Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK politics’

Brexit: The slacker romantic-comedy allegory

People have been comparing Brexit to a messy divorce since before Brexit was Brexit, but I suspect we may be in the wrong movie. The Tory Eurosceptic claim is, effectively, that they were never really married. And that means that we need to draw our clichés from a whole different realm of romantic fiction.

Think of Bull Johnson, an emotionally immature man with a steady but not sensational income. He’s been involved with a woman (let’s call her Europa) who lives nearby, and they get along pretty well. But he has this dynamic and very successful friend, Merry, who he used to be close to, but who now has her own life on a distant continent. They still talk often, share secrets (ahem), and occasionally lean on each other in hard times. Merry thinks that Bull should finally commit to Europa and settle down. (Europa has some reservations as well, having had some unfortunate encounters with Bulls in the past, but thinks this relationship can work.) And he does, sort of. Then one day Bull calls up Merry and says, I’m thinking of leaving Europa. I hate feeling tied down. I want my old “buccaneering” life. What does that even mean? asks Merry. He can’t say, but he insists he misses his old life. Merry says to think about the good life he and Europa have built together. Bull agrees that he’ll give it some more thought, and have a talk with Europa about what he’s dissatisfied about.

Next scene, Bull is ringing the doorbell at Merry’s flat at 3 am. “I’ve done it. I’ve left Europa. I finally realised, you and I should be together.” And Merry says, “Uhhh…”

To be continued…

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 (more…)

The eat-your-marshmallows party

When did the Conservatives become the party of immediate gratification? This follows a development across the Atlantic that I first noticed thirty years ago when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was described as the “eat your peas” candidate.

I was shocked to hear from my daughter that her high school class had been given a talk encouraging them to consider leaving school and switching to an apprenticeship programme, because they could immediately be earning £3 an hour, or whatever it was. I thought this was just some weird individual thing, but then I saw an official government advertisement on a bus shelter making exactly this argument. I’m all in favour of apprenticeship programmes, but I think the choice of who should continue on to further education should not be best on the goal of getting paid £3 an hour right now. It is so obviously targeted at getting underprivileged children into menial jobs, to prevent them from rising above their station, that it astonishes me that the government was not too embarrassed to create this campaign.

Similar thinking seems to underly the recent proposal by the education secretary to reduce university fees for courses of study that tend to lead to lower salaries, which has been taken to be suggesting lower fees for arts and social science degrees, while maintaining current fees for science and technology degrees. This is a proposal to incentivise poorer students to prioritise short-term costs over long-term benefits. The most charitable interpretation one can have is that they read chapter 1 of the economics textbook, about prices being set by an equilibrium of supply and demand, and never made it to chapter 2, on the effect of incentives.

It’s purely coincidental that this would tend to brighten the career prospects of dimmer children of affluent familes. It’s almost like the Tories read about Mischel’s marshmallow test, and their response was that it’s unfair that poor children can get ahead just because they might happen to be constitutionally better inclined to delay gratification. I remember John Kerry being mocked in 2004 for having limited his children’s television viewing when they were young, showing them as out of touch with the habits of ordinary Americans, and thinking, self-indulgent habits work out different for aristocrats like the Bushes than for children of middle-class and working-class families. Which is perhaps exactly the point.


An diplomat involved in drafting the EU’s position for the next round of Brexit negotiations seemed to be expressing disappointment in the stubbornness of Theresa May’s most recent speech when he said

We are ships passing each other in the night. We are not connecting.

I understand his annoyance, that the UK seems to be running its own negotiation, for internal consumption, taking no account out the EU’s clearly stated principles. But surely it can’t be a disappointment, when two ships encounter each other, that they don’t “connect”.

Knocking opportunity

A recent lunchtime conversation turned to Boris Johnson. “I don’t understand him,” someone said. “I used to think Boris was just an opportunist. But what he’s been doing lately doesn’t seem at all to be serving his interests.”

I replied, “He’s an opportunist without opportunity… What we’re seeing is the free-field behaviour of the opportunist.”

For more observations on British ruling class synecdoche Johnson see this post.

Why I am striking

Strike actions have been conducted every year or two since I’ve been at Oxford. At the first one I participated unquestioningly. My previous job was at Queen’s University in Ontario, where everyone was a member of the union, and the union was our joint instrument for protecting our rights, both academic and contractual. So if there’s a strike, I figured, everyone stops working.

I felt like I’d fallen for a prank. There were three days of “strikes”, on three different weeks, I signed up to forego my salary for those days, joined three other people on a picket line for an hour, while all of my colleagues were at work — and all my work still had to get done on other days. The strikes would go unnoticed, but the 1.5% after-inflation salary cut would be replaced by 1%, approximately replacing the pay lost by striking, and the whole process would repeat a year or two later.

I consequently ignored the most recent strike action, to begin with. But I’ve now come to realise that this is a more serious matter. The strike isn’t continuous, but it covers most workdays over a period of four weeks (to begin with). The basis of the conflict is more fundamental than a one-percent salary cut: the decision by employers to offload pension risk onto the individuals, in replacing defined-benefit plans by defined-contribution plans. It’s not just a matter of how we — and particularly our younger colleagues — are being treated, and how it will affect people’s financial plans. It is part of a longer-term struggle about who will stay in the profession, and who will choose to enter the profession in the future. And of the struggle to define the nature of the academic profession, and of academic institutions.

I entered academia long after those halcyon days when there was an easy path for any reasonably smart person to a secure job. But there was still a sense that an academic career was a plausible aspiration for normal people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that one could plausibly trade away a quick grab at the high salaries of private industry against a quieter, socially useful, and more contemplative life, that would provide at least financial security and a long planning horizon.

Last week we received a letter from Oxford’s registrar, arguing that the pension cuts were unavoidable. Not to worry, though:

Nothing in the current proposals changes anything that USS members have already accrued as pension rights.

This line rankled. It is a direct appeal against solidarity. For all the aggravation that one should have over opaque employment practices and discriminatory pay at Oxford, the fact is that every one of us who have permanent jobs at a leading research university has won the lottery grand prize compared with what is left for equally talented students. We are clinging to the last helicopters fleeing the ruins of the academia that most of us aspired to join. The younger academics who had the poor foresight to be born too late are being overrun.

Decisions are being made on the basis of an ideological assertion that co-operative academic institutions motivated by a shared pursuit of truth and scientific advancement have no future: Universities need to emulate the soi-disant successes of British industry. They need to be ruthlessly hierarchical and constantly marketing their “product”. The proximate cause of  the strike is a qualitative cut in pension rights — the shift from defined benefits to defined contributions — driven by irrational changes to official pension valuation methodology, combined with universities’ boundless need for capital to fund expansion. (Lest one think that expansion might be good for higher education in the long run, and hence for higher education careers, it should be noted that student numbers have actually been declining. In keeping with its ideology of competition, the government seems to be promoting a contest for dwindling resources.) Those of us who got in ahead of the capitalist singularity are being promised a partial reprieve, in exchange for acquiescence to the

I don’t want to strike. It creates conflict. It disrupts the lives of students. It disrupts my own life. At a time when the position of all foreigners is particularly under threat in this country, I’d like to keep my head below the parapets. I don’t like getting caught up in fights between different groups of English people, that always seem to involve subtexts that no foreigner can understand. Especially in Oxford, participating in strike action feels like the opposite of collective action.

In discussions with several colleagues in recent days I tried to argue for why I, personally, shouldn’t strike. No one tried to persuade me otherwise, but I frankly could even persuade myself. The arguments rang hollow, particularly the argument that I don’t know which portion of my work counts for my three-days contribution to the university. (Oxford academics have a complicated division of roles between university and college, and the colleges are not being targeted by the strike. Oddly, because all reports suggest that they had an outsized role in provoking the strike.)

I am inspired by reports of young academics walking picket lines, and humbled by the support of the National Union of Students, which wrote

We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

Day by day we accept the small privileges that accrue to us from the steady erosion of opportunities for the younger generation of teachers and scholars. Now, in the rare circumstance where a decision is forced upon us, where the cost to ourselves is minimal, where the students themselves — “think of the poor students!” — are collectively supporting the action, at the very least now we can take this tiny step in support of our colleagues, and of hope for better conditions in the future. A step that will take me out of my office and down the street, to the picket line.

The bottom line on Brexit

After more than a year of fantasising that Brexit would be a replay of Agincourt with less mud, after which snivelling Europeans would pay obeisance to the mighty arm of British commerce (unwilling to forego the market for Prosecco and BMWs), Brexit minister David Davis has now gone to the other extreme, making a promise so minimal that we can be pretty sure he can keep it:

Britain will not be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction” after it leaves the EU, the Brexit secretary will say in a speech.

Although, when you look at the actual text, he’s not even promising that, merely that

They fear that Brexit could lead to an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom… with Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction. These fears about a race to the bottom are based on nothing, not history, not intention, nor interest.

So, while he’s trying to discount this extreme scenario that no one but him has actually suggested, he won’t commit to saying it won’t happen, only that it never happened before (“history”), he’s not trying to make happen (“intention”), and he doesn’t think it would be a good thing if it did (“interest”).

It does remind us all that we must provide reassurance.

So here is the government’s reassuring promise: If Mad Max does play out in Britain it may be our fault, but we’ll regret it.


Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

Brush up your Plato, start quoting him now

… at least, if you want to get recognised as religiously persecuted for your humanism.

This looks like a parody of English pseudo-education mixed with English xenophobia:

A Pakistani man who renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist has had his application for asylum in the UK rejected after failing to correctly answer questions about ancient Greek philosophers.

The Home Office said Hamza bin Walayat’s failure to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers indicated his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best”.

My guess is that he wanted to say he was an atheist, but recognised that that would subject him to discrimination here as well as in Pakistan, so he resorted to the more erudite-sounding term “humanist”, only to run into the buzzsaw of a classicist manqué.

Post-Brexit UK to maintain world-leading position as platitude exporter

From the Guardian:

I commented before about the strange role of clichés in British politics. Finding a use for the banalest of banalities counts in Westminster as the very essence of statesmanship. So now, the British position, after 18 months of intensive internal analysis of its policy and extensive diplomatic soundings on relations with Europe is — It takes two to tango.

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