Friday, June 25, 2010

On the future of the Liberal Democrats

Alex Massie has a couple of sharp observations about the junior member of our coalition government:
"Labour continue to suffer from the category error of believing that liberals are really Labour voters who don't quite realise this. But this is not the case and it's quite evident that Nick Clegg is no Charles Kennedy. Indeed, the Lib Dem leadership might be thought closer to Germany's Free Democrats or their own ancestors in the Manchester Free Trade movement than to the SDP. When Nick Clegg said "I am not a Social Democrat" (or words to that effect) it might have been wise to listen to him."
He's right - but it's an easy mistake to make for a couple of reasons. Scots like Massie and myself have long been familiar with the way in which the Liberals can serve as a repository for non-Tory rightwing votes simply because this is more likely to be the case in Scotland than in England. Also, it is perhaps an easy mistake to make when you have 'first-to-the-microphone' Liberals like Simon Hughes getting more than their fair share of media attention. Here's his latest principled stand. (Liberals of his ilk always stand.)
"Hughes issued a blunt warning to the Tories that the government would break up if key pensioner benefits in the coalition agreement were cut. He launched the most significant intervention since the formation of the coalition in the debate that followed George Osborne's emergency budget on Tuesday when the chancellor of the exchequer said that welfare would bear the brunt of cuts."
It is indeed possible that the coalition might break up - but it is surely more likely that, with less dramatic consequences, the Liberals will break up? This Times editorial (free subscription) reminds us of the historical trend:
"The historical precedents suggest a sorry end for the Liberal Democrats. On three occasions, the Liberals and the Conservatives have formed a coalition in government and on three occasions the pact has divided the Liberals.

At the end of the 18th century, the Duke of Portland took half the Whigs into the Government of William Pitt the Younger. The “Portlandites” soon lost their independent status. In 1834 a small group of rebels, under Lord Stanley, joined the Tory Government of Robert Peel, only to find itself swallowed up by the bigger party. Stanley himself went on to become a three-time Tory Prime Minister.

In 1886 a large contingent of Liberals, led by Joseph Chamberlain, resigned in protest at Gladstone’s policy on Home Rule for Ireland. They joined governments led by Salisbury and Balfour but, in time, no trace was left of their entry."
Regarding this last example, the Conservatives are called the Conservative and Unionist Party for a reason. This tradition is older than the one that Ed Miliband referred to when he said,
"It takes a long time to establish an honourable political tradition. But it takes a very short time to destroy it. Are [Lib Dems] still the party of Keynes, Beveridge and Lloyd George? We all know these three men would turn in their graves at the idea that the inheritors of the Liberal tradition were supporting this budget."
Furthermore, it was a tradition established in a time when only the Liberals could be the repository of radical, labourist, anti-Tory political impulses, being as it was prior to the foundation to the Labour party. I would have thought, therefore, that the historical pattern was more, rather than less, likely to repeat itself - the ghosts of Keynes, Beveridge and Lloyd-George notwithstanding. The Times editorial that I linked above has both a more positive assessment of the Liberals' participation in coalition than I have, as well as being more optimistic about their likely fate:
"It is still possible that Mr Clegg might escape the fate of the many Whigs before him who have been strangled by the embrace of the Tories.*"
With this I'm reminded of a question that a distinguished theology lecturer I had at university was always inviting us to ask ourselves: "It's possible - but is it probable?" Let's see: measured in electoral terms the least successful party in postwar Britain is going into coalition with Britain's - actually Western Europe's - most successful election-winning machine. But if they can persuade people that they've delivered on a whole lot of constitutional issues that are somewhere between number thirty-seven and 'don't give a flying fuck' on the average person's list of priorities there's still a chance that the electorate will warm to them and they might come out on top? Well, it's possible...

*Thought I'd keep the cheap-shots for the footnotes. The editorial starts out well by including a bit of history - then it spoils it with this nonsense. Can't predict the future of the Times and its paywall experiment but I have to wonder who is going to pay for this shit when you can get speculation from proper historians elsewhere on the web for free?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

End of term

Last couple of days. Showing videos to the few waifs and strays who persist on turning up. Played Groundhog Day over and over. Oh, the irony...

Monday, June 21, 2010

Budget anticipation

It just occurred to me that I may have, along with a whole lot of other people, fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. "Woe, pain, austerity", cry the government so that when the Budget actually comes out, people go, "Oh, not so bad after all."?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Budget blues

Alistair Darling, in an article I can't find now, has been warning that the Tories have failed to learn the lessons of the nineteen thirties and as a consequence risk pushing the economy into a 'double-dip' recession. I'm inclined to agree, although with the caveat that British economic history does not have as many straightforward examples of deficit financing to counteract deflation and rising unemployment as is supposed.

You could argue that it doesn't have any at all. The General Theory was published too late to be of any use to the National Government, even if they had been inclined to accept the ideas contained therein. Keynes himself saw the recovery that came in the wake of rearmament as vindication of his ideas - but this was hardly a normal situation and what lessons it leaves a peace time economy is by no means obvious.

In the fifties and sixties the long postwar boom meant the question of how to address deflation and unemployment didn't arise. Consequently, governments ran slight surpluses most of this period. The behaviour of governments during the seventies - often used to discredit Keynes - ran deficits against a background of rising inflation, something Keynes himself never advocated.

The supposedly self-evident lessons of the eighties aren't quite so clear cut either. Howe's deflationary budget of 1981 wasn't quite as deflationary as predicted because it was accompanied by an expansion of monetary policy. I'm also not clear what the lessons of the nineties are supposed to be. Monetary policy was a result of Britain's membership of the ERM was far too tight - but it's worth remembering that Labour and the Liberal Democrats advocated the same policy so perhaps one of the lessons is to be suspicious of economic consensus? It is also worth remembering that the post Black Wednesday budget saw considerable increases in taxation. Recovery followed because sterling's ejection from the ERM allowed a sharp reduction in interest rates.

Nevertheless, if the rumours of the budget are in anyway accurate, there is reason to think what the coalition is proposing is rather dangerous for the following reasons:

1) I remember the Tories in the eighties always complaining that the Opposition were 'talking down the British economy'. Bizarrely this now seems to be government policy. "You've never had it so bad", seems to be the refrain. It's a game they are playing, obviously - but it strikes me as being a rather dangerous one. Can they really be unaware of how perception can become reality in the fragile world of economics?

2) The right, weaned on simplistic notions of the public sector 'crowding out' private enterprise, are getting all moist at the prospect of public sector cuts. Apart from the fact that this will increase unemployment, they seem oblivious to the demand that the public sector creates for the private. There's the loss of consumer demand to consider but also what about the private contractors that supply the public sector?

3) I can't see where else a fall in demand will be met. There isn't much in the way of scope for loosening monetary policy as there was in the eighties and the nineties and the prospects for export-led growth look pretty grim given that the rest of Europe seems to be following the vogue for fiscal retrenchment.

4) All of the above falls into the "we'll need to wait and see" category but I feel much more confident in predicting a political danger for the Liberal Democrats. Surely Clegg will live to regret his "progressive cuts" line? From what we can gather so far, cuts in corporation tax combined with rises in regressive taxes like VAT and duties on alcohol and tobacco are not going to result in a Budget that is progressive in the sense that the word is conventionally understood.

It seems more likely than ever that the Liberals will again follow the historical pattern and be absorbed into the Conservative party. While everyone is evoking the ghosts of the twenties and thirties it might be worth remembering that Geddes was given free reign to swing his axe by a Liberal Prime Minister. One of the possible beneficial outcomes will be that people will drop this 'progressive' nonsense and be clear, for a generation at least, that opponents of the Conservatives have their proper home in the Labour Party.

See also: this from Peter.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tolerance and the public space

With Spain following Belgium and France by considering a ban on the burqa, one is reminded again of the truism that there is no need for tolerance for things that you approve of. I don't intend to rehearse the arguments against this. A secular constitution must by definition set limits to religion and religious institutions - but this isn't the way to do it.

Instead I was thinking about this as part of a wider concern, which is only part-formed in my mind but I'll attempt to explain anyway.

I went to Texas once. One of the things that struck me was how religious people were there. I can't think of anywhere else in the world where an evangelical Christian would enjoy more social freedom. You could hear people in restaurants thanking and praising the Lord for dealing with their hemorrhoids or some other mundane irritation of existence - clearly unconcerned that anyone within earshot might think they were a bit mental. Yet the social freedom was accompanied by what seemed to this observer a completely incongruous and unjustified persecution complex. This had to do with issues pertaining to the strict separation between religion and the state and how it has been interpreted - with prayer or any form of religious education being banned in American public schools and such-like.

Now, there's two possible conclusions one could draw from this. One is that religious people of this kind of fundamentalist disposition have demands on the public space that are absolutely insatiable. For those who demand liberty in their own case are often in the vanguard of those who want to limit the liberties of hedonists who want to drink, or smoke, or consume pornography, or indulge in homosexual sex. It really should be better understood that those who demand for sacred reasons that everyone become replicas of themselves usually wear the cloak of liberty.

But there is another one, which doesn't exclude the insights of the previous position, which is that when people see little in the public space they recognise, they retreat evermore into the private realm where their behaviour becomes more extreme. I was thinking of various examples of religious conduct here. One RE teacher made the point to me that not having the subject on the curriculum means that religious fanatics are for some pupils the only source from which they are taught anything about it. This leaves them with no alternative interpretations by which they might defend themselves. In American schools one does not get religious education because it has been confused with religious instruction.

I was wondering if the burqa thing might be seen in this sort of context. How much female empowerment does anyone seriously think would emerge from such a move? When you have men saying the only option would be for them to keep their women at home, as some interviewees did in the paper copy of the Times today, it isn't difficult to make the point that such a ban, as well as being illiberal, would be counter-productive as it clearly doesn't address the heart of the problem.

But it applies to those of us that prefer the pursuit of the profane rather than the sacred. Arguably the restrictions on smoking indoors and drinking outdoors has led many to pursue both in private - and to do so more excessively. This has certainly been my own experience. There's some disagreement about this but most historians seem to agree that one of the original functions of pubs was to moderate drinking excess, to offer beer and public sociability to the private consumption of cheap gin. And then there's what we can say in public, what we can joke about or sing about.

It hardly needs pointing out that these ideas haven't exactly crystalised for me yet - I'm just concerned that the moderating effect that public tolerance seems to have on human behaviour is completely overlooked by banning enthusiasts. In the case of the burqa ban, to evoke memories of Nazi Germany or Lenin's Russia is completely over the top but perhaps comparisons with Bismarck and his Kulturkampf are not. Maybe not even that - Kulturkampf-lite more like it. My point, or one of them, is that it had exactly the opposite effect from the one Bismarck intended. I'll stop here before I come out with any cliches about history...

Oh, England!

My condolences. Didn't want you lot to win the World Cup, obviously - but I would have liked you to have lasted long enough to see you getting beaten by Germans or something. I feel this brings us closer together as nations: almost Scottish levels of incompetence we're seeing here chaps - what's going on?

It isn't just this. I see the sexy fan deficit hasn't been addressed since the last time I raised this issue.


A similar word combination on a Google search for Scottish fans gave the following as the number one image.

There was also a picture of Ewan McGregor.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Journalists these days...

Love the drama in the following from the Times:
"Exposed: the schools inflating their GCSE league results."
Because apparently hitherto such things were kept hidden!!!!
"Schools are inflating their league table scores by entering pupils for "easier" vocational qualifications, previously secret government data have shown."
If you're a journalist and you seriously think this sort of thing qualifies as a government secret, you might want to ask yourself if you're in the right job. Oh, you work for Rupert Murdoch? Sorry - forgot.

Ok, so you don't like the World Cup...

Can't say I'm wildly enthused myself - but really:
"Of course, not everyone who displays an England flag is a fascist, but a few of the flags in circulation will undoubtedly be re-used at the upcoming EDL rally in East London, which plans to process through the same streets where Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts marched in 1936."
English football fans are not necessarily fascists. A generous concession, I think you'll agree. Do read the whole thing. It's way worse than Hitchens' tiresome "I don't like Christmas" columns - yet strangely compelling at the same time....
"The tacky, tribalistic, red-and-white bandage of cheesy national sentiment is already stifling the healing power of political expediency, and as the people gear up to root for EnglandTM, the left's best chance to re-organise and re-energise is deflating like a ruptured football, smashed against a wall by idiot children."
Fucking. Mental.

H/T: Jamie K

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Evil Dead II


And another from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious

In Engerland there's a "nappy curriculum", apparently. Turns out to be, um, pants:
"Children who learn to read from a very young age perform no better by the age of 5 than those who learn later. A government study indicates that billions of pounds spent on the "nappy curriculum" have failed to boost achievement."
The shock conclusion is that maybe, just maybe, very young children might be better off playing.
"Research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will reinforce calls for the under-5 curriculum to be reformed in order to bring England into line with mainland Europe, where children learn through play until the age of 6."
Just loved the comment below this from stuart mckay:
"No matter what this research shows; the younger the better."
No matter what the research shows... Give that man an education column in a national newspaper - or perhaps a job in government, given that ignoring evidence is something of a prerequisite for both of these activities.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Con-Dem education policy and the politics of faith

I noticed the Observer, fresh from declaring 'loud and proud' that they were backing the Liberal Unionists as the 'progressive' option in the May election, have continued the habit of endorsing silly ideas by backing Michael Gove's plan to make England's schools much more like supermarkets.

It was the basis on which they did this that struck me as truly bizarre: they acknowledge that it isn't clear how the envisaged system will provide incentives to teach 'difficult to reach' young people but they support the system anyway on the grounds that it will produce greater equality! You might reasonably ask, what do they base this confidence on? They are, by their own admission, running on faith here:
"Of course, it is a leap of faith. But it is a leap worth taking."
This is a ludicrous basis from which to argue for a reform of England's schools - although I would have to say that at least it has the virtue of being honest. Because the notion that Sweden's 'free-school' experiment has been a resounding success is simply not borne out by any of the available evidence. But the bloggertarian community disregard this. They are not even interested in the fact that the Swedish education minister himself seems at best ambivalent about the whole thing. You might think they would conclude that Bertil Ostberg is at least as well-acquainted with the Swedish education as they are - but this would be to misunderstand the basis on which they argue for the policy. It is not based on evidence but on pure ideology - and like all ideologues, if evidence disrupts their world view, they simply ignore it.

Surely anyone concerned about education should acquaint themselves with a little history on the subject and perhaps use that as a possible guide to what the future might look like? I noticed whoever wrote the Observer editorial on Sunday couldn't be arsed with this, which is why they attributed the centralisation of education to the Labour years instead of pointing out its Tory origins.

But even if one was unaware of this, there is surely enough in the pronouncements of Michael Gove to give reason to be sceptical? I am referring to one specific aspect of the proposed Tory reforms. Some well-meaning souls have given measured support for the 'free-school' idea on the basis that it will mean more decentralisation. Now as a teacher of some twelve years experience, there is no doubt in my mind that the control of central government over education is one of the major problems in both the Scottish and the English systems. It is for this reason, above all, that if I were teaching in the English system, I would oppose these proposed reforms with every fibre of my being. Because - if we take what people do, rather than what they say as a reasonable guide as to what they are all about - we can and must say that there is not a shred of evidence that the Conservative believe in decentralisation - and quite a lot to indicate that they do not.

What was Section 28 about? Every right-on person on the left knows it was about homophobia. Of course it was. But it was about something else as well. It was about the Thatcher regime's hatred of local government and public sector workers. This was an amendment to the Local Government Act, remember - motivated by tabloid stories about 'loony left' councils - the GLC above all - allowing transexual teachers to take classes wearing tutus and handing out condoms so that impressionable youths could indulge in gay orgies. And when imagining what depravity the LEAs allowed got too much for the Sun and Daily Mail fuelled Tory lynch mob, they did something that would have been intolerable and unconstitutional in the US, or Germany, or most other European democracies: they simply abolished London's local government.

Then there was 'opting out', the National Curriculum, league tables, Doc Martens issued to Her Majesty's Inspectorate - all motivated by the same impulse behind things like the 'right to buy' council houses and rate-capping: at best a suspicion of, and often an outright hostility to, local democracy - this having the pesky habit of producing results uncongenial to central government.

Can a leopard change its spots? It's a rhetorical question, of course. How anyone can be so naive to think that the Tories now believe in 'localism' is beyond me. Consider what we've heard so far. Schools can opt to be academies outside local authority control. If they do this, they will be given more control over the curriculum. Ok, I have a question: if getting more control over the curriculum is a good thing, why do schools have to become academies to get this? To the student of Tory history, the answer should be obvious.

And one wonders how much control even academies will have. Johann Hari picks up the story that Cameron wants to enlist Niall Ferguson to redesign the history curriculum in English schools. In doing so, Johann misses the point. I really can't stand this witch-hunting of historians that goes on in the blogosphere. The problem isn't that Ferguson is an apologist for Empire; the problem is that we have a system where the Prime Minister has the power to nominate one academic to shape the content of a curriculum that is supposedly going to be rolled out over the entire country. That, Johann, should be the national scandal - not because he has happened to pick someone you don't approve of.

There's been plenty more examples of the same sort of thing. Here's the Guardian's account of Gove at the Tory conference in 2009, for example:
"The shadow schools secretary set out a plan at the party's conference in Manchester to sideline local authorities, scrap the curriculum agency, sack the worst headteachers and return to traditional values in the classroom, with pupils expected to wear ties and ex-soldiers imposing discipline."
Ties. The now minister of education wants pupils to wear ties. Actually, later on in the article it gets more specific: he wants not just ties but blazers too - ties on their own being insufficient to combat the culture of dumbing down. In the very next paragraph we are offered the following without any sense of irony:
"The state monopoly over schools would be removed..."
Except when it comes to the weighty matter of ties, of course. Mr Gove has also in the past expressed an opinion on how the furniture in classrooms should be arranged. He likes rows, apparently. And did anyone catch Cameron in the Prime Ministerial debate nonsense talking about how he wanted more setting in schools? I'm pretty keen on it myself - except when I get the bottom set. Then it sucks - and not in a good way.

Do your bit to combat dumbing down people. Call this micro-management from the centre anything you like - but don't call it 'localism' or decentralisation. Because to do that, you really have to be pretty dumb.

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