On grammar schools

A very long time ago when I was at school there was a process of selection – the 11+ exam – which sorted children into either the grammar school (pass) or secondary modern (fail). No doubt there were poor grammar schools and excellent secondary modern schools but broadly a pass in the exam meant access to a better, certainly more academic, education and generally better opportunities for the rest of your life. Since the majority of children failed (and were thus disadvantaged for the rest of their lives) this system was wasteful and unfair and it came increasingly under attack until within a decade of my leaving school the system had changed. The exam was abolished, grammar schools were abolished and “comprehensive education” became the established model.

Of course the comprehensive system had its own disadvantages, not least that it required exceptional management and leadership to organise the nurturing of the complete range of abilities and temperaments now housed within a single, often very large, school. Such exceptional leadership was always, well, exceptional. There were always political and parental mutterings against the “wilful destruction” of some very good grammar schools, many of which joined the private sector if they could. The gap between the private, fee charging sector and the state sector widened and it became more difficult for the clever children of uneducated parents to reach the levels required for further education, until the latter was massively expanded to the point where state financial support for further education had to be slashed, turning education into a luxury commodity.

Now the new UK government is proposing that grammar schools should be revived to increase educational opportunities for the brightest (or at least best coached) pupils. This may indeed produce better opportunities for some children, although the suspicion must be that they will not be from the most disadvantaged backgrounds because successful grammar schools will have a significant impact on local house prices. Also, the almost unavoidable effect is that in areas in which such schools exist the existing comprehensive schools will become, in effect, secondary moderns. The current fashion for league tables based on exam results will reinforce the idea that the comprehensives are sinks of underperformance, because whatever they do their percentage pass rates will be lower than selective schools.

But is this policy anyway not a sad failure of political and educational imagination? Sure, there were good things about grammar schools, very good things for those (like me) who were lucky enough to get in. But there were also incredibly negative things about a system which sorted children into winners and losers for life on the basis of a single exam at the age of 11. It may be, even on this policy’s own terms, that the perfect exam will find the brightest and most academically gifted children. But it could also be that in most cases the exam simply selects for people who are good at passing that exam, maybe because they have been intensively coached to do just that regardless of other abilities. Again, there were good ideas behind comprehensive education, alongside many dogmas and mistaken notions about both process and the needs of children with different aptitudes. But if the academic needs of the brightest children were not met, the system was (is) flawed and let down those children while robbing society of their contribution.

The real challenge now is the same as it ever was, to get the best for every child, the best being not some arbitrary or abstract standard but making the best of that child’s abilities, be they academic, technical, creative, athletic or not very distinguished at all. It is an incredibly difficult challenge, of course, as difficult now as it ever was. Surely, though, the right approach is to look very hard and without political prejudice at what structures and institutions can address that challenge today, not to hark back to a myth of a golden age when education was more “proper”.

I wish I could even outline an answer! I can’t, I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge and the experience. I understand too that politicians have always to pretend that they have the answer to whatever problem they face. But the better approach is surely just to search diligently, to learn from what worked and what didn’t work in the past, what works and doesn’t work elsewhere, what conditions we now face and so on. Then try to take a step forward in what seems to be the right direction. Leadership is not just about driving or cajoling people towards a simple goal, it is also about being responsible and judicious in setting the goals themselves. If the problem is complicated, the solution probably is as well. It is unlikely to be something whose flaws have already been fully exposed.

“No one left behind”

Progressive politics, the only form of non-repressive politics, must be based on sound ethical foundations. That is one reason why the effort to articulate such foundations and show how they work both for individuals and communities is important.

Economic systems and solutions must be built on these same ethical foundations – that is where Marxism and many other forms of socialism went wrong because the economics came first, in the belief that economic relations are the determinants of everything else. Well, they may be, indeed they are in the world we have come to accept, but ONLY IF WE LET THEM. And the irony of this wrong approach is that politics becomes a question of which economic policies produce the greatest short term gain, rather than being about the kind of society we live in.

At a time of such political upheaval and revolt against the political establishment as we are now seeing it is high time that we reexamined the basis of that society. What kind of community do we want to create and live in and bequeath to future generations?

But the world, and my country, cannot wait for the outcome and general acceptance of what will always appear to many as abstruse intellectual ramblings. We live in a world of soundbites and we need a good one, quickly, now. We can unpack it later. What would you suggest? Here’s mine, not original but I think it works:

NO ONE LEFT BEHIND.

A thought about Brexit

If a UK exit from the EU (a Brexit) is as all-compassing an evil as our Prime Minister now tells us, leading to global recession, the outbreak of WW3, the economic collapse and isolation of the U.K., not to mention a dive in house prices and the death of all family pets (I may have made one of those up, but only one) – why did he even suggest a referendum which risks such outcomes in the first place?
Rhetorical question, of course, he did it for short term political advantage and did not think it through. But if half the things he now says are true, how reckless was his electoral promise to hold a referendum at all, with potential exposure, however slight, to all these claimed dangers which would not have arisen otherwise?

To be clear, I personally am glad that the people are being given a say, although depressed by the low standard of official debate which amounts on both sides to deliberately muddying waters and simple scaremongering of the kind that won the Scottish referendum. But that is not the point. I did not decide to hold a referendum nor do I think an “out” vote need be a catastrophe. In any field, if a person believes that one particular outcome of an event is as catastrophic as we are now being told Brexit would be and that person can decide whether or not the event should take place, why take even the slightest risk that the catastrophe will come about? It is a ludicrous gamble, like betting your house on a single card or worse, like Russian roulette. Surely it is the very epitome of recklessness and folly?
So, either he is wildly exaggerating – lying, as it is sometimes called – what he believes will be the consequences of Brexit or he is prepared to gamble with national – no, world, according to his own warnings – security to an extent bordering on treachery or madness. Whichever it is, is there anything in modern (OK, in pre-Trump!) times which compares to such political recklessness and shows anyone’s total unfitness for high office more clearly?

Work and welfare

Suppose that, through the use of machines, sufficient resources could be produced without full employment. The balance between the forms of work and welfare that we are used to would have to change. Since we are arguably in the middle of a transition to such a state now we need to think about how they might change. Otherwise, and we can already see this happening, we will move back towards three broad tiers of society – the top wealth owners who can easily live and even get richer on what are basically rents; those with relatively secure jobs or other job related incomes like pensions or small businesses; and the “precariat” as they have been aptly called, who rely on occasional work, zero hours contracts, welfare benefits etc and for whom poverty is never far away. So far, so Victorian, but the enormous danger is that this structure of society is not stable, not in equilibrium. It depends at the very least on the acquiescence of the precariat, whether through the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, through apathy and inertia or, more likely, through a conviction that the order of things is too complex to change, one of the main axioms of neoliberalism.

The era after the industrial revolution led both to unprecedentedly nasty wars which were in large part the spilling over of commercial (imperial) competition into violence and to violent revolutions within some societies. Although ultimately better conditions for workers were brought about particularly by pressure from unionism and the labour movement generally, in many societies it was a close run thing. This degree of progress was accompanied by a partly successful push towards democratic control of societies, but not universally and not without some dark diversions through dictatorships of different kinds. We cannot be confident that the outcome of re-running the experiment will be equally benign, especially when democracy has been corrupted to the point of uselessness by the introduction of deliberately undemocratic structures like the European Union on one hand and on the other, by the blatant manipulation of public emotions without regard for truth or balance which is what now passes as political skill.

Thus it is important to consider how work and rewards are or can be related in society. In the ancient world the balance was very different and NOT working was often the prerogative of the citizen. Slaves worked, citizens didn’t, at least well-to-do citizens didn’t. There may have been other civic obligations, like fighting in the army, but labour for income was not something on which citizens prided themselves.

In fact, in aristocratic societies both yesterday and today the elite do not work but own most of the wealth and receive and spend most of the income. Typically these have been rentier societies, with the income of the elite coming from wealth (generally land) and very little else. In more modern societies the particular form of work we call entrepreneurial activity became more valued, although much of what passes as high entrepreneurship today remains rent-seeking behaviour dressed up with bustle. But in the twentieth century income distribution generally became more tied to work and median incomes were gradually and slowly raised as labour pressed for their effort to be recognised in income distribution. That process has been reversed or at least halted in the last few decades by neoliberalism, with huge pressure on wages except at the very top to benefit profits. The highest “wages”, those of the most senior executives, have become in effect rents on the holding of high office in a company, out of all proportion to effort or effectiveness.

All this is worth reciting only to show that the relationship between work and reward is and always has been complicated. It is simply a myth that work and reward were always linked closely together. “If you don’t work you don’t eat” may sound robust and fair and may be so in some limited scenarios, but as a depiction of real societies it has seldom if ever applied and it has very rarely applied to elites. It is not a principle on which any complex society has been based and it is doubtful, even by the time all the humane exceptions to it have been allowed, whether it ever could be. So although the new predicament of how to distribute the goods and necessities of life if sufficient were available without everyone working needs to be thought about very carefully, the link it seems to threaten between work and reward is not universal, nor eternal, nor even particularly common.

How can we tax multinationals fairly?

Large multinational companies can easily avoid paying tax in any particular jurisdiction, to the degree that many pay virtually nothing in the UK on massive business streams. But tax is and always has been a creature constructed by laws and if there is widespread abuse or unhappiness with the current results the only answer is to consider how best to change the laws. We have inherited certain taxes from the past, in this case most notably Corporation Tax which itself dates back only to the 1960’s. But the rules don’t seem to work for multinationals. Perhaps it is time to consider whether the notion of taxing profit, the net income of a company available to contribute to public purposes among other things, is outdated in an age when companies can choose where and how they manifest such surplus.

Moving profit around the world to minimise tax is nothing new, of course. For decades companies have tried transferring goods, intellectual property rights and licences, expertise and anything else they could think of so that costs appeared in higher tax countries and profits in low tax or no tax countries. For decades some governments have tried to keep up by disallowing each new device as it appeared, while others connived at avoidance by offering very low tax environments so that they would gain revenue at a low rate but on large volumes of diverted profit. The process was like a game, played for high stakes but relatively even sided until about the turn of the century. By then the ability to switch ownership, money, even the location of a sale with a few keystrokes had become an overwhelming advantage. It seems now that the game has been decisively won by the companies.

So if we believe that multinationals should contribute revenue for public purposes, it is no use tinkering with the rules of the game. We must change the game itself. One way to go might be to tax sales revenues rather than profits. Another would be to divide declared world profits according to sales revenues in each country, the so called unitary tax method which some US states tried to impose in the 1970’s but fell foul of international tax treaties. World profits are less understated than country profits because they are what justifies a company’s management to its shareholders and drives the share price on which executive bonuses often depend.

But both of these suggestions suffer from the same problem. When you buy something on the internet from the UK you may without even realising it be dealing with a company in a tax haven (such as Luxembourg) and that is where your purchase is filled. No UK-based company actually sells anything in this instance. The website says “UK” but the small print says otherwise.

So the solution has to be radical to take account of the radical change the Internet has brought about in the way business is done. Here is one idea. The location of the buyer rather than the seller could be legislated to be the determining factor of where a sale takes place for tax purposes. That location is not difficult to detect and police on the internet. Indeed, multinationals themselves could be required to log sales according to the location of the buyer and tax could then be based on “value of goods bought per country”. World profits, for example, could be divided up by this measure, or a new tax could replace tax on profits and be based on it.

This is not a trivial change. It would require alteration or even unwinding of international tax treaties and understandings built up over decades. It would of course be bitterly opposed by multinationals and their apologists. It would be opposed even in the forums which consider international tax matters like the OECD by countries who have done well out of providing a home for tax avoidance. It would obviously only work fully and equitably if it was adopted by many countries, and although it could work perfectly well unilaterally there would be the usual, inevitable and false scares that it would destroy jobs. In fact, it would only destroy jobs in the tax avoidance industry, because the location of customers is one factor even multinationals do not control. Of course, someone would eventually come up with a way to cheat the system (someone always does) but meanwhile multinationals might contribute a little more to the countries they harvest.

Taxing multinationals fairly is thus possible but it is not easy or quick. It requires radical changes in the way the taxation of multinational sales and profits are understood and in the way countries seek to divide tax sources between them. All the more reason to address the problem sooner rather than later, by getting such ideas onto the political agenda.

British air strikes on Syria

I just do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on – or even firing incredibly well targeted missiles at – Syria will help to defeat Daesh, as we are now told we should call the vicious bandits who masquerade there as religious. I do not know whether it will bring peace to that exhausted part of the world. It seems intrinsically unlikely, since three major powers are already blasting away and it seems that their efforts are insufficient, or why else would they be eager for us to have a go? But the intelligence reports and the military knowledge are not something I have at my disposal so how can I make an informed judgement about such a very complex situation? In that I am, ironically, in the same position as most MP’s who voted on the matter, but that happens.

But as I read the reports of this week’s debate in the House of Commons, the principal argument seemed to be the same very bad argument which underpinned our participation in the invasion of Iraq. “Our friends are doing it, we don’t want to be left out or they may think the worse of us.” Killing people to defend others is certainly ethically acceptable in the right circumstances, but killing people to enhance one’s reputation or be part of the in-crowd? I doubt it.

I was left with other serious misgivings, of which two will suffice. First, most people seem to accept that air strikes are only of real use in support of a ground offensive, which makes a sort of sense to a military layman. You can destroy things from the air and you can make life very difficult for those on the ground, but you cannot retake territory. But none of the Western powers is interested in a ground offensive, so a mythical army of 70,000 local “moderate” fighters was conjured up. There is clearly no such army, there is at best a multitude of small rival groups. Even the total number of ground fighters who could be described as “moderate” in their level of fanaticism is probably much smaller than suggested. Many people have pointed this out and it seems now to be commonly accepted but it must have been well known when the case was set out. It was, in fact, a brazen lie.

The second serious objection was to the use of the term “terrorist sympathisers” by the Prime Minister to describe anyone who disagreed with the government case. It is impossible, then, to disagree with the government without sympathising with terrorists? There is no possibility that the government may be mistaken, even on points of detail? This is just nasty, it is bullying of the sort we associate with totalitarian regimes. Logically, it is the weakest sort of argument, nearly always used to bolster a suspect case, the argumentum ad hominem, which translates from Latin to soccer as playing the man rather than the ball. But politically, it suggests a willingness to smear and discredit rather than discuss, a desire not to bother with the real substance of the issue at all. It is the sort of tactic which distorts democracy because it will not concede the essential prerequisite of democracy, that there can be honest opposition. It is one step away from arresting dissenters, and only a few steps away from fascism.

I do not know whether the UK dropping bombs on Syria will bring peace. But I know that the way we came to that decision has made me ashamed of my government and fearful for my country.

Neoliberalism enslaves us

Neoliberalism is very different from an older style of conservative politics, which followed Burke in urging caution about institutional change because institutions may embody the wisdom of previous generations. Neoliberalism is broadly the theory that society should be governed by the market rather than by values, or even that economic goals are all that matter. It is thus the political embodiment of unfettered capitalism unconstrained by values of any kind.

Political opponents of neoliberalism currently lack a convincing answer to it because such an answer has to attack the basic premise that economics is the only proper foundation of public policy. But that requires a strong, widely accepted foundation of some other kind. Our pluralist, relativist society generally lacks such a thing, a familiar theme of course on these pages. What we lack in particular is any shared sense that there are ethical and social values which take priority over market forces.

Even old political standards like fairness, justice or equality, while they may have emotional resonance, lack intellectual traction because they only work if they are embedded in precisely the kind of shared value system we lack. As things stand they are often empty terms, bandied like playground slogans. We may have a sense that certain things are unfair, for example, but it is a shifting sense. Is it fair that some people are more talented than others, or have the ability to apply themselves and so become more successful? Surely such random talent is not fair, but crucially it is not an unfairness to which we generally object – think of sports stars for example.

So we can tolerate some kinds of unfairness but not others and we need a further test of when “unfairness” is unacceptable – which just shows that unfairness as such is not the problem. We need a test for something like “morally unfair” but we don’t have one because we don’t agree about morality, ethics, values or whatever you want to call it. It is thus a shared ethical framework we lack, because we have come to think of ethics as a matter of personal opinion, culture or taste.

So the really desperate problem today for parties of the left, as for those on the right who dislike neoliberalism, is that there is no coherent value system shared by enough of us to which they can appeal to show why certain political approaches are unacceptable. The central issue is about values or ethics but our values are fragmented, dispersed. This is one reason why the left has increasingly become a coalition of single cause pressure groups, many based on identity.

If we have values at all, they must be based on what is most important to us and what, if we are behaving in a thoughtful way, we structure our behaviour and indeed our whole lives around. So to share individual values requires that we agree on what is indeed most important to us. It makes sense that if a collection of individuals – a society – agreed in this way they would want their priority expressed in the way their society was organised.

What doesn’t make sense is that there might be new “values” which only emerge at the aggregate, social level, as traditional political values tend to do. If this were the case there would be a potential conflict, in fact an impossible dilemma, because individual and political values might point in different directions. If every individual’s values are based on what is central or most important in that person’s life, how could anyone agree to put those values aside for a collective goal?

The only way to resolve this dilemma is to base political values, such as they are, on the values of individuals. They cannot be based on economic theories, on the distribution of income and wealth,
on class, still less on theories of historical destiny, but on the values by which individuals live. The issue then becomes how a modern society of many cultures, views, beliefs and interests can find sufficient common ground to share such values.

This is not comfortable news for the left. It implies that a central question of politics needs to be the search for a basis on which we can share values – a search which neoliberals may be expected to disrupt and pour scorn upon. It is not just a matter of a new political slogan but a foundation on which individuals might anchor their own lives, so that politics could become an expression of people’s aspirations rather than a dull spectator sport.