Category Archives: Politics, Policies And Process

Speed Limits And De-restricted Signs Don’t Add Up

All public roads in Britain have a legal speed limit. What then are so-called ‘de-restricted’ speed signs about?   I spend many hours every year on motorways and travelling between various towns (especially at Christmas: no trains – safest and greenest way to travel – so we have little choice but the car).   But must road experience be confusing as well as so un-eco?  Is it time to change the way vehicle speed controls operate?  And maybe also time to challenge current road culture?  More RoSPA, less Jeremy Clarkson perhaps?

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Brokering For Adequacy In Austerity

empty chairsSummary: There’s little most of us as individuals can add to general commentary about the current fierce financial cuts; but there is perhaps a real role for brokerage, undertaken by non-partisan cross-industry bodies, to find a way forward.

The first priority, beyond politics, must surely be to minimise harm as far as possible in the face of a grim determination to reduce public spending at any cost.

Visit Hilary’s professional website here to read more and post your comments on this article.

Homes, Job Prospects And Horizons: How Far Is ‘Away’?

Leaving home...Summary: Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, proposes to help people move house to get work. This is not of itself a new idea; from Norman Tebbit’s ‘on your bike’ onwards it has been proposed in various ways by the main political parties that those without employment need encouragement to become domestically mobile. Inevitably the counter-argument has been that jobs are not necessarily to be found just around the corner, a mere bikeride – or, in Duncan Smith’s proposals, within fifteen miles – of where jobless people currently live. So can this idea work?

Visit Hilary’s professional website here to read more and post your comments on this article.

The ‘Big Society’ Idea

Big Society not Big GovernmentThe ‘Big Society’ is one of the ideas put forward by new Prime Minister David Cameron to ‘heal’ what he cavalierly refers to as Broken Britain. Based, as this idea is, on the concept of ‘dysfunctional communities’, success as described in Conservative literature is unlikely – not least because the idea that entire communities of themselves can be dysfunctional demonstrates a very pessimistic view of our fellow citizens.

How bizarre, then, that this concept should have appeared unexplained as a large poster pasted onto a telephone box in City Road, London….

10.04.27 Big Society not Big Government phone box City Road 016aa 600x600

The poster which you see stuck on this telephone box is a replica of the title page of the Conservative’s Big Society proposal document.

My reasons for serious and fundamental doubts about whether David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ can be delivered in the way he anticipates can be seen here.

But whether I prove to be right or not, surely we all struggle to understand why this idea is being promulgated in such strange and stark isolation on a phone box in Hoxton.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor: Not ‘White’ And Not Male, Simply An Expert In U.S. Law

pink calculator & spectacles caseSonia Sotomayor is the lawyer and judge who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to fill the vacancy on the bench of the American Supreme Court. This week Judge Sotomayor has been grilled at a senate hearing about her suitability for the post. She is also Hispanic and a woman. This it seems gives rise to fears by interrogating Senators that her judgements may differ from those made previously.
Social Inclusion & Diversity
The hearings on whether Sonia Sotomayor should become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court have been both predictable and in some ways depressing: her eleven inquisitors include just two women and the dialogue has reflected this.
Obama’s broad church
On the other hand President Obama, in nominating Judge Sotomayor, has demonstrated again (as he has with other appointments, such as that of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the post of Secretary of State) that he intends his administration to be a broad church, inclusive of the talents of people of many sorts.
It’s interesting that Sonia Sotomayor was able, in sworn evidence, to affirm that the President did not ask her personal views on matters such as abortion and gun control – issues which persistently appear in every hearing for appointments to the Supreme Court. Nor, apparently, do Sotomayor and Obama agree about the relevance or otherwise of ‘empathy’ in legal judgement (she says she puts it aside; he sees it as relevant).
The obstacles of gender and ethnicity – and class?
It looks increasingly likely that Judge Sotomayor’s appointment will be confirmed. After the usual party political jostling, significant Republicans on the panel have indicated they will not oppose her nomination.
But why, and how, do these people think it appropriate to suggest that Sonia Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity are critical issues which might mitigate in the future against fair and transparent interpretation of the law?
Sotomayor’s personal background is not unlike that of Obama; her early life, living in public housing in the Bronx, was uncompromisingly unprivileged. Perhaps social class also plays an unacknowledged part here. The Republicans amongst the Senators grilling her are not of the Grand Old Party (GOP) for nothing.
Privileged white men
But surely even they can see that the Supreme Court has thus far been an enclave of privileged white men? In its entire history it has been administered by 111 justices, only two of them so far women (the majority of the population), and none Hispanic (the fastest growing ethnic group in the USA).
Perhaps the Supreme Court has always adhered to interpretation of the law, with no fear or favour (though frightening statistics on what sorts of criminals are not excused judicial slaughter, for instance, might suggest otherwise).
But as far as I can tell, not many of these white, male, privileged nominations for the Supreme Court have been quizzed for days and days about whether their personal demographic provenance will endanger justice for all US citizens.
Politics and competencies
Assurances of propriety and competence are essential before any Supreme Court justice is appointed. Party political posturing is inescapably part of the game.
It’s a ritual of Supreme Court nomination that questions have to be asked about every imaginable variable, and that Senators at the hearing go to extraordinary lengths not to set procedural precedence which they may later find uncomfortable.
Striking failures of insight
But, glaring omissions of insight about how and by what sorts of people the US law and constitution have been determined in the past…..?
Small wonder during her inquisition that Judge Sotomayor has stuck unservingly to the position simply that: The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law.”
I’m not a US citizen, but I am a citizen of a country which, like the US, seeks, in however flawed a way, to achieve fairness and equality. That fundamental – and perhaps intended? – apparent omission of insight on the part of Sonia Sotomayor’s inquisitors I find downright bizarre.
Read more about Social Inclusion & Diversity and Political Process & Democracy.

Where Should We Put The ‘Evidence Base’ When We Make Policy?

desk and computer How do ‘evidence’ and ‘policy’ fit together? It’s one thing to hope the evidence will tell us what to do; it’s another to persuade everyone else that the logic of how to resolve a given situation is so compelling. Evidence-based policies are a great idea; but different people ask for different sorts of evidence. And policy makers can only deliver what electors will accept. There’s a dialogue challenge here somewhere.
Political Process & Democracy
We all know that public policies these days ‘should’ be based on evidence; but I’m not clear about when and how the full might of rational thought is best brought into the public policy arena. We seem sometimes to have mislaid the ‘politics’ part of ‘policy’, in our reliance on ‘the evidence’….
The logic of the evidence
Scientists and researchers in areas where policy is being developed frequently tell us all that their evidence points this way, or that way, and I have no doubt that in their minds this is so.
I don’t however recall, ever, hearing one of these very well-informed and rational observers reflect on whether the way forward they propose is actually understood or acceptable to the public who will be paying for the implementation of the policy.
The art of the possible
It’s a cliché, but true, that politics is the art of the possible; the evidence base may be pristinely rational and logical. People, on the other hand, are not.
If we really want to see decent and well-founded changes in policy, ‘the evidence’ has to lie alongside what we can reasonably expect our policy-makers to deliver, in the pragmatic contexts of public understanding and mood.
Communicating findings
Perhaps we should find routine ways to use ‘the evidence’ to inform real dialogue and debate, not to jump straight to policy.
This is likely to happen only when more scientists and researchers start to communicate on a human level, and not just as rational-legal beings. Maybe research has to become a communicated art, as well as a science, if it’s to be really, really useful where it matters.
Changing how we do things
Perhaps scientists need (in general) to learn more about the art of communicating.
Perhaps policy-makers need to learn more about how to explain that research must actively address what at any given time is possible, as well as what’s best in an ideal, rational world.
And perhaps the rest of us have to understand that sometimes we need to move from what ‘they’ should be doing on our behalf , to what we ourselves can do to help each other see where evidence best fits into the very human process of decision-making and change.
A version of this article was first published as a blog in New Start magazine on 14 July 2009.
Read more articles about Political Process & Democracy. and see Hilary’s Publications.

Critical Choices: 4 June ’09 European Elections And The BNP

09.06.04  European election Stop the BNP The 2009 European Elections on June 4 are no ordinary political exercise; this time it’s about fundamental democracy, not ‘just’ party politics. There is a real danger the BNP will gain seats, unless everyone gets out and votes strategically – especially in the NW of England, where the BNP are focusing much attention. European Parliamentary seats are allocated proportionally, so the BNP will probably gain a NW seat unless Labour receives enough support for three candidates to be successful. Essentially that means it’s Theresa Griffin (Labour) versus N. Griffin (BNP leader)…
The world (as Albert Einstein reminded us) is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.
In this case, the result of doing nothing could be very unpleasant indeed. There is a real risk, if turnout in the 4 June ’09 European elections is low, that the British National Party (BNP) will gain a seat in the European Parliament.
Once a BNP member was elected, they would have the resources which are required to be allocated to each and every MEP, and the legal right to have their far-right-wing opinions heard. This frightening prospect of real power for the BNP is why they are fighting so hard to win a NW of England European Parliamentary seat.
Proportional representation
In the 2004 European elections the BNP got 6.4% of the vote in the NW of England region, but no seat. This time they could need as little as 8% to gain one*.
[* Later: this is exactly what happened; please refer to footnote below.]
It has been calculated that only a strong vote for the Labour Party candidates (see note to follow) is likely to ensure the critical 8% level is not reached.
Keep the BNP out
As well as yourself voting against the BNP, you can help to keep the them out by supporting the non-party-political HopeNotHate campaign.
09.06.04  European election Stop the BNP
How to vote: the practicals
But actually making the effort to vote yourself is fundamentally important, whatever else you do.
The mechanics of voting are easy, but not everyone has voted before, so please bear with me whilst I do a quick run-through of what happens. Unless you already have a postal vote (which comes with its own instructions), all you need do is take some ID – preferably but not essentially your voting card – to a Polling Station on election day.
You can find out where the (many, local) Polling Stations are by phoning your town council, if needs be. They are open from 7 am till 10 pm on the day of the Election, Thursday 4 June.
At the Polling Station you will be given a voting slip which you take into a private booth, where a pen will be provided. How you vote is entirely up to you alone, but in the European elections you can only vote once, with a cross – nothing else – against the political party you have chosen. For example:
09.06.04  NW of England European election Labour Party candidates
When you have made your choice, you simply fold the paper so your vote can’t be seen, and take it over to post into the nearby ballot box.
That’s it. Just a very few minutes of your day, and an infinitely smaller sliver of your life, to keep democracy alive.
How European Parliamentary seats are allocated
After polling closes, the votes will be counted, and the political parties with the most votes will be allocated seats in the European Parliament on a proportional basis.
The names of the individuals who will take these seats has already been decided in rank (preference) order by each of the political parties – you can see what this order of preference is when you look at the voting paper itself.
Most parties in the NW of England European elections have listed eight names, because that’s how many seats are allocated to this region; but no party expects to send all eight of their candidates to the European Parliament.
The allocation of European Parliamentary seats is calculated proportional to the total vote – and since there are in fact thirteen Parties contesting just eight seats, any party with over [13 party options divided by 8 seats = about] 8% will very probably gain a seat.
09.06.04  European election voting part-list
This is why it’s so crucially important to ensure the BNP gets an extremely low proportion of the vote – and this will only be achieved if a high percentage of the electorate actually get out to vote for the main political parties, and especially (in the NW of England particularly) Labour.
In other regions of the UK alternative ways to vote strategically against the BNP may apply.
NW Labour fights the BNP
The candidates whom the Labour Party ‘slate’ (list of candidates) emphasise are Arlene McCarthy, Brian Simpson and Theresa Griffin; the first two have already been MEPs for several years, and Theresa Griffin*, who lives in Merseyside, has also been active in local European politics for a very long time.
[*NB no relation to any other non-Labour candidate with the same surname]
You can check these candidates out, or contact them direct, through the links attached to their names as above.
Theresa Griffin, Brian Simpson, Arlene McCarthy
But whatever you do, it’s crucial to realise that your vote can help keep the BNP out.
If you prefer other, non-Labour candidates that’s absolutely your democratic choice; but everyone needs to know that not-voting (or indeed voting – however earnestly – for small parties which cannot realistically win a seat) may end up with just the same result as actually voting for the BNP.
For me, having decided my personal politics already, it’s straightforward. I am a member of the Labour Party and will vote for its European Parliamentary candidates.
Strategic voting
This is not however a party-political blog, and I have never written a piece just supporting a party line for the sake of it, or asking anyone to vote simply along party political lines.
If you think there are other strategically feasible and decent ways of ensuring the BNP does not blight British politics through gaining a European Parliamentary seat from the NW of England, this space is yours to make the case… and to accept the political debate, as I have done here.
Democracy in action
Caring about democracy means being open about things and exercising the freedom to discuss without fear what you believe in, and why.
Never in modern times has it been more important to do so.
Whatever your mainstream political party of choice, please be sure to exercise your democratic right to vote on 4 June 2009 – and encourage other people, every way you can, to do the same.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
P.S. 8 June 2009
Exactly what we all so much hoped wouldn’t happen has become a reality. The BNP NW candidate has gained a seat in the European Parliament.
The final results for the NW of England are:
Seats: 8 (previously, 9)
Turnout: 1,651,825 (31.9%)
Electorate: 5,206,474
Votes for main parties
Conservative: 423,174 (25.6%, up 1.5%) 3 seats (as before)
Labour: 336,831 (20.4%, down 6.9%) 2 seats (3 before, lost 1)
UK Independence Party: 261,740 (15.8%, up 3.7%) 1 seat (none before)
Liberal Democrats: 235,639 (14.3%, down 1.6%) 1 seat (as before)
British National Party: 132,094 (8.0%, up 1.6%) 1 seat (none before)
Green Party: 127,133 (7.7%, up 2.1%) no seats (as before)
To quote Nick Robinson, on his surgically precise BBC Newsblog:
Nick Griffin [British National Party: BNP] is now a Member of the European Parliament even though he won fewer votes than he did five years ago.
That’s right, fewer.
In 2004, the BNP in the North West polled 134,959 votes. In 2009, they polled 132,194 [132,094?]. So, why did he win?
In short, because of a collapse in the Labour vote from 576,388 in 2004 to 336,831 in 2009. In Liverpool, Labour’s vote dived by 15,000; in Manchester by almost 9,000; whilst in Bury, Rochdale and Stockport, its vote halved.
The switch away from postal votes for all in the last Euro election in the region also led to a fall in turnout.
Thus, the BNP could secure a higher share of the vote whilst getting fewer votes.

…. and this, sadly, is the very thing we most feared (above) might come to pass.
Read more about Political Process And Democracy.

C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ Is Fifty Years Old Today

Science & Music books C.P. Snow introduced the idea of the Two Cultures in the annual Rede Lecture in Cambridge of 7 May 1959. Himself both an eminent scientist and contemporary historian of science, and a novelist, in that lecture he lamented the gulf between scientists and ‘literary intellectuals’, arguing that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. Now fifty years later (as on the fortieth anniversary) a range of commentators continues to debate this claim.
Science & Technology.
Some of us may feel that the great contribution to British culture of Charles Percy Snow (1905 – 1980) was in fact to write novels and commentaries about science which are still remembered for the light they shed on how science works in modern society.
For me that’s certainly true: the dozen novels of the Strangers and Brothers saga (1949 – 1970) and his non-fiction (if not undisputed) accounts of how science ‘works’ – especially Science and Government (The Godkin Lectures at Harvard University) (1961), The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1963) and The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World (1982, republished 2008) – have helped to bridge that science – humanities chasm.
Focus on the Corridors of Power
These were the books which, as a post-grad student of the sociology of science, opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t even previously known existed: the world of high level science and policy, the world as Snow himself styled it, of The Corridors of Power.
But this focus has been largely lost in the debate about the Two Cultures and the heavyweight attack which the literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895 – 1978) made on C.P. Snow’s thesis a couple of years after the Rede Lecture, suggesting that Snow was a dreadful novelist and rejecting the validity of his concerns that the literary elite was not scientifically literate.
Not always incompatible
Isn’t it interesting in this context that quite a lot of excellent musicians are also good at maths and science; and probably just as many very good scientists are also decent musicians?
There remains as ever a cultural gap between the humanities and ‘science’, but they are both very complex enterprises, and it does not follow that all those in the arts are unaware of science, any more than the converse must always be true.
The nature of evidence
What is more worrying is that sometimes people don’t seem to understand the nature of evidence (not ‘science’) … that whenever possible it needs to be good enough to rely on, before conclusions are drawn.
Of course all evidence in the end is relative, but we have to start somewhere…. the important thing in a democratic society, is that the basis on which we as individuals, and those with influence, choose to decide actions and positions is open to scrutiny.
Moving towards rationality
Slowly, modern western society is becoming more rational and moving out of the mists of myth and cultural comfort zones. There is without doubt a limit to how much this can or should happen, but I think we’re nearer to a balance on this than we were even a few decades ago. Many scientific terms are commonplace in everyday debate.
When C.P. Snow wrote his Two Cultures lecture we as a society ‘knew’ less than we do now. It’s difficult to accept the claim that education for most people is ‘worse’ than it was in the 1950s and 60s – and I say that as the product of an inner-city grammar school of that era. Then we just didn’t perceive the awfulness of the education which most children received; this was still the post-war era when anything was better than nothing.
For most people, cultural memory is it seems very short. We can surely now, despite all the naysayers, learn more, quickly, about anything, than ever before.
The longer view
It’s said that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are here on this planet now. Possibly the same applies to artists, for what it’s worth. But what I’m sure of is that C.P. Snow has excited a lot of people – including me – over several decades, with the debate he sparked.
Snow’s perspective is of course now dated; but those who currently deny that things have got better have (potentially) the benefit of hindsight ,and they need to think quite carefully about whether they are using that very valuable vantage point properly. More people now know something about science and the arts, than ever before.
You don’t need to be able to describe the double helix and the works of great poets in detail to share some mutual understanding about our complex cultural underpinnings.
Evidence and ideas for sustainability
What you do need to be able to do is draw threads together to make sense of where you find yourself in the world… and never has that been more true than now, with the ‘one planet living’ challenges we all face.
Indeed, Lord Snow argued himself that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.
Bridging the gap
I’m not therefore sure that the most important debate around education can continue now be an arid discussion of so-called ‘standards'; surely it has to be about searching for common understandings? And in that debate C.P. Snow and those who followed have helped a lot.
If the musicians and their counterparts can sometimes bridge the gap, then maybe the rest of us should start to be more positive, and have a go too.
Read more about Science & Technology.
For more commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Two Cultures’ Rede Lecture, see e.g. here and here.

Less Regional Development, More Local Referenda And Debateable Democracy

So David Cameron says he’d like to see UK referenda on local taxation and much else; whilst another Conservative says they want to do away with regional development agencies – though local councils may thereafter join up to reinstate these if they wish. But some of us recall the damage done to northern parts by the abolition in 1986 of the Metropolitan County Councils, and the energy invested later on in having to re-create the regional development agenda. Will local democracy really be enhanced by taking decision-making away from elected councillors?
Read more about Political Process & Democracy.
Your views are welcome.

PHSE Becomes Core Curriculum – At Last!

happy young people After much debate the Government has finally announced that Personal, Health and Social Education (PHSE) will be compulsory in schools at a level appropriate to each child’s age. This decision has been widely welcomed – though strangely not quite by everyone. All children need to understand their own bodies and relationships. But only a few years ago some of us, as educators, were still battling to save this entitlement and embed it into the curriculum.
In 1990 the Cambridge University Press published a book entitled The New Social Curriculum. Edited by Barry Dufour, it was intended as a ‘guide to cross-curricular issues’, for teachers, parents and governors. I wrote the chapter on ‘Health Education: Education for Health?’.
How different things were such a relatively short time ago.
Quotes from another era
Even as recently as 1990 I find, looking back, that I was obliged to write as follows (please forgive the self-plagiarism.):
[My first thesis is] that health education is far too weighty a matter to be left to the varies of visiting speakers, odd sessions, leaflets, films, etc… and the whims of individual teaching staff…
[The second thesis is] that meaningful (or even plausible) Education for Health can only be achieved in institutions where the teaching staff as a whole have a competent grasp of [these] curricular issues and where the mores of host institutions themselves support an alert and sensitive response to the social and personal needs of learners. Isolated ‘lessons’ on the ‘nightmares of adults’ (to use Chris Brown‘s apt term) are unlikely to meet effectively the aims of an informed and humane programme of Education for Health [where] health can be viewed as a positive feeling of well-being….
Any institution which means what it says about Education for Health will recognise the necessity for:
1. a curriculum which acknowledges the overlap between different aspects of social and personal experience;
2. an adequate allocation of resources – financial and personnel – to develop and deliver such a curriculum;
3. careful attention to the dignity and welfare of all who are involved in work or study within it….
But the majority of developments in Health Education continue to occur outside the context of the mainstream curriculum, and certainly outside the professional remit of those who manage formal educational organisations [which..] may account for the lack of impact which many health messages appear to have on their intended recipients.

Contentious issues
It has to be remembered – or retrospectively understood – that this was written in the context of what amounted to moral panic and the Victoria Gillick campaign on the subject of ‘Sex Education‘, which had become the almost singular ‘topic’ focus of the then-Conservative Government’s educational legislation.
Teachers had to contend with, and at their peril remain within the requirements of, the Education Act (Number 2), 1986, the DES Circular 11:87, and, until it was clarified, Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1988. All these legal frameworks had the effect of putting teachers of anything to do with sexual education, not to mention student counsellors dealing with issues such as homosexuality, at personal and professional serious risk.
A wait eventually worthwhile
Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. In 1990 I ended my chapter by remarking that, whilst much good work was being undertaken, there was ‘as yet little evidence to encourage the hope that national educational structures, combining the experience of health promotion personnel, health educators and classroom teachers firmly within the context of the National Curriculum, will soon emerge to encompass and consolidate this good practice.
Now however the Government has at last announced that all pupils will Get Healthy Lifestyle Lessons, including age-appropriate information on sex and drugs, and a review by headteacher Sir Alasdair MacDonald will be carried out into the best way to shape and deliver this essential new core curriculum.
A positive step forward for children
This development, in the context of Every Child Matters, is enormously to be welcomed by anyone who wants every child to receive what is surely their basic entitlement – to understand, in ways suitable for their age and maturity, their own bodies and behaviour. How else can small people grow up to be sensible big people?
Across age, gender, social class and marital status, most adults have recently been found by a BBC survey to support this initiative. It’s been needed for a very long time and at last nearly everyone seems ready for it.
Read more about Education & Life-Long Learning.
See also: ‘Where do baby rabbits come from? Sex education to begin at five in all schools’ (Polly Curtis, The Guardian, 24 October 208).

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