Thursday, 27 June 2013

Sophocles and Iain Duncan Smith

What links one of the world's great dramatists to Britain's playground bully? What could link Greek tragedy to the government's biggest hypocrite? Shortly before the end of his long life Sophocles wrote “Philoctetes”, about the Greek hero who took part in the war against Troy. Philoctetes is the inheritor of Heracles' bow and he sets out with the other Greeks to secure the return of Helen, who has been spirited off to Troy by Paris. En route he is bitten in the foot by a serpent. The wound turns septic and the smell and Philoctetes' cries are so hard to bear that the Greeks leave him on a forsaken island, Lemnos, and travel on to Troy without him. After nearly ten years, it is revealed to the Greeks that they will not take Troy without Heracles'  bow. The unscrupulous Odysseus goes to Lemnos with Neoptolemos, the honourable son of the now dead Achilles, to lure Philoctetes to Troy. Odysseus persuades Neoptolemos that only subterfuge will work, and that Neoptolemos must be the one to carry it out, as Odysseus is sure that Philoctetes will hate Odysseus. Neoptolemos is persuaded - a little too easily, and partly because of his own ambition - to go along with Odysseus' plan. He convinces Philoctetes, who is still racked by pain, that he has fallen out with the Greeks, and Odysseus particularly, because when Achilles died, Odysseus took his armour. He is going home and promises to take Philoctetes with him. Eventually Philoctetes gives him his bow. Odysseus reveals himself and Philoctetes realises he has been tricked. Neoptolemos then considers his own actions and decides that honour compels him to return the bow to Philoctetes. The two most significant lines of the play follow:

Odysseus: That is not clever
Neoptolemos: No, but it is just, which is better.

(There then follows a not very satisfactory conclusion. Heracles appears in a vision and tells Philoctetes he must go to Troy where he will be healed and will help in the reduction of Troy. Greek plotting was never terribly good, I think largely because they always had the deus ex machina escape clause.)

The play is mutlivalent. It is about honour, loyalty, will and duty, the clash of personality. It also raises fundamental questions about how we treat our sick and disabled. Philoctetes is marooned because he becomes a distraction to the Greeks, and a liability. He is cast aside. When he suddenly becomes useful again, he must be brought back into the fold, but he cannot be brought back honourably - it has to be by subterfuge. Neoptolemos is the focus of the ethical debate, and in the end his honour will not let him.

The obvious parallel to the deceitful and manipulative Odysseus is Iain Duncan Smith, a man who blusters about how proud he is to be reducing the number of disabled people dependent on the state - which he is achieving primarily by making them destitute, or indeed by hounding them till they die, like Linda Wootton. The DWP is refusing to release current figures of the number of people who die within a short time of being assessed by ATOS. It is a question they don't want answered. Duncan Smith and his department also regularly misreport government statistics, to the extent that they have been reprimanded by the official watchdog. DPAC has listed 35 separate occasions on which they have slanted the truth to suit their agenda. In addition to this, the way in which ATOS continues to hound claimants such as, with the blessing of ministers, goes beyond civilised or Christian behaviour. I mention “Christian” because Duncan Smith uses his faith as justification for his actions. How many deaths does it take before it's no longer just the odd mistake? And how long will we go on getting the “it's better than it was” excuse? It is mendacious, vicious bullying of unemployed people and particularly disabled people, and Iain Duncan Smith has no shame over it. Perhaps he's not really Odysseus; Odysseus was capable of shame, and he was never this cheap.

But who will be our Neoptolemos. Who, in this government, is going to stand up and say, “Enough is enough. We have bullied the most vulnerable people in the country for far too long. We have made the poorest pay the price, in misery and death, for the mistakes made by the richest, and we are still doing that.” Who will be just rather than clever? None, I fear. Which, as a Liberal Democrat, makes me ashamed of my party.

Monday, 24 June 2013

How to wreck the UK's HE sector, and the UK economy into the bargain

Details have been revealed of government plans to sell off the student loan book, as part of the Conservative desire to privatise anything that isn't nailed down. The old chestnut that private is inherently better still holds sway (G4S, ATOS, A4E shining examples of success and probity in the workplace). But if the loan book is to be made fit for private profit making, it will have to be fattened up. (If private is so much better at running a lean ship than all these allegedly bloated and uneconomic government departments, you wonder why they can't just take it on as it is, but there we are.) And in order to fatten it up, one of the solutions being mooted is to change retrospectively the way loan repayments are calculated.

As the Guardian suggests there is a big difference between short term debt and long term liability. One of the reasons the long term loan book is looking a little forbidding is that graduate salaries are not rising as fast as expected. Those in charge should talk to Mr Osborne about that - apart from the 1%, nobody's salary is rising, in fact many people's are retreating, all as a direct result of his austerity measures. And of course they should talk to Iain Duncan Smith, whose poisonous policies are destroying jobs and ensuring poor terms and conditions for those lucky enough to hang on to them.

Leaving aside the doctrinaire economic short termism, there seems to be no awareness of what such a policy would do to future prospects for the HE sector. For any scheme like this to work - in which people pay back over a long period of time, and potentially large sums - there has to be confidence. A government that is prepared to change conditions retrospectively once, can do so again. They've already done one change this year without blinking an eye, changing the law retrospectively on benefit rules to avoid payouts to people badly informed about their benefit conditions, so it is clear that there is no clue about the principle that changing laws retrospectively is a really bad idea. Anyone unsure about their prospects after university is going to think long and hard about whether to take that risk. So we will have fewer people going to university, which will damage the long term prospects of the sector. Even discussing the possibility will have a chilling effect on many people currently considering going to university. Yes, take up of student loans is bigger than expected at the moment: that won't last.

And with that it will damage the UK's economic prospects. Osborne and Duncan Smith appear to be happy to push the UK towards a low wage, low condition economy, with even greater inequality built into it than there is now. But that is no way to compete in the world. We cannot compete on price with the emerging economies. It doesn't matter how far down we can push wages and employers' costs, they will never reach as low as China, India and Brazil. Should wages in those countries rise to match ours, there will be another wave of economies with low wage but well trained workforces emerging - Mexico maybe, South Africa maybe, Vietnam maybe. There will always plenty of places on the planet where skilled people work for less than we do. So to compete, we need ideas, brains, intellectual property, things that we can do better despite the extra costs of having decent living standards. And where do we get those things: at universities. And if the universities are not there, our comparative advantage in applying brain matter to the problems of the world will wither. To keep us prosperous, and, heaven forfend, to have some surplus to share around, we need a genuinely, strong, vibrant, keen, competitive higher education sector to which the brightest and best will be attracted, without a minefield of potential payment problems to tiptoe through first.

We weren't surprised working with the Conservatives to discover that they were still quite nasty, despite David Cameron's best efforts to present a kinder, gentler sharp toothed jungle animal. But we really didn't expect them to be this stupid.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Middle lane driving

I use the middle lane of motorways a lot. I do not consider myself a hog. I have rational reasons for using the middle lane. The government wants to bring in penalties for people hogging the middle lane, but middle lane use has to be considered in the context of overall road use. Some others consider me a hog, usually those intent on breaking the speed limit. If I am travelling at 70 mph, I cannot legally be in anybody's way. If somebody comes up behind me, flashing their lights to get me out of their way when the outside lane is clear, they can move over. If they want my co-operation with their intention of breaking the law, they're not going to get it.

If I do move into the inside lane, I will frequently come up behind traffic moving more slowly than me. I signal and wait for an opportunity to move out into the middle lane to overtake. That opportunity is often denied me for long periods by streams of cars flashing past at illegal speeds, none of whom will move over into the vacant outside lane to let me out.

It I am in the middle lane, with a slow moving vehicle in sight in the inside lane, when another car comes up behind me, I hold my position as I will soon be passing the slower vehicle. It is often the case nowadays that the driver behind decides to overtake on the inside lane instead of the outside, when the outside lane is completely clear. Perhaps they are trying to make a point. But they are actually making life worse for themselves, because the current fashion for overtaking on the inside adds an element of risk to changing into the inside lane as you now have to be aware of cars moving up on both sides.

So if you want me to move habitually into the inside lane, you have to do three things:
a) travel at or below the speed limit
b) exercise the courtesy of letting me out of the inside lane when I need to
c) overtake on the outside lane, not the inside.

But our driving culture is generally so self centred and so speed conscious that pigs will fly before that happens, so I will continue to use the middle lane.

If the government were to introduce penalties for middle lane hogging in the context of enforcing the law on speeding and on inside overtaking, they would have some rationale for it. Doing it on its own, however, is tackling the symptom rather than the problem.

Update 14th August 2014: if you wish to comment on this post, please read this first.

The responses I have had have been very interesting. There are some robust and informative debates below. There are also several assertions that it is all right for people to break speeding laws and laws on overtaking, but they take what they call middle lane hogging to be the ultimate sin. In order to take this stance, they usually have to exaggerate the behaviour that I have outlined in this post, which they then think justifies being rude to me. It does not.

If, after reading this post, you want to reiterate the arguments that your law breaking is OK but mine is not, then I will not publish or respond to them - I've done it often enough already. And if you think that defending your right to drive at any speed you want justifies you being rude to me, then I most certainly will not publish it.

If you have something new to say, and say it courteously, then I will be glad to publish it, and to respond if appropriate.