Monthly Archives: July 2015

Job Interview

Imagine the scene: a discreet, oak-panelled office, somewhere in Whitehall. The year is 1952. A man sits at a large, highly-polished desk. A young woman, in her mid-twenties, enters the room. The man stands up to greet her.

Man (interviewer): Good morning, Mrs Windsor, do take a seat.

Woman (candidate): Thank you.

(They sit)

Man: Do make yourself comfortable. There’s a glass of water* there if you need it, Mrs Windsor, or do you mind if I call you Betty?

Woman: Yes, I’m afraid one does mind.

(* tap water, of course: This is 1952! Duchy Original Royal Deeside Mineral Water, 95p for 750ml from Waitrose, came much later. Also, yes, I made up the Betty bit, just for fun. No one in 1952 would dream of being so informal to a stranger they’ve just met. False bonhomie, pretending to be your best friend, by telephone cold callers and the like, is a 21st century phenomenon. But I digress…)

Man: Sorry, Mrs Windsor. So, first, let me ask you, what skills do you have that make you suitable for this job?

Woman: Well… (pause), one was born…

Man (interrupting): Thank you, Mrs Windsor, no more questions. Or should I call you Your Majesty? Congratulations, you’ve got the job.

Ridiculous? I think so – let me explain.

Choosing a Head of State

When it comes to choosing a head of state, I start from two basic principles:

  1. Like the Americans say: we hold these truths to be self-evident: all are born equal.
  2. Selection for head of state is the greatest honour the people of a country can bestow on one of its citizens.

Dangerous, subversive stuff? I don’t think so – just plain common sense. Reducing the choice of head of state to an accident of birth, to me, creates two problems:

  1. As it takes no effort on behalf of the “winner”, it devalues the honour of the appointment to a meaningless nothing.
  2. It insults the whole electorate, who cannot be trusted to make the “right” choice.

I find the idea that some people are born “better” than others abhorrent and quite out of place in a modern democracy. Surely people must earn their status through their own efforts. All sorts of basically undemocratic practices follow from the status quo. For example, the politicians who passed the Parliament Act in 1911 would surely be horrified to learn that, 104 years on, reform of the House of Lords – an intrinsically corrupt body based on past or present patronage – has not been completed.

Let’s Have a Debate

I have no fully-formed set of proposals for what should replace the monarchy – although the Republic of Ireland seems a good model to start from. My wish would be that we start a grown-up debate around 2 points:

  1. What should the role of our head of state be?
  2. What is the best method of selecting him or her? This would include term of office, and qualifying criteria, if any, that candidates must possess. (As a starter, I would exclude people who have been MPs or senators, either for life or perhaps for a fixed period: 7 years seems about right.)

At any rate, can we please be treated as adults and have a mature public debate about such matters before the next one is thrust upon us?

 

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Some Are More Equal

Most people remember the line “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. This comes at the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, when the idealism of the original Seven Commandments has degenerated to this last, cynical, depressing “rule”.

But earlier in the tale, the animals do their best to learn the original seven. The sheep, bless their dear, stupid woolly socks, can only manage to bleat “four legs good, two legs ba-ad”.

Which reminds me of something…

The FMFs Again

I wrote about Free Market Fundamentalism (FMF) in my post Why George Osborne Is Only Half Human. The FMFs make a number of assertions:

  • Societies work best when markets are free from government interference
  • Private sector organisations work better than public ones
  • Salary is a reliable guide to someone’s worth to the economy
  • Making poor people poorer by cutting benefits incentivizes them to work harder
  • Making rich people richer by cutting their taxes incentivizes them to work harder (or stay in the country and add value)
  • Wealth trickles down naturally from the richest to the poorest
  • Using the law to settle disputes works better than regulation
  • Taxation should be as low as possible (and ideally at a flat rate for all)
  • Government spending crowds out private investment
  • Consequentially, Governments should shrink.

That’s a long list for people to carry around in their heads all the time, unless they’re professionally involved in economics: people have busy lives. But busy people such as politicians, business leaders and journalists, just like the sheep in Animal Farm, do seem to keep one idea in their heads:

“Private sector good, public sector ba-ad”.

I’ll comment more on the assertions listed above in future posts. But, for now, I say: “Ba-ah, humbug!!”

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Splitting the Atom

Have you ever split an atom? No, me neither – there are few who have. But many people know that Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) is credited with doing this first. How do we “know” this? This could be for any number of reasons:

  1. We were there when he did it in Manchester, in 1919, according to most websites I’ve looked at (e.g. the official Nobel Prize site), or possibly 1917, according to Wikipedia.
  2. A teacher told us at school or university
  3. A self-appointed “authority” figure, e.g. politician, judge, priest, rabbi, imam told us
  4. We read it in a book, magazine or newspaper article
  5. A parent or friend told us
  6. A “bloke down the pub” told us
  7. We saw it on the BBC / Fox News / CNN / Al Jazeera, etc.
  8. We saw it on the internet (Google lists around 223,000 matches to choose from if you type “Rutherford split atom”)
  9. We dreamt it (but it was such a vivid dream!)
  10. And so on…

It’s a safe bet there’s no one left alive in category 1. So we all “know” that Rutherford was first to split the atom from someone else, either by word of mouth or via some technology, print or electronic. The problem is, what conscious or subconscious process did we go through to decide whether we believe what we heard, read or saw? For example, there are still some conspiracy theorists who don’t believe we landed a man on the moon in 1969: it was all faked in a television studio.

As we grow older, there’s an increasing danger that we learn things from an ever narrower range of sources, whether it be the friends we choose, our choice of daily newspaper, TV or radio news channels or trusted websites. The odds are that we choose those sources run by people who share similar views to our own. Despite our protestations, we all like a bit of “I told you so”, even when we’re only thinking it for ourselves. New “facts” which fit our preconceptions are instantly added to the pile of the things we “know”, those that don’t fit are either rejected or consigned to the “I remain to be convinced” pile.

Who Do You Believe?

Life’s too short to learn everything by personal experience – and some just too plain dangerous: you would not jump in front of a train just to be sure it’s not good for your health! So, obviously, most of what we “know” we learn from others. But who do we trust to tell us the truth and how do we make that judgement? A 2005 MORI poll gives some, slightly dated, insights. In these days of instant access to information via the internet and other electronic media, we are in danger of overload and it’s a challenge to find the time to process it into something meaningful.

There have been times in recent years when education reforms appeared to be taking us back to a 1950s world where rote learning of selected “facts” and the ability to regurgitate them was to be the basis of assessing students’ performance. Beyond key skills such as literacy and numeracy, this makes no sense in the 21st century. We must equip the adults of the future with two skills fit for the information age:

  1. Prioritising and selecting from an excess of data and processing this into digestible and meaningful knowledge
  2. Assessing the reliability and accuracy of information, based upon an informed awareness of the motives and agenda of the person or organisation giving it.

This must surely be the prime moral responsibility of education to our children and future generations.

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