Of Brexit & Mexit: Part 2

The prophet Ecclesiastes once said (in 1,9, to be precise), that there is no new thing under the sun. Was his aphorism right as regards the history of the Tory party?

Well, then. Bernard Levin, while making clear his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, opined that: “There is one, and only one, political position that, through all the years, and all my changing views and feelings, has never altered, never come into question, never seemed too simple for a complex world. It is my profound and unwavering contempt for the Conservative Party.”

Levin had many reasons for his contempt – and delineated them within his peerless columns on a number of occasions – but one among the many was the squalid jockeying for position amongst political nonentities whenever blood was scented. It could be argued that the attitude of the modern Tory minister closely apes that of (here’s the irony) the nineteenth century Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt, described by Churchill as being “ambitious in a calculating style…. With an eye fixed earnestly, but by no means unerringly, upon the main chance.” (It should also be observed that here the resemblance between him and the shy contenders anxious to succeed Mrs May begins and ends, in that – to quote Churchill again – Harcourt was a “genial, accomplished Parliamentarian”, while the lack of accomplishments amongst his Tory successors is something to deplore.)

 Their Tory forebears had form, of course. Beaverbrook wrote that:

“Between October 15 and October 19 (1922) the struggle became less like a battle than a series of single duels. Every mans’ political  soul was required of him. Promises and promotions and honours were sprinkled from Downing Street on the green benches with a hose.”

Beaverbrook was writing about the meeting of Conservative MPs in the Carlton Club, a meeting which was to end the Tory – Lloyd George Liberal Coalition. This was just one of many internal struggles within the Tory party down the years, struggles that have enraged some and delighted others.

We find a more recent example (well, many of them, if truth be told) relayed gloriously in the diaries of the late Alan Clark. Encountering Edwina Currie in the Houses of Commons during the last, febrile days of Thatcher’s government, Clark congratulated her “on the combination of loyalty and restraint that [she showed] in going on television to announce [her] intention to vote against the Prime Minister in the leadership election.” Unsurprisingly, when Currie – whose devotion to self-promotion in the media was impressive even by modern Tory standards – suggested that they “argue this through”, Clark succinctly told her “to piss off”

Moving forwards a further two and a half decades or so, and we encounter Boris Johnson, of whom it could be said that he represents an embodiment of the sentiments that Wodehouse’s Ambrose Wiffen felt about the two small boys with whom he had been saddled:  

“On his first introduction to these little fellows it had seemed to Ambrose that they had touched the lowest possible level to which Humanity can descend. It now became apparent that there were hitherto unimagined depths which it was in their power to plumb”.

I suspect that many observers of the UK political scene would readily apply similar views about BOJO as he moved effortlessly from pulling the rug from under his leader to denouncing those of his colleagues engaged in identical activities.

As May prevaricates and flounders in a mess of Cameron’s making (and compounded by her decision to call an election), we are now in a situation where, like Micawber, her advisors have nothing to offer but advice; As Daniel Finkelstein has recently observed, “The best we can do on Brexit is play for time”

The above quotes have been selected in an attempt to escape from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tedious squabbles about Brexit, and about its unplanned offspring, Mexit. 

Two preliminary definitions

  • Brexit – common term to denote the scheduled departure from European Institutions by the UK.
  • Mexit – author’s term for the possible departure of Mrs May from No 10 before the end of 2017

The state of play is confused even chaotic on both the issue of Brexit and on the issue of Mexit

To this outsider, the proceedings at the heart of HMG can best be summed as the ongoing effing fiasco. In no special order the collective performance of Mrs May and her cabinet colleagues can be described as faltering, floundering, foundering, failing, flailing, frustrated, fulminating, festering, furious and fractious.

Another eff word suggested itself but this is a family blog and the decencies must be observed.  

To simplify matters I shall employ the device of bullet points – a device much loved by manager johnnies.

 1. A Brexit update  from the edge of the margin of the periphery of the action

  • The situation here is not promising from the UK point of view.
  •  The 27 remainer counties appear to be hardening their resolve to make no concessions until the specified preliminary issues are resolved to their satisfaction.
  • As I write, the top level dialogue is running along the following lines: Mrs May – “The ball is in in your court” The 27 remainers – “Oh no it isn’t”  Mrs May – “Oh yes it is” And so on and so on.
  • The drama takes me back many years to the pantomimes of my childhood when the hero/heroine engaged in a brisk boisterous exchange with the audience as to whether or not the baddie was or was not behind him or her. All good stuff but not the ideal way to make progress.

 2. Thoughts on Mexit, again from the edge of the margin of the periphery

  • An impressive show of unity within the Tory Party following its party conference
  • On the debit side –  If a party can’t organise a conference – what can it do?
  • Peering through the fog of mendacity and delusion oozing out of No 10 – there is no obvious successor to Mrs M.
  • The first malcontent to show his head above the parapet – Grant Shapps – was judged by the media pack and by most of his colleagues in the house – to be a lightweight, and he quickly retreated to the obscurity from which he had emerged.
  • Collectively – those who rushed to support the PM were not exactly heavyweights – but what of that?
  • Whatever the wishes of politicians and media moguls – Brexit will continue to dominate the national political agenda until either The Brexiteers prevail and out we go or, by some most welcome development – not easy to discern at the moment – we come to our senses, ditch the Brexiteers and resume  Business as Usual within the EU.
  • The problem facing the Tories and, of rather greater importance, the country, is NOT the choice between Mrs May and AN Other, delightful though the prospect of AN Other ousting Mrs May might be to some us – to let us say – the reassuring self effacing Mr Hammond.
  • The problem facing HMG is NOT to decide between the a hard Brexit and a soft Brexit – both options evaporated when subjected to analysis.
  • The problem faced by the Tory party is quite simple: – Does it maintain its present Brexit policy to its only logical outcome – out we go  OR does it procrastinate and defer and set up enquiries and working groups and independent enquiries – all with the objective of playing for time to allow the nation to come to its senses.
  •  A few Tory MPS – not enough at this stage  – have been heard to whisper that maybe that the nice old timer, Dr Cable, had a good point when he suggested that there ought to be a FIRST referendum to decide if Brexit should proceed on the basis of the terms secured by HMG. This referendum might put the question, “Given the deal arrived at between the EU 27 and HMG – Should the UK stay in the EU or leave?” As with the June 2016 referendum – a simple majority to decide the answer. Alternatively, a  far more sensible way forward would be to put the same question to the House of Commons with the vote to decide if we stay or leave on the basis of the deal. 

 3. A few points for the voters and their elected representatives to consider

  • The word is that most MPs, being mostly of sound mind, would vote to remain within the EU if that option was available to them. This applies to Labour MPs as well as Tory MPs.
  • Opinion polls indicate steadily diminishing support for Brexit as the disagreeable consequences become more apparent.
  • One or other – or maybe both – of these options may in due course become available to the voters as more and more of them belatedly grasp the futility of Brexit, the scale of the deceit of BOJO and the baleful influence of the Murdoch/Dacre propaganda organs.
  • The emerging pattern of voting intentions is that the young are increasingly aware of the strong case to stay in the European Community – and is their future that is at stake.
  • I write these notes in my capacity as an old timer who sees BOJO as the most accomplished political fraud in my long life time – and there is a lot of competition for this dubious award.

 4. A look at the possible outcomes to the Mexit problem 

  •  At the optimistic end of the spectrum – Mrs May to be out by Christmas
  •  At the pessimistic end of the spectrum – Mrs May will still be PM up to the next election

  5. Of David and Boris

  • Those who follow these matters will recall that David Cameron committed the Tory party to hold an in-out referendum on our EU membership should the Tories win the 2015 election.
  • Obviously Cameron had considered this commitment carefully and his conclusion was that he could win the argument and the referendum.
  • He knew – or thought he knew – who were remainers and who were for leavers. Thus Mr Farage was clearly a leaver; Mr Ken Clarke was equally clearly a remainer; Messrs Dacre and Murdoch could be counted on to campaign to leave. And so and so forth as heads were counted.
  • What about BOJO? Aye – there’s the rub. Cameron was obviously counting on the support of BOJO to campaign to remain given that that had been his previous position. However, it has been reported in The Mail on Sunday that Boris only voted for Brexit to spite DC”. What does this little gem tell us about the judgement of Mr Cameron about the fickleness of his colleague of many years? More revealingly – what does it tell us about the judgement of BOJO, a man then as now devoid of any political principle save that of the advancement of BOJO.  

6. The view from Brussels

  •  They, the other 27 countries, believe that they hold all the winning cards. I believe that they are right to hold this view.
  •  I would go further. Their views about what the response of the 27 remainers to the pitiful performance of the representatives of HMG across the table is likely to be broadly as per the riposte of Alan Clarke to Mrs Currie as per the exchange quoted earlier, namely, “Piss off”.

 7. Of Brexit and the Blitz

  • The Daily Mail has reported that “A Think Tank funded by the British Taxpayers sparked fury yesterday by claiming Brexit would wreak similar damage to the Blitz. In an extraordinary intervention the OECD also suggested reversing would boost the economy.”
  • The intervention by the head of the OECD, Secretary General Angel Gurria, was sweet music to my ears,  but not to the ears of Mr Paul Dacre and his raucous well trained pack of journalists. Mr Gurria received the standard Mail treatment handed out to those daring to disagree with Mr Dacre.
  • I suspect that Mr Gurria would be quite relaxed about the predictable abuse heaped upon him.
  • That is apart from the menacing threat  by Tory MP to review (for review, read cancel) the £10 million a year that HMG gives to the OECD.

8. “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” – Karl Marx

  • In the present circumstances the tragedy and the farce are being enacted simultaneously
  • The farce is Mexit
  • The tragedy is Brexit

 9. A closing thought. Help the aged.

  • Give your support to Dr Cable as he struggles to rescue the UK from its self inflicted wounds.
  • Now, more than ever, the UK needs its Cable Guy.

 

Image courtesy of Daily Express

 

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Is there a case to promote a salutary level of unemployment in the incompetent managerial sector?

“The British Disease is now rank ineptitude”
“Whatever the trade or profession it seems to be considered bad form to root out the stupid and the incompetent”
Headlines above a column by Matthew Parris,
The Times, December 3, 2016

Peevish sacked minister to the then Prime Minister, Mr Attlee.
“Why have I been dismissed?”
Mr Attlee, the laconic PM replied – “Because you are not up to the job.”

“The owner of a hair dressing salon who punched one of his staff in the face, dragged him across the salon floor, and kneed him in the groin, said at an industrial tribunal in Birmingham that he had not dismissed him. But the tribunal accepted a claim that such treatment was tantamount to unfair dismissal.”
Extract from a Bernard Levin piece in The Times headed ”How to know when you’re not wanted”

The Parris article was triggered by an earlier Times piece in which  his colleague Melanie Phillips had taken a forensic look at seemingly gross incompetence by the Metropolitan Police. Parris wanted to go further. “From top to bottom in Britain we appear to tolerate major blunders and minor incompetence with a tut tut….”

What followed was a wide ranging review of cock ups in our time covering IT projects, procurement failures by the MOD, and the failure by the BBC over its Digital Media initiative.

Parris went on to “identify three different forces, combining to encourage our fatal tolerance of incompetence. Class hierarchy and educational privilege; trade unionism and employment protection; and the English law of libel.”

He ended his spirited piece by asserting that “Sheer ineptitude is the most important yet the most anonymous, the most damaging yet the least noticed, the most insidious yet the least confronted pf our besetting national sins.”

Sadly Parris allow his anger to cloud his judgement. I will return later to his main points but for now I will content myself with suggesting that he takes time out from producing his own prolific output of written and spoken journalism and read what his own paper, The Times, has to say on ineptitude, and also what The Daily Mail has to say about ineptitude in the public sector and what the Guardian has to say about ineptitude in the private sector.

The papers meet in the middle to excoriate ineptitude in Quangoland.

Let us take the Times to begin with. On December 5, 2016, four letters appeared under the headline: “ Gross incompetency in the British System.” In one of the four letters Mr Werren from Cornwall, a retired civil servant, put his jaundiced view about his former colleagues.

“I came to the conclusion, shared by many colleagues, that the top 20 per cent is on a par with the best in the private sector, 50 per cent  are adequate and the remaining 30 per cent are incompetents.”  

The question arose in my mind: on the basis of what evidence was Mr Werren able to form his views about the private sector?

Another readers’ letter, published on the same day, was from a Mr Richard Duncan, a peevish critic of “banks and utility companies, none of which appears to be able to do anything without making a mess of it”.

As it happens I share his view of these businesses but he rather spoils his case by expressing his disappointment about the way that his complaint to the bank had been dealt with.

“I asked him whether the bank tracked right first time performance as manufacturing companies do (using Six Sigma techniques) and he replied that he had never heard of such a measure. It is hardly surprising that our productivity is so low.”

Might the manufacturing companies that he refers to include the global car makers now engaged in colossal global damage limitation exercise over dodgy performance figures?

 Four more letters, this time under the headline: “Rank ineptitude and the loss of common sense” were published the following day.

Sadly the poor quality of argument expressed in the Monday letters declined still further on the Tuesday.

A Mr Gilmour took Parris to task for describing incompetence as British characteristics and cites examples of cocks ups in Europe. Cock ups in  Europe and indeed across the world doubtless occur but that does not invalidate the central Parris arguments.  

In another letter a Mr Bean – appropriately named – noted that “ Given that 50 per cent of the population have less than average IQ and presumably need gainful employment, I would be interested to hear his opinion as what the nations should do with “thick” people. Matthew Parris can of course speak for himself but I doubt if he would argue that the unfortunately, if accurately, described thick people should be given top jobs in any sector. That would be taking the attempt at levelling the playing field of life  too far.”

So: has anything changed in the intervening 10 months?

In a word – no. The  bunglers are still bungling and being left in their  jobs  to keep up the bad work.  

 I take it that no one – apart, obviously, from the bunglers, believes that bunglers should be left in post.

The media are replete with stories of ineptitude – hence the pieces by Mel Phillips and Matthew Parris.

This raises the point – what SHOULD be done to tackle the perceived widespread problem of managerial ineptitude?

What about a few basic principles to get our improvement plan on the road.

Firstly, the problems are caused by the employment of the managerially challenged in senior positions.  Solve that problem by replacing them with people who are up to the job and one welcome consequence would be that this would not so much trickle down as gush down throughout the organisation.

So – start the purge at or near the top because competent managers will deal as a matter of course with problems posed by the poor performers lower down the organisational pyramid.

A typical exhortation to be – shape up or ship out – clear and crisp.

I do not suggest as robust an approach as that adopted by the hair dresser in the quote from the Bernard Levin article. Good progress can be made without resorting to violence.

I do suggest that those seeking to solve these problems should avoid the approach adopted by Sir John Chilcot in his inquiry into matters arising  from the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No one could accuse Sir John Chilcot of being superficial but any concerted campaign to fire the top tier failures would need a rather more brisk approach.

It is important to stress that we are not talking here of shady managerial practices which verge on the criminal. We are talking about how to tackle woefully inadequate managerial performance.

Nor are we talking about the managerial jobs that are grossly overpaid. It is thought in some quarters that the £40 million or so paid annually to Sir Martin Sorrell verges on the generous but I have not seen anywhere comment that Sir Martin  is not up to the job – merely that he is overpaid.

I am NOT talking about politicians, even though bungling politicians are possibly the most accomplished bunglers of all. This group has to answer to the voters and the voters are often the most unforgiving of all – just ask Mrs May.

A fictitious but not entirely far fetched case study

  • Wayne Rooney obtains possession of the ball in the middle of the pitch during an important match – and to the crowd that has paid good money to be present, all matches are important.
  • He quickly assesses the possibilities of the situation.
  • He then speeds off down the field with the ball under control.
  • Unfortunately he has sped off in the wrong direction towards his own goal.
  • His colleagues are too bemused and aghast to grasp what is going on and do not move to tackle him.
  • At exactly the right spot he steadies himself and fires a perfect shot into the corner of the net.
  • A goal, possibly a nice goal, but sadly against his own side.

Might this incident be sufficient to justify and to trigger the instant awarding of a P45 to  Mr Rooney?

I think so but doubtless there are those who argue for a period of reflection to allow Wayne to rehabilitate himself.

What do you think?

In what follows we are looking at not dissimilar situations in which senior managers display startling ineptitude that ought to be followed by the award of a P45.

The bunglers should be sacked – not in Chilcotian painfully protracted fashion but as soon as possible within the terms of the appropriate disciplinary procedures.

Why the haste? In no special order of importance:-

  • To stop the widespread practice in some sectors of a stitch up in which the bungler leaves with the full retirement package including redundancy and pension  benefits
  • To stop the equally pervasive practice of moving the bungler sideways – and free to cock things up all over again.
  • This approach would benefit the employing organisation in that the other senior managers would – hopefully – get the message that the sack is just that and not an agreeable alternative.

I suggest that there is case to appoint a National P45 Czar tasked with calling in those selected for the treatment. Not a languid Czar after the fashion of Mr -now Sir Eric – Pickles who was notably inactive in his role as anti- corruption Czar – but an experienced and suitably insensitive candidate – why not Lord Sugar who would, I am sure, relish the role?

 A word on procedure

The bungler is called in and informed that his/her gross misconduct and / or gross incompetence  and / or gross negligence has triggered his/her departure.

Keep the session brief in the manner of Clem Attlee to his subordinate after the latter was found wanting.

Proceedings to be as per the relevant sections from the disciplinary  handbook. We have had cases where the sacking drama was not carried out as per script thus adding farce to fiasco.

I recall that Mr Ed Balls mishandled the dismissal of the official in charge of social services in the area where Baby P was killed and his failure allowed the official to avoid what should have been the full consequences of her failure.

The minimum amount of time of time to be allowed for the relevant appeals to be presented.

It is important that the dismissed bunglers are required to contest the outcome in their own time.

The relevant P45, correctly made out, to be handed over to the reluctant recipient.

The sacked bungler is given a few minutes to collect his personal belongings and to be then escorted from the premises.

Here is my starter list of 5 candidates who in my view were all suitable candidates to be shown the door. There is no shortage of suitable candidates and I have no doubt that readers could come up with equally well qualified names.

Readers especially interested in these matters should be sure to read Private Eye – the magazine is a splendid source of information and those selected for treatment by Lord Gnome are frequently rewarded with a P45.

 1. Mr Andrew Marr  – BBC Journalist.

“And a rogue is talking to a bore”
Amended version of the line from Rudyard Kipling – to cover the recent interview between Andrew Marr and Theresa May. 

A few years ago, it emerged that Mr Marr had taken out a comprehensive injunction to prohibit any mention of his not especially interesting extra marital activities. His media colleagues, who were of course, well acquainted with the root cause of the injunction, acquiesced in and obeyed the injunction presumably for a variety of reasons – there but for the grace of God go I, respect for the law, apprehensive about the consequences of violating the law, and so on.

It was left to the dogged persistence of Mr Ian Hislop, Private Eye Editor, to flush out what was common knowledge in social media.

Andrew Marr ought to have been sacked for this squalid breach of the practices of the trade of journalism, but here, as so often elsewhere in the BBC, his lapse was forgiven and he remained in the BBC to interrogate on the Andrew Marr show.

A good example of the  British capacity for selective indignation.

 2. The Vice Chancellor of Bolton University, Mr George Holmes.

Readers will recall that University Vice Chancellors came under fire recently for their propensity to improve their reward packages, this at a time when the higher education sector was pleading for increased funding.

Mr Holmes came out fighting when questioned about his reward package.

“Pity all us poor university chiefs. We are not paid enough” says Bentley driving boss on £220,000″
Daily Mail, August 2, 2017

“I’m worth every penny, says £220k university chief”
The Times, August 2, 2017

Mr Holmes went well beyond the simple asseveration made by Dame Breakwell that she was worth her salary. Holmes said that “we – The Vice Chancellors – are not paid enough,” and a little later “they (Vice Chancellors) should be paid more or they could leave the country”.

His view is that he is worth his huge pay because he is a success.

Private Eye mischievously delved into the claim of the Bolton boy to be a success, and came up with the following.

“Eye readers will recall his failed Doncaster Education City scheme which left Doncaster College with a £1.8m deficit in 2005.”
“An Ofsted report in April found Bolton UTC inadequate in all areas, including governance, and placed it into special measures.”

One has to concede that Mr Holmes is clearly a very successful confidence trickster, the Arthur Daley of the Daubhill and Deane Road areas of Bolton.

Mr Holmes is also a strong candidate to be handed a prompt P45 for misconduct and deceit guaranteed to bring his profession into disrepute and Bolton University into ridicule. 

I suspect that Lord Sugar would relish this particular leave taking.

3. The Senior Police Officer who authorised the search of the home of  Sir Cliff Richard.

 “But now I’ll ask you a question. Do you know, or do you not know, that the law of England supposes every man to be innocent, until he is proved – proved – to be guilty?”
Mr Jaggers to a deferential group of topers in the Three Jolly Bargemen,
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

To summarise: in August 2014, after a complaint to the Met’s Operation Yewtree, Sir Cliff Richard’s house was searched. The search was shown live on the BBC news, the BBC clearly having been tipped off that something was afoot. In the event, there were no arrests (Richards had voluntarily met and was interviewed by members of the constabulary) and subsequently an independent report into the sorry business concluded that South Yorkshire Police had “interfered with [Richard’s] privacy” by the tip off.

 

My contention here is that the conduct of the Senior Policeman who authorised the dramatic search and was responsible for tipping off the BBC amounted to gross misconduct and should have been followed, after appropriate but brisk investigation by the responsible authorities by the award of a P45.

4. Lin Homer — HMRC and Immigration Service Mandarin.

“Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilised world …. he was known as a dependable man  for a fast tax write off.”
Joseph Heller, Catch 22

Lin Homer was the civil service equivalent of Colonel Cargill in Catch 22 but whereas the Colonel was always employed with the specific remit to cock things up, Ms Homer was employed – why? You tell me. Just how inept does a manager have to be to receive the black spot?

This particular Homer’s odyssey was a narrative laced with incompetence, as she sailed joyously from a post as Chief Executive of Birmingham Council (where she was criticised for her role of returning officer in a vote-rigging scandal) to Director-General/Chief Executive of the Immigration Agency (criticised for “catastrophic leadership failure”) to Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport (alleged to have ignored concerns around West Count franchise, resulting in a bill of £100 million) to CEO at HMRC (forgot to collect taxes from big business, “unambitious and woefully inadequate” response to concerns over public service, etc etc).

The action required is clear cut – convene the firing squad – follow the procedure and out she goes.

What could be simpler?

5. The Senior Management of the UK Rail Sector

A bit of background here.

In September 2016, Nick Brown was appointed as the COO of Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs, inter alia, the Southern Rail franchise.

Commenting on Brown’s appointment, Charles Horton, Chief Executive of GTR, said:

“We’re delighted that Nick is joining GTR. He has a first class pedigree in the transport industry, a wealth of experience and a strong track record of leading businesses in the rail and bus sectors. Nick’s broad experience and intimate knowledge of the sector makes him ideally placed to help us achieve our business goals and deliver a better railway and EXCELLENT SERVICE – [my capitals]- for our customers going forward. I’m looking forward to him coming on board and I know he’ll add real value to the business.”

I suspect that many frequent travellers by rail will be dubious about excellent service and would gladly settle for a service that provided trains that run to time untroubled by faulty points and faulty signals and inadequate numbers of staff.

I suspect also that many people will be dubious about making huge funds available for HS2 to managers incapable of maintaining points and signals and adequate staff levels.

The managers campaigning for the funding for HS2 will of course be relaxed about the challenge given the extent to which they are insulated from the normal pressures of their profession.

Suffice it say that the rapid departure of a few senior managers heads would do more to convince those remaining of the need to get it right than would any amount of self calculated performance based bonuses.

Academies: Progress or Regress?

Academy Chiefs in “fat cat” pay and perks row.
Sunday Times headline – August 27, 2017

A report in the Sunday Times by its Education Editor, Sian Griffiths, got this story off to a lively start by noting that “ministers face calls today to curb the ‘fat cat’ salaries of academy school chiefs” after it emerged that more than 100 people in this group earn more than the Prime Minister – with some enjoying lucrative perks such a company BMWs.

The story did not spell out precisely how the news about the reward packages collected by this latest addition to the league of fat cats emerged. It is unlikely that the 100+ bosses in question sent off a round robin to the Sunday Times Editor to put him in the picture. I rather suspect that this particular group, like their equally well rewarded colleagues in our starved of funds higher education system – the University Vice Chancellors – would prefer to do good by stealth and blush to find it fame.

Sian Griffiths unkindly pointed out that “last year the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 63 schools was identified as one of seven poorly performing trusts …..Its chief executive Ian Comfort was reported to be on a salary of £200k last year”

Academy chiefs should be taught a lesson about greed
Sunday Times main editorial, August 27, 2017

The Sunday Times got nicely warmed up as it outlined its concerns. In its editorial it initially adopted a softer tone taking care to adopt the time-honoured approach of stressing that “the expansion of academies has been one of the successes of recent education policy” and it went on to note specific areas where the introduction of academies has been followed by significant improvements in performance. However it then observes, more in sorrow than in anger, that “ the primary purpose of academies must be promotion of excellence, not the inflation of salaries and the granting of perks.”

In the final paragraph of the editorial the rhetoric sank into bathos: “ Academy chains cannot jeopardise the public’s trust by wasting the public money they are given. Otherwise the greedy behaviour of their senior administrators will discredit the whole policy of replacing L.E.A comprehensives with independent academies.”

100 academy school bosses earn more than the Prime Minister
Daily Mail headline – August 28, 2017

The article under this headline covered the same ground as the items in the Sunday Times on the previous day. The Mail article contained a delightfully bland quote from Sir Michael Wilshaw: “Salary levels for the chief executives of some of these multi academy trusts do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies.”

A masterpiece of understatement.

This story struck a chord with me because some 18 months ago I wrote an article on the topic and sent it to Tribune magazine. Sadly – from my point of view – Tribune was unable to find space for the piece and it languished in my rejected file. The re-emergence of the topic as a newsworthy item persuaded me to revisit my rejected piece and to add it to my blog.

My motive for doing so is to be able to claim that I saw coming what has in fact come to pass.

I leave it to Holden Forth readers – please God let there be more than one – to judge if am right.

Here goes.

Academies – The Way Forward
Article sent to Tribune on April 29, 2016

The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has created something of a storm by announcing that she plans to convert all state schools into academies by the end of the current parliament.

Ought this clear statement of intent trigger huzzahs all round as being a giant leap forward or ought we to be wary? What does the plan signify and what are its implications?

I have to confess to being a little out of touch with regard to education. It is now getting on for sixty years since I walked out of school for the last time and those in the know tell me that there have been a few changes in the intervening years.
Have these changes yielded the only outcome that really matters, namely a better educated population? Opinion here is divided with some pointing to the steadily improving year on year results in measurable terms such as school leaving qualifications and the ever increasing number of college graduates. However others of a cynical turn of mind point to the simple expedient of achieving better results by lowering the bar. Which group is right?

“Education Education Education”
Tony Blair’s election exhortation in 1997 that sets the scene nicely

“The vilest abortionist is he who attempts to mould a child’s character”
George Bernard Shaw, Maxim for Revolutions: appendix to Man and Superman, 1903

Don’t teachers have enough problems without being equated with abortionists, and not just bog standard abortionists but the vilest!

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet:”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

To put the point more prosaically – how exactly does reclassifying a typical secondary school as an academy change anything? The teachers are the same teachers, the buildings and locations are the same, and the curriculum is the same.

“At Mr Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall …….Youth are …. instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry” …… and so on and so on and much more besides – a curriculum wide enough to assuage the concerns of the most discerning parent.
Advert for Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

“B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, n-e-y , ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants.”
Nickolas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

An early example of a possible mismatch between the theory and practice of academies.

A stroll down memory lane

“On October 5, 2005 we published a new schools White Paper…. We made it clear that, in time, all schools could and should become self governing trusts, either foundation schools or academies, with far greater flexibility in staffing and pay …the end is quality services irrespective of wealth .. The end is utterly progressive in its values. But the only progressive means are those that deliver the progressive ends.”
Tony Blair, A Journey, 2010

It would seem from the above and from much more in similar vein from the same book that the father of the academies plan is Tony Blair, ably assisted by Andew Adonis and, sadly, impeded in this, as in other areas, by Gordon Brown and his associates. Not surprisingly, confusion reigned.

In 2010 the Labour Years gave way to the Coalition Years. In the main, these were five years of frustration as Tory attempts to usher in a new golden age were thwarted by their Lib Dem coalition partners as soon as any perceived lurches to the right were detected.

In these years one firm voice made itself heard above the raucous clamour, namely that of Michael “Aggro” Gove, as he amended the words of Mrs Thatcher taken from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi – “where there is harmony let there be confrontation” – and there was confrontation.

One issue which caught my eye at the time was the Gove advocacy of Performance Related Pay. Under this system the better the performance of the teacher, the higher the PRP element: this was to be one of the main drivers of the policy to improve standards.

This idea, unlike some of his ideas, is not even sound in theory and a recipe for disaster in practice. It causes far more problems than it solves, and these problems include the obvious one of performance measurement.

Many teachers will tell you that the task of measuring the performance of teachers is far from being a straightforward task, that a whole host of variables such as catchment area, the performance of other teachers, and, a key point, the performance of the head teacher and his senior colleagues, have a crucial impact on pupil performance.

It is alleged that the very act of trying to measure teacher performance is fraught with difficulty, and that arbitrary and inept attempts to do so trigger far more problems than they solve.

The second practical objection to a PRP system for teachers is that it tends to create antagonism and frustration rather than harmony, and that the outcome is not better quality teaching leading in turn to improved pupil performance. Instead, teachers spend too much time and energy focusing on those elements of the job likely to maximise their PRP rather than focusing on the job of getting the best out of their pupils.

Any attempt to keep the PRP element of remuneration confidential will be doomed to failure and its publication inevitably creates bad feeling among the have nots and a furtive sense of embarrassment among the recipients. However, and once again apocryphally, it is alleged that opposition to PRP has come from a dubious alliance between incompetent and/or indolent teachers and those thinkers who argue that performance measurement is intrinsically unsound, because it highlights failure.

The anti-PRP lobby found itself opposed by a formidable alliance of parents wanting to know which schools are getting the best results and of politicians wanting to get the most votes. There are many more parents than teachers, we live in a democratic society and so PRP became a sought after remedy for the academic shortcomings of the young.

I have a better alternative approach – let us call it Plan B.

  • Apply basic systems of performance appraisal on all teachers on say an annual basis and then act on the outcomes so as to weed out those who either can’t or won’t do the job for which they are paid. Any poor report to result in the issue of a formal warning to the pedagogical back sliders to get their act together or else.
  • Inadequate teachers turning in consistently poor performances to be shipped out to pastures where they can safely graze in jobs where the damage created will be greatly reduced.

On the plus side and for the good performers – the reward element is that you get to keep your job  (Aggro Gove was eventually winkled out of his education brief and replaced by the supposedly emollient Nicky Morgan.)

Let us return to Mr Blair and his journey.

Mr Blair clearly favoured the phasing out of comprehensives and their replacement by academies. His pages on this topic (as on all the other pages) were peppered with his favourite political words – modernise, progressive, radical and reform. Sadly he was long on slogans and short on detail.

I shall now examine what I see as just two of the weaknesses of the academy model, namely the confusion of core managerial responsibilities coupled with the propensity of some – not all – “academy” leaders to focus more on maximising their terms and conditions rather than on the core objective and task of ensuring that ALL the pupils are educated to the full extent of their capabilities.

The gist of the case for academy schools was and remains that the transition from a school controlled by its local authority to a school controlled by Head Teachers and a range of unspecified advisers, supporters and associates and hangers on arranged into a Trust WILL raise standards. The thrust is long on slogans and dubious statistics, but short on solid evidence.

I have argued elsewhere that the very word Trust should send out alarm bells and those anxious about Trusts should instead use the word dubieties so as to flush out the ambiguities at the heart of Trusts.

The academy advocates argue that the act of removing the dread dead hand of an alliance of political opportunists and their satellite and servile bureaucrats, and their replacement by a new breed of super heads will usher in a era of – of what?

Swift impressive demonstrable transition to the sunny uplands characterised by radical modern progressive improvements – that’s what.

I am not convinced by this vision.

Let me briefly digress with a few words about what has happened at the very pinnacle of education in the UK. I have commented elsewhere on the unseemly behaviour of the Vice Chancellors of our institutions of higher education in recent years.
Our Vice Chancellors are working tirelessly to loot the system, but one unfortunate consequence of their zeal for personal enrichment may well have been a decline in academic standards – there are only so many hours in the day, and looting can be tiring and time consuming.

Time was when such competition as existed between Universities was limited to purely academic matters such as which University was the most highly rated for electrical engineering, which for medicine and rather more muted, which for sociology.
Sadly that is not so today, and academic competition has been replaced by unseemly competition between Vice Chancellors as to who can secure the most agreeable arrangements in terms of pay and perks, with academic considerations out of the picture.

Again, sadly the absence of any effective constraints other than self regulation as to the size of the reward packages for vice chancellors resulted inevitably in packages that have grown fatter and fatter, whilst often coinciding with a simultaneous fall in performance.

The Daily Mail led the charge in its assaults on the acquisitive propensities of our Varsity Vice Chancellors but the predictable response of this grasping group has been to lie low until the Mail selects another greedy group to belabour.

So – beware of leaving any group with unfettered access to public funds because some of them will take full advantage of the fragility of the system and, confident in the knowledge that by the time the public latches on to the looting they will be over the hills and far away, with their riches judiciously located away from and outside any possible claw back.

Does this melancholy story of the decline and fall of our former centres of educational excellence have any lessons for us in terms of the Tory plan to convert all schools into academies.? Very much so.

“Parachuting a ‘super head’ into a school causes havoc in the long term and is only a quick fix for exam results, academics warn in a report seen by the Times…….. Millions are spent on super heads salaries and on consultants hired to repair the damage after the heads leave, researchers (at the Centre for High Performance at Oxford and Kingston Universities) said”.
The Times, March 29, 2016

“Academy head defends £360k pay”
The Times, January 27, 2015.

Sir Greg Martin earned £161,000 from managing a Sports Centre on the site of the school that he served as head teacher in addition to his head teacher’s salary of £201,000. MPs expressed anger at the scale of his earnings and accused him of failing to understand the concept of public service.

The MPs could not have been more wrong. Sir Greg understood only too well the concept as outlined by George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall fame: “I seen my opportunities and I took em”.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s plan to turn all schools into academies continues to unravel as another multi academy trust falls foul of Ofsted. The Education Fellowship Trust runs – is “runs” the mot juste? – four secondary schools and eight primary schools … last month it received six pre termination notices from the Department of Education threatening to take two secondary and four primary schools away from it due to unacceptably low performance….. The Education Fellowship Trust responded by attacking Ofsted….”
Private Eye April 29, 2016

The above cautionary tales indicate that all is not going well in the drive to transform all our ugly duckling state schools into beautiful academy swans – but these may be just teething problems and in due course all will be well.

The declared aim of the academy propagandists is, as noted, to transfer control of schools from LEAs to a new breed of Super heads. These stars will be required to combine the existing onerous responsibilities of the job with additional heavy managerial responsibilities over staff pay, staff terms and conditions, and, crucially, powers to arrange school mergers and acquisitions which could benefit the various players in the new game.

It is that last feature that should trigger loud alarm bells. Imagine a modern version of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, a venerable head master of the old school and one dedicated to achieving the noblest aims of his profession. The ardent apostles of the academy solution would have us divert our latter day Arnold from his previous beloved objectives and priorities and, instead, to examine the scope to merge with Winchester, or to acquire Harrow or to take over Eton, or, if all else fails, to share some facilities with Neasden High School. His additional responsibilities hold in prospect an agreeable combination of riches beyond any attainable via the old honoured practices and, a key factor, escape from the disagreeable and tiresome features of being a head teacher.

Let me speculate about the probable consequences of a mass transfer of schools from Local Authority control to management by super heads. I predict that the teaching profession will be invaded by a Tsunami of Arthur Daleys masquerading as pedagogues, but in reality in hot pursuit of a quick buck, the sort of quick buck easily acquired by those familiar with the no man’s land of the public-private sector, a world where the public funds the business and the private operators scoop up the profits, if any. We are looking at an educational version of the City of London populated and run by spivs for spivs, all avid for frenetic activity in the business of mergers and acquisitions.

More prosaically, my concerns about this switch to academies centre on the following points.

  • Arrangements have been in place for many years whereby the control of schools rests with democratically elected local authorities. My contention is that to the extent that these bodies are failing to discharge their responsibilities then the public has the means to take effective actions.
  • My main concern is that this transition to academies will divert the attention of Head Teachers away from the core task of providing the best possible education for all pupils to one of casting about for ways of maximising their own reward packages. In short I see a replay of the squalid farce that has been enacted in Higher Education with the shameless looting by Vice Chancellors of the unguarded public funds.
    I see a significant number of Academy CEOs plunging into wholly unnecessary restructuring in order to line their pockets at the expense of pupils and of the public.
  • I would go further and predict that if the dash to academies wins out, in a few years time the standard of education will suffer a further decline, a decline that is wholly avoidable.

So: should primary and secondary education remain primarily in the public sector with management and control remaining with local authorities or should they be privatised via academies? As usual there is some confusion with regard to the location of battle lines with some Tory Councils anxious to repel the invaders from their territory whilst there are some Labour supporters ready to go along with academies where there is evidence of local support.

I am suspicious as to the motives of the latter group but that may be due to my innate scepticism.

As I see it the main questions and suggested answers as the debate moves on are:

If the preponderant feeling is to stay as we are – so be it. Let the teachers teach and let the head teachers focus on the time honoured priority of setting and maintaining high and improving performance standards. Let the democratically elected Local Education Authorities do the rest as per the existing arrangements.

If the outcome is an unstoppable momentum to academies – what then?

  • Who will foot the bill for all the changes? You, the public.
  • Who will call the shots? The academy CEOs who make it to the top.
  • Who will benefit? The academy CEOs with their massively enhanced reward packages.
  • Who will suffer – the school children as those responsible for their education concentrate on the agreeable activities of looting the system.

Conclusion

A concluding prediction (made back in April, 2016)

Let me suggest a plausible media item in the event of a victory for the academy cause:

A beaming CEO welcomed the arrival of the new era, an era in the course of which he managed to quadruple his reward package. On the debit side he regretted that unforeseen difficulties had resulted in many pupils leaving school unable to read and write, but he stressed that lessons will have been learned – by the senior management, if not by the pupils.

It was and remains a pity that the strong case against academies was unable to compete with the academy spivs masquerading as modernising progressive radical reformers.

Image: Thomas Arnold courtesy of Rugby School

Brexit and Mexit

Brexit – common term to denote the scheduled departure from European Institutions by the UK.
Mexit – author’s term for the possible departure of Mrs May from number 10 Downing Street within the next few months.

Mrs May is as adamant that the UK will leave Europe as she is that she will remain in No 10 until well into the 2020s. In the following notes I will discuss the current states of play of and the prospects for these two key prime ministerial objectives.

Parliament broke up for its summer holidays back in July, and since then, Brexit and Mexit  have occupied and pre-occupied the UK media.

There is clearly a degree of overlap between the two issues – the state of play in the Brexit talks between the UK and the EU, and  the survival prospects of Mrs May as Prime Minister.

“It’s no use to start talking unless you’ve made up your mind what you’ll do if the other fellow says no.”
Ernest Bevin

Those now leading the Brexit discussions for the UK should note the wise words of Ernie Bevin, one of the most accomplished UK negotiators of the last 100 years.

Mr Davis appear to labour under the misapprehension that a few crisp insults will be a more than adequate substitute for a closely reasoned case.

“Belay that talk, John Silver…This crew has tipped you the black spot in full council, as in dooty bound; just you turn it over as in dooty bound, and see what’s wrote there.” “Thanky, George,” replied the sea cook. “You always was brisk for business, and has the rules by heart, George. Well, what was it anyway?  Ah – Deposed- that’s it, is it?”
Dramatic scene from Stevenson‘s Treasure Island describing a coup – which failed – among the mutinous pirates.

A similar scenario cannot be ruled out as we enter that most worrying and unpredictable of seasons – the party conference season. Those Tory MPs who are worried about their prospects under the shaky flaky leadership of Mrs May – maybe the great majority of them bearing in mind the unforeseen cull of a significant number of former Tory MPs on June 8 – will have been busily conspiring in recent months about the timing of the handing of the black spot to Mrs May

Mrs May addressed the following remarks to the Tory Party conference back in October, 2002.

So the direction of policy will be clear. And our plans will be in place for next year’s elections. Yes we’ve made progress. But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to government. There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the nasty party.

“I know that’s unfair. You know that’s unfair but it’s the people out there we need to convince – and we can only do that by avoiding behaviour and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents. No more glib moralising, no more hypocritical finger-wagging. We need to reach out to all areas of our society.”

I suspect that Mrs May is about to find out at first hand just how nasty the Conservative party can be when it sets its collective mind to the task.  

What are the odds on the black spot being passed to Mrs May before the end of October? My informants tell me that you can get 11/2 on that outcome – not a racing certainty by any means, but still a cause of concern for Mrs May. 

Before I get down to detail let me set out my own views – after all this is my blog.

I hope that even now it is not to late for the UK voters to grasp the enormity of the folly of their collective decision on June 23rd , 2016 – Black Thursday – and somehow or other get that decision reversed.

I have no qualms about supporting an all party grouping convened and organised solely to achieve this critical political outcome.

I remain an unrepentant Remainer.

 A snapshot of the state of play on Brexit

Just as Mrs May fears the presentation of the black spot by her Tory party colleagues – so Britain should fear receiving the black spot from and by Brussels.

What would you do if you were in power in Brussels?

I can only speak for myself, but my exasperated response would be to attach a large EU hand to the seat of our British trousers and an equally large EU hand to our British coat collar and apply the old heave ho – Get out and stay out.

Let the British try for once – just once – to see ourselves as the Europeans see us.

Might it not be the case that we are perceived as a collective pain in the backside – a combination of party poopers, disruptive pupils,  soccer hooligans, and (by some at least)as the running dogs of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre?

My sympathies here are largely with the Brussels boys but I need to be careful to avoid being labelled as being of the Quisling tendency. I don’t need that sort of obloquy at my time of life.

Where are we on Mexit?

“Depend on it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Dr Sam Johnson

Well it would, wouldn’t it?

“If it were done when ‘tis done then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”
Macbeth reassuring himself that in murder speed is of the essence.

 Points to note on the Mexit issue include, firstly, that supporters of Mrs May – there are still a few about – are using their media influence to press the  case for TINA (There Is No Alternative). TINA was made popular by Mrs Thatcher at a time when the alternatives on offer were similarly bleak. However I suspect that the instinct for sheer political survival – always a powerful motive – will persuade significant numbers of Tory MPs to call time on Mrs May.   To put the matter into terms that would have been clear to our seafaring ancestors – a Black Spot faction will emerge to press the dreaded verdict into the sweaty palm of our Prime Minister. 

 Sceondly, will Mexit, if and when it happens, be a hard Mexit or a soft Mexit?

“Now, Grimes, you’ve got to behave like a gentleman…. Were going to leave you alone for half an hour. There’s your revolver. You know what to do.” Luckily they left a decanter of whisky in there with me..”
Decline and Fall. Evelyn Waugh

 I have opined elsewhere that a soft Mexit would entail supplying Mrs May with a loaded revolver and a bottle of Scotch, and relying on her to do the decent thing.  Under the terms of a hard Mexit the Scotch would be removed from the table.

“Subs – please check that I’m still here at the time of going to press.” Mrs T. May ( Headmistress)
Anxious request from Mrs May at the end of the spoof Private Eye column  — Sept 8- just before the start of the conference season. 

Brexit – what next ?

The news coming out of the Brexit talks grows more and more grim with each negotiating session. David Davis has mastered the art of presenting bad news with a smile, a smile that grows more and more forced as the discussions proceed.

His opponents across the table – for that is what they are – become more and more aware that they hold far stronger cards, and that they – his opponents – are quite relaxed about the excoriating comments about them in the Daily Mail with strong support from the Murdoch press. It is doubtful if  denunciation by Paul Dacre carries the same threat in Brussels as it does throughout the UK.

I am unsure about the significance of the latest Brexit policy statements coming from the Labour Party – and I am sure that my uncertainty is shared by Mr Corbyn – but what of that?

In terms of political strength, Mr Corbyn’s position ahead of and during the Labour Party conference is  much more powerful than that of Mrs May the following week in that all he has to do is to say nothing in a suitably vague key way and leave the making of mistakes to Mrs May.

The position of Mrs May ahead of and especially during the Tory party conference the following week is much more precarious and her very survival as Prime Minister is at risk because of her performance across a wide range of issues.

Theresa May actions sure to trigger a growl when mentioned in Tory circles include:

  • Her decision to call the June 8 election after stating that she would not do so.
  • Her abysmal management of the Tory election campaign.
  • Her belated recognition that there are a lot of old timers on the voting register and many of these were not impressed by her cavalier policy announcements about state support for dementia sufferers.
  • Her elevation to key election strategy roles for Nick (Rasputin) Timothy and Fiona Hill.
  • Her interminable reference to the strength and stability of her leadership.

Most telling of all was her miscalculation in calling the election.

Her predecessor, Mr Cameron, got it badly wrong when he agreed to hold the in/out referendum and he duly walked the plank.

Equality between the sexes is all the rage so why not a plank for Mrs May – low heels recommended for the trek down the plank.

 A word about the divorce settlement

It has become normal practice to describe the financial settlement that is expected to be a feature of Brexit as a divorce settlement with a disconcertingly wide range of possible amounts being bandied about.

BOJO was less than helpful here when he said that those in EU seeking amounts at the top end of the scale could go and whistle for the requested sums.

I have no idea how this matter might be progressed and under whose jurisdiction? Might the incumbent in No 10 at the time of the settlement be required to sign a cheque for say £50 billion or maybe the EU would allow us to settle the agreed amount on the basis of a Hire Purchase arrangement. 

Another word about the divorce discussions

I gather that some influential people are putting the case for the UK to remain in some key EU institutions – say within the Customs’ Union. In other words they argue that the EU could be persuaded to allow the UK to cherry pick which parts they would accept and which parts they would relinquish.

To develop  the divorce metaphor  – this is rather like a partner in divorce proceedings seeking agreement with the other half of the failed marriage if he/she could see his/her way clear to allowing a business as usual arrangement on bedroom activities to continue whilst other matters were being resolved.

In short to allow the terms of the contract covered by the  “with this body I thee wed” clause to carry on into the future.

Yet another wonderful prospect opening up for  the legal profession.

 Some Blue Sky thinking

Mr Blair was wont to talk about the need for blue sky thinking – new, out-of-the-box thinking. If ever there was a time for blue sky thinking that time is now.

The word is that an overwhelming majority of MPs would vote to reverse Brexit if that option was available to them.

How can those of us who wish to remain bring about a means of securing  that outcome?

On the subject of Blair – he and the other three living ex – Prime Ministers all argued strongly in support of remaining, and all have stuck firmly to that view. However there is no consensus about how that agreeable choice might be made available.

I gather that Dr Cable is attempting to develop a plan under which there would be a FIRST referendum to endorse or reject the terms that are finally arrived at. That seems to me to be a most promising approach, one to be supported and nourished. An approach which will grow in appeal as the reality of Brexit becomes clearer and gloomier.

So – let’s hear it for Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron – their country needs them.

A plausible political modus operandi – procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate again until we as a nation get the message and reluctantly accept that Brexit was a bad idea endorsed by a bewildered and battered electorate.

The happy ending might be that we get one more chance to redeem ourselves – can we please stay if we promise to be good?

One last point – The hostile exchanges between Mr Davis and his EU opponents can be compared in rancour with the robust exchanges of  views between Mr Trump and Mr Kim Jong-UN.

Is that really what we want?

Surely this great nation of ours can do better than that.

Image courtesy of Daily Star

Donald J Trump – A Presidential Progress Report

“We here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Gettysberg Address; Abraham Lincoln 1863

A total of 154 years – or, if you prefer, seven score years and fourteen – have elapsed since Lincoln delivered his memorable words.

In the following notes I shall look at the possibility that, under President Donald J. Trump, the Gettysburg soldiers may prove to have died in vain, and that the prospects for government of the American people by the American people for the American people might be looking shaky.

“Every nation gets the government it deserves”
AND 
“In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve “

Both quotes have been attributed to Joseph De Maistre, a political philosopher who advocated not dissimilar policies to those of Mr Trump, that is, autocratic and abrasive.

I take the view that the former quote is unfair – it can hardly be argued that the long suffering people of North Korea deserve the various members of the Kim Jong family that have elbowed their way to power.

It can and indeed is being argued that the people of the USA voted Mr Trump into office and that they should suffer the consequences of their democratic choice.

“I need not point out what happens invariably in democratic states when the national safety is menaced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions, convert themselves  into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity. Lincoln, Roosevelt (T) and Wilson come instantly to mind.”
HL Mencken – Notes on Democracy 

What might Mencken have had to say about the present incumbent of the White House? I suspect that Mr Trump would be thoroughly excoriated mainly on the grounds that some of the worrying problems and tensions inside the great republic and around the world are largely the creation of Donald “Quick Draw” Trump.

Not that any amount of excoriation is likely to puncture Mr Trump’s famously thick skin.  One of his detractors – no shortage of those – has averred  that the only sensitive part of DJT is the tip of his organ of generation.

“Trumpery” – showy and worthless stuff: rubbish: ritual foolery.
Chambers English Dictionary

Thus far Mr Trump appears to be living up to his name.

Some matters arising  during the first few months of the Trump regime

The administration of Donlald Trump has been nothing if not fascinating  thus far. I am sure I am one of many in the USA and in Europe who wake up every morning eager to pick up the latest Trump news story, and anxious to grasp its significance.

His presidency has one consistent feature: excitement.  What will the fellow say next?

Rather more worrying – what will the fellow do next?

Examples from the brief Trump reign include:

  • The tetchy Trump phone call to Mr Malcom Turnbull, the Prime Minister of Australia. It appears that Mr Trump wished to renege on a commitment made by Mr Obama to accept a small number of asylum seekers from Australia.  Not a promising start in the search for peace and stability in the Pacific region.
  • The ill thought out ban on travellers from a handful of mainly Muslim countries.
  • The declared intention to proceed with the building of a wall to keep out illegal migrants from Mexico. (Whatever happened to welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?)
  • The raucous assertion that the USA had been short changed in some key international trade deals and that allegedly poor agreements would be either renegotiated or cancelled.
  • The confusion in the White House over who said what to whom in the Kremlin. At least one aspect of the confusion has been clarified and Mr Mike  Flynn has walked the plank. It is doubtful if White House policy towards those who let down the regime has got to the point where Mike  Flynn faces the prospect of the same fate as that meted out to Mr Kim Jong-nam, the erring half brother of the mighty Kim Jong -un.  Mr Jong-nam was despatched from Kuala Lumpur onto a rather longer journey than he had originally planned.

The relationship between Mr Trump and Mr Putin is said to remain civilised and the two men did exchange a brusque handshake at the recent meeting of world leaders.  I for one rejoice that this is so. I cannot  think of any other duo on the planet that I would prefer to see on speaking terms than Messrs Trump and Putin, given what might, just might,  happen were Mr Trump to add Mr Putin to his ever lengthening black list.

What about the matters at the heart of the furore in the USA about which Americans said what and met whom from the Kremlin?  It is interesting to compare the Russian approach with the American approach. Senior Kremlin officials have long argued that discretion is all in espionage matters, whereas the American preference, or at least the Trump preference, appears to be for transparency. We did nothing wrong and if we did – so what!

The word is that various electronic cloak and dagger men from both sides have been making mischief with each others’ computers.  I had always understood that this was the raison d’etre of the espionage community. If not – just what do the Cheltenham boys and girls get up to?

Anyway, a couple more examples of interest:

  • Mr Trump and Mr Kim, he of the odd haircut from North Korea – a rum duo at work here. Their widely publicised exchanges of views rather resemble playground exchanges between small boys from yesteryear – “Just you cross that line and see what happens.” It is a sign of the precarious times that Mr Kim manages to project himself as the more irresponsible of the two raucous disputants.
  • The Virginia disturbances over the Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville. On the one side – those who wish the statue to be removed because Lee had led the confederate army against the union army in a war fought by the south to retain slavery. On the other side – those on the far right who wish the Lee statue to remain in situ. DJT got himself into difficulties by allocating equal responsibility to each of the warring factions. A more reflective and prudent president would simply have said that if the retention or removal of statues were to be resolved by today’s standards, there would be very few statues left in place.  Where would it all end? Good for the global sculpting sector but disruptive across public squares around the world.

The qualifications of Mr Trump to become President

As a politician

“Whatever one may think about democratic government, it is  just as well to have practical experience of its rough and slatternly foundations. No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections….. Dignity may suffer, the superfine gloss is soon worn away.”
Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries, 1937.

Winston Churchill writing about Lord Rosebery  who, like Mr Trump, had  no previous experience of democracy in action. However and in addition Lord Rosebery had no enthusiasm for democracy in action whereas Mr Trump is as combative and as confrontational when wearing his political hat as he was when wearing his CEO hat.

Donald Trump had had no experience of public office nor of the democratic process before he contested, first the primaries to decide who would be the Republican candidate, and then the greatest election of all for the presidency of the United States.

There may be some overlap and some similarities between the work of the President of the United States and the work of running one of the largest companies in the world. Sadly Mr Trump is learning, not very quickly, some of the differences.

Trump as a businessman

“Bankers who are owed millions of dollars by Donald Trump .. Agreed yesterday to keep him out of the bankruptcy courts … all but one bank signed an agreement .. to provide a $20Million bridging loan enabling Mr Trump to pay interest on the bonds ….over the next 30 days the banks will complete the paperwork for the balance of a $65 million rescue package …
Bernard Levin in The Times, 1990.

The thrust of the Levin article was to praise the only bank that could not see its way clear to help Mr Trump to surmount his liquidity problems.

Mr Trump had form even then.

No American voter could say that he/she had not been aware that Mr Trump was just the latest in the long line of American business leaders who had earned the doubtful collective soubriquet of The Robber Barons, a term used back in the 19th century for entrepreneurs  specialising in the robbing of the poor – the group included but was by no means confined to Messrs Carnegie, JP Morgan, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.

Mr T has never been one to hide his light under a bushel – it would take an outsize bushel to hide the bright light permanently emanating from DT.

I recall suffering a strained neck when, on a visit to New York, I gazed up and up and up at the Trump tower building – the building bearing the Trump name had to be the biggest and brashest in town.

And yet Donald Trump – a complete outsider in political terms – has succeeded not only in business  but now to the highest position in the land, indeed in the world, by a combination of bluster, bullying and bribery.

Reactions to the human firecracker that is President Trump

These range across the political spectrum from horror and consternation on the liberal left to uneasy and uncertain support within the  Republican party.

I quoted HL Mencken earlier and repeat the quote now – “All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions , convert themselves …. Into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity.”

What obstacles might DJT encounter as he seeks to tighten his grip on the American people and on their long cherished institutions?

One encouraging development – at least from the Liberal Left standpoint – has been the readiness – indeed the eagerness – of some members of the American legal profession to confront Mr Trump. Lawyers have been noted since the human race began to make rudimentary social arrangements, so to arrange matters that one outcome of all legal proceedings will be their own enrichment.

“It is likewise to be observed that this society (lawyers) hath a peculiar cant and jargon of their own, that no other mortal can understand, and wherein all their laws are written, which they take special care to multiply; whereby they have wholly confounded the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong, so that it will take thirty years to decide whether the field left me by my ancestors for six generations belongs to me or to a stranger three hundred miles off”
Jonathan Swift:- A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

American lawyers have brought to the very pinnacle of perfection the time honoured practice of confounding the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong.

As noted there is well founded anxiety across the USA about what might happen and about what might not happen under Trump.

Across the USA, opinions are divided, but on one point all agree – the American legal profession will prosper as never before as the combination of Trump’s reckless and  ill thought out executive orders on the one hand and the rapacious lawyers on the other hand prepare for and engage in legal battles within the Byzantine complexity of the American legal systems.

Thank God for lawyers, upholders of, if not freedom, then of procrastination.

I predict that the four years of Trump presidency – please God the ONLY four years – will be over before some of the legal battles that he has spawned have got to the second legal base – and we then will be back to Business as Usual.

Is there a parallel between the Trump success and subsequent turmoil in the USA and the Brexit success and the subsequent turmoil in the UK?

Some commentators have argued that there are similarities and that in the main the similarities are based on the rejection of the established / familiar electoral options and the acceptance of alternative options that oppose the elite professional class.

In the UK this resulted in the Brexit vote. In the USA this resulted in the election of Mr Trump.

In both cases the electoral outcome has already triggered massive change and turmoil, with the prospect of much more of the same to come.

In The USA, Mr Trump shrewdly perceived the potential for change that had opened up as the result of the decline in the manufacturing sector, with the transfer of the work abroad, always to countries with a lower wage economy. Like the shrewd businessman he is, he spotted the electoral gap in the American rust belt and exploited it ruthlessly – it was possibly THE major factor in his narrow victory.

In the USA, enough voters disillusioned by and with their traditional parties opted for the candidate that promised to restore their jobs and living standards.

The issues in the EU referendum were rather more confused, and I for one got the result wrong.

I failed to spot that Mr Cameron had made a catastrophic error in calling the referendum and that some senior figures in the Tory Party would take advantage of the confusion to further their careers regardless of the economic and social consequences for the UK.

However, many of the same promises about restoring well-paid jobs and improving living standards were made to the British voters during the referendum campaign.  And these arguments may in part at least explain the Leave vote in parts of the UK that had the most to gain from staying in the EU.

Mr Trump and the social media

“The Trump world was more like – let’s say a lot of different things, they don’t even need to be coherent, and observe through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works —” 

“That the  Republicans didn’t lose the can  be attributed in large measure  to their expert manipulation of social media– Donald Trump is our first Facebook president”

“What our Facebook president has discovered is that it actually pays only to please some of the people some of the time. The rest simply don’t count.”

The above quotes were taken from “How he used Facebook to win”  by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017 .

The addiction of Mr Trump to social media in general and to Twitter in particular had long been noted, and this aspect of his communications preferences became more and more pronounced as the USA presidential campaign proceeded.

Veteran pundits predicted that his addiction to the unusual – indeed unprecedented communications approach via social media would decline in the unlikely event that he were to win the election.

He did win but his preference for communication via Twitter has, if anything, increased. His terse pronouncements add daily to the delight of his followers and to the dismay of his opponents – numerically roughly equal.

A word about charisma

As I understand it many of the internal differences in the UK Labour Party centre on the alleged inadequacy of Mr Corbyn for the task in hand. It is said by some that he lacks charisma.

You can’t say that about Mr Trump or Mr Farage or Mr Blair or, to go back a few years, Mr Leon Trotsky.

Is charisma  really – is it really – what is required in these delicate and fractious times?

The Donald J Trump show

On February 16 of this year Trump convened a meeting in the White House, ostensibly to announce to the press the latest addition to his cabinet.

The meeting was conducted along unusual lines. In essence it was a  memorable confrontation between the media on the one side and Mr Trump on the other. Trump wanted to get his detestation of the press off his chest and he proceeded to do so.

Some president – some chest.

Having announced the name of the newcomer Mr Trump spent the next hour and a quarter engaged in a boisterous confrontation with his media opponents.

It was all good knock about stuff with Trump on the front foot throughout as he portrayed his critics as being a bunch of Un-American lying bastards – or words to that effect. To his chagrin the BBC’s Jon Sopel caught both barrels.

“Not truthful at all: liars every one of them to the very backbone of their souls”
Thus Don Juan to The Devil in Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw

The views of Don Juan about the friends of the Devil are along the same lines as those of Mr Trump about the media – verging on the critical.

I suspect that the  USA and elsewhere – right across the world-  is about  to experience a great deal more abuse from Trump as he gets into his stride.

For my part I will continue to hope for the best and prepare – but how? – for the worst.

Unorthodox human resources arrangements in the Trump inner circle

Trump has not yet grasped that political appointments need rather more careful thought than was the case for his business appointments. Poor judgements by Trump in the latter category could and were  resolved by the speedy issue of the American equivalent of a P45.

He has carried his sharp decisive approach into The White House to the consternation of his supporters and the huge delight of his adversaries.

In the space of a few months he has appointed a succession of  people to key roles within his administration with each appointment being accompanied by a warm endorsement of the commendable virtues and suitability of  each of the newcomers.

I am not sure as to the shortest time lapse between the announcement of the appointment and the more muted announcement of the departure – suffice it to say that some of the newcomers on arrival may have met themselves on the way out.

The revolving door metaphor hardly does justice to this series of White House comings and goings; a more appropriate analogy would be the scene in The Godfather when opponents of Michael Corleone were machine gunned in a revolving door.

Stop Press

I was thinking of a few suitable concluding words when DTJ did the job for me as he strode to a podium to announce a policy change by the USA about Afghanistan.

The gist of his announcement was as follows:

  • His manifesto pledge to pull the USA out of Afghanistan was to be replaced by an equally clear pledge to send additional forces with the crystal clear remit to kill terrorists.
  • The task of rebuilding Afghanistan would be the responsibility of the Afghan government.
  • The Government of Pakistan must stop harbouring terrorists – or else.

Er – that’s about it.

Short and not particularly sweet, but current and aspiring terrorists in the area would be well advised to take note.

Image courtesy of CNN

 

A Nice Little Earner – Living it up in Higher Education’s Arthur Daleyland

“It’s the same the ‘ole world over
Its the poor what gets the blame
It’s the rich what ‘as the pleasure
Ain’t it all a blooming shame”
Popular Victorian Song, especially amongst the poor. 

I wrote the following words about senior academics back in 2001

It would be appropriate here to put in a word about the management methods employed by University and College administrators. This group saw what was going on in the privatised utilities sector and they saw that it was good. They followed suit by pushing up staff productivity by the simple expedient of pushing up student numbers whilst holding staff numbers constant. They directed significant fractions of the cost per head savings into their own reward packages. The academic admin boys have hit the jackpot. Their jobs are much less demanding than those of the staff they employ, and their reward packages much better.

Well done, Vice Chancellors.

Are you, like me, a little nervous about the longer term prospects in this sector? Can we go on like this with the numbers expanding remorselessly and the academic standards going who knows where and the top brass getting richer, much richer, between the sporadic episodes of exposure in the media? A difficult question to answer. Are standards in tertiary education rising inexorably like those in secondary education? Or are they in decline?

Sadly I suspect that the latter is the case and, in gloomy mode, I see the prospect at some not-too-distant time of a decision being taken at the highest level – say the European Court of Human Rights – to award every UK citizen a starred first from Oxbridge in the subject of his or her choice from the college of his or her choice. The contest for most popular college and subject would make for splendid television and would give useful and gainful employment to the usual media personalities. At the end of the exercise all our Universities and Colleges of Further Education could then be shut down, and, at a later date, a modest percentage of them re-opened, possibly after fumigation, under more time honoured disciplines and arrangements.

I added the following words in 2015

A letter appeared in today’s Times (Feb 2, 2015) written collectively by the English members of the Universities UK Board. The admin boys were worried that any move to reduce university tuition fees would “affect the quality of students’ education”. This commendable altruism did not appear to have been a consideration back in March, 2014 when a number of reports appeared in The Times deploring the acquisitiveness of this group. Headlines at the time included “Stop university fat cats lining their pockets,” (March 12), and “Salaries still soaring for university chiefs “ (April 4).

There was a sad development a few months later – a few senior admin boys, deeply wounded by their portrayal as greedy parasites – opted for the safety and tranquillity of early retirement on their enhanced pensions.

Small wonder that a sense of disillusion may have been discerned in the lower ranks.

Have things changed since?

Let us see what The Daily Mail and The Times have had to say in the last week or so about the penury being endured by University Vice Chancellors.

“University Chiefs are riding the gravy train“, says Oxford Bursar
The Times – August 4

David Palfreyman, the bursar in question – from New College – was quoted as saying that the salaries at the university were now grossly excessive.

He went on to say – and I admire his courage in doing so – “Despite the Vice Chancellor now being paid far more than in the past and being assisted by a cadre of costly helpers, few in Oxford would be able to detect any improvement in our governance and management”

“University pressure cooker is about to blow”
A war against steep tuition fees and overpaid vice chancellors will break out this autumn unless ministers act now
Iain Martin – The Times – August 3.

Mr Martin – like Dr Slammer in The Pickwick Papers – is furious, but not wholly convincing. Vice Chancellors, being sharp cookies, will have grasped that new stories will sooner or later take over – indeed have already done so – and that all that they need to need to do is to lie low until the fuss dies down, and then they will be able to return to their normal opulent leisurely lives.

But note – as Mr Martin notes – “Despite a public sector pay freeze lower down the chain, at least 1254 vice-chancellors and senior staff earn more than £150,000, i.e. more than does the Prime Minister”.

Mrs May would be delighted to remain in post on her current reward package, but that is another topic for another day.

So how does highest paid Vice Chancellor defend her £451,000 salary? I’m worth it
Daily Mail July 15

A photo of a beaming Dame Glynis Breakwell is shown alongside a report about her life and opulent times in her capacity as the Vice Chancellor of Bath University. The report is replete with details certain to infuriate the poor and the envious – more or less the same people.

Dame Glynis – motto, “There is nothing like a Dame” – found time to claim £2 on biscuits presumably on the basis that every little helps.

The last three words in the headline set out the heart of the matter. The wealthy dame, in response to requests to justify her reward package, simply asserts that she is worth it.
I have no doubt that the Dame speaks from the heart as well as the wallet when she makes her position clear.

But – is she right? By what reasoning did she arrive at that conclusion.

We can’t leave the matter resembling a boisterous scene in a pantomime:
DAME GYNIS: ”I’m worth it.“
GREAT BRITISG PUBLIC: “Oh no, you’re not.”
DAME GLYNIS: “Oh yes I am.”

And so on and so on.

We shall – indeed we must – return – to this crucial point.

Vice Chancellor who says £227,000 isn’t enough – because he didn’t get a free house – My job involves a lot of entertaining
Daily Mail July 28

Craig Mahoney, the VC of the University of West Scotland, “complained that his lack of a grace and favour property means he has nowhere to entertain guests and hampers his work”.

I had not previously understood that entertaining guests played such a prominent part in the work of your typical Vice Chancellor. Evidently standards are much higher in West Scotland and it may be the case that even now Her Majesty The Queen is under pressure to vacate Balmoral in order to placate the picky clientele favoured by the University of West Scotland.

I could go on and on and on. There’s plenty more where the above quotes came from, but – you get the point .

Let me close with a few choice items concerning the Vice Chancellor of Bolton University, Mr George Holmes, who came out fighting when questioned about his reward package.

“Pity all us poor university chiefs. We are not paid enough” says Bentley driving boss on £220,000″
Daily Mail, August 2

“I’m worth every penny, says £220k university chief”
The Times — August 2

Mr Holmes went well beyond the simple asseveration made by Dame Breakwell that she was worth her salary. Holmes said that “we – The Vice Chancellors – are not paid enough,” and a little later “they (Vice Chancellors) should be paid more or they could leave the country”.

His view is that he is worth his huge pay because he is a success.

Private Eye mischievously delved into the claim of the Brilliant Bolton boy to be a success, and came up with the following.

“Eye readers will recall his failed Doncaster Education City scheme which left Doncaster College with a £1.8m deficit in 2005.”
“An Ofsted report in April found Bolton UTC inadequate in all areas, including governance, and placed it into special measures.”

One has to concede that Mr Holmes is clearly a very successful confidence trickster, the Arthur Daley of the Daubhill and Deane Road areas of Bolton.

A status report on the current situation

The affluent academics flushed out by Messrs Dacre and Murdoch will doubtless feel badly bruised  but, as I learned many years ago in the hard knocks school of Industrial Relations, cash has a wonderfully healing effect on even the most severe bruising.

What about the rest of us – those outside the magic circle of light fingered academics.
How do we feel?

I would guess that most of us – inured to a steady diet of corruption at the top in the UK, will shrug our shoulders and carry on as best we can.

Let us – you and I – attempt to explore the questions arising from the revelations about the vice-chancellors.

  • What is the market price of a Vice Chancellor? On no account put this question to a Vice – Chancellor.
  • How did you, the neutral outsider, arrive at your valuation?
  • Are the VCs overpaid and, if yes, by how much?
  • Or, are their rewards about right?
  • Or, are they being short changed, and, if yes, by how much?

We will return to this all important issue, but first – a brief digression.

Let us take a quick look at the problems faced by the BBC in recent weeks. In these weeks Messrs Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch have relished the publication by the BBC of the reward packages of its stars and senior managers – a mutually exclusive group.

“To discuss my salary and how I’m worth every penny -I’m joined by my mother
“And now my male colleague will read the autocue more expensively”

The above two gems were the words used to accompany two Matt cartoons in the Daily Telegraph during the BBC reward revelations period.

The furore which followed the revelations provided an enjoyable phase of schadenfreude as those at the top at the BBC – senior managers and (for want of a better word) stars – sought to evade the searchlight which was used to illuminate their affairs. Those cornered did their best to justify their reward packages.

Unfortunately confusion arose because the issue of the largesse being paid out from the public purse got mixed up with the gender issue – why were females overpaid by a much smaller amount than males, a moral question to tax the sharpest of brains of either sex.

But as per the BBC, so too University Vice Chancellors. Indeed, it provokes a further question: how pervasive is the problem of senior managers in the public sector and in the no mans’ land that straddles the public and private sectors – quangoland – overpaying themselves?

I suspect that:

  • The problem is widespread,  and,
  • There will be variations between and within the various organisations

Contrary to the time honoured traditions of UK law we should assume that all are guilty and that the presumption of innocence be reversed.

Cleansing the Stables

Augeus was the king of Elis in ancient Greece and he had a problem. His problem was that he owned 3000 oxen whose stalls had not been cleansed for 30 years. If you do the calculation you will see that Augeus had on his hands, metaphorically, and, arguably, literally, a lot of bullshit.  He, King Augeus, arranged with Hercules that if he could clean the said stalls in a single day, he would receive 300 oxen in return, ie a straight 10% cut. Hercules succeeded by resorting to a highly imaginative irrigation technique, and went on to claim the rewards from the contract.  King Augeus, like many of his fellow monarchs at the time and since, was not averse to a spot of sharp practice and queried the terms of the deal (were they in writing? – the text does not make this clear) and the upshot was that Hercules remained oxenless.

The term Augean has come to mean filthy, difficult and bereft of reward, the perfect contrast to the cushy number. Hercules had landed a job which combined high demand, zero reward and, another common feature, a lot of bullshit to clear away. None of the labours of Hercules was a cushy number, but his arrangement with Augeus was the one most apposite to my requirements.

British Augean stables ready to be cleansed include:-

  • The NHS
  • Local authorities
  • Quango land
  • Whitehall

Etc and so on and so on

Is the Private sector, by way of contrast, a model of sound governance, with an all pervasive sense of old fashioned probity throughout?

Err:  Not quite.

Back in 2004 I wrote about remuneration committees that operate in the private sector as follows:

“A word about the systems used to monitor or more realistically keep a sleepy eye on executive reward packages. Most big companies have remuneration committees which determine the reward packages of the bosses. Given the incestuous and overlapping membership of these committees it is scarcely surprising that their recommendations err on the generous side and the outcome is an avalanche of cash into executive pockets. This whole operation brings to mind the unseemly expression about “them” all using the same chamber pot or words to that effect.

Furthermore, the salaries (and expense accounts) of those appointed to quangos – non-departmental government bodies – are almost invariably eye-wateringly high, while at the same time rarely obliging the fortunate individuals appointed to them to perform any meaningful or worthwhile activities.

Nice work if you can get it, if ‘work’ is really the correct term.

Now for the tricky bit – What might be, could be, should be done to curb the acquisitive propensities of our senior managers?

Dear Reader(s?) – have you noticed that many of our top brass, when asked if they are motivated by money, respond with vehement denials.

They insist that they are – to a man /woman motivated by a desire to serve the public, and they are at the service of the public. They are all – to coin a phrase – pro bono publico.

If that is the case – we, the public, can remove the cause of their anxiety and sharply cut back their reward packages to allow them much more time to devote to their commendable devotion to serving the public.

If we, the public, proceed along these lines, some malcontents may vacate these shores and take up residence elsewhere where their talents will be appreciated.

If that were to happen then it would indeed be a welcome if unanticipated consequence.

Actions this day – I will imitate the practice of Winston Churchill when he wanted not a Chilcot solution to be completed in or around a decade or so but one to be completed this very day.

  • Bring in a modern day Savonarola tasked with replacing the existing generous arrangements with arrangements more suited to the all pervasive austerity stoically experienced and endured by the rest of us.
  • HMG to tackle the problem – we need to be clear that only HMG can put in hand the required measures. Fulminating press campaigns will help, but a sympathetic government is a sine qua non to overcome the inevitable resistance of and by the well heeled.
  • HMG to appoint an effective latter day Hercules to cleanse the UK Augean stables. The key point to make about the job of our new Tsar is that it is a fairly straightforward task to hand out P45s to those at the top deemed surplus to requirements and memos to those allowed to remain to be informed of the sharp cuts to their reward packages.  (Note to No 10 – NOT someone like Eric Pickles who appeared to be – indeed who was – altogether too lethargic in his tenure as anti-corruption Tsar.)

Other measures to include:-

  • A ruthless reduction in the reward packages currently collected – note – NOT earned – in the public sector and in quangos.
  • A steep increase in the taxes levied upon high pensions – previous generations of Arthur Daleys must not be allowed to make their way to their respective boot hills in golden coaches.
  • Making it clear that the people who constitute the theme of these notes, unlike judges, ARE the enemies of the people – they are helping themselves from the public purse on a daily basis.

    Image courtesy of University Business

 

A Parrisian Emotional Spasm

“The Conservatives are criminally incompetent”
“Even in the bad times I felt proud of my party but this scarcely believable Brexit shambles has left me deeply ashamed”
Heading and Sub Heading from The Times July 29 – Matthew Parris

“And you call that statesmanship. I call it an emotional spasm.”
Nye Bevan responding roughly to hecklers at the Labour Party conference in 1957.

My text for today is the Parris column which appeared under the dramatic headlines referred to above.

It is one thing for – let us say Mr John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, – to talk airily about the criminally incompetent Tories. It is rather more worrying for Mrs May and her cabinet colleagues to see themselves described as criminally incompetent by the thoughtful Mr Parris, a lifelong Tory and former MP, albeit one of the Tory left persuasion.

What has happened to trigger this Parrisian emotional spasm?

Parris makes it clear at the start of his column that the target of his ire is “not the government’s incompetence, Whitehall’s ill preparedness, the Prime Minister’s inadequacy, Labours disunity or even Europe’s aggressiveness ….. Do the voters even begin to understand how this mess is entirely of the Conservative Party’s creation – The fingerprints for this crime of mismanagement are Tory fingerprints- ”

Thus the Parris opening statement for the prosecution.

A couple of observations.

Polonius – My Lord I will use them according to their desert–
Hamlet – God’s bodykins, man, much better.
Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping”

Hamlet shrewdly points out to Polonius the consequences of applying too rigorously the adage of each according to his deserts.  The whippers would need to operate a 24/7 system to ensure that the those performing below par got the treatment.

I have only the shakiest grasp of the criminal law but I would surprised if mismanagement is defined anywhere as being a crime. Let us be charitable and assume that Mr Parris got carried away at this point.

After a couple of paragraphs of fairly feeble criticism of Messrs Johnson, Fox, Davis and Tory MPs, Parris returns to splenetic mode.

“I call this criminal; irresponsible to the point of culpable recklessness towards their country’s future….. Do we yet understand, has it yet been born in on us, that it is we and we alone who have led the whole country into the predicament it now finds itself – I return to England ashamed to be a Conservative.”

Well – there you have it.

Let me go further than I did a couple of paragraphs ago.

  • There is no such crime as mismanagement – just as well as the already malfunctioning prisons would struggle to cope with the hundreds of thousands of new inmates from HMG, from Whitehall, from the Town Halls, from our Universities – but note that the behaviour of some Vice Chancellors may well be verging on the criminal as they loot the funds placed under their control placed there to fund higher education.
  • The hysteria that is such a prominent feature of this particular Parris column obscures rather than clarifies what went wrong and why, and, crucially, Mr Parris fails to spell out or even to suggest the possible steps that are available to retrieve the situation.  The former MP generates heat where light would be more appropriate. In all the matters discussed in his column Mr Parris shirks the challenge of fleshing out his generalisations – which are mostly sound; he uses a metaphorical shot gun to back up his assertions, when a precision rifle is called for.

“All animals are equal”: the 7th commandment in the first list issued by the animals following their takeover of Manor Farm in Orwell’s Animal Farm. As the revolution turned full circle the commandment was later amended to read- “All Animals are equal – But some Animals are more equal than others”.

I would like to borrow the amended version and further amend it to read – “All Conservatives are guilty – but some are more guilty than others.” Mr Parris clearly wishes it to be understood that he personally is not guilty as charged – by himself – but he is not quite as understanding of and as forgiving of the great majority of his fellow Tories.

Let me offer a version that combines a good deal more charity towards the silent majority of Tories with a rather more damning but also plausible indictment of the guilty Tory brexiteers.

The silent majority of Tories – caught up in a bitter conflict that was not of their own making – used the plausible excuse that the people had spoken and that the verdict arrived at by the people in the June 23, 2016 in out referendum must be not only respected but implemented.

The key point is that some Tories are more guilty than others.

A glance back at what happened before the May 2015 General Election

Prime Minister David Cameron, fearful that he and his party might be outmanoeuvred by UKIP on the delicate issue of EU membership, rashly committed his party to an In / Out referendum should he be in a position to do so after the election.

Cameron was obviously confident that he would win any referendum and his main concern was to secure a result that not only kept Labour out but would also enable him to shake off the encumbrance of his Lib Dem coalition partners.

To the surprise of many he succeeded in achieving a narrow but perfectly workable Tory majority over all the other parties in the May 2015 election – so – a prompt goodbye to the Lib Dem Mr Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister in the pre-election government, who was soon to be followed into the wilderness by the leader of the Labour opposition, Mr Ed Miliband.

More joy was to follow for Cameron – in September 2015 Ed Miliband was succeeded as Labour leader by Mr Jeremy Corbyn – widely and understandably regarded as a no-hoper by the commentariat.

May 2015 to June 2016

The main political feature of this period was the contest between the Ins and the Outs in the referendum campaign.

The various prominent figures on both sides on both sides of the argument were in the main clear as to their respective positions from the start.

Most MPs from the main parties were in favour of remaining in the EU. The prominent Outs were Mr Nigel Farage – the referendum was largely for his benefit – together with long time anti-Europeans such as Bill Cash.

Mr Paul Dacre of Daily Mail fame/notoriety could be relied on to support the out campaign and he duly did so. Mr Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of The Sun and The Times, could be relied upon to make mischief and he duly did so.

It was said that significant numbers of voters voted to leave because they were alarmed by reports of large scale uncontrolled immigration, but immigration was always likely to be an important issue in the referendum campaign and one must presume that Mr Cameron factored this into his calculations.

In the early stages the debate was not about the outcome but rather about the scale of the In majority. Mr Cameron knew or thought he knew which Tories would support the Remain cause and which would not. He failed to foresee that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were men of deeply held principles and that they would stick to their principles by supporting whichever outcome would best further their own career prospects.

As the debate proceeded and the referendum date drew near a new issue emerged with the appearance of two hitherto unknown elements – the respective consciences of Messrs Johnson and Gove. Their damascene conversions followed by their admittedly effective campaigning were significant factors in swinging the balance away from Remain and towards Leave.

Cameron paid a heavy price for his inability to spot this pair of charlatans despite his supposed in-depth knowledge of their respective characters.

He resigned as PM on June 24 – the day after the referendum – as soon as it became clear that the in case had been defeated.

(A request to Mr Parris – please note that the behaviour of Johnson and Gove was despicable but NOT criminal. Please note also that Mr Cameron got the whole affair badly wrong, unfortunate for him – and for the UK – and for the EU – but not criminally so.)

The circumstances of Cameron’s resignation recalled to my mind a story that appeared in the autobiography of Bobby Windsor, the third and most boisterous member of the Pontypool Front Row. The other two members of this illustrious trio were Graham Price and Charlie Faulkner. Windsor wrote about payments made at the time to players at Cross Keys RFC. “Charlie was getting £3.50 and I was on £5. Before my first season as captain I was invited into the committee meeting to discuss plans. Charlie says to me, Tell them I want a fiver same as you. If they don’t agree to that, I’m f****** off. When I came out of the meeting, he said – What’s happening? I said – You’re f****** off.

What happened after DC resigned in June 2016

  • There was an intriguing and entertaing campaign as to who would become the one to replace DC as leader of the Tory party and, rather more importantly, as our new Prime Minister.
  • The two main Tory turncoats – from In men to Out men – excelled themselves, with Gove edging ahead in terms of sheer treachery.  BOJO withdrew from the race when Mr Gove announced his decision to stand.
  • The latter defection proved too much for Tory MPS and Mr Gove came a poor third to Mrs Andrea Leadsom – mother of 3 – and Mrs Theresa May – childless. Mr Gove then also withdrew from the race.
  • The contest then became a walkover after Mrs Leadsom made some ill considered comments about the advantages of having a mother as Prime Minister.
  • Mrs May entered Number 10 but not before making a speech from the front door, a speech carefully designed to be all things to all people. Her subsequent cabinet appointments were a source of qualified delight to BOJO, who had clearly not expected any favours. He did appear slightly uneasy, though, about having to job share at the Foreign Office with Messrs Liam Fox and David Davis, but beggars can’t be choosers
  • Mr Gove was awarded the consolation prize of becoming a messenger boy for Mr Murdoch.
  • Mrs May quickly decided to respect the verdict of the voters by arranging for the UK to leave the EU. She also stated that she would not call an election until 2020, ie 5 years after the 2015 election won by the DC government.

July 2016 to May 2017

The main points to note by way of explanation about what happened next are:-

  • In the referendum campaign Mrs May had been a clear but muted advocate for the In cause.  This track record did not prevent her from asserting that the will of the people would prevail, and that she would make all necessary arrangements for Brexit.
  • Progress towards the implementation of Brexit proceeded at a leisurely pace for the rest of 2016 and for the first few months of this year
  • Mrs May then announced in early May to a startled country that she would call an election to be held on June 8th in order to strengthen her position at the forthcoming discussions to finalise exactly how and under what conditions, the UK would sever its links with the EU.

Main features of the June 8 Campaign

  • The Tory campaign was all about Mrs May – said by Mrs May to be strong and stable – as opposed to Mr Corbyn who possessed neither of these attributes.
  • The commentariat debated the range of possible outcomes – given the widely perceived – by the commentariat – unelectability of Jeremy Corbyn – say from a Tory majority of 50 at the bottom end to 150 at the top end.
  • As the campaign proceeded Mrs May was seen to be making what we old manager johnnies would call a bollox of it – remember the fiasco of the dementia tax.
  • Finally and sadly the voters – showing all the reliability and consistency of BOJO and Gove – reduced her parliamentary majority to vanishing point. Effectively the outcome was a clear indication of the falling support for Brexit and the bum’s rush for Mrs May. As I write she is dependent for her very political existence on a shaky platform built on shit and quicksand – an arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Features of the current situation

  • Most of the main movers and shakers are basking in the baking heat of Southern Europe. It may well be the case that the political tempers of the movers and shakers will be mirroring the ambient temperatures.
  • I suggested in a recent blog post that Mrs May will not be in No 10 by the end of Sept – the instinctive desire of her Tory-party colleagues for political self preservation will see to that.
  • A lot of professional politicians with faultless records of suitably docile service to their respective parties are said to be looking anxiously at the ease with which the new French President sacked a whole generation of party hacks and replaced them with… who? You tell me.

“Then – why the hell this defeatism?”
Nye Bevan deploring the feeble response to election defeat by the Labour Party in 1959.

A few closing points to convert Mr Parris from being a moaner-Remainer in a plaintive muted minor key to a fortissimo Remainer.

In recent months there have been some faint hopes stirring among we dogged Remainers that all may not be lost

In no special order:

  • The outcome of the June 8 General Election was a clear sign that electoral support for Brexit was and is waning.
  • Dr Vince Cable,  a passionate Remain advocate,  has secured the leadership of the Lib Dems.
  • There are encouraging signs that Mr Corbyn may decide to spend more of his time on matters of UK importance and rather less to the distressing but remote problems that are exciting people in Venezuela. We should recall that Mr Corbyn was a tireless advocate for the Remain cause on many platforms prior to the referendum.
  •  Mr Tony Blair has cautiously raised his head above the parapet to suggest that all is not lost and that ways can be found to build a new coalition to campaign for a second opinion.
  • Tory government ministers Davis, Fox and Hammond are on occasions taking time off from denigrating their colleagues and each other to hint that the task of securing brexit may well turn out to be rather more protracted than originally predicted.

So speaking only for myself but hoping that Matthew Parris may be listening:
What do we Remainers want?
A- A reversal of the decision arrived at by the In/Out referendum of June 23, 2016.
When do we want it?
A- Now.
What is our policy?
A- To initiate an energetic campaign to reverse the decision to leave the EU; to demand that the government put country before party; to apologise to the EU and get back to Business as Usual within the European Union.
What advice do we have for the whining Remainers as typified by Matthew Parris – he of the emotional spasms?
A- Shape up and follow the advice of that great Tory Winston Churchill and cut out the flinching, the wearying and the despairing.
What about the threat posed by Paul Dacre?
Follow the instruction of Rupert Murdoch back in 1983 – namely, F*** Dacre.
(On this last point honesty compels me to acknowledge that Murdoch was referring to a different Dacre but the instruction remains valid and free of ambiguity in the context of the Remain / Leave debate.)