Thursday 31 October 2013

Vive le Yorkshire

Well, well well.  Would you believe it? Yorkshire has been designated by the editors of the Lonely Planet Guide as the third* best region  in the world to visit.  Yes, in the world! 

My late father would have been delighted.   Although he was no wimp: had it existed he would have won the Norman Tebbit award for job-seeking enterprise by not merely  getting on his bike but by boarding a ship all the way to to Canada in order to find work in the depression of the 1930s.  But in his retirement he regularly claimed that there were enough nice places in Yorkshire for him to visit in his beloved blue Morris Minor, without having to bother going anywhere else.

A somewhat condescending  article in the (originally Lancashire based) Guardian gives a reasonable account of the delights we can offer.  It doesn't, however, mention Birstall, birthplace of Joseph Priestley, as well as me, or Saltaire, the World Heritage site on the edge of Bradford, which celebrates the mill and model village built by the philanthropic industrialist Sir Titus Salt.  Another of Bradford's claims to historical fame is that it is the birthplace of the Independent Labour Party, formed as a result of a lockout by a less philanthropic industrialist, Sir Samuel Cunclife Lister.

Equally close to my home is Huddersfield, England's largest town (the other big ones being cities, but we're a modest lot.)   Here was founded the Rugby League, officially the toughest game in the world.  This claim is supported by empirical evidence as follow:

Hours lost to injury by internationals per 1 000 hours played:
    • Rugby League: 220
    • Ice Hockey :      80
    • Soccer:              40
    • American football: 11
    • Cricket:              10
Participants in a Rugby League tackle are subjected to a force of 10G.  No wonder the department of education in PNG issued a directive that high school students**  were not allowed to play..

Our designation as such a wonderful place to visit may well be time limited as it is influenced by the fact that the Grand Départ of the Tour de France is from Leeds in 2014. Nevertheless those of us who live  in Yorkshire can now say with the same smugness as a couple of dowagers in an Oscar Wilde play:

                                  "We have no need for travel: we are already here."

* The first two were Sikkim in India and The Kimberley in Australia.
** Many of them had enlarged spleens thorough having had malaria.  These could rupture  in a tackle and there had been fatalities.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Labour's Economic Legacy

I was enjoying a long weekend's walking on Hadrian's Wall when the news of the UK's 0.8% economic growth rate for the past quarter was released, so missed the instant comments.  However, I am reliably informed that, when Labour's Ed Balls, after welcoming the growth, regretted  the output lost, and unemployment caused, during the past three plus years by the government's ill-advised policies which brought a halt to the 1.1% per quarter growth rate it inherited, Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander's riposte was that he could take no lessons from  "one of the people who helped crash the economy in the first place."

Liberal Democrats should be ashamed of pushing this line.

The world economic crash was caused by the reckless behaviour of the financial sector "liberated" by the policies of deregulation introduced  by the Tories.  If Labour didn't do enough to rein in the bankers, it was partly because the Tories were calling for even lighter regulation.  That the neocon establishment, supported by the right-wing press,* has managed to convince so many that Labour is responsible for the crash is a triumph of perception management.

Liberal Democrats should stop supporting this gross misrepresentation for three reasons:

1.  Blaming the last lot for current difficulties is a ruse which, even if it were true, has diminishing  effect when the next election is nearer than the last.

2.  Many of the electorate have now rumbled this: it was Gordon Brown who was cheered when presenting medals at the Olympics, and George Osborne who was booed.

but most importantly:

3.  It simply isn't true, and is particularly unworthy of the party that claims a mission to restore honesty into politics.

For those who are interested a reasonably balanced view of Gordon Brown's tenure, both as Chancellor and Prime Minister, is given in an article by Jonathan Freedland in last Saturday's Guardian.

Liberal Democrat tactics should now be to dissociate ourselves as far as possible from the massive error of Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction " and concentrate on giving the maximum possible publicity to the genuine achievements we have made in government, in spite of having only 57 MPs to the Tories' 305.

*A Richard Exell, writing, writing on so-called "health tourism," in a blog called "Touchstone"  puts the power of the press to distort the truth neatly:

. . . the report bears very little relation to the picture painted by the newspapers. Our government may be chumps when it comes to evidence-based policy making, but they can always rely on world-class distortion to see them through.

Monday 21 October 2013

Liberal Democrats and "Free" schools

That Nick Clegg is now trying to differentiate our party from the Tories, though a bit late in the day, is to be welcomed.  However, I would be happier if he were to do it in a less cack-handed and more Liberal way (Lord only knows what the thought processes are of those allegedly bright young things advising him.)

Less cack-handed because, although some of his criticism of the Tory recipe for so called "Free" schools is welcome,  it would  have been wise, before opening his mouth, to check with his protégé David Laws, the responsible minister, who recently gave them enthusiastic support in the House of Commons.  So we open ourselves up to familiar, but unjustified,  criticism of being Janus faced.

Then Nick goes on to claim that " Free" Schools should follow the national Curriculum -surely the most illiberal concept since the Act of Uniformity.  When I trained as a teacher in the 1950s we were taught to be proud of the fact that, whereas French teachers were bound by the dictates of their minister,  in freedom loving England the curriculum (apart from laws that we must has some religious "instruction" and physical education: mens sana in corpore sano)  each school was free to choose the studies best suited to the needs of its pupil.  The result was, on the whole, that schools tended to be more conformist than innovative, but there was at least the opportunity for the less hide-bound schools to push the boundaries.  There cheers for political education and StarPower.

Pedantic insert.

In the discussion of this topic on yesterday evening's Six O'clock News on Radio 4   M/s Liz Truss, a Tory junior minister in the Department for Education, claimed that "any new innovation (such as Free Schools)  was bound to attract (something or other. . .)"*  Oh dear oh dear.  And these are the people in charge.

Just to be clear, the case against free school is as follows:

  1. They tend to be set up by groups  with a particular aim in mind but without regard to the actual need for additional places in the areaAs a Liberal I support the rights of groups to set up their own schools, but at their own expense, not by diverting public funds from other more legitimate areas.  For this reason I also believe Liberal Democrat policy should be to remove the charitable status of  the Public (ie private) Schools.
  2. Many are set up by religious organisations, some of them with somewhat questionable views on topics such as evolution, and social policies such as boys and girls not eating together.  I recognise the invaluable contribution that the churches (and synagogues) have made to the development of public education in Britain, but feel that religion "on the rates" has now served its purpose.The state should now be withdrawing from religious eduction, not entering into more of it.
  3.  Schools set up for particular religious or ethnic groups are socially and politically divisive.  We have seen the sad effects of the the segregated  educational provision for Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and should not be encouraging more of it in the rest of the UK.
  4. The excuse of  "freeing schools from local authority control" is a blatant piece of misrepresentation, implying as it does that local authorities held back educational progress.  Many were highly innovative, not least my own West Riding under its celebrated education chief, Sir Alec Clegg.( no relation, as far as I know, though there is a Nick Clegg ancestor buried in our local churchyard).  Local authorities tried to share educational resources fairly for the benefit of their entire communities, and not just those with the loudest voices or deepest pockets.  It should be Liberal Democrat policy to restore rather than further diminish local authority responsibility.
  5. And, of course, all schools should employ only qualified teachers.  Yes,  I know, and indeed believe, that the best teachers are "born not made" but at the same time wouldn't be all that happy to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon, or have an unqualified lawyer  represent me in court.  All children should be taught by properly qualified teachers rather than amateurs, however gifted they might think they are.

*Those who do not share my pedantic irritation at  this redundancy are invited to suggest an innovation that is not new.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

UK governmnets: didn't they do well?!

In their interesting account of "The Blunders of our Governments" Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, presumably in the interests of balance,  devote 13 of the 410 pages to our governments' successes.  They make an interesting list:

  • The BBC (1922, Lloyd George Coalition)
  • Town and Country Planning Act, (1947, Labour: designed to curb urban sprawl and ribbon building)
  • National Health Service (1948, Labour) 
  • House building drive (from 1951, Conservative.  Harold Macmillan, responsible minister, promised and achieved 300 000 new houses per year)
  • Clean Air Act (1956, Conservative)
  • Road Safety Act (1967, Labour: introduced the breathalyser and seat belts)
  • Conversion to decimal currency (1971, Conservative, but planned under Labour)
  • Sale of Council Houses (from 1980, Conservative)
  • Attraction of Nissan to North East (1980, Conservative, via a £112m "sweetener" and  a "one union" deal)
  • Employment and Trade Union reforms (1982 and 1984, Conservative. Norman Tebbit minister responsible)
  • Privatisations (from 1984, Conservative)
  • Introduction of MMR vaccine (1988, Conservative)
  • Citizen's Charter (1991, Conservative.  John Major's bright idea, much derided at the time but subsequently copied in many areas) 
  • The Minimum Wage(1998, Labour)
  • Smoking Ban (2007, Labour)
  • Dealing with World  Banking Crisis (2008, Labour, when Gordon Brown's prompt and determined averted an even more serious "meltdown.")
  • London Olympics (2012, Coalition , but "won" and partly planned by Labour)
Some items in the list will raise a few eyebrows, and perhaps reveal a rather right-wing bias about the authors.

I should not have thought the flogging off of our  gas, water, electricity, railways etc at knock-down prices, with subsequent price hikes for consumers and fat salaries for the directors, as a great success (ditto the Royal Mail last week, though the subsequent price hikes and fat bonuses for the directors are yet to be seen, but widely predicted).  Nor have I ever regarded Norman Tebbit's trade union bashing as adding any advantage to our over-all economic efficiency. (It would have been much wiser to adopt the Liberal approach of industrial democracy, as the present head of the TUC now recognises).

However, given this perceived right-wing bias, it is worth quoting in full the authors' comments on Gordon Brown's handling of the 2008 crisis:

(After the US government allowed Lehman Brothers to collapse) officials on both sides of the Atlantic feared that the bank's collapse might precipitate the collapse of other major banking institutions, conceivably of the world's entire banking system .  Hank Paulson, the American Treasury secretary, dithered.  Gordon Brown acted.  Even his most vociferous critics, of whom there were many, applauded his performance.  He quickly decided that, if several major British banks were not to go the way of Lehman Brothers, they needed to be massively recapitalised and that the only way of achieving that end was to inject them with vast amounts of public money... The British government's bail-out ensured that (RBS, Lloyds TSB and HBOS) survived.  It also galvanised the American government into action.  Brown briefed Paulson and President George W Bush in the Oval Office ... A New York Times columnist wrote a few days later ; "The Brown government has shown itself willing to think clearly ...and act quickly on its conclusions.  And this combination of clarity and decisiveness hasn't been matched by any other Western government, least of all our own."
(Pages 10 and 11.) 

Not, alas. the hymn sheet from which the present coalition partners are singing.

Saturday 12 October 2013

The UK's failing entrepreneurs

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media earlier this week about an  OECD survey with showed England's youth as being near the bottom of the league in literacy and numeracy.*.

There was much less furore about another damaging deficiency  revealed in a Thompson Reuters' list of the Top 100 Global Innovators, which contained not a single British name.  As might be expected the go-getting Americans  took 45 of the places.  More surprisingly the top Europeans, with no fewer than 12 entries, were the mollycoddled, highly taxed, dirigiste French.  Japan, Canada, Sweden, Germany, South Korea, the Netherlands,Switzerland  and Taiwan also had entries.

So much for the low tax deregulated regime which, according to David Cameron, is necessary  to release the energies of our own entrepreneurs.

Of  course the truth is that Britain's entrepreneurs have for almost a century (some would say longer) been more interested in making a quick buck on the financial markets than in long term innovation and development.  According to Sean Farrell in the Guardian (08/10/13) French companies spend more than half as much again as British companies on Research and Development.

In the same week the award of the Nobel Prize to Professor Peter Higgs of Higgs' Boson fame shows that our theoretical scientists remain as innovative and adventurous as ever.  A former pupil of mine who went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, told me that the then Master, in his welcome address, hammered away at the fact that alumni of that single college had won more Nobel Prizes than the whole of France.

What remains sadly true is that our businessmen, so quick to criticise our education system,  seem incapable of taking the bright ideas it produces  and turning them into practical and profitable business ventures.

*As it happens I don't take these findings too seriously.  In the late 80s there was an alarmist report that British school children lagged behind their German, French and Japanese contemporaries in mathematics. Very specifically, at 14 our bottom 40% were a full two years behind their German counterparts. I was seconded at the time to study mathematics education at a local university. As my dissertation I chose to examine these claims and found they were based on very dubious extrapolations of the results of some questionable tests.  Genuine international comparisons are extremely difficult.

For what it's worth the Americans came bottom.  It has been suggested that Britain's problem lies not only with our schools, but also in the follow-up work after school.  In particular the UK's employers come low on the list of those providing  training and re-training for their staff.  And, of course, it is probably no co-incidence that the countries at the the bottom of the list are the most unequal, and at the top the more equal.  See Wilkinson and Picket's academic study of this correlation.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Tories shot in the foot?

I have  spent the past week walking in the North Yorkshire Dales so have not followed the Conservative Party Conference all that carefully.  However it does seem to me that, with their further plans to make life difficult for the unemployed, their policies will be seen even by their supporters as both vindictive and pointless.

The long-term unemployed are to be forced, in order to receive any benefit, to attend Job Centres every day (my emphasis).   Who is going to pay their bus or train fares?  What are they going to do when they get there (having discovered there are no jobs)?  Have the Job Centres enough room for them, enough lavatories?

Then benefits are to be withdrawn for all unemployed under 25s.   This is an appeal to populism  which will directly affect the Tories' core support.  There are thousands of parents, not to mention doting grandparents, who are fully aware that their beloved offspring have done and are doing all the "right things" approved by the middle class canon and still can't find work.  Even Daily Mail readers will surely recognise this as ideological nonsense. A Tory government should not be attacking "people like us."

Although not the responsibility of the Conservative leadership, the Daily Mail's attack on Ed Miliband's father will surely rebound against the party.  Even if Ralph Miliband had been the threat to "decent values" that the Mail portrays it would be a logical nonsense to tarnish his sons because of those views.  The fact that Ralph Miliband wasn't the "hater of Britain"  the Mail claims, but a refugee who fled Nazi-ism, came to this country and joined the Royal Navy to fight it, will surely expose, even to its own readers, the Mail's black propaganda.

This incident also allows us to remind ourselves of the Mail's history of distortions and questionable probity:  the publication of the Zinoviev letter, which falsely claimed, four days before the general election of 1924, that the Labour Party was in thrall to Communist Russia;  the paper's sympathy for Europe's fascist dictators in the 1930s; and its owner Lord Rothermere's "non dom" status which allows him to avoid taxes.

It is just possible that from this week our political debate may be  more honest and more rational: excess Tory zeal and Mail duplicity could have done us a good turn