Things I don’t get No.3


  1. Linked In – I will be convinced that this is of any use if I hear of a friend, acquaintance, countryman or resident of the Universe who has actually made a useful contact, let alone got a job, out of this. Until then, I can live without the weekly e-mail that asks me to validate a friend’s skills.
  2. Vampire and zombie movies. Yes, I know I’m in a tiny minority here, but vampires and zombies, er, actually don’t exist and never have done.  It would be interesting to know what proportion of the movie industries output (or, more crucial I guess, revenues) are devoted to this endless tosh. Resources that could have been devoted to films about how life is, how it got to be as it is, or how it might be.
  3. Superhero movies. See above.
  4. TV coverage of the practice day of Grand Prix races. Now, sport is an individual choice.  GP is a bore.  Fast cars chase each other round a track, and that’s that.  The best car wins, and it is usually the car that won the last race.  But I’ll let people watch it if they want.  But practice ?  I love cricket, play a bit of golf but can’t see the point of basketball, but I am sure that there are people who legitimately feel the reverse.  But, come on, none of us spend hours of TV time showing practice, do we ?  How about four hours of England in the nets, two hours of Tiger Woods on the driving range or putting green, or half a day watching Magic Johnson practicing lay-up shots ?  Well, actually less tedious than the first day of practice from Dubai, in my view.
  5. Extra gears for cars. My first car had four forward gears, and I could see it was an improvement on the three gears that were normal before then.  In the 70s and 80s I had cars – like Volkswagen Polo and Talbot Horizon – that were just fine on four gears.  Then  five gears arrived, mostly with a fifth gear for motorway cruising, what the oldsters would call ‘overdrive’: that was doable.  Then we had five evenly spaced gears that we had to use all the time.  My present car has six forward gears, providing constant choices I don’t need (no, Mr Cameron, choice is not always a good thing) and I am grateful there is an indicator on the dash to tell me which one I am in, even if it takes my eye of the children crossing the zebra ahead.  I now read that the latest Porsche has seven forward gears. The idea that such a car is sold as a contribution to driving pleasure …
  6. Notices that forbid the chaining of bikes to these railings. Why ?  To avoid terrorist exploding bikes ?  To preserve the beauty of the façade of a 1960s office building ? To prevent the Chief Exec having to look at Lycra shorts ?  Why ?
  7. Why French supermarkets have Fishermen’s Friends on every checkout. A friend tells me that they have uses in sex.  Bloody French, I could have guessed.  I lead a sheltered life, obviously.

The money runs out, allegedly

Interesting discussion on Newsnight recently about the prospects for a new Labour Government, with the debate centred around the unchallenged proposition that ’the money has run out’.  This was followed in a day or so by a column in the Times by Philip Collins (the journalist, Blair speechwriter and think-tanker, not the singer from Genesis) giving the same line.  The collapse of Lehman Bros established a new world, we are told, that means that radical parties can no longer provide entitlements for the poor.

Seems to me those pushing this line need to answer two simple questions.  Firstly, will the British GNP ever return to the levels of 2007 ?  If the answer to this is ‘yes’, as it must be, even with the incompetent stewardship of Osborne, then a second question comes.  When that happens, why can’t we have a society with the same levels of welfare entitlement as in 2007 ?

I suspect that Cameron blew the gaff when giving his Lord Mayor’s Banquet speech last week arguing that permanent austerity was a good thing.  So even if we return to a booming GNP, we’re not going to have decent public services or a supportive welfare system.  Yep, we guessed that’s what you were thinking, Dave, but up until now it has been covered with a blanket of “gosh, we’re sorry, we’d like to help the poor and unemployed, but the money has run out and we all have to make economies”.  One of the best comments on this was made by someone who attended the banquet, not as a banker or diplomat but as a waitress.


On a brief break in Brittany at the moment. Today I attended the Remembrance Ceremony at our local town. Yes, today. In France, Remembrance Day always happens on November 11th, which is a public holiday. Maybe that’s because France suffered much greater losses than anyone else in the First World War. Each village, each hamlet has a memorial with a roll call of ‘nos enfants’ (our children) who died for France. We have had a house in this village long enough to recognise the surnames on the granite slabs, the Duchenes and Perrochets whose ancestors and families still work the land hereabouts. And then there are the multiple names, brothers or cousins none of whom returned. After the mayor had said a few words in front of the war memorial, and laid the wreaths, we walked across the square to the other side of the parish church and a different memorial. Here we remembered the deportees, members of the local township who were taken away as slave labour or as hostages, and who died in Mathausen concentration camp.

The British attitude to the day is worth discussing. Over here in France, the emigré Brits turn out with poppies and bared heads in some numbers, but in the UK one wonders. There things are always arranged on a Sunday, so as not to interfere with economic activity. There was an attempt a few years ago to have a moment’s silence in shops at 11.00 am, but it came to nothing. My worry is that the whole thing is melting into a bog of sentimentality and jingoism. When an old man died alone in a home in Lancashire this week, publicity brought hundreds to his funeral, because he was a technician who serviced the planes of the Dambusters. The press call him a forgotten hero. I am sure he was as patriotic as you or me, but heroism requires more than screwing up a carburettor. Any serviceman who dies, young or old, is now a hero, just as any youngster killed in a fight or accident is a brilliant student. In reality, life is more complex and sad than that and it is the sadness and the complexity that we should remember as we stand in the soft Breton rain.

What will happen next year, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War ? Graham Greene said patriotism lost its appeal at Passchendaele, but not, one fears, for politicians and jingoes.  Cameron has brainlessly compared the anniversary of the start of the First World War (UK deaths – 880,000; world deaths 21 millions) as an event that the nation can celebrate like the Queen’s Jubilee.

A footnote: in a world in which almost everyone is called a hero, how can we reclaim the word ? What does heroism involve ? I would propose three criteria. Firstly, it must be voluntary. A hero has the chance to keep their head down and avoid trouble, and chooses not to. Jean Moulin could have lived through the German occupation of France as a comfortable civil servant, but he made the choice to resist. Rosa Parks could have sat, quiet but angry, in the back of the bus. Secondly, there must be danger and risk. This need not necessarily be physical danger – it could be someone who risks their career or prosperity or public respect in order to do good things. An example might be Semmelweis, fighting the medical establishment to make childbirth safe, and losing. But a wartime hero (see above) must risk injury. The third criterion involves moral worth. A hero must be undertaking actions to make a better world. U-boat crews were all volunteers (criterion 1) and more than half of them died (criterion 2), but they did so in an effort to starve into submission the last democracy in Europe. Not heroes then. Nor, on a much more common level, would I include people like Evel Knievel who willingly undertake dangerous things (criteria 1 & 2) but for commercial or self-publicising reasons.

Hope that’s clear now.

Autumn Statement 2013

It is pleasing to report that, after the Autumn Statement by George Osborne, the public ratings of the Conservatives have fallen 3 points.  And an enormous relief.  I had an awful fear that the nonsense about tough but fair measures saving the nation might have a resonance with the masochistic side of the British voter (“It is thoroughly unpleasant, so it must be doing us good”).

Can we just go over the facts ?

Borrowing: Osborne is borrowing more than he predicted when coming to power. The budget deficit is falling, often due to luck and arithmetical fiddles, but not by much, and the National Debt is decisively bigger than when Labour were in power.  His endless claims to be cutting down on tax evasion turn out to be flim-flam.

Growth.  The UK may be predicted to recover a little, but the overall growth since the Coalition came to power has been  below other countries, including the USA and many in the Eurozone. And Iceland, which correctly saw the recovery of the economy not the bribery of banks as the main task in hand.  Our economy is 13% smaller than it would have been if the general trends from 1950 to 2007 had carried forward.  There was in fact a modest recovery under way when Osborne took power, but he managed to choke that off pdq, as the New York Times makes clear:

“… after Osborne introduced his austerity drive, economic growth slowed down rather than speeding up. For 2010, the economy outperformed the official forecast, growing by 1.7 per cent, reflecting the fact that it had quite a big momentum when the new government took over. But in 2011, growth dropped to 1.1 per cent, and last year it fell to 0.2 per cent, leaving inflation-adjusted G.D.P. below the level it reached in 2007.  How much of this dramatic shortfall in growth was due to Osborne’s policies, and how much was caused by other factors, such as the crisis in the Eurozone, Britain’s biggest trading partner? As always in economics, it’s hard to know for sure. A recent study by Òscar Jordà and Alan Taylor, two economists at the University of California at Davis, which employed some sophisticated statistical techniques, concluded that the shift to austerity was the main culprit, accounting for sixty per cent of the fall-off. “Without austerity,” Taylor wrote in an article presenting their results, “U.K. real output would now be steadily climbing above its 2007 peak, rather than being stuck two per cent below.”

Balance.  Such recovery as exists is due, not to a revival in exports or investment but to a rise in consumption.  Personal indebtedness is now approaching the levels of 2007.  The New Economic Foundation said it straight:
“Rather than a recovery driven by business investment, household spending is largely responsible for our rising GDP. Household spending, as a share of all spending, has increased from 46.2% in 2011 to 46.9% today.
This is worrying because, as we know, average real earnings have fallen sharply. So the only way to explain the increase in household spending (given the decrease in household earnings) is that households must, in aggregate, be running down their savings, and borrowing more. And this is precisely what the data shows. Household savings are falling at their fast rate in forty years. After falling since the crash, unsecured lending – borrowing on credit cards and so on – has picked up consistently over the last year.”  Little social housing is being built, and private house prices are taking off.

Employment has held up better than would be expected – maybe because people will take wage cuts rather than unemployment.  But the claim to have raised private sector jobs is deceptive.  All governments since the war have been able to make that claim, because the population is growing and, as a result, we need more haircuts and filing cabinets and paint and all the other stuff.  And at least some of the ‘growth’ in private sector employment is statistical: for example, employees of technical and sixth form colleges have been recategorised from public to private sector.

Living standards.  The average living standard is falling in a manner that has not happened since Victorian days.  Since, in fact, the last experiment in utopian neo-liberalism the disastrous impact of which was described by Karl Polanyi’s masterpiece.

Productivity, the key to rising living standards is actually falling by 3%. For all the talk of austerity, we are not getting fit and lean.  And the hopes of the future – scientific research and vocational skills – are both being cut to fill a void in the budget of the Department of Business and Skills, a title that brings a sad sigh. Education capital spending will be cut by 60%, funding for adults in further education by 40%.

Research credibility  The idea that economies would be damaged unless the government cut back on spending was apparently backed by a research paper by Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart.  Osborne even referred to Rogoff as ‘Ken’ (obviously his mate) when explaining how it was the reason behind his policies.  Except that a graduate student looked into the paper and found that it was full of mathematical errors, spreadsheet problems and bizarre choices of data.  Once that is taken into account, the evidence does not back the claimed conclusions at all.

As the days pass, more of the facts come out.  Even the Sunday Times, which has had a rather discreditable record in pushing the pro-austerity line, had to lead with a front page story this week saying that consumers would bear the brunt of the continued obsessive austerity.  It’s easy for politicians to stand up in the House, make extravagant claims, jeer those who disagree (especially women who disagree), and then disappear to their clubs for a convivial evening that we may be sure does not involve food banks or disability tests.   But as time passes, as the forecasts unravel, one hopes that the truth will make us all free of this rabble in the not so distant future.

Education and evidence

I used to work in education, and nowadays tend to avoid any discussion about it if at all possible.  Rush to the radio to switch off any phone in, refuse to buy the Guardian on Tuesday because it’s the day of the education supplement, switch over when Newsnight decides to delve into education.  The reason is not so much painful memories – I enjoyed my work, was moderately successful, and left at a time of my own choosing.  Nor that the important bits (like vocational training) are completely ignored.  Nor that the ‘experts’ they interview tend to be public school heads with four times the money of state schools to educate privileged and well-supported kids (see Radio 5 this week).  No, my difficulty is listening to the vast amount of nonsense that is spoken and written on the issue.  The problem is that almost everyone has been to school, so everyone thinks they have a right to an opinion.  Education becomes an area where evidence is not apparently needed to support policy, and where gut feeling and nostalgia trump calm assessment of the facts.

Not only no, or flaky, evidence.  You can be sure that no actual numbers will be attached to any policy change.  We are told that we must be more like business in our planning and management of the public sector, but no business would surely make an investment without saying how and when the pay-back will come.  But what is the planned pass rate for free schools ?  How will academies raise the staying on rate, by how much, and when ?  What are the anticipated trajectories of pass rates for the new GCSE (=”O” levels) that Gove is introducing?

I wrote about this at length in one of my consultancy reports.  You can also add the problem of what has become known as ‘policy tourism’ – picking on one currently successful education system somewhere in the world, without any consideration of context or cost, and insisting that it shows what we in Britain need to do.  No matter that your proud hosts do not show you the failing bits of their system, or introduce you to those that dropped out.  Under Thatcher the Tories introduced TVEI, a pretty expensive scheme, on the basis of what Lord Young saw on a visit to Israel.  A Labour scheme was supported by evidence from Nova Scotia, or was it New Brunswick. Policy tourism, of course, does not take on elements which are ideologically unacceptable to the party in power.  You may admire the achievements of the Finns, but please don’t ascribe it to their well-paid teachers, no inspectorate or neighbourhood comprehensives.  Oh no, it must be free schools.  Interestingly, a recent example of the perils of taking policy from abroad is shown by the stumbling of the Swedish system after introducing free schools.  We no sooner decide they’re marvellous than they go bust or otherwise start to cock up. Reminds me of when Japanese economic policy and management techniques were the future of capitalism; you remember that, it was just before their twenty year slump.

And then there are academies.  Stephen Twigg MP, when Education shadow, described their success as ‘incredible’, and it was the first time that word had been honestly used in the House of Commons for a long time.  The claims are pretty unbelievable, yet both parties think they’re the bee’s knees and cat’s pyjamas. In fact, there is precious little unbiased evidence for the success of academies: they do about as well as other schools, and remember they cost more.  Of course, if you close a crap school, bring in a capable new head teacher in modernised buildings, things improve.  But, as the young people say, “no shit, Sherlock !”.  Once again, the basic problem is ideology – and a bizarre admiration for the US charter school system that (given its very flaky record) has as many critics as friends.

And as for selection … well, don’t get me started.  The sure way to get a round of applause on the vacuous discussion programmes on TV is to call for the return of grammar schools.  The man at the back with a blue sweater, no, not you sir, the man behind you, assures us that doing so will raise standards and increase social mobility for the bright poor student.  The problem here is that we have years of evidence on this topic, and grammar schools do not do either.  That radical journal the Financial Times recently showed that overall performance in those areas which retain selection – Kent, Hertfordshire etc – remains very average.  And the impact on those who do not get sent to grammar schools is particularly poor: for all the nonsense about how these students would do better with a technical education, NIESR research quoted in our CfBT report showed selective areas have a worse rate of qualification in vocational courses for this group than counties with the excoriated bog-standard comprehensives, and markedly worse than those with tertiary colleges for those over 16. Recently, Germany and Poland have decided to reduce the selective elements in their education systems.

You may say “well, we need something to reform our schools – after all, we are falling down the international comparisons”.  In fact, international comparisons are very flaky, and PISA is useful but no exception.  The Finns have realised that what you absolutely do not do is chase the latest international fad, least of all the idea of atomistic competing schools.  Interestingly, some UK research recently suggested that the older generation had better maths and literacy skills than recent school graduates – i.e. those who had bog-standard local authority school education did better before the days of autonomy, Ofsted and the national bloody curriculum.  Maybe we need less urgent reform, not more.

There is a point behind all this, which is that schools should be part of a local system.  The moves we have at the moment – academies, free schools – decouple institutions from their colleagues, from their local communities.  I know of one academy which refused to work with the careers service because their pupil information was ‘commercial in confidence’.  The danger is that when you become isolated and atomistic, and are judged by results, you start to select those pupils who will make you look good.  Church schools have done this for years, and now others are following.  It’s certainly easier than working to raise standards with better teaching and learning, but it helps no-one to cherry-pick kids who would do well anyway.  The main cause of educational under-achievement is inequality and poverty, and one thing that you can guarantee with a whole lot more academies and free schools is that they will take no account of that.

So – “I know what you area against, what are you in  favour of ?”.  The answer is a national drive to raise the quality of teaching and learning, alongside an end to structural reform.  When this approach was tried in the Success For All initiative for further education at the turn of the century, it was triumphantly successful.  Success rates for students increased by 50%, drop out plummeted.  But that makes no headlines, and it was pretty soon replaced by another dose of, you’ve guessed it, choice and competition.

Right and … er … wrong

I’ve written before about the slowing of blog output.  I gather I’m doing better than the normal, which is to give up after a couple of posts.  As the joke has it “I’m writing a blog” “Really ?  Neither am I”.  For the moment, I’m trying to concentrate on some articles that are getting quite long.  One is about the need for greater productivity in the economy, which is the only way for one group of people to get better off without taking the money from another group of people.  The other is about the state of the education system, and the extraordinary (to the non-specialist) information that state schools do very well, and rather better than private schools.  I’m also being nudged by a friend to write something about the current religion that is neo-liberal capitalism, but I’m not sure I can do better than Michael Sandel or Ha-Joon Chang.

Having revealed my views on everything, it requires a burst of anger to get me writing.  This week was propelled by an article in the Times by Tim Montgomerie claiming that we were wrong to think of the political right as being the stupid party, as it had been shown to be correct so often recently.  My facial control is pretty good, and so I can tell you that my jaw did not hit the floor at such an article being published in the week of the privatised gas men appearing before the House of Commons, and more revelations about bank misdeeds.  I like the definition of a conservative as someone who believes reform is a good thing as long as it takes place 150 years ago.  There’s a good summary of their general wrong-headedness in this US link, but it is true over here, too.  Let us remember who it was who voted against limiting the hours children could work in a factory (contrary to free enterprise – would reduce family incomes and destroy the British economy), against the abolition of slavery (an intolerable intrusion into property rights), against votes for working men and any women (mob rule, of course), against retirement pensions (the King had to threaten to create many new peers to persuade the Lords to accept a measure that would raise income tax to 8p in the £), against standing up to Hitler (after he demanded  chunk of Czechoslovakia, ‘a far away country of which we know little’), against gay relationships (which threatened family values).   The sad litany continues today, with the brainless austerity programmes that are simultaneously reducing the quality of our public life whilst slowing the economy’s recovery.

I once had a girl-friend who refused to go out with right-wing men, not because they had views that disagreed with hers, but because they tended to be dim.  Too right, Joanna, too right.

Shortening the war


Just so that you know why we are not still fighting the Second World War, I thought I would share with you all the things that shortened the war.  Most of them, according to their advocates, shortened the war by two years.  Shortening the war by two years is the current form of historical measurement – a bit like an area the size of Wales being destroyed each year, or a quantity of radioactive waste big enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool.  Anyway, off we go:

  • A BBC documentary on transatlantic liners paid tribute to their work as troopships, moving thousands of American troops to Europe and North Africa, and, ‘according to Winston Churchill’, shortening the way by two years.
  • Sir Harry Hinsley, official historian of British Intelligence in World War II, made a similar assessment about Ultra, the decoding by experts in Bletchley Park of the German Enigma coding machine. He claimed that it shortened the war “by not less than two years and probably by four years”.  How much was added to the length of the war by the fact that German and Japanese boffins were reading British and American naval signals is not on record.
  • The North American P-51 Mustang was a single seat fighter that, in its later versions, could escort allied bombers all the way to Berlin and back, reducing casualties and increasing the effectiveness of the bombing. The USC web-site claims that ‘its superior capabilities shortened the war incomprehensibly, if they did not in fact turn what would have been a brutal stalemate into victory for the Allies’.
  • Which might have freed up the bomber force to deliver Lord Trenchard’s prediction: “if we decide to use it (bombing) in concentration and with determination we can not only save millions of lives but we can shorten the war perhaps by years.”
  • General Dwight Eisenhower felt that the designer of the landing craft used in allied invasions in France, Africa and the Pacific made a crucial contribution. He is quoted as saying, “Andrew Higgins … is the man who won the war for us. … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” Even Hitler recognized his heroic war efforts in ship production and bitterly called him the “New Noah.”[1]
  • Against his critics – and there were many in after years – Harry S. Truman took the responsibility for the atomic havoc inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the bombs, he maintained, did shorten the war and did save millions of American and Japanese battlefield casualties.
  • General Douglas MacArthur’s Chief of Staff for Military Intelligence, Major General Charles Willoughby said, “The Nisei (Japanese/American code breakers) shortened the Pacific War by two years and saved possibly a million American lives and saved probably billions of dollars.”
  • YouTube pages pay tribute to the men of Britain’s elite Pathfinder Squadrons, who flew night-time missions over Germany and dropped flares onto strategically important targets, enabling bombers to find them more easily. “It was due to their efforts that Hitler’s military-industrial complex on the Ruhr sustained major damage in 1943, halving Nazi weapon production and effectively shortening the war”.
  • The proximity fuse, which land and especially naval artillery gunfire more deadly by exploding when near a target, so eliminating the need for a direct hit, “shortened the war drastically”.

This is a cursory survey, leaving out the Avro Lancaster, radar, the Rolls-Royce Merlin (“the engine that won the war”), the M15 carbine, Hedgehog and ASDIC anti-submarine devices and anything – T34 tanks, Sturmovik attack bombers – from the Russian side.  Which is not to deny the importance of the devices and tactics above, but to ask for a slightly less clichéd approach to military history.