Sunday, February 26, 2012

Workfare, Poundland, A4e - all up in smoke.

   We believe that it is entirely wrong-headed and snobbish to look down on our pre-teen chimney interns for the very valuable work they do for themselves and for the community. Spending ten hours a day sweeping the majestic smoke stacks and fireplaces of Britain is not a waste of time but essential grounding for future success in the world of work. After all, everyone has to start somewhere, and going up a chimney is as valuable a learning experience as going up to college. The fact that these young people aren't directly remunerated is quite beside the point. The experience they gain from this Mandatory Work Activity is worth far more to them in the long run than mere wages.

Or so they might have put it in Dickens' day. Ridiculous to compare Victorian forced labour to stacking shelves on the government's mandatory work experience programme? In terms of personal risk, perhaps. But what is interesting is the similarity of the arguments used than and now in defence of the practice of getting young people to do dull and routine work for nothing. There was fierce opposition to attempts to stop thousands of unpaid children being sent up British chimneys, and it wasn't finally abolished until 1875. The argument was that the young sweep would, after seven years apprenticeship, become a journeyman sweep, and have a skilled trade. That the trade largely involved getting other young children to go up chimneys was not seen as a problem.

The point is that forcing people to work, effectively, for nothing has been around a very long time, and it is unjustifiable whether it is up a chimney or in Poundland. Yet, under the government's work experience schemes, thousands of young people are being forced to work for eight weeks without pay and without any job at the end of it. And they risk having their benefits cut if they drop out of the job after the first week. This is American style workfare in action. Tough love. It is also an open invitation to exploitation.

Independence. It's all in the mind.

In first ordinary philosophy seminars students used to debate the question of whether we can rely on the evidence of our senses to give us an accurate account of the real world. Is this a real table before me, or am I just dreaming or imagining a table? I've been having similar problems with the referendum debate.

There was Alistair Darling, the former chancellor and an ardent fiscal unionist, saying at the weekend: “Most people think the present settlement does need to change and my view is that any parliament that can spend money but doesn’t have the pain of raising it isn’t satisfactory.” Well, actually most people in the Labour party do not think the present settlement needs to change – at least not in the direction of fiscal autonomy, or devolution max or federalism or whatever you like to tall it. Or so I thought.

I was under the impression that only relatively dissident figures like the former FM, Henry McLeish or the former Labour minister, Malcolm Chisholm, had been talking about giving the Scottish parliament the power, through income tax and other taxes, to raise the money it spends. But clearly I've been relying on my all too fallible senses here, and Alistair Darling agreed with them all along.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Bankers - maybe they do get it after all.

Maybe they do get it after all. Bankers are beginning to realise that their greed and insensitivity to public opinion is damaging them where it hurts: in their reputations and their balance sheets.  Barclays says it intends to slash earnings and bonuses in its casino-banking investment division, and the chairman of RBS, Sir Philip Hampton, has discovered – rather late in the day it has to be said - that banker pay is too high and needs to be “corrected”.

Stephen Hester, the chief executive of state-owned RBS last week handed back his £1m bonus (though he keeps his £1.2 million salary and annual £420,000 pension contribution). Bob Diamond, head of Barclays investment division has reportedly put his £10m bonus on hold this year. Damned decent of him. When he accepted his £6.5bn bonus in 2011 he said that “the time for banker remorse is over”, but it seems to have  come back again. Bankers have finally realised they are on the road to perdition. But why now?

Look no further than the man formerly known as Sir Fred Goodwin, who had his knighthood rescinded last week. Suddenly all the sirs and lords sitting around the boards of British banks have realised that public alienation can have a cost after all. That they can't just thumb their noses at voter opinion and sneer at politicians indefinitely. It's time to make nice and show a little restraint.

This is the answer to all those who said getting Her Majesty to repossess Fred the Shred's knighthood was a waste of time. It is also a rejoinder to those defeatists who say that nothing can be done to rein in the kleptocrats of British banking because they will just leave the country taking their banks with them. In reality, few of our financial elite want to become voluntary exiles from their country of their birth. Even fewer want to join a club of dishonour that includes the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, and the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Scotland's universities are of the people and for the people.

It's a truism that post-industrial nations like ours live by their wits – but that doesn't make it any less true. Whatever Scotland's constitutional destiny, the practical reality is that the education of its people will largely determine their quality of their lives. There really is no alternative to the hard graft of learning, now that heavy industry is long gone, and the false gods of Scottish banking, like Fred Goodwin, have been torn down and trampled into the dust.

Fortunately, Scotland has a unique advantage for a small nation of five million in having at least five world class universities – more in the 'QS top 200 even than much larger countries France – and one of the best educated workforces in the world. Yes, most of them take their qualifications south because of the lack of job opportunities here - but that's another question. Scottish higher education is an industry in its own right, drawing ever greater numbers of international students to study and benefit from our comparative advantage in the learning business.

But there is much more to this than just crude economics. Scotland's universities have never been regarded as mere education factories – they have a distinct egalitarian, or equalitarian tradition, summed up in that much-misunderstood phrase, the “democratic intellect”. There has been much debate about what George Elder Davies, who coined that phrase in the sixties, really meant. But Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal of Robert Gordon University, in his report published yesterday, has finally discerned its settled meaning. Scotland's universities should seen as engines of social and cultural improvement - not just for the benefit of the individual, but for society as a whole. In this, the Scottish universities are markedly different to those elite universities, in America and south of the border, that increasingly regard learning as a commodity to be bought and sold, and students as consumers of a product sold at a price determined by the market.