Monthly Archives: June 2008

Liberalism and technocracy don’t mix

Oh dear. The cheerleaders for road user charging in the Lib Dems have decided to step up a gear. We will, no doubt, have another row about this at party conference in the autumn and Clegg will no doubt turn it into a vote of confidence issue and win (people who diss Labour MPs for meekly falling into line over their government on 42 days would do well to remember that our own party has a tendency to put the same party interests over principle). That doesn’t make him right though.

Can it really be more than 2 1/2 years since I last blogged about this subject? I don’t have too much to add. To an extent the privacy/civil liberties argument is a red herring, albeit an understandable one, in that it is entirely possible to develop a system and regulatory framework which would respect privacy and penalise infringers severely. The most obvious step would be to not store all the data in one place and not allow people to exchange it without permission from the user. There are pragmatic objections to this – the police and civil service would allow a system which genuinely respects privacy to go ahead over the mound of their collective dead bodies – but not especial principled ones.

My main objections are threefold: it would take bloody ages to introduce, it is an IT disaster waiting to happen and it falls foul of the unintended consequences law.

The first point is that we need to be taking action over climate change now. Looking towards theoretically perfect systems in the future is in this respect a waste of time. It is designed to take pressure of politicians in the short term on the basis there will be jam (or rather in this case a lack of jams) tomorrow. Don’t expect our message to be “punitive fuel taxes now” expect it to be “nice cuddly road charging tomorrow”. That in itself should be dismissed as political cowardice.

As an aside, I can but wonder why it is that we leap on proposals such as this, which will take the best part of a decade to introduce, yet the constant objection to having any specific policy on land value taxation at all is that it will take 1-2 parliamentary terms to introduce.

Secondly, governments don’t do IT systems awfully well. To be fair, old Ken Livingstone seemed to manage both the C-Charge and Oyster competently enough, which is why I gave him my second preference vote (pretty much the only reason why I gave him my second preference vote, for all the good it did either of us), but this system would be of a vastly bigger order of magnitude. We’re talking about a system in which either every single car in the country has to have GPS installed or where every single road in the country has to have CC-TV introduced. No halfway measures will do. How is this going to work? How is it going to be policed? How are we going to stop unregistered cars from driving around unhindered? We don’t seem to have any answers to these questions. On “rat running” the best we can come up with is “the technology chosen must allow for penalties to be enforced on drivers who ‘rat run’ in order to avoid payment,” which is another way of saying “we don’t have a bleedin’ clue how to solve this problem, but don’t pester us with details!”

Thirdly, unintended consequences. It is a fact, uncontestable, that this policy calls for a tax shift away from pollution and onto congestion. The unambiguous winners of this system will be people in rural areas who do a lot of driving on largely deserted roads. These people will be given every incentive to continue their polluting ways. Their tax burden will be taken up by urban motorists. This in itself seems remarkably unfair, but then I’m not a 60-something retiree living the life of Riley out in the sticks and driving a Mercedes, who this policy is surely targeted at.

The solution to congestion is not necessarily fewer cars on the road, but less bunching. This system, combined with increasingly sophisticated satnav systems, will certainly do that, but making it quicker and easier to get about by car is not going to discourage car use, but promote it. People are addicted to cars enough as it is – this will just make it harder to wean them off.

Fundamentally, what would road user charging achieve that a combination of fuel taxes, satnav and simpler (and thus harder to game) congestion charges in strategic areas won’t do more quickly, with less investment in infrastructure and without the civil liberty implications? Thus far I have yet to hear an answer to that.

The other, related policy measure is personal carbon credits which was doing the rounds last week. In this case I at least accept that the economics makes more sense and the civil liberty implications are less because it would actually be simpler to let the private sector manage the scheme. Once again however, it is hard to see why you need a big, complex technical solution when having companies buy the credits directly, passing the cost onto customers and having the government pass the revenue onto the population in the form of a citizens’ income would amount to about the same thing.

There is also the growing realisation that the global carbon trading scheme isn’t working as it should. That isn’t to say the system is doomed to failure, but until the current gaping loopholes have been filled and there has been a significant culture shift, talking about making the system personal is pie in the sky.

Generally speaking, if vastly complex IT systems are the solution, you are asking the wrong questions. Such systems are attractive to politicians because they know they sound green by talking about them in the full knowledge that they won’t be around if and when they are actually implemented. We don’t have enough time to put up with such vanity.

Do liberals hate Poles?

Yes, according to Daniel Kawczynski, who blames the “liberal elites” – and in particular the BBC – for increased attacks on Poles in the UK.

If there is a widespread vendetta by the BBC against Poles, presumably the Poles themselves are up in arms about it? Well, not on Polish Forums they’re not. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain are rather more exercised about the distinctly un-liberal Daily Mail (a paper which has lost no time in jumping on Kawczynski’s bandwagon), yet strangely Kawczynski doesn’t mention this fact.

Kawczynski’s speech doesn’t actually cite a single example of what his complaint is, merely assuring his Honorable Friends that “I have undertaken a study of BBC coverage of immigration” (where is it then? Can’t find it on his website) and that MPs “would be amazed at the amount of BBC coverage that focuses on white, Christian Poles because it is politically correct to do so.” When someone alleges something as grave as this using Parliamentary privilege as a shield yet can’t even come up with a single anecdote, it is only reasonable to view such allegations with contempt.

Over at Open House, Andy McSmith raises some other points which illustrate how bizarre, even sinister, Kawczynski’s comments are in other ways. The thing that struck me is that in his claim that “9 out of 10 immigrants are not Polish” he appears to be confusing the concept of “immigrant” with that of “member of an ethnic minority”. No-one denies that there are a lot of people with brown skin in this country. They have made a big impact on our society (in my view an overwhelmingly positive one). But the rise of Eastern European shops and workers is a recent phenomenon and that’s why it has been getting a lot of airtime of late. Surely the role of news is, well, news – not history?

The biggest joke is how Kawczynski blames all this on “political correctness”. How is calling for a bank holiday to celebrate a specific ethnic minority and alleging victim status not political correctness? There’s an interesting debate on PC over at Lib Dem Voice; I suggest he goes and reads it.

What interests me most about this incident (tangent alert!) is Kawcynski’s allegations about the “liberal elite”. I’ve been meaning to comment on the Well Known Fact that the BBC has a “liberal” bias for quite some time now. This claim has been accepted by a number of people including Andrew Marr. Marr’s comments are particularly interesting because in my view he gets close to the truth, but doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head:

The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.

I would not disagree that the Beeb has a cultural, urban middle class bias. What I quibble with is the inclusion of the word “liberal.” As an habitual Today Programme listener, what strikes me every morning is quite how similar the editorialising of John Humphries and James Naughtie is to the Daily Mail’s.

The Today Programme’s particular obsessions are with bird-watching, poetry, why young people today are so rude, house prices, shares, most sports except football and anything Saint Lynne of Truss happens to be banging on about at any given moment. None of these are particularly liberal, some of them teeter on the illiberal side of things, but all of them are unremittingly urban, middle class and middle aged obsessions. I simply can’t fathom how a channel that has as its main political interviewers Humphries, Andrew Neill and the Brothers Dimblebum can be described as “liberal” but it is undeniable that it has a certain middle class bias.

These same biases are prevalent within the Daily Mail as well. The fact that the Beeb has a tendency to veer between the worst excesses of the Mail and the Guardian suggests that politically it has probably got the balance right but culturally is failing woefully.

What does all this have to do with Daniel Kawczynski? Not a great deal, except to suggest how empty his attacks on the “liberal elite” really are. Meanwhile, I suggest everyone goes and reads what James Oates has to say about Poles and Ukranians.

Doctorin’ the Asylum

Interesting article here about the 1994 BBC serial Takin’ Over the Asylum starring David Tennant. Leaving aside the “before they were famous” anecdote and the interesting stuff about how mental health issues are portrayed in the media, what caught my attention was how the BBC is now cashing in on the fact that a bunch of fans put the serial up on YouTube. It is now available on Amazon, priced £12.98.

We’re always told how much piracy costs the entertainment industry. Given that in this case the reverse is clearly true, should “Catyuy” and “Midcirclenine” be expecting a cheque in the post?

42, Northern Ireland and Cameron’s non-leadership

Is it me or is there a link between the government’s (possibly premature, possibly not) triumphalism about winning round the Labour rebels over the Terrorism Bill and the latest political crisis in Northern Ireland?

For weeks now, it has been well known that the Brown government has been courting the DUP with a view to persuading them to back them on the 42 days vote. If Jacqui Smith really did manage to sweet talk her own rebels last night however, then the DUP just lost their bargaining position. Cue: Sinn Fein raising the stakes and Shaun Woodward calling for devolution to be “completed“.

Obviously the arrival of Peter Robinson almost certainly is a catalyst as well, but I can’t help but feel Labour would be doing more to avoid this particular row this week if it didn’t feel confident about the terrorism bill next week.

No doubt they have also been bolstered by a breakaway group of Tories, lead by Ann Widdecombe who are planning to support the government plans. Widdecombe’s call for the act to be subject to an annual vote recalls the nonsense of the old Prevention of Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act. Introduced by Roy Jenkins in 1974, this “temporary” measure was annually renewed until 2000 when Labour decided to drop the farce and make it permanent. That’s the problem with “temporary” security measures. You can always find “exceptional” reasons to keep them, politicians like to look tough by supporting them, and pretty soon they just become an accepted way of life.

Once again of course we appear to be looking at Cameron failing to hold discipline within his own ranks. If he calls for the vote on detention without charge to be a free vote, we know we’re really fucked. I’ve been saying this for years now, but letting your own backbenchers run rings around you like this is not leadership. I like to think that if this vote ends up being won by a small margin in which the Tory rebels are the decisive factor, the media might actually wake up to this, but I doubt it. Heaven help us if/when he becomes Prime Minister.

Finally, just a quick note to link to this letter which was published in the Guardian today. The Terrorism Bill is about a lot more than detention without charge but it looks like everything else will simply be waved through.

Tory calls to make maths “chic” badly miss the point

The value of mathematics cover (composite)Reform is an interesting think tank. They claim to be non-partisan and solely interested in the neutral pursuit of “a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity” yet in reality have a tendency to favour reforms which involve a reduced role for the state and are not at all surprisingly firmly on the Conservative end of the spectrum. Their token Labour and Lib Dem sponsors, Frank Field and Jeremy Browne respectively, do little to confound their reputation for having a rightward inclination.

All of which makes their latest publication all the more perplexing. I’ve read the press release and executive summary of The Value of Mathematics (PDF) and it seems a little confused. I’m not an educationalist and am not qualified to answer their criticisms of how maths is taught in school. What I can say is that with the best will in the world, Gordon Brown can hardly be blamed for it. So why all the smirking innuendo about “Gordian knots”? The legend of the Gordian Knot is not famed for is association with mathematics as far as I know (although I am grateful to wikipedia for leading me to this article, which hardly undermines my point), nor is mathematics teaching a particularly intractable problem. And is Alexander’s solution – effectively smash and grab – sound like the sort of solution that is really needed? Alexander didn’t cut the knot in order to make people free; he did it to rule the fucking world! The closer you look at it, the worse a metaphor it turns out to be.

Perhaps if Reform was more interested in Phrygia than Prada they would have appreciated this, but clearly knowledge isn’t actually something they have much time for, as this quote from Elizabeth Truss reveals:

“In today’s Britain it is acceptable to say that you can’t do maths, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn’t read. We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic.”

This quote highlights two conceptual fallacies within this report. The first is to equate the lack of people taking mathematics to an advanced level with innumeracy. Getting less than a C in GCSE maths doesn’t make you innumerate and more than getting less than a C in English makes you illiterate. It is a crucial distinction if the problem you purport to be identifying is a lack of scientists, engineers and statisticians rather than the poor quality of supermarket cashiers.

If the problem is the latter, and in fairness it should be pointed out that the report does briefly reflect on this (albeit it only to the extent that it quotes one of those surveys where businesses get the chance to whinge with no actual empirical data to back it up) then you have to take a number of remedial steps. That lead to the sort of policies Labour came out with in the late nineties. Fundamentally, it is a primary education issue more than it is a secondary education issue. Improving maths GCSE is a bit of an irrelevance in this respect.

That isn’t the problem that the report is mainly concerned with however, and it is highly doubtful that the UK would be a happier, more prosperous place if every person in the street could do complex algebra. Indeed, it could be argued that we would be better off if fewer people were doing maths at Key Stage 4. If there is a problem, it appears to lie in the fact that people who are good at maths are not fulfilling their potential and that there is a general cultural problem where intelligence is undervalued in a society obsessed with image and bling.

This leads me directly to the other conceptual problem. What’s all this guff about transforming maths from “geek” to “chic” (the report repeats this phrase throughout)? My favourite line in the report has to be this:

The many people who enjoy Sudoku, logic problems and computer games highlight the considerable potential interest in mathematics.

No it doesn’t. At all. Whether the two are linked is another matter, but interest in computer games has risen at an inverse proportion to interest in mathematics. Neither them, nor Sudoku and other logic problems are about maths at all, any more than crosswords and cinema are about English literature. None of them are “chic” – all of them are “geek” – yet they’re still popular. Doesn’t that suggest they just aren’t getting it?

Will our problems really be solved if only they talked about Pythagorean equations in Sex and the City with the same enthusiasm that they talk about handbags? Maths has always been “geek” and always will. Trying to fool kids into thinking it is somehow hip and happening isn’t going to solve anything. The problem isn’t Stephen Hawking and the solution most definitely isn’t Victoria Beckham.

Chic is the problem; in a world which celebrates superficiality and shallowness any vocation which requires a bit of brain power is going to struggle. Maybe if people like Elizabeth Truss, a Cameroon A-lister, weren’t so down on “geek”, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

I’m sorry to bang home the point, but it does suggest an inherent confusion. You simply cannot with one hand dismiss attempts to make maths “relevant” while calling for it to be made “chic” with the other. To do so is utterly fatuous.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if, despite this being one of the paper’s main conclusions, they actually spelt out how this would be achieved. On substance however, the only thing the paper is willing to say about how to make maths “chic” is to have more “rigour” and more things like the UK Maths Challenge. They call for less state control while simultaneously demanding that the government “steps in” to halt the “current inexorable drift” towards modularising maths GCSE. All of this sounds like more state control to me, not less.

This is the other problem with the paper; in calling for less state control, it lacks the courage of its convictions. Outside of the Department for Children, Schools and Families I don’t think anyone fails to recognise that “teaching to the test” is doing anything but harm. But at the same time, they can’t help having a pop at “the misguided trend towards ‘progressive’ teaching.” But you can’t have it both ways. It wasn’t Thatcher who insisted on “progressive” maths teaching in the early 80s, it was the teaching profession. It is my experience that in areas such as the national curriculum, politicians tend to defer authority to civil servants and “experts” with remarkable consistency regardless of political ideology. It is those “progressive” experts who seem to be behind the “inexorable drift” that they are so opposed to. And if we are all to be much freer in choosing which schools our kids go to, a great many of us are likely to opt for ones with “progressive” attitudes.

The answer to that, surely, is that enabling greater experimentation will mean that best practice can evolve organically. No-one should be under any illusions however that giving teachers more power over their own jobs, and parents’ more power over where to send their kids to school is going to magically result in better teaching automatically. Nor are parents or even teachers going to put the interests of the national economy at their top priority. Many parents will pick schools on the basis of what religious ethos (or lack thereof) they adhere to. Many will opt for ultra-progressive education methods such as Summerhill‘s. China does a great job at hothousing mathematicians, yet somehow I suspect Reform would have issues with their education system.

There’s actually very little in this report which is about less control; merely bad teaching. That’s fine, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t conflate the one with the other. Liberalising education is a big, radical step. Pretending that doing so will lead to all schools adopting the same teaching methods is a fantasy. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Yet this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Conservatives equate less state control with a rejection of “progressive” education and the problem they identify stemmed from the Thatcher and Major administration. Both these facts cast significant doubt over whether Tories really do get liberalisation.

Government certainly must share some of the blame, but it is important not to ignore the wider social pressures. Learning has always been uncool and it is foolish to pretend you can somehow make it so. A celebrity and vanity-obsessed culture is always going to under-value science and mathematics and any look at maths teaching in this country needs to reflect on that. Yet of course it is those cultural values that Cameron, and Blair before him, has capitalised on. After the London elections we now know what a real electoral force those values can be. So it is hardly surprising that a Cameroon report of this type is going to present those trends as a solution rather than a problem, no matter how foolish this appears to be.

Has Labour got two Balls?

Is it me or is there a disconnect between Ed Balls, the stalwart defender of playgrounds and opponent of compo culture, who two months ago was saying this:

“If you don’t want to do something a bit risky, too often people say ‘we can’t do that because of health and safety’.

“It is the risk aversion in some cases which stops things happening which I want to tackle head on,” he said.

The Government’s consultation paper says: “We need to work together as a society to create popular attitudes that embrace children in public space and challenge inappropriate ‘No Ball Games’ cultures.

“This means adults being willing to share public space with children and understand that play can, at times, test boundaries.”

And the killjoy who today was saying this:

“Tougher enforcement powers are needed to tackle under-age binge drinking, but enforcement measures alone are not the solution. We need a culture change, with everyone – from parents, the alcohol industry and young people – all taking more responsibility.”

You could argue I’m being unfair and comparing apples with oranges, but I do wonder. We’ve had ten years of this approach, providing people with more advice while making the law even more draconian at the same time. It doesn’t appear to have helped. It does appear to have gone hand in hand with a rise in anxiety about this issue.

Why do we need screeds of new health advice about safe alcohol limits? It isn’t as if young people are unaware that if they get drunk they lose the full use of their faculties; that’s kind of why they do it in the first place. And parents will either be the relatively responsible type who teach their kids how to drink socially, or the type who aren’t going to be interested in a leaflet giving them advice in the first place. What next? Parenting lessons?

It seems to me that youth binge drinking isn’t a problem in and of itself, it is a symptom. On the one hand you have a lack of facilities, meaning that kids have literally nothing else to do. On the other hand, increased hysteria about youth drinking has meant that instead of experimenting with alcohol in the relative safety of their local, they are doing their experimenting in either vast impersonal drinking halls (if they can afford it) or, more likely, downing Diamond White while sitting around in those playgrounds that Balls is so keen on.

The fact is, those sneaky night time park binges are as much a part of childhood as falling off climbing frames. The same anxiety that leads councils to closing down playgrounds is behind the current anxiety about youths drinking. Even if we had the best youth service in the world, generations of young people will go through that period in their lives. To use Balls’ own language, it is all about “testing boundaries”. Along with all other kinds of so-called anti-social behaviour, the main impact of turning naughtiness into a criminal offence has been to allow adults to excuse themselves of any responsibility for it. The result has been, young people are testing boundaries only to discover those boundaries growing ever larger.

Labour can’t really afford to have both Balls at the same time. To be fair on the man, he has previously expressed scepticism about the whole Blairite approach to anti-social behaviour in the past. His announcement today though just sounds like more of the same.

Government plan for cig crackdown is too weak

The government’s plan to make it even more difficult to market and sell cigarettes doesn’t go anything like far enough. Personally I think they need to do something serious, such as ban the word “cigarette” which sounds far too innocuous, even friendly. Surely “paper based tobacco smoke inhalation system” would be a better term? We could start by banning the term cigarette on the packets themselves and then reach out to TV, the press and eventually the internet. Pretty soon we could be issuing fines to people for even saying the word out loud in the street.

Some people might object that this all sounds a bit too draconian, but what about the children? And it’s not like I’m actually talking about banning the things, that would be illiberal.

Taking a stand

The new Standpoint magazine has made a great play of its plan to “defend and celebrate Western civilisation”, but how can a magazine do that? I suppose you could roll it up and bop anyone with brown skin on the nose but surely the Telegraph has served that purpose for decades and has the added advantage of having greater reach due to its broadsheet size? Will it come with retractable spikes?