On being a bitrovert

As is well known in the Lib-Dem-and-hangers-on blogosphere (rather more hangers-on than Lib Dems these days, and soon presumably just hangers), James Graham is a genius. So it need surprise no-one that he coined a term only this morning which was swiftly adopted into the Official Permitted Lexicon of the People’s Republic, thus:

Several things could drive this campaign, I think. The first and most obvious is that people like narratives and categories and shorthand; it makes them feel in control, it gives them a handle on what to do in conflict situations. What can be named can be manipulated. The second is the ubiquity of personality profiling systems like Myers-Briggs, ably skewered (again) here, but still widely used by businesses, cod psychologists and bullshitting dilettantes who like nothing more than to rub bits of the abstract world up against each other “to see what happens” even though what invariably “happens” is that you have used a gerbil to nail a blancmange to a gas bill, intellectually speaking, and wasted half an hour of everybody’s time and easily two of your own.

There is a third force at work here though, and it is encapsulated in books like Quiet and The Highly Sensitive Person (are you too sensorily overwhelmed by particularly violently patterned supermarket flooring? do you too spend entire evenings round your friends’ houses wondering twitchily why they don’t sort out the harsh overhead lighting because IT’S MAKING EVERYBODY EDGY? Then congratulations, sport, you’re as fucked as I am.) You might, cruelly, characterise this trend as the Nerd’s Revenge. “Introvert” is one of those terms that is being reclaimed by the people who were originally saddled with it as a perjorative. Certainly I spent my first twentyish years convinced I must be an introvert, and I can absolutely see the appeal of having my inner child cosseted by New York Times bestsellers which tell me how veh, veh speshul this makes me.

To be honest, though, I think my wholly introverted behaviours as a child were mostly down to the fact that, frankly, most of the people around me were quite rubbish, apart from the few friends who got me, and rubbish people were, and are, tiring (note how this alternative reading is still based on the premise that I am veh, veh speshul). And the further forward you go in life the more you tend to be able to select the people you keep around you, so the less the introvert thing is in point. Whether or not your introvert behaviours are set in stone by then really depends on a lot of things, your innate capacity/desire for reinvention, the environments you regularly move in, the extent to which you have tied your sense of self to certain of life’s routine fixtures and fittings &c.

But clearly I can’t escape the introvert label altogether because I absolutely love bitrovert, and logically I don’t see how they can exist as concepts without each other. Bitrovert perfectly expresses the finely balanced forces that alternately cause me to talk bollocks to total strangers in the hope that this will somehow make the world a better place for both of us and sit in corners silently howling GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALOOOOONE. I like that it communicates a sense of being genuinely both things (usually, indeed, in the course of one evening), and being mostly rather happy about that. It is nice to feel well-tuned, and if I spend too much time performing the introvert or too much time performing the extrovert, I get out of tune. And so interestingly we run up against the familiar tension, don’t we, in that logically both “things” have to exist as culturally constructed entities for you to be able to identify with both of them. There’s probably queer theory stuff I need to read about this so that I can talk about it on the internet some more.

Now piss off.

Letter to a Known Soldier

Letter to an Unknown Soldier project.

Dear Percy,

I’m supposed to be writing to an Unknown Soldier apparently, but I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. So I thought I’d write to you instead. It feels more comfortable. Thinking about the Cenotaph, and sacrifice, and horror, and pacifism, and all the rest of it, freezes me up; but I am happy sitting on the back steps with you just out of focus, on the step above me maybe, having a smoke (you must have smoked?) and rambling on down a sort of crackly genetic telegraph wire as we watch the white washing blow in lines across Crouch End.

Crouch End and Finsbury Park are the places we have in common. I fetch up there periodically. We just missed each other, walking round the streets. Often I would see things unchanged in the hundred years since you saw them – a battered old door jamb covered in treacly brown Victorian paint. The rooflines. The clock tower, still rather new in your day. Number 34 Park Road which I used to pass coming on to the Broadway, where your widow was living a scant seven months after you were killed, so I can only imagine you too once opened that gate, walked up the path and knocked, or let yourself in, at the original door that isn’t there any more. Sometimes I would find the shops flashing in and out of focus, clothes boutique/butcher, juice bar/fishmonger, gift shop/ironmonger, and look up at the clock tower and it would dizzy me a bit, and I would wonder, is it now or is it then? Am I about to accidentally slip behind a molecule and see him, or know something new about him?

Let me start with what we do know. You were born on 16th July 1882 in Melbourne, Australia, to the West Country-Irish immigrant parentage that was not unusual in that time and place. I think what happened is that you joined the army around 1900 – the British army recruited in Australia, and the Boer War was the first conflict your fledgeling country was seriously involved in. The family story is that you joined the army and fought in South Africa and then India, served alongside a man called Jack Wells and came home for tea with him when you were both demobbed in London, and married his sister – this last event we can pin down to 1909. You were within a few days of coming off the reserve list when the Great War broke out and hauled you into the British Expeditionary Force. When I looked up your regiment I found that they were stationed in those places, in that order, in those years. So that much I think I know.

You were red-haired. When you were a non-uniformed scout on the North-West frontier (I suppose they would call that a spy these days) you had to take extra care to keep your hair covered because you were so recognisably Caucasian from a mountainside away. You totally rocked at riding, shooting and swimming. You could dive from the top of a mast into the sea. You were a calm man, unflappable and grave. You identified as a Victorian, not an Australian – Australia wasn’t unified until after you’d left. You stood on four continents in your 32 years on earth.

My granddad, who was four when you were killed, had very few memories of you that I know about. One – and this I think is wonderful – was of you standing at the stove, stirring something. It’s a salutary reminder that so much of what we “know” by cultural consensus about Victorian patriarchy is really based on middle class norms. Father in the parlour, mother in the nursery, cook in the kitchen, maid in the attic. All right for some. In April 1911 when the census was taken you, your wife, your baby son, your parents-in-law and your sister-in-law all lived in the same two-up two-down plus attic house in Finsbury Park. How could the men not muck in under those conditions? Life must have been a constant cycle of creation, consumption, dirt and cleanliness, a steady wearing through of enamelled pans and paintwork and stair carpets of the sort that only really happens in houseshares now. Another way in which your life is closer to mine than might be expected.

We don’t seem to have Talked about the War much yet, do we. I suppose that’s my point in writing, really. Like everybody else being written to in this project you had a life, and a family, and places you saw and people you met, and all this went on for years and years before those few months in 1914 that saw you co-opted into a Grand Narrative. If you had survived the war all those things would be your defining characteristics. You would have emerged from the dramatic sepia in which you are set in your tartan trews into the shabbier, workaday light of the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps started appearing in blurry awkward poses on benches in parks. Perhaps cemented a reputation for daft humour, or the ability to write doggerel verse, or dozens of other things. The point I am making is that when I try to write to you as a soldier of the First World War, I probably know you least of all. And I imagine that we are all in fact missing the best parts of all of you when we reduce you to a noble sea of khaki. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with this whole exercise.

Still, I’m no better. In a way that started out as a joke, you have become a sort of tragic talisman. Whenever I feel my back is to the wall, in however small a way, I think, “Percy would love this, to be here in the world now, scrabbling for money, or broken-hearted, or about to go into an exam, or in the dentist’s waiting room. He was so brave, this would be nothing to him. He would swap places with me in an instant.” But really that is not about you being killed in the war at all, it’s simply about your death, and the gratitude and envy we all feel towards each other as we see-saw down history, living and dying and being born and gradually in turn figuring out the truth that we too are going to die.

But we really should say something about war, so let me tell you one little story, about your son and grandson (I imagine you might scrabble as greedily for these vignettes as I scrabble for yours). One day latish in the 1960s, my granddad and my dad were coming out of a theatre somewhere north of Trafalgar Square. There was a Ban the Bomb march on. My granddad, a staunch conservative who had fought in his own war, bristled as a man with leaflets approached him – a straggly-haired, bearded man of about the same age. This is hard to explain to you without relating a whole narrative of social history from the decades after your death; but to a certain generation and a certain cast of mind, Ban the Bomb and Stop the War marches and the like were, and are, associated with beatniks, hippies and drop-outs, people who would avoid Doing Their Bit. You can still see it in the way right-wing political bloggers talk about protest marches now.

“No thanks, I was in the last lot,” my granddad said shortly, in answer to the proffered leaflet.

The man – my dad has never forgotten this – looked at him with conviction and some puzzlement, and tried to explain. “So was I,” he said. That’s why he was there.

And in spite of what I said at the outset about the Cenotaph, I do wonder which side you’d have been on.

Anyway, I’ve finished my cigarette.  I think I’m going to go back inside now.

Alix Mortimer

Pte Percy George Stevenage Mortimer, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), kia 26th October 1914.

 

Is it safe to talk like an anarchist again?

Public intellectualism has its own rhythms. This week’s special guest on Things Alix Mortimer Has Been Saying in the Pub Since 2007 is David Graeber, who asked, here first and then more recently and I think forcefully here, why we are so culturally attached to the idea of work as a virtue, and by extension why jobs for all is still considered a respectable goal of economic policy, or indeed of politics at all. He has his own answer – capitalist conspiracy – but that’s not why I liked reading the pieces. One of the most interesting passages in the interview, for a liberal, is this:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

I.e. my pub-bound discoveries were of course not original either. Anarchists and their intellectual descendents, left-wing libertarians, fans of Citizens’ Basic Income and the like have been saying this kind of thing since, well, the 1880s. Graeber relates the history without noting the corollary – certain groups of people have never forgotten these aspirations, and they have continued to nurture them in small-scale and heavily pub-centric political movements while mainstream conservatives and socialists, or variants thereof, have spent the latter half of the twentieth century re-arranging deckchairs on the head of a pin. Inside a box.

And it strikes me that all this is the kind of thing you really couldn’t discuss in the heated atmosphere of 2009 through 2011ish without being easily confused with a bastard, exactly the sort of bastard that you were in fact determined to bring down with nets. Taking 2,000 words to suggest that we need to shake all the pieces off the current board and set it up like this and like that is basically the sport of the comfortable, and it doesn’t play so well when your audience is caught up in a collective sense that there are truly pressing human problems to solve. It’s not that they mind public intellectuals pitching in on national crises with 2,000 word articles – they’re reading the damn things after all – but when things are fraught your politicised internet-consumer does like to feel a sense of immediacy, familiarity and pragmatism come off the screen. If you’ve ever watched a land taxer argue with that particularly keen-as-mustard type of social democrat you’ll know the sort of mismatch I mean. The social democrat usually has trouble accepting that someone who isn’t discussing housing policy as it currently stands could possibly have the interests of those being royally shat upon by it at heart, and s/he will quickly fall to watching the land taxer’s words for tells of conservatism, and no-one learns anything.

That’s where we’ve been for the last few years. And as such I see it as an interesting bellwether that Graeber is raising the bullshit jobs thing now. It no longer feels quite so much like a kick in the face to people who can’t get jobs and very much want them – not because those people don’t still exist, albeit in lesser numbers, but because the national narrative has moved on from “people like me are being shafted, burn an effigy at once” to “people about whom I care are being shafted, let’s have a full and frank exchange of views on what to do about it”. Not fair, not logical, highly human. Anarchist approaches to work, life and liberty are perhaps part of a suite of ideas – like land tax, like CBI – that people will start to discuss again.

(NB I’m not sure how much he talks about this in Debt, published 2011, because I still haven’t finished it and I can’t handle the emotional wear and tear of using the search function on the Kindle which has seemingly been designed by NASA to respond to every particle of matter that touches its screen except the collection of atoms that make up my finger. I read everything in order, only the once, like an ancient unrolling a scroll. I presume everybody else’s is the same and we are all just too damn embarrassed to mention it.)

Housing the Citizenry

You are tenacious so-and-sos, you lot. I still get as many hits here at PRoM on a bad day as I get on a good day at my new gaff. A not inconsiderable factor is that this post about political apathy among the young appears to have spontaneously taken over Google, from whence people arrive after asking questions such as “why is there political apathy among the youth?” and “why are the young politically apathetic?” and “why is everything so utterly hopeless and what does Alix Mortimer think about it?” (I am paraphrasing here, you understand).

So I have a horrible feeling that my specious rattled-off opinions about political apathy are being regularly used up and down the land to shore up last-minute “Citizenship” homework – or even, for all I know, lesson plans – and this may yet stand as my lasting contribution to The Internet. If this is what influence feels like you may keep it.

Mind you, today someone asked “how can political apathy be stopped?” which seems at least to be a step in the right direction, though I fear answer came there none, at least from me.

Anyway, two of the reasons I proffered in that post that might explain the political apathy of the young (and indeed the not so young, hem hem) related to the cost of housing. I talked about money, and in particular I talked about renting:

I do not personally recall a single instance, either in the last two years of active political interest or the previous 28 of apathy, of a politician mentioning the “r” word. Private tenants simply do not exist in political discourse. They are so invisible that, whenever anyone uses the word “tenants”, it is taken as read that they mean social housing tenants (eg, the name of a new government quango for social housing tenants, which I momentarily and foolishly got excited about: it is called the National Tenant Voice). Private tenants in this country get a worse deal with legal protection and with typical contractual terms than tenants in other European countries. I don’t know a great deal about the issues and I’m sure there aren’t instant and obvious answers. I’m just struck by the way no discussion is ever aired at all.

Mention first time buyers to politicians on the other hand, and they’ll jump like scalded cats. It’s ridiculous. No party has been able to come up with a real solution for all first time buyers “struggling to get on the property ladder” for a very good and simple reason: prices are too high and Generation X is sitting on all the money. We all know this. And no government is ever going to actively cause prices to fall even if they could. Given the Sisyphean impossibility of solving this problem by buying everybody a house (which has been the approach taken by Labour), I am genuinely puzzled as to why politicians don’t go for the lower-hanging fruit: consider the young’s actual lives as tenants instead of their aspirational lives as homeowners. Stop calling them first time buyers because they ain’t buying anything, and start calling them what they are.

(The comments point out that I was incorrect to cite only Generation X and not the babyboomers – see what I mean about specious rattled-off opinions?)

That was written four years ago, and the landscape has, with tectonic sloth, shifted a little since then. You can indeed read about the trials and mounting costs of renting as a private tenant in the mainstream press (quite probably because increasing proportions of the media is staffed by people who don’t have the option to buy). No longer is everyone under 35 represented in the Property pages by smiley pictures of Ben and Lisa simply pink with joy to be sitting on a faux-leather sofa in their very own Barrett cell after clearing the trifling hurdle of selling their kidneys to the international banking system. So that’s something.

But some things are reassuringly eternal, and The Government is still trying to solve the problem by buying everybody a house.

So the reason I attach the electrodes to this blog today is that I have just had an email round from Priced Out, who are preparing to step up pressure on the parties ahead of 2015 and to that end are searching for pieces of hay in a haystack and, well, I want to see them succeed:

PricedOut is the only campaign that represents first-time buyers and we need your help to ensure politicians give us something to vote for.

First, Channel 4 News would like to speak to thirtysomethings living in flatshares, and adults living with their parents because rent is too high. If you or anyone you know would like to find out more, please email press@pricedout.org.uk, as soon as possible.

If you fall into those categories and fancy complaining about your so-called life to Cathy Newman, you should email them.

I do still have quibbles with some of Priced Out’s language. “First time buyers” is a much less inclusive constituency than “private tenants” and only fuels the general idea that buying at all costs is the ultimate dream, which is partly what has got us where we are. But the more air time the reality of the housing crisis gets the better as far as I’m concerned.

The ways of the ancestors

The British Psychology Society research blog is reporting on an ace little piece of research about the psychological benefits of thinking about your ancestors, which I’m going to henceforth assume you’ve read. Off you go. (The original paper, referenced at the bottom, is short and also well worth reading if you have an institution log-in.) One of the reasons I liked it is because I have consciously used this “mechanism” myself – usually, it must be said, when situations of physical bravery are required, because I’m such an utter physical coward (teeth! falling over on the ice! hnnnnnnng!), and the study is concentrating on improved intellectual expectations and performance.  But still.

It’s just a preliminary study. I think there could be some two-way trade here with historically and archaeologically attested instances of ancestor worship. That is, future findings could enlarge our understanding of past societies as well as our own. And also, attested cases of historical ancestor worship could suggest directions for the follow-up research, which will attempt to isolate underlying “processes of social identity, family cohesion, self-regulation or norm activation elicited by increased ancestor salience.”

Rome immediately springs to mind as a culture engaged in formal – and quite explicitly performance-related – ancestor worship. The study’s findings of the increased perception of control and the improved promotion orientation (inclination to tackle problems) associated with ancestor salience are certainly quite handy concepts to bring to Roman history. I’m particularly struck by the finding that ancestor salience is just as marked when a subject considers fifteenth-century ancestors as when he or she considers immediate or living forbears. This rules out the possibility that it’s really the fact that individuals are relatively close in time or even known to one that produces the boost to confidence and performance. It made me think of the processions of ancestor masks, stretching into the past, that were carried at Roman funerals even under the Republic – the more venerable, the better.

We tend, I suppose, to conceive of these displays in the received terms of modern aristocracies – “blue blood”, class, noble birth and so on. But it makes perfect sense if these are the outward justifications and defences for what is essentially a beneficial psychological practice – to which everyone, apparently, has access, whether or not they knew who their ancestors actually were. The study suggests that part of the mechanism of ancestor salience is to “increase the cognitive accessibility of things [the study's subjects] learned from [their ancestors] via intergenerational socialization processes” (p2). If this really is how the mechanism works, then a longer line of death masks at a Roman funeral really would be  better – more generations, more useful knowledge.

Mind you, I think the first experiment in the study assumes one of these received terms itself. In measuring the impact of thinking about 15th century ancestors, it instructed subjects as follows (from the paper, p2):

Please imagine your ancestors in the 15th century, that is, your great-great-great-great-great-. . . grandparents. Please imagine what they did at that time, how they lived, what their profession was and how many children they had, etc. Please also imagine what your ancestors from that time would tell you today, if you were still able to meet them.

This is a pre-circumscribed thought experiment because it encourages subjects to believe that they have only one line of ancestors – a “family-sized” line, simplified exactly as aristocracies and patronymic/matronymic systems in general do, and exactly as the Romans were doing with their successive line of masks. Of course, we all have several millions of direct ancestors living in the fifteenth century even allowing for the many duplicates (reckoning on four generations per century. Anyone know the precise way of calculating the number of duplicates? I”m sure there must be one).

It would be difficult to design an experiment to tease out why this simplification down to a single “line” is apparently necessary to ancestor salience (if it is). Is it just because a family-sized unit, or succession of them, can be more comfortably accommodated by our social conditioning? Or is it something more complex and specific to do with the linear nature of an ancestral line itself. Consider this part of the researchers’ hypothesis:

when we think about [our ancestors], we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities. In other words, because we are the successors of our ancestors and thus their genetic heritage, we tend to attribute successful problem-solving of our ancestors to our own problem-solving abilities

In other words, survival is being invoked, and by implication survival of the fittest, and that leads one to conceive of ancestry in terms of series of refinements leading down to a “perfect” result in the present (well, we’re here, aren’t we?) Half the population of England died of plague in 1348-9; one big tick against “some natural plague resistance” for the rest – and that “rest” is us. One of the many occasions on which we’ve been collectively winnowed for chaff, and disease resistance is just the most obvious example. Success of the “bloodline” is what I think the researchers are really getting at here.

Separating out the impact of notional lines of ancestry from familial warmth is one nudge Rome’s example could provide to future research. Another is the double-edged sword effect of formal ancestor worship – sure, ancestors may strengthen a sense of confidence and entitlement, but they can also provide an explicit set of targets to meet, and be used as a stick with which to beat errant descendents. So is this ancestral equivalent of parental expectation also operating in modern subjects? Or is it unique to Rome and other societies whose elites consciously emulate ancestors’ activities? Perhaps it cuts both ways, and we seek or imagine parallels between our own lives and ancestral lives – I remember being pleased to discover signs that some of my Mortimer/ore ancestors were nonconformists and part of a fairly radicalised trade (brushmaking, would you believe. Stiff with early radicalism, apparently). I wonder what attributes the study’s subjects imputed to their imagined 15th century ancestors.

One last thing about Rome as compared to the present; everyone alive today in the western world could probably say with confidence that they have it easier than most of their ancestors. Technological and scientific progress virtually guarantee it. So there’s going to be an innate widespread acceptance of the notion that our ancestors survived greater difficulties than we’ll ever have to face (five minutes thinking about the First World War and suddenly that exam or dental appointment doesn’t look so bad).

That isn’t the case with Rome, is it. Of course, plenty of similar mood music seems to surround how Romans thought about ancestors – they were simpler, cleaner, more virtuous, “good honest Romans”, and so on, and this is why they overcame various odds – but their life chances were in many respects the same as those of the descendents invoking them. Indeed, that is what made Roman ancestors such effective weapons of chastisement. We don’t have the same relationship of equals with our ancestors – our life chances are unimaginably better than theirs were. It’s possible that one of the factors future research needs to isolate is whether we’re really being reminded of our ancestors’ “problem-solving abilities” and capacity to overcome odds, or whether they simply cause us to reflect on our own technological and economic good fortune. My First World War/dentist example points that up rather nicely.

So we would have to take care in applying the lessons of modern psychological research in history or archaeology. An interesting way to use this research direction, it  strikes me, would be to identify elements of historical ancestor worship that fit modern findings – and then look at what is left inexplicable. Whatever that is, it may constitute the essence of a relationship that ancient societies had with their ancestors that we can no longer access.

Why might black students be under-represented at Oxbridge?

Equality and diversity at tertiary education level are  a tangled set of important and emotive issues. Needless to say, David Lammy has made a complete dog whistling breakfast of the whole thing. (Note: all the following figures not taken from his article are from table 5 in this summary, and relate to home students who filled in an ethnic diversity form.)

In an expose of racism in Oxbridge admissions for 2009 (on the watch of the last Labour Minister for Higher Education, apparently a Mr David Lammy) he has perpetrated statistical no-nos such as:

  • generalising from insignificant sample sizes (highlighting 1 Black Caribbean admission in Oxford for 2009, but failing to mention that it comes from 35 applications in that category, which in 10,210 applications and 2,653 acceptances, is pretty much noise),
  • cherry-picking (choosing the Black Caribbean group at all, with its acceptance “rate” of 2.9%, as opposed to, say, the Black Other group with an acceptance rate of 21.4% – but more about that anon),
  • a particularly technical error which I think is known as “making stuff up” (stating that there are no Black faculty members at Cambridge, something which will come as an enormous existential surprise to people who are in fact Black faculty members at Cambridge).

This is very sad, because a look at Table 5 suggests there is potentially something to investigate here. That healthy-ish 21.4% success rate for Black Other students? Also an inappropriate cherry-pick, of course. Hey, I could be a shadow minister! It represents 3 admissions out of 14 applications. Following Lammy’s logic, we’d have to surmise that some highly complex form of racism was going on which selected Black Other applicants over Black Caribbean applicants. This is clearly unlikely to be the case.

Anyway, averaging out these two groups along with Black African (which I realise is a bit of a lumpen way to treat people’s ethnicity, but they’re pretty lumpen categories anyway) you get 27 acceptances out of 221 applications, or a success rate of 12.2%. That sample size, 2.1% of applications and 1% of acceptances is still within the margin of error, but let’s be generous and take it as an indication, if nothing else. Not at all healthy, is it, given that the overall success rate for all British domiciled students is 26%.

If this indicator does represent a genuine problem, and not statistical noise, what might be happening? This is Oxford’s gloss:

Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths… This goes a very long way towards explaining the group’s overall lower success rate.

(Note: Where I have placed the second ellipsis, the Guardian has the words “with 7% of white applicants.”, no capitalisation, straight after the full stop of the previous sentence. I have assumed this is some kind of subbing error, but can’t be sure. They spelt “rein” as in “to rein in” with a g on their front page the other day, so anything’s possible.)

Now, this could well be special pleading on Oxford’s part. We just wouldn’t know without seeing the full figures, which they’re not releasing any more than Lammy is. Frankly, the way Lammy appears to have mauled the stats, I don’t think Oxford could do worse than release the lot in full – ethnicity breakdowns by subject and college.

But, pending such mere inputs as hard data, the Oxford response has a slight ring of truth about it, and I’ll tell you why. We might posit that as a general rule, black kids are less likely to be applying from public schools, private schools and top state schools. They are disproportionately educated in lower-achieving schools in poorer areas. That means that, amongst many other unfortunate things, their Oxbridge preparation is not going to be so hot. And one of the things they tell you in Oxbridge preparation is “maximise your chances”. If you want to apply for a big name subject, but there’s another less popular variation that will do just as well, go for that. If you’re not that fussed about golden twiddly bits on your college, go for one of the concretes or redbricks as your first choice.

This is how Oxford (and broadly Cambridge too, as far as I know) admissions works: you pick a first choice college, and you get allotted another two (alternatively, you can make an open application, in which case you’ll be allotted three colleges, and they will probably be the ones with fewest applications). If you’re called for interview, your first choice college will interview you. If they want you, that’s it, no more interviews. If they don’t want you, and your second and third allotted colleges still have places to fill, you’ll be sent along to those. And here’s the crucial thing: all of this happens within a week.

You can see what happens to people who apply to the popular colleges. Not only have they lowered their chances by applying to a competitive place as their first choice – their second and third choices are compromised too. Because by the time their first, popular choice has chewed them up and spat them out, the second and third colleges have already filled plenty of places from their own first choice (or allotted open) applicants. Fewer places remain for the scramble of applicants rejected from popular colleges. And if you’ve picked a popular subject as well, then you’ve exacerbated the problem. Very probably, this means that some of those who get rejected every year could have got in if they’d applied to a less popular college, or subject.

The point of all this is not, of course, to imply that black students can’t get onto these courses, or into popular colleges. All other things being equal, they stand the same chance as everyone else – but everyone’s chance is lower than the chances of those applying for less popular subjects and colleges. So a disproportionate number of black applicants to popular subjects would indeed have the effect the spokesperson suggests.

But, as I say, this isn’t really demonstrable without the full figures *hint to media*. As a matter of fact, the most shocking statistic for me to emerge from the whole thing doesn’t have anything to do with Oxbridge admissions. It’s this one:

In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford.

*attempts Steve McQueen impression* Four hundred and fifty two? There are probably more people than that in John Lewis on Oxford Street right now. They are outnumbered by our MPs. Jesus.

What exactly are these bozos trying to achieve here?

Good god, it’s a mess in here.

*kicks skeletons of former readers aside*

I’m only picking my way back in through the cobwebs to ask, seriously now, what on earth the NUS/the Campaign for Nice Pixies Against Nasty Orcs/Labourlist/whoever thinks it’s doing by gloating over the cancellation of the London Lib Dem conference?

You total hilarious dweebs! What is up with you?! The entire party has been in open revolt for over a month, big long lists of PPCs are writing letters to Nick Clegg, there are rumours of resignations all over the place, councillors and activists are to my certain knowledge running around right this minute badgering, cajoling, threatening and pleading with their MPs to stick to the damn pledges and you know what? They were wobbling. That PPCs’ open letter was quite quickly followed by speculation on mass abstention peppered with individuals voting against.

Now, I’m still wavering on the whole question of tuition fees, and would be quite happy to go to my grave in that condition because I find the issue genuinely complex, and am continuously baffled at the number of people who don’t, on both sides. But there’s no doubt the plurality of opinion in the active section of the party is anti-fees. And now they’ve had taken from them the last big chance ahead of the vote to speechify, press flesh, lobby in person, brief an attentive media and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The students of Liberal Youth have lost the chance to square up publicly and en masse to their supposedly elders and betters and demand a hearing.

Now, it’s true that Lib Dem regional conferences are ham sandwiches and flipcharts affairs with typical attendances in the low hundreds, and the media’s rebranding of the London conference as a “summit” is the subject of much internal hilarity. Bilderberg this ain’t (and that’s why the cancellations have happened, because busting the sort of venues usually chosen for a Lib Dem regional conference is about as difficult as breaking into an envelope).  But the fact remains – you’ve just lost a day of public pressure on Clegg and you are celebrating the reduction of Lib Dem membership lobbying opportunities.

It’s hard to see how anyone who thinks this helps the anti-fees cause could possess the requisite neural co-ordination to hold up a banner, never mind be fronting a national campaign. What were you going to do at the protest, dribble on us until we got really annoyed? Political short-termism is one thing, this is pure bloody goldfish territory. Yes! We stopped the Lib Dem conference! Let’s celebrate by occupying this pinhead! Now they won’t be able to publicly debate and restate their opposition to their own leadership and be top of all the news bu-

Duh.

Get this man to Lib Dem conference!

A couplet of TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson. The first is from 2006:

The second is from this year:

(In a manner of speaking Ken Robinson has already been to Lib Dem conference, because I’m pretty sure Clegg’s speechwriters filched one of his anecdotes one year.)

I’ll let the talks speak for themselves, but one incidental observation occurs to me. I spend some of my internet time as a silent lurker on various science and skeptical blogs. This is not because I have any scientific training whatsoever – I was overjoyed to leave science behind at school. I lurk there because I can get a fix of that element that science and the humanities have in common – the concern with an evidence base, and the passionate and laudable desire to promote it in public life and policy.

The same movement, that attempt to connect the lessons of one’s own discipline with the wider world, doesn’t exist on the humanities side at the moment. Or at least not in such a self-conscious way that it gives itself a name and gathers together to blog. Humanities graduates, in their infinite variety, don’t find a specific sense of common purpose online, probably because the number of professional spheres and ways of life open to them are traditionally wide. People who trained as scientists of various sorts do feel a greater cohesiveness, it seems to me, even where they go on into unrelated fields. They have a more lasting shared culture, probably because many of their likeliest professional spheres are specifically related to their university training. The cultural glue of studenthood is very powerful, and may be sustained for longer among, say, doctors than among, say, civil servants. All this would explain why the online skeptic community has grown from that particular side of learning, even though its concern with an evidence base is not unique.

Anyway, one potential weakness in the science/skeptic outlook, it seems to me, is an occasional impatience with pluralism in education. Scientists traditionally have a hard time in terms of funding, so unsurprisingly they have developed a  sort of collective chip about it, and in particular about the idea that there could be any merit in funding certain arts and humanities subjects. Charles Clarke lost his seat at the election, and after giving three  cheers for the end of another authoritarian home secretary, I gave another small one for the end of an anti-pluralist. In 2003 Clarke suggested that “unproductive” humanities subjects could have funding withdrawn. Naturally, all the liberal arts broadsheets set off in full cry after him for being a philistine.

My response to Clarke would have been much simpler. Clive Bloom wrote along similar lines of the uselessness of much funded humanities research in the THES recently, and oddly ended up reminding me of nothing so much as  science and medical research. In so much research, in all fields, we simply don’t know how the thing ends. The applications aren’t immediately obvious. This or that obscure paper or experiment might be a tributary into an uncharted river, a new line of enquiry, a new field even. It is probably true that 50% of all humanities research is useless how-many-angels stuff, but like the man said of his advertising campaigns, no-one knows which 50% is useless.

Surely, if we take a sort of fundie approach to education at any level – from the arts, the humanities or the sciences side – we’re cutting off our own options, and far from incidentally cutting off a proportion of the population from its potential. We lose one segment of the Ken Robinsons of the world. Science training, for example, doesn’t equip you to think  about or design new education systems, or undesign them – even though a new education system might be fundamental to the successful provision of science training in future. And set alongside Robinson’s reconception of what education should be about, wrangling over which subject areas should attract most postdoctoral funding starts to look unbearably petty.

How you would even begin to translate Robinson’s vision of pluralism and local variation into reality, and basically give education its own inbuilt capacity to evolve and meet humanity’s needs, is an entire culture of blogs unto itself. (And free schools look like the clumsiest of first attempts, set uselessly within the same old framework.) But you certainly couldn’t expect to be successful if you began by rejecting one of those two basic tenets, and it’s a shame to see otherwise thoughtful people moving in that direction.

Where’s the offer we can’t refuse?

I keep being told by Labour commentators and supporters that for the Lib Dems to do a deal with the Conservatives would be to walk away from the only chance of the electoral reform that the Lib Dems have always fought for. I keep being told that only Labour offers that chance.

I’m certainly not sanguine about what Cameron is likely to offer, but I am starting to wonder about the smoke and mirrors on the other side as well. Obviously, Labour has had thirteen years of vast parliamentary majorities to reform the system and restrained their eagerness, so we are right to be cynical about their late conversion.

But they could have blown all that doubt away – and put the Lib Dems in a tricky bind – if they had come out immediately after the election and very publicly made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Brown gone, Citizens Convention, referendum on STV, open to generous negotiation on all other Lib Dem policies. Something so obviously better than what we’re likely to get out of Cameron that Clegg might be tempted to go against common sense, honour and democracy and seek an alliance of the two smaller parties against the larger one.

This would have been absolutely impossible on Friday, of course, when Clegg stuck to his word and allowed the party with the most votes to take the first shot at government. But there have been three days of talks with the Conservatives now, with amicable briefing on both sides; no-one can say Clegg hasn’t tried. If he’s not getting the results we want, the imperatives on him to stay in negotiations with Cameron shrink by the hour. I’m not sure Clegg would do it anyway – I suspect the democratic instinct is too strong. But it would be worth Labour having a try, wouldn’t it, if only to show him up?

So where’s the offer that could tip the balance? Why hasn’t it been on the table since Saturday morning, when Sunny first pointed out the need for Labour to give Clegg a proper incentive? Why are we still today hearing briefing noises about AV, for god’s sake, a system not even proportional and can sometimes be more disproportional than FPTP? What do all the Labour supporters who chanted “We want PR” in Smith Square on Saturday think of the fact that their party of choice hasn’t actually put down a firm commitment to it?

Honestly?

I doubt Labour wants a LibLab coalition at all. I don’t think they care enough about electoral reform to go after it – the majority of their MPs certainly don’t. Think about this from their tribal point of view. If we go into alliance with the Tories, we’ll be wiped out in the north, Wales and worst of all Scotland. Labour are looking at the prospect of winning back all the votes it has lost to us over the last ten years and laying claim to being the “only progressive party”. The only conceivable drawback to this plan for them is that it doesn’t involve electoral reform. And Labour’s MPs don’t, by and large, don’t care about electoral reform, or have the habit of listening to the grassroots that do.

Labour are doing what they, by design of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, have always been best at doing: creating enough sound and fury to seem like they are mounting a passionate argument. But the substance is not there. The necessaries have never actually been done, and as things stand no real prospect of a LibLab deal has been created. So, if and when a Lib/Con deal is concluded, expect Labour to suddenly and smoothly slip into wounded innocent  progressive gear.

URGENT: Have your say on what Lib Dems should do next

If you hang around the yellow bit of the internet much you’ll know that the Lib Dem Voice server is utterly borked, owing to a surfeit of people trying to get on there to tell other people what they reckon, and a surfeit of journalists trying to get on there to selectively misrepresent to the outside world what people reckon.

The text below was the last post on there, and since it’s rather important we’re being asked to copy and circulate it far and wide, so please do. At present I am assuming this is for members only, but I will update if I hear to the contrary. Members and party supporters fine. Non-supporters who do not wish to know the results of the hung parliament negotiations should therefore look away now:

What should the party do next? Have your say by 2pm on Saturday

On Saturday afternoon the party’s Federal Executive is meeting to discuss how the party should handle the Parliamentary situation. There’s no pre-set, universally supported answer to this so the FE’s discussion is going to be meaningful and important – which means that if you want to influence what the party does, now is the time to let the FE know.

Because many members of the Federal Executive are scattered around the country – sleeping, travelling back from election counts, making their way to London and so on – the FE members may be hard to get hold of and many will not necessarily be checking their emails frequently.

Therefore, in order to ensure that people have a chance to send in a view that will be read before the meeting, we’ve agreed with the Party President Ros Scott a special email address -

balancedparliament@libdemvoice.org

which can be used to email in your views. A member of staff will collate all the messages and make sure that they are drawn to the attention of Ros and also reported to the members of the FE in time for their discussion.

A few tips when emailing this address:
– Given the pressures of time, short and concise messages are likely to be more effective than 12 pages essays [chiz - AEM]
– As with letter writing or lobbying more generally, saying in full who you are and where you’re from is likely to add to the impact of the message
– Please send your message as soon as possible

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