Friday, 16 September 2016

Hinkley Point C: government not listening

In the Brexit debate  the then leading leaver Michael Gove made himself look silly by claiming that Britain had "had enough of experts."  He has now been shifted to the back benches, and Mrs May's decision to put Hinkley Point C nuclear power station "on hold" while she had a further look at the evidence gave the impression maybe we now had a government that was prepared to listen and act rationally.

Alas not so.

I have just re-read my previous post on this topic and can see nothing that I would change. The project uses technology which achieves the paradox of  being  at once  unproven but already outdated. It is  too big, too expensive, and there is as yet no reliable method of disposing of the nuclear waste it will generate.  There are umpteen more modern, less expensive and more reliable alternatives.(see here and here for some examples.)

Clearly cancelling the project would  be embarrassing in terms of our diplomatic relationships with both France and China.  But that would be a small, and temporary, price to pay compared with that of lumbering future generations with the problem of paying through the nose for it, even if it ever actually works, and disposing if its radioactive refuse.

So from Mrs May's "fresh" administration we now have the return of  Secondary Moderns, and  a nuclear white elephant:  two massive errors in less than three months.  Clearly her government remains in hock to corporate lobbyists and the right wing of her party.

Sadly Labour, still  the  main opposition party, welcomes the decision to continue with Hinckley Point C because it will create jobs, as though the many alternatives wouldn't.

It is difficult not to despair of British politics.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Britain's complacent entrepreneurs.

At last a leading Tory, DR Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade no less, has blown the gaffe. Britain's poor export performance is due to "business executives [who] would rather be playing golf on a Friday afternoon than negotiating export deals."

Good for him and about time too. 

For most of my lifetime Britain's poor economic performance has been blamed variously on lazy workers,  obstructive trade unions, inadequate education, absenteeism, restrictive red tape (even before we joined the EU), too many holidays, excessive pay demands, suffocating bureaucracy (this particularity in the nationalised industries),  and any thing else by which the onus can be placed on the workers and measures to protect their  interests and dignity.

My own list  has placed more emphasis on under- investment, short-termism, under-investment, poor management, under-investment, feeble  marketing, under-investment, lack of language skills, under-investment, failure to integrate the workforce into the management structure,  under-investment, lack of training and retraining (unless someone else pays for it), under-investment, and  a tendency to produce what people used to want rather than what they will want in the future.  Oh, and under-investment.

For the twenty or more years after the war "Made in Britain" was still seen as a guarantee of quality and Britain's firms tended to rely on this, rather than efficient marketing, to sell their products.Foreigners who wanted one of our products could form an orderly queue and when convenient we would supply one.  This certainly seemed to be the case with Landrover and Papua New guinea.  Until the 1960s even the German missionaries used Landrovers.  If you needed a spare part then a posh sounding firm would order you one and it might come in on the next boat but three.

 Then along came Toyota, highly competitive on price as well as quality.  I think they trained mechanics and  set up their service centres and spares departments before they sold any vehicles (as I believe did Volkswagen before they sold any cars in the US).  By he time I left PNG nearly all 4x4 vehicles were Toyotas or Suzukis, and Landrovers had become a rarity.

In marketing, our reliance on quality has now been replaced by the belief that, since much of the world speaks English, we needn't bother to learn their languages. However I understand that, whereas foreign buyers are very happy to talk to our representatives in English - they appreciate the opportunity to practise - they  tend to buy form those who speak their language.

So Dr Fox is right - those complacent entrepreneurs should get off the golf-courses and, among other things, get stuck into learning Chinese, Spanish and Bahasa Indonesian.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The return of the Secondary Moderns (aka HQNSSs)

I recently read an article which pointed out that, if there were a school with  two dinner queues, a short one which specially attractive dishes reserved  for those pupils who scored As and Bs for their work, and a much longer one with more mundane food for the rest, we should be horrified.

But by selective education we do exactly that, and the reward for the selected is not just a tastier lunch, but all the best opportunities in life.

I trained as a teacher in the late 1950s and the evidence about grammars versus comprehensives has not changed much since then.  Research consistently shows that, in a selective system the "best" do not perform significantly better, but the "middle" do significantly worse than in a comprehensive system.  The reason seems to be that the presence of the "bright" stimulates and inspires the "less bright."  Analysis of the GCSE and A-level  results in areas such as Kent, which still has grammar schools, shows that their over-all performance is below that of areas with a comprehensive system.

Even if there were advantages, it is universally understood that selection at the age of 11+ is highly unreliable (children develop at different rates, even if they are not "hothoused" by private tuition) and the stigma of non-selection (ie rejection) can niggle for the rest of one's life, as this letter from a "late developer" Dr Michael Paraskos shows.

So Teresa May's  decision to allow grammar schools to be established where none exist at present will do harm rather than good.  If is yet another government decision based on prejudice rather than evidence.  What Mrs May does not emphasise is that for every 20% liberated from consorting with the the rest of society 80% will be rejected: each grammar school will be accompanied by three secondary-moderns (though in a piece of convoluted jargon Education Secretary Justine Greening has described them as "High Quality Non-Selective Schools" - who (she'd probably prefer "whom") does she think she's kidding?)

Mrs May claims that that the aim of the policy is to promote social mobility and create a more efficient meritocracy.  Not only is it more likely to do the reverse (the established middle classes will bust a gut to make sure their kids are in in the shorter dinner queue), we also need to ask ourselves if that is the sort of society we want.  Michael Young, who coined the term "meritocracy"back in the 1950s, regarded it as a warning, not as an ideal.  The concept had been satirised even earlier by R H Tawney, who in his Halley Stewart lectures of 1929 vividly described it as follows:

“It is possible that intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to the inconvenience of their position by reflecting that, though most of them will live and die as tadpoles and nothing more , the more fortunate of the species will one day shed their tales, distend their moths  and stomachs, hope nimbly onto dry land , and croak addresses to their former friends  on the virtues by means of which  tadpoles of character and capacity  can rise to be frogs”

Surely the purpose of true education is not to enable  a minority in climb higher up as social ladder but to
enable everyone to develop their talents, whatever they, are to the full, and to live a fullest possible  life in a society where all are equally respected.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

State of the UK - an inventory (2)

For the genesis of this inventory please see previous post, which examines the UK in respect of Beveridge's "five giants."

Now to look at some additional, random, issues.

Democracy: The House of Lords, the electoral system, the financing of political parties,  all remain insufficiently reformed; respect for politicians is severely diminished, largely as a result of expenses scandals which seem to continue in spite of embarrassments;  and lobbyist have influence which far outweighs that of the public.  Our democracy is moving closer to the American model - available for purchase

Equality: Our society is becoming more and more unequal, with the top professions  still dominated by the privately educated, CEOs paying themselves over 200 times the average pay for their employees, the established middle classes are able to entrench their position via the tax free bonus resulting from rising house prices, and a recent Rowntree Trust Foundation  report claims that 13 million people in the UK are living in poverty.  Research shows that societies with a higher degree of equality are, among other desirable outcomes,  more productive, suffer less mental illness and are happier.

Culture:  We are still among the leading countries of the world in terms of literature, art, music (especially "pop"), and theatre,  but the government is chipping away at the Arts grants and our leading cultural outlets are becoming increasingly concentrated in London.

Communications: Most of our press is disgracefully biassed, misleading and  trivial.  Serous news outlets are finding it increasingly difficult to survive since advertising revenue is being diverted  to other media.  One serious newspaper, the Independent,  has recently been forced to cease print publication and go "on line" and the Guardian may not be far behind.  The Times is owned by the Murdoch empire, and the government is doing its best to emasculate the BBC (and prepare parts of it for takeover by Murdoch?).  Healthy free media are vital for a healthy democracy  but the variety of informed print sources is becoming sadly diminished. This of course, is balanced by the wealth of information and opinion easily available on the internet for those who bother to look for it.

International: Our interventions in the Middle East have been ineffective and  in some cases disastrously counter-productive,  our response to the refugee crisis has been and continues to be disgracefully inadequate  and our international standing is gravely diminished by our decision to leave the EU.

The Economy: Our productivity is roughly a third below that of  the US, France and Germany, we have a frighteningly large balance of payments deficit and, rather than seriously tackling these issues we take the coward's way our of devaluing the currency.  Recently our Pound Sterling was exchanging for less than a Euro in some airports.  At its launch we could buy a Euro for less than 71 pence

Society:  On the brighter side, we have assimilated a lot of people from other cultures with reasonable success, crime rates are falling (except for financial crimes on the internet, and among bankers who seem able to get away with it) and we have some of the most varied and easily accessible restaurants and food outlets in the world.  Sadly , the Brexit vote  seems to have legitimised rudeness towards foreigners, especially Poles, and terrorist threats have provided excuses for objecting to Muslim women's wearing of the  hijab, niqab, and burka - in some cases even the entire Muslim religion is tarred with the potential for terrorism.

The government's policies seem designed to exacerbate rather than reverse the negative  trends.

Monday, 5 September 2016

State of the UK - an inventory (1)

Tomorrow I expect to have lunch with a man to whom I taught economics in the 1960s.  Then he was a youthful and very enthusiastic  member of the Labour Party and I, as now, a committed Liberal.  But we shared an optimism about the future.  The Labour Party was in power and Harold Wilson was prime minister.  Using what what Wilson called the "white heat of the technological revolution" and the intelligent application of the social sciences, we both expected we were on track towards "building the New Jerusalem." as  Wilson's deputy George Brown (no relation to the more recent Brown) put it in an inspiring speech in Cleckheaton (and possibly elsewhere.)

In preparation for what I expect to be a very interesting conversation I've tried to put together an inventory of where we're at on that journey.  A convenient start will be the "five giants" -  squalor, ignorance, idleness, disease, and want -  which the Beveridge Report of 1942 proposed to slay.

Squalor:  Here Beveridge had in mind slum and insanitary housing.  Most of this had been demolished by the 1960s and today the problem is not so much the quality of the housing (though I understand that a lot of people in the south are condemned to live in back-garden sheds,) but the quantity an price.  The government's policies seem largely counter-productive.  Subsidising first-time buyers will push up prices even further and so make houses even less affordable, the extension of the "right to buy" to housing associations will make affordable housing less available and ultimately place more into the hands of rapacious landlords, and there is no sign of  any renewal of permission for local councils to build affordable homes.

Ignorance: Well, we now have universal free education up to the age of 18 but the enforced introduction of academies and free schools means that sensible planning for provision has gone out of the window.  At the same time the enforcement from the  top of a tick-box culture focussed on league tables based on a narrow range of subjects allegedly useful to the economy means that real and creative education has taken a back seat.  It is hard to see today's teachers having much opportunity to enthuse anyone about anything. The re-introduction of selection at 11+ , in the face of all the evidence of the negative effects of this policy, is deplorable.

Idleness:  Beveridge regarded maintaining  full employment as a key function of the government.  In the 60s we defined this as no more than 3% unemployed, and often the figure was below even this (Hence immigration for the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean to fill the gap). Today the official level of unemployment is almost double that, and in real terms, taking account of those who have been shunted off the register  for various reasons, or forced into premature retirement, the real figure is probably double again. Many people "in work" are on short term or zero hours contracts with little security, minimum protection or entitlement to holidays, on boring routine jobs with few prospects of a  satisfying future.  Thousands have been forced into pretended and unwanted "self-employment." Most heartbreaking of all, over half a million young people aged 16 -24 are unemployed, and that doesn't include those enduring courses which they well know lead to very little.

Disease: Public health measures were implemented and the  NHS created to reduce this to a minimum.  Public heath has made great strides though the emissions and pollutants which stimulate asthma and various allergies among the young are cause for worry.  I'm glad I don't live in London. The NHS is subject to costly re-organisations and starved of funds, with its so-called junior doctors in revolt.  It is hard to argue with a letter in today's Guardian from a Professor Fay Dowker that the government's aim is to run it down in preparation for privatisation (which already seems to have happened to the larger part of the dental service.)

Want:  Whilst the elderly are being being protected from the worst effects of "austerity"  (thought the state pension remains one of the lowest in the rich world  - we come 12th out of 15 countries)  benefits for the unemployed, sick, disabled and incapacitated are being pared down and the recipients demonised.  The most unacceptable statistic of which I'm aware is that unemployment benefit for a single person aged 25+ is £73.10 a week, but if you're a member of the House of Lords you can claim £300 a day (yes, a day.)

Sadly, based on the above,  most of the current government's policies seem to be leading us away from rather than closer to the New Jerusalem

Thursday, 1 September 2016

MPs should say "No" to Brexit.

Although straight after  the referendum result in favour of our leaving the EU I signed the petition calling for a second referendum since I felt the issue should be debated) I argued that it would be wrong at that stage to try to overturn the decision.  The "people" had spoken and that was that. Yes, the referendum was technically only advisory, yes the margin for Leave was very narrow, and yes there was a lot of misrepresentation and some downright lies in the campaign.  But these matters should have been anticipated dealt with before the campaign, not as an afterthought becasue in the eyes of the establishment the wrong decision had been made.

At that time I felt that the preferred option was for the negotiations to take place, to see the result which I expected to be much less favourable than the Leave campaign had pretended, and  that a groundswell of public opinion would  demand another referendum.

However, it is now clear that that option is not available. Once Article 50 has been triggered there is no going back.  However inadequate the terms, however far they fall short of the promises made by the Leavers during the campaign, that's it.  Two years from the triggering  of Article 50 we are out, like it or not.

It is also now clear that our  government neither knows what it wants not has the resources to achieve it.  The choice is between the extremes of "hard Brexit" -  leaving the European Economic Area (EEA), thus trading over the tariffs and restrictions on WTO terms like the rest of the world, but having control over migration from the EU, or "soft Brexit" -  remaining in the EEA but accepting all the regulations including free movement.

So far here is no sign whatsoever that the remaining 27 are interested in a "bespoke" deal giving us the best of both worlds, as the Leavers liked to believe.  Indeed the major Brexiteers, who within 48 hours of the result withdrew most of their promises with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders ("You didn't really believe that did you?  Just campaign rhetoric!"), Farage has walked away and Boris Johnson ducked trying for the top job.

Be it Brexit hard or soft, since trade negotiations have been an EU function for the past 40 years the UK has nowhere near the number of trained and experience negotiators to cope with  with the multiplicity of  deals which will be needed to negotiate with the 164 WTO members, and re-negotiate the 50 or more free trade deals which the EU has already negotiated on our behalf, but which wlil no longer apply to us.   Private sector staff will need to be recruited, many from the discredited giant accountancy firms which are partly if not largely responsible for the economic crash of 2007/8.

 And at a cost to the public purse of up to £5 000 per person per day (yes, per day) or secondment at   £250 000 per year

Jon Henley, the Guardian's European affairs correspondent, estimates  that the process could last up to ten years and the administrative costs to the civil service would amount to £5bn.  More seriously, in my view, the whole process will distract government, civil service, parties and media from focusing on solving Britain's real problems: housing, youth unemployment, low productivity, sustainable energy, climate change, a frighteningly-high balance of payments deficit,growing inequality, to name but a few.

Consequently it is a nonsense to plunge the UK into this massive and damaging distraction on the basis of an unnecessary referendum called by an inept prime minister to solve an internal problem within his own party and which  demonstrated all the flaws to which referendums, alien to our constitution, are prone (see earlier post).

 MPs, the  majority of whom are in favour of Remain (as are overwhelming majority of the Lords) should be true to their function, which is to use their experience, wisdom and judgement to make wise decisions on our behalf, refuse to authorise the triggering of Article 50, and tell the government to go to the EU Commission, apologise for the distraction and disruption we have caused, and promise to be good in the future.

And no nonsense about another referendum.  That could be prone to the same distortions as the one we've already had.  Of course, some Brexiteers will make a fuss, some of the Leave voters will feel let-down, the red tops will howl blue murder and some people's faith in our politicians will receive a further dent.

But it will all  blow over far more quickly that persuing the Brexit route, and give us time and opportunity to attempt to solve some of those issues which caused so many to feel left behind and that the system doesn't work for them

Monday, 29 August 2016

Olympic Hoo-ha

I've been away on holiday for the past  couple of weeks so have missed most of the media coverage of the Olympics. Nevertheless I've picked up enough to find much of the British coverage extremely disquieting - indeed, not at all according to my understanding of  "British values"  which I acquired in my youth (we were taught to be modest and unassuming and our our patriotism should be understated.)

Without wishing in any way to detract from the wonderful achievements of all the athletes (and particularly the gymnasts and divers) I find the emphasis on national rather than individual performances distasteful.  Much is made of Britain's ranking in the  "medal tally - second if you count just golds, and third of you count them all.

But, as was pointed out  in a Guardian graphic recently (6th August) if we count the number of medals per population  per contested games, up to 2012 Finland came top with 2.30, Estonia second with 2.29 and the Bahamas third with 2.26.  Britain was way down with only 0.44, but ahead of the US with 0.29.  These figures will doubtless have altered slightly, but probably not significantly, when the 2016 results are included.

Then we are reminded that much of Team GB's success is the result of John Major's decision to funnel wads of Lottery cash to the training of élite athletes.  Somebody has calculated that each medal has cost  in the region of £5.5 million.  I wonder how well the two poor countries in which I have worked, Papua New Guinea and Malawi, would have fared  with that kind of money to fling around.

As Simon Jenkins pointed out in a recent article,  we are now doing exactly what we used to mock Russia for -  hot-housing  (though I hope without illicit drugs) a tiny élite  in order to bolster our international image  and sustain a pretended "great power" status.  At the same time our austerity-obsessed government  is closing sports centres and public swimming baths and flogging off school playing fields.  As in the  economy, there is little evidence of a tickle-down effect as a result of success confined to  the very top.

One week of my holiday was spent with other choral society singers preparing, among other things, to perform the Bach and Rutter  Magnificats.   We amateur singers practised together during the week with varying individual success (mine was pretty limited in the Bach -the runs were just too quick), though the over-all achievement was acceptable.  However, when on the day of the public performance we met  for the first time the orchestra, presumably made up mainly of amateurs, their standards,  individually and collectively, were superb.

By contrast with the choir, who were mostly or "riper years ( as the Prayer Book kindly puts it) most of the orchestra were young..  They presumably had talent to begin with, but like athletes,  had reached their high standards by hours and hours of dedicated practice. Yet music in schools is being downgraded because the subject is not included in the government's misnamed  Ebacc, and local authority music schools up and down the country are being closed.

Rather than a focus on false prestige though the triumphs of the athletic élite I should like to see the governments "generosity" spread around to include sports and athletics at all levels for those  who want them,  music, and all those other arts which could benefit

 The result might  not lead to quite so much strutting of our stuff draped in Union Jacks at future Olympics, but it would lead to a more civilised society.