Sunday, 30 June 2013

Well, it's that time again...

...for me to sail off into the sunset for a couple of weeks. No internet. No analysis. No economics. No politics. We all need a break - and this historian is going to be unplugged for the next two weeks. Watch, though, for normal service to be resumed, in the week starting on Monday 15 July. There'll be anger, ranting, political dissection and a little bit of Ashes-related cricket talk then.

Until then - thanks so much for reading, you loyal people.

Friday, 28 June 2013

The fall of Julia Gillard: sexism, pure and simple

The political destruction of Australia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was breathtakingly swift, terrifyingly brutal - and partly caused by her gender.

As she herself said in an impressively pull-yourself-together resignation speech, not all the opposition to her was down to the fact that she was a woman. But some of it was - which is a crying shame, because her government had some real achievements behind it. Put aside Australia's continued and remarkable economic growth, which does sometimes create as many losers as winners as property prices and the cost of living spiral out of control. Most of that would have happened anyway - or at least as long as China wants Australia's precious and not-so-precious metals. There was a mining tax, which helped to recoup some of the mining companies' windfall gains for the taxpayers. A national disability insurance scheme. Plain packaging for cigarettes - something the UK government recently shied away from. Paid parental leave - for both parents. Record numbers of graduates. Those gains alone should have gained Ms Gillard more of a hearing that she ever got.

Part of the reason she was never given what Australians would call a 'fair go' was because she is a woman.

Why else would a (spectacularly ill-judged, I grant you) photograph of a knitting Prime Minister with a little dog mean anything at all (above)? I replicate the image because Gillard's enemies made great play of the photo, and it undoubtedly helped to bring about the downfall of a Prime Minister whose credibility had already been shot to pieces by year after year after year of sexist 'banter' and 'observations' about the Prime Minister's personal life, her lack of children, her appearance, and much, much more. She reacted with decency when a radio DJ asked her whether her hairdresser partner was a homosexual - just because he cut people's hair for a living. She reacted with fury when the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, questioned her over sexism and dishonesty - a couple of charges marked out only by their fantastical mendacity and hypocrisy. She won herself a global following by so doing.

Now she's gone.

But the Great Southern Land could really do so, so much better than the tanned, muscled, swimming-and-surfing future represented by Mr Abbott - a 'future' that is really a 'past'. One that many Aussies thought they'd left behind long ago - where big old tough guys slug it out in order to be able to tell everyone else what to do.

Australia deserves better. Doesn't it?

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Is George Osborne turning into Gordon Brown?

Yesterday's Comprehensive Spending Review announcements - and today's infrastructure plans - are a series of re-treads. Themes we've heard before, but hoped never to have our minds numbed by again; numbers we kind-of-guessed but were now confirmed; cuts that we knew were coming, but hoped somehow to avoid.

Well, now they're here. And now we've cut to the level of bone, we've going right through the bone. With a buzzsaw.

It's a pitiful performance from a Treasury team who should really know better, and it's hard - as a historian of modern economic policy - to know what could possibly trump it for mendacity, obfuscation, meanness and just egregious error. 1954-55, when Chancellor Rab Butler cut taxes for an election and then had to raise them again? 1972-73, when the Conservatives went for 'growth' and only ended up crashing the secondary banking system? 1974-75, when Labour's most left-wing programme ever looked set fair to completely bankrupt Britain itself? 1980-81, an episode of such eye-watering sado-monetarism that it destroyed a fifth of British industry? 1990-92, during which time Britain's membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism brought the UK to its knees?

Okay, I grant you - that's a lot of competition. But this episode of absurdism and mistake takes the biscuit, it really does. Our situation is dire. Remember that despite headlines that the double-dip recession of 2011-12 has been revised away, technically it hasn't, because output still dropped in the first quarter of 2012. And remember too that one reason why that recession now looks like an economy bumping along, rather than plunging into new depths, is that numerical revisions now make the crash of 2007-2008 look even worse than it did at the time. We're still miles behind the output that we managed then. When will we make up the gap? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Treasury's answer? Stalling public sector pay rises (many of which they don't have any power to intervene in anyway) and stopping benefit claimants getting any cash for the first seven days they're in need - a measure likely to cost the economy more in the long run than it is to save anything. Nasty? Certainly? Economically effective? No. These measures are as likely to stick as the £5bn of 'efficiency savings' we're promised - completely uncosted promises that will likely melt away like snow in spring.

Recall, also, that these cuts are only for one single year - 2015/16. After that stretch out only at least two more years of pain, full of absolutely unbelievable and ridiculous assumptions about any government's ability to slash public spending. Take a look at the numbers if you don't believe me. We're skittering along on the assumption that the 2010-2018 cuts to the Home Office budget - including police funding - will be half of everything it spends, and just under forty per cent of the Defence budget. That will not happen, because it cannot happen in a developed society. No-one believes these numbers. Not commentators on The Telegraph. And not this historian, either. The whole debacle of announcing endless fantasies-that-become-nightmarish-realities might not be the main reason why Britain's debt is getting harder to sell on the bond market: the coming end of monetary laxness in the US is much more significant. But it sure ain't helping.

But do you know who the Chancellor (above) sounds like most? Gordon Brown, that's who. That sounds like an absurd comparison on the face of it - the smooth-faced Mr Osborne has little personally in common with the grizzled old bruiser who inhabited No. 11 between 1997 and 2007 - but all the same hallmarks are there. There's the statistical sleight-of-hand: Osborne tried to tell us, yesterday and today, that the Government was putting '£300 billion' into investment. Except he wasn't announcing much new money at all - just putting dates, times and numbers on schemes he'd already announced many times before. That's an old Gordon trait, of course. And Mr Osborne was trying to palm off gross investment - numbers that don't take account of depreciating state assets - as net investment, the really significant number that most governments have relied on for decades. While further giving the Housing budget a really good kicking - not the way to get building and construction going, really.

There's too much playing to the gallery. Too many well-worn phrases we've heard a thousand times before. Too much party politics, even for this most partisan of Chancellors.

The public understand that we're still in a mess, and they want some directions out of it. What they don't want is a load of half truths and evasions, shoddily presented in a mass of not-very-impressive graphs and tables. But that's what they've got from the Comprehensive Spending Review - a crying shame at a time when voters are crying out for almost anyone to speak to them as if they're grown-ups.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The government's statistical untruths: something must be done

Bending the truth. Making yourself look good. Forcing your opponents onto the back foot. It's all the rough-and-tumble stuff of In the Thick of It politics, isn't it? All a bit of harmless fun? The cut-and-thrust of normal life in a democracy? Business as usual?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. There are limits. You can't just say whatever you want and pretend that it approximates anything like a coherent or creditable argument.

Especially not when it concerns statistical reality - increasingly the very language in which politics is conducted, but increasingly a rigorous way of thinking and proving assertions that's under attack (as we noted the other day) in an age of 'post-truth politics'. An age the dawning of which we should question and resist.

Here's the two nastiest and most mendacious examples, both concerning the weakest and the poorest in our society. Again and again the Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps (above) has said that new checks investigating people on benefits have pushed many claimants off those rolls - the implication being that they were frightened that their lack of real need would be revealed. Except that it wasn't true, that he was adding up everyone who was coming off the rolls for whatever reason (because they'd found work, for instance) whether they were being 'checked' or not. Shapps said one million people had withdrawn their claims rather than have them checked out. The real figure was less than 20,000. And that then he tried to resist the release of any more information about exactly that topic - leaving civil servants between a rock and a hard place, to put it mildly. Not a particularly edifying spectacle, is it?

Then have a look at the 'statistics' quoted by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary. Back in May he was rebuked by Andrew Dilnot, the head of the UK Statistics Authority (created in 2008) for claiming that 8,000 people had been encouraged back into work by the welfare cut the Coalition government has imposed on the total level of state cash any one family can receive. Well, there was absolutely no justification for this number whatsoever - the Secretary of State appeared to have plucked it out of thin air. Did he grovel? Apologise? Not really. Instead he's been going on about how child poverty has been dropping - another entirely baseless claim.

It's a depressing state of affairs, all this, and something has to be done to stop public faith in government numbers collapsing altogether.

Here's two proposals that might help. One: give the Statistics Authority the power to cite Ministers in the House of Commons for their behaviour. After three offences, a confidence vote would have to be held in that Minister or Secretary of State. Two: draw up a stronger code of conduct for civil servants, creating a duty to at least have a stab at statistical reality in all their numerical releases and advice to Ministers. As soon as they bend the facts to suit the Minister's agenda - and it would again be the Statistics Authority that would have the power to decide that they had - then they would be subject to a written warning from the Permanent Secretary. Three strikes, then, and they'd be out.

Now that'd focus minds nicely, wouldn't it?

Monday, 17 June 2013

Ofsted needs to get its facts straight

Recent pronouncements by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools in England (above) - to the effect that large, mixed-ability comprehensives are 'failing' the brighest pupils - are as worryingly misleading as they are inaccurate.

No-one would dispute that big schools taking in everyone from the locality often experience problems dealing with the brightest and the best - though it's arguable that they 'fail' the less academic even more, a blind spot that England and Wales in particular have never really addressed. In his unending quest for 'standards', Sir Michael wants to focus on the most scholastically able.

But what he said won't wash. Here's the deal: Wilshaw said that forty per cent of pupils getting the best marks when they were tested at the age of eleven didn't emerge from school at sixteen with top GCSEs in core subjects. So the system must be going wrong somewhere.

Hmm. Well, that's one crude way of looking at the picture. Here's two counter-assertions, better supported by the data. One: tests at eleven aren't very good indicators of 'ability', or 'achievement', and in fact much lighter-touch tests - which don't claim to do anything but look at where pupils have got to by that time and at that moment - would be much more useful. The pitiful predictive inaccuracy of testing before children's academic identities have really formed is revealed by this data more than anyone's 'failings' in particular. Two: all sorts of schools have these problems, because tests at the end of primary school and GCSE test completely different things. Llots of grammar or other selective schools don't do all that well by this measure either. Forty one per cent of grammar school pupils 'fail' to get the best GCSEs when they did well at eleven. Is that a 'failure' too, then?

For some reason Sir Michael didn't refer to non-comprehensives' 'success' or 'failure' rates. That seems like a highly pregnant silence when you think about just how badly grammar schools did at integrating working class children in the 1950s and 1960s - a time when they were supposed to be boosting social mobility, but during which they actually had a pretty good chance of leaving withou taking any formal public exams at all. Early Leaving, one 1954 report on the matter, estimated that only a third of working class children attending grammar schools attained a pass in three or more O-Levels.

This column has argued again and again that you have to understand how numbers are built - the raw material that you're being fed - before you can use any numbers with confidence. This rather embarrassing episode fails that test.

At a time when a lot of experts are very worried about the public's poor understanding of statistical data, it's critical that we speak and write in a manner that is both accessible and accurate. This kind of pronouncement looks accessible, but isn't, because it lacks both historical and statistical context. If you hadn't studied public statistics, and you didn't know about grammar schools' relative failure in the 1950s and 1960s, you'd just read this story and say 'tut, terrible old comprehensives, eh?' And that's a very muddled, and not I hope a deliberately deceptive, picture.

In the dawning age of big data, that just isn't good enough.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

American snooping and the fuzzy history of legality

So the US government is downloading all your data. In other news, the sky is blue. And gravity means that you don't float off into space.

Excuse me while I don't fall over with shock, as I'm obviously supposed to after the manifold revelations of Edward Snowden, the consultant-turned-whistleblower who's blown the lid off National Security Agency snooping and data-mining. Did anyone really believe that this wasn't happening, at least on an ad hoc basis and on a slightly smaller scale?

In any case, the implications of governments' justifications for their actions are more interesting - and in some ways more frightening - than the mass collection of internet traffic.

Because, to a historian, this is the inevitable outcome of technological innovation - throwing our political and legal processes into a spin, and challenging them to keep up. For consider what the US government said, in order to stay the right side of their own Constitution: we don't spy on Americans on American soil. Now look at what the British government said, in Foreign Secretary William Hague's statement to the House of Commons earlier in the week (above). Basically, he said this (reading in between the lines): we don't ask the NSA for anything that we know or think might have been gathered illegaly under UK or European statutes. But if they send us stuff, well, who are we to ask where it's come from?

Two mirror images - and rather mendacious ones, which mean that if you fall in between the legal spaces, if you stumble into the cracks between jurisdictions (as many non-European and non-US citizens will), then you're fair game.

Globalisation and technical advance has meant the mass rapid transit of peoples; international conflict has made every domestic political space a potential theatre of war; but the law hasn't kept up. Despite extensive and theoretically universal statements of human rights, for instance the UK's Human Rights Act, if you float somewhere out in the ether, without a clear citizenship, without living in your home country, you're much more likely to end up entrapped within the surveillance state - and on spies' radar.

This sounds familar to us historians. It has eerie echoes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where new technology - faster ships, more accurate maps, better food and storage - meant that men and women could travel ever faster around the world (especially the Atlantic world). The problem with this was that the law itself became a kind of patchwork quilt, where some evils were legal in some places and not in others. But now those different legal spaces of global empire rubbed up against each other very uncomfortably, just as they do today. Slavery, for so long the acceptable mainstay of the British Caribbean economy, very rapidly became verboten in Britain itself. Who had the right to fight on behalf of the crown - privateers, pirates, private individuals - was highly contentious. Who could, or could not, be pressganged into the British military helped to cause the War of 1812 with the Americans.

The pre-eminent scholars of this legal quagmire - Elizabeth Mancke of the University of New Brunswick, Lauren Benton of NYU, and Marcus Rediker, that innovative chronicler of pirate histories - have all been making this clear for many years. You could go and have a look at their books and articles, if time and budget suit.

What you'll find is this: when technology outruns governance, the outcome is chaos. That's what we face today - legal chaos which benefits the powerful agencies who always want to know more, and often have to be told exactly where the limits of liberty lie.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Wanted: policies for economic growth

Following last week's seminal speches by Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, and his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, the battle over the rights and wrongs of austerity is all but over. The Labour Party has been by electoral necessity - and the ticking clock of the electoral timetable - to talk now about the future, rather than the past. That means that all our long national arguments about 'the cuts' are a bit redundant now.

This blog has always argued that the austerity measures imposed in 2010 were misguided, especially rhetorically, and based on the false premise that the best way to reduce Britain's debts was to cut government spending immediately. Looking back over three years of anaemic growth, that doesn't look like such a bad set of arguments, now does it?

That's all a bit academic now. We are where we are - and that's going to mean at least two or three years of extreme public spending restraint whoever wins the next General Election.

But don't get the idea that this means that all macroeconomic arguments have ceased. Oh no. Quite the contrary. What it means is that we have to start thinking about how to speed up economic growth - in the end the only possible way to conquer big deficits. Just look at the US experience. Growth there is now reducing government spending faster than expected in the short term, and though the Americans' federal budget faces plenty of challenges over the medium- to long-term, things look relatively rosy in Washington compared to London and Paris right now.

A mix of spending restrating and new priorities meant that most Blairite of truisms - hard choices. How might Labour speed up growth? Here's four ideas. You can write your own if you'd like, and I bet you'd do better than

Houses, houses, houses. Britain faces one massive structural deficit we can all agree on: that of good, honest, basic dwellings for people to actually live in. Forget bad, misguided, mean and downright grotesque policies like charging tenants for 'underusing' rooms (the so-called 'bedroom tax') - which only reveal, in their turn, just how few options anyone without tens of thousands of pounds in their pocket really have. Forget pump-priming the housing market for the middle classes via the absurd Help to Buy scheme, an endless car-crash of a policy that keeps on giving. Just build more houses. Millions of 'em. Only that basic effort will stop us running slap-bang into another housing boom and crisis. If you have to slow welfare spending, perhaps by raising the state pension age sooner than expected, or means-test more, or cut elsewhere, do it. Just do it.

Science and technology investment. Actually, George Osborne as Chancellor (above) has been relatively clear that he agrees with this one. He'd better deliver - perhaps by moving health research into the relatively protected NHS budget - because if he doesn't, then one of UK PLC's main competitive advantages will be ruined. Pharmaceuticals? Aeronautics? Computer software? Technical instruments? In these Britain continues to lead the world - partly because it's got a world-class university sector that punches well above its weight. At the moment, the Government's ridiculous ring-fence around lots of lots of spending means that it's these (actually productive) budgets that are being squeezed. A new government will be able to lift the restrictions around the health service, foreign aid and defence procurement, and move money around more freely. Mr Osborne or Mr Balls could then make science R&D one of his top priorities.

Talk up the economy - and talk up infrastructure. Think of a country with laughable infrastructure - roads, rail, rapid transit, airports - and historically very low interest rates. What should it do? Yes, that's right - borrow to fire up a growth cycle akin to Asia's (£). Again, the Treasury have been tinkering with this, trying to lever in private money and Chinese investment. But they could go much further. A new (or renewed) government might be in a position to re-write the fiscal 'rules' on infrastructure spending, for instance in terms of urban bondraising for new trams and underground transit systems. It's no accident that London's been doing better than the rest of the country, for the reshaping of Crossrail, from Reading to Essex, is helping to change the economic weather - along with the capital's other advanges. Here again, we could do more.

Reverse engines on immigration. One of the more depressing elements of the current administration's sometimes-tawdry populism is its attitude to immigration. For all its problems, the influx of people over the last forty or fifty years had made Britain richer and happier - its people better paid, the economy more open and efficient, British companies able to hire who they like. Since 2010, Ministers have managed to hang a 'closed for business' sign up at Dover - with deleterious effects on family life, on growth, on university recruitment, and on the quality of the skilled workforce. It is to be hoped that a new government might return to a points-based immigration system, and cut out the ridiculous talk of getting to under 100,000 in net migration every year - an impossible goal if ever there was one.

There you have it - some new priorities. Better than arguing about the pace of cuts, isn't it?

Thursday, 6 June 2013

D-Day as it happens - and the new history

Today is the anniversary of D-Day (above) - that momentous day when the greatest amphibious assault in history threw 156,000 men, 6,500 ships, 200,000 vehicles and almost 600,000 tons of supplies across the English Channel to begin the liberation of Europe from fascism. 

It was a critical day in the history of twentieth century - at the end of which the final defeat of European fascism looked a lot more likely than at its start.

This year you've been able to follow it 'As It Happens' on Channel 4 - tracking six men and one woman through the fire, the chaos, the confusion and the bravey to feel as if you're really there, minute-by-minute, and hour-by-hour. This morning I 'landed' on Omaha beach with Huston 'Hu' Sears Riley, a GI who met fierce resistance from some tough German units just behind the beach - the worst of the day, in fact. He was pretty quickly under some horrendous fire, and I was pretty glad I wasn't on that beach with him, I can tell you.

You can follow these D-Day figures on Twitter; on the website; and you can watch them on your TV (or via the wonders of the Internet). If you want to put your problems and your worries into perspective, I'd recommend this terrible list of privations and frightening trials any day.

It's a breakthrough - a genuine one, in an age during which it's all too easy to get sucked into the hype, rather than the reality, of new technology in teaching. Interactive, informative, impressionistic, personal, novel - and nothing at all like Michael Gove's new 'learn the names' History curriculum. It relies on the ability to think for yourself about sources; on interactivity and participants' ability to upload their own family photos and reminiscences; and it somehow manages to elicit curiosity about the overall strategic sitaution via its actually-on-the-beach view of the world.

Ask yourself: which do you prefer, and which do you think will help your children more with their school history? I think I can predict the answer to that one. And so can you.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Michael Gove, political sensation?

It doesn't take much to send the Conservative Party scurrying for new leadership, and the last few months have been bad enough for David Cameron's Coalition government that the blue side of politics is hunting high and low for someone to lead them if the worst comes to the worst.

This week they've alighted on the Education Secretary, Michael Gove (above), popular among Conservatives for his zeal in creating Free Schools and Academies as fast as he possibly can.

So is his candidacy a real runner? Answer: probably not. I don't think this one's a goer. Not really.

Ignore the rather cheap point that his awkward manner and studious appearance might put off a political audience raised on television and Tony Blair. Place to one side his personal and ideological links to the Murdoch empire - unlikely to hurt him in the eyes of much of the press, which the powerful Australian-American still ultimately owns and orchestrates.

No - his problem is one of style - his political style, as much as anything else. He has prospered as an 'intellectual' in a House of Commons mostly consisting of intellectual pygmies, as if reading some books and spouting the names of some populist idea-mongers marks him out as some sort of Einstein. His rumbustious recent attack on Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, cheered up some Conservatives no end. But it was actually a set of tongue-in-cheek jibes and obvious political stategems - such as trying to drive a wedge between Shadow Chancellor and Labour leader. Most of its rather silly posturing could be dismissed for what it was: a kind of hacksmith verbal origami, as far removed from real governance, and the real clash of ideals, as is possible this side of Lembit Opik.

Then there's the way he's run his own department - a far from happy ship, where accusations of aggressive bullying and hectoring have flown thick and fast. And to what ends? Endless rows with everyone who isn't a Conservative. The creation of an absurd, reductive, busybody new National Curriculum that no-one really likes. In the case of our new History 'courses', even Simon Schama - no left-wing firebrand, and one of the few historians with the ability to cut through to a wider public - has derided the Education Secretary's ideas as sterile, outdated, boring and plain old daft. Not only that: early drafts have been full of inaccuracies, mistakes and misrepresentations aplenty. Not content with basically saying to teachers what a jolly old place the British Empire really was (I'm exaggerating for effect here), rote learning, names, dates and 'facts' are back. Fancy that for your children? No, I thought not.

It's all rather depressing. Mr Gove gives every impression of being an efficient, effective, driven and highly capable Secretary of State. Were he to throttle back on the jibes, the swivel-eyed ideological craziness and the insistence that blazers-and-Latin is a coherent education agenda for the twenty first century, he might well be in the running for No. 10.

But his chances are still low right now. Remember that most Conservative leaders emerge from pretty much nowhere - especially when the party is in office. Winston Churchill? Alec Douglas-Home? John Major? No-one thought that they would be Prime Minister until just a few months before their accession. Only Anthony Eden was the prince who inherited the throne - and he had to wait for nearly a decade.

So: will Mr Gove make it to the top of the greasy pole as things stand right now? Answer: no.