My Blog

This section comprises material purely written for the blog that sets forth some of my views on politics, economics and education based on my academic background and some of my own personal experiences.  

Putin, master of the anti-political

Published online: 14/09/2012

                The Russian political machine in jailing the feminist punk band Pussy Riot demonstrated the true nature of the overarching power of the political system.  They were sentenced to two years in prison for performing their song “Mother God, Put Putin Away” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour back in February.  Their initial arrests were triggered by the appearance of the video online and they were charged with and later found guilty of hooliganism and have been classified as political prisoners by both the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (SPP) and Amnesty International.  The trial itself has been marred by widespread unpopularity both in Russia and around the world with many observers refusing to acknowledge it as fair in a state led by a regime that has faced recent accusations of vote-rigging.  According to the Levada Centre almost one in five Russians believed the verdict to have been influenced by political concerns rather than simply the letter of the law.

                One of the most interesting aspects of this case is the way in which it has highlighted the operation and manipulation of political control not just in high profile cases such as this one but in everyday governance of states across the world.  Putin and his cronies have shown to the world the overtly anti-political nature of modern political operations.  The etymological distinctions here are vital to understanding the reality of modern ‘politics’.  ‘Politics’ at its most everyday level references struggles over power and an understanding of the complex relations between and struggles over people and resources.  This is a far cry from the world of Camerons, Milibands, Hollandes, Merkels and Putins that most frequently comes to mind when anybody references ‘politics’ in common speech.  Yet the disjuncture between these two meaning is an incredibly powerful one and it is one that political establishments around the world have cannily made use of.

                Modern establishment politics does just that, it establishes (and thenceforth controls) what politics is.  It monitors and decides which discussions are had, which voices are heard and which decisions are made.  The Russian political-judicial system has, some believe, callously disregarded common law in favour of maintaining the privileged position of political elites.  In so doing it has decreed that the likes of Pussy Riot do not get a voice in legitimate political debate.  Their participation in the Russian democratic system has been deemed harmful and as such has been shut off by those in power.  Violent punk songs are not the political discursive tools that are approved by the ruling classes and they are certainly not approved for use in churches or to be circulated more widely on the internet (with the obvious outcome of spreading a message that is not meant to be spread).

                The true battle for political power is not in the debating chambers of the world’s national or multi-national governing bodies.  No matter what anybody says in the House of Commons we’ll still be stuck with the tweedle-dee or tweedle-dum of Cameron or Miliband.  Portrayed as a powerful force for inclusion and open debate the reality of the political system is that it excludes people and ideas from the discussions that are important to us all.  How would you or I get to have our say directly in the discussion of issues that affect us?  We’d have to become a member of parliament, either producing a shock as a member of a small minority party or entering as an independent.  To put this into perspective, ten such individuals have succeeded in this endeavour since 1950.  Failing that, as anybody most likely would, there is left the option of towing a party line and going along with the leader of your party and his trusty Whip.  Where does the genuine dissent in parliament come from then?  Answer; it doesn’t.  Whilst parliament and government might seem to be asking all the questions that need asking in reality they are all implicitly and explicitly colluding in a bid to maintain the edifice that keeps everybody and everything away from genuine seismic change.  This may or may not be a good thing (I’m sure few people desire a move to full-blown Stalinist Communism) but some of the world’s biggest issues have been stuck in a quagmire for decades.  It seems entirely unlikely that the political establishment in the developed world is capable of, to give but one example of an entrenched humanitarian problem, eradicating African poverty.

                The political establishment is very much an establishment and no establishment every changed itself drastically from within.  The true battle of formal politics is no longer one of over-arching ideology and Putin has shown to the world the importance all national politicians have to place on maintaining their safe spheres of discussion and struggle and action.  Those who truly hold the power in modern society know it is not about winning the arguments; it is about deciding which arguments are fought.  Putin has made it clear that he will go to any lengths to protect that power.

Anti-austerity, the unsung hero of the Olympics

                Much of the seven years between the night in Singapore when London was awarded the Olympics and the commencement of Danny Boyle’s masterpiece of an opening ceremony was characterised by the question “can we afford these games?”  The spectacular failure of austerity across Western Europe in recent months coupled with the equally spectacular success of the games begs for them to be re-rendered not as an example of big government cost-inefficient frippery but as a vital stimulus in preventing the complete meltdown of the stalling British economy.  The Olympics represented a major governmental project the likes of which, although potentially lacking in the infrastructure improvements he envisaged, John Maynard Keynes would surely have advocated when he set forward the role of government spending in exiting and avoiding recessions and, luckily for us in Britain, the intense international scrutiny focused on the games meant even the most hardline austerity fetishist would have failed to justify swinging the axe.

                Austerity, it is increasingly becoming obvious, is not the way to treat a series of inter-linked ailing economies so soon after (so-called) recovery.  Double-dip recessions across Europe – including in Britain and Italy – are rife, France has flatlined, Portugal contracted by 1.2% in the second quarter of 2012, Greece is stuck between a series of towering rocks and hard places and Spain is enjoying the less than healthy unemployment rate of 25%.  The EU as a whole contracted by 0.2% in the second quarter of 2012 which stands in stark contrast with growth of 0.4% in the US and 0.3% in Japan.

                To bring it back to Britain, we currently live in one of only two G20 countries fulfilling the requirements to be technically classified as in recession.  Furthermore the Office of Budget Responsibility has itself attacked the Tory austerity plan, declaring that their cut hard agenda will leave the country’s finances in an “unsustainable” position as well as causing untold misery across the country as vital frontline services are stripped back.  In short, Osborne’s beloved “expansionary fiscal contraction” is, as many predicted, an oxymoron (you can do your own bad wordplay regarding Gideon here).  To put the case simply, cuts are dragging public sector money out of the economy and the private sector is conclusively failing to fill that gap leading to the government carrying out a series of everyday bail-outs.  Every time they pay out benefits they are essentially bailing out an individual under the correct assumptions that individuals, as well as banks, should be regarded as too important to fail.  Increasingly those receiving the bail-outs are not the people who happen to fall through the cracks for a variety of ill-fated or otherwise self-determined reasons.  Increasingly these people are becoming more and more the norm as they lose their government jobs and private companies restrict their operations to the bare minimum in a desperate attempt to stay afloat sucking the austerity money out of the government’s coffers and leading to a worsening state of affairs for the country’s finances.

                The Olympics were the opposite of the dire creeds that characterise the European austerity paradigm.  On a cultural level it’s important to have experienced endeavour motivated by achievement and recognition rather than a dash for cash that can all too often be the all-encompassing goal.  Furthermore, turning to the figures again it is clear that hosting the Olympics has been a boon for the national economy as well as the national spirit.  It has been estimated that between July 2005 and July 2017 the games will have contributed £16.5bn to the UK GDP figures as well as 354,000 years of employment with 78% of this being in the construction sector, one of the biggest losers in the fallout from the credit crunch of 2008, with 52% of total spending being directs towards small and medium-sized enterprises.  Visa’s preliminary Olympic spending report has shown that over the period of the games themselves spending on their cards increased by £750m in contrast to the same period last year.  These are big injections into the UK economy at a time when, if it weren’t for the eyes of the world being on London, this money would’ve been sunk into vainly servicing an ever increasing debt. 

One of the most interesting and arguably important statistics regards the national enjoyment of the games.  It is too early for any proper estimates of this effect but it has been calculated that the improvement in the national mood as a result of hosting Euro 96 was the equivalent of handing everybody in the country a cheque for £165.  The sterling performance of Team GB and the brilliance of the event’s organisation should make £165 seem paltry.  This time last year Britain was reeling from riots in some of its largest cities, now it’s celebrating a triumph on so many scales; it all seems very good value when you think about it.

A cut worth making? Slash VAT

                Budget figures have shown that austerity is in many ways biting the hand that feeds.  As cuts bite unemployment rises and belts tighten seriously constricting the tax receipts being collected by the Treasury.  Proceeds from corporation tax sank by 20% in July 2012 compared with the same month in 2011 and spending on benefits was 6.2% higher.  This caused a surge in government borrowing in contrast with the hefty surplus that was generated last year.  It is clear that austerity is not all it has been cracked up to be by the Conservative machine during the General Election and yet a U-turn on this, their most beloved policy, is at least in public not being countenanced.

                Numerous Tory MPs have called for tax cuts for small businesses in order to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurial talent.  This sits alongside the cut to the highest rate of income tax designed to encourage tax avoiders to pay their – now diminished – share and to encourage so-called wealth creators into the country.  However, this is the typical business-centricity that is in part to blame for the grindingly painful slowdown of the UK economy.  Businesses in such straitened times are afraid to grow and overreach their limits in a fragile economy.  Even if they wanted to expand, and I am sure there are many canny entrepreneurs spotting niches despite both recessions, the decrease in their tax spending is not going to offset the two biggest threats to vulnerable businesses; lack of affordable, accessible capital from banks and a lack of consumer demand.

                The time has come now to stop assisting business, whatever their size, and instead start to help individuals and families.  The best way to put more cash in people’s pockets in a way that stimulates is to cut VAT down from the 20% that it was raised to at the peak of the financial crisis.  VAT is a regressive tax with the poorest people in the country feeling its pinch far more than the richest simply because they spend a far higher proportion of their total income than the wealthy do.  Cut it down and you help the very poorest in society most and the very richest least.  This might clash drastically with Osborne’s previous sympathies but it makes sense and would curry a significant amount of favour with members of the Lib Dem party currently feeling mutinous as a result of the shambolic and largely token attempt at achieving reform of the House of Lords.  It is vital to emphasise also that as a general rule the have-nots tend to spend a significantly higher proportion of their income than the haves.  Cutting top rate income tax might have the lovely benefits of appeasing the Tories’ corporate mega-rich backers and apparently encouraging such people and corporations to avoid tax avoidance but the likeliest use of the extra money they save is to top up their savings accounts.  Whilst this may sound as if it is helpful to banks and will therefore stimulate lending the fact of the matter is that even government funds distributed to banks and earmarked for small businesses have comprehensively failed to support individuals and small businesses across the country.  Rather than cutting top rate income tax so people can stick a bit more in their ISAs and offshore accounts it is wise to cut VAT, putting cash in people’s pockets.

                Not only is it cash in people’s pockets but it is cash that people will spend.  The less well off in this country have their backs against the wall.  The poor spend more of their income, currently they cannot afford to be generating huge savings accounts instead focusing on trying to make sure they have enough food to eat and a roof over their heads.  Cutting VAT and making products cheaper will see far more products purchased.  Remember that struggling small business looking for investment?  All of a sudden its profits are up as it rakes in more cash as a result of being able to charge less.  A decrease in VAT is a decrease in the cost of undertaking economic activity and it is a lack of people partaking in the economy that is dragging Britain into the doldrums.  A VAT cut is a seriously costly pro-growth measure but it is one that could be more than adequately paid for by stricter controls on tax evasion and avoidance or increases in rates of income and corporation tax.  It is costly.  There is a reason raising VAT was Labour’s first go-to measure when it was struggling for bail-out cash but the political and economic landscape has changed.  It is a measure that would put people first and make it a little clearer that we are all in this together after all.  In an era of prolonged austerity, this could be the oil to get the wheels moving.

We're students, we drink, it's not news

                Dear ‘Newspapers of the World’, I am writing to inform you of a fact now in order to avoid future confusion.  People at University drink alcohol.  Not all of them, but a pretty hefty majority.  Some like a casual pint in one of the quaint old pubs along St. Giles whilst discussing their literary exploits in the fashion of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis.  Others prefer a swanky cocktail more reminiscent of the Jazz Age and, these are the ones you’re most likely interested in, some prefer (to use, to my great shame, the phrase popularised by the TV show ‘Geordie Shore’) to get mortal.  This is a fact of life.  Even in prohibition-era America people were getting tipsy and beyond.  Barring religious or medical reasons it is most likely that everybody you speak to will have enjoyed a bit of booze on at least one occasion.  It remains pretty likely that at some stage in their drinking career they have spectacularly misread all the biological stop signs (from my experience these include an inability to stand upright, slurred speech, and loudly lamenting the cruelty of your ex/parents/tutor/landlord) and made something of a fool of themselves.  In most such cases the person capable of dishing out the harshest punishment is most likely themselves via the untrustworthy queasiness, drilling headache and awkward breakfast conversation that they are put through the next day.

                Young people drink alcohol, we do it to excess.  We know we are harming ourselves.  We know the moves we’re busting out on the ground floor of Camera make us look like John Travolta after a failed experiment.  We know that no matter how loud we try we simply cannot nail the high note from Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ on the Cheese Floor of Park End at half past two in the morning.  The fact of the matter is that none of us care and nor should the world’s press.  Yet another story cropped up in the Telegraph recently about what they perceive to be the questionable drinking habits of Oxbridge students.  Pennying, referred to throughout with terrifying speech marks to become the entirely unwholesome “pennying”, is described as a game of forcing undergraduates to down their drink whilst at formal dinners that invariably involve the wearing of gowns.  This is ludicrously misleading nonsense.  You don’t need to be wearing a gown or even at a dinner or even be holding a drink (never see off curry sauce, it is under absolutely no circumstances worth the after-effects) to be a victim of “pennying” and it is certainly not confined to Oxbridge as anybody who ever goes home during the holidays will know.

                It is one thing to pick up on notoriously public school sports teams such as the Oxford University Lacrosse Team for snobbishly invoking the troubling issue of teen pregnancy as part of an initiation but trying to take the sort of drinking games played everywhere and give them a unique Oxbridge slant is lazy and simply not news.  There are surely a decent number of drinking-related stories out there but ‘Students continue to drink in Oxford’ is not news nor is it interesting to anybody other than some sort of monk who’s been living under a rock.  An accurate headline for the story would have been “Oxbridge students play same games as every other university but sometimes wear gowns and are generally a bit cleverer, this paper wants the cobbled streets to run with their blue blood”.  Talk about having your cake and eating it, they criticise the Oxbridge establishment for being elitist and different and then literally simultaneously complain when we behave like everybody else.  Either we embrace the Oxbridge label and everything that comes with it from port to butlers or we move to being like everybody else in the modern era with the drinking, fornication and ill behaviour that goes with it.  We have an amazing opportunity as students at Oxbridge, the opportunity to benefit from the very best infrastructure, surroundings, teaching, course design, external resources, sports facilities and other students that the world can offer.  What we should not feel is an obligation to live like ninety year olds just because there are others out there who would like to be in our position.

Education=Development? After visiting Uganda I'm not sure

                Education is often touted as the cure for the third world’s ills.  It can promote economic growth whilst simultaneously improving the lives of the populace through its effects on HIV/AIDS, population growth and the spread of modern science.  But education is far from a golden bullet and Uganda is a clear example of the harm that can be done.  I spent a week teaching in a Ugandan primary school last summer and the experience was a shocking one.

                The Ugandan Government has offered free primary and secondary education for all children since 2001.  An amazing display of forward thinking and progressive planning from the left-wing leading party.  However, as is so sadly often the case in Africa, the results have failed to meet the rhetoric.  The Government has been hit hard by the cost of education.  Teacher shortages are rife, particularly in rural areas away from the wary eyes of the Ugandan elite and the prying eyes of development agencies.  This means all lessons, without exception, have to be taken in English.  This is fine in the relatively wealthy capital city where the urban rich reside but in the poor rural fringes local dialects are the only language these children know.  To further cut costs one teacher for the youngest children can have two classes of forty kids and the impact of this is only fully realised later in school when 11 year-olds who do not understand ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ are learning about Pythagoras’ Theorem entirely in English.

                It is clearly bad enough that the standard of education is not what it should be but the children are frequently the subject of mass canings.  I witnessed one caning on the Monday morning after I arrived where a combination of the ferocity and the frequency of the beatings convinced me that it must have been a weekly mass punishment for the poorly behaved.  Imagine my surprise upon emerging from my tent the next morning to find the ritual repeating itself before me.  Too many aspects of schooling have been derived from colonising countries in the colonial era and the similarities between this Ugandan primary school and the educational experience that my Grandad talks of whilst growing up in the Britain of 1910 are as apparent as they are disheartening.  It brings back memories of Just William stories but he would have found himself black and blue.  Children are slapped for being late or untidy or noisy but surprisingly not for being insubordinate or for not concentrating.  Despite barley understanding a word the children are endearingly desperate to learn.  The main problem with a lack of attendance and interest is from the teachers whose apathy is understandable given their low wages and lack of accountability, but is far from excusable.  

                The teachers spend far more time lounging in the cool of the staff room than they do teaching the children whose sole aim is to learn by rote whatever is written on the board by the teacher in the ten minutes a day he bothers to spend teaching.  Make no mistake, the children know plenty of English and plenty of technical terms and how to apply them but they do not know what any of the words mean and the application of them is limited to the one diagram they get given.  One child showed us his book of notes and we found on one page a paragraph in perfect English about the physiology of goats followed by a scrawled note from a class-mate saying “I want give you kiss kiss finest sex”.  This demonstrates not only the huge divergence between what they are taught and what they understand but also some of the misplaced priorities of an education system in a continent ravaged by HIV/AIDS and high fertility rates that puts learning by rote in effectively a foreign language about the intimate workings of animals they have worked with their whole lives above a whole more useful education on safe sex and abstinence.  Having said that, I also manage to steal a glance at a PSE textbook on sex.  Five pages were dedicated to the dangers of incest and fifteen were dedicated to the bad things that happen if you become a prostitute but only two pages were about STIs and only half a page on contraception.

                That previous quotation aside I found the kids to be hard-working, dedicated and above all endearing.  These children and improving their quality of life should be the focus of education and they are absolutely desperate to learn whatever they can before their family runs out of money and they have to return to the fields.  The Ugandan Government has done a brave and correct thing in making its universal education commitment.  There is a real desire from the Government as well as the population across the country to improve the economic situation and benefit people’s lives.  However, too often sights are set on Kampala, in African terms a vibrant modern city, where the standard of education is significantly higher and the majority of industry is located.  Education is still the best way to create development and make a real difference to the third world, but it is most definitely a work in progress.

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