It’s Christmas time…

Well, it’s been quite a year. The blog has transmogrified from The Still-Jobless Blog to its current more optimistic form, and I can only hope that it doesn’t back-slide as the Coalition’s spending cuts really start to take hold – amid the depressing knowledge that as yet they haven’t really even begun.

But now is no time for being maudlin. I’m a sucker for Christmas, both because of its significance for my faith, and because of its sentimental associations with my happy childhood. Well, happy most of the time, and as happy as it’s possible for someone afraid of their own shadow to be!

With my hopes rising for a reasonably decent journey to France tomorrow (and surely I’ve paid my penance to the irate gods of motorway havoc through my icy imprisonment on Saturday night) I’m looking forward to rest, recuperation, and a rigorous approach to eating and drinking.

But not before another equally icy penance is paid in this beautiful church (that regular readers will know was the venue for our wedding) during Midnight Mass – when faith is tested as much by one’s willingness to flirt with hypothermia as it is by any doctrinal inquisition.

So “Happy Christmas”, and a lovely Winterval to the allergic atheists amongst you, and may blessings from whatever source you prefer to receive them shower you with peace and love this festive season.

And of course, thank you for supporting my blog all year, for your perceptive comments, and, I hope, for your continued visits in the New Year!

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Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

Vince Cable’s political judgement has been cruelly exposed as non-existent over the way in which he has now smoothed Mr Murdoch’s path to total ownership of BSkyB: it’s hard to imagine a more extravagant example of shooting oneself in the foot. To make easier a result you have publicly (however unintentionally) declared yourself to be determined to avoid is more than cack-handed – it’s disastrous.

And yet, of course, this political ineptitude has its roots elsewhere altogether. Mr Cable’s downfall is not ultimately political, but personal. It is his vanity, and the ease with which he was duped into displaying it, which is his real and most unattractive failing. It is almost breath-taking: posturing about his personal “nuclear option”; declaring his personal “war on Mr Murdoch”. All this self-importance, this puffing up of his own centrality to everything, this claim to be a one-man-band of political power, this self-idolatry: these are the fundamental flaws which have landed him in the richly deserved mess in which he now finds himself. There are also suggestions of other kinds of vanity at work here, as apparently the fake female constituents indulged in some eyelash-fluttering. I leave it to “the ladies” to reflect on just what level of self-deception might have been required for Mr Cable to see himself as a Lothario.

Of course it is tempting – and a temptation far too often indulged – to see these personal failings only in those with whom one is not in sympathy, whilst being much more lenient with those one, for other reasons, perhaps admires. So I have no hesitation in finding the same self-aggrandising faults (save, I assume, the Lothario bit) in the blogger Penny Red (Laurie Penny). Her breathless recounting of how her tweeting from the students’ demonstrations set in train an almost revolutionary series of events culminating in a new political awareness amongst the young, including such ripe self-congratulation as, “Within seconds, I had pulled out my phone to tweet about what I had seen; within minutes, the backlash had begun as outraged citizens all over the country found supporting evidence of the assault and let each other know what had happened. By the time I arrived home, bloody and bruised from further police violence, the assault on Jody had made the national press” has all the hallmarks of Mr Cable at his vain-glorious best.

Whenever I read, or hear, anyone – whether I agree with their stance on the pertinent issues or not – declaiming their personal part in some wider political process in this kind of way, I make a mental note: pride first; fall later.

Serves you right! Next time listen to us

On Saturday evening I had a restaurant table booked in London for me, my wife, and two dear friends whom we don’t see as often as we’d like. It had been arranged several weeks ago, and I was looking forward to it mightily.

When I awoke in Manchester on the appointed morning I found that a good six inches of snow had fallen during the night. The radio told me that thousands of drivers had been trapped on the north-bound M6 overnight, and that travel was chaotic in many places. However, the forecast for the North-West was dry, although there was some snow forecast for Southern England later in the day. What to do? My journey from Manchester to West London normally takes me a shade over 3 hours. So I decided to leave at 10am, leaving me, say, a good seven hours to get back, allowing for a quick shower and change and a tube to Central London in time for our table.

Not content with that calculation alone, I checked the Highways Agency website constantly up to the point of departure. It assured me that the M60, the M6, the M42, and the M40 were all flowing freely. I felt that there was no need to cancel my dinner to everyone’s disappointment, most particularly my own, since the only possible fly in my travelling ointment was snow near London later in the afternoon. But I should be home shortly after 1pm, 2pm at the latest. My biggest worry was about whether when the snow came “later in the afternoon” it would disrupt the Central Line on which we depended to get to the restaurant. As I made my final preparations for my 10am exit, I heard a Highways Agency representative on the radio advising motorists against all but essential travel. This seemed at odds with the more complacent advice on the agency’s website, but in any case, what exactly is essential travel? Is a long organised and cherished assignation with good friends an essential purpose? Or is that only the case if you’re perhaps acting as courier for a liquid nitrogen cooled liver for the use of a reformed alcoholic?

I got to Birmingham by just before midday, which was pretty much what I would have expected. The M60 where, don’t forget, there was 6 inches of lying snow in the car-park of my block of flats but 20 metres from the motorway, was entirely clear. All three lanes looked as if there’d been nothing more than a passing shower. The same was true of the M6. I was feeling confident, and justified in my decision to travel. That meal, for its part, was feeling more delicious than ever.

As I was choosing not to enrich the private owners of the M6 (Toll) the snow began. The M6 through Birmingham was busy, and the snow was beginning to settle, but the traffic was moving freely enough, or at least as freely as it ever does on the approaches to Spaghetti Junction. The snow got heavier. And heavier. As this seemed to me to be neither “Southern England” nor “later in the afternoon” I was a little put out. By the time I reached the turn off for the M42, things were getting more serious. The M42 to the M40 junction is about 10 or 15 miles. It took me about 2 hours. Suddenly, as the restaurant called me at about 1.45pm to confirm my attendance, I had my first pangs of doubt. But I still had plenty of time. I told them I fully intended to be there. On the M40, at 15.45, and perhaps a handful of miles further on, I phoned to cancel.

Between phoning my wife at 4.30pm, and texting her at 6.15pm I think I managed about 4 miles. At 7.15pm I came to a full stop. A full stop that lasted for the next 5 hours, punctuated only by a couple of 100 yard dashes at 2 miles per hour. Birmingham to Oxford is perhaps about 50 miles: it took me 11 hours. Eventually, just before junction 8a on the M40 at the Oxford services, the traffic began to move a little more consistently, perhaps averaging 10 mph. Unsurprisingly, a lot of cars left the motorway at the junction – if for no other reason I imagine than to allow their female occupants to relieve themselves. At least I and other men had had the opportunity to create little yellow hollows in the snow, albeit in the disconcerting glare of others’ headlights. One can only hope that women were either immune to embarrassment, possessed of gigantic bladders, or had waterproof containers to hand in their vehicles.

Almost immediately after the junction, for reasons that are entirely incomprehensible to me, the traffic melted away with an ease that the snow was refusing to emulate. Having been party to a vast communal car-park for the last 8 hours, I was suddenly driving lonely as a cloud. Gradually I was able to drive at a breathtaking 40mph. And then 50mph. After Stokenchurch Gap, as the motorway rises spectacularly up the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, things got more difficult again, but I finally made it home at 2am. 16 hours in total and a mere 7 hours late for my restaurant rendezvous.

One thing in particular remains in my memory, and it’s not the cold, the boredom, the hunger, or the irritation of missing my dinner. It was the comment made by a very cross officer of the Highways Agency that was endlessly broadcast by the media as we sat in our icy prison on the motorway. “It seems”, he fulminated, “that drivers have ignored our clear warnings not to travel today. I’ve never seen so much traffic on a Saturday evening. People need to take more notice, look at our website, listen to the radio. Now our gritters cannot even get to grit the roads for all the cars littering the carriageways. We need total access to the road network at the weekends to ensure they are clear for the commute to work on Monday!”

Ah. I see. Essential means work. Not frivolous appointments at fancy restaurants with friends you haven’t seen for ages. And I was just one of the thousands of irresponsible citizens who brought it all on ourselves.

Actually, Mr Clever-Cloggs Highways Agency Spokesman, I beg to differ. I am not irresponsible, but I’m not psychic either. I did all the things you said I should have done, except at 10am your website wasn’t saying what you might well have been saying at 1pm once the snow had started. But that was a bit bloody late for me. No, I was not irresponsible. I was unlucky. And by the same token, I do not blame the Highways Agency for the fact that they failed utterly to keep the M40 clear of the prodigious amount of snow that fell in a mere couple of hours. Although after hearing your irritable, self-righteous comments for the 10th time, I was mighty tempted. I don’t blame you. And next time, perhaps you’d kindly refrain from blaming me.

Can’t read, won’t read? Boys’ reading, and what it means

So, 9% of boys leave primary school with a reading age of 7 or less – a whole 4 years at least behind where they “should” be. This is slightly worse than last year, but in fact this is really further evidence of a kind of plateau that’s now been reached. Sometimes a single fact seems to have the capacity to encapsulate a whole landscape of political and philosophical terrain. I think this is a case in point. Of course much will be made of the gender issues arising from this figure, but I’m not sure that’s the most significant aspect. We’ve known for ages that boys develop in lots of ways more slowly than girls, and early years academic attainment is perhaps the key marker. Anyway, I’m not going to speculate further on the gender lessons, if any, to be gleaned from this, but rather to explore a much broader, and I believe more fundamental, set of attitudes and responses to this simple fact. In other words, what do we think it means, about schools, about learning, about politics?

Prepare for some blunt speaking. I suspect that the majority of the public, on hearing about this 10%, conclude that it’s due to the simple fact that 10% of boys (and children generally) are substantially thicker than the rest. Most people believe that there is a thing called intelligence, and that some have got a lot more of it than others, and further that some simply don’t have enough. You won’t find many politicians who’d express it that way, but equally you don’t hear very many doing anything to disabuse the general public of this notion. On the other hand, from Carol Vorderman in particular and the vast majority of the media in general, with loads of articles about Mensa, little geniuses trotting off to Oxford at the age of 8 to study mathematics, the damning of comprehensive education as being a means to hold clever children back, all these dominant ideas feed this public perception. Some kids are very clever. And some are very thick. Politicians are happy to collude with it. All of them.

What differentiates the politicians are their attitudes to three “downstream” questions, which all accept the reality, and the inevitability, of a thing called intelligence, and that we each have our allotted place on the spectrum from thick to clever. The first question is, “What determines our place on the spectrum?” Here we have two broad answers: biology (genes and all that) or society (economics, class, schooling, parenting, and all that). The second question only applies to those who answered the first one with the latter choice. Biological determinists don’t need to worry about what can be done about it as it’s clear that nothing can be short of some kind of eugenics, and that thankfully is a rare political position, at least in public. But for the social determinists, the second question is, “What can be done about the thick ones?” Here again, two broad answers emerge. First are those that believe the causes must be addressed, whether they be economic, or parental deficit, or whatever, and that once the causes have done their work it’s a bit too late. Second are those that think that somehow the results can be mitigated even if the causes aren’t addressed. And the third question only applies, once again, to those with the latter answer to the second question. This third option goes something like, “What might mitigate the results most effectively – institutions or individuals?”

I realise that this is, well, a bit schematic, and of course it’s a simplification, but this simple series of questions does seem to be able to identify the main political positions on education that we observe. Think of it as a sort of taxonomic key such as you might find in a wild-flower identification hand book. The results are as follows:

Question 1: a) Biological determinists. Some people are genetically unfortunate, and hopefully they’ll die out. Don’t waste your time or money worrying about it. Extreme right-wingers, basically fascists.

Question 1: b) Social determinists leads to question 2: a) Radicals of left or right that want to address causes, and don’t think that much can be done about results. The radical right believe that a hands-off approach to causes will result in self-correction via the market, whilst the radical left want causes to be attacked directly by re-distribution, spending on anti-poverty programmes, and the like.

Question 2: b) Interveners not in causes, but in results leads to question 3: a) That institutions are the key. The “soft” left, basically the Labour Party, that want to spend more on schools, set them lots of targets, control their every move so as to justify the money spent. Which leaves question 3: b) the equally “soft” right which seems to believe that all we need are a few inspirational individuals that will transform the opportunities of their charges by simple dint of will, determination and flair. Please welcome Michael Gove, who said almost exactly this on Radio 4’s Today programme this very morning. And there you have it. Simples, eh?

Except that I don’t myself accept the premise that all of this is built on. I don’t believe in the thing called intelligence. Or at least, I don’t believe that if it exists, it is the be-all and end-all of human development and capacity. I’m in a minority, I know. But I’m used to that.

The thin (blue?) line between callousness and sympathy

What makes us care about what happens to people? And, by contrast, what stops us from caring? A couple of events recently have set me thinking – never a pretty sight admittedly. By coincidence, both events involve the police in London; hence my reference to “blue” in this post’s title.

First, there was the terrible stabbing of police officers in Ealing, West London, in the course of something as banal as checking whether bus travellers had paid the correct fare. The constable is still in a serious condition, but at least it looks now as if his life is safe. His community safety officer colleague was thankfully relatively unscathed, but still required hospital treatment. What intrigued me about my own response to this incident was the not very flattering realisation that I was very much more interested in it, more concerned about the officers’ injuries, more empathetic to their plight, more outraged by the appalling contrast between the trivial nature of the task and the terrible consequences for the officers, than, if I’m honest, I would have been if I’d merely read about a similar occurrence in, say, I don’t know, Glasgow, Penzance or Newcastle. Why? I’m not proud of this, but the answer is simple. It’s merely because I worked in Ealing for 12 years. The stabbing took place almost at the churchyard gate of the church I worship at at weekends when I’m back in London. The fare-dodging purge these officers were engaged in happens regularly at this particular bus-stop (I’ve no idea why as I wouldn’t have had Ealing near the top of a list of fare-evasion capitals of the world) and many’s the time I’ve seen crowds of police and London transport staff doing exactly what they were doing yesterday as I’ve wandered off to Marks and Spencer for a lunchtime sarnie. My emotions were engaged because of my familiarity with the place, because of the feeling that this was somehow also an affront to me personally, because I can picture every detail of the scene with my mind’s eye: the shop fronts, the pavement, the trees with their municipal Christmas lights. But these aren’t really very good reasons, are they?

Second, there’s the outcry over the police’s treatment of disabled protester Jody McIntyre during the recent student demonstrations. Amateur video footage has been posted on the internet, the Guardian newspaper has done a “how disgusting is that?” article, whilst Richard Littlejohn has roused the righteous outrage of all right-thinking radicals by a Daily Mail piece suggesting that Mr McIntyre had it coming as he’s a “professional” protester who’s not even a student. I ought to make it clear that my intrinsic sympathies are a lot closer to the Guardian’s response than the Daily Mail’s (on this as on just about everything else, to be honest) but the same train of thought that had me admitting to not very good reasons for my enhanced sympathy for the Ealing police officers has made me wonder about my response to this case, too. Mine and that of all my fellow lefties reaching for the same tired rhetoric about oppressive police and innocent disabled people. Just imagine, for a moment, that Mr McIntyre was not, in fact, a fellow-traveller with protesting students, but rather a strident member of the English Defence League, or a right-to-life zealot hurling abuse at doctors as they entered an abortion clinic. Would the Guardian be interviewing him? Would the police, had they acted in exactly the same way, have been automatically oppressors and callous offenders against the rights and dignity of disabled people? Be honest. Would they? Really?

This worries me a lot. I’m going out on a limb here, and I accept that I can only speak for myself, but I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that our sympathies are aroused not by what we claim – the moral rights and wrongs of specific events, but rather by our pre-existing political allegiances, our random connections with places and people. Our moral outrage comes second: our prejudices and personal connections first.

It is why we can so easily, for example, suddenly decide that global warming isn’t happening because it’s snowing outside our front doors, whilst the planet fries and sizzles for other people, in other places, that we don’t know, and, if we’re really honest, don’t really much care about either.

No time to think: the tyranny of activity

I caught a snippet on the radio this morning reporting that some researcher or another had calculated that the average worker spends half a year over their working life waiting for the kettle to boil. It was, I think, in support of some notion about how inefficient we all are, and I daresay that it was probably pointing out how much more kettle-boiling-waiting time there is in the public sector compared with the thrusting private sector. I might have made that last bit up, I admit.

But it set me to musing – whilst the kettle was boiling as it happens – about how little we value the time that people spend at work thinking rather than doing. All the talk about efficiency, productivity, outputs, outcomes, cost-effectiveness, all of it seems predicated on this notion of squeezing out time, desperately trying to get rid of the spaces between bashing out widgets – whether those widgets be literal or metaphorical. Everybody, and everything, is on a conveyor belt. From patients hanging about too long in hospital before vacating their beds, to school kids not applying themselves with sufficient rigour to ticking off the next attainment level in their GCSE course, our whole society is in a constant state of being cajoled to the next thing. Apparently, those who only stand and wait no longer serve, and Milton can shut the fuck up. He’s not part of the modern world, and we have nothing to learn from him.

I’m proud of the time I’ve spent waiting for the kettle to boil at work. I’ve done a lot of my best stuff whilst doing so. Thinking. Processing. Balancing one thing against another. Questioning whether my busyness is in fact directed at any useful purpose. You might retort that my relatively senior position requires such thinking time, whilst more junior staff should be simply getting on with the job. If so, you’d be wrong.

Wrong, in the first instance, because such an attitude is profoundly demeaning. It suggests that only some people’s thoughts are worth the time they take to have them. But that’s not all. More importantly, the devaluing of thinking leads directly to poor decision-making. And decision-making happens at all levels of an organisation. The more that such decision-making is substituted by automated systems, or by orders from above, or constrained by strait-jacketed procedures, the more that the quality of what finally gets done is undermined. It goes beyond that, too. We wonder why so many staff are absent from work through stress, why so many employment tribunals find in favour of staff who claim that they have been stressed at work. If we take away people’s time to think and reflect, if we suggest that they don’t need to think or reflect because they are too low down in the food chain, then we dehumanise them, and stress is the first symptom.

As at the bottom, so at the top. Thinking, especially about first principles, encourages leaders to question, and to make judgements. It supports independence. It protects organisations, and society at large, from the dangers of being run by lemmings. Undervaluing thinking, by contrast, leads to the well-worn excuses of only following orders. Perhaps those leading the banking industry would have been better served, and we with them, if targets and bonuses had been less in evidence, and independent thought had been encouraged instead.

So piss off with your downer on waiting for the kettle to boil. Use those moments, without guilt and without shame. I don’t want my staff to rush about frenetically doing things all the time. I want them to think, and I want them to tell me what they’ve thought. It will add to my understanding, and help me to break out of my own limiting thought processes. Go on, make a cup of tea, and then we’ll take time to talk. Those invoices will still be there when we’ve finished, and we might have found a way to deal with them more creatively, more efficiently, and hopefully, even a way to get rid of some of them.

Fees, Labour, LibDems and election stunts

In the student fees débâcle there are two very different strands to be considered. Inevitably, in the hurly-burly of politics, they tend to get mixed up, and that does not help us to see clearly. There is the substantive issue of what it is right to do about financing higher education. Then there are the statements and pledges made by the LibDems in the run up to the May general election, and their decisions since entering the coalition government; and the position of the Labour Party.

The first issue is by far the most difficult to disentangle. It encompasses the principles of what a university education is really for; whether a university education is a “right” or a “privilege”; whether in principle providing it is a social good to be paid for by all of us, or a personal good to be purchased primarily by the beneficiaries; and doubtless many others. I make no claim to have answers, never mind definitive ones, to these questions, but I do think that the narrow issue of whether or not tuition fees should be increased, and how they should be paid back, obscures these other more fundamental points. For what it’s worth, I think we’ve corrupted the purpose of higher education by seeing it principally as an economic instrument, either in service to the economy as a whole, or as a passport to higher earnings for individuals. Students are no longer seen as people with an intrinsic thirst for knowledge, eager to find out about the world: instead they are invited to make calculations about how much more they might earn as a result, and now, of course, how much debt they feel able to take on. Because we’ve started seeing obtaining a degree as a passport to greater wealth, then the whole issue of equality enters the debate when it should in fact be a debate about how many people want to study because they want to know stuff. In the same way, university research is now so inextricably intertwined with commerce, at least in the sciences, that we can have a government that explicitly says that courses seen as economically useful will be supported whilst those that are merely about knowledge or exploration for its own sake will not. And nobody seems to care. It’s only because we’ve now by and large all accepted this instrumentalism that the debate on how the whole edifice should be paid for has arisen. In this basic reorientation from education as an end in itself, that contributes to the common good simply because it expands our collective knowledge, to education as instrument of economic policy, all the subsidiary issues gain their force. The fundamental problem is that when universities are no longer places for people to learn, but places for them to enrich themselves, we trigger a demand that we have no means of supplying. Hence the funding crisis that now confronts us.

Compared with the complexities of the educational issues, the position of the LibDems is simplicity itself. They can protest all they like about the package passed today being more progressive than Labour’s plans; and claim all the credit in the world for having mitigated the Tories’ otherwise unrestrained barbarism; but they cannot escape the simple fact that pledging to abolish something, and then for the sake of political power trebling it instead, is wrong, wrong, wrong. If it isn’t dishonest, then it’s spectacularly incompetent. Deliberately enticing students to vote for you with a promise either you can’t or won’t keep throws petrol on the fire of the electorate’s existing cynicism about politics, and frankly makes the expenses scandal pale into insignificance. If this is the “new politics” I’d rather stick with the old. The lesson is simple: election stump stunts stink.

And what of Labour? Labour politicians who presided over the corruption of educational purpose I described above, and then introduced payment of fees in the first place, have as much moral authority in this matter as the Pope does on paedophilia. Their outrageous attempts now to present themselves as the students’ friends and supporters are no more convincing than were the LibDems’ promises to abolish fees.

Students’ fury about fees, and the LibDems’ sell-out in particular, is I suspect in part more about the growing sense that the deal they’ve been sold – that university is the gateway to economic security – is unravelling before their eyes. No public sector jobs, little prospect of economic growth to make up for them, and now the cheek of being saddled with debt for the privilege of a broken deal: it’s enough to make anyone hurl a brick or two.