledge: “Canada has a parliamentary system within the context of a constitutional monarchy, the monarchy of Canada being the foundation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The sovereign is Queen Elizabeth II … the Queen’s representative, the Governor General of Canada … carries out most of the federal royal duties”. Each province has a Lieutenant Governor and the $20 Canadian banknote has a picture of the Queen. It is all strange for an independent nation. Australia and New Zealand are similar.

If I were to become a Canadian citizen, there is a test and these are things one would have to know. Indeed, as part of becoming a citizen, one has to swear the Oath of Citizenship, the first part of which is an Oath of Allegiance, ‘a promise or declaration of fealty to the Canadian monarch’. I have asked many of my Canadian friends how they feel about this close link with the UK. The consensus seems to be that it is ok; a sense of ‘if it is not broken don’t fix it’. I am not sure how this will pan out when Charles and Camilla become King and Queen respectively. However they went to Canada to mark the 150 years and presumably this was also to place themselves for their future roles.

The students from the Balsillie School had a trip to Ottawa in June. Our Masters’ of Public Policy (MIPP) group went up for a week and had a chance to see how the government works. Many of the rest: the Masters’ of Global Governance (MAGG) and PhD students travelled up on Thursday and gave presentations of their policy briefs to the Department of Global Affairs Canada (GAC). I went with this group. They mostly worked in teams and in total there were 15 presentations, which took all day. I was exhausted by the end of the day. The GAC people invited other civil servants, so there were always people interested in the students and what they had to say.

The team I mentored talked about currency fluctuations and the impact they have on international development assistance. It sounds dry, but I think it is fascinating and it has real and detrimental effects on the funding for health and HIV. This is something I have been thinking about for a long time and have been working on for about a year with the support on UNAIDS and DFID. The most recent report had been posted by DFID and is available on the UK government website. Nick Zebryk, who has worked with me for a couple of years, co-authored the report and did much of the research. We sent it out to everyone we talked to, and many others besides. Interestingly there has been little reaction to the final report, although there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the research.

The journey to Ottawa seemed endless. We went up by train: about 90 minutes from Kitchener to Toronto and then over four and a half hours from Toronto to Ottawa. The trains are comfortable and there is a more than adequate trolley service, but it is long journey. The students and most of the staff stayed in the residences at Carleton University. Having joined them there in 2016 I decided a hotel room in the city was worth splashing out on. The hotel I use is the one where I spent a month in 2007 when I was a Visiting Fellow at Carleton. I think the curtains and carpet are exactly the same, although I am sure they have been cleaned frequently. It is a ‘suites’ hotel which means there is a living area and small kitchen, rather wasted on such a short trip.

Travelling to back to Norwich actually took only a little longer than the journey to Ottawa, and was much less pleasant. I had an economy comfort seat in the first row, which meant there was leg room, but the seats are small. The plane was completely packed, schools in Canada broke-up on the 29th, and while there were not many young people on the plane, I think it was full of escaping teachers. This may make sense as the 150th Anniversary was worth being in Canada for, especially if there is a chance an individual would see the 200th, and anyone under 30 has a good chance of being alive for that. I personally regret that I did not delay my travel for a few days.

At least, though, I have a few weeks in Norwich before travelling to Southern Africa for a Waterford Board meeting in Swaziland and a quick stop in Durban. I am not looking forward to the long plane journeys of the next month or so, perhaps one upgrade will be warranted. It is also with reminding myself that, as a KLM elite card holder, I at least get access to the lounges and all the perks that go with this status. It would be hard to contemplate travelling without these benefits.

Leaving Durban

It is now absolutely official and irrevocable. I will be leaving HEARD, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Durban at the end of the year. My post as the Director of the Health Economics and HIV and AIDS Research Division was advertised in the Mail and Guardian on Friday 28 June. I hope we will get strong candidates and anyone reading this posting who knows people who might want to apply, please encourage them.

I am going to Canada where I have been appointed as the Center for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) Chair in Global Health Policy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. It is quite a complicated appointment. I will be located in the Balsillie School for International Affairs (BSIA) and am also part of CIGI which is a think tank. Waterloo is a small university town located about an hour south west of Toronto’s Pearson Airport. It looks like a very interesting place with the two universities (the other one is Waterloo University); the BSIA and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, all close together. It is worth looking at the websites, if only to see the wonderful buildings. CIGI is in the renovated Seagram’s Distillery while BSIA has its own new building next door.

The process of going has been a protracted one. I was offered the position and accepted last year. I informed the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the HEARD Board of my intention to depart and began the process of negotiating the transition. It has taken a long time to get the advertisement put together, longer than anyone would have liked.

I will be transitioning in a measured manner, I am already fractionally appointed in Waterloo, will increase this with effect from September 2013 and will then be 100% there from 1 January 2014. I am aware that this is in the depths of the Canadian winter. So cross country skiing will be on my agenda.

Last year was a time of endings. At the end of the Washington AIDS conference I completed 12 years as a Governing Council member for the International AIDS Society. At the end of December 2012 I finished a three and a half year term as a British Department of International Development (DFID) Senior Research Fellow. This was a factional appointment. It was a huge learning experience and a pleasure to do. I so enjoyed working with the DFID team – although I am totally opposed to open plan offices as a result of this experience. I don’t know how people managed to get so much done.

I began thinking about leaving HEARD some time ago for a number of reasons. The predominant one was the desire to have a legacy. A prerequisite for a legacy is one has to leave! I firmly believe founders have ‘sell by’ and ‘use by’ dates and hope I did not pass mine. HEARD  is an established organisation with excellent staff, reasonably secure funding, and great track record. I won’t blow our trumpet, the information is all on the website but I must however mention the remarkable number of peer-reviewed publications being produced by our team: 34 last year alone.

I felt it important for the organisation to have new leadership. There are so many issues in the health field that need attention in southern Africa and my focus is somewhat constrained. A new Director will bring a fresh vision and take the group in some interesting new directions. Things that they can think about include the rise in Non-Communicable Diseases and the environmental changes we are seeing.

Finding a position to go to was rapid. I went for a number of interviews in South Africa and beyond. I was told about the post in Waterloo by a friend of 40 years; looked at it; put in an application; and went for an interview and visit. The rest, as they say, is history.

The post is really attractive. The organisation is new and developing. It gives me the opportunity to work with major issues in a different environment. There will be considerably less administration and more time to write and think. I will, for the first time in many years, have the opportunity to teach and work with graduate students. In addition I will be able to talk to people and go to meetings in New York, Washington, Toronto and Ottawa without having to worry about time zones and long journeys and jet lag. It is very exciting.

Back in Durban the HEARD team have been extremely busy. We have just had the 6th SA AIDS Conference here. Important new data were released. Ahead of this there was a meeting organised by the South African Medical Research Council and the National Institutes of Health on Research frontiers in HIV, HIV related malignancies and TB. It was a summit on shared research priorities and was mainly bio-medical. The dinner was held on the top floor of the Blue Waters Hotel at the north end of the beachfront. The night was clear and the view across the city and the new stadium, as far as Umhlanga, magnificent.

On the Tuesday of the conference opening we co-hosted a meeting with UNAIDS at the HEARD offices. This was on Investments into Critical Enablers for the KZN AIDS Response: Where are the Gaps? The guest of honour was the provincial Minister of Health Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo. There was much excitement about this as we had to deal with protocol and bodyguards. He was supposed to arrive just before 10am but at 9:20am I got a message to say they were in the car park. I dashed down and he told me he was going to sit there and work and would come up at about 9.55am, and I should stop fussing. He is such a nice man. When this was over I dashed down to the International Convention Centre to attend the opening of the Conference.

The title of a plenary speech by the CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council, Dr Olive Shisana, HIV/AIDS in South Africa: A last the glass is half full, summed up the complex and extremely challenging situation. The estimated number of people in South Africa living with HIV has risen to 6.4 million people (up from the previous estimate of 5.6 million). The estimated prevalence of HIV increased from 10.6% in 2008 to 12.3% in 2012. It is highest in KwaZulu-Natal at 27.6% of those aged 15 – 49, falling to 9.2% in the Western Cape.

While that was bleak, the research and policy input coming from HEARD is influential and important. There were panels organised by HEARD’s Disability and HIV Project and a reception held at Kingsmead cricket ground in the director’s box. We organised a meeting on HIV resource tracking and costing in east and southern Africa which was http://www.gmai;held on Howard College campus in a wonderful new building next to the science block.

On the personal level Douglas has finished high school and, while waiting for the results, is looking at next steps, including coming to Canada. Ailsa is dealing with the bureaucracy of the move, endless forms and complexities! Rowan is busy with two jobs, one at the Writers Centre Norwich. It is worth mentioning that Norwich is England’s first UNESCO City of Literature. She will be starting an MA in creative writing in 2014. So, in summary, all is well and exciting.


C.J Sansom, Dissolution

This was first published in 2003 by Viking. I got one of the 2011 World Book Night copies. The WBN is ‘a celebration of reading and books which sees tens of thousands of passionate volunteers gift specially chosen and printed books in their communities to share their love of reading’. In 2013 it was celebrated in the UK, Ireland and the USA.  This is a crime novel set in the 16th century during the dissolution of the monasteries. It is as good as the Hilary Mantel books, and is complimentary since it takes a different view, a hunchback lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell investigates crimes in monasteries. It is an excellent read. What makes it particularly relevant is that I am also reading Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. I will review that in the next posting – but for now he argues that the world is a more peaceable rational place, the 16th Century was routinely violent.


‘Save your legs’ released in 2013, an independent Australian film

This is the story of a not very good Australian cricket team called the Abbotsford Anglers who go on tour in India, with all the trials and tribulations that is involved from rotten pitches to food poisoning. Not all the characters are developed or believable but it is a nice human observational film.