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Monday, February 29, 2016

The trouble with the Brexit debate is it's all too negative

It is generally acknowledged that fear and greed win more votes than anything else and fear tends to win more than greed.  The added difficulty with referenda is that they are rarely about the question on the ballot paper as the opposing camps, aided by the media, attempt to reframe the question into ones they think that will resonate with more voters.

Which is really depressing...

The current Brexit arguments appear to be:
  • The only way to control immigration is to leave the EU and regain control of our borders
  • The only way to stop benefit tourism is to leave the EU
  • We need to reclaim our sovereignty and have British laws for British people
  • We need to escape from the waste and insane bureaucracy of the EU
  • We can reclaim the £8.5bn a year that is the UK's net contribution to the UK (£7.9bn a year forecast from 2016-20 source Parliamentary briefing)
Well, let's take a look at some of these.  "Immigration is undermining British society and the only way to control it is to leave the EU".  The second half of that phrase has a shred of truth in it in that as an island nation it is easier for us to pull up the drawbridge and set our own rules if we leave the EU and withdraw from the collective responsibility to aid refugees fleeing wars that we helped to start.  But the idea that immigration is undermining British society is utter nonsense.  British society was built by immigration. We are a mongrel nation.  Our comparative economic success and any growth over recent years is almost entirely funded by the population growth from immigration.  

We need to stop benefit tourism.  Don't be absurd! The number of EU nationals currently claiming JSA is c. 60,000 which is a number so small as to be almost statistically insignificant.  Study after study has shown that immigrants to the UK are net contributors to our society (this one is quite easy to digest).  This is an entirely fictitious bogeyman invented by the xenophobes to make you scared.  The benefit scroungers if there are any (and the term is offensive in itself) are mostly indigenous (think Jeremy Kyle Show).

We need to reclaim sovereignty.  Why? Can we be trusted with it?  Distributing sovereignty across a wider base strikes me as quite a good way of ensuring that minority interests can't manipulate the system in their favour (either to the extreme left or the extreme right).  In the main the regulation that has come with EU membership has been a good thing.  

We need to escape the madness of straight bananas and absurd fishing restrictions.  Yes the EU does have some silly rules.  But so do all bureaucracies and the British are just as good at stupid and unnecessary regulations as anyone else.  Think of it as the cost of doing business.

We pay more in than we get out.  Let's reclaim the £8m a year that we pay into the EU.  Let me come back to that one because I think that is the crux of the whole thing.

What the EU thinks of the Brexit Debate Source (thanks to my aunt for sharing) 
But the thing that really depresses me are the reasons that the Better In Campaign have selected as being the best to win the argument. "More jobs, lower prices, safer streets", "A leap in the dark", "A decade of uncertainty".  Well that's got me really excited and positive about Europe... See what I mean about greed and fear?

I know it's an ad hominem argument and I shouldn't.... But just look at the standard bearers for the Out campaign: Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Christopher Grayling, Pritti Patel, The Daily Mail, The Sun...

There's more empathy and concern for other people in my toenail clippings than all of them put together.

And that brings us to the heart of it.  Left to our own devices the English can be nasty, xenophobic and greedy with a side order of misplaced arrogance.  Our membership of the United Kingdom and the European Union mitigates the worst of our character.  By being part of these clubs we are forced to abide by some rules and show some concern for other people.

The reason that we should continue to pay roughly £8bn a year more into the EU than we get out is because we can.  Because it has brought peace, stability, moderation, perspective, easier access to vitamin D and much much better food and wine.

We should stay in the European Union and the United Kingdom because doing so makes us better people!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Early years fascism"...!?

Earlier this week I attended the "Lifelong Learning and the Power to Create" event at the RSA which had an an impressive panel of Dr Vince Cable, Lord Willetts and Lord Blunkett.  At the risk of reducing to the absurd, the theme of the event was, "Lifelong learning is really important; what a shame the treasury doesn't agree."

Lord Willets spoke last and unless I have completely misunderstood or misinterpreted what he said, he made an assertion so jarring that I had to put it down here.  He was bemoaning the 'early years tyranny'.  This made me sit up with a start.  I must have missed the pitchfork wielding mobs of nursery nurses and primary teachers who had so successfully held the public purse to ransom for so long... [another missed opportunity for the withering sarcasm font I wish someone would design].  

He then said that with the developments in neuroscience and our understanding of neuroplasticity, which is almost always a precursor to some appalling piece of quackery, it was entirely possible to 'teach old dogs new tricks' such that: 

"the Return On Investment for retraining a 50 year-old was higher than funding early years education"
I got the impression that he believed that funding should be shifted from teaching babies and children basic skills to adult education.  I think we should pause for a moment for that one to sink in...




Just in case that didn't immediately set off a klaxon in your head as being worthy of the prize for this year's most spectacularly unsubstantiated argument from authority (and we have some genuine competition from all the rubbish currently being spouted about Europe) consider this...

And let's be generous...

  • If we assume that 5% of children in Lord Willets' imaginary world don't survive to an employable age
  • And 5% die before they work for 20 years (which is about 10x the actual mortality rate)
  • And we assume that 100% of 50 year olds who are retrained by his scheme live to work for a further 20 years (which is just nonsense)
I said let's be generous...

Then 90% of children are going to work for at least 2.5x the length of time of the 50 year olds in his silver-surfer utopian experiment.  Which makes it practically impossible for the ROI of retraining 50 year olds to be higher than early years education.

As my heart rate returned to normal the CEO of the RSA Matthew Taylor summarised the debate in his urbane and witty manner.  Until he thanked Lord Willets for raising the issue of,

"Early years fascism"
At which point my chin hit the floor and a man behind me involuntarily coughed up his own spleen. Now, as I said I'm prepared to accept that I might have missed the pitchfork wielding tyrannic mob of nursery nurses and primary  teachers but I think I would have heard about them donning blackshirts and swastikas.

I'm not against adult ed. I'm all for it.  But the best way to improve adult education is to concentrate on teaching children how to learn.  

That is a gift that just keeps on giving.