Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Another okay(-ish) review for 'Britain and the Sea'

It's another review of the present writer's Britain and the Sea (they're likely to come in thick and fast now) - in The Journal of British Studies - and it's not too bad. But it isn't full of unqualified praise either. It's by that enormously respected and experienced historian of naval administration and strategy, Daniel Baugh of Cornell, and it challenges the book even as it says some quite nice things about it. Baugh does say some very nice things:

Any reliable history of national consciousness is inevitably hard to achieve, but his [O'Hara's] delving into an impressive variety of books and articles has yielded a rich harvest of telling facts and also, what is truly admirable, comparative observations. The variety of topics is wide ranging: to name a few, the costly naval commitment to suppressing the African slave trade; the impact of North Sea oil and gas; the rise, decline, and revival of English seaside resorts; the ups and downs of the fishing industry; and the popularity of fish and chips.
Elsewhere, though, he's unhappy on three fronts: the book doesn't say enough about the great maritime centre that London became; it forgets the great land-based and financial catastrophe that the First World War really was, helping to shape a non-nautical national identity; and, thirdly, the book doesn't contain much of the 'writing back' of migrants on the move out of Britain, often to Empire and Commonwealth.

To which I can only say: mea culpa, really. The problem with responding to reviews and reviewers is that they often want you to write one book, and you wanted to write another. I wanted to focus on the Scots and the Northern English to show the non-metropolitan nature of the Empire; I wanted to emphasise naval warfare in the twentieth century to put right the emphasis on Dunkirk and the trenches; and I wanted to show the reader the chaos and contingency, not the sense of togetherness and community, of the great migration of British people across the world.

It's a healthy and a useful process, engaging with reviewers and their arguments. It shows us what we are - what we wanted to say. It's no bad thing to be criticised. I may say this through slightly gritted teeth (I think all writers and academics do). But I mean it.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

From fixed bayonets to hand-to-hand fighting

Okay, okay, so I said I'd be away for only a week. It's been two, but who's counting? The hour-by-hour demands of the start of term have delayed my return, and to be honest there's not really been a moment to consider anything we usually ponder here - universities, economics, the history of public policy.

Sure, there are glimmers of hope. President Obama has been preaching his jobs message on a pre-campaign tour. European stock markets have risen on the hope that, at long, long last, the continent's politicians might cook up something - anything - that looks like a plan.

But overall, we need much, much more. We need a complete change of direction. For every step the developed world takes towards 'rectitude' - balanced budgets and debt repayment - is yet another riskier blocked dropped the giant and wobbling jenga-like brick tower that is the world economy.

For consider the history. Did this approach work in 1929-31, as the USA and then central Europe teetered on the brink of recession? Did it work in 1961-76, as the UK staggered under the weight of sterling holders' policy expectations and tried to avoid devaluation after devaluation? Did it work in 198-81, as a new breed of neo-liberal central bankers tried to 'squeeze inflation out of the system'? Did it help to avoid Britain's humiliating exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992? Did it allow Argentina to escape from a low-growth, high-debt trap between 1999 and 2002?

No. No, no, no, no, no and no. So that's a straight run of failures then.

Ben Bernanke (above), chairman of the US Federal Reserve, apparenty once spoke privately of 'going in with bayonets'.

The bayonets didn't work - partly because politicians had taken care to blunt them before the monetary authorities could rush over the top. They seem determined to hold to their terrifyingly self-destructive course whatever the facts before them.

Now it's time to throw the weapons aside and begin the hand-to-hand struggle. Cut taxes - especially on consumption. Print money. Hand it out as cash if you have to - for instance to small businesses via new state investment banks. Go slow on the deficit reduction. Agree and then build up vast inter-governmental funds to scare the markets off further speculation. Organise soft defaults and write-downs for Greece, and maybe Ireland, Portugal and Italy as well.

Above all, lead - look, sound and act confident. It's what Roosevelt did in the 1930s, with his fireside chats (starting with one on, er, 'the banking crisis'), and it never did him much harm. Governments are not helpless before the storm, just as they weren't in 1931-1932 and 2007-2008. If David Cameron's recent letter to the Eurozone's leaders recently had any virtue, it was here - in a clarion call for some action, right now if possible. Tomorrow might be too late.

Otherwise, we're all headed down the economic drain.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

I'm off again...

...But I'll be back on Monday (see if you can spot where I am from the image above).

Rest assured there'll be plenty of musings on Higher Education, electoral prospects, political history and much else then.

'Bye for now!

Monday, 12 September 2011

What real Higher Education reform should sound like

One of the problems of making policy on the hoof, without long-term thought or a historical perspective, is that you mix up all sorts of objectives in a kind of unsuccessful policy blacmange. All the bits are in there somewhere, but the tastes are all over the place. And the whole is an unedifying mess.

So it is with Higher Education reform in England.

Take a desire to save a lot of money. Mix it in with Conservative laissez-faire instrincts about 'the market' (whatever that means). Add a dash of Liberal Democrat concern about high fees and access. And then stir with a great big stick of worry about middle class protets and spiralling fees. Over a very short time frame that makes the cooks run around like their lives depended on it.

What do you get? Well, a dish that makes the whole waste of effort look like a bit of an embarrassment.

If I can leave the analogy behind (something of a relief), we can see the effect of over-hasty, ill-thought-out policy making at the moment. For all the Government's efforts to salvage something from its incoherent and badly-judged policies for English HE, this week alone they've faced three further issues.

1. Cutting costs and fees. It's now clear that some universities have been trying to rejig their access agreements with the Office of Fair Access so that the average charged to all students overall dips just below the £7,500 that makes them eligible for 20,000 or so 'spoke' students that are being detached from 'core' funded students. This is one means by which Whitehall is aiming to drive down costs. But can universities actually do this, legally and practically, and can they do this without going back on advertising and implicit agreements they may be thought to have promised to those young people mulling over a 2012 entry? It seems by no means clear, and institutions will have to hurry. Otherwise they'll be scurrying to make the changes for 2013 - a humiliating climbdown for some, having lifted their fees to a once-and-for-all level for 2012/13, and less likely given how 'sticky' prices are... downwards, at least.

2. The future of STEM subjects. When the Government got rid of all direct funding for non-science subjects, they left a top-up that was supposed to make up the difference for expensive science subjects. But it turns out (unsurprisingly) that this will probably be nowhere near enough to guarantee their survival in the new and colder HE marketplace. And worse, the Government's second way of rigging the so-called 'market' they've created is to release all caps on students gaining grades of AAB or above at A-Level. The problem being, of course, is that far fewer students achieve those grades in the sciences, so that traditionally elite universities in the Russell Group have every incentive to expand in the cheaper Arts and Humanities, and none in physics, chemisty, medicine or maths.

3. Paying up front. Some Conservatives would like to allow graduates or their parents to pay back more quickly than others. Some centrist Liberal Democrats back them up, pointing out that this will make the system cheaper - just like overpaying on your mortgage. But more leftist Lib Dems fear that this will remove the elements of the system which work like a graduate tax (in which all pay back nine per cent of their income until they've finished redeeming their loans) and thus reduce the scheme's equity. A compromise will, in all likelihood, emerge in which there are fines for early repayment, but under which they're not banned altogether. It'll be yet another boon for the capital rich and yet another slap in the face for able young people from less privileged backgrounds. Added to reductions in inheritance tax, and the failure to levy capital gains on residential property, the impression grows apace that Britain is not a meritocratic, competitive society at all: it's still a stagnant society, where wealth is handed on rather than earned.

Overall, in all three areas, the impression is inescapable: as the short-term compromises and bargains involved in this process multiply, so does the system's complexity. And so does the risk of each decision setting off unintended consequences elsewhere. It's no wonder that the new head of Universities UK has asked for a pause for thought.

Contrast this with the last time we set out on reforms this far-reaching - in 1963, when the neo-liberal economist Lionel Robbins (above) issued his clarion call for the expansion of our universities and the provision of student grants. As Stefan Collini has recently reiterated, this was a multi-volume effort full of international research, real intellectual endeavour about what a university was for and might do, and which tried to imagine the system as a whole.

High-powered committees (like Robbins) or Royal Commissions aren't always the answer. Margaret Thatcher famously dispensed with that latter institution altogether, believing that they were always captured by producer interests, self-interested 'specialist experts' and pressure groups. But in a tightly-woven, complex and deeply sensitive sector such as England's Universities, that route would probably have been a much better one. What did we get instead? A not-very-impressive report from a group of (mostly) non-experts, and then one expedient after another to try and make a spatchcocked series of compromises work - each more crunchingly, eye-wateringly incoherent than the last.

Pressed on the making of public policy, Harold Macmillan once commented: 'it's like one of those children's toys. You can get one ball in, but the others then fall out'. In this case, Ministers have tried to squeeze about twelve into a holder made for two at the most.

Stern language, a sense of curiosity, a concept of history as more than the precepts of the last five minutes, an idea of national endeavour: Robbins had them all. But they have long since dissipated. More's the pity.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The sheer cliff face that confronts the Labour Party

Though I've gone on and on about the task facing Britain's Labour Party, it's worth pointing out that there are two major and structural reasons why they're going to have run faster and faster up the down escalator of history.

These are, in no particular order: (a) the electoral boundaries review; and (b) the reform of party funding.

The first looks likely to rob them of some of their structural lead in the House of Commons; the second might obliterate their ability to compete in economic and financial terms - even with the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives' quid pro quo for allowing a referendum on the Altearnative Vote system for Westminster was a reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons, and their greater equalisation. This means that Wales in particular (always over-represented for historic reasons) will lose out - to the tune of ten seats for the Principality. Smaller urban seats are going to be widened out. Labour are going to lose their grip on some of their strongholds. The Liberal Democrats, always reliant on gaining a seat and then digging in as the smallest of the three major parties, are going to be hurt even more as a proportion of the seats they already hold. In general, the Conservatives might have got a bit closer to an overall majority last time - perhaps winning just over 290 seats out of a new Commons of 300. They might, just, have been able to govern alone in 2010. We'll know a bit more on Monday, when the provisional proposals for England are published.

The present review of party political funding is another perilous moment for Britain's major Left-leaning party. In the wake of the expenses scandals of 2008-2009, the Committee on Standards in Public Life is reviewing the whole system supporting political parties in Britain. Due to report in October, it might well recommend a £50,000 limit on donations. That'll hurt every party, for sure, since rich individuals will be limited in what they can give. But for Labour, which relies on large individual trade union donations every year, it could be crippling. No wonder the Left are up in arms about it.

There'll be compensations. Eventually, Labour will become a more English, more socially conservative and more open party. Some of this work on that last front is already happening under Peter Hain's review of the party's structure and organisation, entitled 'Refounding Labour'. Supporters and community activists will be invited to play a key role in the party on the ground without necessarily becoming members. Labour's constitution might change to reflect local activism and small-scale good works as part of its mission. US Democrats were rejuvenated, before 2008, by voter registration drives and local activism. It could happen here.

There's no need to overdo the gloom and doom for the only Opposition party. 'Experts' said these sorts of things after the 1959 and 1992 general elections, only to be confounded when Labour was voted back in the next time the country voted. Ed Miliband (above) might make it to No. 10 as the head of a minority Labour administration, or (more likely) as the leader of a coalition with the post-Nick Clegg Liberal Democrats. But, day by day, it becomes ever more unlikely that he'll ever lead a majority Labour government.

Overall, Labour can make it to base camp by overtaking the Conservatives in terms of seats, fairly easily. If Scotland doesn't become an independent state in its own right. If the party funding review doesn't choke off their lifeblood.

But to get to the summit of 301 seats in the reformed Parliament? It now looks like a sheer cliff of ice. It's not really imaginable in a single climb.

It's not Ed Miliband's fault. Electoral and economic geography has turned against him.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Two cheers for the Marine Conservation Zones

So today has seen the publication of proposals for the Marine Conservation Zones that will be listed under the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act.

It's an important day for Britain's seas and for maritime management overall. It holds out the hope that Britain's authorities, along with other European governments, will at last begin to take the marine environment seriously.

They're not really designed to protect fish stocks per se. In fact, its the special or unique nature of the environment and the species within it that are the real criteria for selection. You can play with a map of the proposals here.

But the protection of precious fish stocks might well be one of the positive spin-offs, because trawling and other harmful industrial activities will be prohibited. There'll be somewhere for fish to hide. Implementation of the Act also develops an overall planning framework for the seabeds - something that's never been there before. As well as setting a Marine Management Organisation to look after that process.

Even so, the MCZs are fragmentary, small in scale and scattered - as well as applying only to English waters (with some offshoots). And only 20 of the proposed 127 sites are at present slated for 'full protection', along with academic studies to judge their effectiveness. Northern Ireland's legislation has been delayed, and Scotland's is a matter of some controversy as Westminster and Stormont tangle over their respective powers. Deep doubts have always lingered about governments' willingness and ability to enforce the MCZs.

The Coalition also seems to be deeply uncertain about implementing the all-England and Wales coastal footpath that was also (an entirely welcome and positive) part of the Act, but that's another story.

The Marine Conservation Zones represent a good and positive (though overdue) start.

But while world fish consumption keeps going up and up - due to dietary changes in the developed world, as well as an increasing global population overall - that's all they are.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Labour's task just keeps getting harder and harder

Who'd be in Opposition? That should, of course, have been the question faced by power-weary Labour Ministers and MPs as they threw in the towel back in May 2010. One gained the distinct impression at that point that the party was not serious in trying to cling to power, and was just exhausted.

It's happened before. Labour in 1951, and the Tories in 1964 and 1997, were pretty much ready to leave. There comes a time when - physically, mentally, emotionally - a governing party has nothing left to give.

But Opposition can be worse. With no power and not much influence, any party can be overshadowed.

So it's proving at the moment. Labour is slipping backwards in the polls even as the economy stalls. At a time when alternatives to the coalition should be on the table, Labour is being overshadowed. Events have become the party's enemy, rather than its friend. Ex-Labour MPs are prosecuted for multiple counts of fraud. The ex-PM, Gordon Brown, is lambasted for his volcanic temper and (shall we say) questionable working methods after one of his best friends in politics - Alistair Darling - turns on him. Tony Blair is revealed as a godparent of one of (hardly-flavour-of-the-month) Rupert Murdoch's children.

One day the whole era will be seen in a more sober and historically-detached light. But not today.

And all the time, looming on the horizon, is the prospect of a Scottish independence referendum which would remove 41 Labour MPs from the House of Commons. The Conservatives would gain an overnight overall majority without having to lift a finger.

Wily old Alec Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, is beginning to tack towards what political anoraks know as 'devo-max': a maximalist model of devolution that would leave Scotland within the Union, but with tax-raising powers and social security (and almost everything else) devolved. Only defence and the monarchy would probably remain 'reserved powers' at Westminster - a situation in which Scottish MPs would find it much harder than they do, even now, to justify voting on issues which affected only the rest of the UK.

Salmond is doing this because he knows he can win such a referendum - especially while the Conservatives debate a new name (or just giving up and disbanding) and Labour ponder a new Scottish leader. In a multi-option plebiscite, 'do you want to compromise on more powers?' will be almost irresistible to the Scottish electorate.

Meanwhile, Labour will find it well-nigh impossible to win a majority until it becomes a more English, and a more socially conservative, party - in about eight to twelve years from now.

Government was hard. Opposition is harder.

Monday, 5 September 2011

What can England's cricket success teach managers?

The news that England (above) were officially the best Test cricket side in the world certainly warmed my heart by a few degrees. The permafrost created by shouting into the wind about how to conduct public policy based on actual evidence and history cracked only a little, it's true, but certainly it felt like the sun had come out for at least a bit.

Anyone who remembers just what a joke England really were in the late 1990s, as they fell to the bottom of the Test league table, and anyone who likes cricket, cannot have been anything but impressed by the team's remarkable progress.

But can we say anything more about success, organisation, motivation and above all leadership based on England's triumphant whitewash of the previous best-in-the-world team, India?

I think we can, and here's some (hopefully thought-provoking) general reasons why England have carried all before them:

1. They are well-prepared. Lord MacLaurin set up a National Academy and established central contracts for players way back during his rein as chair of the ECB in 1997-2002. Replacing a bunch of ill-connected plans thrown together on the day, 'Team England' became a real entity at this point. These days, the amount of money earned from Sky TV deals, and the backroom staff bought with it, is a key part of England's success. Physios, coaches and psychologists prepare and protect the team as never before. Analyst Nathan Leamon, who goes by the unlikely nickname of 'Numbers', leads the way in statistical analysis of cricket performance.

2. They have a plan and a target. Following the debacle of England's 2007-2008 Ashes tour of Australia, where mind-numbing defeat at Adelaide and off-the-park shenanigans cost them dear, the powers the be commissioned a thorough investigation. They commissioned an outsider, Ken Schofield from the world of golf, to recommend how to go about root-and-branch reform. What he came up with was a far-reaching set of recommendations that basically amounted to a series of planning structures (performance squads, management continuity and the like) that would leave nothing to chance in constantly taking England's game to 'the next level'. After a particularly galling and sloppy defeat by the West Indians in 2009, a seemingly-impossible target was set: England had to aim at being top of the world, rather than remaining happy with mid-table mediocrity. Andy Flower, the team's coach, has persued that goal with a fixed-eye stare that legends are made of. The secret, as economists put it, is to 'plan the target but not the path'. Have a goal - don't try to control all the variables and details on the way. England have succeeded marvellously at just that sort of game.

3. They find the best in unlikely places. Rather like Chris Smalling, Manchester United and England's makeshift right-back, many of England's success stories weren't established figures when England fixed on them as future stars. Jimmy Anderson rocketed from league cricket to the big time in just a few months. Chris Tremlett, increasingly a terrifying opponent for any batsman due to his pace and height, endured years in the wilderness. Provenance? Hierarchy? First-in-the-queue buggins' turn? England will have none of it. Which brings us on to the next point.

4. They create unity out of diversity. England's starting eleven usually contains a lot of contrasts. Not only were some of the star performers born and raised in South Africa (not so unusual, but certainly a contrast to the exeriences of home-grown players). But it's certainly a contrast to the life experiences and the playing styles of the home-grown players. Socially, too, the outfit is a bit more complex than captain Andrew Strauss' Radley-and-Durham CV would suggest. Graeme Swann went to the state comprehensive Sponne School in Towcester Anderson went to a Roman Catholic state school in Burnley. Swann, in particular, is something of an unconventional joker who's nothing like his more conservative and straight-laced captain. But something about this cake-like mix of opposites has made them rise. Perhaps it's exactly because they're so different?

5. They are ambitious. Some players have endured lean times. Everyone has this from time to time. No-one can be at the top of their game all the time. But what do players do when they're having a ban run? Sulk? Kick the ground? Nope. Stuart Broad was completely out of form against the Sri Lankans earlier this summer, and instead of slinking away, he kept asking for the ball, and he kept working away - harder than ever. He was rewarded with a golden run of form with both bat and ball. Even now, having crushed Australia and India in the longer form of the game, England's players refuse to rest on their laurels. After years of under-achieving in the shorter forms (especially the 50-over format in which the World Cup is played) they are now setting their sights on dominating in that arena too. Want to bet against them? Me neither.

6. They are ruthless. Not content with breaking Rohit Sharma's finger in the first One-Day International, England's 50-over captain, Stuart Broad, said that the barrage would go on. And despite bulldozing the much-vaunted Indian team into the dust for weeks, England's bowlers engaged in a bit of kidology when they threatened to unleash a new 'mystery' delivery. Previous English teams would have thought all this in a bit of bad taste, and perhaps harboured a secret desire to see the Indians 'win one or two'. Not this lot.

7. They fight in depth. There's not one or two stars: there are eleven team members. England were in dire straits on a couple of occasions during their clash with the Indians. At Nottingham their batting threatened to fall apart, and then the Indians looked likely to bat them out of the game. What happened? Their lower order batsmen (especially Stuart Broad) dug them out of their first hole, and then a previously out-of-form Broad struck again with a hat-trick of wickets on the second day. The problem with 'marquee players' is that, should they fall down, the rest of the group is exposed to the wind and the rain (apologies for the slightly over-extended metaphor here). This team has built a great big solid series of tents to hide in during inclement periods when luck or talent deserts most of them. This is yet another of the reasons that - unlike India - they never turn up looking like a load of individuals, but rather an actual group.

Aiming to build something out of nothing? A new organisation? A new leadership? Trying to claw your way up a league table? I think you could learn a lot from Andrews Strauss and Flower.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Will President Obama be re-elected?

The electoral news on the other side of the Atlantic is that 'never-wrong' electoral analyst and 'egghead' Alan Lichtman has picked President Obama (above) to be re-elected next year. Apparently he's got a lock on most of the 'keys' that have secured the popular vote for the winner over the last two hundred years - scoring high on foreign policy successes and an avoidance of scandal during his time in the White House for instance. Lichtman has garnered quite a bit of coverage for his research and his views - manna from heaven for hard-pressed and ill-regarded academics everywhere.

But is he right? History is full of examples where pundits have come spectacularly unstuck, such as those political scientists who predicted an Al Gore Presidential win in 2000 based partly on the booming state of the economy. Though their overall numbers were only a little out (and way within the margin of error in some cases), the consequences of just a few small changes were momentous indeed.

As Nate Silver points out over at '538', many of Lichtman's so-called 'keys' are entirely personal readings of the situation, such as whether the candidate is 'charismatic' or not, and whether his or her opponent is a 'national hero'. Who's to say? Senator John McCain did a passable job of the latter status until his campaign so spectacularly fell apart over Wall Street's crises and his Vice-Presidential pick, Sarah Palin.

Here we should look at the situation in front of us, rather than extremely subjective and and error-prone readings of the past.

What do they tell us? Political pundits favour Obama by a margin of 55-45. With their own money, which is a pretty good guide to what people actually believe. The complicated maths of the United States Electoral College, which actually elects the President, tends to favour their candidates at the moment. And state-by-state polls show Obama closer to the Electoral College finishing line than a nominal Republican opponent. The power of incumbency and the bully pulpit of the Presidency are still on his side. He's a formidable campaigner and (most of the time) a likeable personality.

So the best answer to our question is still this: no-one knows. At the moment, it's just slightly more likely than the alternative, but it depends on who the Republicans nominate as their candidate.

That's it. Not very exciting, but don't let anyone tell you any different.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Bad statistics: the immigration debate

If you took just a cursory glance at the figures for immigration at the end of last month, you'd be forgiven for thinking that immigration was going up. Tabloid press coverage of 'Migrate Britain' screamed out, giving the entirely misleading impression that immigration was increasing. Have a look at this particularly bone-headed example.

It's not. It actually stayed static, or even gone down a little.

Net immigration - the difference between the numbers of people coming and leaving - has gone up.

But that's because fewer people are leaving.

This is how you turn a good news story into a bad news day, spread fear and panic, and totally distort the debate. Which should, of course, focus on the Government's controversial plans to cut visiting student numbers - still the main reason why people travel to Britain. And on the extreme unlikelihood of reaching the coalition's rash and unworkable target of cutting non-EU migration to 'tens of thousands' by the next election.

Ben Goldacre has for years done sterling work exposing bad science. Do we need a bad statistics column now as well?

NB Traffic on the site had another record month in August - despite the fact that many people will have been away. Thank you, loyal readers! Keep checking back - I appreciate it, and hope to have something interesting to say at least two or three times a week.