5 things about this week (15 Feb 2019)

by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2019

So we’re heading for a no-deal Brexit. That, at any rate, is the mood music this week from well-informed observers like ITV’s Robert Peston and Huffington Post’s Paul Waugh.

Waugh’s account is particularly eye-catching for its claim that Theresa May’s preference for a cliff-edge Brexit is motivated by the need to preserve Conservative party unity:

One source says: “She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls.”

Of course, it’s impossible to read a Brexit story now without wondering whether it’s been briefed as part of a strategy.

Is the hyping up of no-deal actually just a clever bluff by Number 10 to try and rouse Remainer Tory MPs (and pragmatic/Leaver Labour MPs) to get behind Theresa May’s deal? Or is it a double-bluff to try and convince no-deal Leaver Tories that the PM is actually on their side, after all, so to give her the benefit of the doubt if she comes back from Brussels with some more backstop reassurance? Or is it just indiscriminate bluff, with Theresa May desperately hoping that someone else will blink first before she eventually has to?

Who knows, it may even be entirely accurate. Perhaps Theresa May is convinced the best way to save the Tory party is to fix it to the no-deal mast. No-one can be sure.

‘A sphinx without a riddle,’ was Bismarck’s famous epigraph of Napoleon III; ‘from afar something, near at hand nothing’; ‘a great unfathomed incapacity.’

* I loved this cartoon, from The Economist’s KAL, when I first saw it. It seemed to sum up so much about the un-meeting of minds during the UK-EU Brexit negotiations (although in a sop to Brexiter grand-standing, the British plug is actually, genuinely superior).

**

Churchill: hero or villain? It’s a debate which spikes up on social media every few months or so, with predictably entrenched results. The performative woke left dusts off its version of history to decry his infamies. Meanwhile the brittle nationalist right cries foul at any attempt to besmirch this great Briton’s virtues. Attempts at nuanced reflection rarely prosper in this binary echo-chamber.

But, for me, this New Stateman piece by Simon Heffer – from 2015 – best captures the contradiction of Churchill, both hero and villain:

The myth keeps us from an honest interpretation of our history in the first half of the 20th century. The false and romanticised picture we have of him, created by his reputation from 1940-45, is a huge obstacle to true understanding. In one aspect of his life, when the man met the hour, he was as outstanding as anyone in British history has been. In all others he was just another politician on the make, firing out opinions at random in the hope that one, now and again, would hit the target. He had a bellicosity that in all circumstances other than 1940-45 could be intensely dangerous, and that had its downside even in the fight against Hitler.

**

I was a huge fan of Jeremy Hardy. One of the first Radio 4 comedies I remember laughing at was At Home with the Hardys (1987-90), and I loved listening to him, whether on his eponymous ‘Speaks to the Nation’ series or ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ or ‘The News Quiz’. Yes, he was an unreconstructed lefty; but he was also self-aware, happily taking the piss out of his own views as well as his opponents’.

I remember once blatantly stealing one of his lines in my only ever stand-up (well, actually sit-down) comedy performance, at a university open mic event, when I took the easy gig of playing an old-school racist Tory, reminiscing about how “we turned the map of the world pink before homsexuality was even fashionable”.

I once asked Channel 4’s head of comedy why Jeremy didn’t have his own show: “some people are diminished by TV,” she said. And it’s true, as he himself admitted, that radio was the medium where he thrived.

I loved Hugo Rifkind’s tribute to him, especially this line: “… he also knew that a person’s political identity, however fierce, may just be their own formalisation of a broader morality on which others, with other politics, will agree.”

**

The third (final?) podcast – The As Yet Unnamed Political Podcast – from Mark Pack and me is now live. Topics we discuss in 30 minutes include universal basic income and (relatedly) self-styled radicalism, as well as the prospect of a new centre party.

And, crucially, if we do actually make it a regular thing, what we should call the podcast. My suggestions of ‘Stick it on a podcast’ (inspired by David Penhaligon), ‘Lib Dem Ear Trumpet’ and ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ have all been pooh-poohed by Mark. However, we’re both resolved not to open it up to a public vote. That way, disaster lies.

PS: I cling to my Lib Dem membership, in spite of the best attempts of the party (this time in the person of Lynne Featherstone, someone for whom I’ve previously had huge respect) to make itself look ridiculous – this time by claiming that anyone still supporting the Equality Act 2010 cannot be a feminist and should just quit.

**

A fortnight’s bronchitis has at least had one compensation: I’m pretty much up-to-date with my TV backlog: Netflix’s Sex Education (quite remarkably good), as well ultimate “warm bath telly”: ITV’s Grantchester (new vicar shaping up pretty well) and Cold Feet (I remember watching the first episode in 1998), and BBC1’s Call the Midwife (no, still haven’t watched it without crying).

Now I just need to get the energy back to start reading books again…

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Novelty value

A post shared by Stephen (@stephentall) on

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:

View this post on Instagram

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

A post shared by Stephen (@stephentall) on

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

5 things about this week (23 Jan 2018)

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2019

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.

The reason, I guess, is clear. She would rather go down in history as the Prime Minister who brought the country to its knees (by allowing no deal) than the Conservative leader who split asunder her party (by blocking no deal).

There was a time, not that long ago, when I could conjure up some sympathy for Mrs May. She was the only grown up left standing in her party’s 2016 leadership contest. Even her reach for a hard Brexit, withdrawing from the single market to end free movement, I could initially understand given the desire of so many to ‘take back control’ of our borders.

But she has failed to acknowledge two realities. First, the significance of the Northern Ireland border with the EU which stymies a British exit from the Customs Union. And secondly, the significance of losing her majority at the 2017 election, which meant any deal would require an embrace across the Commons chamber given the implacable zealotry of her own party’s Brexit headbangers.

Ignoring both, Mrs May has created the current impasse. As a result, she is left with just one hope: that by kicking the can down the road long enough, one of the two obstacles she faces — either the headbangers or the EU — will jump out of her way. This seems massively to underestimate their respective persistence.

I suspect she knows that. But still she cannot bring herself to put country before party. It’s quite the political obituary she’s writing herself.

**

I finally got round to watching Channel 4’s Brexit: the Uncivil War, written by the splendid James Graham. It’s good fun and well worth a watch, but it also grated on me for three principal reasons:

1) while Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as Vote Leave’s combustible éminence grise, Dominic Cummings, the casting is also a bit easy. Yes, here’s the guy who played that psychopathic genius, Sherlock — DO YOU GET THE PARALLEL?? — as the geeky protagonist who (we’re more or less told) single-handedly wins the referendum by inserting the word ‘back’ in the middle of the campaign’s slogan, ‘take control’.

2) Cummings was, of course, a key character in Vote Leave’s success. But not as pivotal as the film made out (his boss Matthew Elliot was probably more influential). The play which made James Graham’s name, This House, set during the final groaning years of the minority Callaghan government, was an ensemble piece and all the better for it.

3) it also falls too hard for the half-conspiracy theory that Cummings’ recruitment of Cambridge Analytica and its dodgy Facebook ads were the difference between the two campaigns. We’ll never know for sure, but I can’t help feeling that three decades’ relentlessly negative media coverage of the EU from the right-wing press (ie, pretty much all of it) dutifully followed up by the broadcasters, was way more influential.

**

Can I be the last person to slate Russell Brand for his jaw-dropping shirking of the excruciating and mundane bits of fatherhood he doesn’t care for? Here’s what he told the Sunday Times’s Decca Aitkenhead:

I’m very, very focused on the mystical connotations of Mabel’s beauty and grace. Not so good on the nappies and making sure that they eat food. … Laura’s able to sustain and maintain domesticity in a way that’s astonishing. I didn’t have much experience of how to organise domesticity. … Laura does all of it. It turns out that she is extremely well versed in the nuances and complexities of child-rearing.

Because of course mothers are genetically programmed to change nappies and pack carrot sticks while, for fathers, such desiderata is the equivalent of learning Mandarin while skiing up a treacle-covered Everest.

Reading this new-age-woke-bloke-laziness I’m reminded of a Guardian article Helen Lewis once wrote, highlighting the default assumption that’s still only slowly changing that mothers are the home-makers: Yes, there is one great contribution men can make to feminism: pick up a mop.

**

I’ve gone done a second pilot podcast with Mark Pack, still titled the ‘As Yet Unnamed Political Podcast’ – you can listen to it here. We cover Paddy Ashdown, Lib Dem strategy, Tim Farron’s record, and overseas elections. But (almost) no Brexit because Mark wouldn’t let me. Next time (if there is a next time)…

**

It’s 25 years since BBC2 first broadcast The Day Today, one of the greatest satirical TV shows of all time. Which is all the excuse I need to post this clip – WAR! – which captured perfectly the symbiosis of amped-up media and failed political leadership a full quarter of a century before Brexit:

5 things about this week (10 January 2019)

by Stephen Tall on January 10, 2019

Embed from Getty Images

Let’s pick up where I left off, and see if I can make a proper go of it this time, eh?

**

78 days to Brexit and the paradox that is its simultaneously mind-numbingly boring and risk-takingly thrilling denouement. Throughout the autumn, barely a day seemed to pass without a ministerial resignation. Into 2019, and its government defeats which are all the rage (literally). Frankly, it’s all too much to process.

And not just for the public, I suspect. MPs, too, seem to be caught in the traffic-light daze of the enormity and complexity confronting them. Brexiters and Remainers alike are queuing up to reject Theresa May’s deal and the infamous ‘backstop’, without seemingly caring over-much if they could really do any better; at least in a way which both honours the referendum result and squares the circle of the Northern Ireland border.

James Kirkup, journalist-turned-think-tanker, has today written a thoughtful piece in The Times praising the Prime Minister’s deal:

In truth, the deal would leave Britain able to choose, though from a range of imperfect options. But that’s what Brexit means. Having rejected a first-class trade deal with our closest partners, we are left to choose between second-best alternatives. Most adults eventually accept that growing up means giving up on fairytales of perfection and instead choosing between least-bad options. Mrs May’s deal, backstop and all, is the least bad option open to Britain. MPs should vote for it.

Well worth a read in full (yes, it’s paywalled but you get two free articles a week for registering). Of course, it’s rationale is predicated on our politicians being able to look beyond their slogans and consider politics as the art of the possible. So a crushing Commons defeat for Theresa May still seems the most likely outcome of the big vote.

**

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks’ holiday in Spain with my in-laws, celebrating New Year and its Fiesta de los Reyes. Brexit was, incidentally, barely mentioned on the news programmes; other European countries have their own domestic worries, and the UK’s hara-kiri simply baffles them.

I decided to take a break from Twitter, too, but obviously couldn’t completely stick to that. My occasional lapse did at least mean I didn’t miss out on this excellent article by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis, which I’m highlighting for two reasons.

First, its subject – the toxic debate about gender self-ID – is one I’ve written about here before. Indeed, it was a big part of the motivation to re-start my blog because it felt a better medium than Twitter to highlight my deep concerns about the undermining of single-sex spaces for natal-born women.

Secondly, Helen Lewis is the writer who first got me interested in this subject (and identity politics more generally). She has written extensively and sympathetically about the need to improve rights and services for transgender people, while also highlighting the problems associated with self-ID. And as a result, has been regularly traduced as a ‘transphobe’ and ‘TERF‘ for the latter (with the former ignored).

Her article is gloriously angry, but also makes a very serious point about woke activism:

Supporting better funding for gender identity services doesn’t make you a radical activist. It just makes you someone who is destined to be disappointed by a Conservative government. Supporting self-ID, by contrast, in the face of all the evidence it might have unforeseen consequences for everything from prison populations to crime statistics to women’s participation in competitive sports – now, that makes you look right-on.

**

I’ve gone done a podcast. Well, everyone has these days. It’s “the classic ‘two dudes talking’ format” – to quote my co-presenter, Mark Pack – with the idea of filling the gap in the market for liberals chatting politics and stuff. You can have a listen here and let us know what you think…

**

Tonight we’ve submitted our online application for a primary school place for our soon-to-be-4 year-old. We’re lucky in Horsham; all the nearest six schools we visited (ie, within 2 miles) are Ofsted-rated ‘Good’ and do well in national tests. And no, that’s not the be-all-and-end-all, but still.

Indeed, precisely because they’re all clearly good schools, it made our decision a bit trickier. And, to be honest, us as parents a bit fussier. He loves music, is half-Spanish, extremely energetic — so our ideal is a school with instruments and mutlilingualism and plenty of outdoor space. Fingers crossed.

One school which was quickly ruled out was the one with the motto, ‘Be sensible and safe’. To be clear, I’m not advocating ‘stupid and dangerous’ as preferable for kids. But — not to go all new-age hippy — I would prioritise exploration and risk-taking (within a safe environment).

On which note, it’s well worth reading Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky’s article in today’s Guardian, By mollycoddling our children, we’re fuelling mental illness in teenagers:

Children’s social and emotional abilities are as antifragile as their immune systems. If we overprotect kids and keep them “safe” from unpleasant social situations and negative emotions, we deprive them of the challenges and opportunities for skill-building they need to grow strong. Such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events, such as teasing and social exclusion.

… free play, in which kids work out their own rules of engagement, take small risks, and learn to master small dangers (such as having a snowball fight) turns out to be crucial for the development of adult social and even physical competence. …

How can we raise kids strong enough to handle the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of life? There’s a powerful piece of folk wisdom: prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. As soon as you grasp the concept of antifragility, you understand why that folk saying is true.

**

Cultural corner… Having been away, I’ve only just caught up on BBC1’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation, The ABC Murders. I’m pretty open to re-interpretations of classics, but they should at least respect the canon. Yet Sarah Phelps’ version transformed Hercule Poirot from a deeply religious, retired Belgian policeman, whose patriotic integrity is part of his DNA into an atheistic ex-priest, who deceives his country and closest friends. However stylish the cinematography, the thing was badly done. Niall Gooch has written an excellent critique of it here.

But let me end on a positive. I read Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle while on holiday and absolutely loved it. Described as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day (with a dollop of gothic horror) it is scintillatingly original, and especially impressive for a debut.

And that’s it – hopefully for another week, rather than another four months this time…

View this post on Instagram

Waited years for an in-focus shot of me casually throwing a child in the air. I finally have one. Thank you @flo_westbrook for this great pic (among many others)

A post shared by Stephen (@stephentall) on

5 things about this week (26 August 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 26, 2018

Embed from Getty Images

The SDP has a bad rep. The moment any potential Labour split is mentioned, someone pipes up “Ah but SDP”, as if the fate of Jenkins, Owen, Williams and the other one is a slam-dunk argument against putting principles before party.

There are two reasons put forward. First, the SDP is blamed by the left for splitting the anti-Thatcher vote. Yet there is pretty compelling polling data the Conservatives would actually have done better, not worse, if their only viable rival had been Michael Foot’s Labour party.

Secondly, the SDP more or less ceased to exist within a decade of its formation. That surely self-categorises it as an utter failure? Yet within two years of its formation, Labour had elected a soft-left leader, Neil Kinnock, resolved to lead his party from the mainstream.

Eleven years later, Labour elected John Smith, on the right of Labour (and as a result a trade union sympathist, at a time when the unions were a bulwark against left-wing militancy).

And 13 years after the SDP’s birth, it saw its ultimate social democratic victory, when Tony Blair was overwhelmingly elected Labour leader.

True, its leaders never again tasted power. But their political tradition triumphed. Might Kinnock, Smith and Blair have happened anyway, absent the SDP? We’ll never know. What we do know is that, though they lost the battle, they absolutely bossed the war.

**

I guess I count myself a pretty semi-detached Lib Dem right now. Partly that’s just circumstance (work and family preclude active involvement). But it’s also my party’s obsessive crusade against Brexit.

In theory, I’m with them; I agree it’s a rubbish decision to Leave, one which will make this country poorer in more ways than just financial. But that was the result in a referendum of which the Lib Dems were wholly supportive. There is no good outcome to Brexit, but there are less worse ones — including Theresa May’s Chequers proposal — and they should be given more of a hearing than my party is willing to.

However, one of the merits of being a member of a political party is that there’s nearly always someone else who, starting from the same philosophy, agrees with you. Cue Andrew Duff, a former Lib Dem MEP, who’s published a sensible and realistic commentary, Brexit: Beyond the transition:

When Theresa May fleshes out her concept of a ‘third model’ of a new partnership, the EU leaders should respond constructively. While they will continue to insist on the principled indivisibility of the four freedoms, they should also be searching for pragmatic solutions, within the framework of Union law, that will limit the collateral damage of Brexit to the EU economy and salvage the international reputation of the EU. Unless the chiefs succeed in building a long-term sustainable relationship with the UK, the EU will suffer the consequences for many years of having a resentful, nationalistic and litigious neighbour on its doorstep. A good settlement for the British, on the other hand, outlined in the Political Declaration, could establish a precedent for new-style partnerships with all the EU’s neighbours. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland may well want to upgrade their own relations with the EU in emulation of the UK.

He is also (rightly) dismissive of the push for a new ‘People’s Vote’:

… a panicky referendum in present circumstances promises to be catastrophic. Opinion polls suggest that a majority is forming against a hard Brexit, but that a rerun of a referendum on ‘Leave’ versus ‘Remain’ would be just as close as the first: certainly the assumption that Remain would win handsomely is an arrogant one not supported by the facts.

(Rather surprisingly, all this has me warming to the thought of a Michael Gove premiership. Were he, not Theresa May, in charge, I strongly suspect he’d be pushing (in true Nixon-goes-to-China style) for an EEA-plus kinda membership for the UK; and as the original Vote Leave voice he would command a respect not accorded Mrs May, who (like Jeremy Corbyn) did her expedient best to absent herself from the referendum campaign. He also has more media-smarts in understanding how to sell a policy to the public — witness his latest canny intervention from the previously anonymous Defra on banning puppy farming.)

**

Do I really have to write about Jamie Oliver and ‘cultural appropriation’? His new ‘jerk’ chicken triggered Labour MP Dawn Butler into tweeting, “Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop”.

Most people (at any rate beyond the Twitter echo chamber) will dismiss the label of ‘cultural appropriation’ — that it is wrong to borrow in any way from others’ cultures without their permission — as wanky over-intellectualising. The easy, appeasing response (as with political correctness) is simply to say there needs to be greater mutual respect: so do not ridicule or make fun of others’ beliefs, cultures or traditions.

But as Kenan Malik notes:

There are certainly many cases of the racist use of cultural forms, from minstrelsy onwards. Much art, though, is necessarily disrespectful, even contemptuous, of cultures and traditions. …

The very term ‘cultural appropriation’ is inappropriate. Cultures work not through appropriation but through messy interaction. Writers and artists, indeed all human beings, necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one (or several), and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

Cultural interaction is necessarily messy because the world is messy. Some of that messiness is good: the complexity and diversity of the world. Some of it is damaging: the racial, sexual and economic inequalities that disfigure our world.

Such damaging messiness will not be cleaned up by limiting cultural interaction, or by confining it within a particular etiquette. In reframing political and economic issues as cultural ones, or as issues of identity, campaigns against cultural appropriation obscure the roots of racism, and make it harder to challenge it.

In fact, his essay says everthing I think needs saying about cultural appropriation so head over there now and read it.

**

There are two ways of reading this week’s news about Donald Trump, with his former lawyer Michael Cohen accusing the president of joining in what prosecutors might see as a conspiracy to violate elections laws.

The first is that this really does mark the beginning of the end: he faces serious accusations now on so many fronts that impeachment proceedings are inevitable (if the Democrats take back control of congress in November’s midterms).

The second is that Trump’s presidency has always, and will always, confound all precedent and logic. He has a lock on his base that precludes any challenge from within; so for as long as the Republicans outnumber Democrats he is safe.

No-one knows which way it will swing. I’m conditioned to assuming the worse; that there’s nothing he can do, no matter how gross, which will lose him power. Yet tyrants appear all-powerful until suddenly they’re not.

**

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything.” So preached Sam Seaborn in The West Wing (and let’s pause a moment to reflect how great it would be to live once again in times which don’t make that show’s set-up seem so dated).

But of course it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I was struck by this article looking at pupils’ educational performance across a variety of advanced countries using OECD’s PISA data set:

The results for the UK are particularly striking. They show that for here, educational performance is very much driven by social factors. So while tweaking educational policy may help or hinder at the margin, it is social policy that really has the power to secure large gains in educational attainment. …

Only a tiny fraction of the variation is due to school-related factors – such as the number of computers per student, the number of staff per student, the size of the school, or school policies about communication with parents – or even government funding. It’s clear that it’s the social stuff that matters.

Now, I happen to think school matters more than the authors allow — else we wouldn’t see such variation between schools with similar proportions of disadvantaged pupils — but it’s still a useful corrective to the blandishment that all ills could be sorted if we could only sort out our schools.

**

PS: I’m still working 9-day fortnights in an effort to make sure I still see as much as possible of my boys following my two months’ shared parental leave.

Is it worth it? Well, this happened this Friday… So I think you’re safe in assuming the answer’s yes.

Ari's first steps!

A post shared by Stephen (@stephentall) on

5 things about this week (18 Aug 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 18, 2018

I came across the origin of the ‘disposition effect’ this week, via Matthew Syed’s Times column about financial trader-turned new Chelsea coach, Maurizio Sarri.

The term was coined by a behavioural finance academic, Terrance Odean, who observed ‘the tendency of investors to hold losing investments too long and sell winning investments too soon’. Here’s Syed’s explanation for the phenomenon:

Why does it exist? The reason is largely due to ego. When we have taken a public position, it is difficult to accept that we might have been wrong. This is why traders hold on to their bad investments, desperately hoping they will rebound. But this bias exerts a cost. It means that traders are throwing good money after bad.

Which, I think, goes some way to explaining (in chronological order of catastrophe) Corbyn, Brexit and Trump, each of whose leading supporters are doubling down on their political investment: to sell out now would be to turn themselves into, well, sell outs.

Corbyn is the one which troubles me most and I’ll tell you why. I know almost no-one who admits to having voted for the mounting disaster that is Brexit — of the seven places I’ve lived and worked, all voted to Remain — so I don’t have to keep on having the arguments about why it’s a bonkers decision.

I don’t know that many Corbyn supporters either; but I do know plenty of tribally loyal Labourites. Decent, well-intentioned people I often agree with on a range of issues. And they know that all their work for their party is edging Corbyn closer to Downing Street.

They all agree that’s a terrifying thought: making Prime Minister a man who stopped thinking in 1983 and embraces any individuals who have proven their anti-western credentials, however violently. Yet they can’t stop themselves. They are holding on to their bad investment in the Labour party, desperately hoping it will rebound sans Corbyn.

Perhaps time will show them to be right in holding out, playing the long game. Perhaps. But count the cost. Just count the cost.

**

I’m not one to join the chorus of BBC-bashing you hear with tedious regularity from the conservative right, and now increasingly virulently from the liberal-left. Sure, the Corporation has made mis-steps, most notably the false equivalence afforded to climate scientists and uncredentialled climate change-deniers. But the frothing accusations, animated by an unattractive victimhood, are rarely in proportion to the Beeb’s offences.

Still, I do find some of the BBC news coverage frustrating. So I’m heartened to see its new editorial director, Kamal Ahmed, admit that:

“… we have some structures in the BBC and ways of doing news which are challenged in this new environment we are in and I think in particular of what is called the ‘disco’, a discussion between two opposing sides about one issue. In a polarised world and a world of such passions we should think more often about whether that is the most illuminating way of explaining.”

I don’t know whether he had BBC2’s Newsnight in mind, but it’s immediately what I thought of. Because it’s a programme which feels like it should be essential viewing given the political tumult of the times we’re living through; but (with exceptions like its star public policy reporter, Chris Cook) it’s rarely appointment TV. Too often, it’s yet another pointless ‘disco’ featuring pundits arguing the toss.

Yet there must surely be space for 45 minutes a night of intelligent news coverage. A telly equivalent of the Economist or Prospect. A midpoint between News at Ten and Panorama. Here are a handful of ideas for regular 15 mins segments:

  • ‘Everything you need to know about…’ – eg, what would be the effect of a Brexit on WTO terms? (Cf Radio 4’s The Briefing Room)
  • Behind the headlines – a focus on how the media has covered that week’s big story: what they got right, what they distorted, why they chose the angle they did
  • ‘I can’t believe it’s not Brexit’ – in-depth focus on a vital area of public policy streamed across a week – eg, our failing transport system or prisons (okay, I part-ripped this idea off the New Statesman podcast, but that’s because it’s a good and necessary antidote to Brexit fatigue)
  • anonymised focus groups to get an unprompted insight into regular voters’ views – combined with insightful data analysis of issue-specific polling
  • the BBC reality check on an issue as voted for by viewers
  • ‘In conversation with’ interviews with academics and other experts about what they see as the big issues which don’t make the news because they’re not ‘newsy’

Newsnight was created before 24-hour rolling news and social media. The days when its hard-hitting interviews with top politicians could set the agenda are gone. This gives it the space and time to reimagine what a programme motivated by curiosity about current affairs and modern life can be. It should grab the opportunity.

**

Part of my motivation for re-starting my blog this summer was to talk about issues which don’t seem to be well-suited to shouty social media — including my ‘gender critical’ feminist take on trans issues.

This week, I came across an article, by Jonathan Best, which brilliantly articulates, sensitively and reasonably, the concerns many of us have that the different lived experiences of trans women and natal-born women, and the different types of discrimination they face, are being erased by some trans activists, and that the debate about this which needs to happen is being shut down. Here’s his conclusion:

I think this is the challenge facing us all: to advance trans rights and liberation without compromising natal women’s sex-based rights and protections. This must be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect in which anyone is free to critically discuss anything they wish, using whatever (respectful) terminology they choose. The underlying issues of sex and gender must be seen for what they are: nobody’s exclusive property. We are a long, long way from this ideal state of affairs.

Ain’t that the truth.

**

Here are three cultural highlights from my week:

  • I started watching Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and why has nobody previously told me how brilliant it is and how I would absolutely love it right from the off? It is quite simply brilliant and I love Rachel Brosnahan in it. Did I mention it’s brilliant and I love it?
  • I finished listening to Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder, his latest meta-detective story, in which he autobiographically stars as a Dr Watson-cum-Captain Hastings assistant to the flawed, misanthropic but brilliant (I really do need a thesaurus) un-PC, former PC-turned-consultant, Daniel Hawthorne. For me, Horowitz will always be a genius for creating the classiest of all TV detective series, Foyle’s War. I loved his previous book-within-a-book crime novel, Magpie Murders. This one doesn’t quite hit those heights (the ending is more whimper than bang) but it’s still a great summer read.
  • I visited Tate Britain’s All Too Human exhibition, ‘capturing the sensuous, immediate and intense experience of life in paint’. I work right next door and am a Tate member, yet seem to frequent the cafe more than the galleries. I’ve been determined to put that right and I’m glad I made a start this week in awakening my artistic hinterland — even if I did have to suppress an instinct to shout ‘Mornington Crescent‘ when I saw Frank Auerbach’s paintings.

**

This fella started at nursery this week. He feels so little to be leaving him so young (10 months); yet he’s settling well, enjoying new friendships, and loving the new experiences — this week, exploring herbs frozen in ice, for example (see photo). Play group was nothing like that in my day…

We know many of his ‘firsts’ will happen without us being present. That said, having spent months trying to get him to clap, it was a bit galling to find out he’d done it on only his second day there. He may be small, but he’s already perfected the art of trolling.

5 things about this week (9 August 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 9, 2018

Embed from Getty Images

What is there left to say about Brexit? Do I spend the next seven months wailing against this catastrophically stupid decision the ‘will of the people’? Half of me thinks I should, if only for posterity. Because I do want my (grand-)children one day to know that lots of us did foresee the long decline just over half the voters chose to condemn this country to.

That said, there is something perfectly British, or at any rate English, about Brexit. I’m loathe to suggest there’s anything as simple as a national psyche — we contain multitudes — but in voting as we did we have typically demonstrated our simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes. (The two are, of course, inter-related.)

Our superiority is asserted through Theresa May’s vacuous “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra; as if the damage from a no-deal Brexit will be fairly shared because one of us is surely roughly equivalent to 27 of them. We appear to assume the rest of Europe will eventually cave in out of a mixture of their own self-interest (the infamous German car-makers who Brexiters guaranteed us would ensure Britain got a great deal) and being good sports (negotiation means give and take, we reason, while discounting the minor downside for the rest of the EU that special treatment for the UK would likely destabilise a political system they still quite like).

Our inferiority is betrayed by the growing realisation that Brexit’s not going awfully well and there’s no easy way to see how it will go better. For all that the Chequers deal was a baby-step in the right direction, it exposed the reality of what Brexit means: Britain needs the EU more than the EU needs Britain. We either maintain close relations with the EU (which means sacrificing our hard-won opt-outs and rebates and instead becoming a paying member of a club with no say in making the rules); or sever our current trading alliance to ‘take back control’ of our borders and suffer a massive economic hit. Either way, we’ll be diminished.

It seems entirely apt that this summer’s anthem has been the reprise of that ultimate British hymn of ironic self-deprecation, Three Lions: “Everyone seems to know the score / They’ve seen it all before / They just know / They’re so sure / That England’s gonna throw it away / Gonna blow it away”.

**

The last two years of hurt have never stopped Boris dreaming.

His unplanned resignation, forced by David “the exact same benefits” Davis’s exit, has done him no harm among Conservative members if this recent survey‘s to be believed.

And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his unpleasantly provocative labelling of niqab-wearing Muslim women as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” is anything other than a deliberate dog-whistle to a certain type of Leave voter.

(I don’t think the world needs another white male’s view on the niqab, so these are the two tweets on the topic I’ve seen which best capture my thoughts:

  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: “I, a progressive Muslim, do not care for veils but totally mistrust Boris Johnson. Tough call. Spent the last many hours explaining my complicated position. And realized this political conman has now incapacitated reformists like myself.”
  • Maajid Nawaz: “This is the uniform of medieval patriarchal tyranny. It victim-blames women for their beauty. Where this is enforced it symbolises violent mysogyny. I’m not advocating banning this monstrosity but I refuse to defend it. It deserves to be ridiculed. Not the women inside it.”)
  • Two unrelated but coterminous things strike me. First, that Boris Johnson has recently met with alt-right nationalist Steve Bannon.

    And, secondly, that a poll this week has shown that the most fertile ground for a new political party is not in the progressive centre, but among Leaver voters who feel none of the parties are currently tough enough on crime or immigrants.

    Please, don’t have nightmares.

    **

    When is it okay to give up on a book? I’m not asking for a friend, I’m afraid.

    This week I attempted Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ 2017 Booker Prize-winning novel. I can see why it’s been critically acclaimed, and I can’t deny that it’s an impressive achievement. But, ultimately, life is too short to persist with books you’re not enjoying and I’m afraid I found myself not really caring enough about what happened on the next page. I felt similarly about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. But I know some people are obsessive-completists, who cannot not finish a book once started.

    On the flip-side I also don’t re-read novels, even my favourites. My actuarial estimate of the number of books I’ll read before I die is 975 (assuming 25 a year and that I live to be 80). On one level, that sounds a lot. But given c.180,000 books are published each year in the UK alone, that 975 represents just 0.01% of what’s yet to be published; let alone the estimated 130,000,000 books already published.

    Where one book closes, another one opens.

    **

    I love the start of the football season. It’s that one moment of equipoise — every team is level on null points — when no-one can be quite sure what will happen. Sure, Man City look nailed on as champions again, but it’s been a decade since anyone retained the premiership trophy. Liverpool will be breathing down their necks, too. Will Jose Mourinho’s Man United fall victim to his third-season syndrome? Can Spurs survive their players’ World Cup hangover? Will new managers at Chelsea and Arsenal lift them into top 4 contention? As for my team Everton, my hopes are pretty low-key after a disastrous pre-season when we lost out last five games. I suspect we’ll end up anywhere between mid-table respectability and a relegation battle.

    The start of the season also fuels my inner nerd: I enjoy playing fantasy football league (and still run LibDemVoice’s mini-league). Like all the best games, the concept is simple: pick a squad of 15 for a fixed budget, with their performances converted into points: the ‘manager’ with the most points come next May wins. Like all the best games, there’s a whole lot more strategy to it than that… Is the best system 3-4-3 or 3-5-2? Should you rotate goalkeepers according to home advantage, or choose a set-and-forget premium player? How do you maximise the number of set-piece players in your team? When is it best to play which ‘chips’? When should you ‘wildcard’? Etc, etc.

    It’s 25 years since the first real mass-market fantasy football league game was launched by the Daily Telegraph (many others soon followed). Surprisingly, despite the huge global popularity of the game, no individual has made a fortune out of it. Its British populiser, David Wainstein, is commendably phlegmatic about that, as the FT documents here:

    … given the opportunities to scale the business, and the fact that the money was flowing in, why was Wainstein not more successful? “We had a good run,” he says, somewhat ruefully. “We were profitable at least from 1998 to 2012.” Sure, I counter, but given the scale of Fantasy Football in all its forms where did all the potential millions go? “I don’t see any company in the UK or the US that has done fantastically well out of Fantasy, as in the end the media owners own it and they themselves don’t necessarily earn that much money out of it.” The issue was intellectual property. Wainstein owned the company name, Fantasy League and the scoring system. Yet he had adapted the idea from one launched in the US decades before. …

    Yet for him, and this confirms my feeling that this is not a story about failure or lost opportunity as such, it has been more about the work/life balance. Wainstein does not see himself as an entrepreneur in the classic sense. “I’ve been on a sort of a personal journey and I’m quite sanguine about it,” he says. “I look back to when I started it; it was about enjoyment and passion.” Success was critical, he explains, and meant more to him than simply money in the bank. “I’m motivated by doing something reasonably fresh. Whatever we’ve done, compared with others in the field, we’ve tried to do it in a new and creative way — and been very successful with it. It’s a loaded dice game,” he laughs now, “and I’ve come out with some wins and some losses, but I’ve actually kept my shirt.”

    Which is a nice antidote to Bill Shankly’s famous dictum, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

    **

    I’ve been catching up on Spiral, season 6 (shown on BBC4 back in Jan/Feb, but our then three/four month old wasn’t keen on letting us settle down in the evenings to watch telly). It’s gripping drama with the added benefit that the need to concentrate on the subtitles rules out the temptation of being distracted by my phone and suddenly realising I’ve totally lost the plot. It’s also fascinating to glimpse a different legal system — the inquisitorial, rather than the adversarial we Brits are used to — even if spoilsport Wikipedia does tell me this actually applies only to a minority of cases in France.

    5 things about this week (31 July 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2018

    I’ve been reading Toby Young’s The Public Humiliation Diet, an autobiographical account of his very public defenestration as first, a non-executive director of the new universities regulator, the Office for Students, and then his day-job as chief executive of the New Schools Network, the government-funded charity which promotes free schools.

    He was forced to quit at the start of this year amid mounting outrage at some of his journalism — “I’ve written some pretty sophomoric pieces, many of them for ‘lad mags’” — as well as some of his public utterances, including what he refers to in veiled terms as “a tasteless, off-color remark I made while tweeting about a BBC telethon to raise money for starving Africans in 2009”. Let your mind fill in the blanks (or, rather, don’t).

    As the number of emetic ‘one-offs’ he recounts mount up, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Toby Young isn’t a person you’d happily entrust with high-profile, taxpayer-funded positions. And yet in spite of all that, I think the piece is worth reading and reflecting on for a couple of reasons.

    First, the allegation which was probably the trigger for getting Toby Young fired was deeply unfair: that he is supposedly a eugenicist who, in the words of a Labour MP on national TV, supports “weeding out disabled people”. That slur was based on a deliberate misreading of this article; more likely, it was based on not reading it at all. I don’t agree with everything Toby Young has to say about the influence of genetics on educational achievement, but on the fundamental facts he’s basically right: ‘individual differences in cognitive ability are genetically influenced, and that cognitive ability is the strongest predictor we have of GCSE achievement,’ wrote the University of York’s Dr Katherine Asbury, defending Young after a different furore (this time, not one of his own making).

    The second reason for thinking hard about this piece is simply this: was what he experienced proportional? Toby Young’s public persona is that of a bit of a tit, something he’s consciously paraded in his work (see, for instance, ‘How to lose friends and irritate people’). But there is undoubtedly a serious side to him. The passion he channelled into founding the West London Free School was genuinely impressive. He writes that ‘getting involved in education and trying to give others the opportunities I’ve had is easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done’ and I believe him.

    To be clear, that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for his own actions; and his article doesn’t really convince me he’s quite faced up to that yet. But I didn’t much care for the glee with which his enemies leapt upon his downfall; and certainly not how they twisted the truth to secure it.

    The easy thing for a liberal like me who’s usually on the other side of the arguments to Toby Young is to say “tough luck, he should’ve been more careful” and yes, he should. A real test of empathy isn’t how we treat our friends, though, but how we treat our opponents.

    So, having defended Toby Young, let me up the ante…

    **

    I’ve written a fair bit here about the transgender debate in recent weeks. Summary for those who’ve missed it: I support equal rights for all, but don’t accept the position that “trans women are women”, and am deeply concerned that the online fury is silencing a much-needed public discussion of the tensions between the sex-based rights of women and those who identify as transgender.

    I’ve thought long and hard about writing about the issue at all, not least because a number of my friends (in and beyond the Lib Dems) hold very different views on it to me. Fortunately, being a bloke what I say here and on Twitter attracts very little flak compared to women who advocate that being born and brought up female results in everyday discrimination no-one else can fully understand.

    It’s an issue I care about. I also know a lot of people (especially women) who (understandably) prefer to keep their heads down care about it, too. Here’s a recent email I received, from someone I don’t know at all, with the subject line ‘Random acts of solidarity’:

    You don’t know me but, as a LibDem male spouse of a mumsnet reading feminist, one of the last things that keeps me sane is your twitter posts on the right hand side of Lib Dem Voice.

    I respect that the party has a policy on self-ID [of gender identity]. I respect that I am not an expert on the issue, and do not necessarily have a God-given male right to tell others what they should think.

    However, I am becoming depressed at daily being told (by implication) that I am bigoted for imagining that it is entirely hypothetically possible to be a liberal party that doesn’t have the same policy, and that we should all accept that changes to both the [Gender Recognition Act] and the Equalities Act are inevitable, and that we should act as if those changes have already happened.

    I hope that helps explain why I think it’s important those of us who self-identify both as liberals and also ‘gender critical’ feminists don’t shy away from this debate just because it’s tricky, but try and address it in a respectful and reasoned way.

    **

    I’ve been watching Channel 4’s Dispatches: Breastfeeding Uncovered, with new mum Kate Quilton “setting out to find out why Britain has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and whether more support is needed”. Three things struck me about it:

    First, the predictable online furore it triggered in the never-ending breast v bottle debate. Our first son wouldn’t breast-feed so (absent any proper healthcare support — see below) we quickly moved him onto being bottle-fed. Our second son was quickly identified as having a tongue-tie and shallow latch and, a quick snip later, was exclusively breast-fed for the first six months. Ie, we’ve seen both sides and that both can work. But it is also quite clear that all other things being equal breast is best: nutritionally, priming the immune system, and of course cheaper.

    Secondly, the attitudes among some of the vox pops (“it’s not a spectator sport”) were, if unsurprising, still depressing. The societal pressure on mothers to conform is damaging… and confusing — some are ‘shamed’ for breastfeeding in public, while others are ‘shamed’ for not breastfeeding at all. Let’s be clear, ‘shaming’ is never an appropriate response!

    Thirdly, the support new mothers receive is too often inadequate, meaning that many of the 80% of mothers who want to breastfeed stop doing so not necessarily through choice but because they feel they have no alternative — the major point Dispatches was trying to make. When our first son didn’t take to breast-feeding, we didn’t feel we had a lot of time to decide what to do because (I’ll let you into a secret) babies aren’t the most patient creatures. So we hit the bottle. It wasn’t what we wanted, but what we ended up feeling we had to do.

    Anyway, I recommend the programme which deals with an emotive issue in a straightforward, non-judgey way: you can catch up here.

    **

    I’ve also been watching Clive James, Postcard from London, from the BBC4 archive on iPlayer. I’ll tell you what brought me up sharp — my first thought was this can’t be that old (I remember it being broadcast), only to realise it was made in 1991, over a quarter of a century ago.

    And as if to re-inforce my depressed realisation, three of the celebrity interviewees were Victoria Wood, Peter Cook and Alan Coren… all now RIP.

    Some things don’t change: the lament about the cost of housing in the capital. Other things do: “How do the kids do it?” asked Clive, showing a ‘to let’ sign with double rooms in Earls’ Court for £70 a week.

    **

    I’ve been listening to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman’s debut novel. “Lovely” can seem such a weak word, but this really is a lovely book. On one level it’s about the tragedy of childhood abuse and damaged loneliness. Really, though, it’s about the power of kindness to transform for the better. And it’s also very funny.

    Plus the author has her own inspirational back story, having decided to write her novel when she hit 40 (while working full-time), before it became the focus of an 8-way auction at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s since sold over 450,000 copies in 30 countries.

    Meanwhile, when I hit 40 I realised I wasn’t even half-way through my list of 40 books I’d intended just to read by that milestone. Which taught me a valuable lesson. Don’t make lists (in public).

    5 things about this week (24 July 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2018

    I’ve been reflecting on the row about the Conservatives’ decision to break the House of Commons’ ‘pairing’ convention, which matches MPs forced to be absent for votes with an opposing member so they cancel each other out (just as they would if both were present). Lib Dem deputy leader, Jo Swinson, a new mother, was supposed to be paired with the Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis, who at the request of the Conservative chief whip Julian Lewis just happened to make the “honest mistake” of forgetting the arrangement for the two closest votes (wile honouring it for the other seven which didn’t matter).

    It says a lot about the current government. Not only the dodginess of cheating to win, but also the sheer incompetence of changing its story so often that no-one but Theresa May could maintain the fiction it was actually an “honest mistake”, rather than a “calculated deception”.

    A sensible legislature would allow MPs to vote by proxy (just as we electors can), both removing the bother of pairing and also ensuring MPs’ voting records were more transparent. But then a sensible legislature would also not have voted to trigger Article 50, the two-year countdown to Brexit, without having a clue what would happen next or even insisting on a final say. But that’s exactly what almost all Conservative and Labour MPs did 18 months’ ago so I’m not holding my breath for an outbreak of sensibleness.

    Workplace discrimination against new mothers is nothing new, of course. The Pregnant & Screwed campaign records that 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave, while 77% of working mums have encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work. And it was experiencing my partner having to find a new job after our first son was born because her then company (female boss, incidentally) made her return-to-work impossible — while my working life glided on pretty much unaffected — which (in part) turned me properly feminist.

    The simple fact remains women face an awful lot of structural barriers in everyday life which the other half of us don’t. But you’d hope Parliament would try and remedy them, rather than exemplify them.

    **

    I’ve been a loyal Lib Dem member two decades, but there are moments which test my patience. It happened twice this week.

    Party president Sal Brinton, when asked at if she would be happy if half of Parliament were trans women, replied: “Absolutely. Trans women are women. And we support them.” It worked as a clap-line, at least for that audience apparently, and I guess/hope was intended rhetorically. However, given that it’s estimated maybe 0.5% of the population identifies as nonbinary I find it somewhat (let’s use the term) problematic to suggest a 100% male-born parliament would be a democratic utopia. (You can read my fuller thoughts on why I don’t accept the statement “trans women are women” here.)

    And then secondly, a party email pinged into my inbox from Scottish MP, Christine Jardine, with the subject line: ‘Cheating, Lying, Tories’. It wasn’t just the superfluous second comma which irritated me, it was the aggressive language. That’s the kind of venting I expect from alt-left sites like The Canary and Skwawkbox, not a serious party aspiring to government.

    John Harris wrote an excellent column in The Guardian this week deploring the everyday coarseness that the public and media are complicit in promoting, whether Remainers hailing Danny Dyer calling David Cameron a ‘twat’ or ITV’s Piers Morgan “venting his own prejudices while baiting this or that guest”. Here’s his conclusion:

    Too many of the people who want something better seem to have mislaid a pretty basic insight: that you find the key to a world beyond Trump, Brexit and our grim version of capitalism not by narcissistically shouting into the void and carrying a placard that says “Prick”, but grasping the deep reasons why so many people are all right with those things, and trying to convince them to think slightly differently. Contrary to what you might hear online, to do so is not to surrender, but to honour a basic leftwing principle I once saw stitched on to a Welsh trade union banner: “Civility always; servility never”.

    Civility always; servility never. That’s a ‘leftwing’ principle I can sign up to.

    **

    So why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better in the polls? It’s a question I get asked a lot, as the Lib Dems pootle along at 7-8%, despite there apparently being a sizeable chunk of the electorate crying out for a progressive, moderate, Remain-committed party.

    There are two main explanations, unpicked recently by Matt Singh in Prospect:

    • Still toxic: ‘a majority of hard Remainers thought the Lib Dems were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives and that about a third had not yet forgiven them for doing so’
    • Too invisible: ‘the party as a whole has a visibility problem. Asked what the Lib Dems stood for, only a third said they knew.’

    Put simply and bluntly, the Lib Dems are currently a sideshow.

    Can the party stop Brexit? No (though obviously turning up to vote against it is a necessary first step).

    Can the party overturn Brexit? No. The action, for the moment at least, is elsewhere, as Nick Clegg frankly admitted last year: “for as long as parliament is dominated by Labour and Conservative MPs, it is undoubtedly true that what happens within the two larger establishment parties is of the greatest importance”.

    There’s no easy answer to this. The reality is the Lib Dems’ prospects are not in the party’s own hands at the moment (which isn’t to say there’s nothing that can be improved in the party’s performance; but there needs to be realism about what impact such improvements could exert).

    I suspect it’ll need an external shock — such as a new mainstream centre party breaking out from the current ‘Labservative’ duopoly — to get the Lib Dems back in the game. Otherwise, I can’t help feeling it’s a case of long-haul, incremental, hard slog… sorry.

    **

    I’ve been reading ‘The great academy schools scandal, by the Observer’s Sonia Sodha on the huge educational experiment of ‘academisation’, started under Labour but driven by the Conservatives, by which some 7,500 state-funded schools (roughly one-third of them) have become independent of their local authority.

    This ‘creative disruption’ — rooted in ideological distaste for local authorities, part of the so-called progressive education “blob” Michael Gove decried — was supposed to unleash innovative excellence which would (somehow) ripple out across England’s 20,000 schools. The reality?

    … it hasn’t quite happened like that in practice. There have been several studies in the past few years that have invariably reached similar conclusions: there doesn’t appear to be an inherent benefit to a school being run by an academy chain instead of a local authority. “There are a handful of trusts achieving amazing things, but a much longer tail of trusts performing really poorly,” says [Prof. Becky] Francis. Her analysis shows six in 10 academy chains have below-average attainment for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    Pre-1997, Tony Blair observed that good education was about “standards, not structures”, and he was right. The key point about structures has always been how to build proper accountability into the schools system, twinned with the capacity to improve schools which are failing their pupils.

    Accountability we get (to some extent) through national testing and Ofsted. But school improvement capacity has become the victim of politicians’ tinkering. Instead of building out from the successful local education authorities, while simultaneously challenging the under-performing ones, the Conservatives simply threw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Result? We still have a patchwork of school performance, but with far less capacity to fix it.

    **

    I’ve survived my first two full weeks back at work, after the privilege of my two months’ shared parental leave. I miss my time with the boys, though the blow’s been softened by realising I have a stockpile of annual leave which means I can work ‘9 day fortnights’ for the rest of the year. Here’s a photo of how I put last week’s extra day to good use.

    5 things about this week (18 July 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2018

    I’ve been jadedly following all things Brexit. For a brief moment, 10 days ago, it looked like Theresa May’s Chequers deal had squared off all but the most fanatical Tory Brexiters and given the government a substantial basis for negotiating a non-disastrous withdrawal from the EU.

    Then David Davis and Boris Johnson quit the cabinet on the basis that if we just speak LOUDLY and s l o w l y to the foreigners they’ll realise how lucky Europe is to have us as a vexatious neighbour. To quote Boris: “Imagine Trump doing Brexit… He’d go in bloody hard… There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

    It’s the kind of political willy-waving that appeals to blonde narcissists with superiority complexes, though there’s scant evidence Trump’s bluster actually makes a difference.

    And of course it ignores the fact that when the President of the USA makes threats he does so from a position of strength; whereas the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to remind Brexiters of our country’s full name) will be negotiating Brexit from a position of weakness (having triggered Article 50’s two-year countdown 15 months ago with no strategy for agreeing a deal even with her own cabinet, let alone with the other 27 EU member states).

    Quite simply, the Brexiters have hit a reality wall. They made all kinds of promises in the referendum campaign — we’d retain the benefits of the single market; countries would be queuing up to cut trade deals with us; the NHS would be awash with cash; the border with Northern Ireland was easy to solve — which have since disintegrated.

    The next few months are oh-so-predictable. Lots of Brexiter tantrums to try and get the EU to give in to the Hard Brexit Tories’ impossibly contradictory demands; followed by outraged indignation at those bloody foreigners for failing to understand how lucky they are that we want to continue benefiting from the bits of the EU that work to our advantage. Just watch…

    **

    I’ve been thinking about patriotism, following another national exit — England’s defeat in the World Cup semi-final. I wasn’t “gutted” or “sick as a parrot”; I just felt a bit empty. I guess like most fans of the national team I’ve acquired a tolerance to disappointment.

    There is often a fine line between patriotism and nationalism. How often does pride in national achievements spill over into an unattractive, usually drunken, xenophobic boorishness?

    Yet this English football team — greater than the sum of its parts, with Harry Kane the only indisputably world-class individual — helped to define the difference. Patriotism is inclusive, nationalism is exclusionary, and pretty much the whole nation cheered on a squad in which 11 of 23 players are black or of mixed ethnicity.

    David Baddiel nailed my kind of patriotism, explaining that the enduring appeal of the football anthem he co-wrote, Three Lions, is its non-triumphalism. He said it’s “quite hard to be English and be unqualifiedly proud of your country … whereas actually it’s OK to be proud in a downbeat, qualified way”. Yep, basically.

    **

    I was struck by the reaction to my last blog which covered my views on the transgender debate — that I support equal rights for trans people, but don’t accept the “trans women are women” mantra — with half a dozen people contacting me privately to say thanks for saying that. That’s never happened to me before. It’s a pointer of how toxic online discussion of this topic is, and how lots of people, especially women, quite rationally choose simply not to get involved.

    So I was pleased to see the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, Adam Tickell, sticking up for the rights of one of his academics, Dr Kathleen Stock, a feminist ‘gender-critical’ philosopher, to freely articulate her views without fear of being unpleasantly targeted:

    By celebrating inclusion, we must recognise the personal courage of the many individuals who come up against abuse or unacceptable behaviour – just because they are being themselves. I know it has been extremely difficult for many people in the transgender and non-binary community to hear the views held by our academic.

    But for me, alongside this, we must also be kind to those people who are brave enough to share their own views – and respect the courage they have for doing so. Whether it is one of our academics or another member of staff, or one of our students, I feel very strongly that we must respect their right to free speech. I hold a deep-rooted concern about the future of our democratic society if we silence the views of people we don’t agree with – even if our disagreements are vehemently opposed.

    And speaking of respectfully debating these vexed issues, The Economist has done a fabulous job of curating a range of articles about ‘transgender identities‘ from different perspectives. It really is well worth reading.

    **

    I’ve been reading Don’t be a dick, Pete — Stuart Heritage’s comic-biography of his own brother — the wildcard choice from my holiday reading list. It’s funny, rude, honest and touching. Though if I wrote a ‘no filter’ book like this about one of my brothers, there would be a major family rift. But it seems to have brought them closer together, and for that I’m genuinely glad.

    And I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Erin Kelly’s He Said, She Said, a gripping two-hander about a rape that sets in train a series of events which tears lives apart. It really gets under the skin of trust in relationships: how lies spiral out of control, and the destructiveness of nagging doubt.

    **

    Better use of evidence in public policy has long been a bugbear of mine; three years ago I published an essay, A liberal approach to evidence-based policy making, which argued the need for more and better use of robust trials to “tackle effectively the messy, difficult problems we face”, rather than simply relying on dogmatic gut instinct.

    So I was pleased to see the FT give space to Caroline Fiennes to make a similar point about philanthropists:

    Many donors intuit the solution to some broader social problem. It seems not to occur to them that they might be wrong, nor that there might be better variations.

    We patently do not yet know how to solve many social problems. We need to discover — and acknowledge — our ignorance here, and be scientific and fearless about assessing whether proposed solutions actually work.

    It is science that doubled life expectancy in the West within only about a century, and moved us from carrier pigeons to mobile phones. It will be science, and the attendant humility of donors and public policymakers to their own ignorance, that will enable us to solve the longest-standing social problems.

    After a week of yet more Brexit/Trump idiocy, I think I’ll leave this week’s despatch on that semi-optimistic note.