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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Spin off site: The Great Realignment

Samizdata is a site that writes about things from a primarily libertarian perspective (which means different things to different people, of course). But the issue firmly wedged in the minds of many people here is not a libertarian/non-libertarian issue, it is political, and it has split the samizdatistas much as it has split the UK.

Brexit.

Samizdata needs to get back to writing the kind of things it has always done, and will continue to do, but that does not mean the overtly political stuff is not worth saying… just not here. Not on samizdata. After much pondering, I have decided it just isn’t what this site should be about.

And that is why we now have The Great Realignment, an overtly political site in its very early days for all the various things that do not really fit on samizdata. It is not a replacement, it is a fork in our particular road. I believe that we are now entering a period in which many of the assumptions that have underpinned the UK’s political order are no longer true, but the politics we see have not yet adjusted to this uncertain half-glimpsed future. This is what we will be discussing, with a UK focus, but we may well look at similar realignments elsewhere.

Check it out.

Ulster for Beginners – Part I

A few months ago Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, revealed that she knew precious little about the unusual conditions that exist in Ulster. With the recent killing of a journalist by some version of the IRA and with the 50th anniversary of the beginning of “The Troubles” coming up, it would be useful to be in possession of a concise explanation of why Ulster is the way it is and how it got that way.

Fortunately, just such an explanation exists. In 1998, the Friends of the Union published an excellent little pamphlet entitled Ulster for Beginners. I know all about its excellence largely because I was responsible for writing it.

Luckily – or unluckily? – I have kept a computerised draft all these years. It’s a bit too long for a blog posting so I have broken it up into chunks. What follows is the first chunk along with comments [in square brackets] by my older – and hopefully wiser – self. I will put up further installments assuming there are not too many objections.

→ Continue reading: Ulster for Beginners – Part I

Tears before bedtime

“Widdecombe’s ‘outlandish’ EU speech leaves Green MEPs ‘in tears'”, reports Somerset Live.

A Green Party MEP has said that some of her colleagues were left “in tears” after a speech by Anne Widdecombe.

Widdecombe, Brexit Party MEP for the south west, stood up in front of the EU Parliament to give a speech today (July 4) as proceedings got underway following the appointment of Italian left-centre MEP David Maria-Sassoli’s as president.

The speech, branded “outlandish” and “shameful” by the Green Party, was cheered by fellow Brexit Party MEPs and others in the European Parliament.

Related posts: “Noooooooo!” and “Let’s get thrown out of the EU!”

If you can bear to watch the speech in question, Guido has video (TW).

Two takes on the decline of foreign languages in British schools

“Brexit ‘hitting foreign languages in schools'” says the BBC, quoting its kindred spirits in the British Council – which for those that don’t know is the Muggle Wizengamot a worthy body formed in the 1930s, a decade after the BBC, in order to promote British culture and the teaching of the English language abroad and of foreign languages in the UK.

Brexit is causing poorer children to fall further behind in learning foreign languages, says the British Council.

Parents in disadvantaged areas are telling teachers languages will be less useful after Brexit, it says.

The graph that comes with BBC story gives no support whatsoever to the claim that Brexit is hitting foreign languages in schools.

It is true that the number of English, Welsh and Northern Irish pupils taking a foreign language at GCSE level is in apparently inexorable decline. Why? Because of the rise of English as a world language. However the inexorable decline is, er…, exored at two points.

The first break in the downward slope of the graph comes about half a year after the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010. Despite its name the Bacc is not an educational qualification. It is a performance measure that the government imposed on schools. The aim is to stop schools gaming the system by putting the pupils in for lots of easy exams. To this end schools, not pupils, are marked on how many pupils get decent grades in proper subjects, including foreign languages. “That which is measured, improves”, as the saying goes – and that explains the uptick after 2010. But by 2013 or so (the unmarked horizontal axis of that graph is an abomination) the downward trend returns.

The second, lesser pause in the decline happens about six months after Brexit. The line flattens. Allowing for the same time lag as followed the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, Brexit if anything seems to have stemmed the decline in numbers of British pupils studying foreign languages. Perhaps some kids calculate that if there will be fewer native speakers of those languages around to compete with after Brexit, then any linguistic skills they might obtain will be more in demand.

OK, OK, correlation is not causation. But at least that hypothesis actually has some correlation to wave a hand hopefully at, unlike the preferred hypothesis of the BBC and the British Council:

The British Council report also describes a shift in attitude, with some parents saying languages are “little use” as the UK is due to leave the European Union.

Teresa Tinsley, the report author, says secondary schools in poorer areas are reporting a very definite Brexit effect, which could lead to an even sharper decline in language learning.

Brexit has superpowers: it could do almost anything.

Scattered at random among the single-paragraph sentences of this BBC report there are two that point to a more likely possible culprit than Brexit-bourne viral xenophobia:

It warns that GCSEs and A-level languages in England are seen as being hard subjects in which to get a good grade.

and

It warns of growing concern that GCSEs and A-levels in modern foreign languages are seen as harder than other subjects.

That, unlike Brexit, is something they really do talk about at the school gates.

But why are the grade boundaries in language exams getting harsher? That is the point that the Times has chosen to focus on in its piece on the same British Council report: “Bilingual pupils distort results in language exams”

Schools are enabling pupils to take foreign language exams in their native tongue, making it harder for everyone else to get the top grades, a report has found.

The British Council’s annual Language Trend Survey found that more than 80 per cent of schools now arrange for pupils to take exams for the language they speak at home, with the most common being Polish and Portuguese. Often pupils need only a few lessons in exam technique rather than any formal lessons in the language itself.

In the report teachers expressed disquiet at this growing trend. “In some languages, for example Italian, the number of native speakers taking the GCSE and A-level exams are skewing the grade boundaries hugely — why is this allowed?” said one.

The finding comes alongside a warning by the British Council that the newly reformed and tougher GCSE and A levels were putting pupils off languages, with many believing they stand a far better chance of gaining top grades in almost any other subject.

I do not see any easy way round this. Any attempt to make separate exams for native and non-native speakers will be bedevilled by edge cases. And there is a harsh logic to the idea that if you hold an examination to measure how well someone speaks Italian, for example, then if it shows Italians speaking Italian better than all but a few non-Italians it probably means that the examination is functioning correctly. I certainly do not propose that the government shove its oar in.

I was merely interested to see what very different structures the BBC and the Times built upon the same foundation of that British Council report.

Added later: The Guardian’s treatment of the same story, “Brexit ‘putting pupils off modern foreign languages'” , displays the same oddities in its structure and choice of headline as did the BBC article. It briefly mentions that far more of the teachers surveyed cited the difficulty of the exams as the cause of the reduced interest from pupils in taking GCSEs in foreign languages than had cited Brexit. Then it goes on at length about Brexit.

While more than two-thirds of teachers surveyed by the British Council said the difficulty of the exams was causing concern, one in four said Brexit had “cast a pall” over pupils learning any foreign languages, with some parents actively discouraging their children.

Teachers told researchers that they have seen a shift in attitudes since the Brexit referendum, with one reporting: “We have had parents mention that they do not believe their son or daughter should be studying a language as it is little to no use to them now that we are leaving the European Union.”

Another teacher noted comments from pupils, “obviously heard at home, such as now we’ve left/are leaving the EU you won’t need this any more”.

Samizdata quote of the day

British companies, pension funds may have to report climate risks – Did you vote Tory thinking this is what you were supporting? Keep that in mind next time you are tempted to vote for the people doing this

– Perry de Havilland, commenting on this.

If it saves just one life…

We have to do it, right? Politico reports,

Some U.K. lawmakers think they’ve found a way to reduce British smoking deaths: Brexit.

Large numbers of British cigarette smokers will switch to vaping once the U.K. leaves the bloc, they argue, if looser British tobacco laws replace tighter EU limits on nicotine advertising and packaging.

Why is Russia trying to influence other countries’ elections by means of targeted advertising wrong?

“Nick Clegg denies misuse of Facebook influenced Brexit vote”, reports the Guardian.

Umm, okay. A lot of people are saying “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”.

Sir Nick Clegg, for those readers who have forgotten this rather forgettable chap, used to be leader of the Liberal Democrats and was Deputy Prime Minister for a while, back when the Lib Dems were in coalition with the Conservatives. He lost his seat in the 2017 election, which made him sad. Then he got a “communications” job with Facebook at a salary that probably made him feel better.

So nine years after Cleggmania, here he is back on our TV screens again. The Times report on the same story says,

The former Liberal Democrat leader said that social media could not be blamed for the vote to leave the European Union.

He said: “Much though I understand why people want to reduce that eruption in British politics to some kind of plot or conspiracy — or some use of new social media through opaque means — I’m afraid the roots to British Euroscepticism go very, very deep.”

Sir Nick added: “Yes, Facebook has a heavy responsibility to protect the integrity of elections from outside interference. I also think we have a duty to explain fact from some of the allegations that have been made.”

Calling for greater regulation of the internet, he said: “We forget that though these companies are huge and affect every aspect of our lives — our social lives, our business lives — nonetheless it has all happened in such a short period of time.

It is no surprise to find Nick Clegg “calling for “greater regulation of the internet”. Not only was more regulation of corporations his schtick when he was a politico, it also suits his current employers very well. Facebook can buy another twenty floors of lawyers whenever it needs them; struggling new startups cannot.

But to hear such a lifelong Europhile admit that the roots of British Euroscepticism go deep was a surprise. He is right. Russia’s puny efforts to interfere in the EU referendum were the equivalent of the eternally slandered King Canute calling the tide forward.

But in all this debate about how effective or ineffective Russia’s “outside interference” in the referendum was I have not yet heard a convincing explanation of what exactly is wrong with “outside interference” anyway.

I need not list the real crimes – waging unjust wars, murders, domestic repression – that can be laid at Putin’s door. On an infinitely smaller scale, making use of harvested data that people did not agree to make available is a bad if commonplace thing. But what is bad in principle about Russia trying to persuade British people to vote a particular way by advertising? Where did this idea come from that only British ideas are allowed to enter British brains during an election or referendum campaign? In a democracy you are allowed to vote on any criteria you like. You can vote for a candidate because you carefully researched his or her voting record and found that it best aligned with your political beliefs, or because your family has always voted for the Reds or the Blues, or because you think the candidate has nice eyes, or because your imam told you which way to vote, or because Vladimir Putin did. They all count equally. If we were to operate a system of Juche when it comes to political thought, would that not also exclude political ideas originating in the European Union?

The choice before us

The weekend papers have been dominated by the story of how Boris Johnson and his partner had a screaming row. Their neighbours called the police (defensible, possibly admirable), recorded the row (defensible – it might be required for evidence later)… and sold the recording to the Guardian.

The Times reports,

Revealed — the neighbours who taped Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds’s quarrel

The neighbours who called police about a row between Boris Johnson and his partner are Tom Penn and Eve Leigh, a left-wing dramatist who boasted only a few days before that she had “given the finger” to the former foreign secretary.

Penn, who broke cover after questions from The Sunday Times, voted against Brexit but insisted last night that he and his wife had not acted because of politics. He said they felt “frightened and concerned for the welfare of those involved”. Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, was heard screaming, “Get off me” and “Get out of my flat.”

Penn said: “With my wife, [I] agreed that we should check on our neighbours. I knocked three times at their front door, but there was no response. I went back upstairs into my flat, and we agreed that we should call the police.”

However, he admitted that even after officers called back “to let us know that nobody was harmed”, the couple decided to pass a recording they had made of the incident to The Guardian newspaper.

Penn said: “I felt that it was of important public interest. I believe it is reasonable for someone who is likely to become our next prime minister to be held accountable for all of their words, actions, and behaviours.”

In the Times comments to this story “savetheplanet” said,

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs.

I’m being offered a world run by Boris (fortunately lazy and delegates) or Corbyn and folk like Tom and Eve .

Not a great choice but Logic says Boris is the lesser of those evils.

“It’s about all of us”

There’s an interesting video story on the BBC website today:

Spearmint Rhino strippers fighting for the right to strip

Feminist[s] campaigners have secretly filmed at the Spearmint Rhino strip club in Sheffield. They claim the recording shows sexual acts taking place in the club, which breaks the licensing rules.

Ella, a stripper at the club, is furious with Not Buying It for secretly filming dancers naked and fears losing her job as the club may now lose their licence.

But Dr Sasha Rakoff who assisted the secret filming insists this was the only way to expose the dark side of the industry.

My immediate sympathies were with Ella, but I can see both sides. I support the right of women (indeed the right of all people) to do what they like with their own bodies. On the other hand, the Spearmint Rhino club agreed to abide by certain rules about what could be done on the premises, and it does seem to me as if the covert filming by “Not Buying It” made a good case that those rules were being broken. I did not find Ella’s argument that the investigators had misunderstood what they saw entirely convincing. And it won’t wash to say that the conditions of the club’s licence were merely another example of state repression; though it would be better if they were voluntarily entered contracts between private parties, zoning rules of that broad type would probably still exist in a libertarian utopia.

Still, I found this statement from Dr Rakoff problematic:

Feminism, kind of like the rest of society has been somewhat infected by these really neo-liberal, really dumbed down, simplistic, very selfish attitudes that it’s all about me, me, me and what I choose and if I choose something it’s my right. That’s not what feminism has ever been about, it’s about all of us. So even if these women do choose to be lap dancers, it’s not just about them, it’s about wider social attitudes which is breeding Harvey Weinsteins.

So, according to Dr Rakoff feminism has never been about women’s individual choices. I had heard otherwise but perhaps that merely reflects my ignorance of modern feminism. As I said in a recent post, ‘I’m still holding on to the idea that “what a feminist looks like” can include what I see in the mirror. But it is getting harder.’

I would also like to know exactly who is included in the “all of us” she mentions as having some right to override an individual woman’s choice to be a lap dancer. All of humanity? Just the female half of it? Self-identified feminists? Or just those feminists who meet Dr Rakoff’s standard of feminism uninfected with neo-liberal selfishness?

Yes. But?

In the Spectator, Brendan O’Neill writes In defence of Jo Brand:

Brand’s comedy-crime was to say the following about the recent spate of milkshake attacks on politicians: ‘Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?’ Boom-tish. Funny? I think so. I like Brand’s dry, deadpan wit, so to me it was funny to hear her jokingly propose something so wicked in her droll tones. Others will disagree. That’s subjective taste for you.

But what we surely cannot disagree on — unless we’ve taken leave of our senses, which I think we have — is that Brand was joking. We know she was joking for the following reasons: 1) she tells jokes for a living; 2) she said it on a comedy talk show; 3) she confirmed that it was a joke. ‘I’m not going to do it’, she said, clearly remembering that we live in humourless times in which people are constantly pouncing on someone’s words as proof of their violent intent. ‘It’s purely a fantasy’, she clarified.

And

Amazingly, people have been saying that in response to the Brand controversy. The same political figures, tweeters and tabloids who normally have a field day mocking soft leftists for crying over questionable jokes or edgy ideas are now demanding the censure of Jo Brand. You staggering hypocrites. What is sorely lacking in the free-speech debate today is consistency. The whole point of freedom of speech is that it must apply to everyone. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t free speech at all — it’s privileged speech, enjoyed by some, denied to others.

So here goes: Jo Brand must have the right to joke about throwing battery acid at politicians. Jimmy Carr must have the right to make rape jokes. Frankie Boyle should be free to make fun of people with Down’s syndrome. Boris is perfectly at liberty to say women in burqas look like letterboxes. People must be free to film their dogs doing Nazi salutes. Do you get it now? When it comes to mere words and ideas, no one should ever be censured, censored or punished for anything. Literally anything.

I do not hesitate to endorse the last paragraph (though I would delete the word “censured” from “no one should ever be censured, censored or punished for anything”) but in defence of the snowflakes of the Right who are making a fuss about this, could it not be said that they are only applying the fourth of Saul Alinsky’s famous Rules for Radicals, “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”

A month ago the YouTuber and UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad was investigated by the police for saying “I wouldn’t even rape you” to the Labour MP Jess Phillips. Someone called Steve on Twitter posted this clip of what Jo Brand said about Carl Benjamin then:

“I think it shocking that politics has been reduced to vile personal attacks… especially from a twat-faced beardy tiny-cocked tosser like him.”

She delivers the line rather well, but did not seem too concerned that Benjamin was being investigated by the police for making a crass but obviously not seriously intended threat to commit a crime. Technically it wasn’t even a threat; he said he wouldn’t rape Jess Phillips. Now the boot is on the other foot. If Carl Benjamin wants some quick brownie points he should ride out in Jo Brand’s defence like a non-rapey knight in shining armour.

I assume nearly everyone who reads this believes in free speech. In the present circumstances, what should we be doing to defend it? Should we take the high road, or apply Rule 4?

“Sometimes the apologising has to stop”

In a recent GCSE English examination set by the AQA exam board the “unseen” – a piece of writing new to the students upon which they must answer questions – was an extract from The Mill, a 1935 novella by H.E. Bates.

Some curious examinees looked up the story the extract was from after the exam. But when some of them found out that the story features the tragedy of a girl in service raped and made pregnant by her employer, instead of being grateful to have their horizons widened by the realization that authors tackling the theme of sexual exploitation of women in fiction did not start with their generation, they complained. About the existence of a rape scene elsewhere in the book than in the passage they were obliged to read. The scene, by the way, is not salacious. The main criticism of The Mill as a story is that it is unremittingly bleak and depressing. You know, like The Handmaid’s Tale.

“Sometimes the apologising has to stop,” writes Janice Turner Libby Purves in the Times. (Thanks to Rob Fisher for spotting that I got the author’s name wrong.)

This advice I offer to the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, AQA, which sets GCSE, AS and A levels. Of course it should apologise for real mistakes, but it is not an examiner’s job to endorse the more whiny hypersensitivities of the age. At 15 or 16 GCSE candidates are moving into the adult world and are usually impatient to do so. Yet last week AQA, instead of a scornful “Hah!”, caved in to some ridiculous complainers, saying it was “sorry to hear” they felt that a text “inappropriate” and would “never want to upset anyone”.

It was about a short “unseen” in the English Language GCSE, asking them how language evokes sights and feelings. It came from a little-known 1935 story by HE Bates, The Mill — such excerpts are chosen to be unfamiliar. Nothing untoward is in the set passage, though online there is some disgruntlement about the word “chrysanthemum” (“Is it a plant or what?”). But someone looked up the whole story later — quite praiseworthy really — and discovered that as it develops, a serving maid is raped by her employer and becomes pregnant. Cue outrage, much pearl-clutching and demands for trigger warnings.

Complaints snowballed on social media, and a student, Hadiatou Barry, wrote a long letter to AQA saying she was “horrified” and deploring the “blunder” which “may have very well acted as a trigger for underlying mental health issues”. Not in her, of course, but in some imagined person. Much Twitter followed: “why did AQA think it was alright to use a book about rape?? wtf,” and “what the f— AQA what the actual —? How is this a remotely OK thing?” Adults weighed in: one “memoir writing” tutor cried, “Relevant? Useful for 15/16 year olds to glean anything from? Who sets this stuff?” A mother moans, “My daughter sat an exam about rape!” Even an English teacher joined in.

Online outrage is just froth, and many of the students’ posts are breezily unbothered and funny, or just furious at having to write out the baffling word “chrysanthemum”. But the horror of the row is that AQA should offer even the mildest “sorry” and acknowledge potential “upset”. Encouraging complainers to think they have a point is, in this case, not only stupid but deeply wrong. It’s another brick in the wall of hypocritical hypersensitivity.

Added 12th June: And there’s another one today: Calorie question upsets GCSE pupils with eating disorders

An exam board has been forced to defend a GCSE maths question involving calorie counting after being criticised on social media for causing distress to pupils with eating disorders.

At least one was so upset that she left the exam after seeing the question, according to the complaints, with others saying it affected their concentration.

The question required pupils to work out the total number of calories consumed for breakfast, with weights and calorific value provided for yoghurt and a banana.

“My sister is a recovering anorexic who had to leave the exam due to this,” one young woman posted.

Another criticised the board for posing a question about calorie counting to pupils of that age. “Can I ask what on earth you were thinking by having a question around counting calories? Your exams are primarily taken by 15 to 20-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to suffer from eating disorders,” the post read.

Here is the question in all its evil:

There are 84 calories in 100g of banana. There are 87 calories in 100g of yoghurt.

Priti has 60g of banana and 150g of yoghurt for breakfast.

Work out the total number of calories in this breakfast.

Answer: 180.9

The real fix facing Boris

I am going to assume for the purposes of argument that Boris Johnson will shortly become leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.

I am also going to assume that Parliament will prevent Boris from taking the UK out of the European Union. Even if he makes it a matter of confidence.

At this point the usual response would be to call a general election.

B-B-But… Nige. And his Brexit Party. Nige is not going to go away. Nige doesn’t want to go away. He did that once and it didn’t go well. And he has won a national election. And he beat the Conservatives into third place in a recent by-election.

All things being equal if a general election is called, the Brexit Party will stand and split the Conservative vote while the Conservative Party will stand and split the Brexit vote. Yeah, I know the Brexit Party will get some votes from former Labour supporters but mostly it will come from the Conservatives. So, the vote will be split, Labour will win and we’re all off to the Gulag.

Boris knows this, Nige knows this. Or, at least I hope they do. Therefore, they must avoid splitting the vote and they must make a deal (with one another, not the EU, that is).

B-B-But… I can’t think of two people less likely to make a deal. They are both political entrepreneurs. They are both outsiders who have achieved their position on their own terms and they like being in charge. They are NOT team players and yet a deal requires team playing. This is not looking good.

Britain this time next year

Esprit d’escalier: it occurs to me that the Queen might ask someone else to form a government rather than dissolving Parliament and holding a general election. Ach! Scrub that. There is no one else who could come even remotely close to commanding a majority. Ooh hang about! What about Cooper or Grieve or both? A sort of Chuk 2? Is it a possibility? Would it make any difference?