Friday, 23 March 2018

UK v Russia: diplomatic ping-pong continues

No doubt to the government's continued relief the alleged attempted murder of a former Russian spy and his daughter allegedly by or with the connivance of the Russian state continues to hog the headlines.
The otherwise beleaguered Theresa May has even gained some kudos by garnering support from most of the EU members, though some of it is qualified.

The tabloids and Tory supporting press have poured scorn on the more  measured  response of Jeremy Corbyn, who, quite reasonably  in my view, has pointed out that it would be wiser not to jump to conclusions before we have firmer evidence of official  Russian involvement, and that, whatever that  evidence may turn out to be, we have to continue working with the Russians and their  government in the future.

Poor Mr Corbyn (of whom I am not a political supporter - I am a died in the wool Liberal) must have the worst job in British politics: reviled by the press who grasp every opportunity to paint him as a dangerous "red under the bed" and subject to back-stabbing by MPs of his own party - notably Stephen Kinnock and Yvette Cooper.

By contrast the idiocies of Boris Johnson, sadly the Foreign Secretary and so our chief diplomat, who has likened Putin the Hitler, and the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson , who contributed the playground jibe, "Putin should go away and shut up," pass for measured and mature contributions.

It would be demeaning to describe the attempted murder of anyone anywhere as a "storm in a teacup" but it is worth remembering that Sergei Skripal is a former spy and so it may have been lacking in prudence on his part to be living openly under his own name rather than secretly under a pseudonym.  The stories of James Bond, licensed to kill on anybody's sovereign territory, remind us that the possibility of assassination is par for the course in the spying industry.  Or maybe that's just fiction:  I've no idea.

What is undoubted fact is that the US assign to themselves the right to kill, without any trial or other due process of law, anyone anywhere whom  they believe to be a danger to them via bombs dropped from drones, and regardless of the lives of anyone else, however innocent, who happens to be in the vicinity.

I'm not sure whether we  British also do this, or connive at it, or just stand by and nod tacit approval.  Whatever, there seems to be one law for the West and another for the rest.

If we want to inject read diplomacy into the process we need to remember that Russia is a proud nation.  Its contribution to the victory over Nazism, certainly in terms of lives lost, was immense.(estimates vary but, according to this site upwards of  25 000 000 compared with 567 000 French, 450 700 British and
418 500 from the US) .

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has, like Britain in an earlier period, "lost an empire and not yet found a role."  Sadly the reaction of the West has been to rub Russia's nose in its self-perceived humiliation but inviting former satellite states, some would say prematurely, into the EU, and, worse, inviting some to join the former enemy NATO.

I am not arguing that these overtures should never have been made, but they could have been  offered at a more measured pace and with more consideration for Russian sensitivity.  That.s what diplomacy should be about.

No wonder Russia votes for a "strong" leader who is perceived to do the pushing rather than be pushed around. That the American electorate has stepped in the same direction adds to the international danger.

Rather than helping, Britain's present tantrums are adding fuel to the flames.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

UK's negotiating technique: cave in and declare victory

Our government has declared Phase Two of the negotiations for our leaving the EU a success and we now move  on to Phase Three.

This "success" has been achieved only be the government's giving way on  its so called "red lines."  (I wonder why we call them that - Brewer's Dictionary is no help.)  "Non-negotiable positions" would be more informative.

  • EU nationals who come here during the transitional period will, after all, be able to  claim rights of permanent residence if they wish;
  • Fishing-boats from other EU countries will continue to be allowed to fish in "our" waters;
  • several matters will remain subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ ;
  • Northern Ireland's remaining in the single market and customs union continues to be on the table as the most likely  option for avoiding a hard border.
And, although it wasn't exactly "non-negotiable,"  the transitional period is reduced to  21 months rather than the two yeas Britain wanted, with no option for the period to be extended for "as long as it takes."

Sadly the Brexit-supporting press report this as a victory rather than the humiliating climb-down that it is.

I must make it clear that I myslef have no problem with these climb-downs: they are common sense.  But they are not what the Brexiteers promised..

I believe that it is quite right that fishing in "our," and indeed, the rest of the world's, waters should be subject to quotas in order to maintain sustainable supplies. If we feel that British fishermen have had a bad deal then the mature way forward is to re-negotiate, not leave in a huff.

I welcome nationals from other EU countries and fully support their existing rights.  As long as they come they should have them (and so should UK nationals in other EU countries.)

 I have no objection whatsoever to the jurisdiction of the ECJ, and can' honestly see why it is a problem, even for the Brexiteers.I'm sure it wasn't at the top of the list as a motivation for Brexit voters.

And of course nothing should be done to destabilise the hard won "almost peace" in Ireland.  If the price is that all the UK should effectively stay in the single market and customs union, well and good.  So why leave the EU in the first place?

The message is that it is not just on the "£350m per month for the NHS" that  the Brexiteers are not delivering what they promised, but on much else besides.   This is what should be reported, and could help persuade Brexit voters that continuing with this folly simply isn't worth it.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Spring economic statement: continue to stew in the mire.

The government must be relieved that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Spring Statement on the economy (which now replaces all the flummery of what used to be Budget Day) was squeezed off the headlines by the apparent attempt to murder a former Russian spy and his daughter, and Donald Trump's sacking of his Secretary of State.

Mr Hammond claims to be able to see "light at the end of the tunnel" when, by the end of the year,  there may just be a surplus on current tax receipts over expenditure.  When that is achieved any excess may be split three ways between paying off more of the National Debt (actually a high but perfectly manageable 86% of GDP), a little bit of additional government spending, and, would you believe, some tax cuts for the comfortable

In other words, in spite of Mr Hammond's relatively favourable image  compared to his neo-liberal predecessor and current colleagues, we have the misguided "mixture as before": continued austerity whcih stopped in its tracks the recovery created by Alistair Darling and Labour before they were forced from office in 2010.

The respected Oxford Economist Professor Simon Wren Lewis calculates that the mistaken and unnecessary austerity policy has cost the average family some £10 000 each.  You can study his methodology here and see for yourself

There is virtually nothing in Mr Hammond's projection to tackle the ills which have been exacerbated by the mistaken and wholly unnecessary austerity policy which include, from the top of my head:

  • our NHS creaking on its knees;
  • a crisis in the supply of housing;
  • embarrassing homelessness;
  • around a third of our children living in poverty; 
  • cruel cuts in welfare payments, especially for the disabled;
  • schools starved of funds and teachers leaving in droves;
  • subhuman conditions in prisons, bringing inmates  to the verge of riot;
  • a contained  and massive deficit on international trade;
  • funds squandered on vanity projects such as HS2 rather than than more prosaic projects such as the upgrade of the Northern Railway network;
  • local government forced to abandon civilised amenities such as parks and libraries;
  • an economy kept going by debt-fuelled consumption rather than investment, exports and innovation;
  • creaking provision for the care of the elderly (full disclosure, could include me soon.)
Just one more illustration of the daftness of our government: special funds are to be made available to places like Bradford and Burnley where there are racial tensions.  The provision include additional money for ESOL (English Lessons for Speakers of Other languages).

No mention that ESOL provision was cut by 60% as a result of George Osborne's austerity measures following 2010.  The relevant department at Bradford Technical College was dissipated, in spite of strong protests and all the warnings. It  will take some time to rebuild. In the meantime many valuable opportunities have been missed

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Leeds Yellow Book 2018

 Here's a review of a further Leeds Yellow Book (an earlier one was for 2015) edited by Michael Meadowcroft and others.  You don't have to live in Leeds, or even be a Liberal, to find it valuable.

The Leeds Yellow Book 2018
Essays on a Liberal future for Leeds.
 138pp  £7

This volume of 11 essays is a powerful and informed plea to rebuild Liberalism in Leeds from the bottom up.  (There really is no other way.) Inspired by the famous Liberal Yellow Book of 1928 the ten authors dedicate themselves to the analyses of the present condition of Leeds, with suggestions on how  can be improved by the application of Liberal principles and policies.  That the analyses are in the main of more general application than specific to Leeds is a strength rather than a weakness since the book therefore  becomes required reading   for all, not just Liberals, to understand the deprivations of their own areas and points to suggestions as to how to create societies in which all individuals are enabled to achieve more fulfilling lives in more co-operative, confident  and civilised surroundings.

Co-editor Ian MacFadyen contributes a thoroughly-researched account of the present economic condition of Leeds and the likely, and damaging, effects of Brexit.  He points out that seven of the EU states are smaller than the Leeds City Region and two of them are smaller than Leeds itself.  He advocates devolution to a “smart” (?) Leeds City Region with a Metro Mayor and a Metro railway. 

By contrast his fellow co-editor, Michael Meadowcroft, discussing the Northern Powerhouse, scorns the  City Region and opts for devolution to One Yorkshire for which he believes there is the identity, population size (equal to that of Scotland, 60% greater than Wales and three times that of Northern Ireland), financial and economic capacity, and political will (even the Yorkshire Post is in favour.)  He is equally scornful of Metro Mayors. .We naturally expect, of course, a variety of views in any Liberal publication. I go for the Meadowcroft options on both counts.

Jeremy Pearlman waxes enthusiastically about devolution to parish council level. of which he provides a fascinating history. (I had never before heard of Courts of Sewers, and wonder what is the function of a Lengthsman. which Alwoodley still has.) Although clearly devoted to the council he describes, Pearlman  fails to acknowledge the weakness that, although the council ‘s constitution provides for 11 councillors, there are recent nominations for only eight.

Mark Stephens, a professor of public policy, gives a fascinating historical survey of the development of our housing stock.  (I was interested to discover that I was brought up in Type II housing – relatively superior back-to-backs without windowless inner rooms.)  His view is that all public interventions into housing market have been regarded as temporary – until the market returns to normal – and that it never will return to normal. 

Retired solicitor Jane McBennett charts the deprivations and injustices resulting from the recent cuts to legal aid; journalist Adam Christie describes the decline of the local press throughout Yorkshire and points out the resulting danger to our democracy; Carmel Harrison has a thought-provoking chapter on social care and Jon Hannah an interesting discussion on Liberalism –Wellness and Happiness.

My favouring chapter is by Stephen Sadler, long term resident of Bermantofts, a deprived part of Leeds, in which he sensitively analyses why the electors of this area voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.  His work has a touch of the Richard Hoggarts in it – a pity Stephen took to writing on social analysis so late in life.  The most refreshing chapter comes from student Liv Powell, who describes what is needed to make Leeds a youth-friendly city.  Among other things it’s the provision of charging facilities  for phones and laptops.  Well, I’d never have thought of that.

Tellingly, there is no chapter on education.  Sic transit Gloria mundi of the massive contribution made to the development of public education by both Leeds City council and the glorious  West Riding.

Meadowcroft and MacFadyen get together to write a final chapter suffused with repetitions of  what  “a Liberal Leeds will” look like. It’s positive, optimistic and upbeat  - an inspiration amid the encircling gloom.

Copies can be obtained from:

Beecroft Publications,

72 Waterloo Lane,

Bramley Leeds, LS13  2JF

and further information from www.beecroftpublications

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Overkilll at OXFAM et al

Although he was speaking in another context the Chief Rabbi, in this morning's Radio 4 "Thought for the Day" made a point very pertinent to the sanctimonious indignation presently surrounding the flaws in the behaviour of some of the operatives in OXFAM and other aid agencies.

 His point was  that many if not most of the heroes of the Bible were flawed characters. Among others he cites Jacob, who deceived his father, and King David, who was an adulterer.

Yet the present indignation seems to expect every single one of those engaged in what has sadly developed into the "aid industry" to live a life of  Simon purity. Some 7 000 former supporters of OXFAM have expressed their indignation by cancelling their subscriptions.

I have been an OXFAM  donor for decades and have no intention whatsoever of cancelling my standing order.

I do worry, however, that this bad publicity may bounce OXFAM and other aid agencies into an over-reaction.  I contribute to finance humanitarian aid in tragic circumstances and, equally, to establish sustainable long-term development projects; not to finance  over-intrusive inspection regimes which are unwilling to take anything on trust. 

I was a teacher for 50 years from 1959 and know full well that all inspection regimes and oversight come a cost. During my own career I  estimate that 95% of my time and energy went into educating my pupils, and, I hope, occasionally inspiring some.   I get the impression that today’s teachers spend a good half of their time and energy proving to OFSTED that they’ve done what they are dedicated to doing: - teaching and inspiring the young..   I should not like the present embarrassment to similarly distract OXFAM and other aid agencies from  their  true purposes.

OXFAM has some 5 000 workers in the field world-wide and so the number of reported incidents affects only a small  percentage of them.  Yes, there must be safeguards, but an over-reaction will mean that not only will OXFAM's  true purpose be hampered by the loss of the donations of the 7000 , but also some of the usefulness of the subscriptions of those of us who remain loyal and committed to its  purposes if too much is diverted to ensuring that absolutely everyone involved in their operations is squeaky-clean.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Times tables - common knowledge?

As a teacher of economics I've always felt I've laboured under a double handicap.  Most people have been to school and most people from the age of five or so have and spend money, if not much, and  when they grow they  up have a budget, even if they don't call it that.

I consequence, since most people have been on the receiving end of eduction they think they know a lot, if not all there is to know, about it, and since all people operate at some level as agents in the economic system, they tend to believe they know a lot, if not all, all about that too..

So the opinions of we "experts" tend to to be regarded as having no more value than the  views of the general public. If an expert astronomer tell us that such and such a star is x light-years away we believe it without demure; if a heart surgeon tells us be need a bypass we take his or her world for it.

But if an economist says that if there is a recession and the government's income falls, the last thing it should do is cut its expenditure and thus either deepen the recession or delay recovery, the advice is spurned.  Instead Mrs Thatcher's simplistic analogies with the prudent household hold sway.  As  a result  the austerity imposed on the UK over the last eight years stamped on the modest recovery left behind by Labour and has significantly reduced the average incomes of most households (the top 1% have done OK) compared with what they would have been had that recovery continued.

Now to the question of what the young should learn, and, sadly, most people answer:  "What I was taught" even if they weren't all that successful in learning it.  So our government has decided to trial new tests for primary school children's competence in March of this year, and they are to become mandatory from 2020.

For one whose training as a teacher took place in the 1950s, when the centralised rules of the French about what should be learned and when in their schools were regarded with scorn, such an attempt to micro-manage the curriculum produces a sensation of shock-horror.

 Well, at least for once there is to be a trial.That's a minor advance.

Not that I ave any personal objection to learning tables.  They can be fun, and some children will find delight in the interesting patters that emerge, as well as pleasure from getting things right.  Others will find them a bore and some a turn-off.  Not that I have any objection to that, if it's important. I'd be inclined to encourage  pupils to learn some poetry by heart, and I wish that facility in at least one musical instrument had been on offer in my day.

But what is important varies from age to age and area to area.  My father's acid test of anyone who claimed to be educated was the ability to recite the names of the rivers of Yorkshire in clockwise order. Sadly I failed this miserably.*

What is "essential" in mathematics must surely take account of the massive advances in technology which have taken place in the last fifty years.  I just missed out on learning how to calculate square roots using an algorithm similar to long division.  If you want to have some fun (or refresh your memory if you're over 80) see here. But by the time I came along we had universal secondary eduction and secondary schools had books of Logarithms  and Other Tables so I learned how to use these along with the trigonometrical ratios for such calculations.  We were also taught how to use slide rules but I never rally caught on to that.

Nowadays even the cheapest calculator produces the answers to most arithmetical, trigonometrical and statistical operations  at the press of a button.

This does not mean that some numerical dexterity should not be learned, but the amount should be decided  by the practitioners who know what they're talking about, and not some minister or civil servant educated in what can reasonably be called the technological dark ages.

Much the same applies to many arts subjects.  Why learn  "the Kings of England in order categorical" or the capitals of the EU 28 (with luck) off by heart when you can look them up on Google?.

The purpose of education is to open minds to appreciate what a wonderful place the world  is, to excite children about at least some aspects of it, and to enable  each to experience and contribute to it to their full potential..  This is more likely to be achieved by encouraging teachers to communicate their own enthusiasms rather than by imposing dry edicts from above.

*  Earlier this week I wrote to the Guardian about this and my letter has provoked responses to show that my father was not alone.  One correspondent remembered having been taught the mnemonic SUNWAD: the following day another pointed out that this omitted the Calder, and a third came up with the delightful "Sheffield United never win at Chelsea" which gives you Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire and Calder, though it leaves out the Don

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Much Ado about OXFAM

I am rather surprised that the unfortunate activities of a group of OXFAM Aid workers  in Haiti has been headline news for the past four days and, it seems, still counting.  In case you've missed it, the group made use of prostitutes, and in a property rented by OXFAM, while they were there to provide aid and assistance after the earthquake in 2010.  The furore has revealed that there may have been similar unsavoury incidents by other aid workers, not just OXFAM,  in other situations.

Full disclosure: I have been a financial supporter of OXFAM via a regular Standing Order, for decades, along with Christian Aid, the World Development Movement, Fair T raid and other similar causes, and  have been an aid worker for two years with VSO in Malawi..   I did not, however, use any prostitutes.
As far as I know I never actually met any, and wouldn't have known where to find them. But  then, I've led a sheltered life

It would be nice to think that all aid workers were Simon Pure and filled with saintly virtue, and I expect a few are, but most are fallible humans, as are most clergy, nuns who look after orphans, "Brothers" who teach in schools,other teachers, entertainment stars,  press reporters and. . . .  er. . .  politicians.

In an incident regarding sex outside the norm reported in the Bible Jesus invited  "him who is without stain" to "cast the first stone."

What is surprising to me is that it is not just the right-wing press who are having a field day over these unfortunate incidents, but also the BBC and, alas, the Guardian.  I wonder if they, along with the Daily Express and Daily Mail, are confident that all their staff behave impeccably and with due concern for moral virtue, especially when overseas. (Or at home, for that matter).

It may be just coincidence, but it is odd that this incident, now seven years old, should hit the headlines just at the same time as Jacob Rees-Mogg, now favourite to be the next Tory leader, presents a petition demanding cuts to the UK's Aid Budget.

Mr Rees-Mogg make much of his religion which causes him to oppose, among other things, abortion and same sex marriage.  As indicated above, the Bible is fairly relaxed about prostitution.  I'm sure it says something somewhere about abortion but I'm not sure where.  It is certainly very relaxed about same sex relationships (eg David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi)

It also has a lot to say about caring for the sojourner (economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers?)  "feeding the hungry" and "clothing  the naked."  As with the Brexit negotiations, I think Mr Rees-Mogg should consider the whole package rather than pick and choose.

One of the few things for which I admire David Cameron is his unrelenting stance in support of Overseas Aid.  As he said recently:  

it is not only a moral obligation that the better-off countries have to tackle poverty in our world when we still have over a billion people living on less than a dollar a day, but it's also in our interests that we build a more prosperous world.

 It is clear that the Tory hard right and the prurient press will milk the OXFAM scandal  for all it's worth.

Both the government and aid lobby should stand up for decent values and not allow OXFAM to be "fined" for its undoubted and unfortunate shortcomings, nor use the incident to fuel the campaign for a cut in the Aid Budget.

The Tories surely do not want to confirm the image Mrs May detected as  the "nasty party": nor does the nation as a whole wish our reputation, currently good in this area. to be further tarnished as selfish and inward-looking has-beens