Friday, November 26, 2010

Show support for the striking workers

Whenever there's a strike, leftist bloggers adopt the default position and recommend that people support it. There has, in fact, never been a strike where a leftist blogger has said, "Hang on - maybe this isn't such a good idea".

Yet when an abused and unfairly maligned group of workers - that would be Scottish referrees - decide to go down tools, what do we get? Nothing, nadda, not a peep.

This despite the intolerable position they find themselves in. As if spoilt-brat, greetin' faced millionaire footballers diving all over the place and arguing the toss wasn't enough to endure - now the clubs, especially the bottomless sense of grievance that is Glasgow Celtic, have pitched in. This on top of fuckwit fans harassing refs in public and hassling them in their places of business.

Football needs rules and it needs someone to administer them on the field. If you disagree with this, you sup with the devil - who most recently has taken the form of The Lord Reid of Cardowan.

Up the workers!

Update: From the Guardian...
"[Y]esterday evening the Portuguese referees who had flown in performed a dramatic U-turn at Glasgow airport almost as soon as they landed, apparently not having been briefed on why they were required in Scotland. And it emerged last night that Israeli officials might also head home. The officials from Portugal headed straight for departures almost instantly on arriving at Glasgow airport..."

Shit meets fan.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Michael Gove and the concept of the 'failing school'

Hitherto to 'failing school' could be recognised as the one where less than 30% of pupils gain five GCSEs at A* to C. Now in a great leap forward it's going to be 35%. Those at 34.99% face regime change.

Good luck with that - but I have always wondered where this notion of the 'failing school' comes from and why so much importance is attached to it? The state of 'failing' is by definition transitory and applies only to a few schools. The way that people keep repeating this phrase is just another example of a public discourse that contains very little I recognise.

Here's a new category for those who want to acquaint themselves with reality. This is the failed school. Failed so long ago that when it was anything other is but a folk memory. Here 'management' is essentially an exercise in pretending that this hasn't happened. There's not that many of them, in my experience, but they're scary places for a number of reasons but chief amongst these is that there is very little space to breathe for those who decline to accept that tractor production is up.

With schools it breaks down like this:

1) Excellent

2) Very/pretty good

3) Ok

4) Institutionalised surrender

Between 3 and 4, for a short period in time, is the 'failing school'. Focus on them if you want but I've yet to hear or read anything in the general conversation about education that even acknowledges the existence of 4, never mind have any practical suggestions as to what to do about them.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Ireland and the case for Scottish independence

One wonders whether in the future small and medium-sized countries will begin to worry when commentators start using their economies as case-studies: whom the gods of economic history wish to destroy, first they make them examples from which wider lessons should be drawn?

Everyone remembers that this was the case with Ireland and its apparent economic miracle. For free-marketeers, Ireland showed the virtues of providing a business-friendly environment with its competitive cuts in corporation tax. Young George Osborne, for example, saw it as nothing less than a "shining example of the art of the possible in long-term policy-making".

He was less keen on the lesson drawn by European enthusiasts. For them, Irish growth rates had made the case for membership of the single-currency unanswerable.

The present travails have led people to draw rather different conclusions. It has become the misfortune of Ireland to now serve as a warning. For some it has vindicated the argument that European monetary union, in the absence of fiscal union, is incapable of absorbing 'asymmetric shocks' in the Eurozone countries. For Keynesians the current meltdown shows the folly of fiscal retrenchment in times of recession.

One can agree with both of these up to a point, although with the latter I wonder what Keynesian solution is open to Ireland with its debt reaching the prices it now has on the markets? A more important qualification is that these are both policy variables that have exacerbated, rather than caused, Ireland's present economic woes.

But if you'll forgive me for being parochial, the purpose of this post is to wonder what conclusions the Scottish nationalists are now drawing from all this? While Alex Salmond in particular would frequently use a variety of small European countries as exemplars, it is practically impossible to exaggerate the extent to which he linked the political aspirations of the Scottish nationalists to the economics of the 'Celtic Tiger'. For example, in his 2008 lecture, "Shaping Scotland's Future", no-one in the Dublin audience could have been left with any doubt over the future shape that Alex Salmond thought Scotland should take:
"Scotland looks out to an Arc of Prosperity around us. Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Denmark. All small independent nations. All stable, secure and prosperous.

Of all these nations, no example is more impressive and inspiring than Ireland. And none is more relevant to the decisions that Scotland faces today."
It is important to point out that Salmond and the SNP have consistently argued that not only would an independent Scotland be economically prosperous, it would be so because it was independent. Given that this is the case, it is entirely unsurprising that he should have taken particular interest in the Irish model. First politically independent from Britain, then economically through membership of the EU and later the Euro, for Salmond Ireland's growth rates served as an example of what was possible if the dead-weight of the British state could be removed from Scotland's shoulders.

The identification with the Irish model was practically absolute. Membership of the Euro was to form part of the 'Independence in Europe' policy - and even post-credit crunch he was inexplicably arguing that membership might prevent one in the future.

Scotland should also adopt the Irish policy of competitive cuts in corporation tax to attract inward investment, pointing out that the excruciating 'Braveheart' was partly filmed in Ireland. I think we were to take it that this was a bad thing.

Most crucially, as far as I am concerned, the former economist for the RBS was as uncritical as anyone else of the 'light hand on the tiller' approach to banking regulation and at no point gave the slightest indication that he was concerned about the weight of the financial sector in the Scottish economy:
"And of course we Scots are lucky enough to have the one of the best brands in the world - a global recognition and affection for our culture that money cannot buy.

Take financial services. With RBS and HBOS - two of the world's biggest banks - Scotland has global leaders today, tomorrow and for the long-term."
That Salmond and the SNP should have been a little more careful with their choice of comparators goes without saying. The Herald's Ian Bell was prescient enough to point this out over two years ago:
"[I]f a property market failure - with 270,000 construction jobs at stake - leads to negative equity and mass unemployment during a global recession, the Irish beast may seem a little less glamorous. Close study need not imply unthinking imitation, in any case, and nor should it, on the evidence. Yet you would not guess as much when Mr Salmond connects independence with the "arc of prosperity" across northern Europe, and when he holds up Ireland as an exemplar. Best stick to Norway, for now."
Salmond has belatedly followed this advice with Norway now serving the exemplar function. It is a clumsy shift in emphasis that only the amnesiac would find convincing. But I'm wondering what the political consequences of this will be for the SNP? It's too early to say but they might not be as profound as they could be or, as some of us would argue, should be.

Apart from the weakness of the Scottish opposition, there are two reasons for this:

1) From the outset of the banking crisis, I have been astonished at the impressive ability some people have to pretend that absolutely nothing that could even dent their world-view has happened at all. In public at least Salmond gives the impression of belonging to this group - although whether this is so privately, I couldn't say.

2) When economic disasters on this scale hit, they tend to shatter a consensus view that has been more widely-shared than some people care to remember. What has happened to Ireland is a species of the more general meltdown in the world banking system, affecting countries large and small, some who are part of the Eurozone and some who are not. Not even all of the opposition parties in Scotland can claim distinct policies on the Euro and Scottish independence and even those who did cannot claim to have many Jeremiahs in their ranks.

Nevertheless, nationalists have some difficult questions to answer. The experience of banks being 'too big to fail' is one that has not been unique to Ireland but the reality is that smaller nations are by definition more likely to experience this, as well as being less able to cope with it. Salmond is right to suggest that we have seen two of the biggest threats to the independence of small nations - territorial acquisition by larger states and lack of access to markets - effectively removed over the last twenty years or so but in his assumption that globalisation was an entirely benign development for small countries he failed to take account of this one.

I would imagine it is dawning on the more thoughtful supporters of Scottish independence already: while it is obviously possible for small countries to have both, prosperity is not the same thing as sovereignty, the latter does not guarantee the former and, most importantly, if we had followed the trajectory drawn by Alex Salmond and the SNP, it seems highly probable that Scotland today would have neither.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Political Innovation

I attended this event on Saturday in the freezing town of my birth. Lovely to meet for the first time bloggers whose writing I was familiar with - gentlemen such as David Farrer from Freedom and Whisky, Martin Kelly, Duncan Stephen aka Doctor Vee, and our gracious host, the Slugger himself - as well as one or two who had previously been unknown to me, from Better Nation, Bright Green, and journalist slash blogger, Joan MacAlpine.

I left this event feeling like I usually do on occasions like this; slightly exhausted by the effort it takes to avoid making a complete tit of myself. Self-assessment is pointless so I won't speculate as to whether I achieved even this rather lowly goal. A couple of impressions: the event was dominated by nationalists - and everyone seemed to agree that the nationalist line isn't given an airing in the MSM.

I would agree with this, but only up to a point. It is true that the case for outright independence isn't taken seriously in the Scottish press - but it does not follow that the position being taken here is 'deeply unionist', as our friends over at Bright Green would have us believe. Rather, the Scottish media has been pedaling nationalism with a small 'n' for as long as I can remember - along with the Scottish Labour party, when it thought it suited their interests - which is, I would argue, one of the reasons why we are where we are politically in Scotland today.

Furthermore, while it is indeed true that the case for full independence isn't given a fair hearing in the Scottish press, nationalists should be at least partly grateful that this so because otherwise people might be able to examine the wreckage that is the SNP's economic argument for independence.

Uncritical support for the preponderance of the financial sector in the Scottish economy, along with advocating membership of the Euro and the adoption of beggar-thy-neighbour cuts in corporation tax: Salmond billed this as a distinctively Scottish policy and it is only because the Scottish press are completely uninterested in the economics of independence that he has, astonishingly, got away with promoting the very policies that have brought Ireland to its knees.

I'd be interested to have a conversation with any nationalist who has a reasonable answer to these points - which brings me to another point that stood out for me at Saturday's event: how to avoid bloggers simply having conversations with people who agree with them? All the evidence would suggest that comments threads are not the forum on which to have rational discussion. Could I suggest that a possible solution would be an aggregated blog that is based on region, rather than ideology, might be the way forward? This is how newsprint journalism - in contrast to the more ideological stratification of papers in England - has traditionally been done up here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Arithmetic and unemployment

Clearly neither irony nor self-examination is Melanie Phillips' strong point as she has accused the left of 'foaming with rage' - adding that this has clouded our use of basic arithmetic when it comes to the problem of unemployment and the coalition's suggested medicine of workfare:
"[T]hey don’t even realise that their own claims don’t add up.


The fact is that much worklessness results from people calculating they are better off on benefits than in low-paid jobs. It’s that calculation that IDS is trying to reverse."
Much worklessness? How much? Mel doesn't say. The fact of the matter, according to the government's own figures, is that there are 5.2 people unemployed for every vacancy in the UK today. Perhaps I'm missing something but doesn't that mean that regardless of the morality of the unemployed, there simply are not at present jobs available for them all? I appreciate this is an average and doesn't reflect the imbalances in the labour market. Some sectors will still be struggling to fill vacancies in areas where specialist skills are required. But it would seem that the demand for ranting former-left journalists who prefer moral condemnation to empirical data is depressingly inelastic...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reports of the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence have been greatly exaggerated

Our Education Secretary Mike Russell claims the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence has confounded the critics and proved to be a resounding success:
""There were doubts that schools were ready and there were predictions, mainly from the opposition benches, of catastrophe," he said."
I would agree catastrophe has been avoided - but I'll let you into a secret: this new curriculum, billed as the greatest shake-up of Scottish education in a generation, has wrought a change so imperceptible that one could be forgiven for thinking it hadn't happened at all.

Standard Grade remains until 2014. It is still being taught and kids are still picking their options for this at the end of their second year of secondary school. We still haven't even the vaguest idea as to what its replacement will look like. But we're all guessing it'll look like son of Standard Grade. In the interregnum, we're merely tweaking our existing courses - knowing that we shouldn't expend too much energy doing much more than this because it is the exam structure that drives the content in the preceding years. And we are, of course, still waiting for an English translation of the crash of jargon that is the Curriculum for Excellence.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New booze rules

The Scottish Parliament passed a number of new restrictions on the sale of alcohol but stopped short of approving a minimum price.

It's a typically Parliamentary compromise - and one that's unlikely to satisfy anyone. What stood out for me was that they implicitly accepted that it is a legitimate function of government to limit alcohol consumption by rationing it through the price mechanism - hence the ban on discounted deals - but had not the courage to follow this to its logical conclusion.

This is not to say I'm in favour. I feel about alcohol prices in much the same way as I do about companies charging people for the use of plastic bags: producers are trying to pre-empt taxes by introducing price increases all on their own. A more honest way for society to raise the price of these 'bads' would be a simple increase - or in the case of plastic bags, an introduction - of taxation to choke off consumption.

Monday, November 08, 2010

IDS and the Road to Serfdom

A number of people have commented, summarised handily here, on the coalition's on-going progressive journey to the 19th century - this time with regards to the plan to force the unemployed to perform ritualistic acts of manual labour in order to retain their benefits.

Some people don't want to work? As a former welfare rights officer and employee of what is now called the DWP, I would respond - no shit, Sherlock. Followed by the question: so what? Even if all the unemployed had a strong work ethic - or a suitably docile attitude, depending on your view - there still wouldn't be work for them all.

It's a fairly easy matter to demonstrate that the relative generosity of a country's welfare system doesn't even correlate, still less prove causation, with unemployment levels. While estimates vary, America's current unemployment rate is higher than Britain's, which in turn is higher than Denmark's.

Unemployment is higher in times of deficient demand but it always exists in a capitalist system, simply because it lacks any mechanism to prevent it. In this sense, the unemployed are carriers of an inconvenient truth: capitalism might work after a fashion but it doesn't require everyone to work to do this. This is why the unemployed must be punished and made servants.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Against team sports

Mixed feelings about this story about a boy who shot his teacher because he hated rugby. Shooting people is wrong, I would agree - but PE teachers, despite their best efforts to pretend otherwise, are Nazis who enjoy humiliating fat people. And even if you're weren't fat, they made you participate in what seemed to me then, and still do today, completely insane competitive sports.

I'm not really a weegie; I was born in Edinburgh and went to a comprehensive, but it was one of those typically Edinburgh establishments that still liked to think it was a private school. So we played rugby and cricket. To this day I find both of these activities utterly incomprehensible. Picture this: it's winter 1978 and we're playing rugby in fucking shorts in sub-zero temperatures on perma-frost. But the PE teacher ain't wearing no shorts - he's got a tracksuit, jumper, gloves, scarf and hat on, barking instructions - prick that he was.

Shorts in the pitiless East Coast winter - but when the summer comes along, you play this sport called cricket where it is customary to wear long trousers and the option of a jumper is available. This makes sense how, exactly?

I know people imagine team sports are supposed to be character-building and all that but my own view is that if you internalise the logic behind this lunacy, you'll end up losing your goddamn mind. To this day, I hate competitive sports. It took me to my late thirties before I realised you could actually exercise and live healthily without participating in these deeply stupid activities.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Remembrance and the pity of war

It was Stanley Payne who coined the phrase 'semantic virus' for the way that the term 'fascism' has been spread, and thereby diluted, in the hands of those who use it as shorthand for anything they find oppressive.

It goes without saying that what people find 'oppressive' today are experiences that are by historical standards - or even contemporary ones - rather light and trivial. I can't think, for example, of a better example of Payne's point than the fact that people can actually imagine it is appropriate to use the epithet 'fascism' to describe the supposed pressure of conformity that people feel around this time when we look forward to Remembrance Day.

Especially when you live in a world where even this doesn't exist - which I do now.

This wasn't always the case. When I was at primary school, we we told what Poppy Day was all about, the token fee we were expected to donate and how you were expected to wear it. (On the lapel of your blazer.) Clearly some would find this - do find this - unbearably stifling of their individuality but then it was simply the done thing. Now there is only one's own thing - and I feel a little nostalgic for this act of collective conformity and a little sad that so many people find it difficult to participate.

From Edinburgh to Glasgow and to the present day. A couple of years ago I found myself in Glasgow's - Europe's, apparently - largest secondary school, which happens to be Roman Catholic. By wearing a poppy, I might have well worn a sign with 'protestant' around my neck. I appreciate those of Catholic Irish origin have no love for the British army but this is not what Remembrance is about. It is not the glorification of war or the military. The title of this post contains an allusion to a book by the (unfairly, in my view) maligned rightwing historian Niall Ferguson. How successful his 'counter-factual' approach to historical questions is beyond the purpose of this post. His contention is that what the allies achieved was not justified by the costs they incurred. There are many historians and students of history that have arrived, from rather different perspectives, to the same conclusion - and even those who don't, recognise the enormous tragedy of this war that set the 20th century in motion.

It is not to celebrate victory or 'militarism' but simply to remember the fallen that one wears a poppy. It is difficult to comment upon the experience of those who feel pressurized into wearing one because I live in a world where no such pressure exists but even so, it is comparing this experience to 'fascism', rather than not wearing one at all, that strikes me as being disrespectful.

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