Hackgate: When Life Imitates Yes, Minister

July 17, 2011

Events are unfolding too quickly for them to be written about. At the moment all I can think to do is to post this from Yes, Minister. It’s from The Whiskey Priest. If you don’t have it on DVD I’m sure you can find some dark corner of the internet where you can watch it:

Bernard Woolley: So what do we believe in?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: At this moment, Bernard, we believe in stopping the minister from informing the Prime Minister.
Bernard Woolley: But why?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Because once the Prime Minister knows, there will have to be an enquiry, like Watergate. The investigation of a trivial break-in led to one ghastly revelation after another and finally the downfall of a President. The golden rule is: Don’t lift lids off cans of worms. Everything is connected to everything else. Who said that?
Bernard Woolley: The Cabinet Secretary?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Nearly right. Actually, it was Lenin.

Nick Clegg’s Social Mobility Strategy: targeting the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.

April 8, 2011

“It’s the law of inverse relevance. The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Yes Minister.

Nick Clegg has launched a social mobility strategy. A hefty report was published this week which says that “improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Coalition Government’s social policy” (p. 1). That’s because “no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth” (p. 5).

Most of the coverage of this strategy has gone on the subject of unpaid internships. I’m glad this issue has come into prominence: the glut of unpaid internships is scandalous and I hope to tackle it in a later blog post.

For now, let’s just look at the government’s plans to increase social mobility.

I haven’t read the report cover-to-cover, but I’ve got the gist of it. It’s a very frustrating document for two reasons. First, because it ignores one of the chief causes of social immobility. Second, because ignores that cause, the report doesn’t have any decent policies to combat social immobility.

1) Income inequality

The available evidence is limited, and it certainly isn’t the only cause, but societies with a higher rate of income inequality tend to have a lower rate of social mobility. Via the Staggers, I’ve pinched this graph, which you can also find in The Spirit Level:

The issue is not quite as straightforward as this table suggests. For the counter argument, see pp. 72-75 of this Policy Exchange paper that critiques The Spirit Level. Much of the data on social mobility between countries is not really directly comparable, and as a result the OECD thinks that the academic literature on international social mobility rates should be treated “with a great deal of caution” (see p. 73 of the Policy Exchange paper).

This confusion is reflected in the Social Mobility Strategy paper itself. Take this paragraph on p. 22 of the report:

1.41 There is an active debate about the relationship between income inequality and social mobility. Academic studies comparing levels of social mobility in different countries have found a correlation between high levels of income inequality and low levels of social mobility, although some have criticised the validity of this finding. Of course, correlation isnot the same as causation. The drivers of social mobility are complex, and income alone does not determine future outcomes.

I wonder if you can tell which bits of that paragraph were drawn up by the Conservatives…?

However, it’s common sense that you can only have social mobility, and true equality of opportunity, if there is a certain level of income equality. The first reason, as Chris Dillow put it, is “simple maths; the closer the gap between high and low incomes, the easier it is to leap that gap.”

A second reason is because, as the authors of this study into intergenerational mobility found, there is a strong relationship between family income and educational attainment. The authors found that a child from a family who’s income was a third less than the mean was three or four percentage points more likely to get no A-C GCSEs. Their chance of getting a degree fell by a similar amount (p. 14). In Britain the relationship between family income and educational achievement has gotten stronger, mainly because the expansion of higher education has most benefited those from higher-income families.

It stands to reason, therefore, that if income inequalities rise, the disparity in educational achievement between the richest and poorest in society will increase, and the prospect of social mobility falls. (I feel I should point out, however, that the authors of the CEP study did not go as far as to state this explicitly. We’ll come to their solutions later).

There’s another reason why you cannot have equality of opportunity without some equality of income. For that, I’m going to turn to what is rapidly becoming my bible: Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. It’s Thing 20, if you’re interested.

(P)oor children are bound to perform poorly in school, whatever their innate ability might be. Some of them go hungry at home and also skip lunch at school. This makes it impossible for them to concentrate, with predictable results for their academic performance…If their parents are illiterate and/or have to work long hours, children will have no one to help them with their homework, whilst middle-class children will be helped by their parents and rich kids may have private tutors. Helped or not, they may not even have enough time for homework, if they have to take care of younger siblings. (pp. 217-8)

For social mobility to happen, we need equality of opportunity. For equality of opportunity, a degree of income equality is needed. This report skirts around that issue, and because of that misses the point on a number of issues.

2) Addressing social immobility

It seems most likely that the issue of inequality was ignored because, for most Tory governments, reducing income inequality is not going to be on their priority list. The question then arises is: if you ignore that, how are you going to combat social immobility? And do you even want to?

As was pointed out in this achingly wonderful piece on what left-wing social mobility would look like, “There are clear problems both of morality and logic – the fact that if one poor person goes up, one rich person must go down – with this model of social mobility [that Clegg is proposing].”

That doesn’t really fit well with a large part of the Tory voting demographic. You can tell that in the Daily Mail’s reaction to Nick Clegg’s plans:

It seems that quite a few people would rather we kept things the way they are, thank you very much.

Charlie Beckett summed up the problems with using terms like “social mobility” very succinctly:

Real social mobility – all other things being equal – must surely mean that some people will rise over their lives and others will fall. If we all rise then that is simply economic growth. If only a lower social group rise relative to a higher group, then that is egalitarianism, not social mobility. If just a few people rise, then that’s just tokenism.

All of which leaves us with a quandary.

3) What now?

So, if social mobility is not only unobtainable (since Nick Clegg is explicitly ignoring equality of income as a goal for his government) and even if the social mobility Clegg talks of is undesirable for the Conservative’s core vote, what does the coalition do instead?

The answer just seems to be to talk about social mobility. There are no proposals in the document that aim to address the causes of social mobility, or inequality, or any form of disadvantage at all.

Take the area of gender inequality, for instance. The report ignores David Willetts’s faintly ridiculous remarks and says that the government sees “gender equality as an important factor in improving social mobility” (p. 57). But you’ll find no policies whatsoever about how to tackle the issue of gender inequality, apart from a brief discussion on the unequal nature of maternity and paternity leave.

Granted, you’ll find discussion of lots of problems, be given some rather disturbing figures and generally get the impression that Something Ought To Be Done. But then you get to the recommendations section.

Bear in mind, when you read these recommendations, Sir Arnold’s Law of Inverse Relevance.

Here’s the list of recommendations, which I’ve put in block quotes with my interpretation in italics:

We have developed ‘leading indicators’ of success in improving social mobility for each lifestage. These will also be included in departmental Business Plans, ensuring that they are at the centre of the work of departments, increasing transparency over the impact of our policies and helping the public to hold us to account.

This is talking about social mobility.

We will provide funding for a successor to the Millennium Cohort Study, ensuring that thereis a rich source of information on the long-term influence of our policies on social mobility.

More talking about social mobility.

We are establishing, on a statutory basis, a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to monitor progress on social mobility, as well as towards the measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010.

Even more talking about social mobility.

The Deputy Prime Minister will continue to chair the Ministerial Group on Social Mobility to unite Whitehall departments in improving social mobility.

This is talking about talking about social mobility.

We are setting out the key milestones in implementing this strategy and identifying who in Government is responsible for them.

Talking about talking about talking about social mobility.

All departments will consider the impact of new policies on social mobility.

Talking about talking about talking about talking about social mobility.

You get the idea.

If you follow Sir Arnold’s law, then, the coalition appears to want to do the square root of bugger all about social mobility. All of these groups started, research commissioned, committees set up to do whatever it is committees do…and not one single policy recommendation that would improve the lives of the poorest in society.

It’s not as if policy recommendations don’t exist. They exist in the reports cited in the Social Mobility Strategy document itself. Take the report on intergenerational mobility that I quoted earlier. This is what they have to say on the subject of policies:

To improve this situation we need also to use more direct means such as early years’ education, improved schools for poor communities and financial support to pursue post-compulsory education. Indeed, this is the policy direction that the Government seems to be taking through programmes like Sure Start, Excellence in Cities and the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). (p. 14)


So the way to improve chances for the poorest would be to through policies like Sure Start Centres, which are being cut, and EMA, which was axed, and then brought back in a woefully inadequate form.

I’m sure Nick Clegg will point to the Pupil Premium as being an example of Lib Dem policy designed to help the poorest children, but that money is not extra money to the Education budget, so it would be disingenuous of him to do that.

Obviously, the last thing Nick Clegg would want to be would be disingenuous.

All of which means that the government’s social mobility strategy is nonsense. It’s a strategy without a strategy. It’s targeting the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.

Which means the left needs to win this intellectual argument. Owen Jones started this with a good CIF article some weeks back, arguing that social mobility was a distraction that detracted from income inequality.

And I can’t think of a better way to end this piece than to quote Paul’s blog from Though Cowards Flinch that I linked to above:

Well, as I’ve said here, I think it looks like the cider advert, where identifiably working class males mass on the hill side, tooled up and ready to march on the sleepy town in the valley.

It’s a vision of pride in what we are, and a potent image of solidarity in what we can be.  It’s also a vision tinged, if you want to see it that way, with menace to the status quo – a sort of #manualworkeruncut, coming ready or not.

Or in other words, trade unions.

Which is certainly an improvement on the pathetic excuse of an initiative that is the government’s Social Mobility Strategy.

“You can’t handle the truth!” – A look at Wikileaks

December 5, 2010

 These abuses had been going on perfectly well for years. What people hated was being told about it. (Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Compassionate Society).

I had a half-formed piece about Wikileaks from August, around the time they released thousands of documents about Afghanistan. The recent leaking of 250,000 state department cables seemed a good time to dust this piece off and finish writing it.

First of all, it seems deeply hypocritical for any government to get santimonious about leaks. Governments leak all the time: everything from unattributable briefings to lobby journalists, all the way to “dark arts” such as disinformation.

It used to be the case that the details of the budget were kept secret before being announced by the Chancellor in the House of Commons. Now the main details are usually briefed to some political correspondents beforehand, so the markets know the salient details and no announcement is too much of a shock.

As Jim Hacker put it in Yes, Minister, a show with lots of intelligent things to say about leaking, “The ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top”.

It also seems hypocritical of governments to say that these were private conversations and should not be printed. As we’ve seen with the spate of memoirs and diaries published by senior New Labour figures, politicians have no problem reporting a private conversation if it furthers their own purposes.

Any leak of information by a civil servant is justified if this information is in the public interest. I cannot think of any leaks that have been more in the public interest in my lifetime then Wikileaks’ leakings of the Iraq and Afganistan war logs, not to mention the recent State Department papers.

A full list of the main things we know about because of the Afghan war logs can be found here. Of most concern are the 144 logs of attacks on civilians. These inlude a Polish attack on a wedding party that killed five and wounded several, including a heavily-pregnant woman, and an attack by coalition troops on Afghan security forces, killing an Afghan police officer, after British soliders mistakenly thought they were Taliban fighters.

The Iraq war logs revealed that 15,000 – yes, that’s fifteen thousand – civilians had died in previously unknown incidents. US authorities also failed to follow up hundreds of allegations of abuse, torture, rape and murder by Iraqi policemen and soliders. Indeed, they seem to have tolerated these abuses.

It’s true that much of the information in the State Department leaks is pretty common knowledge. No jaws will drop when people read that Nicholas Sarkozy is actually thin-skinned and authoritarian, for instance. But to dismiss all these leaks as trivial gossip misses the point entirely.

Richard Adams has an excellent summary of seven things we didn’t know about previously, including the fact that Sylvio Berlusconi profited from secret deals with Vladimir Putin. The most disturbing is this one:

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”. A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans.

There’s also the revelation that America charges a 15% fee to handle aid that was going to Afghanistan, the world’s second-poorest country.

All of this is valuable information that we have a right to know about. Apologies for this lengthy quotation from this excellent Economist piece, but I cannot put it any better than this:

To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.

As Scott Shane, the New York Times‘ national security reporter, puts it: “American taxpayers, American citizens pay for all these diplomatic operations overseas and you know, it is not a bad thing when Americans actually have a better understanding of those negotiations”. Mr Shane goes on to suggest that

Perhaps if we had had more information on these secret internal deliberations of governments prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have had a better understanding of the quality of the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, it’s surprising to see a sizable proportion of the reaction to all these leaks is expressing its disgust at Wikileaks, rather than the abuses that it is uncovering. This seems a classic case of shooting the messenger.

The first reaction was to say that these leaks would cost lives. This has turned out to be nothing more than mere bluster. These cables only have information from before February, so existing missions could not be jeapodised. The State Department was told about these leaks far in advance so they could help redact particularly sensitive information and alert staff in more serious locations.

It almost feels as if the US has a standard press release whenever Wikileaks leaks more information, and says that “Lives will be lost” regardless of the context. For all of the talk of the Afghan leaks giving away names of Taliban informers, nobody has died as a result of the leaks. In contrast, although no official records actually exists, between 11,000-14,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Afghanistan as a result of the war.

As Flying Rodent magnificently put it:

US general says that Wikileaks could endanger lives, whilst sitting on top of a huge pile of skulls.

A secondary reaction is to say that Wikileaks has an anti-US agenda, which again is complete nonsense. Wikileaks only releases information because US citizens leak it to them. As Julian Assange says in this Forbes interview,

We’re totally source dependent. We get what we get. As our profile rises in a certain area, we get more in a particular area. People say, why don’t you release more leaks from the Taliban. So I say hey, help us, tell more Taliban dissidents about us.

I can’t get onto Wikileaks’ website at the time of writing, but a brief look at Wikipedia shows they have released information about scores of countries other than America, including:

a) A Somali document authorising the assassination of Somali government officials.
b) Alleged corruption by the family of former Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi.
c) Possible illegal practices at the Cayman Island branch of the Swiss bank Julius Baer.
d) Phone conversations relating to the Peru oil scandal of 2008.

Lastly, there is some criticism relating to Wikileaks as an organisation, and in particular its head, Julian Assange. The focus should perhaps not be too much on Assange: there are many others involved with the organisation. I have no idea if the allegations against him are true, and would like to see them tested in a court of law, to prove one way or the other. It is, however, perfectly understandable that he and Wikileaks should want to keep their details secret when US journalists are openly calling for Assange to be assassinated, and senior Republicans are saying that whoever leaked the State Department papers should be executed for treason.

Perhaps this anger is directed at Wikileaks, and not at the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, because we’re unable to get angry at Afghanistan anymore. I began taking a serious interest in politics and current affairs in my second year at college – around 2004. By then, we had already been fighting in Afghanistan for two years. The announcement of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan has become routine. It is like the background hum; a fixture on our news bulletins along with the weather and the state of the financial markets.

Despite all that, you’d still like to think that people would be able to spot a leak in the public interest when they see it.

Something to read

September 5, 2010

Sorry it’s been a bit slow here recently – I’ve had a spot of conjunctivitis and some thesis work to catch up on.

Here’s something good to read though, from Jane Watkinson, which could easily fit in with my occasional series of “How life imitates Yes, Minister”.


How life imitates Yes, Minister (2)

August 17, 2010

Do you remember the Yes, Minister episode where there is a brand-new hospital with over five hundred administrative staff and no patients?

I had that mind when I saw this story:

The Welsh assembly is speeding up school closure consultations after public frustration over £110,000 committed to a primary which will have no pupils when term starts next month.

It seems that, as Basil Fawlty might have said, “It’s the law of Wales! Nothing to do with me!”

I somehow don’t think there will be Cuban refugees coming to stay at the school anytime soon, though.

How life imitates Yes, Minister

August 4, 2010

You might have noticed by now that I have a slight obsession with Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. If I ruled the world (or, less ambitiously, if I controlled the curriculum) I would have pupils watch it in schools, so it could be a “crash-course” in British politics and how government works.

After highlighting how James Hacker must be the inspiration behind Zac Goldsmith’s recent interview, I recently saw something else that struck me with its similarities to Yes, Minister. (Of course, this whole government has been an eleven-week run of The Economy Drive from the show’s first series.) Via this Julian Glover article:

On the Treasury website there is a little list of ideas for cuts, picked from 60,000 sent in by public workers. The second suggestion is that “office stationery orders should be centralised”. Poor things. A few discount staples won’t save them.

Which reminded me of a scene in A Question of Loyalty, where Hacker is called before the select committee to explain various examples of government waste. Betty Oldham MP brandishes a book by a former civil servant who complains that all orders of stationary have to be placed centrally, with Hacker’s Ministry for Administrative Affairs. Then a conversation like this ensues (I’m quoting from memory here):

Hacker: That seems quite sensible. There can be great savings to be made with bulk ordering.

Oldham: He then goes on to demonstrate that it would be four times cheaper for civil servants to simply buy what they wanted from the local stationary shop.

I’ve no idea whether central ordering of staples will help cut the deficit or not, but as Glover indicates, it feels a bit like trying to put out an inferno by peeing on it.


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