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 that 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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Mr Men 2016

This is a story bringing you news of the antics of some of the Mr Men today.

Mr Monster

Mr Monster
Mr Monster

Mr Monster was an ogre. Mr Monster was the most evil man in the world. He owned lots of newspapers and made himself very rich. With all his money, he was able to tell politicians around the world to do what he wanted. How did Mr Monster do this? He used some of his money to pay policemen to reveal secrets about the politicians. Then he threatened the politicians he would tell unless they do what he wanted. What he wanted was new ways to make himself even richer. That way, he could afford to bully more politicians. Clever Mr Monster!

Mr Mad

Mr Mad
Mr Mad

Mr Mad was mad. Mr Mad was delusional. He once worked for Mr Monster, so he knew ways to please him. He dreamed many dreams. These seemed very clever to Mr Mad. So he set about trying to make those dreams come true.

Mr Mad was put in charge of all the teachers. He went to their meeting, and they all laughed at him. This made Mr Mad madder. Mr Mad dreamed about how to get his revenge. He introduced many crazy schemes into the schools. He allowed people who, like him, knew nothing about teaching run schools. Some crazy things happened. How Mr Mad laughed! After a while, Mr Mad found that people did not want to become teachers any more. He also found that the teachers were leaving their jobs. Mr Mad scratched his head. What had he done? Silly Mr Mad!

Mr Look-At-Me

Mr Look-At-Me
Mr Look-At-Me

Mr Look-At-Me liked to be the centre of attention. Mr Look-At-Me found a good way to do this. He would say silly things, the first thing that popped into his head. People laughed at his silly things, so he would say more. Sometimes he would contradict the last silly thing. People still laughed and nobody cared that nothing he said made any sense. Funny Mr Look-At-Me!

When he was a very small boy, Mr Look-At-Me had birthdays like other children. When he was four, he decided he did not want to get any older. So he stopped having birthdays. Despite being big and the size of a grown-up, Mr Look-At-Me is still four years old. His mummy even failed to get him to learn how to comb his hair. “Look at me! Look at me!! Me! Me!! Me!!!” he said. The people stilled laughed. Funny Mr Look-At-Me!

Mr Slime

Mr Slime
Mr Slime

Mr Slime was made completely out of slime. Dark, green, gooey slime! Yeugh! Mr Slime hated everybody who was not like him. He wanted them all to stay where they were and not come close to him. Mr Slime’s slime smelled, a slimy sort of smell. The smell made people hate other people after they had smelled it. Mr Slime smoked all the time, to try to disguise the smell. Mr Slime drank beer. A lot of beer! He drank the beer to try to forget about the smell. People kept away from Mr Slime because of the smoke and smell. Slimy, smelly Mr Slime!

Mr Slime wanted everyone to think like him. Seven times he asked the people to vote for him. Seven times they said “no”. Mr Slime thought he had better find another way.

Mr Two-Face

Mr Two-Face
Mr Two-Face

People thought Mr Two-Face had two faces. But it was not really like that. Mr Two-Face just wanted everybody to like him. So every time he spoke, he tried to tell the people he was with what they wanted to hear. So Mr Two-Face kept changing his appearance. He was a bit like a chameleon, except he didn’t change colour. Only he did a bit: his face went pink whenever someone told him he was wrong. Mr Two-Face thought he was never wrong. He was, after all the leader of all the people in his room.

Mr Pale-And-Thin

Mr Pale-And-Thin
Mr Pale-And-Thin

Mr Pale-And-Thin was pale and thin. He was thin because he ate only a special diet called austerity. He was pale because spent nearly all the time indoors. He spent some of his time in his counting house, where he counted all the money. But he spent most of his time in his plotting house, where he plotted clever schemes to outwit the other people. He only ventured outside to visit places where people made things. There were so few of them now that it was getting harder and harder to find one. He wore a yellow jacket on these visits, to make him easier to see, because he was so thin. He also wore a hard hat, in case any of the people he had plotted against crept up behind him and hit him on the head. Poor, worried Mr Pale-And-Thin!

Mr Slightly-Grumpy

Mr Slightly-Gumpy
Mr Slightly-Grumpy

Mr Slightly-Grumpy was slightly grumpy. When he was younger, he had been very grumpy, and shouted a lot at his friends. Now that he was older, he had grown slightly less grumpy. But his friends were still wary of him. He said sensible things. But because he was grumpy, people didn’t take much notice. This made him a bit more grumpy. Grumpy Mr Slightly-Grumpy!

All the Mr Men were the best of friends, except for Mr Slightly-Grumpy, who just sat in another corner of the room and looked slightly grumpy.

The Big House

All the Mr Men in this story lived in a Big House. A very Big House! It had twenty-eight rooms, all of them big. What a Big House! All the Mr Men lived in the same room, Number Nine.  This room had once been a tiny cottage on the other side of a little stream. A long time ago, a bridge had been built across the stream and Number Nine became part of the Big House. At this time, the Big House had only nine rooms and the people were happy. Over time, more rooms were added and the Big House grew bigger.

At first, all the rooms in the Big House had big, strong locks. They made the people feel safe, but the locks were big and clumsy and took a long time to open. The people grew cross waiting for the doors to be opened. The people in some of the rooms took the locks away, so they could move about the house more easily. The people in Number Nine kept their lock, which was big and strong.

To make the Big House work properly, the caretaker had set some rules. One of the rules was that anyone could move to another room as long as they had work to do there. Where there were locks, these had to be undone to let in the people with work. There were other house rules, too. The leaders in Number Nine didn’t like some of them and asked if they could be excused. The caretaker said yes to some of these.

Before The Big Vote

After Mr Two-Face became leader of a group of friends called the Nasties, he found that some of his friends were really very nasty rather than just nasty. Mr Slime had his own friends, The Stinkies, who were nastier even than the Very Nasties. His own friends kept arguing and some were saying they would leave the Nasties and join the Stinkies instead. The arguments covered many things but, above all, they argued about whether to take away the bridge over the little stream and make Number Nine a little cottage again.

Mr Two-Face had a very clever idea. He would ask all the people in room Number Nine whether to keep the bridge and that would settle it and they could all be friends again. Clever Mr Two-Face! But Mr Two-Face had a problem. He had been telling everyone in all the other rooms for so long just how wrong they were with everything. Very suddenly, he said that they were all really his good friends and that he wanted to keep the bridge over the little stream. Straight away, Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me crept up behind Mr Two-Face and stabbed him in the back! Mr Two-Face was very cross and went very pink in the face. Oh dear!

Over the next few weeks, Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me shouted at Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin. And Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin shouted back. Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin made up lots of scary stories and Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me told lots and lots of fibs. They all got crosser and crosser. All the people got very confused. Mr Slime joined in by showing a picture which made people feel very sick when they looked at it. The people were even more confused!

The Big Vote

In the end, the people were so confused that just over half of them said they wanted to tear down the bridge to the other rooms. “Hurrah!” they said, “We won!” and rushed off to tear down the bridge. Some people brought matches and tried to burn down the bridge. But, whoops! What’s this? The wind changed and the fire spread to room Number Nine. There was lots of damage. Everybody blamed everybody else! Mr Two-Face said he didn’t want to be leader any more. Mr Monster smiled quietly to himself. His monstrous master plan was working out very nicely…

Next Time…

What will happen next? Will the fire spread to the other rooms in the Big House? Will there be any bits of room Number Nine left to live in? Who will lead the Nasties? Will Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me still be friends? Or will there be more creeping and back-stabbing? Will Mr Slime crawl back into his slimy hole? Or has his oozy, stinky smell made too many people into Stinkies too? Watch out for the next exciting part of Mr Men 2016!

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Brexit: The Beginning

I’m planning to write a more reflective piece on recent events in the next day or two. In the meantime, here’s a short post with a few nuggets you may have missed in the mayhem.

The First Four Hours

In the first four hours since the referendum result was declared, the following two things (amongst many others) happened:

  1. Britain slipped from the fifth largest economy in the world to the sixth, as a result of the sharp fall in the value of the pound. France’s economy has now overtaken ours.
  2. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, pledged “up to £250bn”, if needed, to be available to the banking system to maintain the confidence of the markets. Readers might like to compare this figure to the annual £7bn for the UK’s financial contribution to the EU. This equates to just 0.4% of our annual income (GDP). (The Brexiteers’ notorious, lying figure of £350m a week equates to £18bn per annum.)

English Comprehension Test

The following two statements were made by leading politicians on Friday, less than a day after the result:

Statement A: “We end this referendum more divided than when we started it.”

Statement B: “We can now, calmly and united, take our country forward in the spirit of the warm, humane and generous values that are the best of Britain”.

Question: The speaker of which of these two statements is in greater touch with reality?

Oh, and just for information… speaker A was Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party; speaker B was Michael Gove, Lord Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Government, serial liar during the campaign, in charge of our judicial system. (You just couldn’t make it up!)

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This Blinkered Isle

Johnofgaunt
John of Gaunt

This royal throne of kings, this blinkered isle,
This earth of poverty, this seat of wealth,
This other Eton; O, and peasants else.
This fortress built by nature for her self
Against infection by the stranger’s touch.
This scrappy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a sullen sea
Which minds it in the office of a wall
Now under-tunnelled by our neighbour France
To grant temptation to less happier lands.
Th’enfeebled leader “referendum” cedes
To backbench plotters, hatred in their hearts.
With forked tongues dissemblers do declaim
While radiant truth lies strangled in blood’s heat.
Prince Bullingdon did toss a coin to see
Which wind would bring the greater gain to he
Of power, no heed for consequence to us.
False Duncan, and fantastic Master Gove
Join Boris dancing on the grave of truth.
Like witches three, they bubble up a brew
Of false enchantment that wise heads rebuff.
Whilst from the rancid sewer of the mind
Crawls Nige of Dulwich, honour’s breaking point,
His poison brokered into every pore.
Meanwhile, there’s bread and circuses afoot
With England drawing to the second round.
And aged Queen, with ten and four-score years
Distracts the mob with sycophantic cheers.
The long-seen monarch, quizzical of gaze;
For, truth be spoke, she has seen better days.
The wider picture? Well, of nought be said
Spare not a thought for how our votes be cast
Affect upon those others, far and near.
The cursed stranger, crushed by tyrant’s yoke
Once looked this way for brave, inspiring hope.
His gaze averts, his countenance a-dark
Now finds no haven in fair Albion’s arc.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Can raise no greater sentiments than: me.
And decades long of fouling Mail and Sun
Hath leached and bleached the greater self, for shame.
Oh, little isle! Thou canst do more than this!
That England that was wont to inspire others
Hath made a selfish conquest of itself.

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What Sort of People Are We?

The horrible murder of MP Jo Cox has cast a poignant and heartbreaking shadow over the final days in the run-up to the EU referendum. The outpouring of grief and loss from her constituency and in Westminster show just how much she was loved and appreciated and how much she will be missed. It was a timely reminder that politicians – like other human beings – are nearly all good people. Jo, and MPs like her, work hard for their constituents and are driven by a positive desire to make the world a better place. And yet the standing of politicians in general is at an all-time low. It’s surprising how many people say “they’re generally a bad bunch – but mine’s all right”. Look no further than the usual suspects in the press to explain that.

(Incidentally, it was a sadly missed opportunity that the Daily Telegraph was the newspaper that broke the story about MPs’ expenses. The Barclay brothers’ Telegraph clearly had an agenda and spun the story to make all MPs look as bad as each other. This had two advantages to their “we support the Tories but want to push them even further to the right” strategy. Firstly, they knew that Labour supporters would be much less tolerant of such behaviour than Tory supporters, thereby giving the latter an electoral advantage. And secondly, discrediting all politicians further undermines democracy and makes it easier for the Barclays and their like to exercise more de facto political power.)

Project Bigot

But, now back to current politics and the EU referendum. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Jo Cox stands the ultimate in the truly bad politicians: Nigel Farage. Just two hours before Jo Cox was murdered, UK politics sank to a new moral low when Farage stood in front of the now-notorious “Breaking Point” poster. This was a classic piece of political mischief-making straight out of the Joseph Goebbels textbook. There are, indeed, politicians – though thankfully not, in this case, an elected one – prepared to stir up the vilest of human attributes: bigotry, prejudice and barely-disguised racism. The poster was the most cynical misrepresentation of the facts showing a line of desperate people fleeing a war-torn country – none of whom are ever likely to come anywhere near the UK.

In attempting to distance himself from this despicable piece of fear-inducing, rabble-rousing propaganda, Michael Gove protested about how “shocked” he was. And Boris “I don’t really care who wins the referendum as long as it helps my chances to become PM” Johnson similarly distanced himself from it. Who are these people attempting to occupy the moral high ground? They’re leading the official Vote Leave campaign.

That Leaflet

On the morning after Cox’s murder, a small 4-page leaflet, entitled The European Union and Your Family: The Facts, landed on my doormat. It was from the campaign team led by Gove and Johnson. Page 1 contains two “facts” that are both outright lies: the notorious £350 million a week bill for EU membership and the claim that Turkey is lined up to join the EU. Pages 2 and 3 contain 8 bullet points claiming to be facts. Two are repeats of those on page 1. One is broadly true. One quotes the figure of annual migrants from the EU, but fails to mention the number who leave each year, painting a misleading picture. One contains a complete non sequitur about the EU claiming “more control” to “prop up the Euro”. Understand that link? I don’t. One is a misrepresentation of EU and domestic law and makes the usual mistake about the European Court of Human Rights being part of the EU – which it isn’t. The last two are grossly misleading statements about the division of business and expert opinion. Page 4 repeats the lies from page 1, but now represented graphically. It also poses a totally irrelevant question to the one on the ballot paper.

In short, the leaflet is a crock of shit. It plays on the same fears and aims to stoke up similar base instincts that the Farage poster does. The moral ground occupied by the leaflet is barely higher than that of Farage. I disagree with David Cameron on most things, but I salute his robust statement on the BBC’s Question Time that the two “facts” on page 1 of the Vote Leave leaflet and the “threat of an EU army” are just outright lies.

Compare the people in the two camps in the referendum and compare the things they have said during the campaign. There is no moral equivalence. The economic argument has long since been won hands down by the Remain campaign. The so-called “Project Fear” has at least been an attempt to get across some basic information, albeit often in an over-simplified way. But the Leave campaign has been straight lies and personal attacks.

Who Are We?

So, the moral question is: what sort of a people are we British? Do we want to turn our backs on our closest neighbours and shout at them from the outside? (I use the word “closest” both in a geographical and a cultural sense.) A vote to leave would turn Britain into some form of international pariah: the country that abandoned its friends when times were tough. We would forfeit nearly all the moral authority we hold in the world, which currently allows us to punch above our weight on the world stage. In the words of historian Anthony Beevor, we risk becoming “the world’s most-hated nation”.

holding handsAre we as mean-spirited, bigoted, hateful of “the other”, xenophobic and downright misanthropic as you would find in a land created in the image of Nigel Farage? Or do we aspire to the “powerful and compelling humanity” of Jo Cox and the majority of her fellow MPs? I know amongst whom I’d rather be living, come Friday morning.

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A Glimmer of Hope

Readers of my earlier posts will know that I fundamentally disagree with the prevailing economic policy I call “free market fundamentalism”. Well, a new report by the “High Church” of economic policy, the International  Monetary  Fund, gives me some slight hope for a change. The report was written by Ostri, Loungani and Furceri of the IMF’s research department. Its sub-headline states “Instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion”.

To be fair to the authors, they do acknowledge that some reforms under the neoliberal agenda have been beneficial. For example, the increase in global trade and foreign investment has “rescued millions from abject poverty” and helped to transfer skills to developing countries. But the report highlights two specific areas with a far more critical eye.

Free Movement of Capital

The first area concerns the widely adopted policy of removing restrictions on the movement of capital around the world. Proponents of this policy state this enables capital to move to where it will be most productive. But in practice, a great many of these capital flows take the form of portfolio investment or speculative trading. There is no discernible benefit in terms of growth from such flows. What’s worse, there is strong evidence that it leads to much greater instability: “boom and bust”. This instability, in turn, damages growth and hurts poorer people most. In other words, it decreases stability and increases inequality. Increased inequality, in its turn, reduces growth. (See my earlier post Inequality Damages Your Wealth.)

The upshot is that freedom of capital movement does more harm than good.

Incidentally, it’s worth noticing the lopsided nature of Free Market Fundamentalism policy in this respect. Capital is allowed to flow freely across borders; people are not. (Look at the frenzy that the Brexiteers – über-free marketeers to a man – are whipping up about free movement of labour in the EU.) The link to inequality is obvious. The rich have capital to spare to move around the world. The poor have just their own skills, their own labour. Extra freedoms for the former and none for the latter are bound to increase inequality in the longer term.

Austerity

Austerity policy is everywhere: it’s been George Osborne’s mantra for the last six years. Its stated aim of reducing government debt is always used as a cover to shrink the state. The report concedes that reduced levels of debt, all other things being equal, are helpful to growth. But the means of getting there is more damaging to growth than the benefits. It concludes: “Faced with a choice between living with the higher debt—allowing the debt ratio to decline organically through growth—or deliberately running budgetary surpluses to reduce the debt, governments with ample fiscal space will do better by living with the debt.” (The report states that the UK is a country “with ample fiscal space”.)

Two International Institutions

In summary, the IMF said that the discredited policies did not boost growth, that the downside in terms of increased inequality was “prominent” and this in turn damaged growth.

As well as the IMF, the OECD, the other main respected international body on economic matters, also weighed into the subject in February. Its report recommended that countries like Britain should reduce austerity and invest more public money in infrastructure.

The IMF report ends with these words: “Policymakers, and institutions like the IMF that advise them, must be guided not by faith, but by evidence of what has worked.” Quite: the FMF sacred cow is overdue for slaughter.

Sadly, the continuing misfortune for Britain is that we have a government, elected on just 37% of the popular vote, but over 50% funded by City organisations and finance companies – many specialising in the corrosive, speculative end of the business. Cameron and company will continue to take the City’s interests as the same as the nation’s. (My earlier post, The City: Paragon or Parasite? shows those interests are not the same – and more like opposites.) The necessary lessons from this new understanding will be learnt very belatedly, if at all.

light at the end of the tunnel
Light…

But the good news is that the two main economic institutions in the world are now seriously questioning the orthodoxy of the past 35 years’ economic policies. There is a glimmer of hope that, one day, even the British government will realise the errors of its ways. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for the next crash before things start to change.

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