Saturday, 6 February 2016

Migrants on benefits, mosquitoes, arts funding and other links you'll like

Spooky Bradford

"I didn't even know I could get benefits" - a reality check on migrants and the benefits system

“And actually it doesn’t bother me, all this immigration debate. I’m too busy. I work full time; I have three kids. But nobody I know came here for benefits and I don’t think not getting them will stop anyone coming. Maybe one or two. There’s always someone. But I know many, many more British people who live on benefits than east Europeans.”


Kill all the mosquitoes

"Mosquitoes spread Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, a variety of forms of encephalitis (Eastern Equine Encephalitis, St. Louis Encephalitis, LaCrosse Encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis, and others), West Nile virus, Rift Valley Fever, Elephantiasis, Epidemic Polyarthritis, Ross River Fever, Bwamba fever, and dozens more."

So exterminate them - all of them


So you don't do politics? Think again.

"Politics is omnipresent wherever humans negotiate over power and governance. We speak of “office politics” or “university politics,” and those phrases are not mere metaphors. Our negotiations with friends are a form of politics as well, as we figure out where to go out to eat or what show to see. Our romantic and familial relationships are full of similar negotiations about language, persuasion, power, and mutual consent. To say we “don’t do politics” is to have a narrow notion, in Ostrom’s view, of what constitutes being a citizen in a society where democracy is a feature of so many institutions."


Virtue signalling as conspicuous consumption.

"Rather than trying to one-up one another by buying Bentleys, Rolexes and fur coats, the modern social climber is more likely to try and show their ‘authenticity’ with virtue signalling by having the correct opinions on music and politics and making sure their coffee is sourced ethically, the research says."

...interesting and challenging


Nothing new about retailing as performance (ask any market trader) - and it's back...

One of the key themes emerging from the presentations was that creating face-to-face customer experiences is vital to retailers not only because of the value to audiences in-store but also because of the huge value of customers sharing their experience across social media platforms. Sophie Turton from eConsultancy, who spoke at one of the learning talks, noted that:

“Instead of creating content, retailers should be creating opportunities for content creation – instagrammable moments, inspiring experiences.”

The Urbanophile on Charles Taylor's 'A Secular Age'

"The creation of the buffered self had consequences, however. By disconnecting us from the world, and draining the world of meanings, the buffered self creates a sense of improverished existence. That is to say, it produces the pervasive modern sense of malaise long commented on by Freud and others. But whereas Freud saw malaise as the inevitable byproduct of the sense of guilt necessary to make civilization possible, for Taylor it is rooted specifically in Western modernity’s sense of the buffered self."

Fabulous stuff.


And how all the arts funding still goes to London:

The report also highlights that Arts Council England’s decision to move an extra 5% of Lottery funds outside London amounts only to an “improvement outside London of 25p per head”.

Its Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report in 2013 also claimed that ACE was allocating more than five times as much spending per resident to London organisations as those outside the capital in 2012/13.


Thursday, 4 February 2016

Quote of the day - on virtue-signalling as conspicuous consumption


Excellent from the Adam Smith Institute:

Virtue signalling has made widely-held ideas like ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and conspicuous consumption completely outdated, according to a new paper from the Adam Smith Institute. Rather than trying to one-up one another by buying Bentleys, Rolexes and fur coats, the modern social climber is more likely to try and show their ‘authenticity’ with virtue signalling by having the correct opinions on music and politics and making sure their coffee is sourced ethically, the research says.

A good read too.


A bad week for culture in Bradford (and The North)

It has been a lousy week for culture in Bradford. First we had the announcement that the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection of art in photography would be transplanted from Bradford to a new 'centre' somewhere in London. And then today we got a second bombshell as the National Media Museum pulled out of the Bradford International Film Festival.

My view of all this is that it underlines the utter and complete domination of arts and culture by a narrow, London-focused elite. The Trustees of the V&A are all based in London and it wouldn't surprise me to discover that many of them, while they've visited Paris, Venice and New York haven't visited Bradford, Gateshead or Wolverhampton. For this elite such places are for talking about - you know 'deprivation', 'poverty', 'the underclass', gritty Northern films on a left-wing theme - rather than visiting. For the London elite the best that can be said is that some of them consider the North somewhere to be patronised - not in a physical way but by appearing on late night arts shows and saying how important it for the North to be recognised culturally (just so long as we don't have to go there).

There's nothing new with this problem - it remains perhaps the biggest challenge facing England. We talk a lot about the imbalance between London and 'The North' - indeed the Arts Council spends most of it's briefing pages on funding trying to demonstrate that it really does care about 'The North' and that most of the money doesn't go to London. It remains the case that roughly twice as much money goes to London that to the whole of the North. And let's remember that The North's population is around double that of London. meaning that per capita Londoners get four times as much arts funding as Bradfordians.

More to the point, London is also much richer with more access to the private sector funding that being one of the world's great cities brings. And this means that the wider infrastructure of arts and culture - commercial theatre, art markets, music and so forth - is much stronger (or at least appears that way). So while the efforts of the Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and others to redress the imbalance is welcome it doesn't get close to the heart of the problem.

This heart - the central challenge - is the assumption that major national institutions have to be based in London. This was the essential problem with the decision by the Science Museum to hand over the RPS collection to the V&A. Not that a new 'centre' for art in photography isn't a great idea but rather that the centre could only be created in London. It seems that the Trustees of the Science Museum Group, at their meetings in London, didn't even consider suggesting to their new partners at the V&A that locating the new centre in the North might be the right idea (we can't be sure because the minutes of this almost entirely publicly funded organisation are not public).

So the RPS collection goes to London, which is sad. But worse than this, there's nothing but a gap left behind. Bradford no longer has that inspiring collection and nothing will replace it (a new 'interactive gallery' at the National Media Museum doesn't work since it's not really new and isn't really culture). The decision is a narrow one driven by a combination of cost pressures on the Science Museum Group (mostly being resolved by cutting the budgets of its three Northern museums) and the in-built bias towards London.

The actual decision was taken - without engaging with stakeholders in Bradford so far as I can tell - back in July 2015 with the time since then presumably spent thrashing out the details with the V&A. I don't know when the second decision, sacking the Bradford International Film Festival, was taken but it's announcement in the same week at the RPS collection decision suggests either a similar timetable or else a desire to get all the bad news out in one week. And now the museum, from being to go-to place for the culture of photography, film and TV, has become a mere adjunct of the science museum proper, a place of buttons and levers dedicated solely to showing off science stuff rather than curating the artifacts and the content of these classic media.

What's missing - from the V&A as well as the Science Museum - is any sense of the damage these decisions are doing to Bradford as a city. London is awash with film festivals whereas Bradford had just three - all now gone or under threat. All killed off by the narrowing of the National Media Museum's focus and by the blind ignorance of that London elite running the museums. The closure of a gallery or reconfiguration of a museum in London may be agitating but it does little real damage to that city's arts and culture infrastructure. Here in Bradford - just as almost everywhere in the North - the decisions made by the Science Museum to withdraw from involvement in culture has left a raw, bloody gash in the UK's only UNESCO City of Film.

It's true that Bradford people will pick themselves up, will gather together and put what pressure they can on government, on the Arts Council on the museums. And maybe a few conciliatory crumbs will come our way as a result, doubtless loudly trumpeted by those London institutions as great news for poor old Bradford. Of a considered approach to that bloody gash in Bradford's cultural life there will be none. The big arts and culture institutions won't set up a group to work on mending the wound their decisions have made, instead they'll spin what little (and it is vanishingly tiny) they've done until such a time as the national media stop taking any notice.

Even more, without some sort of big stick from government there's no way for us 'stakeholders' in Bradford's culture to influence the decisions made by that rich London-based elite that makes the decisions about how England's arts and culture infrastructure should be developed. I'd like them to visit Bradford - let us ask some questions of them. Not just about why everything has to be in London but about how they can support those of us who want to create a cultural heart for the North of England, who want to see the arts infrastructure developed and who are fed up with being supplicants to grand men and women in London who have - as we've seen in Bradford - the power to thoughtlessly tear great chunks from the cultural life of Northern cities.


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Those aren't giants, they're windmills - how the EU deal makes the case for leaving

As a Conservative it's always right to exercise doubt. Which is what most of us have been doing over the progress and direction of the European Union for some time. It's also important to understand that the true believers - in the EU's mission or in the need to escape from its clutches - do not understand the nature of doubt or, as we more regularly call it, scepticism. So when, faced with the need to decide, a sceptic lands on the "wrong" side of the fence it is always a traitorous denial of principle according to those true believers.

I've no doubt that many sceptics will decide to, as a Polish politician suggested on the radio this morning, 'take a rain check'. This is on the basis that, if you leave the EU that's it, there really isn't any going back. If you don't leave then there's always the opportunity to leave at some later time. Now this isn't a view point I share - seems a bit of a cop out - but its appeal is considerable as it conforms to the advice given by Jim's Father after the lad's fatal encounter with a lion.

His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ``Well--it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!''
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James's miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

Yesterday we saw the next iteration of the 'reform' that will somehow justify us staying in the EU. And it's fair to say that the package announced by Donald Tusk and presented to a panting press pack by the Prime Minister was somewhat underwhelming. As one wag (@taxbod as it happens) described it:

Dave's EU deal. The terms, in full:

1) Raindrops on roses;
2) Whiskers on kittens;
3) Bright copper kettles;
and 4) Warm woollen mittens.

I disagree with those who tell me that the process was all smoke and mirrors, an act of political legerdemain designed to hoodwink up into voting to remain a EU member. Rather, the exercise was similar to the brave actions of Don Quixote when faced with giants:

And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, "Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."

"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza.

"Those you see over there," replied his master, "with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length."

"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone."

And the result - bits and pieces of what we wanted but no treaty change - represents absolutely the best that could have been obtained under the circumstances. We have galloped out, charged the enemy and returned with our heads high having failed because without a threat to its existence the EU cannot change any more than Don Quixote's giants could stop being windmills. Part of the thinking - and it was sound - is that the very fact of a referendum on the UK leaving represented a significant enough threat to the EU's sustainability. It turns out that - especially given the UK's negotiators reassurances of their intent, come what may, to continue supporting membership - this threat was not a threat at all.

I am a genuine sceptic in all this. I don't really believe in ever more draconian immigration controls, I don't want a sort of pseudo-fascist isolationist approach to the economy for that is lunacy. And I absolutely believe that the EU has played a role (albeit a smaller one than its vanity permits) in securing peace and harmony on what was a divided continent. So I ought to be a supporter of the EU except for a couple of real problems.

The first is that the EU's economic and social policies act to make Europeans poorer - this is true of the Common Agricultural Policy, it's true of its policies on the environment, and its true of its restrictive approach to rules on labour, health and welfare. Above all the EU is inward-looking and concerned with protecting what is here now rather than looking forward to what might be there tomorrow. The result is corruption, sclerotic economic growth, misplaced intervention and a preference for managed trade (like the TTIP) rather than free trade.

Worse than all this is that there is no way in which the EU can change this approach, it has ossified into a rigid protectionist mindset and a defensiveness about external criticism that merely shows how weak the 'union' is in reality. The sorry tale of Greece and the Euro should remind us that the EU will watch citizens starve rather than give one inch of ground on its programme - even when that programme is demonstrably failing.

The EU has all the trappings of democracy - a parliament, elections, grand debates and a constant babble about 'citizens'. But it is not a democracy because none of the actions available to the demos are able to change the policies of the union - these policies are set in stone, immutable and unchanging. Vast libraries of impenetrable prose are churned out giving the impression of change but which, on close inspection, change little of any significance or substance.

So no, I don't give a fig about when or whether migrants from Poland can claim benefits - it's a pretty marginal issue to the challenge of reforming the benefits we give to our own citizens. Nor do I care much about net migration or about the essentially meaningless wibble that is national sovereignty. But I do care about my ability, along with my neighbours, to have a real say in the decisions made by governments that affect my life. And - as is shown by the conclusion of David Cameron's negotiations - there is no prospect of the EU permitting this to happen or for us to move towards a polity genuinely founded on the principles of free speech, free enterprise and free trade.

So I shall - and you should - vote to leave.


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The switch to individual registration is a success


Not that you'd think this listening to Gloria De Piero, Labour's "shadow minister for making sure the register is loaded with ghost voters" (or whatever her title is):

The shadow minister for electoral registration, Gloria De Piero, said the figures show 1.8% of voters have left the register since the move to IER. Ms De Piero said the drop-off had been particularly high in areas with a large proportion of students.

A while ago the whole exercise was opposed by Labour with cries of gerrymandering and accusations of some kind of evil Tory fix. It was, of course, nothing of the sort as these latest scandalous figures tell us. If the register has declined by less than 2% this is an indication that the result of the new system is a cleaner, more accurate and up-to-date system - a triumph really.

Moreover, most of the loss is accounted for by students not being registered in the place where they are students. This is (as a moment's thought might suggest) not necessarily an indication that they aren't registered but rather that they are registered at their home address - where mum and dad live:

"Among those students who were on the electoral roll turnout was relatively high. Yet it appears that many of them opted to vote at home rather than at their place of study..."

So the real figure - one we can't know without an expensive merge-purge of the whole UK register - for decline is likely to be significantly lower than 800,000. What seems to happen is that students who are registered in South Hams (to pick a place at random) then don't bother registering in Leeds North West.

From a scandal where 'millions' were going to lose the chance of voting because of the evil Tories we have reached a point where the transfer to a system of individual registration has resulted in almost no net reduction in the numbers registered. And remember that every person with an address who is receiving benefits of any sort (housing, child, JSA, in work) is automatically registered because that evil Tory government allowed, for the first time, DWP data to be shared with Councils for the purpose of registering people to vote.

What has happened is that local councils have been forced to spend time, effort and money getting the register accurate. Hundreds of thousands of ghost names - some fraudulent but mostly just the result of sloppy electoral registration - have gone but are replaced by the accurate collection of names of individuals who actually live at a given address. Students are almost the only group (single people in low paid work and rented housing but not receiving benefits being the other) that slip through the system.

The switch to individual registration has been a success.


Sunday, 31 January 2016

The ten books every child should read before leaving school (or why I hate English Literature revisited)

"These are the ten books every child should read before they leave school". So proclaims the headline of yet another attempt to create a new canon - this time by the time-honoured process of surveying 500 English teachers. This list (with the possible exception of Harry Potter) is unsurprising - the obvious couple of George Orwell books, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, some stuff by Dickens and the godawful Pride and Prejudice (or Gold Diggers of 1815 as I like to call it).

It really is time these teachers got out from under their obsession with Dickens, Austen and 20th century American literature (almost all of which is much better in film than prose). And chose a different, more interesting, relevant and challenging set of texts for children to read. Is it any surprise that people are turned off reading for pleasure if the dreary existence of Lennie Small is rammed down their throats at school. I can't think of a less relevant book to a 14 year old Pakistani girl in Bradford.

And the same goes for the rest - again with the possible exception of Harry Potter. What we haven't got here is any literature that presses the sorts of button that film and TV are pressing in the minds of modern British children. And it shows, which is the worst failing of English literature as a subject, the sad narrowness of the way it's taught. So here's a two-fingered salute to the English teachers and Simon's list of ten books every child should read before leaving school (except I don't mean it, of course):

1. Neuromancer - William Gibson's birth of cyberpunk novel, a picture of the on-line world created before we were all on-line.
2. Dune - Frank Herbert's masterpiece: want to know where the Star Wars themes came from? A pseudo-religion based on mind control, a galactic empire, good vs evil, giant worms and psychoactive drugs on which everything depends.
3. Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner takes us to an over-populated world filled with pop-up ads, drive-by shootings, suicide bombers and dysfunctional governments
4. A good translation of Beowulf - either Tolkein's prose translation or the stunning (if less true to the text) epic poem by Seamus Heaney. This is where we come from - ur-England and we should not lose it
5. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks explores teenage violence including the eponymous wasp factory. More contemporary than Lord of the Flies by encompassing mental illness and isolation, issues of importance to teenagers
6. The Lord of the Rings - it wasn't voted the best novel for nothing and Tolkein's great work isn't merely a fantasy. It's themes grow out from the myths and legends of Northern Europe and link to the idea of quest and the powerful message that, in the end, we all have it within us to do the extraordinary
7. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - OK the original radio series probably sets the bar too high for later books and films but the books are funny, interesting and filled with thoughts and ideas that really do speak to modern life
8. The Man in the High Castle - Philip K Dick's alternative history is brief, telling and a great reminder that we all have in us the capacity for good and for great evil.
9. I, Robot - Isaac Asimov's best robot book (and nothing at all like the film of the same name) coins the three laws of robotics which every child should discuss and debate for it really is their future now
10. Swallows and Amazons - we've sort of forgotten about how childhood should be and, more than any other novel, Arthur Ransome's tale of kids mucking about on boats in the Lake District is the best evocation of the glory years of childhood.

You can pick your own ten or a dozen or fifty. The point here is that my list is every bit as good - no better - than the list those English teachers have churned out. I think it would be great if every child read these books but I know that some would be hated - as I hate Pride and Prejudice - by young people forced to read them or told that this stuff they don't like is what we mean by "good literature". I'm sure that your list might feature a different emphasis - urban grit, mystery, romance or whimsy. There's no right answer and what we should be doing is hoping that every child reaches 18 having created their own list of ten fantastic books that really mean something, that they'll bore their own children about and maybe write up in indulgent blog posts.

Get reading folks!


Thursday, 28 January 2016

Ban everything, ban it now. For the children.

Back in early 1970s South London, I used to drag my self from bed, throw on clothes and some breakfast down my gullet, get on my bike and cycle to Elmers End News. Where, as generations of children before me had done, I picked up a bag of newspapers and shoved them through a load of doors. As it happens the round I did took me back over the railway bridge and past the cricket club (holding my nose at the stench from the paint factory and tannery) almost to home. I then got into my school uniform and cycled to school in SE19.

There was nothing unusual about all this, it was what loads of other children did. For sure there were some who had other jobs - milk rounds, serving in shops, washing cars at the garage, helping on a market stall. But children worked. In my case it was simple - once I was 13 and could get a paper round there was no more pocket money (as an aside my last pocket money amount was 12p).

Apparently all this wasn't a useful exercise in self-organising and an introduction to work but an offence to my rights:

Turning to newspaper delivery rounds, it said that “allowing children to work before school begins in the morning is, in principle, contrary” to the charter, because it puts at risk their “attendance, receptiveness and homework”.

This 'charter' is the European Social Charter (and before you all get anti-EU on me, this was signed by the UK in 1961 long before we joined that awful organisation) and it has apparently been captured by the 'wrap children in cotton wool' school of thinking along with the deranged idea that making children do anything is some sort of imposition rather than an education.

We live in a world where parents are told that just beyond their sight is a terrible dark place filled with stranger danger, with poisonous plants, with trees that might be climbed, with bicycles ridden dangerously without brakes down steep hills. The idea that an eight year old could safely walk half a mile to a bus stop, get on a bus across town and walk another few hundred yards to school - on his own (or with his nine-year-old sister) would horrify both our fussy authorities and most modern parents. Yet that is what I did every day of school - as did many other children.

And the idea that it infringes a teenager's rights to do an hour's work before school (so as to get a little money for the teenager to spend on sweets, comics, games, trips and records) is such manifest nonsense it makes one wonder what sort of weird old world the people who sit on the European Committee on Social Rights inhabit. I do know, however, that what we see is people who respond to everything they dislike with proposals for a ban, for restrictions, for controls. Instead of an exciting world for children to explore, these people see a world from which children must be protected. Until that day, after the hangover has passed from the 18th birthday party (although our social rights fascists almost certainly disapprove of drinking), when blinking and naive the fully fledged grown up is thrown into that big ole world to make his or her own way.

We damage children more by 'protecting' them, restricting their play, limiting their chances to learn about work and managing their social interactions to the extent that they become stultified, the very antithesis of fun. Everywhere we go there are signs designed to close off the world from children - don't climb trees, don't go on the grass, don't play ball games, don't run, don't sing, don't cross, don't do this, don't do the other. There are no signs that say please play here, have fun, take a risk or two, swim, run, laugh and dance.

Instead we see people who behave like the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - corralling children into a dull, purposeful programme of approved activities monitored by the agents of those authorities. Much of the effort here is dedicated to creating obedient little unchallenging conformists. And what we create are a bunch of snowflakes who demand safe spaces, who cry at criticism and who would rather ban free speech than accept that some people are unpleasant or rude. Disagreement is dealt with not through a handshake and "we'll talk about this again" but by one or other party running off to cuddle a teddy bear while listening to calming whale sounds.

"Ban everything, ban it now - for the children" is one of the most corrupting approaches to social policy ever. It creates weak-willed, dependent people who believe they've some sort of right never to be challenged, never to be upset and certainly never to be offended. And it is used - again and again - to control both the transition to being a grown up and to stop grown up people from doing things of which the controlling authorities disapprove. Don't drink - for the sake of the children. Don't smoke - the children, you know. Don't eat fat, salt or sugary foods - think what you're doing to the children.

None of this protects children. All it does is reinforce again the process of creating supine, subservient masses who, in the manner of Huxley's 'Brave New World', gladly accept authoritarianism - "for the good of the children".