Or, perhaps to phrase the question a different way, is the era of the small political party over in modern democratic Anglosphere politics? The question occurred to me today as I read the latest reports of the implosion of Australia’s Palmer United Party, which has been in the Senate now for perhaps four months and is already facing its first split, if reports are to be believed.

The Palmer United Party (PUP) is a new entrant in Australian politics. It is run by Clive Palmer, a mining magnate, and is variously depicted as a political insurgency or a vehicle for Palmer’s self-aggrandisement, depending on who you read. It was entertaining to watch for a while, but the major parties seem to have been fairly sanguine about it, and the leader appears to be batshit insane. There are other small parties in the Senate at the moment but they’re quirks of Australia’s mutant electoral system and won’t last. In terms of quantifiably important parties there are only really two minor parties in Australia: the Greens on the left, and PUP. We could add the Nationals to the calculation here but they are in coalition with the Liberals [Australia's "conservative" party] so are usually seen as a “major” party despite their declining vote share and limited number of seats. The UK has the Greens on the left, and UKIP on the right, both seen as “minor” parties in contrast to the (soon-to-be-extinct, poor darlings!) Liberal Democrats. So it would seem that small parties are flourishing. However …

The Greens and UKIP are actually quite old parties now, having been formed in the early-to-mid 1990s. The Australian Greens, for example, were formed in 1996 federally, and existed before that at a State level – they emerged out of the famous Franklin Dam protest of the 1980s. UKIP in the UK formed in 1993 and was originally a small scale and largely liberal national self determinationist party, growing very slowly until it adopted its racist patois. In fact most of the small and functioning parties in both of these democracies were formed long before the modern political era – the Greens, for example, formed three Prime Ministers ago, which in Australian political terms is a lifetime. Both the Greens and UKIP are characterized by a strong political platform and ideological underpinnings, and whether or not one agrees with their policies, in political terms I think they have to be accepted as coherent. The Greens have a broad leftist environmental and social justice platform, not compatible with our social democratic institutions, built on a manifesto co-authored by one of the world’s most respected philosophers. UKIP are built on trenchant opposition to one of the core European modernizing ideas, and have a coherent and ideologically consistent central goal. Ironically UKIP probably owe a lot of their success to the European parliament they oppose, since it was through strong election results in the European parliament that they convinced the British public they might be worth backing at home. But whatever you think of their politics, UKIP put in long, hard years of work and have slowly built their platform around a central critique and ideological purpose, that taps into the core beliefs of a large part of mainstream Britain. PUP, on the other hand, went from nothing to a handful of senators on the back of their founder and lead senator’s private money. They have no fundamental ideological purpose, and no experience of politics.

But would PUP be the only party that would tear itself apart in the modern political environment, or is it impossible for any new party to form in the modern environment? I think there are three reasons why the time when parties can form and grow and remain stable has passed.

The modern media environment is much more punishing: Back in the early 1990s journalism was not yet under threat from the internet, investigative journalism still existed outside of movies, and it was almost impossible for political candidates to get caught out saying stupid things in non-official forums, because video cameras were big and expensive and Facebook didn’t exist. Furthermore, there was a general assumption that private and political beliefs could be kept separate (for example, I didn’t know the Greens’ political leader, Bob Brown, was gay even though I voted for them) and politics was treated as less of a gotcha game. The media cycle could be measured in weeks or days rather than hours, and it was much easier for small parties to keep a low profile. It was also harder for small parties to get air time, because air time was tightly controlled by a small clique, but I think it’s pretty clear that the modern media environment makes air time for small, amateur parties very dangerous. In the 1990s, “vetting” a party member involved checking they didn’t have a criminal record. Now it means sifting through blog posts, years of Facebook bullshit, dating sites, photos and footage held by friends and exes … And it also means dealing with the risk that organizations like the News of the World have been hacking your phones, something that was reserved only for heads of state in the 1990s. In the 1990s, that most horrible of things, “media training,” was a kind of boutique investment for parties that were starting to hit the big time; in the modern era, it’s a survival necessity, and the major parties have a huge advantage too. This, I think, is also part of the reason that major parties tend to recruit from within their own structure. Enforced conformity is a real bonus in the modern media culture. PUP recruits its members from actual real life, which is political disaster – real people say all sorts of stupid shit.

In modern politics you need huge amounts of money: The amounts of money floating around in modern politics can be eyewatering, and kind of embarrassing when you think about the quality of people representing you. UKIP is almost entirely dependent on a single rich, crazy ex-conservative party donor who forks money over by the truckload. After the paper mill Gunns recently launched a defamation (?) case against the Greens’ leader, he had to take a personal donation of some fucktons of money from an Australian entrepeneur in order to deal with the court costs. Nick Griffin, the only idiot ever to have tried to mainstream British Fascism through the British National Party, was bankrupted recently by court cases. That kind of thing started in the late 1990s, but when the Greens and UKIP formed these kinds of financial pressures weren’t an issue. This is especially fortunate for small parties in Australia, since they receive state funding if they pass a certain vote threshold. Indeed, PUP has been in dispute with the government over staffing levels, since they don’t get the staffing support of a major party (their seat count isn’t high enough) and that kind of support is expensive even if you’re a mining  magnate. In the UK there is a further problem of fair representation: the Greens and UKIP are denied seats in the House of Lords even though their vote share has been growing, because they aren’t “major.” The only solution to these problems is to have more money, and for a minor party to get money requires pretty exceptional circumstances. It’s pretty obvious how this works for PUP: they don’t have “policy platforms,” they have “Clive Palmer’s whim.” He is funding the party and he chooses its policy and its tactics (shudder). For the major parties this is not a huge problem – Labour have union funds and the Tories have corporate donors – and the political issue from our perspective is about governance and disclosure. But from a minor party perspective, it’s a real challenge. As an example, suppose independent leftists in the UK wanted to start a party of the workers that wasn’t tainted by the legacy of Blair and that genuinely represented workers’ demands – one imagines that such a party would be quite nationalist and anti-European, but also very socialist and strongly anti-corporate and opposed to the banking industry. Whether or not you support the potential policies of this bunch of imagined anarchists, it’s pretty easy to imagine that there’s no way they could ever raise enough money to compete successfully in modern politics. But I contend [without evidence] that in the early 1990s they could have – the Greens in Australia and the UK did [I don't claim these are anarchist workers' parties] through drawing on existing environmentalist networks. The kind of money you can raise from even strong, coherent community movements today will last about three minutes against a corporate-funded major party. Which is why only parties of the Oligarchy will arise now, and they’ll be so incoherent and selfish that they’ll never last.

The ideological context is much more confusing: The developed world has drifted for 20 years without a major ideological clash, and the only real ideological clash still left is that between capitalism and environmentalism – a clash that doesn’t have to exist and is, in any case, already represented by mature small parties across the developed world. Everything else has drifted into different theories of how to manage capitalism. There’s just no ideological space for modern parties, and unless something new appears – libertarianism springs to mind, but it’s been hideously unsuccessful to date – I can’t see that there is much chance of new parties being able to find an ideological niche. Furthermore, party membership is declining rapidly, and political engagement occurs in different places now. For example, wikipedia puts the membership of Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, at 800,000 in 2012. In just one week, the Japanese branch of Change.org raised 46000 signatures on a petition to deny seedy sexual assaulter Julien Blanc a visa[1]. Political organization is different now, and the way citizens engage with their polity has changed. In theory this could make political growth easier, but I think in reality it has opened new avenues of political activism, and as the Julien Blanc case in Australia showed, ordinary citizens can use these new modes of power effectively outside of mainstream political culture. This combination of a lack of centralized ideologies that can support new parties, and new alternatives to mainstream political activism in an environment of technical managerialism, make the political context very different. As an example, the Victorian police were key agents in the response to Julien Blanc, tweeting about how wrong his views on sexual assault are and updating the public on his movements. The Victorian Police, ladies and gentlemen – who were famous for tigger-happy murders in the 1990s. As another example in the same vein, if you want to see how far politics has changed in the past 20 years (since the Greens were founded, for example), sex workers can now view police as a key ally in their quest for worker safety, primarily through the activism of sex worker community associations, public health organizations, and even church organizations. This changed relationship between police and sex workers (and even injecting drug users) has bipartisan political support in Australia – Tony Abbott may wink at a radio DJ about a 60 year old phone sex worker when he thinks he’s not being watched, but he almost certainly won’t be changing the laws and social policies that affect sex workers. Obviously most of these achievements were built on first steps by a labour government, but that was only the beginning – the major achievements in sex work law in the past 10 years have been achieved through the work of a much broader coalition of forces working outside of political circles, and legislation has been almost an afterthought. In this context, the role of political parties changes and the role of new political parties becomes much harder to pin down.

There are probably counter-arguments to these three points, and other reasons why parties might be easier to form now than before (e.g. the internet). There are a couple of parties that got thrown up into the senate at the last election through sheer fluke, who everyone expects to be swept away at the next election. One (the Democratic Liberal Party) has a coherent (but batshit insane) ideological basis, and the other (the Motoring Enthusiast Party) appears to have been started as a joke but its representative appears to be taking his responsibilities seriously. Perhaps from their future we can see whether it is possible for new parties to grow in the modern era. I wonder if they will prove me wrong?

fn1: They visited immigration to appeal for rejection of his visa yesterday, I think. I personally would prefer that he were allowed into the country[2] and arrested for sexual assault at the airport. He has video evidence of his crimes. That would be fantastic.

fn2: Although it obviously gives me great pleasure to see this man being given the kind of welcome he deserves in Australia, I don’t like the idea of people’s visas being determined by popular referendum. As a resident of a country of which I am not a citizen or permanent resident, the implications of this as a political strategy are fairly obvious and not very pleasant.

 

Be careful going outside in London, there’s foreigners everywhere

There are millions of undocumented asylum seekers in this country

Maybe you didn’t feel welcome in London because they don’t want more foreigners there?

Once David Cameron’s elected, them blacks’ll get what’s comin’ to ‘em

Your new girlfriend’s not aboriginal is she?

You’re not English, you’re British

What race is your friend?

Enoch Powell was right you know!

These are the kinds of things my family and friends have been saying about immigration and race in the UK for as long as I can remember. By “family” I mean not just my immediate family, but also the extended family – uncles, Aunts, grandparents and cousins – and all of the family friends I have ever met. Most of my family and their friends now vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but they used to be classic Tory working class. They’re indicative of the political groundswell that is lifting UKIP up in the polls, and are the reason this new and toxic party came first in the European elections a week ago. If ever it occurs to you to naively wonder why it is that so many UKIP candidates get caught out posting terrible things on social media, just have a look at what my family and their friends – almost all UKIP voters – think of race and immigration. Is it any wonder their representatives have some hairy ideas?

My family are pretty much entirely lower working-class or lumpen proles. My father left school at 15, my mother at 13 (I think); my Grandfather was a Spanish refugee (oh the irony!) who left home at 15 to fight fascism; I was the first person in my entire extended family to get a university education, and probably also the first person in my entire extended family to complete a higher school certificate (my brother got O levels rather than A levels, and only just scraped them in). My father was a tradesman, until he lost his job and spent the remaining 10 years of his working age collecting benefits (and fraudulently using them to pay for a mortgage on a trailer park home, against the housing benefit rules, while complaining about foreigners cheating welfare). Most of the rest of my family are unskilled labourers or tradespeople. They should therefore be the natural constituency of Labour, but their unpleasant views on race make them natural victims of parties like UKIP. My father believes everything he reads in the Daily Mail (he lives in terror of gypsies paving his yard in the night and then presenting him with the bill in the morning), and basically my entire extended family have been slowly seduced into voting against their economic interests by appeals to their racial biases. As an example of how they vote against their interests, my father has a lifelong disability brought about by polio, but he sneers at people with disabilities campaigning for their “human rights” (his quote marks, not mine) even though these people are the reason he has special disability benefits and parking rights. He has always refused to join a union because “they don’t do anything for me” but then he was sacked and blackballed by his employer, so he couldn’t work anywhere in the city where he lived – and then he asked the union if they could help him with legal action (they said no, somewhat unsurprisingly). This is the quality of my extended family – always wanting certain socialised benefits, but refusing to share in the responsibilities and costs of those socialised benefits, and as people like them slowly undermine the strength of the shared social systems they rely on, blaming foreigners for the resulting degradation in public services and benefits.

It is my opinion that the modern leaders of both major British political parties are too shallow and too caught in their own little bubble to understand how people like my parents think. As a result they cannot understand why these people are drifting away from the major parties to the lunacy that is UKIP. I think Margaret Thatcher understood these people – it was her understanding of this class of people that enabled her to construct what is now referred to as the “Tory working class vote” in the first place – and her political opponents from before Blair also saw how these people think, but failed to stop the drift away from class-based solidarity to race-based solidarity. The modern Conservative party is dominated by young Bullingdon club economic radicals, who have absolutely no conception of what it is like to even be a grocer’s daughter, let alone to be an unemployed typesetter living in a trailer park. The modern Labour party is dominated by political lifers, who may mean well (a difficult proposition to support when one looks at the 10-year-long mistake that was Tony Blair) but have no idea how the working class they are supposed to support really think. The few remnants of old labour still left in the party – people like John Prescott – are far out of touch with the modern working class after years of snorting cocaine off of babies’ bottoms in Blair’s cabinet, and their response to UKIP’s rise has been to fall back on 50-year-old concepts of economic protectionism.

In the face of this choice – between obviously out of touch Bullingdon toffs and a clique of political apparatchiks to a vampire – is it any wonder that UKIP have been able to make such gains with the Tory working class? With a complete lack of trust in the political system, having been levered away from an class consciousness during Thatcher’s era, but left rudderless with only their racial consciousness to guide them, the class of British people my family are drawn from are natural targets for UKIP. Labour had 10 years to get these people back into the fold, through restoration of the industrial economy, improvements in benefits and efforts to reduce inequality – practical solutions to the living cost and economic challenges consuming this class of people – but instead they focused on being “intensely comfortable about people being incredibly rich” and were too busy sucking up to the banking industry to bother looking at the little people.

So now both political parties are waking up to realise that a sizeable proportion of the votes they thought they could rely on are drifting away, following the lure of Farage’s racist anger. Both parties have lost the knowledge of how these drifting voters think and what they are worried about, and both parties are unwilling to face a central fact: that these voters they are losing are deeply, unpleasantly racist. This is the party whose leader referred to non-white voters as “Nig-nogs” and whose representatives have a disturbing habit of being caught out saying genuinely horrible things on Facebook – but no one in the leadership of either of the mainstream parties seems to have considered that this might be related to the success of the party. Until they do, they aren’t going to be able to craft a strategy to deal with UKIP’s central anti-immigration theme. How can they? So long as they keep fooling themselves into thinking that the average UKIP voter is a non-racist person with genuine but misguided concerns about European workers taking his job, they aren’t going to get anywhere. Because these people are deeply racist, and race is what is driving their vote. They don’t like foreigners, they don’t want them in the UK, and if foreigners are to come here they want clear assurances that their stay will be temporary, they will be treated badly and paid worse and they will never be given the same rights as the “indigenous” population. If David Cameron doubts that, I recommend he spend 10 minutes trying to discuss labour market reform with my Grandmother.

This also means that the debate about whether to call Farage a racist is irrelevant. UKIP voters aren’t offended by being called racist – they revel in it. My father doesn’t start a conversation with “I’m not racist but …” – he is deeply past that kind of self-equivocation. He refers to black people as “niggers” and starts conversations with proud declarations of his own racism. The inferiority of non-whites is a simple and accepted fact in my extended family. Worrying about whether these people will be offended by being called something they proudly claim for themselves is really angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. The mainstream parties are going to have to do better than that.

And the truth is, I don’t think they can. A large minority of British people don’t want to be part of Europe, and another large portion don’t care either way. A lot of British people want foreigners out. They were willing to vote Tory or Labour despite the incongruence of their aims and the parties’ aims, because they still trusted those parties, and UKIP was not yet a national force. But now that UKIP has begun to be taken seriously, making consistent electoral gains, an in the wash-up of the financial crisis (which destroyed Labour’s credibility) and the expenses scandal (which tainted both parties irrevocably), the stranglehold of the major parties on the neck of the average British racist prole has been broken. I don’t think they’re going to get those people back, and they should be counting their blessings that it’s only UKIP, not BNP that is benefiting from 20 years of mainstream parties’ stupidity.

In the short term I think Labour will be the major beneficiaries of this trend to vote 1 on race. Labour has a natural constituency based on unionism and class issues that the Tories lack, and the Tory vote has been declining for years. Tory success at the polls has relied on some crafty dog-whistling to ensure that some proportion of the working class vote is prized away from Labour, and they have done this through race (see e.g. their broken promise to keep immigration at 100000 a year). These voters they pry loose from Labour on that basis are fair-weather friends, and will easily be drawn away by a credible racist alternative – and now that alternative is here. Even if UKIP don’t win a single seat at the next general election, they’re going to completely screw up the Tories’ electoral strategy, and I don7t think a more openly racist Tory campaign will save them – nobody believes them on European issues anymore, and since they have consistently failed to meet their pledge to reduce immigration, nobody thinks they’re going to do what they say they will. This is going to make Labour’s task much easier at the next election, but if UKIP don’t implode after that then I suspect Labour will face increasing difficulties in the future. The tide has turned. The racist genie is out of its box, and now there isn’t much either of the main parties can do. Unless Labour can find a way to return the political conversation to a genuine, strong position on inequality and complete reform of the British economy to benefit the poorest and the working class – regardless of what happens in Europe – then both mainstream parties are going to be left desperately hoping that UKIP implodes. If it doesn’t, the tories are toast, and unless they can find a visionary to lead them through this challenging new landscape, my guess is that Labour will have to return to 1950s-style anti-European protectionism.

It’s possible that UKIP may win everything they want without ever winning a seat in parliament … simply by dominating the conversation. This is what happens when the working class vote for their racial interests over their class interests. Let’s hope that this madness remains confined to the UK, because it isn’t pretty to watch and let me assure you, you do not want my extended family’s racist imaginings  being treated as a serious policy framework …

There is a fascinating passage in Antony Beevor’s Berlin where he describes the bemusement experienced by Soviet soldiers when they entered Germany proper, and discovered how rich the Germans were. Beevor describes this bemusement turning rapidly to anger, as the Soviets began to ask themselves why a nation that was so much richer than them would want to invade them at all. Why didn’t they just stay home and enjoy their riches? Beevor even ascribes some of the Soviet soldiers’ furious treatment of German civilians (especially women) to their response to this discovery.

I am travelling at the moment, and my travels start with Swiss and Germany. Obviously the Swiss are fantastically wealthy, but when I enter Germany I am always struck by how staggeringly rich Germans are. I don’t mean in the sense that there are a lot of obviously fantastically wealthy people with a million ferraris; rather, the average German is just stupidly wealthy. Furthermore, their infrastructure is stupidly modern: trains are gleaming and new, cars are silent modern things, hotels are well-appointed and modern, farms are always well built and have the latest stuff. Everyone has solar panels. This is a nation not only of private wealth but of public investment. This is particularly interesting because Germany is cheaper than Switzerland or the UK – the price of living is really low – but it’s really obvious that the country is not doing badly despite this.

My next stage in my travels will be London. London is so remarkably different from either Berlin or rural southern Germany, where I am currently staying. It is filthy, rundown and seething with discontent. Nothing works properly, the infrastructure is crumbling, and very few people take any pride in either the service they provide or in the way their nation treats strangers. The contrast from Germany is remarkable – even though the price of living in the UK is much, much higher. How can it be that a nation of such historical greatness can be so decrepit in comparison to Germany?

Many leftists wish to blame all of this on Margaret Thatcher, but this isn’t really a tenable argument. For starters, the UK had serious economic problems before Thatcher (see e.g. the three-day week), and it had a long period of Labour rule after Thatcher, during which it could have fixed some of Thatcher’s worst excesses. Not to mention that Germany has had its share of economic troubles, backward-looking leaders, and of course the need to absorb all of East Germany. Furthermore, Britain has highly valuable resources – oil and gas – that Germany lacks. It’s also unusual for a country’s entire economic troubles to be linked to just one leader – they tend to be more systemic than that – and other nations like Japan and Australia have also had serious economic problems, but still seem wealthier than the UK. So what is it?

Looking around Europe, I note that among the five big ex-colonial powers, only two are still doing well. The five big powers are the UK, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. If we add in Italy for its African possessions, we have a pretty low rate of economic success for the ex-colonialists. Meanwhile the nations of northern Europe that weren’t colonists are doing very well, as is Japan. (Note that here, by “the colonial powers” I don’t include those nations such as Japan and Germany that tried it for a few years and failed – I mean only those nations who held colonies long enough to benefit from them). I guess some would argue that France is doing okay, but I’m not convinced. But the UK, Spain and Italy are obviously in huge economic trouble. I don’t think that this can be sleeted home to the welfare state – Germany, Japan and the Scandinavians all have excellent welfare states, but they’re much better off than the UK. It also isn’t due to that old British canard, “diversity” – Australia and Germany are actually just as diverse as (or more diverse than) the UK.

I think it might be that colonialism creates a kind of resource curse – nations with large colonies they can exploit don’t bother building up the cultural, economic and political attitudes necessary to be economically successful in the modern world. They stagnate under the influence of colonialism’s apparently beneficial balm. I remember in reading A.N. Lee’s the Victorians that he tries to understand how it is that the UK never experienced the revolutions and civil wars of Europe, and he mentioned one possible reason was the ability to loot Ireland and India. In this version of history, the Irish famine was partly brought about by the need of the British ruling class to subsidize British food supplies, to ensure the poor didn’t revolt. I think Beevor points out that India suffered huge famines in world war 2 as the British exported as much food as possible to the UK. George Orwell notes this phenomenon as well, and in Burmese Days his lead character gives an anti-colonial diatribe in which he points out that the UK basically set India up as a captive market, preventing any industrial competition on the sub-continent in order to ensure that British industrialists had somewhere to sell their products[1].

By way of comparison, Germany and Japan have had a couple of revolutions and, in the absence of either colonies or resources, have had to develop a strong industrial base and a society built around competing with the rest of the world. They have the advantage of having populations large enough to support internal markets and a solid industrial policy – but so does the UK. The difference is that they have never been in a position to decide it’s all too hard and resort to stealing from foreign territories. The economic model the UK worked on until the 1950s was a pretty successful one – you have a small group of people willing to do dirty work, who ensure a regular supply of money to the government by ripping off people who have no power to resist. Such a system is a very tempting way of avoiding facing deep structural problems in your economy, and an excellent way of buying off your poorest class but when the system collapses you find yourself in very difficult economic circumstances[2]. And I think that might partly explain the problems that the UK, Portugal, Spain and France are facing – for too long they were able to belay their economic challenges onto others, and loot weaker nations to plug economic gaps of their own. Since the 1950s the UK’s colonial empire has rapidly unwound, with the jewel in the crown (India) lost in the 1940s. The result is that all those structural problems that were previously being prevented by colonial money have come to the fore, and increasingly desperate attempts to solve them have all come to naught. My favourite example of this zeitgeist is the museum of the crown jewels in the Tower of London: it houses a fantabulous display of colonial bling, showcasing the rapacious powers of the British Empire, but when you get to the end you are confronted with a request to donate to maintain the thing – because the British government no longer has the cash to properly fund its public sector.

Japan and Germany learnt through hard and bitter experience that the colonial powers weren’t going to welcome any new colonial projects in the 20th century, but Japan’s horrible acts and horrible end led directly to the unraveling of the colonies. And when those colonies unwound, I think that Germany, Japan and the other rich non-colonial nations (like Australia and Canada) were in a much better position to face the new world order that resulted. The UK will continue to be unable to adapt to the new world while its politicians, public intellectuals and even its general public are unable to face the true history and legacy of colonialism. Of course, facing this legacy isn’t going to be enough in and of itself – the UK needs to find a way to dig itself out of its economic troubles. I don’t think they will, and instead they’ll be left reflecting on past colonial glories as they slowly slide into the ranks of the low-income countries. Eventually their old colonial possessions will surpass them, and the cycle of colonial history will be complete.

fn1: the lead character of that book is a racist, sexist puppy murderer, so make your own judgments about whether you think they have much worthwhile to say about politics.

fn2: any similarity to Tony Blair’s plan to finance welfare through the finance industry is purely coincidental, I’m sure

Many people have pondered the real reasons for the Iraq war, the stated reasons being so blatantly false. Most critics have claimed it was a war for oil; some have suggested it was a stupid mistake by a clique of idiots; others have proposed the darker conspiracy theory that it was intended to unleash chaos specifically to keep the oil in the ground. Well, today Tony Blair revealed the truth: it was a crusade by Protestant extremists. In a piece for the observer, Tony “the Vampire” Blair gives his considered opinion of wars in the 21st century, and decides that they will be primarily driven by religious extremism.

Well, the Iraq war was the second war of the 21st century, its longest-running new war, and certainly a fairly serious business. Before it was invaded, Iraq was a secular dictatorship. It was invaded by a ragtag coalition of Christians, and the leaders of the coalition of the willing were two Protestant nations. Surely we should apply the Vampire’s logic to the big war that he started? Western religious extremism is surely the greatest threat to world peace …

We can do better than that though, can’t we? Now we can look to the religious roots of the Senkaku Islands conflict, driven by the irreconcilable differences between Confucian fascists on the one hand and Shinto Extremists on the other. The increasingly tense dispute between Indonesia and Australia is not really over boat people, but over interpretations of whether Jesus was the son of God. And what is this shit about the conflict in the Central African Republic being ethnically based? It’s clearly a threeway fight to the death between born-again christian fanatics, shamanic exterminationists, and moderate Islam. Right?

History tells me that people in the UK voted in quite large numbers for Tony Blair, several times. I find this hard to believe. Was there ever a time when if he opened his mouth, lies or garbage didn’t come out? Because I don’t remember it, but surely millions of British voters (adults, apparently!) couldn’t have been so easily fooled? Once again there can only be one explanation: Tony Blair is an extremely powerful vampire, with incredible powers of mass hypnosis. Put a stake through that beast! Or at least, keep its hideous rantings off the pages of national newspapers …

Today’s Guardian has some new notes on the ongoing scandal that is the British education system. This time it’s a new OECD report ranking countries by numeracy and literacy, and the United Kingdom has fallen near the bottom. Worse still, the study finds that on average 16-24 year old Britons perform worse on both numeracy and literacy than do 16-55 year olds – that is, educational achievement has gone backwards in recent times. The depth of failure is also astounding:

a quarter of adults in England have maths skills no better than a 10-year-old, a conclusion that also prompted a political row in which the Conservatives attacked Labour’s record in government.

That means an estimated 8.5 million adults are only able to manage one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers or reading graphs. The same body also concluded that one in six adults could only just decipher sentences and read a paragraph of text – the literacy level of a child in their final year of primary education.

This is a pretty disturbing indictment of the British education system. The rankings also show it is under-performing relative to other English-speaking nations, with Australia and Canada out-performing the UK on every measure and the US close behind the UK. South Korea is top in numeracy and Japan top in literacy, which finding is particularly staggering given that literacy in Japanese requires a huge commitment of time and effort just to learn the vocabulary in comparison with English. The UK government is trying to blame Labour, pointing out that a 24 year old tested by this report would have spent their entire education under Labour, but I think that’s a little simplistic – education systems are slow to shift, and education methods, infrastructure and workforce obviously have legacy affects that would strongly influence outcomes long after the government that set them has disappeared into the trash bin of history. The Guardian is taking a more nuanced approach, attempting to understand what it is about education policy in Japan that makes Japanese students so good. It makes the good and obviously alarming point about differences in attitude towards education between the countries:

Japanese senior high school teachers, and their pupils, are often incredulous when they learn that 16- to 18-year-olds in England can drop maths and literature and study just three A-level subjects of their choice.

Add me to the ranks of the incredulous. When I was finishing high school you had to do five subjects. What else would be reasonable? And to the best of my knowledge I could only drop maths in my final year, and had to do one science and one humanities amongst my five subjects. What do English students do with their time?

This article, however, also brings up the common criticism of Japan’s education system – in fact it brings it up twice – and presents this criticism as some kind of counter-balance to the system’s strong focus on rote learning and hard work. The article states:

Japan’s state education system is often criticised for quashing original thought among pupils in favour of rote learning, and for placing an emphasis on theory rather than practical skills …
The stress on memorising information and passing exams, which begins in primary school and continues through to senior high, has been blamed for stifling critical, independent thought

This is a personal bug bear of mine, and something I find really frustrating about western coverage of Japan in particular and of Asia generally, for two reasons: it exaggerates the extent to which western students learn “critical thought” and it valorizes western “critical thought” as something that somehow counter-balances ignorance, or has some kind of value separate from the basic knowledge and skills required to inform critical analysis.

In terms of exaggeration, I remember growing up in the Australian school system, entering university, and interacting with peers during that period, and I can’t say that between us we had a shred of critical thought. We all failed essays at university and had to be taught a whole bunch of things about analysis and critical thinking skills, and university tutors in the humanities will often talk about how the students they get in first year are just repeating rote what they learnt from parents and peers. So the idea that western schools are a haven of critical thinking strikes me as a little exaggerated. Yes, high school students in the west spend more time spouting their opinions in essays than Japanese students, but so what? I’m sure that lots of British students have spent time in the library photocopying their arsehole, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at art.

But more importantly – and the reason this annoys me – critical thinking is a complete waste of time, and can even be counter-productive, if it is alloyed with ignorance and an inability to read. Let’s review the facts about one in six adults in the UK, who could “only just read a paragraph of text.” Why don’t we slap down the IPCC summary for policy makers in front of one of these adults and ask them to critically analyse it. Are they going to produce an analysis with any critical value, no matter how well they learnt to spray their opinions at school? I don’t think so – especially if they have maths skills no better than a 10-year-old. Perhaps it might be better if these adults were first able to understand the IPCC summary, before they embarked on a critique. Indeed, it might be better if these adults refrained from criticizing things they can’t read, because if you don’t understand something it’s likely your critical thinking about it is going to be of little value. You cannot present “independent, critical thought” as a boon independent of the skills that underlie basic comprehension, because one depends on the other. This isn’t to say that both can’t be taught in school, but it’s clear that the UK and US are not doing that. If you teach “critical thought” without teaching the skills it depends on, what you are actually teaching is rhetoric: the ability to bend facts to support your pre-conceived ideological goals. That this is taught in UK schools is not a positive thing.

Critical, independent thinking is not actually a hallmark of western culture: spouting opinions is. If we are such good critical independent thinkers, how come we got lied into a war in Iraq, participated in the massive con that was the housing bubble and the GFC, still haven’t come up with a solution to global warming, and managed to wage the biggest and most disastrous war in human history (WW2). Is it possible that what we see is a virtue is actually a flaw? Or, more likely, we aren’t doing it at all? After all, the land of limited independent thought, Japan, has a low crime rate, high employment, little inequality, and has a strong opposition to engaging in any form of war. They have an economy much larger than their population would be expected to have, exert a significant positive influence in the world, and make all the stuff you use even though they have no resources to speak of. Perhaps an education system that doesn’t focus on “independent, critical thinking” is more beneficial to society than one that does? Or perhaps the West is so full of its own opinions that it mistakes ranting for thinking?

This article’s platitudes about critical thought might go down well with educated British readers, but to me they’re just another example of the standard rhetorical footwork employed by journalists about Japan: on the one hand, a weak and stereotypical assessment of Japanese as conformist; and on the other, a triumphalist reassurance that westerners are all free-thinking individuals. Both of these two steps in the movement are wrong, and the underlying assumptions about the value of critical thinking to a functioning society, as well as the facts about how prepared western school leavers are to engage in such thought processes are also deeply flawed. A little more nuance would be nice.

Also of passing interest in this debate that the UK will now have with itself over its education policies is the role of inequality, and the relative benefits of development compared to birthrates in preparing for the future. How can the education levels of young adults in the UK be going backwards at the same time as average GCSE scores are going up? One answer, readily deployed by conservatives, is “grade inflation.” The other answer is inequality: that if you looked into the background of that “one in six adults” you would find they were much more likely to be poor and from certain areas. Japan, of course, has very little inequality compared to the US and the UK, and Australia and Canada are much more equal than the US and the UK. Interesting how the rankings seem to reflect the inequality within these countries. Also, if one in six of your young adults lack basic literacy and one in four of your adults lack basic numeracy, I think it’s safe to say that you have a problem with your workforce, and no industrialized, developed nation can hope to maintain its economic and cultural development with this kind of lack of investment in its workforce. Although England has a higher birthrate than Japan or South Korea, which country has the larger number of suitable new entrants to its workforce? Who is better placed to maintain a high-skilled pool of workers? The UK with something like 20% of its workers incapable of even basic office duties, or Japan and South Korea? Maintaining birth rates is not the be-all and end-all of maintaining a sustainable social order, especially if a large minority of all those born are going to grow up to be completely unable to contribute to the economy. British policy-makers need to be looking at the long-term implications of their education and industrial strategies (such as they have any) if they want to maintain anything resembling the quality of life that modern industrialized economies have come to expect.

Perhaps they could start by reassessing what they consider to be educational priorities, and trying to look beyond party-political point-scoring. “It’s Labour’s fault” is hardly a sterling example of the “critical thought” that UK policy-makers supposedly learnt at school. But then, maybe it’s an alternative when you don’t have the skills to read the report …

Figure 1: Absenteeism by level of deprivation, UK, 2004

Figure 1: Absenteeism by level of deprivation, England, 2004

The Guardian today reports that Britain’s top 50 state-funded comprehensive schools and academies have become more unequal over recent years, and are not reflective of the social composition of their surrounding areas, or of the remainder of the schools in England. Those of us from more equal societies might think this is not a big deal but the research is quite stark in showing very large differences between the schools and their surrounding communities. Of course, inequality in educational outcomes in the UK is stark and scary compared to other OECD nations, and to help digest this I’ve provided two figures. Figure 1 above shows rates of authorized (i.e. with parental request) and total absenteeism (i.e. including truancy) for small areas in the UK, by the level of poverty of the area; the further left you go, the poorer the community becomes. Figure 2 below shows GCSE achievement on the same scale. In this case, “deprivation” is measured by the Index of Multiple Deprivation, which I think is the scale for measuring poverty that is favoured by the UK Office of National Statistics.

Figure 2: GCSE Scores by level of deprivation, England, 2004

Figure 2: GCSE Scores by level of deprivation, England, 2004

School outcomes in the UK are obviously heavily determined by wealth. The Guardian report suggests that amongst state-funded schools this effect is most obvious in the elite schools, the comprehensives and academies. This, it suggests, is due to increasing income inequality in the UK, and because of the power of house prices. Basically, middle class families in the UK are able to buy houses in the catchment areas of the best schools, ensuring their children can access those schools. This in turn has the effect of pushing up property prices in those areas, forcing out poorer people and preserving the schools for the wealthier incomers. It appears that some of these schools have a policy of guaranteeing access not just on the basis of catchment area but on distance from the school, which guarantees that people with better purchasing power can push out poorer people.

The statistics about differences between school socioeconomics and that of the surrounding communities are pretty stark. They report that

uptake of free school meals – which is most often linked to parents receiving low-income benefits – was lower than half the national average: 7.6% in the 500 leading schools compared with 16.5% in almost 3,000 state secondary schools in England.

Just putting aside the fact that this suggests 16.5% of British families are too poor to provide their children with lunch, we can see that the communities served by these schools are, on average, wealthier than the rest of the country. They are also wealthier than the communities they are embedded in. Measured in terms of whether the schools enrol equal or higher numbers of students on free school meals as are present in the local community, the report found

only 25 also exceeded their local average, and they were well outnumbered by the 106 schools that had fewer than 3% of their pupils eligible.

Most of these elite state-funded schools were somehow managing to recruit on income, even though they are ostensibly open for all. This isn’t inevitable, and some schools have shown that it is possible both to recruit above-average numbers of poorer children and to have good academic results. For example, Chesterton community sports college in Staffordshire:

Chesterton college in Newcastle-under-Lyme has 22% of its pupils on free school meals, compared with its local authority average of just 9.8%. In 2012, 72% of its pupils achieved five good grades at GCSE, well above the national and Staffordshire local authority average of 59%.

This shows that in a good school, poverty is neither a barrier to access nor to success. So what’s going on? This Guardian article is citing a report by the Sutton Trust, which recommends some interesting solutions to the problem, including the use of lotteries or banding (basically, stratified random sampling) to ensure equal access (or, at least, better access). These are interesting ideas for short term solutions, but they don’t address the basic problem: massive inequality in British society somehow ensures that even with free-to-access services (like health and education), those with the assets manage to seize the advantage. The report makes this clear through one simple stark claim: some proportion of this elitism in state-funded schools is only possible because some parents are willing and able to move houses to be in the catchment area (and to push others out of that catchment area). People are required and willing to move homes just to get these superior education services. Should a good high school education be worth that much? Why are people moving homes to secure education outcomes? And should they have to?

I think this problem is driven by two factors: 1) investment in the majority of British state-funded education is so poor that people are willing to move homes to ensure their kids don’t have to go to some schools; and 2) the middle class in Britain now see their situation as so precarious that they are willing to make major asset purchase decisions (home purchase) simply to guarantee their children continued membership of the class they grew up in.  It seems to me that neither of these things should be necessary, and that there are alternative ways to manage society that would prevent these two situations – in my opinion, in a way that benefits everyone.

Increase investment in the worst schools

Looking at the two charts above, and considering the success reported by some of these elite academies, it’s pretty obvious that there must be some terrible schools in the UK, and some schools in serious need of extra investment. This won’t work by itself, since a lot of these areas need major cultural and economic change of their own, but better schools, and better teachers in those schools, supported in their work and properly able to deal with challenging students, will make a difference to the outcomes at those schools. It won’t completely change the phenomenon of rich and middle class parents fleeing to the state-funded comprehensives, but it will reduce the incentive as parents realize that attending a completely ordinary local school won’t kill their child’s future. I’m willing to bet as well that part of the reason poor schools in poor areas do so badly is a lack of educational diversity – no high achieving children, no historic record of achievement to inspire subsequent generations of students, and no reward for teachers to encourage them. If all these teachers have to look forward to is another year full of future criminals and children whose parents make no effort, then they will soon give up. And parents with any desire for their children to achieve will see that and move on. I’m also suspicious that the worst schools in Britain aren’t just educationally tatty: their facilities are, I’m willing to bet, also terrible, and the entire community lack pride in them. That can be fixed.

Increase attention on negative outcomes

Figure 1 shows rates of absenteeism in the poorest schools, but unauthorized absenteeism is something that police and social services can intervene in. Why don’t they? Because they’re dealing with other pressing problems. I think a lot of people in politics in the UK don’t realize just how pressing those problems are, or how much they degrade poor communities and depress the people living in them. Better attention on those problems, and greater efforts to ensure that the community in which children live is supportive of the learning needs of children, will in time lead to reductions in inequalities in behavior related to childhood delinquency – less absenteeism, less casual violence, less malicious fires, less vandalism. But there is no easy way to achieve this except through more funding: more funding for social services, police, teachers, council beautification programs, and activities for children. I don’t think any political party in the UK sees these things as essential state services anymore, and instead of funding these services they’re squeezing them, at the same time as they squeeze the general education budget and the welfare budget. While that happens, sensible people will take their children out of poor areas, making those areas more intense areas of community dislocation, reducing the likelihood that the existing social services will be successful in fighting the problems, and creating a vicious circle of social exclusion. I don’t see this vicious circle being stopped without concerted community effort.

Reduce the social mobility hard scrabble

Why is an education in Britain so crucial that parents will buy a new house in a new area just to ensure it? I think it’s because the middle class in the UK and US has become precarious, and a lot of people in that class are aware that their children risk falling out of it. Securing a position in that class is becoming a desperate struggle, with increasing numbers of losers who are falling out the bottom end of the class and into the increasing pool of poor and socially excluded. This is Ed Milliband’s “squeezed middle,” the middle class who in America and the UK have increasingly turned to debt and the housing “ladder” ponzi scheme to stay ahead of the Joneses. This race has to end, and there is a very simple way to end it: shift from a society focused on social mobility to one focused on social sustainability. I’ve written about this on my blog before: social mobility is a false promise of wealth and advancement, and a better alternative is to find ways to ensure that all jobs are socially sustainable. That is, find ways to ensure that even people at the “bottom” of the ladder can raise a family and live a halfway decent life, rather than having to scrabble up. In such a society education is still important, but because there is less urgency to achieve a ticket to success – because all careers are sufficient to support a happy life – education is not commoditized. Such societies exist, in Northern Europe and Japan, and to a certain extent Australia and Canada; and in these societies, people do not have to fight their neighbours to push them out of a precious school place. And if they do, the people pushed out will still grow up to a functioning life. The UK needs to move away from its competitive, inequalitarian social model towards these models.

Engage corporate power

A society built on social sustainability can only be built in two ways[3]: through a powerful system of taxes and transfers, or through a system in which corporations agree to some kind of social contract. Of course, in reality most such societies see a little of both, but I think a lot of thinkers in the anglosphere see social sustainability as only possible through the former, and I think they see it this way because they think corporations will not give up their wealth for a greater good, but need to be coerced into it. This is, I think, fundamentally defeatist. An alternative to a punitive system of taxes and transfers is a Japanese style system of shared corporate responsibility, in which companies pay their lowest staff a living wage, and don’t pay their highest staff stellar wages. Just because corporations won’t do these things of their own volition doesn’t mean they have to be forced to at gunpoint, but I think the natural assumption in the UK is that no one will give up anything without being forced to. That needs to change. In this respect I think Britain could learn a huge amount from Japan, which has a very strong social contract based around individual and corporate responsibility – something which I think a lot of British people don’t believe is possible.

I think Britain’s inequality is heading into a very bad place, and it’s not going to be an option to ignore it for much longer. It’s cruel, counter-productive and embarrassing. The huge inequalities developing in education can’t be solved just by throwing money at the poorest schools, though this is an essential minimum: changes need to be made in the way that the government tackles social disunity in poor areas, and also in the way that British society views “upward mobility,” competition and social sustainability. But with proper attention on improving schools in the short term, and a shift in social and economic priorities in the long term, Britain can reverse its inexorable slide into a failed state. Can they do it? I’m not hopeful, but I think it can be done.

fn3: that I can see. I think a third option is colonialism and theft of other nations resources, but let’s put that side for now.

I’ve been enjoying the Olympics from the vantage point of my air-conditioned couch, and because I’m in Japan I’m getting to see only the sports that interest Japanese viewers, so at the moment it’s wall-to-wall Judo and swimming. Of course, having something of a soft spot for China I’m quite happy to see them coming up in the world of olympic sports, and this year’s sensation is Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old swimmer whose performance has sparked controversy. An American high up in swimming circles claims she must be a drug cheat, because not only did she beat a man in one leg of her medley (and not just any man – an American man), her times have improved rapidly in just a year or two, and her freestyle leg was just so much faster than her other legs.

Of course this has pissed off the Chinese delegation and Chinese media no end, though to her credit Ye Shiwen has responded in a level-headed manner both in and out of the pool. But she might be surprised to hear that she has found some strong defenders in the Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald has an article disputing all the main claims of the American coach, and suggesting that both Australian and American achievers could be accused of drug cheating if judged on their performance alone. About Ms. Ye swimming faster than an American man (Lochte) in her freestyle leg, he points out that she didn’t actually beat his medley speed overall, and in any case four other men in Lochte’s race did beat Ye’s time in the same leg – they were all swimming their hearts out to catch up with Lochte, which is what Ye had to do in her freestyle leg to catch the leader.

John Leonard’s other big complaint is that Ye shaved five seconds off her previous best at this Olympics. The Herald’s article tears this complaint apart:

It wasn’t an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials. American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months late before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized on the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as genuine grounds for suspicion.

The article also points out that Leonard’s comparison of Ye’s times now with two years ago are unfair because of Ye’s age:

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

To me these paragraphs also contain an insinuation of bad faith against Leonards: he clearly, as a swimming insider, knows that Ye’s times have grown with her age and body size, and should be aware of her history. So why is he making the complaints so openly now? Would he be happy to have them made against Michael Phelps or Stephanie Rice when they started their careers? Is it fair on Ye that her improvement should be immediately slated home to drugs? The accusations have already hit home, with the doping committee making an unprecedented release of her pre-olympic drug testing results to calm the waters, but it’s probably the case that the claims won’t die down.
I think that she’s probably not a drug cheat (or if she is, she’s doing the same undetectable cheating as everyone else) and Leonards and others who insinuate that she is are well aware that her performance is natural. But these people are watching their nation’s long-standing dominance of this sport sliding out of their grip as China’s performance improves. There are also insinuations of “military-style training camps” (always a marker of repression when they do it, but of efficiency when we do it), tightly-controlled sporting worlds, etc. But in fact the Chinese swimming world is quite open and employs foreign coaches, one of whom wrote an illuminating opinion piece for the Guardian, indicating exactly why China is improving its performances so fast: hard work. This coach writes:

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

He adds that there is no special talent selection program, but that he just selects those players he sees and thinks are good. But he gives an interesting insight into the supposedly centrally-managed, state mandated programs that are always painted in such a negative light when they compete with Western athletics – in fact, like so much of Chinese “communism” they’re probably more free market than those in the West:

Let’s also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face … my athletes are salaried and receive bonuses for performance; I am salaried and receive bonuses for performance. We all want performance, not mediocrity, not sport for all, but gold medals – and they are not afraid to say this.

He also observes that China gives him all the funding he needs, and enormous freedom to manage his coaching programs:

If I want a foreign training camp, money is available; if I want high-altitude training – money is available; if I want an assistant coach – money is available; if I want some new gadgets or training equipment, guess what? Money is available.

I think this is the real threat that people like Leonards are worried about. As China becomes wealthy, it is pouring money into playing catch up not just industrially and economically, but in the cultural and scientific pursuits that have traditionally marked out the west as “advanced,” on the assumption that fast development in these areas will lead to results that will challenge western cultural hegemony. They don’t want to be pinned down to traditionally “Asian” sports that often have lower value (ping-pong, badminton, the traditional martial arts) but want to compete in areas that, by being traditionally western strongholds, often have higher cultural value attached to them: swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. And by dint of their combination of rapid economic growth, rampant nationalism, and highly successful mix of central planning and free market ideas, they’re going to catch up fast. The doyens of a previous era of cultural and sporting superiority don’t want to accept it, just as a previous generation of industrialists couldn’t accept Japanese superiority in industry, and a previous generation of military planners couldn’t believe Japanese naval and air superiority.

As China continues to improve its sporting prowess, I think we’ll see more of the same, allied at times with accusations of cheating and corruption. But I think, given the sour grapes China’s growth is producing in many areas in the west, we should approach many claims about their sports programs and sportspeople with a great deal of cynicism and caution.

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