My must-reads this week September 23, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 23, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

by Stephen Tall on September 23, 2016

age-innocenceThe Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

And so I plunged in. For no particular reason, I selected The Age of Innocence as the first from my #40booksby40 list. It turned out to be a strangely apt mid-life choice, all about the dutifully dull transition from energetic youthful idealism to reflective sober making-do.

Newland Archer loves May Welland. Or at least he’s romantically devoted to the idea of being in love with her. But also worried that she’s too staid, stultified by the conventions of 1870s’ Manhattan. Enter stage left his cousin, the quixotically European, Countess Ellen Olenska, suffused in liberté, égalité, fraternité. Suddenly all else is lustreless by comparison. But how to balance this passion with society’s strict moral code of appropriate behaviour: their struggle dominates the novel.

And, ultimately, duty overpowers their love. Ironically, it is May, whom Newland thought to be too innocent to remain interesting, who manipulates the rupture, telling Ellen she is pregnant (before she is sure), and so driving her back to Europe, alone. The final, poignant chapter, a touching near-reunion 30 years later, leaves the widower Newland sitting outside the widow Ellen’s Paris apartment contemplating what has been and what could have been.

I see when The Guardian reviewed it in 1920, they found the book to be “careful, studied, temperate, but it is dull with detail which does not create illusion”. But I loved it. There is an elegant, dry wit, but also an unabashed message: the yearning for a life not just of the mind, but also with purpose; that new and modish manners will inevitably usurp the current and old-fashioned; that societies which are closed and stifling need to become open and adaptive.

Brexit: the problem with promising a second referendum

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2016

I get why Tim Farron has promised the Lib Dems are committed to holding a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

There is a good principled reason for doing so. Regardless of what you think of Vote Leave’s campaign and its mendacious, swiftly abandoned, promise to spend £350m a week more on the NHS, the Leavers never set out their alternative. Deliberately so, as they knew they wouldn’t be able to agree with each other on what a post-EU Britain would look like.

Some, the ‘hard Brexiteers’, are perfectly happy to sacrifice single market membership in return for greater sovereignty (aka: keep the foreigners out). Others, the ‘soft Brexiteers’, think single market access/membership are crucial and are happy to sacrifice a bit of sovereignty in the break-up negotiations to retain it.

As yet, we don’t know Theresa May’s preference is, though we can guess, as a reluctant Remainer, it’s closer to ‘soft Brexit’. More importantly, we don’t know what deal she’ll end up with, given she’ll be under considerable pressure from the ‘hard Brexiteers’ in her party, two of whom (David Davis, Liam Fox) she appointed to key cabinet positions.

If what we end up with is ‘hard Brexit’ – no longer part of the trading community we signed up for in 1975 – it’ll be a very long way from what the Leavers promised just a few weeks ago.

In short, there’s no mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’. Under those circumstances, a second referendum isn’t just a legitimate ask, it should be a requirement.

HOWEVER… there’s a problem. That pesky Article 50, which Theresa May will need to trigger at some point in order to start negotiations with the EU. Once triggered, the UK immediately cedes control of what comes next.

Article 50 sets ticking the two-year countdown clock to full and formal Brexit. Officially the UK has to do a deal with the EU by then (‘soft Brexit’) or it will be out on its ear (‘hard Brexit’).

However, it’s likely that, with enough goodwill and pragmatism on all sides, a more sensible timeline and process will be agreed. This might then allow for an as-sensible-as-you-can-get Brexit deal, perhaps involving a phased UK withdrawal from the EU.

And that deal, argues Tim Farron, is what you would put to the British people in a second referendum.

The problem is, though, that the alternative the Lib Dems want – our current membership terms – won’t be an option by that stage.

Or, at least, the only way* that could be the case is if all 27 other EU member states agreed the UK could put both options to the voters. But why would they agree to us retaining our rebate and opt-outs and current preferential status after all the late night deal-making and gruelling summits the UK has forced on them?

It’s not impossible, but it doesn’t seem at all likely to me.

Which means that the Lib Dems have committed to arguing over the next few years for (1) British voters to over-ride their 23 June vote to Leave, and (2) the UK to retain EU membership on worse terms than those put to voters in the first referendum.

Good luck with that, guys.

* There is an argument the UK can un-trigger Article 50 itself, but legal opinion is divided on whether this is possible.

Tackling child poverty: a liberal approach

by Stephen Tall on September 20, 2016


I was one of the speakers at last night’s fringe meeting – hosted by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Education Policy Institute – alongside Alison Garnham (CPAG’s chief executive), former Lib Dem MP Jenny Willott and Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon. The topic was ‘Turning the Tide 2020’, and what’s needed to stop the projected increases in child poverty during this parliament. Here’s (more or less) what I said…

Thank you to both the Child Poverty Action Group and the Education Policy Institute for convening this very timely debate. Timely because child poverty – which inevitably means family poverty – gets to the heart of some of the biggest issues we’re currently facing, including Brexit, the rise of Trump, anti-immigrant sentiment – even the Tories’ nostalgia throwback to grammar schools. I’ll try and briefly set out how for you here…

Overall our recent global history is one massive strives forward in banishing poverty. Johan Norberg’s just published book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, highlights some of those big steps:

We’re wealthier: In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That fell to 37% in 1990 and less than 10% in 2015.
We’re healthier: 68% of the world’s population have modern sanitation, up from 24% in 1980.
We’re smarter: Americans scored, on average, 100 points on IQ tests just after the second world war. By 2002, using the same test, this had risen to 118, with the biggest improvements in answers to the most abstract problems.

The explanation for this worldwide advance is down to a range of factors, but the two biggest are: better nutrition and better education.

I’m starting off with this global view because it encapsulates the argument I want to make. Too often debates about poverty and how to solve it get trapped by a false, unhelpful binary: that we have to choose between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunity.

That somehow there’s an either/or between governments only and simply creating the conditions in which individuals are able to make the most of their talents – ie, equality of opportunity – or governments having to take steps actively to re-distribute from the wealthiest to the poorest to ensure a civilised society – ie, equality of outcome.

I’m guessing it’s not controversial in this room (though it would be outside) to say we need both.

However, I’m also starting, quite deliberately, with these worldwide advances because the clear implication is one that, I suspect, will be more controversial in this room: globalisation has worked and is making the world a better place. Countries and continents that once faced widespread poverty are now much better off than they were.

That’s not just true of the emerging economies. It’s also true of the established western economies. A couple of weeks’ ago, the Resolution Foundation published a very interesting analysis of household income from 1988-2008. What it showed was that in western economies over those two decades even low- and middle-income families saw income growth of 50%, a little over 2% a year. Maybe not as high as we’ve all been used to, but not stagnant as we’re so often told.

There are, however, exceptions. The US for a start, which has seen poor income growth, with what there has been accruing to the richest. There’s the rise of Trump explained, right there.

And the UK is a partial exception. Not because there’s been, as often said, rising inequality. There hasn’t. Inequality rose in the 1980s and hasn’t worsened since.

The UK has, however, undoubtedly been affected by globalisation. Competition from Chinese exports, for example – great for us consumers, less good for manufacturing workers – has hit some areas hard. Much more so than immigration, though you can guess which of those two factors gets the blame! And it’s no coincidence that those were the places which voted most heavily for Brexit.

There is no contradiction in saying that globalisation works for most people, most of the time, in most places; while also recognising that some folk get left behind in the process.

The point I want to make today is that these problems are solveable: and therefore we should be optimistic and ambitious in tackling working families’ poverty.

The Resolution Foundation report identifies two of the biggest reasons why income rise in the UK have been slow in the past decade or more. Pre-crash, the rising cost of housing and our failure to build enough houses was already having an impact on living standards. And of course the post-2009 decline was the result of our poorly regulated banking sector collapsing.

Housing and banking regulation: those are difficult but fixable issues – and our failures there are no reason at all to turn our backs on globalisation, the liberalising of trade which has created so many other benefits to some of the poorest countries in the world.

Here’s an interesting stat… Among Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 61% believe that most children will be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tend to believe the opposite. We’re liberals, which means we’re optimistic – at any rate we should be optimistic, even now – about the future.

So what we need to do is not rail against those who voted Brexit because they feel wronged by the modern world. We need to do more, much more, to fix their everyday problems. And that means pushing for both equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.

To finish, two quick policy examples…

Equality of opportunity: ensuring kids leave school able to read and write is the basic we should expect. Of course there’s more to a well-rounded education than literacy and numeracy and 5 good GCSEs – but you try getting a decent, stable job without them!

And the reality is that by age 19, some 170,000 students — last year, this year and next year — leave compulsory education having not achieved a good standard of recognised qualifications in English and maths. That figure includes more than half of all students eligible for free school meals, those from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Of course, some will buck the trend and make great successes of their lives. But most will not. They’ll be more likely to start off NEET (not in education, employment or training), and end up in insecure, minimum wage jobs. That’s a personal tragedy for them. It’s a scandalous waste of human potential at a national level.

It’s not impossible to tackle the attainment gap at schools — there are schools up and down the country already doing it but we need to invest, as the Lib Dems successfully did with the Pupil Premium. And that’s by the way, a far better use of public money than opening up more grammar schools.

Equality of outcome: it’s estimated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that poverty costs the state £78 billion every year, through additional spending on healthcare, school education, justice, children’s and adults’ social services and housing, and lost tax revenue. It also leads to £70 billion of spending on social security dealing with poverty. That is more than we spend on education, and one-fifth of public service spending overall.

One of the key drivers of the expected increase in child poverty is driven by planned benefit reforms affecting families with three or more children. It’s a pretty typical Tory proposal: identify a group you can pin the blame on – the stereotypical Jeremy Kyle-esque, Shameless-style work-shy family with unruly kids – and who don’t vote for you anyway, and cut their benefits.

But, whatever you think of their lifestyle (and for many of course it was never the plan, but changed circumstances), we as a society shouldn’t punish the children for what we deem to be the mistakes of the parents. If we want to break the vicious cycle of poverty we need to ensure families have a minimum income standard, one which isn’t just about stopping them being destitute but one which gives them genuine choices over their own lives.

It’s not only the smart and right thing to do: it’s also how we build a liberal society.

My must-reads this week September 16, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 16, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

40 novels I aim to read by the time I’m 40

by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2016

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In six months’ time I turn 40. This isn’t a total shock – the previous 39 birthdays have prepared me pretty well for the eventuality – but it is an unignorable milestone.

I don’t have a “before I’m 40” bucket-list. Just as well: a small child, full-time job and newly-renovated house needing decorating (in order of importance) don’t allow for the “must do’s” that online lists prescribe: visit Australia, start a business, play an instrument, go to Glastonbury, write a book, etc.

But I like reading and I want to make the time to do more of it. After my dad died in April, I found I couldn’t engage with novels. I still read plenty – newspapers, magazines, stuff for work – but somehow wrapping my head around new characters and situations was beyond me. I went four months without finishing a book, though I unsuccessfully started a couple. That’s not normal for me. It was only when I went on holiday in August that I felt ready to pick up the habit again.

And now I want to spend the next six months starting to make up for that lost time, plus my more general lacunae. That’s the reason for the list, below: the 40 novels I want to read by the time I’m 40. Chances are I won’t manage that feat – it’s almost two a week, after all – but “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. By the time I’m 41 anyway.

The list is drawn from a few sources:

An online trawl of “books you should have read” – I’m acutely aware I have big gaps in my reading, as brilliantly represented in Tom Gauld’s cartoon, My Library:


But I didn’t want a list chock-full of drearily worthy literary classics that would make me feel miserable and guilty as I approached my 40th. So sorry, but JRR Tolkein, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Thomas Hardy (to name but three) haven’t made the cut. There’s a few, but not many, canonical works.

Booker Prize winners – I briefly thought about trying to read every winner (I’ve read most of the past 15 years’) then I looked at the full list and realised there were some I just couldn’t face (Ben Okri, James Kelman, Richard Flanagan), no matter how brilliant they are. So there’s a smattering, including short-listees, but not to excess.

Best Books of the Decade So Far, according to The Oyster Review – another list I’d thought of consuming before realising I’d run out of steam and, anyway, life’s too short and six months is waaaay too short.

My bookshelves / Kindle – I buy loads of books and read cover-to-cover probably about one-fifth, dip into two-thirds, and ultimately end up ignoring whatever weird fraction that leaves me with. But there are also some, including a handful of my favourite authors (Kazuo Ishiguro, Jonathan Franzen, Sarah Waters), which I’ve set aside because I want to savour them. And approaching your 40th seems like a good time to raid that bank.

What this list isn’t, by the way, is a “40 novels you must read before you turn 40”. By definition, books I’ve already read are not included here.

This list is, rather, an entirely subjective collection of books that I aim to make the time to read before my mid-life crisis strikes and I end up obsessed by young cars and fast women. And, inevitably, there will also be other books I come across in the next six months which end up elbowing some of these aside.


1. Amis, Martin – London Fields

2. Atkinson, Kate – Behind The Scenes At The Museum

3. Bradbury, Malcolm – The History Man

4. Carter, Angela – Nights at the Circus

5. Cercas, Javier – Outlaws

6. Coetzee, J. M. – Disgrace

7. Cole, Teju – Open City

8. Desai, Kiran – The Inheritance of Loss

9. Dunmore, Helen – The Siege

10. Faulks, Sebastian – Birdsong

11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby

12. Fitzgerald, Penelope – Offshore

13. Franzen, Jonathan – Freedom

14. Heller, Joseph – Catch-22

15. Hemingway Ernest – For Whom The Bell Tolls

16. Ishiguro, Kazuo – The Buried Giant

17. James, Marlon – A Brief History of Seven Killings

18. Kafka, Franz – The Trial

19. Keneally, Thomas – Schindler’s Ark

20. Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird

21. Lively, Penelope – Moon Tiger

22. Marukami, Haruki – Norwegian Wood

23. McEwan, Ian – Nutshell

24. Munro, Alice – Too Much Happiness

25. Murdoch, Iris – The Sacred and Profane Love Machine

26. Obreht, Téa – The Tiger’s Wife

27. Orwell, George – Homage to Catalonia

28. Robinson, Marilynne – Housekeeping

29. Rushdie, Salman – Midnight’s Children

30. Saah Behr, Conseulo – Three Daughters

31. Smith, Ali – How to Be Both

32. Smith, Zadie – NW

33. Tyler, Anne – The Accidental Tourist

34. Vasquez, Juan Gabriel – The Sound of Things Falling

35. Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five

36. Waters, Sarah – The Little Stranger

37. Wharton, Edith – The Age of Innocence

38. Winterson, Jeanette – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

39. Woolf, Virginia – To the Lighthouse

40. Yanagihara, Hanya – A Little Life

And then there were the ones that got away… Even though I thought I’d been pretty ruthless when short-listing it turned out I’d been long-listing. So here’s the 19 that, ultimately, got pruned. Although if any of the above fail the “50-page test” (unless you’re enjoying a book by then, what’s the bloody point?) they may get re-instated.

1. Atwood, Margaret – The Blind Assassin

2. Austen, Jane – Persuasion

3. Carey, Peter – Oscar and Lucinda

4. Crace, Jim – Quarantine

5. Cruz Smith, Martin – Gorky Park

6. Eliot, TS – Prufrock and Other Observations

7. Ferris, Joshua – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

8. Fey, Tina – Bossypants

9. Gardam, Jane – The Queen of the Tambourine

10. Greer, Germaine – The Female Eunuch

11. Kundera, Milan – The Unbearable Lightness of Being

12. Lessing, Doris – The Golden Notebook

13. Morrison, Toni – Song Of Solomon

14. Murray, Paul – Skippy Dies

15. Powell, Anthony – A Dance to the Music of Time

16. Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath

17. Tóibin, Colm – Brooklyn

18. Trollope, Anthony – Phineas Finn

19. Wilde, Oscar – The Picture Of Dorian Grey

My must-reads this week September 9, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 9, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Why I think Theresa May is pretty much the ideal prime minister for our times

by Stephen Tall on September 6, 2016

Theresa May is pretty much the ideal prime minister for the times we live in. Not because she gives every appearance of being reassuringly tough, shrewd, hard-working and very clearly competent but because she’s no ideologue. And that’s just as well because re-ravelling what Brexit unravels will not just define her period in office, but fully occupy it. Years and years of leading a government ram-packed with pain-staking multilateral trade negotiations would exhaust a visionary politician. But this enforced boondoggle could be the making of St Theresa.

As Donald Trump used to say, just look at the polling numbers. Survation finds she has a +33% net favourability rating. No surprise that 80%+ of 2015 Conservative voters like the cut of her gib. More of a surprise, perhaps, that 69% of 2015 Lib Dem voters do. Even 2015 Labour voters are more likely to like her than not. Mrs May is that rarest of creatures: a Remain politician trusted by Leavers.

Of course this is the honeymoon. Even ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ Brown managed a few months of popularity before he dithered it away over the 2007 election-that-never-was. For the moment her deliberate eschewal of the Blair / Brown / Cameron hyperactive PR-schtick is the perfect PR for a nation fatigued by daily politics. The risk is yet to come, as the relentless grind of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ becomes more tediously apparent (and why there remains some plausible doubt that Brexit will ever actually become Brexit).

But the political field is clear. Labour is doing what Labour now does… internally wrangling how to reconcile its irreconcilable internal foes: deluded left-wing activists battling pragmatic social democrat MPs. The less said about Owen Smith’s lamentable leadership bid – the mis-judged ‘banter’, the hasty bandwagon policies – the better. It existed solely to lure the soft-left Corbynistas away from the cult and will deservedly be extinguished for precisely that reason. Perhaps next time the sensible, moderate wing of Labour (that of it which remains) will have the courage to stand up and be counted and explain how it can become electable again. And if they can begin to explain it to themselves, maybe they can then explain it to the voters.

Then there’s the Lib Dems. Here I find myself conflicted. I voted for Tim Farron as leader, still like him, and sympathise for the difficulties that come with the job – either actively scorned or passively ignored by opponents and media alike – so much tougher than he could ever have imagined when he dreamt of doing it pre-May 2015. He has made unnecessary mis-steps, notably ignoring education when first identifying his priorities before, now, rightly deciding to place it front-and-centre.

But the biggest risk is that the Lib Dems slouch into comfort zone politics. Ironically the influx of 17,000 new members attracted by Tim Farron’s impassioned defence of the EU makes it tougher: the bulk of the party membership expects doughty defence of all things Europe from its leader. The public – including the one-third 2015 Lib Dem voters who plumped for Leave – expects the Brexit mandate to be respected.

Yet worryingly, Tim is still making speeches with duff, headline-grabbing lines like “We’ve been made a laughing stock abroad”, implying Leave voters have betrayed their country. (Though even that was preferable to Paddy Ashdown’s stupidly offensive accusation that hardline Tory Brexiteers are “brownshirts”.) Thankfully, more specific policies are promised imminently, designed to hold the Government to account and ensure a ‘soft Brexit’. Or, as Tim has put it in a line which would focus group brilliantly at a Lib Dem conference and bomb anywhere containing normal people, the party is aiming for “as much Europe as humanly possible”.

Unwisely, Tim has committed the Lib Dems to campaigning for EU membership at the next election: which was viable in the event of a snap poll (which is now unlikely), but will be a hostage to fortune if we end up fighting the 2020 election on a pledge to lead the UK back into the EU once we’re (on our way) out. Except, that is, for those Lib Dem masochists – they do exist – who want to campaign on a platform of single currency membership, free movement of people, and cash transfers to poorer parts of the EU.

Bluntly, I’m a bit depressed. I’m a liberal Eurosceptic, who voted Remain as much to protest what Leave represented as to stay in the EU as it is. As such I’m pinning my hopes on Theresa May, that she can wrangle some kind of passable deal out of the rubbish hand she’s been dealt. Which doesn’t feel like the most optimistic future for which to hope.

My must-reads this week September 2, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 2, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week August 26, 2016

by Stephen Tall on August 26, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

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