Stupid Historians

A letter has appeared in today’s Times opposing the Alternative Vote. This missive has been penned, or endorsed, by several prominent historians.

As you may know, I am a very mild supporter of AV. Still, this letter has given me the RAGE(tm).

Here’s the essential paragraphs (full text here for those beyond the pay-wall):

“The referendum on May 5 that threatens to introduce a system of “Alternative Voting” — a voting system that will allow MPs to be elected to Parliament even if they do not win the majority of constituents’ first preference votes — also threatens to break this principle.

For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another. For the first time in centuries, we face the unfair idea that one citizen’s vote might be worth six times that of another. It will be a tragic consequence if those votes belong to supporters of extremist and non-serious parties.”

Let us avert our eyes from the unfortunate confusion between “majority” and “plurality” in the first paragraph. Understanding the difference requires only the most cursory understanding of mathematics, but as a History graduate, I can confirm that this is not regarded as an essential skill for burgeoning historians, except for those boring ones who study trade, or agricultural production or some other tedious byway.

Nor am I irritated by the idea that AV might make one vote worth “six times” that of another. This is mere boilerplate propaganda, and such simplistic piffle is as attractive to historians as the rest of us

No, what enrages me is that these prominent historians don’t seem to know their British political history. Since they are some of our most well known proponents of history, could they not be bothered to even check the facts?

They claim that “For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another”. This is simply not true.

Until the end of the 1945-50 parliament, several seats in the House of Commons were reserved for the English Universities. Any graduate from these universities could vote in the election for these seats, in addition to their vote in the residential constituency. So the vote of University Graduates counted for more than that of non-graduates.

Further, from 1918 the elections for those seats were conducted by Single Transferable Vote. So Britain had both an unequal franchise, and a system of proportional representation in the House of Commons well after the introduction of universal suffrage. Indeed, the system was something of a controversy at the time, as the Liberal candidate in the two-seat constituency of Oxford University, Prof Gilbert Murray was regularly in second place in first preferences, but was repeatedly beaten by Conservative candidates in the 1920’s, because the surplus of the leading Conservative candidate (Hugh Cecil) was redistributed to the second Conservative candidate (Sir Charles Oman).

It is rather sad that such ignorance of the history of British election systems has been so publicly displayed by some of Britain’s leading historians.

74 Responses to “Stupid Historians”

    • hopisen

      According to Political Betting (I don’t have times paywall)

      Professor David Abulafia, Dr John Adamson, Professor Antony Beevor, Professor Jeremy Black, Professor Michael Burleigh, Professor John Charmley, Professor Jonathan Clark, Dr Robert Crowcroft, Professor Richard J. Evans, David Faber, David Starkey, Professor Niall Ferguson, Dr Amanda Foreman, Dr John Guy, Robert Lacey, Dr Sheila Lawlor, Lord Lexden, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Dr Richard Rex, Dr Andrew Roberts, Professor Richard Shannon, Chris Skidmore, MP, D. R. Thorpe, Alison Weir, Philip Ziegler, Professor Lord Norton”

  1. Brian Hughes

    And all these pig-ignorant historians are old enough to have been educated in the “good old days” when history woz tort proper like that Mr Gove keeps going on about.

    Ah, those golden times before meddling new Labour crazies forced our teachers to drill nothing but Marxist propaganda into our poor young people’s little heads…

  2. Tom Freeman

    Poor show. Although I suppose they might try to plead that they meant individual votes rather than voters having different weights. Even so, it’s still wrong. Votes that aren’t redistributed after one inconclusive round still count every bit as much in the next round.

    In the interests of balance: the pro-AV letter to today’s Telegraph from a gaggle of business leaders (business leaders? why?) is little better, e.g. confusing constituents with actual voters.

    I’m waiting for a group of logicians to write.

    • Megalomaniacs4u

      Votes that aren’t redistributed after one inconclusive round still count every bit as much in the next round.

      hence if your vote last 6 rounds – you get their vote has 6x the weight.

      FFS its obvious!

      • Blue Canary

        I’m not sure that’s really the point. If your order of preference in the Labour leadership elections was: Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and I voted for 1. DM, then the end result is that your 4th choice trumps my first. That intrinsically doesn’t feel fair.

  3. Larry

    ‘David Starkey.’

    Good job they used the word ‘prominent’ rather than ‘respected.’

    • hopisen

      Aaargh. Amanda Foreman is clearly poorly briefed – for example, she says AV was rejected in 1931.

      The representation of the people (No 2) bill was passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords (got through 3rd reading in HoL, though amended). I assume the bill was then lost in the 1931 election wash up after the formation of the National government, and then no further change considered by the new government. The bill was certainly not defeated or rejected.

      • Edward Carlsson Browne

        She did know about the Universities, however – even if she did get most of the details wrong – it wasn’t just for Oxbridge and it didn’t stop in the 1920s.

        She did seem to be running on a cocktail of ignorance and vindictive spleen. Most unimpressive.

        The list does seem to contain a fair amount of usual suspects. There are some historians on there I respect highly – I’ve always thought very highly of Abulafia, for example, and there are several more I can’t comment on because I don’t know their fields. But some of the others are very political historians, by which I do not simply mean historians of political affairs.

        It’d be interesting to cross-reference the known political affiliations of the signatories – as it was organised by Skidmore it may not be coincidence that a number of the High Priests of modern Toryism attached their names to the letter.

      • Tim Roll-Pickering

        The bill passed the Lords but was heavily watered down.

        The initial bill proposed AV in all elections and abolishing the university seats (I don’t know how the handful of multi-member constituencies would have been handled although this a multi-member version of AV that was used for the Australian Senate at the time). The Commons committee stage struck out the abolition of the university seats, though a clause was added to abolish plural voting.

        The Lords then restored plural voting and limited AV to London and the larger boroughs. Although it passed the Lords in this form I think it hadn’t gone back to the Commons to see if the amendments were acceptable. I recall the government were intending to try to overturn the Lords watering down but instead they collapsed during the recess and the bill never completed its run.

  4. John Smith

    I have to say, your criticism is pretty weak.

    It amounts largely to nit picking. You claim the historians are incorrect to say that not since 1928 has one person’s vote counted more then another. That however is hardly an argument against the overall theme of their letter, which is to suggest that the votes of supporters of less successful parties will count more then the votes of supporters of more successful parties.

    One historical instance where unfair voting rights were granted to a few hardly supports the thrust of your argument. Your article achieves only to point out one possible factual error – on a minor point – rather then tackling the substance of their argument.

    Their argument remains unanswered by you; why should the voters of supporters or smaller parties be more important then those of larger parties? Surely, like all voters, all votes should be equal?

    • hopisen

      Well, since the argument is based on a series of false assertions, it’s hard to engage with it without pointing out that the assertions are false, and where not false, misleading.

      There is a strong, worthy argument against AV, but sadly, this isn’t it.

    • Tom Freeman

      “why should the voters of supporters or smaller parties be more important then those of larger parties? ”

      They aren’t. Votes with 1st prefs for minor parties might get reallocated more times than votes with 1st prefs for bigger ones, but the latter still count once in every round.

  5. Alun of the Black Beard

    “It’d be interesting to cross-reference the known political affiliations of the signatories – as it was organised by Skidmore it may not be coincidence that a number of the High Priests of modern Toryism attached their names to the letter.”

    Almost all of them are Tories or at least conservatives with a small ‘c’. I do hope that the didn’t claim to represent the entire discipline.

  6. Éoin Clarke

    I am an historian. I am also very mildly pro AV. These guys are the ho’s who of right wing historiography… If you catch your children reading the work of Niall Ferguson, David Starkey, Simon Montefiore… do me a favour? Scold them, and bin the book.

    • Huw Clayton

      Since when was Richard Evans right wing? Although I admit with some of the others you have sort of a point, although suggesting they bin the books is a bit harsh. Frankly, if you see children reading books on that level whoever they are by, except maybe for Ferguson – book a scholarship exam quick, they must be pretty advanced for their age!

      I’m still making up my mind on AV (also speaking as an historian). The one thing I would say is that I am definitely opposed to the STV or PR on a regional list basis (a lá Germany) both of which are complete dogs dinners – the former for much the reasons Hopi gives, the latter because that shifts power irreversibly from the people to the party.

      And anyone who doubts the stupidity of the Jenkins proposals that would probably be their practical form in this country, look at Wales – in 2007 Labour had 32% of the vote and 43% of the seats (they kept picking up seats lost on the constituencies at a regional level instead). Such a formula – well, let’s just say history has not been kind to stagnant one-party states formed by a flawed electoral system.

      AV has its merits and flaws – but does it have more of the former and fewer of the latter than the current system? That’s the real question in this debate, and I don’t see that this letter gets us further forward on that point. It tends to reiterate what has been said before rather than adding new perspectives.

      • Éoin Clarke


        I had Starkey, Ferguson and Montefiore in mind… essentially for this guys history is anglo-centric white and male. Their prism is old-fashioned imperialism

    • Alan Pritt

      Sure, you could enforce censorship of everything you disagree with. Or, alternatively, you could engage them in debate and introduce opposing points of view and perhaps learn something together.

      • Éoin Clarke


        An historian should be objective… They have the ability to be so because they learned these skills at the start of their trade. They consciously avoid omen’s history, black history etc… I want my son to grow up with a holistic view of the world.

    • john zims

      ‘I am an historian’
      So that expalins why history has been dropped in so many state schools.

      • stephen


        I tend to shy away from any historian (or journalist/economist for that matter) who claims to be objective. I prefer them to be honest about their bias. As for stopping children reading any right wing historians with whom I disagree that would be just plain silly – and would probably encorage them to read them even more at the expense of other viewpoints.

        You perhaps should remember that Stalin (and other totalitarians) were quite keen on a single objective view of history, which they happened to write. I actually find that listening to opposite viewpoints can be very helpful in developing and strengthening your own views (so you see Newmania does serve a useful function especially for contrarians such as myself)

  7. Dan Filson

    “one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another. ”

    In local government elections there was also the business vote on top of the voter’s own domestic vote.

    And if you had addresses in more than one place, you could vote at each of them provided it was not the same election (i.e. you could not vote twice in a General Election, save for the university seats, or for the same council, but you could vote both in electing an Ealing councillor and also a Hounslow councillor – I know someone whose house was (once, but no longer) partly in one borough and partly in the other and could vote in both boroughs)

      • Tim Roll-Pickering

        You can certainly vote in every local election where you’re on the register providing you only vote once (so for instance a university student studying in Canterbury who comes from Guildford can vote for both Kent and Surrey County Councils, however their fellow student from Dartford can only vote once for Kent CC).

        You can stand for election in an authority covering the area where you work even if you reside in another although I forget the precise detail on this one.

    • john zims

      ‘“one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another. ”

      Isn’t that a principle of the Labour party?

      When they elect their leader certain members of the Labour aristocracy are entitled to multiple votes,in last year’s leadership election, Harriett Harperson and Jack Dromie had 6 votes between them.

  8. Sam Boyd

    “For the first time since 1928 and the granting of universal suffrage, we face the possibility that one person’s casting ballot will be given greater weight than another”

    Aside from the historical inaccuracies you point out, fptp hardly means everyone’s vote is worth the same –

    • Edward

      “Roberts and Ferguson are working with our government to make or curriculum more white more male and more British”

      If, by that, you mean they’re including more British history, then you’re probably right. I don’t see why this is a problem. The curriculum as it stands now is an utter joke.

      “I had Starkey, Ferguson and Montefiore in mind… essentially for this guys history is anglo-centric white and male.”

      So are we saying that history is in fact globalist, black and female? I spent several years studying History at a serious university and never heard people define these terms.

      • Éoin Clarke

        Ferguson and Roberts are apologists for Imperialism and Empire. I tutor history at a Russell group uni, and we offer a wide range of choices for our students.. the key is widening the range of topics not narrowing as Ferguson and Roberts would have us do

      • Edward Carlsson Browne

        Of course history is global. You can’t properly study any European society after about 1050 without being aware of the nature of its relationship to the rest of Europe.

        And whilst history might not be black – Afrocentrism is every bit as silly as any other nationalist/racially-inspired history – it’s not white either. Thinking in these terms is absurd, as it elevates historically rather minor features of identity way beyond the status they really had and posits firm dividing lines where such things have never existed.

        As for women, yes, they do actually have a key role to play in history. There is absolutely no sphere of history, no period, where the role of women did not carry some significance. You can’t do any valid social history without considering them; it’s damn difficult to do effective economic history without considering half the population, even if they hadn’t been the primary earners in a hell of a lot of medieval and early modern societies; the attitude of a society towards women is a key issue within cultural history; and even in political history they will make an appearance. Not usually as independent and autonomous actors – up to the early modern era at least they’re more commonly seen in strategies of exchange or as things to be controlled – but they’ll make an appearance everywhere. Ignoring them is just methodologically godawful.

        So yes, nobody will have said that “history is in fact globalist, black and female.” I would posit that this is because that’s a moronically prescriptive thing to say. But foreign connections matter, different identities matter and ignoring around half the world’s population isn’t tenable. Absolutely any History department should tell you that.

  9. AB

    I second TF’s bafflement at why one day a gang of anti-AV historians and the next a mob of pro-AV business people. I suggest someone start organising a series of satirical follow-ups e.g. Saturday’s letters pages should carry a broadside from a gaggle of patissiers with very strong views on the d’Hondt method and Monday’s could feature a missive from a deputation of marine biologists dead set on regional lists.

    Better than giving yet more publicity to those prize arses Ferguson, Starkey and Roberts, anyhow.

    • hopisen

      I think interest groups should be forced to weigh in on this debate based on their professional skills.

      FootballAgents4AV is clear-cut, as after all, they are acknowledged experts on the value of transfers.

      On the other hand, the British Scrabble society clearly understand the significant role of X’s, so will be stalwart defenders of first past the post.

      Of course, the Prime Minister pre-empted this debate by seeming to launch “Olympic Gold winners Say NO!” at the weekend.

  10. AB

    Excellent, yes. North Sea cod fishermen would be vehement promoters of multi-member STV, as they are skilled at manipulating quotas.

  11. Eoin O'Malley

    So they have no idea about history either?! They sure don’t know electoral systems.

    The argument that AV “will allow MPs to be elected to Parliament even if they do not win the majority of constituents’ first preference votes” and thus threatens to break the principle one person, one vote is wrong on many levels.

    The first-past-the-post system usually allows the election of an MP who did not win the majority of constituents’ votes, so it is hardly a reasonable criticism of AV. In fact if a majority of voters choose a candidate, under AV that candidate will always win. And AV ensures that the candidate who wins is preferred to the runner-up by a majority of voters.

    The argument that the principle of one person, one vote is threatened is baseless. AV provides each person with a single vote, which is transferable. If the initial vote is goes to a candidate without a chance, then rather than be ‘wasted’, it can be transferred to the next preferred candidate. Ultimately it means each voter can, if they wish express a preference between the two most popular candidates, and that vote can be effective.

    The current system works to force many voters to vote tactically, i.e. not vote for their most preferred candidate or party. Under AV voters will be able to vote ‘sincerely’, yet don’t risk the vote going to waste.

    This means that under AV candidates or parties are chosen who receive broad support among voters in the constituency and defends against extremist parties.

  12. Rosalind

    Great debunking, Hopi. Heard Amanda Foreman on the Today programme avoiding the questions, and ranting on about how crap AV allegedly is.

    Gives historians a bad name.

  13. Adam

    I do worry that these silly arguments against AV won’t confuse people into thinking that there is a good argument for AV. But I know it won’t confuse people into thinking that this is an important area for change.

    What will be better if, at the next General Election, we have AV? What will be different? How can we expect election outcomes to change? Will this empower marginalised parties, or hurt them? Create stable majorities or rotating Lib Dem coalitions? Mainstream UKIP? Split major parties into Old and New Labour, Red and Blue Tories? Encourage single parties to field multiple candidates? Encourage parties to campaign for second preferences rather than core voters?

    Would be good to get a debate about the actual effects of AV – besides supposed “fairness” – although the only comparable country that uses it, Australia, has required voting and requires voters to rank every candidate on a ballot, so we can’t really extrapolate much from their experience.

    • hopisen

      “Would be good to get a debate about the actual effects of AV – besides supposed “fairness” – although the only comparable country that uses it, Australia, has required voting and requires voters to rank every candidate on a ballot, so we can’t really extrapolate much from their experience.”

      Yes it would. Though from the No2AV side (not you personally) the appeal to reason is a bit like Mike Tyson bemoaning the failure of his opponents to adhere to the Queenberry rules between mouthfuls of tender, nourishing earlobe.

  14. Tom Freeman

    Wow, I’ve just got hold of a Times and have read the full letter. What pompous, ridiculous tosh. But here’s a question: are people like them being shamelessly dishonest in order to spread confusion and distrust about AV, or do they genuinely not understand the system?

  15. The Collective

    The Collective thinks that agriculture is a very important part of history, not a sideline. Without it we would not have been able to develop an industrial economy, urban society or a growing population. And with a population of 9 billion coming down the tracks agriculture will once again be an important political issue.

    The Collective invites you to our farm to learn about these things, you dullard historian, Hopi.

  16. Éoin Clarke

    Edward C Browne,

    You must know that there are schools of history. And it is justifiable to fill that gap with dedicated study if it has been hitherto ignored. That is point of ‘compensatory history’.

    The guys in question are apologists for Empire.. and thus defend colonial history as paramount.

    I am of the opinion, that colonial history should be taught to our children from a position of balance about the many failings of colonial history… Geneal Gordon for example..

    Regarding women’s history, it is completely lacking in several major historical fields and messers Ferguson and Roberts take no account of this.

    In short, I stand by all my comments.

  17. Newmania

    Ho hum that idiosyncrasy is sufficiently famous, even for me to have known about it. I can`t see that it alters the point in itself
    It always bugs me when I read that the election is decided by a tiny minority. Yeah but the rest of us decide which one , its a fatuous point really and yet again and again it gets dragged up.
    My problem with AV is that it means people don`t have to decide .Deciding on something a dominant constituency can agree on, even if much of it is personally disagreeable, is akin to the process of governing . AV is infantilising it is the illusion of power , it is consultation.

  18. Western Independent

    Presumably not one of these history boys and girls would have been able to bring themselves to vote in elections in Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland or London or Europe when these are not FPTP?

  19. Andrew J Chandler

    Had the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression not happened, we would probably have had an AV system for 8o years by now. John Klynes, Labour Home Secy in 1929-31 supported it. But then, changing the electoral system suddenly seemed an irrelevance, just as now. That’s where we went wrong then, and that’s where we’re in danger of going wrong again. Then, Britain struggled on for nearly a decade, a ‘devil’s decade’ in which a Tory majority, thinly veiled under the guise of a ‘National Government’, meant an acceptance of an appeasement policy which resulted in global war and genocide. Now, we have a shameful pretence of a Coalition government, which no-one voted for, with a fig-leaf of liberalism covering a continuing radical right-wing agenda which could really break Britain once and for all, with the Welsh and Scottish governments going their own way. That would leave many of us in England disenfranchised, because we would be dominated by Tory MPs continuing to represent constituencies where they attract only 30-40% of the vote. In my own constituency, the Tory MP has attracted an absolute majority in the past, but failed to do so in the last election. Why? Because the voters wanted to remind him that he doesn’t have a ‘job for life’, perhaps? Maybe because, under FPTP, he doesn’t need to get even his own supporters out to vote for him.

    We have a chance, in May, to live up to our reputation as the home of democracy, as the place where reform has prevented violent revolution, where we move on through consensus to create institutions which are envied throughout the world, like the NHS. Or, we can vote for electoral dictatorship, the break-up of a brilliant union of countries, and the ascendancy of a political class which in no way represents the interests of the North, West and Midlands of England, but only the narrow interests of a public school educated elite from the South-East of England.

    • Dan Filson

      Slightly off-topic, but “a Tory majority, thinly veiled under the guise of a ‘National Government’, meant an acceptance of an appeasement policy which resulted in global war and genocide” may be true but the Opposition was still resolutely in Disarmament mode until very late, witness the Peace Ballots. In a sense this serves as an example of how possibly – just possibly – AV might aid a democracy.

      Accept for a moment that one consequence of AV may be that you get a wider choice of candidates on the left and likewise on the right. So you might in 1935 have had a choice on the left between a Peace Ballot disarmer and a now-is-the-time-to-rearm-given- the-rise-of-fascism candidate (had there been many such, which there weren’t outside the CP), and on the right between a Baldwinite very modest rearmer and a quasi-Churchillian vigorous rearmer (at that stage decidedly in the minority in the Tories). Both parties might have been surprised at how the public was more alert to the growing menace than the politicians, and so felt emboldened to press on. But I fear that what actually would have happened would have been a victory of the Peace Ballot and Baldwinites factions respectively, and in the runoff final stage of the counts, in most constituencies the results would have been as they actually were in 1935. But with those MPs in each party who favoured greater and more vigorous rearmament shown in no uncertain terms how little support their respective positions were.

      • Newmania

        I think the way you put it is somewhat offensive but approaching the whole matter in terms of effects is a good idea.
        By far the most obvious beneficiary of counting second choices is , of course , the second choice Party . If we want to see how politics would change then we need to isolate what that Party wants that is distinct from the other two.
        We can expect the direction the country takes to be
        Ultra pro European
        Anti American
        Anti Israel
        Pro immigration and explicitly in favour of state sponsored multiculturalism
        Ultra socially progressive on issues like:
        marriage ,
        women`s rights
        More more more constitutional change
        Faddy tax ideas
        Faddyiness in general
        Anti union
        keen on bossing a
        us around on the subject of health environment and the rest of it
        I think its probably fair to say more middle-class

        The problem with all this dippy progressive agenda is that it is already over represented by virtue of slant of the political class. While Hopi Sen and his urbane coterie of sophisticates would probably applaud the whole thing most Labour voters would not and , especially on Europe and the constitution Conservatives would agree .

        Interesting that Filson mentions a period when the people were ahead of the population of appeasement .They have also been ahead on appeasing Islam , protecting the country from cultural attack , loathing the European Empire and , for example , the moral problem of late abortion .

        AV would make all this even worse than it is already

  20. Hal

    Fully agree with the main points.

    However you should consult a dictionary before picking nits: majority commonly means bigger than any other part, *not* 51%. Plurality in this context is an American word which means nothing to the British ear, save its original meaning of “more than one”.

    • Nick Evans

      Funny. If you consult the OED, it does define majority as “the greater” number or part. So the larger one of two; not the largest one of several. In other words >50%.

      So if you consult the OED, the nit picking stands.

  21. Brian Hughes

    My attempt to respond to your it “Would be good to get a debate about the actual effects of AV” remark seems to be stuck awaiting moderation. Is it ‘cos I did put two web site links in it?

    Here’s one that puts the case with quite a bit of “appeal to reason”:

  22. Dan Filson

    With the referendum now less than 2 months away, are there any signs the public is any clearer as to the respective benefits/disbenefits?

    Can we, as in football, change the managers?

  23. MJW

    It’s always a laugh to see someone like Ferguson branded an “apologist for Empire” because it says more about the ideology of the commentator than the subject, such facile claims come straight from the Johann Hari/Seumas Milne wavy handed professional gobshite school of trendy, pseudo-intellectual opinionism rather than serious critique. The argument isn’t about the where the balance of Ferguson’s view falls; the objection is with the very idea of him attempting a balanced view and the perceived threat to the commercial grievance industry and the whitey guilt trip fetish it panders to.

  24. stephen

    Never mind the English University seats, it used to be case in more recent times (and may still be? ) that university undergraduates could be on the electoral register at both home and at college, and although they were only allowed to vote once in a General Election they could chose where they could cast their vote. Such votes were not equal to those who only lived in one location.

  25. stephen

    The only thing that might be less convincing that wheeling out a bunch of historians (all from a pretty similar perspective) against AV will be a bunch of “celebrities”, but I daresay that is to come.

  26. Dan Filson

    So Dukes and students are both thus privileged of being able to choose in which constituency they vote at a General Election. Assuming of course that the Duke is not in the upper house by virtue of heredity and the bizarre process of being there by virtue of being elected by the constituency of other hereditary peers. Except the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, who does not even have to run that gauntlet, and holds his seat in the Lords by virtue of his office!!!

  27. freeadsinuk

    I think in the years before the Second World War, was the same problem. Rewrite history and historians do now politicized


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