Monday 30 January 2023

Who needs honesty?


It seems that ‘allies’ of the now ex-Chair of the Tory Party are briefing that he is very upset about being sacked and feels that he hasn’t had a fair hearing, despite all the PM’s talk of following ‘due process’ before sacking Zahawi. In truth, ministers always hold their jobs at the pleasure of the PM; the PM can hire and fire people any time he likes with no need for any explanation or process of any sort, as plenty of ex-ministers – in all parties – can attest. Sunak didn’t need to follow any process other than telling Zahawi he was out. Once he’d announced an enquiry, Zahawi probably had a reasonable expectation that the enquiry would take longer than a few days. Normal process in such investigations is that the investigations are drawn out as long as possible in the vague hope that the issue might go away. (Spoiler: it never does.)

The enquiry was never about his tax affairs as such, that was deemed out of scope. It was, rather, all about what he did – or more generally did not – tell the relevant people at the right time. Setting the scope in that way is revealing in itself – it means that for a minister to seek to avoid paying tax which is due is not considered a matter for the ethics advisor, nor a bar to serving in the cabinet, as long as he owns up to it before taking on any job. It’s a strange definition of honesty. He claims to have evidence that some of the claims about him not having told the right people the right things at the right time are wrong, and if he’s telling the truth about that (not an assumption that one should necessarily rely on in the circumstances) then he might even have reasonable cause for complaint about the conduct of the investigation. That still would not circumvent that fact that Sunak could have sacked him arbitrarily at any time anyway.

His underlying claim that he wasn’t dishonest, just incompetent, isn’t quite the ‘get-out-of-jail’ card that he seems to think. He might be better advised to start questioning why he is being held to a higher standard of honesty than has been expected of his ministerial colleagues, but I can understand why none of them might be over-keen to open that particular can of invertebrates. Pleading incompetence isn’t the only instance of people using curious arguments. After saying that it is right for Zahawi to be sacked for what the advisor clearly saw as a lack of honesty and openness, Tory spokespeople are lining up to say that he should not be forced out as an MP. But arguing that being an MP doesn’t require the same level of honesty as being a minister isn’t exactly a killer argument either.

Sunak must be starting to wonder whether Johnson didn’t have the right approach after all: don’t have an ethics advisor and don’t worry about ethics. Through his actions, Johnson has shown, time and time again, that he believes honesty to be an over-rated attribute in a candidate for high office and, for three years, Sunak was happy to go along with that approach. But then he appointed Braverman back into a job from which she was forced out due to a breach of the ministerial code, and his spokesperson today has declined to rule out a cabinet return for Zahawi in the future. Perhaps Sunak and Johnson aren’t really that different after all; Sunak merely lacks the insouciance, and the ability to lie directly and repeatedly, with which Johnson dismissed any and every ethical criticism.

Friday 27 January 2023

Tweedleleft and Tweedleright


Leaving aside for a moment the not-inconsequential question of how meaningful terms like left wing or right-leaning are, a self-styled ‘right-leaning’ think tank produced a report last week claiming that Labour could secure a huge majority if only they shifted their social policies to the right. It’s a cunning plan – become indistinguishable from the Tories on policy in a range of areas, and Tory voters might vote for you. It’s hardly a new idea, though. It was, after all, Thatcher’s boast that her greatest achievement was New Labour, meaning that she had shifted the Overton window of political debate in the UK to the right in such a way that, to stay within that window, Labour also needed to move right. And if we assume that the prime function of any political party is to gain power, then pitching its appeal to the beliefs and prejudices of the electorate is one way of doing exactly that.

What it is not, however, is a programme for change or any sort of demonstration of leadership. Nor is it about setting out the possibility of an alternative future. It does seem, though, to be exactly what Keir Starmer is doing, with or without being nudged that way by Tory think tanks. And not only on ‘social’ policies. The think tank suggests that a more left wing approach to economics is acceptable to voters as long as social and cultural policies are right wing; but Starmer and his shadow Chancellor are wedded to right wing economic policy as well. They are hopelessly committed to the idea of avoiding new debt and repaying old debt, a policy which is not only unnecessary, but which also commits them, one way or another, to some variation on austerity.

Specifically, the report suggests that Labour needs to appeal more to ‘authoritarian’ voters. A choice between an authoritarian Tory government and an authoritarian Labour government, pursuing broadly similar economic policies, is not the most appealing prospect. It’s another argument, for those of us who believe that there is an alternative, for Wales to go its own way.

Thursday 26 January 2023

No time for leisure


Governments govern, oppositions oppose. It’s a simple enough rule, and one which the Conservatives in Cardiff Bay follow with gusto. The point, though, is that opposition is supposed to demonstrate to the electorate that there is an alternative to what the government is doing and, in purely electoral terms, to do so in a way which wins votes for the opposition party. Their enthusiasm for opposing anything and everything sometimes seems to blind the Tories to the second part of what opposition is about.

Take their opposition to the proposed trial of a reduction in the working week. The alternative proposition that they are putting forward seems to be that the working week should be maintained at its current level, and people should not be allowed more leisure time. It’s not at all clear to whom that proposition is supposed to appeal – given a choice between working four days a week and working five days a week for the same pay, what exactly drives the Tories to believe that people will vote for the party offering them the longer week? Or are they really so wedded to the idea of selfishness as the only driver of all human activity that they believe that those who don’t get the chance to work reduced hours will vote enthusiastically against the idea that anyone else should get that opportunity?

There is nothing special or magic about the idea of a five day week. Indeed, it’s not even that long-established as a concept. When I was a child, my father was in an office job with a five-and-a-half-day week; Saturday mornings were a normal part of the working week, and the ‘weekend’ was one and a half days long (or one and a bit by the time he got home). The reduction from five and a half didn’t happen for everyone at the same time – some employers acted before others. That will always be the case, but is hardly a reason for no-one to make the change. The same is true for all reductions in the number of hours worked per week; between 35 and 37 looks more or less normal today, but it hasn’t always been that way. It was 40 when I started work, and it’s not so long since 45 to 48 was much more common.

It's not irrelevant that the fastest and largest reductions in the working week happened during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time when prosperity overall was rising, and where the increases in prosperity were, to a degree at least, shared between capital and labour. From the 1980s onwards, not only has the rate of increase in prosperity slowed, but the way it is shared out has changed too – more and more ends up in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Both are the direct result of a failed economic experiment which started from the assumption that allowing the rich to get richer would make everyone better off in the end.

Different cultures rule in different workplaces. I’ve worked for one company where presenteeism was the norm: managers worked long hours and staff who arrived after their managers or left before them were definitely frowned upon, to put it mildly. Failing to respond to emails for some pathetic excuse such as being on holiday or off sick was another big no-no. The contracts of employment might have referred to a 35 hour week, but anyone who actually worked only 35 hours didn’t last long. Whether the staff were more productive as a result is another question entirely. Bad employers have a tendency to confuse productivity with hours worked, whereas it’s really about what is achieved within those hours. There is some evidence that shorter hours do not reduce output, although that is likely to vary between different contexts. An employee minding a widget-making machine will find that the number of widgets he can make depends on the capacity of the machine: shorter hours = fewer widgets. But that doesn’t necessarily follow for an office environment where the output is, in many cases, difficult to measure anyway. Improving morale – by, for instance, reducing hours worked – can obviously have an impact.

The problem that the Tories have is that they are wedded to an ideology under which most of us exist only to serve the needs of employers, to which end we should devote all our time and energy. From that perspective, any request for more leisure time is as preposterous as Oliver’s request for a little more gruel. It challenges their understanding of what humanity is all about. The alternative view, that society should be about facilitating the growth and development of humans as individuals outside the workplace is anathema to them. “Keep your noses to the grindstone” is the limit of their understanding. It may have some ideological validity from their perspective, but it still puzzles me why they think that proposition will appeal to the electorate more than the prospect of more leisure time.

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Looking in the mirror


In August, 1704, an Anglo-Dutch invasion force seized Gibraltar from the Spanish by force of arms, during the war of the Spanish Succession. Like most wars, the conflict was eventually resolved by a series of treaties, one of the consequences of which was that a weakened Spain ‘voluntarily’ during a process of ‘negotiation’ ceded the territory of Gibraltar to England. On that basis, the rock has been ‘British’ ever since, despite a few Spanish attempts to reclaim the territory. Given two and a half centuries to make their mark, aided by a certain degree of migration and cultural dominance, the British authorities got to a position by 1968 where a referendum of the inhabitants opted to remain British rather than see Gibraltar returned to Spain. It never really settled the question though – Spain continues to claim sovereignty on the basis that the territory was stolen from it.

Lest anyone think that this makes the Spanish look like the good guys, there is a not dissimilar history to Spain’s control of a series of outposts along the northern coat of Africa, such as Ceuta and Melilla – seize them first, and worry about getting agreement from the previous owners later. And the issue goes much wider than that – the legal basis for most of the boundaries in Europe is that territory was at some point seized by the current rulers and the new ownership subsequently legitimized by forcing the losers to sign treaties recognising the new boundaries or, in the case of territories swallowed up in their entirety (such as Wales, for instance), simply allowing the passage of time to legitimise the new ownership. It is the way that European states have behaved over centuries. Among the consequences of this long-standing approach are a series of unresolved boundary disputes (including, of course, Gibraltar itself) and most, if not all, of Europe’s independence movements.

In insisting that any peace negotiations with Ukraine should start by recognising the new boundaries created by military conquest (negotiations then being about the terms under which those boundaries are recognised, rather than about whether they should be recognised at all), Putin is simply following the traditional European playbook. Seize territory first, and legitimize it later. That doesn’t justify it, or make it right, it simply underlines the fact that a few decades of relative peace have not provided any sort of answer to the question of how and where boundaries should be drawn if not by the prior exercise of military force. There is no obvious ‘good’ outcome to the current war. Ceding territory to Russia confirms the validity of Putin’s approach, and may encourage further demands in future (to say nothing of what it means for the people in the territories concerned); providing ever more armaments of increasing sophistication and destructive capability to Ukraine in an attempt to enable the recapture of all stolen territory risks an escalation whose consequences could be catastrophic way beyond the boundaries of Ukraine itself. The only certainties are that the death and destruction will continue for as long as there is no resolution, and that there will have to be some negotiation eventually.

Nothing can or should blind us to the fact that Putin is responsible for the current war; resorting to military force rather than negotiation – and consultation with the people directly affected – should never be acceptable. But nothing happens without a context, and the context in which he launched the war is nothing new. The failure to find an alternative and civilised approach to determining statehood, nationality and boundaries, with the support of the people themselves, is never going to be down to one man at one time. There are politicians across Europe who ought to be taking a long hard look at the actions of their own states over the years as well as condemning Putin.

Monday 23 January 2023

Doing the right thing


The Chair of the Tory Party told us over the weekend that he had settled the HMRC claim against him for unpaid taxes because it “…was the right thing to do”. It’s one of the few things that he’s ever said with which it’s hard to disagree – paying the taxes which are due under the law is, of course, the right thing to do. The wording of his statement – that he paid up “so that I could focus on my life as a public servant” – might reasonably be interpreted, however, as implying that it only became the ‘right thing to do’, in his eyes, when he was appointed as Chancellor. Prior to that, the impression he gives is clearly that he felt justified in arguing the toss. I suppose that starting to be honest about his finances once appointed Chancellor still makes him a tad more honourable than the man who appointed him to the role, who has never felt constrained to behave ethically whether in or out of office.

His statement, however, raises more questions that it answers (the Guardian has a handy list of those things which we still don’t know here). He clearly believes at this stage that he can bluff and brazen his way through the controversy by declining to provide any more information – that is, after all, the approach taken repeatedly by the man who appointed him Chancellor, and it worked well enough for him – until it didn’t. He has made it very clear that he will not be resigning, a statement which puts the ball back very firmly in the PM’s court. A quick resignation now might, just about, let Sunak off this particular hook, although it’s not the only one from which he is currently trying to escape. A refusal forces Sunak either to sack him or else to continue to defend the indefensible, and mire himself deeper in the sleaze pit which his party has become. It is a source of never-ending surprise to me that, despite all the past experience of PM after PM, the first instinct of all of them is to try and cling on to those they have appointed. It drags out the story and makes the ultimate resignation/ sacking look like weakness instead of strength. Do they really have no-one close to the PM telling him to act quickly and decisively to get rid of an embarrassment? That would be the core of any message from any serious PR professional, yet still Sunak dithers. He has two days before he faces Starmer at PMQs – does he really want to do so with all those questions still unanswered?

Friday 20 January 2023

Double standards


As crimes go, failing to wear a seatbelt in a moving car is pretty minor stuff. There is, however, a difference between failing to fasten the belt when getting into the car – which might legitimately be described as a genuine ‘mistake’ – and removing it once the vehicle is moving. The PM has described it as an ‘error of judgement’, but there is no escaping the fact that it is, as a matter of fact, the deliberate commission of a criminal act. Whether it really deserves the attention of Mr Plod is open to debate. The police have better things to do with their time, even if this is an open-and-shut case, with the criminal freely acknowledging that he deliberately chose to break the law. The question is one of equity: if the police prosecute others for breaking this law, why should the PM be exempt?

In a strange way, it also ties in with another story from yesterday – the government are trying to amend the online safety bill to make it illegal to post any video which might show small boats crossing the channel “in a positive light”. They are probably going to struggle with producing a sufficiently precise definition of that to stand up in a court of law, but that won’t stop them trying, even though it is not entirely clear that getting into a small boat and crossing the channel is in itself an illegal act in the first place. But if a video giving a positive impression of an act which only might be illegal is to be banned, where does that leave a video giving a positive impression of an undoubtedly illegal act – such as being in a moving vehicle without wearing a seatbelt – to which the perpetrator has freely admitted?

Sunak is, of course, merely perpetuating the approach of his predecessor but one, for whom criminality is described by one of those pesky irregular verbs, whose conjugation runs: “I make mistakes, you commit errors of judgement, he is being prosecuted for the foulest of crimes”. It is not the commission of a minor crime by the PM yesterday which is the issue, it is the differing standards which the elite seek to apply to themselves. They expect us to accept excuses from them which they would never accept from the rest of us.  And that is something with which they should not be allowed to get away.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Getting poorer more slowly


The reluctance of trade unions to accept some sort of one-off payment in recognition of the high level of inflation this year is understandable. One year’s 10% inflation doesn’t disappear if inflation halves in the next year, it merely becomes part of the next year’s base level of prices. So, if inflation is 10% one year and 5% the next, when we take into account the wonder which is compounding, it needs a total increase in pay of 15.5% over the two years just to keep pace with the cost of living. And that’s without even considering the extent to which pay fell behind prices in the years before that. Suspicion of a non-consolidated payment for one of those years is entirely justified.

The government are making a great play of the idea that they are getting the cost of living under control by reducing the rate of inflation, but a reduction in the rate of inflation when wages continue to lag behind prices doesn’t ‘solve’ anything. It merely slows the rate at which people fall behind. “We will slow the rate at which you get poorer” isn’t the catchiest of election slogans, yet that is the best that the current government is effectively offering. Far from regretting that people do not have a proper command of mathematics, government policy on pay depends on the assumption that people don’t understand that reducing inflation in itself is not enough. They may find that people’s understanding of basic mathematics as it directly affects them is rather better than they might wish. Voting to be impoverished more slowly is not the most attractive proposition.

Tuesday 17 January 2023

Picking fights


Underpinning much of what the UK government is doing currently, there seems to be an almost desperate and somewhat indiscriminate need to pick fights with people. Perhaps their internal polling, or their focus groups, have been telling them that taking a macho stance against all comers will bring electoral rewards amongst their target groups, but there is little evidence to suggest that such a finding is backed up by information available publicly. Perhaps it’s even more simplistic than that – they are just harking back to the Iron Lady without studying the detail of the way she chose her fights. Whatever the reason, picking fights once positions have been taken, with no attempt to avoid the need for them by advance discussions, seems to have become their default position.

It's possible that they genuinely believed that the public would turn against strikers as the inconvenience caused increases, and maybe – had it been only the railways involved – that might have worked. But taking on the nurses in particular was just foolish. Eventually, they will have to settle; they won’t give the RCN everything it asked for (but being accustomed to the idea of negotiation, the RCN never expected that), but they will have to make some serious concessions, however they attempt to spin them. And having settled one dispute in that fashion, they will have to settle the others in a similar way (the Chancellor’s reported concerns that settling one dispute will lead to a domino effect are valid, but it’s the government which lined up the dominos). Had they only been willing to sit down and negotiate properly before the first strikes, it could probably all have been avoided; turning it into a fight looks to be deliberate.

Yesterday, they announced that they will block the Gender Recognition Bill passed by the Scottish parliament, teeing up another entirely avoidable fight. They could have expressed their concerns in advance and tried to discuss potential changes with the Scottish Government, but chose to wait until the Bill had been overwhelmingly passed by the parliament before using the nuclear option of over-riding the democratic voice of Scotland. It will, undoubtedly, end up in the Supreme Court. It’s not entirely clear who will win the legal argument, but there can be little doubt that the Scottish Government will win the political argument.

And there’s also, of course, the long-running (three Prime Ministers and counting) dispute with the EU over the Brexit terms, another area in which concessions will eventually have to come.

There are times when picking fights might be a sensible strategy for a party or a government, which can look ‘strong’ (apparently that’s a good thing among the electorate) as a result, but only if it wins a reasonable proportion of them. Repeatedly picking fights which it is easy to predict it is doomed to lose can only have the opposite effect. The Tory Party has become not so much a government as a suicide cult. As Richard Murphy points out today, looking at the main elements of their legislative programme, one might easily conclude that they are governing for the world as they wish it were rather than the world as it actually exists. Fantasy has become the new normal.

Saturday 14 January 2023

Depending on promises


The Times ran a story yesterday suggesting that Boris Johnson might offer Rishi Sunak a deal under which Johnson would not attempt to oust Sunak before the next election in return for Sunak pulling a few strings to find Johnson a safer seat in which to stand at that election. It might just be a bit of kite-flying to see what the reaction might be; it might be a deliberate piece of mischief. In the febrile atmosphere of the Tory Party, Johnson’s ‘friends’ might turn out to be his enemies after all. But whether it’s actually true or not, it has a certain whiff of credibility about it. It’s the sort of thing a man who believes himself to be the saviour of the party and the country would do, even if his belief is shared only by a tiny minority even amongst his own party’s MPs. The fact that sources close to Johnson publicly declared only last month that he would stand again in his current seat – a declaration referred to by Sunak yesterday – only adds to the credibility of the story. Johnson’s history shows that the more times he repeats something the less likely it is to be true.

And that’s the real problem with the Times story. However true the story itself might be, the likelihood of Sunak agreeing to Johnson’s demands depends on an assumption that Sunak could rely on a promise made by a man who has never knowingly honoured a single promise in his life. Whilst Sunak has amply demonstrated that he isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the box, even he couldn’t be that stupid. Could he?

Friday 13 January 2023

Competing in the madness stakes


There are two facts about nurses and doctors with which very few would disagree. The first is that it takes years and costs tens of thousands of pounds to train them, and the second is that there is a critical shortage of both, with large numbers of unfilled vacancies in the NHS. With that as context, try as I might, I really struggle to imagine the ministerial conversations which concluded that threatening to sack any nurse or doctor who refuses to provide a better service on strike days than the currently-resourced NHS is able to provide on non-strike days is such a brilliant idea that it should be made law. Of course, it wouldn’t be ministers doing the sacking, it would be their appointees on the health boards and trusts to whom that responsibility would be delegated but, again, I really can’t imagine the thought process that managers in such trusts would go through which would lead to them actually issuing any dismissal notices. Not only would it completely poison future industrial relations, it would make their job of meeting the myriad targets placed upon them by the various governments of the UK even harder than the current setting of ‘impossible’.

One of the two semi-rational reasons that I have been able to come up with is that the UK ministers seriously believe that the deterrent effect will be so great that striking workers will agree to meet whatever arbitrary service levels ministers will set such that employers will never ever want to use the power which the government is seeking to grant them. It’s certainly credible that ‘employers will never ever want to use the power’; most of them have more sense than that. But that reluctance to use the power bears little relationship to the question of whether the strikers comply with the arbitrary service levels or not, and has much more to do with the application of a little common sense. That leaves us with the idea of ‘deterrence’ as a guiding principle.

It's something on which the current government certainly has form. The whole policy of sending a tiny number of migrants to an African country with which they previously have no connection was all about deterrence as well. It was supposed to destroy the business model of people smugglers by convincing the migrants that the consequences of getting into a small boat were worse than simply staying put. To say that the evidence for this assertion is lacking would be a considerable understatement. The government clearly has no conception of the degree of desperation felt by people prepared to risk their own lives and those of their children by getting into a small boat and crossing the channel; the idea that a tiny risk of being sent to Rwanda would deter them tells us more about the mindset of the ministers than that of the migrants.

To the extent that deterrence works at all, it depends on a number of factors. Those taking the action that is supposed to be deterred have to be taking the decision on the basis of a careful risk analysis and weighing up the likelihood of negative consequences (rather than acting out of desperation), and they have to really believe that those consequences will certainly follow. In the case of NHS workers, they are as able as anyone else to understand that employers who sack them for striking would have to be even more insane than the ministers devising the policy.

That leaves the other semi-rational reason, which is that the government seriously believes that restricting the rights of working people is always, and in all circumstances, going to be a vote winner for the Tory party. Even Thatcher realised that wasn’t true and chose her battles carefully, but those who seek to emulate her clearly have only a partial understanding of history. Perhaps they’re too focussed on mathematics.

Thursday 12 January 2023

Misusing the arguments


There is something fundamentally dishonest about the Tories demanding that the Welsh Government divert its resources in order to mitigate the problems caused by the Tory Government in London, but then ‘honesty’ is not a consideration which has often troubled them greatly. This week, it was a demand that the Welsh Government help out third sector organisations to provide additional help for their staff to deal with the cost of living crisis over which the UK government has presided. (In another example, last week, we had the Tory leader in the Senedd criticising Mark Drakeford for not ignoring UK government policy and simply paying NHS staff more: we can be reasonably certain that, had Drakeford done that from the outset, RT would have complained about him giving in to union bosses rather than standing firm.)

In response to the latest demand, Drakeford said that “…the Welsh Government cannot be the answer to every dilemma that every part of Welsh society faces.” He’s right, of course; but it isn’t the whole truth. In simplistic terms, “the … Government cannot be the answer to every dilemma that every part of … society faces” could be said to be true of almost any government at almost any time, but the missing part of that is that what’s also true is that the capacity of different governments at different times varies. And in the case of Wales, the fact that the Welsh government is able to do less than the UK government could do on the same problem (if it were to so choose) is a direct result of the fact that one government has fiscal independence whilst the other does not. The Tories’ demand that the Welsh Government do things which it does not have, and cannot obtain, the resources to do, and Drakeford’s response that he cannot do everything that he wants to do both sound to me like strong arguments for independence, or at the least for greater fiscal control. It’s a strange world in which constraints placed by London on Wales are used as an excuse for failure rather than a reason for removing those constraints, but it seems to be the inevitable result of a unionist mindset.

Friday 6 January 2023

Just Business as Usual


According to the official constitution (to the extent that such a thing exists) the monarch’s line of descent was chosen by the will of god to rule over us. The historical reality is that the divine will has often been given more than a little human assistance in the form of patricide, fratricide and even infanticide, without an unhealthy dose of all of which the current monarch would not be occupying the throne. Had it not been so his offspring might not be pushing each other onto dog bowls, or, if they did, would attract rather less attention for doing so as members of some minor and largely forgotten branch of the family tree. Avoiding the potentially circular argument about whether killing off family members was actually god’s mysterious way of implementing his will to guide the current monarch into his elevated position, the reality is that the occupant of the throne at any time owes more to the nefarious activities of his or her ancestors than to the divine. History indicates that, by and large, the English monarchical system has a Darwinian propensity to select for murder, treachery and betrayal.

Throughout history, royal personages have attempted to put a positive light on some of their number and a negative light on others; much of what we learn about the history of the kings and queens of England – a history traditionally inflicted upon pupils in Wales as well as in England – is based as much on spin as on historically provable fact (such as Richard III’s hunchback). Modern technology didn’t invent spin or briefing; it merely facilitated and accelerated them. Shakespeare makes Alastair Cambell look like a novice, and King John with a Twitter account would probably have made Trump look like a rank amateur.

That all provides some context for the ‘revelations’ in Harry Windsor’s little tome, to be published next week. (Interestingly, one question which the media seem not to have pursued with any vigour is how the country which gave the world the very concept of mañana managed to steal a march on everyone else and publish the book early.) Listening to Harry’s long list of gripes, it seems that he doesn’t understand that what he is describing when he talks about betrayal, disrespect, and unfavourable briefings is what history tells us is Standard Operating Procedure for his whole family. In fact, being pushed around a bit by a brother who later apologised means that, in terms of his family’s normal approach to business over the preceding centuries, he’s got off rather lightly and made his brother look like a bit of a wimp. Most of William's predecessors would have had the axeman standing by. It makes me wonder what passes for English history on the curriculum at Eton. Or maybe they simply assumed, wrongly, that a living part of that history would already understand it.

Thursday 5 January 2023

The real problem of innumeracy


Despite deploying his very best efforts, even Rishi Sunak can’t be completely wrong about everything all the time, and this week he managed to get one thing at least half right in identifying that innumeracy among school leavers is a problem. His ‘solution’ (compulsory maths until age 18 for all English pupils), however, tells us rather more about his own tenuous connection with the meaning of numbers than it does about addressing the problem. The curriculum has probably changed since my school days, when taking double maths at A level was a soft option for someone like me who was lucky enough to have a fairly natural grasp of numbers and numerical operations: learning a few principles and formulae and knowing how to apply them was much easier than having to cram a whole load of facts into my head for examination purposes. A level maths was not the same thing as O level maths, however – I remember one maths teacher describing the former as ‘hard sums’ whilst the latter was ‘easy sums’.

It's not entirely clear what Sunak has in mind. I can’t believe that he’s stupid enough to believe it a good idea to put people who haven’t got to grips with ‘easy sums’ through the trauma of trying to learn how to do ‘hard sums’; and Calculus with its differentiation and integration doesn’t immediately strike me as being relevant to the future lives and careers of most pupils. But the alternative is that he’s planning the even stupider approach of forcing those who have failed to master ‘easy sums’ after five years of secondary education through another two years of the same. The logic of adding an extra 40% of input to a process which is clearly failing many pupils is ‘interesting’ to say the least, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of what it is that the low levels of numeracy are actually telling us - as well as a lack of the 'analytical ability' which he claims to be so important.

It's far from being the only example. Yesterday, he and other ministers were keen to tell us that the NHS has all the money it needs to solve its capacity problems. There’s some doubt as to whether that’s actually correct even in purely numerical terms, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment at least. If the NHS lacks 10,000 doctors, and employing a doctor costs £80,000 a year, then chucking £800 million into NHS coffers does indeed ‘solve’ the problem. It is, though, rather divorced from the real life question of what that 10,000 represents, and assumes (in the manner of basic economic theory) that there are 10,000 doctors sitting on a shelf somewhere, just waiting for someone to offer them a job. In reality, there is a lengthy lead time involved in recruiting doctors with the right specialisations in the right locations – and an even longer lead time if they need to be trained first. That involves understanding that the 10,000 isn’t just a factor in an equation, it’s a symbolic representation of a serious problem. Such a simplistic mathematical response to the needs of the NHS is made worse when another department of the same government is performing its own mathematical computations to conclude that recruiting trained doctors overseas is ‘cheaper’ than training our own, and yet another department performs its own sums and attempts to reduce the number of overseas migrants.

It's an approach for which Sunak’s ‘financial’ background did much to prepare him. Bankers ‘know’ that if you can reduce the cost of production (X) and increase the productivity rate of staff (Y), the amount of profit flowing into their accounts (Z) will increase. But Z is the only factor which they have any ability to relate to the real world. The impact of job cuts for some and longer hours for others on people, lives and wellbeing – which is what X and Y actually represent – is beyond their comprehension. It’s all just mathematics. That really goes to the heart of Sunak’s category error in talking about levels of innumeracy among school leavers. The bigger problem is not that many do not have the ability to handle numbers well, it’s that some of those who can handle numbers well have lost all conception of what those numbers represent. And by some strange process, these are the people who end up in charge of the government and the economy.