A Tale of Two Speeches

I’ve listened to two speeches in the last 24 hours. One motivated me to redouble my efforts to support a cause I’ve long supported. The other left me depressed and worried about the future direction of our country. It was a rather dry lecture from a philosopher that gave me hope. It was the Prime Minister who gave me cause for worry. Prof AC Grayling told an audience in Bristol that Brexit was a national emergency to which we should respond with all forms of peaceful resistance. Theresa May set out her Brexit plan and it’s much harder to bear than I feared.

After losing my seat in the 2015 general election it would have been easy to have melted into the political background. But the calling of the EU referendum meant that I quickly rediscovered my political mojo. I threw myself into campaigning for a Remain vote in Bristol. I worked with Liberal Democrat colleagues but also was one of the founders of Bristol Stronger In. Working with people from other parties and none was uplifting. But in the early hours of 24th June I was despondent again. The ballot papers in front of me showed that Bristol had voted comfortably (62%) for Remain and my former Bristol West constituency had done so with an emphatic 80% vote. But the TV screens at the counting centre told a different story. Once again I was to leave a count just after dawn with a heavy heart.

What came next took me by surprise. First there was an influx of new members into Bristol Lib Dems. Then I was asked by a Labour member if I would meet with some people who wanted to fight together against the madness of Brexit. In the last six months I have been involved in the growth of a small band of people meeting every Friday evening to plan protest rallies, a march and petitioning. Some of the core group were political animals, most were new to politics. Now Bristol for Europe has over 2000 signed up supporters. At our Saturday street stalls we meet people with a real worry about where our country is going and a desire “to do something” to stop a hard Brexit. There’s also the occasional row with an unforgiving Leaver, which livens things up!

Hundreds of people have turned out to our rallies on Bristol College Green to hear speeches from me and Labour and Green Party representatives. We brought Bristol City Centre to a halt with our march, well supported despite the torrential rain. Last night we held our first evening speaker meeting. I was sceptical as to whether people would turn up to listen to a philosopher and what’s more, pay £5 to get in. But the Lantern Room at Bristol’s Colston hall filled to its 250 capacity and we could have let in many more. The lucky audience got quite a treat.

Prof Anthony Grayling is a well-established philosopher and media commentator. He is Master of the New College of Humanities, a London college set up as a result of the reforms put in place by Vince Cable and David Willets during the Coalition. Being his own boss clearly gives him the freedom to speak clearly and fearlessly, without the “on the one hand and then on the other” guff we often gets from academics worried about institutional reputation.

Grayling certainly spoke his mind. Each sentence was “like a perfectly crafted arrow” directed at our government, as someone put it to me in the bar afterwards. Grayling speaks with a soft voice so a velvet fist might be a better description of his duffing up of Theresa May, her government, the Labour Party and indeed the majority of the political class. His main charge was of the cowardice of Parliament to stand up for its own sovereignty. The referendum was advisory. MPs had been told so by the (superb) House of Commons Library. Now every letter he writes to MPs, asking them to do their jobs, is met with replies of “the country has voted” or “the people have spoken.”

But Grayling believes that the people have not spoken, at least not in sufficient numbers to force MPs to capitulate and wave through Brexit. He quoted the statistic that only 37% of “those given the opportunity to vote” had supported the Leave option. He went on to say that the opportunity to vote was denied to millions of people who would be profoundly affected by the outcome. These included 16 and 17 year olds (many of whom had voted in the Scottish independence referendum) plus EU nationals living in Britain and many British ex-pats living elsewhere in the EU.

So on the basis of an advisory vote that excluded many people and showing minority support for Vote Leave, Grayling said “Britain is being hustled out of the EU with undue haste” by Theresa May’s government. He went on to say that we are all “being hijacked by our own government!”

Grayling believes the rush to the Brexit door is a national emergency. In a democracy those of us who disagree have the right and the responsibility to offer peaceful resistance. He offered three approaches. First, bombard all MPs with letters. He believes MPs and Ministers eventually crumble under the weight of correspondence from angry constituents. Second, there’s the recourse to law via the courts. At the time of writing we await the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether MPs must be given a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the opening of our departure negotiations. His third suggestion was less orthodox. He would like to see various forms of civil disobedience. He was not advocating a general strike, as had been reported in the press. Indeed, he joked that many of us in the audience probably did things that might not be missed by the public if we went on strike. Perhaps he thought we were mainly academics…

There is something in Grayling’s third suggestion. He pointed out that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe crumbled in the face of civil disobedience that often started with a regular city centre gathering of dissidents that grew into an unstoppable force. I will certainly explore this with Bristol for Europe colleagues at this week’s meeting.

However, my personal experience makes me doubt the impact of Grayling’s plea for mass letter writing. This may once have been true. In my early years as Bristol West’s MP I read most of the incoming letters. That was because they were usually paper based and signed by a constituent. But soon the volume of emails became too great for me to read more than a selection. The staff team read them all and drafted replies that came from me. Once the likes of 38 Degrees started to bombard MPs’ offices with standard emails and repetitive phone calls I think MPs became immune to the force of numbers and saw it as simple bullying. After the meeting I advised Anthony that it was far more effective to meet MPs in person, in their surgeries or Central Lobby. Remain supporting MPs will appreciate the personal encouragement. Leavers or those Remainers resigned to the finality of Brexit, need to see the whites of the eyes of constituents whose lives will be blighted by Brexit. He promised to incorporate this advice into his next talk.

Grayling gave me renewed determination to resist Brexit. This morning I listened live to Theresa May as she finally gave us some details of her plan. Her words were so damaging that she has had even more of an effect on me than Grayling. We know now that we are to jump out of the Single Market and probably the Customs Union too. Yet the Prime Minister says she wants a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU. Is she really so blind to the fact that our existing arrangement is the best deal we could possibly hope to secure? She went on to say that we would refuse to abide by European Court rulings on trade rules and that we would not pay (like Norway and Switzerland) for market access. This is a cake and eat it negotiation opening gambit. It will surely be met by a giant raspberry from the other 27 EU members.

At least we know that Brexit means Hard Brexit. Those of us who think this is a dangerous threat to the liberties of our citizens and will undermine our national prosperity, cannot stand idly by. Hard Brexit must be met by Hard Resistance.

* Stephen Williams was the Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West 2005-2015 and was Minister for Communities in the Coalition Government.

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41 Comments

  • Sorry, but this comment piece is why the Lib Dems are languishing at just 7% in the opinion polls. In the face of a clear democratic vote, Stephen Williams is advocating civil disobedience, simply because he disagrees with the result.

    If the vote had gone to Remain, even by the slimmest of margins, say 50.5% to 49.5%, any attempts to question and contest the result would be being slammed as irresponsible and dangerous to democracy, extremist even. We would be told that the people had spoken, that the result was final and it was now time to move on.

    The Lib Dems need to be prepared for many, many more years in the national electoral wilderness (leaving aside a few safe-protest local government results) if they are going to promote this kind of argument.

  • Richard Butler 17th Jan '17 - 5:55pm

    Mr Grayling fails to spot that the vote for Leave was a landslide when one considers that the entire Establishment, all 3 main parties, the Govt, Obama and friends, Churchmen and the corporate world spent months the hint to convince the public of thier case, but lost.

    68.8% of counting areas came down for Leave, most English constituencies.

    Project fear lies and manipulations represented a grand corruption, involving organs or the state such as the Treasury who’s modelling inputs were severely criticised in two Select Commitee hearings.

    Leave merely stated a gross £35o million per week could be saved and diverted as the Govt sees fit, perhaps to the NHS. Whether we take net or gross, the public understood the figure to be eye watering.

    Trade with the EU will never be hampered as it would harm everyone, and the EU also know we hold a good hand of aces such as access to our fishing waters and intelligence.

    This means we sell the same levels into the EU, save the net daily club fee of £25 million, make our own trade deals with the globe and enjoy full local autonomy and accountability.

  • Richard Butler 17th Jan '17 - 6:01pm

    There will not be a second referndum. The public would after much national toil recognise it was the only deal on offer, or otherwise face going back into the sickly embrace of the Brusells technocrats, so hopeless at delivering trade deals and more besides.

    If we decide to remain, Brusells would have us for breakfast and we’d never be taken seriously again when seeking to reform.

    Of all people I am surprised liberals are so fearful of embracing change. I’m afraid authoritarian is the true nature of the modern safe space liberal that invokes the Courts when it cannot win a democratic vote.

  • William Ross 17th Jan '17 - 6:02pm

    Well said Richard Butler!

  • According to new Yougov research published yesterday, 39% of the population want a harder Brexit than even Theresa May is seeking – that is, they are fully prepared to have no kind of free trade relationship with the EU at all.

  • Stephen,

    Your right, how do I know this you ask. Well you only have to look at the reaction of the brave Brexiteers, they’ve been flooding the site all day in a desperate attempt to shout down the party they most fear and that is the Lib Dems. Each one trots out his own (and they are normally male) interpretation of Brexit, always upbeat never down beat but seldom the same. One will assure immigrants they have nothing to fear but can offer no proof, another will declare being tough on immigrants is right and on and on they go but what is more and more clear is each of their barely thought out plans for the future differs from their fellow Brexiteers and none of them match Mrs Mays plan.

    They have stepped over a cliff and because we have yet to hit the bottom the occasional bush we fall through is counted as a mere a flesh-wound. We are not dead yet they cry, but the bottom approaches faster and faster the more they cry please don’t point it out, if you do not point it out it may go away; it won’t and we will soon meet it.

  • Nom de Plume 17th Jan '17 - 6:25pm

    There is no need for civil disobedience. We live in a democracy. There will be elections in the future.

  • Richard Elliott 17th Jan '17 - 6:25pm

    Well well, a batch of annoyed brexiteers – all four in quick response – something must have them rattled them. Possibly its the lifting of the fog on the grim reality of Brexit and also that many of us aren’t going to lie down, shut up and see the country become an isolated mid-atlantic outpost of a new right-wing experiment. The PM’s speech is a delusion and parliament has to enable the country to assess the options at a future point when these are clearer.

  • “But Grayling believes that the people have not spoken, at least not in sufficient numbers to force MPs to capitulate and wave through Brexit. He quoted the statistic that only 37% of “those given the opportunity to vote” had supported the Leave option.”

    If Liberal Democrats have such a problem with “simple majorities” why then did they not appose the terms of the AV referendum and demand that the referendum be based on an enhanced majority?
    The Turn out was a lowly 42.2% and i suspect that had the results been different and the yes vote had of won. The Liberal Democrats would have been running 100 mile an hour with it, demanding that democracy be upheld.

  • paul barker 17th Jan '17 - 6:59pm

    This is great, Thank You.
    Our opposition to Brexit is why we have been taking a steadily increasing proportion of Remain Voters, why our polling averages have been going up, why we have been winning Council Seats in both Remain & Leave areas. We are winning because we deserve to.

  • Richard Butler No, it is the Leave faction (s) who are afraid of change. They just fail to get hold of the notion that in an ever-shrinking “globalised” world we must embrace supranational politics and democracy. To go back behind national border is a return to a past that is no longer tenable. If, as has been suggested by many, the form of globalisation that has occurred (with large multinational business calling the tune, jobs being abruptly moved away when difficulties, including employee complaints about conditions, frequent use of tax havens etc), then the ONLY way to get round that bind is to encourage a balanced form of globalisation, where supranational regulation ensures companies do agreed, socially responsible things.

  • This site is turning into Illiberal Undemocrat Voice.

    By all means offer a principled opposition to Brexit, but just as MPs have the right to defy the result of the referendum they equally have the right to support it.

    Not only a majority of MPs, but also a majority (>50%) of votes cast at the last General Election were in support of parties advocating Brexit either unconditionally (UKIP) or as a result of a referendum (Cons, DUP). You are seriously advocating for MPS to betray their manifesto commitments in the name of democracy?

    To question the correctness of the Brexit decision is your moral duty, given your strong feelings, but to question its legitimacy is not the act of a democrat – quite the opposite.

  • Katharine Pindar 17th Jan '17 - 7:38pm

    Excellent call to action here from Stephen Williams, and great to hear of so much being organised in Bristol. For the rest of us, one good start is to sign the petition on the Party website as I have just done. Well said also, Tim 13. Those immediate shouts of protest from Leave supporters above suggest anxiety as well as exasperation that voices from the 48% led by the Liberal Democrats will not be silenced. They have reason to be anxious. The Prime Minister called for ‘the free-est possible trade in goods and services with the EU’ and ‘the greatest possible access by a comprehensive trade agreement’. What isn’t possible, of course, is that any such trade agreement (arranged by when? with the consent of all the 27 other nations and the EU parliament?) could be anything like as good as our continued membership of the EU internal market.

  • Andrew Page 17th Jan '17 - 7:46pm

    “In the face of a clear democratic vote” – it isn’t clear to me that the majority of even those who took the trouble to vote in June’s referendum support what Theresa May announced today.

    The government’s mandate comes from its election victory in 2015 – not from a referendum that bound it to no particular course of action at all – and today the Prime Minister decided that the pledges within the manifesto on which her party was elected no longer matter. To use the June referendum to claim clear public support for her strategy is disingenuous at best.

    There’s also a world of difference between protesting a result of a referendum, and protesting the actions of a government. Civil disobedience can at times be a legitimate tactic in relation to the latter. That the government is showing such contempt for parliamentary democracy, and is also using the referendum result as a justification for destructive and ill-conceived decisions that would never have made it into the pages of any Conservative manifesto, means that calls for some form of protest are more than understandable.

    Why shouldn’t Theresa May’s interpretation of Brexit be resisted by those who consider it to be damaging and ill-informed? If the result had gone the other way I wouldn’t have expected the Leave side to have done anything other than continue making their arguments.

  • Andrew Page 17th Jan '17 - 7:48pm

    Tristan asked “are seriously advocating for MPs to betray their manifesto commitments in the name of democracy?”

    That’s precisely what Theresa May has done today.

  • Nom de Plume 17th Jan '17 - 7:56pm

    A protest along the lines of what they had against the war in Iraq would be appropriate.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jan '17 - 7:59pm

    We shouldn’t be forced to make a choice between the Lib Dem “remain” option and the Conservative “hard brexit” option. I know the Lib Dem official option is “a vote on the deal”, but we know what the party leadership really wants and is trying to achieve.

    Theresa May’s speech is incoherent and bad news. The Commons, and definitely not the Lords, won’t vote for hard brexit. She has sent the message that Britain wants to be distant from Europe, an isolationist or anglophile view of the world that we don’t all share. It’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not the United Kingdom of Theresa May.

    To close, I’ll just say that the Lib Dem byelection result in Sunderland has given some EU migrants hope because it shows areas that have been associated with leave can still be won over by Lib Dems.

  • Richard Butler 17th Jan ’17 – 5:55pm….Mr Grayling fails to spot that the vote for Leave was a landslide when one considers that the entire Establishment, all 3 main parties, the Govt, Obama and friends, Churchmen and the corporate world spent months the hint to convince the public of thier case, but lost…..

    Months???????? For over 40 years successive governments and a large part of the populist media were blaming the EU for most of our ills…

  • Nom de Plume

    “A protest along the lines of what they had against the war in Iraq would be appropriate.”

    The remainers have tried that and the size of their protests were getting smaller and smaller. There’s only so much you can do before it gets embarrassing. Mrs May is calling the shots, she is the most popular political leader by a country mile and her party are well ahead in the polls..

  • Nom de Plume 17th Jan '17 - 8:31pm

    @malc

    That was before May made her speach.

  • I agree with you, Nom de Plume.

  • Brexiteers – hahahahaha

  • A very good piece Stephen. I couldn’t agree with you and ACG more. The Brexiteers immediate responses only confirm what a strong case there is for our position.

  • Andrew McCaig 17th Jan '17 - 9:44pm

    Amazing how lib dem voice seems to have turned into a bridge there are so many trolls lurking under it!

    Anyway, contrary to what was said above, the latest YouGov poll shows that the clear majority want membership of the single market even if that means we do not have complete control on immigration.

  • @malc
    “and her party are well ahead in the polls..”

    Her honeymoon lead is dwindling and that is against Corbyn. If Labour ditch Corbyn this year rather than next, thanks to the upcoming by-elections, then she will start to be challenged. When the wheels come off the economy this year and next then all bets are off.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Jan '17 - 10:37pm

    The current UKIP leader said on BBC Radio 4 that Theresa May’s speech could have been given at a UKIP conference. Nick Clegg MP said the same thing, and if we do not leave the EU we are still in it.

  • Nom de Plume

    @malc

    “That was before May made her speech.”

    A Sky poll carried out after the PM’s speech:

    51% of those surveyed said they support leaving the single market, while 39% oppose such a move. Just over half (51%) now trust Mrs May to get the best possible deal in negotiations with the EU, up five points since October, while the proportion who do not trust her is down three points to 36%.

    The mood seems to moving towards supporting/accepting brexit.

  • There is no question that we should oppose a Tory Brexit.
    The coalition showed us the damage we suffer when being seen as supporting the Tories. We need to continue to carve out a distinctive Liberal position, divorced from the Tories’ economy-wrecking policy

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Jan '17 - 10:55pm

    Eddie

    When you sit down at your keyboard , do another thing, go to the party site , and join us !

    Whether I agree with you or not , and I often or usually do, I welcome your values and approach. Stop shilly shallying , I say that as a friend !

  • Peter Watson 17th Jan '17 - 11:25pm

    “he joked that many of us in the audience probably did things that might not be missed by the public if we went on strike”
    Sadly, that speaks volumes.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jan '17 - 11:45pm

    Thanks Lorenzo. I may do soon-ish. 🙂

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '17 - 12:28am

    @Eddie Sammon “The Commons, and definitely not the Lords, won’t vote for hard brexit.”
    I’m not so sure. A parliamentary vote is likely to be too close to the 2020 election for evidence that blocking Brexit will have saved the country. The Tories have a majority in the Commons and stood on a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum and honour the result. I expect they will be more scared by a potential electoral backlash if they u-turn on that than by the consequences of Brexit. And if parties that decry the Lords as undemocratic and unrepresentative then exploit it to block Brexit they will look hypocritical and be slated in the right-wing media.
    I suspect that the Tories’ hope to benefit electorally whatever the final outcome. Given that many senior Conservatives backed Remain, they start with the ready-made excuse that they are, however reluctantly, simply obeying the democratic will of the people. Even if they make a poor fist of it they will attempt to find plenty of scapegoats, including the EU itself, so-called ‘Remoaners’ talking down the country, Donald Trump and the world economy. Labour looks ineffective, the Lib Dems have bet the house on success as a single-issue pressure group, and the SNP seem to be constantly looking for an Independence angle, so it is not yet obvious where a challenge to the Tories would come from in 2020 unless the economy crashes in a way that is bad news for both Brexiters and Bremainers alike.
    It all looks a bit gloomy really, and depressingly, the useless Remain campaign has continued with the same negative approach that let us down so badly before the referendum, portraying EU membership as merely a less awful option than economic armageddon and ignoring a large number of voters who felt their lives could not be made any worse by Brexit.

  • I see two problems with trying to fight Brexit by civil disobedience. Firstly, will it be effective? Will people be prepared to go to jail over this issue? Will there we enough people prepared to take part? I think it would need 2 or 3 million people to take part. It would have to have a general effect, like the strikes do on Southern Rail. It can’t be just protest marches like the anti-war ones which had no effect.

    Secondly, while it is legal for MPs to vote Brexit down, it would not be legitimate. Only another referendum would be legitimate. And the problem with a second referendum is how do we convince a majority that the UK will be worse off out of the EU than in it. This might be easier once we can say what the tariffs and restrictions on UK exports into the EU will be. However I still think it is pointless campaigning for a second referendum until there is a binding legal ruling that the UK can unilaterally stop the exit process once it is triggered via article 50.

  • David Allen 18th Jan '17 - 9:42am

    Civil disobedience is not the way forward. Civil disobedience can be justified when opposing blatant and widely acknowledged injustice, such as South African apartheid. It cannot be justified in support of one camp of national opinion against the opposite camp. In those circumstances, a resort to civil disobedience would merely discredit us.

    Let’s keep the moral high ground. Theresa May has told Europe that she is prepared to resort to blackmail, to make Britain a tax haven for corporate piracy, and to wreck Europe’s trade if Europe will not concede what she wants. She is demanding unrealistic concessions, which she would not get without making credible threats.

    The stage is set for a blame game, in which May will hit below the belt, and then feed the Daily Mail the story that it is the EU who are the dirty fighters. The Brexiteers are the pirates. We stand for a Britain that is better than that.

  • @Andrew Mccaig
    “the latest YouGov poll shows that the clear majority want membership of the single market”

    No it doesn’t. The poll doesn’t even mention the single market. Full results here, and nothing in them is contrary to what I said in my previous post :-

    https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/01/16/public-split-what-kind-brexit-they-think-governmen/

  • Martin Clarke 18th Jan '17 - 6:31pm

    I think civil disobedience in response to a democratic referendum just because we got the wrong result would be seen to be very childish and would alienate far for people than it positively engaged.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jan '17 - 8:21am

    Tristan

    To question the correctness of the Brexit decision is your moral duty, given your strong feelings, but to question its legitimacy is not the act of a democrat – quite the opposite.

    If the people vote X because they believe X will lead to Y, and they want Y, what am I as a democrat to do if I believe that X will lead to the opposite of Y?

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jan '17 - 8:31am

    David Allen

    The stage is set for a blame game, in which May will hit below the belt, and then feed the Daily Mail the story that it is the EU who are the dirty fighters. The Brexiteers are the pirates. We stand for a Britain that is better than that.

    That is why we must not campaign for “soft Brexit”. If we do, we will get the blame for undermining Brexit, when it won’t deliver what the people were fooled into believing it would deliver.

    Theresa May has told Europe that she is prepared to resort to blackmail, to make Britain a tax haven for corporate piracy

    Indeed, that is what those who pushed and paid for Brexit really wanted.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jan '17 - 8:47am

    Richard Butler

    There will not be a second referndum. The public would after much national toil recognise it was the only deal on offer, or otherwise face going back into the sickly embrace of the Brusells technocrats, so hopeless at delivering trade deals and more besides.

    Can we have some examples, because we have not had any yet? Just vague-handwaving and exaggerated claims.

    As we are now seeing, just because we are our of the EU doesn’t mean we don’t have any trade deals. We need to have trade deals, and trade deals involve control over us by those we are dealing with.

    In what was are the trade deals negotiated collectively by the EU so different from what the UK would negotiate on its own to the point that it would fundamentally change our lives and make them better as the Brexiteers hinted at?

    I was open to being converted to vote Leave if I was given some concrete examples, and I asked again and again for some. I got none, not from any of you who come here and say these sort of things. Just vague handwaving and use of silly phrases like “Brussels technocrats”.

  • Paul Murray 21st Jan '17 - 9:56am

    @Matthew Huntbach – the wikipedia entry on “Causes of the vote in favour of brexit” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_the_vote_in_favour_of_Brexit is remarkably balanced and contains a wealth of meaningful post-vote polling data (on the basis of what people did, not what they said they would do).

    The overwhelming factors are 1. Sovereignty, 2. Immigration, 3. Demographic factors.

    You might reasonably argue against these: for example by saying that immigration is overwhelmingly of benefit to the UK both economically and culturally; or that being bound by the decisions of The European Court of Justice is in the best interests of UK citizens; or that the issue of sovereignty is overblown and only a small percentage of UK law comes down from Brussels; or that the “left behind” is a real phenomenon but they attacked the wrong target by voting Leave.

    But arguing these points is quite different from stating that you will seek to ignore the result of the referendum on the grounds that it was only advisory, or that “leave” voters were motivated by stupidity or malice, or that (heaven help us!) these decisions are too complex for the hoi-polloi to understand and can only be taken by “people like us”.

  • richard underhill. 19th Aug '20 - 5:33pm

    Tim13 17th Jan ’17 – 7:04pm
    Please think of Turkey and the human rights of women which are currently endangered, causing major demonstrations. Turkey’s human rights have been admittedly poor. It iwas always untruthful to emphasise Turkey in the 2016 referendum. Those who were deceived may try to find other reasons for their decision/s, but they should be ashamed of their naivety.
    Who organised the leave campaign?
    do we trust him?
    Where is he now?

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