Thursday, April 25, 2013

Blood boiling

I know that this article is in the form of a mea culpa, but there are some things for which a slightly hangdog expression is insufficient expiation.
Every time I read a headline about the measles epidemic in Wales I flinch with shame. This is because I used to be one of those people who refused to have their child vaccinated – for anything. My daughter was born in a London hospital in September 2011, and every time the doctors, the health visitors and the nurses at the weighing clinic tried to give her the routine jabs, I put her back in her pram and wheeled her away.
The NHS schedule of inoculations felt so over the top, full of diseases I'd last heard mention of in gloomy Victorian novels. Injections at two, three, four, 12 and 13 months, for diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, pertussis, polio – all these archaic names, not things that you actually think your child is going to catch.
The stupidity of this is one thing - we're used to the stupidity of all these fucking hippies. It's the out and out selfishness of this approach that makes the red mist descend. Why does she think diphtheria died out? (For that matter, when? Far from being a Victorian problem, it was the third largest killer of children under fifteen as late as the 1930s). And also, tetanus? That really hasn't gone anywhere, adults need a ten year booster vaccine to maintain immunity.

My children (both fully immunised, MMR and all) rely on the community immunity that you get when children are all immunised (i.e. their parents aren't drivelling fucking simpletons in gypsy skirts knitting their own muesli). So when I hear this:
The fact is, I still have a hunch that puts me off vaccinations, a hunch that I can't explain. I just feel funny about them.
funny isn't what I feel. Furious maybe, but not funny.

Monday, April 22, 2013

University Challenged

Apparently Manchester University are about to be sneered at in the semi-finals of University Challenge. They also have a pretty strong record in recent years. But there's something in this puffery in the Guardian that doesn't appear to have been mentioned:
Beating Oxbridge is particularly gratifying, admits Tristan Burke, captain of Manchester's 2012 victorious team, which triumphed over Cambridge's Pembroke College in the final after seeing off four other Oxbridge colleges in the knockout stages. "University Challenge is where the majority of people get their impressions of universities from. You still see that sketch from the Young Ones being rolled out. Generally there is this ingrained idea that Oxford and Cambridge are in some way educationally superior to the red-brick universities. So from a political, education-policy point of view, there is a certain satisfaction in proving that wrong."

In this year's first round, Manchester University beat Lincoln College, Oxford by 5 points. Lincoln College has 300 undergraduates and 200 postgraduates. Manchester University? 28,500 undergraduates and 11,000 postgraduates. Well done and all that, but if this is a story of David and Goliath, I think Mr Burke has the parties confused...

#Notnews on party funding!

Left Foot Forward has the shocking news (from the Sunday Times) that most large private political donations are to the Tories.
Forty three of the 50 biggest political donations made by individuals last year went to the Conservative Party, according to the annual Sunday Times Rich List (£). Seven out of the top ten political donors also gave to the Conservative Party.
The largest donor is Michael Farmer, who gave the Tories £1.3m (although this is four times as much as the next largest). Labour only have two large private donors, Lord Sainsbury and Andrew Rosenfeld. Obvious proof that the Tories have an unacceptably narrow funding source.

In unrelated news, the Trade Unions have given more than £20m to Labour since 2010, with Unite alone having given more than the top 50 Tory donors combined.

I am right; you are evil

'Never hate your enemies,' Michael Corleone advised, 'it affects your judgement.' In politics this holds true (although always remember that in politics your opponents are on the other side; your enemies are generally behind you).

Via Tim, David Friedman has written a very interesting piece about what the important dividing line should be in politics: not whose side am I on; but what is the right answer. David's politics are 'purer' than mine. He espouses an "extreme version of free market capitalism", and has been debating with both 'pure' libertarians like Murray Rothbard and Marxist anarchists like Robert Wolff. Friedman found that both classified the world into good and evil men, although each would disagree about which side was which.

I have made this point before myself in the context of British politics:
Weighting your arguments on the basis that your opponents are wicked sub-human scum is intellectually sterile. Why bother assessing the actual merits of anything? We are right because we are good; you are wrong because you are bad. It's a standard of political analysis that would shame a three year old. Worse than that, it's a line of argument with seriously dodgy antecedents. Maybe Charlie should take a little look at the sort of people that label their political opponents cockroaches or rats and consider whether he thinks this is the sort of thing he's proud of doing.
It's always better to ascribe good faith to your opponents and be disappointed if needs be. Life is sufficiently complicated to support more than one theory, without all the others being evil.

Friday, April 19, 2013

School Days

As so often with these things, I am totally out of touch with modern Britain. My first reaction, on seeing Michael Gove's proposal to lengthen the school day, so that instead of ending at 3pm it ends at 4.30pm was surprise that it was so short at the moment. The reason for this is also why I'm not sure what the hell Christine Blower is on about either:
"Independent schools in England and Wales, which often break for two weeks more during the summer and have longer holidays at other times of the year than their state counterparts, do not apparently feel the need to change and are apparently not suffering from their reduced hours."
My schoolday pretty much throughout my education started at between 8.15 and 8.30 and went on until 6. That sort of timetable allowed a lot of time for sport/extra-curricular activities as well - between 2 and 4 hours a day at secondary school. An extra three hours a day for eleven years adds up to an awful lot more education...

UPDATE: Recusant makes the point in the comments that his (and my) schools also taught on Saturday mornings (I'll leave out the sport in the afternoons, because they were only for children in the school teams). Remarkably, this means that private school weeks are effectively three days longer than state school weeks. I wonder just how much of the gap in educational attainment is explained by that?

Politics in black and white

I've been meaning to write this post since last week, when everyone on Twitter simultaneously told me to read Caitlin Moran's article on why hating Thatcher was understandable. The basis for it is that Caitlin grew up on benefits in Wolverhampton, a town devastated by Thatcherism and the unemployment that it brought. For people in that environment, Thatcher brought nothing but ruin.

We can leave to one side the fact that of Wolverhampton's three constituencies, two voted for Mrs Thatcher. Caitlin is clearly talking about the third: Bilston/Wolverhampton South East.
We would drive into town, and my father would start the same, rattled monologue: “When I was a kid, at this time of the day, all you’d hear was the tramp, tramp, tramp of people’s feet as they walked to the factories. Every bus would be full, the streets would be seething. This town had something to do, and money in its pocket. People used to come here for work, and get it, the same day.
“Look at it now,” he’d say, as we went right through the centre: boarded up buildings, buddelia growing out of windows. “A ghost-town. Where have they gone? Where have they all gone?"
Caitlin's father was right: Wolverhampton had been a town heavily dependent on jobs in heavy industry, particularly the Bilston steelworks, and the Norton Villiers Triumph motorcycle factory. Along with coal mining and shipbuilding, the two industries that saw the greatest decline in post-war Bitain were steel and car/motorbike production. Nationalised, centralised, over-manned and under-capitalised, the story of these industries is a deeply depressing one. But here's the thing: Caitlin (and many on the left) are compressing this story down into anti-Thatcherism.

Bilston Steel Works closed on 12 April 1979. Norton Villiers Triumph closed its Wolverhampton factory in 1975 and finally went under in 1978.

The story of the British economy post-war has been the slow transformation of an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy. By the 1980s, the decline in employment in industry was a story that was at least 20 years old. If the unemployed of Wolverhampton should be shouting at anybody it is those politicians of the 1960s and 1970s who thought that they could hold back the tides of modernity by shovelling public money into moribund industry - and those that failed to create an education system capable of training a post-industrial workforce.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Myth-busting, or Ken Livingstone is still a lying little shit

If there's one person I was just dying to hear from on Thatcher it was Ken Livingstone. He's keen to dispel the myths about Thatcher and Thatcherism. It's too close to the weekend for me to want to plough through the whole thing line by line, but here are just a few highlights.
Unlike previous governments, Thatcher's never commanded anything close to a majority in a general election.
The last Government to win an absolute majority in a general election was the National Government of 1931. That was something of an anomaly (given that this was explicitly a coalition party); the previous party to have won an absolute majority was Lord Salisbury's Conservative & Liberal Unionists in 1900. All Livingstone is doing is highlighting the re-birth of third party politics in the 1970s.
Thatcher's great friend Augusto Pinochet used machine guns to control labour, whereas Thatcher used the less drastic means of anti-union laws. But their goal was the same, to reduce the share of working class income in the economy.
Nonsense, and unpleasant nonsense to boot.
Thatcher's destruction of industry, combined with financial deregulation and the "big bang", began the decline of saving and accumulation of private- and public-sector debt that led directly to the banking crisis of 2008.
As we have seen, Big Bang was part of a trend of increased financial regulation in the 1980s. Livingstone is either too ignorant or too dishonest to acknowledge this. This also applies to his depiction of savings ratios: the ratio was consistently higher under Thatcher than it had been in the 1950s and 1960s, and appreciably higher than it was to become under Blair or Brown. To put it another way:
Savings and investments recorded their biggest rise in value in the 1980s with a real increase of 125%. The worst performing decade for savings and investment was the 1970s when their real value fell by 15%.
And then there's this:
Public investment was slashed. By the end of her time in office the military budget vastly exceeded net public investment. 
Here is a link to a graph showing UK Net Public Investment from 1970 to 2000 (page 14). It peaks in 1974/5 (just after the Healey budget we were talking about yesterday) at about £33bn (at 1999 prices). It then falls precipitously so that by the time Thatcher takes office it stands at about £14bn. It fluctuates thereafter, but by the time she leaves office it stands at roughly the same level. On that basis it's hard to say that it was slashed. Indeed, since a substantial proportion of NPI was made up of publicly owned companies, and given that these were largely privatised during the 1980s, it's clear that NPI in other areas must actually have increased.

In any event, the link to defence spending is fatuous. Defence spending fell precipitously as a proportion of GDP over the Thatcher years from roughly 13.5% to a mere 4% - but both figures were vastly in excess of the proportion spent on NPI, which peaked at under 7% in the early 1970s, and was roughly 2% when Thatcher took office. The "military budget vastly exceeded net public investment" at any period in UK history you could mention.

You're left with the perennial question: is Livingstone ignorant and unpleasant, or lying and unpleasant?

Thursday, April 11, 2013


I rather hoped I wouldn't get drawn into all the ghoulishness that sprang up after the death of Lady Thatcher, but this piece by Grace Dent is too good to pass over. I think the one comment that annoyed me most was that by Glenda Jackson in the debate yesterday: "A woman? Not on my terms." Well, on that subject:
Oh but then Thatcher wasn’t a proper woman, it seems; neither was she a feminist, or a believer in women, in fact she hated women, we’re told. She kept women down. Again, I didn’t agree with Thatcher on a legion of ideas, but thank God as a little girl I knew the story – told to me on Saturday Superstore and numerous other channels – of her becoming a research chemist, retraining as barrister, and determinedly elbowing her way into places men had never permitted us before. “I always felt sorry for her children,” mumbled Russell Brand, which is coincidentally what dusty old Conservative farts in the 1950s said when she pitched up in a frock and tried to prise away a little power. “Oh the children, the poor children”. I disliked Thatcher, but would I be here – still very often the only woman at the table, the only woman on the panel show, the only woman on the judging body, the token woman on the shortlist – without her as an example?
Damn right. I've got two daughters, and when I tell them that they can be anything they want to be (not just a princess...) I can say that one of our greatest Prime Ministers was a girl, just like them.


Regardless of the merits of the argument (that Thatcher was too divisive a figure to merit a ceremonial funeral), this is as neat an encapsulation of Peter Oborne's variety of paleo-conservatism as you are ever likely to see:
I am afraid that the decision to turn Lady Thatcher’s funeral into a state occasion was a constitutional innovation and, like almost all such innovations, both foolish and wrong.

The scheme for full employment

Actually, while I'm on that subject, there was a throwaway line in the Observer's splash on Labour's proposed welfare reforms that caught my eye. The whole thing's been rather overtaken by events, but if this was supposed to be taken at full value, it's really rather remarkable:
At the heart of Labour's plan is the reinstatement of full employment as a government objective.
Gosh. Full employment hasn't been a genuine policy aim for British Governments since 1979 (although Blair and Brown paid lip service to the idea). The left wing of the Labour Party is excited, but I haven't seen any other analysis of this apparent policy switch.

The only flesh that has been put on this bare bones announcement has been a 'guarantee' that after two years unemployed, people would be offered a "real job with appropriate training funded by the taxing of bankers' bonuses and restructuring pension tax relief for the wealthiest". Ignoring the fact that the wretched bankers' bonus tax seems to have been spent nine times over, this policy isn't new - it was raised (ineptly) last year. There must be more to it than that, surely. A policy to reduce the unemployment rate from 7.5% to the 2-3% associated with full employment would have to be very substantial - a massive increase in Government jobs perhaps? Or a massive reduction in employers' NI (ho ho)?

Either way, it will be interesting to see if this is anything more than grandiose rhetoric - because if it is, Labour might just have committed themselves to the biggest macro-economic shift in policy for a generation. Forward to the past comrades!

Return of the eyebrows

We know already that Labour thinks that the Government is cutting public spending "too far and too fast". We also know that Labour thinks that where taxes should be increased, it should be on "the rich" and especially on "the bankers", and so we can expect an increase in taxation on the "rich". So let's play a little game.

A one-term Tory Government runs out of puff and loses, narrowly, to a Labour Government that has many of the same personnel, and mostly the same ideas as it had when it lost. It comes into office at a time of very gloomy economic forecasts, including rising inflation and a sizeable budget deficit. In its first budget, the new Chancellor announces a substantial increase in public spending, funded by increased borrowing and substantially increased taxes on the wealthy.

We've been here before.

With inflation already running at 17%, Dennis Healey increased public spending by an astonishing 35% in 74-5 and a further 25% in 75-6. Most of the cost of this was met in borrowing (the deficit sprang up to £8bn and then £11bn) but there were also tax rises - the standard rate was raised to 33% and the top rate to 83%. Corporation tax was jacked up to 52% - this was also the budget where tax on investment income reached 98%.

It's all a bit depressing. If Ed Balls really wanted to be like Dennis Healey, why couldn't he skip the early, lunatic years and skip straight to 1977?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rising through the ranks

There was quite an interesting question on the Guardian the other day: have any British generals come up the ranks from private?

Well, there's one who did rather better than that. Wullie Robertson ended up as a Field Marshal and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, which isn't bad going for an ex-trooper. Off the top of my head I can think of one other too - from the nineteenth century. Hector Macdonald ("Fighting Mac") made it as far as Major General, but came to rather an unhappy end - committing suicide in Paris amid accusations of pederasty.

In the Navy it used to be easier - there used to be two types of sea officer - sailors and gentlemen (the problem supposedly being that "the sailors weren't gentlemen and the gentlemen weren't sailors"). This got harder in the nineteenth century, with the new requirement that an officer had to "pass for a gentleman", but there were two full Admirals of the Fleet, Sir Fairfax Moresby and Sir Provo Wallis, who started as Able Seamen (although in the case of the latter this was clearly a con, to get the young boy some sea time. He was entered in the books as AB at 4 years old, and was a midshipman by the age of 9). Perhaps even more impressively, Vice Admiral Sir William Mitchell not only started life before the mast but was supposedly flogged around the fleet for desertion. Just surviving this was a good effort - rising to the top of the Service was remarkable.

There is one other example that sprang to mind, although he didn't quite make it to the rank of General. This chap joined up as a private in October 1939, getting promotion to Lance Corporal a year later. He was then signed up for WOSB, where he passed top of his group. Posted off to military intelligence he rose quickly through the ranks and, by 1945 after service in Egypt and India, he became the youngest Brigadier in the British Army - one of only two men to rise from private to Brigadier during the war. A remarkable acheivement that, and one surely guaranteed to win the approval of the Guardian. What's that? Oh.

Big Bang

As mentioned in my post about Owen Jones's article, it is de rigeur among Lady Thatcher's detractors to claim that the deregulation of the City 'caused' the financial crash in 2008. 'Big Bang' is wheeled out as proof that she let loose the terrifying monster of an unfettered financial sector, with all the appaling consequences that we have now seen. It's a commendably straightforward, and ostensibly plausible, narrative.

But it really is nonsense, and not just for the reasons given by Allister Heath. First of all, what was Big Bang? In essence it was four reforms applied to the working practices of the London Stock Exchange: trading was changed from face-to-face to telephone and computer trading; the fixed commission payable to brokers was abolished, allowing competition between brokers; the demarcation between brokers (who traded shares) and jobbers (who were the market makers) was ended; and perhaps most importantly, it allowed foreign ownership of members of the stock exchange.

The combined effect of these reforms was to spark a frenzied round of consolidation which effectively allowed investment banks to take part in - and then dominate the City. It undoubtedly sparked London's rejuvenation as a financial centre (helped in part by New York's self harm), although it was probably less influential that the abolition of capital controls had been. However, did it cause the financial crisis?

Here's the view put by, unsurprisingly, the Guardian:
The Big Bang was partly about modernisation – ensuring that the City used up-to-date technology such as computers. But it also dismantled the barriers between the separate, narrowly focused firms in the City, the stockbrokers, advisers and "jobbers" who created the markets in shares. Afterwards, all these services could exist under one roof and ultimately, some would argue, it led to the catastrophe of the credit crunch, whose effects the UK is still living through.

I find it hard to plot a course from the merging of stockbroking and stockjobbing to the paralysis in the international debt markets that caused the credit crisis. As a further point, for all that dear old Gordon Brown was ridiculed for all his "started in America" blarney, he did actually have a point: the spark for the crisis was poor lending practices in the States. Lady Thatcher undoubtedly had mysterious powers, but this was beyond even her.

Of course, the scale of the damage done to the British economy is linked to Thatcher's reforms of the City - but not perhaps in the way her detractors are claiming. Big Bang (and the various other supply-side and financial reforms) revitalised the City as a global financial centre. It was thus of far greater importance to the British economy than it would otherwise have been, and a recession centred on the financial sector was commensurately more damaging. You could blame Thatcher for this, I suppose. But it would be rather like complaining that this year's flood was worse than 20 years ago, because now you have so much more stuff that could get damaged.

Farewell to the Major

Sorry about another Times link, but I do so love this Mike Selvey anecdote about Christopher Martin-Jenkins:
Only once did I see him flummoxed. Like many cricketers, I used rhyming slang by habit, so if I were to say that someone was having treatment on their Vanburn, you might surmise Holder, or shoulder. During one commentary stint, he thought he would have a stab. “I’ve been having some trouble with the old Conrad,” he said. At first it stunned me, and then I corpsed — so badly I had to leave the commentary box. He meant Conrad Black.

The puerile left

Danny Finkelstein is on absolutely top form here.
The Left’s approach to the fiscal crisis has been inarticulate rage of this sort coupled with hyperbole and menace and threats of general strikes. Every reduction in spending has been resisted, the attacks invariably intemperate. And the thrust of the rhetoric, without irony, is that by cutting unaffordable welfare, and arguing for those cuts, it is Mr Osborne who is being divisive, bringing discord where there was harmony.

But the lesson of the Thatcher years is that what broke the harmony is borrowing more than we can afford, that what causes discord is unreasonably demanding that welfare be left untouched when it cannot conceivably be left untouched, and that what seems in the short run to be divisive may, in the long run, be the only way of restoring social stability.
 And there's a particularly good illustration of what passes for intellectual opposition these days:

A few days ago, the MP Tom Watson published (I promise you that he did) the following on Twitter: “Bad man @george_osborne: Booooooooo Boooooooo Booooooooo #booGideon.” Mr Watson is 46 years old. And a member of the Shadow Cabinet.
Superb stuff.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013


Guardian headline for Hugo Young's piece on Thatcher:
Margaret Thatcher left a dark legacy that has still not disappeared
Actual conclusion of that piece:

Britain was battered out of the somnolent conservatism, across a wide front of economic policies and priorities, that had held back progress and, arguably, prosperity. This is what we mean by the Thatcher revolution, imposing on Britain, for better or for worse, some of the liberalisation that the major continental economies know, 20 years later, they still need. I think on balance, it was for the better, and so, plainly did Thatcher's chief successor, Tony Blair.

History is hard!

Journalism too, I guess. This is why so many of us think in cliches, simplifications and broad-brush untruths. Tim Worstall illustrates a classic of the genre here. Why bother trying to understand the subtleties of politics if you can just mischaracterise your opponents' opinions to make them easier to argue against?

Probably the best exponent of this style of debate is Owen Jones - who has carved out a particularly good little niche as the go-to guy for unreconstructed Bennism. Have a look at the following short paragraph from today's tirade against 'Thatcherism':
We are in the midst of the third great economic collapse since the Second World War: all three have taken place since Thatcherism launched its great crusade. This current crisis has roots in the Thatcherite free market experiment, which wiped out much of the country’s industrial base in favour of a deregulated financial sector.
I count four 'facts' here and an opinion. While the opinion (that today's crisis has its roots in Thatcherite reform) is debateable, all four of the facts are flatly incorrect.

There have been three economic collapses since the Second World War

It's hard to be entirely sure exactly what Owen is talking about. Globally, there was a short shock in 1953, a more severe downturn in 1958, a global recession in 1973-5, a global recession in the early 1980s, another one in the early 1990s, a financial crisis in East Asia in 1997, a widespread recession in the early 2000s, and then the global financial crisis from 2007-8, with the long tail of recession following. Which three is Owen referring to?

All three have taken place since Thatcherism

Well, no. In the 34 years after the war, there were three distinct recessions (although for the UK, the entire 1970s was essentially one long crisis). In the 10 years of her time in office there were two. In the 23 years since there have been 3 (one of which the UK avoided entirely).

Thatcherism wiped out much of the country's industrial base

This is simply untrue.

Manufacturing output was higher when she left office than when she entered. There was no wholesale destruction of industry. There was a sharp recession in the early 1980s, followed by more or less steady growth for the rest of the decade: the concept that Thatcher wiped out UK industry is a myth.
And deregulated the financial sector
This is practically an article of faith on the left - that Thatcher deregulated the financial sector and let the banks off the leash. Once again, it isn't true. Big Bang was a significant deregulation of the stock exchange, but its reforms only went as far as allowing foreign ownership of City brokers. The new working practices are more a product of globalisation (and increased computing power) than a result of 1986 reforms. As to banking, the Thatcher Government introduced by far the most stringent regulation seen up to then in the UK - the Banking Act of 1987 saw a substantial increase in the state's power to regulate the financial sector - a power that had been introduced for the first time only in 1979.
Traditionally, you are entitled to your own opinions; but not to your own facts. But then, cheap polemic must be a lot easier if you don't have to get your facts right.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Is teaching really a profession?

There are those (including one of the teaching unions) who say flatly that it can't be, because professionals don't strike. That strikes me as a bit reductive: after all medicine is undoubtedly a profession, and doctors have been out on strike (albeit not most of them). What constitutes a profession is in fact rather woolly. Does it mean you have to have passed qualification exams? If so, then teaching may not pass - many of my best teachers never did their PGCEs (but then, I was at a private school).

Anyway, whether teaching is a profession or isn't, the teaching unions have a funny idea of what professionalism entails:
Gove intends not only to introduce performance-related pay and increase pension contributions but also to revolutionise, at breakneck speed, the content and format of GCSEs, A-levels and the national curriculum. As teachers see it, he is de-professionalising them, squeezing the autonomy and creativity out of their work. In effect, teachers are being told to forget how they were trained and teach in a different way.
Do teachers really think that they should go through their careers forever calcified at the moment they went to college? Let's carry that across to the other professions: doctors refusing to prescribe any treatment that wasn't current in the early 1980s; bankers acting as though FSMA never happened, and working on the basis of pre-Big Bang City practices; lawyers advising only on legislation and case law that was around when they were at law school. That's as ridiculously unprofessional as it's possible to get. If teachers are genuinely appalled at the prospect of updating teaching methods and philosophies learned 20 or more years ago, then they're less members of a profession, and more members of a cult.