Monday, November 30, 2015

Bombing Syria

It's quite a long time since I last had no idea what to do about Syria. But I have finally come to a view on whether the UK should join the coalition that is currently carrying out air strikes against ISIL in Syria. I'm cautiously in favour, for the following reasons:

  1. We're already bombing ISIL in Iraq;
  2. That seems to be going pretty well, all things considered;*
  3. The border between Iraq and Syria is effectively imaginary;
  4. Our allies are already bombing ISIL in Syria.
It may very well be true that adding British drone missile capabilities to the coalition in Syria is unlikely to win the war, in and of itself. It may also be true that a final resolution of the Syrian war is beyond Western capabilities anyway. But ISIL is both a regional menace and a global nuisance. Its impact as a Caliphate stretches from Bangladesh to Nigeria, by way of bedrooms in Brussels and Bradford. To the extent that the UK is able to take action to degrade it, it should do so.

I'm reasonably settled in my view on this now, after a lot of indecision. Part of the reason for this is that the counter-arguments are so bad. I had the misfortune to catch Diane Abbott on the Today Programme this morning. It is, incidentally, a sign of the depths to which Labour has plunged that Diane Abbott is now such a consistent defender of its positions. It's almost impossible to set myself up on the side of an argument advocated by Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Peter Hitchens and Giles Fraser.

Time will tell on this, and I very much doubt that we will see much of an impact, but in the last resort, it's a bit craven to agree that action should be taken, and then demand that it's taken by anyone but us.

*On 17 September 2015, it was reported that around 330 ISIL fighters had been killed by British airstrikes, with zero civilian casualties. By 26 September 2015, ISIL had lost a quarter of its territory.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


George Osborne was definitely tending to the self-satisfied for most of the Autumn Statement yesterday - no mean feat, given the back-pedalling at its heart. But he was rarely smugger than when he announced what he thought was a really clever wheeze.

The VAT rate charged on sanitary products is 5% - the lowest permitted under European law. The UK Government is currently lobbying the EU to allow them to exempt sanitary products altogether (and apparently with some chance of success). At the moment, however, this is a tax that the Government wants to get rid of, but can't.

One of the key points of 'unfairness' that is raised against the tax as it stands is that it applies uniquely to women. When the Treasury dropped the rate from standard to reduced back in 2000, one of the questions asked was whether there were any products that only men would ever buy. Inventive mandarins eventually came up with beard trimmers and circumcision knives - neither of which really amount to the same thing. So, you have a tax raised (effectively uniquely) entirely from women,

Wouldn't it be a nice gesture, thought Osborne, if this money, which is there in the general funds, could be spent specifically on women, just as it is raised specifically by women? An additional £15m for women's charities, so that at least this unwelcome tax is going to a good cause. It seems rather a neat solution.

No. Of course not. Everyone went nuts instead.
Not for the first time, I am baffled by this argument. There's a perfectly good argument that it would be better if no tax was levied on tampons - it's just that it's not something the Government can legally do. But the argument that, given that tax is levied on tampons, it is insulting for the proceeds to be given to women's charities is just really odd.

I think there are three different assumptions going on, and all of them are wrong. The first is the one you see about 'luxuries' and razors and so on.
I recognise that razors are zero-rated, and judging by many Conservative Members the opportunity to shave every day is a human right. They are cleanly shaven, and I am sure they would be concerned to be charged a higher rate of VAT.
 Stella Creasy, Hansard, 26 October 2015
The idea being that idiot know-nothing men apply VAT to essentials like tampons that don't affect them, while ensuring that more male products, like razors, are exempt. Which is fine, except that razors are VAT-able at 20%.

The second argument is that funding for charities should come from general taxation - typified by the two tweets above. And the obvious answer to this is that it does. Obviously there could always be more money spent on things, and obviously there are more good causes that would benefit from funding than there are funds. But the argument that no public money goes to women's charities apart from this latest initiative is just wrong.

The third, and most emotive argument is that this is just making "Bleeding women pay for other bleeding women". But this argument is arse-about-face. The Government isn't levying a special tax on women in order to pay for women's charities. The tax on women is there already, and unremovable. The Government is just making sure that the money raised is spent on women, and not on ministerial cars, or Type 26 frigates, or any other of the myriad recipients of public funding.

That this initiative has created so much hostility is proof either of the proposition that no good deed goes unpunished, or that there really is just no pleasing some people.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

God, we go through this every time

This story is a hardy perennial, the true meaning of which seems permanently missed.
State school pupils are likely to do better at university than independent school pupils with similar A-level results, according to a new study.
Take that finding, and come at it from another angle, and you get "State school pupils are likely to get worse A-level result than independent school pupils of similar academic ability".Which is what you'd expect, given that independent schools get, on average, better A-level results than state schools. So to get from there to here takes a little effort:
The researchers suggest two reasons for the finding: private school students may have lower incentives to perform well at university and therefore may invest more effort in social life rather than academic work; or they may have been coached at school and subsequently struggle when they get to university.
The second reason there is interestingly put (the first one is pure guesswork). What the researchers are calling "coaching" is what is usually called "teaching". Luckily, given that this story keeps on bobbing up, there's a standard answer from independent school heads:
“This study tells us that, unsurprisingly, A*s generally lead to good degrees. School heads already know that prior attainment is the key to later success,” said Chris Ramsey, headmaster of King’s School, Chester, and a spokesman for the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference of leading private schools. 
“In the real world more independent school pupils get A*s in the first place, and overall get better degrees. Previous, more thorough research shows it is wrong to conclude that more than a tiny number – around 1% - of state school pupils entering at the same level will do better at university.”
Still, hats off I guess for managing to turn a story about poor teaching in state schools to one about lazy, entitled and over-coached kids at private ones.