Saturday, 31 July 2010

Voting For Dummies

“Political Science” is a field of study that is short on science and long on politics. The relevant philosophies that intrude on the subject may veer unsteadily between the two. Often there is a lot of history involved, sometimes from historians, often not.

This again depends on the mind set, field of study and thinking processes of the writer. A number of politicians on the Left of British politics have written theses at one time or another under this broad heading. Although classified as “political science” they would be better shelved under Fiction or Comedy.

The question of voting systems has long been one of the parts that is left to the more “nerdish” students and academics involved. It is all very “techie” and complicated with obscure jargon, terms and labels and the rest. I have not seen a “Voting For Dummies” in the local bookshops but it will not be long before one is available, at a price.

In voting systems, as with computer software and techno’ kit often the worst thing you can do it to go for the alleged upgrade or improvement or bolt on thingy that is said to deal with an immediate problem. The trouble with quick fixes is that they are rarely quick and the fix does not last for long, because then you have more trouble than when you started.

The whole question of “to AV or not to AV” is yet another quick fix. The British Constitution has had a huge number of such since the late muddle Major years and following under blagger Blair and blunder Brown. In computer terms like those still on Windows 95 it is time to find another operating system.

The basic system no longer functions in terms of modern demands nor will it ever and the notion of a tinkered change to the voting system such as AV or similar device will not deal with the essential problems of how we are governed. Our major problem as in so many fields is that in Britain we are carrying far too much baggage from the past in the way we direct our thinking to the issues of the present and the future.

One in the UK is having been told by conventional wisdom of the past to rejoice over the benefits of our two party system. This was part of our great history. Once we had Whigs and Tories, then after 1832, Liberals and Conservatives emerged only for the Labour party to supplant the Liberals by 1945. It was never as simple as that and in any case the franchise had changed utterly as had the whole structure of Parliament and Government.

By the mid 20th Century we had developed a Civil Service that was relatively incorrupt and reliable and had established a network of local authorities that was more or less effective, although often in a ramshackle and unpredictable way. It was not perfect but it was not evil or exploitative or vicious or beholden to dogmatic extremes. Also it provided the foundations for Whitehall to do a job that attempted to relate to the real tasks in hand.

What do we have at present? A parliament that little reflects the electorate and along with government is no longer the culmination or peak of political or personal ambition. Nearly all of them use it as a stepping stone to further riches or celebrity. Would Ann Widdecombe have ever made “Strictly Come Dancing” and been able to appear with the legendary Felicity Kendal had she not been an M.P. and a minister? Would Blair have become a property magnate, friend of the plutocrats and jet set political and financial fixer had he not been Prime Minister?

It was in the 1960’s under the statistician Harold Wilson and Lt. Col Edward Heath of the Honourable Artillery Company, and Chief Whip, when it was finally fully realised that to target marginal constituencies was one key way to win an election, especially a closely contested one, as many were at this time. The old big world grandstanding was always there but the real money was thrown at where it really mattered politically and has been ever since.

It is our fixation that one way or another the voting systems should be based on the notion of constituencies that has been at the base of so many of the major fault lines in the UK government. Originally, the House of Commons had been drawn from the Knights of the Shire and the Burghers of the few Chartered Boroughs to advise the Lords and Monarch and to agree taxation.

After 1832 there was a series of revisions based on the 19th century view or urbanised and rural community that resulted later in the First Past The Post election based on single member constituencies in a Parliament controlled and dominated by the House of Commons. In commercial and industrial terms this has had the effect of concentrating attention and influence on economic activities of the immediate past and not the future or what is needed after radical change occurs.

This has had a disastrous impact on the two major parties. The Labour Party became dependent on and controlled by a limited number of industrial and political interests in its “heartlands” and a similar effect was in the Conservative Party. The switching in marginal constituencies ensured those members came and went. This limited those who led to those who were lucky enough to picked in a heartland base.

All those who supported a party in the heartland of another were ignored and this led to gross imbalances in representation and policy. At one time the Civil Service and local government networks provided a balance but in the last decades these have been both corrupted and almost destroyed in real effectiveness or as neutral entities in the business of governing and administering.

The situation now is that the smallest area for providing a base of election to the House of Commons should have not less than twenty Members of the House of Commons which might have a total membership of between 350 or 450 but no more. If there is to be a Second Chamber to replace the crony Lords then it should be half that number and elected from the same base area on the same form of franchise.

The voting system should be one close to those of other countries where those parties with major support will have a representation close to their total votes. For small parties a minimum might be necessary but not high enough to deter some minorities of one sort or another having at least one or two voices. Precisely which form of this kind of voting system would be best is one for the experts but one preferably that is not too complex or liable to distortions.

We might then begin to relate to reality but just how we fix a shattered Civil Service and an off the rails local government I do not know.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Inflation, Deflation, Reflation, Stagflation, Etc. Etc, Etc.

We parked the car on a small town station car park and it cost a fiver, the reduced off peak rate. As we waited for the train a tourist special trundled through made up of old Pullman coaches. My memory twitched and I recalled that in 1959 I had paid five guineas (£5.25) for a Pullman train from Paddington to Cardiff and back, lunch and dinner included, with a ticket for the game.

A couple of years back I had the notion to try one of the Heritage Pullman journeys for a good day out. The price made me change my mind, a couple of noughts would have to be added to the 1959 figure for the two of us. This is inflation.

In London again and the Chief Executive and Finance Director was noting the expenses. Just over fifty pounds was the conclusion for the expeditions overall revenue outgoings. It covered admission, the cheapest rail fares, the parking and an estimate for fuel. We carry all our own food, the normal one days marching rations, together with liquids and ancillary equipment. At a good £10 for a large cuppa and decent bun for the two of us we do not buy.

It was in April 1958 that I was at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane for the London first night of “My Fair Lady”, standing at the back of the stalls. I had a three course meal in the canteen before and a couple of pints after and had decent change out of a ten bob note (fifty pence).

These days it is hailed as one of the great “hits” but before it began there was a lot of doubt. A musical based on Shaw’s “Pygmalion”? After the wonderful film? And American? I was there to see Stanley Holloway, worth the ticket price on his own, but I was certainly delighted by the show along with everyone else.

Also, in a way it was quaint, because it was set in a world before 1914 when prices and wages were very much lower than the expensive 1950’s. Then for many people £50 could be regarded as almost a small fortune and a years income.

Now it cost fifty quid for rather less in the Summer of 2010. Around forty years ago in 1971 a weekly wage at that rate was buying me a mortgage on a four bed roomed house with garage, garden and fitted kitchen and bathroom, admittedly in a cheap part of the country. This was at two and a half times salary.

Also, I ran a Ford Cortina, went to a few First Division football or good Rugby matches and enjoyed a few beers now and again. We did not worry about credit card bills because we did not have credit cards. The occasional great cultural occasion could be managed. Yes, I saw Freddie Starr perform at the Batley Variety Club.

One of the joys of satellite TV is that there are many channels where it is possible to find programmes that reveal other people can be nearly as disorganised and have almost as many failings as one’s self. Not many, but some and one of them, a repeat of a series I missed originally, is called “Heir Hunters” about inheritances unclaimed where the deceased died intestate and those firms who search for the relatives hoping for commissions if a claim succeeds.

Sometimes a figure is quoted from the past that makes me sit up and wonder at the price and relative value comparisons taken from the ONS series of statistics. One in particular caught my attention. Someone around 1930 left an estate worth £800 and Julia Sawalha, the presenter, told us firmly that this amounted to £22,000 in today’s money. Removing the rude words I remarked that this was unlikely.

At that time £800 a year was very high salary, few Headteachers for example, would be anywhere near it and in ordinary industry and commerce it suggested senior managers. It might also buy you in many parts of the country a decent semi-detached house in a desirable area. At a pinch you could employ a day cook and a housemaid if your other expenses were not too high.

This was an era when price structures were very different. Food and clothing prices were relatively higher than today in real terms as well as white goods and other products. A decent new radio could cost a working man a month’s wages. On the whole consumer goods were much more costly and people had fewer of them and expected them to last. We are still using grandma’s old pillow cases.

So if you base relative price indexes on these kinds of goods you might well come to the conclusion that £800 in 1930 was worth £22,000 now. But that figure would not buy you anything like the total contemporary lifestyle you could enjoy for £800 a year in 1930. As you go back into the past the discrepancies become more serious.

The documentaries on satellite TV quite often have reconstruction efforts and items detailing what exactly was involved in making this or building that. For anyone who had done any costings the conclusions are stark. If we look back at all those ancient ships, cathedrals, buildings and landscaping the real cost in today’s terms has to be hugely adrift of the ONS comparisons. Putting those costs in terms of the actual lifestyle etc. of the period means that the ONS figures based on a narrow basis of modern consumer spending are very wrong.

OK, you might say this is all ancient history, but it is not really important. But it is because the ONS and current statistics have been telling us that inflation recently has not been all that much. In the meantime property prices and debt charges and many living costs, not in the indexes, sky rocketed along with other things involving necessary payments. Because property is defined so much as “investment” we have forgotten that it is also a part of essential living cost and as much “consumption” as anything else.

This may not be inflation to the government as it has chosen to define it for the purposed of formulating politically acceptable spending plans and that it is generally convenient to hold the headline figures down. The media may have bought this fiction and too many economists are too concerned with mathematical models based on limited data but there has been runaway inflation in the real financial burden to most of us who have to pay in real money. So now we may have to face the backwash of all this.

If between 1965 and 2005, part from one or two glitches, we have been using cheap oil and this has meant cheap energy, food, distribution, transport and consumer goods because petrol-chemicals are an essential primary resource in all these sectors then it may not last. If the costs and prices of these rise in real terms then we may well have sharp inflation in the actual ONS figures with the effect of major reductions in real incomes, especially with savings income depressed by interest rates being held down by central bank intervention to fund property activity.

In the UK we have out sourced increasing proportions of our food production, making of consumer goods and most of our clothing industry. We have become dependent on overseas capital for credit and much of our management and administration is now abroad and/or offshore. Even our so-called high tech’ activities are increasingly bought in and foreign provided. Our private pension funds are reliant on overseas financial trading and our public sector schemes on government borrowing to cope with government spending. The property market and pricing is almost our sole driver of economic activity.

With the government throwing money at the property market and construction this means it intends this inflationary sector to go on rising in price in both money and real terms to keep all their personal fortunes intact. If they are not careful, the whole pricing structure may begin to collapse so that we get a massive deflation and related contraction in economic activity. In terms of the money, where we are and where we go, nobody will be certain and it will be a recipe for serious unrest. It has happened before historically and can happen again.

When you hear about inflation few of us understand the reality but it may be about to return and all those wonderful ONS statistics may not be of any use at all to the policy makers or to the rest of us and nor will any historical comparisons.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Lockerbie, al-Megrahi, Evidence, What Evidence?

The look of relief on the face of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi as he left the plane in Tripoli after his release from Scotland may have been that at last he might receive some proper medical treatment from competent doctors. This is not the place to debate all the difficult legal, moral and political issues surrounding his release, there is more than enough elsewhere.

What I am looking at is the information that is missing in the latest farrago. We are assured by the Scottish medical authorities that it was the medical evidence that was critical in their recommendation for compassionate release. The Scottish legal men and politicians claim that they proceeded strictly on the basis of this advice. What was going in London is all a great mystery, or something.

As it is medical evidence, mercifully for those who made the decisions in this age of Human Rights, it is shrouded in secrecy, or rather privacy. But what say, if for reasons of convenience, incompetence, stupidity or arrogance or all of these in the case of al-Megrahi his treatment and medical handling had been botched? What if medical evidence that should have been there wasn’t?

No wonder nobody concerned wants to go the USA to admit that medical analysis and treatment that would be routine even out in the sticks there simply wasn’t done or even considered in the case of al-Megrahi. If he had prostate cancer then he was certainly a sick man. As such any other compromising medical issue would have a serious impact on his overall health and might appreciably increase the risks and prospects for the length of time he might survive.

Could this happen in Britain? Indeed it could and does and all too easily. In Britain the practice if someone is having serious problems is to work out the options and then test for only one. If that doesn’t work, then tough, or declare some catch all syndrome and shove some medication across to shut the patient up. If something nasty happens under medical treatment the Primary Care Trust is very likely on legal grounds to refuse testing or examination and the doctors to sit on their hands.

There are a number of medical reasons why al-Megrahi may have been very ill for reasons beyond the basic problems of his prostate. Two are picked out solely as examples of what can happen and to illustrate the issues. It could be that other issues affected him, but the same considerations apply.

One is dietary and the other toxic chemical as contrast. Reaction to gluten is a condition suffered already by many and the numbers are increasing. The reasons for the rise in numbers are relatively simple. Modern wheat and other grain varieties today have more gluten content than those of the past. We are eating more grains and processed they appear one way or another in many packaged food that are a staple of modern eating. Ergo, more gluten, more eating, more reactions.

So a lot of people suffer serious problems and pain in the lower abdomen and go to the doctor. Are they offered tests for gluten? Fat chance, in the NHS this is treated as a last chance saloon option and only if you know about it and make noises. You are likely to spend years suffering on expensive IBS medications, with all the nasty internal damage being done, before anything else, including gluten, is considered.

The chemical one is Chlorhexidine. If you go to Google Scholar, or just ordinary Google and tap in that word with “Anaphylaxis” you will be amazed at the number of hits you get. It was in 1998 when the FDA of the USA first put up a warning about this chemical specifically relating to cases of prostate problems in men where chlorhexidine impregnated catheters were used in the course of treatment.

Since then a lot more has been researched. In the meantime it is likely that a lot of elderly men in treatment for urology issues have died from reactions but the deaths put down to respiratory or cardiac issues, especially in Britain. What is known now is that reactions to this are both nasty and dangerous. Also what we know is how difficult it is to get referral to an immunology specialist for proper testing and analysis.

If al-Megrahi has had this then he can only have got it from treatment in hospital using a chemical product that was already known to be dangerous. One interesting piece of research on chlorhexidine suggested that along with Cetrimide you might get cirrhosis of the liver. So couple of drinks, clean your teeth and do a mouthwash you could be doubling your chances.

As stated, there are a number of dietary, chemical and other problems that could have a debilitating and severe effect on an already sick patient. Often it takes a good deal of time, trouble and preparedness to do the analytical work to find out and confirm the critical issue. In the case of al-Megrahi in Scotland I doubt that any of this was attempted or considered.

Perhaps a couple of easy tests that proved inconclusive might have been tried, but all too likely the medical evidence was a spatchcock job done in the writing up of the report, emphasising the basic prostate condition and given a dressing of psychological colouring. After all, it wouldn’t take much for the medic’s to blind the politicians with science. As medical records etc. are covered by the laws etc. on privacy, then who would ever know?

So there it is, probably al-Megrahi’s prostate condition was not diagnosed until late, then the routine treatments did not go well. Given the political sensitivity of his case he was given more advanced treatment and medication and somewhere along the line contracted something that hit him badly.

This was neither diagnosed nor treated properly. Hence he was nearly dead when shipped off to Libya. When their medical services took over the case they soon sorted it out, improved his overall condition and extended his life expectation. No wonder all those involved are running around in a panic.

There is a personal twist to this. In 1988 we were living in the North of England and sometimes the sky above would be busy with large passenger aircraft and sometimes not. It was explained to me that it was the way the jetstream was flowing that would be the reason for the changes in the routing of Trans Atlantic flights.

On Wednesday 21 December 1988 the planes were flying the northerly route and it was likely that Pan Am Flight 103 was near to us about half an hour before the bomb exploded.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Robert Burns, Table Tennis And Teenagers

Long ago on Sunday 6 June 2010 when the world was a less complicated place there was an item on this blog about being by the statue of Robert Burns and with tourists. Yesterday, we were there again taking advantage of the weather and time to spare. The elephants had gone to whoever was the highest bidder. They were replaced by two table tennis tables staffed by skilled players on a scheme to encourage young people to take up the sport in the name of Olympic Legacy subsidies.

As no young people were coming forward I lurched out of my seat and knowing that Burns fixed gaze was on my back and wondering as a man who had a sharp eye for the follies and foibles of man what he might have made of table tennis picked up a bat; explaining to the appointed player that it was around thirty years since I last played and the old eyes were not quite as sharp.

It took a couple of minutes to get used to the metal table and the spongy bat and the other player was trying to be fair but then one went fast to the end of the table and I had to take it with a running back hand drop shot which he managed to return for me to work his corners then finish the point with a sliced fore hand which he missed. He remarked that I had played before and asked if I had played in a league.

I admitted it with the excuse that it was around sixty years ago when I was only a teenager. This was in an age before TV and the big recording and media companies had managed to get control of young people to organise, manipulate and segment their interests according to their production and marketing requirements.

The one TV channel; that of the BBC, was even worse than the present. No youngster with any self respect would be caught watching it. In Coronation Week of 1953 the sole sop to the masses was a Burl Ives (wikipedia) programme. I missed both having other engagements.

The baby boomer generation and others like to claim that it was in the 1960’s that it all changed and that somehow before then it was all innocence, ignorance and strict class differences and all the rest. But these are all people who never worked on a factory floor or in manual work or served in the Armed Forces.

It is difficult to explain how flexible we were about things and how little we worried about what to listen to or what entertainment to enjoy in the age before TV. It is also difficult to explain how we managed to enjoy being young without all the technical kit, advertising junk and attention grabbing visuals there are today.

We did what we did and what we liked doing with others of our age. The idea of going to a concert of music from the 1920’s with our parents to suit the promoters back catalogue and media men would have had us rolling about with laughter.

With most of the post war and 1950’s generations of teenagers leaving school at 15 to go into industrial or commercial work and almost all of them having had a lot of experience of street play and/or going about in groups of one sort or another. We may not have said much but we may have known a good deal more about the world.

In the 1940’s and earlier was a generation who had left school earlier and had gone through two world wars. There is a good deal of cinema and newsreel footage featuring largely suburban families and images of what people in authority either wanted it or imagined it to be.

Reality for the masses was very different. There was scant coverage of them and all the disrespect, cynicism and raucous aspects of their lives were heavily censored out. There are some fleeting but bowdlerised references in films but always from film makers and script writers looking down rather than around.

What had changed by the 1960’s was the idea of what life might be had. By then the antibiotic and sulfa drugs had begun to transform medicine and life expectancy. Again it is difficult to explain what it was like before modern drugs existed. This was something that connected us to past generations to the time of Burns and beyond. Life could be a very fragile thing.

It was at the beginning of the 1960’s that National Service ended and many men no longer had to work out their angst in a barracks or abroad. There is an unrealised effect of this in that with the end of Empire and major reduction in the Armed Forces large numbers of public schoolboys were coming into industrial and commercial management and the public services in the UK.

Suddenly we were being managed not by men who had worked their way up but by well connected chaps with alleged leadership capabilities. The trouble was that my lot did not like being led like this by men whose attitudes related more to simply giving orders to underlings than to being aware of what was what. It is little wonder that the class war began to rear an uglier head at this time.

Another problem was that the limited number of university places became more contested by candidates from public and private schools. With the ending of the London social season as the old agricultural aristocrat order and its provincial equivalents had finally collapsed, this meant more daughters looking for an education beyond and distinct from finishing schools. The Universities were duly expanded.

In London it was substantially these groups with a few special additions recruited from below that promoted the Swinging Sixties, always a more RADA and West End phenomenon than Rotherham or Worcester. Groups that had never had an ordinary urban or rural teenage existence began to tell us all how to be a teenager.

On 6 June I mentioned that by the Burns statue is a memorial to the WW1 Camel Corps that served in Palestine and Arabia between 1916 and 1918. In the picture above you can just see a part of his statue. This time I took a close look at the names. As well as those from the UK there were many from Australia and some from New Zealand.

Amongst all of them are a number of surnames that Burns would have recognised and many would have been teenagers or very little older.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Taking A Beating In School

In the media row over which schools were which and whose new building had been taken off the list for renewal there was one key element which was little mentioned in the media parades of proud parents, all those weeping children and anxious teachers.

It was that when Mr. Gove looked at the financial figures he had thrown a bigger wobbly than when the average family looks at the credit card bill after Christmas. By any standard the financial figures were horrific. What I cannot begin to understand is how any functional government machinery could come up with plans to build on the basis of deals like that.

The only explanation is that the culture of bonuses, favours, and financial kickbacks was such that these people were all literally pillaging and plundering the Education budget for decades to come. Mr. Gove was going to be damned if he did and damned if he did not question what exactly these plans consisted of, how they were to be paid for and on what basis.

Looking back over the nature of school education building in its various phases from the early 19th Century through the 20th until the last couple of decades what I do see is the sharp contrast between how it was managed in the past and what has been happening recently.

There were never the anything like the numbers of consultants, legal people and all the financial elements that have been brought in so recently. In a typical County or County Borough of the 20th Century, or its successors in the 1970’s through to the 1980’s at management level there would be a handful of people in the commissioning Department handling new building as part of a wider package of duties.

Then there would be a couple of architects either from within or contracted according to strict rules and a couple of people each from Legal and The Treasurers. That would be it. Before 1974 in some of the small Local Education Authorities the building programmes would be managed by literally a handful of people. Yet they managed to put up decent buildings for the period.

Moreover their salaries and expenses, part of the routine annual budget and determined by fixed national scales, would be paid out of revenue. Additionally, whilst building and fixtures would be a capital item with expenditure and municipal borrowing firmly controlled, kitting out and putting in all the consumables again would be out of revenue. None of this would be allowed against added debt and again within clear limits.

If so much management of building programmes could be done by so few and a lot of it quite well and with massively lower comparative on-costs, what on earth has been going on in the last decade? Why at management level should it take twenty times as many people on typically five or more times each the real salaries of those of the past and with added bonuses and incentives to build worse buildings?

And all of it on borrowed money at almost penal terms. There are other awkward questions. Looking at some of the buildings that are to be replaced, they are not that old. What has been going on in relation to the maintenance and repair budgets? If a lot of these buildings have been allowed to run down so much that urgent replacement is now necessary, who is responsible?

Another is the distribution of these projects and who benefits. Are by any chance a disproportionate number of them in former Labour held or marginal seats? In other words did the Labour government in its last months having run down schools repairs and maintenance suddenly come up with a wheeze to throw money at some localities and ask all its many best friends in financial services to help come up with the money off balance sheet?

For Mr. Gove there is one lesson and a hard one. It is that none of his Department, the Agencies with which it is connected and others can be remotely trusted either to give him reliable information or to do the job that needs to be done. Somehow he will have to check, check and double check everything they handle and bring to his attention. He, and his colleagues are going to put some heavy stick about.

Because almost wherever you go and whichever department of state in Whitehall you can think of, the same problems arise, the same situations will be found and what was once the Civil Service is now a motley crew of incompetents and shape shifters on the make personally and to hell with the notion of serving the ordinary public.

In the recent media excitement about school buildings the story has been about denying a number of people what they had been led to expect. A lot of us are going to get this soon in many ways and probably worse.

What we have to face is whether the new administration are up to it or whether they will just stumble along trying to make the best of a very bad job.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

BBC Proms, Losing The Chord And The Picture

The 2010 Proms have begun. It took the BBC forty years after it took over this festival of music to begin broadcasting it in a regular and reliable fashion on the radio. It has taken even longer for the BBC to come to terms with this new fangled TV thing that has so upset their ordered universe.

At first the only TV item was the Last Night second part that was put on to feature Sir Malcolm Sargent, a celebrity conductor. One disastrous effect of this was to fasten a completely false image on a complicated and broad based music festival. It was something that the BBC resolutely refused to shake off until very recently despite the evidence under their eyes. Yet another case of BBC image being totally at variance with the facts

At present and in recent years with the BBC Proms team in tandem with R3 it has been possible to know what was happening and why on radio. Unluckily, when it comes to TV this falls into other hands. Too many of them with too many distinct organisational and internal political interests to be able to sort out what they are supposed to be doing and why.

The TV programming has become a hit and miss business that both ignores its audience and the real purpose of the festival. This year it is a Mahler anniversary and there is a big Mahler audience out there, not only in the UK but internationally. When you see the grotesque mess they have made of this it is astonishing.

For those that they do record or broadcast do not worry about when you might ever hear them again. Barely anything will ever appear on DVD or CD or other channels and any repeats will be scant. They will disappear into the bottomless pit of the BBC Archives lost to any of mankind and hidden from public sight and hearing forever more.

If you want to see how not to televise a major festival for the audience that is likely to watch it or others who might wish to try, then read below and wonder. Remember there are large numbers of highly qualified very expensive people organising and arranging this who have had more management training between them than had the entire population of Britain before 1980.

It is listed by the Prom number where TV is involved and DS is delayed start and NTG is no time given.

1 Live on BBC2 and HD
2 Live DS,
4 recorded for showing on BBC2 on the date of Prom 10 (Dr. Who) but NTG
6 recorded for showing on BBC4 at 4-7.30 on the date of Prom 9 which starts at 7.30.
8 Live on BBC 4
10 (Dr. Who) recording for showing on BBC3, “future broadcast”.
16 Live DS on BBC 4
18 Live on BBC 4
19 Live DS on BBC2
24 Mahler 3 recorded for showing on the date of Prom 26 on BBC4 directly clashing with the R3 broadcast of Mahler 4 and 5.
26 Mahler 4 and 5 recorded for showing on the date of Prom 29 NTG only with one on screen and one on the “red button” indicating that the full Prom will not be broadcast. Prom 29 (also below) is the National Youth Orchestra.
27 Live DS on BBC4
29 National Youth Orchestra, recorded for showing on the date of Prom 48 on BBC2, NTG which is the date for the Rotterdam Phil’ whose programme includes Mahler and which will attract an audience similar to that for Prom 29.
37 Live on BBC4
38 and 39 on what is Bach Day. Three Brandenburg Concerto’s at the Cadogan Hall will not be shown live or recorded. Another three later will be recorded at the Cadogan Hall for showing later in the day NTG. Prom 38 5-6.00 in the Albert Hall will not be recorded or shown live, but Prom 39 will be Live on BBC2.
42 recorded for showing on BBC 4 at 4-7.30 on the date of Prom 45 which begins on R3 at 7.30.
46 Live DS
49 (Rodgers & Hammerstein) recorded for showing on BBC2 NTG on the date of Prom 57 which has Beethoven’s 9 Choral Symphony.
54 Live DS on BBC4
55 Late Night following Prom 54 on the same date, recorded for showing on the date of Prom 56 on BBC4 at 7.30 when it clashes directly with the R3 broadcast of Shostakovich and Bruckner.
62. More Mahler plus Bruckner recorded for showing on BBC4 at 4-7.30 the date of Prom 65 which starts at 7.30 and features Simon Rattle with the Berlin Phil’ doing Beethoven and Mahler 1, which is not being shown live or recorded.
63 Live DS.
66.Live DS
67 The programme for the Last Night of 1910 running from 2.30 to 6.00 recorded for showing on BBC4 at 7.30 on the date of Prom 74 clashing directly with that and the R3 broadcast.
75. Live
76 The Last Night, first part for the intellectuals on BBC2, the second for the heaving masses on BBC1, with clipped in jollies from here and there. Other parallel Proms may be shown on BBC4 or regional, but who knows?

Enough, enough, I have begun to gibber and need cold compresses.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Der Fliegende Iain Dale

As an illustration of the quite barmy softness of the current UK London Media elite and sadly almost all the rest of us I quote below an item on Sunday 18th July from the web site of Iain Dale’s Diary.

He did not have to worry about connecting flights or awkward rail journeys to get home. Despite this, we have a cry of woe, thrice woe, below, about the desperate hardships of travel today. Yet he is travelling in comfort from Heraklion Airport in Crete, an island in the Eastern Mediterranean to England, crossing two seas and many mountains.

How long and how difficult might such a journey have been for earlier generations and at how much cost? For rather less than an average weekly wage he is winged around 1700 miles home in under half a day including a slight delay and a wait for the luggage. In 2010 the real cost is a fraction of that of 1980.

It is a marvel of commercial organisation and work, once an impossible dream. The way things are going it may soon become one again.


Amateur Night Flight - Iain Dale 4:24 AM

It seems that the combination of Easyjet and the new operators of Gatwick Airport is a lethal one. And it's not an experience I shall be repeating in a hurry. Our flight back to Gatwick from Heraklion was supposed to take off at 11.15 last night. It took off at 1.30am.

When we got to Gatwick at 3.30 after a four hour flight we had to wait 20 minutes for buses. And now, at 4.30ish we have just been told that we will have to wait at least an hour and a half for our baggage, along with the other 8 Easyjet flights which have arrived late.

If we'd paid £20 for our flights you might think we ought not to complain, but they cost over £300 each. I've had better treatment in third world airports than this. The new operators of Gatwick Airport, whoever they are, ought to be ashamed of themselves. There. I feel better having got that off my chest.


I wonder how Iain may have enjoyed spending quality time at Heraklion Airport in May 1941 with the 14th Infantry Brigade? It would certainly have been lively.

May I recommend he reads Evelyn Waugh’s Trilogy “Sword of Honour” Part 2 “Officers and Gentlemen”.

The character of Corporal-Major Ludovic comes to mind.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Your Doom Is My Delight

The doom mongers have been busy recently. Inevitably as the supply has risen doom has become a cheaper commodity. For some obscure reason most people are not increasing their demand for doom, so there are a lot of cut price versions about. There does seem to be an increase in the demand for things that get you high and happy but this is simply increases the basic resources to feed the supply of doom.

The BP business and the political fall out have attracted a good deal of attention. One aspect of the blow out has been suggestions that a lot of methane has been leaking out into the Gulf as well as the oil. Some scientists have claimed that in the distant past there have been two occasions when major methane emissions have all but ended life on earth.

The late Auberon Waugh had a theory that the methane emitted from the rear end of cattle was a major source of world pollution. But the scientists suggest that large methane bursts of up to twenty miles wide would be enough. If the deep sea drillers going down into tricky geology do not really know what they are going to find, they could trigger one. It means we can stop worrying about Iceland; at least for a week or two.

But radical and rapid change can occur in our arrangements without us noticing or paying much attention to what is happening around us. Back in the early 1950’s I was put on standby to go to Southampton docks where a strike was impacting on food imports. Luckily, a flu epidemic happened which stopped that and also the strike because dockers on strike did not get sick pay. Then dock strikes for many reasons were a feature of the UK economy and politics.

Late in the 1950’s I was at a meeting with Jack Dash, a leader in the Dock unions, who became a major figure and was reviled by the media. In a meeting away from notice he was a decent sort of bloke, very much a worker and a believing communist who was thoughtful and well read. I thought he was badly wrong but that how to organise and deploy large numbers of manual workers when work on the docks was variable both in nature and from week to week was a difficult business.

What none of us at the meeting and for that matter in government and the economy realised and could not see was that the old ways were about to end. The change would not simply affect the docks but the whole structure of transporting and distributing goods. The effects would be world wide and impact on whole economies.

There had been a number of different ways of carrying goods by some form of container in the past, but only small scale and often localised. In 1956 Malcolm McLean of the USA began to use an altogether better and more worked out method for doing it on ocean going ships. By 1970 international agreements on the standardisation of containers meant that the concept had become world wide.

In the 1970’s I realised it by accident. On a number of occasions I travelled from Hull to Europort in Rotterdam, also from Felixstowe to Zeebrugge and a couple of other North Sea routes. For anyone with half an eye and a bit of experience it was easy to see how transportation had changed. What took longer to dawn on me were the wider implications for the UK and the world.

Clearly the old British system of docks and distribution was doomed as were the jobs of the dock workers and the whole complicated structure of company and union ways of negotiation and doing anything. It was going to mean radical, rapid change and extensive upheaval and investment.

This happened, yet few of the general public noticed. Except for a few wild eyed off the wall eccentric forecasters that nobody with any sense or influence would listen to. I was aware that things had to change, but in my innocence felt that this could be done within the present structures and would assist existing commerce and industry. The relentless stupidity of managements, politicians, and unions was something I did not foresee.

This can apply in science as well. When Barry Marshall and Robin Warren in Western Australia, far from main stream science, came up with the thesis that the bacteria Helicobactor Pylori was a major factor in causing ulcers and severe gastric problems they transformed a major area of medical treatment and saved millions from decades of pain and misery. It also meant a large number of surgeons had to find other kinds of work and hospitals reorganised. They knew that they might change things but not the extent of the impact.

So what is going on out there now that has already started and will gather strength and impact in the coming decade? What is it that could change all our lives and we will not see it until it is too late and we will make an unholy mess of the period of transition? It could be none of the things that lead the current fashions of change prediction or of impending doom.

It could be something quite simple and not noticed; someone or something we have never heard of and take no account of. Then when it happens we might wonder what has hit us and why. For anyone adversely affected the issue will be who to blame and how to prevent the inevitable.

It could be nice or it could be nasty. I will return to this in 2020.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Over Egging The Cabinet Pudding

Being pushed for time this week, here is an item by Joachim Wehner from the LSE web site on supersized Cabinets being too expensive. No laughs but an interesting question. If looking for cuts, why not start at the very top?


In his quest to regain control over the deficit, the Chancellor has asked his cabinet colleagues to propose cuts to their budgets of up to 40%. But perhaps the government should start at the centre and consider reducing the size of Britain’s bloated cabinet.

British cabinets are among the largest in the industrialised economies. Labour’s last cabinet had 25 ministers around the table, which has increased to 29 in Cameron’s first cabinet (mainly to accommodate coalition partners). Contrast that with the much more modest size of the cabinet in countries such as Germany (16), Poland (19), Sweden (21) and France (21).

These figures exclude all of the other junior ministers and officials on the government payroll, which usually take the total to around 120 in all in Britain. In contrast to the phalanxes of ministers and junior ministers in every Whitehall department, other governments, for example in Denmark, get by just fine without any junior ministers.

The problem with supersized cabinets is that they are costly. First, ministers need ministerial offices, which have grown in size over recent years, in addition to a big growth of special advisors and the government communications teams backing up each minister.

Second, the fewer ministries there are, the less often they are also likely to be subject to expensive reorganisations. There are substantial costs involved in creating, adjusting and maintaining portfolios, as highlighted in a recent joint study published by LSE and the Institute for Government. The current coalition government sensibly responded by not reorganising Whitehall as soon as it took office.

Unfortunately, this has not curtailed a tendency of each ministry to periodically want to reorganise all the bodies that it supervises, its “departmental group”, evidenced by Andrew Lansley’s determination to overhaul yet again the macro-structure of the NHS.

Such reorganisations involve extra expenses recently estimated by the National Audit Office at £200 million a year in the period 2005-9, during which there were 90 different reorganisations.

Finally, the far wider problem is that ministers and departments (as key political contact routes) are expensive in a structural way. While finance ministers reap political rewards when they manage to contain spending, most of their cabinet colleagues have different political incentives: Spending ministers easily become representatives of special interests.

They are deemed “powerful” when they increase their budgets, but “weak” when their departments suffer below-average increases or disproportionate cuts. Each spending minister benefits politically from their own departmental spending, while the costs of their programmes are shared more widely across the government and taxpayers. a classic example of the “common pool resource problem”.

In a recent academic paper, I review several studies that have quantified the marginal cost of expanding the size of the cabinet. All of these contain remarkably similar findings, despite the fact that they use different empirical approaches, samples of countries and time periods.

These studies estimate that adding a spending minister to the cabinet is associated with an increase in the deficit of about one tenth of one per cent (0.1%) of GDP, largely due to effects on spending.

In other words, if Britain were to cut its number of spending ministers by ten, about a third, this should reduce deficits and expenditures by about 1% of GDP – a significant contribution to fiscal consolidation. At a time when many governments face the most severe fiscal crisis in decades, these findings are gaining international attention.

In July 2010 an OECD study team tasked with examining strategies for greater value for money in government considered a draft report that some countries are already seeking to get the number of their top departments down to a maximum of 15.
Most governments include some portfolios that have no obvious justification.

One of my all-time favourites is France’s Minister of Free Time, a portfolio that existed between 1981 and 1983 to develop leisure programmes. The problem is that prime ministers use portfolio allocation to reward friends, or to accommodate foes, and to manage coalition governments.

Hence, cutting the number of spending ministers is politically difficult. Still, Britain’s cabinet is excessively large in comparison to most of its counterparts in other OECD countries. Does Britain really need a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a Secretary of State for Scotland and a Secretary of State for Wales, even if combined with other roles?

If the government wants less public spending, getting rid of such luxury portfolios could be a good start. But downsizing the cabinet probably requires a strategic goal also. A recent essay on joining up public services looked forward to a UK cabinet in 2020 of no more than 15 department heads, with perhaps 50 ministers in total.

At a time when citizens are asked to accept massive cuts in spending on public services, Britain’s supersized cabinets are no longer justifiable.


So how many could go in line with overall government targets? 6,12,15, or 20 to arrive at a size to match the 1931 Cabinet (above), also a time of crisis? And how much would we miss them and all their little helpers?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Rule Of The Plundercrats

For some time I have been suggesting that all the old baggage of theories and “isms” we have collected down the years are out of date and now impede real discussion and awareness of what is going on out there. The problem is finding new words and a structure of ideas that does and can be understood. Perhaps we need to reduce matters to the simplest possible.

It is that the world is ruled by a shifting group of people who have gained control over the financial systems, scarce resources, communications and means of distribution. They are increasingly above the law, can control politics and their interests extend into almost every home and location in the world from which they extracted increasing amounts of wealth that they alone govern. Much of the developed world is collapsing into debt slavery and much of the undeveloped world is already there.

There are two possible words, Plundercrats or Lootocrats with Plunderocracy and Lootocracy as the group options. The second comes a little too close to the old Plutocrats associated with past “ism’s”. The first is a little clumsier but is more accurate as it more or less describes their mode of operations. I am settling for The Plundercrats.

This line of thinking was sparked off by a long item on The Vikings in the latest “Current Archaeology” that deals with the debate about them being “raiders or traders” etc. Rightly, the author, Chris Catling, points out that they were not the only armed groups of men in that period. There have been many others.

If you look at history in the longer period and over wider territories than Europe and the Mediterranean there have been times when there have been many types of mobile armed groups with predatory intentions and purpose who have plagued others and have taken what they wanted and when they wanted. What made The Vikings different was that they arrived suddenly by deep sea voyages and did not trouble too much about who they attacked. The churches and monasteries were not sacred as far as they were concerned if there was plunder or loot to be had.

To reduce all the political structures of history to their basic form essentially you have four organisational layers (who says I am not up to date?) above the base farming, working and trading elements in a society. You have War Bands, roughly a boat load of Vikings or Saxons and the like. Above them you might often have a War Lord who is recognised as senior and sometimes controlling of a number of War Bands, maybe by consent, maybe by force.

Above the category of War Lord there is Overlord who can command the loyalty and support of a number of War Lords. Then it is possible to have a Superlord who commands, and/or controls and is recognised by Overlords and other Warlords as their superior. To put it into old fashioned European terms an Emperor or major King might be a Superlord, other Kings with sundry Dukes, Princes as Overlords, with then ranks of Warlords and War Bands below them.

This system covers one or another most complex political systems in history. If you scratch below the surface of either ancient or modern supposedly representative systems you can find the same basic structure. They might have stopped cutting throats and all the rest but the idea is control and supremacy. The key to this is that these are in continual flux and do not remain static. Groups can rise or fall with either astonishing rapidity or over several generations. One situation can change form and then change again and again.

What is it all about? Essentially just like the aggressive Viking raiders, plunder, loot and money taking to enable the gathering of wealth to trade in desired goods and to create status. Also, the more of it you take the greater the chances of ascending the ladder of lordship, so long as you can keep it and your followers together. During our human history the various grades of lords have rarely cared too much about what happens to those below them and the collateral damage.

All these war band leaders and their lords are Plundercrats or Lootocrats and they are with us today in the shape of the globalised financial, oil and business communities. They have now escaped the control of the military lords; indeed they pay and command them. This is done through their political agents and stewards, sometimes theoretically representative, often dictatorial who depend on their funding and support for the access to media and the bands of followers they lead.

Unluckily, their greed and rapacity has done so much damage that in the vast urban areas and their helot populations new groups of predator War Bands are springing up. They are going out of control and will soon either contest the local Plundercrat leadership or by operating as independent entities that are impossible to control these War Bands will reduce the major economic bases to extreme forms of poverty.

The Plundercrats will then form or recruit their personal War Bands and retreat into heavily fortified communities, sometimes having to pay ransoms or forfeits to any better equipped War Band that might turn up asking for cash, as did the old Vikings.

I saw this big fast boat down at the coast that is there for the taking. If around thirty to forty blokes with time on their hands and all the right kit would like to come along we could have an interesting trip. Should we start at Marbella and move on to Monaco?

Call it our own personal Human Rights Campaign.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Counting Out The Census

The announcement that the Census of Population in the form that it has taken since 1841 is now to end is not a surprise. According to a report I have seen the 2011 is said to be going ahead and that will be the last. I recommend that the Government should cancel that for 2011. It is all too likely to turn out to be a farce, grossly inaccurate, very expensive and a source of unlimited trouble and complaint at a time when many more serious issues have to be dealt with. Also by the time the data becomes available and has had analysis it will be out of date.

After the 2001 Census there were difficulties in a number of areas, notably Westminster of all places, where the gross figures for the Returns simply did not match other information which was more reliable and able to be checked. Because the Census was used as a base for major funding and planning decisions by Whitehall those authorities concerned stood to lose a great deal and their council tax payers to lose even more. I did a piece at the time and was delighted to see the Government back track in its attitude and accept that there could be major inaccuracies in the data for a variety of reasons.

In the past the Census was always a rough and ready population count asking for basic information and intended as a framework for discussing general population issues. It was never intended to have an absolute authority in a whole range of government decision making processes on planning and funding. For any of this there were a large range of other reports and investigations available. In many local areas Sanitary Engineers, Medical Officers and others worked to find out the facts.

Those of the past for those who have studied Census Returns extensively know all too well that they were never accurate and the detail is strewn with errors, wrong information, and often guesswork. It was not unknown for the recording to rank bad in some cases and very unreliable in others. Some patches of the urban areas were not covered at all for the obvious reasons; no go is nothing new.

Seamen necessarily are often missing. There were many others who travelled and itinerants and work gangs left off. Men would sleep out for the night because they believed that to be recorded meant being called for the Militia. One of the most spectacular errors was in 1881 when the wife of a Foreign Office Plenipotentiary-General negotiating a Treaty abroad in the name of The Queen and Parliament was listed as a the wife of a General Labourer. The enumerator did not appreciate the distinctions in the use of the word “General”.

If 2001 in my view was poor and ramshackle on the whole, with a form that many will have disliked, then 2011 will be worse and for much the same reasons. The intention is to ask many more questions of people who will be very reluctant either to tell the truth or to co-operate. I have seen some Libertarian and other internet stuff already that is suggesting that people give silly answers. Few will need much invitation, will those who worship Jedi suddenly became the major religion of the UK?

In the past there have been more serious conceptual weaknesses in the analysis of the Returns. Because they relied on the old Registrar General’s construct of the class structure this was the way population was regarded. The fluidity of movement, the complex structure of families and critically the nature of management and organisational systems often bears no relationship to the bareness of the Returns. I could go on and on about the way the old Returns gave only a crude and inadequate snapshot and must never be taken at face value either in detail or as a whole.

One reason is that too many historians, sociologists and others have imposed too many inadequate and misleading ideologies of politics and philosophy on these raw figures. So we have been given a wholly deceptive picture of the past. The 2011 Census will be no better, probably much worse given the potential scale of evasion. The old Returns have their uses but like any evidence of the past or even the present need regarding with care and corroboration.

Anyhow if anybody wants to know who I am or what I am they just have to look at what is out there already in the computers. If as Kant is alleged to have suggested, “Man is what he eats” then it is all there in the shopping lists.

So the government should scrap the 2011 Census and save themselves a lot of trouble and all the bother of making sense of what is too likely to be nonsense.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The Return Of The Mad Tankies

Walking down our main shopping street I had a jolt in the random memory. It was the glazed eyes and nodding heads that began to make me take notice. The other signs were soon evident. Not quite hearing, missing what you were saying, getting it all wrong, the feeling of a distant being, the jumpiness, the erratic reactions and the nervous motions. Not me, but them and young. What was it that was lurking in the mind?

Like so many other things the answer came in the night as I crept to inspect the contents of the fridge hoping that something needed to be consumed. It was looking out into the night and seeing a movement in the shadows. It was only a fox eating a neighbour’s cat. Then I remembered the Mad Tankies.

Long go, when on duty in the night and watching and checking as we had to, one of the hazards was that a Mad Tankie was abroad. Sometimes they were simply drunk and had to be assisted. Sometimes they were on a bad one as their demons had come to visit and this could be difficult. Many times they had just gone walkabout.

One of them who joined the cavalry not long after 1930 was often looking for his horse. It had been taken away in 1939 and he had never had one since. But many nights he would be out there looking. Another needed watching especially if he had found some matches. There were others who were never quite with you at any time and unpredictable.

What they had in common was that they were close to the end of long service, often had suffered loss or rank due to one calamity or another and had all been tank crew for long spells. Tanks then as now were very noisy things and inside them crew had headphones that added to the racket and directed loud and indiscriminate sound into their ears for hours, days, weeks and years. Then there was the gunfire.

They had gone “deaf and daft” and we teenage soldiers were asked to help this unhappy few get past the last months or so of service to allow them an honourable discharge with pension. We did not mind, at times we were almost as daft and in any case they had served their time and deserved a little latitude. What happened in Civvy Street was beyond us and none of them would make old bones.

The Mad Tankies were not the only ones of their kind. I recall the tacking shed in a shoe machinery factory where tacks were hammered out of wire by large machines. There were about fifty of them banging away and anyone who was not already deaf when they began there would be within the year. It would not be long before they were daft as well. Nearly as daft as all the women in the puff and shank shed where other machines stamped out the stiffeners for boots and shoes.

This is not the place for an essay on deafness and a detailing of the recent research made possible by MRI etc. which indicates that deafness and the associated difficulties can result in brain impairment. For the Mad Tankies in the age before antibiotics and the rest any ear infection at any time could make the hearing vulnerable. Noise did the rest and the medic’s then simply took the view that deaf people were necessarily different, it just happened.

Decades later I was deeply involved with services for those with severe hearing loss and all those involved. A great deal of time was spent working out what was needed and how best to deal it. It was a time when it had become evident that this was not just something that happened; it had profound implications for those affected and their families. What many of them were not clear about, nor many other people, were the implications of sound as a physical force.

We know much more now from work in the last couple of decades. Specialists in the past often advised against the deaf simply turning sound up but were often ignored because it could not be felt or seen. So to suggest damage as a consequence of impact on the skull and brain was purely theoretical. Also, many psychologists and psychiatrists asserted that it was purely an emotional reaction.

With the coming of the amplifier and loud sound of both music and voice it is a loud and assertive world we live in. Technology has massively reduced the size and cost of devices as well as their range. As I walk about many people seem to have something plugged into their ears and have become oblivious to everything around them. There are some who may be in a state of semi-concussion because of their inability to walk in a straight line and continual bumping into others.

At times I can hear the sound at up to thirty yards despite it being plugged into a distant ear. There are others when a car passes by with the decibels inside up to 100 or more and small children inside. There are nights when a festival in the park near two miles away can be heard. Shops and banks belt out sound at 70 decibels or more because they think it is expected. Health, yes health clubs commonly have sound beyond 90 or more decibels.

And everywhere I walk and in all the public places I see the new Mad Tankies. Only they are not men old before their time, they are quite young, often very young. And they are all going slowly or quickly deaf and different from the rest of us.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

London, The Great Wen, What And Why

Just when you thought it was safe to go out in the light a reminder that the Mad Max Spenders are still loose out there on the street. On 5th July in the LSE site:

Tony Travers, Professor of Local Government etc. at LSE, the author, had a predecessor in the job named Professor Smellie who introduced undergraduates to his lectures with the profound observation that Local Government was two things. First it was local and second it was government. Nowadays those institutions calling themselves by that name seem to exist in a virtual unreality of their own.

Travers therefore became a guru to the former government and adviser on matters local and such like. He had to come up with big ideas. Preferably ever so big that they entailed spending vast amounts of money, surprisingly mostly in Labour held areas. See the figures for London he gives above and weep.

The latest big idea, maybe destined for the next Labour manifesto, especially if either of the Brothers Grimm Miliband, purveyors of fairy tales to the media, take control is that Greater London should become a City State free from England but still within and presumably in control of the UK. He claims that England is now a nuisance to London’s ambitions and purpose.

He asserts that government spending is only one third of the London economy and needs to be a great deal more if it is to continue its growth. This of course is direct cost, he conveniently omits indirect, a Travers characteristic. He suggests a Barnett formula approach to the government funding of London, notably if Scotland forgoes the one it was given in the late 1970’s as a quick fix to a temporary difficulty, to levy its own income tax. Do I hear the skirl of pipes and shrieks of laughter?

Travers alleges that London is the great engine of UK growth and therefore needs to increase its population by around 9% a year to staff all those extra public sector direct and dependent jobs with tourism and entertainment. To do this London needs to run itself free from UK interference but still taking taxpayer money and likely free from Westminster and Whitehall interference. But if the government of England remains in London this raises some intricate questions.

It is just within the bounds of possibility that there might be special pleading here. Back in 2007 the LSE was sending 30% of its student output into financial services. How many went into the public sector and other related organisations is an estimate, but somewhere around 45% would be near the mark.

Could it be that many LSE graduates now have to submit to the indignity of more ordinary work? Is it that LSE no longer has the attractions it did on the world student market? So the UK should be broken up and London floated as the ultimate taxpayer funded financial service to support the LSE?

At this point I introduce the ghost of William Cobbett. In his “Rural Rides” of around 1830, when my in-laws were torching their local workhouses in Hampshire, he refers to London as “The Great Wen”, a growing running sore on the back of England sucking the goodness and wealth out of it eventually to destroy and ruin it. Most historians think he was over the top on this, but some of us are not so sure.

In any case perhaps Travers should do a little extra reading, the intellectual shoddiness of this piece suggests someone in a hurry who is careless both of his sources and conclusions. One place he could start is in the Robbins Library a few yards away, the British Library of Politics and Economic Science. It is part of the LSE. There he will find the Booth Collection, the detailed analytical studies of London population done by Charles Booth at the end of the 19th Century.

They are online, but it is much better to spend time on the originals with a good street map to hand. They are a fascinating reminder of what can happen when you allow unchecked inward migration without thought for the consequences. If he went further and cross checked the detail with some of the key districts against the 1891 and 1901 Census Returns he might be better able to understand migration patterns.

Also, he might return to the work of the Environmental Initiatives Network of a few years back that has retreated from interest and activity. This was based at LSE but in recent years its messages and purpose have been very much out of fashion there. This group were attempting to address the long term consequences of rapid environment change and the threats to the world economy and political structure.

One talk in the Old Theatre was a speaker who was explaining what it takes to make a large modern city work. He tried to convey this with the idea of each urban area making a footprint on the planet. The bigger, more complex, and richer the urban area was then the bigger and more demanding was the footprint. That for London was very big and increasing rapidly in size.

When that might become unsustainable would depend on a number of factors but when it did you might have a slow decline or you might have a rapid collapse. The rapidity of collapse might depend on how well London was controlled, who was controlling it, and how good its relationships with its hinterland were. .

The financial developments in London under the last government rather than creating a thriving economy as a whole, effectively took a wrecking ball to the economy of England, both urban and rural. The structural damage caused to local government is extensive. Travers might care to look at some of the detail.

Within the UK the situation was modified in some areas by imbalances in state funding, but over much of England the life has been sucked out of the private sector and local communities. See the item on Tuesday 19th May 2009 on “London Pride And Tamworth Pigs” for a fuller item on my views.

Perhaps London might become master of its own fate. How much would we in England charge London for its water, its energy use, its food supplies, and the other general services on which it might depend? If we could write London out of the Budget for England and charge for all this support at a level that would cover real costs, it might be worth it.

If England left the EU and London stayed within it would be interesting to watch the decay begin. It has happened before and can happen again. Where exactly and in which Royal Park would the Mayor of London start drilling for oil?

Another of Professor Smellie’s remarks was that in local government it was not a question of what local government might do for you, but what you might do for your local government. I believe that President J.F. Kennedy when he was at LSE sat in on some of Smellie’s lectures. Perhaps Travers might have a look around the school archives.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Taking Care Of The Pennies

There is a lot of clatter about percentages, cuts, reductions in service and a great deal of muddled thinking. If the government is trying to be clever it is a bad idea. Restraining spending, or even cutting, is always wildly unpopular. The luvvies will be out in droves tearing their hair, rending their clothes and covering themselves with organic ashes.

If you want to take a percentage out of a budget, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, first you need to make up your mind what sort of fight you want on your hands. There is no sign of this in the government’s approach to date which is a worry for many reasons. Allowing for this, there is the blinding obvious.

If overall you are hoping for 10% then you might make noises about 25%, ask for what can go at higher levels and see then what can be done. What you do need to be very clear about is that if you want to reduce by 10% or more overall and at the same time maintain or even increase some levels of spending then something has to go at much higher levels of percentage reduction.

Moreover if those parts of the budget you want to keep up are larger in proportion that others then the weight of reductions in the others will be much greater. In short to cut overall by 10%, if you only have one third or so of the budget in which to find it then the reductions there will have to be a lot more than 10% and in some areas more than 40%.

Where the government will be at a loss is in trying to work out what was going on where and what exactly has been happening. Given the chaotic operation of the last government, the obfuscation (lies to you and me), faking of figures and accounting that would put to shame Madoff and Enron, it may be that the only safe way is to wield all those axes currently on display in cartoons in the dead tree press.

The increasing urgency of the situation, the stresses building up in the world economy and the increasing number of trouble spots that could trigger real problems for all the vulnerable economies such as the UK means that the government have little time in which to do a lot of work and make many decisions. They cannot afford to be too precious about the detail.

During the French Revolution the authorities were notoriously indiscriminate about who was sent to the Guillotine and why. It is claimed that amongst the possible devices that the Guillotine was derived from was The Halifax Gibbet invented as an efficient and humane execution device. This made it easier on the conscience to justify all those suffered the chop after a limited investigation.

Eric Pickles came to political prominence in Bradford, a little way along the road from Halifax. Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

Friday, 2 July 2010

Learning By Numbers

When I became a teenager my Grand Uncle John from the Scottish Presbyterian part of the family told my parents that he could fix me up with a job in the Corporation Tramways. If I was sensible, obedient, reliable and hard working then if I achieved the rank of tram driver I might ascend to the giddy heights of inspector and live in a semi-detached house. These were not personal qualities that were evident and as there had been an unlucky business with a milk float my parents were nervous about letting me loose anywhere near wheeled vehicles.

As time went by and attempts to find work for me ended in conspicuous failure I continued in education by default with a spell in the Army. My Grand Uncle and my parents were not sure of the point of it all. What use was a degree unless there was a specific vocation or occupation demanding long intensive study that would justify it? They belonged to generations where a university degree had limited currency.

My Grand Uncle was a good and in many ways a wise man who had never seen the inside of a secondary school. He was very well informed, read a great deal and had a critical faculty that was as sharp as a razor. In our town few men of commerce or business or occupying senior positions needed a degree and if anything time spent on this kind of study was a waste in pursuing any real career. Essentially, you worked your way up, often by part time vocational study.

How things have changed. Higher education is now becoming a commercial activity with notions of throughput, target meeting and added value in terms of financial return. This item from “Current Archaeology” Issue 242 of May 2010, “Sherds” by Christopher Catling tells us of what the world of learning is now about and it is not learning.


Academics tend to be an unhappy bunch these days. No longer do they just have to be good at teaching and research, but they now have to earn their own keep and contribute to the fat-cat salaries and grandiose building schemes of the new breed of professional university managers. One way to do this is to take on more and more students, and to mark them positively, so that the university rides up the league tables.

Many more first class degrees are being awarded now than in the past, even though standards are widely held to have fallen as a result of a decline in pupil/teacher ratios and face to face teaching.

Departments that cannot increase their income are closed down, no matter how highly they are held in international regard. This was the case with Southampton’s Textile Conservation Centre, and is the likely fate of the Departments of Palaeography and Byzantine Studies at King’s College, London. One King’s College apparatchik described this as “strategic disinvestment” aimed at “financially viable academic activity by disinvesting from areas that are sub-critical level with no realistic prospect of extra investment”.

Academics also complain of loss of tenure and the feeling that “I cannot now even read a book in the Library without being required to secure a grant to cover the cost.”

For all these reasons there is widespread, if muted, satisfaction in the recent victory of Professor Paul Buckland over his former employer, Bournemouth University, which must reinstate him or pay compensation for loss of income, having been found guilty of constructive dismissal. As Professor of Environmental Archaeology, Paul failed 18 out of the 60 second year undergraduates who took examinations in 2006.

He did not do so out of elitist disdain: one student attributed the decline of elm trees to diseases passed on by dogs; another said that the eruption of Pompeii in AD 79 “changed the pattern of human evolution”. When the university re-graded the papers without his knowledge, he felt he had to resign to protest against what he called “an unequivalent affront to my integrity”.

In the Court of Appeal in February 2010, Lord Justice Sedley ruled that the University had undermined Professor Buckland’s status and it was the “inexorable outcome” that he had been constructively dismissed. The University had responded by saying that this is entirely a matter of employment law and nothing to do with what Professor Buckland called a “much larger process of dumbing down”.

Academics disagree; they see it as a small but important victory in the battle to stop what Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, calls the “marketisation” of university education.


What was it that Gerald Ratner said about the wares in his shops? “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, "How can you sell this for such a low price?" I say, "because it's total crap".

So what happened to Ratners?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Watering No Flowers

A number of times in the past I have mentioned that one of the developing serious issues in the world is that of water supply and distribution. In the UK we may think we do not have the problem but it would only take marginal shifts in several related areas of supply and demand to create one. And it will be one with no easy or cheap answer.


From “The Ecologist” of 29 June 2010

Report lists top ten countries at risk of water shortages

Sub-Saharan African countries top list of those with most vulnerable water supplies as report warns of 'looming crisis' in both Asia and Africa from pollution and depletion of natural water resources

Depleting water supplies are increasing the risk of both internal and cross-border conflict as competition between industry, agriculture and consumers increases, according to an assessment of world most vulnerable countries.

The report from the analysts Maplecroft, says that the ten countries most at risk are: Somalia (1), Mauritania (2), Sudan (3), Niger (4), Iraq (5), Uzbekistan (6), Pakistan (7), Egypt (8), Turkmenistan (9) and Syria (10).

The ranking was based on an assessment of access to water, water demands and the reliance on external supplies with countries like Mauritania and Niger more than 90 per cent reliant on external water supplies.

Dam conflict

Egypt, ranked eight by the report, is dependent on water from the Blue Nile, and is in the midst of an ongoing dispute with Ethiopia over the construction of the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia, which it claims will further deplete its water resources. The dam, which would be the largest in Africa, has also faced opposition from NGOs who claim it will devastate fisheries in neighbouring Kenya.

A separate report has highlighted the worsening problem of water scarcity in the Himalayan sub-region of India, Bangladesh, China and Nepal.

Although none of these countries made Maplecroft's top ten list, the Indian-based Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) say they will have to cope with 275 billion cubic meters less water within 20 years - more than the total amount of water currently available in just one of the countries – Nepal.

It says that while global warming may take two centuries to seriously deplete the Himalayan glaciers, some impacts will be visible sooner. The Yellow River in China and the Ganges (with its tributaries) in India are expected to become seasonal rivers by the second half of this century.

The high water demands of agriculture in both India (where it accounts for 90 per cent of water usage) and China (where it accounts for 65 per cent of water) will lead to a drop in wheat and rice yields of between 30-50 per cent by 2050, according to the report. It said both countries would be forced to import 200-300 million tonnes of crops.

Water pollution

In addition to natural depletion, the report also pointed out the increasing scarcity of water resources due to pollution. The Yellow River Conservancy Committee estimates 34 per cent of the river is unfit for drinking, aquaculture, and agriculture.

An estimated 30 per cent of the tributaries of Yangtze River are extremely polluted and in India, 50 per cent of the Yamuna River, the main tributary of the Ganges is extremely polluted.

Data for rivers in Bangladesh are not available, but a study published recently in the Lancet medical journal said up to 77 million people in Bangladesh had been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic from naturally contaminated groundwater supplies.

In total, SFG says that more than 30 per cent of the major Himalayan rivers are biologically dead and unfit for people or fish.


In the summer of 1976 a number of areas in the UK experienced shortages that caused substantial disruption. If an accident can happen, it will.