Monday 29 April 2013

Livingstone, Malaŵi, History and Gove.

Yesterday morning's Sunday Worship on Radio 4 reminded me that this year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone.

Michael Gove might learn a few techniques from the official Malaŵian primary school history course on Livingstone. viz:

1.  Dr Livigstone was a missionary: Stanley was not.
2.  Livingstone was kind to Africans: Stanley was not.
3.  Stanley used force on Aricans: Livignstone did not..
4.  Livingstone depended on the Bible: Stanley depended on the gun.
5.  Stanley fought for his way: Livingsotne negotiated for his way.
6.  Stanley was a news reporter: Livingstone was a medical man.
7.  Livignstone was loved by Africans:  Stanley was not.
8.  Stanley called Africa a dark continent: Livingstone called it a great continent.
(and , presumably to  give a sense of balance, and reach a nice round number of "facts" to parrot)
9.  Both Livingstone and Stanley were explorers.
10. Both of them were courageous in trying to achieve their aims.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Liberal Democrat peers miss their opportunity on the NHS

Although I served for two terms as a Liberal Democrat representative on our local Community Health Council (CHC) I do not pretend to understand the ins and outs of NHS organisation.  Even in that period (CHCs were abolished in 2003) my experience was that I'd no sooner begun to get the hang of things when the government of the day ordered a re-organisation and I had to start al over again.  The current, unmandated, reorganisation continues that unfortunate tradition.

But,  although I do not fully  to the implications, the point of view expressed in this letter to the Guardian, from a Dr David Wrigley (no relation of which I'm aware), rings true.

 • The BMA's call for the withdrawal of the NHS regulations may seem just technical, but nothing could be further from the truth. The regulations would in effect force commissioning doctors in the English NHS to put services out to tender – which hugely advantages large profit-hungry healthcare companies. The regulations would continue the parcelling up and selling off of many parts of our NHS. Lib Dem peers should ignore the whip and vote to defend our NHS from irreversible commercialisation.
Dr David Wrigley

So true, in fact that I forarded it to one of the tiny  handful of Liberal Democrat peers whom I know personnally in the hope of infulencing his vote.

In reposne my friendly peer sent me a copy of a letter of explanation from the Government's minister in the Lords, an Earl Howe, to his Labour opposite number, presumably meant to justify the changes but which in fact simply claimed that  ". . .the rules on competitive tendering have not changed.  They are exactly the same as yoiur (Labour) government's rules which themselves refelcted how proucurement law - also put in place by your government in 2006 - applied to the NHS."

I find it profoundly dissapointing that the main argument is on he level of the junior school palyground (You did it first) rather than on the merits of the case.

My friend also sent me a copy of the briefing sent to Liberal Democrat Peers by the Liberal Democrat Whips' Office, which, among other things, recommended that they  should read and be influenced by an article by a Labour peer, Lord Warner.

In this Lord Warner explains  that his  ". .  reading of (the regulations) is that they do little more than put on a statutory footing the competition and procurement rules produced under the previous government, with the addition of some sensible provisions on the integration of health and social care."

Lord Warner's support is, however,  not all that surprising. If you go on to read the comments on this article you will find:

 Lord Warner is former adviser to Apax Partners, one of the leading global investors in the healthcare sector. Current director of Sage Advice Ltd. Works as an adviser to Xansa, a technology firm, and Byotrol, an antimicrobial company, which both sell services or products to the NHS” and was “paid by DLA Piper, which advised ministers on the £12 billion IT project for the NHS” projects that he was responsible for when he was a government minister. He should not be allowed to vote on this issue as he stands to gain from increased privatisation of the NHS. Neither should any of the Lords with links to private healthcare, of which there are many.

Sadly the motion to follow the BMA's adivce and reject the new requlations was deafeated by 254 votes to 146.

I regret that Liberal Democrat peers have missed an opportunity to restore at least some of our political credibility.

Friday 19 April 2013

More jobs, not more "stuff", needed.

The Reinhart and Rogoff theory, that a Debt/GDP ratio greater that 90% causes economies to shrink by 0.1% per year rather than grow, has now been blown out of the water.  Apparently they got something wrong in their spreadsheet and, had they used the tool correctly, they should have come up with a growth figure of +2.2%.  So bang goes the philosophy underpinning George Osborne's economic policy of putting deficit reduction above all else.

It is amazing that the Reinhart-Rogoff theory ever had any credence.  After all the Debt/GDP ratios of most of the countries involved in the Second World War were way over 100% in 1945, and all of them, using Keynesian policies,  have grown spectacularly since then.  All that is lacking today is the will.

However, today's problem is a very different one to that of 1945, or even 1975.  Most developed economies have now quite enough "stuff" for all their citizens to enjoy a comfortable and fulfilling life.  Indeed, there is now evidence that demonstrates to the satisfaction of many that, beyond a certain point (estimated to be a per capita income of about the equivlaent of $US17 000,)  more "stuff" doesn't acutaly increase happiness and fulfillment at all.  And there is also ample eveidence that continued over-exploitation of our planet's scarce resources and the reusltant poisoning and degredation will make continued comfortable living unsustainable.

Our "mature" economies have now therefore reached the stage where what we need is more jobs rather than more "stuff."  Rather than by more growth  what we now need is a more equitable sharing of the jobs.

 In Britain this week unemployment is reported to have risen by a further 70 000 in the last quarter, and youth unemployment is edging towards 1 000 000.  That latter figure represents about  one in five of our young people.  A job represents not just a means of obtaining "stuff" but also a sense of identiy, usefulness and self-worth.

I have no idea at what stage the sociology equivalents of Reinhart and Rogoff think the unemployment/employment ratio in society becomes  unsustainable, but I suspect we are approaching the crisis point. The sense of uninvolvement felt by unemployed people must surely also be exacerbated by the publication of the obscene rewards which those at the top of our society are granting themselves.

If society is to remain cohesive we must as a matter of urgency address ourselves to sharing the work as well as the rewards more equitably.  This surely implies some of us (Dinkies?) working less in order to enable others to achieve the self-respect engendered by contributing to, rather than being supported by, society.

This issue hardly appears at all on today's political agenda, and it should.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Britain's "health" in the 1970s.

It is depressingly true that if a lie is repeated often enough it comes to be received as accepted wisdom.  We can see this now when the coalition government is repeatedly claiming that it is "clearing  up  Labour's economic mess" when in truth the "mess" was caused by the collapse of the  financial system as a result of the deregulation introduced by Mrs Thatcher's government and strongly supported by her Tory successors both in and out of power.

Now her death has revived the twin myths that in the 1970s Britain was the "sick man of Europe" and that there was "no alternative" to Mrs Thatcher's abrasive and divisive policies  as a means of  restoring health.

In their parliamentary eulogies David Cameron defined "the British disease" as "appalling industrial relations, poor productivity and persistently high inflation."  Ed Miliband praised her recognition of the the people's aspirations and conceded that "she was right to recognise our economy needed to change."

There is of course some truth in these comments, but the implication that these conditions were unique to Britain  is highly questionable.

Firstly, the high inflation of the 1970s was a worldwide phenomenon owing much to the massive hikes in the price of oil, which OPEC doubled in 1973 in retaliation for US support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war, and then doubled again.  This sparked off in Britain either a  price-wage spiral, by which producers put up their prices to maintain their profit margins and workers were forced to demand  higher wages to make ends meet, (the Labour explanation), or a wage-price spiral, by which workers' demands for higher wages forced producers to put up their prices (the Tory explanation).  You pays your money and you makes your choice.

Poor productivity had and continues to have many causes. Low levels of investment were, and continue to be, a major cause of low productivity.  Harold Wilson had earlier lamented that it was easier in Britain to make money rather than to earn it.  That remained true in the 70s and, alas, continues to be the case.   Short termism, the preference for a "fast buck" now (often achieved by speculation in property)  rather than genuine investment  to  create a productive stream of income in the future, continues to be the curse of  the British economy.

Poor management must share the blame with over-belligerent trade unions for poor industrial relations.  It is surely no coincidence that the British motor industry, then mired in industrial strife, is today, under foreign ownership, investment  and management, now one of the most efficient in Europe.

Unfortunately both the Labour and Conservative parties draw their support, and funding, from one side or other of the "industrial divide":   Labour from the workers' unions and Conservatives from the owners.  Both have either ignored or resisted Liberal proposals of industrial democracy, worker participation and profit sharing, designed to create a common interest and and replace destructive antagonism with constructive co-operation.  This, rather than Thatcherism, is the alternative which could have then, and could still, transform British society.

Now we need to consider whether or not Britain really was such a dreary and hopeless place in the 1970s, where, as Miliband implies, the aspirations of ordinary people found no outlet.  Such balanced evidence as exists shows that the reverse is true.  The New Economics Foundation's Measure of Domestic Progress, MDP, which takes into account, in addition to per capita GDP, 20 additional economic, social and environmental factors, finds that the UK's quality of life reached its highest post war level in 1976, fell throughout the 1980s,(the Thatcher years), rose again in the late 90s, but " has yet to regain its 1976 peak."

Makes you think.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Too much politicians.

Note that the title reads too much politicians.  You can't in my view have too much politics, if by that we mean discussion of ideologies and polices rather than who is up and who is down which regrettably often passes for politics these days.

On BBC2's "Newsnight" programme last night it was pointed out that, when Winston Churchill died, there were just four speeches in the House of Commons: one by each of the three party leaders, and the other, I think, but the longest serving MP.

Yesterday both Houses of Parliament met, at our expense, since MPs are still enjoying their Easter holidays, so if they had to travel to Westminster they would have done so using their "free at the point of use" First Class railway privileges. Members of the House of Lord have to pay up front, but are then able to claim back. (They may also have claimed  their £300 per day attendance allowance:  it truly is a different world.)

And to what purpose, other than to indulge in navel gazing and posturing about Margaret Thatcher which may interest them but I suspect is now a mater (sic?) of indifference to the bulk of the public?

The press is no better.  Today's Guardian, four days after her death, has 11 "news" pages, two comment pages and their first leader devoted to Mrs Thatcher.  This morning's BBC news told us of yet further details which have "emerged" about her funeral and, for the umpteenth time, that the Queen and Duke of Edunburgh would be attending (a mistake, in my view, on the part of the Windsors).  The only new informatiaon was that the President of Argentina won't be invited, but we might have guessed that.

So far this week I have attended two events involving lots of others.  The first was on Monday evening, when our choral society meets for rehearsals. As a political anorak, and since this was the day of her death, I expected a buzz of conversation and comment on the topic.  Not a word.

The second was on Tuesday for our monthly lunch for superannuated former Scout leaders.  Here I must confess it was mentioned once, towards the end, when the son of one of we superannuated asked the older man on his right if he was "going to the funeral."   The poor man looked surprised, obviously thinking that yet another of our number had "gone home" * but, when it was pointed out that it was a reference, presumably a joke,  to events in London, dismissed the idea indignantly.

The whole thing has got vastly out of proportion. Clearly our politicians and press really do live in a bubble of their own, far removed from the everyday interests and concerns that occupy the overwhelming majority of us.

Margaret Thatcher was a lucky politician.  Today's leading Tories probably thank her for this final stroke of luck by which her demise pushes news and comment on the draconian reductions in help to the least privileged in our society  from the front pages.

*  "I have gone home" is the Scouts' euphemism for death, and arises from the tracking sign of a circle with a dot or stone in the middle which signals the end of the trail.

Other such euphemisms are "to be gathered" which I believe is Scottish and which I picked up from Ludovik Kennedy's (an enthusiastic Liberal) book on euthanasia, and, my favourite, the Salvation Army's "Promoted to Glory."

A friend of mine who was an Anglican priest insisted on having on his funeral service sheet a cartoon of a postman and the caption "Return to sender."

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher's legacy.

As a preacher in a trinitarian religion I like to enumerate things in threes, but I find it difficult to reduce comments on the political legacy left by Margaret Thatcher to fewer than four.

First was the waste of the opportunities created by North Sea Oil.  For almost all of the post war years Britain had been plagued by balance of payments difficulties and under-invested in both the public and private sectors.  North Sea Oil, which came "on stream" towards the end of the 70s, gave us a marvellous, some even claimed God given, chance to put these right.  As an exporter  rather than importer of oil  we could sort out or rickety economy without the constant danger of a sterling crisis, the royalties from oil production could be used for long overdue investment in our infrastructure,  and public support given  for technological innovation.  Instead the revenues were squandered on  maintaining levels of unemployment which at one time exceeded 3 million.

Secondly innumerable public assets, including our gas, our water and telephone communications service, were flogged off at knock down prices to the private sector on the pretext  of creating a nation of shareholders (most of the shares quickly went into institutional hands) and the pretence that they would be more efficient if they were privately owned.  Building Societies were allowed to "demutualise," and individuals  with the necessary funds put savings in as many as possible in order to benefit from a windfall.  These formerly responsible mutual societies turned themselves into banks and sowed the seeds for our present financial crisis. The Trustee Savings Bank, which didn't seem to be owned by anyone but provided a safe haven for the savings of ordinary people, was forced to sell itself off. Council housing was sold to their occupiers at massive discounts, leading to the present shortage of social housing.

Thirdly was the confrontation with the miners. For several years the previous government under James Callaghan had been working quietly with the previous head of the miners' union, Joe Gormley, to close mines which were now uneconomic, without confrontation and ensuring that the communities which were affected were supported and alternative employment sources found.  It is unfortunate that Gormley was succeeded by the pig-headed Arthur Scargill (though most of his predictions, which seemed wildly alarmist at the time, have turned out to be correct) but with Mrs Thatcher the politics of consultation and compromise were thrown to the winds.  At the first meeting of her cabinet a massive pay increase was approved for the police, presumably to ensure that in any upcoming confrontations they would be on "her" side.  The miners became "the enemy within" and perhaps the most shameful episodes in British  post war history are those charges by mounted police on striking miners.  One picture I find especially poignant is of  policemen   bussed in from outside the mining  areas, sitting in their coaches and crinkling their banknotes of "overtime" in the windows to taunt the miners outside.  These incidents marked the end of any  "one nation solidarity" which had lingered on from the war years.

Finally the philosophy of deregulation, particularity in relation to the financial sector, which the City of London referred to as the "big bang," permitted the use of retail bank accounts for speculative purposes.  Private greed became an acceptable ethic,  huge inequalities of earnings were not just tolerated but lauded, and this self serving arrogance, lack of morality and disregard of the needs of society  eventually lead to the collapse of our banking system and our present economic woes.

As our first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher deserves special recognition.  She is to have a "ceremonial" funeral. I hope that when it is televised at least one of the TV channels will provide us with an alternative, the film  "Billy Elliot," so that we have reminders of the decency of most ordinary people and the damage which has resulted from her premiership..

Monday 8 April 2013

A four hour day for teachers?

At their conference last week the  National Union of Teachers demanded that a daily maximum of four hours be placed on the amount of time their members are required to teach.  That must have  provoked snorts of derision from toilers in other occupations.  However, when it is analysed the demand is not all that far from what used to be the established norm.

For most of my teaching life I worked in schools which operated on timetables of eight  40 minute teaching periods per day.  That's 320 minues of teaching, compared with the 240 envisaged with the four hour maximum. However, in secondary schols (primnary school teachers  were often not so fortunate) it was the genreal asumption  that each teacher would average one "free period" a day, for marking, preparation or, more often thatn not in my case, staggering to the staff-room for a quiet smoke.*  That meant an average daily  teaching load (they now call it "contact time," I believe, )  of 280 minutes, still 40 minutes more than last week's demand, but not absurdly so.

The seven periods of teaching per day wasn't all we did, of course.  Most of us took registration twice a day, had minor pastoral responsibilities, attended assemblies and, in the later part of our careers, when these ceased to be a headmasterial monopoly, often contributed to them,  and took part in  innumerable "voluntary" activities: in my case mostly  running debating societies and contributing to choirs.

And then, of course,  there was the preparation and marking.

The greatest difference  between teaching "then" (for me, 1959 to 2003) and now is that for me 95% or more of what I did "outside the classroom" was for the direct benefit of my pupils. Only in my first year, then called a "probationary year,"  was I required to produce weekly lesson plans, with aims, objectives, methodology  and other abstractions, and hand them in to the head for perusal and comment (though I don't actually remember any comments.)  After that, it was up to me to do what I considered necessary to make my teaching effective.  For me, this  meant a huge amount of preparation when putting together a new course, after that not much except for the fun of keeping it up to date, but always lots and lots of marking.

Today I suspect teachers, and particularly in primary schools, spend hour upon hour, not on preparation necessary for their pupils, but on providing evidence to their superiors about what they're doing and how they're doing it, and supplying the raw data from which statistics can be prepared to assuage OFSTED. For all of that, poor things, they need more than an extra 40 minutes a day.

My friend Michael Meadowcroft once commented to me (originally, and perhaps unkindly, in relation to Working Men's clubs) that we have created a society in which it is more important to do things "correctly" than to do them  well.  Alas this mindset now dominates education and, sadly,  we are now producing teachers who believe all this mastering of jargon and collation  of evidence is not only the norm but is actually important.  Rather than provide and extra 40 minutes for doing it, we need to clear away  away this  climate of conformity and over-supervision and free teachers to have the time and energy to inspire the young.

* Until Leap Year Day, 1984, when I kicked the habit.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Dignity whilst still living.

This article by Katherine Whitehorn in last Tuesday's Guardian should be required reading in all NHS hospitals.

Whatever happened to "Miss Blenkinsop, may I call you Mabel?", spoken in hesitant tones? That may have been stuffy and Edwardian, but the whole point of needing permission to use a first name was that it implied intimacy, which, apart from senior relatives, only the owner of the Christian name could bestow.

OK, we all sling first names around more than they did in those days, but we still have surnames for strangers and first names for friends. So it's no wonder we're always irritated by someone from a call-centre presuming to sound like a friend, as the results of a survey for Ask Jeeves reveals. Waiters think they are being winningly friendly if they greet you at breakfast by name, and Starbucks staff, who put your name on your cup, are trying to do the same; but do they really think we're touched by their friendliness? 

In fact, it's more likely to be the opposite. In the book You Just Don't Understand, linguist Deborah Tannen showed that actually, when a doctor calls you Mary but expects you to call him Doctor, he may think he's just being friendly, but actually he's assuming his superiority, just as an august uncle who calls a child Jimmy does not expect to get "Thanks Johnny" in reply.

I always feel patronised when somebody's junior employee – especially if male – uses my first name; it always has a ring of "Now little lady" about it; and if I've been called out of my bath by some stranger who is trying to sell me something, his impertinent use of my Christian name makes me hate his blasted product more than ever.

You might think I'd welcome people using Katharine, since I go by two surnames, my married name and the one I was born with. But actually, friends call me – no, I'm not saying, just in case.

When in hospital and all sorts of unusual and often humiliating things are happening to us we are all in need of a sense of dignity and self worth.  So here, NHS, his is a way you can improve your (our) service without costing or reorganising anything.  I don' know, because I'm not a member, but I bet BUPA patients get their honorific.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Clegg, immigration and and a triangulation too far.

When Nick Clegg bravely  proclaimed and robustly defended Liberal Democrat policy on immigration in the Leaders' Debates before the last election I was very proud to be in the same party. In  particular, regardless of the scorn of the other two, and the likelihood of vitriolic headlines in the following day's Daily Mail, Nick stuck to our guns and called for an amnesty on those otherwise law-abiding immigrants who had been here illegally for ten years.

I'm not quite sure to what extent Nick has now modified our policy, but it is sufficient to permit John Kampfner, in yesterday's Guardian, to write: " On immigration the three leaders find themselves dancing to Ukip's tune."

My own stand on immigration starts from the fact that I am grateful to have been born in a country to which people want to come rather than from which people wish to leave. This of course was  a stroke of good fortune which owed nothing to my own planning or virtuous endeavours.  Beyond that starting point, the level of desirable immigration needs to be determined by the facts rather than innuendo designed either to sell newspapers or win votes cheaply.

The following, lifted from a blog by Peter Watt, former general secretary of the Labour Party, admirably describes the scope of the necessary evidence-based debate:

The debate focuses on a number of key themes:
  • Does immigration benefit or costs the economy?
  • Do immigrants get preferential treatment?
  • The extent to which we can “control” our borders as members of the EU.
  • Is there an increase in pressure on public services?
  • The alleged abuse of asylum status.
  • The extent to which immigration changes communities and people’s attitudes to this change.
The answers are complex and much debated in homes, streets and indeed by our politicians.  The truth is that of course we are economically benefitting from immigration.  On the whole those arriving are younger and are employed.  They pay taxes and don’t really need to access health services and rarely claim benefits.  But also that there are some areas where there has been pressure on local services that were initially ill prepared like GPs and schools.   The impact of “changing communities” is however harder to gauge.

Personally I am completely unconcerned that the number of accents that I hear in shops or on the bus has increased massively.  I like the fact that my children have friends from a huge variety of different backgrounds – certainly they aren’t worried! And I am very proud of our history of welcoming those fleeing persecution.  I suspect that many people feel the same as me.

In these final two years of this parliament we Liberal Democrats are anxious to emphasise our distinctive identity, policies and achievements is government.  Nick's bravery in those early debates earned earned admiration for himself and support for the party.  Similar courage and pride in our principles rather than shifty compromise should be the order of today.

Monday 1 April 2013

All Fools'/NHS Reorganisation Day.

It beggars belief that the "top down" reorganisation of our National Health Service is implemented today.  It is a cause for alarm for four reasons.

First it is a betrayal of our democracy.  The Tories explicitly promised  at the election that the NHS was "safe in their hands" and that there would be no "top down" reorganisation.  If they didn't actually invent the phrase "top down" they certainly popularised it.  Nevertheless it is happening.  How can parliament have been so supine as as to vote the thing through?

Secondly, and still on the democratic theme, the re-organisation is opposed by the overwhelming majority of the population and, equally significantly, the overwhelming majority of the health professionals.  Democracy is, or should be, government by discussion. This is an example of government by idealogical dictat.

Thirdly the argument to justify the re-organisation, that competition between the so-called "providers" will improve efficiency, is flawed.  There is no evidence that the private sector, which will be able to "bid" to carry out  functions, is more efficient than the public sector.  (I should like to be able to claim that the evidence demonstrates that the public sector is the more efficient, but unfortunately that isn't true either: the research shows that  both sectors are much of a muchness.)  What, unfortunately, will happen, is that the private sector will "cherry pick" the lucrative functions, leaving a poorer, underfunded (because funds will be creamed off into profits) and demoralised NHS to pick up the rest.

Finally, doctors are to be put in charge of allocating provision in their areas.  On the face of it this sounds a good idea, but in practice, if they are conscientious doctors genuinely concerned with curing their patients and keeping them (us) healthy, they won't have the time, and most of them won't have the expertise either, so they will "contract out" the function to profit-making management companies anxious to get their hands on the vast amount of money pumped into the health service.

For most of my active political life I have believed, against the popular impression, that the overwhelming majority of politicians of all parties are in the business because they  genuinely believe that their ideas, however much I may think they are mistaken, are for the good of society as a whole.  In this case it is hard to avoid  the conclusion that the posh boys at the top are there to open up yet another public service to private profiteers.