5 things about this week (31 Jan 2019)

by Stephen Tall on January 31, 2019

One of the reasons I wanted to resume blogging again was properly to capture my real-time thinking on issues. It’s good for the soul to be constantly reminded when you read yourself back quite how stupidly wrong you’re capable of being. (Though this technique doesn’t seem to work for Nick Timothy.)

Last week, I opened with the lines, ‘What is Theresa May playing at? A week on from the heaviest parliamentary defeat since ever, and still she’s clinging to her Brexit deal, her Plan A-thru-Z.’ Yet the logic of her position now seems both clear and justifiable.

True, she only scraped her Commons’ win this week by flipping her long-stated (and correct) position that the infamous backstop in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement is non-negotiable. The EU is clearly not going to shift on this in any remotely significant way, and certainly not before the next meaningful parliamentary vote on 14 February. It’s quite likely, then, that she will lose again. But less badly than the first time, I’d expect.

In essence, Theresa May is winning the war of attrition to get her Brexit deal through. She may well have to ask the EU to extend Article 50 to give her more time; but, slowly but surely, her deal is emerging as the only option left on the table.

We know from this week’s Commons votes there’s insufficient support for a second referendum (let alone simply revoking Article 50). There still seems to be no real momentum behind a Norway-style EEA deal (small wonder: it is quite patently a worse “rule-taker not rule-maker” outcome than our current membership). Yet, the Commons has also shown it is against a ‘No deal’ – sure, it did so in as toothless a way as possible, but I still find it hard to imagine Theresa May wanting, or being allowed by her cabinet, to take us over the precipice.

Which leaves… Theresa May’s deal, faute de mieux. I’m still not quite sure how it gets across the finishing line, but it’s the only one with the legs to get there.

**

But of course that’s not the end of the story (even if what I’ve said above turns out to be accurate).

As Stephen Bush noted in 2017, the Nafta deal, signed in 1993, was still a defining issue in US politics in the 2016 presidential primaries and general election.

The arguments about Brexit aren’t going to disappear the day the Withdrawal Agreement takes effect. Some Leavers are going to continue to call Theresa May’s deal a cop-out; and if one of their number wins their party’s leadership contest the issue will remain live. Unreconciled Remainers are going to begin their push for the UK to rejoin the EU.

The battle may soon be over. The war’s only just begun.

And on that bombshell, let us speak no more of Brexit for the rest of this blog…

**

“Social mobility in the UK is so much worse than it used to be. If only we could be more like the highly-educated meritocratic Germans.”

Say this at a dinner party and you’ll probably get many nods of appreciation for your sagacity. But, it turns out, both sentences are pretty wide of the mark.

There’s a fascinating article at The Conversation by Erzsebet Bukodi, who, with John Goldthorpe, has examined extensive British birth cohort studies from which they conclude:

‘… social mobility in Britain is not in decline. Absolute rates of class mobility between generations have been stable at least over the period since World War II. Men and women today are just as likely to be found in different class positions to those of their parents as they were in the 1950s.’

And as for the Germans…

‘… Britain is one of a group of West-Nordic countries that show – comparatively – high fluidity within their class structures. One reason for this is that, in Britain, education is not class destiny to the same extent as it is in a country such as Germany.

‘In Germany, and several other Western-Central European countries, the educational system is highly stratified, with early selection for different types of school. Because there is then a tight link between formal educational qualifications and employment opportunities, educational inequalities are rather systematically translated into labour market inequalities. Where such “credentialism” prevails, education can in fact prove a barrier to, as much as a source of, social mobility.’

Can’t guarantee saying all this will go down as well at a dinner party, mind.

**

In our first pilot podcast — available to listen to here! — Mark Pack and I answered the question, ‘If you could get the government to think about one thing other than B*****, what would it be?’

I chose public transport on the grounds that it would do most to help improve productivity (while also improving people’s everyday lives). So I was interested to read this analysis in CityMetric:

‘Allowing 30 minutes of travel time using fixed infrastructure such as a tram gives Birmingham a population of about 1.7 million people, which is very close to its population as defined by the OECD of about 1.9 million. But at peak time Birmingham’s effective population is just 0.9m – less than half the population that the OECD use.

‘This is where things get very interesting. If we consider that Birmingham has a population of 1.9m, and we assume that agglomeration benefits should work in the UK to the same extent that they work in France, Birmingham has a 33 per cent productivity shortfall. This underperformance of the UK’s large cities is part of the productivity puzzle that UK economists have been desperately trying to solve.’

Well worth your time to read here.

And it does, I hope, back up my podcast argument that there are many less expensive ways than HS2 (or HS3/4) or Crossrail to boost the economy. But they’re also less sexy so get politicians less excited.

**

I’ve been watching Netflix’s Sex Education — and, somewhat to my surprise, loving it (I’m two episodes in). I watched it out of curiosity because work colleagues raved about it. It’s like a cross between The Breakfast Club, American Pie and The Inbetweeners, cleverly blurring it’s British/American identity: the cast speaks with British accents, including Gillian Anderson, but the setting is generic American college. There’s some unnecessary nudity — though I guess you probably wouldn’t watch it with your mum anyway — but it’s smart, sweet and very funny.

And I’ve been listening to Radio 4’s Front Row interview with Germaine Greer. She really is quite incapable of uttering an uninteresting sentence. A fascinating retrospective as she reaches her ninth decade.

And that’s it for another week. Apart for this:

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I was in charge of tea tonight and yes that is my son dunking his chips in his Shreddies just call social services now

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Theresa May photo: Image by Jay Allen, Crown Copyright – used under Creative Commons

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