Margaret Hilda Thatcher (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013)

April 9, 2013

A staff blogger, writing in The New Statesman just over four years ago came close to writing, a near perfect summary of what I believe Margaret Thatcher’s  legacy to be.

 Margaret Thatcher: still guilty after all these years

 It is 30 years since Margaret Thatcher entered No 10, setting in motion a revolution that would destroy the quasi-socialist political consensus of the postwar decades and, after much strife, turn Britain into the country it is today: riven, atomised, debt-stricken, hugely unequal, its prosperity excessively dependent on financial services, its public spaces degraded, and its towns, at least at night, the preserve of the binge drinker and the brawler.

Many of us may have grown more wealthy during the Thatcher and the New Labour years but, somehow, we seem as a society more spiritually bereft, more restless, unhappier even. This is not to deny that Britain, at the end of the 1970s, was dismal. We had a failing Labour government, which had already begun to experiment with monetarism and to cut public spending; a union movement that had become too complacent and too powerful, a huge obstacle to reform; a punitive taxation system that served as a disincentive to enterprise; a wider culture that was largely racist, homophobic and misogynistic. The political and social cultural consensus had to be broken, one way or another. And, in retrospect, the necessary transformation, or counter-revolution, could only have come from the right. The Labour Party was too exhausted, and soon, irresponsibly, it would split in defeat and self-hatred, opening the way for 18 years of Conservative rule.

Yet how brutal and destructive that counter-revolution proved to be, as whole communities were destroyed, especially in the industrial heartlands of northern England, Wales and Scotland, communities that have not recovered to this day. And how unbending was the doctrine that came to be known as Thatcherism.

Thatcherism, as our columnist Martin Jacques reminds us on page 10, was akin to a Bolshevik movement: a group of ideologues emerged from the margins to seize control of the very centre and effect radical change. The path was fixed. There could be no turning back. All opposition had to be crushed. The human casualties were as necessary as they were inevitable. Mrs Thatcher may have purported to believe in the High Tory, Burkean values of tradition, organic hierarchy and the accumulated wisdom of past generations, but she was no pragmatist or gradualist. “Economics are the method,” she said; “the object is to change the soul.” No Marxist would have disagreed.

And Mrs Thatcher did change the soul – of the country, of its people and of the Labour Party. New Labour was as much her creation as it was Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s. Today, her shadow still looms large over British politics: it is to the fury of at least 125 Labour MPs that one of her most lasting legacies – that of privatisation – is now threatening the Post Office. Remarkably, on its return to power, not only did New Labour refuse to reverse any of the utility privatisations, it extended them with the selling of air-traffic control.

Mrs Thatcher herself was a moralist. She believed in probity, thrift, personal responsibility, the family. At the beginning of her premiership she spoke of the need to bring harmony where there was discord and of the need to heal. At the end of her premiership, however, after three general election victories and 11 years in power, she had created, with bloodshed and war, a thin-spun, debased consumer society, the engines of which were vacuous acquisition and an obsession with celebrity. That remains the case today.

Yet we should never forget that Mrs Thatcher was adored by millions, not least because of her resolution and courage. She was a conviction politician; you knew what she believed in and, because of this, she was trusted. She demonstrated that ultimate power could be gender-neutral. And encouraging working people to buy their own council homes was hugely popular, as was her brand of English nationalism.

A theme of this special issue of the New Statesman is forgiveness. Writing on page 12, Oona King asks, rhetorically, if she can forgive Mrs Thatcher for all that she did and said. For Paul Routledge, whose article begins on page 26, there is no such self-questioning. There is only certainty – Thatcher is, and always will be, the unforgiven.

Our view is more nuanced. We recognise that the Labour Party was defeated at the end of the 1970s and that a social transformation was necessary. Our final verdict, however, must be this: Margaret Thatcher is guilty as charged

 As long as her shadow looms over British Politics – and it does and will for some time to come – we must let that verdict stand.

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The corruption of America’s political system – Lawrence Lessig.

April 8, 2013

In this TED* talk legal activist Lawrence Lessig says that before Americans can bring about change on any of the thousands of issues that matter to them, they must change a central corruption at the root of the American political system — that politicians must raise vast amounts of money in order to have a chance in the general election. This makes them prone to the influence of a very small percentage of the population.

After watching it, John Naughton has this to say;

Great, impassioned, supremely lucid lecture. His book — Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It is terrific also.

*TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference on the West Coast each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

There lies Ian Duncan Smith.

April 6, 2013

This report taken from the pages of today’s issue of The Guardian  casts some doubt on the way that opinion is shaped in this country.

 The government is increasingly using value-laden and pejorative language when discussing benefits and welfare, a Guardian analysis has found, something poverty charities warn is likely to increase the stigmatisation of poor people.

The findings show that the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has spoken of a mass culture of welfare dependency in every speech on benefits he has made in the past 12 months.

The analysis comes after complaints that the government is using exceptional cases such as that of Mick Philpott, the unemployed man jailed this week for the manslaughter of six children, to justify its programme of changes to the benefits system.

An examination of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) speeches and press notices connected to benefits in the year to April 1 shows a significantly increased use of terms such as “dependency”, “entrenched” and “addiction”, when compared with the end of the Labour government.

Fraud, which accounts for less than 1% of the overall benefits bill, was mentioned 85 times in the press releases, while it was not used at all in the final year of Labour, which was itself accused of sometimes using intemperate language on the issue.

In the 25 speeches by DWP ministers on welfare over the year, “dependency” was mentioned 38 times, while “addiction” occurred 41 times and “entrenched” on 15 occasions. A comparison of 25 speeches on the subject by Labour ministers saw the words used, respectively, seven times, not at all, and once.

Some charities warn that such language fuels a distorted portrayal of benefits in parts of the media, which in turn perpetuates widespread myths about the welfare system. A YouGov poll for the TUC last year found that, on average, people think 41% of the welfare budget supports the unemployed – the true amount is 3% – and believe the fraud rate is 27%, as against the government’s estimate of 0.7%.

The DWP’s language was unhelpful and appeared to be getting worse, according to Helen Barnard, policy manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She said: “It misrepresents what poverty is about. It sets up this idea that there are poor people and people on benefits and then everybody else, and never the twain shall meet. When you look at the research, it’s very much the opposite. The majority of people in the UK will experience poverty at least once in their lifetime. The idea that poverty is experienced by another group that is fundamentally different to everyone else is completely wrong.”

Tim Nichols from the Child Poverty Action Group said his organisation believed government rhetoric on the issue was changing, having a real effect on those claiming benefits.

He said: “It’s without doubt got worse. It is very much linked to the fact they’ve got a major programme of cuts to social security under way, and are seeking a narrative to justify this. It’s becoming increasingly hard for us to find people in poverty or receiving benefits who are happy to speak about their situation in the media. They fear the effect of this stigmatisation if they put themselves in the spotlight – how it might affect them and their children. They really are scared.”

Duncan Smith appears to be the most frequent user of value-laden terminology, regularly including terms such as “entrenched and intergenerational worklessness and welfare dependency” in his speeches. Campaigners particularly challenge his regular claim of benefit dependency over generations; arecent study was unable to find any families where three generations had never worked and a only tiny number where this could be the case for two generations.

Analysis of language in the media a similar picture. In the past year, the term “benefit cheat” was used 442 times in national newspapers, an increase of almost two-thirds on the 12 months before the coalition took power.

The DWP said: “We are very clear that it is the welfare system that is failing individuals, not the other way around and our language always reflects that. Currently, people are being trapped on benefits or are missing out on the support they are rightly entitled to. Our reforms will end the benefits trap, and will also make it easier for people to claim the help they need.”

Can we say that we live in a “mature democracy” when we allow our opinions to be formed by politicians who tell us what must be tantamount to barefaced lies?  We know that the lies are working very well. In 1993, for example,  24% believed that benefits were too high and discouraged work, and  55% felt this not to be the case. Today polls show 62% hold that benefits are too high and attract the work shy.  collective  Those receiving the state’s help are stigmatised. With  37% believing that most people on the dole are  “fiddling”, it’s relatively easy for the likes of Ian Duncan Smith and the DWP to get away with all kinds of lap-trap.

In another part of the same paper   says that George Osborne linking of the case of Mick Philpott to the state of Britain’s benefits system,

 …he knew what he was doing. A student of US politics, he was deploying a favoured technique of the American right, honed during the decades-long culture wars. Dip your hands in the slime of an episode that stirs revulsion – and smear it all over your opponent. In the role of Willie Horton – the rapist notoriously used by Bush the elder to discredit Michael Dukakis – enter Mick Philpott. Message: if you hate him and what he did, then you ought to hate the “benefits culture” and the Labour party that supports it.

It may be that Osborne is not the only “student” whos’s been taking lessons from the American right.

Mr Gove, are you listening?

March 25, 2013

In a letter published in today’ edition of The Guardian Professor Andrew Pollard (Universities of London and Bristol) makes the case that there is a pressing need for cross-party talks on the national curriculum, and by implication cross-party agreement, on how it should be shaped.

 Subject knowledge is vital to education and a national curriculum should represent the knowledge which is accepted as being important in our society (Report, 18 March). Additionally, children, young people and other learners have developmental needs (including cognitive, emotional, social and physical) which change as they grow older. Successful learning occurs when teachers, parents and others exercise judgement in bridging knowledge and development appropriately. In this way, one generation helps another. There are two main problems with the proposals for a new national curriculum in England. First, there has been no authentic attempt to achieve agreement on overall intentions and on the balance of knowledge, concepts, skills and attitudes which should form the curriculum content. The proposals for subject knowledge thus lack legitimacy in far too many areas.

Second, the proposals are imbalanced. Over-specification, implausible expectations and high-stakes control in relation to English and mathematics are combined with laissez-faire variability in relation to other subjects and issues. This produces a significant risk that many children will not feel motivated or engaged by the new curriculum. Teachers will do their best, as they invariably do. Cramming often does raise short-term performance, but it is doubtful if understanding and long-term capability will be achieved by provision of this type.

Within our democracy, the secretary of state has responsibility for this process and for making evidence-informed judgments about these issues on behalf of us all. His selective use and misuse of evidence and advice cannot be justified. In December 2011, the Labour party offered cross-party talks on the national curriculum following publication of the report of the expert panel, of which I was a member. School education needs stability if it is to provide appropriately for children’s learning. Mr Gove should call a halt and do the job properly.
Professor Andrew Pollard
Universities of London and Bristol

Sounds sensible to me.

A Fair Day’s Pay (for a fair day’s work.) in the USA

March 20, 2013

This seems very long ago and far away:

A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work

Franklin D. Roosevelt

May 24, 1937

….  Our nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours.

 Enlightened business is learning that competition ought not to cause bad social consequences, which inevitably react upon the profits of business itself.  All but the hopelessly reactionary will agree that to conserve our primary resources of man power, government must have some control over maximum hours, minimum wages, the evil of child labor and the exploitation of unorganized labor………[link]

… In his recent  State of the Union  address, President Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour and to link the future increases to inflation. He noted that  a family with two children that works full time and takes home the current minimum wage is still living  below the poverty line. He insisted that  “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” Higher wages, the president said, “could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead.” And for businesses across the country, it would mean “customers with more money in their pockets,” which translates into the simple fact that “our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.”

As if to prove that not a lot  has been learned in 66  years that has elapsed , Obama’s call for an these increases  has elicited a somewhat similar response from conservative Republicans as FDR’s did, with House Speaker John Boehner saying that an increase is “a job killer,” and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan calling it “inflationary” and “counter-productive.” Some Republican leaders, such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have even gone so far as to advocate doing away with minimum wage/maximum hours laws altogether, a move that would no doubt be applauded by Rush Limbaugh .

The National Federation of Independent Business, with a membership of 350,000, calls  the minimum wage as “more like maximum insanity.”

All the opposition ignore the fact that study after study have shown the raising the minimum wage has been good for both the economy and business overall.  This is because every raise increases the purchasing power of the American consumer. Conservatives are so wedded to their belief that the state should not interfere in the workplace in any way that they refuse see the benefits. Andrew S. Ross, in recent  article for the The San Francisco Chronicle,  pointed out that 19 states an the District of Columbia were all  already paying above the current $7.25 and that none appeared to be going out  of business.

 Business in San Francisco doesn’t appear to be suffering from the fact the city has the highest minimum wage – $10.55 – in the nation.

“You can’t continue to build an economy on the backs of low-paid workers,”said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013  earlier this month. Roughly half of Republicans — and 71 percent of Americans overall — support rise  $9 per hour, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. This suggests that maybe in 66 years  some lessons have been learned after all.

Evidence-based practice in schools.

March 19, 2013

 The physician, academic and science writer, Ben Goldacre, posted this welcome news on his blog last Friday

Here’s my paper on evidence and teaching for the education minister.

March 15th, 2013 by Ben Goldacre in evidence based policy |

I was asked by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) and the Department for Education to look at how to improve the use of evidence in schools. I think there are huge, positive opportunities for teachers here, that go way beyond just doing a few more trials. Pasted below is the briefing note from DfE press office, and then the text of a paper I wrote for them, which came out this week. You can also download a PDF from the DfE website here.

If you’re interested, there’s more on evidence based policy in this BBC Radio 4 documentary I did here, and in this Cabinet Office paper on trials in government that I co-authored here, as well as zillions more posts.

There’s a response to my DfE paper from the Education Endowment Foundation here (they’re running over 50 trials in 1400 schools), and a blog post from the Institute of Education here, I’ll post up more when I get a chance.

Hope you like it!

 In an article in today’s edition of Education Guardian Goldacre argues that if  teachers want politicians to base policy on evidence, they need to accept that randomised trials –very much much like those which used when evaluating various treatments in Medicine – are the way to show what works.

Medicine, in just a few decades, has leapt forward with evidence-based practice. By conducting “randomised trials” – fair tests, comparing one treatment against another – we’ve been able to find out what works best. Outcomes for patients have improved, through thousands of tiny steps.

There are many differences between medicine and teaching, but they have much in common. Both involve craft and personal expertise, learned through experience; but both can be informed by the experience of others. Every child is different, and every patient, too; but we’re all similar enough that good-quality research can show which interventions work best.

It seems to me that this approach might yeild better results than we have seen from other approaches. 

The UK mass media is awful because…..

March 19, 2013

John Naughton puts it very succinctly

The reason that sections of the UK mass media are so awful is simply that there’s a market for intrusive crap. People continue to buy disgraceful newspapers, so bad behaviour is always rewarded, not punished. The only thing that would change that would be for consumers to make ethical decisions when buying papers. And they don’t. The elephant in Leveson’s court-room was the Great British Public. But nobody talked about that during the proceedings.

You can bet your bottom dollar nobody talked about that. Which of the people involved in the proceedings would be willing to bite the (public) hand that feeds them?

Media 2

Measuring for the right reasons.

March 18, 2013

In a recent article Simon Caulkin gives a vivid description of how it emerged at a recent event on ‘results-based management’ run by the consultancy Vanguard that “what to measure may be the single most important management decision a company makes.”

 For an indication of why, take the case of a typical local authority child protection department which operates to two standard measures. For children at serious risk, it must carry out a fast initital assessment of 80 per cent of cases within seven days. For a full core assessment, the standard is 35 days. The department meets both standards; under the widely-used ‘traffic-light’ signalling system (red-amber-green) it rates a green, so managers judge that no further action on their part is necessary. 

 Now look at the same department through a different measure: the end-to-end the time taken to do the assessment from first contact to completion. The picture that emerges is very different. The urgent assessment predictably takes up to 49 days, with an average of 18.5, while the 35-day assessment takes an average of 49 days, but can equally take up to 138. Worse, the clock for the core assessment doesn’t automatically start when the initial assessment finishes but only when it is formally opened. So the true end-to-end time for the 35-day assessment is anything up to 250 days. ‘Now tell me Baby P and Victoria Climbié were one-offs,’ says Vanguard consultant Andy Brogan, who gathered the data, grimly. ‘They weren’t – they were designed in.’

 When the underlying cause is looked for we find, Caulkin says, that “from assessing and protecting children, the imposition of the government-mandated measures ..has shifted the de facto purpose to meeting the standard within officially laid-down parameters”

Unlike standards, the end-to-end measure on the other hand throws light on how well the department is meeting its purpose. Learning takes place. The workplace conversation is no longer about how to meet the standard but what accounts for variation and how to how to save time in assessments to make children safer. Contradicting the traffic lights, action is urgently needed. As the process is repeated, improvement becomes continuous.

 The “why” we measure must, Caulkin insists, always precede the “what”,  and in the remainder of his article he states very plainly why this must be so.

Shareholders are not investors.

March 18, 2013

Professor Brendan McSweeney (Royal Holloway, University of London) recently reminded readers of The Guardian that shareholders are not investors and that a “shareholder’s relationship with a company is, in effect, the same as that of a punter on horse races with the owners of the horses.”

Finding the right room.

March 18, 2013

From John Naughton’s online diary

Quote of the Day

March 16th, 2013 [link]

“If you’re the most intelligent person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”

James Watson

Luckily, I spend a lot of my time in the right rooms.

It’s occurred to me that it’s just possible not to be the most intelligent person in the room and still be in the wrong room.