Friday, 8 September 2017

Ignoring student fees isn't an option

Whenever the government feels senior figures from other sectors are earning too much money to be publicly acceptable, it resorts to the spurious comparison with the ‘Prime Minister’s salary’. As Theresa May struggles to make ends meet on a basic wage of around £150,000, this is used as example of what others should consider to be satisfactory remuneration for a year’s labour, regardless of market forces and the status of employment.

That it conveniently ignores the other benefits a prime minister receives, such as a flat in a desirable central London location and a lavish country pile, oddly hasn’t prevented it from being a tool for public embarrassment and blackmail.

And thus, it is now the turn of university vice-chancellors to be subject to this method of public opprobrium, though in this case perhaps with more justification. It follows the campaign by former Labour cabinet minister Lord Andrew Adonis – the architect of student fees in the Blair government – who has been railing against what he perceives as the excessive pay of vice-chancellors as part of a wider mission to see the current students fee system scrapped.

Lord Adonis
As students see their annual fees rise to more than £9,000, with the government promising it will rise with inflation in subsequent years, figures such as Dame Glynis Breakwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, has seen her annual pay package rise to £451,000. Sir Andrew Likierman, at the London Business School is on £445,000 and Alice Gast at Imperial College is on £430,000. Such figures do appear somewhat eye watering.

According to a study published by the Times Higher Education magazine earlier this year, the average take home package of a vice-chancellor was £257,904 in 2015/16, 2.5 per cent up on the previous year.

Lord Adonis has accused vice chancellors of increasing ‘their own pay and perks as fast as they increased tuition fees’.

In July he wrote:

‘Debt levels for new graduates are now so high that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that three-quarters of graduates will never pay it all back. The Treasury will soon realise it is sitting on a Ponzi scheme.’

And speaking to me yesterday, Lord Adonis predicted that unless universities voluntarily cut their student fees they will be abolished by the next government, regardless of which party is in power. He said:

‘The vice-chancellor pay controversy is directly linked to the tuition fees crisis. The universities have got to start cutting their fees, and they can fund this in part by slashing their bloated senior management salaries and budgets.

'Unless the universities cut their fees, I predict they will be abolished entirely by whichever party is in government after the next election, if not before. The student vote will see to that.’

Perhaps there is an argument that the government has to start somewhere but it currently seems determined to retain the current fees system, dismissing any claims of a crisis, despite students from almost every university now facing the prospect of being lumbered with £50,000 debt after graduating, regardless of the quality of the course. During Jo Johnson’s appearance on the Today programme on Thursday morning is was noticeable the universities minister didn’t raise the matter and was only forced to defend it when it was raised by interviewer Justin Webb.

Universities will face fines unless they are able to justify salaries over £150,000 to the new Office for Students. It’s chief, Nicola Dandridge, was, somewhat hilariously, hired on a salary of £200,000 and has now remarkably ‘volunteered’ to take an 18 per cent pay cut to show the way, reducing her pay to £165,000. (This worthy act of volunteering rather puts me in mind of that old Beyond the Fringe sketch where Peter Cook, playing the role of a senior officer, tells a private: ‘I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage.’)
   
Universities Minister Jo Johnson

Universities, meanwhile, angrily deny any relation between the rocketing of student fees and their own soaring pay packets. They say the pay rates reflect the going rates of the international market and to get the best candidates they must offer the best packages they can.

Pay packets and student fees are hard to separate especially as the standard of courses is so variable and students will increasingly demand a return for the bills many are likely too be paying for the much of rest of their lives. There is a danger the government will be seen to be tinkering around the edges if it only focuses on the salaries of university senior management and doggedly continues to dismiss the problems swirling around tuition fees.

Jeremy Corbyn's intention to scrap the system entirely, mooted before the last general election, may not have been fully thought through and costed but without offering students an alternative, the Conservatives may well, as Lord Adonis predicts, be punished more severely at the ballot box next time.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Shoulder to shoulder while hiding behind the sofa

Michael Fallon is one of the few senior ministers to regularly appear on the Today programme, happy to roam from his day job of the defence brief to speak for the government on any matter which happens to emerge.

Today, however, he was on solid home ground trying to explain the government’s position towards North Korea in the wake of their hydrogen bomb test. Fallon told the programme that Jim Mattis – President Trump’s US Defense Secretary, somewhat unnervingly nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ – will ‘absolutely exhaust every possible avenue’ to find a non-military solution to the North Korean crisis.

This should be something of a reassurance considering the gung-ho bombast that has emanated from President Trump – who tweets like a man whose only cultural reference points are superhero movies and westerns – though it doesn’t appear as though he is listening. In his phone call with Theresa May on Tuesday he made it clear that ‘now is not the time to talk to North Korea’, rather firmly sealing a potential avenue towards a peaceful solution.

Relations between the United States and North Korea have been frosty and on the verge of explosion for several years, but at least during President George W Bush’s time in office he tried to open corridors of communication. Bush deployed Douglas Dong-Moon Joo, the chairman of the Washington Times newspaper and born in North Korea, as a negotiator. According to a Daily Beast report in 2012, between 2003 and 2008 Joo visited North Korea several times as an emissary.


Clearly, in comparison to Trump, Dubya was something of a wise statesman. Maybe I'm wrong, but I find it hard to imagine Trump is pursuing any similar subtly during this current impasse. After all, despite being in office since January and North Korea inevitably going to be an area of concern, President Trump is yet to appoint an ambassador to South Korea., one of the many positions in his administration bizarrely left empty.

Understandably, this is viewed with concern by the Seoul government. Speaking to Buzzfeed in August, Bonnie Glaser, an Asia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: 'The South Koreans are wondering why Japan, China, Singapore and other Asian countries have an ambassador in place, but they do not.... There is no representative of the president in country to ensure smooth communications.'

As with everything else, Trump is dealing with the North Korea situation with the steady hand of a child overdosing on tartrazine which makes it a bit concerning when Britain's ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, says Britain 'stands shoulder to shoulder with the United States' in tackling North Korea's nuclear threat.

Of course, in principle, we do ally ourself with the US. But while Trump blusters blinkeredly away, with our military options predictably limited, perhaps 'shoulder to shoulder' should mean standing well behind the US, hiding in a corner and hoping it all blows away quickly.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The only road to Brexit


Brexit still means Brexit. Or possibly harder Brexit. This is the message from the government after Theresa May finally outlined the framework on which it intends to negotiate the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. While the government is clearly still searching for the details of its plan, at least it has the twelve chapter headings now.

Briefly, when the Prime Minister said both houses of Parliament would get a vote on the final deal, there were gasps of relief, particularly from Remainers, that it might be subject to proper scrutiny, be open to amendment and a settlement which satisfies the vast majority might be found. But, the government has been swift to knock such notions on the head. If MPs feel that the deal on offer isn't adequate, the only alternative would be no deal; better than a bad deal, as the Prime Minister said.

It renders any vote somewhat superfluous. A debate on the terms of exit is not what the government wants; instead, as David Davis told parliament after the Prime Minister had stopped speaking:

‘What we want to have is a vote so the House can be behind and support the policy, which we are quite sure they will approve of when we get there.’

A united parliament, a united country, pulling the same way. No longer little Britain, shackled by Europe, but a Britain looking outward to the world, trading freely with whomever it chooses. This is the vision of the government. With so much rhetorical bombast on display, one half expects Sir Francis Drake to set sail on the high seas once more and plunder the Spanish Main just to show we can.

Parliament, though, isn’t of one mind and neither is the country. No matter how much Theresa May and others might implore ‘Remoaners’ to join this national independence crusade, many are equally determined to hold their position, much like Brexiters would have done had the EU referendum result gone the opposite way.

The 48% then - those who opposed Britain leaving the EU - can they rely upon the official Opposition to champion their cause? Er, no. As far as the two major parties are concerned, their cause is lost and is best ignored. Only Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, makes any effort in this respect and argues that any final deal should be put in a referendum.

Instead, Jeremy Corbyn came out with this:

‘She [Theresa May] has said “leave the single market” then at the same time “we want access to the single market”. I’m not quite sure how that’s going to go down in Europe.... she seems to be wanting to have her cake and eat it.'

Before adding: ‘I think we need to have a deal that ensures we have access to the single market.’

Please excuse me for failing to see the enormous gulf in these two positions.

It is this type of leadership that has frustrated so many long time Labour supporters with Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn is currently the subject of a ‘populist’ relaunch. 'Let Jeremy be Jeremy' is, apparently, the plan. Aware that he and the Labour Party are somewhat lagging behind Theresa May and her government, it is understandable why Mr Corbyn’s team thought the New Year provided an opportunity to repackage the Labour leader in the hope he might appear to lead a more dynamic opposition.

As part of this relaunch, just a week ago, Jeremy Corbyn delivered his own speech on Brexit which was supposed to provide clarity on Labour’s position. By the end of the day, Corbyn was insisting immigration from the EU wasn’t too high but Labour wasn’t wedded to freedom of movement.

Labour has a huge opportunity to tackle the government on a host of major issues, not just Brexit; the NHS lurches from one crisis to another, delayed decisions on Heathrow, complete inactivity on the Southern rail shambles. But, it seems that for many, on too many occasions, Labour has gone missing from the battlefield, its major figures just not up to the task, save for a few notable exceptions such as Clive Lewis, Angela Rayner and Sir Keir Starmer, the last of whom cannot be expected competently to tackle the government over its Brexit spasms while Labour lacks a coherent policy itself.

Of huge concern should be the Fabian Society report, published earlier in the month, which said it was virtually impossible for a ‘too weak’ Labour Party to win a general election. Support could shrink to as low as 20 per cent and at the next election it could be left with fewer seats than since the 1930s. Its only viable return to power would be to seek alliances with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. They show no inclination to forge such a partnership with Mr Corbyn's Labour Party.

This underlines a continual agonising, gnawing fear felt by those Labour supporters who aren’t convinced by the Jeremy Corbyn project and by many who believe it is a vital for all governments to have a decent opposition; the fear that not only is this Labour opposition failing to challenge the government sufficiently, but also that for many years to come no viable opposition is likely to emerge. 

The government, for many understandable reasons, is struggling to make sense of a vote to leave the European Union; a vote that was never meant to be lost and was intended, by David Cameron, to salve the running sores within the Conservative Party. But, as it tries to formulate the most important policy package this country will face in many generations, there is hardly a time in recent history when a government needed a robust opposition more.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

No need to be fearful to be Christian

Fiona Bruce MP arose in #PMQs today saying that Christians were 'fearful' of mentioning their religion or talking about Christmas in  public in these tumultuous days in case they receive a backlash.

I hope she was comforted by Theresa May's words who, being the daughter of a vicar, said:

'Of course we are now into the season of Advent, and we have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and our Christian heritage is something we can be be proud of.

'I'm sure that we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith and also be able to speak quite freely about Christmas.'

When I hear such fears raised, my mind wanders to a wonderful sketch by John Finnemore which appeared on The Now Show several years ago, and I feel confident that our country's Christian heritage is still secure and mentioning Christmas in the workplace might just about be ok.




Wednesday, 9 November 2016

When will the real Donald Trump stand up?

First the good news. Donald Trump the president will be nothing like Donald Trump the candidate. The nature of the job means he will be have to be more conciliatory and willing to compromise. He will be surrounded by officials, advisers, ambassadors, secretaries, military figures –relationships he will need and have to nurture – and his bombastic, my way or the highway attitude simply won’t work.

Look at some of his most attention grabbing plans during the campaign and it’s reassuring to see many are illegal, impractical or impossible. All Muslims will not be barred from entering the United States. Eleven million illegal immigrants will not be deported. Hillary Clinton will not be sent to jail. And, while his team remain insistent it will happen, the building of a wall along the 3,200km border with Mexico will prove immensely difficult and expensive to achieve. And the Mexicans have already said they won’t pay.

In his victory speech, President-elect Trump (boy, that’s going to take some getting used to!) was clearly at pains to be as magnanimous and inclusive as he possibly could be. Far from reissuing his threats to Hillary Clinton he said the country owed her ‘a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country’. Trump made an effort to unify the nation:

‘Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division…. to all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to get together as one united people. It’s a time, I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.’

Next, regardless of how isolationist Trump has threatened to be, he will find he needs international allies. Theresa May, ever the submarine, has managed not to say anything too rude about Mr Trump. She will simply have to ignore and rise above the manner in which Trump talks about women in order to build a professional, working relationship. Brexiteers are claiming Trump’s election will make negotiating a free trade deal with the US easier as we might no longer be at the ‘back of the queue’. This, however, relies on having faith in a campaign pledge – a bold step – and Trump might not show one iota of interest in Brexit Britain.

The problems begin when one starts considering what he can do and what might happen. While stopping all Muslims from entering the US won’t happen, it’s hard to imagine that American Muslims won’t face more discrimination and racist attacks under a Trump presidency; as with the Brexit vote here, racists will believe the vote endorses their behaviour, whether it does or not.

Obamacare looks doomed. During the campaign Trump said he would dismantle it ‘very, very quickly’ and replace it with ‘free market reforms’. What this means in practice is unknown, but a hasty repeal will leave millions of people, the poorest in US society, without healthcare. Will Trump even bother to find an alternative?

Trump has indicated he wants swiftly to end any US involvement in international climate change deals. Taxes for the wealthy could be cut and his desire to bring jobs back to the US and hike tariffs could trigger several trade wars.

Many clearly do feel appalled and sick to the stomach that someone who has been openly racist, boastful of sexually assaulting women, someone so crude, someone who, for some, provokes comparisons with disturbing events in the 1930s, could possibly have been elected to the highest office in the free world.

Ultimately, though, what I can’t shake from my head is David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Donald Trump didn’t want his endorsement but had it nonetheless. Trump won and the KKK are celebrating. It's hard to think of anything more disturbing.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Farage loves a vacuum

It really shouldn’t be any surprise that we are in such uncertain territory over Brexit. It’s a pretty big issue after all. But, the longer the two majority parties vacillate over their positions, the bigger the vacuum being created for those who know exactly what they want to get from the June 23rd vote.

For all the cast-iron guarantees from David Cameron, the referendum was a never a vote the former Prime Minister wanted to hold. The offer was to placate his troublesome backbenchers. When, to considerable surprise, Mr Cameron led the Conservative Party to a House of Commons majority and the referendum became inevitable, it was still a vote that, for the most part, the former Prime Minister expected to win with ease. So, what preparation was done in case of defeat? Remarkably little, from all appearances. 

Theresa May’s favourite phrase these days is a commitment to get the ‘best deal for the UK as we leave the EU’, which one would hope is the basic requirement of any British government. But it says little about the relationship the government actually wants with the EU. From the prime minister down, government ministers and officials have been insistent that there will be no running commentary on Brexit negotiations and that by revealing the government’s ambitions they would be undermining their position before talks have even begun.

This is what the prime minister seems to fear after last week’s High Court ruling on the process by which Article 50 is triggered. Just what will the House of Commons want for their vote. Suddenly, the government risks losing control. Even though the overwhelming likelihood is that MPs will give their backing for Article 50 to be invoked, only this morning (Sunday) health secretary Jeremy Hunt repeated their concerns, telling the Andrew Marr Programme the ‘impact on the economy will be far worse if through some parliamentary mechanisms Theresa May is forced to lay out her entire negotiating strategy’.

This strategy does, however, rely on the discretion of EU countries; it would hardly be a surprise if the moment they receive the UK’s demands these find their way into the newspapers.

Simultaneously, we are left with a Labour Party which also hasn’t decided what it wants from Brexit negotiations. Jeremy Corbyn made an appearance in the Sunday Mirror in which he indicated he was willing to block Article 50 if the government breached his four ‘bottom lines’ including ‘access to 500 million customers in Europe’s single market’.

The only hiccup with this strategy is that it appears he hadn’t discussed it with his deputy leader first. With the ink still almost wet, Tom Watson was on the radio saying the Labour Party wouldn’t try and block Article 50:

‘We are not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster. Ultimately, when the vote comes Labour will support Theresa May to trigger Article 50.’

And, in reference to the apparent contradiction between himself and his leader, Mr Watson added: ‘We missed each other on the phone today.’

In many ways, it’s perfectly reasonable for the government and the opposition to be struggling to formulate exactly what their strategies are. Theresa May’s government received the ultimate hospital pass from David Cameron’s administration; it shouldn’t be much of a surprise they are taking a little time trying to establish what they can create from the mess.

And Labour’s problems must surely stem from a leader who has long been lukewarm towards the European project if not downright hostile. Mr Corbyn, after all, voted against membership in 1975, against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and against the Lisbon Treaty in 2009

But, the failure of both to settle upon a position leaves the field wide open for those who do have agreed strategy and know exactly what they want from the Brexit vote.

The interim Ukip leader, still completely dominant within his own party, is the consummate campaigner of our age. In a time when mainstream politicians can be so fearful of the consequences of their words and deeds, Mr Farage benefits from being not highly electorally encumbered, letting him be nimble, proactive and impassioned. That many people can’t bear what he represents only fuels his enthusiasm for the fight.

In The Daily Telegraph last week, Nigel Farage wrote:

‘The British people voted to leave the single market, for full border controls and to take back control of things such as our territorial fishing waters. They expect to see all of this delivered.’

The British people, of course, voted for none of these things as they didn't appear on the ballot paper. Instead, voters were persuaded by a myriad of reasons to vote the way they did - principled, solipsistic and altruistic, and Brexit emerged the winner. But Mr Farage knows what he wants and, with a certainty of mind of which other politicians would rightly be jealous, can fill the airwaves and newspaper columns with his precise demands.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Is there a right way to make a Bolognese?

There are few more satisfying ways to while away a few hours than pottering in the kitchen, attending to a gently gurgling pot of ragu, glass of wine in hand, with the radio muttering away in the background. But, it seems that we in Britain have been doing it all wrong. Italian chef Antonio Carluccio has been getting a little sweaty under his apron over the way in which we make our Bolognese sauce.

According to the Daily Telegraph, whilst at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Mr Carluccio said: 'There was spaghetti Bolognese, which does not exist in Italy. In Italy, it is tagliatelle Bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and Bolognese without any herbs whatsoever.'

Mr Carluccio is just the latest to berate the British for taking a classic dish from abroad and subjecting it to unspeakable tinkering with the subtlety of a house decorator trying to restore a Michelangelo fresco.  Poor Jamie Oliver suffered the wrath of Spain for the heinous crime of adding chorizo to his paella last week. And, according to Carluccio, the only way to cook a Bolognese is this:

'You should do this: oil, onion, two types of meat - beef and pork - and you practically brown this, then you put tomatoes, then a bit of wine, including tomato paste, and then you cook it for three hours. That is it. Nothing else. Grate Parmesan on the top and Bob's your uncle.'

His argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that on the same page an entirely different Bolognese recipe appears, shorter but with more ingredients, by a chap called Antonio Carluccio:


But, is there, in Italy, an agreed way of cooking a Bolognese sauce? In 1982, the Bolognese Chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina declared this to be the official 'classic' Bolognese ragu:


As with Carluccio's recipe, there are no herbs or garlic but it still differs significantly. And I doubt whether every household is equipped with the compulsory terracotta saucepan and a mezzaluna chopping knife. 

But, here lies the problem: in Bill Buford's 'Heat' - a book which revels in the robust, macho, end of cooking - he writes 'there is not one Bolognese but many'.

'A Bolognese is made with a medieval kitchen's quirky sense of ostentation and flavorings. There are at least two meats (beef and pork, although local variations can insist on veal instead of beef, prosciutto instead of pork, and sometimes prosciutto, pancetta, sausage, and pork, not to mention capon, turkey, or chicken liver) and three liquids (milk, wine, and broth), and either tomatoes (if your family recipe is modern) or no tomatoes (if the family recipe is older than Columbus), plus nutmeg, sometimes cinnamon, and whatever else your great-great-great-grandmother said was essential.... In any variation, the result is a texture characteristic of all ragu: a crumbly stickiness, a condition of being neither solid nor liquid, more dry than wet, a dressing more than a sauce.... Gianni speaks of the erotics of a new ragu as it cooks, filling the house with its perfume, a promise of an appetite that will mount until it's satisfied.'

Later in the book, Buford cooks an eight-hour Ragu alla Medici which used red onions, garlic, as well as the usual suspects, carrot and celery.

But, with such diverse opinions on the matter - while I appreciate Carluccio's frustration - hoping to maintain the purity of a dish to continue when, perhaps, it never truly existed in the first place, is tricky.

I had a quick look at recipes in a few cookbooks I have at home. Predictably they were all different. 

Below is from the Prue Leith's & Caroline Waldegrave's 'Cookery Bible', in which Carluccio's 'no herbs' diktat is ignored and the addition of marjoram or oregano encouraged.



Elizabeth David, in her classic 'Italian Cooking', chooses to add chicken livers, as well as nutmeg, to the pot:



I found another from Sandra Totti's 'A Taste of Tuscany' - ultimately intended for a lasagna admittedly - which uses fresh basil, thyme and sage, as well as a bay leaf and a clove of garlic. Asking a few colleagues for their interpretations, variations included adding a bay leaf to the oil and mushrooms and even olives to a classic ragu and letting it cook for as long as possible;  another might even use lamb, the addition of chilli and it's all cooked in 20 or 30 minutes. It may well be that there are wrong ways of making a Bolognese but it does seem that there are many right ways.

And, speaking personally, my Bolognese ragu often depends on how much time I have to prepare it. I use beef and pork, prosciutto, wine and, scandalously, some herbs, and try to leave it on the hob for as many hours as are available before the demands for food from my wife and children become impossible to ignore any longer. 

I'm afraid, Mr Carluccio's vision of what an authentic Bolognese is and should be has pretty much evaporated in this country. It may once have been a dish which emerged from Italian families, with all the variance that entails, and Italian academics may once have wanted to codify exactly what it needed; but, it has taken on a different form in Britain. It is not the classic Italian dish it may once have been - as this is not Italy. The spaghetti Bolognese is a British dish now.

But, if there is one way in which the British 'spag bol' and the Italian ragu are still related - and this may not please Mr Carluccio - it is this; as Italian families had their own versions, often passed down through the generations, it seems there may be as much variety in the domestic kitchens of Britain. Some, even Mr Carluccio, might find quite edible.