Guidance following the EU referendum result


I was asked by the group The 48% to write a piece for the UK’s MPs following the EU referendum of 23rd June 2016.

So, I did.

The piece has now been sent to every UK MP, and will be sent to every one of the continent’s MEPs in the next few days (today being 1st July 2016).

So, I thought I would share it with you here:

We understand that, like almost everyone in the UK, you have been able to think of little other than the result of Thursday’s referendum on our country’s membership of the EU, and the likely effects of that vote.

And after deep consideration, it is with some regret that we must ask you to prevent the initiation of Article 50.

We have not arrived at this conclusion lightly. The will of the people is not something which should be ignored – though that is not what we ask you to do here – and as representatives of the people we do understand that you correctly feel a responsibility to carry out that will.

But there are a number of reasons why this course of action – not leaving the EU – is not only what is best for the country, but is also a fully justified decision for you to take.

First of all, the referendum was always held not as a legally-binding decision, but as an advisory plebiscite, to guide and inform the Houses of Parliament of the mood of the people, rather than as a direct and irresistible instruction from the nation to its politicians.

This may seem a small point, but it is not: if – as we all accept – those who refuse to vote in an election understand that the decision taken by others is the decision by which they must abide, then certainly those who vote in a referendum must abide by its rules: to demand the suggestion from an advisory vote must be followed to the letter is an unreasonable demand.

Of course, this alone should not be enough to convince you not to do what the referendum requests, it is simply to remind you that the decision on whether or not to leave the EU has not been made: it is for you, as representatives of the people, to make such a decision. The referendum must feed into that decision, but so must your own expertise and judgement: that, after all, is the responsibility for which you are paid.

Secondarily, the result itself, as Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s de facto leader has publicly conceded, is hardly overwhelming.

We should also note here that Nigel Farage, the man whose career has been built on ensuring this vote took place, stated in his (unnecessary) concession speech that the loss in the referendum for Leave would not mean the end of ‘the fight’. The same man specifically stated in May this year that he would ‘fight’ for a second referendum in the wake of an ‘inconclusive’ 52-48 victory for Remain: Thursday’s vote ended 51.9-48.1 in Leave’s favour.

There is agreement even from the Leave campaign that a close result should not be accepted as conclusive, and we feel the result could hardly have been closer.

Equally, statistically-speaking, the result was inconclusive by definition. The margin of error allowed in statistical modelling would mean any experiment or model which produced such a result would have to be re-run many times before anything close to acceptance and credence was given to it, and we should also note that in this purely literal sense, the result indicates at least as much as the ‘will of the people’ that on another day, we could expect that the outcome would have been different.

Of course, the vote was held on the day on which it took place, but we advise that decisions of such national – and international – importance should not be based solely upon such an outcome.

Thirdly, the vote itself. Slightly more than 17m people voted to Leave the EU, while slightly over 16m voted for the UK to Remain. But there are 62 million people in the UK. If you are to accept the result of this referendum as the sole factor in whether we leave or remain as members of the EU, you will be accepting that the correct, sensible and just course of action is to allow the (certainly heartfelt and strong) desire of 17m people to dictate to 45 million others the future of the UK, of the continent and to a certain extent the world.

We should note here also that while some 28 per cent of people simply did not vote (and so must be regarded as being content to leave others to advise the government), there were many others who could not and who arguably should.

For example, there were many thousands of UK nationals living in overseas territories – most in the EU itself – whose votes were cast but unheard because of problems with the postal voting system; others never received their polling cards in time to cast their postal vote. In both cases these are people who by the rules of the referendum were entitled to vote, but who were prevented from doing so. This does not add legitimacy to the idea that the government must accept the outcome of the vote as a conclusive order from the people.

A large number of young people who urgently wished to vote were also unable to. This is not the time or place to cavil over the electoral rules set for this referendum (even though the immediate precedent set by the Scottish independence referendum had been that in cases of unusual importance, 16- and 17-year-olds could be offered a voice) but it does underline the fact that even just outside those legally-entitled to vote sit a large number of UK citizens who overwhelmingly support the UK Remaining in Europe.

You have received guidance from (some) who could vote, but your responsibility goes beyond that: it is to the UK and all of its people. Please do bear in mind that the vote is – as all public plebiscites must be – only a limited cross-section of views on the issue across the country: your job is to ensure that this cross-section is part, not all, of what you base your decision on.

Fourthly, the vote itself reveals not only widespread division – and effectively that the UK’s population as a whole has not made up its mind – but serious constitutional crises ahead.

Not only is Scotland almost certain to leave the Union if Article 50 is initiated, there are signs that Northern Ireland may seriously consider its own position.

But the matter goes further: all four of the UK states’ capital cities voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining members of the EU, as did most other major centres of population: Birmingham; Bristol; Liverpool; Manchester; Glasgow to name but a few.

The reason that we note this is not to ‘threaten’ crisis: it is that crisis is already here. We care deeply about the UK as well as its position as a part of the EU, and we do not wish to see it fall to pieces as a result of an advisory referendum. We implore you to factor the UK’s future existence into your decision.

It is also impossible to communicate this message to you without touching upon some other, inter-connected, factors.

You will be as uncomfortably aware as we are that the Leave campaign made a series of promises – most notably that £350m per week would be spent on the NHS; that we could ‘control our borders’; and that we would ‘reduce immigration’ if we were to leave the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the result’s announcement, the Leave campaign’s leading figures have announced that none of those three promises will be kept.

Though we do understand that in elections people say things which they are later unable to live up to, we must seriously question whether a vote cast based on the three central and most-often repeated promises can still be considered valid if those who attracted that vote and made those promises then withdraw each promise immediately after winning those votes?

The word ‘democracy’ is easy to use, and has (understandably) been used often by the Leave campaign since Friday morning. But we must request that you consider whether winning votes by making promises and withdrawing those promises immediately after the result is announced can truly be part of any model of true democracy?

Connected to this is the worrying fact that many of those who voted to Leave have since stated that they were mistaken to do so, and expressed a wish that they could vote again, this time differently.

We do not, here, write to you about our own reasons for wishing to Remain. Those are important, and include the UK’s place in the world, its attitude to and experience of people from different nations and cultures from our own, our financial welfare (and that of our children and grandchildren), the opportunities granted to us by our membership of the EU, the fact that the mere threat of Leaving has caused a collapse in the value of our currency, the fact that we believe the UK is a state which should care about and be engaged in wider international issues – that it and its people are better as a result of engagement and the benefits it brings.

But while they are important, we are not campaigning to win a referendum here. We are simply reminding you that whatever your – and our – view on the UK’s membership of the EU may be, this referendum, for a number of reasons, should not be the only thing you consider when making a decision about what to do next.

Your decision is of course your own. But we would also remind you that you were elected to make this choice; that you have greater access to the realities of our situation than any member of the general public; and that a range of options remain open to you, including a re-run of the referendum, a General Election or an outright vote to Remain or to Leave. That decision is yours. It is literally what we elected you to do, and what you are paid to do.

The referendum was an advisory exercise. It is almost literally (and actually statistically) inconclusive. The major piece of information that we can gain from it is that the public – as a whole – simply does not know whether it wishes to leave the EU or remain within it, albeit that some in either camp hold strong, regularly-voiced opinions on the matter.

It was also flawed – more so than referenda need to be – and it is a decision with immediate and long-term implications for the UK’s future situation, the UK’s entire future existence, and the welfare and lives of millions across Europe, and billions across the world.

We ask that you bear all of this in mind when making your decision. The referendum is advice from the people. It should not be ignored. But neither should it be allowed to erase all other considerations. This is an enormous decision, and a real turning point in the history of our nation.

Please ensure that when making it, you do not ignore any pertinent and relevant fact, including all those set out above.

We truly hope and believe that you, as our representatives, will choose not to initiate Article 50. We believe we have outlined the reasons why you are not forced to do so.

Many thanks for reading.’


Murder, racism and Nigel Farage: where we are today, and how we got here

Farage poster

On Thursday, a serving UK politician was assassinated for peacefully expressing a desire that the UK should treat Syrian men, women and children in a more human and humane fashion.

I know some people will already be opening their mouths to say ‘…but…’ but the facts are as follows: Thomas Mair was seen by witnesses to shoot and stab Jo Cox, an MP whose major contribution to UK national politics was to campaign for the rights of Syrian refugees to enter the UK.

He was heard by several witnesses to shout either ‘Britain First’ or ‘Put Britain first’ and had taken active part in Britain First rallies. In court this morning (Saturday 18 June) he gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

The door has closed on any hope that he was not politically-motivated or inspired. Mair is a far-right assassin and/or terrorist. And he murdered a serving, peaceful, democratically-elected representative of the people – a woman who was also a wife, and a mother of two – because she had dared to suggest that the fifth-richest nation on Earth should welcome desperate men, women and children into its safety and security.

Now. I am pro-EU and hope we stay in, and I’m aware that what I am about to say will be criticised as ‘political point-scoring’. But I am not here to make a ‘political’ point – or even a pro-EU point. And I am not aiming to ‘score points’.

I am genuinely horrified by the fact that we live in a state where a real person, an elected politician, has been murdered for campaigning on an issue she felt strongly was important, and was a position which sought not to divide, or to vilify anyone – certainly no-one in the UK – but to encourage greater openness and acceptance between people.

I am deeply miserable – and a little worried – that the United Kingdom is now a country where ‘political debate’ so openly seeks to divide people into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ and that one result of this has been the murder of an innocent woman.

And so I think it’s time we start naming those who are responsible, and talking about what we can do about it.

And that means naming – amongst others – Nigel Farage, and the politics of horror he stands for.

Before we get into Nigel, however, it’s worth starting with Mair himself. Because I have met Nigel Farage a few times, and prior to our appearance on This Week in April, we had a short conversation.

I can definitively state that Nigel Farage does not want people to shoot one another. And – though it may seem unpleasant for me to say so – he particularly does not want white women to be shot dead.

So we must begin with Mair: no-one else has (yet) killed anyone for suggesting that it might be nice to help people not be slaughtered in Syria. He does have responsibility for his own actions, and we must not ignore that.

But that is not the whole story.

Because regardless of whether he shouted ‘Britain First’ or ‘put Britain first’ as he murdered Jo Cox, (a distinction with which Britain First has busied itself on Facebook for the last three days) Mair was a sympathiser with Britain First, and certainly took part in demonstrations with the group in Doncaster (it remains to be seen whether he was a ‘member’ and which other – if any – rallies he had taken part in).

Britain First organises rallies to make Muslim people feel uncomfortable, rides around in armoured vehicles to ‘protect’ people who never needed or asked for such protection, ‘intervenes’ (for which, read ‘acts violently and to intimidate civilians’) at mosques and never uses the word ‘Islam’ without the word ‘radical’.

Its name is extraordinarily poorly-chosen because Britain – my nation – is a place where Muslims live alongside Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jewish people, atheists, agnostics and pagans: where religious difference is far less important than the fact that we all live here and have a part to play in what makes Britain good (as well as what makes it bad).

Though I might not say we should put Britain ‘first’ (it really needn’t be a competition) I am at least confident that what I believe in is Britain – something with which Britain First appears to have a serious problem.

Britain First’s recruitment and support approach is based on two major threads – scaring people about Muslims, and seemingly pro-animal rights messages (which often turn out to be anti-Islam images) posted online. As a result, its ‘likes’ total on Facebook is not necessarily a mark of the popularity of its outlook.

And in fact, it is a fringe band of maniacs, who have taken it upon themselves to force their hopes for a UK uniform in colour and outlook, where dissent of any kind is to be met with threats and violence, upon the rest of us.

But they have increased steadily in popularity. And the reason for that is not Britain First and its members per se – they simply don’t have either the reach or the talent to be anything other than a rag-tag fringe outfit – but a wider, far better-publicised ‘political’ argument. And that’s where Nigel Farage steps in.

Because Nigel Farage is a political phenomenon. He is a former public schoolboy, former stockbroker, former Tory Party member and since 1999 an MEP who claims to be ‘anti-establishment’ and who criticises politicians for being on a ‘gravy-train’ but claims expenses on top of his own wages despite having one of the EU parliament’s worst attendance and voting records.

He has used his media access and the vast (really astonishingly large, considering it had never had an MP before 2014 and is only the fifth-largest political party in the UK) media budget of his UKIP party to drag political debate in the UK to the Right.

By this, I do not mean that he has campaigned to leave the EU, but the way in which he has done so.

Because Farage has two major messages – and both directly fed into Thursday’s political assassination of Jo Cox by the right-wing murderer Thomas Mair: that immigration; and therefore people who enter the UK, are bad for the UK; and that ‘politicians’ are self-interested, self-serving succubi, uninterested in and disconnected from the lives of ‘ordinary people’.

On migration, it’s extremely difficult to know whether Farage genuinely believes what he says, or whether he has simply decided that the best possible way to persuade people they would be better off leaving the EU is by scaring them with the prospect of a mass ‘invasion’ of the UK by people from EU member states.

If it is the former – and it may well be – he has been a particularly dedicated messenger for the most successful form of racism: arguing that foreign people threaten your welfare and in some cases your life. If it is the latter, he has done an exceptional job of being convincing.

In the last few years, UKIP and Farage have been responsible (2013) for claims that more people than actually lived in Bulgaria and Romania would come to the UK as soon as the states became members: UKIP said 29 million people would come, the combined population of the two states was 27.2 million.

During the 2014 EU Election campaign, UKIP ran a poster claiming that 26 million people in the EU were after YOUR job (with a finger handily pointing towards the readers of the posters, presumably to ensure they didn’t think the poster might be addressed to some other ‘YOU’).

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election – an election in which the active scare tactics and racism of Farage and UKIP were shown to have impacted on the wider political system: Labour showed their weakness in its face by issuing a mug promising the party would be ‘tough on immigration’, while the Conservative Party continued to show its sympathy with UKIP’s racism and xenophobia, but in more traditional, non-mug-based ways (specifically, promising an undeliverable migration ‘target’ which would in fact damage the UK if it were ever achieved) – UKIP ran posters blaming not austerity, the global economic crash or the desire of private businesses to cut expenses, but foreign people, for low wages and unemployment in the UK.

Now. At this point, I think it’s worth taking a moment to explain something. Because there may be some readers of this piece who are thinking ‘Farage isn’t a racist.’ Or ‘It’s not racism to want to protect British jobs.’

So. I know that not every UKIP supporter is a racist. I am even more certain that not every person on the Right is a racist. But it is racism to divide people by race and to claim that because of race some people in one part of the world are entitled to more and/or to better lives than others. It’s the definition of racism.

I also know that some voters for UKIP would never dream of displaying or practicising racist behaviour to anyone they met – most people are not naturally racist, and most people are actively open to meeting new people: at the very least to being polite to one another.

But that very point is an illustration of exactly what has happened here in the UK: people who are not racist by nature are voting for an openly racist political organisation and are being told by that organisation, by sections of the UK media and by one another that they are not racist and that the organisation is not racist.

I am sorry to say this, but UKIP is openly and deliberately racist. Its most successful political campaigns have been based on racist ideas and messages, and in the end, racism is about the dividing of people based on their race and geographical considerations, arguing one group is more entitled than another to a lifestyle and its trappings.

And that is the UK in which we now live: a UK in which open racism is now a successful campaign strategy and is ‘covered’ by people lining up to excuse racism, and deny that it is what it is. Most people are not racist, but more and more are being persuaded by these excuses and this covering to engage in racism, and/or to vote for racist policies.

And in recent months, it has got worse. In May this year, Nigel Farage said in a BBC interview: ‘I think it’s legitimate to say that if people feel we have lost control completely – and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the European Union – and feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.’

Those words – an open and deliberate justification of the use of violence if ‘the people’ don’t get what they want through democratic means – are lifted straight from the playbooks of 20th century fascist groups: ‘forget about the fact that in a democracy the majority of those who vote make the decisions, and that the rules are the same for everyone; if some angry people do not manage to win a vote, they will use violence. We think that’s understandable and don’t say we didn’t warn you.’

And this absolute, terrifying disregard for peaceful political process, and justification of violence to force one small group’s political will on the rest of the nation is part of a wider trend for Farage.

Because despite his public school education and career as a stockbroker and then politician, Farage has been consistent in criticising a ‘political elite’ – people at Westminster and in Brussels who he claims (despite never having been a member of the UK parliament and having an abysmal attendance rate at the EU) to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ are ‘disconnected from’ and ‘uninterested in’ representing ‘the common man’; that politicians are deliberately incapable of representing people in the UK, and that despite the fact that UKIP has never received more than one vote in every eight cast at a General Election, he and his party are the representatives of the ‘silent majority’ of UK citizens.

Farage is not the only man responsible for this divide and rule – racially and between UK citizens (eleven-twelfths of whom have never voted UKIP), and the people they do elect to represent them. But he is its major proponent, who is regularly on TV and in newspapers delivering the message: its popularity is his responsibility.

And its result has been astonishingly caustic to the UK. Not only has it damaged democracy in general, it has also built a wall around Farage’s allies (including Britain First) through which inconvenient fact, logic and reasoning cannot pass. Because Farage and others’ argument is not even that those who disagree with him are wrong but that whether they are right or wrong is literally irrelevant: their view can and should be ignored because they ‘do not represent them’.

It is the closing down of any debate: if you agree, you are one of ‘us’. If you are not, you are something else, who does not ‘understand’ – you are different and to be ingored at best, railed against at worst.

And in June, Farage stepped up the process. On 5 June, in a statement condemned by Brexit and Remain supporters alike, the UKIP leader and MEP claimed that sex attacks on UK citizens would increase if the UK remained as an EU member.

It was a shocking statement – a clear argument that ‘foreigners’ are rapists; that if an English person commits a sex attack (and they do) that is unusual, a statistical freak event, but that it’s somehow standard behaviour for foreign people.

And of course, the condemnation of the statement by those of us – Brexiteers and Remainers alike – who still have respect for human beings around the world, went largely unheeded by Farage’s supporters, including those of Britain First, because of the argument that the opinions of critics of Farage’s fact-free racist scaremongering are not ‘wrong’ and to be disproved, but irrelevant, and to be ignored.

And on 16 June – the morning of Jo Cox’s shooting and stabbing to death by the right-wing assassin Thomas Mair – Farage posed for photos in front of his latest campaign poster: an image of men, women and children fleeing death in their homelands emblazoned with the message  ‘BREAKING POINT: The EU has failed us all’.

Many news sources have already pointed out the clear similarity to Nazi propaganda used in the run-up to World War II, and I can only add that this man – and this poster – does not represent me, does not represent my Britain and he will never be anything more than a despicable, divisive and deeply unpleasant human being attempting to create a nation of either extreme division or extraordinary and dull uniformity, neither of which I would want to be part of.

But the point is also that the poster’s message was yet another warning of emergency: ‘foreigners’ are after YOUR job; ‘foreigners’ cause unemployment; the UK is at BREAKING POINT and no-one other than you and the others we agree with are able or willing to see it.

It was a clear call for action, a demand for those lucky few who understand the ‘crisis’ to do something.

It was not a call for a man to shoot and stab to death a politician. But it is ridiculous to pretend that it – and the wider arguments of racism, division and emergency continually shouted by Farage; the pretence that if only people understood or cared they too would be panicking and preventing foreigners from entering the UK under fear of collapse and/or rape – did not play a part in Mair’s act.

The United Kingdom is now a state in which innocent and peaceful democratically-elected politicians can be murdered not for breaking laws, not for preaching hatred, but for arguing for desperate men, women and children to be better assisted by the world’s fifth-richest state.

Nigel Farage is not the only person to blame for that – and as noted already, Farage certainly does not want white women to be killed on England’s streets.

But Farage is the major carrier of the messages that foreigners are dangerous to the UK, that the UK is under attack and needs to be defended, that politicians are selfish and do not represent the UK’s best interests unless they agree with him, and that therefore anyone who attempts to use logic or reason to address his concerns can and should be ignored.

Thomas Mair heard that message, and he responded.

The UK – in part thanks to Farage – has fallen a very, very long way. It will take us a long time to climb back up. But for those of us who do believe in Britain, we must start now, not by dismissing those who fear the EU and foreign people, but by engaging and embracing them.

Opposing Farage is our only option, and it is the right thing to do. But demonising those his vile message has seduced is not. We can, and must, reopen communication with those people. The alternative is a further fall, violence, mayhem, more damage to our democracy and a nation in which no-one can feel comfortable again.

Money, or: The Fallacy of UK Economics

Central to debate in the run-up to the 2015 General Election was the ‘economy’.

There’s a certain irony to this (though also a grim predictability: the Conservative Party has played this tune at every election since 1979, when it formed an administration which tripled unemployment, squandered the North Sea oil windfall on the increased benefits payments which resulted, and began to inflate an unsustainable housing bubble) as in fact there is little difference in economic outlook between Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP.

Though they certainly differ in the details, all four now fully adhere to a capital- and market-centric system, in which policy is driven (and also dictated) by money.

In this way, we hear arguments from Conservatives that we ‘cannot afford’ services (not only is this untrue in the most simple sense, inasmuch as the UK is the world’s sixth largest state – if we cannot afford something then who can? – it is also untrue in the conceptual sense: for a developed state, the words ‘cannot afford’ are literally nonsense, provided one is committed enough to the provision of what is best for its people to change its own rules).

We hear from Labour that we must ‘work with’ private enterprise to ‘fund’ hospitals, schools, and infrastructure projects (even though in effect this meant the state running up debts which must be ‘repaid’ to those private firms many time over – a little like claiming the £5 you borrowed off Bermondsey Dave at 1,000% weekly interest was a ‘partnership’ to help you ‘meet your immediate housing need’).

The Lib Dems are led to well-meaning but in the end self-defeating money-led initiatives which look progressive only until one spends a moment actually thinking about them (lifting the poorest from tax is a warm-hearted idea, but if one reduces the tax-take in our current system, those who are poorest suffer most, as they are the people who rely most upon tax-funded services).

And UKIP present us with ‘Tory Max’ – the arguments Conservatives might like to make, but have so far shied away from: ‘we can’t afford it’ combined with ‘…and it’s the fault of immigrants and the EU which allows them in’ (even if UKIP’s immigration figures were correct – and it is distressing that a party whose entire raison d’etre is immigration is so often so far from accurate on that – they would still not plug the central, howling gap in all of their arguments: if immigrants are stealing jobs, and tax pays for social services, how can immigration possibly be the reason we ‘can’t afford’ anything?).

In the face of such uniformity of approach (the Green Party comes closest to an alternative – underlying most of its policies is the necessity for a new economic approach – but so far has struggled to articulate it in the face of the blank cliff that passes for economics in the modern UK) it’s easy to forget the central question: why?

It’s a useful question in part because of the direct answers it suggests (perhaps the Conservatives govern for their friends, Labour in fear of the market, the Lib Dems under a mist of misunderstanding of the model and its parameters, and UKIP is literally nothing without the 10 per cent of people who look back rather than forward, always forgetting that like the Doppler effect, the echoes of history may not reflect any truth so much as distance and direction of travel).

But it’s also useful because asking it – perhaps only asking it – opens a new line of inquiry. If we can ask ‘why are things done this way?’, we must then accept that there is another.

From there, we can ask a series of questions ‘how did we come to this model?’ ‘what would happen if we altered this, ditched that, tweaked a third thing?’ can we, in short, innovate our way to a better system?

Because it’s hard to argue that what we have is the best we can do as a species. In the world’s sixth-richest state, the current argument is that we ‘cannot afford’ to improve services – indeed that we must make them worse – even as one million people here rely on charity food hand-outs to survive.

The UK’s five richest families own more money than its 12.8m poorest people, and the former more than tripled their wealth in the years 2010-2015, even as the latter suffered the longest consecutive fall in living standards in recorded UK history.

Some of this is deliberate. The political Right is driven by an economic belief that inequality is good for society, driving production and therefore national wealth (though the current government appears to have forgotten that that wealth is supposed to be used for the good of the nation’s people). But the Tory Party did not invent Capitalism, and far less is it responsible for the existence of money.

In the end, while it may give us a sense of dizziness and shortness of breath to think so, we should conclude that we are not where we are because of some kind of grand plan (whether benevolent, as the Tories claim, or malevolent, as conspiracy theorists everywhere are simultaneously angered and reassured to believe) but by a sequence of unthinking, unconscious accidents.

The discovery of this raw material, at this moment, by a state following this model, led to this outcome. Another material, in another time and place, could just as easily have led us somewhere else.

It’s useful to recognise this because the idea that we are where we are because we ‘must be’ or as a result of some grand plan, prevents thought. It prevents imagination, and it prevents innovation. And those three things are the human race’s greatest characteristics – they must not be shut down in relation to the most important matters facing us as a species.

When it was first used, money was a token. It represented goods, and could be exchanged for goods and services. It was not wealth in itself, nor was it the point of goods and services. It was simply a means to make their exchange simpler and easier.

Yet today, as noted above, money has become something else. It is at the centre of – and is a major determining factor within – all of national and international policy. A tool has become the central purpose of society.

It’s as if we had allowed hammers to become the fundamental purpose and point of all craft and construction – as if we were refusing to build because that cannot be done with hammers, and because all our activity should be about the collection of hammers, and in some cases the free movement of hammers across borders and social boundaries.

It’s absurd. Because it’s the process of exalting a tool to a position way beyond the sensible limits of its abilities and usefulness.

It’s probably not fair to level blame for this. The average politician is generally no more or less intelligent than the average voter (though of course some have been, and have changed the game in sometimes quite striking ways – and they are employed to be more focussed on exactly these issues than anyone else is) and if we have been caught up within this error, perhaps they have been as well.

Even in those cases where some blame could be attributed, it will do us little good now to attempt to hold the dead responsible for the struggles of the living.

And it’s easy to see how in a system in which money has become the central societal element; where everything literally relies on it, is driven by it, and is shaped to suit it, rather than the other way around, politicians and the rest of us are dictated to by it to the extent that even the innovators are trapped within the system and so create debt or come up with ideas which are undermined by the system itself.

But there is an alternative. And we have a responsibility to work on it. To spend our time, rather than blaming the dead, working to improve the lot of the living.

And the first step is to question what money is for.

The fact that this seems like an odd question is central to our problems as a species at this point in our history. The fact is, when someone tells us they want to be rich, instead of simply nodding, or – at best – saying something along the lines of ‘money isn’t everything’, we ought to be asking ‘why?’

Not because there’s no reason, but because the reason, not the money, should be the driving factor. That is, what we do with money is surely more important and enjoyable than simply sitting, staring at figures on a screen, or notes in a pile, and smiling to ourselves – at least, if we are not fetishists (and some of us are).

And this works at a national and international level. What is the point of money? Surely, the only point, if there is any at all, is to provide a decent standard of living for people, to provide housing, food, water, heat and light, to prevent people living on the edge of starvation and death. It’s not to say ‘look at all the money we have’ or to leave it glistening in a pile in the living rooms of the extremely rich.

Because that can’t be the point of humanity. The collection of bits of metal and paper we created and we have assigned value to, cannot be what we aspire to as a species, and cannot be how we judge our success or failure.

And in the end, that is what is missing from the argument about economics – not who is best at saving money, but what is money for, and how can we assure it is used to that purpose?

How the West Was Won, and…

THE SYRIA crisis has taught us almost nothing, so far.

We do not know anything new about dictators: sometimes they are evil, sometimes murderous. Not necessarily both, or even either.

We do not know more about religion: sometimes religious groups will vie with one another for political or social control; sometimes they will use extreme violence against people who believe in a different God, or a different aspect or interpretation of the same God, or no God at all. Nonetheless, whatever we see happening in Syria, mostly, they do not.

We do not know more about people: all over the world, they arm themselves if they can, or feel they need to, and will – when forced into unusual, pressured situations – perform acts of which neither they nor anyone else would ever have imagined they were capable.

But at the very least, it has confirmed one thing beyond question: the international system is not fit for purpose.

As long ago as October 2012, on a national news broadcast in the UK, a UN representative was asked ‘has the UN failed Syria?’

On the face of it, the answer is ‘yes’. An uprising by citizens was brutally crushed by the Assad regime, with no response from the UN. Religious extremist groups entered Syria to fight the Assad regime, with no response from the UN. Russia was alleged to have supplied weapons to Assad, and the UN did not respond. The UK, France and the US began sending supplies to the revolutionaries, and the UN did not respond.

Three years on, there is significant – though not definitively proven – evidence that the Assad regime has tortured and killed some 11,000 Syrians.

There is also evidence, including video footage claiming to show one rebel leader eating the raw heart of one of his victims, that the rebels – at least the extremists who have entered with the backing of other Middle Eastern states – have killed as many as 8,000 Christians and Muslims.

Add to this more than two million Syrian refugees and the answer to ‘has the UN failed Syria?’ is clear: yes.

But the question was unfair. It is still unfair. The question behind the question – the question it is most important to ask – is not ‘has the UN failed Syria?’ but ‘has the international community failed Syria?’

And the fact is that the simple, honest answer was, and remains, ‘yes’.

The Assad regime has killed thousands of ‘its own’ people. We do not know whether it has used chemical weapons on them, nor do we know whether recent photographic evidence suggesting widespread, large-scale torture and killings can be relied upon.

But it does not matter. We know that Assad has used Syria’s army and air force to kill Syrian citizens.

On the other side, we know that what began as an uprising by an oppressed people, fighting for human rights, freedom from terror and the ability to choose how they lived, has now become something very different.

It has become an all-out religious attack, led by people from outside Syria, who themselves are committing acts of terror and slaughter upon innocent – and ‘guilty’ – people across the Syrian republic.

The original freedom-fighters remain, but their cause is all-but gone at the moment, smothered by those who arrived from outside to kill in the name of a Prophet who did not request it, and would not wish it.

Three years in, the Syrian Revolution is the Syrian Civil War. And it shows no sign of ending soon.

And this is why the answer to the question ‘has the international community failed Syria?’ is ‘yes’.

When we ask ourselves ‘why has it failed?’ we can only conclude that it is because the international system – as it exists today – cannot possibly act in the interests of people living within a state.

And in the end, we are pushed back towards the UN.

But before we get there, we should consider that the UN itself only exists to solve the basic problem of the international system: its total, consistent, and spectacular failure to regulate itself.

That is, dangerous leaders with unjustifiable ideas, rise time after time, and states consistently develop new means – or enthusiastically adopt old means – of killing people and/or amassing wealth at the expense of others. And the result is death. Always, without exception, death.

Sometimes people agree to step in, to ‘put a stop to’ the ‘excesses’ of a regime, leader or state.

But even these solutions generally cause as many problems as they solve.

As an example, we can look at the three most recent ‘international co-operations’ on the world stage, the ‘interventions’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

For the purposes of this topic, it matters little that the first intervention won approval from the UN, only to be run as an invasion by the US and UK, or that the second was not approved by the UN, only to take place anyway, as an invasion by the US and UK.

Nor does it really matter that the third won UN approval only as the result of the abstention of a third of the UN Security Council and then saw a French, US and UK-led NATO force act, in effect, and arguably illegally, as the air force of Libya’s anti-government combatants.

What is more important, in terms of the current subject, is what the three engagements share.

First, each centred on a regime regarded by all – or significant parts (the US and UK in every case) – of the developed world as ‘dangerous’.

Second, a stated desire by developed world actors to act ‘in the interests of the people’ living under the regime in question.

Third, the use of the military might of the developed world on civilian as well as military targets (just because NATO designates a school as a ‘military target’ does not make it so).

Fourth, the removal of the regime regarded as dangerous.

Fifth, the teetering, edge-of-collapse, chaos left by the months or years of bombardment and attack, and the absolute weakness of the system and government which emerged from it.

There were differences, too.

Afghanistan, unlike Iraq or Libya, was run by an expressly religious regime. Also unlike the other two, Al Qaeda was an established presence, and unlike in Iraq or Libya, it is very likely that when the US and UK pull troops out, the regime they toppled – and claimed victory for so doing – will regain power.

In Iraq, the situation is quite different. Its murderous dictator was secular, and never allowed Al Qaeda into the state. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the UK and US intervention had no noticeable effect on Al Qaeda’s strength, in Iraq, Al Qaeda was directly affected, entering and becoming powerful within the state as a direct result of the US and UK’s intervention.

It is true that, as in Afghanistan, the new regime is teetering on the brink of collapse, and innocent civilians are killed regularly in car bombings, drone strikes, by IEDs and gun battles between terror organisations which are unlikely ever to face justice for their actions.

But unlike in Afghanistan, where the terrorists are extremist religious paramilitary members of the former government, poised to sweep back to power as soon as US and UK troops leave, in Iraq, the terrorists are extremist religious paramilitary members of a group which has never before held power in the state, and is poised to sweep to power as soon as US and UK troops leave.

In Libya, the situation is completely different to exactly the same degree: although here, too, extremist religious paramilitaries who have never before held power in the state have been allowed to sweep in unopposed in the wake of devastation dealt out by Western states, and look set to seize power, unlike in Iraq, France this time joined the UK and US in hammering the republic, and here, rather than facing little risk of arrest the paramilitaries face no chance whatsoever of being arrested for their murders.

In the light of these completely dissimilar situations, those people calling for unilateral – or even NATO – intervention in Syria, where a murderous government is battling murderous religious extremist paramilitaries, must ask themselves: ‘What, exactly, do we think will be the result?’

In order to prevent exactly this sort of situation – the replacement of a government of murderers with another government of murderers – AND to prevent powerful states from inflicting regime-change on weaker ones for their own benefit, we developed the United Nations and International Criminal Court.

In the case of the latter body, which exists to try people for exactly the crimes there is evidence Assad and the rebels are committing on a shockingly regular basis, we simply cannot expect either the regime or its opponents to be tried, because they remain very much at large.

But we are entitled to ask why the court appears to hold so little fear for Assad, or indeed anyone else.

The answer, sadly, is that so few people have ever faced trial in it. This is not because very few war crimes or acts of genocide have ever occurred – and it is most certainly not because very few allegations of war crimes have ever been made.

And the law cannot be considered preventative if whenever it is broken – or whenever it seems possible that a case should be answered, as in the case of Blair, Bush and the War on Iraq – those people who may have broken it are never required to state their case in front of a judge.

The Court does not work, because the Court is almost never set to work: who fears a guard dog which is famous for never waking up?

And so to the UN.

In the case of Syria, it may at first appear that there are some particular, unique, factors at work preventing the UN from acting to intervene and stop the bloodshed.

Namely, that Russia and China have close trade links with the Assad regime, and that the US, UK and France’s major interests in the region amount to alliances with Syria’s major local rivals Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, and enmity towards its main local ally Iran.

Under such circumstances, with one side having much to lose from Assad’s removal and the other much to gain from it, how could any self-interested states possibly agree on any one proposal?

But scratch the surface and it becomes clear that exactly this problem presents itself in almost every situation, and there is another challenge: what, exactly, would the UN do in Syria?

We know that attacks – even airstrikes agreed by the UN and carried out by NATO – have a poor rate of success, unless one counts as success ‘we replaced a murderous regime  with a) a murderous regime and/or b) with no regime, but armed, motivated, murderous bandits throughout the country, filling the rubble-strewn power vacuum we created for them.’

We also know that not only are invasions with regime change as a target illegal, they also have a consistent record of abject, absolute, failure, when it comes to the stated aims of such regime-change: greater regional stability and improved lives for its citizens.

It is pretty clear, then, that in Syria – and perhaps everywhere else – what is required is a new approach.

Fortunately, it is relatively simple. Unfortunately, it is dangerous, potentially messy, and long-term.

But at least it, unlike the tried and tested alternatives, stands some chance of working.

The UN must deliver itself a mandate to enter Syria, place its operatives between the government and rebels, and prevent any further bloodshed.

Of course, the first major problem with this is that it will require states to volunteer to send their own citizens to form a ‘human wall’ between two groups of people already ankle-deep in blood. Who would be first to do so?

The second section of the mandate must be that the UN arrests the leading members of the Assad regime – and the leading members of the religious extremist paramilitary rebel groups – and forces them to stand trial at the ICC.

If any of them are found innocent, they may return to their own home countries, where all other foreign mercenaries, pro- and anti-Assad, will also have been sent home by the UN.

The third part of the four-part mandate must be that at this point – no earlier – a democratic election, free, open to all, and overseen by the UN, must be held.

This is not the call of a Western liberal intellectual (though arguably, that is what I am), convinced that the problems of the world can be solved simply by people scraping an ‘x’ into a box.

But it is the only way the people of Syria can possibly feel they have any control whatsoever over their state and their own destiny.

There are two major problems here. In Tunisia, for example, elections have not yet – after three years – led to the drafting even of a basic constitution to which all have agreed.

And in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, national and international terrorists have responded to election results with which they disagree with terror and death.

Which is where the fourth – and potentially most controversial – mandate must be delivered and enacted: the UN to remain in Syria, offering every possible constitutional assistance, AND with the power to treat any act of violence against a Syrian citizen as an act of violence against the wider international community, and therefore subject to arrest, trial and punishment by the ICC.

This requires a seriously long-term commitment and mandates one and four open significant risk of loss of life.

But we must ask ourselves: are we serious about Syria, where the two sides are not only killing one another, but are massacring innocent civilians on a daily basis?

Are we actually committed to assisting Syria to succeed as a state in its own right, capable of forming and maintaining stability within its own borders and good relations outside of them?

Do we have the stomach not for a short series of airstrikes, indiscriminately killing people, and likely replacing one murderous, criminal regime with another murderous, criminal regime, or for a long war, ending with the return or rise to power of an old or new murderous, criminal regime, but for a long peace – where a state once at war with itself and belligerent to its neighbours, emerges ready to take its rightful place in an international system no longer geared to casting death from above, but building peace and comfort from the ground up?

And, just as vitally, do we want to be able to repeat this feat wherever and whenever necessary?

There is a final problem. And it is major: the make-up of the UN Security Council.

At present, the Council’s permanent members are the US, France, the UK, China and Russia.

That is, the world’s only global superpower, one which shared that title as its major enemy until 25 years ago, the one which is shaping up to become one of two global superpowers, or the only one, within the next 15 years, and two states which until 60 years ago retained Empires which had contained far more of the world’s area than that which fell out of them.

It is, of course, obvious immediately that these states cannot be trusted to act in a disinterested fashion when it comes to international affairs: it would be unreasonable to demand they did act that way – they simply cannot.

They have interests – old and new – in every part of the world, and we cannot expect them to step outside of those interests for something as nebular as ‘world peace’ or ‘global stability’: they have reputations to maintain, and resources and money to amass!

Second, those five states between them control almost the entirety of the planet’s military might. India and Pakistan also have nuclear weapons, and India’s army is one of the largest in the world, but neither could hope to challenge any of the five permanent members in the event of real likelihood of war.

It is possible to argue that this single fact is the reason why those five states are the only ones with permanent seats on the Security Council, but this is not even as advanced as playground thinking: it is, in fact, to misunderstand the rules of the playground.

If the strongest is made the distributor of justice, that may discourage some from ‘stepping out of line’, but it also legitimises and excuses the acts of the strongest, regardless of whether those acts are unnecessarily violent, or even legal.

Just as importantly, it means that when the deterrent fails – as it has very often done – the first response the strongest reach for is extreme violence, as we know it is.

Thirdly, the five are all in the top ten global cash- or resource-rich states.

It means no-one else stands a chance, even in negotiations. If guest members of the Council – Tonga or Trinidad, Peru or even Poland – are offered a lucrative trade deal, or threatened with the removal of such a deal, as an ‘incentive’ to vote in favour of, or against, an intervention by one of the states, how many times could they withstand such an offer?

That is not international diplomacy. It is not really international relations in any true meaning of the term. It is cold, hard, money-driven self-interest.

So how can we trust the UN?

Again, it’s relatively simple.

First, we remove the current five permanent member states from the Security Council altogether.

None of the five should be able to vote, or play any part in ‘pre-vote negotiations’.

Instead, the world’s smallest and poorest nations should take the permanent posts.

When a larger state – India, for example – is chosen as a non-permanent member, their local and global interests must be balanced by the presence of another state: Pakistan, in this instance.

The United Nations Security Team will be granted powers including some or all of peacekeeping, arrest, constitutional and political advice (though only in a system-building capacity), and policing, each of which can only be granted on a case-by-case basis, by democratic process and with negotiations and discussions taking place in public.

The team will be funded by an agreed percentage of every single state’s annual GDP, paid by every state whose GDP achieves a certain threshold – for example 15 per cent at least of the richest state’s annual GDP, which could also encourage richer states to help redress the astonishing levels of global inequality – and therefore poverty – which have been allowed by some, and deliberately forced by others, to exist.

This funding model will exist for one sole purpose: to ensure the team IS funded, and that no state will ‘volunteer’ troops to serve it – the UN Security Team will exist as its own, independent, autonomous unit, staffed by full-time, professional members, paid for by the UN itself.

Finally, whenever an intervention is completed, the state which is formed/transformed by it will take a place as a guest on the Security Council, and will provide expertise – and people – to the UN Security Team for a period of no less than 10 years.

The Syrian state, all but destroyed by the failings of an international system which has failed it – and failed us all – could be the first state to benefit from a genuine effort to make the international system more stable, and the world a more peaceful, less bloody place to be.

It’s a more welcoming prospect than the only alternatives yet attempted.

Mrs X or, a Sunny Summer Saturday in Frackham

Yesterday, I was genuinely unsure of how to begin this blog.

Fortunately, today David Cameron has told us that we’ll all be delighted with fracking just as soon as we know more about it.

Thanks Dave, I should have known I could rely on you…

Meet Mrs X*.

(*Before we go on, I should note a couple of things. Mrs X is almost certainly not Mrs X’s real name. In fact, she told me what her real name was (though in this world, so accurately depicted by Mark Knopfler as being filled with ‘violence and doubletalk’, how can I possibly be sure she was telling the truth?).

And I know the journalists amongst you will be asking why I’ve kept her name a secret. Well, it’s because a) I can, b) I want to because I want her to be able to do the things she wants to from a state of anonymity as long as she wants one and c) because Mrs X amuses me as a name. So that’s that.)


Now, I met Mrs X on Saturday (August 10 2013, historians from the future), near Balcombe, where Cuadrilla are currently drilling to see whether it will be worthwhile fracking in future (more on that in a moment).

I was there to visit the protest against that proposal, which was pretty famous even before the police decided to use Vulcan nerve touches to disperse peaceful protestors (Sky’s headline – Police Arrest 18 Protestors, Guardian – Anti-fracking Activists Arrested At West Sussex, Daily Mail – The Battle of Balcombe. The Daily Mail: because old ladies don’t scare themselves…). Not to worry, there’ll be more on that too.

I started by wandering down the street, saying hello to people, waving at car drivers who beeped their cars in support of the protestors, and watching bemused as the same dangerous protestors who had to be dealt with by Her Majesty’s Constabulary a couple of weeks before waved, smiled and called ‘Namaste’ to Gurkhas (I honestly don’t know why – that isn’t what this one’s about, anyway) as they drove their cars onto the fracking site.

As I did so, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was from West Sussex.

I turned round as I said no, and there was Mrs X.

Now, Mrs X didn’t look much like your average protestor. She was pretty tall, a little bit old, with an austere shortish white hairstyle as favoured by austere tallish headmistresses since schools were invented.

She was remarkably well-spoken, smartly but unspectacularly dressed, and carrying a clipboard.

Mrs X lives in Balcombe. And though I didn’t know it then, she is the response to Call Me Dave’s assurance that the UK will love fracking, if only we could be properly informed about it.

What is that response? Well, let’s see…

Mrs X lives close to the fracking site. Everyone in Balcombe does. But she had hoped that when the drilling began, she may have been protected from some of the worst of the noise and disruption, because there is a street of houses between the drill and her own home.

No such luck, it seems: ‘I deliberately grow fruit bushes in my garden, ‘ Mrs X told me. ‘And as a result, birds come in to land and eat. It’s always been something I look forward to. There’s even a pheasant who comes in sometimes.

‘But since the drills began, there have been no birds. Not a reduced number, none at all.’

(another villager told me that in fact, since drilling began, there have been no birds, insects of animals in what’s normally a pretty animalled-up part of leafy South East England during summer months).

The lack of avian companionship has upset Mrs X. She knows she can live without it, but why should she? She grew the plants to attract the birds, why shouldn’t she actually get to see some every once in a while? First World problems? Well, perhaps. But then we do live in the First World…

In any case, Mrs X wasn’t there for the birds alone. She added: ‘They’re saying they won’t pump the polluted water they’ll create into the local reservoir, but into the River Ouse instead. But the river tops the reservoir up when it’s dry. It’s the same water source. They don’t have any idea what they’re talking about.’

It’s an interesting idea – and one which displays a certain faith in human nature (far more worrying is if in fact they do know exactly what they’re talking about).

But wildlife and waste water are just two of the things people can ‘look forward’ to changing in their environment – locally, nationally and internationally.

We’ve heard a lot in the last couple of weeks about how fracking ‘does not pollute water’. In fact, it appears it does. Reports from Norway show that 18 per cent of their wells leak. Now, we aren’t Norway (there are fewer people there, so leaks are statistically less likely to strike vital water supplies) and we may build better wells than them. Fingers crossed, eh?

But let’s say 18 per cent of wells leak. Well, that’s not so many, is it? Well, yes, as the mathematicians amongst you may have noted, it’s nearly one in five. So it is rather a lot when one considers that the leaks poison water supplies.

And it gets worse. Because the same government which tells you you only oppose fracking because you know nothing about it, and that the wells don’t leak, also tells you that fracking will solve our energy crisis. The government says we have trillions of litres of gas, just waiting to be fracked out of its current home in the ground. Like a badger. Except you can’t shoot the gas when it comes out.

The problem is, Bloomberg and the International Energy Agency are agreed that for fracking to provide what North Sea oil currently does (just half of our national fuel demand), we’ll need up to 20,000 wells, in clusters of six or seven.  So that’s 3,333 clusters, in a small, pretty crowded country, and with the current statistics suggesting one well in every single one of those clusters will leak. (the same report also makes it very, very clear that fracking is not cheap, despite what the government claims. Prices will rise globally, UK prices will react to the global fluctuations, and the customer will pay more for fuel, as always. There’s no miracle in fracking. That’s why the spelling’s so different).

Simultaneously, of course, it’s just a massive V sign to the rest of the world. Around the world, floods force people from their homes, freak rainstorms followed by massive droughts destroy crops and cause people to starve to death, 98 per cent of the world’s scientists agree that human activity is causing climate change which causes these disasters to occur and what’s our response?

‘Oh yeah, climate change is a problem. But we’ve just found a load of lovely carbon emissions-producing gas to burn, so we’re dropping renewables (fuel cost of renewables: a steady zero…) and well, frankly, f**k you all.’

Still, no doubt Call Me Dave will be able to set our minds at rest with his excellent grip on science and economics.

But back to Mrs X. The clipboard she was brandishing had another purpose.

‘I’m collecting signatures from West Sussex residents so we can show the County Council there is real opposition to Cuadrilla. There have been a lot of stories about how they don’t have planning permission, but they do: it will come out of the permissions they already have. But what they don’t have yet are the licences to frack. That’s what we’re talking to the County Council about. We can still stop Cuadrilla getting those licences.’

Unlike many in the UK, Mrs X was not surprised by Private Eye’s revelation on Wednesday that Balcombe Parish Council’s Conservative membership (who would have had the opportunity to at least raise objections against the plans in the early planning application protest) waved it through with no vote.

In fact, its only mention was by one councillor, Simon Greenwood, who happens to own the land the drilling is taking place on, and stands to earn tens of thousands of pounds from Cuadrilla should fracking begin there. He mentioned that there was a plan (he didn’t offer any details of what the plan was) for part of his estate while discussing a completely different proposal.

Nor was she surprised by the same magazine’s report that Balcombe’s Parish Clerk told West Sussex County Council that the matter had been ‘discussed, and no objection was made’, even though the Parish’s records show no discussion, let alone a vote.

She said: ‘It’s even worse than they said. The clerk told the council it had been discussed, and in the last few weeks has told us that the Parish never received any communication about the fracking plan, and that the information was buried in a small paragraph of a hundred-page report to the council. Well, it can’t be both can it? Either there was no communication, or there was some.

‘No-one in the village knew anything about this. For 18 months, no-one was told anything. It’s just a really sneaky, underhand way these people have all been behaving. It’s simply not what you expect.

‘I’ve never really taken much interest in politics, though I’ve always voted Conservative, because round here you don’t really need to. You can just get on with things. But I’m not the only person living here. And no-one knew. Because the people we voted for kept it from us. We are looking at how we can legally oppose what has already been done to us. It’s not our main route of getting this stopped, but it’s one thing we’re looking at.’

At national level, Mrs X’s discomfort is hardly reduced.

‘Well, I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing,’ she said when David Cameron’s name was mentioned. ‘He obviously doesn’t know anything about fracking, and he clearly doesn’t know where the people who vote for him even live. The only place in the country fracking isn’t planned for is the Midlands, and I don’t think anyone votes Conservative there anyway.

‘And he told everyone they’d get £1m if fracking happened near their community,’ (the actual figure is £100,000, as an ’embarrassed’ Cabinet Office later confirmed). ‘Who did he think would be fooled by that? It’s a ridiculous mistake, if it was a mistake.

‘Our MP here is Francis Maude. But he’s speaking out in favour of fracking. Enough is enough. We are going to set up Conservatives Against Fracking, which will start here, but can spread wherever anyone wants it. We’ll campaign to get Maude replaced as Conservative candidate at the next election, and if he isn’t we’ll stand against him.’

(At this point, someone suggested she should stand. She looked at the floor, but brightened up as she said: ‘I’ve never done anything like that. But as an accountant, at least if I said something I wouldn’t be wrong by a factor of ten.’)

Mrs X first came down to see the protests when they started late last month. As a result, she witnessed the police activity on July 24, when officers arrested several activists – using Vulcan nerve touches (Oh, alright, pressure points) to incapacitate people who had stood in front of the gate to the site, attempting to stop the progress of lorries carrying drill bits.

She was visibly disturbed and said: ‘Well it’s outrageous. These people weren’t doing anything to the police. They were protesting against something no-one here wants and what the police did was awful. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in Venezuela or somewhere like that, isn’t it? In a police state, I mean.’

(I spoke to another woman at the protest site, who described what the police did in some detail: ‘They picked on the men, at first. The biggest men who they obviously thought would have most chance of getting in the way of the gates. They hit some of them, then pulled them all to the floor, then they sat on them, four officers per person, and chained them up. They dragged them across the floor.

‘When people got wise to that, and started surrounding the bigger men to protect them, the police went for the women. The ones they thought were ‘leaders’. It was the same again. Using the pressure points, pulling them down, then several officers sitting on each person, then dragging them across the floor. But no-one had been violent. They were just protesting.’)


Me: ‘Did you paint this?’ Police Officer: ‘No.’ Long pause…

I have argued previously that the police at Balcombe are being used as the ‘muscle’ of Cuadrilla and/or the government  – using violence to ensure the company and the government ‘secure’ what they want, regardless of the wishes of the people. As a result, I asked Mrs X who might have called the police.

Obviously, Mrs X, upstanding and respectable member of a beautiful village in South East England did not entirely engage in my mildly paranoid view of the current state of the country (even though she had just used her own direct experience to compare it to a police state).

What was more interesting was how close she did get, though: ‘No-one in the village would have done. It must have been someone else, who wants this to happen. We wouldn’t have called the police. We agree with the protestors. We join them and support them. We like them.’

Which leads to the final point. Over the last fortnight, we’ve all read or heard people (generally Conservatives, it must be said) who’ve argued that this is not a local protest. The people of Balcombe, they say, don’t care about fracking. These are weirdos coming to a peaceful place where they are not needed or wanted, to cause trouble because that’s the kind of people they are.

‘We’ve all read those stories,’ Mrs X (bless her soul) began. ‘And they’re nonsense. All of them. There is not one person in the village who doesn’t support these protestors. Who isn’t pleased and grateful for them being here, and who doesn’t want them here. We all come to see them and speak to them and join them. To let them know we are grateful and we want them here.

‘There’s a joke about it in the village. We have done what the government would want. We’ve outsourced the protests.’

She pauses, smiles: ‘We want them to be here, and we will help them any way we can.’

So, so far it’s looking pretty damaging for old Call Me Dave. The people who have already experienced fracking – therefore actually do ‘know’ about it first-hand – and happen to live in a dyed-in-the-wool Tory constituency, pretty much hate it, enough to try to overthrow their MP and indeed the government they voted for.

And despite Dave’s implication that people don’t know about fracking is because they are ill-informed, or uninterested, the reason they didn’t ‘know’ about fracking until drilling began a few weeks ago was because information about it was deliberately withheld from them by members of the Party Cameron leads – the Party they had implicitly trusted and consistently voted for.

It’s small wonder they feel cheated.

The same people – those who have to date never had any reason to believe in the police as anything other than a benevolent force for good, and that anyone who falls foul of their methods has ‘provoked’ them (even if accidentally) have now watched police activity they compare to a ‘police state’, or more accurately one in which the police are used as an arm of a corporate government, dispatched to deliver violence on people for such crimes as ‘being in front of a gate’ or ‘not being obsequious enough to lorry drivers’.

Mrs X is not alone. She’s joined by the protestors from outside her village (and coach-loads more people are set to join those already there, this Sunday), and despite the arguments of some who support fracking, she is also joined by the rest of her own community, who are outraged by the way they have been treated, and how much the Party they grew up believing in is prepared to sacrifice for cold, hard, cash.

This may not prove to be Cameron’s Poll Tax, as some have suggested. Though I’d like it to be so, the Poll Tax struck everywhere at the same time, while fracking will slowly spread across the UK like a slowly spreading poisonous thing. I hope I’m wrong, obviously.

But it’s made allies of loyal Tory voters and the so-called ‘professional protestors’ they’ve traditionally mistrusted, and all in the Tory Party’s strongest region of the UK.

This might have been a good place to have ended with Mrs X’s own joke about ‘outsourcing protest’, but I’m afraid even Frackham’s campaigning accountant was upstaged on the day by another Balcombe villager.

Sat on a foldable camping chair, across the road from the gate, she appeared to be knitting an incredibly long yellow and black scarf, about three threads in width.

Looking up, she said: ‘I don’t really know how to knit, or how to protest. But I live in the village and none of us want fracking. These people have come all this way to protest and the least we can do is show them we support them, and oppose Cuadrilla too.

‘I do know how to wash clothes. I keep wondering whether I should offer to take their clothes home, wash them and return them tomorrow. But I don’t want to offend them, they’re here helping us.’

Osborne’s World; or, how a lack of imagination makes a bad politician

I HAVEN’T BLOGGED for a while – the never-ending job search taking priority over everything else.

But yesterday’s speech from our esteemed Chancellor was just too much for me to pass up.

I’m not saying he’s an idiot – though he is – and nor am I saying he’s deliberately dismantling the state (though that’s also true).

There’s something more insidious than that in his speech. And it’s something which has happened time after time in Tory statements and broadcasts since late 2009 – when they rose from the graves they’d been resting in.

And it’s this: the Tory Party does not argue its stance. What it has done instead for the last three years is to state what the national position IS and say ‘therefore, the following is true/must happen…’

This would be OK, if their starting point wasn’t just something they made up to suit their purposes.

So the following is just one way in which we can ‘turn the tables’ a little. It contains no accusations of lies, just points out where Osborne’s speculum – as later historians will bewilderingly refer to it – fails in logic, and where its foundations are shaky.

So, yeah, blah, blah, blah.

Hugs, etc…

AT THE last election, the Conservative Party used a quote from Albert Einstein to explain the need for a new government.

The definition of insanity,’ its candidates said. ‘Is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.’

If this statement was ever true (and some claim the physicist never actually said it), the people of the UK could be forgiven for questioning the mental state of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, after his speech to the Conservative Party conference on Monday.

Mr Osborne has promised that the system of cuts he called for and has dedicated his chancellorship to delivering will continue until 2016 at the earliest.

Since June 2010, Osborne has slashed state employment, decimated public services and cut benefits to those who cannot find work, or are too ill to work.

He told us this was because it was ‘necessary’ – the only way to cut the deficit.

He promised us his cuts would hurt, but that the economy would recover from its damaged state ‘by 2015’.

He packaged the policies as ‘austerity’.

The name itself was an unfortunate choice, as the International Monetary Fund – not a body known for its ‘left-leaning’ views – has since confirmed that the result of all 173 ‘austerity’ packages enacted across the world to date was recession.

And, as in any system in which one ‘tries the same thing over and over again’, the results this time have been the same. Recession.

Mr Osborne’s plan has not decreased the deficit – his one justification for stripping jobs and money from the economy and actually reducing the state’s income over the last two and a half years.

Instead, from April –August this year, the deficit actually increased 22% to £61.3bn, £12.9bn higher than in the same period last year.

Austerity isn’t working. And yet, at the Birmingham ICC, Mr Osborne’s response to the failure of his economic policies to date was… ‘to try the same thing again, and expect different results.’

Mr Osborne has promised to cut £10bn more from welfare spending. He has told us that he will not use taxes – the government’s sole dependable income – to raise money to pay off the deficit. Instead, he plans to rely on cuts.

He says the cuts will come from indexing benefits in line with inflation, cutting housing benefit from the young and cutting benefits for families with several children.

He said: ‘how can we justify the incomes of those out of work rising faster than the incomes of those in work?

Of course, it is difficult to justify such a thing. But it is Mr Osborne, not those who are out of work, who must take responsibility for the fact that public sector workers are receiving lower than inflation wage settlements – for it is his policy.

It is Mr Osborne who must take responsibility for the fact that the private sector is choosing to cut employees’ wages, or increase them below the rate of inflation – for it is his austerity package which means there is so little money in the UK that private firms fear expenditure will force them to the wall.

So the question is not, ‘how can we justify the incomes of those out of work rising faster than the incomes of those in work?’ It is instead, Mr Osborne, how can you justify an economy in which those who work earn less money every year?

To put it another way, what are you doing to increase wages, to make work a worthwhile and attractive option? If you believe people are not working because they are richer on benefits, why not encourage higher wages, to reduce the attraction of welfare?

He asks: ‘How can we justify giving flats to young people who have never worked, when working people twice their age are still living with their parents because they can’t afford their first home?

But the cost of houses is not dictated by those who claim housing benefit. It is dictated by those who build houses, and those governments who refuse to take action over ever-increasing house prices and rental costs.

Nor is the housing shortage in this country caused by ‘benefits claimants’ selfishly living in a house. It is caused by factors including land banking by major corporations – a practice the Treasury could combat head-on by introducing empty land taxes – and by a system in which prices have been allowed to increase unchecked, while incomes have been held down at inflation-level or below.

So the question is not ‘how can we justify giving flats to young people…’ It is perhaps more appropriate to ask ‘why can 32 year-olds in full-time employment not earn enough money to afford to move into their own place of residence?’

Mr Osborne asked: ‘How can we justify a system where people in work have to consider the full financial costs of having another child, whilst those who are out of work don’t?

But everyone in the country receives a state benefit – one from a fund into which everyone in the country paid in in the first place – when they have children.

Or at least they did, until Mr Osborne decided to remove child benefit payments from selected families across the country.

So perhaps the question should be ‘Mr Osborne, why are you making life harder for parents, regardless of whether they are in work?’

Mr Osborne then outlined his vision of Britain.

He said: ‘We modern Conservatives represent all those who aspire.

‘Whether it’s the owner of the corner shop staying open until midnight to support their family.

‘Or the teacher prepared to defy her union and stay late to take the after-school club.

‘Or the commuter who leaves home before the children are up, and comes back long after they have gone to bed, because they want a better life for them.

Mr Osborne’s view is indeed an inspiring one, as long as one does not ask the following questions:

Why should a shopkeeper have to open a shop from 7am-12am, solely to earn enough money for their family – who they presumably never see – to survive?

Which teacher has been told by ‘her’ union she must not take the ‘after-school club’?

On the latter point, the NUT and NASUWT have, since the end of September, followed a ‘work-to-rule’ but have specifically stated that teachers who have volunteered to take after school clubs should continue to do so.

Why should ‘commuters’ leave home before their children are awake and get home after they are asleep? Why can’t they earn enough money working sensible hours to provide a decent quality of life for their children?

And does Mr Osborne believe that ‘a better life for their children’ will be delivered by a situation in which a parent never sees their children?

Perhaps, if a decent standard of life for working people is what Mr Osborne wants, he could call for ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’?

On energy, Mr Osborne claims the government will ‘open up the newly discovered shale gas reserves beneath our land… so that Britain is not left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic.’

But even setting aside the fact that energy consultancy Redpoint, advisor to the government’s own independent Climate Change Committee, has pointed out that a gas-based energy production system would cost the taxpayer £23bn per year more than we pay at present for the same power – without factoring in inflation – even the foundation of the statement is questionable.

Because the same report, using the government’s own predictions, along with those of the International Energy Agency, states that: ‘These (groups) envisage rising gas prices in the US and the EU over the next two decades, and a significantly higher gas price in the EU than the US, notwithstanding the potential impact of shale gas.’

Finally, Mr Osborne argues that: ‘Western democracies like ours are being out-worked, out-competed and out-smarted by these new economies. The question for countries like Britain is this: are we going to sink or swim? And the truth is some western countries won’t keep up, they won’t make the changes needed to welfare and education and tax, they’ll fall further and further behind … they’ll become poorer and poorer. I am determined that will not be the Britain I leave to my children, or you leave to yours.’

It is a grim study, of a grim future – and to a man of Osborne’s mental capacities, seemingly a foregone conclusion.

But how are ‘new economies’ ‘out-working, out-competing and out-smarting’ Western states?

In the main, it’s because wages are lower, working hours are longer and social services, such as education, health and sick pay are overlooked in the interests of ‘growth above all else’.

But we have walked a different path, and have used the benefits of our wealth to deliver a better life to the people of the UK.

What else is wealth for? Why become a wealthy state if your wealth delivers no benefit?

Why, in short, should we give up the achievements we have already made – the achievements on which we must build – to become like countries which are less developed than our own?

That is Mr Osborne’s plan A. He says there is no Plan B.

First, why accept as Chancellor a man who refuses to take the time to look at alternatives to a failed strategy?

And second, is UK Plan A really a state in which anyone would aspire to live?

Education, education, education, or What Will Free Schools Cost?

DURING the 2010 General Election, I was fortunate enough to be Political editor of a daily newspaper. I put in a great deal of time and effort covering the campaign, but the rewards were massive: I got to meet and interview high-ranking politicians, past and present, including Edwina Currie, who told me that trying to get the Lib Dems to agree on anything was like ‘trying to herd bluebottles into a jam jar’ and Vince Cable, who accused the Conservatives of not having any real economic policies. Looking back, I guess I only wish that both statements were still true…

I genuinely enjoyed it. But in the course of the campaign, I was also able to interview all three party leaders. I interviewed David Cameron twice. The first time, he appeared to say that he would continue with every single ‘good’ policy of the Labour Party, including Building Schools for the Future, if his party was elected.

But back at the office I wondered: how can the Conservative Party possibly pledge to continue spending, if they were also determined to ‘pay off’ the nation’s debts? If, as they said, we were in the worst economic situation of any developed state, how could they deal with that at the same time as spending money to build schools? (of course, we weren’t, but that’s another story…)

So the second time I interviewed him, a week later, I offered him an ‘out’. What if, I asked, the financial situation was worse than he’d realised? Would he then have to consider dropping schemes such as BSF?

He actually tossed his head, and tutted. ‘Tchoh,’ he began. ‘I’ve already told you we support Building Schools for the Future.’

Now, I can understand that at this point (late April) Cameron had been campaigning hard for weeks. Not only that, it was fast becoming clear that the Tories were actually losing public support (luckily for them, neither the Labour Party nor the Lib Dems were able to take full advantage). So I can forgive his rudeness under pressure.

But the fact remains, the leader of the Opposition, now the UK’s Prime Minister, sat and lied to my face. This is bad enough, but my job meant I was then forced to return to the office and deliver that lie, on his behalf, to the readers of the newspaper for which I worked. I have had no public opportunity since then to apologise. But, genuinely, if you read that article and it altered your opinion of the Conservative Party one iota, I am truly sorry. I’ve shared the mitigating factors, but nonetheless, I apologise.

Because on July 5, seven weeks and five days after the coalition was formed, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced he was ending the Building Schools for the Future project.

I only mention it now, because while I am no longer Political editor of a daily newspaper (I went to Libya with a charity and am now enjoying the twin thrills of application form-filling and wondering when I’ll run out of cash), Michael Gove IS still Education Secretary, and in some people’s eyes has emerged as a possible front-runner in any future Conservative leadership challenge.

So, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at Michael Gove’s ‘achievements’ to date…

About a year ago, I was in conversation with a leading Lib Dem, to whom I explained that I thought Gove was a marionette puppet. Not unreasonably, the Lib Dem asked ‘Well then who do you think controls him?’ So I want to explain quickly that I don’t think he’s a metaphorical marionette, dancing, as it were, to the tune of a puppet master, I think he’s an actual marionette, which has somehow, Pinocchio-style, learned to speak and make a life for itself. And so do you. Admit it. Go here and tell me it isn’t true…

Anyway, it’s not the most important thing in the world, but remember, that man – or more accurately, that ‘man’ – currently controls your children’s education.

We’ll come back to BSF in a bit, because it ties in quite nicely with Mr Gove’s ‘alternative’, Free Schools, but first, here are some of the other proposals Mr Gove hopes will come to a school near you, soon…


Late last month, Michael Gove announced that he hoped to replace the current GCSE examinations system with a return to O-Levels.

The first students to take the new O-Levels would take the exams in 2016.

Inexplicably, this announcement led some political reporters to declare he was now seen in government circles as a ‘front runner’ to replace PM David Cameron as leader of his party – and, by the same token, as a possible Prime Minister of the UK.

Certainly, it was a bold statement by Mr Gove. But I might suggest that it was not so much a ‘policy’ statement, as an announcement that he has no new ideas at all, and instead simply intends to replace an actual policy, passed some 26 years ago, with another, which had been in place for many years before that.

Perhaps unthinking nostalgia is what wins the hearts and minds of the Conservative Party, but if all it takes to be considered a political innovator is to propose a quarter-of-a-century backwards step, it’s rather depressing.

Mr Gove’s argument is that GCSEs are ‘failing the nation’s youth’. That they are not teaching the right things, and are in fact too easy to pass, thus devaluing them as qualifications.

The problem with this as an argument is not so much that it’s unwinnable, but that it’s actually impossible to lose as well.

Because the thing is, no-one knows. I don’t know if GCSEs are easier than O-Levels, because I didn’t do O-Levels. Mr Gove doesn’t know if O-Levels are harder than GCSEs, because he didn’t do GCSEs.

The only way to make an unbiased, scientifically sound assessment of which is easier to pass, would be to make the same children follow both courses, at exactly the same time.

Now, there are some people (step forward The Daily Mail, a genuine leader in this, as in so many other fields of political debate), who attempt to ‘prove’ that GCSEs are easier by publishing a multiple choice question which its readers would find incredibly easy to answer.

The problem is, Mail readers are adults – or at least old enough to be regarded as such. It’s hardly remarkable that most of them can answer a question designed to test the knowledge of someone less than half their age. The fact someone aged 45 can answer a GCSE question has no more bearing on the standard or quality of modern education than does the fact that the same 45 year-old can read and pronounce correctly the word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and a four year-old cannot.

Should we, perhaps, criticise infant schools for teaching young people to read with such pathetically facile texts as ‘Spot Goes To Annoy The Neighbours By Digging A Hole Under Their Fence’? To be honest, I’m pretty unhappy nursery schools keep allowing their attendees to slack off with toy cars and Lego…

We’ve also got to remember that the past is always better than the present, to those who look back at it. It may be the case that some exceptionally gifted individuals could, at the age of 16, recite from memory Robert Browning’s A Lovers’ Quarrel translated into Latin, but I’m absolutely certain they’d be the exception in that. There is, I fear, a tendency to judge the academic systems of the past by their most gifted participents, and those of the present by the most average, at best, or the least gifted at worst.

Equally, the cultural environment in which most 16 year-olds have been brought up is different from that of 26 years ago – even more so than that of 56 or 106 years ago.

For example, I’d honestly like it if a child of mine came home able to translate poetry, from memory, into Latin. But I might be a little less delighted if it turned out they’d been taught that at the expense of knowing how to use a computer. And no-one left school at 16 in 1957 knowing how to operate computers. What may have been seen as vital knowledge – or indeed obvious – in the past is not guaranteed to remain so throughout human history.

The other favoured argument from those who claim GCSEs are ‘easy’ is that the grades achieved by young people prove it. ‘So many people are getting the top grades,’ they say. ‘Hardly anyone did when there were O-Levels. Therefore, O-Levels must be harder.’

Not only is this a spectacularly unfair argument, undermining the achievements of young people who have, after all, spent two years working to achieve these grades, it’s also almost completely illogical. In what other field would people claim so consistently and noisily that continued improvement means things are ‘easier’? (Actually, in sport, some people do, citing improved technology and equipment. But there is improved equipment in schools, too, and yet Usain Bolt’s achievements are not belittled in the way that every 16 year-old, every year, is made to feel ‘less’ than their forebears, despite spectacular performances in examinations. In athletics, it seems, improvements are welcomed).

Equally, it ignores the basic differences between O-Levels and GCSEs.

O-Levels, and their ‘sister’ examinations, the CSE, were abolished in 1986 (the first students sat the exams in 1988), by then Conservative Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph.

Remarkably, the NUT, hardly noted for its consistent support of either the Conservative Party or government announcements of changes to the education system, welcomed the move.

Then NUT general secretary Fred Jarvis said: This is one decision of Sir Keith’s which will be applauded throughout the teaching profession.’

In the context of 1980s UK politics, this was a remarkable moment. Teachers – particularly those in the NUT – had opposed virtually every measure the government had announced on education, often striking to make their point more strongly. And yet, when it came to the abolition of the O-Level, a Conservative Education Secretary won not just support, but (figurative) applause from teachers.

The reason was pretty simple. O-Levels and CSEs were agreed, by professionals, experts and government ministers, to be failing the nation’s young people.

There were two main reasons for this: First, the system was genuinely two-tier. That is, those youngsters considered academically capable enough took O-Level examinations, and if they passed gained an O-Level qualification. Those who were not considered as capable took CSEs.

As a result of this, employers and society in general looked on O-Levels as ‘better’ than CSEs, meaning a decision taken when a pupil was 12, 13, or 14 years old could close opportunities to them forever.

Not only that, reaching the top levels of achievement at CSE actually required the same level of knowledge required to gain an O-Level in the same subject, but regardless, those chosen to sit CSEs received a qualification regarded incorrectly as worth ‘less’ than an O-Level.

It’s true, of course, that GCSE pupils are also ‘streamed’. There are arguments to be had about whether and why this is a good idea (on the one hand, it enables teachers to allow more accomplished students to take on new, more complex topics within a subject, while not leaving some in the same class unable to benefit in lessons. On the other, it reduces the chances of some pupils to achieve a grade they are capable of reaching). But the major difference is that all students receive the same qualification at the end. So if, as is the case in some subjects, the ‘higher’ level paper enables you to achieve grades A*-G, and the lower grades B-G, and you get a B in either paper, you have a B grade at GCSE.

For all the imperfections in the system, you do at least have a situation in which people who demonstrate the same knowledge in their final examination receive the same grade in the same qualification.

And the last sentence hints at another ‘problem’ with O-Levels: grades were awarded ‘in competition’ rather than in terms of actual achievement in a subject. That is, only a set percentage of young people in any given school year could receive an A grade, another percentage a B, and so on.

This is important for three reasons. First, because it did not reward achievement as such (though of course achievement was a factor – you could not score one per cent in an exam and get an A), but was based on competition. So if your school year was of a low academic standard you actually stood more chance of getting an A than if you were part of a particularly gifted generation. By contrast, the GCSE system directly awards achievement: that is, if you score a certain mark, you get a particular grade, regardless of how many other people also get that mark.

It seems pretty sensible, really. If you view exams as a mark of accomplishment, and you reward someone a grade for their achievement, that grade should be a mark of what you know, which can be understood by anyone observing. A system in which achievement is marked with a grade which is achieved by comparison with other students immediately offers too little information. What standard was the examination year in question, and perhaps more to the point, would an employer even bother to find out, if faced with someone with all As at O-Level and another candidate with all Bs?

Secondly, if a system of examinations is set in order to ensure people achieve a certain level of education (in this case, Sir Keith Joseph said all students must achieve grades A-C in five subjects, including English and Maths) that can only sensibly be measured by a system in which grades correspond directly to marks, rather than one in which grades correspond both to marks and the marks achieved by other students, because year-on-year the latter system tells you less about actual levels reached by young people, and more about how each individual compares to others of exactly the same age.

Thirdly, relating to the argument of those who say GCSEs must be getting easier because more and more students are achieving high grades, compared to O-Levels in which roughly the same number achieved each grade each year, well the comparison is transparently false.

GCSEs relate to achievement – the grade given relates solely to what the student has shown they have learnt. This means it is possible for 100 per cent of students to get an A* in French, for example.

That doesn’t mean GCSEs are NOT getting easier, but to pretend you can compare a system like GCSEs with the O-Level system of rewarding grades in a competitive way, where it would never be possible for everyone to get the top grade, is simply to misunderstand the way the systems work.

Mr Gove did, however, offer one interesting point about GCSEs, and one with which it’s hard to disagree.

In the statement announcing the O-Level ‘policy’ to the House of Commons (only after it had been leaked to the ever-friendly Daily Mail, however…) He said: ‘We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing-down, by making sure that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are.

It seems Mr Gove fears that GCSEs have got easier because of the policy which allows separate exam boards to ‘compete for business’ with schools – each offering slightly different papers and marking services.

It’s undeniable that such a system, particularly in an era of ‘league tables’ of exam performance between schools, could tempt schools to opt for an ‘easier’ exam, and for exam boards, competing for business, to offer an ‘easier’ exam than their competitors.

I don’t know the extent to which this happens. But certainly, when the exam board competition was set up, teachers warned that this could be one result.

The thing is, that system is absolutely nothing to do with GCSEs themselves. It’s to do with the way in which the last Conservative government tried to introduce ‘more competition’ into the public education system.

Mr Gove has recognised this competition may be driving standards down, and should be congratulated for doing so. But all that needs to be done is to remove competition between exam boards, rather than throwing out an entire education system in favour of one which was consistently failing pupils 26 years ago.


I’m going to change the mood a little here, so I warn anyone in advance that if they don’t like the idea of someone being unkind to a marionette puppet (for example, this one), they should probably just skip to the next section, Free Schools, which will include exciting things about Building Schools for the Future, cash, creationism, and Conservative Party’s weird love of the USA.

Right, now they’ve gone, we’re on to bibles.

As far as I can see, there are three views it’s acceptable to hold on the bible. First, it’s the word of God, transcribed by humans, and as such every word must be treated as the only truth about the universe and how we should live in it. Second, it’s a series of (occasionally gruesome) fairy stories each of which contain guidance on how one should live, or third, it’s a book written by a seemingly pathologically paranoid and insecure desert tribe attempting to gloss over its own perceived inadequacies by claiming to be the chosen people of a being which is unlikely even to exist, let alone play favourites with one small section of the species it created.

Another time? Good.

But in the case of the King James Bible, there are three other factors to bear in mind: It’s beautifully written; it’s an excellent example of Early Modern English and it’s a great example of a sensitive and artistically handled translation.

It’s well worth young people learning about it and from it, even if not, perhaps, from all of the messages it contains.

So, Education Secretary Michael Gove clambered out of his little puppet box with a plan. To make sure schools had copies of the King James Bible.

At first glance, this looks like a lovely idea. Children across the country get to benefit from seeing and reading a genuine historical and cultural work of art.

Except Mr Gove didn’t order enough for every schoolchild in the country. He didn’t order enough for every classroom to have one copy. He didn’t even order enough so that every teacher could have a copy, maybe to read to youngsters in ‘quiet time’ between txtng lssns and Coke drinking, or whatever it is The Mail knows young people do at school these days.

In March this year, he gave one copy – that’s one copy – to each school.

Now, I don’t know whether Mr Gove thought headteachers were unaware of the existence of the bible. Or whether he wanted to help those headteachers bestow knowledge to their staff (‘I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this, Ms Harris. It’s called the bible. It’s really terribly good…’)

Perhaps he hoped teachers will use it as a ‘reward’ for good students: ‘Ptr. Gd msg. Rd Kg Jms Bbl as prz.’

In any case, it turns out that this has cost £370,000, though the bibles are at least being paid for by Conservative Party donors, rather than the taxpayer.

Finally, and interestingly, each bible contains the following message: ‘presented by the secretary of state for education’ on its spine. Its spine! Not in small letters on a frontispiece, like it would if you were just an average megalomaniac, handing out religious literature for no reason.

Mind you, Mr Gove convinced Conservative Party donors to use their money to pay for him to use one of the world’s widest-read religious books as a vanity project. Maybe he is a front-runner for next leader of the party…

Free Schools

Welcome back, anyone who left. Actually, I wasn’t too horrible to the marionette. Go back and check. A good time was had by all.

And so, we move to the final part of this overview of Michael Gove, who may be a marionette puppet (see what you think here) and his flagship education policy: Free Schools.

Now before we start, I guess it’s only fair to make something clear. After all, I’m criticising the ‘man’ in charge of Education, so I might as well lay my cards on the table.

I think the people of this country should, as taxpayers, pay for every single child in this country to receive a decent, free, education. Up to the age of 16 for all, and up to and including a first degree for anyone with the ability and inclination to do one.

It benefits those who cannot afford to send their children, or whose parents cannot afford to send them, to private or public school. Not just because it prepares them for the world of work (it does, but that should NEVER be considered the sole point of an education) but because it also means they will be able to do things which will bring them pleasure, such as reading books, writing, taking part in scientific, historical or cultural debates or projects – in short, because it helps them to live fulfilled, happy lives. As human beings, rather than as senseless automata.

It also benefits those who can afford to send their children to public or private schools, or whose parents can afford to send them, as it means they will be part of a well-educated society, whose members can help contribute to the wider economy, and, believe it or not, because they will be able to meet people with whom they’re able to have an informed conversation, regardless of social class or the amount of cash they happen to have lying about.

For the record, I think this education should include Mathematics, Science, History, Geography and three languages (one being English) from Primary school age. On the latter point, this CAN be done. In Italy, primary school-aged children learn three languages. In Tunisia, lessons are taught half the term in French and half the term in Arabic. I realise this is only two languages (though this is ALL lessons being taught in this way) but to be fair, one is French, with a Latin alphabet, and the other is written in Arabic script.

It should also include any other subjects children want to learn and/or show some aptitude for. Included in this, it must be recognised that some youngsters are less academically capable, or perhaps more to the point less inclined towards acadaemia than others. This is not a judgement call on intelligence, just a recognition that not everyone’s mind works in the same way. These youngsters should be able to learn trades if they wish to, including everything from cookery to carpentry. I will, if anyone cares, explain how the latter idea can be delivered at a later date.

I believe that the government, which is after all a handily-placed central body, and holds the purse-strings, should be able to set desired levels of achievement and certain laws on how teaching can happen. But these laws should extend only as far as general terms including teachers’ wages and an absolute, all-encompassing policy of non-violence towards children.

Further than that, I think teachers, and perhaps local groups should be able to say how they will use the cash given by the government and how they will teach these lessons. The former is important because local groups, so long as they are accountable directly to the public, should be better placed to say what is needed and how urgently, and the latter because it seems like madness for a government minister to say they know better how a teacher should teach an individual or class than the person who teaches them every day.

Anyway, you’ll remember that Mr Gove stood up on July 5 in the House of Commons and announced that Building Schools for the Future was ending (we’ll pass quickly over the fact that he wrongly announced several of these projects were ending midway through, and that others were continuing when in fact they were to be stopped, even though he was Education Secretary and this was the single most important thing happening for staff and pupils at schools up and down the country. Anyone can make one mistake of this kind. That’s ONE, Mr Osborne).

In the House, he accused Building Schools for the Future of being responsible for: massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy.’

In fairness, he had a point with the first three accusations. BSF was £10bn over budget (£55bn, rather than the original estimate of £45bn), by its second year (2006) work had started in only five of 72 local authorities who’d already signed up, and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, in its review of 124 schools rebuilt, found that 52 had ‘poor’ quality of building and design, with a further 16 rated ‘mediocre’.

On the other hand, it’s fair to point out that BSF was a spectacularly ambitious project. Announced by Tony Blair in 2004, its aim was to rebuild 1,750 secondary schools, structurally repair another 1,225 and refurbish the rest – including installing new ICT equipment – of the 525 remaining schools.

As with many New Labour schemes, however, it did have complications and problems built in. The main one came down to the fact that the government was not paying up front for the project, preferring instead to invite private firms to pay for the work, and then repaying them in instalments over many years.

It’s easy to see why this was attractive to New Labour – it was, in effect, a ‘buy now pay later’ deal. And it did deliver new schools and refurbish old ones. But repayment levels were always likely to be reset so the cost was always likely to be higher than early estimates. And the government had little control over the building process itself, as it was ‘project commissioner’ rather than ‘project leader’.

In terms of bureaucracy, it’s worth mentioning that a great deal of what Mr Gove criticised was the hiring of consultants as go-betweens for schools and local authorities, which had previously had little or no experience in dealing with architects.

The problem here was that, as Margaret Thatcher correctly claimed: ‘We won the argument… We convinced our opponents we were right.

Labour had been convinced that the market could – indeed should – be used in all activities which cost money, as such involvement should, in theory, save the taxpayer money and ensure that business expertise was used in all large infrastructure projects. What made the situation impossible was that Labour had only been half convinced by Conservative views: it believed in the market, but it also believed (rightly, in my view) that the government had a responsibility to its citizens to deliver state-level improvements, rather than relying on piecemeal ‘make do and mend’ schemes.

The results were as one might expect: improvements WERE made – BSF was the largest single school building and refurbishment project ever embarked upon in the UK – but by using business expertise, costs were higher than could otherwise have been the case. The use of consultants was necessary, if one accepted that business ‘knew best’. But the result was a tendency for ‘negotiations’ between schools and local authorities on the one hand, and consultants and architects on the other, to overrun, both in terms of cash and time.

So, there were problems with BSF, though whether these came from the idea of building new schools for UK children (which as we have seen the Conservative Party itself was in the last Election campaign at pains to say it supported) or the involvement of the private sector in what were massive public services contracts is at the very least a topic for more research.

Mr Gove announced his own ‘flagship policy’ on schools in 2010.

He said the UK would become the third developed state in the world to operate ‘Free Schools’ – new educational establishments set up by groups outside of the state sector (he named parents, teachers, charities and businesses as groups which could set up and run such schools, though as we shall see, religious groups have also taken part in the scheme).

The schools were designed to receive government funding, not from the local education authority as in the state school sector, but directly from the Department of Education. They can also receive ‘top-up’ cash from outside sources, including businesses (in this, they are similar to the Academies set up by the last Labour government, though academies have a 10 per cent ‘cap’ limiting the amount of outside funding they can receive).

In exchange, they are freed from having to teach the national curriculum, and can set their own hours of opening, holidays and teachers’ pay rates.

There are some advantages to such a scheme. First of all, the idea that parents can take an active role in their children’s education is, at a first glance, a measure of empowerment for those closely affected by the way in which schools operate. Secondly, it’s hard to argue that there is a ‘best’ period of the day in which children should learn (within reason: few to no people would seriously argue that youngsters learn trigonometry best at 4am), so why should such freedom not be exercised by schools, who after all provide education directly, every day, rather than being imposed upon by a government which does not?

But there are problems.

As with other ‘new’ policies of Mr Gove, the idea was not ‘new’. It was already in place in the USA and in Sweden.

In the USA, particularly in New York, the system is agreed to have had a positive affect: exam results have improved, and perhaps crucially, young people at the schools have been found to enjoy attending more than in non-Free Schools. But.

At this point, I think it’s worth making a quick point. I am genuinely bewildered by the way in which many politicians – most of them, but not all, members of the Conservative Party – insist on holding the USA as a state model to which we should aspire here.

I can understand that it saves money for governments, as a low-tax, low-interference system of governance means the government should spend little money on state infrastructure and services (we will gloss over what it does spend money on instead).

But the USA’s social systems are rated among the lowest in the developed world. Its health service is rated as worse on EVERY criterion, including cost and efficiency, than the NHS. By its own Census Bureau’s reckoning, 46.2m US citizens are living in poverty – 15.1 per cent of its population. In cash terms, this means that 15.1 per cent of the national population exists on £14,674.99 per year – for a family of four. Arguably, the ‘US poverty threshold’ has been set too low.

I apologise for quoting Bill Hicks, but: ‘When you find yourself jumping over the tenth guy lying in the street who, I don’t know, might be dead, doesn’t it ever occur to you the system isn’t working?

Now, I know a few Americans. They are charming, intelligent and in one or two cases spectacularly talented people. But I am sorry to have to say that American education is not exactly globally famous for its consistent high standards.

This may be unfair, but bear with me. For a start, the nation elected, as its president, a pretend cowboy. Twice. Then it elected his quieter, less charismatic pal, who had exactly the same policies. When it elected a relatively intelligent man, it attempted to have him impeached for having had sex with someone who wasn’t his wife (by contrast, John Major, former UK Prime Minister, was found to have had extra-marital sex while PM. He is now a Lord. I’m not sure what this says about our respective nations). And then it elected Dubya. Twice. Though I suppose it’s possible this was some kind of ‘equal opportunities for halfwits’ scheme. In which case, well done.

Genuinely, some of the world’s brightest and best-educated people have come from the USA. But it’s hardly the catch-all education system to which the rest of the world should turn in times of need. It’s a shame, because it’s hardly representative, but this is the kind of thing the USA system needs to address before we throw our system out of the window.

I suppose what I’m saying is that while Free Schools DO appear to have improved education in the United States, the starting-point was lower than it is here. Do we need a similar system when what we have in place is already at a higher standard?

Comparison with Sweden is perhaps a better starting-point for the UK. We generally finish below the Scandinavian state in studies on quality of life. They do appear to be doing something that we are not. Could it be its Free Schools?

In Sweden, the first Free Schools opened in 1990. There, too, they offered more direct participation from the community, new equipment and innovative teaching methods.

The problem is that on Wednesday September 7 2011, SNS, a highly-regarded – largely right-wing – business-funded Swedish political thinktank issued a report which claimed Free Schools, with its introduction of private operators into state education, had increased educational segregation, and was ‘unlikely’ to have increased educational standards.

It said that students who entered ‘gymnasium’ (sixth form) from Free Schools went on to achieve lower grades on average over the next three years than those who entered from municipal state schools.

In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s programme for student assessment showed Swedish students had dropped to 19th place out of 57 states for literacy, 24th in Maths and 28th in Science, from 9th, 17th and 16th respectively in the previous studies on each subject.

Dr Jonas Vlachos, associate professor of economics at Stockholm University, wrote the SNS report.

He said: ‘The empirical evidence showing that competition is good is not really credible, because they can’t distinguish between grade inflation and real gains.’

So, in a state where standards were high, the evidence for Free Schools improving education seems, at best, shaky.

In fairness to Mr Gove, there are other reasons why Free Schools may seem to be a good option.

One is that it seems the programme CAN deliver new schools, at a lower cost than BSF.

But the problem with this is twofold. First, the scheme doesn’t necessarily deliver ‘new schools’ in the sense that BSF did. That is, BSF aimed to build new schools to replace crumbling old ones, without necessarily adding to the overall number of schools. Its aim was to improve the learning environment for young people.

Free Schools CAN be entirely new builds, of course. But in most cases (there were 24 Free Schools opened in 2011, 53 will open this Autumn, and earlier this week Mr Gove approved 102 more to open in 2013) they are opening in already existing buildings, such as disused office buildings or closed libraries (the Conservative Party has helpfully increased the numbers of the latter by cutting local authority funding). Free Schools are increasing the number of schools in the UK, rather than focussing on improving those which already exist.

And do we need extra schools? The evidence appears to suggest we don’t. Most of the anecdotal evidence (for example, newspaper stories about parents being unable to get their youngsters into a particular school) seem to focus more on the divergent standards of schools in certain areas. They look at the fact that a parent CAN get their child into a secondary school near their home, but it is not the one they want their child to go to.

If this is the case, a more effective policy may well be to focus on improving standards at schools which are achieving less than others, rather than adding extra schools.

Factor in the fact that the UK’s under-18 population is actually falling, and although there MAY be certain city centre areas which would benefit from an extra school, just opening extra schools everywhere seems to miss the point of what new schools are needed for: not to increase PLACES, but to increase standards.

As an example, on June 28 this year, it was revealed that the Beccles Free School, which will open on the Suffolk border with Norfolk in September, had received just 37 applications to join. Is it in fact a waste of money to open new schools where there is clearly not a shortage of school spaces?

The second problem with the ‘money-saving’ argument is the WAY the money is saved. Much of the funding comes from private enterprise (including, it must be said, many companies which exist purely for the purpose of setting up such schools – if this is not similar to the expensive ‘needless bureaucracy’ which Mr Gove rightly attributed to BSF, it certainly looks like it).

In some cases, it also comes from religious groups, which hold what can be charitably described as ‘unusual’ views on what should be taught, and how.

Of the 102 schools Mr Gove earlier this week accepted should open in 2013, three are to be run by groups which believe in creationism – that despite all the scientific evidence accepted across the globe, God created the heavens, the Earth, and that he also created humans and every animal of the earth, sea and sky.

This is not the right place for a conversation about whether Darwinism is correct (though it is. And you can go here for an explanation of the term ‘theory’ which seems to me to be the only honest misunderstanding attached to evolution).

In Sunderland, Grindon Hall, currently a private school which will open as a Free School next year, says on its website it will ‘present creationism as science’ (the wording here is particularly important, as we shall see) and will ‘affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is not just a theory, but a fact’ (in fairness, some of them DO believe this…).

Sevenoaks Christian School, approved to open in Kent, says it will teach in RE that ‘God made the world’.

The Exemplar-Newark Business Academy, in Nottinghamshire, will open in 2013, too. It is run by a group which had a previous attempt to open a school turned down because it said it would teach creationism as fact. It now says the school will teach creationism in RE.

Now there has been a great deal of criticism of Mr Gove’s decision to allow these schools to open, on the grounds that they intend to teach that fact is wrong and religious belief is truth. In the Education Secretary’s defence, it MUST be noted that it is illegal to teach creationism in Science lessons in the UK.

But to what extent is this a defence against bad teaching practice? Would you, as a parent, be happy if a school said it was to employ a wild tiger which could do Maths with the sentence ‘It’ll be fine as long as no-one loosens its chains’?

Equally, at what age, and to what extent, do children regard what they are taught in Science as truth and in other lessons as theory?

Chris Hay, Grindon School’s principal spoke to the Guardian about his school’s approach, and rightly pointed out that there is a ‘proper distinction’ between ‘what is taught in a Science lesson and what might be taught in assembly.’

So what is to stop a school such as Grindon from ‘teaching’ in Mr Hay’s words, creationism in assembly – and asking a Science teacher to do that ‘teaching’? Equally, are we to believe that children at any school would – or should – be taught to treat what their Science teacher tells them in a lesson as fact and what the school’s headteacher tells them in assembly as conjecture?

It is not just creationism. The Christian Family Schools Ltd, which runs Bethany School, Sheffield, an independent school, makes interesting use of the Book of Proverbs on its website: Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell.’

It later adds the free-thinking declaration: ‘Corporal discipline is not child abuse; withholding it is!’

Christian Family Schools Ltd hopes to open a Free School for 1,000 students in Sheffield. So far, its applications have been unsuccessful.

Again, it has to be said that I do not believe Mr Gove wishes children to be beaten at school. He turned down the CFS application, and in any case corporal punishment in schools is illegal. It’s just that the view that the people hoping to open these schools are kind-hearted philanthropists is not always entirely true, and these groups are not answerable to anyone – it’s their money and they can do what they want with it. At least the government can be removed, these firms cannot.

The final large potential problem with Free Schools is their effect not only on the youngsters who attend them, but on those who go to other schools.

Mr Gove has pledged all Free Schools will receive the same funding per pupil as all state schools, which is reasonable in as far as it goes (though it does raise the question that if there are 179 new schools in the country and they receive exactly the same level of funding as the 3,500 state secondary schools, how can the DoE not exceed its planned spending targets for 2010-15?).

But the schools are allowed to take money from other sources, which state schools are not. And they have independent control over how much they pay teachers, which state schools do not.

Given that – with very few exceptions – these schools are not being opened because of a shortage of school places in their local area, it appears they must, therefore, be competing with other local schools for pupils.

One very simple way to do so would be to use higher wages for teachers to attract the ‘cream of the crop’ from other schools. For a Free School, this may enable standards to improve and the school to present itself as ‘better’ than the others in its area.

The problem is what happens to the young people who can’t get a place at a Free School? Given that in September 2013, there will be one Free School for every 19 state secondaries, that means that 95 per cent of children will be forced to attend a ‘worse’ school than the ‘best’ in the area. That is, by definition, a two-tier education system. Not only that, it is a two-tier education system which excludes a far higher percentage of the nation’s young people from the ‘top tier’ than any school system to have been in place since universal free education was introduced in the UK.

It’s easy to see the downside of this. From a purely ‘pragmatic’ (one could say cynical…) viewpoint, it is impossible for all of even just the very brightest children in an area to all get into its ‘best’ school. How much damage will it do to society if we are to consign generations of the brightest children to ‘substandard’ schools (and remember: they are ONLY substandard in this case because of the existence of Free Schools).

From a more human perspective, under what circumstances is it acceptable to set up a system which denies 95 per cent of the nation’s young people the opportunity to thrive?

The traditional Conservative argument comes into play – a little – here. The Party argues that rising standards at one school will force others to ‘raise their game’. That in order to compete, the state schools will have to raise standards.

We saw in the last post that roughly a quarter of a century on, the first series of privatisations of public services have failed, in every case, to improve standards. The argument that a second wave of ‘introducing competition’ should do so is built on sand at best.

But equally, well, how? The system has not been set up to increase teacher numbers, or standards of teacher training. It has not been set up to ‘allow’ state schools to compete with Free Schools. It has been developed to offer Free Schools the chance to take more money than state schools, and have fewer restrictions than those state schools.

Even if competition DID drive up standards (and it does not), state schools have the rate they are allowed to pay teachers set by law. Free Schools do not. The system has been developed to give them more money, and the chance to spend that to poach staff from other schools, using a financial bait with which the others cannot hope to compete.

It is possible, of course, that in 20 years’ time (at the rate such schools are currently opening), ALL schools will be Free Schools. But even if we set aside the very real worries about what Free Schools are actually capable of doing, in an ideal situation that still means we will have wasted 95 per cent of the potential of an entire generation of children. It’s virtually impossible the experiment will be worth such a cost.

The Free Schools scheme offers at least as much potential of driving DOWN educational standards within the Free Schools themselves as it does of driving them up. It CAN save money in building new schools compared to BSF (not really a massive achievement, but I suppose it’s something…), but not in the way the system currently operates.

It introduces new schools where the money would be better spent improving existing ones. It offers exciting new potential for your children to be taught superstition over science, and it is very likely to reduce educational standards for 95 per cent of children wherever a Free School opens, in the short-to-medium-term, and quite possibly in the long term.

Building Schools for the Future was a good policy, disastrously enacted. Free Schools is not a good policy, even though it may have been developed with the best of intentions.

So what can we do instead?

An Alternative

First, we have to accept that a universal, catch-all education system is, by its very nature, a good thing. All children should have the same opportunities to learn and achieve and should receive the same qualifications as one another, based on their effort and knowledge.

The government is very well placed to deliver the overall structure of such a system. It is elected, and accountable to the people. It can be replaced if it fails to deliver. Successive governments have made mistakes, but that does not mean the structure must be pulled down and entirely rebuilt. It is the correct place to set rules on what should be taught (with flexibility outside of core subjects, as outlined above) and rules on things like corporal punishment and pay rates for teachers (again, the latter should be agreed on a national basis to stop Regional Pay, which will pull teachers away from ‘low pay’ areas and towards places they can earn more. As such, no government would be allowed to introduce regional pay for teachers).

Outside of these areas, elected local bodies, which can and should include people with teaching experience, and parents, should be able to control finance for things like school building and certain school projects. These bodies would receive an amount of money each year, based on the number of pupils in their region and teachers required to teach them (the latter would be decided by the local groups, though negotiation between them and government would be used to finalise a figure). This amount would be agreed at the start of each new government’s term in power, and would increase with inflation year-on-year. Governments would not be allowed to give education less than this pre-agreed amount without prior agreement from all local groups.

Money for extra projects, including rebuilding, maintenance and refurbishment, would be negotiated between local groups and the government. Any extra money which is required can be provided by outside investment, but on the clear understanding that such money would be repaid at the rate it was borrowed, that the private donor would play no part in the negotiations over the work the money is used for (though it must be used for what the donor is handing it over for) and, most importantly, that the donor plays no part in influencing what is taught in a school, or how it is taught.

Teachers would decide how to teach their subjects – provided this is within the law on matters such as corporal punishment. They are in the classroom and know more about how their pupils respond than a government minister, or a local group, even one containing parents. They would, however, be judged on achievements year-on-year. This may be uncomfortable – and factors such as the area in which the school operates, and hardships suffered outside of school by pupils MUST be taken into account – but it is hard to understand how a government, which should have the interests of its people at heart, can judge how well or badly the system is performing without such information being analysed on a regular basis.

Mr Gove may well be a marionette (you can check here to make your mind up.) And he may well be a front-runner to take over his Party.

He also won’t read this. But he could deliver all of these things, and the system would work. At the very least, it doesn’t run the risk of wasting an entire generation of talent and intelligence…