Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Republic of Great Britain?

25 May 2011

Yesterday, 24th May 2011, saw the odd coincidence of what used to be Empire Day and the arrival in the UK of the president of that empire’s first escapees, the USA.  Big Barry meeting the Queen and addressing both houses of the UK parliament seems a good opportunity to consider whether and how Britain could become a republic.*

The monarchy

First off, it’s worth considering whether it is worth getting rid of the monarchy. Personally, I don’t think that this is something that we should do. I understand the arguments for it – the cost and inequity of the current situation, but think that the monarchy is part of the whole image of the UK as a country, its heritage and all that. In his first autobiography, Stephen Fry refers to his crooked nose as similar to the British Royal Family: something that he doesn’t like but which part of the way that people identify him.

A popular choice seems to be the ‘The Queen’s OK, but we should get rid of them after her’ option, which I think is unfair on Prince Charles.  It’s true that he is more outspoken than seems right for a hereditary figurehead, but this could well be a result of his not having a specific role: if he was the monarch he would not be able to speak out in this way, or if he did it would be a much bigger problem and he would have to shut up or go.

The arguments against the monarchy are strong, but I would prefer a more streamlined model rather than abolition.  Perhaps King Charles III will move in that direction and gain some popularity for it.  The image people have of the Dutch Royal Family’s informality is probably too far to go (as well as being out of date, they are not like that now), but perhaps a few massive houses fewer and less of an entourage would be good.  A sense of majesty and honour should be attached to their state visits – that is part of the point – the difficulty is balancing that with (more) acceptable levels of cost. Any cost will be unacceptable to some, but I think that there is a balance to be struck.

The republic

If, however, we did become a republic, how might it work? As I see it, there are (at least) three options of how we could have a Head of State in a British republic:

1 – Bumping up the PM to be a president

The easiest choice would be to make the Prime Minister the Head of State. This has both immediate appeal for its ease and immediate repulsion (if the PM is someone you dislike). Frankly, it seems to me a pointless option; as Simon Jenkins points out (somewhere, I can’t find the link), the Head of State does all sorts of ceremonial and largely pointless stuff that it would probably be best for the political premier not to waste his or her time with. Added to which, such a move that increases the personal power of the prime minister without reforming the rest of the executive and legislative parts of the constitution would further increase the personality-driven nature of British politics and reinforce the growth in personal power accumulated by prime ministers of the recent past – most notably Thatcher, Blair and Brown.

2 – Separating the legislative and executive branches of power

A more reasonable but much less likely option would be to reform the system of government to be more like that of the USA, with separate elections for the legislature (Commons) and for the executive (the President and Government).  As anyone who has studied comparative UK-US politics will know, there are advantages and disadvantages of this system.  On the plus side it would free up the 150 MPs who are in the government and allow either more legislators or a substantial cut in the size of the Commons. It would also allow the government to be formed of experts without being confined to MPs and Peers.

The biggest disadvantage, though, is the stalemate that strikes when the legislature and government are controlled by different parties – as seen under President Clinton and now with Obama (but not so much, it seems, when Democrats control Congress). The Westminster (prime ministerial) system tends towards electoral dictatorship because the opposition can scarcely ever defeat the government, the presidential system runs the risk of deadlock.

It seem unlikely that this change will ever happen without an all-out revolution though because it means getting rid of both the monarchy and the entire system of politics in the UK.  It might be an improvement, but it is not going to happen.

3 – Having a different figurehead

The third option, which I think is the most reasonable, is for a new figurehead to be chosen by the people to perform the many of ceremonial and constitutional roles of the British monarchs but without the enormous expense. This president could then be the person who opens parliament, signs off new laws and ‘appoints’ a new government when the prime minister is able to command a majority of MPs. They would not need all the carriages, vast property holdings, or large staff.

All three options raise the question of who the president would be, but this is the only one where the answer is not ‘the same person who would otherwise be prime minister’.  One of the arguments against a republic is the idea that someone like Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher would become president (depending who is speaking) and that would be awful.  This is true of the president-types outlined above, but not necessarily of this one. If we look at who Germany and Iceland have had as ceremonial presidents, we find that the incumbents tend not to have been heads of government: in Iceland it is a former finance minister, in Germany a former state-premier.

Perhaps we might consider that a British President on this model would not be a former prime minister. A leader from a sub-national parliament would seem appropriate, particularly if the majority of the population had these parliaments; in fact Donald Dewar, if he was still alive, might be the type of person who would be elected. From the other side of the political aisle, perhaps Lord Patten. An important position but without great powers would probably be better filled by (and more appealing to) politicians like these rather than the Blairs and Thatchers of this world.

So, there are options of how a British Republic could work, with varying degrees of disruption to the existing structure of our political system. I do not see that replacing the monarchy with a different system is necessary, but if it happens it will be an interesting opportunity to reshape our political system.

________

* I say Britain because it seems unlikely that a new British republic would be called the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.

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The agony of choice

26 April 2011

The bunting is up, the country is buoyed with excitement… yes, it’s nearly referendum time!  After the crass, misleading and anti-politician campaigns is there clear blue (or purple?) water between the two?

The Alternative vote…

…gives a fairer result: everyone will have to have the support of 50% of the voters. This is one of its best selling points, because it gives people the chance to say who they’d prefer if their top choice doesn’t win – as this advert demonstrates, the idea of settling for a compromise if not everyone agrees on the first choice is a fairly natural human activity.  (Of course it is not quite that simple and actually it is only 50% of the votes still left in the ballot after a few rounds, which might not actually be 50% of the voters because people are less likely to state a 2nd preference, and then less likely to put a 3rd, etc. As Aveek points out, when AV is used in Scotland 12 of 31 winners have got there with a minority of votes.)

…will stop politicians from being corrupt and devious: AV will ‘make safe seats less safe’, by… erm… making marginal seats more marginal.  Apparently this would have stopped the expenses scandal – a scandal that was not related to safeness of seats and did not undermine the incumbent advantage in the 2010 election. The Yes2AV campaign clearly hate MPs, if their video with hectoring Yes2AV campaigners shouting at them is anything to go by and want to punish them all for the excesses of some by changing the voting system (See Ian Murray MP’s excellent response to that video, here).

…will stop the BNP: The BNP don’t like it, so it must be bad for them! More seriousnly, though, it won’t help them into power because the winner needs the support of 50% of voters (NB, see above) and since the BNP do not generally get that level of support even where they win in council elections they would not win seats under AV.

…means you can vote positively: since you get a second choice, you can vote for a candidate you really like as your first preference and then a potential winner thereafter. This is supposed to get rid of tactical voting, but in fact would probably just mean people stating preferences for the candidates they don’t hate, which is not very positive.

…is very British: Nick Clegg has told us that the change to AV would be ‘a very British reform’. Must be true then.

Whereas First Past the Post…

…gives a fairer result: it is clear who has won, because they have the most votes.  It doesn’t matter if this is as little as 30% of the votes so they clearly aren’t who most people want. This is a simple and effective argument that doesn’t need to be sullied by ludicrous exaggerations and lies equating AV with the loser winning in horse races (see 1.30 in this video), school sports days or two-fighter boxing matches.

…will stop politicians from being corrupt and devious: because FPTP gives strong majority governments (apart from when it doesn’t), politicians will be more honourable and stick to their promises and pledges (unlike Alan B’stard in this advert).  Remember how much everyone loved and respected politicians before May 2010? – glory days!

…will stop the BNP: FPTP means that parties can happily ignore people who vote for fringe parties… which is the only way to defeat ‘fascism’ apparently.

…means you can vote positively, or rather AV does not stop negative voting. FPTP is more likely to give tactical voting, AV does not stop it (there will be different kinds of tactics) and probably would increase negative voting.

…is very British: the Lord formerly known as John Reid has said that AV ‘un-British’. Must be true then.

I hope that clears everything up.  It’s not the whole story, of course, there are differences between the systems and there are other meaningless or misleading angles being pursued in the campaigns (AV kills babies, FPTP gives politicians who hide behind lamp-posts); it is remarkable and depressing how similar and rubbish both campaigns are.

Fundamentally it comes down to which system one thinks is the better (fairer, most effective, etc) way to pick MPs.  Should it be the one with the most votes in FPTP, or should it be the one with the broadest support amongst the electorate even when many of them would place a different candidate first.

End of the peer show?

20 April 2011

The Sunday Telegraph reported on Sunday that the Coalition Government are looking at the House of Lords being elected for 15-year terms on the basis of proportional representation.  This of course stands in complete contrast to the Coalition Agreement statement that:

“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. … It is likely that this bill will advocate single long terms of office.”

Er, hang on.  That doesn’t sound much like news, does it?  Apart from the 15-year term thing anyway.  The story seems mainly to be playing to the ‘Tories are giving up treasured ideals to suit the fidgety Lib Dems’ narrative of the right-of-centre press. Today, though, there has been a call by peers to stop increasing their number.

These bring up the interesting question of the Lords and its (or their) future.

At the moment, the vast majority of peers have been given membership of the House of Lords for life by a prime minister, with the House of Lords Appointments Commission advising on the selection of Cross-bench (i.e. non-party) peers. There are also up to 26 Bishops in there, as well as around 90 hereditary peers elected from the 600 or so who used to be entitled to sit in the house.

Personally, I think that the Lords do a pretty good job.  It can vary, of course, with their often harsh and outdated opinions on homosexuality certainly do not help their image (or quality of work), while at the same it is worth noting that the decision to allow palmtop and tablet mobile devices in the Chamber was made in the Lords before the Commons.  Many of the peers are online, notably on Lords of the Blog.

The ‘expertise’ of the House is often exaggerated as a defining characteristic, but it is true that many of the people there are members precisely because they have been high achievers in previous (or parallel) careers – although with politicians it contains both high achievers and failed ministers.

The problem

The main flaw with the House, as I see it and as the Constitution Unit and some peers have stated (pdf), is that the model is sustainable – especially if the aim of appointments is to match the party proportions in the last election, .  After each election where the government changes hands (i.e. 1997 and 2010), a vast number of new peers are appointed. Cameron has appointed 117, Blair appointed around 90 in his first 12 months (70 in 1997, the rest in early 1998). At the moment, with 792 peers 44% are Labour, 40% Conservative and 17% Lib Dem (compared to a 2011 vote ratio of 33:41:26) – in addition to which there are Cross-benchers as well as Bishops and some others. With an average of 36 appointed each year and no real way to leave the House other than through death, the number is likely to keep on growing.  The CU paper suggests that over a thousand would be needed to make the ratios correct.

The paper does not deal with changes to an elected or part-elected house, but their suggestions (capping the number of peers, having a set ratio for selecting new peers to move towards proportionality and having an independent system to oversee it) could usefully feed into a larger-scale reform, with in-direct election.

A solution?

It seems that, rightly in my view, any largely-elected House (the general consensus seems to be to kep 20% appointed, presumably mainly Cross-benchers) will represent broad regions rather than small constituencies. This avoids duplicating the more directly-representative function of the Commons, but raises the question of who these new Lords will be.

Broadly speaking, I think that the current selection of peers works reasonably well. The house is fairly effective in amending legislation passed to it from the Commons – which is essentially its job, but which is undermined by its growing size, and this job should remain the focus of any reforms.

If the new fifteen-year-peers can be picked on a similar but more rationalised basis – e.g. an independent appointment system and not simply peerages for ex-cabinet ministers – then the House could (and I mean could, the House evolves constantly) retain its current useful role.  The risk will be that it might become a dumping ground for failed MPs (or, rather, unsuccessful candidates at Commons elections).

Perhaps a workable model would be to have 20% of Peers selected by the Appointments Commission to sit as Cross-benchers, say 80 of a 400-strong house (this is roughly the number who sit regularly now). One could add representatives of the major religions (and maybe ethics specialists?) numbering another 10 or 15, although this might be controversial and maybe simply 95 Cross-benchers would be better. Another five would be office-holders (Lord Speaker, etc), that would make 100, allowing 100 to be ‘elected’ every 5 years for three terms.

Each time there is an election, the new cohort could be appointed from party lists either directly in regions like the Euro-election, which would involve a specific Lords ballot, or indirectly through an independent appointment process, which could be based on votes for Commons or directly for the Lords. They could be selected in proportion to either a) the proportion of votes cast in that year’s vote or b) in proportion to the difference between the existing proportions of peers and the proportions of votes cast, depending on how direct the election should be.

That system, with parties centrally (or regionally, or a mixture) selecting peers appointed in proportion to votes cast in a ballot seems to me to approximate the current system in a reasonable and rational way. It could mean that the features of the House in terms of composition and role are retained, but that selection is given added legitimacy (albeit not with enough direct involvement to worry the Commons) and without the ever-increasing House that we have today.

This seems to me a good half-way point between direct election (as per Commons) and 100% appointment (as in the modern Lords, if we ignore the semi-elected hereditaries).

P.S. There are other ideas around out there: perhaps a public ballot like jury duty, with 100 or so  members of the public randomly selected each year and paid to work in the revising chamber for three years. This has some immediate appeal – it would certainly broaden the expertise and experience of the House – but is unlikely to get anywhere politically.

P.P.S. The subject-line for this post comes from an alternative title for Emma Crewe’s Lords of Parliament, which I’m reading and enjoying at the moment. I wish I had made it up, but I didn’t.

We don’t need to talk about Winston

30 March 2011

I discovered recently that my great-grandfather Richard Berwick Hope played on his school cricket team with the great sportsman C.B. Fry.  He (Hope) also turns out to have been a contemporary of Winston Churchill at Sandhurst (he features on the list at the back of this book on Churchill).

These things got me thinking about what my ancestor might have thought as he saw these two contemporaries of his become world-famous figures, particularly Churchill since Hope lived through the Second World War and even into Churchill’s peacetime period as prime minister.  Part of me wonders what he made of his class-mate’s rise to Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty (again) and Prime Minister.

These idle thoughts butted up against a general feeling I’ve had for a while that Churchill’s image as national hero really needs more grounding in real life. There seems to be a sense that because Churchill did or said something it must be right.  This is rubbish.  He did and said a lot of things, many of which were stupid and many more of which were reflections of his time rather than some innate truth.

This is not to say that he should not be regarded as a national hero – I think he should, it is hard to imagine that any of the alternative prime ministers in 1940 would have been so firm and inspirational.  He was the person that the nation needed in 1940… but he is not the person the nation needs now. He was inspirational at his nation’s hour of great need, but is he really someone to be recalled whenever it suits?

Two examples occur to me of the use of Churchill’s name in political arguments.  One by Baroness Warsi and one by the BNP.

Sayeeda Warsi recently quoted Churchill to support her argument against the Alternative Vote system:

Let me tell you what’s wrong with AV. ‘It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal’ voting system. It means that elections ‘will be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.’ Conference, not my words – the words of Winston Churchill eighty years ago.

She also used the Churchill quotations in an article for the Sun today, to back up her line that AV will assist the BNP.  I’m sure it is heartening for Conservatives and Sun readers to hear that Churchill felt this way about AV, but (even aside from the misleading point about extremism) it really is not helpful.

It might do them some good to remember that this is the same Churchill who told the nation that a Labour government would need a “Gestapo” to implement their policies.  It was also Churchill who returned the nation to the Gold Standard in the 1920s, helping to bring on the General Strike. I wonder whether Baroness Warsi thinks that her Cabinet colleagues and the nation as a whole should follow his lead back to the Gold Standard.

Churchill also refused to speak to Lady Astor when she was elected because: “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she bursts into my bedroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge.”  One can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the appearance of a woman of Pakistani descent in a Tory Cabinet!

Even more despicable in the tub-thumping Churchill-worship was Nick Griffin when he appeared on Newsnight and used Churchill to back up his point of view. He claimed that Churchill would have been a BNP member, to which various people made valid arguments about the fight that Churchill put up in the name of democracy.

In some ways, Griffin was correct, though: Churchill would have agreed with some of the BNP’s policies, such as on non-white immigration to the UK. This is not because their position is inherently right and British, but because Churchill was a man of the nineteenth century with a Victorian sense of racial superiority.  His views were out of date by the time of his death, and are even more so now.  Churchill was also an imperialist, while the BNP think that we should not be involved in wars overseas. Judged by today’s standards, Churchill was indeed very right wing. That is why we shouldn’t take as gospel the words of the ageing wartime prime minister… because he was a man of his time. That is part of what gave him his rhetorical ability, but it makes him a bad role model in many other ways.

We should respect Churchill, but accept his faults. His leadership in the Second World War was imperfect but it was important – if not vital – to the survival of a democratic Britain and of the Western Front against Nazism. His record on domestic matters is less impressive and his views were those of a man of his time.  This should not mean that we hark back to those views as inviolable ‘British’ views, or that he was right (or wrong) about everything, or that we dismiss him out of hand. Churchill was important, but he must be understood in context not put on a pedestal and worshipped.

Please, stop quoting him as if he was some great infallible arbiter of political debates… he was not.

Tahrir Square, London?

3 March 2011

Like most people with a computer and in interest in events beyond the end of my road, I’ve been following the uprisings, protests and nascent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.  A lot of interesting things have been said about the protests there, notably in two excellent Plant Money podcasts (the word excellent should always precede the words Planet Money podcast) on the economic power of the Egyptian military and its reluctance to shoot on its customers (the people) and on the differences between the diverse Egyptian economy and the rentier state of Libya.

Slightly less informative, but at least vaguely thought-provoking, is a piece by Laurie Penny under the title ‘Is it crass to compare the protests in London, Cairo and Wisconsin?’, with the equally stunning subtitle ‘The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance.’

In a way, she is right. There is inequality, there is a feeling that the government is not doing the will of the people.  Also, there has been no clear leader of the protests in either country – there’s no 2011 Scargill (certainly not Aaron Porter).  Actually, some of these points come from another piece:

It would, of course, be absurd to compare the oppression suffered by Egyptians to the grievances against which [these anti-government protestors here] direct their wrath, but the dynamics of both movements can be compared relative to their own societies.

The most striking similarity is both are leaderless movements, and that makes it very difficult for conventional politicians to understand or deal with them. Individual figures in both movements have been sources of inspiration, but in neither case has that individual taken upon himself to become the spokesman for the group or the individual empowered to speak for it or to act as its negotiator.

Oh, I should probably mention that this was from a piece entitled ‘Twins: Tahrir Square and the Tea Party’ on an opinions page of USA Today.

I’m not saying this to equate the UK student/anti-cuts protests to the tea party per se.  They are protesting for wildly different things.  The point is that they are similar and those US protestors (no less than in Wisconsin, where the protest is more like the student sit-ins in the UK) probably feel solidarity with those in Egypt.

The reason that they are similar is that they are modern protests. They have used the internet, they have no specific leaders, they have broadly by-passed traditional political party structures – the Republicans are riskily trying to incorporate the energy of the tea party movement but the movement is not strictly Republican in itself, the UK protesters are from a range of groups that include many in the Labour camp but it is not akin to the Labour party (indeed there would be protests at the levels of cuts Labour would have had to make too).

The are also similar in some respects because of their place within the current economic crisis, as Laurie Penny notes – the difficulty of getting work, and of getting by, are behind all three, albeit with vastly differing specific circumstances, grievances and responses in the US, the UK and Egypt.

But they are not the same, because of these specific circumstances.  In Egypt, there has been a repressive regime that stole elections when it deigned to hold them.  It was a brutal regime, as another blogger has expressed far more vehemently than I have. Whatever you think of the UK ‘police state’, control orders (which are used on 5 or 6 people), and the Coalition Government (which was formed entirely in line with our constitution, if very quickly by international standards), these are not the same as the pressures, the corruption and the ‘state of emergency’ that have kept Egyptian protest bottled up for decades and led it to explode this year.

Solidarity does not mean that two (or three) movements are the same. People should take heart from the efforts of Egyptian protestors and be humbled by it as an example of largely-peaceful protest on a vast scale.  We do not know what will come of their efforts yet, the military are still in charge and will not want significant change.  As to the UK, we will have protests again, probably within weeks outside some town hall in London or elsewhere.  Their argument is not less valid because it is not the same as those in Tahrir Square, but it is not the same.

Willetts’ horse and cart

2 March 2011

I have commented before about the way in which the Coalition’s changes to the funding of higher education are being brought about. Aside from arguments over the value of a degree, who should pay and the ‘marketisation’ of higher education, the cart-before-the-horse style adopted by David Willetts and co in making their reforms beggars belief.

In December, they passed an amendment that increased the fees universities could charge for degrees to between £6,000 and £9,000.  They declared that only under ‘exceptional circumstances’ could the higher rate be charged and that higher fees would come with responsibilities to widen access and offer reductions and partial waivers to those from lower-income backgrounds.  All well and good… in theory. Except that universities have been left in the dark while trying to price up their degrees, as hundreds of Oxbridge acamedics have written to the minister this week. It’s nice to hear someone making this point so publicly.

More and more universities are planning to charge the full £9000, indeed it seems unlikely that any insitution will charge significantly less. Certainly the Russell Group and 1994 Group institutions (i.e the pre-1992 universities) will not; the interesting thing may be what the more financially savvy and socially-diverse newer universities do.

The reasoning behind the rushing through of the tuition fee hike was to enable each university to set their fees before producing their prospectus for the potential 2012 intake (i.e. the current AS-level students).  This seems reasonable, but is the wrong way around: the regulations about what charging the higher fee levels will entail should come before universities are required to make the decision over their fees so that they know what the repercussions of charging higher fees will be.  Even assuming that they will all (or almost all) plump for the top level, the implications of that choice surely need to be part of how universities plan for the future – for their investment in courses and in scholarships/bursaries.

It should be that these decisions are made by institutions that know what restrictions they face, rather than regulations being designed knowing how many and which universities are charging what level of fees. Since part of the point is to bring market forces into higher education, and given that clarity and knowledge of conditions in the setting of prices are keys to an effective market, this seems utterly ludicrous. (This is far from the only flaw in the market-for-HE policy direction, but a fairly obvious one)

Last week, David Willetts went one step further and declared that the reason that the higher education white paper that had been due this month is to be delayed because the universities should decide their fee levels first (to see how “price-setting works this spring”).  It is now government policy to put the university cart before the horse!

Maybe BIS are being much more wily and cynical than one would expect of a government department.  By holding back the decision and information on what the ‘exceptional circumstances’ allowing a £9000 degree will be, they have lured the universities into a commitment to undertaking anything that the department (and government or parliament more broadly) decides that that level of fees will entail.  Any university charging over £7500 might be required to build a statue of Vince Cable, or to adopt a village in Africa, or something.  More likely they will be forced to take more ethnic-minority students and people from low-income backgrounds.  From that point of view they may well be shuffling their way obtusely towards the kind of goal that Simon Hughes will be arguing (both in public and in private) for – greater inclusion.

So maybe there will be a plus side to this charade, but at the moment we do not know.

The Gaddafi Show

22 February 2011

Last night, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (or Qaddafi for players of dictator-themed scrabble) released this bizarre video to prove that he is in Tripoli.  I can only assume that buildings he was in front of were distinctive enough to prove to Libyans that he was indeed there.

What I found interesting was the setting of the video.  This is a man who has been the ruler/dictator of a major North African state since 1969. And yet, this is how he is presented: in a very small car, with a very large umbrella.

There’s something about the combination of the small car and the big umbrella that seemed out of keeping with his status as a major world leader and repressor of his people. It’s not quite Saddam Hussein caught ‘like a rat in a hole’ (let alone Mussolini’s ill-considered trip to the Esso garage in Milan, or Mr and Mrs Hiter’s honeymoon in a shell hole) but it is possibly a step in that direction. Anyway, it certainly wasn’t up to his usual standards, either in his ramblingness of speech, as shown at the UN in 2009 or the lavishness of his surroundings, as shown in the past with his tent and uniforms as well as is glamorous entourage.

From the graininess of the video and the dystopian backdrop, I couldn’t help feeling like it was the start of a bad 80s music video – especially when watching a version without English translation.  I like to think that after the end of the standard clip, when Gaddafi lowers his umbrella, what actually happened is that he launches into some kind of musical song and dance routine (perhaps along the lines of Monty Burns’ ‘See my vest‘, or something from Team America). Or maybe it develops into a rap video, with some bumping and grinding from his select female entourage:

Sadly, I fear we will never know.

Charlie Gilmour is a moron

16 December 2010

It seems an obvious thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway: Charlie Gilmour is a moron.  In the protests last week, the expensively-educated moronic son of a pop star was photographed dangling from one of the flags on the Cenotaph.

My feeling that he is a contemptuous buffoon are not because he can afford an expensive education but was protesting against fees for future graduates – that is fair enough, people should protest for the good of other people. It is not even that annoying that he dangled from that flag; in fact, I’m surprised the Cenotaph doesn’t get caught up in riots more often, given where it is; anyway, it’s not like he tipped it over or wrote swear-words on it. I think he was foolish for doing it, especially so visibly and, frankly, while having such a famous Dad.

What seemed more idiotic to me was his response:

“I would like to express my deepest apologies for the terrible insult to the thousands of people who died bravely for our country that my actions represented,” … “I feel nothing but shame. My intention was not to attack or defile the Cenotaph. Running along with a crowd of people who had just been violently repelled by the police, I got caught up in the spirit of the moment.”

Expression of shame, fair enough – that was expected. But re-read the second half and then look at the photo:

Apparently he was caught up in the spirit of the moment in a crowd of people who had just been repelled by the police.  Except that there is no crowd and the spirit seems to be relative calm; the only person nearby is actually completely ignoring the moron dangling from the flag.

What a load of cobblers, Charlie.  Nice of the Grauniad to reproduce his statement unquestioningly, though. Cheers.

Anyway, like I said… moron.

An Education

8 December 2010

I was going to write a whole bunch, possibly multiple posts, about the proposed Higher Education reforms, ahead of tomorrows vote on increasing the cap on the ‘variable fees’ brought in in 2003 (aka ‘top-up fees’). I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject, but feel like there are a few particularly pertinent things so I’ll stick to them.

Private or public

What the coalition are proposing is a massive change in the philosophy of higher education, a part-privatisation – a change from publicly-funded but private institutions to being private bodies with government assistance for research and for teachingexpensive/strategically-important subjects.  They are not simply saying that graduates (who will pay the fees, not students) should pay more, but that it should be through their choice of courses and universities that directs the funding for teaching, rather than block grants from the state.  This does not mean a massive cut in funding for teaching, per se, but it is a market-led version that is not (contrary to some government statements) what the Labour government were going for in 2003.  Fundamentally, if one accepts that this student-led investment in teaching is a good thing then the proposals are fairly good – give or take flaws that will hopefully be ironed out, and of course the fees question. The measures to widen participation are a welcome addition (even if cutting Education Maintenance Allowances acts directly and oddly contrary to that ambition), as is the removal of up-front fees for some part-time students.

Fees

In terms of fees there are three big questions: Who benefits from higher education? Who should pay for it? And how should they pay?

Individual benefits:

It has been estimated that undergraduates cost (on average) £7000 per year to teach. Graduates currently pay £3,290 per year of their degree (they pay afterwards, hence graduates not students); it has been estimated that this year’s intake will leave with an average debt of £25,000 from the fees, loans and other costs of a three-year course.

There has been much talk of a ‘graduate premium’, said to average 23%, varying from 13% for history to 30% for physics and chemistry and more for medicine and law. These statistics (from a 2005 report – link) translate to a pre-tax premium of £89,630 for history, over £186,000 for physics and chemistry and £128,000 overall.  Since then, the average has apparently reached about £150,000; the Browne Report, the post-tax premium is given as £100,000 (or rather $158,074)

Nationwide benefits:

The higher education budget is £14bn per year; this is 0.85% of GDP, below the OECD average of 1.03% (2006 statistics).

Universities UK estimate that higher education contributed 2.3% to UK GDP in 2007/8, and that the sector generated £59bn of ‘output’.  The average return to the state on its investment in HE is said to be about 12.1% (compared to the graduate’s 23%).

So, who benefits?  Clearly, the greatest benefit is to students/graduates themselves, but there is a national benefit in terms of income and job-creation from the sector as a whole as well as from an educated workforce.

Who should pay?

There is a strong argument that funding from general taxation is fair, not only in getting rid of fees, but also because even the graduates with the lowest ‘graduate premium’ will pay more than the cost of their fees in income tax according to the life-income modelling. The post-tax premium for history (the lowest premium and the subject I studied) of £65,471, which suggests that £24,159 is paid in tax by these graduates that would not be paid those leaving school at 18 with A-levels. The statistics for physics and chemistry are around £55,000 and for all subjects (average) around £36,000. It seems incredibly unlikely that there is any widespread public support for free education though – it worked when 10-15% of young people went to uni, but not for 40-50%.  It is hard to know for sure, though, since pollsters don’t even bother asking.

The opposite end of the scale is for the full rate to be paid by the student, either up-front or (as, roughly, in the new proposals) by graduates.  Of these, the government plan is clearly better, since it does not charge students up-front.

An in-between idea would be to keep fees roughly where they are but make the payment system fairer.  Or to allow an increase in fees (to, say, £5000) but not to cut teaching funding, so that the extra money could be spend on improving education!  Imagine that! This would surely be a better plan, it would keep a balance of national-individual cost in proportion to benefits (around 70-30 to the graduate) and put more money into education.  If the £3300-5000 bracket were to be treated like the proposed £6000-9000 fee bracket, it might even be useful for widening participation.

Another alternative, although where it sits is unclear, is a graduate tax. Apparently Alan Johnson has this week been won round the the idea, which his leader Ediband has been keen on for ages.  It is now HM Opposition’s policy.  I say policy, what I actually mean is talking point. There is no policy there, just a phrase and a vague commitment to a 2% tax on income over a 20-year period. It is unclear what the target amount to recoup is going to be, would it reflect average fees of £3000, £5000, or more?

But wait a minute, a tax on income (presumably meaning over a certain amount) for a certain period to pay off fees, so that those who earn more pay more back… that sounds rather like the government’s proposal. Both are systems of graduate repayment that are in proportion to earnings and will stop below a certain rate (it is not a mortgage, your degree will not be at risk if you stop payment).  The fundamental difference is that in the government system there is a specified (albeit increased) end figure for repayment; with a graduate tax, that is not the case. Which is less discouraging, the knowledge that one will be repaying a large but specific debt or the knowledge that you will be paying an unknown amount, possibly subject to changes by later governments wanting more money? I have a feeling that the former is more off-putting, but there are not a world apart. Again, the debate would be easier if there was actually a policy against which to compare Willetts’ scheme.

Lack of proper debate

In all the anger over fee rises and teaching-funding cuts (often talked about as if they were unrelated rather than one making up for the other), there has been little real debate about alternatives – let alone about the fundamentals of why and whether we want so many graduates and the benefits to the state vs the benefits to the individual.  The complete lack of a plan from Labour does not help matters at all.

The worst part of the lack of debate is the speed with which the reforms are being pushed through.  In order to start the new scheme in 2012, the fee increase/variable-rate does have to be decided now (to allow decisions and prospectus-writing at universities) – Mr Willetts is right about that. But surely, surely, it is better to wait until the system can be debated as a whole, rather than pushing through the funding issue now – thereby making the remainder a foregone conclusion even before the White Paper is produced.  Willetts says that the wider reforms (and CSR-dicatated cuts in spending) will happen whichever way the vote goes tomorrow – this seems to have given him licence to tie the entire issue up without proper debate. Why not wait until 2013 for the reforms – produce a White Paper on the whole package in the Spring and debate it properly? Sadly, it is almost certain to go through.  Even if you think the change is a good idea, the speed and manner of the current debate and changes is worrying.

Anyway, those are my hastily-written thoughts on the matter. I wish that the Labour amendment to delay the fees vote until the White Paper had come out had passed, it it did not.  I hope that my MP (Bob Russell, Lib Dem) will vote against the fee increase tomorrow. I don’t think that fees should go up to £6000-9000 per year, although some other bits of the general policy are good (participation, etc).  What I do want is a proper debate on the subject and on the policy as a whole.  I fear I will be disappointed.

I name thee… Tory!

6 December 2010

There are many things about the way that politics is covered in the press that are quite irritating; worse they are often misleading, so that people see only the bright light of the headline rather than the actual detail of the debate or statement to which it refers.  One of these is Tory-hunting, by which I mean the desparate hunt by journalists and others to find things to make the Tories sounds like the ‘Nasty Party’ or recall the Thatcher Years.  There is a directly opposite and almost equal tendency to search for evidence of ‘Old Labour’ ‘tax and spend’ or fiscal irresponsibility in New Labour and what-is-it-now? Labour.  I say this is a media thing, but that’s not quite true, actually it is something politicians join in with, which is equally annoying.

Anyway, here are some recent examples:

The UK Film Council is being closed down.  If you believe (or indeed are) Colin Firth, the Coalition/Tories want to stop funding British film. Mike Leigh strongly inferred the change it was akin to the scrapping the NHS (although to be fair he may have been referring to the suddenness as much as the scale of the change). The UKFC is closing, but funding for films is not going to stop; the BFI is taking on the role. Given that the last goverment were attempting to merge the two bodies, it is not exactly a gross miscarriage to merge their functions in one body (although of course no one knows quite how well it will work in practice).

IDS: two of Iain Duncan Smith’s statements have been leapt upon this year.  First he had the gall to tell people that there might be jobs they could do that they would have to travel to rather than simply looking in their towns.  He suggested that maybe people might have to travel for an hour (like many do in London) to get to work… and get this, he said they might have to “get on a bus”.  You see, it’s just like Norman Tebbit’s “on your bike” comment, isn’t it?  Isn’t he evil? There are problems with what he said, of course, the cost and unreliability of travel being just two among them. But the media reaction ignored the simple truth at the core of it, that lots of people travel to work.

The second ‘evil’ IDS statement:

“We created over four million jobs in those 13 years and … 70% of those net jobs were taken by people from overseas because people in this county weren’t capable or able to take those jobs.”

According to the Guardian, this meant that ‘its a sin that people fail to take up work’.  To others, he was saying that unemployment itself was a sin. Actually, what he said was the it was wrong that those without work were not capable of taking up these jobs; to put it another way, that they had not been trained sufficiently/correctly while out of work.  At least that’s my take on it.  He said it badly; sin was certainly the wrong word to use.  Nonetheless, it was a statement that the failure to deal with unemployment was bad, not that the state of unemployment was inherently sinful.

Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher.  This tory-hunting is not a recent trend.  Before becoming Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who withdrew free milk at school from children aged 8-11. For this she became “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.  As John Redwood points out, though, free milk for those in school from 11-18 was cut by a Labour government, and for 5,6 and 7 year-olds by a subsequent Labour administration. They, of course, were not milk snatchers!  The subsequent lack of reintroduction of free milk for over 5s since 1979 suggests that neither party is all that bothered by the matter. People just like the rhyme.

I could go on, but it is worth pointing out again that this is not simply the preserve of the left attacking the Tories. The image that Labour have had to try to live down is one of fiscal irresponsibility, against the party’s unfortunate track record of devaluation of the pound. New Labour were attacked as a party of tax and spend, recalling ‘Old Labour’, even after adopting Conservative fiscal policies in 1997.  Whatever the cupability of Gordon Brown in the financial crash, the current Coalition trick has been to explain the deficit and cuts as being due to Brown’s ‘reckless spending’ since 1997.  Occasionally people like to point out that Brown’s spending plans were accepted by the Tories up to 2007, but to little avail so far.

Alan Johnson summed up the damage done to Labour’s image recently:

He is quick to agree that Labour’s economic credibility is in pieces. “We lost it. That’s the truth of the matter. We’ve lost it to such an extent that when we do polling, the 13 years of what we did — low interest rates, inflation under control, the highest level of employment in our history, paying down debt — all that’s been turned into 13 years of overspending and debt. The Conservatives have been so effective at getting out this mantra that when we poll the public we’re back to where we were in the tortuous days pre-1997. On economic credibility, we are in a really worrying position.”

The arguments are not completely baseless, Tories are more likely that Labour members/ministers to want to cut things and to say unacceptable things about those out of work or on benefits. And of course they are making very deep cuts in public spending (at the same time, Labour would have cut substantially and it was Nick Clegg who said, well before the election, that ‘savage cuts‘ were needed).

And Labour do spend more; also Brown liked to hide spending in PFI debt, while banking of ever-continuing growth and failing to rein in the excesses of the market and proerty bubble.

If we were to boil the two parties down to their core differences, we can see where these criticisms come from and why the parties have acted the way of have done in their last few years in opposition (respectively). Essentially, the Tories put economic growth (and hopefully stability) first – the idea being that increased growth will improve life in Britain, for them and their investor/business-owning friends, and for those who will be employed by them (in theory at least).  Labour put social factors first, figuring that it is more important to make sure that everyone can find a job and be in a decent situation now, rather than waiting for future growth.

In 1992, the Conservatives lost any semblance of fiscal responsibility, swiftly followed by the New Labour reassurances that the economy would be safe in their hands.  When the the supposedly-banished bust turned up at the end of the boom years, Labour lost that credibility again (as Johnson said).

A powerful legacy of the 1980s for the Tories is the image that they do not care about anyone but themselves and their middle- and upper-class friends. What David Cameron made a great effort to do in opposition and with the coalition’s stress on ‘fairness’, was to reassure the public that they really did care.  Not for nothing does the phrase ‘compassionate conservative’ exist; we don’t need the phrase ‘compassionate Labour’.  It seems incredibly unlikely that the cuts (or rather halting of public spending increase and consolidation into specific ring-fenced departments) are going to be ‘fair’.  Benefits and public services are inherently used more by people who can’t afford any alternative, or who would be worse off having to do so.  The poll figures suggest that the image of caring Tories is already on the way out, Labour have slipped ahead a couple of times recently despite not really having any policies of their own.

So, there are reasons for the simplistic headlines, but they are often misleading.  Much better to read the actual story or statement rather than say ‘evil old Tories’ or ‘reckless old Labour’ in response to a tedious soundbite.