Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cameron's European Immigration Gamble.

When Jean Claude Juncker was "elected" EU Commission president, he indicated he'd be happy to work with Cameron to renegotiate some powers. The one 'Red Line' he would not give is the free movement of people, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome.

There's an unpleasant xenophobia in British politics at the moment, where immigration is seen as a terrible thing, the worst thing, rather than an answer to the question "who's going to pay for your pension?". Most people, the left hand tail of the bell curve, who are considering voting UKIP are horrified by stories in the papers of schools where 75% of children speak a different language. Not knowing what the "availability heuristic" is, UKIPpers then go on to consider this near-universal. Over half of children in inner london schools are by some measure children of immigrants. Is that because that's the level of immigration, or because British people tend not to try to bring up infants in central London?

There is no doubt the foreign born population of the UK has expanded rapidly to around 12%. By far the biggest inflow is a half a million Poles who arrived between 2001 and 2011. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent continues at a steady trickle, tens of thousands a year. There's remarkably little evidence that wages have been driven down by this movement of people, though the claim is often made, evidence has come from individual industries, but certainly doesn't represent a widespread picture. If you believed the rhetoric, the 147,000 who came from Pakistan represented the majority. But the numbers are dwarfed by the Poles, whom no-one can accuse of scrounging, and who're often spoken of in a positive light, before a tirade against "the muslims".

Low skilled work is losing its value, and so low skilled workers are facing stagnating wages world wide, not just in the UK. It's just comforting to those who are suffering the effects of globalisation and automation to blame the polish blokes on the building site, rather than impersonal economic forces and the relentless march of technology. Throwing up barriers to the Poles coming here won't help Poland get richer, or improve the standard of living of British-born workers. It's an act of spite, that demeans this country, and should be resisted.

Cameron for his part has staked a "solution" to European migration as part of his negotiating strategy. I cannot see how this could possibly benefit him, except in the narrow, tactical sense in so far as it gives some answer which the army of Conservative activists can give to on the doorstep, while to the voters of Rochester and Strood consider whether or not to vote for Mark Reckless. The free movement of people is so fundamental to the EU project that it cannot be offered as a bribe to keep the UK in. So Cameron is going to face a humiliating climbdown at some point. Being cynical, He probably expects to do this some time in 2015, after the election. Will it be enough?

UKIP cannot be appeased. They are a protest. They are angry, and giving them the policies they "want" won't win them over. They will simply find something else to be angry about. Though it's not said openly, anti-muslim sentiment is being mixed with anti-immigration rhetoric, to overcome the relatively positive image of the largest new immigrant communities, the poles have in the minds of much of the electorate. The people who're considering voting UKIP don't by and large, hate the poles. But they are becoming much more open in their dislike of Muslims. And UKIP is not afraid to allow the misconceptions, the disinformation and the outright lies to continue. Sometimes they get caught saying something outright racist. Most of the time UKIP keep the right side of outright bigotry, and let the xenophobic mood music do the work. This is "dog-whistle" politics.

It's not policies UKIPpers want, it's leadership they're craving from Politicians. And on immigration at least, Cameron has failed the test. Having already made one promise, to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, which he couldn't deliver, is now doubling down. The political class, insofar as such a thing exists, has failed the test by failing to lay out why free movement of people, within the EU and from elsewhere will benefit everybody. The logic behind free trade - division of labour, comparative advantage and so forth is as true for where people live as it is for what we buy. In failing to point out where the electorate is wrong, as they are on immigration, politicians are failing in a duty to the people in a representative democracy.

Cameron's gamble may pay off. But he either knows it cannot be delivered, in which case he's lying, or thinks it can, in which case he's putting political advantage ahead of the good of the country. Neither paints the Prime minister in a good light.



Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Caledonian Prediction

The eve-of-voting polls are remarkably consistent pointing to 48-52, with 5-10% undecided, in favour of no, so this is going to be the baseline of my prediction prediction. But the pollsters are not at all confident of their weighting methodology.


  • 'Don't knows' typically break for the status quo in such referendums. 
  • There are an unusually large number of people refusing to talk to pollsters. If these break one way or the other, this can make a mockery of polling.
  • One side is much noisier and more enthused than the other and there has been intimidation. This can lead to an under-reporting of one side
  • There are a lot of people who're voting for the first time and for whom no previous elections can be used to compare.
So, as a keen amateur psephologist, I thought I'd have a go at a prediction taking into account the factors above.
  1. Baseline 48-52 for 'No'.
  2. Don't knows at 5% breaking 2-1 for 'No' gives 47 1/4% to 52 3/4% for no.
  3. It's simply impossible to know how the Silent voters will vote, but in my experience as a teller, they tend to be older, male, and well educated. Older lean 'no', male leans 'yes' and education is a weak predictor of 'no'.
  4. I suspect 'No' voters are less likely to take part in online surveys, and be keener to avoid letting on they vote no, for fear of Nationalist flash mobs. I suspect there is a shy 'no' vote nudging it a couple of percent, or possibly more.
  5. First time voters, and newly registered voters are likely to be under weighted in pollsters methodology, especially if the turnout is very high. It may be this is sufficient to outweigh the 'shy nos'.
Given the above my SWAG (scientific wild-arsed guess) is No 53% Yes 47%. I'd be more surprised by a 'Yes' than I would by a bigger 'No' win. I think most Scots, even some who voted 'Yes' will be relieved by a 'No' vote.




Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scotland

Let's get the identity thing out the way: I'm British. My Mother is Scottish, with Ginger hair and Gaelic-speaking parents, a fear of sunshine and everything. My Father is mostly English, with a Welsh grandparent and an Irish surname. So as far as I can work it out, I'm half Scots, 3/8 English 1/8 Welsh and there's some Irish in there too somewhere, but I'm buggered if I can find it. As a result I have brown hair, but some ginger in the beard, and I too get sunburn at a fireworks display, and cannot stand direct sunlight. That's the genetics. Then there's the Identity. I was Born in Northampton, Schooled in Leicestershire, and went to University in Edinburgh for whom I played Shinty. I have ALWAYS regarded myself as British, Scottish (whom I support at football), English (whom I support at Rugby) and a citizen of the world.

My Late Grandfather was a fearsome Scottish Nationalist, despite having spent almost all his working life outside Scotland, serving Britain - in the Merchant marine, and the Diplomatic Wireless Service. I've enjoyed arguing 'no' all my life with him, and if Scots vote 'yes' I will take a crumb of comfort from the fact it'd make the old rogue happy. I learned to love the rough and tumble of political debate over my Grandparents' table in Inverness. The Scots are a warm, friendly, resolute and resourceful nation of people, who have achieved, like my Grandfather, great things all over the world, but the political culture is utterly vile. It was in Edinburgh I discovered the swamp of bitterness and hatred that is Scottish politics. I've never seen anything quite as unpleasant, and I've some experience of Northern Ireland. The principle emotions expressed are resentment, and a particularly toxic brand of zero-sum socialism: what's bad for the English must be good for me and Vice-versa. And this has been encouraged by the Scottish political establishment which is hard-left Labour, and often Harder left SNP, who have found the English, Tory boogeyman a handy catch-all on whom to blame all failures.

And some of Scotland is an abject failure. East Glasgow contains some of the poorest people in Europe, with some of the lowest life-expectancy in the developed world. This in a vibrant, powerful, wealthy city with arts and culture galore, represents a shocking failure of Glasgow's labour Political establishment. These people, living in schemes where the men are unlikely to live much beyond their 50th birthday, have been told that it's all "Thatcher" who closed the shipyards and steelworks, and the "Tories" who don't care, shifting the blame from a Scottish Parliament and Labour Government in Westminster who've had over a decade to do something about it. But it's easier to make people hate 'the other', than it is to rebuild such failed communities.

And the poor bits of Glasgow are the bits most strongly in favour of Scottish independence. Unsurprising, really, they do have the least to lose. Labour is reaping what it sowed.

So we come to the referendum. They've given votes to children, hoping they can be enthused by the Braveheart myth; not put what is BY FAR the most popular option - Devolution Max - on the ballot paper, allowed the Secessionists the 'yes' answer - the question could have been, "should Scotland stay in the United Kingdom?"; and there is no supermajority needed to destroy the UK, all at the behest of Alex Salmond. If he cannot, under these circumstances persuade people to leap into the Abyss, then the issue should be settled for at least a generation. The SNP got more or less everything it asked for in the negotiations over the referendum. To bleat about BBC bias, and "Westminster stooges" under these circumstances is rather pathetic.

Abyss? Scotland has the potential to be an extraordinarily vibrant place. The land of Smith an Hume, the Edinburgh enlightenment, whose ideas underpinned the USA, industrial engineers, soldiers and statesmen who built then dismantled the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. Many small countries do well. Scotland the second richest bit of the UK after London & the South east, and Aberdeen its second or third richest city after London and Bath, so it's not clear to me the Status Quo is broken. The Scots population is sparse and so they get more state spending per head and also contribute more tax per head. English Nationalists (whom I despise too) focus on the former, Scottish Nationalists, the latter. The simple fact is any independent Scotland will be running a big primary deficit, but will lack the ability to finance it. Salmond's plan to not take a share of the debt will make this deficit utterly unsustainable, as no-one will lend. Austerity? You ain't seen nothing yet.

So I come back to the toxic political culture, and fear that it would rapidly become Venezuela, if the likes of Jim Sillars gets his way. The blood letting that would accompany a recession costing 4% of GDP, which is what happened to Czechoslovakia on its split, whose economies were much less integrated, would be terrible. Scotland's independence teething troubles could be worse than Czech Republic and Slovakia's velvet split - 70% of Scots GDP is "exports" to the rest of the UK. The deeply ingrained habit of Scottish politicians is to blame "Westminster" or "the Tories" mean Scotland would be ripe for the kind of "stab in the back, betrayal" narrative that encourages even more extreme nationalism, should it all go wrong. The yes campaign have encouraged their supporters to project all their hopes onto independence, and deserve credit that theirs is a civic, rather than 'blood and soil' nationalism, but there will be a lot of disappointment that it's a lot, lot harder than they thought it was. The nationalist genie is out of the bottle, and it's going to be hard to put it back, which ever way the vote goes.

Several companies, and plenty of people have said they'd leave Scotland if she votes 'Yes'. Scotland will find it harder to attract companies without being part of the UK. No companies and few people have said they'd move to Scotland in the event of a yes vote. Not even Vivienne Westwood.

Of course a 'Yes' vote could see a resurgence of the Centre right in Scotland. Ooh Look.

But the forlorn hope that Scottish politics becomes sane on independence, is to deny the greatness of what Scotland and the rest of the UK have achieved TOGETHER: one of the richest, freest, most powerful and influential countries on earth. A leader in world trade, and leading member of many international clubs. And we're forgetting what the rest of the UK provides Scotland. Scotland would have suffered horribly had it been independent in 2008, probably worse than Ireland as Scotland was even more over-banked than was Ireland in 2007. Bigger economies can sustain deficits and have internationally-traded currencies have virtually unlimited chequebooks in a crisis. Sterling is an internationally-traded currency. Small countries don't have this advantage. And the UK is not a small country by any measure. We (together) have the 6th (or so...) largest economy on earth, the world's third most powerful military with global reach, aircraft carriers (and planes too in three years' time...) and nuclear weapons. That is a lot of insurance against unknown future threats. Small countries aren't richer or poorer than large ones, but they are more volatile and less able to defend themselves against the likes of Putin or assert influence in the great councils of the world. Scots benefit from the UK's heft.

Do you really think anyone in Brussels will care what Scotland, a nation of 5 million people, thinks? Denmark and Ireland have little influence, and the Experience of Ireland shows just how far from decision making the needs of peripheral economies are to the EU project. Scotland's economy will not be aligned to the core, as Denmark's is. It will be aligned to the UK, as Ireland's is. And Scotland's concerns will not matter. The EU power-brokers DO, on the other hand care what the UK thinks, even if the UK is a "surly lodger", to purloin Salmond's phrase, who has eschewed the Euro, it is a major one at least equal to France.

Scots though they desire to have no influence in the EU, have been told they have no influence in the UK. That's palpable, hairy bollocks, swinging under a kilt. Blair and Brown owe all but their 1997 majority to Scottish MPs. The last PM was a Scot. And the current one has Scottish Family. And Blair was educated in Scotland too. It's about "running your own affairs" you say? But you want to participate fully (uncritically, with little influence) in the EU. Is that not hypocrisy? And in any case, you have significant, and soon to be total, devolution of health, education, some taxation and social policy. Scots are over-represented in Westminster. Scots ALREADY run their own affairs. And I hear a lot of Scottish burrs at the top of politics, business, media out of all proportion to the population. It was a Scottish king who took the English crown and Scots have been running Britain rather well ever since.

Who, elsewhere in the world favours Scottish independence? Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin. That's about it. For the Union, we have Barak Obama, the EU, NATO, the OECD.... (has anyone asked the Pope or the Dalai Lama?) The practical part of me thinks independence and a 'yes' vote would throw out all the benefits of being part of the UK, at enormous long-term cost, and for few additional benefits. The last thing the world needs is another Border, or indeed a smaller, weaker United Kingdom.

But that's not what this referendum is about. It's about the emotional appeal to the Scottish soul. Are you Scottish? Are you British? How much of each? There are an enormous number of us in the UK who are British and English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish (not to mention Australian, Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Nigerian...) too. "British" is an inclusive identity, and as a result Britain greater by far than the sum of its parts. And for many of us, a 'Yes' vote would feel like having a limb sliced off. Think about your family and friends down south. Think about your future in a deeply uncertain world. Think about the collective strength of the nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Think about how desperately sad many people who love Scotland both in Scotland and elsewhere, would feel if you vote for independence. Vote with your head, AND your heart, to stay Scottish within a great and powerful United Kingdom.

Vote No.



Sunday, 14 September 2014

On Representative Democracy

An individual is generally a pretty competent judge of his or her interests. We are pretty efficient at judging what's best for friends and family too. And in certain cases, distributed decision-making is better than individuals, because a market price for example is the distilled wisdom of everyone's knowledge. But democratic decision making is not like this. The questions asked are usually binary, but about issues that aren't binary. Neither of the propositions makes any sense. Scotland's independence referendum, or the referendum UKIP and Tory loons wanted so, so badly on the EU, but about which they are getting cold feet because they know they'll lose.


Many Tories, and libertarians, like Douglas Carswell are attracted direct democracy, attracted by the idea of the wisdom of crowds. But they don't take into account the extent to which the processes of such direct democracy tend to be in practice controlled by party machines, for whom politics is a profession, the art of the possible.

the route campaigns have taken over the years is 1) persuade a major party to discuss, then adopt a proposal 2) consider exactly what legislation would be necessary to get a proposal into law 3) find time in the legislative programme not taken up by rubber stamping minutiae, to get it through both houses of parliament. Because the demands are vague, everyone "passionately caring" about a given issue will have their own patchwork of loyalties and only sometimes will even complete acceptance of a group's demands induce satisfaction.

The route now is to take up the anti-establishment cudgels, and demand politicians do 1, 2 and 3, immediately. There's little engagement with the process which enables ideas to become legislation. This is the motive behind the rise of anti-establishment parties - and UKIP and the SNP use similar tactics. First play on people's sense of entitlement. We live in a market economy in which everyone expects their demands to be met, and do not consider what is possible. This creates a sense of grievance. This is then exploited by expert demagogues who direct it at some 'other'. UKIP have the EU, the SNP have cleverly turned the vicious anti-English hatred which burns in the hearts of many Scots into 'anti-Westminster' sentiment. 

Having persuaded the people an amorphous THEY is doing every bad thing to YOU, the Farage/Salmond present a simple solution, independence from THEM will enable YOU to realise your dreams. The people are persuaded, by this simple manipulation to equate THEM with everything bad, and the achievement of getting rid of THEM will create nirvarna. It's a simple, attractive message, but ultimately guarantees dissapointment. No-one's thinking about steps 2 & 3 and is unwilling to do the work. This school of demagoguery is also practiced by Labour: the rich, the bankers, the fat cats who're profiteering at your expense. The Tories are guilty of holding benefits recipients to account for the deficit.

The problem is one of unreasonable expectations of an electorate which wants a government which does everything, but is unwilling to pay the necessary taxes. Just as the electorate expects democracy to work like a consumer business, they expect government services to do so. And here, the kind of solutions which are applicable through politics are not as efficient as those of the market. But with a single-funder, the market is unlikely to arise organically for healthcare services, so politicians still have a role in sorting out how the market should operate. Successfully in the example of utilities (fancy arguing I'm wrong, don't bother, I'll delete your comment) less so in the example of rail. But there is no doubt market solutions work better than state dirigisme, because of the wisdom of crowds.

Unlike market solutions, political solutions are manipulated by political parties into two competing sub-optimal camps, from which people must choose a mix of things they like and things they don't. This is not a subtle decision-making and resource allocating process, and given the toxic iconoclasm pervading politics at the moment, it's a recipe for disaster.

The solution isn't more veto points, more layers of government all coming up with sub-optimal solutions to problems that may or may not be best out of government control. The solution is to devolve more power to individuals, whose decision-making process is not political. Decisions should be moved to the appropriate level of government. Usually this will mean moving it down.

Ultimately government should be made up of people to whom we outsource the management of dreary tasks like road-building, waste collection and dropping bombs on uncooperative foreigners. Because people aren't by and large traffic-engineers, waste logisticians or in the military, we are not qualified to comment, but we can offer oversight, voting out people whose judgement on these issues we trust no more. It's possible the Police and crime commissioners may become such a single-issue go-to for public concern. And in a representative democracy, they will have to learn to say 'no' to the electorate from time to time. Political processes cannot please all the people, all the time.

Ultimately the logic of devolution if it has any merit, ends up with individualism. And the best way for individuals to be able to balance the competing demands of modern life is for Government to get out of the way of his or her preferences through the action of markets. Government's role is to regulate and oversee those markets. It's difficult to see to what practical problem "leave the EU" or "Break up the UK" is a solution. But these are presented as solutions to people who don't understand what's wrong or how to fix it, and who frankly, have more important things to worry about, so we elect people to oversee the experts we hire to do the dirty work.

Constitutional change is political masturbation. It's enjoyable for political wonks to talk about. But the people the demagogues have enthused, UKIPpers and YES voters will feel let down when the thing they desire doesn't deliver their promised land. And a new bunch of political obsessives will find another issue to make political decision-making more opaque and less efficient when the solution is devolution of power to existing structures: local democracy and individual decision making through markets. The institutions of the UK work pretty well, and the unwritten constitution is remarkably flexible. There are structures which are best dealt with supranationally, nationally, regionally, locally and individually. Generally, decisions should be delegated down so 'devo-max' seems appropriate, but there's little need for big changes, just Government that's a bit smaller, more local, and less expensive. 

Politicians lie: governing parties lie by obfuscation because they can't reveal their impotence in the face of democratic checks and balances. But parties which invite to point blame on "them". Well we saw where that could lead 70 years ago.

If I was Scots (which I am, half, but no vote...) I'd still rather be part of a nation capable of putting a top-flight aircraft carrier or two to sea. And little England will find much less influence outside the EU than in. We cant escape the trade rules. I may be a libertarian in wanting people, not politicians to have power. That's not in UKIP or the SNPs offer. I am also a conservative. I see no reason to make radical changes to solve problems that barely exist.



Friday, 29 August 2014

Douglas Carswell, Direct Democracy and the Clacton By-Election.

When Quentin Davis defected to Gordon Brown's Labour party in 2007, Matthew Paris remarked "when a Tory crosses the floor to Labour, the Average IQ of both parties goes up..." which is one of the most deliciously bitchy political insults of all time. Few called for a by-election. You had an opposition struggling for unity, facing a dying administration. The defectors, back-stabbing, politicking and so forth, like in the dying days of Major's administration, is part of the theatre of politics. And vital to its function.

Defecting to another party not in a governing coalition or vice versa is called 'crossing the floor' and is also an important way by which the legislature (parliament and especially the commons) can hold the executive (the Government and its payroll vote) to account. If the executive cannot command a majority for at least 'confidence and supply' in the commons, you MUST call a general election. By leaving the Government over issues like the corn laws, or Europe, or civil liberties, you can prevent the Government enacting its program. You're sending the strongest possible signal to your party's leadership. And if it's well timed, or comes in a large group, you can bring down a Government.

Or in Quentin Davis' case, you can leap aboard a burning ship right at the moment a torpedo slams into the magazine, to the sound of Guffaws of "good riddance, you silly prat" from one's former colleagues.

Which brings me to Carswell. If he had decided to stay in the commons, he would be able to support the Government in bringing the law calling for a 2017 EU referendum through parliament. He could have continued to support the government in rolling back some of the civil liberties that were taken by the Labour party in its 13 years of goose-stepping intolerance. He would have been able to do this as a UKIP member with a confidence and supply agreement with the coalition from the opposition benches. Much like the Ulster Unionists in 1995-7.

Instead he's decided to take the Manor of Northstead (MPs can't actually resign, they have to be sacked and the means by which this happens is to take a paid office of the crown incompatible with a sitting MP), and so trigger a by-election. This seems likely to set a precedent, and everyone's applauding him for it. But if this becomes a convention that crossing the floor triggers a by-election, the executive will be significantly strengthened at the expense of the legislature, and this is not what Carswell claims to want at all.

"But it's Democratic" people will say. "They elected a Tory, and a Tory they should have". But we live in a representative democracy. Carswell is strongly in favour of direct democracy, so be clear, I am not accusing him of hypocrisy, just counter productive stupidity. For when an MP crosses the floor in a safe seat in future, the Governing party will be able to parachute a loyal apparatchik into the seat, and use the party machine to ensure victory. If a a sitting MP in a marginal constituency goes, electoral considerations, rather than the role of holding the Government to account come to the fore when deciding what to do on policy and law-making.

Carswell is strongly in favour of the right of recall too, which suggests a very different conception of the role of an MP to mine. Indeed, it is this issue that caused him to jump ship, not "Europe", as much of the media will have you believe. I think we elect people of character to scrutinise legislation, and if necessary, kick up a stink, while trusting the electorate to judge him in the whole, every 4-5 years or so. Carswell thinks an MPs job is to reflect the brute and unexamined opinions of his electorate, and pander to their prejudices, which is why he voted against gay marriage (Which is also why I suspect this has been long-planned to occur up at a time to cause maximum damage to Cameron and conservative electoral chances). The state shouldn't control our lives, but to the extent it does, it should be more than mob rule, which is why I am only half in favour of more direct democracy. Unfortunately, UKIP is all about mob rule, a bunch of pitchfork-wielding ignoramuses who neither know nor care what makes the world turn, or why.

The Tories will throw the kitchen sink at Clacton, and will probably be able to win (update: I no longer think the Tories will win, thanks to Lord Ashcrofts polling - when the facts change....), as local Tories are highly pissed off, and electorates don't reward turncoats. The Tories will be able to mobilise an Anti-UKIP vote from Liberal and even Labour supporters as they did in Newark. I suspect he'll look at the morons, bigots and buffoons ranting away with the certainty that only the truly mediocre mind can generate, and realise that he's thrown away a seat at the top table and the chance to influence policy and drag the centre ground his way, for what? The leadership of a party which will never amount to anything, and which is the principle obstacle in the way of its own stated main aim. Carswell may just regret yesterday for the rest of his life.

But given UKIP is far more comfortable with the idiot certainties of opposition than in having a genuine platform for government, he may just fit right in.




Thursday, 28 August 2014

On Social Mobility and "Who Runs Britain"?

There's a report from Alan Milburn's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which suggests, amongst other things, companies should publish social mobility audits, revealing how many privately educated employees they have. This offensive, ridiculous, illiberal, and counterproductive proposal undermines the sweetcorn of truth which does exist in the report, from amongst the turd of Alan-Milburn's chippiness. This report fails to illuminate because it's asking the wrong questions.

Britain is not unique. We are middling in terms of inequality in the EU, but near the top in the extent to which your parents' income predicts ones own, which is being taken as a proxy for social mobility. The report then spends many pages talking about public schools and Oxbridge. Inequality isn't about the 7% at the top, but about the 15% at the bottom, trapped on welfare. Do something for them, and Britain's social mobility and inequality will look a lot better.

Oxford and Cambridge exist to select the very best students, and then give them the very best education. I would be surprised if Oxford and Cambridge universities (and the wider Russell Group, I attended Edinburgh) didn't provide the vast majority of leaders across a number of fields. It is after all what they are there to do. For Milburn to imagine becoming a FTSE 100 CEO is more about who you met than a consistent track record of success in exams, University and Business, is being disingenuous.

Likewise the 7% of people who go to public (mostly boarding) school have many advantages, so it would be surprising if they didn't also form a disproportionate part of the elite, not least in access to Oxford and Cambridge. This is true in all rich-world democracies. My parents weren't rich, but they made enormous sacrifices to send me and my Brother to a boarding school and they did so because the skills and experience I would receive would be worth their sacrifices. It's not just technical or academic, many of these are soft skills.

If you start boarding at 13, you effectively leave home and you're forced to mature faster. You have to go through puberty in the company of peers, with nowhere to hide. You learn to keep private, while being in public. You have to be a diplomat to survive. This generates a robustness of character, but also a certain tolerance. You often share a room, so you need to learn to negotiate with people you may not like much. There is little privacy, so learn how to keep yourself to yourself, even when around others. You talk more, to a wider range of people than people who go home to parents most evenings. Every meal is social. These skills carry through into later life, as the ability to network, be polite, diplomatic, charming and confident.

The additional pastoral care in a public school enables easier focus on extra-curricular activities such as sport or music, developing the whole person. The communal living is in particular an excellent preparation for a military life, so it is unsurprising that Public schoolboys still make up a disproportionate number of the Officer corps of the British army*.

At the top end of the Arts, Sport and Music - remember these are 'tournament' professions: the winner takes it all. And often, the also-rans get next to nothing. Is it surprising that people with rich parents feel more willing to take the risk of chasing a dream of a life on the stage? Is it surprising that schools with extensive and varied sporting facilities (Eton's boating lake was an Olympic venue, for example) produce lots of sportsmen? Is it surprising that schools with extensive music facilities, with access to them late into the evening, and very little else to do, often produces musicians? An aspiring musician in a boarding school will find it a lot easier to recruit bandmates than at a comprehensive where the bandmate might live 5 miles away, rather than down the corridor. Many of the co-incident advantages advantages shared with "middle-class" parents in the state sector: wealth, a home full of books, parents committed enough to put commit their income into education (private school, or after school tutoring), heath and wealth. Imagining this to be discriminatory behaviour by an old-school tie is just fanciful.

Instead of imagining why 7% of the population provide 62% of senior Army officers, ask why 88% of state educated pupils aren't better represented, and what can be done to encourage them to apply for Oxbridge, Sandhurst or RADA. Instead of assuming a discriminatory "old boy's club" ask whether there is anything the state sector can learn from the Public Schools in preparing pupils for excellence. This is the point of the academy and free schools programs: to open the state sector to new ideas, and free them from the dead hand of the Local Authority, (and by extension the dreadful teaching unions and their dogma). Many public schools are opening up academies, and offering scholarships to the brightest and best of their intake.

Instead of imagining talent is evenly distributed, ensure opportunity is. Labour closed many routes of access to an excellent education to poor students, not least the assisted places scheme, which supported access to the best education for bright children of low-income parents. Instead of assuming "elitism" to be a bad thing, revel in the fact that Trinity College, Cambridge has more Nobel Prizes than France, and some of those are tales of social mobility. Elitism works, if the groundwork is there. Why are public schoolboys so confident? What can be done to encourage able state pupils to believe they can make it, rather than succumb to the "soft bigotry of low expectations". Unfortunately, some of the state sector is failing, but Alan Milburn is asking the wrong questions, because he's already decided upon the answer.

*Though it is a marker of the increased professionalism and calibre of the Army these days that privately educated people are joining the ranks in ever greater numbers too.



Monday, 11 August 2014

Why our Leaders are Pygmies.

It's simple: Nothing I've seen of the leadership of the UK suggests the calibre of people is any better or worse than in previous ages. It's just the issues they're dealing with are smaller, and the scrutiny they face is much more immediate, superficial, and lacking the culture of deference from previous ages. In the past, politicians got the benefit of the doubt. Whether the people agreed with them, there was an assumption they were in it for the right reasons. Now the assumption is "they're all in it for themselves". They aren't.

Maggie Thatcher faced down the Soviet Union. David Cameron enjoys no enemy which unites the nation behind him, in part because we won, but also because half the population has decided we're "small" and therefore shouldn't try to intervene, anywhere, ever. The UK remains one of only three countries whose militaries have Global reach, but you wouldn't believe it if you read the comment sections of papers.

The Politicians haven't changed. The people have - and we've become nihilistic, cynical and pessimistic, small-minded, insular, cowardly and prone to seeking information confirming, not challenging our prejudices.

Politicians could help themselves by not pandering to nannying fussbucketry, minimum pricing for alcohol, the font on a packet of fags, and the content of school meals, which are absolutely not the proper function of Government, and which make them look small and petty. "Render unto Caesar..." works both ways. If the politicians were to leave us alone for a bit, they might regain respect.



Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Conversation about Drugs with some Policemen.

I had a (social) conversation with some people who worked for Dibble at the weekend. Some were world-weary cynical beat officers, who ultimately agreed with me. The younger warranted officers, and those civilians (I hate it when the filth use that word) working for organisations like the Serious and Organised Crime Agency did not. The question was the war on Drugs, and for a couple of my friends, it is axiomatic that we need to start imprisoning people who take drugs as well as those who sell them - "like Singapore", they said. One said "like Mao". Scratch a policeman, you find a fascist who believes in the state's right to make decisions for you. At least until they reach 40 and realise the futility of this approach in what is still, despite the Police's best efforts, still a free society. My friend who wants to execute heroin addicts, is also a keen proponent of arming the police...

Let's start with an assumption: We want to live in a free society. It would be possible to meaningfully interdict supply of narcotics and to discourage use with draconian law-enforcement, but to do so would be utterly incompatible with that free society.

From that flows the observation that we, as a society are unwilling to interdict supply of narcotics - the cost in lost trade, in law enforcement effort, in disruption to innocent people's privacy and so forth are too high. We cannot therefore meaningfully interdict supply.

The result of this is that the trade in narcotics goes on. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, the profits of which fund organised crime, and which has poor customer service and lousy quality control. Manky, shared syringes and less than sterile smack lead to infections and that cadaverous heroin pallor. Cocaine is often cut with other stimulants, sugars, novocaine and cow-dewormer, which weakens the immune system. The problems stemming from this are due entirely to the illegal supply chain and would be mitigated by legalisation.

Gangs fighting over profits bring violence and death to the streets. This too is a problem of the criminal supply-chain and would be mitigated by legalisation. Acquisitive crime by users to fund their habit would be mitigated by a legal and controlled (and possibly medicalised for genuine addicts) supply chain.

The logic of prohibition stems from the observation that even pure Cocaine and Heroin are really bad for you, habit-forming and have potentially catastrophic effects on people's lives, and should therefore be banned. The logical leap made in this reasoning is undone by the first assumption made in this piece. WE CANNOT MEANINGFULLY INTERDICT SUPPLY IN A FREE SOCIETY. Access to booze is more controlled than is the access to drugs, which are freely available once you have a dealer's number. Dealers don't care whether you're 18, have a real problem controlling your intake, or are otherwise vulnerable, so long as you have the cash, of which, incidentally they care not its source.

People have always used psychopharmacological substances wherever they're found, from Reindeer piss containing extract of Amanatia Muscaria to hemp, tobacco booze psilocybin mushrooms and coca, to get high. Even in the UK, anyone who wants illegal drugs can get them, whenever they want. So it doesn't necessarily follow that there would be more users with a legal supply chain. And those who did use, would be using better, cleaner product with fewer side effects, and not enriching criminals while doing so. Indeed Marijuana, a drug with few social side effects would often be a substitute for alcohol leading to less violence in taxi-ranks at 3-am. So too the "party drugs" would mean less blood and vomit on the streets as the loved-up do less pagga than the pissed-up.

As for Heroin, it seems obvious to me that legalisation would reduce dependence: currently the Smack supply chain is a pyramid scheme - low level dealers do so to fund their supply, and so recruit their mates. No-one sets out to be a junkie, but many fall into it. Fewer would if other drugs were freely available. The explosion of problem heroin users happened AFTER the drug was made illegal. Before, Morphine addiction was known as the Soldiers' disease as most picked up their habit in hospitals.

Ultimately a fully legal recreational pharmacy would probably see heroin and alcohol substituted for marijuana and cocaine. Two chemicals with low lethal doses will be substituted for two substances in the short term at least, it's impossible to overdose to death. And instead of funding an army of Police and customs officials, and wasting scarce military resources on impoverishing Andean and Afghan farmers, we can tax the most profitable trade the world has ever known.

There are simply no sane arguments for continued prohibition of narcotic drugs, something even most police officers eventually work out.



Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Iron Curtain

For my generation, growing up, the Cold war was a fact. There was "us": the Americans, and the Atlantic Alliance, and there were the Soviets. And there was a line through Europe that was called the Iron Curtain.

I was born in 1977. I remember the Gerontocrats of the Soviet Union dying off. Breznhev, Andropov and Chernenko. I mainly remember it in the form of a Spitting Image skit, in which a queue of elderly men on gurneys with drips in, waiting their turn to be soviet leader. I remember my Father's plan for WW3, which given we lived close to the Radio masts used to control Britain's Polaris, later, Trident fleet, was to grab the best brandy and whatever wine we thought suitable from the Cellar, go to the top of Honey Hill, and watch the fireworks.

Then, As a young teenager, I remember the Berlin Wall coming down, and feeling optimistic about the world. We, the free west, had defeated tyranny. Again. This was a time of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history", in which a liberal, free-market democracy became the universal form of Government.

Buoyed by confidence of the times, I remember devouring the news of the first Gulf war. Having seen even their top-flight kit swept aside with contemptuous ease in the desert by the United States, UK, France and others, the Soviet Union had a crisis of will. Or rather the Crisis of will that was the logic of Gorbachev's Perestroika and Glasnost came to a head with the realisation that they no longer had conventional superiority in the European theatre. They'd long lost nuclear supremacy. It was over, the Soviet Empire crumbled, and their enslaved peoples of Central and Eastern Europe clamoured to be free. They joined NATO, and they Joined the EU. Thanks to the former they were safe from the Russians, and thanks to the latter they got rich and comfortable, From Estonia to the Black sea.

Finland shares an Iron Curtain Border with Russia, as do Lithuania and Poland (with Kaliningrad), but the rest of the Iron Curtain consists of undefended and unpoliced borders. Some people think the EU is useless, but it has entrenched and enforced democratic norms in central Europe, and set people free to move about Europe for trade and cultural exchange at will. While we need NATO to provide a credible defence against a wounded Russian Bear, it will be the EU's soft power that finally brings the conflict to a close.

Kiev will be an EU city within a decade. Putin will not last much longer as Russian leader, so completely has he flown the plane into the god-damn mountain. And whoever succeeds him will need to deliver prosperity to the Russian people. And the best way for a Russian leader to deliver prosperity will be closer economic co-operation with the rich countries to the West. Perhaps Francis Fukuyama was right, but just a bit early.

Some people think the world isn't getting better. What was the Iron Curtain, is now a cycle path.



Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Bicycle Helmet Compulsion

Whatever internet libertarians think, car use has externalities, and bicycle use doesn't. So it is a reasonable goal of Government to facilitate cycling especially for short journeys. Standing in the way of more people jumping on their bikes for short journeys (anything less than a mile, is usually quicker by bicycle than by car...), is the vexed issue of safety. The superficially obvious sticking plaster solution so beloved of nanny-stater is to ignore the crap road design and poor infrastructure for cyclists; turn a blind-eye to appalling motorist behaviour and attitudes and compel cyclists to wear helmets and high-visibility clothing, as if that would make a difference.

The evidence is clear. In New Zealand and Australia, compelling people to use cycle helmets did decrease cycling related head injuries, by about the same amount they reduced total cycling miles. So given positive externalities of substituting bicycle journeys for car journeys, society is poorer. Individuals are poorer too, since the evidence is clear that (for adults at least) cycling, even without a helmet, saves more people from heart disease than it kills under the wheels of motor-vehicles. Given there is some "safety in numbers" for cyclists, reducing the number of cyclists makes any given journey more dangerous for the cyclists that remain.

Even the motorist is worse off if there are fewer cyclists:  if short car journeys are substituted with Bicycle journeys: There's less congestion, especially around school run time, There's less competition for parking spaces, and given most congestion is in the queue at the lights, journey times fall.

The solution is to make the bicycle safe, and that means separating it from all but the slowest moving traffic, and where volumes of pedestrians and/or cyclists are high enough, cyclists should be separated from pedestrian traffic too. Unfortunately most infrastructure in the UK is tailor-made to create conflict. Most roads are too narrow for cars to pass cyclists safely, so frustrating (apparent - waiting behind a cyclist on an open road almost never delays a journey, you just catch up with the car in front a little later) delays are caused by cyclists on open roads, or the motorist is tempted into a dangerous and uncomfortable close passes. Most "cycle paths" are shared-use, and pedestrians do not often keep to "their" side of the path, leading to frustration and (apparent - cyclists whizzing past pedestrians are no-where near as dangerous as it appears to the pedestrian) danger.

Many idiots think cyclists are a significant danger to pedestrians. "One nearly knocked me over..." This is risible tospottery spouted mainly by the kind of contemptible wanker who thinks UKIP isn't a bunch of contemptible wankers.

The key is to get more people cycling, creating a virtuous circle where cycling infrastructure generates cyclists. This encourages councils to build more, which encourages more cyclists and so on. Everyone gets used to having cyclists about. Everyone is better off. There's less noise, congestion, stress, and people are healthier and better-looking. Forget gastric bands, prescribe cycling on the NHS for being a disgusting land-whale.

What helmet laws do, however, is put out the message that cycling is DANGEROUS. Parents don't let their kids do something that's so dangerous the Government has made protective equipment mandatory. Instead, kids are cocooned in a steel cage, until they get their own at 17. Secondly by criminalising occasional cyclists who just want to pop to the shops and don't have a cycle helmet, they never get on their bikes and so jump on the car. It also discourages short, urban journeys.

The reality is simple. Plastic hats aren't much cop in a serious collision. In any given crash, a Bicycle helmet helps in around 16% of cases (more in children, who have more low-speed, sideways tumbles, for which the design of cycle helmets is optimised. Because of the very specific tests helmets are subjet to, their benefit is greater at low speeds, and especially off road. But there is a flip-side: it is probable that bicycle helmets increase the likelihood of getting into a crash - both the motorist and cyclist engage in risk-compensating behaviour. Cyclists take more risks and go faster, motorists pass closer to helmeted cyclists. Even the fact that the helmets are bulky increases the risk of a collision.

The more upright the bike, the less you need a helmet. The sportier and faster your bike, and the rougher the terrain, the more you need a helmet. Think about what happens in a front wheel skid at speed at the bottom of a hill on a "dutch bike" with a basket, compared to a racing bicycle where the rider's weight is significantly borne by the hands. The latter ends up with the cyclist falling head first. The former lands on their feet.

Most of the assertions and statistics made in this post are peer reviewed, and can be found here.

In summary, There is little benefit to helmet use in urban utility cycling. In a collision with a motor-vehicle, a helmet is next-to-useless. In a crash not involving a motor vehicle helmets sometimes help. If you're likely to have the former, helmets don't matter, and the latter they might. It really should be up to the cyclist.

Helmets may help prevent injury, especially minor injury, in any given crash, but may, in some circumstances make serious crashes with motor vehicles (where helmets are not efficacious) more likely. The main effect of bicycle helmet compulsion, is fewer cyclists, an effect which dwarfs any other safety effect of such legislation. Encourage the use of cycle helmets, at least until the UK cycle infrastructure looks like the Netherlands', by all means, but don't pass a law making it compulsory. To compel helmet use is the single biggest thing a government can do to put back the cause of utility cycling.

If you want a take home you can tweet, here it is: If your bum is higher than your hands, wear a helmet, it might help in some crashes, but helmet law mainly reduces the number of cyclists.



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