Monday 31 August 2020

Land of Hopeless Tories


According to an article in today's Guardian by Nesrine Malik the  "plot " to drop "Land of Hope and Glory" (LOHAG) et al from the Last Night of the Proms was a piece of "fake news" created by right-wing propagandist to stir up among their followers the idea that our  "glorious heritage" was under threat from we woke liberals and Liberals.  

The article is worth reading, and explains how the technique is  being used in the US to create a debate about the totally false idea that Joe Biden will empty the prisons and defund the police.

M/s Malik argues that by creating a debate the right achieves its objective by highlighting the imaginary "danger."

However, I've found the "Last Night" shenanigans an embarrassment for years, and when choirs of which I've been a member have put on "Last Night" tributes I've always refused to wave a Union Jack (although on the last such occasion I manage to stick a small EU flag on the conductor's rostrum).  So I'll take the risk.

LOHAG and "Rule Britannia" are stirring tunes and good fun to sing along to.  I'm sure that a large proportion of participants, (is 80% to generous a guess?) think they are just that: "good fun."  But for a minority, and for many of the watchers, they legitimise and perpetuate the myth of British exceptionalism: that we are superior, better than others, others can be slaves but not us.  

It's  a tradition that goes back a long way.  Shakespeare was good at it, as in Richard II, Act 2 Scene 1, for example,  in which the "Silver sea...." serves us 

". . .in the offcie of a wall,/ Or as a moat defensive to a house/ Against the envy of less happier lands."

It's time we grew out of it.  

 We didn't "win the war" single-handedly, certainly haven't done all that well economically since, and plenty of "less happier lands" are making a far better fist of dealing with the coronavirus that we are.

There are plenty of other rousing tunes:  "Men of Harlech" for the Welsh, "Scotland the Brave" for the Scots,  "Ilkla Moor Bah't at" for Yorkshire (though that's not good to sing along with: too great a range). 

 And of course, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" to the words of the EU anthem

It's said  that, at an event in honour of Lord Beaverbrook, then owner of the Daily Express with its  Empire Crusader on the masthead, when guests were invited to sing LOHAG most journalists present knew only the parodied version, some say written by the conservative politician R A Butler, which began:

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free;

Keep in voting Tory till eternity.

I don't know if there was any more

I've tried to put together an up-to-date parody and got as far as:

Land of hopeless Tories,

Governing by their seats:

World beaters at U-turns

And ignominious retreats.

There my muse, such as it it, gets stuck. If any of them read this, I invite the authors of Yorkshire's Remain Voice Choir's lyrics  to have a go: they're far more gifted than I am.

Thursday 27 August 2020

The "Bad Chaps" theory of government

 When I first  began studying it in the mid 1950s we were taught that, while never formally codified into one document, the British Constitution really did exist and consisted of a mixture of historic documents (Magna Carta,1215; Bill of Rights,1689), Statute Law (the Reform Acts, Parliament Acts), Common Law, Case Law and a series of customs and conventions. 

 Above all, said our lecturer, a Mr Checkanovski (I may have misspelled that, it's a long time ago), it depended on the British sense of fair play.

As the historian Peter Hennessey, who I believe coined the phrase "the Good Chap theory of government," put it more recently: politicians "knew what was expected and would not cross the line.

Sadly, "crossing the line" has become frequent  in recent years. 

 In attempting to implement Brexit, designed, so we were told, to restore the sovereignty of parliament,  Mrs May tried to sideline parliament so that they had no say in its negotiation.  That attempt having been over-ruled by the courts, Mr Johnson tried to avoid parliamentary scrutiny by dissolving it. That too was declared illegal.  

Despite that and other pieces of chicanery Johnson went on to win an election and a majority of 80+.

The British sense of fair play seems also have been trumped,  for in that election campaign the Conservative received, and presumably spent  £19.4 million in registered donations, Labour £5.4 million, the Liberal Democrats £1.3 million and the Greens £0.2 million.

Of the conventions in our "unwritten constitution" one of the least honoured in modern times was that if a government department made a cock-up then the minister responsible would resign. In my student days the only modern example which the test-books could give was that of Sir  Tom Dugdale, who, as Conservative Minister of Agriculture, had prevaricated of the resale of a piece of farmland  back to its original owners, finally gave in and resigned, in 1954.

A more recent example is that of Lord Carrington who resigned as Foreign Secretary  in 1982 for having sent the "wrong signals" to the Argentinians, which tempted them to invade the Falkland Islands.

So that our Education Secretary,  Gavin Williamson, is still in post having presided over the shambles of the "A" level results is not remarkable.  What is remarkable is that the "buck" has been passed, not to him, but to the civil servant Permanent Secretary of the Department, Jonathon Slater. 

Alarmingly Mr Slater is not the first senior civil servent to be sacked or "let go."


The Permanent Secretary of the Home Office resigned in February (and is to sue the government), the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service is to go in the Autumn, the Permanent Secretary to the foreign office early next year and the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice some time this month.

The convention the our civil service is non-political, gives  advice, but  that ministers take the decisions and the responsibility for them is being torn up.

The sad thing is that flaunting  of the sacred tenets of our constitution is now so commonplace that the sacking of Mr Slater, which in normal times would have deserved front-page headlines, was relegated to page six of today's Guardian.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Back to school?

The government's PR machine is in full swing with a carefully choreographed campaign to try to ensure a smooth opening of the new school year.  All four Chief Medical Officers (one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) were "put up" (I believe is the phrase) on Sunday to  to assure us that that the children would be, if not perfectly safe, then almost, and that keeping them out of school would be far worse for their mental and physical health than would the danger of catching the virus, which is less likely than getting run over on the way to school.  I wonder if they tested that conclusion by an algorithm?

A former government chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, was more cautious and said that: "It’s important that we focus on elimination before opening schools . . . .. That doesn’t mean hurting the economy - just hurting the virus better."

Tuesday 18 August 2020

"A" level schadenfreude

 I'm happy to admit to a huge level of enjoyment at seeing the government on the rack for the past few days as they struggle to justify the "A" level results debacle.  

Some will argue that it is unfeeling to to take pleasure in a farce that has caused so much upset to so many young people, not to mention their teachers and university admissions tutors.  But, unlike other government failures,  nobody has died, the young are pretty resilient and will get over it very soon.

If they'd had such things as grades, youngsters in 1348 (the Black Death) or 1665 (the Great Plague) would have been happy to trade a minor educational setback for another thirty or so years of life.  

 It is alarming that so many people fail to realise the seriousness of the situation the world is in as a result of this pandemic and, from international travel through education to going to the pub or having a party on the beach,  think they're entitled as of God given right to carry on with life as normal.

The Black Death probably carried off  60% of the population of Europe, the Great Plague a quarter of London's population.  Despite the wonders of modern science there is as yet no guarantee that the present pandemic will not have equally catastrophic results. 

We need more of the sprit of the Derbyshire villagers of Eyam.

Back to the "A" level results. I think it was right to make the attempt to moderate this year's results, based on teachers' expectations since the actually examinations were not held, so that they conformed roughly to those of previous yeas in order to curb grade inflation.  Unfortunately , the method of doing it, the now infamous algorithm, was flawed.  

Statisticians warned repeatedly whoever was supposed to be responsible that the chosen method would result in downgrading 39% of the results with a disproportionate effect on students from larger classes at state schools compared with  those in the smaller classes of the private sector.

With hubris the responsible authorities (and who they are is being vigorously muddied) ignored the warnings, resulting in five days of confusion which is sure to continue for  quite a while yet as the universities are forced to revise their offers.

The Scottish government saw the problem the moment their results were announced and took the immediate decision to revert to teacher predictions.  That demonstrates "the smack of firm government."  

An even firmer reaction from our own government would have been to heed the warnings, accept teacher  recommendations as the least worst option well before the imperfectly moderated results were announced, and simply regard any grade inflation as a "one off" in difficult circumstances.

 Our European neighbours suffered, of course, from the same problem but appear to have coped successfully and without the drama.  In Germany the exams went ahead as normal, but with smaller groups of students sitting 1.5 metres apart.  In France the famous Baccalauréat was cancelled for the first time since its establishment in 1808 and teachers' recommendations moderated by local juries were used.

GCSE results for the 16 year-olds should be announced later this week.  


Here the real question here is why we bother with an an external examination at all at this stage.  Its origins lie in the "School Certificate," then "Ordinary Level General Certificate of Education" (GCE) when the normal school leaving age was still 14, then 15, and the "élite"did an extra year, when the bulk either left to join businesses and  professions such as local government, accountancy, law,  and the even more élite studied for a further two years for entry to the universities

Now that the minimum school leaving age is 18 (until when all young people are expected to continue in some form of education, apprenticeship or other training)  there seems to be no point in an external assessment of a pupils' abilities or potential. Internal assessment would be perfectly adequate  for giving the guidance that young people need.  I believe that is what most other developed countries do.

Provided that grade inflation for examinations at 16 (if we must continue to have them) and 18 is consistent between regions, types of school and subjects there is nothing really worth worrying about.  It is an internal mater.

Much more serious is grade inflation in university results.  

 A degree from a British university is an international qualification which, for the moment at any rate, is highly regarded world-wide.  Witness the large number of foreign students who come here to obtain one.  If we allow this qualification to become devalued  by unjustifiable inflation  (some universities are awarding 80% of their finalists a First or 2:1, the top two grades of degree) then there is a danger that both our academic prestige and a useful foreign currency earner will be seriously undermined.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Asylum Seekers: another league table


The numbers applying for asylum in our neighbouring rich counties in 2019 was

Germany: 165 516

France:    151 070

Spain:      117 800

Greece:     77 275

UK:            36 000

Yet our politicians have for years given the impression that we are being uniquely targetted as a "soft touch."

 Worse, Prime Minister Johnson has described the current attempts of migrants to reach the UK across the Channel, as "criminal" (it isn't), a letter to him from 20 Tory MPs speaks of an "invasion" and a junior minister on the radio this morning talked repeatedly (she was clearly "on message") of people trying to "break in" to our country.

My own reaction is: "Thank goodness some of them still want to come here."

Refugees who have taken the initiative to flee tyranny, war, environmental or climate devastation, or abject poverty, constitutive some of the bravest and most resourceful in the world.

 Apart from the teachings of Jesus, (later), and common decency, why on earth can't we recognise the enormous contribution they are likely to make to our society once they have settled?

 Michael Marks and Montague Burton are just two star examples who  have contributed to the prosperity of us in the Leeds area (and eventually well beyond).  There are dozens of others.  

The 2020 TV film  The Windermere Children gives a moving account of the experiences of Polish refugees brought to the UK in a generous spirit in the immediate post-war period (though the  generosity was largely on the part of private individuals rather than the Home Office.)

I am very conscious of how much the quality of my own daily life is enhanced  by the contributions immigrants or the children of migrants:  from cleaning my car and delivering of the morning paper, to dentistry; dispensing of prescriptions; about a third of my NHS treatment; vicar and organist of the church I attend, along with two thirds of the choir; and Indian and Italian cuisine, to mention but some.

So instead of the Home Office's hostile environment and  request for military  assistance to keep them out, I should prefer to see them set up booths on the French coast saying "Welcome to Britain,"  safe passages  with a cup of tea and a sandwich on the ferry, travel warrants for where they wanted to go and a settlement grant to keep them going until they find their feet.

Such a scenario is unlikely to happen under the present government , but it would be encouraging to hear opposition leaders demanding a more humane approach to our fellow world citizens.  And cries of outrage from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Chief Rabbi, Chief Sikh, Presidents of the Muslim Council,  Methodist Conference, Baptist Union et al.

Here's what Jesus taught, regarding the rather surprised  "sheep" at the Last Judgement

Then shall the righteous  answer [the King] saying, Lord when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee, or thirsty and gave thee to drink?  When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in? or naked and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison and came unto thee ?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it  unto one of these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Matthew 25 vv 37-40

The scriptures of other religions all have similar, though possibly less graphic, passages, and I expect the Humanists have something  on  these lines to say as well, if only "Do as ye would be done by."

Friday 7 August 2020

Planning rules bonfire: a bonanza for builders

 The government's decision to replace the existing rules for urban planning with a much looser system is apparently based on the ideas of a Cummings type special adviser, Jack Airey, who believes that "Market conditions should ... determine how urban space is used."

One of the first points made  in any economics course is that, although although economists freely use the stand-alone term "demand" what we really mean is "effective demand."  This constitutes not just wanting a product but also the ability to pay for it and the willingness to pay for it.  

Hence, if the housing market is to be determined by supply and demand, then the needs of those who would like a house but do not have the ability to pay for one are not considered.

Given that in this sixth (is it now?) largest economy in the world affairs  are so skewed that a considerable number of families cannot even afford  to feed their children, never mind buy a house, some measure must be taken to ensure that, somehow, their basic need for shelter is supplied.

The obvious solution is that a public authority (it used to be the local council, who built "council" houses) works with the building industry to ensure there is a just and equitable provision of all types of housing.  That is essentially what the existing system is designed to achieve, although it has been seriously weakened since its inception by the sale of social housing to the private sector, central government's  grabbing of the proceeds rather than allowing local  authorities to use the money for replacement building, and the ease with which developers seem to be able to evade the requirement  for a significant proportion affordable housing to be included in every new scheme.

The government's proposal that  in designated "growth" areas and "renewal" zones developers can build more or less what  they like means that there will be a steady supply of ill-defined but profitable "executive" homes and a dearth of the less profitable but allegedly "affordable"  houses. What less expensive housing is built is likely, according the the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Alan Jones, "to lead to the next generation of slum housing."

The local environment should be used for the public good and a civilised society should provide for measures to ensure that everyone, regardless of their income or wealth, has a reasonable chance of enjoying it.  This means partnership and co-operation between the national government, custodians of our land; local government, custodians of local interests; and the building industry -  the very opposite of the tearing up of the rule book.

A genuine and equitable shake-up of  the planning system could include :

 measures to reduce the hoarding of available land, presumably in the hope  that its value with increase with time;

measures to ensure that most if not all of the increase in land values when land is rescheduled for building goes to the state or local government, rather than the private owner;

penalities when building permissions have been given but no building done (there are about a million of these already in existence - so much for the planing system being a cause of the housing shortage;

an end to the "right to buy" social housing;

effective minimum standards for size and safety for all domestic dwellings  (akin to the famous Parker Morris standards  which were abolished by Mrs Thatcher's government in 1980);

capital gains tax to be levied on the increased values of homes.

Paradoxically, as well as opposition from Shelter, other housing charities and the architecture profession,  the government could well have opposition from the affluent shires. One newspaper this morning (I didn't catch which) jokes of  a developer claiming: 

  "Of course we'll observe social distancing.  We shall ensure at least two  metres between your house and the next."

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Coronavirus: a little league table

Yesterday I wrote to a friend whom I first met when we both worked as teachers in Papua New Guinea. He is now a Roman Catholic priest and works in the Solomon Islands.  He does not have  access to the internet and his copies of the Manchester Guardian Weekly arrive in bundles, often months late, so along with personal chit-chat I like to give him up-to-date information.

Here's what I found about the incidence of the coronavirus in the various countries in which we are both interested, have friends, or worked.

As at 4thAugust, 2020:

Country       Total deaths           Death per million of population

 UK                 46 000                680

Italy               35 000                 582

USA            160 000                 480

France         30 296                  46

Ireland            1 763                 350

Germany          9 232               110

India              40 000                 28

Australia            232                   9

New Zealand      22                    4.4

Malawi             123                     6

PNG                       2                  0.2

Your can check up to date the figures here,

 and add more countries in which you may be interested.

The crucial figure is surely deaths per million of population, and in a quick glance  down the list of all the countries in the world (except for some reason the Solomon Islands) I spotted only San Marino (1 283) and Belgium  (850) with higher figures per head than the UK's, which   are even worse than those for the US.

In fairness we could argue that the deaths per head in the European countries  and US are all of the same order, though the UK's figures are double those  of Ireland and six time those of Germany.  And, of course, things will change.  Tragically the virus is now spreading rapidly though India,  Australia is currently experiencing a rapid increase in infections if not yet deaths and heaven help them if the disease catches on in Malawi, PNG, or other very poor countries.

Of course, population size is not the only factor, and I'm sure the government is earnestly exploring other influences ready for the enquiry.  Population density, age distribution, concentrations of BAME people who seem to be more susceptible to the virus than others, will all affect he figures.

But the  current figures brutally expose as lies the specific statements from Mr Johnson that we are "word beaters" and  the implications by other ministers that we have so far been "successful" and must not spoil this "success" by paying less attention than we should to the government's guidelines.

Why aren't these figures splashed daily across the media? 

In the 1980s the Greater London Council, under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, displayed in lights  on their magnificent headquarters directly opposite  the Houses of Parliament the daily total of people unemployed as a result of Mrs Thatcher's* misguided economic policies. 

Someone should do something similar to convince the British People (Johnson loves that phrase) of the truth the government tries to obscure with its bluster..

The one consolation is that the eyes of the American people seem to be opening to the inadequacy of Donald Trump.  I hope it will not be too long before a similar awakening takes place here.

* In an extraordinary fit of anti-democratic pique Mrs Thatcher  retaliated by abolishing  the GLC along with the rest of the Metropolitan County Councils, including our own West Yorkshire.