Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Falklands: two sides to the story.

 The "comment" by Anonymous to the previous post deserves more than a comment in reply.

Anonymous, and I suspect most people in the UK, see the Falklands War as a source of national pride – putting the “Great” back into Great Britain (which is actually a geographical term, nothing to do with political eminence).

But there’s another side of the story .  

Britian's title to the Falklands, which was claimed as a Crown Colony in 1841, was always a bit dubious,  and disputed by Argentina from the beginning. 

For some years before 1982, when the war took place,  the Britain's Foreign Office had been toying with various options, such as joint sovereignty with Argentine, to extract us from sole responsibility for the Islands.

When the Defence Secretary,  John Nottannounced in 1981 that HMS Endurance, the only British naval presence in the South Atlantic, was to be withdrawn, the Argentine government , anxious to distract attention from its domestic problems, decided Britain was no longer too bothered about the area and decided to put a toe in the water by organising an allegedly civilian occupation of South Georgia.

Mrs Thatcher certainly showed admirable guts, grit and determination in organising and sticking with her Task Force which would,  of course, been unnecessary but for the wrong signals sent out by  proposed  withdrawal of the Endurance. During the voyage out,  opportunities for a diplomatic compromise were proposed but  these were turned down, and the war was won by  Britain with the human cost of 255 British and 649 Argentinian deaths, most of the latter teenage conscripts.

Mrs Thatcher received her reward in two subsequent election victories.    But the problem remains and the diplomatic solution which the Foreign Office were seeking in the 1970s is still being sought and will eventually be achieved.

To me, after the deaths, innumerable other casualties, post conflict suicides and traumatic stress disorder, the part of the “adventure”  I found then and still find most  distressing is the re- emergence of jingoism – exemplified by the Sun’s “Gotcha” and “Up yours, Galtieri”  headlines.  I thought that, with the demise of the Boys Own Paper and the  post Second World War literature and comic strips on which I fed as a child and adolescent (Achtung!  Schweinhund!) we had grown out of that.  

 Alas no (and I suspect some of it remains and will flavour the Brexit debate)

It’s instructive  to compare our reaction to the Falklands to our supine (but sensible) handing over of Hong Kong to China.  We were fed the myth that the colony was only on a 99 year lease so we were legally obliged to hand it over.  

 But that was not true.  The 99 year lease applied to the New Territories (on the mainland)  but not to the island of Hong Kong, which was  a Crown Colony  and to which Britain had a much stronger title than to the Falklands.

Wisely, Mrs Thatcher sent no task-force to the South China Seas:  instead Chris Patten was sent to haul down the flag. 

 Bullies only enforce their principles when the adversary is weak.

Monday, 22 February 2016

EU debate, the Boris factor

As noted in an earlier post, the trouble with referendums is that people tend to vote on something other than the question on the ballot paper - as often as not to give the authorities a kick in the teeth whatever the actual  issue at stake.

Boris Johnson's carefully choreographed announcement that he is to vote for "OUT" illustrates that this dubiously legitimate use of referendums applies to leading campaigners as well we humble voters.  If Johnson has, as he claims, agonised for weeks if not longer as to which side to come down on, then he must be able to see the pros and cons of both sides and feel that the difference between them is not great.  So his motive for entering the argument with such panache must presumably be other than a firm conviction that it is immeasurably better for the UK to be out rather than in.

Presumably  the scenario he has in mind is that, if the outs win, then Cameron may  resign in disgrace and he, Johnson, hero of the successful out campaign, will be a shoe-in for the next leader of the Conservative Party. Maybe Cameron will resign at once and he, Johnson, will step into his shoes as Prime Minister.

So, as far as Johnson is concerned, the referendum is not really about the merits  of the question of Britain's future in or out of Europe, but of Johnson in or out of 10 Downing Street.

Johnson will certainly bring colour to the campaign, but let's hope the electorate are reasonably quizzical  about the motive for his antics.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

EU. . . we're off!

Well, thank goodness Cameron has achieved t his EU deal, has, as predicted,  announced it as a triumph, and off we go for four months of wrangling before we, the public, decide whether to stay in or out.

Cameron has got off to a good start.  Whatever the merits of the deal, (more of which later), he has gained a justified reputation for dogged determination in the negotiations, and has already used his undoubted PR skills, or maybe those of his team, by coining the words "special status" to define our future position in the EU if we vote  to remain in it.

The idea of "special status" suits the British view of ourselves.   Way back in 1930 Winston Churchill declared that "We [British] have our own dreams and our own task.  We are with Europe but not part of it."  In his memoirs (1979) the  formidable Liberal leader Jo Grimond wrote

 ". . .we came out of the [Second World] war being told that we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced  that the world must see that we were natural leaders  of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars as far as work was concerned  and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."

So "special status" suits the British psyche: we can stand semi-detached, feeling slightly superior, and, as of right, having our cake and eating it.

Cameron's concessions don't amount to much, but that is not the point. He has played exactly the same game that Harold Wilson played in the mid-70s - renegotiated a deal sufficient  to try to convince us that the game had changed sufficiently for continued membership to be worthwhile. It worked, by two to one.

In actual fact I believe all Cameron's concessions are moves in the wrong direction.  He has:
  • opted the UK out of "ever closer union."  But the treaty speaks not of  more integration of governments but  "ever closer union of people."  Surely that is a worthy aspiration, the road we should like history to take.  It is an aspiration which for the moment is on the back burner, but the world will be a better and safer place when hopes for it are revived.
  • dealt a mean hand for migrant workers, pandering to the "dog in the manger" pettiness of the tabloid press, out to sell newspapers by exploiting the meanest instincts of their readers.
  • excluded  the City from financial regulations emanating from the EU.  This is the most brainless of all the concessions.  Surely, after the crash brought about by financial irresponsibility in 2007/8 we need tighter rather than looser regulation.  Not to mention promoting the alleged policies of skewing the UK economy away from excessive dependence on the financial sector and toward a "march of the makers" in a "northern powerhouse."
  • secured a say in any decisions regarding the Eurozone which might affect non-members - the illogical position of not wanting to be a member of a club but demanding  a say in how it is run.
In his speech on the deal Cameron included several "nevers" which surprised me.

We shall "never" join the Euro.   "A week is a long time in politics" and "never" is even longer. My own prediction would be that, if the Euro overcomes its short-term difficulties, is reformed with a lender of last resort, along with adequate transfer mechanisms from stronger to weaker economies (as between the American states) then it will survive and we shall go begging to join within 20 years.

We hall "never" join a European army.  Why ever not?  In the long run I'd like to see all national armies ceded to the United Nations as an international armed police force, and a European army could be a step on the way.  We are already, from the Second World War onwards, accustomed to British forces being under foreign command - first Eisenhower then other NATO commanders, so this is nothing new.

There were at lest two more "nevers" but I can't remember what they were.

However, I doubt if the details of the Cameron concessions will feature largely in the referendum campaign.  The  question now is whether we see Britain's future as an isolated island, a rowing-boat bobbing behind the USS United States, or a partner co-operating with our neighbours in culture, politics, philosophy and economics, to help steer ourselves and the world to a saner, fairer, and sustainable  future.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Jeremy Corbyn spot on.

If Jeremy Corbyn has been correctly reported he has said that what David Cameron should really be arguing for  in his negotiations with the other EU leaders is: " democratisation, workers' rights, an end to austerity and a halt to the privatisation of public services."

Well, one wouldn't expect a Troy to be arguing for those, but Corbyn has clearly defined a constructive alternative.  According to the report he goes on to say: "I want a Europe that is one of social justice, that is one that is working together.  I don't want to see one that is only based on a free market.  It has to be based on the rights of people all across Europe."

Well, I can campaign with enthusiasm for all of that, and so, I suspect, can most if not all Liberal Democrats.  Here is a vision worth fighting for.

I cannot understand why the press, including my beloved Guardian, along with half his own party, persist in describing Corbyn as "unelectable" a visionary idealist  "away with the fairies" and without a practical proposal to his name.  The priorities listed above are a refreshing alternative to the alternative  narrow-mindedness verging on xenophobia, and make him the person at the moment best placed to lead a rainbow campaign for a fairer  more   open and more tolerant future.

Liberal Democrat leaders should be loud in proclaiming that these are our priorities too.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

EU mini-decision day

Fingers crossed that David Cameron comes out with some sort of decision about Britain's demand for mini-changes in the way the European Union conducts itself, and we can (after a four month delay here in Britain while we argue about the dots on the "i"s and crosses on the "t"s) move on to wrestling with the reallu serious problems which confront our country, the EU and the world.

If there is a decision, than there is no doubt that Cameron will use his PR skills to announce it as a great triumph.   For once his undoubted skills will be on the side of rationality rather than deception so we must be thankful for them.  They will be sorely needed.

There are three major obstacles to be overcome in the referendum debate.

First is the overwhelming anti-EU bias of the majority of our press.  This has little to do with with either the facts of the case or the normal political stance of the newspapers concerned, and all to do with the prejudices of their owners.  Rupert Murdoch, originally Australian but now a citizen of the US, owns The Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun and the Sun on Sunday (formerly the News of the World)  The Barclay brothers, resident in the Channel Islands, own the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and Lord Rothermere the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.   Murdoch, the Barclay brothers and Rothermere are all, for reasons best known to themselves, strongly anti-EU and, though it is denied, this is reflected in the reporting of these newspapers.  That leaves only a minority of the press: largely  the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and Observer, to give a more objective and, I hope, more positive view towards he EU.  The Daily Express will doubtless continue to obsess about the weather and the death of Princess Diana.

So a level playing field of public debate there will not be.  The BBC, alas, allows the print media to define the news agenda on a daily basis so even they are likely to give more airing to the Brexit side of the debate than is merited.

Second, although the British public voted two to one in favour of remaining in the EU in the previous referendum in 1975, today the public mood is much less deferential.  Then we bowed obediently to the collective view of all three major parties and  the business community: today we are much more likely, and with some justification, to give them a kick in the teeth.  That is the problem with referendums: people are likely to vote not on the question on the ballot paper, but as an expression of frustration  with the powers that be.

Third, whereas those of us in favour of remaining in the EU, even becoming enthusiastic members, recognise that the whole  present palaver is merely a device for Cameron to out-manoeuvre his Eurosceptics, dish UKIP and keep his party intact, and so are rather bored by the whole business, the Brexit brigade have fire in their bellies and will fight tooth and nail to achieve what they see as a better yesterday.

So we pro-Europeans must stir our stumps, campaign  with equal or even greater vigour and, after what I fervently hope will be a victory for "Remain," then get on with the very urgent and exceptionally dangerous problems facing the world (the revival of East/West tensions, war in the Middle East, the refugee crisis, the possibility of another banking melt-down, to name but four) and Britain (shortage of affordable housing, a yawning balance of payments deficit, growing inequality, shamefully low productivity, to name but another four.)

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Chinese dumping

A friend of mine has a little round dish which looks like an ashtray but is in fact, as it says round the edge, "a round tuit."  I believe it was given to him by his wife on the assumption that now he had got around to it, he had no further excuses for not doing all those little jobs that she felt needed attention.

I have been intending to write a post on dumping in relation to Britain's steel industry for some months, but somehow never got around to it.  To prevent dumping is about the only reason or excuse for interfering with international trade by tariffs or other devices which is undisputedly regarded as legitimate even by the most neo-liberal of economics text books.

Dumping is the selling in a foreign markets of a product at below its cost of production in order to get rid of a surplus of domestic supplies, or, more sinisterly, to put the producers of that product in the foreign market out of business, and then, once the competition is eliminated, hike up the prices.  Dumping is not to be confused with selling a product at a lower price than the foreign market can manage because the exporter is more efficient or, in the jargon, has a "comparative advantage."  That's the basis of all legitimate international trade and from which we all benefit considerably.  (Just think how much bananas would cost if we had to grow them here  in greenhouses.)

So if, as seems certain, China is dumping steel at below cost on the world market, we have every justification of putting up a higher tariff, or other restriction, in order to stop them and preserve our own steel industry, and I have wondered for months why on earth we didn't do it.

The answer is revealed in last Sunday's Observer. Other steel producing  countries in the EU wish to impose a punitive tariff against Chinese steel similar to the 256% duty the US charges  but this is being blocked  by - guess who -  the UK.  Rather than respond with a punitive tariff, the EU is limited to a puny increase from 9.2% to 13%.  The reason appears to be that the UK is anxious not to  upset China or other arrangements may be derailed.

As a result, Tata, the Indian company now responsible for the production of what remains of British steel production, may be forced to further closures.  Tata's domestic government, India, is not so timid, and has slapped significant tariffs on steel imports from both China and Korea.

In Britain it seems that, whereas there is no limit to the measures and finance necessary to rescue and  preserve banking and finance, the steel industry, and the workers in it, are dispensable.

So much, yet again, for all being in it together.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Further Tory contempt for democracy.

When I first started studying politics way back in the 1950s I was taught that, whereas in many wicked foreign systems opposition to the government was forbidden, sometimes on pain of torture or death, here in enlightened Britain opposition was not only permitted, but opponents  were actually  paid to do it.  "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition "was a part of our wonderful, though unwritten, constitution, and its leader was paid a salary out of public funds.

Clearly this concept that freedom to oppose is an essential part of a healthy democracy does not form part of the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) course which David Cameron studied at Oxford, or if it does, then Cameron wasn't listening when they came to that bit of it.

Step by step this government is seeking to choke off opposition.

In the last parliament a bill which purported to regulate the activities of all lobbyists effectively only reduced the ability of charities to campaign during elections. Privileged access of private companies and interests such as the betting lobby to ministers and government departments remains unhindered. Google, for example, had umpteen conversations with ministers before their mouse of a tax deal with HMRC was revealed.

Charities which receive funding from the government are to be forbidden to use that money for any campaigning at all.

The "Short Money", which for 40 years has funded political parties other than the official opposition, has been cut, and the ability of the trade unions to contribute to the Labour Party is to be greatly reduced by the substitution of "contracting in" for "contracting out."  There is  no similar restriction to require share-holders to "contract in" to, or vote for, the massive contributions their companies make to the Conservative Party.

Today the Independent newspaper reveals plans for the latest outrage.

"Local councils, public bodies and even some university unions are to be banned by law from boycotting "unethical" companies. . . .Under the [government's] plan all publicly funded institutions will lose the right to refuse to buy gods and services from companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank."

Beyond the sphere of funding, "freedom of assembly" (ie to demonstrate) has become increasingly difficult, and the ability of public service unions to strike is to be made almost impossible.

Daily under this government we move closer to the (slightly adapted) conclusion of the Marriott Edgar poem popularised by Stanley Holloway:

And it's through that there Magna Charter
As were signed by the Barons of old,
That in England today we can think what we like,
So long as we think what we're told.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Political wind of change in US too

I have no expertise in American politics, but it does not need expert knowledge to discern that the results of the primaries in New Hampshire indicate the same weariness  with existing politics that has been exhibited here and in other parts of Europe.

Maybe it won't last.  Maybe Donald Trump's frightening lead will evaporate once the Republicans  settle on a single alternative.  Maybe the Democrats' surprising support for Bernie Sanders (a Socialist!) will eventually be squashed  by the might and money of the Clinton machine.  But it is clear that, for the moment at least, those more active in American politics are rejecting "the mixture as before" and crying out for something new and different.

Clearly, as in Britain, the existing party establishments  are terrified that what motivates the party activists may not be quite so appealing to the electorate at large.  In the case of Trump and the Republicans one fervently hopes they are right.  But on the left, as  Syriza in Greece and Podemas in Spain have so ably demonstrated, the enthusiasm of youth can generate meaningful support for concepts of fairness and change which the established left-of-centre parties are now too timid to embrace .

To my mind the message for British politics is clear.  Jeremy Corbyn has reached out to such a constituency of grass-roots enthusiasts.  The Labour Party establishment, instead of rejoicing (if one dare  use an expression tarnished by Mrs Thatcher), carps, criticises, and in Hilary Benn's case, openly opposes.  Journalists from whom one hoped for better, join the chorus.  The flip-flopping Polly Toynbee rarely mentions Corbyn without attaching the adjective "unelectable."  In yesterday's Guardian, referring to Corbyn supporters, Suzanne Moore writes: "the thrill of principle unsullied by the reality of power, appeals."  So far, alas, the Liberal Democrat leaders, such as remain, have been more "snipive" than supportive.

Although predictions of the political future in these uncertain times are mostly doomed to be proved false, of one thing I am pretty certain.  That is  that if the Labour establishment prevails, and replaces Corbyn with one of its pillars - Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, or either of the other two whose names I forget, and the Liberal Democrats continue to snipe Corbyn  rather than support those many goals of his which we share (though our method of achieving them may be different) then we are handing the government of our country to the Tory destroyers for yet another generation.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Crisis in teacher supply.

A report from the National Audit Office published today states that "The Department [of Education]. . . has missed its recruitment targets for the last four years and there are signs that teacher shortages are growing."

Equally disturbing particulars were published last week in an  article by John Harris (G 2 2nd February)  which claimed that the shortage of qualified teachers  is going to get much worse as the number on school rolls rises from today's 7 million to 8 million by 2022.

The problem is not just a lack of recruits, but of retaining them once they start.  An alarmingly high percentage leave  before completing four years of service, and 100,000 never even enter the classroom at all.  Presumably they discover in their training that teaching is not for them.

The unions claim that low pay is a factor, since, as part of the "austerity" policy, salaries were frozen for three years from 2010 and increases are now capped at no more than 1% per year until 2020. This, given there is still some inflation in the economy, is effectively a cut.  However,  I strongly suspect that it is largely the current nature of the job that is deterring new recruits, causing new entrants to leave, and making so many mature teachers absolutely desperate to retire.

I began classroom teaching in 1959 and finally retired from it  in 2003 (though I still do the odd  tutorial at a local university). I estimate that during my school teaching career only a very small percentage  of my working time and energy was spent on administrative and recording tasks.  The register, for example, had to be "balanced"  at the end of the week (  the horizontal tally of each pupil’s attendances had to balance with the vertical tally of the class totals for each morning and afternoon. This could occupy some of my less numerate colleagues  for much of Friday afternoon. )

More time  went on pupils’  physical needs - collecting and balancing the dinner money on Monday mornings, for example, plus supervising lunches and playgrounds. However these weren't particularly onerous, and could be quite enjoyable. "Dinner duty" at my first school, a Secondary Modern where we ate  at tables with the pupils, reminded me to mind my table manners.

But  90% of my time and energy was devoted to what I was vocationally motivated to do: preparing the lessons, giving them in as stimulating a manner as I could think of, setting homework and marking it, setting little tests for my and their enjoyment and feedback, preparing,  setting and marking  internal examinations, writing reports for the parents.  

Only in my first, probationary, year, was I required to prove to my superiors that I was actually doing what I was paid for by presenting  lesson preparation notes to my heads of departments and head teacher.  After that I was recognised as a competent professional and trusted to get on with the job.  I enjoyed it enormously.

From speaking with young teachers,  it is clear that most teachers now spend at least half their time proving to others that they’re doing  their job, often in very proscribed manner, rather than being trusted as I was.  This pointless recording, coupled with the bullying techniques of OFSTED, has squeezed out both the purpose and enjoyment of the job.   

No wonder they are leaving.

Maybe the laissez-faire regime which endured for most of my career was too much on the lax side, but the pendulum needs to move strongly in the direction of trusting the teachers if the job is to become rewarding and satisfying  again.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Cameron giveth - and Cameron taketh away.

David Cameron is to be congratulated in helping to initiate, and to host, the London Conference which has pledged a total of  $10bn  to help refugees from war-torn Syria, and in particular to ensure that as many as possible of the displaced children receive an education.

Cameron is also correct to emphasise the importance of helping those refugees  displaced to camps near Syria rather than concentrating only on those who have made perilous journeys and entered, or are on the borders of, the EU.  As a contributor to the  BBC Radio 4 programme " Start the Week"  last week (still available here) pointed out, those who have made the journey are not only among the most courageous refugees, but also the wealthiest who can afford the payments to the people-traffickers: there are many equally deserving cases back in the camps without these advantages. Unfortunately Cameron talks in terms of "either-or" whereas, in all humanity, we must cope with both.

Cameron boastfully reminds us that Britain is already the second largest donor to the Syrian Refugee cause, and that the additional £1.7bn he now promises (but over four years) will more than double our present contribution.

However, if I heard the BBC News correctly, this extra money is to come from the existing aid budget - the 0.7% of GDP we are so proud of achieving. So it is to be money taken from that which would otherwise be used to help others in poverty-stricken situations.

My father and his brothers were very fond of quoting a ditty:

It's the poor that helps the poor
When poverty knocks at the door.

. . .maybe from a Victorian or Edwardian music-hall song .

That seems to be an apt description of Britain's "extra" contribution.

I admit there is a certain logic to this, but I would be prouder, in these exceptionally distressing circumstances, if, rather than a transfer, this had been additional money raised from those of us who can easily afford it by:

an extra 1p on one of the income;
2p on a litre of petrol or diesel;
the proceeds of a tax on sugar;
1p on a pint of beer of 2p on a bottle of wine:
or a 0.01% capital transfer tax.:
or scrapping prestige projects such as HS2 or Trident

There are plenty of possibilities

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Cameron and In-work benefits.

We're taught that in the Middle Ages scholars spent their time discussing abstruse topics such as "how many angels can dance on the point of a pin?"  This was thought to be pretty pointless (pun accidental) at the best of times and particularly irrelevant at times of crisis such as when Constantinople was threatened  by the invasion of barbarian (ouch) hordes.

There seem to be to be serious similarities between this situation and Cameron's obsession with in-work benefits for EU nationals working in the UK.  Last week I asked a friend who had served in the coalition as a junior minister if he had any idea how much these in-work benefits cost, or what proportion of the social security bill, or of total government expenditure, they formed.  He said he didn't know, and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) didn't really know either.

One of the complications (spelled out in this Guardian article) is that HMRC (the revenue collecting department, but also responsible for working tax credits) defines a family as "Non UK" if one adult in it is an immigrant (ie even if married to or living with a UK citizen.)  So some of this expenditure goes to families which many of us would  define as British (or at least part-British)

However, the same article reports the DWP as conceding that "EU migrants on “in-work” benefits cost the taxpayer £530m in 2013." That, according to the article, represents a modest 1.6% of the year’s total tax credit bill.

By my calculations, as the UK's national income is over £2 trillion, that represent about a quarter of one per cent, or £1 in every £400,a little bit more than peanuts, perhaps, though it must be balanced by the in-work benefits, if any (I haven't the energy to try and find out) received by the 1.3 million British nationals living in other parts of the EU.

Whatever the balance is, it is hardly sufficient on which to decide the great issue of whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

 While this nonsense is distracting us, Europe, and the rest of the rich world, is faced with the most demanding problem of modern times: how to deal with migration from poorer countries, often made so by conflict.  Given modern communications and relatively cheap intentional travel this problem is not going to go away, even if and when some of the conflicts are resolved. Any solution must involve not just European but international co-operation.

And here in the UK we have our own desperate problems, of insufficient housing, low productivity, a yawning balance of payment deficit, a health service stretched beyond its capacity, and growing inequality.

Angels on a pin, or fiddling while Rome burns?  It is hard to decide on the more apt analogy.