EU wins Nobel Prize for Peace

I’ve not been posting for a wee while as I’m been very busy at work, not to mention the fact I now have three separate blogs going! (here, my education blog and my energy blog).

Anyway, one story I missed was the EU winning the Nobel peace prize. I assume this had the Daily Mail reading UKIP members practically foaming at the mouth and having kittens live on air. Of course many people in Greece or other parts of Europe, with city centre’s ablaze from rioting were left wondering if awarding the EU a “peace prize” was some sort of cruel joke by the Norwegian jury, hoping to yank people’s chain.

Firstly, I have to say that I’m not for one minute suggesting that the EU is a perfect institution, because it isn’t! But then again, you show me a system of government that does work perfectly! As I’ve mentioned in many prior posts on this blog the current eurozone crisis is solvable, indeed it should have been solved two years ago. The crisis is an artificial result of inaction by politicians across the EU.

The EU also suffers from something of a democratic deficit and needs to become more democratically accountable with more posts (such as commissioners, ministers and ultimately a president) chosen by popular vote, rather than simply being appointed. But it is better to reform the EU from within that pull out or get rid of it, as I described in my previous post “the case against an English pull out from the EU”.

UKIP often complain about how 60% (or is it 70%, made up figure anyway so hardly matters!) of the UK’s laws are now made by the European parliament in Brussels….or Strasbourg (that’s another thing that needs to chance, keep the parliament in one place!). I would counter by pointing out that these laws are generally about things such as stopping companies selling lethally dangerous toys to kids, protecting workers from being exploited (via poor standards of Health and Safety or lower wages) or environmental legislation (limits on air pollution, etc.). Now unless the Tories or UKIP are suggesting that it should be legal to employ small children in factory to operate dangerous machinery (of course, there’s the problem, some of them do!) then inevitably in the absence of an EU, a UK parliament would have to pass similar laws….and the UK government is hardly a model of democratic accountability nor efficiency (let he who is free of sin cast the first stone and all that!).

And of course when countries start setting their own standards you can get a bit of a patchwork quilt of standards and laws all over the place. This is confusing, as individuals or companies who trade in different nations are left scratching their head trying to figure out what the legal limits are and what isn’t. For example, back in the bad old days before the EU, UK truckers often found they couldn’t drive on continental roads because they’re vehicles were in violation of one or anther nation’s limits on, say sulfur emissions, or the head lights were the wrong size (or shape…or something!).

A lack of harmonization also means that those countries that look the other way on H&S and allow corporations to rape the environment and exploit workers, won contracts and business at the expense of more considerate law abiding nations. Corporations will often deliberately exploit this fact and try to pair one country off against the other, leading to a so called “race to the bottom”.

Again, in the past, UK contractors couldn’t dream of getting a contract in Greece, Italy or Spain because they knew that the local firms would vastly undercut them by ignoring safety and paying the local workers a pittance (never mind all the red tape!). One of the things the EU has done is harmonise standards and laws across the continent so that everyone is working to an agreed limit or standard.

Admittedly, there are still gaps in the system. But of course closing those loopholes, would require more harmonisation and more powers to Brussels (or Strasbourg!), which is exactly what the UKIP brigade are against (so they are being hypocrite’s when they bring such matters up!).

Also there are some problems that are simply too big for any individual country or company to ever solve. Climate change and impending peak oil are good examples. It will take united effort of many nations working together to solve these problems. A united policy by Europe on these issues (or other issues such as poverty in Africa, debt reduction, etc.) means they are at least now on the international agenda, even if the pace of action isn’t as urgent as it should be.

Transnational corporations are also getting increasingly large and powerful. Several of the world’s largest economies aren’t countries any more but private companies. The Market capitalisation of companies such as Exxon or Walmart puts them about 40th in the global table on par or exceeding countries like Ireland, Israel or Nigeria. Only a united Europe can stand up to such companies and expect to get its way. A lone UK government negotiating with such companies would be essentially told “our way or the highway”. Look no further than the constant Tory paranoia around putting up taxes to non-doms and the wealthy by a tiny amount for proof of how toothless a lone UK government would be.

But the Peace Prize?
But back to the Peace prize, does the EU deserve that? Well lets consider what would have happened without an EU.

For the best part of 1,500 years, since the collapse of the Roman Empire, you will struggle to find a period in history where there wasn’t some war going on somewhere in Europe between one nation or another. The continent of Europe is a patchwork quilt of different ethic and religious groups. Unfortunately the borders of countries has seldom matched the borders between these different groups. Even within the UK, look at Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

And of course quite a number of wars in European history were ultimately about expansion, with one nation trying to grab land or resources at the expense of its neighbour’s. The century before the EU saw two world wars alone, which rank as the 1st and 6th most devastating wars in human history.

Since the founding of the EU, while certainly EU countries have fallen out with each other from time to time and there has been some low level ethic conflict in places (again “the troubles” in Northern Ireland being a good example). But by and large there have been no major wars between any European powers. Indeed the Northern Ireland situation is a good example, as “the troubles” themselves kicked off when both the UK and Ireland were not yet EU members. Since then closer economic and political ties between Dublin and London have provided a backdrop for the peace process. These days many modern young Irish wonder what the hell it was all about, as the only difference really between life north or south of the border is that one country uses Euro’s for money and the other has speed limits in miles.

Indeed wars between Europe and its neighbour’s, notably Russia and the former soviet block, have not occurred (i.e. the cold war). Indeed it is unlikely that there would have been a cold war without the EU, as it would have been all too tempting for the Soviets in such a situation to basically pick one European country off after the other (much as they did in Eastern Europe). This would have probably eventually led to a confrontation with the US, which would have almost certainly resulted in the use of nuclear weapons.

Furthermore it was the period during which the Soviet Empire crumbled that was perhaps the most dangerous time for Europe. As any reader of history will know, the collapse of large empires is seldom a pretty affair. It is again, worth remembering that the first world war was essentially sparked by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the dark ages were sparked by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Fortunately, a rapid integration of former Warsaw-Pact countries into the EU prevented the sort of ethic bloodshed that tore apart Yugoslavia, occurring on a far larger scale.

Neo Feudalism
So in essence what our Tory anti-EU types are advocating when they complain about the EU is that they want to return Europe and the UK to a system of Feudalism. Where European countries squabble and fight with one another for the scraps that fall from American, Russia and China’s table. Where workers can be exploited at the whim of bosses, the environment destroyed, transnational corporations are allowed to run riot and a UK parliament that has more powers yes, but not the teeth to back those powers up.

Of course I have to stop myself at this point and remember that there are quite a few Tory’s who’d say to all that “ya! sounds like a great idea!”. As they would like nothing better than to return to a time where they can sit in their country estates, pay no taxes, while we the plebs toil away for they’re pleasure.

Again, I am not for one minute suggesting the EU is a perfect institution, far from it! It drastically needs reform and clear sense of direction. But reform from within is better than the sulking outside. To borrow a statement from Cameron “we’re all in it together”.

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Educating Britain

I’ve finally gotten around this week to implementing my threat and I’ve set up another blog. This one devoted to matters related to third level education, and the changes the Tories defacto privatisation have brought about.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a lecturer
In my first article I highlight how one of the many pressures us lecturers now face is dealing with the more litigious and complain heavy nature of modern students. They expect everything to run perfectly…even the ones who regularly show up thirty minutes late for lectures! If they get “marked down” for any reason, they’ll howl with protest, even if the mark they got was still an A!

Of course, as I highlight in my second article, this is an inevitable consequence of the high fees students are now charged. Having paid so much to get into uni, many students have reached the conclusion that they are essentially “buying” a degree and get fairly upset when they realise, no, they still have to put in the long hours and do all the work involved.

I would also pin some of the blame on the second level education system, which has been morphed by previous governments and a target driven culture to be focused towards coaching students how to pass exams…rather than teaching them the skills they need when they get to university, or out in the real world!

Such students, trained as they are to view any course as some sort of exam passing exercise, thus quickly struggle when they are confronted by a third level system where we do not spoon feed students. And our priority is teach them with the skills they will need to become competent engineers and not let them walk out of the door with a degree and design a bridge/plane/car that collapses/crashes and kills hundreds of innocent people (so no, we’re not under that much pressure! :D).

Unmarked Helicopters
Finally, I take the opportunity to blame the parents. Not all parents! But the so-called “helicopter parents”. Such parents put huge pressure on their siblings (hence why they get so worked up over exams and marks) and often interfere with some student’s attempts to study. I’ve heard all sorts of tales of woe from other lecturers over these sorts of parents. From tales of them spying on the students, pressuring them into studying something they simply didn’t want to do (nor have “the knack” for) or encouraging students to cheat. They are the reason why my response to a student asking if I can speak to his parents are, ya okay, after they’ve enrolled and paid the £9k in fees! 🙂

My blog that’s full of energy
Of course some of ye may enquire how I found blogging with livejournal? I’d have to say it is a lot easier to set up and edit posts than blog.co.uk. But I’d still content that “wordpress” is the big daddy in terms of user friendliness.

And speaking of which, many of ye may not know I have whole other blog up and running on wordpress, this one devoted towards matters related to energy and climate.

I’ll still be contributing to this blog on blog.co.uk, as I plan on keeping the wordpress account devoted to energy related topics and the livejournal blog devoted to lecturing and teaching blog posts. But anyway, enjoy!

Road Wars part III – don’t you hate those hidden extras!

The beeb had a report out recently about how motorists were being hit with bills from the Highway’s agency to cover the costs of accidents that befell them when on the motorway.

A BBC reporter told about how she skidded on some liquid, which sent her spinning across the carriageway, finally ending up on the hard shoulder facing the wrong way. She did the right thing, rung 999, and the cops helped to slow down traffic such that she could right herself and carry on…..Only for her to get issued with a bill for £3,000 for supposed “repairs” to the road!88| Another reports talk of individuals who suffered oil leaks and were forced to pay hundreds of pounds for the leaks to be cleaned up.

As an environmentalists, it’s rare I take the side of the driver, but I am forced to ask in this case, isn’t that thing we pay called “road tax” supposed to cover these sorts of costs?

Now while you could argue that if someone fails to maintain their vehicle and it leaks oil all over the road, then okay, they should pay something towards that. But charging for labour costs, considering that the highways agency will generally have teams on 24 hr standby (i.e. we’re already paying for those labour costs via road tax so this amounts to double charging), wouldn’t be appropriate. The BBC report notes that the “consumables” cost to clean up some oil would run to maybe £12.50. Of course one has to then question if the paperwork and administration costs are worth pursuing somebody for 12 quid. As far as a genuine “accident”, as occurred to this BBC journalist, clearly that should be covered by the highway’s agency, as after all she could well argue the accident was their fault for failing to maintain the road properly.

Clearly what these charges highlight is how budgets for government agencies are getting tight (thanks to the Tory cuts) and public bodies are forced into taking all the more elaborate means to claw back money from the public, charging for things that have generally been supplied free of charge. Indeed, I seem to remember the Tories themselves complaining about labour “stealth taxes” when they were in opposition!

Of course what really worries me about this story is the long term plan of the Tories to privatise the road network, as I discussed before in a prior post. Naturally this form of charging of motorists with bills for accidents presents a profit hungry corporation with all sorts of opportunities for mischief making. One can envisage them putting just enough grit on roads in winter to avoid being sued, but not enough to prevent a few motorists spinning off, who promptly get hit with bills for they’re trouble. Or being very slow to fix potholes until a couple of crashes had “paid” for the repair.

Of course the real danger is that such hidden charges could cause people to start avoiding the motorways altogether. I went for fully comprehensive insurance and am I glad now that I did! If I was on third party, I’d be giving serious thought to sticking to B roads from now on. Of course, if you’re going to go to the trouble and expense of ripping up the countryside to build motorways, the worst thing you can do is leave them unused. Motorway travel is generally the safest, fastest and most fuel efficient way of travelling long distance by motor vehicle (well assuming you drive sensibly and at a reasonable speed!). Motorways also keep smaller roads free of cross country traffic. Do the Tories what to see motorways underused while small rural UK towns get shaken to bits by artic lorries pulling through them?

Furthermore, these sort of charges means some motorists will now begin to take risks. As that BBC journalists pointed out she could have easily got back on the road without the help of the police. No doubt the danger is, somebody without fully comprehensive insurance will end up in a similar position and not wanting to get charged thousands of pounds for something that wasn’t his fault will risk it, try and extricate himself without police help – and cause a motorway pile up that kills a large number of people. And we’ll have government penny pinching to thank for it!

Of course I have long argued that motorists need to accept that they are getting a very sweet deal on the roads. The combination of petrol duty and road tax simply does not cover the true costs of motoring (when you factor in maintenance, construction costs, paying of debt on the loans to fund construction, police and emergency cover, climate change related costs, etc.). But even so, imposing arbitrary charges that are unreasonable and unworkable (and frankly dangerous!) is not a solution.

These new government charges highlight to me the need for a rethink. I would propose the abolition of road tax and petrol duty and replace them with road pricing and a carbon tax. This would directly relate how much you drive and the carbon footprint of ones car to how much it costs to drive.

Conference Wars

The governing parties are starting to resemble a warring couple, who are using the media as an intermediary. Earlier this month the lib dems said “tell that bastard that we’re bringing in a Mansion tax and there will be no more welfare cuts”. But the Tory’s responding by saying “you can tell that bitch where she can stick that mansion tax…and we’re taking the bread out of the mouths of the poor and she can sod off if she doesn’t like it”.

Now if the government was a married couple we’d be expecting divorce lawyers in the door of No. 10 soon…or Cameron getting back from Birmingham to find half the furniture gone (or cut in half) and the heating turned off.

Of course its important to remember that party conferences are intended for the purpose of rallying the core party supporters. Its sort of like those “death to America” speeches the Iranian or Venezuelan presidents will make….then ring the yanks and ask them when they want the next oil delivery!

And the problem for the Tory’s and Lib dems is that while Cameron and Clegg might be bosom pals, the core supporters of both of their parties regard the other party as public enemy number one. If Clegg showed up at his conference and tried to imply that Cameron wasn’t that bad a bloke, he’d be promptly set upon and handbagged to death by a group of women’s lib supporters. Equally if Cameron went to Bromie hand in hand with Osborne and told his ex-Bullingdon chum’s that he was contemplating bringing in same sex marriage because “Cleggy” thought it would be a smashing idea, the toff’s would release the hounds, break out the blunderbuss’s and chase him back across the field to London.

Thus much of what has been said over the last two weeks can probably be ignored as just rhetoric and propaganda. It will thus be business as usual as of tomorrow. Also, as far as the Lib dem’s promises, I suspect that the devil’s in the detail. The Tories may well allow for some faux tax that will be badly written and easy for their chums to find ways around paying, and in return they get to impose yet further cuts in public spending. Unless the proposal is properly budgeted (I suspect a new tax that raises maybe a few hundred million, against a £10 billion welfare cut) then anything Nick says isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Of course, if I’m wrong, and its true that the two party leaders meant what they said, then we are looking at what divorce courts call “unreconcilable differences” and I suspect we’ll have an election sometime after Christmas.

Miliband electable?

And if things weren’t bad enough for the Tory’s there’s the small matter of the fact that Ed “I still can’t believe he’s not his brother” Miliband is actually starting to look vaguely electable and Ed “just obeying Gordon Brown’s orders” Balls is starting to look loyal.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some labour party lackey (or is it supposed to be now “new improved labour party” with 25% less saturated Blair and 50% less dour tight Gordon). I’m still convinced Ed Miliband going for the leadership was all part of some elaborate chess game he and his brother were playing against Ed Balls, one which backfired when the wrong Milband won. For the first 6 months he had this odd look on his face which suggested he was somewhat surprised to be in this position. And if he brings up coming from a London comprehensive again, I’m going to punch out the TV.

But he is, as I’ve noted, starting to look vaguely competent compared to the Tory’s or Nick Clegg. Or perhaps I should say he’s now “the best of a bad lot”.

Trouble on the trains

This week saw the collapse of the West coast railway contract. On the eve of a court date with Virgin boss Richard Branson, the government caved in and admitted to getting its sums wrong with the assessment of the contract. It would appear that they made a number of school boy errors….such as forgetting about inflation (important, given the effect Quantitative Easing is having on that). They didn’t consider whether all those passenger’s could fit on the West Coast line (without it being expanded, in which case what’s the point of HS2!). They also seemed to have assumed that Branson would just hand the trains over, when it seems, peeved at loosing the contract, he instead planned to sell the trains to anyone but First Group.

As I’ve described in a previous article, the current government has some serious question marks hanging over it as regards its competence. They seem to blunder from one self made crisis to another. And even when they try to do the right thing, they still screw up royal.

It is now costing the government 5 times more to subsidize the high fares “privatised” rail service today than it cost to keep running the nationalised rail service. I pointed out in a prior article that I can see two ways the railways could be fixed. The first was re-nationalisation, something which a number of commentators and the audience of Question Time this week, seemed to think was a good idea, but sadly out of the question under a Tory government. Plan B was to create a “proper” privatized rail system. This would involve making sure that there was actual competition between companies on routes and for rail franchise contracts. This would force the rail companies into a sink or swim scenario where they would have to shake up their companies (e.g. stand up to the train drivers unions, currently a train driver in the UK can earn more than a pilot!), lower ticket prices and become more competitive.

Clearly the Tory’s were angling for this second option when they awarded the contract for the West coast mainline to First Group. Clearly the intention was also to scare the other companies straight. I should note that I’ve had not entirely nice experiences on Virgin trains (they still owe me for a delayed train and a lost laptop!), but even I would question how exactly painting a different logo on the side of the trains is going to change anything. But the Tory’s it would seem couldn’t even get a simple contract bidding right.

Why I won’t be voting Tory
I won’t be voting Tory in the next election for two reasons. Firstly, they are a bunch of upper class twits who only goal is to further their own class and flog the “plebs” (that would be anyone in the UK without a mansion and a butler). The Tory’s have never cared about the deficit, the real objective behind the current austernity is that they see no reason why the taxes (that they don’t pay) should pay for things such “health care” or “education” or a “police service”.

The second reason for not voting Tory is that, even if I was a right winger and I lived in Kensington (and I’m lefty living in a working class area), the present government are, as we’d say in Scotland “a bunch of numpties”. As witnessed by the petrol strike (that wasn’t), the UKBA screw up’s regarding border staff and the universities, the GCSE results, the pastie tax, the G4S fiasco at the Olympics or how various “cuts” they’ve implemented have backfired and ended up costing the country much more than they were supposed to save. One gets the impression that David Cameron and his government couldn’t organize a piss up in a brewery.

And I would put the blame for this second point squarely on the first. Cameron, Osborne, Boris and many other members of this millionaire cabinet don’t live in the real world. The Bullingdon boy‘s are used to merely issuing instructions to some hapless underling who scurries off and see’s that his master’s will is implemented without question or criticism.

Unfortunately for the Toff’s in power right now, in the real world of government, people will question these dictates and subject the fool who proposed them to ridicule in various radio and TV comedy shows. Also in the real world, those put out by such dictates, be they low wage civil servants or multi-billionaires like Branson, don’t just curtsey and back away without making eye contact. No, in the real world they go on strike or hire an army of lawyers to get the policy changed.

Consequently I would argue that the Tory’s and their lib dem allies are unfit to rule and my advice to anyone with vaguely right wing sympathies would be to find another party to vote for come next election.