News roundup

The Pedo party

Is it just me or does it appear like the major qualification you need to get ahead in the Republican party is to be a pedo, kiddy fiddler or sex offender of some form or another? Since Trump took over we’ve seen a long line of dirty old men going into the white house. I mean they even set up a dating site (for straight blue blooded republicans) and the male model they chose in the ads turned out to be a sex offender. Its like Trump is some sort of magnet for this sort of thing.

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Consider that evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote GOP, have gone from being 80% likely to say that a president should resign for having an affair (and quote a bible verse), to being 80% likely to say, ah it doesn’t matter, the bible? Well that says lots of things, I mean its not as if we have to take it literary!

At least it does go to prove my theory of conservative flip flop syndrome. In essence the Republicans, much like the UK Tories, aren’t really a political party anymore. They have no actual policies, no direction. They are just a cult devoted to follow which ever random nutty sex offender/tax cheat happens to be in charge at the time. And once he loses power in disgrace, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say so what, then forget about him. Recall how back in the Bush days, or Romney in 2008, they were the true messiah, failing to support them was treason again the US….until they criticised Trump! Of course, like any cult, the GOP needs funding, so they’ll happily sell their services to whichever random billionaire can afford to bribe them.

What this shows is that the democrats need to take the gloves off. The GOP won’t fight fair and you won’t win a fair fight when they’ve stacked the system against you. I’d propose that as soon as they get power back, prioritise shoring up the checks and balances. I’d federally mandate how electoral districts are organised (the states draw the line, but according to rules set by the federal government, overseen by non-partisan officials) and introduce proportional representation. Both would guarantee that the party that wins the most votes gets the most seats (the only reason why the GOP get so many seats is gerrymandering). It would also open up the possibility of smaller parties getting representation.

As for this Brett guy, once a democratic president is in charge, I’d give him and any other Trump justices a choice, resign or we stack the supreme court. There’s nothing in the constitution that stops a democratic president/congress either setting term limits on supreme court justices (which would force all but two to resign and be immediately replaced) or say appointing a few dozen twenty something women (and card carrying members of the ACLU) to the supreme court (this incidentally is what FDR threatened to do). Suddenly its likely he’ll remember some important yard work in needs to catch up on and retire.

Jacinda and the peacocks

At the UN there was controversy when some delegations showed up with babies, but at least the NZ PM’s baby didn’t make a speech and crap all over the place….unlike America’s baby (who got laughed out of the room).

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Much was made of the NZ PM’s speech and the contrast between it and Trump’s. She spoke of unity and fixing global problems, he spoke mostly about himself and blaming others for his problems. I was reminded of something a military officer once told me about the traits that the military look for in a good officer (good judgement, leadership, team player, etc.) and there are red flags which signal that this guy should never be given command, as he’s likely to become a dangerous liability (who’ll march his unit into a minefield and get them all killed).

Well we see a lot of those red flags on display at the UN summit. Selfishness and putting oneself first is always a worry (note to Trump, there’s no “i” in team….although there is a “u” in c*nt!). An officer like this is likely to send in his boys, then take off in the other direction when the shooting starts. I recall Oliver Stone once mentioning that on his first day in Vietnam his officer put him out on point!

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Other worrying red flags include impulsive behaviour (Trump again, he who dares….usually walks straight into an ambush), or equally bad, indecisiveness (Theresa May). Its important for a commander to be aware of what’s going on around them, so a detachment from reality (Trump or the brexiters) is very dangerous. And a good commander needs to listen, a bad one ignores advice (Trump again) or even punishes (Corbyn) those who offer it.

However of all of the traits you want to avoid in a commander, its one who blames others for his misfortune (such as foreigners). He berates his own men for disloyalty (have you given them reasons to be loyal, or plenty of reasons to question everything you say?). Or worse, blaming the enemy (if the enemy isn’t co-operating with your plans, well that’s kind of supposed to happen!). In short, the buck stops with the commander and any who is unwilling or unable to accept that is unfit for command.

All in all, this populist wave has left us a world led by strutting chest puffing peacocks, all of whom won’t be so much as put in charge of anything more dangerous than a stapler if they joined the military. All we can do is hope there isn’t some sort of crisis in the next few years, because I have very little faith in the majority of the world’s leaders. And its no wonder NZ is becoming the bolt hole of choice.

Hilary would have been worse

How different it would have been if the person who got the most votes had won. Mention this of course to Trump voters (or the Bernie or bust brigade) and they’ll mumble something about “Hilary would have been worse”. Really?

Would Hilary have appointed a long list of sex offenders to senior positions? (granted she’d have had to lock Bill in the basement or put him in a chastity belt). Would she have appointed a bunch of incompetents (purely on the basis of loyalty rather than ability to do the job) to senior government positions? Would she have left hundreds of important posts vacant? Would her aides have to brief her using cue cards and take stuff of her desk in case she did something stupid? Would she have gone to Russia and buried her tongue up Putin’s a*s?. Would she have started rolling back environmental protections and workers rights, or given a massive tax cut to the super rich? Would she have started a trade war for no good reason? Would Chelsea Clinton be jetting around the world acting as the defacto foreign secretary? Would she have started to use the US treasury as her own personal piggy bank, striking deals with countries on the basis of what most benefited her personal businesses? Would America have fallen from the world’s most respected nation to the butt of the world’s jokes?

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As I said from the beginning, Hilary would not have been my first choice as President. But in the election you had a choice between her and the pus*y grabber in chief. I know which of those two is the lest worse scenario. This is why I do worry about the mid terms. The democrats seem to be at war with themselves. The only condition that should apply is are you willing to oppose Trump and if possible get him impeached? Anyone who meets that criteria gets my vote.

On which point btw, I strongly advise voting for republicans, even the moderate ones critical of Trump. As recent events have shown, they can be leaned on by the party and made to toe the line (probably because having had their snout in the feeding trough for so long the GOP and its donors have a lot dirt on them that they could easily leak to the media).

To draw an analogy its like the US was this town out in the old west and the position for sheriff was open. The choice was some guy in a black hat, who had a English accent (despite being German), a large scar and an evil laugh (and when he laughs birds drop dead out of the sky). Or some other guy (the man with no name), who while not being necessarily a good guy, he clearly ain’t the baddie. But no, some of the town want to vote for old man Bernie, despite the fact he’s been pushing up the daises up on boothill for the last couple of months. Well now they’re getting bull whipped by the black hat, while he burns down the church (with the preacher inside) and they are trying to console themselves that might have been worse.

Musk out at Tesla

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So Musk managed to get himself banned from running his own company. Well to be honest this was a train wreck that was going to happen sooner or later. There’s a certain discipline that comes with being a CEO, not unlike some of those qualities I mentioned earlier. However, they are really only optional. There is in fact one key skill which a CEO must have above all else – keeping your big mouth shut!

A CEO is the face of his company. Anything he says is going to have an impact on the share price. This is why most tend to be fairly guarded about what they say, often taking the view that if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything. Hence why some of the statements from CEO’s regarding brexit should be setting off alarm bells.

Musk got himself in trouble thanks to his efforts to stop short sellers driving down Tesla’s share price. Yes, this was unfair, but on the other hand, he was kind of making it easy for them. What with calling a British diver a pedo, refusing to answer questions at a press conference because “they weren’t cool” or smoking pot live on the internet. As his downfall should show, the markets are decidedly unfair. They are a bit of a wild west. Yes the corrupt sheriff can send out his one spurs to rob your farm. Yet when you set out to take revenge its you who ends up swinging from a rope, regardless of whether or not you shot the deputy.

Which is slightly ironic given his, and other tech billionaires, affinity for libertarianism. In a libertarian world it would be even worse. Ford and GM would in fact have likely crushed him along time ago, same as Standard oil would destroy its competitors. So I suppose what goes around comes around.

Minister for starvation

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Its difficult to avoid talking about brexit. Firstly we have the story than given the difference between where the UK would be if we hadn’t voted for brexit and where we are now, the UK is now 500 million a week worse off (you’ll recall those ridiculous promises of an extra 350 million a week!). The UK has been forced to appoint a minster of starvation supply (for the first time outside of a war).

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Meanwhile, back in fantasy land, at the Tory party conference, they were trying to outdo each other with their different brexit fantasies. It was less a conference and more of a unicorn horn measuring contest. Brexit to the Tories is more about who they want to be the captain of the Titanic as it sinks and whether or not they should burn the lifeboats before anyone can use them. Meanwhile, a bunch of young Tory activists got caught with racist and classist slogans on their T-shirts, but of course that’s allowed, yet a labour supporter did it, the newspapers would be wanting Corbyn to be hung.

On a positive note, it was noted that Theresa May never mentioned her Chequers plan in her speech, which could hint that she’s going to roll over and accept whatever the EU offers her….Or it could be because she knows that if she so much as mentioned that word, it would be like playing the rains of Castamere at a wedding. Within seconds they’ve have all started stabbing one another. So probably more of a survival instinct than anything.

Increasingly it looks like we’ll just have to wait for all the brexiters to die off and vote to re-join the EU….which probably won’t take too long, ironically thanks to brexit. The NHS (which again the bus ads promised would be better off) is already in crisis, with a Breixtus of EU staff leaving, not surprising when brexit threatens to turn them into 2nd class citizens. The government’s solution? Oh, we’ll just have the nurses train as doctors or shorten their training time. I mean its not as if people die if hospitals make a mistake or something.

Making rent

Housing The Homeless

I’ve come across quite a few stories over the last few months about homelessness in California, one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. And we’re in many cases talking about people with jobs who are homeless, as its become difficult if not impossible to make rent in California, to the point where some are sleeping in their cars or living out of campervans. Let me repeat that, we’re talking about people with jobs, who work hard, who have kids and a family living in their cars. Welcome to Trump’s America.

Now too be fair, this is part of the hangover from the financial crisis. And we really have to pin the blame for that on past US presidents (notably G. W. Bush). And of course Obama’s recovery was a rising tide that didn’t lift all ships. Governors of California (who have come from both parties since the crash) also have to take some share of the blame. That said, Trump has cut federal housing aid, and who did he appoint in charge of housing? Ben Carson (the first person to conduct brain surgery on himself).

So there’s plenty blame to share out, the question is how to fix it. Well clearly a lack of rent control is part of the problem. If you let landlords charge $2000 a month for a flat (with a two month deposit on top), then nobody except the better off will be able to pay that. And there’s a lack of good affordable social housing. In Europe for example, try to get planning permission for a hundred luxury condos and you’ll be told nope, not going to happen, unless you add in a few dozen affordable homes or council houses.

Of course there’s an elephant in the room here we’re ignoring, one you can clearly see if you’ve ever flown over California and looked out of a window – urban sprawl and low density housing. While we’ve got problems with urban sprawl in Europe yes, but never to the same extend as it occurs in the US. Developments that would be refused in Europe are routinely approved in the US.

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In fact, government policies intended to promote car ownership are a major contributory factor, by for example legally requiring large parking lots everywhere. By contrast, getting planning permission for car parks in Europe is tricky and will often be refused (we’ve a long standing issue in my block with parking, long story but the bottom line is the council will routinely turn down applications for parking lots, unless you’ve got a damn good reason for having one and even then they’ll insist its underground).

The end consequence of this is vast spread out cities where you need a car to just get around. Case in point, the population density of LA is around 1,000 per sq km, while in London is closer to 5,000 and Paris 21,000. If the oil ever runs out LA is going to starve to death, given in some LA neighbourhoods you can literally get picked up by the cops for just walking. The US has legally mandated a country full of vast parking lots, now its got them filled with homeless people rather than apartment blocks.

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And, as always, this highlights the shortcomings of the libertarian politics of the tech billionaires. Their lassie-faire approach amounts to them amassing vast fortunes and living in huge mansions, while the serf’s who toil away making all that money have to steal food from work, then find a quiet parking lot to catch some sleep in and hope they don’t get mugged. This is what a libertarian world looks like.

A real magic money tree, scientific publishing

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An interesting article here from George Monbiot about the racket of scientific publishing. If you are an academic, in almost all cases you have to publish your research in a peer reviewed journal. Many academics will in fact have it in their contract of employment that they must publish a certain number each year, often in specific journals.

However these journals are owned by private companies, notably Elsevier, which was the brain child of Robert Maxwell. So in essence we academics use public funds to generate intellectual property that we are then obliged to hand over to a private company, who then charge our own university library a small fortune to be able to access it. In essence we are being contractually obliged to participate in a wealth transfer scam from the public sector into the pockets of media billionaires.

This situation could be solved relatively simply. Either the government just nationalises these firms and makes their data publicly accessible free of charge. Or it puts in place a rule prohibiting uni’s from setting targets for staff based on for-profit journals. This would mean we publish in open access journals more frequently. Faced with the risk that the intellectual property they own would quickly become worthless (scientific data tends to get obsolete pretty quickly), the private publishing houses would then likely be forced to go open access themselves……

Comcast buys Sky, Murdoch on suicide watch

.So why you may ask, aren’t governments trying to move towards open access journals? Well because they don’t want to upset media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch of course. The media is something of a closed shop, a forbidden lawn onto which politicians dare not tread….or the Sun will publish an article calling them gay.

However, in amongst all the other stories recently, a little story slipped through that’s actually of significant importance. For many years now Rupert Murdoch has sought to take full control of UK broadcaster Sky. However, while the UK’s politicians are a spineless lot, they ain’t stupid enough not to see the danger with letting him have full control of all the newspapers and half the TV audience. So they’ve been obstructing that process, although more about going through the motions than any real opposition.

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Well the phone hacking scandal forced those plans to be kicked into the long grass for a while. Brexit provided good cover to resume the process, but the chaos it unleashed slowed things down somewhat. However now at the moment of truth, what’s gone and happened? A rival firm, Comcast, has swooped in and bought Sky right out from under Murdoch’s nose. And if to make matters worse, its CEO while republican, is more of a moderate (read a greedy rich as*hole, but at least one whose vaguely sane). So its likely he’ll start to shift Sky more towards the centre ground of politics, rather than constantly supporting the Tories.

Keep in mind that for much of recent UK politics this has been going on in the background. Murdoch has supported this candidate or that and got his newspapers to sing their praises regardless of how nutty or ludicrous what they were proposing was. He’s more responsible for brexit or Trump than probably anything else. And now suddenly, in no small part thanks to Trump and brexit, he’s been pipped at the finishing post. Well, what goes around, sooner or later, it comes around. Karma can be a bitch!

Not so cool news

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I had a bit of a rant before about Game of Thrones season 7. However my main bone of contention was with I’d call the “cool dude” school of film making, that seems to have taken over. This brand of film making views the plot and the script as secondary and merely a way of stitching together various epilepsy inducing CGI sequences (the point of which seems to be to get the audience to say “this is cool dude”).

The trouble is that this is a style of film making that gets boring very quickly. And as its necessary to throw away much of what makes any particular genre appealing to its fan base, it tends to piss off the fans. A situation not helped by hiring directors or producers whose knowledge of say, star wars/trek is limited to whatever they managed to google while in the cab on the way to the studio.

Well it would appear the wheels are starting to come off. On the back of poor box office and bad reviews several leading actors in the latest Star trek film have quit, reportedly over pay disputes (if the film ain’t making as much they need more of those dollars for the CGI budget, which the actors seem unwilling to accept). Its possible the next star trek film might be cancelled. There’s even a crazy rumour going around that the studio is so desperate they’re going to hand it over to Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Romulans? The hateful Klingons? Vulcan fiction? Kill Kirk?).

Also on their way to the job centre are the actors playing superman, batman and Cpt. America. Meanwhile, the star wars franchise is in such disarray after the Solo movie flop (that was a train wreck you could just see coming!), that it looks like any further movies (bar the ones too far into production to halt) are also going to get canned.

In short, the customer is always right. Piss off your fans, they’ll vote with their feet. I mean I’ve not been to say very many of these movies recently because, to be blunt I’d be as well off shining a strobe light in my eye for two hours.

Ultimately the problem is these major studios have a monopoly on the story lines, nobody else can make a star trek film without the risk of being sued, even though its a genre that’s over fifty years old and its original creator has been dead for twenty years. If you left any other company (cars, laptops, washing machines, etc.) with the exclusive rights to produce a product and they’d never innovate, their products would become increasingly bloated and over priced.

So this is probably one situation where we should let the markets sort it out. Let anyone who wants to make a superhero/sci-fi movie do so. Yes some will be dire and laughably bad (the Russian film Guardians for example), but others might well be much better than anything the mainstream studios can come up with.

Katla is isn’t going to blow….for now!

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If you are a tabloid reader, you might have heard that the Icelandic volcano Katla was about to erupt. For those who don’t know, Katlia is the bigger brother of the big E volcano (I ain’t even going to try and get its spelling right!) that erupted in 2010 and disrupted all of those flights. Well Katla is many times larger (with a Caldera 10km’s across) and it erupts about every 100 years. When was the last eruption? About 100 years ago! So an eruption from Katla would be far worse and could last for much longer (possibly months).

However, before you start digging a shelter or stockpiling food (a sensible idea perhaps, but for other reasons!) no, that’s not what the scientists studying the volcano actually said. In fact they pointed out they could see no signs the volcano was in imminent danger of eruption. The study did reveal a lot more about the potential impact of its eruptions. For example, in one past eruption it created a flash flood with a flow rate the Nile, Mississippi, Amazon, and Yangtze combined.

So while its unlikely to go off tomorrow, the warning is that we probably won’t get a huge amount of warning prior to any future eruption. Which given how disruptive this could be, it would seem to make sense to put in place some contingency plans for how we are going to cope, if say transatlantic flights had to stop for a few months…..so not really something the British have to worry about after March 2019 then!

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Should we abolish exams?

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Tis the season (or one of them anyway!) where we are marking. The summer exam period is particularly important for those who might have failed in the spring (or been forced to defer) as its the last opportunity for final year students to graduate this year or for the rest to progress into their next year of study. So it can be quite a stressful time for students.

Which does raise the question, are we stressing out the students unnecessarily? In other words, should we give them marks at all? Or indeed should we abandon exams and assessments in their present form altogether?

Its not quite as crazy an idea as it sounds. In many professions you don’t do an exam. And if you do it tends to be more of a pass/fail type exam. And the minimum passing grade (if it exists) is a lot higher than 40%. I mean would you want the pilot who has you at 30,000ft to have passed his pilot’s exam having gotten 60% of it wrong?

In most professions, instead, its a competency test. The obvious example is a driving test. Yes, you sit a theory element, but that’s more about making sure you know what a stop sign is before you take the tester out on an open road (and drive into the path of an 18 wheeler!). But the driving test itself is a simple case of either you pass it, or you fail it. There’s no middle ground.

And some tests are intentionally hard and decidedly unfair. I was told once by a pilot that many of the tests (written, in simulators or in light aircraft) that they do are excessively hard or even impossible. Sometimes they can be presented with Kobayashi Maru type scenario. In other words they are set up to fail. Which sounds unfair, but then again the whole point of such tests is to push the students and see how they react under pressure (if you can’t take the heat in a nice safe simulator, how well do you think you’ll hack it in a real emergency at 30,000 ft!). So how academia handles assessments, is very different from how industry handles it.

A lot of students these days are obsessed with their marks. When I was a student, we just accepted what mark we were given. We might go get a bit more feedback if we hadn’t done as well as expected, but that’s about it. We didn’t take it personally if we happened to get a lower than expected grade. But these days some them seem to want to challenge everything and wail like a banshee if they get anything less than an A. And some are taking to min/maxing the system. If you want to send students into a deep coma (before an operation for example), tell them such and such a thing isn’t on the final exam, but it is important stuff you’ll do next sems…..oh wait, they’re already asleep! And of course if they’ve got the slightest cough or cold within a month of an assessment (even if its after the hand in!) they’ll be looking for a deferral.

Some of this can be blamed on the defacto privatisation of UK universities, with students (and their parents) seeing a degree as a commodity that they are buying. And this is leading to students becoming increasingly perfectionist, which can lead to issues such as depression.

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However, the truth is that students don’t seem to realise is that your marks aren’t as important as you think. Certainly for your first job, when you’ve nothing on your CV but your degree, it makes a difference. Having a 2.1 makes it more likely you’ll get that first foot in the door than having a 2.2. But beyond that first job, its relevance diminishes with each iteration of employment. Case in point, is there anyone reading this who has hired someone in the last year or so? Assuming they aren’t a recent graduate, can you honestly remember what was their final grade? And follow up question, did it make any difference to your decision to hire them?

And I bring this last point up because it does highlight just how silly it is to obsess over grades. Recall the story I mentioned last year, where an Oxford graduate sued his uni over only getting a 2.1 (fortunately he lost!). Note that he did this 10 years after graduation. Needless to say, if your career is still in the tank after 10 years, its not your degree that’s the problem! You want to know what it is? Go look in a mirror!

Because the truth is we in academia have increasingly been found out by employers. They know some students are gaming the system. They know that some uni’s are caving in to pressure from students and going easy on the marking. (not in mine uni, but if you’ve been following the grade inflation recently its clearly happening in other uni’s). And they know all about contract plagiarism and all the other tricks.

So they are responding with more detailed an exacting interview processes. This can include several rounds of interviews including a technical interview, as well as exams and other competency tests. Other companies will recruit several people as interns for the same job and basically whittle them down one by one survivor style. Now needlessly to say, any student whose been min/maxing the system, you ain’t going to last long in an interview process like that. Regardless of what grade you got (such as our Oxford graduate), you’ll be found out pretty quickly.

And its worth noting that in the secondary or primary school sector, some schools, under similar pressure to ourselves, are experimenting with abolishing marking. Instead they just give feedback. Of course, in academia, we’d need some sort of pass/fail system. However, that could take the form of some sort of competency test.

I’m told by lecturers in other countries how in addition to all the usual assessments students face, they’ll also have to do a viva every semester, where you go into a room and face off against a panel of lecturers who can literally grill you on any question about any topic you’ve learnt that year. And if you don’t pass mustard, they don’t let you proceed into the next phase of study.

Now while some students would breeze through tests like that no problem, others would struggle, which would mean more exam stress for them, plus probably a higher failure rate. So while it would cut out students obsessing over marks and cut exam stress for some, it won’t entirely solve all of the problems. Although it would prepare them better for the real world.

So, in the absence of any other plausible alternative, perhaps we have little choice but to keep exams.

News roundup

Do panic

A few months back the brexiters complained that they wanted the Royal Mail to celebrate brexit by issuing stamps to mark the occasion. Well RM seem to have met them half way by issuing a set of “Dad’s Army” stamps. Clearly someone at RM is trolling the brexiters.

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Inevitably perhaps, others have been creating their own versions of potential brexit stamps.

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Our Brexit, hallowed be thy name

Meanwhile, back in the mad house, Saint Theresa of Maidenhead May suggested that an extra £20 billion would be available after brexit for the NHS thanks to the “brexit dividend.

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This was met with incredulity by many. At the time of the referendum when they made similar claims, it was pointed out that the UK only really spends about £8 billion on its EU membership, once farm subsidies, rebates, research funding, structural funds and other things Brussels pays for are taken into account. Of course the implication would be that, much as I warned might happen prior to the referendum, this could indicate that the Tories do not plan to pick up the tab for these bills. Farm subsidies will end in March 2019, the fishermen and deprived communities in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall will see their lifeline cut off and universities will see research budgets slashed, with a knock effect to the many high tech start ups who depend on that research funding to get them off the ground.

And there’s the not so small matter that the UK will be stuck, not with a brexit dividend, but a brexit deficit. There’s the exit bill the UK will need to pay, £40-50 billion net (depending on rebates and currency exchange differences, since its calculated in euro’s). And then there’s the economic cost of undertaking brexit (about 3-7% of GDP, best guess £72 billion).

Plus, what do you think the EU does with all of that cash? They spend it on hiring civil servants to administer all the EU regulations, that May is trying to squeeze into UK law. It was improper regulation on the British end that led to the Grenfell tower fire. In China, there’s a controversy over baby formula, leading to shelves being emptied in Australia because some mum’s don’t trust the Chinese stuff anymore. So regulations are something you neglect at your peril. And the three immediate areas that will need tackling are nuclear materials, medicines and food safety…..so no pressure then! And in any event the conditions of any trade deal, be it with the EU or other parties, will need to include a budget to account for paying for the regulation of that deal.

In short, never has a UK Prime Minster said something so inaccurate since Lord North told parliament that the Americans loved being part of the UK so much, they’d happily pay a bit more for tea. But as I’ve said before, brexit is now the state religion of the UK.

While May, perhaps sensing what she was implying, did backtrack and mubble something about a tax rise to pay for the extra money until the (non-existent) dividend kicks in. But even this is worrying. Basically what she said was that the Tory party is abandoning its manifesto and sacrificing it on the altar of brexit. And while more money for the NHS isn’t a bad thing, its almost certain that this new tax burden will fall on the middle and low income earners (this is the Tories after all, which is more likely, they give up smoked salmon once a week to pay for hospitals, or they get the plebs to pick up the tab?).

Brexit is now to the UK what Juche is to North Korea. The excuse upon which anything can be sold. A tax rise? Its for brexit (but don’t worry we’ll pay you back later). An end to farm subsidies? Privatise the NHS? Strip workers of their right to strike? Its all to make sure brexit works!

Of course the problem with this attitude is it means they just can’t understand why for example Rolls Royce or JLR would suddenly want to move thousands of jobs out of the glorious thousand year reich British empire mark II (because they are companies with shareholders perhaps?). Nor can they understand why the EU are being such assholes and threatening to cut the UK off from intelligence data and the European arrest warrant (because they have this thing in Europe called “rights” and “laws” and the UK will join Belarus and Kazakhstan as the only non-signatory to the ECHR). In other words, they are blind to the consequences of their actions. Like the suicide pilots flying their plane into the world trade centre they cannot see the obvious insanity of what they are doing and genuinely think they’ll be going to a better place.

Lock em up….by which we mean the kids

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In between picking fights with China, Trump has been busy locking up kids in cages after tearing them out of their the parents arms (what’s the bet he’ll put Roy Moore in charge!). Conditions at the facility where the kids are detained, referred to as the dog kennel, are described as inhumane and equivalent to a prison. Experts warn of the emotional scaring this will inflict. Parallels have been made to concentration camps and the detention of Japanese Americans during world II.

The day you know you’re living in a fascist state is the day you hear your justice secretary (soon to be named ministry for state security) deny he’s running concentration camps. The irony is one of the justifications of the Alex Jones mob for opposing Obama was that he was black was planning to set up FEMA concentration camps.

Oh, and for good measure the US is quitting the UN human rights council. Because clearly the words “human rights” and “America” should not be sharing the same sentence right now, even Trump can figure that one out.

Let’s be clear if you voted for Trump (or voted for a third party in a swing state, which is basically the same thing under the US system) then this is what you voted for. And frankly it shouldn’t surprise anybody, its exactly what was warned would happen if Trump was elected. At least now when reading the history books and you wonder, how could the Germans vote for Hitler, well now you know how and why. And part of the reason why international pressure failed to contain him, wasn’t because Neville Chamberlain was a weak and naïve leader. It was because he was leading a divided Britain, which had more than a few (Daily Mail reading) fascists of its own, who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Trump, upon realising that this might not look so well, immediately tried to dodge responsibility, blaming the democrats, the immigrants themselves and pretty much anyone else he could think of. Its worth noting that something similar played out during the holocaust, the Yugoslav civil war and the Rwandan genocide, in which often those in senior roles were separated from the actual atrocities and generally tried to avoid taking responsibility for such things, leaving it to a handful of fanatical racist nut cases to do the dirty deeds. This of course made it so much easier to order more of the same and treat as mere bureaucratic exercise. Forget the lessons of history and they will repeat themselves.

The really big short

Trump’s tariff policy has sent stock markets crashing to the point where all of this years gains have been wiped out. And the main losers won’t be in Wall street, they’ll be ma and pa firms across the US, as well as many ordinary Americans who are about to see their living costs rise in response to these tariffs (you’ll be paying them, not the Chinese). It sounds like typical Trump. He’s not doing it because he thinks its a good idea, its an action driven purely by ego…..

Or is it? Given that Trump has not actually fully separated himself from his businesses (which is illegal btw), we need to consider the possibility that he’s colluding with others, and doing a little bit of insider trading. Its possible to profit from a falling market by shorting the market. If you can correctly guess that the stock of a particular company is going to fall, you can bet on the share price declining (by borrowing shares, selling them at a high price and then buying them back later after the price has fallen).

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However, shorting is a risky business. Its the equivalent of betting that Brazil or Germany were going to lose their opening matches. Now while this will happen occasionally (as indeed happened to Germany….guess they won’t be eating Taco’s for a while!), but the odds are you’ll be wrong more often than you are right. And to make matters worse its possible with short selling to lose more than your original investment if the market moves against you. Hence most traders will often hedge their bets (basically bet both ways, but slightly bet higher one particular way). This reduces the risk, but also the profit margin.

Of course if you have access to insider information, e.g. you are the president and you know there’s a big tax cut coming, or you’re going to impose tariff’s on the EU, then change your mind and then impose them anyway. A trader with advanced knowledge of this could easily adopt short positions and profit considerably from this.

But, not only is it illegal for a president to be in any way linked to these sorts of deals, but insider trading is also illegal and for good reason. Because if you get it wrong (and markets can be difficult to predict, even if you have access to insider information) things can go from bad to catastrophic pretty quickly. Consider how rogue trader Nick Leeson managed to lose over £800 million, wiping out Barings bank.

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Indeed one has to look at Trump’s real estate losses in a new light. People laugh and say oh Trump is such a loser he can lose money running a casino. How can you do that? I mean people literally walk into a casino and hand over their money!

Well, not if your running a casino skim operation. Its possibly that Trump, under pressure from his mob connections, was deliberately running the joint into the ground. Its just they miscalculated. Normally you skim just a little off the top, but not enough anyone will notice, nor that might risk bringing down the racket. But Trump was such a balloon head, or he and his co-conspirators just got too greedy, they managed to bleed the place dry. Which doesn’t bode well if this same lot are at the helm of the US economy.

Enabling fascism

Speaking of fascists, in Italy the populist horseshoe government is split because one of their leaders, looking to emulate Trump, wants to build his own concentration camps….sorry I mean happy camps (I’m sure they’ll come up with a more PC name!). He also wants to count Roma gypsies and presumably make them go around with little stars on them, I mean nothing bad ever happened from doing that. He’s also suggested that an anti-mafia journalist, who criticised him should have his police protection removed.

This has all come as a bit of a shock to a number of 5S voters. But what should it? You enabled a bunch of fascists and helped them into power, now they are enacting fascist policies. What did you think was going to happen? They were going to go door to door handing out milk and cookies?

Its possible that this might bring down the horseshoe government a little earlier than was expected. Which I’d consider a good thing…..if it weren’t for opinion polls suggesting a likely win for the Northern League and Forza Italia (Mr Bunga Bunga’s outfit).

The Glasgow school of art fire

In Scotland the Glasgow School of art burnt down. Designed by Rennie Mackintosh, the Mac, is to Glasgow what the Casa Mila is to Barcelona. This fire occurred just four years after another fire, which destroyed the college library, which was in the process of being rebuilt. Incidentally, lost in the story about the art school fire, was the fact that another important building, the neighbouring ABC theatre, had also burnt down after the fire spread to it.

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Two fires in the space of four years is more than bad luck. Clearly there’s something up with the building in terms of fire safety. My understanding is the contractors for the restoration after the previous fire were on site, so they’ll have some questions to answer.

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The library of the Glasgow school of art, prior to the fire in 2014

But clearly there’s some issues with fire safety that needs to be addressed. And this is not just a problem for the school of art. There’s been several large fires in older buildings in Glasgow and the basic problem is, they ain’t up to current fire codes and need to be modified accordingly. This article discusses some of the issues, although in the context of post-war era buildings, but much of the same policy should be applied to Victorian and Edwardian era buildings. E.g. fitting external fire escapes (as in New York) and sprinklers, fire resistant barriers, etc.

Meanwhile the question now being asked is whether the art school can be rebuilt. Some suggest it might not be feasible, others feel it is possible. We’ll have to see. There will inevitably be a strong desire from the art community and the Scottish government to rebuild it, but some polls suggest there might be opposition from the public, if it costs too much money.

For the moment, given that its basically now a burnt out shell, the best that can be hoped for is facade retention. Which would have to be undertaken quickly, given that its on a hill and exposed to the winds (it probably won’t survive the winter in its current state). Even then if the building were rebuilt, you’d be rebuilding everything inside that retained facade. And as noted, you’d have to modify the design to account for modern fire codes, which would require considerable modification from the original. So it would be more of a replica, rather than the real thing.

The thinking wing nut’s troll

The Toronto academic Jordan Paterson has been in the news recently, largely thanks to an encounter on Channel 4 news earlier this year, which has made him something of an intellectual hero for the alt-right. However, in truth he’s just a slight better inform right wing troll, who engages in many of their same tactics (gish gallop’s, contrarian arguments, weasel words, etc.)

Take this example where he attempts to argue that much as the right is basically anti-liberalism ID politics (his alt-right followers only hearing what they want to hear will have no doubt filtered that out) that the left is basically the same. That many on the left for example only support social welfare programs that they’ll never benefit from due to a similar commitment towards ID politics.

This position combines a number of contrarian arguments based on a falsehoods. It relies on the myth that working class people tend to vote conservative, and its the “champagne socialists” who vote for left wing parties. However, data from both the last UK election and US elections show that those who are working class tend to vote for left wing parties. When those on right try to claim the opposite, they are often forced to use weasel words statements (e.g. focus on white men over 40 in specific states).

But certainly it is true that a certain portion of those on higher incomes do vote for left wing causes. As I happen to be one of those, although real ale socialist would be more accurate, I can tell Mr Patterson my views have nothing to do with ID politics. Its because I understand that I might end up needing that social welfare safety net myself someday. No matter how hard working you are, or how well paid, all it takes is one accident, cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy of your employer or misadventure and suddenly you’re in a world of trouble.

For example (and this is just one of many examples I could give), I know a guy back in Ireland, hard worker, used to lead scouting groups, took a fall at work one day. He seemed to be fine after a few days, but as the months and years passed he developed ever worse back problems (not unusual for these to take time to surface) and eventually he had to give up work. Now if we take the right at its word, he should be dragged to the side of the street and left to die just because he had the misfortune to have an accident that wasn’t his fault (should you wonder why he hasn’t sued, his employer went bust during the crash and it was only a small building firm anyway, there won’t have been any money to sue for).

That’s all it takes to ruin your income. I wonder if Mr Paterson has paused to consider what would happen to him if he, or one of his relatives, were to fall ill and need expensive medical treatment, which his HMO wasn’t willing to cover (pre-existing conditions and all that). In fact I know of a lecturer who found himself in this very situation. A relative got ill and he had to drop everything, give up his well paid job and fly home to Pakistan. Now while last I heard he’d gotten a part time job over there, but I’m going to hazard a guess its paid a lot less than a lecturing post in the UK. And given his likely outgoings I suspect he’s probably only just about managing. Voting in favour of social welfare is not ID politics, its basic common sense.

Indeed perhaps more the question is why is it that some, notably those over 40’s blue collar workers don’t vote for left wing parties. I would argue that this stems from a long instilled ideology of rugged individualism (you’re considered less of a man if you ask for help), as well as the usual right wing lies and propaganda. And more crucially this tendency does tend to be growing (while those on lower income tended to vote overwhelmingly for left wing candidates by at least 80/20, now its closer to 60/40). So its more a sign of desperation and frustration than meaning an increase in support for the politics of the right. Which perhaps isn’t surprising given how the right doesn’t really have a political philosophy anymore, other than “anti-liberalism”.

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The calm rational logic of Trump voters

But either way, the only real difference between Mr Paterson and Alex Jones (and they are both believers in the paranormal, living on wing nut welfare, which kind of makes his point regard social welfare more than a little hypocritical), is that Paterson knows how not to look and sound like a nut, even when he’s saying pretty crazy things.

The Wakanda conundrum

I came across an interesting little video on youtube, which discuss the Wakanda conundrum. For those who didn’t see the movies (Black Panther, age of infinity), or don’t read comic books, Wakanda is a small yet highly advanced African country which has kept itself hidden from the world for many centuries (for reasons we won’t get into right now). It owes its formation to the arrival of a meteorite from space made of a strange and nearly indestructible metal. As a result its now extremely wealthy and century’s ahead of the rest of the world technologically.

So what’s the problem? Well there’s simply no way such a society could exist. No matter how valuable this resource is, without trading with the outside world (and thus sharing ideas and technology) they’d struggle to figure out how to exploit it. And without trading this resource, they’d never be able to earn any cash from it and thus never be able to buy in the stuff they’d need to exploit the resource and develop their economy. In short the economic policy of Wakanda is basically the same as that of North Korea, and they ain’t exactly the richest country in the world, nor the most advanced (I’m sure Trump would tell you differently tho!).

And speaking of which, the government of Wakanda is an absolute monarchy, with kings picked by barbaric fights (okay, if you’ve ever seen a bunch of politicians fighting over whose in charge, its not that much different maybe). The problem with such a system is all it takes is one bad king to ruin everything. And essentially, that’s the plot of the Black Panther film, but they ignore the consequences of that.

Then there’s the matter of the so-called “resource curse”, which means that small countries with valuable resources can sometimes end up worse off than countries without any. While this doesn’t apply in every situation, Iceland and Norway or Bahrain, for example. But generally countries tend to only avoid the resource curse so long as they’ve got open borders, good trade and a reasonably free society and competent government. Inevitably Wakanda would hit the buffers sooner or later and descent into a corrupt, autocratic mess.

And the other problem with having resources is it tends to draw attention to you. African dictators surrounding Wakanda, not to mention western colonists (notably the Belgians), would soon learn of it and be very quick to swoop in and try to take over the country. And given how in the last film the Wakandian army got the snot kicked out of them by a large pack of dogs, I doubt they’d be able to hold off an invasion, regardless of how advanced their technology.

Uber scooters

A number of silicon valley based firms have begun to set up dockless bike and scooter hire schemes. The logic is, rather than the traditional bike hire schemes, where bikes are picked up and dropped off at designated spots (which can mean trucks rolling around transporting bikes from docking station to docking station). Instead, the system is more free flowing. You pick up the bikes wherever you find one (a mobile phone app directs you to the nearest one) and then leave it wherever you are when you’re finished. Simple!

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So what’s the problem? Well many of these schemes are being set up by companies without the support of local governments and councils. This is causing all sorts of problems, from people riding bikes and electric scooters on pavements, then abandoning them in the middle of the pavement, where they represent a trip hazard, particularly for blind people.

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I think this is a good idea that needs to be developed more, indeed I’d be curious to see if its possible to marry this idea with current car sharing schemes. However, clearly there needs to be some sort of regulation. Frankly the operators of these schemes are lucky councils didn’t just classify all of their scooters as litter and bin them (then fine the company for waste disposal), which is actually what happened in China. No doubt these rules would specify where the bikes and scooters could be used and that where they can be left (if not at designated docking points, then off the pavement and parked neatly). Presumably a system of fines imposed (and/or penalty points) on those who break the rules might bring some discipline to the situation. So it would be a good idea for these firms to start working with local authorities, rather than trying to go the whole uber.

So long and thanks for all the fish

The one shining reason for brexit we were told was the fish. The fish, dear god will someone think of the fish! Those poor fishermen, Farage said as he cried crocodile tears. Well, aside from the fact that this ignored the realities of how trade deals work, and that the Tories have already screwed the fishermen over, there’s a more specific problem – the fish are moving.

As a result of climate change North sea cod and north Atlantic cod are migrating northward out of UK waters and into Scandinavian waters. You would think the Scandinavians would be delighted about this, but they aren’t. Their preferred fish is the Arctic cod and the increasing presence of North Atlantic cod is not only making fishing difficult for them, but threatens the long term viability of their industry. While I’m not much of a fish eater, I’m told by those who do that there’s a distinct difference in taste between the two types and that as a result, the Arctic cod is considered a more valuable product. So you can see the problem. Its issues like this that underline the need for action on climate change.

One possible temporary fix would be for the Faroese, Greenland, Norwegian and Icelandic governments to agree to let EU boats into their waters (for a fee of course) to catch the North Atlantic cod and basically take em back down south. Of course given that the UK is leaving the EU, its inevitable we’ll be cut out of any such deal. Given that all are part of the single market, its going to make a lot more sense to deal with the EU than the UK. So it looks like the UK isn’t even going to get a smoked kipper out of post-brexit fishing deals.

Free range parenting

I got into a discussion on another blog recently about how parents are becoming increasingly controlling of their kids, so called helicopter parenting, and how this wasn’t a good idea. Well now its official. A study from America suggests that overly controlling parents can lead to behaviour problems.

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I’d argue the problems go much further. We end up with students in university, who are used to having every little obstacle swept out of their way and thus haven’t learnt how to strike a work life balance or think for themselves. Its long been my observation, as both a student and a lecturer, that students from the strictest parenting background tend to be the ones who become complete tear away’s in uni.

They’ll show up in the first week of term dressed like a Mormon, or in full islamic dress, but by the end of the first semester they’re complete party animals (for whom breakfast consists of peeling last night’s pizza off their face before eating it), who start missing classes and falling behind. By contrast those from more “liberal” backgrounds (who’ve already learnt how to manage their time and say no to a night out) are able to maintain focus. And they tend to be the ones more likely to drop out, not least because it can sometimes turn out that their parents picked the course and uni for them, which turned out to be something (or somewhere) they didn’t want to study.

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In contrast to this is so-called free range parenting. Rather than for example, walking the kids to school, parents take the view, well he/she knows what time classes start, they know how to get there, so its the kids responsibility to get up on time and get there. If they don’t, its going to be a steep learning curve. While there are merits to this, there are problems with it, not least of possible legal issues.

But my view is that parents need to think of the long term impact of what they are doing. While you have to have some rules and boundaries with kids, if you don’t give them some level of independence, they’ll never learn it. Then you are stuck with them living at home and you have to get them evicted. Birds won’t leave the nest if they don’t learn how to fly.

Not going out

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The great outdoors, Rannoch Moor Scotland, with the mountains of Glencoe in the background

You may, or may not, have heard the story that Penn State university has banned their outdoor recreation club, because its too dangerous for their students to be let out in public. Which from a PR point of view doesn’t exactly send out the right message. Come to Penn state and you’ll be so hopeless at everything you can’t be trusted to go outside.

Let’s be clear this has little to do with “elf & safety”. I cannot help but notice that the American football team, water sports (generally anything involving water carries a certain level of risk), skiing (who tend to be more at risk from avalanches than hikers) and boxing clubs aren’t being closed down, even though some of these would be much more risky. And any contact sports is where we’d expect to see the bulk of injuries to students. Instead this is more a case of “liability avoidance” or what I refer to as Save Ass Policy Schemes or SAPS for short.

Admittedly, being a mountaineer and a bit of an outdoorsy type myself, it has to be said that the risks involved with such activities are difficult to quantify, as is often the case with many adventure sports. A route that some would find suicidally dangerous (e.g. the Cullin ridge on Skye), experienced climbers will do while wearing boxing gloves and roller blades….or riding a bicycle. Similarly even the most experienced climber in the world would be putting himself at an unnecessary risk if he went up certain routes in the wrong kind of weather (the guides on Skye won’t go up the aforementioned Cullin ridge in bad weather, its just too dangerous).

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One person’s inaccessible pinnacle is another person’s Sunday morning bike ride

So context is very important. Indeed this is kind of an important life lesson mountaineering teaches you, how to manage risk. Which, can be a useful thing to put on one’s CV or cover letter. But clearly the SAPS in Penn State are too dumb (or scared) to understand that. I bet employers will be queuing around the block to hire these graduates after they hear of this!

I would note that said SAPS are probably reacting to parental pressure. US universities are increasingly having to deal with not so much “helicopter parents”, but what are referred too as “snow plough parents” who expect every possible obstacle to their little darling to be swept out of his or her way. I’ve seen several situations where students stuck with a course that they didn’t like simply because their parents insisted. And when he got caught cheating, it turned out that this was the parents idea. That is kind of what universities are having to deal with right now.

You could argue the most insulting thing you could say to a mountaineer is to call him “experienced”. Because often you learn from your mistakes (so when I say I’m an “experienced” mountaineer, that means I’ve “extended the trip” or “explored alternative routes” on a few occasions). The trick with student clubs is to create a safe environment for people to learn without putting them in danger.

In Scotland we have a pretty good system set up in which the university clubs and the various mountaineering organisations (the mountain rescue teams, guides & instructors, RAF/RN rescue, McOS, BMC, SMC, etc.) arrange various safety courses towards the beginning of term. There’s events in early autumn (just a few weeks into the 1st semester) focusing on general mountaineering safety with further courses run in January/February focusing on winter mountaineering skills (just about the same time the snow’s started to accumulate). This allows new recruits to clubs to pick up the necessary skills pretty early. The clubs also tend to ease people into it, taking them on easier routes first, so they can learn some sense…rather than taking them straight up Tower ridge on Freshers week.

And this is the thing, far from improving the safety of students by shutting down this club, instead Penn state is putting them at risk. The reason for all the courses in Scotland I mentioned earlier is a little statistically anomaly. University clubs rarely get into trouble (given all the precautions they take and the fact they tend to be pretty well equipped). However, students in general are involved in a very high proportion of mountaineering accidents.

So by removing this “safe space” in which students can learn good practice, Penn State is arguably putting its student’s at risk. I won’t be surprised if, irony of ironies, they are sued in a few years time after a student gets into difficulty after being denied access to safety equipment and denied the opportunity to learn safety skills by the university.

Of course I’m going to guess America being America there’s probably a gun club in Penn State and I’m going to assume that there’s no way they’ll get banned (as nobody in senior management would want to pick a fight with the NRA). And given that Pennsylvania is an open carry state, that they ain’t going to say a word about anyone carrying a gun on campus.

Well there’s the solution, change the name of the Outing club to the Outing Gun Club. They carry on as normal, just always carry guns around while doing it (you don’t have to shoot, or go hunting or anything, just carry guns while muttering about your 2nd amendment rights). In addition use NRA style language to get out of answering any pesky questions from uni admin e.g. “Where are we going this weekend? That sound’s like an attempt to run a background check. Deep state! Deep state!”. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

But either way, this sends out all the wrong messages. It suggests the uni doesn’t trust its own students. In which case why should any employer consider hiring them? People accuse millennial of being “snowflakes”. Yet when they try to do anything remotely adventurous, they get told not to do it. If you don’t let people learn how to manage risks, they’ll either never try anything adventurous, or worse, go out and do something incredibly reckless and foolhardy. Which hardly sounds like the sort of life skills a university wants to encourage in its students.

Why tuition fees have to go

I’ve long argued that exorbitant tuition fees English students are required to pay are a generally bad idea. I’ve described before the impact they’ve had on the running of universities and how they’ve turned universities into money hungry corporations. How it has resulted in students increasingly seeing their degree as a commodity to be bought, not something life changing they are earning through hard work. I certainly see the benefit of students making some contribution towards their studies, after all not everyone gets to go to uni and fees do make universities less dependant on the whims of government. However, the more and more I look on it, the more I feel that given the choice between the no-fees system of Scotland or the supermarket uni’s of England, fees are just not a good idea and should be scraped.

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The arguments put forward for fees are that they would give student better value for money in their education, more choice, it would increase funding to critical courses, such as medicine and engineering and it would cut student numbers. As these statistics show, in all three cases they have failed and the opposite has happened. Students, saddled with increasingly high levels of debt have becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their courses. Given that engineering and medical courses are more expensive to operate, the mercenary nature of some universities has seen them cut back on these course, as well as shutting down various specialised courses and restricting student’s choices (I don’t think I’ve worked in a uni where one course or another wasn’t in the process of being wound down).

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As for cutting student numbers, they’ve been going up until recently. This is just as well, for as I discussed in a prior article, we are entering into an increasingly technology driven age where its going to be harder and harder for anyone without some sort of qualification (a degree, college cert, trade, etc.) to stay employed.

However thanks to the brexit effect and Tory cuts to student grants they are now getting their wish and student numbers are down slightly this year, by about an average of 4%. Now within the meta data there are some alarming numbers, with a 23% drop in nursing, this on the back of a 96% drop in EU nurses coming to the UK to work. So this raises the risk of some serious staffing shortages in the NHS in a few years time.

Another impact of brexit, is that not only have lecturers and researchers begun to leave the UK, but UK universities too are looking to establish campuses in Europe. I recall suggesting that this might happen in the event of brexit a few years ago, and well, now its happening.

Meanwhile students in the UK are now looking at leaving uni with an average of £57,000 in debt. That is a lot of money to end up owing, made worse by the fact that the interest rates are now set to go up to 6.1%. Indeed this is sufficiently high that it for most graduates earning an average entry level salary they will will struggle to pay off just the interest on that loan, and will likely see the principal written off, which basically means the taxpayer pays it.

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So in effect the entire student fees system is little more than a tax on millennials to exploit the fact that they don’t vote, while pensioners (who either went to uni for free or paid a fraction of the amount) get an above inflation pension rise every year. Of course, increasingly, it seems the millennials aren’t willing to pay this “tax” and will vote for a party that promises to scrap it and the brexit voting pensioners can go spin on it (again I recall pointing out something like this might happen after a leave vote).

Also we need to consider a more fundamental issue, effectively by raising tuition fees Osborne and Cameron pulled an old fashioned accounting trick. The accumulated student debt in the UK now exceeds £100 billion, which we’ve established will mostly be written off, but the government won’t have to pay that off for a good few years. So in effect they set up a sort of buy now, pay later scheme and create the illusion that they were cutting the deficit.

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Now “only” £100 billion doesn’t sound so bad against the back drop of a UK debt level of £1,737 billion, 86% of GDP, noting that it was only 65% of GDP when the Tories took over (and the Tories were elected because they claimed that labour had let the debt get out of control). However given that student debt is rising at about 16% a year, so it will be closer to a figure of £300 billion in 2025 (not accounting for inflation). Add in the expected cost of brexit and its economic impact (another £100-200 billion depending on the breaks) and its not too difficult to see how the UK’s debt levels could exceed the critical threshold of 100% of GDP within a decade, worse than every European country, other than Italy and Greece I might add.

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If want to scare away your creditors, you can do it very easily if they discover that you’ve been playing silly buggers with them and there’s a whole block of off the book debts that you’re on the hook for. This is what happened to China recently. The rating agencies cut China’s credit rating due to concerns about debts run up by state owned companies. I was in China at the time and suffice to say, they were less than pleased about this, pointing out that its highly unlikely that all of these debts would go bad all at once and that China’s economy is in a vastly more healthy state than any western state.

Well the danger is that at some point the penny will drop, the rating agencies will apply a similar logic to the UK and we could see a ratings agency downgrade of the UK debts (again!), both public and private. A rating agency cut remember will make everything more expensive, mortgages will go up, personal loans, car loans and yes student loans. So its altogether bad news. Oh and since we are talking about it, as things stand the rating agencies are jittery, telling the EU to go whistle over the brexit bill, you might find its the Chancellor who is whistling if that provokes another credit rating cut.

Now the Tories will probably argue that this is the whole reason why they are trying to sell off student loan debts to the banks. However this risks making the situation worse. Firstly the whole reason for increasing the interest rate was to facilitate this sale. But increasing the interest rate on any loan will increase the default rate yet further. You are also selling off an asset which you know is going to be defaulted on. Its like sub-prime mortgages all over again. And you are creating a mechanism by which a contagion of debt can spread from one institution to another (or to the government). Again, the whole logic behind the Chinese debt downgrade isn’t that the rating agencies doubt China’s ability to pay, its their worry that a default on a loan in rural Gansu province, could lead to the collapse of one local bank and then ricochet through the system until it threatened the finances of the whole country.

Furthermore, saddling young people with an economic millstone and putting them under the thumb of the student loan company (who are known to “punish” students for disloyalty to the UK by ramping up their interest rate), leaving them living on baked beans for many years and putting off important spending decisions (such as buying a house) is not good for the economy. It could lead to economic stagnation (which would prompt another rating agency downgrade!). And why should banks get to profit from that?

So all in all, something has to give. In the first instance, if we don’t actually expect students to pay off this debt mountain, then why make them. Set up a debt forgiveness scheme and cut down student debts to more manageable levels.

As for fees, I still do think that students should pay something for their education, if they can afford to do so. A graduate tax is one idea, or some smaller, more limited level of fees. Alternatively, as pensioners will directly benefit from graduates (i.e. doctors & NHS nurses), maybe going after wealthy pensioners and taxing them (or breaking the triple lock on pensions) might be another solution.

But certainly the current system is just a recipe for disaster. It will lead to skill shortages in key areas, its creating a third level system that is increasingly unfit for purpose and could actually threaten the financial health of the country.

Why the Britannia’s not coming back….nor the Empire!

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The Britannia….where the queen would wine and dine blood thirsty dictators so the UK could sell them weapons

Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and a number of the other Brexiters want to bring back the Royal Yacht Britannia. They fantasize about a future where they travel the world signing new trade agreements from its decks. Really?

Well the current yacht was built in 1952 and completely obsolete (it was declared as much when it was decommissioned 22 years ago). I mean there’s a long list of things it won’t have (such as this thing called “the internet”….Liam Fox might want to look that one up!) and you’d have to train an entire crew as to how to use it. One would have to question the logistics of bringing it up to speed and back into service.

Furthermore, its also way too small for modern trade negotiations. The days when a UK minister could settle an international trade deal with some tin pot dictator over a glass of sherry and a handshake are long gone. A typical trade delegation these days will consist of several hundred lawyers and negotiators (of which Britain currently employs…..none!). Such talks will typically take place over a good few months, with the politicians only flying in for the last few days to settle any sticking points and basically knock heads together where necessary.

So you’d need something a little bit bigger….as in like a cruise ship! And you’d probably want more than one. And just one of those will set you back about half a billion, with an annual running cost of about a tenth that. And that’s for a ship kitted out for budget holiday makers, crewed by staff mostly drawn from developing world shipping nations. A ship decked out to the sort of royal standards we are talking about, crewed by the Royal Navy, you’re likely thinking many times these amounts, probably a few billion to commission and maybe a hundred million a year to run. Perhaps more. So not cheap.

But we’d get value for money from all those trade deals and saving on flights & hotels, right? Well aside from the little niggle that its going to be difficult to negotiate a trade deal with China from this ship….seeing as Beijing is 150 km’s inland. Australia? Canberra’s now the capital and that’s about 200 km’s inland. New Delhi? Over 1,000 km’s inland. Ottawa in Canada? 400 km’s inland. Washington DC’s close to the coast, but you’re not going to get a boat that big up the Potomac. Moscow in Russia?…you get the idea. And let’s not even consider the gas and oil rich states of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.

Now I suppose the Brexiters will argue, oh but johnny foreigners will hop on a train and come to us. Ya and if Putin showed up in his yacht, moored it off Brighton and summoned the PM to appear before him, how would the brit’s react? Probably by telling him to get stuffed and get on his bike and we’ll see you in London.

Also one has to wonder how it would look to the locals with their minsters being wined and schmoozed on a luxury yacht by an ex-colonial government. Dodgy as hell one assumes. Again how would the tabloids react to news of one of the UK’s minsters attending secret meetings on a foreign head of states private yacht? These days politicians, even those in less than democratic countries, have to at least pretend to not be corrupt.

And as I pointed out in a prior post, the British have a very brazen view of the British Empire that is not shared by the rest of the world. To many in India or former UK colonies, the history of the British Empire, its oppression of native populations, the atrocities it committed, the Empire’s use of concentration camps, are listed in the same section of the history books as nazi Germany and its crimes. So to draw an analogy if Angela Merkel commissioned a Reichsyacht the SS Bismarck and sailed it into Southampton for a trade negotiation, how would the British react to that? Not well I expect! How do you think the Indians are likely to react to a royal yacht in their waters? My guess is you’ll get ten minutes to turn around before they launch the torpedoes.

And this is perhaps the real problem here – the warped fantasy world view of these Brexiters. They don’t seem to realise how much the world has changed in the last 60 years. Or indeed how much of history they were taught in their posh boarding school is at odds with reality. Hence why they don’t understand the consequences of trying to reset everything and pretend its 1950 again.

There is worrying talk that the hard Brexiters are winning the argument behind closed doors. What’s wrong with that? Well a hard brexit pretty much guarantees a harder landing for the UK. It would almost certainly lead to another independence referendum in Scotland. And furthermore the harder the brexit the more likely a yes vote in Scotland becomes. Also it could even be enough to provoke a border poll in Northern Ireland. So hard Brexit might well turn out to mean Engexit….as in it will be England essentially leaving the EU and the UK breaking up.

Also a hard brexit will have a much more significant impact on trade, given the inevitable link between trade and free movement. Already a number of universities are talking of setting up campuses in the EU, most likely shifting much of their research staff overseas. A number of high tech firms and banks are also talking about moving and again the harder the brexit the more incentive they have to push into Europe. And the head of Nissan has hinted that he will be expecting some sort of “compensation from the government for brexit to maintain operations in the UK.

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UK factories in the 70’s were a model of unproductivity, crap cars produced using outdated technology by work-shy strike-happy workers, companies that needed significant state intervention to stay afloat

Now while you could accuse Nissan’s boss of being a little cheeky, but back in the old pre-globalisation days many industries were given a large government subsidy, were state owned or their market share defended by punitive tariff’s against foreign competitors. Even Tory governments prior to Thatcher didn’t really question this, as it was understood that the UK’s industrial jobs won’t survive in a completely free trade environment without some form of protectionism or subsidy. As a consequence the ideological enemy right now of Mr Fox isn’t Jeremy Corbyn but his hero Thatcher, who would be rolling in her grave….if she had one.

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Fox with his hero…and ironic ideological enemy…well at least that’s one positive thing we can say about him!

Now while rolling back Thacherism would have its advantages, but its cutting off your nose to spite your face to leave the EU to achieve this (it would make more sense to do it from within the EU by convincing the rest of the union to do the same). And its also throwing the baby out with the bathwater given all the other unintended consequences. More crucially however from a future British trade point of view, it is how much the global economy has changed since last trade deals were signed on Britannia’s decks.

Back then the UK went around the world offering to open its trade door a crack in exchange for full access to foreign markets for UK firms. Now the boots on the other foot. The Chinese economy is vastly larger than the UK’s. Many of the UK’s firms (about 52% in all) are foreign owned (Nissan, the country’s largest carmaker is a joint Japanese and French endeavour, Jaguar Land rover is owned by India’s Tata group, who also own…you get the message!). Instead the UK will be offering an access all areas pass to Indian and Chinese businesses, in exchange for slightly more favourable terms for the UK…sorry England…. to sell goods to them.

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Global economies compared. Note how India’s will be 6 times bigger than the UK by 2050 and China’s 10 times bigger. Also note the above figures are in nominal GDP which arguably overvalues Western economies and undervalues developing ones.

And faced with tariff free competition from either Polish or Chinese made goods British manufacturing firms and parts of the service economy, will struggle to compete, especially against foreign firms based in countries not run by bigots who can recruit more freely. Its not foreigners coming over here and “stealing” your job people need to worry about, its foreigners staying at home and your job moving overseas. And the decision to sack British workers will be made in foreign board rooms.

The only many English companies could hope to survive in this environment is by essentially turning the country into France…..and I don’t mean today’s France, I’m talking about Mitterand’s France with massive levels of subsidy and state intervention. The recent Hinkley deal, which will be subsidised to the tune of 68.8% of the cost of every watt it generates, is likely to be the shape of things to come. Without this level of interventionism certain sectors of the UK economy will collapse, in much the same way some sectors collapsed when Thatcher took over.

The irony is, many of those who voted Brexit in the hope of seeing more control over foreign trade and immigration will likely see the opposite happening. More big government, more bureaucracy, more foreign goods coming in, less jobs for British people, with the UK more foreign owned and more dependant on foreign workers being brought in to meet temporary skills shortages.

And much of what any future UK trade delegation will be negotiating, likely from a hotel on the Beijing ring road rather than a royal yacht, will essentially be the orderly surrender and fire sale of what’s left of the UK economy.

The Consequences of Brexit

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I was away on holiday during the vote, I mean I go away for 3 weeks and you lot exit the EU, WTF! Oddly enough I was outside the EU in Norway, basking in land of milk and honey the leave camp promised us?…well actually no.

The Norwegians couldn’t understand why Britain left the EU. They have to pay to be a member of the EEA (one of them was moaning to me about its considerable costs) yet not gain any of the benefits of being an EU member. The main reason why Norway is not in the EU boils down to fisheries. Not because they fear EU regulations, actually they feel the EU doesn’t regulate fisheries enough.

But at least the Norwegians have control over their borders right? No! There are more migrants per capita in Norway than in the UK, about 25% more in fact and they are arriving at a much faster rate than in the UK (nearly 3 times higher per capita faster). At one point (keeping in mind I was in rural areas, small fishing villages, not major towns) I was on a bus, the driver was Chechen, there were several middle eastern gentlemen (who got off at a fish factory, where clearly they were working), quite a few Chinese (and with the prams and shopping bags, I’m guessing they were locals), some tourists like me and perhaps one or two actual Norwegians.

And Switzerland has double the number of migrants per capita that Norway has. The only EEA, non-EU country that has a lower number of migrants than the UK is Iceland (which is only marginally lower). Which probably has less to do with Iceland’s migration policy and everything to do with the name of your country including the word “Ice” in it (hence, migrants tend to give it a wide berth fearful they’ll freeze to death or be eaten by a polar bear). So unless the Brexiters are proposing to rename the UK “Icebergland” or “Monster Island”, its unlikely this will have any impact on migration.

And already a number of the predictions and warnings are starting to come true, the pound has plunged in value, the stock markets were down $2 trillion in just 48 hrs, trading in certain shares was actually suspended at one point. Inflation is likely to rise, food prices will go up and many of those retiree’s and people on low incomes who voted leave will soon themselves considerably worse off and baring the brunt of consequences (as predicted).

Immediately I felt this effect as it meant everything started becoming more expensive. Room’s I’d booked a few days earlier suddenly rose in price rapidly. It was like living in Zimbabwe. I was in a queue waiting to change the last of my Kronor’s in Oslo airport, reading the news when I saw the story about the UK being downgraded by all 3 of the major rating’s agencies, so when I was asked which currency I’d like my money back in I said euro’s, rather than pounds.

Dirty rotten scoundrels – Project Betrayal

On his way out the door Cameron said that the leave camp had a lot to live up to, by which he meant all the insane lies and promises they made prior to the vote. Well less than 24 hrs after the vote they were breaking every single promise made. Apparently they never promised the NHS £350 million a week, despite driving around on a bus with that written on it.

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Nor indeed will there be any changes to immigration law, because there’s no proof anyone voted leave due to fears over….despite the leave camp stirring up racial hatred for months (to the point where an MP got murdered). After all if Britain applies such restrictions to other EU states, they’d reply by doing the same to Britain in turn (which would lead to many ex-pats from the UK being forced to return home, and millions of them coming back in all at once would make any current issues regarding migrations seem pretty small).

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And fishermen have been warned to expect no increases in allowed catches. Indeed, the experts have been warning of over fishing for years, post-Brexit the expert advise would probably by for a complete halt to all fishing in UK waters for a few years.

To EEA or not to EEA?

The crucial question the markets are asking is whether or not the UK will now go for a “Norway model” of EEA membership. This would give the UK access to the single European market and involve the least amount of disruption to the economy.

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However, as noted earlier this represents pretty poor value for money. The UK would still essentially have to pay the EU for the privilege (Norway pays 83% of what we pay now), most of those pesky EU laws the leave camp were hammering on about would remain in place, only now the UK gets no say in any future changes to said laws (our EU parliament members are essentially replaced by fax machine in Whitehall through which future EU dictates will be received and implemented with question). And crucially there will have to be a commitment to free movement of people, the Germans have been pretty clear about that one.

The only reason Norway and Iceland accept these terms (rather than just go the whole hog and join the EU) is because of issues regarding fisheries (as noted), while the Swiss worry about the EU trying to arrest all its bankers and money launderers, if they became a member. So these countries accept these conditions for very specific reasons.

Yes there will be some changes. Much like other EEA countries, EU citizens coming over will have to fill in a few forms, it becomes a bit easier to deny them benefits (until they start working and paying taxes of course). But once they’ve been here long enough it will make no difference in real terms, just more bureaucracy (which of course UK tax payers will be paying for of course). The likelihood is that the result will be (as noted) no decrease in migration. Indeed in certain scenarios it could lead to an increase in migration, as minorities in the EU who currently can’t apply for asylum in the UK will gain that right.

The UK will also be able to pick and chose to keep certain elements of legislation its adopted from the EU. And the main two areas where they will be able to effect change are employment law and the environment. In short, its likely the Tories will now gut employment laws and remove many of the rights and protections that workers, particularly low income workers. have long relied on. By voting for Brexit they have now voted to remove the laws that say, stops you being fired by your boss just because you got sick or insisted on wearing a safety harness to stop you falling to your death. And forget about asking for Christmas day off to be with your family, or for overtime pay.

As for the environment, its now likely the laws here will also be gutted. Its now questionable, if not very improbable that the UK will remain committed to its the promises made during the Paris climate conference. Siemens has already announced it is freezing all wind farm development in the UK. Its also been warned that the £20 billion in new energy infrastructure the UK now needs to keep the lights on may not be build in time. Warnings have also been raised about further delays or a cancellation of Hinkley C.

Rise of UKIP?

Now while the markets, private industry and quite a few in the Tory party are quite happy to push back from the table and take EEA membership as the least worse option, this is very different from the milk and honey” promises made during the referendum. Of the leave camp people, I can count using my thumbs the number who voted leave for reason other than immigration. Many of the Brexit voters, once they realise they’ve been conned on a massive scale, will probably not accept those terms and probably drive for something else. Of course they won’t get it, but they’ll try. As Paul Mason puts it:

What happens when the investment banks move to Frankfurt, the carmakers to Hungary, the offshore finance wizards to Dublin, the tech companies to newly independent Scotland? What happens when, instead of Poles, it is poor white English people herded into the polytunnels of Kent to pick strawberries for union-busting gangmasters?”

But if the Tories think they’ve killed off UKIP, think again. My guess is that whoever emerges from the Tory leadership contest will go to the EU, sign away Britain’s sovereignty in exchange for EEA access, leave the country worse off than it was before. There will be (as noted) no specific immigration restrictions.

UKIP will ignore the reasoning behind this (reason and logic aren’t exactly their strong points) and they will respond to this complete betrayal of every promise made during the referendum by campaigning at the next election on a platform for tearing up any EEA agreement and “shutting the border”. They’ll promise a points system (which as I’ve discussed before, won’t work and ignores certain fundamental facts such as the fact that Canada or Australia don’t apply their points system to their immediate neighbours), and much other silliness. Inevitably they’ll pick up some significant portion of the leave vote and likely split the Tory vote.

In essence all Cameron will have done is guarantee that his warring party will now struggle to ever get a majority in future. They will only ever be able to form coalition governments with either the lib dem’s, labour, or if desperate UKIP.

Labour unity?

Now is the time for labour to take advantage of the political chaos in the Tory party, rise above events and cease the moment…..if they weren’t at war with themselves! Okay, Corbyn could have been a bit more active during the referendum campaign, but to blame him for Brexit is simply not fair. The blame lies squarely with Cameron. Like everything else he screwed it up, holding it at a time of year when the turnout from young voters would be low (as they won’t be at term time addresses, or working, or at Glastonbury) and millions of Brits abroad or EU citizens who’ve lived here all of their lives were excluded from the vote.

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But such is the labour party’s hatred for their own leader, he can’t do anything right. If he rescued a baby from a burning building, half his team would quit on grounds that he was anti-fire, mocking man’s greatest invention while taking jobs away from hard working firemen.

A labour leadership battle now could not be more ill-timed. And the balance of probability is, either Corbyn will emerge victorious (once the party faithful have another vote) or someone else from the hard left of the party will take over in his place. Granted, labour’s changes at the next election are better with a centrist in charge, but a leaderless, warring labour party has no chance.

Scotland?

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As expected, the SNP have suggested a 2nd referendum on Scottish independence is now very likely. 63% of Scot’s voted to stay in the EU, in parts of Edinburgh, the remain vote was as high as 78%. And as also expected, opinion polls are starting to show a lead for independence. A recent poll post-EU referendum suggests a whopping 27% lead to independence, although previous polls suggest a smaller lead.

It would make sense for the SNP to delay any independence vote for as long as possible. Let the economic bad news build, let more of the leave camp realise that they’ve been betrayed and conned by the Tory party, then when the country is nice and angry, call the referendum. While I was minded to support independence last time (but critical of the SNP), but I guessed it probably won’t pass. This time., I’m not so sure. Like I said, it will boil down to timing.

And Sturgeon shows every sign of playing it cool this time. She’s been in talks with Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and even the London mayor about some sort of plan to keep these regions in the EU, but perhaps still in the UK. I’m not entirely sure how that would work, but by going through the motions she can claim that she at least tried.

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She’s also talking to the EU directly (having already been in talks with the Irish) and will be meeting with the EU president shortly. And some of the murmurs coming out of Brussels suggest she made find a sympathetic ear.

If Scotland can get some sort of deal from the EU, either an option to leave the UK and stay in the EU (unlikely, but worth a shot), or some sort of fast track framework to EU membership (keep in mind, leaving the UK will take a few years anyway) then that could dramatically change the outcome of any 2nd Independence referendum. A narrow chance of a Yes suddenly becomes a near certainty.

Currency is an issue too, as it was a key factor last time. I would hope this time the SNP have the sense not to propose keeping the pound, which is falling in value and probably not a very safe bet. Some sort of “Denmark model” for a future Scottish pound is a possibility. It would be pegged to the euro initially (until an independent Scotland is able to find its own feet), then later allowed to float more freely. This would be a much more sellable option that all the if’s and possibly maybe’s from last time.

In short, by England voting for Brexit an independent Scotland looks a lot more likely.

United Ireland?

And in Northern Ireland too, Sinn Fein are already seeking a border poll on uniting the Island. Of all the regions in the UK, Northern Ireland will suffer the worst from Brexit. They have to compete against a Republic of Ireland where taxes are lower, our GDP is higher (so people have more money to spend), we have better infrastructure, more third level graduates, access to the eurozone and now post-Brexit the single market too. Ask yourself if you were setting up a company on the Island of Ireland, which side of the border would you set up in?

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Its worth keeping in mind that Brexit puts the northern Ireland peace process under threat. The lack of border controls, means any attempt to impose any kind of immigration restrictions on EU citizens in the UK will be impossible. All a Polish guy will need to do is get a cheap Ryanair ticket to Dublin, hop on a bus (there are buses direct from the airport) and he’ll be driven straight to Belfast city centre.

Any sort of tariff’s will result in smuggling, which means more money going towards terrorist groups up in the North (this was sort of the whole point in doing away with border controls, eliminate a key flash point!). Putting border controls at northern Ireland ports would be unprecedented (and probably unworkable given the shear volume of traffic they handle). I know of no other country that has border posts within its own national boundaries. They effects on the Northern Irish trade would be considerable, and inevitably drive more towards voting for a united Island.

So the Good Friday agreement will have to be renegotiated and you can bet what Sinn Fein’s demands will now be. Certainly opinion polls, all taken prior to the EU vote I might add, do suggest no appetite for a united Ireland. Even among Northern Ireland Catholic’s its questionable if you’d get a majority. However, I suspect that given time this will change.

It is often forgotten that the silent majority of Northern Irish people are neither strongly unionist, nor republican. They just want to get along and keep their job. Naturally if this majority now start losing jobs, start see their mortgages and living costs rising, then those poll numbers will start to shift and eventually you will probably find that a majority voting for a united Ireland isn’t that unlikely.

Interestingly there’s been a huge rush for Irish passports since Brexit. Being Irish (which fortunately I am) is a sort of post-Brexit hack. You have all the rights of British citizenship, but are also an EU citizen. The Irish passport office is starting to complain about the shear volume it now needs to process. Potentially 6 million in the UK could apply (that’s nearly 10% of the population!).

Certainly one has to say, as I’ve been saying for years, a UK outside of the EU might well mean an end to the UK. Hence why UKIP should really call themselves the UK destruction party.

Indeed, a complete break up of the UK isn’t that unlikely. I don’t think it will happen soon, but it may well now be a medium term inevitability. One could argue that the UK is a pact based on the understanding that the England will not allow overt English nationalism to do anything that would harm the interests of the non-English minorities within the UK. If you take the view that that contract was just torn up on the 23rd, then the pact that has allowed the UK to exist is broken and its very possible the different parts of the UK will eventually go their separate ways.

I mean, even some in London are talking about independence from the rest of the country now!

Economic fallout

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As noted there’s been turmoil on the markets the last few days. And while there’s been something a a rally (which I’d put down to news that Teresa May seems more likely to success Cameron than Boris!), one can expect this to be temporary. With every drip of bad news the markets will gradually drop that little bit further. Already many companies have put in place a hiring freeze, my uni’s already done so, were expecting an announcement as to whether a spending freeze will also now come in.

Obviously a slow down in the economy will produce a bear market, falling stock prices, rising inflation, wages frozen yet the cost of living going up and falling tax revenue. While Osborne has backtracked for now on a post-referendum emergency budget, its difficult to see how some changes won’t be needed.

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The trouble is Osborne’s already pulled all of the Austerity levers he can. His options now are to either go after areas where he hasn’t cut substantially which is basically those things that benefit pensioners, raise taxes (fat chance of that!) or pull the one lever he hasn’t tried yet – the compulsory enforced retirement of public sector workers above the age of say, 60 (some countries have gone to this extreme already as part of their austerity). And before the many Brexiters who are in this age group start whining about how he can’t do that, why we have rights….oh you mean those rights in EU law you just voted against?

Half a million civil service are believed to be at risk. Bottom line, if you thought things were bad before they are about to get worse and its generally been those who voted for Brexit who will feel the pinch.

The generational gap

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Which brings us to the issue that there was a large generational gap in voting patterns. The old disproportionately voted for Brexit, while the young voted to stay in. Had the turn out of young people been higher (as it would have been had Cameron held the referendum at another time of year) the result could have been different.

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Some have likened this to a generational betrayal. As Jack Lennard puts it:

“This is a final middle-fingered salute to the young from the baby boomer generation. Not content with racking up insurmountable debt, not content with destroying any hopes of sustainable property prices or stable career paths, not content with enjoying the benefits of free education and generous pension schemes before burning down the ladder they climbed up, the baby boomers have given one last turd on the doorstep of the younger generation”

Or as Nicholas Barrett puts it:

“the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors”

Many of the younger generation are now stuck with the reality that Brexit will make it harder for them to get a job and harder to get on the property ladder (yes house prices might fall, but if you can’t get a mortgage or a job to pay for it, what difference does that make!). Inter-generational betrayal could well lead to anger and eventually inter-generational revenge (a scenario, a BBC “if” episode looked into a few years back, where the younger generation rebelled against the generous deal pensioners are getting and voted in politicians who withdrew many of these benefits).

Hence why if the government were to exercise the options I mentioned earlier (gut pensions, withdraw winter fuel payments and free TV licenses, force older workers into retirement) I don’t think there will be a lot of sympathy from the younger generations. And when pensioners start to struggle because a jump in inflation and a bear market has suddenly made it harder to fund their retirement, I suspect many will say, you made your bed now lie in it.

In short anyone of pension age, or approaching it (and you might be retiring a little earlier now than you thought!) who voted for Brexit has just voted for a more scary and unpredictable financial future.

Anti-Intellectualism and racism

We now live in a post-facts era. In the referendum campaign, many facts and certainties (i.e. that the £350 million a week claim was rubbish, that the pound would fall in value, that the UK’s credit rating would be cut, etc.) were simply ignored by leave voters, in favour of lies, myths and half baked bullshit. It is, as Dana Nuccitelli points out, not really surprising to learn that many Brexit voters also happen to be climate change deniers.

So Brexit does suggest the sort of rising anti-intellectualism that we’ve been seeing in America has now spread to the UK. Given how crucial science is to the UK economy, this is a very worrying development. Quite apart from the fact that UK universities and tech companies are highly dependant on EU research funding (as well as access to the EEA for collaborative research purposes), this could well represent a slide backwards for the UK. One could see the UK falling behind in the science race, which will of course eventually have a devastate economic effect on the country.

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And one of the post-referendum effects seems to be that its now okay to be openly racist in the UK. Many ethnic minorities have complained about an upsurge in racist abuse. Least we forget an MP was killed during the campaign. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will prove to be an isolated incident.

And coincidently, the view from abroad isn’t good. Many in the hostel’s in Norway whom I met from around the world took this referendum as being essentially an opinion poll on how racist Britain is. Given that 52% on a turn out of 70% voted leave, some are interpreting this as saying that 37% of British are racists. Britain’s reputation in the world has taken a severe beating as a result.

It worth watching what some of the US media are making of this, here’s Samatha Bea’s take on Brexit, the Daily Show’s and John Oliver’s.

Will German’s still buying Mini’s or Indians buy Jaguar cars they know to have been built by bigots? Will Beefeater Gin (which was being heavily marketed in Sweden while I was there) still be touting their Britishness when most people associate Britain with racism and bigotry? And will high tech firms set up in a country where their ethnic minority workers face racial harassment on the streets and bureaucratic racism from the state just because they had the nerve to come here and push money into the UK economy?

UK Trumped

Donald Trump, who showed all his keen political skills by arriving in the country at the worst possible time. It was a bit like a fan of KISS showing up to a concert the day after when a Baptist prayer group were renting the hall.

Trump did make some noises that he favoured Brexit and would offer the UK a favourable trade deal. Fat chance of that, Trump after all has flip-flopped his way through this whole campaign.

Trump is very much a protectionist and the idea that he would offer the UK a deal that will put his own business and the jobs of those voting for him at a disadvantage is clearly not going to happen. Once all of this is pointed out to him, he’d likely drag his feet on any deal and demand lots of concession, which (given how desperate the UK will be to get a deal) Westminster will have to concede on. He’ll probably insist on Windsor castle being named the Trump palace and putting a golf course across the tops of the cliff’s of Dover.

The UK’s best hope is that Clinton wins and wins big, with her party gaining a majority in Congress. This will cause her to focus on domestic politics and she’ll be anxious to avoid distractions. So she’ll toss the Brit’s a bone and perhaps given in on a few points. However anyone thinking that 60 million can get a better deal from 300 million Americans, than 450 million Europeans can get is clearly living in cloud cuckoo land.

And the UK will also now have to negotiate trade deals with other countries too, Japan, China, India, etc. In all cases they have the UK over a barrel. As noted, already there’s talk of Hinkley C being cancelled because of Brexit and of major infrastructure projects being put off as it is. Many UK jobs are dependant on foreign firms (increasingly owned by Asia) remaining in the UK. So its inevitable that the UK will not get anything like the deal it currently gets from these countries by being in the EU.

Indeed, its the WTO the UK first needs to square the circle with. Technically the UK will now have to join the WTO and its chief has already warned that’s not going to be straight forward, getting more difficult the further the UK drifts from a EEA style Norway model. Without WTO membership foreign trade becomes increasingly difficult.

A second vote?

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All of these things explains why several million have signed a petition calling for a 2nd vote. Already several Tories have suggested that there should be a 2nd referendum on the terms of any exit deal, while the lib dem leader is promising to try and stop Brexit and if that doesn’t work campaign on a platform of taking the UK back into the EU.

All of this raises the possibility of a 2nd EU referendum. Which given how dangerously flawed the last one was, its hardly fair that a racist minority (i.e. 37% of the electorate) should be allowed to cause so much damage to the lives of the remaining majority. However there is a rather significant obstacle to any talk of a 2nd vote. The EU itself.

As far as the EU is concerned out means out, as Junker has made very clear. Any idea of informal talks is being denied and the EU is putting increasing pressure on the UK to invoke article 50 and start the ball rolling on its EU exit. Quite simply put, the EU is fed up with pandering to the Brits, you’ve decided to leave, fine piss off then and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

And keep in mind some eurocrats in Brussels have long favoured some sort of arrangement that demotes the UK to 2nd class status within the EU, so a push towards EEA membership is probably the next least worse option as they see it.

Also by shuffling Britain towards the exit door, the EU knows it makes it more likely that they will get an agreement favourable to them. The UK will have two years to negotiate its exit or risk being chucked out without any agreement, likely provoking a full blown economic crises and mass capital flight (if you thought events on Friday were bad, wait a while). As I pointed out before a future UK PM will come under enormous pressure at this point from the civil service, business, the military and allies to sign any such deal put in front of them by the EU, even if it ultimately leaves the UK worse off that it already is. So Brussels strategy here is sound.

So even in the best case scenario, e.g. the Tory party splits, an early election which a labour and lib dem coalition wins. Along with the pro-EU elements of the Tory party they hold an immediate 2nd referendum and win; I would still expect the EU to insist that the UK need to renegotiate its membership. This means that all of those “reforms” Cameron got will go (they were only there to appease the bigot brigade, which clearly didn’t work, so no point in keeping them) as will likely things like the British rebate. Of course if they are feeling particularly uncharitable they may insist the UK must now accept entry to the EU under the same terms and conditions of a new EU member state (i.e. all of the UK’s opt outs will go, we have to commit to joining the euro, etc.).

In short the UK just said no to the best deal we were ever going to get from Brussels. Any attempt to dither about leaving or re-enter the EU will mean accepting an agreement which leaves the UK worse off than it was before. There is basically no going back from this. If your a regret full leave voter, then your a moron and and idiot, do me a favour and stay away from ballot boxes.

Ignore it?

Another option is that parliament simply ignores the referendum. In theory its not legally binding, both houses (and arguably the Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish assemblies) have to approve it and its probable at least one of those will say no (actually all would vote no if given a free vote). In short, Parliament could treat this referendum as if someone just chucked a dead cat in their yard, get a shovel and throw it back over the fence.

However, I don’t think that’s a realistic option politically, nor do I think the EU, nor the markets would except this without some form of 2nd referendum or an early election.

The positives?

Which brings me to at least the one set of positives we can salvage from all of this. Brexit marks probably the end to all of the right’s lies and myths. Like a serial killer they’ve finally managed to act out their twisted fantasy and are now stuck with the consequences of that.

And the consequences are the buck stops here. Pretty much everything bad that happens over the next few years will be blamed (rightly or wrongly) on Brexit. Can’t get a job, or you’ve just lost the one you had, guess who’s fault that is? Not foreigners, not migrants or the EU, but the people like you who voted for Brexit! Your company can’t export overseas anymore because of a loss of free trade deals with the China and the US, guess whose to blame for that one? Your benefits cheque just got cut and you’re in dire financial straits, well you shouldn’t have voted leave then! You’re a pensioner and now can’t afford to heat your home or buy food anymore, well guess whose fault that is? Going abroad is now a pain in the ass because of all the passport controls and red tape, well I suppose you shouldn’t have voted for Brexit should you!

In essence Brexit amounts to the Bigot brigade breaking cover. And out in the open they are now exposed to certain day to day realities in a way they’ve previously managed to avoid. Because unfortunately reality has something of a pro-liberal and pro-progressive bias.

Mixed messages and Pedofiles

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In the university where I work there’s some discontent over promotions and how staff are rated. The uni has been putting much greater emphasis on research, in particular research that con contribute to the REF and revenue raising by bringing in money via grants. Its a trend that is all too familiar across UK universities these days.

Now if your working in a Russell group, research led university, then okay, this is kind of the primary role of such institutions and they are heavily dependant on research funding (hence why they are so worried about this EU referendum, given how much funding comes from the EU). But the vast majority of the UK’s universities don’t fall into this category. Their primary means of funding (and I mean +90%) is through teaching.

And its worth remembering that good research takes time. Most Russell group uni’s have a significantly higher staffing levels to cope with this, as well as more PhD research students, well equipped labs and of course, the technical support staff to keep everything running smoothly. By contrast a number of universities I’ve taught at have been cutting back on support staff…because as they see it, the best way to encourage research, it would seem, is to make it much harder to do!

While research is an important part of being an academic, life is about priorities, and in the absence of new staff to take over the teaching load, its inevitable that any time spent on research is time not being spend focusing on teaching and looking after students, which undermines one of the key selling points for most of the UK’s universities . You can after all get a free university education in several other countries such as Holland, Ireland (we have “fees”, but a fraction of those in the UK) or Germany.

Anyone watching the university rankings recently will have perhaps noted a trend whereby research led university’s are slipping down the rankings and a number of the ex-polytechnic’s are gradually creeping up. This, I would argue, is because Russell group uni’s are crap at teaching undergrad’s. If I had a kid and he/she wanted to go to uni I would sit them down and ask them, what do you want out of it? If you want to become an academic or a professional researcher, go to a Russell group uni. If you want to get a good degree and then get a job, then stay away from them, go to a well ranked non-research led uni instead.

For the reality is that in most research led uni’s the bulk of the day to day teaching is handled by overworked teaching assistants and PhD students, with the professors too busy jetting off to conferences or chasing research grants to have any time for undergrads. The only way an undergrad gets to see a professor in those places is if they bump into them in the lift. I’ve even heard stories of some Russell group uni’s getting their professors to make a video tape of their lecture’s, which they then play each year….so you’re basically paying 9 grand a year to watch a couple of videos! The university’s minster himself recently bemoaned this drop in teaching standards, although he sidestepped the issue of what’s driving it.

That said, for a research led uni, the primary degree is really just a taster session, the really serious learning starts with the Masters or PhD…..or indeed the post-doc that follows. It should also be remembered that those who follow a more academic, research led career, tend to be good self-learners, a trait that isn’t shared by the bulk of students (that’s the whole point of lectures! Do you think I do them for fun or something?).

But like I said, any uni trying to copy this model without the resources of a research led uni is going to just piss off its students, develop a really bad reputation and see student numbers, and thus overall revenue, plummet. And its worth remembering that to many UK university’s the bulk of what research they do generally comes to them via ex-students and industrial contacts. So long term, such a policy will reduce the levels of research, not aid them.

The Pedofiles
Given these facts you may question why so many university managers are pursuing such a crazy policy. Well some form of an answer become apparent when you learn that they have also begun to place particular emphasis on research into Pedagogy (the theory of learning and education). All of us academics are now expected to gain qualifications in Pedagogy as well as undertake research into it. Or put it another way, we’re all expected to maintain a folder somewhere on our PC where we record all our Pedagogy…..or a Pedofile ;0

If you think about it, this is silly. Humans have been teaching each other since the first cave man showed someone how to light a fire. By contrast technologies such as Graphene, computers or electronics have only been around for a few years or decades. Unless you are working in a particular discipline such as IT (where computers have brought about changes to teaching methods) or psychology, Pedagogy is a dead research area. You’re wasting your time conducting research that is of very little value to anyone.

And of course, such emphasis on “Pedofiles” directly contradicts the pressure on us academics to produce “REF worthy” research (which has to be of a certain standard to count), as very little if anything in this field is going to count as high impact. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that for many of the senior staff in many UK uni’s the only original research they’ve done recently is in Pedagogy. Hence they are emphasising its importance purely to justify their own position and bloated salary.

And of course the emphasis on REF related research is driven by the fact that setting and meeting research “targets” is a good way for these mangers to justify a future salary increase or bonus. The fact that they are setting in place policies that are likely to infuriate both staff and students, lower academic standards and probably in the long term undermine research, does not matter, as they’ll have changed jobs by then.

In short, UK universities are becoming a perfect proof of the so-called “Dilbert Principlewhereby those who are the least technically competent in any organisation are swiftly moved into the position where they can do the least damage and be kept out of the way of the competent staff – management. Unfortunately, like many privatised public services, we have the problem that while the private sector has various means to “cull” the numbers of management goons from time to time (via the occasional merger, restructuring or proxy blood bath), university’s, and other ex-public sector bodies, don’t.

So if Osborne is keen to save the Treasury some cash, here’s a piece of advice. Sack every member of staff in every UK uni above the grade of head of department (along with all their minions, PA’s and other hanger’s on). You’ll eliminate the main obstacle to progress and the efficient running of universities, while saving a lot of money in the process.

 

UK universities face foreign competition?

I’ve long worried that the UK's decision to put up tuition fees would ultimately discourage students from going to UK universities. Either choosing to go to universities in other EU countries (such as Holland) or not going to uni at all. This risks making a university education the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Also by making university's more commercially orientated, with a greater emphasis on revenue raising and less on tuition. Indeed I cannot help but notice a trend between universities (such as for example Strathclyde) being praised for their “entrepreneurial spirit” and then sliding down the university rankings, presumably because the staff are too busy chasing grants to look after students properly.

Well the BBC have a brief piece out about US students going to study in Germany, which has recently abolished fees for university students, even those from outside the EU. This goes to show that you can get just as good an education in Germany for a lower price. While living costs in Germany are quite high, this elimination of tuition fees, plus the less commercially oriented outlook of German institutions makes for good value for money. Language? Many European institutions now do courses in English, notably engineering and technical courses.

However the is also the US aspect of this. For many years foreign students, in particular non-EU students have been a key part of any UK university's finance. And the US students are generally seen as the cream of the crop. Not least because they ain't shy about spending money. However US students are also caught up in the pointless Daily Mail-esque antics the Tories have dumped on all non-EU students. Being required for example to prove they are still in the UK every 30 days, or having to prove they have good English language skills (okay Americans can get something's wrong, like metre or calling a toilet a restroom, but I think they've good enough English to cope with an engineering degree!).

So its just a matter of time before the penny drops for many US students. Why pay tens of thousands a year to go to a UK university and be treated like a terrorist, when you can pay about 150 euro's a year and go to a German uni, which is just as good….oh and they throw in free public transport too! In essence the UK might be killing its golden goose. Its not just about a few uni's loosing out on a bit of tuition money. Its about the fact that these students going somewhere else and thus taking their ideas and the skills they've just accumulated with them. No more US entrepreneur's setting up a internet start-up in London, when they got their degree in Munich. And where the Americans go, the Chinese students will surely follow.

In essence I wonder if the UK HEI sector has been “found out”.

The EU and trade

As I’ve mentioned before, the UK’s EU membership and open borders policy is crucial to trade. Restricting this, as UKIP and increasingly the Tories suggest, would have a disastrous impact on the UK economy.

This was hammered home to me last week when I was at a trade show in the NEC. As I walked around the stands, where much high tech stuff was on display, composites manufacturers, 3D printing of metal parts, Graphene, driverless vehicles, I couldn’t help but notice how much of this is dependent on three things – foreign labour (often the boffins behind such ideas aren’t British), foreign investment (ditto the cash paying for it all, you’d be surprised to learn how many firms in the UK these days are owned by foreign investors) and trade with the EU (about 75% of the cars made in Britain are built LHD for export, often using parts brought in from the EU, with many EU cars built with British made parts or designed by brits!).

Consequently if I was foolish enough to bring up the issue of the UK leaving the EU, the response would usually be either denial (:no: oh that would never happen, we’d be broke if it did) or a tirade. And not the usual tirade you’d get from Daily Mail readers of the “u see, the EU costs us 1 trillion pounds a day and wants to let 25 million Romanians claim benefits…”. No more along the lines of “are you mad or what? Do have any idea how many of our staff our European? How many of our customers are Europeans? Or our investors?” So think it was good Farage didn’t show up, unless he fancies being beaten to death by a load of angry engineer’s wielding British made 3-d printed composite crowbars. :))

Take for example an excellent presentation for Manchester University, at the conference on the topic of Graphene and its future applications. Well the lady giving the talk was French (possibly French Algerian or Moroccan I’d guess from her name). The two leading scientists from Manchester, who won the Nobel prize in 2010, neither of them are British. MU have just finished building a £60 million Graphene research centre, and have funding to the tune of a further £60 million. While some of this money is coming from the UK government, this is being matched with funds directly provided by the EU.

I didn’t torment the MU team about Brexit, but that was largely because, as a lecturer, I understand that I’d have been as well off asking them how they thought MU would continue functioning after nuclear war. A vast amount of the research funding that universities in the UK receive comes from the EU. Either directly (often to fund “blue sky” research) or indirectly through various schemes aimed at promoting business development via research. And a lot of our student finance is provided by foreign students (only 11% of students but about 30% of finance for teaching), either from the EU or beyond, which effectively helps subsidise the costs for UK students.

For example, a number of the research projects I’ve worked on have been funded under FP7. This grants money for collaborative research projects across the EU involving universities and businesses. Another research fund I’ve supported, provides direct research support to SME’s. Essentially the EU provides seed money which is matched by businesses and we lecturers provide our time to do the heavy lifting as far as lab work or research activities. It’s sort of a win, win for everybody.

And we are not talking small change here. The succession fund to FP7 for example, Horizon 2020 will dole out some 80 billion euro’s, mostly to academic institutions between now and 2020. Noting that UK universities have been one of the largest net receivers of FP7 cash.

Therefore, if the UK left the EU we would literally be going downstairs to the labs, locking the doors to many of them, and sacking most of our research staff and lab technicians. And keep in mind the universities that would take the biggest hit would be the elite research led universities, notably those in the Russell Group. While I suspect many would survive (most have a substantial endowment fund to rely on), some probably would be forced into radical reorganisation. Inevitably there will be mergers and even closures, with a knock on effect on the local area.

This of course would mean less university places and at higher rates of student fees. Already there is muttering (as a result of recent Tory antics against migrants, which has reduced foreign student numbers) that student fees will have to go up again. In short, the clock will go back 40 years and university education, crucial to getting a well-paid job in the UK, will once again become the preserve of the well off, educated in private schools.

And it won’t just be tens of thousands of unemployed researchers but this would have a knock on effect on the private sector too. As this conference I mentioned shows, the UK, like many EU states has been very successful in “reshoring” of high tech manufacturing technology over recent years. Indeed there seems to be a singularity forming between new manufacturing technologies (such as 3D printing) and topology optimisation with computer simulations, offering the possibility to design lightweight less resource intensive components.

However a lot of these companies are only here because they can access a well-educated labour market and to take advantage of research opportunities with the UK’s universities. Pull the EU rug from out underneath these companies and you’ll be burning an entire generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and engineers, who will avoid the UK like the plague from then on.

Indeed, there is history here. In my field of renewables you will often come across engineers from German or Chinese renewable companies, with North American accents. A little digging reveals they started out their career in the US or Canada, often on federally funded projects, only for the Bush and Harper administrations to pull the rug out from underneath them (for ideological rather than financial reasons). They subsequently left, got hired by a Chinese or German firm who are not profiting from these ideas, as the renewables business is now booming in many countries, even in the UK. So these German and Chinese profits are at the expense of research essentially paid for by the American and Canadian taxpayers!

This is why when the LSE suggests a 2.5 – 9.5% drop in UK GDP as the price paid for leaving the EU, I tend to believe the higher figure. The knock on effects, not all of which the LSE is probably capturing, will be significant. There will also be the fact that it’s sending out a message that the UK is not open for business. Can you see an Indian investor putting money into the UK if he gets the impression that the British are now so bigoted and xenophobic that they can’t get along with people twenty miles across the channel?

And of course the message from the Tories to many professionals (engineers, scientists, etc.) from the EU and beyond, will be that despite many years paying taxes in the UK, they will now not be entitled to benefits, or the NHS and will have to apply for a work permit to stay here. While some lazy BNP voting Chav, whose never worked a day in his life, will be entitled to such benefits? That is about as far removed from a traditional right wing ideology (or indeed any ideology that rewards hard work!) as you can possibly get.

About the only positive for the Tories is that many in the HEI and manufacturing sectors seem to be in denial. They cannot bring themselves to believe the Tories would be dumb enough to risk Brexit. But sooner or later the penny will drop, and the result is likely that many of the very people who traditionally vote Tory will realise that they cannot vote for them now.

Tory promises on tax cuts ain’t going to matter squat if you’re business folds as you won’t be earning anything to pay taxes with anyway! One can only hope the truth dawns on them before the next general election.