Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Celebrating a very good school

“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.”

Saturday, January 25, 2014

This is what Ed Balls said today about the revenues from the 50p tax rate:

"The latest figures show that those earning over £150,000 paid almost £10 billion more in tax in the three years when the 50p top rate of tax was in place than when the government conducted its assessment of the tax back in 2012."

If there is disagreement over this claim (and there is) let's see the rationale from those who question it. And if Ed Balls needs to defend his claim - which I think he does - let's see that defence, in detail, as well.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The smoking ban in pubs is here to stay - and landlords who improve what their pubs offer the consumer will prosper.

In a piece in The Daily Telegraph today Peter Oborne blames pub closures on the smoking ban in such premises and calls for it to be reversed. He even says that the ban was Labour's "defining legacy". You are never quite sure with Peter whether his tongue is in his cheek - I  suspect that on this one it might be - but if not it needs to be said that he is fundamentally and preposterously wrong ! It is not just the British Pub that has had to bow to public pressure but bars and restaurants across the civilised world. "Public pressure" ? Absolutely. In the modern world the vast majority of adults are non smokers. And even smokers accepted that smoking in such facilities was wrong - or many did. The arguments  should not really need restating and anyone who remembers the bad old days will despair that there are those who think that our right to sip a pint and munch a pie in a smoke-free environment should be questioned. 

Even CAMRA supported the smoking ban in pubs and they were right to do so. And the idea that this was some Labour Party vendetta against the smoking classes does not stand up at all. Remember the first major city to ban smoking in bars and restaurants - it wasn't Labour's London but Bloomberg's New York. The New Yorkers, not known for their easy acceptance of rules and regulations, complied. As did the French when France did the same. If men and women can forgoe their Camels, Lucky Strikes and Gaulois in the common good we could do the same - and we did! Hooray!

The closure of so many pubs is to be regretted and no doubt in a few cases they closed because patrons could no longer smoke (and cough and spit) there. But if a pub relied on its smoke filled bars to sustain its business it couldn't have been much of a pub - and if it couldn't change we are well rid of it. Many pubs did change, of course, and many of those that modified what they did and how they did it have prospered. The Pub is the classic free enterprise business but like all such businesses, especially those running public service offers, there have to be rules. Above all the environment has to be safe. A room full of smoke is a threat to those who go there and especially to those who work there. Ask the family of non-smoking musician the late Roy Castle, who died of lung cancer, if you doubt that one.

Pubs close because the offer they make to the public is rejected - it's as simple as that. In the main the landlords who prosper are those who look at what they do in the light of understanding what prospective customers might need. They will never compete with home consumption of alcohol on price and no fiddling with supermarket prices will change that. And if people want to smoke when they drink then they better do that at home as well - unless the pub can provide a decent, heated outdoor area for them that is - many do. Pubs which offer better beer, better wine, better food, a better welcome and a more convivial as well as clean atmosphere will do well. Those whose landlords winge and moan and seek scapegoats for their own failures will close. That's how it works, and ultimately the consumer benefits.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The ECHR is a pillar of European values. The UK will not withdraw from it

The European Union is a political partnership. It is of course an economic partnership as well, but above all the Union unites 28 nations who over history have often been at one another’s throats in various combinations! Never again. The unification of Europe after the horrors of the twentieth century is a major achievement. To live in peace with our neighbours is something that my parents and grandparents generations could not even dream of. But now it is a reality.

To live in harmony does not mean to agree with each other on everything or all the time – ask any family! But the substance of the European partnership is common interest and common values. That is why something like the “European Convention on Human Rights” (ECHR) is so important. Yes there is a surrender of national sovereignty in the ECHR – so there is in any treaty or alliance. The ECHR is something that goes well beyond the EU of course and is not owned by it. The European Council of 47 states owns the ECHR and runs its European Court of Human Rights. To oppose the ECHR as some British politicians are doing at the moment and even suggest withdrawal is nonsense. Are we really going to be the only European nation not party to the ECHR? Obviously not!

When you negotiate to find a common agreement with partners in the end you either bow to the majority (if you disagree) or you walk away. If 46 members of the European Council are happy with the ECHR and you are the only one less than content that suggests you might need to look to yourself doesn't it! Unless you think that Britain is uniquely wise. Which at the very least is a questionable proposition!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Our Electricity generation needs to be diversified, low cost and green.It isn't easy!

The whole subject of energy supply and demand seems to generate rather more heat than light in the public discourse. Although the decisions that are made do have far-reaching consequences the level of the debate is often trivial and ill-informed. One of the problems is that our energy choices do not just impact upon our own citizens but have regional and even global consequences. We have a duty to, for example, or neighbours in Europe and cannot export our pollution to them – or vice versa of course. The interdependency of modern economies is well illustrated by Energy the price of which is set not within our borders but by international factors. Increasingly this is the case with environmental matters as well. The extent of the carbon emissions we as a nation generate is not just for us to determine but is governed by international treaty. Some uses of energy have choices to make – others are much more limited. For the foreseeable future only oil will drive our road vehicles and aircraft and only electricity or oil our trains. But for electricity generation there are choices to be made – and very long term choices as well.

The Coalition, give or take a decision of two, is broadly doing the right thing on electricity supply at present. There are three aims. First assure the future - that has to be a diversified range of fuels. For Britain that means a mix of Gas, Nuclear and Renewables. I would add Coal - there is room for at least one new large coal-fired power station. We have the coal and there is no reason why we should not use it in modern, low-emissions plant. But sadly the Government won't commit to this. They should.

Secondly cost. Indigenous gas - in the future substantially from Shale - will  not be much cheaper than imports but it could have exchange rate benefits and it is OUR gas so Government could ring fence it's price to some extent. Subsidised Wind Power is expensive - more expensive than Gas and much more than coal. But it does provide diversification, the same applies to Nuclear.

Finally the Environmental aim. Here the main goal is low carbon emissions. Wind gives this as does Nuclear and the inclusion of Wind in the mix is only really justified on environmental grounds. But too much Wind would be too costly, it is far from a panacea. Environmental targets are not and must not be local and the UK must meet international standards. So must the Germans by the way and they still have Coal in the mix!

There are no easy answers and every major decision is a judgment call - especially between cost and environmental concerns. But we cannot, and must not, rely on any one primary energy source for the generation of our electricity and we must have a national policy which puts the consumer not the private sector first.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Proper surveys should avoid leading questions


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 !

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Miners' strike - a personal story I haven't told before.

I was the Commercial Manager for Shell in Scotland from 1983-1986. In this job I had the overall responsibility for serving the needs of our customers in (inter alia) the Road Transport sector. As the miners’ strike intensified concern was expressed about the future of the huge Ravenscraig steelworks. The furnaces at Ravenscraig required coal to keep them functioning and if the fire in a furnace was extinguished then that furnace was lost – at huge cost. To keep the furnaces operating, even at a low level, required huge quantities of coal. This was normally supplied directly from Scottish mines – mostly by rail. Because of the Miners’ strike this supply source was stopped so British Steel sourced their Coal from overseas and imported it through a Terminal at Hunterston in Ayrshire. The coal then had to be road-bridged by truck from the Terminal to the Steel Plant – a distance of about 50 miles. The Haulage contractor appointed by British Steel for this task was a company called “Yuill and Dodds” of Hamilton run by the well-known Mr James Yuill (known to all as Jimmy). Yuill and Dodds was a Shell customer for the diesel and the lubricants their trucks needed. One day I was asked by one of my staff to visit Jimmy Yuill who was concerned that the supplies of diesel he needed might be interrupted because the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU) would order their members working for Shell not to make fuel deliveries to him.
Inter-union cooperation was a key part of the Miners’ strike and the Railway Unions were Full Square behind Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The position of the T&GWU was more ambivalent and I think quite local in its application. I realised that if Mr Yuill was to be kept in business and more importantly if Ravenscraig was to be kept open then Shell would need the cooperation of the local T&GWU. I arranged a meeting with the Senior T&G shop steward at our depot at Grangemouth alongside the BP refinery. This gentleman was not only the senior Shell Union official but one of the Union’s top men at a National level. He sat on the various negotiating panels that negotiated terms and conditions with the Oil industry. I had met him before and we got on well. He was a shrewd and very fair man – strong in his views but not a militant. Together we reviewed the situation. We agreed that the primary motivation must be to keep Ravenscraig open – it employed huge numbers on site and many more in service industries in the area and across Scotland. On behalf of his members I was given an assurance that there would be no disruption of fuel supplies to Yuill and Dodds.
This story is a complex one in the febrile conditions of the time. My Shop Steward colleague was naturally supportive of the Miners in their strike – as indeed was I (though, given my position, not openly!). On the other hand I had a Shell customer to protect both in the Company’s interests and in that of the wider business community around Ravenscraig and, of course, the huge plant itself (it was a large customer for Shell lubricants). I was largely on my own in seeking this accommodation with the Union via the Shop Steward. I reported the details to my boss in London. He rang me early one morning and asked me point blank (he was like that!) whether I could assure him that I believed what I was doing was the right thing to do (I did) and that no flack would hit Shell as a result of the deal (more difficult!). He backed me 100% and locally we got on with the task. Yuill and Dodds got their fuel. Ravenscraig stayed open and there were few if any reports in the media about Shell’s involvement. (There were plenty of reports about Yuill and Dodds though as secondary pickets tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the coal trucks getting into Ravenscraig!).
I have not told this story before but have been prompted to do so by the report that Margaret Thatcher was prepared to use the Armed Forces to help defeat the miners. Some are saying that this would have been to help the movement of essential supplies. I do not, of course, know the truth of this claim. All I can report is my own experience which was that locally essential supplies were kept going and with the cooperation of a major Union. My guess is that this was replicated across the Country and that there was little need for Mrs Thatcher to use the Army to provide transport. So if the Forces were on standby it was for other reasons.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Many foreigners who come here to work are not "Immigrants" at all.

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.

A Pole (for example) who comes to the UK to work does so for largely economic reasons. The money is better. Fair enough - EU rules allow this and in the main there is mutual benefit. But unless he formally settles here and in time becomes a British citizen he is not an "immigrant". He has not "migrated" to the UK permanently. He may do so in time of course, but that is not why he came. 

If we could use more accurate language to describe the status of people from abroad who come here to work we might take some heat out of the issue. Sadly the very word "Immigration" has a built-in negative ring about it. The words "Guest Worker" although a bit clumsy are better. The adjective "Guest" is particularly good. We welcome guests and look after them. Let's get our language use right and the rest might follow. 

Friday, January 03, 2014

Michael Gove makes cheap political points over the tragedy of the Great War

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”