Saturday, 30 April 2011

That wedding business

Well, it really was a good do. This was the first royal wedding at which the couple committing matrimony were young enough to be my children and I think that affected my view of the whole affair. The previous two, Andrew and Charles, were marriages of people of my general vintage and so I thought what I thought (but rarely said) at friends' weddings - don't do it you bloody fool. Everyone knows that, at least for ordinary folk, there are only two consequences for a man who marries, he gets less sex and more nagging. When you see someone of your age plunging into the pool of perpetual frustration that is married life you think you should be able to persuade them of the folly of their ways. You can't do that with a generation above or a generation below, the former call you a whippersnapper and the latter tell you to fuck off. That means I was just an observer and felt I had no personal iron in the fire.

The whole thing was done terrifically well. We might not be able to get much right in this country these days but we are bloody good at pomp and ceremony. There was something quaintly pleasing about the simple act of people dressing up in their finest to attend at the big church. Of itself that made it special. I witnessed the effect of dressing up many years ago. It was a boring Friday at work, everyone seemed miserable so I rounded up my closest friends there and invited them and their co-duvetees to dinner at FatBigot Towers the following evening - and I issued a black tie dress code. My then pupil (apprentice barrister) wasn't sure whether I was serious but duly attended with his young lady in appropriate attire, as did all other guests. I don't know how many dinner parties I had given before involving most of the same people, but this one was different right from the beginning. The only change from normal routine was that the chaps were in black tie and the gals in ball gowns yet it made a massive difference to the whole atmosphere of the evening. It turned a dinner party into an event. So it was today when we saw female guests trying to out-hat each other and males trying to be as penguinlike as possible. Even the old queen was dressed properly, as was his friend Mr Furnish.

Eveyone was in place, Her Maj looking a real treat in a fantastic yellow number, then it was time for the bride to appear and expose her frock. I can claim no specialist knowledge of frocks but it looked like a pretty well-cut piece of kit. The usual ooohing and aaahing from the crowd accompanied her arrival and the irritating television commentary gave loads of meaningless details about the dress itself, but no one said what seemed most obvious to me. Her outfit was rather, hmmmm how can I put this, well, it seemed distinctly nipply. The girl herself is not endowed with a particularly noticeable bosom so it might be it was a design feature to make people concentrate on something other than the generally fried-eggish nature of her mammarial area. And it did, all I could think was nipples; nipples nipples nipples. Not a word on this seems to have passed from the mouth or keyboard of any other commentator, so it might be I am just a pervy old saddo, but I'm right.

The Duchess of Nipples did not prevent me noticing how much fun the crowd was having. Perhaps it was enhanced by the generally miserable mood of the country at the moment, but it was clear that hundreds of thousands of people were having a really good time. I look forward to George Galloway announcing his conversion to monarchism, after all he has argued for years that a crowd of 250,000 on an anti-war march was proof that the war in question was misguided, now he will feel compelled to argue that a million or so people cheering the House of Windsor justifies the existence of the monarchy for many years to come.

What we saw today, of course, was the normally silent majority in action. People who wouldn't dream of going on a march or urinating on war memorials but are prepared to display that happiest of civilised traits - taking pleasure in the pleasure of others. We just have to hope that the Duchess of Nipples doesn't turn out to be a manipulative publicity seeking tart with shit for brains like her husband's late mother. Time will tell. For now we can just smile and remember a very pleasing day.

And the nipples.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

A university experience from America

I have been following the university applications of a friend's son with some interest. He applied to eight institutions, all of them established and esteemed universities and all of them American. In the circumstances that is hardly surprising because my friend is American and lives with her family in Massachusetts. Her son has always done well at school, obtaining very high grades in almost all subjects. He is not a wholly outstanding student but his grades gave him a realistic chance of a place at Harvard or Yale. Despite being shortlisted for interview at both, he was not offered a place at either and instead had to choose between two other very well known universities. I won't say which because it doesn't matter for the purpose of today's screed. What I want to write about is an aspect of how the whole process works for people of modest means in the USA.

Unlike here, there is no culture of expectation and no culture of entitlement. The concept of education being "free" is unknown because everyone knows it is not free, it is just a matter of who pays for it. Suggest to my friend that her son should be entitled to have his tuition and keep paid for and her question will be "who by?" (they are not very good at 'whom' over there and care not a jot if a sentence ends with a preposition). Parents understand that universities are independent institutions and have to raise money to pay the costs of providing the tuition and other facilities that youngsters wish to use to increase their prospects as they enter adulthood. Equally, the universities exist to provide a service and have to justify that existence through offering a service that is sufficiently attractive to entice people to pay. Insufficient paying customers and the course is scaled back or eliminated. The thinking at the universities is not that they are entitled to paying customers and some means must be found to pay for however many courses they choose to offer, it is that a loss on one course means students on well-subscribed courses will be at risk of receiving a lesser service than would be the case if poodle varnishing were left off the curriculum.

My friend's son applied not just for a place but also for funding from university bursaries and scholarships. His parents have ordinary jobs, each paying under the national average wage. They have saved for each child to provide a college fund but their resources have not allowed them to create a big enough pot to do more than make a contribution towards the costs of a university course. Two factors affect the decision about which offer to accept. The boy has to decide which course is best for him but he also has to consider the cost implications of that decision. One offer will require the family to find about $4,000 a year more than the other course which calls for a nominal contribution. That's a significant sum for them, particularly because there are younger siblings, one of whom will be of university age while the eldest is still an undergraduate. The parents have said he should choose the course that he thinks will serve him best and that he should not concern himself with the financial side of things. No doubt he will have little appreciation of what it would mean from day-to-day to find $4,000 each year, but it is hard to imagine that even a teenager could leave it out of his thinking entirely.

For the parents the position is simple. Their son has an opportunity to go to a very good university and gain a qualification that, subject to his own endeavours, should equip him for a good career. They did not have that opportunity and will do everything they can to ensure their child utilises his. There is no scintilla of remorse, envy or bitterness that they will have to make a contribution towards the costs of tuition any more than their son feels such emotions at the thought he will have to find part-time work throughout his college years to keep himself in beer and condoms. American college students have a long history of taking evening and weekend jobs to pay their way. My experience is that they make excellent waiting staff at restaurants because they are bright and attentive and have enough about them to know that the more you please the customer the larger the tip is likely to be. Some go into prostitution, in which field the same rules apply.

Last week there was uproar among the professionally entitled when the London Metropolitan University announced a plan to cut the number of courses offered from 557 to 160. There is a delicious article in a newspaper local to FatBigot Towers giving a headline figure of 400 courses being abolished, with a first paragraph saying it is more than 400 and only by the seventh paragraph does the writer do the sums and work out that 557 minus 160 is 397 (here). The London Metropolitan University is an amalgamation of a number of former polytechnics. The greatest distincition achieved by any department of the constituent parts was probably the Law faculty at the City of London Polytechnic which was as good as that of many minor universities, but there is no basis for arguing that LMU is anything other than a make-weight new university. Why does anyone suggest it, or any part of it, is entitled to remain in being if it can't pay its way?

The contrast with the USA is marked. Universities over there are forced to close courses all the time when they don't attract sufficient paying customers. Most marked is that they attract paying customers who pay with their own money save where the university has funds which it allocates to those who show the greatest aptitude for the subject according to the judgment of the university itself. Now, I am not so blind as to ignore the existence of a degree of tokenism in US universities, especially where future funding is dependent on appearing to give advantage to minorities today; but that is all part of the same process - they sometimes take the wrong person and exclude the right person this year because doing so ensures 1,000 of the right people can be funded next year.

This field is one of a long list in which good intentions have combined with electoral bribes to create a situation in the UK that is fundamentally artificial. We seem to have, at least among the political chatterati, an established phrase that is treated as the starting point of all discussion about higher education, namely: "free university education". Any call for contributions towards tuition fees is seen as an affront to reasonable expectation because the assumed ideal is that all students should get whatever they want at someone elses expense. No sane person could ever talk of "free university education". University education is a hugely expensive business, it is not and never has been free. Someone has to pay for it. Over here the culture is that taxpayers should pay for it, over there the culture is that the student and/or his family have to pay for it.

Provided there is a sensible system of scholarships and bursaries for the promising but impecunious, those who deserve university places will receive them (yes, some will always slip through the net for more reasons than you could shake an elephant's willy at but that will always happen). Provided universities are dependent on people using their own money to decide which courses are worth paying for, they can remain in being but only if they offer good courses at a competitive cost. When both the customer and the supplier have their limitless demands met by the milk of the taxation udder you will get low-grade courses being followed by low-grade students to the benefit of nobody other than the very people who are currently making the most noise about the London Metropolitan University - udder suckers who can only maintain their positions with the near presence of a soft and generous teat.

As usual I have waffled all around the houses but I think there is one point about my friend's experience that is more important than any other. Her son's education is a private thing, it's funding is a private thing, both are sorted out in the family and between the family and the university. It is not the business of anyone else and it is not the responsibility of anyone else. The expensive dead hand of The State is nowhere to be seen.

And everyone is happy.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

I prefer to have one vote, like everyone else

We haven't had a nationwide referendum in this country since 1975, now we face one on our voting system and it's a pretty low-key, perhaps to some invisible, affair. A few days ago a leaflet plopped through the letter box from a quango called The Electoral Commission explaining what the referendum is about and, I thought very fairly, defining the differences between the current voting system and the alternative on offer. My first thought about the whole affair is that it is worryingly low-key, probably because it concerns a subject that stirs interest in very few people.

The previous referendum, on whether the UK should continue to be a member of the European Economic Community, was a very high-profile affair. It was a topic that split both our major political parties down the middle (as it does today) and was headline news ever since the UK joined the EEC in 1973. With the dishonest and bullying approach that has marked every step of the project to create a United States of Europe, the UK was signed-up to the EEC without asking the people whether they wanted it and a referendum was allowed only once membership became the status quo. Even if the matter had been approached honestly by holding the referendum before we were committed to the disaster that has become the EU, the importance of the issue would not have changed. It was a major constituional shift for this country.
Switching from the established form of voting for MPs (first past the post) to anything else is also a major constitutional shift.

That other systems are used in various parts of the UK and in various other types of election is neither here nor there. The established position is that the person who gains most votes in each constituency wins a seat in Parliament and introducing any other method of voting goes to the heart of our flawed but well-established system. My natural conservatism says that, for all its faults, the established method should not be changed unless there is very good reason to do so. Not only should it be arguable that an alternative would be better, it should be clear that that is so.

This makes me ask what is wrong with the current system. Various faults have been suggested. I don't pretend that what I am about to say is exhaustive but there are two arguments which seem to be most commonly promulgated and to be more substantive than any others.

First, it is said to be wrong that some constituencies are so dominated by one established political party that they can never change hands under "first past the post" and that this deprives voters who do not support that party from having an effective vote. In a way the objection is fair. Some constituencies have a long history of returning an MP of one party with 50% or more of the votes cast so no other candidate can get close to winning. Being in such a constituency myself I am well aware of the "wasted vote" argument. This problem also arises where one party regularly receives less than 50% of the votes cast. At 49% there only need be 2% cast for third party candidates for 49% to be victorious and at 43% of the vote a further 8% going to assorted small candidates means 43% wins.

Secondly, it is said that in more marginal seats people do not always vote for the candidate they want to win but in order to prevent another candidate being successful. A Conservative-Labour marginal seat puts pressure on those who might wish to vote for a third candidate to vote Conservative if they want to keep Labour out or vice versa. Again, it is a fair objection in that people can feel the need to vote against their conscience in order to achieve a result which is not what they really want but is better in their eyes than the other possible outcome. They know their chosen candidate has no real chance, so they engage in a damage limitation exercise.

Both of these objections are, in my view, consequences of the constituency system and, to a lesser extent, of the dominance of the main political parties rather than consequences of the voting system.

For so long as we elect MPs for individual constituencies there will be instances of "safe" seats. Some places contain so many people of like mind that a socialist or a conservative will always triumph even if party labels change. AV seems unlikely to make an difference in such constituencies. Similarly, some seats will always be likely to return an MP of one party or another party, third party supporters know their chosen candidate will not win.
AV might lead to more people putting their first choice first but it seems inevitable that they will use their second vote for tactical purposes. Typically under the present system a LibDem supporter who wants to keep Labour out will vote Conservative where the LibDem candidate cannot expect enough first choice votes to win and under AV he will either vote Conservative with LibDem as his second choice or LibDem with Conservative as his second choice. Either way, once all but the top two candidates have been eliminated (which will result in Labour and Conservative remaining in the race in almost all Con-Lab marginal seats) his current tactical voting seems likely to be replicated whether he put Con first and LibDem second or vice versa.

It is only when we look at seats that are genuine races between three or more candidates that AV might make a difference to the outcome. There is certainly an argument for such seats to go to the candidate who receives the least disapproval, although that rather goes against the grain in an age of pasty-faced political leaders who go out of their way to avoid giving offence and thereby avoid advocating any sort or position of principle. Charming personality politics gives us Blair and Cameron as Prime Minister, two men without a coherent political principle between them. AV seems designed to ensure that beige is the secret to success. I don't find that particularly attractive.

Even less attractive is a system that results in those who are polictically savvy having more of a say than those who are not. For those of us who enjoy politics and take more than a passing interest in it, the opportunity to place multiple choices would be a delight - not least because we can don an anorak, try to second-guess the likely result and use our choices to eliminate someone we don't want to succeed. Those with little interest in politics but a desire to be part of the democratic process will have no incentive to approach the subject in the same way. They might not think it necessary or appropriate to place a second, third or other choice. Under the present system all who bother to vote are in exactly the same position, they have one cross to place on a piece of paper and their cross will either be against the name of the winner or against the name of a loser. Under AV everyone has the option to place as many preferences as there are candidates but no one is compelled to use all those choices.

One thing I find genuinely exciting about a general election is that I am in exactly the same position as a multi-millionnaire and tramp. We each have one vote. I am in the same position as the most intellectually brilliant and the window-licker. We each have one vote. I am in the same position as the most knowledgable political analyst and the person who has no interest in politics at all. We each have one vote. I am in the same position as a person of noble breeding and the latest in a line of illiterate potato pickers. We each have one vote. I am on a par with the Prime Minister. We each have one vote. Talking of illiterate multi-millionnaire window-lickers with no interest in politics, I am in the same position as Premier League footballers. We each have one vote.
I find it unpalatable that we might adopt a voting system that allows those who take an interest to have a more effective say than Mrs Muggins who gets on with her life but votes every time because she is proud to have the right to do so. If I could see an advantage to AV that outweighs this disadvantage I might be persuaded to vote for the change. All I have heard so far is that it might allow a more concilliatory result in some marginal seats. To my mind that is an irrelevance compared to the levelling benefit of every voter being in the position of having one vote.

In the comments (here) the good Mr Wadsworth disputes my assertion that AV leads to some having more than one vote. The case he puts is as follows: "Under AV everyone has one vote in each round of voting. Although your ballot paper might be shuffled from your first choice candidate's pile to your second choice etc, that is your one vote being shuffled around and in the final round it will be counted once." That is patent nonsense and the reason why it is nonsense illustrates the objection I raised above. A simple example shows why he is wrong.

Let's say we have a four-way marginal, Lab, Con, LibDem and UKIP. Mr A votes only for the UKIP candidate, who is eliminated in the first round. When the second round votes are cast Mr A is not involved in the process because he has not made a second choice. Mr A placed one vote and it was counted only once. Mr B also chose UKIP but he put LibDem second. In the second round his vote remains in play because he made a second choice. One could say he has had two votes, but let's not quibble about that just yet, at each of the first two stages of voting he has had one vote. On elimination of the LibDem chap in the second round, he plays no part in the third round. Mr A is involved in one round only, Mr B is involved in two rounds but neither plays any part in the final round. It is, therefore, quite obviously the case that not every vote is carried forward, only those who have voted for one of the final two candidates (or more if one reaches 50% while there are still three or more people in the game) have their vote carried forward to the final round.

I do not consider it a matter of semantics to say that Mr A has had one vote, Mr B has had two votes and those who places the Lab or Con candidates somewhere in their list have had three votes. Of course it is true that at each stage any one constituent has only one vote but that does not change the fact that some continue to have a say while others have their votes discarded because they did not make a sufficient number of choices to remain in play.

It is interesting to note that no commenter has yet suggested what benefits AV is meant to bring.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Back to gardening

The human mind is a wonderful thing, but its powers are not always benign. Gardening has been a great love of mine for as long as I remember. As a small child I planted, weeded and watered and then felt great excitement as the seeds I spread a month or two earlier produced flowers. Of course a month or two is a very long time when you are little, the long wait could disappoint and discourage some but for me the thrill of the finished product was well worth the wait. In my early adult years gardening was off the agenda because I had no garden and was too busy establishing my own grown-up roots. Once I was settled there were regular trips down to the FatBigot ancestral estate (a small three-bed semi in a Sussex village) to take up gardening duties as the parental generation became less able to cope.

It was on moving into FatBigot Towers nearly twenty years ago that I had my own garden for the first time. The previous owners had cultivated bindweed, brambles and elders to a standard that could have earned fellowships of the Royal Horticultural Society, so my first task was to clear out all the crud. On doing so it became apparent that the wall along the north boundary was utterly decrepit, an appearance that was enhanced by a large chunk of it falling as soon as it was touched. It makes the garden seem much larger than it is to say that the wall along one side required more than three thousand bricks to be laid and the use of more sand than you can shake a trowel at (together with a little cement and a vast quantity of hydrated lime). Now the fruit of my modest bricklaying skills is still standing and has weathered beautifully.

For more than a decade I mowed, sowed and hoed at every opportunity even building myself a greenhouse and creating three compost heaps - one for stuff currently rotting, one for stuff rotted and awaiting use and one for leaves. Then I suffered a cardiac unfortunance after a weekend of hard graft thinning the hedge around the front garden and shredding the detritus so that it would compost down at double quick time. And that is where the human mind came into play in my gardening. Saturday - panting and sweating while cutting the hedge; Sunday - panting and sweating while shredding the trimmings and incorporating them into the compost heap; Monday - heart attack. My poor brain linked vigorous gardening activity with intense physical pain.

Since then I have ventured into the garden a couple of times and done a little general trimming to prevent it becoming a jungle and this time last year I had a good go at the hedge again, albeit at a slower pace than before and less extensively than the previous thinning (which was somewhat overdue). Only now has my mind allowed me to tackle the back garden thoroughly. It was my intention to do so last year but on starting I realised it was causing me more worry than it should. Six years is a long time in the life of a garden so I knew there would be a lot of remedial work required before there was any chance of restoring it to its former glory (which wasn't, in all honesty, particularly glorious).

Last week I ran into someone I know who used to work at a Turkish restaurant very close to FatBigot Towers, he said he had just finished working at one place and was due to start a new job next week. The offer of a bit of cash turned him into a gardener for a few days, tackling the toughest parts of the clean-up job and generally clearing the site ready for more intricate preparatory work to be done. Many years ago the great Geoff Hamilton explained that once you get your garden soil into good condition it will remain good for a long time and will need very little additional work each year compared to the work involved in its initial preparation. How true that is, my old flower and veg areas still have light crumbly soil despite years of neglect. It allows the weeds to thrive but also makes it easier to remove them.

I am not planning to be very ambitious. In the flower beds I will clear perrenial weeds, add as much compost and conditioner as I can, preserve the best of the perennials, prune and feed roses and then just sow mixed cottage garden annuals to get two or three months of colour. The veg patch will have spuds, lots of spuds, and a wigwam of runners (always Scarlet Emperor for me). No doubt bindweed and dandelions will pop up in far greater quantities than I would like. Oh well, there's no escaping the old enemy when you have given them free rein for so long. The lawn will get a spring weed and feed treatment and then regular cutting.

The last three days, in which my Turkish assistant worked magnificently hard, have left me with a manageable project. Now my mind is working differently. It is dredging up memories from years ago about how to start a new garden and is reminding me of just how enjoyable and satisfying the exercise was first time round.