May 072010
 

American commentary on the UK elections has me practically in stitches from laughter. This might have to become a series.

Take this, for instance, in Slate magazine (emphasis mine):

Our American campaigns have become decadent spectacles of horrifying length and expense characterized by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals, and a running media freak show.

By contrast, Britain’s feel pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

If there is one thing I’ve noticed about the ‘candidates’ in this election, it’s been their spontaneity and accessibility. Brown, for example, was so spontaneous that he called a little old Labour lady a bigot live on air. My local Labour and Conservative candidates were so ‘accessible’ that, in what was really four months of campaigning, not four weeks as Jacob Weisberg seems to think, I received one leaflet apiece from them. Not a single candidate’s supporters here actually doorstepped us; I only managed to talk to the one Lib Dem guy because I opened the door while he was… delivering a leaflet through the letterbox.

Substance, too, has been a running theme of this election: Brown has it, or so Mandelson would have us believe. But the ‘substance’ has been, more or less: Vote for me, I’m not as bad as the others! Yeah, that’s real substantive.

I don’t know what evidence Weisberg has for thinking that the British electorate is more ‘informed and engaged’ than the American one, especially since he wrote the article before the election and thus before voter turnout was known. American voter turnout in 2008 was about 61%; UK voter turnout this time round was 65%. That’s not a gigantic difference.

Later in the same article, Weisberg admires the intellectualism (he read Waiting for Godot!), atheism (his wife is a man of faith!), and multiculturalism (Dutch father! Spanish wife! Bruges and Brussels!) of Nick Clegg, whom he ‘laid eyes on’ once in Birmingham. On that occasion, Weisberg reports, Clegg failed to answer a direct question from a voter (‘Clegg replies, before going on to rephrase what he’s already said’) because evidently she wasn’t listening hard enough the first time, then ‘patiently tries to bring her around’ when, having been asked what she thinks, she tells him it’s his job to answer the questions, not hers. But that’s all right, because Clegg ‘handled a tough customer well.’ Um, what? Clegg treated her like she was an idiot. No wonder the Lib Dems lost seats.

Weisberg’s attitude toward Cameron, however, is nothing like so enthusiastic:

I’d seen Conservative Party leader David Cameron twice before, both times in off-the-record press conversations, and both times I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found his case for modernizing the Conservatives well put. In the United States, the Republicans have gone in just the opposite direction, moving closer to the most extreme positions of their base and purging themselves of any sort of moderation. Under Cameron, the Tories acknowledge the value of government and the necessity of taxes, not to mention the threat of climate change and the equality of gay people.

One has to wonder, now the count is in, whether ‘modernizing’ the Conservatives to be left-wing has helped them as much as remaining actual Conservatives might have done. And once again, an American reveals an implicit belief that somehow Conservatives equate to Republicans and Labour equate to Democrats. An American conservative, knowing the legends of Margaret Thatcher, would gasp in outraged horror at Cameron’s free bus pass and eye test guarantee. Weisberg might twig Blue Labour, but he clearly doesn’t understand American conservatives at all – not least because he seems to think that American conservatives are the same thing as Republicans.

On the other hand, I was put off by Cameron’s focus on what historian Daniel Boorstin once described in a visionary book of the 1960s as “The Image.” He seemed more focused on the rebranding of the Conservatives than on the contents of the package.

Weisberg cannot make up his mind: he likes the Tory rebranding (yay, modernizing!), and yet he doesn’t like Cameron’s focus on the Tory rebranding. What, does he think that should have been understated? Does he really believe that a party that wants to get elected should understate the very aspect they reckon is likely to get them elected?

Oh, and also, unlike Nick Clegg whom Weisberg ‘laid eyes on’ once, during his several meetings with Cameron, he felt Cameron was inaccessible. Press access was, apparently, limited – limited to three meetings per random foreign journalist, I suppose. And even though Cameron ‘takes… questions seriously’ and is ‘relaxed, fluent and cogent’ when he speaks to voters, he is somehow less engaging than Nick ‘I Said That Already’ Clegg.

Oh, and also-also, Weisberg gets in a dig about the Contract With On America. Because obviously that worked out so poorly, what with six years of record prosperity following its implementation.

Finally, Weisberg moves on to Brown. Brown reminds Weisberg of a character in a novel who is half blind, angry, and unable to deal with other people. The character turns out to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

At a vast, Andreas Gursky-like Tesco supermarket in Newcastle, I watch [Brown] move briskly down an aisle, bumbling through encounters with people to whom he has nothing to say. Upstairs, in the employees’ lounge, he mistakes me for a Tesco worker and reaches out to shake my hand—even though I’m standing behind a barrier in the press section and had been chatting with him just a few minutes before in the second-class compartment of the train from London.

A second-class carriage? My God, how did they stand it? Folks who ride in standard class are a totally different type of person from them!

But wait, a heckler is yelling something about Gillian Duffy. Amazingly, the Special Branch officers are doing nothing about a possibly unhinged man menacing the prime minister—the luxury of politics in an unarmed country. A woman not more than 5 feet tall tugs at the protester’s sleeve. Eventually, he is dragged out, trailed by the press, as Brown continues his speech as if nothing has happened.

Ah yes – for all his admiration of the British way of doing things, Weisberg still seems to believe that armed bodyguards should be ‘doing something’ about a perfectly legitimate heckler. My God, drag him out of there! Apparently Weisberg remains blissfully ignorant of how that sort of thing went down last time Labour did it. ‘It’s a shouty old man! Quick, beat him up!’ Contrast Weisberg’s attitude toward this random heckler with his description of, quite obviously, another heckler (emphasis mine):

Julian Borthwick, who has blemished yet another day on the campaign trail for Gordon Brown, is an unexpected character. Nicely dressed in a hounds tooth tweed jacket, the 38-year-old academic says he is not a Conservative, not highly political, and not ordinarily given to interrupting politicians. He was having lunch at the museum with his parents when the prime minister interrupted them by arriving with his entourage. After listening to Brown’s speech for a few minutes, he became furious enough to begin shouting. In particular, he was appalled by his promise of subsidized broadband Internet access for the North, which, he says, already has excellent connections. Despite his poor manners, Borthwick has a point: Why is Labor promising new benefits of marginal value when austerity should be the order of the day?

I guess hecklers become a lot less menacing when you know they’re tweedy academic types ‘not ordinarily given’ to heckling. Julian Borthwick has a mild case of the bad manners, rather than being a ‘possibly unhinged’ and working-class trade unionist as mentioned earlier. Weisberg, you snob.

Not to mention the fact that Weisberg’s section on Labour revolves almost entirely around Gordon Brown’s inability to act like a human, mixed with anecdotes about members of his audience and people who chastised Weisberg for getting his press pass from the Grauniad. Julian Borthwick gets more of a hearing than any criticism Weisberg might have of Labour’s policies. Presumably this is because he has no criticisms to offer. After all, Labour are practically the same thing as Democrats, and look how awesome they are!

If this brief, intense visit showed me the pleasures of British politics, it has also underscored the miserable job that the next British prime minister faces. Simply put, he will inherit a government that is much too large in relation to the country’s post-crisis economy. He will have to cut services, reform pensions, and scale back commitments, ultimately reducing spending from current levels by about 12 percent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He will literally decimate the government, reducing it by a tenth. America faces a dire fiscal prospect as well, but we have a better chance of solving part of the problem through stronger growth and have more ability to raise taxes.

Ahahahahahaha… oh, sorry. America has a better chance to recover because it has more ability to raise taxes? I beg to differ. Not because Congress couldn’t jack up taxes – they could, obviously – but because America will recover better, not through taxes, but through the fact that its private sector, unlike Britain’s, thriveth mightily.

That’s Weisberg, then: huge admiration for British politics despite its useless and insulting party leaders, its voters who heckle and refuse to listen, and its dire prospects for the future. Yup, there’s loads of stuff there to admire.

And now, of course, I shall make the obligatory defence that, no, I don’t hate Britain and I’m not a racist against the British. There are things I really admire about Britain – why the hell else would I be here? – but its political system is not one of them, except insofar as it provides me with copious entertainment. Oddly, what I like best about Britain is what Weisberg seems to like least: its individuals. Most of the British I know are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. Weisberg’s respect is reserved only for the idea of Britain which exists inside his head. Individuals, where he mentions them at all, Weisberg mocks and derides.

Apart from Julian Borthwick, who presumably is spared this treatment because, at the museum, he had a copy of Waiting for Godot bulging from the pocket of his tweedy jacket.

Feb 282010
 

Written by Fabian Tassano, this post gives remarkably prescient advice to the Conservatives on how to win the election following this one, after David Cameron has led the party to yet another shameful defeat. Of the thirteen strategies he identifies as being likely to lead to victory, the Tories have abandoned every single one, particularly these:

9) Whatever you do, do not try to imitate the Labour Party or outdo them on their own terms. This will badly backfire. You will be seen as the worst of both worlds: associated with the morally unfashionable Conservative brand, while also repelling those who dislike nanny statism. Interventionism is only appealing if it comes with a trendy ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ label, and this is something which is beyond your reach.

10) Don’t try to seem cool or trendy. This will never work. The best thing you can do is to seem boring and sensible. That way, when the country’s infrastructure gets badly unstuck (as it will), you will be the safe default option.

With the Tory lead today at 2 points – well within the statistical margin of error, probably – Cameron would do well to heed this advice now, instead of leaving it for his successor to attempt.

Why are the Conservatives so unpopular? Because of no. 9 above. They offer the voters no real alternative at a time when voters desperately want one. The electorate doesn’t expect Labour to offer anything new, but they were hoping for some real radicalism from Camerhoon. Instead they get boring, unworkable, more-of-the-same policies. And this phenomenon makes voters hate the Tories almost more than they hate Labour, because in addition to thinking Tory policies are crap, voters feel betrayed by them, too.

I suspect Obo’s position is going to become a lot more popular over the next couple of weeks…

Jan 182010
 

People of Britain, do you want fewer teachers? Do you wish to have teacher:pupil ratios of 1:45 across the land? Do you wish for huge schools operated by huge education authorities and staffed by teachers in huge teachers’ unions who can command ever higher and higher salaries and perks for their members as there is more and more work to go round and not enough teachers to do it?

If you answered yes to all of those questions, then good for you: because that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Earlier this year, the General Teaching Council expressed its wish that all teachers, whether in state or independent schools, be required to have a teaching certificate. This would entail a year of post-graduate education for all teachers, creating further cost to the taxpayer and further debt for the teacher-in-training. Further costs are a barrier to entry to the profession, and will result in fewer teachers.

Now David Cameron has said he would deny state funds to teachers-in-training whose undergraduate degrees were ranked third-class or below:

Under a Conservative government, according to Mr Cameron, no one with less than a 2:2 degree would be granted taxpayer’s money for postgraduate teacher training. It builds on a Tory plan announced last year to raise the entry qualifications for primary teachers.

Look, Camerhoon: the reason we have state funds for teacher training at all, and the reason for golden hellos, student loan discounts, and easier immigration requirements for teachers of certain subjects is because there are not enough teachers, good, bad, or otherwise. The financial incentives exist to attract people to what the government officially classes as a shortage occupation. Teaching is no easier than any other job. The salary it commands, in general, is lower than other professions that require a post-graduate degree. It is a job that few people are prepared to do, for one reason or another, and it is a sad fact that in this country the perception of teachers is that they went into teaching because they could not do anything else useful. (In some cases, that may be true, of course, and there are certainly a fair few teachers out there who are crap at their jobs.)

But the main point is that the vast majority of people do not choose to be teachers. The government’s policy is therefore to bribe the ones who can be bribed with financial perks. The message, so far, has been clear: ‘Please be a teacher! We will give you money!’

Now, suddenly, we are getting this incredibly stupid message: restrict the supply further! Only this will give the teaching profession status!

Britain can learn from Finland, Singapore and South Korea, who “have some of the best education systems in the world because they have deliberately made teaching a high prestige profession. They are brazenly elitist, making sure only the top graduates can apply.”

I’ve got news for you, dude. Teaching is a high-status profession in other countries for two primary reasons: first, lots of people want to be teachers. They are over-supplied. When lots of people want a particular job, employers naturally take only the best. Teachers have a high status in these places because their populations place tremendous value on the quality of education. Here in Britain, where there aren’t enough teachers to fill the positions that exist, we can’t really afford to be so picky. And, plainly, the value people place on quality of education here is minimal. Why do I say this? Because in Britain, a politician can be credibly attacked for having attended a top-quality school. Because in Britain, universities are encouraged to deny places to applicants from top-quality schools. Because in Britain, the ‘professions’ are told to deny entry to pupils from top-quality schools. Because in Britain, clearly, quality of education takes a serious backseat to social justice and equality.

The other reason for the popularity of teaching in many other countries is that teachers are seriously protected from market forces. In Spain, for example, it is virtually impossible to sack a teacher. Many teachers never leave the profession, and young people who want to teach are often obliged to wait years for a position to open up (years which many of them spend, according to my anecdata, working in tapas bars and living with their parents). Teachers are paid an enormous amount of money relative to most other jobs in these places; they have excellent working conditions, a great deal of disciplinary freedom, and good facilities available for their use. In short, these other places spend a huge amount of money on education, and they are willing to pay top dollar for top-quality educators.

Britain… does not. Education is, by comparison, underfunded; teachers’ pay scales are not linked to quality, but to seniority and certificates; facilities are poor, discipline is lax, and graduates with good degrees can earn far more money in other jobs. National pay scales mean that teachers in parts of the country where cost of living is high are short-changed compared to teachers in other places. And the state sets a maximum salary for teachers who do not have a teaching qualification (£25,000 pa full-time, for the curious), meaning that pay is not even related to the amount of work one does or time one spends on the job, much less the quality of that work.

So: in a country where people don’t want to be teachers, quality of education is not a priority, and historically the government’s stance on the profession is to bribe people to enter it, the solution is to make it even harder to become a teacher?

Good luck with that, Dave.

UPDATE: Iain Dale has posted a hefty extract from Camerhoon’s speech:

We’ve made our teachers lives more difficult, undermining their judgement, curbing their freedom, telling them what to do and how to do it. We send them into some chaotic environments with little protection or support, leaving them feeling demoralised and under-valued.

That’s right – you’ve made teaching a very unattractive profession. People with the ‘best brains’ look at this litany of woes and think, why in the name of sweet Jesus would I want to do this job? And then they go do something else.

If we’re only going to let the best brains teach, and most of the best brains don’t want to because

people with a good degree who would make great teachers think instead about the civil service, the BBC, maybe the Bar

then we’re not going to have very many teachers at all, are we?

Now. How do we make teaching more attractive than the civil service, the BBC, and the law? For a start, the state could stop undermining teachers, telling them what to do and how to do it, protect them from abuse, support them on matters of discipline – pay them according to effectiveness and skill whilst leaving them free to find the best path to effective teaching.

If you want the best brains to teach, make teaching attractive to people with good brains. What do people with good brains find attractive? Freedom to find the best way to do their jobs, opportunities to be creative, fair rewards for outstanding job performance, and the ability to be a mover and shaker in their profession.

At the moment, if you’re a twenty-something or thirty-something who has made it in another career but fancy giving teaching a go, the bureaucratic-odds are stacked against you.

And not just that. Most of them would be taking a drastic pay cut and surrendering all personal autonomy on the job, not to mention running the gauntlet of the CRB system to prove they’ve never so much as looked at a child cross-eyed. Anyone who’s been successful in a non-teaching career and wants to become a teacher should be hired on the spot, qualification or no, because nobody who wasn’t passionately dedicated to the art of pedagogy would do such a personally disadvantageous thing. Who cares what kind of degree they received?

We’re going to change all that and give high-flying professionals a fast-track into teaching. We will replace the Graduate Teacher Programme with a new one – Teach Now. Modelled on Teach First, it will be a one-stop-shop for people who want to transfer into teaching.

No, no, a thousand times no! Waive the qualification requirement entirely.

In fact, do that across the board. Far more people would go into teaching as a result, and there’d be so many that schools might actually be able to sack and replace the crappy ones.

We need much greater flexibility than currently exists – flexibility over rewarding the best and yes, getting rid of the worst. So we will free schools to pay good teachers more. With our plans, head teachers will have the power to use their budgets to pay bonuses to the best teachers.

And because the evidence shows that schools that have the greatest impact in poorer areas are the ones that extend their hours into evenings and weekends, we will also give them the flexibility to reward teachers for longer hours.

This is good, actually.

But we also give head teachers greater powers in the other direction. Today, it’s far too difficult for them to fire poorly performing teachers.

This is not. I’m all for schools being able to sack bad teachers, but this is only a useful tactic if you can hire a new one. And there aren’t enough teachers to go round.

We’re going to say to our teachers, if you want to search for and confiscate any item you think is dangerous or disruptive- you can. If you want to remove violent children from the classroom – you can. And if you want protection from false allegations of abuse that wreck lives and wreck careers – we’ll make sure you have it.

How? Are you going to repeal some legislation? If so, what? Are you going to use the criminal justice system to crack down on dangerous students? If so, how will you force the judges to issue harsher penalties? Will you use legislation to ensure that false allegations are expunged from the records? Will you get rid of the ISA, which includes hearsay, rumour, and false allegations as ‘evidence’ in its vetting scheme? Where are the details, dude?

Anyway. This is all just to reiterate my point: restricting teacher training to people with good degrees will simply worsen the teacher shortage, because most academically successful people (‘best brains’) don’t want to become teachers. It’s an unattractive profession to people who value creativity, resourcefulness, and freedom to innovate. And even if the best brains did become teachers, there’s no guarantee they’d be good. Many academically gifted people have trouble communicating the subject of their expertise at a level that is accessible to schoolchildren anyway; and probably the core skill involved in teaching is being able to synthesise patiently, to simplify complex ideas, to keep what you’re saying on a level kids can understand and in a way they can tune into.

Finally, I will say this. I teach Latin. I am not an expert in the subject, nor do I have a degree in it, nor do I have the faintest clue where my American university degree would fall on the degree-class scale used in the UK. I do not have a teaching qualification. And yet every time I apply for a teaching position, the school falls all over itself to hire me and to pay me well above the going rate for my services. I can’t be the only teacher like that. David Cameron’s plans will, by and large, make it harder for people like me to get teaching jobs. And for what? So that a bunch of smarty-pants graduates with 2:2s or better can have a ‘high-prestige’ career.

Camerhoon, school is not about teachers. It’s about children. And anyone who wants to teach, and can demonstrate that they do it well, should be encouraged to do so, whether they have fancy papers to qualify them or not, and whether they have the biggest brain in Britain or just a mediocre brain that happens to be full of passion and love of learning and dedication to showing kids how amazing the world they live in is.

UPDATE 2: Yes, and many more times yes, from the BHS:

For the Conservatives, we need to restrict the pool of applicants to one which is ‘brazenly elitist’, in the hope that by only recruiting the very best graduates, you’ll recruit only the very best teachers. There are two major problems with this. First, we still have a teacher shortage, as evidenced by the fact that there are some substantial rewards for people training to teach subjects like science and maths. Second, quite apart from the fact that there are scores of people with mediocre qualifications who are exceptional teachers, there’s no guarantee that someone who graduated from Oxbridge with a first in Mathematics is going to possess the people skills needed to succeed in a classroom. It’s quite possible that the Tories’ plans would not only lead to fewer teachers, but fewer good teachers as well.

Jan 052010
 

From the TaxPayers’ Alliance comes the news that the Tories are planning… to be absolutely no different from Labour:

Well, it’s the second day of the unofficial 2010 election campaign and already it appears that the Conservatives have pledged to create a new quango. In a speech today to the Oxford Farming Conference, Shadow Environment Secretary Nick Herbert is pledging to create a “Supermarket Ombudsman”. Sigh. So much for a “bonfire of the quangos”.

Yes, that’s right: the Conservatives have pledged to create government oversight of the retail food supply. This is in addition to the NHS policy announced earlier this week, in which they pledged to create more government oversight of health allocation:

But then…

To make sure the NHS is funded on the basis of clinical need, not political expediency, we will create an independent NHS board to allocate resources to different parts of the country and make access to the NHS more equal. (Page 8)

Eh?

So we have another new quango, explicitly designed to remove the people’s control of how the biggest budget in British Government is spent. Of course, when you want to make democracy sound like a bad thing you call it “political expediency”, rather than “accountability” as it was termed earlier in the very same document.

It seems that despite all the speechifying about the post-bureaucratic age, the Conservatives are yet to shake the temptation to slam everything into a quango and then wash their hands of responsibility. Not exactly change we can believe in.

Too right. ‘Change we can believe in’, British-style, appears to be the same as it was Obama-style: more of the same, really, but dressed up in attractive language.

Meanwhile, the discerning voter begins to feel rather like Sally from Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat: weary of the identical Thing One and Thing Two, and desperate to rein in their nonsense before they destroy the whole house.

UPDATE: And hey look, I agree with Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy!

But let’s assume we want these decisions to be more accountable. A good idea in theory right? But what’s this?

With less political interference in the NHS, we will turn the Department of Health into a Department of Public Health so that the prevention of illness gets the attention from government it needs.

Less political interference? But I thought that was more ‘accountable’ surely?

Can we file this under the Steve Hilton award for ‘Progressive Gobbledegook’?

Truly, Camerhoon is a uniter, not a divider.

Feb 032009
 

Via the Libertarian Alliance blog, a spot-on comment piece by Simon Heffer.

[David Cameron] complains about the “absence of a moral framework” from capitalism. It shows his profound misunderstanding of the term “capitalism”; it echoes the misunderstanding that he and his decerebrated shadow chancellor have had of this crisis ever since it began to develop.

I agree. And ‘decerebrated’ is my new favourite word.

But what is this?

Given his lack of intellectualism, Mr Cameron may not have read Atlas Shrugged, the epic novel by the American philosopher Ayn Rand in which a man discovers the secret of perpetual motion and becomes excessively rich by putting many of his less intelligent competitors out of business. The newly poor – poor because they failed to give the public what they wanted at a price they were prepared to pay – demand a Fair Shares Law, whereby they are compensated for their lack of brains and risk-taking by the enterprises who do make money.

Not sure that’s how I’d summarise Atlas Shrugged. He leaves out the really important bit. You know the one I mean.

Maybe he was just trying to avoid spoilers.