Archive for the 'Guest Contribution' Category

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Michael Gove – the case against

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

From a PBer teacher who remembers when Gove was EdSec

Michael Gove has many admirers – most notably, several on this forum, including a former Labour MP and a number of Conservative and UKIP voters. He is an experienced minister, having held office for nine years (one of them outside the cabinet). He is able, articulate, polite, and from a very modest background. He is well connected in the media, has a remarkable imagination and drive, and stands out, frankly, for all those reasons among the dross the Tories have for reasons best known to themselves put forward as leadership contenders.

Yet he still should not be Conservative leader and by extension PM. Here’s why.

The background.

In 2010 I voted Conservative for good, positive reasons. I wanted to see Brown removed for his chronic economic mismanagement. I wanted to see New Labour, a party unfit for government, ejected from office. But I also wanted to see Michael Gove become education secretary.

That may come as a shock to many people. But my reasoning was based on what he said. He said he wanted to get rid of local authority control. He was fully committed to the education brief – under Labour, that could only be said of Estelle Morris and to a lesser extent Alan Johnson.

The others were all ambitious careerists, many not very good, who did what would get them a good headline in the Mail. He said he wanted teachers to be free to teach. He said he wanted intelligent people to be teachers (it may come as a shock to some on these boards that intellectuals are intensely disliked in the teaching profession, something that has caused me much trouble over the years).

He promised an overhaul of the exam system, which was tired and based to a great degree on Marxist shibboleths from the 1970s. And he promised reform in school finances which hinted he would finally get rid of the odious PFI.

All of this was good. If followed through on, it would be very good. But here’s the snag. I judge people by what they do, not what they say. And Gove’s delivery fell far short of his rhetoric. For brevity’s sake, I will confine myself to two examples.

Multi-Academy trusts.

Get rid of the dead hand of LEAs by all means. I never liked them or rated them. But the cure was worse than the disease. For instead of making schools answerable to parents through boards of governors – as he should have done – Gove instead dreamed up the horror of MATs.

The idea was that these would be schools coming together under sponsorship from an outside agency or a top-quality school to improve. So far, so good. Nobody who had worked in Bristol under the old system, which was essentially a sinecure for failed bureaucrats rather than a system devoted to educating children, could deny it needed a decent burial.

But MATs are worse by far than LEAs were. Essentially, an organisation comes in. They come in to a situation where OFSTED give a school a 4. Then they sack the Head. They then run a failing school, and pocket large sums of money for doing so. They make no changes and appoint only young, very cheap staff, preferably NQTs, to replace the capable staff who leave in an enormous hurry when they see what’s coming. They then announce they can’t help any more, and disappear, leaving some other poor sod to clear up the mess.

One school of my acquaintance has been through this process a staggering five times. You will be amazed to hear it hasn’t improved. I could (but for legal reasons won’t) name two other trusts – one in Bristol and one in the West Midlands – which have quite blatantly robbed schools blind and then left them to rot.

What did MATs achieve? The answer is a nice gravy train for Gove’s friends. One school in southern Staffordshire (not mine) became an MAT six months ago. It is an MAT of one (bizarrely) but the Head decided to rebrand himself the Chief Executive and double his salary to just under £250k. That pay rise would pay for five teachers. Imagine all schools are doing this (and many of them are).

Does this explain why funding per pupil has halved in the last nine years even as overall education spending has risen? Not wholly – rising pupil numbers are an issue too – but it doesn’t exactly help. And, of course, it means failing schools are not actually being sorted out so much as asset stripped.

Exam reform.

This was the killer punch of Gove’s reforms. To be blunt, there was a serious need to make changes to GCSEs and A-levels. As I note above they were stale and based on discredited ideas. Gove rightly identified them as not rigorous enough, and that far too much teaching to the test was going on. But having identified the problem his solution was worse.

Because, out of fear his reforms would be reversed, he brought them in too fast and ignoring all advice from teachers and academics as to how to proceed. One friend of mine (a professor at a university in Wales) advising on the History curriculum resigned from the advisory board in a fury and threatened to sue if her name was ever mentioned in connection with the changes, because her advice was persistently ignored in favour of Gove’s and Cummings’ pet projects.

Ultimately, in most subjects the content was improved – dramatically so in my fields of History and RS, merely noticeably so in others like Music. But the grading criteria, created by OFQUAL, was a disaster that we are still unraveling. Particularly egregious was the mistake that saw them get the History criteria backwards, meaning it had to be reissued after the exams had been written rendering all History GCSE grades last year effectively meaningless.

But I was bewildered by the Music grades. A 6 required creativity, a 7 imagination, and an 8 flair. Arguably, those could be synonyms. In a-levels, the results have been far more serious. It is now so difficult to do mathematics that very few are doing it. I cannot understand the point of a qualification so hard that nobody attempts it. Surely it is better to have an easier course with a decent and rigorous spread of marking to show how well individuals have done?

In History, by contrast, content has been reduced and there is a much greater emphasis on blind source work. This is based on the misguided belief this is exactly what Historians do when sitting in the National Archives or the German Bundesarchiv. It isn’t, but the plea for straightforward analytical essays was ignored. This is why my friend resigned. Even coursework (and for geography, fieldwork) would have been abandoned had Cambridge not threatened to disregard A-levels and rely wholly on their own exams if Gove went down that path. The whole exercise was rendered pointless anyway by the decision to keep pass marks approximately similar, meaning the new grades were no more demanding than the old.

Why?

To this I have no easy answers, but such answers as I can give explain my view in the header. Gove said he would take on the vested interests holding back education. He identified these basically as teachers, as most people who are ignorant of education (yes, Richard Tyndall, I’m thinking of you there) tend to do. Certainly he drove through his changes with zero input from the sector. Indeed, Amanda Spielmann, at whose door many of the failures of the exam system must be laid, held it to be a badge of honour that she drove these changes through ‘in the teeth of sector opposition.’

But the much bigger vested interest in education are civil servants and quangocrats (Spielmann herself being an especially grim example). And here Gove absolutely sold out. He claims otherwise, meaning he is either very stupid and was completely fooled, or very dishonest and pretending he wasn’t house trained by some of the most useless failures in the land. Essentially, education is now more centralised in Whitehall than it has ever been.

MATs answer only to the DfE, who have in every teachers’ view far too cosy a relationship with them. OFSTED – which in Gove’s time, led by Wilshaw, was  a bastion of independence while being far from a champion of teachers – has fallen into the hands of these bureaucrats.

I have no hesitation in characterising Spielmann as the worst of them, and I still wonder what Nicky Morgan was thinking when in the face of all reason she appointed this total failure to lead such an important organisation with the predictable result that OFSTED is now as discredited as OFQUAL. Moreover, he did it in such a way as to infuriate, humiliate and alienate those who would otherwise have been his staunchest supporters – teachers.

Conclusion

For his failures as education secretary – and I could have listed a dozen – Gove should have been quietly dropped from public office. Indeed, his demotion in 2014, which marked my return to PB after a three year absence, was probably to try and detoxify education as an issue (which failed spectacularly when the even more useless Nicky Morgan was appointed instead).

But I am concerned here with what it reveals. Gove, for all his strengths, has tunnel vision, a reluctance to listen to experts who have the temerity to disagree with him and an over-reliance on ill-informed and low-grade civil servants who clearly run rings round him, possibly without him realising. This incidentally explains why he did OK at Justice and hasn’t bombed at environment – the quality of the workforce is a whole lot better in those departments than at Education.

His education reforms were not merely failures – they actually had pretty much the opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of parents being in charge of schools, civil servants and even shadier characters are. Instead of rigorous exams showing who is able and who isn’t we have disastrous guesswork, courses in vital subjects that nobody attempts and criteria drawn up in the teeth of expert advice.

And that, ultimately is why he should not be Prime Minister. We need a healer, somebody who will consider all views sensibly and come to a reasoned judgement. Gove is a dogmatist who will do what he wants regardless of the facts. Even allowing for my disappointment and disillusion, and for the weakness of the field, he should be a lay.

Yet the ultimate irony is, in the selectorate for this contest, his reforms are seen as a success, because the average age of Tory members means too many see these disasters only at one or two removes and hear only his incorrect soundbites. So his very failure may be a reason for him to be seen as a possible PM – and a possible catastrophe in a general election even against Jezbollah.

Y Doethur

Y Doethur is Head of History at a school in South Staffordshire and workplace rep for the NASUWT. He has worked in four schools in England and Wales as well as lecturing in two universities and published extensively on twentieth century British history. All views expressed are his own, but in this case are common to most teachers. 



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The next generation: the best outside bet for the Tory crown?

Monday, April 15th, 2019

To win the Conservative leadership – and quite probably the office of Prime Minister – the successful candidate is assumed to need three things.

1) Sufficient support to get into the final two

A third of MPs (105) would guarantee this. In practice around 80-90 is likely to be enough, but going into the final two a long way behind, as Andrea Leadsom did (199 – 84) could prove a problem. Ideally a candidate would be able to reach across the Remain-Leave split and attract backing from both camps: despite the turbulent times and vitriol there is still a desire to pull the party back together. Theresa May did this as a Remainer; Michael Gove looks best placed to do this from the other side.

However, it is this hurdle that is likely to be insurmountable for Boris Johnson, and of course Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has already said he’s not standing. The same probably applies to assorted other Brexiteers such as Geoffrey Cox, David Davis and Priti Patel.

Dominic Raab is the most interesting proposition here: if the ERG intend to run a “primary” he might very well be their candidate, but that could prove a double-edged sword.

2) Sufficient popularity with the membership who vote on that final two

I would take the surveys of ConHome and others with a pinch of salt as they tend to capture the most engaged members, and those who are most motivated to respond at any given time. I would also treat Leave.EU’s claims of infiltration with considerable caution – clearly some ex-UKIP members have joined (many of them are ex-ex-Conservative as well!) but – in my experience – they are a small minority.

But nevertheless the membership is clearly more Eurosceptic than ever and that would make this hurdle insurmountable for the likes of Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond – which is why they are more likely to trade influence amongst MPs than run themselves.

The membership may be willing to consider Remainers who have embraced Brexit (as with May), but that may be subject to the UK having actually left. This is clearly the strategy of front-runners like Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid.

3) Sufficient Cabinet experience

Historically, only those occupying the other three great Offices of State (Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary) have ascended directly to Prime Minister, which is further good news for Javid and Hunt. Michael Gove could be considered papabile on this basis too, given his three Cabinet roles and Parliamentary role as a Government spokesman, such as in the No Confidence debate.

It is, however, this third assumption that I would like to challenge here. Remember that Andrea Leadsom made the final two after less than a year in Cabinet, and of course we now have plenty of other recent examples of inexperienced candidates coming forward, both domestically (Corbyn) and transatlantically (Obama and Trump). These candidacies have also been very profitable betting propositions…

 

The three “classes” of Tory MP

The 313 Conservative MPs can be split into approximate thirds. The most experienced 109 of them all served in Opposition. The next 106 were first elected on 6th May 2010: many of these are mentioned above and a number of others (Matt Hancock, Penny MordauntRory Stewart, Liz Truss) are also potential credible runners.

However I would like to focus on the 98 MPs elected in 2014 or later. Collectively they are naturally a younger group, though as varied as ever in their politics. Many of the 2015 class might have expected promotion after the 2017 General Election, only to find that Mrs May’s lack of room for manoeuvre delayed their career progression.

Three possible “new generation” candidates

Amongst this group there are three clear potential candidates who have impressed both me and the markets: Tom Tugendhat, Johnny Mercer and James Cleverly. All of them have military service in their background, and in the interests of disclosure I should say that I have backed them all at various times (though to different stakes).

Tugendhat himself has made the case I am making – that the party should consider a leader from his generation – in an article for the Spectator last September. He saw off Crispin Blunt to assume the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in a sign of the power of younger MPs. However, as a Remainer he is likely to fall foul of point (2) above and indeed ruled himself out last week (though Betfair is slightly sceptical about that!) His influence would be a very welcome support for whoever does end up representing the “new generation”.

Mercer is very well regarded by the rank-and-file membership (though he too voted Remain) and has been speaking at a number of Associations across the country. However I think he is quite likely to fall foul of point (1): though his ability to communicate directly with the public is admired amongst his colleagues, he frequently criticises the party to a degree that may make it difficult for them to support him, even if they agree with his analysis. In some ways he is the mirror image of Heidi Allen: they both have an anti-politics approach which goes down well with the wider public, but both have described their decision to join the Party in very transactional terms, which leads members to question their loyalty to the institution.

Which brings me to my pick, James Cleverly. A former member of the London Assembly, where he served as leader of the Conservative group, he has most recently been Deputy Chairman of the Party, and has now been promoted to ministerial office in DExEU. He also campaigned for and voted Leave in the referendum. Cleverly has frequently been a media spokesman for the party and his willingness to take on the opposition in the largely hostile environment of Twitter also goes down very well with activists. My judgement is that he is best placed amongst this new generation to clear the twin hurdles of Parliamentary and membership support.

Clearly at prices between 25/1 and 50/1 this is a speculative bet, and any leadership bid that he does make might be seen as speculative too: maybe as much about making a point as expecting to win. The front-rank Cabinet ministers are still the most likely winners. But in today’s febrile environment things can change rapidly, and those not as associated with the past can have a substantial advantage.

Aaron Bell

Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to politicalbetting.com, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election in 2017.



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Rendering unto Caesar

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

Picture credit: Rights Info

At a recent IQ² debate on Brexit, Ian Paisley Jr MP, explained why the DUP was so against the backstop. He was a British citizen entitled to the same rights as all British citizens. This brought the inevitable retort from a certain Jess Phillips about Northern Irish women and gays not having the same rights as other British citizens.

Paisley’s answer smoothly placed the blame elsewhere: Westminster had devolved certain social matters to Stormont and therefore accepted that in respect of those matters British citizens in NI might enjoy different (i.e. fewer) rights than their fellow citizens on the mainland.

The audience’s reaction showed that many did not accept the idea that there could be such a derogation from fundamental rights, devolution or not, for British citizens. Why should a citizen’s rights be contingent on geography? A fundamental right which a British person can only exercise if they live in Barrow rather than Belfast is, some might say, a nonsense.  Well, no doubt the courts will have to opine on this before long.  But for the moment, under devolution, this is the position.

So we come to Parkfield School, Birmingham where Muslim parents have successfully lobbied to stop their children being taught about LGBTQ issues on the grounds that this is incompatible with Islam (though this has been carefully wrapped up as concerns about age appropriateness), the parents presenting themselves and their children as victims of a bullying secular state.

But let’s be blunt.  These parents – and Orthodox Jewish and other Christian parents – are not really bothered about the age at which this is taught or about how it is taught.  They don’t want it taught at all, let alone by a gay teacher, because they believe that their religion should trump all other considerations.

Regardless of the fact that homosexuality and gay marriage are lawful, some religious people consider that this fact and its implications, and even gay people, should be kept away from them and their children.  They claim that this interferes with their rights, even though nothing is preventing them teaching their children the tenets of their religion, when really they object to their views being challenged by other facts and viewpoints being presented.

This is a curious view to take of education whose essence, surely, is to teach children what they cannot learn at home, to introduce them to a world of ideas and knowledge far beyond the confines of family.

They may be British citizens but their religious identity – at least in this regard – is more important. They too are seeking devolution but not via devolved parliaments on the basis of geography but on the basis of religion and as determined by the demands of the most organised and determined group. And, unsurprisingly, such demands always involve reducing people’s rights and freedoms; it is never about giving them additional ones.

Well, if it’s good enough for NI why shouldn’t it be good enough for groups in Birmingham or Bradford or Stamford Hill?

That this question even arises is a measure of Britain’s failure over recent decades to understand that the growth of credal communities with strongly held beliefs at odds with Western values/laws and customs requires more than cliched paeans of praise for diversity and tolerance.

Britain congratulates itself on repealing Section 28 while allowing a far more insidious version of the same thing to spread, through indifference, cowardice and fear.

In a democracy, the key unit is the individual, votes are individual, rights are individual. Individuals are free to choose how they live; their choices should be freely made. Laws are made in Parliament and apply equally to all. If the principle is conceded that someone’s religion or race or any other self-chosen characteristic should exempt a person or group from the rights and obligations others are under, then the principle of equality under the law is damaged, perhaps fatally.

Making rights dependant on group identity devolves power to self-appointed community leaders, usually male, and in a capricious way, often with actual violence (or the threat of it). It means that there are hierarchies of British citizens: those able to exercise all their rights and those whose rights are subordinate to the group they belong to, without them having any say in whether they want this to happen.

It is a form of religious coercive control, sanctioned by the state. It leads to people – usually women, children, gays, atheists, anyone who does not conform to that group’s expectations – being deprived of what they are legally entitled to.  It tends to lead to isolated, enclosed, inward-looking communities, where integration is harder and which can make some of its members prey to extremism. (We were warned of this in 1984 but did not listen.) It can lead to “othering” those who are different, misunderstanding and hatred. This, after all, was the soil in which the DUP was nurtured.

It is a style of governing which is more reminiscent of Britain’s approach to its colonies, mediating with its separate groups of subjects through selected intermediaries, than with a grown-up 21stcentury democracy. It results in a society seemingly determined to root out discrimination and bigotry while oblivious to the fact that allowing religious diktats to determine people’s rights usually results in increased bigotry and discrimination against minorities and the most vulnerable, whether in their own communities or outside. It means that children are deprived of knowledge and help and opportunities which others can take for granted, purely because of where they live or where their ancestors came from.

And it is this last point which is often overlooked: some of those children in Birmingham or in Belfast will be gay or will want to have a life that is different to what their parents expect or want of them or want to question the received opinions around them. They may feel uncertain, isolated, maybe frightened, unsure of who they can confide in. They may be bullied, feel trapped; they may be made to feel wrong for being what they are.

They may want help but not know how to get it; they may feel guilty for not being as their parents expect, for not accepting the life laid out for them; they may have divided loyalties which they are unable to handle or reconcile. They may also be subject to physical harm or threats of it. (In some cases, girls have been murdered for being too Western, for wanting the same life as their friends. Gay men have been forced into marriage with unwilling brides.)

It is immensely cruel to leave children and young people in such a position because we are not willing to say clearly – and enforce – the boundaries beyond which religion cannot intrude, the circumstances in which it must yield to the state. Parents should not be able to withdraw children from any lessons, be they PHSE or music or science or about other religions.  Gays should be free to marry wherever they live.  Women should be able to determine their fertility regardless of their location.

Britain is no longer a country where religion determines law. There are countries where this is the case.  But not here. People are free to believe what they want; they are free to teach their children about their beliefs.  But this freedom does not – and should not – entitle them to deprive their children of knowledge and education and opportunities.

It does not entitle or excuse or justify abuse or cruelty or the infliction of harm. It does not entitle them to deprive others of their rights as citizens. It does not entitle them to demand tolerance for their own rights while denying the rights of or discriminating against others because their justification is religious rather than simple prejudice. 

Bullies are still bullies even if they wear religious garb or claim the privileges of parenthood or of legal powers granted to them. We should not be shy about saying so and about standing up to them.  The right to practise one’s religion, to raise one’s children how one wants are freedoms to be cherished, not weapons to be abused or used against others. It is long past the time this was made clear. 

Cyclefree




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At this critical time a look at matters of Confidence in the political arena

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

In both senses of the word, confidence lies at the heart of politics. It is certainly the preference of this habitual voyeur of Westminster life. Yet the concept has been distorted beyond recognition by the stresses of Brexit.

Brexit positions cut across most parties, and MPs are clearly torn between their loyalties to their party, their electorate, their local members, the nation, the referendum result, and their consciences. But it is hard not to be cynical about how a number of them have voted.

confidence n. 1. The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.

On January 16th 2019, the House voted by 325 to 306 against a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. Yet the day before, a huge chunk of those 325 (including the DUP) had voted against the Government’s central policy and purpose, namely the Withdrawal Agreement, when that went down to its historic 230-vote defeat. In previous times a vote of that magnitude would have been framed as a matter of confidence in the government itself, and thus treated with the seriousness it deserved.

It is clear from subsequent developments that a number of MPs could have accepted the deal but preferred not to vote for it. This may have been in the reasonable hope that they could get closer to their own position. Indeed the EU did provide some further legal assurances as a result.

However my overriding impression from both MV1 and MV2 is that these MPs – most of the ERG and many Labour MPs sitting in Leave seats – wanted the deal to pass (eventually) but without getting their own hands dirty by actually voting for it themselves. This is a failure of salesmanship on the part of the PM and a failure of whipping, but it’s also a failure of those MPs to face up to their own responsibilities.

confidence n. 2. The telling of private matters or secrets with mutual trust.

Another casualty of Brexit is this second sense of confidence. To be fair, leaks and briefings have always been integral to politics, but in recent times Cabinet has been practically live-blogged by lobby journalists, as have meetings of the PLP and the 1922 Committee. And Labour’s deputy leader attempted to set up a parallel complaints process, because of his lack of trust in their General Secretary. The EU has also been prone to leaking sensitive details of the negotiating process.

When leaders cannot trust a wider group to keep confidences, then they retreat into their bunkers. This heightens the risk both of groupthink and also PR disasters: the lack of an outside perspective leads them to choose words or actions which can cause unnecessary offence. This in turn makes securing trust from those outside their parties even harder.

“Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” – Vince Lombardi

It would be foolish to deny that Theresa May and her team could have managed the Brexit process better. Notably, she ought to have sold her deal much more assertively, and made a virtue of the all-UK nature of the backstop (a genuine negotiating win) rather than apologising for it. Given the structural difficulties of negotiating under Article 50 – perhaps something she and others ought to have been more upfront about – I think the deal itself is pretty reasonable.

But many of the criticisms of Theresa May are themselves cynical. To quote Danny Finkelstein in Tuesday’s Times: “they are all easy to say now, while not having been practical to do at the time. Even Labour was against a soft Brexit for a year or two after the referendum. And none of them were advanced by the hard Leavers. Those who argue that Mrs May’s departure is necessary if they or their friends are to back the deal are the same people who supported, indeed urged, her hard line.

We have now ended up in a position where Theresa May appears to have no confidence in the nation’s MPs, and the feeling is clearly reciprocated. The Speaker has clearly lost the confidence of a substantial proportion of the House: enough that he ought to be considering his position too. And the fact that our exit has been allowed to go this close to the wire has damaged the confidence of the country at large in our political processes.

Whichever outcome we get will polarise the electorate still further, with a sizeable minority likely to feel that something has been stolen from them. There is going to be a lot of work – for the next Prime Minister, but also for everyone involved in politics – to restore confidence in the system.

Aaron Bell

Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to politicalbetting.com, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election in 2017.




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Brexit: Not the End. Not the Beginning of the End. Perhaps, the End of the Beginning.

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

The UK’s relationship with the EU has never been cosy, and, as you may have noticed, it’s recently become incredibly contentious. Worse still, and regardless of what happens next, this is going to dominate politics in the UK for decades.

The reason is simple. This is a matter of identity. Some fear being governed by foreigners, the nation losing control of its own democratic destiny. Some feel they’re having their rights taken away against their will.

How do you bridge that gap? You can’t (not now, at least). There’s a chasm between them, and you can’t stand in the middle of a chasm.

“Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.” – on oligarch/democrat factions in the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, Book III

The current state of British politics, whilst a great many are weary and quiet, is dominated by the raised and angry voices of those convinced they have the national interest at heart. And, by definition, those who oppose them are deemed not merely to hold a different view but, wittingly or not, to be adversaries of the British national interest.

Hence the rise in pejorative language. It’s easy to label someone a racist or traitor, and then not have to bother actually formulating an argument against them because they’re inherently wicked. But those labels sting, intensifying bitterness and raising tension to an ever higher pitch.

And people who are embittered and divided do not relinquish the source of contention but grip it ever tighter.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha.

In a few months we’ll likely find out what the next Act in this play will be. There are a few possibilities, and not one will bring harmony to discord, for reasons I outline below.

The Remain Dream

Imagine the Commons backs a second referendum and Remain wins. The EU poses no significant problems and the UK ends up staying after all.

The political class breathes a sigh of relief, the media say it’s settled and we should unite, and all is well. Hooray!

If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

The EU won’t stand still. Remain does not mean status quo forever, it simply means gradual, continual integration, as has happened over decades. And each time it’ll be fresh salt in the sceptics’ wound. Those wanting to leave the EU/EEC have persisted for decades. They won’t stop when they feel they’ve had victory stolen from them. Theresa May will be replaced, and the odds are we’ll see a pissing contest over who can be the most pro-Leave Conservative leader.

If the Conservatives have a pro-third referendum leader there will likely be a party political split, with Labour effectively becoming Remain and the Conservatives Leave. The EU will then be a core election issue.

Total Leave

Suppose the opposite occurs. The UK leaves the EU. No customs union, no single market, no deal, the EU doesn’t have a say over any law or regulation in the UK.

Will hardline Remain types leave it there? Unlikely. Leavers spent decades campaigning, after all. Not to mention there would likely be economic turbulence (perhaps severe) which would immediately be blamed on leaving the EU (which has an interest in a leaving member being seen to suffer pour encourager les autres).

The Leave side will dissipate somewhat, as it’s ‘mission accomplished’. Passion will be spent and the fatigue of triumph will enervate further efforts. The media (excepting print, and that’s softening) is generally pro-EU. The political class was pro-EU at the time of the referendum.

It’s unlikely, though not impossible, Corbyn would promise another referendum, but his successor could do so. The weight of the political and media establishment is still pro-EU, and that weight may very well prove telling.

Leaving with a Deal

Suppose we actually get a withdrawal agreement, and maybe even a trade deal after that. It’s kind of between Leave and Remain, right? Things could settle down then?

No, centrist voter, your hopes will be dashed once again.

If the EU has any say over UK law or regulation or trade (including Northern Ireland) that’ll enrage those Leavers who think the spirit of the referendum result has been ignored (after all, if the EU is determining our regulations/laws and we’re paying them money, and they dictate our trade terms, just how much of it did we actually leave?).

Meanwhile, Remainers will see that rejoining might be possible from such a narrow distance without losing Schengen and eurozone opt-outs, which will make their task much easier.

Both sides will push hard to either rejoin or ‘properly’ leave, realising, perhaps correctly, that Leave has a 1-0 half time lead but there’s still every chance Remain could come from behind.

Ideological divides, such as the Peloponnesian War example of oligarchs and democrats mentioned above, tend not to be resolved quickly. Consider the iconoclasm in the Eastern Roman Empire. Or the religious turmoil in England during the 16th century as Protestants and Catholics tussled for the kingdom’s soul.

All of those disputes lasted for decades.

Morris Dancer

Morris Dancer is a longstanding PBer and tweets as MorrisF1



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A Nation once again ? – Part 1  The economics

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

In the first of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

The fallout from the Brexit vote has led to  more interest in the future of Northern Ireland than is usual. In particular the issue of a one state Ireland has bubbled back to the top of the political discussion with, as ever, strong views on either side

The modern Irish state is not the Ireland of old; it is a successful, self-confident country which has worked its way to overtake its European peers in the prosperity league – its larger neighbour included.  Likewise within Northern Ireland demographic shifts should set the scene for a unity vote, all seems lined up to removing the border. This article doesn’t seek to debate the pros and cons but rather to look at what are the practical issues facing a United Ireland. 

Northern Ireland is an economic basket case.

This is hardly a shock.  It has been the case since local industry was destroyed in the 1970s campaign of violence and investors scared off.  The net result has been the UK government has stepped in to fill the economic void both by transferring jobs to Ulster and outright subsidy. This support amounts to almost 30% of NI income. That’s huge. To put this in context the UK has squealed at projections that Brexit will cost 6% of GDP over 15 years.  Ireland faces an actual 5 times that and  overnight , unless there is an agreement on how to pick up the tab. 

Suggestions on how this gap should be dealt have ranged from – the UK should continue to  pay all the subsidies, The EU should pay the subsidies, Ireland will grow its way out of it. While these are all brave suggestions, personally I can’t see them working. Likewise I fail to see NI citizens accepting a one third drop in their income that willingly. Of all the things in the in tray this is the biggest.

The Republic’s economy is not strong enough

The Celtic Tiger has returned with growth rates of over 8% being clocked this year.  The Irish formula is based on attracting overseas investment in pharmaceuticals, IT, financial services and tax sheltering; these in turn drive the construction sector.

The headlines hide an underlying weakness.  Most of the wealth driving activities are dependent on foreign – usually US – corporations.  US corporations make up 14 of Ireland’s top 20 companies by turnover,  pay 80% of business taxes and create most of the country’s value added. These are not Irish businesses.  By itself hosting footloose multinationals can be a challenge but add in a grumpy “bring our jobs home” POTUS who is dishing out corporate tax breaks and the challenge goes up a notch. Move any of the core sectors from Ireland and the country faces a fiscal shock. As the song goes, nothing good going to ever last forever.

For all the progress the Republic’s economy is just not big enough or wide enough to absorb the shock of taking on Northern Ireland at one go. The UK with 64 million people grumbles about the £10bn cost of 1.9 million people across the Irish Sea. The Republic with 4.7 million people could well be staring at a wealth endangering black hole requiring something like a 11% hit to its voters wealth.  And don’t forget  after 50 years of handouts no-one in the North does gratitude, we do “rights”.

Short term the numbers are a big headache. The Republic hasn’t got the ability to comfortably take on the North without some major assistance.  The EU might help but budget rules would have to be relaxed to an eyebrow raising degree. The US under Trump I can’t see doing much he’ll want his taxes back from Ireland not the other way around. Voters either side of the border  won’t want to pay tax rises. The UK no doubt would pay its legacy bills but why should it pay  more it will be on for a dividend? So if you see a bus with £10 billion for the NHS painted on the sides its driver is John McDonnell.

Alanbrooke

Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.



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Brexit: The three key concessions

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

I have been wary of writing on Brexit. The vast majority of the visitors to this site are clearly informed – and informedly clear – with respect to their opinions on the matter. However, with Mike’s indulgence, I would like to pose some questions for discussion.

The weakness of the British position now has little to do with the Parliamentary arithmetic. Indeed, as Alastair Meeks presciently wrote in July 2017, there can actually be negotiating strength in what he termed “parity of incoherence”.  But…

There’s always a catch.  On this occasion, it’s obvious.  By narrowing the eye of the needle that the negotiators need to thread, the risk that they will fail is increased.

Instead, our weakness comes partly from the asymmetric size of the two negotiating parties, but more fundamentally from the three key concessions we have already made in the process of Leaving. Each concession was driven by a perceived political need to show that the process was progressing. Was this true in each case? To take them in the reverse chronology, as each flows from the previous one:

3. Agreeing the backstop last December

It’s worth reading both key paragraphs of the Joint Report, since paragraph 50 – inserted at the request of the DUP – seems to preclude the EU’s preferred Irish Sea customs border just as clearly as paragraph 49 precludes a hard border on land.

49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the allisland economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

50. In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

So – why did we agree to this at the time? The original text allowed the UK Government to effectively park Northern Ireland as an issue and move on to discussing future trading arrangements. Understandably the DUP objected, since one of their main objectives in supporting Brexit was to make Northern Ireland more British and more distinct from the Republic. Paragraph 49 implied the opposite.

The pressure to sign something was clear: there was a need to show progress in the negotiations to reassure businesses and citizens (the agreement actually mostly deals with citizens’ rights). There was also a political motivation to put to bed the drama and embarrassment of the DUP’s veto four days earlier.

But fundamentally the logical and legal contortions involved in declaring that there should be no border – on the border! – mean that this issue would have rolled over whatever we did, so I don’t see that withholding this concession – even though it has been used as a very effective wedge by the EU – would really have made much difference. We need to go back a further six months.

2. The climbdown on sequencing

It’s frankly ludicrous that we are debating the above without knowing the intended nature of the future trading arrangements. To quote David Davis, as he promised the “row of the summer”:

“How on earth do you resolve the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what our trade agreement is?” he told ITV’s Robert Peston. “It’s wholly illogical.” (FT, May 14 2017)

Well, quite. The Northern Irish problems largely disappear if a comprehensive free-trade arrangement can be agreed, as most people still eventually expect.

So – why did we agree to this at the time? The Government climbed down on the first day of the talks (June 19). One should note that Davis’s resignation letter makes clear that he disagreed with the decision.

I think this one is largely political and relates to the then very weak position of the Prime Minister: it was only 11 days after the election and the Conservative-DUP agreement had not yet been signed. Heading straight into an impasse would have suggested the Government was unable to deliver on its key agenda item – indeed the given reason for calling the election in the first place.

But of the three concessions, this is the one where I think we would have done better to stand firmer, and where we would have stood a chance of getting a better negotiating position. Yet Michel Barnier and the EU could simply have waited us out, because we had already entered into a time-limited process three months earlier.

1. Triggering Article 50

This is the big one. We should at least be grateful that David Cameron didn’t trigger it immediately, as Jeremy Corbyn had urged. The two-year timeline of Article 50 creates its own “backstop” i.e. an exit with No Deal. That is a lose-lose proposition, though the losses are heavier on our side which makes it difficult for us credibly to commit to it in negotiations.

Article 50 was written by the EU to favour the EU, and that is exactly how it has worked. It arguably creates a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations, contrary to the requirements of good faith. In another context, that would be seen as an unfair contract term. Good luck asking the ECJ to rule on that!

So – why did we agree to this at the time? Would it have been possible to seek to leave via treaty, or at the very least to get some commitments before triggering? The EU were very clear that there would be “no negotiation before notification”. If they had been determined to stick to this line, in private as well as public, we could perhaps have made a nuisance of ourselves with respect to budgets and anything that required unanimity. This would have been the Maggie-at-Fontainebleau approach and it might have worked, though it would also have risked undermining the trust required to later negotiate.

Regardless, was refusing to trigger Article 50 really viable, especially for a Prime Minister who had voted Remain? Whatever the negotiating merits of seeking an alternative approach, only by triggering it could she ensure we eventually left. Leavers would, not unreasonably, have feared that not triggering it was instead a precursor to a revised deal which kept us in the European Union.

What do you think?

Were any of these concessions avoidable? Or was the structural difficulty of leaving such that anyone seeking to do so would have to give a lot of ground?

Really – and perhaps this should have been the “fourth concession” – you have to go back to the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in the first place, though as far as I can see Article 50 was not discussed much at the time. It would certainly have been a good idea for us to have had a referendum on that.

Aaron Bell

Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to politicalbetting.com, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election last year.




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Topping, who served with the British Army in Northern Ireland during the troubles, on Ulster and Brexit

Monday, August 6th, 2018


Kenneth Allen / Bloody Sunday mural, Bogside

Why the border issue is so important to both sides

Why, when we’re busy trying to Brexit, is everyone hung up on Northern Ireland? Why should we let this small part of the UK, with a population just larger than Newcastle’s, dictate seemingly our entire Brexit settlement? Terrorism, people say. But we don’t give in to terrorists, so why does Northern Ireland and its terrorists get such special treatment?

For most people in the UK, terrorism means the odd bomb scare, suspicious package, or a thankfully rare terrorist incident. Whereas it once defined the island of Ireland.

Let’s imagine the scene: a long walk in the countryside on a beautiful summer’s day. You gaze out over the rolling hills and, amongst the trees swaying gently in the wind and the gambolling lambs, you see an army patrol dressed in camouflage kit, helmets and face paint, carrying machine guns. Is one of them pointing their gun at you? Shortly, a helicopter emerges from the distance, drops like a stone to land, and picks up the soldiers. Then, with its door gunner on alert, it rises steeply backwards, upwards and away. You continue your walk.

Or imagine you’re off to Tesco and pass fully armed soldiers either patrolling on foot, or in armoured vehicles with machine guns sticking out of the top. Perhaps they’ll stop and ask you who you are, where you’re going – questions you’d have to answer. Or they might take an hour to search your car. And all this because you know there is a threat of violence from the local communities.

How could such scenes exist in the United Kingdom? Well they did, in Northern Ireland, and that was the Troubles. Northern Ireland was at war, both with itself, and with the British Forces sent initially to protect the Catholic community in 1969. That military operation lasted 37 years and the internal conflict which brought it into being is what people fear when they talk about a return to the bad old days: complete disruption of the civic society that you and I take for granted.

There has been progress since, of course. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement assured Unionists that until a majority wanted otherwise, NI would remain part of the UK, while the Nationalists for their part saw a raft of cross-border bodies established. And times have changed in other ways also. Gerry Adams is in parliament now and surely no more than a handful of hot-heads want a return to the armed struggle? Isn’t it all – wasn’t it always – gangsters and criminals?

While not as intense (3,500 people died during the Troubles), there has been continuous terrorist-related activity since the GFA was signed, including murders, shootings and weapons finds.

    To think that no dissident Republican groups are or would be willing to fight for a united Ireland today is wishful thinking; to dismiss them as gangsters or criminals is to misunderstand the history of Irish Republicanism.

Army patrols in NI would routinely visit the 208 Border Crossing Points (BCPs, more than the EU has with all points East) of which 20 were official; the remainder, located in streams, fields, forests or woods, were often used to smuggle various substances – diesel, livestock (“dizzy cows” were taken back and forth over the border to collect agricultural subsidies), or, of course, weaponry and terrorists. One of the consequences of the GFA, and the reduction in violence, is that there are no more “official” BCPs; you can cross the border anywhere you want.

And it is this last issue that represents the toughest Brexit nut to crack. All mooted options, whether Chequers, any of the backstop agreements (Joint Report or Withdrawal Agreement), or any other solution, must be seen through the prism of how it affects the border.

Again, why? There are customs posts throughout the world without accompanying violence.

A hard border between the RoI and NI would inflame the Nationalists as it would create a more tangible separation between Eire and the UK, representing a setback in their quest for a united Ireland. It would also violate the spirit of the GFA, and the many pronouncements made by Theresa May. A border in the Irish Sea, meanwhile, would inflame the Unionists as it would create a de facto separate state of the island of Ireland. It has also, of course, been outlawed by the UK Parliament.

And ludicrous as it sounds, the fact that all parties have stated they don’t want one, has not prevented the border being used as a negotiating tool in the Brexit negotiations.

During the Troubles, a hard border provided a call to arms for Republican paramilitary groups. In the absence of some kind of as yet non-existent technological solution, people fear that any kind of border infrastructure created now would have the same effect. Which would in turn bring reprisals from Unionist paramilitary groups. And pretty soon you are back to the Troubles. And that is why it all matters so much.

Topping is a regular poster on PB