Monday, 31 January 2011

'Britain and the Sea': the first journal review!

Well, the first journal review of Britain and the Sea since 1600 is in, and it's another good one. Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History at King's College London, has been very kind again after picking the book out as his choice for 'Book of the Year' in the BBC History Magazine.

But in the first formal academic comments to be published, he goes further and deeper than he was obviously able to in the short review for the BBC.

Professor Lambert argues:

His creative synthesis brings together much of what is best in recent scholarship with wider academic concerns to provide a holistic approach to an oceanic nation.... O’Hara has provided a new structure to frame a large field, just as the national relationship with the sea continues to shift and change, as it has done since men first conceived that relationship as one that involved human choice, rather than divine agency. The impressive scholarly apparatus demonstrates a substantial engagement with the literature, and provides a fine guide to anyone essaying a new avenue of research.

It's always gratifying to get good reviews. But to get one from the venerable English Historical Review is a lift of another order. The reception for this book seems to get better and better - a necessary corrective to the inevitable 'January blues'!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Student visa consultation: danger upon danger

The Government's present consultation on reforming student visas seems yet another kick in the teeth for hard-pressed universities. They've done much in recent years to bring in all sorts of talent from the 'globalised' world of which the Government - in other contexts - seems so keen. Britain is one of the most popular places in the world to study, a situation that's allowed Higher Education institutions to subsidise home students' fees for years.

Now some of that success is being put at risk.

Some of the measures proposed include:

Students with higher degrees not being allowed to enter the UK to pursue qualifications of the 'same' level;
Higher degree students not being allowed to stay on and apply for work visas; and...
The spouses of higher degree students not being granted work visas.

None of this seems all that sensible. Why on earth can't spouses work? Why can't citizens of other nations come to the UK to gain degrees, perhaps in different subjects, at the level they've already achieved at home? It makes no sense - unless one's aim is to meet ill-advised and hasty immigration cap targets and to play to the populist gallery. It's certainly true that a few students have overstayed their visas and the like - usually when they've been attending 'colleges for the English language' or similar learning centres of questionable repute. But to drag the whole sector into the row seems to be taking a huge steam-hammer to crack a pea. Why not just tighten up on enforcement?

In the meantime, the effect seems to be to stir up ill-feeling with the devolved administrations - in Scotland, for instance - who don't control UK immigration policy; to put off academic talent that might have been considering coming to Britain to work; and to further reduce universities' cost base at a time when they've scratching their heads about the future of just this 'foreign teaching' sector anyway.

Many of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish universities are among Britain's best; many 'British' Nobel Prize winners originated abroad; a huge slice of HE income now comes from non-EU Masters and PhD students. Crash into all that like a bull in a china shop by all means; but don't then complain that universities won't 'diversify' or 'become entrepreneurial'. Already stories are proliferating of external examiners and visiting academics questioned at customs for hours. It's just not a very good way of doing business for a sector of the economy that can only grow in importance in the years to come.

It's to be hoped that universities and academics - who've been making this case over the past few months - win some concessions. Because if they don't, yet another set of poorly-thought-out regulations will become official policy.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Are the Scots different?

Being in another country makes you wonder how and why they're different to you. Especially when it's a different country that occupies a semi-detached marriage to your own - England - within a single state, namely the United Kingdom.

I've just got back from a whistlestop tour of central Scotland - Edinburgh, via Glasgow and Stirling. Most of it I'd seen before. Some of it I hadn't. Long train journeys also make you wonder what you're looking at...

So is Scotland different? It'd be easy to come up with some typical 'Tartan' answers to this question, musing about nationalism and the like. And certainly the history on display at the Wallace Monument in Stirling (above) was markedly different from what you'd find in an English display about the same period. The whole late thirteenth and early fourteenth century was portrayed as a 'War of Independence', rather than the internecine lordly strife that English writers perceived (and perceive).

But I don't think Scots are particularly nationalistic. They're much less likely to be found smashing up European cities while on a beered-up football cruise. And they seem unlikely to vote for independence any time soon. Quite the opposite - it appears quite likely that a unionist Labour Party will return to power in Edinburgh this year.

No - I think what the archives and the monuments (and the art trails) revealed was a smaller European nation more at ease with itself than its multifarious, but restless, southern neighbour. Scotland's elite is tiny, so many politicians, academics and policymakers know one another - for good or ill. State spending is relatively high by European standards, so public services are both efficient and popular. The cost of living is lower. There's altogether a greater sense of social democratic citizenship and participation. Public bodies are closer to the citizenry, and appear more accountable.

The country has its problems - poor health and poverty being the main two. But it's the Scandinavian sense of belonging that strikes the visitor. Long may that continue.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Do a historian's sources mean anything?

So I've been ensconced in the National Archives of Scotland for the last couple of days (on and off). It's yet another archival trip in the day-to-day life of the jobbing historian. Sometimes you feel a bit like a carpenter, whistling away while you work ('this bit goes there, this bit goes there... whistle whistle).

A couple of days in West Register House at one end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile (above)? Nice friendly people helping me find out new things? Yes please.

But what did I dig up? That's the more important work question.

Nothing absolutely spectacular, to be honest. But quite a lot of detail about the workings of post-war governance in the United Kingdom. For a book entitled Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress (due out next year), that's not a bad thing.

There were some fragments about Labour's Land Commission (1967-71), proving what I'd long suspected: supposedly left-wing Ministers told the big landowners not to worry too much about how radical Labour's actions in power were going to be. That was a find. There was a quite a lot about the Parliamentary Commissioner or Ombudsman, making clear that Scottish civil servants didn't really think the 'superior' Scottish legal and constitutional system needed any help. And there were some documents detailing how sceptical Scottish officials were about 'Educational Priority Areas', set up in the late 1960s to help schoolchildren in disadvantaged areas.

Overall, it was a vivid look into something all post-war historians have suspected: that pre-devolution Scotland went its own way in many policy areas, whatever the supposed 'unity' of the United Kingdom. This strange devolution has been the subject of many a historical article, including those by my old friend and colleague Professor John Stewart of Glasgow Caledonian. I had my first up-close look at the evidence this week.

Did this archival visit change the world? No. Did it change how I see post-war governance a little? Yes.

Bit by bit, piece of the puzzle by piece of the puzzle, the historical mosaic is built up via hundreds and thousands of these journeys. That's their worth.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The storm clouds begin to burst

Sorry for the lack of recent posts, but I've been travelling around to archives and the like. More on this tomorrow (or the next day, depending on Virgin Trains' internet connection).

But I felt I had to break my momentary silence to comment on today's economic growth figures. They're dreadful. The economy shrank pretty fast at the end of last year. The freezing weather did make things worse, but even without that growth ground to a standstill. George Osborne (above) will try to look confident in public. In private a chill will have run down his spine.

You won't find any shock here. As some of us have been arguing for some time, the Government's main macroeconomic policy thrust is just wrong. There's no need to cut this far, this fast - though Labour's confusion on the matter has hardly been all that impressive either.

There'll be a temptation to crow today among the critics.

But you can't really blame the slowdown towards the end of last year on 'cuts'. Most of them hadn't taken effect yet, and the amount of cash drawn back out of the economy through 'fiscal tightening' was rather small by December. The economy often stutters as it emerges from the doldrums, as it did in 1982-83 and 1993-94. And manufacturing is roaring ahead, driven by a weak pound - the recent strength of which (anticipating interest rate rises) will now be reversed.

Even so, all that makes the way ahead seem even more perilous. The main impact of the Government's budgetary policy is just about to hit - with the VAT rise on consumption right now, and from April, in massive job losses across the public sector. And Chancellor Osborne has loaded his cuts equally across this Parliament, meaning years of ball-and-chain 'drag' lie ahead of us.

It's a frightening prospect. Normally, I'd say 'weak growth now, bounceback next quarter in the spring'. But does anyone seriously think consumers will go on the rampage in the shops as prices rise, households will feel emboldened as house prices fall, private employers can easily make up £40bn of cuts to spending every year, or exports alone will tug us out of danger anytime soon?

No? Me neither.

There'll almost certainly be growth across 2011 - perhaps at a not-unhealthy rate by the end of the year. But the dangers of a very slow and painful climb upwards are increasing by the day.

This is one of many clouds that's beginning to burst on top of the Conservative-led government. Andy Coulson, No. 10's press man, walks out in a scandal that will run and run; NHS reforms run into determined opposition; Downing Street orders a u-turn on prisoner voting. Government looked easy in that Cameron-and-Clegg garden love-in last May. Experts like your correspondent said it wasn't. Now they know it isn't. For now, the thunder, lightning and rain will grow in intensity.

That's for further reflection. Here's today's moral: want to run down the deficit? Don't do it like this at home, kids.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The strange contradictions of Mr Gove

He's a funny one, that Michael Gove. By turns a brilliant gadfly, always precise, always (apparently) polite, obviously clever and possessed of a heroic life story that's seen him rise from humble beginnings.

But his views are also riddled with the kind of contradictions that only the really clever, at least in the academic sense, can get themselves into - even on the same day, and the same sentence.

So today we have yet another review of the National Curriculum in England - still one more of those periodic convulsions, every few years, by which Ministers try to prove themselves powerful.

It's worth reflecting, over a longer time-period, why Ministers have become such educational 'experts' and campaigners over the last four decades. Lost power over interest rates? Over legal sovereignty to the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights? Of trade to the World Trade Organisation? Of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland's domestic affairs to their respective devolved administrations? Well, you can always prove your ideological virility by messing with England's schools.

Anyway. Mr Gove's contradictions are extraordinary. He wants a slimmed-down and 'less prescriptive' curriculum - all well and good. But then he goes on to ask for much more detail in each outline National Curriculum statement, which are available by subject. He repeats, again and again, that 'the National Curriculum' for Geography contains only British topics and subjects, while he must know that beneath that there's a whole heap of guidance for teachers on how to fit Britain into the world. He says he wants teachers and head teachers involved in the review - fair enough. But then he goes on to say exactly what they should find - that 'traditional learning' (whatever that is) should be mandated for all schools. He says he wants more social mobility while presiding over the break-up of England's school system into a thousand fragmented pieces, all the more likely to prevent that goal.

It's a strange way of doing government, that's for sure.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A heartening trip to Keele

It can be a bit disheartening being an academic at times. Long hours researching and writing on your own; unending cutbacks by government; controversy about what a university is or should be.

So it's always great to attend a conference that lightens the mood and encourages the mind. That's what I did over the weekend, zooming up the M5 and M6 to Keele to attend a conference entitled 'The organiser and the victim: power relationships in the colonial world', held in the Claus Moser building at Keele (above). I did my best to talk about the recent trend towards telling individual stories in Imperial maritime history, as evidenced by my own Britain and the Sea since 1600 and Miles Ogborn's really involving Global Lives. But other people's papers were much better and, indeed, brought out some of the complexities of Lenin's question 'Who whom?': 'Who is doing what to whom?'

It all turned out to be a lot more complex than just a bunch of nasty imperialists oppressing indigenous or native peoples. Stephen Constantine gave a really impressive keynote address on colonial and home authorities' perceptions of migrants, bringing out how men and women were thought of differently; Laura Sandy talked about the lost world of slave overseers in colonial America; and Will Jackson of Leeds University spoke on the place of less-than-economically-successful white settlers in twentieth century Kenya.

Three themes emerged: the uselessness of the phrase 'poor whites', as accepting of the 'white man's' difference as European peoples were at the time; the rise of histories of the individual; and the constant passage and negotiation between the 'imperial' and the 'non-imperial'. Sometimes you can't see what you're writing about until other people tell you!

So with energies somewhat restored, we can all face the rigours of term once more...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Libraries under threat

If there is a single most depressing element to the present retrenchment and retreat of the British state, it's the threat to Britain's local libraries.

At least 375 are under threat - often in rural areas such as Gloucestershire where people will have to trek many miles just to take a book out.

They're not just storehouses of knowledge; arsenals of freedom and democracy themselves, I'd say, if I was being pompous. There's no doubt that they're vital to local communities, and as part of a vibrant and well-beloved arts sector very important indeed to Britain's regional economies. Local arts advocates in Lancaster, for instance, have estimated that the arts, theatre, dance, writing and drama boost the area's economy by £50m a year. This outstrips by a factor of ten the state money spent on those activities.

By the way, one interesting element of this is how citizens are resisting some of this using new technology - for instance, on this Welsh site that maps and tracks all the impact of the cuts. It's fashionable to sneer at 'web activism', especially after the apparent failure of the 'Green' or 'twitter' revolution in Tehran. But recent protests by students and young people against university cuts show that the implications are still working themselves out. They are certainly not going to be negligible. Just think: it's much easier to see the impact of government policies now just by poking around on the Web.

And what's often at their hub? Local libaries that have, in recent years, done everything they can to obey governments' wish that they become latte-sipping, all-singing and all-dancing 'knowledge hubs'. Most have been experiencing a rise, not a fall, in readership and usage. Now they're in for a kicking, in just the same way that British academics are about to suffer years of pain after running faster and faster to do everything governments told them in the name of 'research audits', 'widening participation' and 'pedagogical innovation'. Done all that? Now we're going to cut university budgets by 80 per cent, and local councils' budgets by up to 60 per cent.

Thanks a lot.

Of course, Ministers are keen for local libarries to be taken over by volunteers as part of the 'Big Society'. And there's probably something that can be done here to save money. But no-one really believes that cuts of up to a half in library budgets can be made up in this way. Perhaps smaller libraries will be open for half the week, staffed by volunteers, buying no new books. But a really vibrant, innovative, interesting and successful sector requries professionals. Certainly local examples of 'pub libraries', seized on by Coalitionistas, are pretty shoddy affairs fit only to supplement proper libraries.

It's all right for us academics. We can ask our university libraries to order books - or go to copyright libraries with our 'access all areas' staff passes. Other people aren't so lucky.

Know what you can do? Join a local group and protest. In Oxford, there's Save Our Services, with their innovative campaigning against library closures. Blackbird Lees, for instance, will lose its library under present plans. There's a petition form here.

Well, it's a start.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Breakneck health reform: the dangers

Not the least of breakneck government's risks is that is exposes politicians, civil servants and (more importantly) the public to the high risk of policy failure. The Coalition is proceeding extremely fast on all fronts - schools reform, a new funding structure for Higher Education, very rapid deficit reduction, a programme of fundamental constitutional reforms - and some eggs are going to get broken.

The most unfortunate area of over-hasty action is in the National Health Service. Having promised little institutional innovation in either governing party's manifesto, the Government is now running pell-mell at the most far-reaching set of changes since the NHS was set up in 1947. General Practitioners will now commission most services. Pilot schemes? Market testing? Consultation? A Royal Commission? All a load of fuddy-duddy nonsense, according to Ministers. Let's let it rip!

The Prime Minister did his best to defend all this on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, but I'm not sure that he even sounded like he was convincing himself. Very fast reform? No, said David Cameron, it'll take two or three years - a blink of an eye in public policy terms. Untested change? No, apparently it's building on some of New Labour's innovations - despite abolishing the Primary Care Trusts that had at last seemed as if they were getting a grip after many years of Ministerial tinkering.

In fact, he is concerned behind the scenes - enough to make sure that the Tory and Lib Dem 'troubleshooters', Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander, have been put in charge of making sure there's no disaster as the new regime comes into effect.

Is the idea seem as troublesome more widely? You bet. And the person it's most dangerous for is David Cameron himself. If there's a winter beds crisis, or a region or city where the GP commissioning regime collapses, or local hospitals shut (remember that Conservatives pledged to defend them), or specialisms that get hammered (speech and language therapy looks vulnerable) last year's student riots will look like a tea party. You can charge at students on Police horses... Just try it at patients or disabled people.

For the historian, this is all just so, so depressing. We've been here so many times. First it was the 'planning' regime of 1961. Then it was the three-layered mess proposed in 1968 and the dog's dinner of the 1973-74 reorganisation. Then that was unscrambled in the 'Grey Book' of the late 'seventies. Then we had GP Commissioning and the 'internal market'; then that was all taken apart again in 1997-98. And you know what? It costs tens of millions of pounds and leaves everyone confused and exhausted.

It's a cloud no bigger than a man's hand on the horizon right now. But it'll grow. Watch this space.

Friday, 14 January 2011

So... Oldham East and Saddleworth

It won't have escaped many hardened news junkies or Net trawlers that there was a by-election yesterday. Headline: Labour won. But what does it mean? The really boring answer is: lots of things, for lots of people. It's not a simple election result to interpret by any means. But I'll have a go (in a historical context and framework, of course) for each major party:

1. First - Labour.

John Curtice said last night that the party should be 'quietly pleased' at Debbi Abraham's election (above, with Ed Milliband). Its share of the vote went up just over 42 per cent - a 10 per cent rise, which would take their national vote share to about 40 per cent. Last night they had 41 per cent in YouGov's latest tracker poll. So this is pretty much in line with how they're doing nationally - fairly well, but not spectacularly. At this stage in the 1979-83 Parliament they were well ahead of a Conservative government making deep and unpopular cuts to public services, and went on to lose the subsequent General Election in spectacular and epoch-making fashion. So a couple of glasses of red all round: no champagne.

2. Then the Lib Dems.

Some people thought there might be a Liberal Democrat meltdown, given they're polling in single figures with YouGov (and in the low teens with others, for instance the 'gold standard' pollster ICM). This didn't happen. The Lib Dems pretty much stayed at their May 2010 position in terms of share of the vote. Liberal Democrats are relieved. Their leader talked up the poll as a 'strong result', while Lib Dem Ministers consoled themselves this morning with the feeling 'well, things could have been a lot worse'. They are rather deluding themselves. Preliminary indications are that about two-thirds of Conservatives shifting their vote to other parties (see below) came to the Lib Dems. That's about 10 per cent of the vote overall. So the Lib Dem vote share of 32 per cent would probably read much closer to 22 per cent in a General Election, when Conservative-minded electors would probably stay with their 'favoured' party. The Lib Dems may well have come third in a First Past the Post race. All that said, if the third party can win its Alternative Vote referendum, things might look rosier for them - the greater number of Tory-leaning citizens seem minded to give any 'second preferences' to the Lib Dems, and the latter would have been in with a shout of winning the seat.

3. Lastly, the Conservatives.

It's even more of a mixed bag for the UK's (or, really, England's) biggest party. Their coalition allies didn't get marmalised: the Prime Minister's broader objectives, of making his party more 'liberal' and less 'nasty', is on track. But the Tory vote fell by more than half, and early indications are that it splintered to the United Kingdom Independence Party, and to Labour, as well as moving en masse to the Liberal Democrats. Baroness Warsi, the party's chair, has already been warning critics of the leadership to keep quiet. Troublemakers such as Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome are unlikely to oblige. Right-wingers in general are very unhappy about the coalition's relatively liberal direction on criminal justice, votes for prisoners, Europe and civil liberties. Basically throwing this seat to another political party, as the Prime Minister did when he wished the Lib Dems well (some Cabinet Ministers said more-or-less openly they wanted the Lib Dems to win) won't cheer them up. The right will become more assertive in the year to come.

Conclusions? Things look okay, but not startlingly good, for Labour; the Lib Dems desperately, desperately need a win in this year's AV referendum; Mr Cameron should watch his back lest his right-wing backbenchers try to plunge a knife in it. All in a day's politics.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Doctor: still out of control?

For a bit of light relief I thought I'd reflect on ten million people's apex of Christmas Day: the Doctor Who Christmas Special, 'A Christmas Carol'. For the most part this was a fun and jolly jaunt across Christmas myths, making great use of fun direction (The Doctor projected on a white wall, walking through a door in the middle) and sheer, shameless sentimentality (The Doctor takes Kazran Sardick and his young love on a fantastic voyage every Christmas Eve). Great stuff - especially when you've had some wine with your turkey.

But lurking in there was something that many aficionados have spotted: there was a distinct change of tone here, with the time travel element of the story providing much more of the narrative drive. The Doctor kept moving back and forth to correct his mistakes, or provide himself with crucial clues.

But why hasn't he always done this? And note: towards the end, this new tick nearly brings the house down in a disastrous plot twist. Until The Doctor plays another trick with time...

The suspicion grows that he still out of control, still spinning away from his more settled and ordered self - a plotline many thought done and dusted after David Tennant's implosion at the end of The Waters of Mars.

I'm hoping, rather guiltily, to write about all this, since my next book-but-one (in 2016? It seems such a long way off) will be called something like Uncertain Tomorrow: Visions of the Future in Post-War Britain. One of the chapters will be entitled 'The many dystopias of British science fiction', and will talk about The Day of the Triffids, The Quatermass Experiment, J.G. Ballard and yes, good old Doctor Who.

You'd be surprised how much you can say about post-war Britain using that lot...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

What could be fairer than equally sized constituencies?

The government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill allows for more 'equal' constituencies: no Parliamentary seat bar two will be less than five per cent smaller, or five per cent bigger, in terms of electors than the average. What could be fairer? In recent years the Conservatives have been relatively disadvantaged by the present system - so they ended up nearly seven points ahead of Labour in last year's General Election, but only 49 seats ahead out of 650 in the House of Commons.

Well, quite a lot of things could be fairer actually, for this superficially honest and reformist Bill actually hides a lot of evils. I'll heave a big sigh and list them:

1. The numbers used. The Government is using the number of electors, not residents, to calculate the seats. Many people in Labour-held seats aren't registered to vote or are between registrations given that they represent a less settled/ owner-occupying slice of society. This skews the figures to make Labour constituencies seem even smaller than they are. No allowance at all is made for this 'virtual' representation - as it has been historically from the eighteenth century onwards (notwithstanding the rather disreputable history of that concept, under which members for a whole county were supposed to represent the big cities in that area as well).

2. National anomalies. The major loser in the redistribution will be Wales. Pending the success or otherwise of next year's referendum on extra powers for the Welsh Assembly, Wales relies for almost all its primary legislation on the Westminster Parliament and its MPs there - unlike Scotland, which is essentially governed domestically from Edinburgh. Historically the nations of the United Kingdom have had a rather beefed-up 'say' at Westminster to reflect the fact they are voluntarily part of the Union and their interests and views have to be aired.

3. Traditional identities and boundaries. It might well be the case that the weakening of these historic links and identities may lessen the local and regional standing of MPs, reducing their ability to hold the executive to account. Chunks of Cornwall may have to go in with Devon; a slice of the Isle of Wight will have to be bundled up with the 'mainland'. The Government has recognised this problem by allowing the Western Isles of Scotland, and the Orkneys and Shetland, to keep their MPs. Why not elsewhere?

4. The right of appeal. At the moment the Boundary Commissioners have to take public objections on board, and a Public Inquiry has to be held if they reach a certain pitch. The Bill abolishes the Public Inquiry part of the process, 'speeding it up' but making it less democratic.

5. Party advantage. One of the major problems with this Bill is its naked partisan character. As politics academics at the London School of Economics have pointed out, the major losers will in fact be the Liberal Democrats as a fifth of their MPs' seats are wiped out. As they often depend on the well-known advantage sitting MPs enjoy from loyal or grateful electors, the Conservatives will be the major beneficiaries. A more consensual approach would have been to widen the bounds to all seats being within ten per cent of the average. Alas, that wouldn't give the Conservatives many more seats.

A lot of these problems are nothing new, for First Past the Post inevitably advantages some and hampers others on the basis of where the seats are. Labour 'won' the 1951 General Election in terms of votes, but ended up 25 or seats shy of the Tory position in terms of seats. But no other country in the world has seat redistribution based on such tight criteria. Makes you wonder why we might.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Simon Hughes: mission impossible

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader who memorably abstained in the Parliamentary vote on higher university tuition fees, has begun to flex his muscles as the government's 'access advocate' for Higher Education.

He has started calling for:

(a) Cuts in the numbers of private school pupils among university students, so that they reflect more adequately their seven per cent share of the school population (rather than the 40 to 50 per cent at Russell Group Universities);

(b) Limits to the number of universities 'allowed' to charge more than the soft cap of GBP6,000 per year - so that only a few charge up to the GBP9,000 'hard cap';

(c) Much more outreach work among young people to 'explain' that the new system is actually more progressive than the old.

But he's not going to get far. His role is consultative: he reports to Ministers. He doesn't actually have any power over any of these issues. More importantly, his entire case is far removed from reality:

(a) It's very unlikely that any government would ever adopt hard-and-fast numerical targets for state and private school pupils going to university, let alone discriminate by different type or status of every institution. They have no powers to do so; and the 'top' universities just won't let them. And as Jackie Ashley of The Guardian has pointed out, neither will the Lib Dems' Conservative allies.

(b) As for the 'soft' and 'hard' caps, Ministers have just removed nearly all teaching funding that goes direct to universities. If universities limit themselves to charging GBP6,000, their new income stream won't even nearly make up their losses. Many colleges and departments will close. Will Lib Dems want that in their constituencies? No? Thought not.

(c) You can explain all you want: and yes, most graduates will actually pay less per month under the new system, and the bottom quarter or so of the income distribution will probably be better off in terms of what they actually pay before their debt is written off. But the debt stock will remain, weighing down what graduates can (for instance) borrow to buy a house or invest in further training or their own business. Young people know this. They're not stupid.

In fact, as the Government rows back from its commitment to open up free tuition to young people who received free school meals at school, and prospective undergraduates begin to eye up cheaper foreign universities, the new system's cardinal features are already in place.

Simon Hughes' ideas will make him feel better about Coalition policy - and do something to change the intellectual debate. They won't affect policy.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The infuriating wisdom of Tony Judt

Tony Judt was, for me, one of the most impressive historians I have ever read. Until his tragic recent death from Motor Neurone Disease he'd been stirring things up, infuriating people and generally writing excellent history for many years. His magnum opus may always be Postwar, his history of post-war Europe that crossed borders, languages, religions and societies with dizzying and dazzling ease. It's just a breathtaking work of synthesis, learning - and wisdom.

His last book, The Memory Chalet, was for the most part written as Judt experienced the terrifying last stages of his disease - trapped in a body that would no longer do his bidding. It's a historical memoir of sorts, meditating on his life and times, as well as their meaning.

It is, among other things, a spirited counterblast to the 'new cultural history' and the 'linguistic turn', as well as postmodern and gender histories:

We have taken the '60s altogether too seriously. Sexuality (or gender) is just as distorting when we fixate upon it as when we deny it. Substituting gender (or 'race' or 'ethnicity' or 'me') for social class or income category could only have occurred to people for whom politics was a recreational avocation, a reflection of self onto the world at large.

Judt's views are infuriating - not because I don't agree with any of this, but because the kernel of truth, and the area of agreement with other social democratic historians such as myself are lessened by over-statement. Yes, perhaps our emphasis on gender, racial and 'identity' histories may be an overblown game of manners when compared to the real materialistic (and financial) determinants of who has power - and who, in Lenin's words, does what to whom. Just ask any City bankers or Russian oligarchs busy buying up London as if it's a Monopoly board.

But is it always the case that 'substituting gender for social class' is distorting, or just about the 'me' in the 'me generation'? I don't think so - as excellent histories of male medicine and women's bodies, or homosexual experiences in twentieth century London, or of free black people's experience in the eighteenth century British Empire (for instance) attest.

It's wisdom - but it's infuriating. Infuriating enough to show why he was such an enormous wit, mind and presence. History will be the poorer without him.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Wet camp fire of the quangos

Yet another proof of the dangers of 'breakneck government' came out today (see Public Policy and the Past, passim). The House of Commons Public Administration Committee today launched a pretty fierce attack on the Government's axing of nearly 200 'Quasi-Non-Governmental Agencies' or Quangos.

The new administration moved pretty swiftly last year to axe many of these - or at least to say they had and just absorb them into departments, which is why the exercise probably won't save the GBP1bn promised by Ministers (whatever they say now).

Keep in mind that there are plenty of reasons why Conservatives on this committee, including its chairman Bernard Jenkin (above) might want to embarrass the Coalition. Jenkin, for one, is dead against the idea of the Alternative Vote, on which the Government will be holding a referendum in May. So his committee's views shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value.

But have a look what they say:

This review was poorly managed. There was no meaningful consultation, the tests the review used were not clearly defined and the Cabinet Office failed to establish a proper procedure for departments to follow.

Pretty damning stuff. And another example of what happens when you don't take long enough over things. If you look at the list of Quangos lined up for a quick death, the majority were (a) moved into the charitable sector, (b) absorbed by departments, (c) called something else, or (d) merged.

Only a handful had their functions killed off altogether - testament, once more, to the falsity of the idea that the state had become 'bloated' over the last decade and a half. Someone has to think about embryology regulations; advise about pharmaceuticals; appoint experts to decide on the disbursement of research funds; promote British trade and tourism. Think Ministers should do it? The Committee think this makes government look even less accountable to the public - rather than to Parliament - than did Quangos who at least usually tried to reach out and consult with the world outside Whitehall.

Cut in haste - repent at leisure.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The social roots of party affiliation

One of the keys to joining a political party is feeling comfortable with it. If you think, perhaps, that the Tories are a bunch of toffs, or Labour a band of flat-capped trade unionists, or the Liberal Democrats a muesli-weaving collective, you're unlikely to want to hang out with them (unless you like that sort of thing).

That's why today's news of research at the University of Leicester, looking into Liberal movers into other parties over the last century, is so interesting.

Alun Wyburn-Powell, who teaches at Leicester, has analysed Liberal defections over the twentieth century and found that Liberals moving over to the Conservatives stayed much happier than those going off to join Labour.

Why? Because the Conservatives had much more in common with them in terms of outlook, social life, education and all-round alikeness. Birds of a feather and all that.

It has always been thus. Joseph Chamberlain's Liberal Unionists of the 1880s and 1890s, who left the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish Home Rule, had much more in common with the emergent 'Villa Tories' on the benches opposite them than they did with pushy 'labourist' and 'radical' Liberals from England's smaller cities and the so-called 'celtic fringe'.

Want to know why the Coalition probably won't break up? Look to the dinner party, the wine menu, the private (or grammar) schooling and the South-West London houses.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

2010 politics: many possible outcomes

History always looks settled and determined when you look back on it. Ah, people say, Hitler was destined to lose the Second World War - his megalomania inevitably led him into Russia. Britain's wealth and international financial position doomed Germany to defeat in the First World War. Russia was 'always' going to be the country to experience communist revolution, hobbled by an unstable mix of nascent and uneven industrialization, stupid autocratic government and a large peasantry with apparently little to lose (who were eventually liquidated, but that's another story).

Don't you believe it. There are always alternatives, as one of my old tutors has always insisted. If historians can offer anything to public policy, it's to show just how contingent and confused most developments really are.

We're faced with this now in our politics, actually. The Prime Minister's smooth performance, good manners and rather laid-back approach to governance chime with voters - though his hands-off approach will bite him one day. He looks the part - one reason why Conservative poll numbers haven't moved much, while Liberal Democrat numbers have tanked.

All of this serves to convince many that it was always going to be thus - he was always headed for No. 10 against a knackered government and an unpopular leader.

But lots might have been different; had Labour got rid of Gordon Brown in 2009 (rather than in the absurd failed coup of early 2010); had the Party fought a better (and less cash-strapped) campaign; had the Prime Minister restrained himself before he insulted voters; had Brown reached out to Lib Dems rather than treating Nick Clegg with contempt. 2010 might also have gone differently had Chris Huhne defeated Nick Clegg for the Lib Dem leadership in 2008. It's difficult to see the now-Energy Secretary being quite so enthusiastic about a tie-up with the Conservatives.

The Conservatives' overall electoral position isn't as strong as it looks, as I've argued myself in print, and as many others have also pointed out. If their 2010 share of the vote had been a couple of points down, and Labour's a couple of points up, then Labour would simply have continued to govern.

Squint a bit - David Milliband in No. 10 with Nick Clegg as Deputy PM? Not as unlikely as you might think with hindsight.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A war of the old against the young?

One of the most powerful emergent discourses in public policy is that of the war the old have waged against the young. They've sucked up index-linked pensions; surfed the wave of house-price rises and wage inflation; taken advantage of plentiful jobs in the 1960s and 1970s... Those baby boomers have a lot to answer for.

Two new things they've been accused of: paying down their mortgages when lower interest rates were supposed to get them spending (the last two years have seen mortgages cleared off personal balance sheets at an unheard-of rate); and allowing their pension funds to invest abroad. Apparently dastardly City traders have been investing funds in quick-growing India and Brazil, not in the UK where young people might take advantage of the extra jobs and growth

Surprised? Not really. Who thought that low interest rates would really lead to a big spending spree as house prices stagnated or went into reverse? Who thinks that pension funds should be invested in low-growth sectors of the world economy? No-one, really.

This brings me to the interesting thing about this new rhetoric of a 'clash of the ages'. It's always been there somewhere: witness the debates over old age pensions in 1911, when Labour-leaning unions took ill to the Liberals' proposals because they didn't help skilled men of 'actual working age'. Think of the debate over the idea of a National Insurance Fund after 1945, when Conservatives argued that 'pay as you go' was a bad idea, likely to bankrupt the country. Or consider the Thatcher Governments' effect on older working men, many of whom never worked again after losing their manufacturing jobs.

No-one said then 'ah, we've got a war of the young against the old here'.

Why? Because they had social class as their main framing device for understanding and imagining national life.

We could probably do with this again to some extent. Because when you hear thirtysomethings moaning about the citizens born in the 1940s and 1950s who've stolen their lives (and emigrating in large numbers, rather than sitting around chuntering) they probably don't mean those older people who live in poverty, unable adequately to heat their homes - some two million of them, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Let's bring back the word 'class'... Then we'd see these apparently inter-generational transfers for what they are, which is upper middle class property owners doing well and everyone else getting battered.

Not the whole story? Neither is 'age against youth'.