Policy Meeting

GCSE Politics syllabus. Section 27.”How Policy is Made”.

Conservative Central Office, late September.

A number of eager, bright-eyed, floppy-haired young SpAds, are hunched around a table in discussion. They’re clearly here for the long haul, because there are numerous cups, saucers & half-empty plates of biscuits on the table. In short, this is the detritus of a meeting that has been in progress for some time. These young guns work for Iain Duncan-Smith, and they’ve been wracking their brains trying to put together a compelling offering for his upcoming turn at the Party Congress Conference.

“Well, clearly, baldy’s speech at conference is in a few days. We know the Chancellor’s going to cut benefits, and he is going to want something that will grab the twinset and blue rinsers in the audience. Now, we already have the pre-paid benefit card idea, but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough.”

“It’s a start though, isn’t it? I mean, Ollie there was at school with one of the chaps who put together the tender for the preferred bidder for the card contract. Bloody good bloke, isn’t he Olls?”

“Totes. I even got a go on his sister at Henley, last year. I had to give him my sister’s number, though. Don’t think she was all that pleased, tbh.”

“Still, the point of the benefits card is to make claimants visible, and to stigmatise them into getting a job. It might make paying them easier, but what we really want is for being a benefits claimant to be properly shameful again, just like the old days when the unwashed knew their place, Indolent feckless layabouts that they are. The card is a start”

“Maybe we could make them wear a uniform too?  I love those orange ones the Yanks use. Lovely colour. And a friend of Pa’s supplies them to the US government. Maybe you could give him a call?”

“Nice idea, but no. Too pricey right now. The redtops would have a field day; We’d never get it to float with the austerity story we’ve been told to hammer home, even if we try to go with the Law & Order line.”

“How about hi-vis tabards, like the ones the DoJ use with offenders?”

“No then you wouldn’t be able to tell a feckless scrounger from a parking attendant. Wouldn’t want to risk your F-Type now, would you?”

“I didn’t know you could tell the difference anyway.”

“Nice one, Gyles!”

“How about badges? They’re quite cheap and we can make them fairly big, can’t w?. Maybe we can embed a chip in them too, so they can wear their payment card for easy use? And that way they’d need to wear it all the time, too.”


“So what will this badge look like?”

“Well, apparently, some awful bright science spod at a dreadfully dull drinks party was telling me that human eyesight is better with certain colours and frequencies. We supposedly have best sensitivity somewhere around 540nm or something. I didn’t get it all, but he sounded terribly sure when he said it, so it must be true.”

“So what colour’s that then?

“Green, or yellow. somewhere round there, anyway.”

“Oh dear . Green’s a big no-no at the mo. Apparently DC’s not so keen on anything green any more. Says it sends the wrong message.”

“Ok, so green’s out. That leaves us with the yellow. Bit LibDem for my liking, but it’ll have to do. What about shape?”

“It needs to be distinctive, and fairly simple.”

“We could do round. Put a smiley on it?”

“Hmm. Possibly. Though that might send out mixed messages. You know, that they’re happy to be the way they are, or that we’re just, you know, taking the piss somewhat. Might annoy Owen Jones, though. Fun, yes, but possibly awkward for IDS to explain on the TV with Brillo-pad Neil”

“Well, seeing as the proles are all obsessed with the X-Factor and being a pop star, why not make them star-shaped, so they can all be ‘stars’?”

“Brilliant, Alex! Tap into the popular culture vote, and they’ll even want to wear them too!”

“So, chaps, we’re agreed:  our conference proposal for IDS to make the new pre-payment cards for benefit claimants big, yellow star-shaped wearable contactless payment devices. It’s a winner! Lunch everyone? There’s a really amazing chi-chi place just over in Hammersmith”

[meeting adjourns due to Godwin’s Law]

The Morning After

I stayed up until the bitter end, only giving up once the actual result had been confirmed.

The feeling, quite honestly, was one of relief.

I had hoped that the Scots would vote to stay in the union, but I couldn’t honestly have blamed them for voting “Yes”, given the decades of frustration they (and we) have experienced at the hands of what seems to be an increasingly kakocratic Westminster.  What is abundantly clear is that the one thing that really isn’t on the cards any more is no change at all.

And the Prime Minister is still in danger of blowing it. Even his promises this morning seems timorous and backsliding. The demands, not just in Scotland, but in Wales and in the English regions (Yorkshire has a bigger population than Scotland, for example) fir change are getting louder and louder.  And then people like John Redwood keep asking about who is speaking for England might wish to ruminate on what they think they mean when they say “England”, and whether there is even a single English voice at all. The thought of Westminster retrenching and folding in on itself, leaving the regions in exactly the same hole they are in now, makes me sick to my stomach.

Perhaps this is the time for the English regions to assert their own powers, just eight months from an election and approaching the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta,. Now perhaps is the time when we can push for the real reform of the constitutional settlement. And not cosmetic, but a real change in the balance of power, returning it to the places where it is best exercised: nearest to where it is needed.

This morning, David Cameron talked about “the settled will of the people”. Well, the only thing we truly know of that will is that is demanding major change. Anything else will not do, and failure to deliver it will cost.

“For a’ that, an’ a’ that..”

Well, haven’t the last 48 hours or so been…interesting?

As soon as the first poll putting the “Yes” campaign ahead in Scotland hit the media, you could almost see the smoke trails left by the Westminster politicians (most notably our not much esteemed Chancellor) sprinting their way into the TV studios to mount an impassioned defence of the Union and talk about all those powers that the Scots would get if they would only do the sensible thing and vote, “No”.

Unfortunately, it’s at least six months too late.

It would be easy to mark the scramble as a sign of an unorganised panic, but I’m not convinced it’s the case. It’s think it’s a make of something worse: complacency. I think that the options presented since Sunday have been on the table since almost the start (in fact, it’s pretty much a racing certainty they were). It’s just that members of the establishment didn’t think they needed to be aired, simply because the Scots were going to fall into line and vote “No” anyway, and comfortably too. Sunday’s (solitary) poll putting “Yes” in front was perhaps the dog whistle that roused the troops, and perhaps seeded just a little alarm.

As far I am concerned, however, the roots of this whole problem lay earlier, and with the Prime Minister. It was David Cameron who made the serious tactical error (as some, including me, thought it was at the time) to insist on a binary referendum. Not allowing the third DevoMax option from the start has allowed the debate to polarise in the way it has. The third option would, likely as not, have been preferred. There is no appetite for the status quo, but there is disquiet about a full split. But now, the way the vote is constructed now forces voters to weigh the risk of going it alone against, not simply a Tory government, but an entire political establishment that appears to be unmoored from what Scottish (and, while we’re at it, Northern English) values have historically been. “No” campaigners have tried to claim that the main impetus in the “Yes” camp is against a current administration in Westminster, but it isn’t. It’s deeper. It’s al about a political system that is disconnected from us, and receding. This disconnect is not just a temporary one, but an evolving divide.

That divide in Scotland is just one manifestation of a wider schism within the UK as a whole. Whichever way the Scots vote, change is coming. Many in the North of England, and in the South West, for example, feel much empathy with the Scots. The mood of these regions is not captured by an electoral or political system that appears to ignore and demote their concerns to that of more adjuncts to what is perceived to be the “main” business of the country. And that business is increasingly concentrated in the metropolitan South East. Most of the major capital investments that are being proposed (and which we will all subsidise) look to be mostly serving those regions: the arguments about a London airport, Crossrail; Crossrail 2; HS2. Osborne’s tardy cheerleading for investment in the North seems to be entirely motivated by the rush of an oncoming election, not by any real long-term desire to invest. And just as likely to vanish again afterwards.

I remain conflicted. On the one hand, I do not want to see those with whom I feel the most kinship leave us. It would be hard to lose friends such as those. bUt, at the same time, I can easily why they would want to go. Only they can decide.

However, even if the Scots decide to vote to remain in the union on September 18 (and I think they might, but it’s going to be very close indeed) things are going to change. The DevoMax being offered might not even be enough, and it may even provoke the unloved regions to finally make a move to seize some control of their own destinies too. Whichever way the Scots vote, this is a moment for all of us to push for the values that that Burns poem extols, and changing the way we go about it. We have to take it.

Through the Looking Glass

Yesterday, I took delivery of a Google Glass to look over for work purposes, with a view to seeing what can be done with them for the purposes of student projects and possibly even use for research things of our own.

The first thing to notice is the packaging. Google have really spent some time on this. So much so that it’s almost…Apple-like in its care. There are lots of nice touches: flat simple colours, not much ‘clutter’ to negotiate to get to the kit and the accessories. Everything is clearly labelled and well-placed.

Once you negotiate the packaging comes the equipment itself. In the box you find the headset itself, a charging cable, a board containing the earbud and a pouch in a very tasteful charcoal grey with a hard bottom part to protect the business end of the glasses.

The charging cable is a flatter, ribbon style, which makes it fairly easy to coil up to store after use. The earbud I haven’t unboxed yet and don’t plan on using for a number of reasons. It does however use the same mini USB connector as the charge cable and plugs into the same socket, which sits on the bottom of the right-hand arm of the headset.


Once you inbox it, the headset itself looks fairly delicate. However it is more robust than you think. The nose buds are designed to be bendable to fit your own bridge. It has to be said that, without shades of glass, wearing Glass is an odd feeling. It’s a bit like being Monkey wearing the band given to him by Tripitaka. We ordered a set of polarising shades to go with it. Outdoors this feels much better, and does make you look (marginally) less strange. The first thing you need to do is charge it though. After an hour or so it’s juiced up sufficiently to do something with. The first stage of that is to connect it to something, which
means installing the MyGlass app onto your phone first.

There are several ways to get Glass working on the network: set Glass up on a wifi network; pair the Glass via Bluetooth with your phone or tether it via your phone (on an iPhone this means switching on Personal Hotspot). This is the most onerous bit, mostly because the walk through process for adding passwords probably needs a bit of UX glossing to work better. However, using a QRcode to activate from the Glass camera is a nice touch and works nicely. I’m still not convinced that the Bluetooth big of the equation is working all that well with my phone (an iPhone 5s). Even Personal Hotspot is a problem if you want you phone to work off the local wifi too – don’t try pairing in that case.

It’s now that we come to my big issue with Glass: the display. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s good. But I have a problem with it. And the problem is my right eye, which is significantly weaker than my left. It means that reading some items is harder than it needs to be, or harder than it would be through my left eye and there’s no chance to swap it. It was a problem I was expecting to have even before I used it and unfortunately it’s well-founded. It’s makes things less readable for me and, as a result slightly less useful as it makes it hard to read things like news updates and notifications at smaller text sizes. I suspect I may be unusual but not so unusual as for this to not cause others problems.

All that said, it’s easy to move the heads-up display into your field of view, and just as easy to move it just above your line of sight, where it recommended you put it. Gestures are nice and simple: taps on the headset right arm to confirm, swipes along it back or forward to move through the card-based menus system and swipes down toward the front to go back or undo. At first, knowing how near the front of the arm to tap is a vague art, but you get the drift fairly quickly.

There are a fairly small number of built in apps: search, calling and messaging and photo/video. To install apps you have to go through the phone app and deploy. Right now there’s a small but growing list, which includes useful features like Word Lens translation, a compass, YouTube uploads, the usual social told (fb, Twitter, g+) and other oddments like The Guardian and CNN.

The kit is idle most of the time on your head to save power, but a quick tap to the arm by your temple sparks it up. Another tap or saying, “ok, glass” opens up the installed features. Photo and video functions work nicely. Photos in daylight are fairly crisp, though I’ve not tried anything in low light yet. So far I haven’t had location services working, though calling and posting content work relatively well, judging by the couple of pics I put on Twitter.

My first tests are mostly done for now, though I’m considering wearing them for my forthcoming visit to Wikimania 2014 in London in early August. Working out etiquette for such social occasions is likely to be an interesting learning experience!


So, Nigel Farage is looking even smugger than usual this morning, though I not sure how that’s entirely possible. UKIP won the European elections, but the results are a mixed bag both here and across Europe.

On the Continent, where countries have gone through the Eurozone austerity aftermath, sceptics have made headway. This is hugely noticeable in France and Greece, for example. Italy is slightly more puzzling, but the new EU countries, such as Croatia, seem to have a more positive outlook.

In the UK, the picture is cloudy too. First of all, remember that barely one third of the electorate bothered to vote. Turnout is an issue. It’s not a surprise UKIP did well. Against a background of austerity, a single issue party campaigning in elections about that single issue, with the help of a media buying into the narrative in a big way, would have been hard-pressed to do badly. So it proved. But this may be a high-water mark for Farage and chums. A general election campaign will focus policy on other areas, where they are undeniably weaker. And the attacks will be more focused.

For both Labour and the Conservatives the results hold both promise and peril. For the Tories, things were not as bad as feared. Yes, they fell away a little from their position in 2009, but that was just before the last General Election, with a Brown government about as popular as a BBC2 Jimmy Savile season. In their heartlands the vote just about held up, but they are still largely being pushed back into the Home Counties and South East and being placed under huge pressure by UKIP. For Labour things are equally cloudy. Their vote is up on 2009, for sure, but that wasn’t too difficult. Some are worried that they have not done well enough. Perhaps not, but there are encouraging signs that they have been able to poll well where they need to, even in spite of Ed Milliband’s perceived “weirdness” problem. UKIP have eaten into their vote, but nowhere near as much as some expected. The Greens too did solidly, mostly holding ground and vote and claiming fourth place with three seats.

The big losers, though, were the BNP and the LibDems. The BNP bubble of 2009 is now comprehensively burst. But for the LibDems the sky is falling in. All but one of their MEPs are gone; their vote is collapsing, even in their own strongholds like the South West. They are toast.

Much has been made of the LDs suffering because of the pro-Europe position of the party, but the elephant in the room is their leader. Clegg is now about as toxic as polonium for his party: any attempt to engage in debate about Europe immediately ruined by his presence. And this is a shame, because there is a discussion to be had about the future shape of the EU. Even as someone avowedly pro-European I can see this. The tone of this seemingly endless election campaign has been quite ugly, focusing on “immigrants” in a fairly unsavoury way. But it would be a mistake to disregard this simply as some form of casual racism. Amongst the middle classes, there is little concern about European immigration. This is not a surprise, as these are the people slags threatened by inward movements, and more likely to be fit by working elsewhere in the EU. For those in lower-waged, lower-skilled jobs the fear is more palpable (even if the reality doesn’t support it); that fear is not being addressed by the mainstream parties. Farage and UKIP have mined this seam very, very effectively and are likely to have some influence on events in the next year, even if they may not end up being the kingmakers they hope to be.

The long 2015 General Election campaign begins here. Brace yourselves, it’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.

Hit The North

On Saturday The Guardian published an article comparing the North East of England to the US city of Detroit.  Apparently, the reaction to the article was fairly loud. I have to admit having read the original feeling a growing sense of anger and dismay. From the leaden prose, to the incredibly selective photos used to illustrate, the whole thing felt like a another knife into the ribs from an increasingly insensible metropolitan media that neither understands not cares about outlying regions of the country.

The reaction was rather more gratifying and, it has to be said, considered. And this was followed up by a rather nice buzzfeed article too.

Articles like this seem to be part of a more widely rooted problem: that anything outside the “centre” of the country is at best irrelevant, and at worst a hindrance.  Maybe it’s also part of a mindset that thinks of the regions as adjuncts to the “bigger picture”, when in fact they are a major part of the picture itself. A few weeks ago, Rory Stewart presented an excellent documentary series on BBC2 about how the middle band of Britain was, in essence a separate country. His thesis was that Britain is divided into three parts: the south (up to about the Trent or the Humber), the middle, from there to the Scottish lowlands, then the Scottish highlands. It’s an interesting thesis, and one I think has a lot of resonance with me. Many of the issues raised in this Guardian article could be applied to parts of the North-West, the borders, and even to places like Edinburgh and Glasgow (like the quality of road and rail links-no HS2 here, folks!). Like those places, the North-East has a distinct culture and ambience (and it is heavily related to the Scots).and these regions have advantages the south do not enjoy: more space and more water amongst them.

Building the Guardian article around a photo of possibly the single most derelict part of the town was not a great help. The writing of someone who was clearly a dilettante did not help either.  It was disappointing, and plants a further seed in my head that there might be a better future for the north, if only it could be divorced from its southern cousin, or at least allowed to thrive more on its own.

Degrees of Freedom

Michael Gove’s Wizard Wheezes: No 47:

Maths teaching is all to pot now (not like in my day), so let’s make things jolly well better. We’ll get all those mathematical chappies from the universities to teach children maths. What could be better, eh?

A bit extreme, perhaps, but not far from the truth if you read the BBC story from yesterday, with ministers suggesting that giving university fellows extra cash for teaching in schools.

At first the idea seems oddly seductive: three’s a problem with maths and science teaching, so let’s get the expertise form places in the system where we know it is. This will, of course raise standards. Won’t it? Well, no. no it won’t. And it’s indicative of a mindset amongst minters about the value and difficulty of teaching. There are a couple of problems wit hthe idea. Here they are:

  1. Just because you’re good at hard sums doesn’t mean you’re any good at explaining. Maths and physics at degree level are very different beasts from the things you learn at school. There’s a whole bunch of abstract frameworking and thinking required to get around, just to be able to deal with the notations for doing stuff, never mind actually doing them. Many of the people doing these subjects past the doctoral level have now assimilated so many of these things into their normal thinking that it’s difficult to roll back and think about them in the basic ways again. See, even explaining that is hard. How do you manage to even begin to remember what it was like to explain something basic to year 7 kids when your head is chock full of multi-dimensional spaces and abstract geometries.
  2. Just because you can teach adults doesn’t mean you can teach children. Another problem. Academics are used to teaching adults, if they’ve been let loose on undergraduates at least. Even then they’ve probably been given the donkey work to do. The issues of pedagogy (teaching children) and teaching adults (andragogy) are different. Pedagogy needs an understanding of things like brain plasticity, developmental stages and understanding what kids at those stages can and cannot do easily or well. For adults, the job is (at least in theory) a bit easier – that part of the process has happened, and students can articulate needs and issues more clearly in many cases. That’s why PGCE and PGCHE are different qualifications.
  3. Can you even teach AT ALL? Then there’s the kicker. All of this is lovely, but you just might not be able to do it at all. Being a good teacher is a gift. It is possible to train people to teach adequately, but the good ones are born, not made. It’s doubly insulting, because it firstly forgets just how many poor teachers there are in HE (though that is slowly improving because of things like HEA, so obviously it’s having all it’s funding pulled. How clever). Second, it relegates the skill of teaching children to being inconsequential. The assumption being made by people like Gove is that anyone can teach school kids; it’s easy. Anyone who’s been through either PGCE or even PGCHE knows this simply isn’t true. I feel reasonably comfortable teaching in HE, but I know for a fact that I would struggle more in a secondary school classroom for a whole bunch of reasons.

This is classic Government (and not just above, Tory-led rabble) kind of announcement. It’s seductively simple, and appears to appeal to “common sense”, but it really hasn’t been thought through. Pushing academics from the top down isn’t the solution. HE mentoring of teachers and support is a good start, but this isn’t the way. It’s a panicky short-term attempt at a fix because we are not producing a good enough stream of science and maths teachers through our own school systems. It’s doomed to fail, unfortunately, in the few places it will end up being tried.