Andrew Neil is right. "Peak Oil" is a very long way away!
I graduated with a BA (Hons) in Business Studies in 1970 which, to save you the math, is 44 years ago. Virtually everything that I studied on that course is relevant today – indeed more relevant because most of what we learned was unencumbranced with the MBA bullshit that was later to infest this area of study! In the Economics part of the course we covered the subject pretty thoroughly and in a linked area we looked at private and public investment. The latter was particularly interesting as unlike the former social considerations were uppermost.
The social (including environmental and other consequences) impact of private investment projects has been seen to be increasingly important in recent times. That said the main consideration has to be the potential returns over time for private shareholders. They are businesses after all. But for public sector investment it is different. Here return on capital and profit potential are far less important than the total benefits (and costs) of proceeding with a scheme. This is where, on my course all those years ago, Cost-benefit Analysis (CBA) comes in – and it still does. The definition of CBA in Wikipedia seems to express what it is rather well:
“In CBA, benefits and costs are expressed in monetary terms, and are adjusted for the time value of money, so that all flows of benefits and flows of project costs over time (which tend to occur at different points in time) are expressed on a common basis in terms of their "net present value."
The key point about CBA as a tool in project evaluation is that it requires that values are placed on consequences where the effect is not necessarily easy to determine in monetary terms. So, for example, the actual monetary cost of a construction project ought to be forecastable with a reasonable degree of precision. However the social cost of (for example) the disruption during the construction phase is much more intangible and assumptions have to be made. A project that we looked at in some detail was the construction of the Victoria Line in London and the CBA that was carried out on it:
You get the general idea of the approach from this brief summary. Which brings me to both HS2 (the High Speed rail line going North from London) and to capital expenditure on flood protection projects – both very much in the news at the moment.
The first thing to say is that it is intellectually bereft of reason to say that we should either do one or the other of these projects as if capital rationing is such that we can only afford to do one! Nonsense. In an economy the size of Britain's, particularly in the context of a European Union which not only supports infrastructure projects but often part-funds them, every project must be looked at on its own. So this sort of thing in a letter in the Daily Telegraph is drivel:
SIR – Looking at the photographs of storm wreckage along the east coast and up the Thames, it seems that the proposed HS2 money would be better spent on flood defences to prevent the catastrophic flooding of London in the future.
Save London rather than a few minutes’ journey time.
In short if the CBA for both projects is positive then by definition they can be afforded and ought to proceed – all other things being equal. But let me emphasise that it is essential that the cost of intangibles is fairly assessed. For example HS2 involves a huge number of Compulsory Purchase Orders – people and businesses (etc.) will lose their homes to make way for the line. The compensation paid is only part of the cost – what about the social and personal costs to those whose lives are disrupted? They must be properly calculated in so far as it is possible to do this. This does not mean that the line should not proceed – far from it. Every railway line since the early nineteenth century to today has involved disadvantages to those who live on the planned route. But these disadvantages can be assessed, and must be.
In The Netherlands the massive Delta Works were constructed at huge capital cost but the overall benefits unquestionably exceed the costs. Similarly with the Thames Barrier in London. Cost-benefit Analysis techniques helped prove the cases for these projects and they are essential for HS2 and are being used – as you would expect. The same applies to the potential capital projects for the creation of effective flood defences so that, like the Dutch, we actually protect our citizens in future.
My argument here is for more science and more calculation and less emotion. This may seem a tad callous for two projects which really do affect people’s lives and which have oodles of emotion in them. But if we look not at the macro level, where complexities get lost, but at the micro-level where real and intangible costs and benefits can be assessed we have a better chance of actually doing the right thing!
“You don't make something that’s bad better by making something that’s good worse.”
I visited my old school last week. Now the very term “old school” gives you a hint as to what sort of school it is – add “tie” and you’ll get it. “The Leys School”, where I spent my teenage years, is an independent school in Cambridge. Originally a Methodist foundation it is now a very modern coeducational secondary school which, whilst not secular, is far from a non-conformist truth factory. Actually it wasn't particularly religious when I was there in the 1960s either - despite our having to go to chapel twice a day, every day! Christopher Hitchens, a contemporary, remarked late in his life that he had “Learned more in the chapel than anywhere else in the School”. I know what he meant, paradoxical it may seem for atheists to say so.
I was at The Leys to see the opening of the new “Great Hall” its new centrepoint for gatherings of all sorts. It is a 300+ seat theatre but is so designed to be flexible and to be swiftly capable of being transformed into a wide range of configurations depending on what is needed. It has cost £9m substantially from bequests and donations including a modest contribution from me – which is why I was there. The Hall was opened by the Monarch’s youngest son and, republican though I am, I have to say Edward did the job very well.
In some respects The Leys is typical of the very best of the independent schools sector. Well I would say that wouldn't I ? Back in the days when I was there and for a while after I left The Leys and schools like it were described as “minor Public Schools”. That term has fallen away a bit – although it is used by Charles Moore in his biography of Margaret Thatcher. Moore is an Old Etonian – nuff said! Anyway minor or not it is a very good school indeed and as such surely to be supported? This is where for a Leftie like me things start to get tricky. At best I can be accused of hypocrisy and at worst of defending privilege and elitism.
If we were creating an education system from scratch today would there be a place in it for schools like The Leys? Well not as selective, expensive indulgences for the middle-classes there wouldn't. Does the school confer advantages on its pupils that the State system does not? Of course it does – that is the main reason parents send their children there. Does your “bog-standard comprehensive” have a Great Hall – of course it does not. So if you believe in “Equality of Opportunity” you cannot defend The Leys can you? Well here’s the rub – we are not creating an education system from scratch. We have what we have. In Britain there is a diversity of schools which is unique in the world and even within the state sector in any area there is likely to be bewildering range of school types: High schools, Church schools, other “Faith” schools, Grammar schools, Academies, Free schools – and so on. They operate with different teaching methods, recruit from different cohorts of society and even teach against different curriculums. Its a shambles. Along with this muddled State sector there is the fee-paying independent sector, of which The Leys is part.
Around 25% of the intake of the 24 elite “Russell Group” universities comprised independent school sixth formers - although these schools educate only 7% of all of Britain's pupils. And by virtually every other criterion the products of these schools have a better chance in life then the average pupil from a State school. Its pretty iniquitous and I find it impossible to defend what we have. So do I want to abolish the independent sector or at least make life more difficult for it by removing the charitable status that the schools have as educational establishments? Emphatically not! Would one State school be improved one iota if The Leys was forced to decamp to (say) America because it was no longer welcome in Britain? Would teachers who chose to be in the independent system suddenly willingly return to the State system – some might, others might follow the School to America (or wherever). What is good about The Leys, and the rest, can be a model to which State schools aspire. And if this is patronising (it is!) it is also true.
I am proud to have been at The Leys and proud that it has blossomed as a fine School by any standards. I don't like inequality in education any more than I like inequality anywhere in our society. But:
“You don't make something that’s bad better by making something that’s good worse.”
The Market Research Society defines a “Leading question” as one that is “…badly constructed [and] tends to steer respondents toward a particular answer.” It is for obvious reasons never a good idea to have such a question in any poll whose findings you want to use seriously.
The leading pollster YouGov has recently published poll results which purport to show British attitudes to immigration. The answers to two of the questions have generated headlines. This is how YouGov themselves presented the results:
“Moving onto the issue of immigration, 76% of people support David Cameron’s stated aim of reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands”, but the overwhelmingly majority (83%) of people think it is unlikely he will achieve it, only 9% think it is likely. When YouGov asked the same question two years ago 15% thought it was likely Cameron would hit his target, so while net immigration has fallen somewhat over recent years, its not registering with the public.”
But when we actually look at the survey results and in particular the questions this looks like very sloppy research and the comment is tendentious. Here are the questions:
Both of these questions are “leading”. In the first one the respondent is lead by the “David Cameron has pledged to reduce net immigration” introduction into believing that such a policy must be a good thing. There is no attempt at balance in the question. Obviously if reducing immigration is a good thing then the bigger the reduction the better. So 76% agree that it’s a good thing. Hardly surprisingly.
In the second question the very nature of the question suggests that for Cameron to be able to “deliver the pledge” is questionable. And given inbuilt attitudes to politics and politicians at the moment the respondent is likely to disbelief the pledge – as 83% of the respondents do.
You could ask the same questions in a different way and get completely different results. For example if you said in place of the Cameron pledge intro “A recent study by University College London has shown that immigrants have a net positive effect on the UK economy…” then respondents would answer very differently. This would, of course, be equally wrong! Leading questions are always wrong.
A fellow twitterer,
@baggins_dil , has drawn my attention to this from “Yes Minister” which makes the point very well and humorously. Essential viewing !
We don't have a word for it in English, but we need one. The Germans call them "Gastarbeiters" - literally "Guest workers" to describe individuals who come to work in their country - but not permanently to live there. We use the word "immigrant" to cover all non Brits who come to live and work here irrespective as to whether their move here is permanent or not.
For some reason Michael Gove chose to sound off in the Daily Mail yesterday about the First World War. His message (I paraphrase) was that Lefties are wrong to characterise the war as really being as portrayed in fiction like “Blackadder” or “Oh What a Lovely War”. It was, Gove says, “plainly a just war”.
Gove is not the first prominent person to try a revisionism on the Great War, although he might be the most ignorant. He cites the genuine historian Gary Sheffield as being in support of his view. Mr Sheffield is indeed eager to present the facts about the War and correct some misunderstandings. But he has confirmed to me that he does not use the term “Just War” – although it was used as a headline in an article of his in “History Today” – without his approval.
The great historian AJP Taylor dedicated his seminal book on the War to Joan Littlewood – the producer/director of “Oh What a Lovely War” so he is the sort of Leftie who might be in Gove’s sights. But Taylor, whilst condemning the blundering of Generals and Statesmen alike in his book also said that the war “postponed the domination of Europe by Germany, or perhaps prevented it”. That is also the view of Mr Sheffield so it is not a Leftist view or a Rightist view but the considered view of distinguished and very different historians. Taylor refers to German General Ludendorff calling the British soldiers “lions led by donkeys” and it was this phrase that Conservative maverick Alan Clark used in his book about the war “The Donkeys”. Clark was no sort of Lefty at all and was not really concerned with the goals of the war, more with how incompetently it was pursued – on the British side anyway. Gove seeks to rehabilitate General Douglas Haig who was criticised in some detail in Clark’s book.
According to Clark Haig ordered that a disastrous action be pursued at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 “regardless of loss of life”. There were 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian casualties in the action which led General John Charteris to say presciently that,
"... England will have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chappelle before we finally crush the German army."
War is always hell and there was no more hellish war that the Great War. Over the next four years we will have every opportunity to study the war, its origins, actions and outcomes. Most of us will, I hope, do this without trying to make cheap political points. I personally have a small shelf of reading or re-reading including some fine recent books like Max Hastings’s “Catastrophe” and Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War”. It is perhaps useful to quote Ferguson – seen as a Conservative historian and therefore presumably to Mr Gove’s liking. Ferguson says:
“The victors’ stated objective of curbing German power was not achieved. Indeed the war ultimately made Germany a far more formidable threat…”
Quite how a war which so catastrophically failed can be cited “Just” Mr Gove should tell us. Perhaps he should read the last sentence of Niall Ferguson’s book before he fires from the hip again:
“It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history”
By the end of 2013 I had posted 43,800 Tweets in total since my first some three years ago. Assuming an average number of characters of 120 and six characters/spaces per word that amounts to 876,000 words. That is roughly as many words as there are in three of the novels of Charles Dickens. Am I mad? How do I find the time?
The thing about Twitter is that you mostly do it in “downtime” when you have nothing else to do. Of course you could be reading an improving book or, if you are a writer like me, you could be doing “proper” writing. But Twitter is addictive and it is also informative and entertaining. Regular users of Twitter don't really need to have the benefits explained to them and those who don't use it can only really find out by giving it a trial. I have never succeeded in explaining to a Twitter sceptic why I like it. You have to try it.
A Tweeter of the Year
2013 brought some personal highlights and a few low points. Lets get the main highlight out of the way first. The Conservative broadcaster and journalist Iain Dale named me as one of his “Top 100 tweeters of the year”. He placed me in the “Bloggers” category. I was very pleased about this as Iain is a master of social media and one of the best bloggers around in his day. I was also chuffed because I am emphatically not a Conservative – so Iain was not leaning towards a political kindred spirit!
Towards the end of the year I had my first personal experience of a Tweet going viral. I saw a tweet on my timeline with a picture of a blonde woman grinning at the camera and holding the dead body of a leopard she had shot. I then tweeted the picture with my own caption like this:
Well the effect of this was astonishing. The tweet went viral and by today it has had nearly 2700 retweets. For those unfamiliar with Twitter a “retweet” is when someone posts your tweet, often with a comment, under their own twitter ID. This doesn't not necessarily mean they agree with your tweet (thought usually they do) but just that they want their followers to see it. I think that the largest number of retweets I have ever had before for any tweet was less than 100. There is a correlation between the number of followers you have and the number of retweets you get. So the football pundit Gary Lineker, with over 2m followers, would get 500-1000 retweets for most of his tweets and more for special ones. But for an ordinary non-Celeb, like me, to get approaching 3000 retweets is unusual.
The Power of Twitter
What have I learned from this. Well obviously the power of Twitter. Every retweet leads to many more retweets in such a situation – rather like a digital chain letter! When this happens you cannot look at all the retweets – the sheer volume is difficult to handle. It also dominates your “Connect” line so you may miss some of the more usual responses to your other tweets. But you can handle that! It also increases your followers – mine went up by 300 in the space of a couple of weeks. You also have to be very careful – particularly on a subject like Animal Rights.
But be very careful…
I care very mush about protecting the world’s wildlife and I deplore hunting. But I am not an animal rights activist and some of the actions of some of those who are troubles me. I would describe myself as mildly militant on the subject and not against affirmative action – in the protection of Badgers for example or in combating the killing of dolphins in Japan. But some activists go too far and some of these people responded to my Tweet with some rather nasty threats at the leopard-killing woman. As the instigator of the original tweet I feel some vicarious responsibility here, but obviously you cannot reply to all of the tweets you receive given the scale of the matter.
…there’s lowlife waiting to ambush you!
Twitter is a free-for-all and that is a key part of its appeal. In the past I have tried to be accurate and honest in what I say and since the Sally Bercow affair I have been particularly careful – as I am sure have many other regular and responsible tweeters. But in the past I have occasionally used bad language for effect. This caused one of the low moments for me this year. During the Trent Bridge test match I was contacted by a Daily Mail sports writer who was, or so he said, interested in the work I was doing as part of the “MCC Reform Group”. I gave him a twenty minute interview and passed him one or two titbits about our campaign. A few days later the following brief piece appeared in the Daily Mail:
The writer who perpetrated this is a particularly noisome character who had previously insulted much more famous people than me (Brian Moore and Jonathan Agnew amongst them). And he is a poor journalist as well as he completely ignored the information I have him during the interview to make instead a personal attack on me. But what he said, though cruelly selective, was true. So I immediately made a resolution never to swear on Twitter again on the grounds that there is low life around who may use it against you!
A Year to remember
So that's my 2013 Twitter year. The very good, the occasionally bad and once very ugly. What I have left to last to say is how many friends you make on Twitter. I have, I think, become close to dozens of people via the medium. Some are kindred spirits on sport or politics but many are not. We exchange views – and above all use Twitter as a link to other things. The link to this blog will be tweeted and drive traffic as a result to the blog. I feel better informed by following links on Twitter to blogs and other pieces in the public domain that I would otherwise not have seen. And, as we have seen with the leopard Tweet, you can if you are lucky start a campaign of awareness about something you feel strongly about that might just make a difference. So if you are not on twitter why not give it a try – you might surprise yourself. But keep it clean!
"The Queen was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Nelson Mandela last night. He worked tirelessly for the good of his country, and his legacy is the peaceful South Africa we see today.Her Majesty remembers with great warmth her meetings with Mr. Mandela and sends her sincere condolences to his family and the people of South Africa at this very sad time."
"The Queen was deeply saddened to learn of the death of George H.W. Bush last night. He worked tirelessly for the good of his country, and his legacy is the peaceful United States we see today.Her Majesty remembers with great warmth her meetings with Mr. Bush and sends her sincere condolences to his family and the people of America at this very sad time."
"The Queen is deeply saddened at the death of Nelson Mandela. Mr Mandela suffered at the hands of those who abused him and his people - but in his battle he ultimately triumphed to live to create the democratic and proud South Africa we see today.
Her Majesty sends her condolences to Mr Mandela’s family and to the people of South Africa who can remember with pride a truly great man.”