Our List of Dishonour

It’s an annual tradition to throw your hands up in the air when the New Years Honours List is announced. But this years list is particularly appalling. As political commentator Gerry Hassan writes: “The UK political system is broken and rotten. The debasement of the honours systems is beyond repair and used shamelessly by the Tories. Liz Truss was PM for 49 days, ended up costing us £3bn minimum & can give three allies jobs as legislators for life accountable to no one.” He was referring to the appointments of Matthew Elliot, former CEO of Vote Leave, Jon Moynihan, former Chair of Vote Leave, and Ruth Porter, Liz Truss’s former Deputy Chief of Staff. Elliot, when he was the CEO of Vote Leave, was given the highest fine possible for electoral offences by the Electoral Commission, and as the Labour MP Chris Bryant reminded us: “Bear in mind that the new Truss peer Matthew Elliott founded the Conservative Friends of Russia group. He now gets to write our laws for life.”

It’s a tried and tested, encrusted tradition to gift your pals a lucrative life-long post to make laws. What makes this list worse is the spectacle that it comes from Liz Truss’s short-lived and utterly disgraced time in office, where she was hooked by her own party for her disastrous reign causing the country a massive economic hit.

There were others that were arguably worse than Elliot, Moynihan and Porter. Stephen Hester, on whose watch (2008-13) RBS/NatWest remained at least in part a “rogue” institution, has been given a knighthood. Hester’s peerage is an example of the Old Boys (and girls) network that operates largely below radar. If Elliot and Moynihan are obvious payoffs for pals we don’t really know why half of these people are ennobled. We still have the complete mystery of Boris Johnson’s former aide Charlotte Owen who became Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge at the ripe old age of 30. We still have the complete disgrace of the Michelle Mone elevation to the House of Lords (‘Of course Michelle Mone should be thrown out of the Lords, but others enabled her: turf them out too’)

But most of it is just about crude cash donations.

At least seven Conservative donors were given honours in the new year list of awards, including knighthoods for the taxi firm founder John Griffin and the Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin. Griffin, the founder of Addison Lee, has given £3m to the Conservatives and is knighted for “services to industry and charity”. Martin, who donated £400,000 to the Vote Leave campaign and £50,000 to the Tories in the 2019 election, is knighted for “services to hospitality and culture”. More recently, Martin has given £25,000 to Nigel Farage’s Reform party.

Cronies, Toadies and Donors

We live in a country where we’ve got more non-elected members of our legislature than elected. Let that sink in.

What’s funny – or not – about the strange Undemocracy we live in is that no-one intends to do anything about it. Why should they? Lining the pockets of your friends and elevating them to become a law-maker for life is a powerful tool and it’s in absolutely no-ones interest to change anything at all. The wholly undemocratic and ludicrously overpopulated chamber has become so discredited that the state of the place worries even senior lords. Yet there has not been serious reform in a generation.

The House of Lords and the  whole system of patronage relies on an impression of tradition and lies within the wider context of aristocratic rule. If this was stripped down and had none of the trappings of ermine, tradition and hierarchy it would be brutally exposed for the system of organised cronyism it is. Archaism, as the late Tom Nairn never tired of pointing out, is the defining feature of the decrepit British state. In the place of a vibrant critical media, in the absence of a vocal intelligentsia, and with an opposition seemingly scared of standing up for any real change, things as they stand will prevail.

Routinely, annually, columnists will look at this farce in dismay. In 2022 Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Observer: “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to describe it to someone from abroad. To an American, you will have to explain why there are more than 800 people entitled to sit in our grotesquely bloated upper chamber when the US manages with 100 senators. To anyone from anywhere, you will need to tell them about the presence of 92 hereditary peers, embedded on the red leather benches because some distant ancestor fought for a long-dead monarch or gave a bung to a long-gone prime minister. When one of these hereditaries shuffles off this mortal coil, there is then the most eccentric kind of ballot. The vacancy is filled at a byelection in which only hereditary peers can participate as candidates and voters. The rest are the “lifers”, a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some are dedicated people of genuine distinction in fields such as science, public service or business. It would be a pity to lose their wisdom and experience, but a price worth paying to purge parliament of the many peers who are only there because successive party leaders have stuffed the place with cronies, toadies and donors. The ranks of the placemen and women have enlarged over recent years, swelling the mob of mediocrities and gargoyles who serve not the public interest, but only their own interests.”

But in reality there is no threshold for change. Not King Charles III personally choosing to give an ‘honour’ to police commander Karen Findlay, who oversaw the unjustified arrests of republican protesters during his coronation. Not Boris Johnson honouring Charlotte Owen and slapping legal restrictions on reporting on her, and not David Cameron elevating Michelle Mone.

Not only is it corrupt and indefensible, it is also functionally useless. It is not just that is is stuffed with people with no relevant skills and experience – it is not just that it is an affront to democracy being unelected – it simply doesn’t work as a revising second chamber. It is not a defence against attacks on democracy, it IS an attack on democracy. It remains a gilded retirement home often for politicians who have been deselected or voted out of office by the electorate, but then pop-up like bad pennies in the House of Lords. The system of patronage, like the House of Lords, is unreformable, and like the British state which it lies at the very heart of, it is irredeemable.


Comments (38)

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  1. Helen Burns says:

    Definitely Not Better Together

  2. Alasdair Angus Macdonald says:

    Ah, but …. this is why we are “Better Together”.

    Tradition – ye cannae buy it unless ye ur a Tory donor or a Labour trough snuffler.

  3. Dr Andrew Craig says:

    Liz Lettuce’s New Year “honours” [sic] list. What can one say? But it is only the latest in a long English tradition of political jobbery for cash getting its start in a big way with Walpole. Once down in England, James 1st sold hereditary peerages – “baronetcies” were invented for sale in 1611 – to bolster the royal coffers and bypass a difficult Parliament. It is corrupt and rotten and not fixable. Abolition along with House of Lords is the only sane course of action, but don’t expect Starmer’s Labour govt to do it; too timid to touch it and they will use it for the same purposes as the tories of course. As the great socialist historian RH Tawney said to Ramsay McDonald when offered – and declining – a peerage by the new Labour Govt in the 1920s, “…even a mad dog does not tie a tin can to his own tail.” He well knew it was all part and parcel of patronising, imperialist forelock-tugging twaddle.

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      ” a long English tradition of political jobbery” Well, quite.

  4. James Mills says:

    … and don’t expect SIR Keir Starmer to change things if/when his party achieve power . Look at the roll-call of rancid ”Labour” Lords , including convicted fire-raisers , warming the benches , but mostly in the bars of the HoL .
    The People’s party ? F*ck Off !

  5. Alan C says:

    The institution that is the HoL should be reason enough to end the ‘union’ To have a government minister that nobody even voted for should have the people up in arms, Rather it’s just accepted, The Tories must now surely think they really can do whatever the hell they like! With no comeback from the people.

  6. Cathie Lloyd says:

    What I find spooky about trying to understand the Westminster system is that people either suspect or know what is going on. So when there’s another ‘revelation” it doesnt come as a complete surprise. This has the effect of cushioning the impact – we already knew most of it after all.
    Time for ‘out with the old’.
    We have to hope for 2024

  7. Meg Macleod says:

    Is there any way to challenge this situation as being against general human right to equality?

    1. 231231 says:

      Late last year, Labour unveiled its plans to abolish the current appointed House of Lords and replace it with a new, smaller elected chamber. The proposals, authored by Gordon Brown and endorsed by Keir Starmer, include significant reforms to reshape the composition and purpose of the appointed House of Lords, which the Labour leader described in its current form as ‘indefensible’.

      The plans also seek to embed equal representation for all citizens, however they self-identify. That could be delivered by a proportional electoral system, or by some process of sortition or delegation, which would accurately represent the general will of the whole citizenry in the second chamber. The move to a proportional electoral system, sortition, or delegation could also be supplemented by legally required statistically-based quotas to ensure equal proportionality in the chamber’s cultural composition.

      An independent second chamber that’s proportionally representative of all our communities is a basic requirement of any healthy democracy. It would serve to limit the power of the majority party in government and thus reduce the risk of tyranny and protect us from ‘strong government’.

      1. Those plans have been shelved

        1. 231231 says:

          Have they? The Labour Party should update its website then; the Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future is still being punted there.

          1. It was revealed at the Break up of Britain conference by Jamie Driscoll. I wrote reporting on the conference on 23 November:

            “There has been a lot of faith placed in Gordon Brown’s proposals for constitutional reform. Embarrassingly in an interview for The Scotsman before the conference Jamie Driscoll the Mayor of Newcastle said that the proposals had included the abolition of the House of Lords, since watered down by the leadership, as had been a binding veto for Holyrood over devolved issues.

            Mr Driscoll, who was consulted as a regional leader while the report was being written, said early drafts had been “genuinely good” and “genuinely progressive”.

            “Then it took ages and ages and ages,” he said. “Then there was various negotiations between Gordon and LOTO [Leader of the Opposition’s office] and when it came out, it was all about Lords reform.

            “All the good stuff was stripped out about fiscal devolution. Since then, Keir’s even rowed back on the Lord’s reform.”

            Asked if he believed it was worth the paper it is written on, Mr Driscoll said: “No.”.

            He added: “It’s notable that all of the language on devolution has softened and disappeared. They will say things like ‘we’re going to give power to local communities’. Well, that’s meaningless.

            The final version of Mr Brown’s report recommends Labour gives every town and city in England “the powers needed to draw together their own economic and social plan”.

            It states this would be done by “mayors, combined authorities and local government in new economic partnerships”, and through dedicated economic growth or prosperity plans for each town and city.

            The report also calls for directly elected mayors to be extended to Scotland.

            This will be a surprise to absolutely no-one, but should finally put to bed the idea of Scottish Labour having influence, or of their being constitutional reform coming down the road to strengthen Holyrood. Starmer’s government is going to be reactionary, centralising and deeply disappointing.”

          2. 240101 says:

            Yes, I emailed the Labour Party at the time to verify Jamie Driscoll’s claim. According to the buddy who answers such enquiries, it’s still Labour Party policy to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a smaller, elected second chamber. The Party is currently consulting on how it could do that.

            Ironically, in order to get the necessary legislation through the UK parliament, Labour will need to appoint dozens of new peers to reduce the Conservative majority. However, anyone appointed as a Labour peer will be expected to adhere to the party’s policy positions, including the abolition of the chamber.

            The Labour Party still hopes to abolish the Lords in its first term of government, but acknowledges that there might need to be ‘interim reforms’ along the way to complete abolition. The Lords has proved stubbornly resistant to reform for decades, since Labour first seriously committed to abolish it as part of its proposed package of constitutional reforms in 1997.

            The UK constutution is remarkably resilient to party interference, which from a democratic point of view isn’t a bad thing; it limits the power of government.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Meg Macleod, should in future the UK, or part of the UK, or part of the British Empire (like Gibraltar) apply to join the EU, the issue of British quasi-constitutional monarchy (Wikipedia has a category called semi-constitutional monarchy) is likely to be raised in objection (as well as any still-extant imperial tax havens etc among a range of political characteristics where the British are outliers beyond European norms). It is also possibly that at some point the UK will fall foul of United Nations requirements and be similarly subject to sanctions (I suspect this might happen if the UK government loses another case in international court and found in contempt).

      The question of theocracies is likely to loom large in the near future, and the British Empire remains a theocracy with an established Church of England and the authority of the monarch is supposed to derive from a Christian God, all of which should at least be embarrassing in international diplomacy but could also mean rejection from the various clubs of nations who have largely moved to secular norms.

      That the British Empire is ruled by an organised crime family whose ancestors have captured the state (which is why they don’t need to tolerate other mafias) is being held up for scrutiny in current reparations representations for colonial, war and enslavement crimes. The British appear as stock villains in much of the world’s popular culture (consumed by vast populations in China and India, for example), and the irrational system of hereditary monarchy pronounces to the world that the supreme British value is: Nepotism.

      Consider this definition:
      “State capture entails a systematic and well organised effort of a group of people to misdirect public resources from their intended purpose into the hands of a private elite for corruption and political patronage purposes.”
      Does that sound familiar?

  8. SteveH says:

    I agree with your assessment. There are so many people “ennobled” who quite frankly don’t deserve it. Also, the house of Lords need complete reform also.

    Its the whole process thats at fault. There are plenty of people, left or right, leave or remain that don’t deserve awards. Add to that incompetent civil servants too.

  9. WT says:

    Excellent article Mike, thank you.

  10. John says:

    The UK Parliamentary system is based on a system when the representatives were taken from a very narrow wealthy and landed section of society and they were voted in or enabled by the same narrow section of society.
    The franchise has widened but the parliamentary system has been only tweaked on the rare occasions a more progressive government has managed to overcome the resistance of those in establishment.
    The outcome is a parliamentary system which hide bound by convention and has become constipated/ sclerotic and is not fit to govern a country in 21st century. The House of Lords is the most visible and obvious manifestation of this phenomenon.
    It is difficult so see how effective change can be implemented when so many of political establishment have a stake in it surviving in current form?

  11. Wul says:

    I have friends who think that one of the UK’s greatest attributes is that it isn’t corrupt. Compared to foreign countries where they have been on holiday.
    Our particular brand of “World-Beating” corruption is so codified, dressed in fur & gold, garnished with Latin and pomp that it appears to some as “tradition”. However it is greedy, rotten, amoral, venal, theiving, slavering corruption just like any other brand.

    A country run by robbers, for robbers.

    1. John Wood says:

      As the truth emerges and corruption is now paraded blatantly before us, a dwindling number of people still believe in the myth.
      Remember this?

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, I’ve read How Corrupt is Britain? which suggests ways in which that myth is maintained.

  12. John Wood says:

    Indeed it is ‘irredeemable’. And Charles destroys any shred of credibility he might ever have had as ‘head of state’ by graciously approving it all. It’s not just the House of Lards that needs to go.

    1. BSA says:

      Logically the Crown will have to be the first to go. The whole ‘constitutional’ system from the HoL to ‘First past the Post’ rests on the sovereignty of the Crown in parliament and the absolute power of the Executive. To abolish top down sovereignty and absolute executive power you have to get rid of the top first but you just can’t see the English electorate ever seeing the nature of the problem or acting on that.

  13. Niemand says:

    It is a shame because the majority of honours go to quite deserving, ‘ordinary’ people who you never get to hear about (have a look at the full list).

    But of course all the headlines go to these egregious examples and this year is one of the worst I can remember. Sir Tim effing Martin. Jesus wept, and as for the Truss fiasco, it is a list of total disgrace.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Niemand, the only reason for giving some awards out on ‘merit’ is to increase the perceived value of awards to the meritless. The whole system is corrupt and acceptance is buying in to it: in any reasonable sense, a dishonourable act. It’s like how scholarships to private institutions are aimed at propping up a system of social cheating and coopting people who might otherwise produce good arguments for change.

      1. Niemand says:

        I disagree. It has changed a lot since the old days so I am very happy to see decent people getting recognised, which if you look is actually the vast majority.

        Most societies have ways of honouring people for good stuff and virtually any system you have will be open to some corruption. I don’t buy into the total cynicism about the British state expressed on this site as it is obviously distorted but the blinkers are so permanently fixed it will never change. I do not support independence because I hate the British state or even the union, which is admittedly a bit unusual but there it is, I never have.

        1. John says:

          Niemand – rather difficult to know whether you support independence or not from how you wrote the sentence.
          If you do I would say you are not unusual at all as most people support independence do so because they think an independent Scotland would be better for people of Scotland as it would be better able to implement the wishes of majority of Scottish citizens which seem to be a fairer, more prosperous and peaceful nation. The feelings on British state amongst independence supporters (50% of electorate) will range from support through indifference to hostility and none of these feelings are at odds with supporting an independent Scotland.
          Bella is a site with predominantly left wing writers and will therefore attract a lot of people who are hostile to the rather conservative institutions of UK.

          1. Niemand says:

            ‘most people support independence do so because they think an independent Scotland would be better for people of Scotland as it would be better able to implement the wishes of majority of Scottish citizens’.

            Yes that is me, but also I think it will be better for England and its citizens and possibly Wales too and that matters as continuing good relations, co-operation etc will be crucial. We never really get to talk about what the nature of such relations would be but the fact remains, many realtions will simply not change much, if at all. To me independence is about 98% political autonomy rather than a back-turning.

        2. SleepingDog says:

          @Niemand, I fundamentally disagree that people can be divided into the honoured and not-honoured, let alone a formal hierarchy of honour adjudicated by some of history’s worst criminals. But also remember that while honour-awarding is very public (no humility allowed), revoking of honours is a very different, almost secretive affair. Why do you suppose that is?
          The honour is attached to the person, as is clear by revokation, and acts as an imperial reputation shield. And what kind of person needs that?

          If Benjamin Zephaniah was right to refuse an award, who is right to accept one? The point he makes about the unsuitability of the award suggests a basic lack of competence, diligence and comprehension (indeed wokeness) on the part of the givers. Unless of course their motives were less than benign, and that was one of their attempts at muzzling or muting or buying off critics.

  14. Derek says:

    Well, you and I both know where the Maiden lives…

  15. Derek Williams says:

    The current corrupt honours system is clearly in need of review, but turning the House of Lords over to the people to be directly elected is a bridge too far.

    Being popular should not be the only criterion for admission to the highest office in the land. The nation’s best economists, teachers, scientists, engineers, architects, musicians and artists aren’t guaranteed to have the charisma to win a seat in a popularly elected upper chamber, far less the will do so, yet surely leaders in these fields should be among those charged with reviewing Commons legislation?

    So, I say:
    1. NO to popularly elected upper house. This often hands supermajority to one political party if they win both houses and if a different party, also allows the upper house to block all the lower house bills along political lines – witness Obamacare debacle in the U.S, the sacking of Gough Whitlam in Australia, and the amending of the Constitution in Hungary bypassing the voting public. Likewise in China and Russia, democratically elected presidents were able to effectuate amendments to their respective constitutions to make themselves president-for-life. The upper house should be a wide ranging appointed house of review with bilaterally appointed experts who have responsibility for confirming the constitutionality of legislation and for uncovering weakness of lower house bills.
    2. NO bishops seats – the country has many religions in addition to the Church of England, moreover Church and State should be separate.
    3. NO hereditary peers, however if those still in place are doing a good job, they should be allowed to remain in harness under a ‘sinking lid’ policy.
    4. YES to halving the size of the chamber.
    5. ALL peers should be ‘cross benchers’.
    6. NO political appointments.
    7. NO compulsory retirement.

    1. Niemand says:

      I totally agree. You express my deep concerns about an elected upper house very well indeed. Despite its obvious current flaws, one of the best things about the House of Lords is that it is *not* elected because of the sensible, non-partisan stuff they actually come up with as a result.

    2. John says:

      You recommend no political appointments but no elected peers?
      I assume you want these people to be genuine representatives of all the public not a certain strata.
      How do you appoint these representatives and ensure the appointment is not political?
      How do you hold these people accountable without being elected?
      How do you get rid of crooked representatives eg Jeffrey Acher, Michelle Mone etc
      In short without some form of election from public and need to be re-elected how do you prevent the second chamber becoming the countries largest quango?
      Can you quote me any examples elsewhere of a similar type of second chamber of non elected ‘representatives’ that you recommend?

      1. Derek Williams says:

        The Parliament Act in 1911 gave supremacy to the Commons, there were no women sitting in the House until 1958, and hereditary membership of the Lords was abolished in 1999, so the House of Lords has already undergone bloodless reforms to its structure throughout its history. Compared to other bicameral jurisprudence, the UK enjoys remarkable stability and is flexible enough to be reformed without revolution, and importantly the PM cannot become ‘Prime Minister for Life’ as has happened in Russia, Hungary and China, and if Trump succeeds this year, the USA as well. In Russia the situation has become so dire that the entire country is ruled by a mafia of oligarchs and crime bosses.

        There is no exact equivalent for what I propose, but neither is there any close equivalent for the current House of Lords, however there does exist the ancient concept of ‘Elders’. The sort of ideally qualified people needed to give oversight to Commons legislation in a House of Review, i.e. the Lords, would be highly unlikely to stand for election and even less likely to succeed. I do not see having TWO Houses of Commons working for the UK, and I already adduced examples in Hungary, China, Russia that now have presidents-for-life, and especially the USA and Australia where the upper house can block everything the lower house passes, at times based on nothing more than juvenile political brinkmanship.

        As at present, appointments should be from the Commons and be bipartisan, thereby giving The People vicarious control over the population of the Lords.

        1. John says:

          Derek – you are basically arguing for a toothless second chamber appointed from the great and the good (aka the establishment). I have seen plenty examples in my work in NHS and other organisations of so called non political appointees – the BBC is a current example.
          I would recommend a second chamber of people from various backgrounds and organisations (not political parties) who are elected by these organisations to
          sit in second chamber for a defined period of time.
          The second chamber could review and recommend changes to legislation and in some circumstances reject it.
          I do take odds with your assertion that the sort of people who we need in second chamber wouldn’t want to put themselves up for election. Why would someone not want be open to democratic scrutiny or accountability?
          You seem to put all your faith in UK democracy by fact that some other countries are worse – an argument I often used as a child with my parents to justify bad behaviour. There are plenty of countries who have more accountability and competence in their democracy than UK.
          Your suggestions are the usual establishment tinkering with a system that is based in past to ensure nothing too radical can be implemented that may be of benefit and relevance to majority in country. I would also state that House of Commons is out of date and although not all changes implemented (eg committee stage review process) have been bad it is now also widely discredited with much of electorate. It also ran on good chaps basis

        2. John Wood says:

          ‘The House of Lords has already undergone bloodless reforms to its structure throughout its history. Compared to other bicameral jurisprudence, the UK enjoys remarkable stability and is flexible enough to be reformed without revolution’. I disagree with all that. The reforms have not prevented the House of Lords continuing to be what it has always been – a place of arrogant contempt and entitlement where people like Liz Truss or Boris Johnson can simply appoint her corrupt friends to positions of power and influence. ‘The PM cannot become ‘Prime Minister for Life’ …’ Maybe not but the Lords can – our new Foreign Secretary for example. Our head of state is not only king for life but for every succeeding generation too.! Whoever the ‘Prime Minister may be, the King approves all
          Legislation, and we are supposedly his ‘subjects’ . When his cousin, David Cameron, is simply ennobled and retrieved from retirement to become Foreign Secretary, it looks remarkably like nepotism : democracy was not involved at all. It’s true that ‘In Russia the situation has become so dire that the entire country is ruled by a mafia of oligarchs and crime bosses.’ Well, so are we! Do you seriously doubt it?

          We need MPs chosen by single transferable vote, who actually represent an overall majority of their constituents; and who swear to serve the people who elected them, before the king, before party loyalty and certainly before private profit. And who can be removed if they fail to do that.

          I agree that a second, revising chamber is a good idea but let it be chosen on the same basis as jury service. It could be a form of national service to serve say a five year term there, with people chosen at random: that would bring a wealth of real-life experience and ideas to the place and burst the establishment cronyism.

          We also need a genuinely independent judiciary.

          Finally you mention ‘ the USA and Australia where the upper house can block everything the lower house passes, at times based on nothing more than juvenile political brinkmanship.’ However in the UK the lower house can block anything the upper house passes, on exactly that basis.

          At present, appointments are from the Commons in theory, but in practice are made by ludicrous people like Johnson, Truss, Sunak, Starmer &co who are hardly bipartisan. They do not give the People vicarious control over the population of the Lords at all. They simply mock the well-deserved minor honours won through genuine public service.
          The SNP have never created any Lords, and good for them. The whole so-called ‘British Constitution’ as it is makes us a laughing stock around the world.

          The sooner Scotland asserts its ancient claim of right, of popular sovereignty, the better. We are emphatically not ‘Better Together’ with such a parcel of rogues ruling us.

        3. John says:

          Derek – having reread your proposals to reform House of Lords the biggest criticism I can make is I could imagine Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister proposing this sort of reform. Essentially making surface adjustments but ensuring their is no real change and that the same establishment people remain in firm control.

        4. Derek Thomson says:

          “the entire country is ruled by a mafia of oligarchs and crime bosses.” Hmmm….

      2. 240101 says:

        There’s always sortition as an alternative to election; a jury of 500 randomly selected citizens, say, before which proposed legislation could be ‘tried’ by advocates, both for and against the proposal, under the presidency of a judge, on a case by case basis.

        We’ll get elections, though, if we get anything at all. And all the party-politicking that goes along with them.

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