Who Are You Calling a Hypocrite?

We don’t like it when someone calls us a hypocrite.

Shami Chakrabarti
Shami Chakrabarti

This week, Shami Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General, has been accused of just such that. The accusation stems from the revelation that she sends her son to a fee-paying school. (Incidentally, it’s the same one that “man of the ordinary people” Nigel Farage attended.) As a member of the Shadow Cabinet, many would expect her principles to dissuade her from buying (at £18,000 per year) apparent advantage for her own child. This was just after she’d been interviewed by Robert Peston stating she disapproved of grammar schools. There’s a prima facie case of double standards.

The Progressive Parent’s Dilemma

I have some sympathy with Shami’s plight. In the 1990s, my wife and I went through agonies deciding where to send our son to secondary school. We felt that he was probably, temperamentally and socially, slightly more suited to a more traditional academic approach offered by one of the fee-paying schools in the area. Fortunately for us, my son’s strong preference for going to a co-educational school tipped the balance towards the local comprehensive. (All the private schools were single-sex at the time.) So our dilemma was resolved in favour of a state education.

But there’s more. My second son went through a period when he was struggling with maths. We paid for him to have private one-to-one tuition for a few months to catch up. The story ends happily with both getting good university degrees which set them on the path to a successful future. But the sterner moralists will accuse us of cheating by paying for an educational leg-up not available to the poorest of us. I confess!

Making the choice between our finer principles as members of society and the best interests of our children is never easy. I just think we need to acknowledge our frailties and ask people to be a bit more forgiving.

The Upper House Dilemma

The Chakrabarti story contains another accusation of hypocrisy, this time against Jeremy Corbyn. It was he who nominated Shami for membership of the House of Lords after forty-plus years of demanding its reform. Corbyn has also rightly criticised the Tories for parachuting friends and allies into the Lords and then into the Cabinet. One that worked out really badly was David (Lord) Young, whom Thatcher appointed to Trade and Industry Secretary in her Cabinet. Young never understood the difference in approach needed between the business world and politics and he’s generally seen as having been a disaster in the job. In this case, I believe the accusation of hypocrisy is more justified.

Tony Benn
Tony Benn

But it’s interesting also to reflect on the case of Tony Benn (Westminster School and Oxford). He inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate in 1960, disqualifying him from continuing in the Commons. (An interesting backstory is how he came to inherit the title. Firstly, his father was made a peer by no other than Winston Churchill. Secondly, and sadly, his elder brother was subsequently killed in the second World War.) Benn campaigned successfully for legislation (The Peerage Act 1963) which enabled him to renounce his peerage and stand once more for election as an MP. Benn was strongly of the view that, only by being elected by his constituents could he have legitimate moral authority for Parliamentary office. (There are further amusing and ironic twists to the tale. The Wikipedia entry for Benn, paragraph headed “Peerage Reform”, is well worth a read!)

My final point concerns the views of many of Benn’s political opponents. Much of the hatred and vitriol poured on him by many Tories flows, I believe, from one thing. Benn was “one of them” (i.e. aristocracy) and his principles led him to reject the whole House of Lords setup. To them, being a class traitor was a far greater sin than being a hypocrite.


Shove It in Your Cakehole

Leading UK politicians, including the deluded triumvirate leading Britain’s exit negotiations with the EU, keep asserting we can have a special deal: to have our cake and eat it. Donald Tusk, European Council leader, yesterday spoke about cake. Mark the words, and the tone:

“To all those who believe in it, I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate. The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us. There will be no cakes on the table. For anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar”.

Cake and empty plate
Cake…                                                             Gone!

The frustration is all too clear. The EU has some serious issues to contend with, which affect us all. Low economic growth, the euro’s “wobbles”, unprecedented flows of asylum seekers, terrorism and, last but by no means least, climate change. All require hard, collaborative work. The UK’s pleas for opt-outs and special deals have been an unwelcome distraction for many years. And now, another two years’ plus of negotiations to unravel 43 years’ worth of laws and regulations. Even the most saintly person’s patience would be wearing thin. And the deal has to be unanimously agreed with 27 other nations.

Post-Imperial Delusion

lord palmerston
Lord Palmerston

To digress: I went to school in the 1950s and 60s. I was born on the cusp of two generations. Those older than me were fed a diet of pure propaganda about the British Empire as unquestionably a good thing: the greatest empire the world has seen. Those younger were taught a more reflective, nuanced approach – but only a little. I can still remember the kids in my class cheering when the history teacher told us about Lord Palmerston sending in a gunboat to sort out Johnny Foreigner.

It’s a tragedy that a weak prime minister took the disastrously misjudged decision to hold an in-out EU referendum at this time, in the foolhardy hope of containing the schism in his party. For we had a situation where those spoon-fed the propaganda are more likely to vote than those who had a more balanced education about our imperial past. The leading Brexiteers are all steeped in post-imperial delusion. I’m sure that many of those voting leave did so just because of this. Another ten years and the balance of the electorate’s instincts would be different. Ah well, back to reality.

Cakes and Crisps

So, back to having your cake and eating it. I have a simple message for the cheerleaders for the so-called “hard Brexit”. I’m sick and tired of all the lies, the delusions. Treat us as adults, for goodness sake.  Tusk didn’t mince his words. Eat yours. And shove them up your cakehole.

Salt and vinegar crisps, anyone?


Theresa: Who May She Be?

The end of the Tory Party conference has prompted me to ponder what kind of PM Theresa May will be, and hence what kind of government we now have.

Tory Women

It seems to me the Tories have always had some unease working out what to think of their women with power. (I suspect it’s because so many of them went to single-sex or boarding schools. Certainly the Cameroons seemed quite uncomfortable around women.) The traditional role of the loyal Tory wife (tea and sandwiches) won’t do. Instead, there’s the school matron dominatrix type (à la Thatcher) and the totally vacuous (Leadsom and Dorries are the obvious names that spring to mind). But now there also seems to be the mother hen, offering soothing comfort and a sense of stability.

Therea and Phillip May
Ed Balls would wipe the floor with this pair on Strictly!

On her recent performance, May seems to be pitching herself as a hybrid of the mother hen and the dominatrix: a weird mix! The slogan “A country that works for everyone” was plastered everywhere. It’s a soothing, comfort blanket of a phrase, utterly devoid of meaning: so a bit of vacuous with the mother hen, then. May had channelled her inner Thatcher before the conference: “Remind you of everyone?” at her maiden PMQ. This time, she accused Labour of being “the Nasty Party”. Good for a quick laugh from the faithful, but bad strategically. The delivery is laboured (no pun intended), clunky and it sounds bullying: nasty, in fact.

So it all means that she hasn’t yet settled on a tone for her premiership. The submarine remains partially submerged from view.


Yes, I know: a new, crap “ism” word. So, what can we deduce from the clearly signalled change of direction for the government? It’s a change for which, of course, she has no electoral mandate. We merely (MERELY??) had a yes/no referendum which asked one question (membership of EU) and which has been selectively spun to mean another (control immigration).

Let’s start with the good news. The single most welcome comment in May’s speech was the recognition of “the good that government can do”. This is a clear break from the small state Conservatism since Thatcher. Workers’ representation on company boards (the law for decades in Germany) and attacks on boardroom excessive pay and company tax avoidance are a straight steal from the Miliband songbook. These are to be welcomed – if she means it. The proof will be in what her government actually does on these matters. I’m highly sceptical.

But there’s plenty of bad news, some of it downright sinister. As Home Secretary, May always showed a very illiberal streak. Her “snoopers’ charter” and dislike of the whole human rights agenda is deeply troubling. Those in her sights include the “household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism”. The tone and message of that section of her speech sounded more like that of a Mussolini, Erdogan or Assad than that of the leader of a free country.

The other dangerous area of policy is in how she framed the break from the post-Thatcher orthodoxy of excessive individualism and self-interest. Her criticism of the “elite” deliberately conflates two very distinct groups. The first is designed to appeal to Labour and left-leaning voters: the greedy, selfish extremely rich 1% who have seen their wealth double since the 2008 crash. The second group is millions of socially progressive middle class people who are both socially liberal and who welcome the openness and multiculturalism of modern Britain. By this fudge, I fear she aims to pander to the intolerance and xenophobia of so-called “middle England”.

Small Island

I call this approach small-mindedness and an appeal to humans’ tribalism. I concede there is something socially useful in the idea of a community at a very local level: neighbours working together and collaborating for the common good. But May’s version is, deliberately, broader and vaguer than this. Expect the “tribe” to be defined by May in a multiplicity of ways: the street, the football team, the village, the small town, the country – but certainly never wider than the country. The left’s traditional internationalism is anathema to this world view. When it gets really sinister is when the “small-mindedness” world view gets applied to race or religion. We’ve seen more than enough of a rise in hate crime, xenophobia and bigotry since 23rd June. Under May’s leadership, expect more.



New Fiver: 0 Out of 5

Have you held a new five pound note in your hand yet and taken a good look at it? I have: in a word, YUK! I have no problem with the fact it’s a polymer note. The Australians have had plastic money for over twenty years and other nations more recently also. My quibble is the design.

new five pound note
New Fiver

The images above, as seen on my computer screen, are flattering: in real life, the contrast is reduced and the overall impression is of a blue-grey sludge, particularly on the font. Think of some mould that’s grown over something in the fridge you should have thrown out weeks ago. Or think of some image or sign left out in the sun and the picture and colours have faded.

And just look at the typography and calligraphy. The bold “5” has disappeared, as it did when the £20 note was last changed. That, the fussy typeface and the low contrast all make life more difficult for thousands of visually impaired people. All those squiggles look like the work of a very bored six year old in a school writing lesson.

Apart, of course, from the faces of the two individuals portrayed, the note looks like it could have been designed at any time between the fifteenth century and the 1940s. In fact it’s worse than that, as early 20th century movements such as art deco had a lasting and wide impact on modern design principles.

Good Design

The UK is a world leader in good design. In diverse fields such as the arts, architecture and everyday household objects, we’re world class. For example, the London Tube Map, first published in the 1930s, is a design classic. The Design Council has been doing an excellent job for 70 years encouraging good design and new designers. It estimates that’s worth £71 billion a year, or 7% of the UK’s income (Gross Value Added to be technical). That’s nearly as much as the much valued (by politicians) financial services sector.

Original Tube Map
A Design Classic

Despite some internet research, I’ve not yet found any information telling me who was responsible for the design: certainly, the Design Council’s website search facility draws a blank. Whoever they were, they seem to be trapped in a time-warp bubble which significantly pre-dates the 21st century. The Bank of England does have a “Banknote Character Advisory Committee” (yes, really!) who are responsible for advising on which people’s faces appear on new banknotes. This Committee is reasonably diverse in its membership, which offers some hope. But for the actual design, does anyone know?

Oh, and one last thing: it should have been a coin.


Positive Thinking

Eric idle in life of brian
Always Look…

“Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it” sang Eric Idle at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I must admit that many of my blog posts have been pretty downbeat in tone, particularly since the June 23rd result. So, let’s try a thought experiment and go in for some positive thinking.

Good News

Let’s start by looking at a few items of good news from recent days.

  1. Donald Trump made a complete arse of himself in the first TV debate with Hillary Clinton.
  2. Jeremy Corbyn did a pretty good job in his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference. It was a much more assured performance than last year and a step towards being seen as a more credible future prime minister.
  3. The Labour Party now has well over 500,000 members, making it the largest political party in Europe (outside Russia).
  4. The only concrete policy announcement from Theresa May, on grammar schools, is a real stinker.
  5. George Osborne’s policy of austerity and “hit the poorest hardest” seems to have been dropped by his successor.

Let’s develop some positive thinking flowing from these news items.

Armageddon Postponed

H bomb mushroom cloud
Not yet, perhaps?

Two more opportunities, in TV debates, remain to show Trump’s narcissistic lack of self-control and of fitness to be elected. So, the spine-chilling threat to the world of a President Trump seems to have receded somewhat. With the prospect of World War Three now a little less likely in the near term, we can perhaps begin to think a little about the future.

A Labour Agenda?

Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn at Conference 2016

Points 2 and 5 above may point the way to changing the terms of the debate on the economy. Political opinion in much of the western world is questioning the assumptions of free market fundamentalism. It seems likely that we will hear much less from Philip Hammond on austerity than his predecessor. This implies even the Tories may now believe it’s a vote loser. They still have a way to go to catch up with expert opinion, such as that of the International Monetary Fund. But it is an agenda that both Jeremy Corbyn and John Hammond have been consistently stating for the past year. The new, younger Labour Party members may begin to convince people in face-to-face conversations in pubs and other meeting places. An optimistic reading would be that Labour would begin to look credible to offer a wider, positive appeal for the future, with the Tories associated with a failed economic dogma of the past.

Theresa May’s Judgement

Theresa May
May: Not So Safe?

It seems many were tempted to think of Theresa May as a “safe pair of hands” to steer Britain through the choppy waters of EU exit negotiations. (Even I said she was the least bad option in the circumstances.) With her grammar schools announcement, she immediately encountered strong opposition from all education experts and practically the whole of the teaching profession. It is only a matter of time before she adds more opponents. These are the parents of the 80% of schoolchildren who would be disadvantaged – and possibly psychologically damaged – by being branded second class citizens at an arbitrary age.

We have had the appointment of two loose cannons and a disgraced former defence minister as the triumvirate leading the UK’s EU negotiations. It is surely only a matter of time before one of these super-egos seriously screws up. This will reflect poorly on May’s judgement in their appointment. Not such a safe pair of hands, after all.

The Bright Side

The cynical may see this all as hopelessly wishful thinking: my title for this piece was, instead, “positive thinking”. That Eric Idle song mentioned at the start is, after all, entitled Always Look on the Bright Side of Life! (Supply your own whistling here, please…)


Madness, Madness, I Call It Madness

I was in conversation with a fellow experienced Chair of Governors the other day. She spoke of “one of those heart-sinking moments” when she heard that Theresa May was planning to revive grammar schools, now confirmed. Between us, we have over 40 years’ experience volunteering as school governors. We agreed it almost feels like we’ve wasted our time all these years trying to help the schools we serve to raise standards and life chances for our pupils.

I call the proposal madness, sheer madness, for several reasons set out later in this post.

Enjoy Yourself

I have a broad picture of education policy and practice over my lifetime. I believe it is true that, back in the 1960s and 70s, education policy was, to some extent, driven by fashion. The latest ideas, the sexier-sounding the better, were implemented with little more basis than he (or she) who shouts loudest. Some of these ideas worked and have been retained in some form. Some didn’t and have fallen by the wayside. The most radical change in this period was the near-universal abolition of the 11-plus and the growth of comprehensive education. (More comprehensives opened under Margaret Thatcher’s period as Education Secretary than any other’s.)

Sure Start centre
Sure Start centre

The period from the late 70s through to 2000 saw a developing professionalism in the practice of pedagogy. University education departments and institutions such as the National College for Teaching and Leadership carried out research into what works. There was a steady upward trend in evidence-led changes to education policy. Key initiatives in the New Labour years included two important reforms above all:

  • Every Child Matters, an antidote to narrow exam results as the only indicator of success. It stressed that every child, whatever their background or circumstances, should have the support they need to stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.
  • Sure Start centres, in recognition of the research which showed the importance of early years learning. Neuroscientific research has found that a child’s brain is 25% developed at birth, 80% developed by the aged of three. A US study found that the vocabulary used by three year olds in professional households was wider than that of the parents from the most deprived households. Those early years are crucial. Disadvantaged kids are way behind those more fortunate, long before they even start school.

Propaganda Ministers

The steady progress in implementing what works came to an abrupt halt in 2010 with the arrival of Michael Gove as Education Secretary. Policy making by evidence was replaced by ministerial whim. The logic behind the creation of academy schools was turned on its head. Free schools were introduced, spending public funds where groups lobbied for one, rather than where new places were needed. Local authorities were stripped of their powers to open new schools. This has led to the situation where local government has the legal duty to find a school place for everyone on their patch but without the powers to make it happen. The free schools programme was based on a Swedish initiative that was already being disowned by the politician who had introduced the scheme to Sweden. Funding for early years was slashed and 800 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010.

Compare this situation to Germany, where education is a non-political issue and structures and exam standards have barely changed in decades. In England, constant tinkering with curriculum and exam structures have left teacher confused and overworked. In the last school year alone, 14 changes to the Key Stage 2 curriculum were announced and, on the date pupils sat their SATs exams, the government hadn’t decided what the standards would be for the results.

No wonder teachers are leaving the profession in their droves or applying to emigrate to saner pastures abroad. When coupled to the shortfall in places filled on teacher training courses, I predict a major crisis of teacher shortages in 3-5 years’ time.

It’s Gonna Be Tougher

And now, to cap it all, we have Theresa May, without any electoral mandate, announcing the potential expansion of grammar schools. This is based on the entirely false argument that such schools aid social mobility. My earlier blog post, Stuck Inside of Mobile, explains why this is plain wrong. Briefly, it was the expansion in middle-class jobs in the economy of the 1950s and 60s, together with much more egalitarian tax and fiscal policies, which created opportunities for schoolchildren to find better jobs than their parents. It is merely coincidence that we had a more selective system at the time.

Even if the argument were true, times have changed significantly. Selective education at 11 was at a time when only 7% of students went to university (it’s now nearly 50%) and we had a major manufacturing base to absorb the 80-90% of 11-plus failures into work. But the social stigma and psychological damage of being branded a failure at eleven would be as true today as it was then.

Schools work best when there is a reasonable number of brighter children and pushy parents to support teachers in raising expectations and when the proportion of children from low-achieving, dysfunctional families is small. Too many of the latter can absorb a disproportionate amount of energy for school staff, That’s energy which could be applied for the benefit of all. With inspiring leadership and excellent teaching, good schools can close the prior attainment gap over the whole duration of a child’s schooling. Putting the majority of children into the slow lane at the arbitrary age of eleven makes no sense and offends every idea of helping the disadvantaged.

grammar school photo
Grammar School Days

Remaining grammar schools have 3% of the intake entitled to free school meals, compared to 15% for all schools. Better-off parents can pay for private tuition to help their children pass the 11-plus. Good evidence exists of the effect of selection on pupil achievement. In selective areas, pupils in selective schools perform, on average, very slightly better than they would have done in a non-selective system. But the vast majority of children at, in effect, secondary moderns, perform far worse than their comprehensive-taught counterparts elsewhere. In short, selection makes it tougher overall to succeed.

Who’s Goin’ to Suffer?

The analysis is very clear: the disadvantaged children suffer worst under a selective system.

I’m often intrigued to see what hatred, distortions, delusions and lies are spewed out in the Daily Mail, or at least by peeking at its front-page headlines. Today’s was an absolute classic of its kind. The sub-heading read “All schools could become grammar schools”. How, exactly? For every grammar schools created, you need at least three secondary moderns. Or wait… I look forward to the apoplectic Daily Mail headlines of the future when 80% of schoolchildren have failed the entrance test for all the schools in their area and are roaming the streets in feral gangs!

My earlier blog post, Confused and Bewildered, took a sceptical view of Theresa May’s inaugural speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. You know, the one where she promised to work for the disadvantaged. I said then that new Tory Prime Ministers have form on doing the opposite of what they say in the first flush of their appointment. Well, May has just taken the first step in that dishonourable tradition.

In memory of Prince Buster (Cecil Campbell) 1938-2016


The Beautiful Wall

Like many of us, I’ve got used to seeing reports of the latest stupid, outrageous comments of Donald Trump. But occasionally, I’m still left startled. This time, it was by a single word: “beautiful”. He had returned to a continuing theme of his presidential campaign: his plan to build what, on this occasion, he described as an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico. The long list of adjectives was delivered, punch by punch, with an impassioned fury – in contrast to the mumbled speech in Mexico the day before, where he said, without conviction, how much he loved Mexicans. The other adjectives he used I could understand – in the context of the speech – but “beautiful”? That struck a chill in my heart.

Before someone sets out to build a real, physical wall, i.e. one designed to keep one set of people apart from another, some things must happen first in that person’s head. The idea and plan for the wall must be made: where, what materials, how high and so on. Before that idea can be formed, the builder must have some motive for building the wall. This takes the form of a “wall in the head”: some idea of the “us” on this side of the wall and the “them” on the other. This distinction between “us” and “them” requires dividing people into two homogenous groups divided by some characteristic. We call this stereotyping, bigotry or just plain old lazy thinking.

Walls in the Head

In music and literature, as well as journalism, much has been said and written over the years about the walls we build in our heads. These walls are built for various reasons: to disguise shyness and poor interpersonal skills, as an emotional shield and as a way of avoiding any consideration of the opinions or needs of “the other”. The consequences of such mental walls are usually destructive, often self-destructive.

Pink Floyd Wall
Pink Floyd’s The Wall

Pink Floyd produced a whole double album, The Wall, with a film to follow, on the subject. Great swathes of the Paul Simon songbook are devoted to the idea: examples include I Am a Rock, Something So Right (“I got a wall around me…”). Much of the work of Franz Kafka inhabits this world of isolation.

In the real world, think of the euphemistically named “peace barriers” in Northern Ireland during the height of the “Troubles”; think of the pain and misery on both sides of Israel’s security “fence”. Think also of the joy and optimism which flowed from the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. In earlier, and presumed more barbaric, times, we had the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall. That’s just a few.

Fall of Berlin Wall
Fall of Berlin Wall

In my blog post This Blinkered Isle just before the EU referendum, I lamented the fact that the entire public debate consisted of opposing appeals to self-interest or national interest. There was no one who took time to remind the voters of more collective benefits. Take, for example, the journey taken by millions formerly behind the Iron Curtain (another wall) from oppression to democracy, often inspired by the ideals and principles – and membership rules – of the EU.

More generally, few voices are ever raised in public reminding us of our common humanity: what unites us, rather than divides. In the UK, the Labour Party should be the natural home for many of these voices. Tragically, in its current state, Labour seems to expend all its energies building little walls between its various factions, rather than painting a unifying picture of the common good. Andrew Copson, head of the British Humanist Association, does make speeches from time to time around these themes – usually ignored by the mainstream media. As an atheist and humanist, I am simultaneously uplifted and embarrassed that the only voices reported who are stressing these ideals seem to come from a pope or an archbishop.

Take a Little Time

Now, to return for a moment to Paul Simon. The fuller lyric above is: “I got a wall around me that you can’t even see. It took a little time to get next to me”. The Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement is a good example of taking (more than) a little time – and not a little courage – to get the warring parties to talk meaningfully to each other. The horrifying rise in hate crimes since the referendum is just one symptom of how divided we’re becoming. Surely we can take a little more time getting to know each other – and a little less time building walls. Now that would be beautiful.


Downhill All the Way

Britain has been in decline for 140 years. By this, I mean that it has been in relative economic decline: relative, that is, to its main rivals and to the overall global economy. The graph below shows Britain (in green) and other countries’ position since 1870, as a percentage of total global income (GDP). The UK had 9% of all global income in 1870, at the height of the British Empire. Today, this has fallen to under 2.4%. The green line shows a remorseless slide downwards.

Share of global GDP
Share of global GDP

The last 20 years or so shows that Britain shares this downward trend with the other countries shown. The main reason is the recent rise in the economies of China above all and, to a lesser degree, India, Brazil and Russia.

Referendum Effect

I have previously reported that the UK slipped from 5th to 6th largest economy on the day after the EU referendum. This was the result of the instant drop in the value of sterling. Last week, the Bank of England took action to boost growth by cutting interest rates to the lowest level ever seen. Other measures were announced, including more “quantitative easing” (a.k.a. printing money), to try to stave off a new recession.

At the same time, the Bank of England revised its forecast of growth of the UK economy. For next year, the downward revision from 2.3% growth to only 0.8% marks the greatest ever downward revision by the Bank in its history. A further smaller downward drop was made to the growth forecast for the following year. This will make our national income £45 billion lower in 2018 than expected pre-referendum. Once again, our £7bn cost of EU membership looks a real bargain.

A very poor set of economic indicators of the type used as a guide to future growth provides yet more cause for pessimism.

Prophets of Doom?

Former Chancellor George Osborne has a fetish: it’s called austerity. On taking office in 2010, he tipped the UK back into recession by a combination of poor policy and some foolish talk. Of the latter, his false assertion that the UK economy was like Greece’s was perhaps the most foolish. George has been sacked, but he may yet have helped to make his remarks come true – one day. Under his watch, UK productivity growth has been zero. Our relative position is the worst ever. Our productivity is now 18 percentage points below the average for the world’s major economies (G7). That alone is a strong indicator that Britain will continue to lag behind in economic growth.

The new chancellor seems to be taking his time to learn his brief. The lack of action from him contrasts with the more decisive actions from Carney and the Bank. Expert opinion is that both sets of action are needed. Even that will probably not be enough to repair the damage cause by the referendum result.

private frazer
“We’re All Doomed!”

Added to all this is Britain’s lopsided economy, with its over-reliance on financial services. With the failed free market fundamentalism still dominant in the UK and at the ECB, Britain is uniquely vulnerable. A characteristic of FMF policies is the increasing likelihood, over time, of bigger and bigger economic crashes of the type last seen in 2007-8. Remember the figures: 1%, 2.5%, 37% from my earlier post Two Gamblers and a Pint of Lager. With 1% of global population and 2.5% of global income, the UK engages in 37% of the world’s speculative financial transactions. These are the kind that are most destructive to the “real” economy, according to the IMF. When the next big crash comes, we’ll be hit hardest.

Terminal Decline?

So, in this context, the referendum result looks to me like the firing shot in the final phase of Britain’s long fall from imperial glory (or hubris): our terminal decline to rancour, intolerance, introspection and global irrelevance. Welcome to the future of Britain!


K-Street Blues: An Indelible Stain

I was born on a street whose name begins with the letter K. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever asked me “Are you proud to have been born on a street beginning with K?” I guess that everyone would agree that the question makes no sense. I had absolutely no control over the matter and it took no effort, skill or talent on my part to be born there.

There have, however, been several occasions when people have said “Are you proud to be British?” Or, sometimes, if I had been criticising some aspect of life in this country, “Aren’t you proud to be British?” I’ve always contended that these questions make as much sense as the K-street version, for the same reasons given above.

It’s pretty obvious that some form of tribalism is an evolved characteristic of human development. Whether it’s allegiance to a football team, factionalism in corporate politics, inter-gang rivalry or whatever, our instincts to want to belong to a group are strong. Nation states have been pretty effective in harnessing these instincts by instilling some form of patriotism in its citizens. I’ve always been very wary of patriotism, seeing how too often it has been commandeered into something darker, more sinister.

Multiple Identities

Depending on the context, we all carry around with us some multi-faceted idea of who we are. At different times, we see ourselves primarily in different roles: proud parent, West Ham (or Aston Villa) supporter, board member, oppressed minority member, flag-waving patriot, trade unionist and countless more. Identity and single-cause political movements have risen at the expense of traditional parties. I’m always heartened (and a little jealous) when people from minority ethnic backgrounds flex their self-identity viewpoint to the context of a discussion. Multi-lingualism can also offer a richness of perspectives from which to consider a topic under debate.

Russian dollsIn the dimension of nationality, I’ve always claimed that I take a hierarchical approach. First and foremost, I see myself as a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens. I’m interested in those matters that unite us all and in celebrating the richness that comes from cultural diversity. Next, culturally and ethically, I am a European: this brings a whole load of ideas around liberty, tolerance, democracy and respect for the rule of law – and much more besides. Perhaps I feel a slight cultural bias towards Northern Europe, but the difference is slight.

Third in the hierarchy is the identity of being British. This is primarily a legal definition, an immovable fact I have no control over. This comes with mainly – but not wholly – negative connotations of what distinguishes Britishness from European-ness more generally. Much of this is bound up in our insular outlook on the world and our failure to complete the process of becoming a proper democracy. And last, and definitely least, comes the fact that I’m English. Even before 23rd June, I would be hard pressed to come up with significantly positive characteristics compared with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.

The Stain

stainI was much struck by the 2000 novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth. It tells a complex tale of a professional man who slowly becomes ostracised by friends and colleagues through a combination of his actions and the revelation of his true identity. The idea of an individual carrying around an invisible but indelible stain is a haunting one.

My wife and I were recently on holiday (post referendum result) in a part of France where many people do not speak English. I had to get by on what I could remember of my schoolboy French. Occasionally people would ask me where I was from. I found it necessary, on each occasion, to say “Je suis anglais… malheureusement”. This last comment would usually elicit some sympathetic look from my questioner. My “confession” was laced with shame and embarrassment.

Those old tribal instincts had come into play. Post referendum, my stain is being English.


Confused and Bewildered

The stunned silence from this blogger over the past three weeks is a reflection of the turbulent times we’re going through. I was waiting for events to slow down a bit so that I could reflect on them. But events, dear boy, events kept on coming. Since the announcement of the fateful referendum vote on 23rd June, there are many of us still confused and bewildered. I’m certainly one.

Confusion road sign
Confusion reigns…

There are plenty of places on the internet where people react to news events. In blogs, social media and so on, much of it takes the form of soundbites, often angry in tone. It’s mostly a case of people shouting at each other without listening. I’ve always tried to make this blog more thoughtful, analytical and reflective than that. But it needs to be rooted in the real world. That world, and in particular Britain, has been convulsed by radical change over the past four weeks. How can we make sense of it all, from a longer-term perspective? Below are a few ideas around the political themes which are beginning to get a bit clearer. (I hope to cover the economic issues next time.)

The Government We Have

So what sort of a government have we ended up with, for now at least? Well, let’s admit it: it could have been a whole lot worse. Theresa May as PM is clearly preferable to Gove, Leadsom (or Angela Loathsome – thanks Private Eye) or Johnson – in that order of awfulness – for different reasons in each case. And yet… May’s cabinet looks worse than Cameron’s in two respects. With the likes of Davis, Johnson, Leadsom and Grayling, the government is more right-wing than its predecessor and is likely to be more socially conservative. For all their faults, especially on economic policy, Osborne and Cameron were social liberals by the standards of the Conservative Party.

May’s speech in Downing Street after becoming PM made a whole load of references to the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged and could just have easily been delivered by PM Ed Milliband last May if the last general election had turned out differently. But the Tories have form in this respect: say one thing in the first flush of victory, do the opposite in office. Think Thatcher and her emetic quotation from St Francis of Assisi (I feel queasy thinking of it even now), and Cameron’s “greenest government ever” to “green crap”. So any initial optimism should be treated with great caution and much scepticism.

The Opposition

As for the opposition: in short, we don’t have one. The Labour Party has chosen this critical time for the nation to engage in one of the bitterest internal feuds I’ve ever seen. With multiple challenges and huge self-inflicted uncertainties and no clear sense of direction yet from government, we need an active and vigilant opposition holding May and company to account. Instead we have an endless feud and a drawn-out leadership contest which will most likely solve nothing.

I have some sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn when he says he was elected less than a year ago with a clear majority of members’ votes. Also, I agree with most of his policy statements (when they can be deduced). But the Party leader’s day job is to lead his or her team of MPs in the House of Commons. In this, he has clearly failed. It was asking too much of a man who had spent his entire political career as the outsider, the rebel, to suddenly transform himself into a credible Prime Minister in waiting.

Labour and Tories

All of which brings into sharp focus a key difference between the Labour and Conservative Parties. Whilst Labour bickers over procedures and following due processes for elections, the Tories go for the kill. First Johnson, then Fox, Gove and finally Leadsom were made offers they couldn’t refuse and they fell by the wayside. After months of the most vicious and mendacious feuding, they quickly fall into line, stand shoulder to shoulder and pretend they’ve always been the best of friends.

By contrast, some in Labour’s ranks seem happier fighting each other over points too trivial for the majority of voters than fighting the true enemy. I was with some Labour activists recently who were lamenting the fact that some factions within their party seem happier in opposition than in power, as it gives them the moral indignation of complaining how wrong everything is in the world. For them, being out of power is their comfort zone. It’s unsurprising, then, that there’s a mirror image in the Tory Party. A significant number of Conservatives consider themselves the natural party of power – by right – and resent it bitterly when, temporarily, someone else has the impertinence to win an election.

The State of Democracy

It’s ironic to note that both Labour and Conservatives have decided to have broadly the same selection procedure for their party leader: initial sifting by MPs followed by a members’ election from the top two candidates. The Tories aren’t afraid to bypass the second stage when their MPs don’t trust their own members not to vote for the loathsome Leadsom. Labour, by contrast, stick firmly to democratic processes, even if they know it could lead them into an endless loop of ever-more frustrating schism.

An opinion poll last week found that 61% of us agree with the statement that we should rarely or never again use a referendum as the mechanism to settle a decision as complex as membership of the EU. It’s easy to be wise after the event: ask a silly question….

This sorry affair brings into sharp focus one of the disadvantages of not having a written constitution. In most countries who do have one and which allow referenda, there will generally be some principles laid out. These typically would require some form of “super-majority” rule for votes which have far-reaching and major implications. These usually take the form of a two-thirds majority required for change, possibly with some minimum turnout figure. (Even the Synod of the Church of England has such rules!) Debated within the cool light of some constitutional convention, these rules would likely be seen as sensible and proportionate by most people. When setting the rules in a one-off Act of Parliament, as we did, such a rule would have been politically almost impossible. Howls of criticism from the usual rabid anti-EU campaigners would have classed it as cheating by those wishing to remain. The Labour Party allowed itself to be bullied into abstaining in the Commons debate: who would want to be the first to say the British people couldn’t be trusted with such an apparently simple question?

(Written constitutions are not, of themselves, a cure-all. I can immediately think of three obvious downsides of such a system in the USA: logjam in Washington, highly politicised Supreme Court judges and the notorious pro-gun lobby. Perhaps this is a topic worth discussing in more detail at some future time.) Tricky stuff eh, democracy?

What Price a Progressive Future?

For those of us on the centre-left of politics, these are bleak times indeed. I hold a deep belief in the improvability of human society over the medium-to-long term. Similarly, I believe in the power of more and better education and in the value of rational debate as a way of making progress for the greater good. Access to good information and a minimum level of honesty in debate are prerequisites to this. Religious fundamentalism, random acts of suicide / mass murder, the behaviour of politicians during the referendum run-up period, not to mention the threat of a possible President Trump, knock huge dents in that faith.

For the sake of future generations, humanity can – and must – do better.