Jonny Nexus

Writing, life, politics

Category: Current Events (page 2 of 4)

Seven Years On

Seven years ago, when Jacques Rogge announced in Singapore that London had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games, I wrote an entry in my LiveJournal:

It seems a long time ago. Things were very different then – we were all on LiveJournal rather than Facebook, for a start. I was also just thirty-nine days away from meeting the girl who is now my wife, and who within the next few weeks will become the mother of my daughter.

I couldn’t have dreamed then of the life I have now. And I can’t wait to sit down with my wife this evening and watch the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games in my home city.

It’s been a good seven years.

The Citizenship Test: It’s Not About “Britishness” And It Never Was

Some years back, the rules on becoming a citizen of the United Kingdom were changed. Where previously it was based purely on requirements such as residency and marriage, applicants now also had to pass a computerised multiple choice examination. The examination was supposedly about living in Britain, British culture, and British values, and supposedly ensured that anyone becoming a citizen was equipped with the knowledge they would require to live in the United Kingdom.

Since then, this computerised examination has become a useful tool for lazy journalists and TV programme makers wishing to make some kind of point about immigration and multiculturalism. They will get native Britons to sit down and take the test, react with mock surprise when 90+% of them fail, and then use that to prove some kind of point. The latest of these was the otherwise rather good programme “Make Bradford British”, in which they selected their participants from those who had failed the test. (The idea being to take a bunch of people – white, black and Asian – who apparently needed to learn more about what it was to be British, with their failure in the test being the evidence of this).

There’s one slight problem with this. It’s all complete bullshit. The test has nothing to do with “Britishness” and it never did. The key thing you have to understand is that despite what the government say is its purpose, the test is actually a comprehension test designed to test how well someone can understand written English.

(Social Science / Education) Education an exercise consisting of a previously unseen passage of text with related questions, designed to test a student’s understanding esp of a foreign language.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/comprehension

As with all comprehension tests, you first read a particular bit of text. In this case, it’s the government’s publication: “Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship”. The description of this book’s content includes:

…details regarding the latest changes in UK immigration law.

…full information required for the Life in the UK test including chapters on: How the UK is Governed, Employment and Knowing the Law.

…a chapter on sources of help and information, for example, libraries, the police and the internet.

Then, when you think you’ve adequately memorised the information in the book, you take the test, with that test consisting of a series of questions about the book. If you’re literate, have a reasonable grasp of English, and a fair degree of intelligence, passing the test shouldn’t be too hard, provided you put in a bit of time studying, of course.

When the test was first set up, they could have achieved exactly the same result by using a classic novel as the text – Little Dorrit, perhaps, or maybe Pride & Prejudice – which would no doubt have also produced a tidy saving on consultants. So why didn’t they do that? Why didn’t they just be honest and say that they’d decided that only people who could speak English and be able to read should be able to become citizens? If I had to guess, I’d guess they were scared they might be accused of racism.

(I should point out I have no firm opinion on whether or not citizenship should be restricted to literate English speakers, although I do worry that doing so might sometimes produce harsh and unfair outcomes. But what really annoys me is: a) the hypocrisy in not admitting the test’s true purpose; and b) the way the nature of the test is so persistently misrepresented by the media).

But maybe you don’t believe me that the test is a comprehension test, rather than a test of British knowledge. Perhaps you still feel that this is a test that any native-born British person ought to be able to pass, even if they haven’t read the book that it is based on.

Well let’s look at the questions. If the test was truly based on knowledge of culture and values that a native-born Briton would have acquired, simply by growing up in the United Kingdom, then it would consist of questions like this:

You are queuing at the Post Office, when a man jumps the queue and pushes his way in front of you. Do you:

a) Remonstrate with him.

b) Tut loudly.

c) Do nothing.

(Correct answer, B. Option A would be the actions of an excitable southern European, while Option C would be a spineless act, unworthy of the people whose empire once covered a quarter of the globe).

Instead, you get questions like this:

That a British woman has the right to divorce her husband counts as a knowledge of Britain and its values. When this right was created is a matter of specialised historical knowledge. To expect someone to know the answer to that without having first read the book that contains that fact is ludicrous.

Or how about:

Anyone? I know that the population of the UK is about 60 million. If you asked me what proportion of the population is under the age of 19, I might guess that it would be something like 1 in 5 or 1 in 4. If the options in the above question had been 1 million, 3 million, 15 million and 30 million, then it would be an answer that you might expect people to know. But not the above options, not 13, 14, 15 or 16.

And then let’s go with a third one:

At least this one gives you a 50% chance of guessing right, rather than 25%. But does anyone really expect anyone who doesn’t own a newsagents to know the answer to that? (At what age children can start working perhaps, but exactly how many hours? Really?)

How did I get at all these sample questions? Well I tried doing the sample test on the government’s website. Did I pass? Obviously not. Why would you expect me to pass a test which poses questions about a book I haven’t ever read?

Considering I based through it, got one question wrong because I’d misread it, and had don’t no study whatsoever, I thought 58% was reasonable, actually. (And I’d like to think I’m quite bright).

People just need to stop thinking about this as a test of acquired British values. And next time you see programme makers use the tired old cliché of native-born Britons “failing” the citizenship test, be aware of what you’re watching: lazy, bullshitting journalists who should know better.

I think I’ll end with the conversation I had with a co-worker, when I was discussing this very subject, and the fact that I’d failed the test. I explained my entire theory, including a sample question I’ve previously encountered which asks which proportion of the population of the United Kingdom are Welsh: 2%, 4%, 6% or 8%. (Or something like that). The conversation then went like this.

Him: I still think it’s pretty shocking that 90% British citizens fail this test.

Me: But it’s full of questions like the one about Wales. Do you know what proportion of British citizens are Welsh? Because I don’t.

Him: No. But people still ought to be able to pass this test.

Me: So what you’re saying is that you’re surprised that 90% of people can’t correctly answer a question that you yourself can’t answer?

Him: Well, if you put it like that.

It’s clearly about language. Anyone who denies that is either deluded or lying.

If you’d like to try taking the practice test yourself, you can find it here:

http://www.ukcitizenshiptest.co.uk

What The Titanic Can Tell Us About George Osborne

On Sunday, it will be exactly one hundred years since the sinking of the Titanic. Certain, best not mentioned, persons on Twitter aside, it’s an event widely recollected, with many lessons that have gone into history. The main two of these are, of course:

1) Make sure your ship has enough lifeboats to rescue everyone on board.

2) Don’t drive your ship at full speed into a known ice-field.

There were other lessons learned, such as the need for a ship’s radio room to be manned at all times – the nearest ship to the sinking Titanic, the Californian, could have saved hundreds of lives had it responded to the distress call. But it knew nothing of what was happening, as its radio operator had gone off duty.

But are there other lessons we could learn?

A couple of months ago, I found out something I’d not previously known about the disaster. My friend Jane was embarking on a craft project to weave a bookmark that recorded the death rates on the Titanic. You can read about this magnificent combination of geekiness and craft at the blog post she wrote about it.

http://jane.dallaway.com/titanic-data-weaving-weaving-project-14

So we were in the pub, talking about the death rates of the various groups on the Titanic. Her bookmark would distinguish between men, woman and children, and between 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class and crew (the latter having both men and woman, but no children).

In general, the death rates told the story you’d expect. Within any particular group, women and children were more likely to survive than men (although interestingly, children had a lower survival rate than women, at 51% compared with 74%). And course 1st class passengers were more likely to survive than 2nd class passengers who in turn were more likely to survive than 3rd class passengers.

But there was one significant exception, which was in the group who were least likely to survive. You would perhaps expect this to be either third class men, or male crew, but it wasn’t, although both those groups did still suffer horrific casualty rates: only 16% of third class men survived, and 20% of male crew (the latter chiefly being those who manned the lifeboats).

The highest death rate certainly wasn’t first class men: 33% of those survived, almost as high a rate as third-class children (34%). No, the group that statistically were least likely to survive were second-class male passengers, of whom only 8% survived.

This little factoid got me thinking. Was there a larger lesson, from life, here?

It seems to me that throughout history, the upper classes have laid down a definition of what it is to be a “gentlemen”, or an “Englishman”, but have never felt any particular responsibility for they themselves to live up to that definition. Rules are things they define for those lesser creatures beneath them; but those rules need not apply to them.

The upper classes will sneer at the working classes for supposedly all claiming benefits, even while they use dodgy accounting schemes to largely avoid paying any tax themselves.

The upper classes will damn the working classes for supposedly being drunken hooligans and vandals, even while they themselves join university drinking clubs whose sole raison d’etre appears to be the drunken destruction of pubs and restaurants.

The upper classes have always been happy to brand the workings classes as supposedly lacking in morals, even while keeping a mistress and several prostitutes on the side.

When the upper classes defined what it was to be an “English gentleman”, that was never a definition that they felt any need to live up to; they felt they were entitled to the respect a gentleman was supposedly due merely by virtue of the status into which they were born. No, it was the middle-classes who bought into the myth, who believed the bullshit, who thought that they too could be gentlemen if they only behaved as they thought their supposed betters were behaving. It was they who paid their taxes, and were faithful to their wives, and didn’t ever get drunk and smash things up.

Looked at it this way, is it in any way surprising that while the second class men were largely upholding the principle of women and children first, the first class men were more than four times as likely to board a lifeboat?

I should clarify that I can’t and wouldn’t blame any individual for climbing into a lifeboat. To not have enough lifeboat places put people in an inhuman position. And this tragedy was turned into a farce when there were cases of men being needlessly turned out of lifeboats that then sailed away half empty, the places vacated by those men, left unfilled. My interest here is the second-class male passengers’ largely unreported sacrifice and courage.

But is this the full story? I mentioned the above thought to Jane at the pub. However, when she then looked into it further, it emerged that there was perhaps a simpler, less heroic answer, which is contained in the following extract that she emailed to me:

From “The loss of the SS Titanic” by Lawrence Beesley

About this time, while walking the deck, I saw two ladies come over from the port side and walk towards the rail separating the second-class from the first-class deck. There stood an officer barring the way. “May we pass to the boats?” they said. “No madam” he replied politely, “your boats are down on your own deck,” pointing to where they swung below. The ladies turned and went towards the stairway, and no doubt were able to enter one of the boats: they had ample time. I mention this to show that there was, at any rate, some arrangement — whether official or not — for separating the classes in embarking in boats; how far it was carried out, I do not know, but if the second-class ladies were not allowed to enter a boat from the first-class deck, while steerage passengers were allowed access to the second-class deck, it would seem to press rather hardly on the second-class men, and this is rather supported by the low percentage saved.

So maybe there is a simpler message. The upper classes will attempt to divide the middle classes from the working classes by telling the middle classes that they are gentlemen. You are like us, they will say, not like those nasty working class oiks. Work with us, they will say, be our accountants, run our businesses, we’ll do right by you. And they will, right up until the shit hits the fan, at which point it’ll be the classes of privilege and power (them) on one side, and everyone else (us) on the other.

This was perhaps the lesson the second-class men learned when they found that they shared their boat deck with those from third-class. George Osborne et al are fond of saying that we’re all in it together. Well we weren’t all in it together then, and I suspect we’re not all in it together now.

Huge thanks to Jane for inspiring this post, providing the data, and for allowing me to use the image of her bookmark.

Why I’m Switching From The Liberal Democrats To The Greens

“Imagine two men, sitting in a car. The car is in London, and they wish to travel to Exeter. They’re starting at the same location, and going to the same place, but they are nonetheless arguing, because one is adamant that the best route to take is M4/M5, while the other is equally insistent that they should instead go A30/A303.

“To extend the analogy to my case, I wanted to travel to Exeter and felt that M4/M5 was the best way to get there, the Green Party also wanted to travel to Exeter but were proposing to go A30/A303, and the Liberal Democrats were intending to take the M4 all the way to Cardiff. Twenty-five years ago, I chose the party that wished to head down the M4.”

I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should make this post. I really don’t want people to feel I’m in anyway trying to ram my politics down their throats. But this is not a post about politics itself; or at least it’s trying not to be. In fact, I’m going to try to keep mentions of actual policies to a minimum (although I am reserving the right to talk about politics in any comments). Instead, it’s about how I approach politics, what politics means to me, and how those two factors have combined to cause me to switch my political allegiances, from the Lib Dems, who I was a member of from 1987 to 2009, to the Greens, who I joined last week.

Why do I feel the need to write this post? Well when trying to explain my motives, I can’t help but think of the following words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

(Yes, that is the preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence. I was tempted to put in the preamble of the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence instead, which somewhat clumsily rips off the above quote, just to confuse people – but in the end thought better of it.)

Basically, my feeling is this. I’m a free man, who has a right so support whichever political party he wishes. But I feel that a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that I explain why I’ve stopped banging on (occasionally) about one party and am about to start banging on (equally occasionally) about another.

(Joking aside – I try not to talk too much about politics. But I don’t want to have to keep it a secret either, and I don’t want to feel inhibited from mentioning my opinions about current affairs, for fear I’ll reveal my current political affiliation).

ON CHANGING PARTIES

You see the thing is, I’ve always been suspicious of people who switch from one political party to another. It smacks of opportunism and falsity; how could you last week say that Party A had the best policies, but this week be saying the same thing of Party B? When a number of Conservative MPs, of whom Alan Howarth (now Baron Howarth of Newport) was the first, jumped ship from the Conservative Party straight over to the Labour Party in the mid 1990s, it was difficult to see it as anything but a cynical switch from a dying horse to a fresh one.

I’ve always disliked people who see a political party as merely a vehicle for their personal ambitions, desires or needs; you should support a political party because you think it’s the right one, not because you think it has the best chance of winning. What those Conservative MPs did was the political equivalent of just happening to switch your football allegiance from Liverpool to Manchester United around 1991 or 1992, and I’ve always thought poorly of them for it.

So am I now doing the same thing? Have I realised that the horse I’m riding on is dying, and started looking around for a healthier replacement? I’d like to think not, so the purpose of this post is to defend myself against this charge.

ON MY CHANGE

This isn’t actually a sudden switch. As with many things in life, it’s more complicated than that.

I first nailed my colours to the Lib Dem mast back in 1987, when I was eighteen, and when the Lib Dems hadn’t yet been created. (I joined the old Liberal Party a few months before the merger with the SDP that formed the then Social and Liberal Democrats). I came from a Liberal family; my mum had been a Liberal activist since 1974 and her family had been Liberal supporters since the days of Gladstone. But while I’m sure this influenced me, that wasn’t – I felt – the reason that I’d joined. It was a decision I felt I’d made for my own reasons, and my own beliefs.

I was very active for about ten years, but then disillusion set it, not with the party, and not necessarily with the political process itself, but with the way society saw it. Basically, it seemed like I was slogging my guts out spending every other weekend either delivering leaflets or doing jumble sales to raise money to print the leaflets, for what I felt was a cause that would ultimately benefit my society, just so that people who never lifted a finger to help anyone else could look down on me, and consider themselves superior. (The old “I hate you political people, you’re all self-serving scum” attitude).

So from about 1998 onwards I gradually drifted away, still a party member, still donating money to it via a monthly direct debit, and still voting for the party, but not doing anything else, and gradually feeling less and less involved. In 2009 Jules and I moved to Brighton, and I cancelled my direct debit and let my party membership lapse. This was party perhaps down to apathy and a lack of enthusiasm, but by that point I’d met Caroline Lucas (the Green Party’s leader and then candidate, now MP, for Brighton) and wanted the freedom to tactically vote for her. (As I’m sure is the case with most, if not all, parties, Liberal Democrat rules prohibit members from supporting people who are standing against official party candidates).

I also helped deliver some leaflets, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that I flirted then with the idea of joining them, it did occur to me that I’d rather be in the Greens, if only there weren’t the problem of “disagreeing with half their policies”.

But then in the election something strange happened. I did still vote for Caroline Lucas – and I enthusiastically voted Green at 2011’s council elections – but the performance of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 campaign seemed to re-ignite my enthusiasm for the Lib Dem cause. (Although not enough, I’m forced to admit, to actually get off my arse and do anything, not even for 2011’s referendum campaign).

THE POST-ELECTION YEARS – THEN AND NOW

I was initially quite enthusiastic about the coalition. Sure, the Tories were not the party I’d have chosen as coalition partners, but in a way, that was the point. I’ve always been a believer in the politics of collaboration rather then confrontation. I think British political culture is poisoned by the “them against us” nature of first past the post politics, creating an environment in which behaviours that other political cultures would see as co-operation and compromise are seen instead as treachery and betrayal.

I would like to have our elections conducted under a system that gives proportional results, and consider the “hung” (a.k.a. “balanced”) parliaments that PR tends to produce as very much a feature rather than a bug. (A “hung” parliament is one in which no single party has more than 50% of the seats). No one party can ever claim to have a monopoly on either truth or sense, and only parliament in its entirety can claim to fully represent the will of the people.

In a sense, that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were not, at first sight, obvious coalition partners made the situation better. Anyone can have a coalition with a party whose values closely align with their own. But a coalition like this might dispel the two myths that seem to consistently turn the British people away from proportional representation:

Myth #1: A hung parliament, whether the government is a minority administration, or a coalition, will inevitably deliver a weak, unstable and short-lived government.

Myth #2: PR, and its hung parliaments, means that the people have no say in who gets to form the government, regardless of which way their votes might swing. Instead, this decision is entirely in the hands of the minor third party; the government changes whenever they decide to switch their allegiance from one major party to the other, not when the people do.

The election result itself had shot down myth number two. A country might have several decades worth of hung parliaments, but each of those parliaments will have been different, because each election would have delivered a different mix of parties. Not all coalition permutations are possible in all parliaments.

In this election, the Conservatives hadn’t achieved an overall majority, but were far enough ahead of Labour that the only viable coalition was Conservatives + LibDems. (Labour + LibDems would still have been short of a majority). The people had spoken, and they’d put the Conservatives in the driving seat, if not in sole charge.

And if the last two years have proven anything, I think that they’ve proven Myth #1 to be false also. There are many accusations being hurled at the “ConDem” administration, but that it is weak, unstable and about to fall apart at any moment is not one of them.

I knew there would have to be compromises. All government involves compromises. Many Labour activists were very unhappy with some of the actions taken or attempted by the previous Labour government (invasion of Iraq, ID cards, 90 day detention without trial, introduction of tuition fees, part-privatisation of the tube, extensive use of PFI etc.). And that was a single party-majority government. Those were decisions that their leaders took not because they had too, but because they wanted to.

In this case, the Lib Dems were not just involved in a coalition government, they were the junior members. I knew there would have to be some compromises, and that to a certain extent, we were going to get a Liberal Democrat flavoured Conservative government. But I hoped the compromises would be just and reasonable. I understood that the two parties were going to govern in the immediate national interest, pursuing only those polices on which either immediate action was required, or a consensus could be reached.

Then came tuition fees, the cuts, and finally the NHS bill. On each one, I was able to argue a case, but it was with a heavy heart and a worried soul. I went from being optimistic that the coalition might create a new type of consensus politics; to being very worried about whether Clegg et al knew what they hell they were doing; then finally to wondering if the problem was in fact me, and not them.

Bluntly, were the Liberal Democrats still the party for me? Had I changed my policies at some point in the last twenty years? Had they? (Like most committed supporters, I never actually bothered to read any of my own party’s manifestos). Or had the party always been a different beast from what I’d assumed it to be, and it was only when exposed to the harsh light of government that this became apparent.

In truth? It was most likely all three.

BUT WHY THE GREENS?

That I might not wish to remain a supporter of the Liberal Democrats is probably not a point I need to explain. But why I’ve now decided to join the Greens, is. After all, while the Liberal Democrats might not now be the party they appeared to be two years ago, the Greens very much are. Nothing’s changed about them. If I didn’t see them as the party I should support then, why now?

Why not just have a period of no affiliation?

To a certain extent, there is an element here of me not liking the idea of having no political affiliation. I’ve always prided myself on being a political person, of being involved in the political process. When I realised that I could no longer in all conscience support the Liberal Democrats, I felt lost. But that, in itself, is not a valid reason. In fact, it sounds very similar to the metaphor of switching horses I used at the start of this post.

There is more to it than that. Having nailed my colours to a political mast some twenty five years ago, I never re-examined that decision. In a way, I now realise that I was like a football fan, who supports one team, always, right or wrong. I can perhaps understand those Labour activists who’ve stuck with the Labour Party through long periods where its leaders seemed to be following policies entirely at odds with those of the activists.

I’ve already alluded to the tendency of many political supporters to not actually feel the need to have a detailed knowledge of their party’s current, actual policies. But in addition, I think there’s often also a tendency for you to warp your beliefs to fit the policies. This is my party, you think, and this is what my party is proposing, so it must be right. You emphasise those aspects of your political beliefs that match your party’s polities, and ignore those aspects that don’t.

Deciding to publicly disown the Liberal Democrats, as I did a couple of weeks ago via Twitter, triggered in me a process in which I re-examined, from scratch, what I actually believed in. And in the process, I think I think I worked out something quite profound.

That choosing a political party is an exercise in compromise is a known truth. We are all of us different, and no two of us will have identical beliefs or opinions. But we are all required to shoehorn our square-shaped opinions into one of five round-shaped holes: UKIP, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Greens.

But there’s more to it than that. Because if politics can be seen as a journey, than a political party can be judged by either its intended direction of travel, or its eventual desired destination.

Imagine two men, sitting in a car. The car is in London, and they wish to travel to Exeter. They’re starting at the same location, and going to the same place, but they are nonetheless arguing, because one is adamant that the best route to take is M4/M5, while the other is equally insistent that they should instead go A30/A303.

To extend the analogy to my case, I wanted to travel to Exeter and felt that M4/M5 was the best way to get there, the Green Party also wanted to travel to Exeter but were proposing to go A30/A303, and the Liberal Democrats were intending to take the M4 all the way to Cardiff. Twenty-five years ago, I chose the party that wished to head down the M4.

I’ve been choosing the party whose immediate policies were the ones I felt most practical, rather than the party whose desired outcome most closely agreed with my vision of an ideal society.

I’ve often jokingly said that the problem with the Greens was that I disagreed with 50% of their policies, but that wasn’t really true. The truth was that I felt that 50% of their polices weren’t feasible. “That would be great,” I’d say. “But you’ll never get people to vote for that.” Or perhaps I’d argue that a certain policy would be great in an ideal world, but I wasn’t sure that it was possible to get to that ideal position, given that we had to start from our unequal, over-centralised capitalistic world.

But of course, I’d never bothered to find out in any detail what their polices actually were. Now, adrift, lost, forced by circumstance and Nick Clegg to re-examine everything I’d ever believed in, I actually sat down and read a political manifesto – the 2010 Green General Election manifesto – from cover to cover.

And there wasn’t really anything in there that I disagreed with. Sure, there were things that perhaps seemed radical to a point that could be described as highly optimistic. And there were plenty of things that – while I strongly agree with them – I think would be highly unlikely to win votes. (55 mph speed limit on motorways, to risk an actual political example).

In the past I’d felt those to be deal-breakers. But if you were to quiz me on those things now, pointing at one policy and asking, “Is that really feasible?” and then at another and asking, “Would people really vote for that?” I guess my answer now would be, “I don’t know. But maybe we should at least try?”

And beyond this, reading the document as I now was, with an optimistic eye thinking of where I wanted to go rather than how I thought we might get there, there was a lot of stuff in that I really liked. A lot. Really liked. I suspect that I’m still a square-shaped peg, in a round-shaped hole, and perhaps I’ve gone from being on the idealistic wing of one party to the pragmatic wing of another. But like I said, no political party is a perfect fit, but this new one feels a lot more comfortable than the old. (If for no other reason than that the catering at Green Party gatherings tends towards the vegan/vegetarian variety).

When I joined the old Liberal Party back in 1987, I’d had to wait a couple of months until I could manage to catch up with the elusive bloke (his name escapes me now) who was the local party’s membership secretary. He’d given me a little membership card that he’d written my details onto. Joining the Greens twenty-five years later was a little easier. I simply went to their website, clicked on the join button, and filled in my bank details.

I’ll not claim it felt the same, that I felt the same heart-thumping excitement or the same sense of eager anticipation. But I don’t think that says anything about the LibDems or the Greens, or 2012 versus 1987.

I think it’s just about being forty-two instead of eighteen.

Just How Big A Cliff Did Fianna Fáil Fall Off?

I’ve been following the recent Irish general election quite closely (those of you who’ve suffered through my various tweets and posts can feel free to put in a: “No shit! Really?” here).

It’s not news that Fianna Fáil suffered a disaster of epic proportions. But I thought it might be nice to knock up a graph showing just how badly a catastrophe had befallen them. (It’s not a terribly good graph. I’m not sure lines are the best way to go here, and it would be nice if the X axis was proportionally spaced. But I think it does the job.)

Here it is:

(Click on the graph to show it full size).

A few things you should note.

1) Ireland has a pretty proportional STV electoral system. To win more than 50% of the seats in such a system is a very, very impressive feat. Fianna Fáil did it several times.

2) Although Ireland had two major parties, it wasn’t a two-party system in the popular sense of that phrase. If you define the winner of an election as the party that gains either the most seats or the most votes, Fianna Fáil won every single election between 1932 and 2007, on both of those counts. For Fianna Fáil, “defeat” was when they were still in first place, but with a number of seats less than the total of those parties in second and third places, thus enabling a viable coalition to be formed that didn’t involve them.

3) Fianna Fáil was so dominant that it not only managed to form the government for 61 out of 79 years, for most of those years it did so as a single-party government, not needing to form a coalition to achieve power until 1989. (Again, not an easy feat under PR).

4) Between 1932 and 2007, the lowest share of first preference vote it ever got was 39.1% in 1992.  In the same period, the highest vote ever achieved by the second party Fine Gael was 39.2%, in 1981 and 1982. (e.g. Fianna Fáil’s worst ever post 1932 vote was only a fraction lower than Fine Gaels’ best ever vote). And even in the “landslide” of 2011, Fine Gael only got a vote share of 36.1%.

And then in 2011 Fianna Fáil lost. Hugely. Epically. And it’s a defeat made more marked by just how dominant they previously were.

This wasn’t a two-party system. It was more akin to places/times like Northern Ireland through most of the twentieth century, where the Official Ulster Unionist party always won, or apartheid South Africa, where the Nationalist Party always won.

Why?

Well perhaps one thing Fianna Fáil had in common with those parties was that it wasn’t based on ideology and didn’t sit on the left-right scale. It was instead based on identity, a particular sort of patriotism, and a general populist appeal, thus enabling it to be all things to all men, and allowing it to be broadly centre-right in policy and yet still achieve widespread support among working people. In that, it was perhaps similar to the Gaullists in France and the Peronistas in Argentina.

And then of course, there was the appeal of power itself. I read somewhere that Fianna Fáil was almost like a career and life enabling alternative to university; those who hadn’t had the benefit of an education could still “better themselves” by joining Fianna Fáil and making their way up its ranks. Loyalty was achieved not through altruistic joint-purpose but though collaborative shared-achievement.

(A bit like joining the Masons or the Rotary Club, except those latter two don’t stand in elections).

But for that to work you have to keep winning. I think we can probably say that the alternative university is now closed. One look at the graph makes it clear. Whatever Fianna Fáil was, it ain’t that now.

The “Problem” With STV

Yesterday, I blogged that many in Ireland were calling for it to abandon its current Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system in favour of the Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) system used for the Scottish Parliament, among others.

This makes me sad. I love STV. It has a purity and elegance against which MMP looks kludgy and contrived. I should at this point pause to point out to UK and US readers that contrary to what many people in those countries seem to think, there is no such system as “proportional representation”. Instead, there are many possible electoral systems, each of which can be judged against various factors, such as:

Proportionality: The extent to which a party getting a certain percentage of the vote will get a similar percentage of seats in the resulting parliament. The First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system used in the UK and the US fares particularly badly here. In the 1983 UK general election, Labour got 209 seats (33%) on 28% of the vote, while the SDP/Liberal alliance got a measly 23 seats (4%) despite achieving an only slightly smaller 25% of the vote. In February 1974, the Liberals got a pretty impressive (for a third party) 19% of the vote, but got only 14 seats (2%) in return. And in 1951, Labour scored 48.8% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 48.0%, but the conservatives got 51% of the seats – an overall majority.

Geographical Link: The extent to which individual members of parliament represent specific geographical areas, and thus the extent to which communities are specifically represented in parliament. FPTP is very strong here, as you have a large number of small constituencies, each represented by a single member.

Member-Voter Link: The extent to which voters can select the specific members that represent them. (As opposed to parties effectively selecting who will get elected). FPTP is pretty middling here. Where there is a tight contest, then yes, the voters get to choose who will represent them. But in the 80% of seats that are “safe”, the winner is almost inevitably the candidate chosen by the leading party, so it’s the party selection contest that effectively determines who will be the MP. (The USA kludges around this by opening up the party selection process to voters, which gives power to voters, but at the cost of depriving parties of the right to decide which candidates they wish to offer up for election). This aspect also includes the ability for independent candidates to both stand and get elected.

Effectiveness of Legislature: The extent to which the system delivers a functional legislature. It’s often suggested that it’s beneficial for a system to require parties to get at least a meaningful level of support before they start winning seats. If you assume that decisive, stable government is a good thing (and that’s a big if), then FPTP scores quite highly here, as you tend to end up with a small number of large parties (as opposed to a squabbling plethora of small, single-issue parties). Many proportional systems kludge this requirement by requiring parties to get over an arbitrary share of the vote. Get 5.01% of the votes in Germany for example, and you’ll get 31 MPs. Get 4.99% and you’ll get nothing.

As a comparison, let’s look at the “pure” proportional representation system used in Israel, which is probably the polar opposite of FPTP. The entire nation is one single constituency, with each party submitting a list of candidates, ranked in an order chosen by the party itself. Voters can choose between parties only. If a party gets X% of the vote, then the first X% of candidates on their list are elected. If there are 200 MPs in the legislature and a party gets 0.6% of the vote then they get 1 MP. If you’re not particularly keen on a party which is likely to get it’s first 5 candidates elected, but you love the bloke they’ve got at number 8, then tough. There’s no way whatsoever for you to vote for him.

I hate that system. I’d rather have FPTP. I want to vote for people, not lists.

Which is where we come to STV, the system I’ve loved ever since I found out about it in the 1980s. STV uses large, multi-member constituencies (in Ireland they have between three and five members) where voters are presented with a list of names not parties, and then rank those names in order of preference (until they have no further preference). Parties are free to suggest an order in which they would like people to vote for their candidates, but people are free to ignore this.

Imagine you lived in a hypothetical UK four-member constituency, in which the candidates were:

Dev Alahan (Conservative)
Peter Barlow (Labour)
Janice Battersby (Independent)
Hilda Ogden (Lib Dem)
David Platt (Labour)
Graham Proctor (Labour)
Dierdre Rashid (Green)
John Stape (Conservative)
Rita Sullivan (Lib Dem)
Kirk Sutherland (Conservative)
Sean Tully (BNP)
Kevin Webster (Independent)

You might have noticed that the parties aren’t putting up the maximum four candidates that you might expect. There is a reason, and we’ll get to it.

Now the Labour party, say, might ask you to vote for their candidates in the following order:

1. David Platt (Labour)
2. Peter Barlow (Labour)
3. Graham Proctor (Labour)

But what if you’re broadly a Labour supporter, but you think David Platt’s a complete wanker? And what if you also have some sympathy for the Greens, and think that Kevin Webster, the independent, is a good bloke with a particular interest in the welfare of small children and young women? Well you’d be perfectly at liberty to vote in the following way:

1. Peter Barlow (Labour)
2. Graham Proctor (Labour)
3. Dierdre Rashid (Green)
4. Kevin Webster (Independent)
5. David Platt (Labour)

But how does STV actually work? Well the counting is a bit complicated, but we only really need to concern ourselves with how you vote (which we’ve described above), and what the end result is likely to be.

Imagine a town in the UK which currently has five FPTP constituencies. For the purpose of this example, we’ll assume that all the constituencies are the same size (i.e. have the same number of voters) and have the same turnout (i.e. the same proportion of people voting).

----          Con1   Con2   Con3   Con4   Con5   City Total
Labour        66%    65%    75%    58%    22%    57%
Conservative  7%     16%    5%     14%    57%    20%
LibDem        26%    17%    19%    27%    19%    22%
Others        1%     2%     1%     1%     2%     1%
Winner        LAB    LAB    LAB    LAB    CON

So under FPTP, we get four Labour MPs, one conservative MP, and no LibDem MPs, even though the LibDems actually scored a higher percentage of the vote across the city than the Conservatives. Also, note that every single one of those five seats is a “safe” seat. Unless future elections deliver huge swings from one party to another, we pretty know that the result is always going to be four Labour and one Conservative. Which mean the actual selection of the MPs is entirely in the hands of political parties themselves.

So how would it work under STV? Well this city would form one large constituency, rather than five small ones, with this single constituency returning five MPs. Given the above voting patterns we’d expect the final result to be three Labour MPs, one Conservative MP, and one Lib Dem MP.

Even if the vote proportions don’t change much, this is still going to deliver a tight, meaningful election. Why? Because parties would typically put up at least one more candidate than they were expecting to get. In other words, they would put up the number of candidates they would hope and dream they would get, if their campaign went well.

So lets say that at the previous election, the vote shares were as above, Labour 57%, Conservative 20% and LibDem 22%, with the result being Labour 3 MPs, Conservative 1 MP and LibDem 1 MP. But now imagine that since that election, Labour have significantly lost support, with both the Conservatives and the LibDems increasing support. In this case, both the Conservatives and the LibDems might hope to increase their share of the vote enough to pick up a second seat.

Labour would probably only put up three candidates – their existing three MPs, just hoping to hang onto all of them. But both the Conservatives and the LibDems would put up two candidates each, their existing MP plus a new candidate. So you now have a right old dog-fight. Seven serious, major-party candidates, each with a realistic chance of being an MP, fighting for five seats.

Two LibDems fighting for what will most likely be only one LibDem seat. Two Conservatives fighting for what will most likely be only one Conservative seat. And three Labour candidates fighting for what might well turn out to be only two Labour seats.

You’ve got Conservative versus Labour to push Labour down to only two seats. LibDem versus Labour, again to push Labour down to only two seats. Conservative versus LibDem, fighting over who will get that third seat, should they prise it away from Labour. Labour versus Labour, to ensure that if that third seat is lost, they’re not the MP being lost. Conservative versus Conservative, to ensure that if the Conservatives remain on only one seat, they’re the Conservative that gets it. And LibDem versus LibDem, to ensure the same, that if there’s only one LibDem seat, it’s them.

And this is before we add in the effects of transfer votes, with parties appealing to supporters of other parties to give them their later transfers (like the Labour voter in the above example voting Green) and individual candidates appealing to voters to rank them higher than their fellow party candidates (like the Labour voter in the above example ranking the Labour #2 and #3 above the #1).

This is why I love STV. It delivers a broadly proportional result, while eliminating tiny fringe parties (but without any arbitrary threshold), and yet still manages to be all about individual candidates rather than parties. Independent candidates have just as much chance to get elected as those belonging to party. Every contest is meaningful. No party can afford to impose (“parachute in”) an unpopular candidate, because they risk losing that seat. Power really is in the hands of the voters.

The obvious disadvantage is that the constituencies can be rather large, but that can be partly mitigated against (with some loss of proportionality) by having three member constituencies in thinly-populated rural areas where five member constituencies would be huge. And I think that losing some geographical linkage (but only some) is a worthwhile price to pay for all of STV’s other benefits.

So what’s the “problem”? If STV’s so great, why is Ireland thinking of moving away from it, to systems that, while still proportional, rely on party lists.

Well put simply, where every single contest turns into a huge, vicious dog-fight, where no candidate is ever safe, and candidates are often fighting their fellow party members as much, if not more, as they are the opposing parties, politics can become very insular and local. When there is such a strong bond between voter and individual representative, when voters have so much say over who represents them, national issues can go out of the window in favour of local issues.

In our FPTP system, voters ask: “Why should I vote for your party?” After all, you only have one candidate per party, so it’s usually the party that is the determining factor between each candidate. Add in the fact that 80% of the constituencies are safe seats with the result a forgone conclusion, and you end up with an election that is very much fought nationally, on national, “political” issues.

But under STV, voters can end up saying: “Okay, you’ve convinced me that I should vote for your party, but why should I vote for you?”

And that too often leads to voters asking not what the candidate can do for their country, but what they can do for their local area. They became literal servants of the people, whose job it is to fix problems and get resources for their area. Future loyalty is bought by the services they’ve rendered in the past.

And they can never relax. No seat is safe. Even in an area that is solid for their party, a lack of attention to constituency issues (perhaps because they’re busy serving the country as a cabinet minister) risks their local party putting one extra candidate up at the next election who will be fighting to take their seat away from them.

I love STV. But I can see how, in Ireland’s case, a system where general elections actually consist of 43 viciously fought local elections isn’t perhaps the best way to run a country.

Can An Electoral System Be Too Democratic?

On 5th May 2011, the British people will be asked by referendum if they wish to change the way they elect the members of their parliament, from the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system to a system of Alternative Vote (AV). The “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign list the following as some of AV’s benefits:

Your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present they can be handed power with just one vote in three.  They’ll need to work harder to win – and keep – your support.

Too many MPs have their ‘safe seats’ for life. Force complacent politicians to sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.

So no more safe seats for central party leadership to “parachute” candidates into. Good thing, right? Are you sure? Consider this:

Since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, no bald man has been elected US president, despite the fact that male pattern baldness (MPB) affects roughly 40 million men in the United States. So that’s a baldy-free run of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush Snr, Clinton, Bush Jnr and Obama. (Yes, Gerald Ford was bald, but he was appointed by the US Senate).

Looked at in this light, (Black) Barack Obama’s victory over (balding) John McCain appears less of a historic breakthrough, and more of a depressing confirmation of a clear historical trend – that in today’s looks obsessed society, bald guys don’t get elected US President. (And add in the fact that Obama’s taller than McCain, another factor that often suggests the winner, and it’s pretty clear that McCain’s campaign had early on boarded a direct flight to Failure City, Republic of Loserland).

And this bias against chrome-domes isn’t something unique to the US Presidency:

Research from the early 1990s found that the proportion of bald men making it to elected office in the US was four times less than the number of follicularly challenged males in the population at large.

The last time a bald politician was elected to Number 10 was Winston Churchill in 1951 – and he was up against the equally receded Clement Attlee.

[BBC News]

Where am I going with this? Well that’s just if you’re bald. Imagine how difficult it would be to get elected if you were not merely bald, but ugly as well? And how about if on top of being bald and ugly, you suffered from what could perhaps be most charitably described as a certain lacking in the charisma department? Actually, we don’t have to imagine that one.

He was up against a widely despised, smug, lying war-monger, and lost huge. You get what I’m saying.

Now I wasn’t sad to see Howard lose. But what about more talented candidates? Imagine you have someone who is simply brilliant. Who will make a terrific lawmaker, tenacious in committee and analytical in debate, someone who will surgically remove the flaws from proposed laws and expose the lies and evasions of those who parliament is required to hold to account. Someone who might make a brilliant cabinet minister. The sort of man or woman you want in charge of the economy in difficult times like this.

And then imagine that this brilliant person, this person who all concerned agree would be an asset both in Parliament and in government, is cursed by being both ugly and uncharismatic. Is there not possibly an argument here in favour of safe seats? Is there not perhaps some benefit in having seats where a non-domiciled, pedophile pit-bull terrier could get elected provided you shoved the right colour rosette on it?

Now you might say that I’m being over-cynical here, and yes I am a bit, and my tongue is somewhat lodged in my cheek. But only partially. It’s all very well saying that surely we can trust the electorate to make the right choices, to pick the brilliant but ugly bald guy over the slick, smooth-talking wanker with a sharp hair-cut and a well-worn suit, but they don’t do they?

Dwight Eisenhower. 1956. Fifty-four years of hurt. Bald men should perhaps stop dreaming.

And it’s not just me thinking this, although those other thinking it might not describe it in quite the same terms. Some believe that the roots of Ireland’s economic disaster lie in its highly democratic STV system, in which every MP is directly elected/chosen by the voting public, and in which there is pretty much no such thing as a safe seat. This has supposedly led to TDs (MPs) who are good at getting elected, but perhaps not so good at making laws or running a government.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have committed to changing the electoral system, to a still proportional, but more list based system. But perhaps the most succinct explanation is given by journalist and campaigner Fintan O’Toole in his petition for reform:

3. END CLIENTILISM

Change the electoral system that turns TDs into constituency fixers. Replace it with a mix of direct election and a list system similar to that used for the Scottish parliament.

Such a system would massively remove the power of individual voters to select who they want to represent them. Most of the direct election seats would be “safe”, meaning that it would be the relevant local party who would ultimately select the MP. And then the list would provide extra opportunities for central parties to “parachute” in bright and brilliant but ugly and tongue-tied candidates.

And I can’t help but notice the similarity between the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign’s “Force … politicians to … reach out to the communities they seek to represent” and O’Toole’s “[End] electoral system that turns [MP]s into constituency fixers”.

You know, this was supposed to be a satirical post. But I don’t think it is. I really am starting to think that an electoral system can be too democratic.

Which is a bit of a pisser really. Bugger.

My Advice to Former Undercover PC Mark Kennedy

The story of PC Mark Kennedy, a.k.a. eco-activist Mark “Flash” Stone, is like something out of a Hollywood movie:

He turned up with long hair, tattoos and an insatiable appetite for climbing trees. Few people suspected anything odd of the man who introduced himself as Mark Stone on a dairy farm turned spiritual sanctuary in North Yorkshire.

He had come alone on 12 August 2003, in the middle of a heatwave, for a gathering of environmental activists known as Earth First.

Apart from the fact that “Stone” was apparently well-paid and ate meat, he appeared no different from the hundreds of other activists who gathered under marquees to smoke weed, play guitars and plan protests.

What no one could have known was that, despite appearances, the 33-year-old “freelance climber” was actually PC Mark Kennedy, an undercover police officer beginning an audacious operation to live deep undercover among environmental activists.

Source: The Guardian [Full Story…]

But after seven years undercover the story took a sensational turn.

Kennedy’s personal journey also appears to have ended with a remarkable twist. In recent weeks, after protesters discovered his hidden identity and circulated news that he was a police agent, Kennedy is said to have “gone native”. He has expressed remorse to betrayed friends and is seeking some way of securing redemption.

Kennedy is now living abroad, but recent developments suggest his desire for redemption is sincere. In email exchanges with activists and their lawyer, Kennedy talked of taking a “leap of faith”, giving the defence evidence that would “assist” them. “I want to help,” he said.

Kennedy is now apparently in the USA, but what should he do now? Well I think the course of action he needs to take now is clear. See, when I said that his story was “like something out of a Hollywood movie” I was speaking only a partial truth. It is like something out of a Hollywood movie, but only the start of one. There is half a story here, a beginning that leads to personal growth and then to a painful transformation, but there is no ending, no redemptive arc.

Kennedy needs to get back into the environmental movement, openly, as himself, offering the insights that only a poacher turned gamekeeper can offer, and endeavour to earn the forgiveness of those who once counted him a friend but now consider him an enemy.

Because only then is his story complete. And only then is his story option-able to a Hollywood movie-studio for a shitload of money.

My Thoughts On The Cllr Compton / Alibhai-Brown Twitter Joke Controversy

A Tory councillor has been arrested over claims he suggested on Twitter that Yasmin Alibai-Brown, a female newspaper columnist, should be stoned to death.

You’ve probably read this in the news. If not, you can read about it on the above link, or here, here, or here.

But basically, a Conservative councillor, Gareth Compton, was listening to a radio discussion programme featuring the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown when she (allegedly) said something that provoked him into making the following “joke” on twitter.

“Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”

She complained, along with many others. He has been arrested under the Communications Act 2003 and suspended from the Conservative party.

Where do I stand on this? Well at the moment, I’m thinking that this was a highly offensive joke for which he probably should be expelled from the Conservative party, but that it was clearly a joke, and not therefore something he should be prosecuted for. But I do think we need to judge what he said in the context of the statement of hers to which she was replying. Which is where it gets murky, because there doesn’t seem to be a definitive account of exactly what it was she said.

He claims that she stated the following:

The councillor claimed she had said, with reference to David Cameron’s trip to China, that no politician was morally qualified to speak out about human rights abuses, including the stoning of women, bar the likes of Nelson Mandela. [link]

But I can’t seem to find any authoritative, neutral account of what she actually said. The most I can find is Alibai-Brown now stating:

If I, as a citizen of this country, cannot even express an opinion about human rights and the moral authority of our politicians, what does that say about how equal we are? [link]

…which doesn’t confirm his account, but equally, doesn’t contradict it either. Why does it matter? Well firstly, because if he was responding to a statement which itself could be considered offensive (which we can only fully judge if we know exactly what she said and the way in which she said it), then his statement is perhaps less of a unprovoked and gratuitous attack, and perhaps more of an admittedly harsh, but perhaps satirical comment.

But I think it’s most important because of this:

She added that she regarded Compton’s remarks as racially motivated because he mentioned stoning. “If I as a Muslim woman had tweeted that it would be a blessing if Gareth Compton was stoned to death I’d be arrested immediately.” [link]

The implication here being, as the Telegraph puts it:

She told The Guardian they amounted to “incitement to murder” and as a Muslim of Indian descent, his remarks could be seen to be “racially motivated”. [link]

The question here is: who first mentioned “stoning”, him or her?

If she never mentioned stoning, then yes, there is a racial aspect to what she said, much as if a white American were to joke about wanting someone (who “happened” to be black) killed, but specified that it should be by lynching (ignoring far more obvious methods such as by gun, knife, car, lethal injection, gas chamber, electric chair etc.) .

But if she specifically mentioned stoning, and especially if it was in the context of a specific discussion about the current high profile stoning cases in Iran (Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in particular), then I think there’s no real justification for assuming that the joke was racially motivated. (It might well have been, but I don’t think you can accuse people of racism on the grounds that racism could theoretically be a motivating factor in their actions).

Finally, I think when she says:

“If I as a Muslim woman had tweeted that it would be a blessing if Gareth Compton was stoned to death I’d be arrested immediately.”

…she’s guilty of a certain amount of hyperbole. Given the response to the Channel 4 Dispatches programme Undercover Mosque (no charges were eventually bought against those saying that gay men should be thrown off cliffs, or that Indian businesses should be bombed and Jews killed, but the police did request that the CPS bring charges against Channel 4 for broadcasting a programme including material likely to stir up racial hatred), I think her implication that being a Muslim makes her more likely to be arrested, were she to say something like this is not borne out by prior events.

What’s This We, Kemosabe?

There’s a lot of talk now about the coalition government move to raise the cap on university tuition fees. For what’s it’s worth, I don’t know what the solution to university funding is, although I do feel that the emphasis on getting 50% of the population to go to a university simply to do a degree, any degree, is seriously missing the point1.

Anyhow, yesterday I read a piece in the London Evening Standard by their City Editor Chris Blackhurst (who’s perhaps a little older than me, but probably a fellow Generation Xer), in which he strongly opposed the raising of the tuition fees cap. It’s a good, fairly written, and passionate piece, but he managed to completely rub me up the wrong way with one particular angle that he was taking. Here’s the relevant bits (emphasis mine):

In our days, as I recall, we never had this double-whammy worry. We got a grant from the local council and we spent it. If we wanted more, we got casual work, we asked the bank manager or our parents, or both.

We weren’t bothered about being saddled with heavy debts when we graduated: what jobs we would end up doing and, more to the point, how much they paid, never dominated our thinking. When we did get jobs, we were able to join the property ladder and to take out mortgages — we did not have a sizeable loan already hanging over us.

How can we do this? We, the people that enjoyed free education, that basked in the lengthy post-war prosperity of our parents’ generation and the expansion of the university system? How dare we turn round now and tell our children to pay so much?

And that dilemma is not one they should face. It’s not one that we had to confront and neither should our successors. Our hypocrisy in this regard is appalling. Shame on us.

Of course, upon reading that, my deep, gut reactions was: what’s with this “we” shit? You might have gone to university Chris, but I didn’t, and neither did hardly anyone I knew2. I just didn’t come from the sort of background3 where people went to university, and as a result I was frankly too scared to go.

People seem to be harking back to a “golden age” where everyone got to go to university for free, but there never was such a golden age. Some people (ten percent maybe, with a disproportionate number of them coming from good middle-class backgrounds) were given free university educations, paid for by the taxes of a whole bunch of people whose own children weren’t going to go to university.

Taxing the poor to educate the rich seems to me neither fair nor progressive, and now that the poor have decided that they’d quite like to go to university too, it’s become horribly apparent that it’s going to need more money.

Like I said, I don’t know the solution. But let’s not kid ourselves about how great it was in the past, because it wasn’t.

1People say this will enable those people getting degrees to earn more money. But how? And why? The way to help everyone in the country earn more money is to train them to provide goods and services the the rest of the world wishes to purchase. But historically, the reason why people with generic liberal-arts degrees earned more money was because in an era when only 10% of people got a degree, possession of a degree would take you straight into the top 10% of management jobs, where you would be a highly paid “chief” bossing around nine lowly paid “indians”. Those liberal-arts degrees made their possessor’s richer, but they didn’t make the country any richer. If we succeeded in getting 50% of people to have some sort of generic degree that won’t mean 50% of all jobs will now be highly-paid managerial positions. It will simply mean that if you want a top 10% highly-paid managerial position, you’ll need at least a masters degree, if not a Phd. So I fear we risk spending huge amounts of money and saddling kids with massive debts, only for them to end up doing the same 20-30k generic white collar jobs that they would have ended up doing thirty years ago, except that then they’d have started them at 16 instead of 21.

2There were 250 people in my year at school. Of those, 16 (6%) stayed on to do A Levels. Most of them failed those A Levels. I know of at least one person who went to a university or polytechnic to do a degree level course (Lawrence, who went to the University of Lancaster to do maths). I think one, perhaps two max, of the girls went to a university as well. And my friend Stuart who left school after O Levels and got a job in a bank later went back to College to get a BTEC National Diploma in computing, and then, on the strength of that, went to Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England). So that’s somewhere between 0.4% and 1.6% going to university or polytechnic.

3At the time I got to 18, I knew of only one person in my family, ever, who’d gone to university, and that was a great-grandfather (my mother’s, father’s father, who was quite well off, but then did for his family by dying young of TB). Other than that, of my mother, my father, my brother, my two older cousins, my two uncles and my three aunts, my three great-aunts, and my four grand-parents, not one had been to university. That’s not to say that they were stupid, or even ill-educated. Both my mother and my uncle Alan were teachers (two-year and three-year teaching certificates respectively), my father was a surveyor (part-time Higher National Certificate in Mining Surveying), my uncle Gerry was a policeman, my auntie Ruth was a nurse, and my auntie Jean got very high up in the civil service. Since then, my two younger cousins have both got degrees and my uncle Alan got an Open University degree. But at the time, university seemed a scary place full of better educated kids from posh schools – so I went to a local college and got a BTEC (in cartography and surveying).

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