The extraordinary Sir Simon McDonald “clarification” – a guided tour

22nd April 2020

Yesterday a senior civil servant gave evidence to a select committee.

In that evidence was a fascinating exchange, and it is worth watching carefully.

Later that day, the civil servant sent an extraordinary “clarification”.

This is a guided tour of that supposed clarification letter.

One theme of this tour is that the letter is not one would expect from a senior civil servant seeking to clarify something otherwise unclear, and that the letter instead makes the situation far less clear.

The letter also appears to have had more than one author, and it appears that it is a document negotiated between the civil servant and others.

*

“EU VENTILATOR PROCUREMENT SCHEME”

The letter has a title, and it is worth noting for what follows that it is about the ventilator scheme. 

“I wanted to clarify a point…”

You may think that the point that was made to the committee was clear, and that its clarity is what caused the political fuss.

(Here it is also worth considering whether the letter was entirely voluntary, or whether the civil servant had insisted on a ministerial direction to write the letter.)

“…the EU’s Ventilator procurement scheme – the Joint Procurement Agreement”

This is where the letter starts becoming (ahem) unclear.

From the title it would seem we are looking at just one of the recent procurement rounds under the joint procurement agreement.

But the addition of the text after the hyphen makes it less clear what is about to be denied in the next paragraph.

“Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly…”

Anyone who knows about how careful senior civil servants are in drafting formal documents would at this stage affect an Alan Hansen-like face discussing some footballing defensive disaster.

Some would even say that the “due to” is a tell that someone other than the civil servant was involved in drafting this letter (more on this later).

The “misunderstanding” is not stated.

The word “inadvertently” adds nothing to the “misunderstanding” and is surplus.

The word “wrongly” is vague, because it is not clear which of the following propositions is wrong.

And we are not even half way through this sentence.

“…that Ministers were briefed by UKMIS on the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement scheme and took a political decision not to participate in it”

Something inside this text is “wrong” but it is not clear whether it wrong in part or in full.

The insertion of “by UKMIS” is eye-catching, as it means ministers could have been briefed by others.

And the text does not say Ministers were not aware – and that would have been easier to write.

The reference to “the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement scheme” is also not clear – the United Kingdom has been a signatory to the agreement since 2014 and is still a signatory following Brexit (now along with fellow non-members Iceland, Norway and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and so the United Kingdom was (and is) already participating in it.

And what does “political decision” mean?

Why not just “decision”?

The longer this letter goes on, the less clear it becomes.

And then the next two sentences are a cracker.

“This is incorrect.”

What is incorrect?

He has already stated something is “wrong” – but surely this is not some sly double-negative?

The preceding sentence is so jumbled and tortured it is not clear what is being negated by “This is incorrect”.

“Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels…”

But could have been briefed by others.

“…about the scheme…”

Which scheme?

The ventilator procurement scheme by itself, or the joint procurement agreement scheme more generally?

“…and a political decision…”

As opposed to another sort of decision?

“…was not taken on whether or not to participate”

Why is this so specific?

Was some other decision taken?

And now we come to the third paragraph of the “clarification”, where things get even more unclear.

“The facts of the situation are as previously set out.”

Where and by whom?

“Owing to…”

So the supposed author does know better than to use “due to” earlier in the letter – hmmmmm.

“…an initial communications problem…”

This is vague in two ways – why “initial” and why no express mention of the supposed email?

A communication between whom?

Between the European Union and the United Kingdom?

Or within the United Kingdom?

“…the United Kingdom did not receive an invitation in time…”

But as part of the decision-making meetings before the procurement, the United Kingdom would have been aware of the procurements.

It would not have had to have waited until the invitation to know about them.

This would be like Mr Bean being surprised when sending himself a Christmas card.

“…to join in four joint COVID EU procurement schemes.”

Notice the subtle switch to the plural – “schemes”.

This letter starts off about the ventilator scheme, then it calls the joint procurement agreement a scheme, and now it is talking about four schemes.

Which scheme does the “political decision” in the proceeding paragraph now refer to?

“As those four initial schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part.”

What does “we were unable to take part” mean here?

Is it limited to the past tense?

Can we take part now?

And how does this accord with other statements about the United Kingdom now taking part?

“The Health Secretary has set out the Government’s position on this going forward.”

The ugly “going forward” indicates that someone else was involved in the drafting of this statement – no senior civil servant would happily use such a phrase in formal correspondence.

But more generally, what does this statement mean – what is the “this” in that sentence?

“…this clarification…”

This letter is the opposite of a clarification.

*

Senior civil servants are, like lawyers, wordsmiths.

A formal document, such as a letter to a select committee, should be a considered, structured and coherent composition.

But this letter is all over the place (Alan Hansen wince).

The letter is tortured and awkward, and this indicates that the letter was a negotiated document – and negotiated to the point of strangulation.

The particular sentences may be all correct, but there seems to be gaps between sentences, and other things seem cloaked (especially “scheme”/”schemes”).

The overall letter smacks of evasion and misdirection.

The civil servant’s statement was clear, and this clarification is not.

Something is up here.

**

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**

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50 thoughts on “The extraordinary Sir Simon McDonald “clarification” – a guided tour”

  1. Excellent close reading.

    Further suspiciously bad language in the first paragraph: “I wanted to clarify” – why not “I want to clarify”?

    And for typographers:
    you write that the letter uses a hyphen in its first para. In fact this must be a dash, though McDonald’s typist has actually hit just the hyphen key. Your superior typing skills, or your blog’s superior software, have produced a dash here. Anyway, the mark’s function is to show an appended or added sentence element, and that is the work of a dash and not a hyphen.

    1. Em-dash is not obviously available on my 55-char keyboard and is buried in menus in the word processors currently available to me. I could not enter it directly here, even with a unicode hack. Thanks for starting the hare, though. Another hour pleasantly passed. Now it’s time for breakfast ⸻ or is it lunch?

  2. This is a brilliant dissection, thank you.

    It was the incorrect “due to” instead of “owing to” early in the letter that gave it away for me as well. Senior civil servants, lawyers, and pedantic grammarians (my hand is up) are the only people likely to notice such a slip these days, but for those of us who care about such things it was an early-warning alarm signal that McDonald was not the author (or at least not the sole author).

    1. Above a certain seniority no one writes their own letters. Ministers do not write their own letters. Nor do Perm Secs. That is completely normal and not evidence of anything untoward.

      It will have been written by a number of people – press office, his private office, etc. – checked by lawyers and then provided to the Perm Sec for comment and sign off.

      1. No Permanent Secretary worth their salt would fail to personally proof read a letter of this nature, Dave. In fact, the more senior they are, the greater attention they tend to pay to the minutiae of such matters.

        Along with David, Mark and others, I was also immediately struck by a number of discordant notes in the letter, and am truly grateful to David for going to the trouble to work his way through them, and for providing us with such a detailed exegesis.

        It would not be reasonable to assume that these could or would have escaped Sir Simon’s attention, and I am tempted to conclude that he was trying to send out a coded message to the effect that he was signing this dreadful letter under duress (quite possibly with Mr Cummings standing over him).

    1. This. In effect they needed to take a political decision to join and they quite deliberately and politically decided not to take that decision. Seems entirely consistent with the decision part of the text. Just need to confirm now which totally minor detail was “wrong”.

  3. Subtle analysis unravels a web of deceit. “Clarification” in this government’s discourse is standard euphemism for “correction”.

    I think that at least one minister has declared that we don’t need help in procurement.

    It is often claimed that the UK is the first, the best or the most ambitious in this or that aspect of the tackling of the crisis. This is resonant with Brexit-speak.

  4. Please forgive my ignorance. Would you be so kind as to educate me to the difference between and correct usage of “due to” and “owing to”?

  5. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is also reported as saying that “the decision came to his desk and he recommended the UK did take part in the scheme as an associate member – that is the “long and the short of it” “.

    BBC News Live 21 April 2020 17:50
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/business-52363531/page/3

    It is possible that the reporting is inaccurate or that he is referring to later schemes where he decided to take part.

    But if the reporting is accurate then the use of “recommend” is significant. It raises the question: who was the decision-maker to whom Mr Hancock recommended taking part? why did they decide not to take part?

  6. Great analysis. It’s like a hostage leaving clues that he is writing under duress. But the standard of letters emanating from Govt has been dropping year by year, and you may in places be giving this hastily written example a more thorough textual going over than it merits. Once ‘going forward’ started appearing in letters of this kind, and this is by no means the first time, it was clear that all hope was last.

  7. The thing that must always be kept in mind is that these sorts of things are written by committee.

    I have copied into many, many email chains in which private office, other departments, lawyers, press office, No 10, etc etc. make amendments on top of amendments, resulting in a mess covered in track changes. There will be a blizzard of usually contradictory suggestions. Debates go round in circles. Amendments (sometimes out of sheer weariness) even when they don’t make total sense. Compromises are made. Inconsistencies become inevitable. By the end you are just happy it’s vaguely English and not outright false.

    Which is to say that close reading of a letter – why a plural here, why not there, and so on – becomes near hopeless.

    1. I disagree – a “clarification” (ie, correction) to what a senior civil servant said in witness evidence would not “do the rounds” in such a way, and certainly not in the time available in this case.

  8. Excellent analysis. However, I don’t think the use of ‘inadvertently’ is partivularly suspicious (unlike almost everything else). I think it probably stems from the civil service code, where it is made clear that misleading parliament is always a serious matter. However, if memory serves, a distinction is made between misleading and inadvertently misleading. Any civil servant would want to clarify that if the committee was misled it was inadvertent.

  9. Thanks, David for this forensic analysis; some of the subtilities would have passed me by.

    In similar situations I usually prefer “cock-up” to “conspiracy”; but not here. This looks like “spin”, similar to the government’s response to the recent Sunday Times article. If so, the “conspiracy” may well be related to Brexit, the idea the UK (England) doesn’t need the EU and can go it alone. Indeed, the EU today seems to support Sir Simon’s original remarks.

    We have a cabinet of “true believers in Brexit”, headed by a classics graduate; that’s not much use when it comes to understanding epidemiology, statistics, and scientific concepts.

    Are there any cabinet members with a science background?

    1. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this was drafted in haste by a group or that McDonald declined to give it a final polish before signing it.

      The real point is that it was written at all. The clip (in which his body language speaks volumes) shows McDonald answering a question with two alternative answers: was the decision based on his/FCO advice or was it political? He chose political.

      O.t.o.h. if he can’t reveal what his advice was, he had no choice but to answer ‘it was a ministerial decision’. A rock and a hard place. One day, hopefully soon, the minister in question will have to defend the merits of his decision.

      1. Alas, my hearing is so poor that I can’t make out what they are saying; and there are no sub-titles.

        Even if the question implies one of two answers, an experienced operator should know that neither need be chosen. Rather, the respondent should be aware that they can answer in their own words. (This sort of question, implying an answer, is a favourite with cross-examining lawyers, and a trap for the unwary.)

        1. No, I don’t dispute that, nor that he possibly recognised the trap and consciously decided to walk into it. The strange thing about his demeanour is that every answer seemed to be accompanied by what was almost a conspiratorial wink to the committee.

          Is it possible that Rutmania is starting to infect the senior mandarins?

        2. Here is the best transcript I could make of it. As I found out when I started transcribing, you’re right about the audio quality being poor: there’s a few bits towards the end I couldn make out. I also transcribed the ums and ahs for completeness’s sake; but those always look worse in print than they sound when spoken, so I hereby apologise to the people in the video.

          I don’t know the names of the Foreign Affairs Committee members, so I’ve described their clothes instead.

          0:00

          Foreign Office Permanent Undersecretary Sir Simon McDonald: “the whole um country and economy.”

          0:02

          Man in white shirt (hereafter ‘Whiteshirt’): “And final question from me: why, oh why, oh why, were we not involved in EU procurement?”

          0:11

          McDonald: “Um, ah, we left the European Union on the 31st of January.”

          0:16

          Whiteshirt: “No, we had every right to p- to take part, we were invited to take part, apparently we missed the e-mails or forgot the e-mails or didn’t ask for e-mails. We, five of the meetings we didn’t attend but lots of the other meetings we did attend. It’s not about leaving the European Union.”

          0:34

          McDonald: “Um. All I can say is as a matter of *fact*, we have not taken part.”

          0:39

          Third man, in black jacket and rounder glasses: “Maybe I could ask, um, Sir Simon. Was it — what was your [posity/policy] advice on it? Or was it a political decision?”

          0:47

          McDonald: “It was a political decision. Um, the ah mission, our commi[inaudible]s rather than our correct[?] Brussels briefed uh um ministers about what was available, what was on offer, uh and”

          [End of recording]

  10. It is indeed a rum affair where an attempt at ‘clarity’ has made those waters more murky. Thoroughly expert blog where you in effect produced a post mortem on Sir Macdonald’s letter which has given you, deservedly so, an honourary Columbo moment. The plot thickens and the supposedly back track letter has probably drawn more attention to the Governments response(s) towards the EU’s procurement scheme than the E-mail offering served up.

    I shall end by thinking out loud….(which is never a good thing on my part) …are all decisions made by a government not political by the very nature of their existence!

    1. AGREED.
      What is a ‘political decision’? Surely it is one made by a politician. If a politician did not make the dewcision, then who is actually running the country/managing this crisis?

  11. The Coronavirus pandemic and Brexit have the NHS in common. Much has already been said about misleading statements made by Vote Leave about the NHS during the referendum, including the following by Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England:

    “Here’s what [Dominic Cummings] said in January this year:

    “Pundits and MPs kept saying ‘Why isn’t Vote Leave arguing about the economy and living standards?’ They did not realise that for millions of people, £350m/NHS was about the economy and living standards – that’s why it was so effective. It was clearly the most effective argument not only with the crucial swing fifth but with almost every demographic. Would we have won without the £350m/NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests No. Some people now claim this was cynical and we never intended to spend more on the NHS. Wrong.”

    Rather than criticising these commitments to the NHS – promises entered into by cabinet ministers and by MPs – the public will doubtless want to see them honoured.”

    (Speech to NHS Providers, Birmingham, 8 November 2017)

    The many questions raised by the language and timing of this clarification highlighted in the above blogpost undermine Cummings’ key justification for Brexit in 2017 and suggest that political ideology rather than administrative incompetence may now be the real factor in 2020.

    Different countries have responded in different ways to the coronavirus pandemic. The UK’s initial consideration of herd immunity and subsequent approach to testing and PPE contrast with the approach taken to testing in Germany:

    https://www.buzzfeed.com/albertonardelli/coronavirus-timeline-uk-germany-comparison-johnson-merkel

    This significant discrepancy is especially worrying now that the number of deaths in the UK may actually be much higher than the official reported numbers (Financial Times 22 April 2020).

    In circumstances where hundreds are dying every day can we afford to wait for an inquiry for credible and responsible answers to important questions about the United Kingdom’s response to the coronavirus pandemic?

    In 1848 an attempt was also made to impeach Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister when he was accused by David Urquhart of having signed a secret treaty with Imperial Russia. We still have not seen the UK’s more recent report on Russia’s alleged meddling in UK democracy.

    In the meantime the link below to the latest in a series of articles published in the New Law Journal that explains why the Vote Leave slogan “We send the NHS £350m a week, let’s fund the NHS instead” represents “open and advised speaking” a criminal offence under Section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848:

    https://www.newlawjournal.co.uk/content/all-out-war-(pt-v)-the-irrepressible-rise-of-the-father-of-lies

  12. Hancock, it seems, had to go to Dominic Raab to query the issue of participation. That does suggest that Hancock was unaware of that option until his own department brought it to his attention – an invitation presumably from the EU directly to the DoH? – and he decided to join. As Hancock is in the quad and attends Cabinet, that also implies that Ministers, plural, were not briefed by the FCO Brussels mission – which would make MacDonald technically incorrect – but that in having to seek out Raab, a Minister, singular, was.

    This is what Hancock says, via the Guardian:

    ‘Speaking at Downing Street’s daily press briefing on Tuesday evening, Hancock said: “I have spoken to the foreign secretary. As far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate.

    “We did receive an invitation in the Department of Health and it was put up to me to be asked and we joined so we are now members of that scheme.”

    The EU launched four rounds of procurement of personal protective equipment, ventilators and laboratory supplies in late February and March’

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/eu-turns-up-pressure-on-matt-hancock-over-covid-19-ppe-scheme

    Previous reporting states that the UK only participated in one joint procurement meeting on the 19th March. There was a meeting two days earlier on 17th, which implies that Hancock’s decision to participate was made between those two dates, and that the ‘invitation’ to the DoH arrived then. The question becomes whether Raab was the only Minister aware of the EU schemes until mid-March? When the Government talks about the ‘wrong’ email address, are they suggesting that the Dept of Health’s email address is the correct one, thereby writing off all correspondence – to any other Government dept, like the FCO – before the 17-19th March?

    As you say the ‘whether or not to participate’ is interesting phrasing. Hypothetically, that question could not have been up for consideration within a ‘we have left the EU’ constraint. Is it arguable that no decision – political or otherwise – about whether or not to participate would have been taken until Hancock got mail? The only political decision would be Hancock’s to join the one scheme, singular, attending the 19/3 meeting. MacDonald name-checks the Health Secretary wrt the Government position ‘moving forward’, implying it’s no longer a FCO concern (but was previously), just as Hancock refers to Raab (FCO) retrospectively in his statement.

    TL;DR If I had to guess, I’d go for FCO team briefing FCO Sec State – singular Minister – on EU scheme from end of January.

    FCO Sec State responds with ‘we have left the EU’ – leaving the ‘whether or not’ question unanswered. You’d think that this briefing would be brought to Cabinet by the FCO Minister, yet Hancock seems to suggest that he is unaware until mid March, as he has to go ask Raab about previous contact.

    Between 31/1 and 18/3 FCO has all EU correspondence etc – ‘the wrong email address’ – and do not attend procurement meetings because ‘we’ve left the EU’. An ‘invitation’ then goes to the ‘right address’ at Health, but it’s too late to join previous schemes within the Big Overall Scheme which the UK through Hancock joins.

    MacDonald being technically incorrect on his team briefing plural Ministers and stating that a decision was made upon a question that was never considered by his Sec of State, for whom it was ideologically invalid and therefore did not make one.

    ‘The UK government has previously said it was unable to join the EU’s procurement schemes as it had not received an email of invitation.

    As a result, the government missed out on mass procurement of medical ventilators, and has called on UK manufacturers to build tens of thousands more. But it has also not been involved in two rounds of bulk purchasing of PPE, which were launched by the EU on 28 February and 17 March.

    The EU’s procurement of 28 February initially failed due to a lack of interest from suppliers but was relaunched on 15 March, providing additional time for the UK to get involved if it had chosen to do so.

    It is understood that officials in Whitehall only realised after those three rounds had been put out to tender that they had not received invitations to join the Joint Procurement Agreement steering committee where the orders are organised.

    The UK only took part in its first meeting on joint procurement on 19 March after informing the commission that emails of invitation were being sent to an outdated address, the Guardian has learned.

    Despite that belated show of interest, British officials did not attend a separate meeting of health officials on 25 March where participants were invited to spell out their requirements for future purchases to the commission by the next day’ – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/uk-missed-three-chances-to-join-eu-scheme-to-bulk-buy-ppe

  13. I think the due to/owing to is a crucial mistake. Used correctly and incorrectly. As though someone inserted the incorrect usage and this was not pointed out to them.

  14. A brilliant exercise in close reading, and a great example of why it’s still a skill worth working hard to acquire. I’ll be pointing English Lit students here for some time to come.

    One other peculiarity of the letter not yet mentioned is its use of punctuation in the second paragraph. The first two commas bracketing “due to a misunderstanding” are English commas. The third is not. It is a German comma, and one a recent ambassador to Germany might well use out of habit of preceding the word “daß” with a comma, thus: “Unfortunately I inadvertently and wrongly told the Committee, that […]”.

    Minor, perhaps, but further reason to suspect that “due to a misunderstanding” is an interpolation.

  15. “…a political decision was not taken…”.

    As I used to drill into trainees; the passive voice is poor style not least because you don’t have to ask *who* did or didn’t do the thing.

  16. >“Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels…”

    >But could have been briefed by others.

    Or briefed by our mission but in London (or anywhere other than Brussels).

  17. Great post. I just had an observation about the use of the word “inadvertently”. I thought the use of this word wasn’t suspicious. I thought it generally chimed with the common phrase “inadvertently misled the House (or Committee in this context)”. That phrase is generally used when MPs make an erroneous comment.

  18. I’m a civil servant, not a “senior”, not of the Foreign Office, and not involved in this issue. Some good and plausible analysis in here. Also some over-reach in places if I’m being honest. There’s no reason to suggest “This is incorrect” might be a double negative – such a plot would carry a high risk exposure, and last thing a Perm Sec wants is to lose the confidence of their select committee! Coming from a civil servant in a parliamentary committee context “political decision” would mean any decision made by a minister, as opposed to an official (who make small ‘p’ policy decisions every day as part of implementing governmental Policy).

    The confusion over references to the scheme (“Which scheme?”) seems unwarranted – the letter is referring in plain English to the scheme as it was referenced in the committee hearing, as well as to its formal name (Joint Procurement Agreement). They sound very much like the same thing to me.

    IMO there are probably innocent explanations for quite a few of these more minor syntactic points. But the bigger questions you raise about what exactly is being denied and what has been omitted are more interesting.

    1. As it happens,”if I’m being honest” is my favourite linguistic “tell” – as it usually means the person is conscious of not being honest

      1. Then you accept that it’s not always the case, and please accept my comment as in good faith :)

  19. and a political decision…”

    As opposed to another sort of decision?

    “…was not taken on whether or not to participate”

    Why is this so specific?

    My feeling is this could belie a truth of sorts. If no decision was taken to participate, and no decision was taken to not participate. The recommendation from officials to Ministers could have been ignored whilst the deadline was allowed to sail past, resulting in the outcome of non participation without a decision having to be given to bring it about.

  20. @Dan O’Hara, referring to punctuation, drew my attention to:

    “Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly…”

    As medics, we rapidly learn not to use the word “unfortunately” in correspondence. It is a “value judgment”, not a bald statement of fact. Use of “unfortunately” can be taken as an implicit recognition of a failure somewhere in medical management, that is a suggestion of negligence.

    But, is this taking textual deconstruction too far here?

  21. I note, in the above analysis above, the following sentence:

    “This would be like Mr Bean being surprised when sending himself a Christmas card.”

    Now surely he would not have been surprised in sending the card, but in receiving the card. One in the foot there, I think!

  22. It might help if senior civil servants realised that their job is to serve the elected government especially one with a majority of 80, elected only 4 months ago with a huge mandate to leave the EU. If they can’t carry out the government’s instructions they should resign or be sacked. We have all had enough of unaccountable people including the BBC not accepting Brexit.

  23. A lot of things jumped off the page when I read that letter —I could have written a complementary essay to the one above— but it was already condemned by the time I got to “I wanted to clarify a point…”.
    Aside from the —frankly weird— past tense (in a formal document supplying factual information what one may have intended to do at some point in the past is of no relevance: this is the colloquialism of somebody who is not accustomed to drafting high-level *advice*), this letter does not *clarify*: it retracts one statement and replaces it with conflicting information.
    While “clarifications” which actually reverse or dramatically alter a previous position have become the ubiquitous face-saving currency of out *political* sphere over the last four decades or so, senior civil servants (ime) invariably tend to be rather precise and careful about such things (and generally reproach such sloppy drafting) — it’s a hallmark of what they do, and they mostly have so many decades of practice it comes as second nature. The only exceptions to this trait that I’ve noticed are when they are either being required to obfuscate a political reality deliberately(*), or else are seeking a form of words to reconcile incompatible parties to a truce.

    And then there’s the supernumerary comma in the second paragraph, which says that the person signing this accepts so little ownership of the content that he isn’t even going to correct primary-school errors. It looks very much as if one of a drafting committee crammed in their own particular vital contribution without fixing the sentence, and it slipped though a slapdash ‘Accept change’ into the final copy.

    (*) I’m not suggesting Sir S is doing that here: I doubt he even wrote it.

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