26 July 2012

Unemployment among the South West’s young

To judge from his tweets Ben Bradshaw MP (@BenPBradshaw) is firmly engaged with his Exeter constituency. On 19 July he tweeted:

JSA is Job Seekers Allowance, paid to those who are eligible and between 18 and pension age.

Taking the tweet literally, in Exeter in June 2012 for every 100 18 to 24 year olds who had been in receipt of JSA for more than a year, a year earlier there would have been been only 20. Looking for the actual numbers, I turned to the relevant House of Commons Library Research Paper (Unemployment by Constituency, July 2012, RP12/41 dated 18 July 2012), in particular:

Table 1B which shows that in June 2012 the total number of JSA claimants in Exeter was 2039, up by 23 from a year earlier. Of these, 475 had been claiming for more than 12 months, up by 290.

Table 2 which breaks the 2039 down into 645 aged 24 and under, 1055 aged 25 to 49 and 330 aged 50 and over (9 have been ‘lost’ presumably because of rounding to the nearest 5).

The Venn diagram below brings these numbers together, but the size of the overlapping area which corresponds to those on JSA for more than a year AND aged 18 to 24 is undefined (x):

However, the Economy & Tourism Unit of Exeter City Council produced an Economic Trends Report in November 2011 which provides this data for October 2010 and October 2011 as being 25 and 30 respectively (page 5). Interpolating for June 2011 gives an estimate of 28. Again turning to the HoC Library Research Paper a year ago (Unemployment by Constituency, July 2011, RP11/58 dated 13 July 2011), it is possible to produce a similar Venn diagram for June 2011. And also x can be estimated as about 140 ie’fivefold’.

The implications are pretty startling. The total number of unemployed in Exeter has changed little in a year and the proportion aged 18 to 24 has remained 32%. But the proportion of the 18 to 24s on JSA for more than a year has gone from 4% to 22% in the 12 months since June 11. In the same period for the over-24s the movement was from 11% to 24%. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Regional Labour Market Statistics, July 2012 show that this trend is apparent among the 18 to 24s across the whole South West region:

As can be seen, the fivefold increase in Exeter is below that of the SW region which is showing a more than sevenfold increase (725%). The SW region had nearly twice the national (UK) movement in the ONS data for the same period, which is up 405%.

19 July 2012

Still unsure where we’re going

From a post here last month about the UK’s future inside or outside the EU:
A debate on the viability of a “mid-Atlantic” United Kingdom (with or without Scotland) is probably overdue. Are we trapped in the invidious position, primarily in population terms, of being too large to occupy a niche, but too small to be a player? Or are there ways in which the UK could make itself too big to ignore?
The issue hasn’t gone away and some big beasts have had their say since. Tony Blair in his Financial Times interview on 30 June said:
“The rationale for Europe today is not peace; it is power. The rationale for Europe today is that [we are] in a geopolitical landscape that is rapidly changing, in which even a country the size of Germany, let alone France or the UK or Italy, is a fraction of the size of what are going to be the main geopolitical players. We can’t afford to be left on our own. We need the collective strength to advance individual interests.”
Soon afterwards the Eurosceptic Liam Fox gave his first public speech since resigning as Defence Secretary on the subject of Britain and the EU which included:
On trade we are told that we are inextricably bound to the EU because of our export relationships. Yet the European Union countries export more to Britain than we export to them and, since the time that we joined, WTO rules have increasingly meant that the free trade arrangements that we have with our European partners are guaranteed by international law and not simply by virtue of our EU membership. Perhaps the most telling statistic set out by those who argue that Britain could not manage economically outside the current structures is that Britain exports more to the Republic of Ireland than to China and Russia combined. I would turn this argument on its head. What does it tell us about our horizons that we still export more to a country with a population of 4.6 million than we do to Russia with a population of 139 million or China with a population over 1000 million, one of the world’s fastest-growing consumer markets. It only re-emphasises that our lack of focus on the growing global markets, especially in Asia-Pacific, has caused us to be more economically affected by the woes of Europe than the rapid growth in global wealth beyond the continent.
For my own part, life outside the EU holds no terror as I believe globalisation will increasingly force countries to cooperate more closely on the basis of functional commonality rather than geographical proximity. It would, though, given our economic interdependence be to the advantage of all to create a more stable and mutually agreed compromise.
Last week David Miliband guest-edited the New Statesman and interviewed José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, thus:
DM: The debate inside the Conservative Party is now in some ways framed by the former defence minister Liam Fox, who said there should be “no terror” for Britain in leaving the European Union. What do you think life would be like for Britain outside the EU?  
JMB: I will not comment on internal political matters, partisan matters of Britain. If and when there is a kind of revision, that’s up to the British to decide. What I can see from Brussels is that, and also from a European perspective, I find it a little bit ironic that some people are suggesting for Britain a role comparable to that of say Norway or Switzerland. Norway or Switzerland are two marvellous countries, I very much admire, the most advanced countries in the world in fact with great qualities of life. But I think Britain is expecting a bigger role in the world than small countries. The fact that some are suggesting for Britain a role that is smaller than the one Britain already has today seems to me a little bit curious. When the prime minister of Britain meets the president of the United States, or the president of China, he has much stronger status and much stronger leverage because everybody knows that Britain is a country that is very influential in the shaping of European policy. The biggest integrated market in the world, the first economy in the world, the biggest donor of development assistance in the world . . .  
DM: So in your estimation, the leaders in China have an enhanced relationship with Britain because they’re in the European Union?  
JMB: I’ll put it frankly – Britain has more influence in China than Norway or Switzerland, with all respect for the other countries. And one of the reasons being that everyone in China knows that Britain is a decisive voice in the European policy and that its influence and its leverage, it is much bigger because of that.
Now Robert Winnett has reported an interview David Cameron gave the Daily Telegraph:
… Mr Cameron will not countenance leaving the EU and says he would never campaign for an “out” vote in a referendum. “I think it would be bad for Britain,” he says. “When I look at what is in our national interest, we are not some country that looks in on ourself or retreats from the world. Britain’s interest – trading a vast share of our GDP – is to be in those markets. Not just buying, selling, investing, receiving investment but also helping to write the rules. If we were outside, we wouldn’t be able to do that.”  
He adds: “It comes back to this, who are going to be the winning nations for the 21st century? If your vision of Britain was that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests.”
So we have a commonality of view among Blair, Barroso and Cameron that the UK gains collective strength from belonging to the EU and the only alternative is a role like Switzerland’s. All we have in the way of evidence to support this view is their judgement. At least Fox supports his views by reference to trade, arguing that we have become too Europe-focussed when global growth is taking place elsewhere. This is more like evidence than opinion, and has been reinforced by data recently published by the CEBR:
For years those trying to make the case for the UK’s continued EU membership have drawn attention to the fact that the other EU member states have been the UK’s main export market. Actually the claim was exaggerated because it only related to exports of goods. Exports of services, which are arguably more important for the UK economy, have always been more heavily based on the non‐EU markets.  ISO trade figures for goods with the EU are distorted by entrepot trade. About 20% of UK goods ‘exports’ to Ireland are reexports from other countries imported through Belfast Harbour. And UK ‘exports’ to Belgium and the Netherlands are implausibly high and clearly distorted by Rotterdam and Antwerp port activities, though many of these exports probably go on to other parts of the EU. But in the last 3 months a revolution in the orientation of British trade has taken place, with non EU exports of goods exceeding EU exports of goods (by 1.5%). This is the first three month period for which this has been so since the 1970s we believe, though comparable data no longer exists.
Cameron started off by framing Britain’s interest in terms of trade but seemed to move off towards being a “21st century winning nation” and “visions of Britain”, perhaps because the trade data doesn’t help his argument as much as he would like. And if by a “greater Switzerland” he meant a UK economy scaled up to the same GDP per head as Switzerland’s (US$81,161 as opposed to US$38,592) who exactly would object to that, or more realistically, significant movement in that direction?

18 July 2012

Paintings from the Clark at the RA

The Royal Academy in London is showing its Summer Exhibition until 12 August. As usual the forces of taste, money and talent seem to achieve a balance in the form of red spots adjacent to things wondrous, weird or woeful, and more of them than ever. But this year it is possible to escape to the Sackler Wing to see something truly wonderful. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, while under renovation, has sent some of its collection of 19th century French paintings on a three-year world tour. Their fifth stop is the RA, hence the exhibition, From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism Paintings from the Clark.

Most, but not all, of the pictures are Impressionist, with more than 20 by Renoir and others by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley and Morisot. These are put in the context of earlier 19th century French art and some of the conventional academic work of the time. Their quantity and quality reflects the Clarks’ taste having matched their substantial resources at a time when such works were expensive rather than only affordable in ones or twos for billionaires and oligarchs.

Although the Clark often lends to London exhibitions (Lautrec’s Jane Avril was at the Courtauld last year), many of the pictures at the RA are unfamiliar, so visitors might be struck by the colouring and composition of Renoir’s Onions (above), and (below) Manet’s Interior at Arcachon (with its bay on the Atlantic coast of SW France in the background).

There is also a chance to see a Degas, Dancers in the Classroom, which didn’t come to the RA for last year’s Degas and the Ballet.

Quite why so many of the Clarks’ receipts from Knoedler & Co and others are on display is unclear. From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism Paintings from the Clark continues until 23 September, and anyone who is interested in Impressionism will want to see it.

(‘Anticipointment rating’ 1 – out of 5, the lower the better)

16 July 2012

Ed Miliband, the Blairs and the Olympics

A few posts back, I commented wryly on Tony Blair’s looking for a new big job as his 60th birthday looms:
I feel I’ve got something to say. If people want to listen, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s their choice …
Well, something seems to have turned up. According to the Office of Tony Blair, he addressed the Labour Sports Dinner at White City on 11 July, and said:
… it is an honour to be here tonight to support our Party, whose values and principles I have always believed in and always will. And to support Ed, support his leadership, support his drive to make our Party win. Leaders need support. What they usually get is ‘advice’. So Ed, you don’t need my advice but you will have my support.
The dull-as-ditchwater Ed Miliband website has yet to put up his speech nor did @Ed_Miliband tweet about it, but the Labour Party site pre-announced ‘Ed Miliband MP, speaking at Labour’s Sports Dinner, will say’ including:
Mr Miliband will announce that Labour’s Policy Review will consider how best to learn the lessons from the Olympic Games and maximise both its economic and its sporting legacies. Tony Blair has agreed to contribute his ideas and experience to Labour’s Policy Review on these issues. The work will be co-ordinated by the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, along with input from the Office of Shadow DCMS Secretary Harriet Harman, and Shadow Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell.
Juliette Jowit in the Guardian the next day under the headline, Meet the new Labour adviser: Tony Blair, reported that:
Tony Blair is to take his most active part in the Labour party since retiring from frontline politics, contributing ideas and experience to Ed Miliband's policy review. Blair, who stepped down as prime minister five years ago, will be giving advice on the Olympic legacy and in particular how to "maximise both its economic and its sporting legacies", Miliband said last night.  
… The controversial move – perhaps especially within the Labour party – was announced at a fundraising event when Miliband and Blair symbolically shared a platform to make speeches. Miliband, who was more closely allied to Gordon Brown during the 13 years of Labour government, declared that Blair's help for the party marked a "coming together of the Labour tribe".  
… The joint appearance was organised by Alastair Campbell, Blair's spin doctor for his first six years as PM, the former Labour general secretary Lady McDonagh, and Richard Caborn, sports minister during the successful Olympic bid. Other guests at the event included the former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott.  
… With much of his own party – and the country – still angry about the legacy of Blair's decision to take Britain into the Iraq war, and Labour's clear departure from socialism under his reign, Miliband will be aware that Blair's new role will not be universally welcomed. Last night aides played down Blair's policy position, saying it should not be "over-interpreted". "It's something Tony knows a lot about," said one insider. "He's got the sports foundation and he was instrumental in bringing the Games to London."
Tony Blair's new quartet
Miliband’s motives in getting closer to Blair have since been the subject of some speculation. Followed shortly afterwards by his appearance at the Durham Miners Gala, it could be that Ed is working at sealing over any party fissures with the Blairites on the one hand and the Old Labour union base on the other. After all, the next election may be sooner than 2015. Not surprisingly then, Blair’s re-entry into British politics hasn’t been welcomed warmly by the Tory press. The headlines of Peter Oborne’s article in the Daily Telegraph on 14 July, Tony Blair's back - and he's dangerous for the Tories and Labour, The former prime minister’s rapprochement with Ed Miliband is a coup, but his business interests may come back to haunt the Labour Party, and Paul Scott’s in the Daily Mail two days later, Return of the Perma-tan PM: He's earning £20m a year and gained a taste for deep-sea fishing. But suddenly Tony Blair is courting Labour again - and dreaming of a startling comeback, sum it up without having to read further.

But there is also the issue of who takes the credit and who manages to avoid any blame after the London Olympics. It’s interesting that there are three critical articles (by Nick Cohen, Andrew Gilligan and Charles Moore) in July 14th's Spectator homing in on the deficiencies of the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, obviously the responsibility of the last Labour government, and on the theme of the Olympic authorities’ and the sponsors’ tastelessness and heavy handedness in protecting their brand interests. Fraser Nelson weighed in again on the Spectator’s Coffee House website, The Battle with the Olympic Censors.  At which point it is only fair to quote the Culture Olympics Media and Sport Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show on 15 July to the effect that the sponsors are covering half the cost of the games.

Labour will presumably want to get its share of any credit – ‘Blair who won it for London in 2005’ – and Miliband can also deflect any resentment about the ‘corporatist dystopia’ identified by Cohen onto the ancien régime – ‘those Blairites again’. Even better, should people start wondering whether it was such a good idea in the first place for the UK to have hosted the Olympics.

En passant, while “sources” in the Daily Mail and elsewhere can’t always be trusted, the conclusion of Scott’s article slips in something we might hear more of:
Sources close to the family say 28-year-old Euan, Tony and Cherie’s eldest son, has quit his job at the London office of U.S. bankers Morgan Stanley in preparation for his own career in politics. He is said by friends to be keen to find a Labour seat where he can stand as an MP.

15 July 2012

Reversion to the mean and social mobility

In her FT Money investment advice column on 7 July, Merryn Somerset Webb returned to a favourite subject. She had been looking at a report by Mark Urquhart from Baillie Gifford:
According to him, the four most dangerous words in investment are not, as most of us think: “this time, it’s different.” They are: “reversion to the mean”.  
… we are living in a period of exceptionally rapid change – change that can have a “profound effects on equities”. Take the way Urquhart satisfied himself with the definition of reversion to the mean. He looked it up on Wikipedia [my link], a website now accessed by 15 per cent of internet users every day, and viewed by pretty much everyone as the starting point for researching anything. Just 12 years ago, Wikipedia didn’t exist.  
… Set too much store by reversion to the mean and you will be “routinely tempted to sell out of long term winners and into clunkers . . . this is not an obvious winning investment strategy”.
And on this basis, and probably wisely, she advised against buying shares in banks just because they appear historically cheap. The same statistical phenomenon (under its alternative name of regression to the mean) had come up in another journalist’s article a month earlier but in a different context. In the Daily Telegraph on 9 June Damian Thompson, impressed by Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, reported:
A hundred years ago, says Murray, most Americans in the top five per cent of cognitive ability had ordinary occupations. They were very clever shopkeepers, farmers, housewives and factory workers. But they didn’t somersault over their peers. One reason is that they couldn’t marry very smart people. High intelligence was scattered evenly across America, so a gifted farm worker might have to travel 100 miles before he met a woman as bright as he was. Instead, he married an ordinary local girl, and their children, regressing to the mean, were only slightly cleverer than their schoolfriends. The explosion of college education changed that. Universities plucked bright kids out of their home towns like a tornado and suddenly they found that they weren’t in Kansas any more. Young people hooked up with equally intelligent partners and passed on two sets of smart genes.
Read carelessly this might leave the impression that the “gifted” farm worker’s intelligence when diluted by that of the “ordinary” local girl had been nulled to the average whereas “bright kids” nowadays find “equally intelligent” partners” and so can “pass on “two sets of smart genes”, undiluted as it were. Thompson is no doubt well aware that we all get not two, but only the one set of genes which combine the traits we inherit from our parents. But more interesting is what Murray actually said in trying to explain the emergence of a new upper class in white America. This is a class based on high educational attainment providing access to the most elite and well-rewarded forms of employment as “mind workers” or “symbolic analysts”. He defines it as:
… the most successful 5 percent of adults ages 25 or over who are working in managerial positions, in the professions (medicine, the law, engineering and architecture, the sciences and university faculty) and in content-production jobs in the media. (page 20)
His first proposition is that high cognitive ability is a prerequisite for such employment although success depends on other factors such as motivation and interpersonal skills. But don’t be misled by the fact that:
… the correlation of IQ scores with performance among those people who are attorneys, screenwriters and biochemists is modest. [But] to be a top attorney, screenwriter or biochemist, you have to be very smart in the ways that IQ tests measure. (page 47)
Murray calls the point that Thompson picked up, about parents now being more likely to be equally intelligent, “the increase in cognitive homogamy”. However, this does not eliminate regression to the mean and he argues that:
… the expected value of the IQ of a grown-up offspring is 40 percent toward the population mean from the parents’ midpoint IQ (page 65)
He takes the IQ levels associated with levels of educational attainment:

and then casts the expected IQ of the child in terms of the parents education:

followed by a very significant passage:
These represent important differences in the resources that members of the next generation take to the preservation of their legacy. Consider first a college graduate who marries a high school graduate, each with the average cognitive ability for their educational level (113 and 99, respectively). Their expected midpoint IQ is 106. Suppose they have built a small business, been highly successful, and leave $5 million to their son. If their son has the expected IQ of a little less than 105, he will have only about a 50 percent chance of completing college even assuming that he tries to go to college. Maybe he inherited extraordinary energy and determination from his parents, which would help, but those qualities regress to the mean as well. Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations is a likely scenario for the progeny of that successful example. Compare that situation with the one facing th  e son of two parents who both graduated from elite schools. If he has exactly the expected IQ of l2l, he has more than an 80 percent chance of getting a degree if he goes to college. These percentages are not a matter of statistical theory. They are based on the empirical experience of both the 1979 and 1997 cohorts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth [NLSY] - if you had an IQ of 105 or one of 121 and entered college, those are the probabilities that you ever got a degree.  
In addition to those differing chances of graduation are qualitative differences between young people with IQs of 105 and 121. First, the reasons that someone with an IQ of 105 doesn't finish college probably include serious academic difficulties with the work, whereas the reasons a person with an IQ of 121 doesn't finish college almost certainly involve motivation or self-discipline-no one with an IQ of 121 has to drop out of college because he can't pass the courses. Second, there is a qualitative difference in the range of occupations open to those two young persons. The one with an accurately measured IQ of 105 cannot expect to be successful in any of the prestigious professions that are screened for IQ by their educational requirements (e.g., medicine, law, engineering, academia). It is unlikely that he can even complete those educational requirements. Someone with an accurately measured IQ of 121 can succeed in any of them if his mathematical and verbal talents are both strong, or succeed in the ones geared to his talents if there is an imbalance between mathematical and verbal ability.  
Now think in terms of an entire cohort of children. Where will the next generation of children with exceptional cognitive ability come from? For purposes of illustration, let's say that "exceptionally high cognitive ability" means the top five centiles of the next generation of white children. More than a quarter of their parents may be expected to have a midpoint IQ of more than 125. Another quarter may be expected to have midpoint parental IQ of I17 - 125. The third quarter may be expected to have midpoint parental IQ of 108 - 117. That leaves one quarter who will be the children of parents with midpoint parental IQ of less than 108. Only about 14 percent of that top five centiles of children are expected to come from the entire bottom half of the distribution of white parents.   
Therein lies the explanation for that startling statistic I reported earlier about SAT scores: In 2010, 87 percent of the students with 700-plus scores in Critical Reading or Mathematics had a parent with a college degree, and 57 percent had a parent with a graduate degree. Those percentages could have been predicted pretty closely just by knowing the facts about the IQs associated with different educational levels and the correlation between parental and child IQ. They could have been predicted without making any theoretical assumptions about the roles of nature and nurture in transmitting cognitive ability and without knowing anything about the family incomes of those SAT test-takers, how many test preparation courses their children took, whether they went to private schools, or how ingenious the educational toys in the household were when they were toddlers.  
In an age when the majority of parents in the top five centiles of cognitive ability worked as farmers, shopkeepers, blue-collar workers, and housewives-a situation that necessarily prevailed a century ago, given the occupational and educational distributions during the early 1900s - these relationships between the cognitive ability of parents and children had no ominous implications. Today, when the exceptionally qualified have been so efficiently drawn into the ranks of the upper-middle class, and when they are so often married to people with the same ability and background, they do. In fact, the implications are even more ominous than I just described because none of the numbers I used to illustrate the transmission of cognitive ability to the next generation incorporated the effects of the increased educational homogamy of recent decades. In any case, the bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite. (pages 66-68, my emphasis)
This line of argument does not align well with much of the current political rhetoric in the UK about social mobility. However, it seems quite likely that the UK will experience the same trend towards cognitive homogamy. It may be less marked than in the US where there has been a clear elite grouping of universities since the 1960s using a standard set of admission tests, the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests). But, as posted here before, there are well-known rankings of British universities and, very recently, there is increasing use of admission tests to supplement A-level results.  Again, the existence in the UK of elite grammar schools and independent schools pupils concentrate on the academic A-levels appropriate for the best universities may cloud any comparison with the US.

A technical point which intrigues me is that if the offspring of the two 135 IQ parents have an expected IQ of 121, that will be the mean IQ of the children of such parents. What is the nature of the statistical distribution of the offspring’s IQ? Is it, like IQ in the population as a whole, normally distributed (the “bell-curve”, see below) or skewed in some way? If it is a normal distribution, what is the standard deviation (SD)? In my experience, sometimes the children of such parents are just as clever as their parents (if not more). But if symmetry applies, others must be as far below 121 as 135 is above ie 107.  Again, experience, which is not of course the same as objective statistics, leads me to doubt it.

Although it is primarily about the US, I hope to come back to another aspect of Murray’s book in a future post. I would certainly urge anyone interested in British society to read it for the insights it provides into how things could develop here.

4 July 2012

Lynn Shelton’s ‘Your Sister’s Sister’

Lynn Shelton directed and wrote this film. I’ve not seen the others she’s directed or acted in.

Your Sister’s Sister is a low-budget near three-hander following sisters Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Iris's friend Jack (Mark Duplass, another actor/director) over a few days mostly spent in a house on an island off Seattle. It would spoil the plot to say too much about the nature of their relationships. Another film might have taken the complexities of their situation in a less sentimental direction and ended up as a tragedy. As it is, Your Sister’s Sister is a rom-com and played for laughs, a lot of them at the expense of the male of the species (Duplass is no Clooney, a friend of Blunt and her husband). Much of the humour is not intended for the legendary maiden aunt and even more seasoned souls might find the f*** gerund/adjective a bit overworked – apparently there was a lot of unscripted ad-lib. I suppose its use gives the actors time to think while they are trying to do the writer’s job. As for the way it ends – you can make your own mind up.

Dunplass, Blunt and De Witt
Blunt gives Iris an accent which could be described as transatlantic oscillatory, but she makes the best of playing a younger sister still in thrall to De Witt’s ambivalent Hannah. A darker and more complex drama would have been well within their capabilities.

3 July 2012

The army’s carelessness

In a post here last April, Matt Cavanagh on Labour and the Generals, I commented on two of his articles which shed light on political-military relationships in the years before the 2010 election:
One resource which British defence seems to possess in abundance is a large cohort of senior officers of all three services, serving and retired, unafraid to speak their minds and, when not at odds with each other, ready to criticise the government of the day. (Perhaps the implementation of career average, rather than final salary, pensions in the armed forces, as Lord Hutton has recommended, will eliminate one of the incentives for this top-heaviness). Depending on the robustness of the Coalition, the next election could be at any time up to the planned date of UK’s leaving Afghanistan in 2015. However, when it comes, the dominant issues are more likely to be the economy and the NHS than the extent of Labour’s shortcomings on equipment pre-SDSR in 2009, despite Cavanagh’s misgivings. One can also expect the uniformed Top Kneddies to pipe down despite their dislike of SDSR, given their natural inclinations towards the Conservative party.
The last sentence is now looking difficult to stand up. Today’s Daily Telegraph splashes a story by its defence correspondent, Thomas Harding, Army at war over axing of battalions, reporting a leaked letter from a brigadier to the Chief of the General Staff prior to the army cuts to be announced later in the week. Yesterday Harding ran a related story, At least six 'talented' generals quit Army over defence cuts:
At least half-a-dozen of the most senior officers have announced their departure in recent months as the Army prepares to shrink by a fifth to 82,000. The cuts that will be announced by Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, on Thursday are having a devastating effect on morale. The Future Force 2020 reforms are the most significant in a century and will reduce the Army to its smallest size in two centuries. Some of the generals leaving the Army are regarded as the leading thinkers of their generation.
to which a clearly exasperated MoD responded:
Number of Generals leaving the Armed Forces  
Today's Telegraph claims that six Generals are leaving the Army because they are disillusioned. This is nonsense. The article contains a number of inaccuracies and individuals have been misquoted. Several of those named are still serving with no plans to leave before their normal retirement date. The remainder have already left the Army having reached the natural end of their careers. None left because they were disillusioned and this article does those individuals a huge disservice after decades of distinguished and valuable service to the country.  
More than 24,000 people leave the Armed Forces every year, including senior officers who come to the natural end of their careers. The number of senior officers departing early is in line with the historic trend over a number of years. The MOD has long been criticised for being top heavy with too many senior officers and is soon to announce a reduction in senior posts to ensure the Services are balanced, streamlined and effective.
Well good luck with the last – and just how “long been criticised”? Well, here is the late David Hart writing in the Spectator in February 1993 in an article, Not Enough Bang For Our Bucks:
We have a quite extraordinary number of senior officers compared with other nations. The ratio of British general officers (including nursing staff) to total servicemen is 1:420. In the United States and in France it is 1:1,900. In Germany it is 1:2300.
In a post here a year ago, Poor Jack and Harry, I commented on the advantage the army had over the other services in terms of the upper class connections of its senior officers and how this led to “a natural affinity with the Conservative party”. If Labour form the next government, many of its senior politicians will not have forgotten the way they were treated by the army and its friends in the media before 2010. To have fallen out with both main parties “looks like carelessness” on the part of the army which the other two services might not be slow to exploit, when and if the opportunity arises.


Thanks to the magnificent Spectator Archive, recently made available and going back to July 1828, I have been able to add a link to the Hart article quoted from above.

2 July 2012

Is Blair reaping as he sowed?

A biblical quotation seems appropriate for a man of faith like Tony Blair:
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. Galatians 6:7
but if you are one of those people who think Blair should be indicted as an Iraq war criminal, this post is probably not what you are looking for.

On 2 May 1997, a few days before his 44th birthday, Tony Blair became the youngest Prime Minister since the 42 year old Lord Liverpool in 1812 (a record which passed to David Cameron in 2010). Another record of sorts was also set that day and is still held by Blair’s immediate predecessor, John Major, who had lost the election at the age of 54. Before Major the only Prime Ministers in the 20th century to have left office for good below the age of 60 were Anthony Eden, in 1956 in poor health, and Lloyd George in 1922, both 59. Those of us who were part of Britain’s post-war bulge (ie born between 1946 and 1948 as explained in a previous post) could only look on bewildered in 1997 as power passed from a man older than us (much older in his outlook) to a younger man, born in 1953. In fact the only ‘one of us’ to feature significantly in politics since 1997 has been that great survivor Jack Straw, who was born in August 1946 and was present in all the Blair and Brown cabinets until 2010.

In 1995 Blair famously told his party conference that Britain was “a young country” and on 19 September 1996 published the seemingly now-forgotten New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country. The book certainly doesn’t get a mention in Alastair Campbell’s diaries, but a part of the entry for that exact date is worth noting. Campbell had sat in on an interview in which the subject of Blair’s mother’s sudden death when he was 22 had come up:
I said to him afterwards I’d never realised he was so close to his mum because he had never really opened up like that before, even in private. He said she was a wonderful woman and he still felt guided by her. … He said the thing his mother’s death had given him above all was a sense of urgency, the feeling that life is short, it can be cut even shorter, and you can pack in as much as you can while you’re here, and try to make a difference.
Last week there was a surge of media coverage for Blair, possibly carefully co-ordinated, ostensibly to mark the fifth anniversary of his leaving Downing Street. I’ve already mentioned his 24 June appearance on BBC1’s mid-market The Andrew Marr Show and this was followed three days later by guest editorship of the London Evening Standard (given away free but directed at white collar Londoners) and then on 30 June by a lengthy interview in the up-market FT magazine. The changes in style are quite amusing, from globally-concerned rock star semi-inarticulacy on Marr:
No it's absolutely not true - and, by the way, they did have their point of view. I mean this is why … The notion that cabinet never discussed this issue is absurd. I understand why people disagree over it, but it‟s not a matter of … There is no great … You know they’ve gone over this so many times. There is no great hidden conspiracy about this. It was a decision. Now some people agree with it, some people disagree with it. I think when you look at the Middle East today, I think again in the broad sweep of history people will take rather a different view of it.
to measured senior global statesman-speak for Lionel Barber in the FT:
“The rationale for Europe today is not peace; it is power. The rationale for Europe today is that [we are] in a geopolitical landscape that is rapidly changing, in which even a country the size of Germany, let alone France or the UK or Italy, is a fraction of the size of what are going to be the main geopolitical players. We can’t afford to be left on our own. We need the collective strength to advance individual interests.”
But the message from all three sessions was that Blair wants a big job:
ANDREW MARR: (over) Yes. But in domestic/European terms, another big job in it for you?  
TONY BLAIR: Well you know I‟ve always said I'm a public service person first, so I‟d have been happy carrying on as Prime Minister, I‟d have been happy taking the European job as President of the European Union. But you know if I'm not doing that, I'm going to make a difference in a different way. I think here you know where I can contribute, I will. If people want to listen, that's fine. If they don't, that's also fine.
Sarah Sands (editor of the Evening Standard) wrote:
Blair has said that he would like to do a big job in public life again, but when I try him on a job description, he looks wry, and reminds me that he was prime minister for 10 years: “What I can do is contribute to the debate, whether it is Europe or the Arab Spring or areas to do with economy and public service reform here.”  
Okay, I say. Let’s go for the obvious one. If you were offered another term as prime minister would you take it? “Yes, sure, but it’s not likely to happen is it, so…”
And with the FT's editor in the magazine:
Barber: “So what’s your route back?”  
Blair: “I don’t know exactly.”  
Barber: “But you want it. It’s clearly something that you feel ready [for].”  
Blair: “Yes, I feel I’ve got something to say. If people want to listen, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s their choice … I would want to emphasise how fast the world around us is changing and how incredibly dangerous it is for us to think we can stand still.”
Well, we’ll see what turns up for him. One suggestion came from Jane Merrick in the Independent on Sunday the next day:
However The IoS understands that one job Mr Blair may be offered is director general of the World Trade Organisation, a post that comes up next year. The current holder, Pascal Lamy, is French and has served two four-year terms, and diplomatic sources have hinted that a British candidate would be in a good position to get the job. Even David Cameron is understood not to be opposed to Mr Blair's possible candidature.
The last sentence probably says it all, and anyway back in March the Guardian thought this was a job for Peter Mandelson.

Sands and Blair at the Evening Standard
Why all this exposure now? As a first guess Blair will be 60 next May and perhaps he takes such milestones seriously. After all, in 2007 he made sure that he stayed PM until 27 June – if he’d gone before 10 June he would have left office younger than Major. Also, there must come a point when the goldmine of prestigious and lucrative appearances as a speaker approaches exhaustion. It’s even possible that his JP Morgan advisory role (£2.5million a year the FT reckons) will come to an end eventually – surely not a contract which expired at 60?

If I sound a bit jaundiced about Blair entering his seventh decade, it’s probably because of the effect that his cult of youth had on the public sector’s attitude towards its older employees. Within a few years of New Labour’s taking office many of the 50-and-overs were getting the message that their faces no longer fitted. Any lingering ambitions for promotion were soon replaced by early retirement being a far more likely prospect. At the same time policy and strategy units were being set up in Downing Street and elsewhere setting the tone with staff whose principal qualification seemed to be that of being younger than Blair. And of course some of the SPADs of that period and type are now sitting on the Shadow front bench.

Subsequently the escalating pension bill has led to substantial increases in the pensionable age across the public sector. And although addressing age discrimination certainly wasn’t a New Labour priority, it eventually came under regulation in 2006 and appeared in the Equality Act 2010. But, if Blair is now feeling that his age is, quite unfairly, catching up with him (bus pass and fuel allowances due in 2013 - if they haven’t been abolished) and doesn’t care much for it, some of us might be forgiven for thinking that he might be reaping a little of what he sowed. But Blair, like Campbell, lives in an irony-free zone.


Tony Blair was interviewed for the Daily Telegraph on 24 July by Charles Moore. Moore explains that:
The Westminster Faith Debates, chaired by his former home secretary Charles Clarke, will close with a conversation tonight between Mr Blair, the Archbishop of Canterbury and me. The subject is religion and society.
and most of the interview has a religious theme, although Blair seems readier to talk about religions than his own Roman Catholic beliefs. Moore concluded with:
It has been a lively conversation, but I detect in him something like Britain’s famous problem of having lost an empire, but not yet found a role.  
At 59, he’s still young for a man in his position. He has been out of the game for five years, and now, you can see, he wants to get back in. ''Since I left office, I have learnt a huge amount, especially about what is happening in Europe and the world. Sometimes it’s quite shocking to me: how useful would this knowledge have been!’’  
He thinks, I suspect, that he’d be a better prime minister now than he was before. ''I’d like to find a form of intervening in debates.’’ How? By getting elected again? ''I don’t think that’s possible.’’ A peerage? A wonderful look of amused contempt suffuses his tanned face. Something in Europe, perhaps? ''I would have taken the job [the presidency of the European Council] if they had offered it to me, but they didn’t.’’  
Europe, he says, is ''opening up’’. I thought it was closing down, I say. Tony Blair grins. ''Well, what is happening now is not sustainable.” There are ''big, big questions here, involving the political reconstruction of Europe. The single currency will break up unless we stop it.’’ And on that exciting note, the man who would like the job is gone.

In the Guardian on 27 July Simon Jenkins took a very dim view of the possibility of Tony Blair’s reentry to British political life. He also referenced an interview that Blair gave to CNN's Christiane Amanpour on 17 July which includes the following:

AMANPOUR: Is there more public office in view for Tony Blair? Everybody’s talking about how you’re positioning yourself to make a comeback.
BLAIR: I’m not really. It’s just that people ask you the question in a way that says, you know, rule it out, and I kind of think, well, why should I? But that’s not the same as planning to do it. You know what I mean? So I - I’m a public service person. You know, I would have liked staying as prime minister. I would have taken the European job had it been offered me. So that’s my preference. But I’m also enjoying the life I’ve got and doing lots of things and you know, I kind of let the future take care of itself.
AMANPOUR: You didn’t want to step down?
BLAIR: It was - you know, it became very difficult for me to stay, other than a lot of damage to my party, but also probably to my country. So I decided to go. And I’d done it ten years, you know, it’s a long time.
AMANPOUR: Sounds like you’re keeping the door open, though.
BLAIR: It's literally - I mean, maybe I should just shut it, but I just kind of think, “Why?” I mean, you know, the - so, look, I've still got plenty of ideas and energy. But I can't see anything happening on the horizon. I'm not planning or plotting or scheming.

1 July 2012

on form 2012 at Asthall Manor

LtoR: Julian Rena Crack (Carrara marble);
Guy Stevens Two connecting spaces (Portland limestone);
David Worthington Giant Erythrocyte (Red travertine)
A year ago I posted about the biennial outdoor sculpture exhibition held at Quenington Old Rectory in Gloucestershire. This year, and not far away, a similar biennial show, on form, can be seen at Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire, again in a beautiful Cotswold setting. This is the sixth on form and like its predecessors over the last ten years is solely of sculpture in stone. Works of considerable quality from 28 sculptors are on show, mostly in the grounds but some in the ballroom and in St Nicholas church near the house.

The exhibition catalogue is available for download, so there is little need for an extensive description. I was glad to see more works by Anthony Turner, mentioned in a post here last year. The difficulty of photographing sculpture became all too obvious when I tried to capture Aly Brown’s elegant surrealistic Female form reclining II (Yule marble):

Similarly, a translucent piece like Luke Dickinson’s Ascent of the Blessed  (Turkish onyx) presents a challenge in lighting:

but the shortcomings of optics are not uncommon, as Simon Hitchens' Two Faced (Onyx and ?) shows below – is that a perpendicular mirror or piece of glass?

On form 2012 continues to 15 July, ill-served by this summer’s weather so far, but well worth seeing. Asthall Manor may offer additional interest for some in having been the home of the Mitford family from 1919 to 1926. Thyme at Southrop’s pop-up café is recommended, too.

Paul Vanstone Close (Carrara marble)