Binary School

Some people get the whole being smart and wearing a shirt and a tie thing and some people don’t. I am one of those who don’t. The best answer I was ever given was that on relevant occasions you should wear a collar and tie for the people who do get it and think it’s important and these people were family, so I learnt the times when it was expected, when you had to.

The other night I was listening to a radio discussion about the old chestnut of school uniforms. What was interesting was that instead of an advocate of no school uniform against  an advocate of school uniform, one of the protagonists argued for a balanced position, the other for strict uniform.

There is very much a middle position on this, a sensible compromise, so i was very much on the side of the gentlemen who argued for the  middle way. The most practical argument for school uniform is that it is cheap for parents to kit out their children in a school uniform. However there are educational arguments too. On the one hand it teaches that there are occasions when you represent an organisation other than yourself that you are required to dress in a particular way. On the other hand it helps children develop style, by which the child can make decisions on how to wear the uniform, which usually involves some rakish way of wearing the tie.

The gentlemen arguing for strict school uniform argued for no adornment, no jewelry, which seems overly harsh. When I was at school you were allowed one earring per ear, one neck adornment and one bracelet per wrist. Many children at my school wanted to wear more than this, but that there was a compromise, enabled compromise. It allows experimentation with style without the onus to take things to an extreme position.

I very rarely wear a suit, but I do see men who do wear suits stylishly. These gentlemen have a tendency to be Italian, it is indeed rare for me to see people in this country pull off a suit well, yet people seem to persist. I always imagined that this suit wearing thing was just old-fashioned and by the time my generation had grown up, the practice would have fallen by the wayside, but it hasn’t. Enough people still expect people to dress a certain way. Really it takes some effort to get away from these stereotypes. For example I have a bright yellow high-vis coat. Whenever I wear it, I can almost disappear in a crowd, I become unnoticed, I’m assumed to be working. rather than being myself.

Yet there continues to be a dark side to all of this. Particularly women for whom the rules are so much more complex, especially if they are in a public facing role. There have been cases of women being asked to go out and buy high heels for roles that involve traipsing up and down stairs. I have been in a situation where a female host was escorting me in high heels, which is daft and I just felt really uncomfortable.

I get the idea that when you are working you are not supposed to be stylish or express yourself. You are there to be the organisation you are working with, so you wear the uniform to blend into the background, so your personality doesn’t distract from what you are doing. However does this really have any meaning in most modern organisations, as surely we are usually trying to attract peoples interest, to be novel rather than bland?

The middle way is interesting, as those with a developed sense of style seem to have a lot of fun, like children with school uniform of doing just enough to blend in and just enough to stand out. These are the skills that a moderate school uniform helps develop. I at least get school uniform now. I am coming around to the idea that style in clothing and fashion in general is about this finding a reaction to recent past styles, to conform to where things are whilst expressing a difference in a new direction. After all being able to express yourself is important for your own well-being. The difficulty with style is that there are those few who are naturally really thoughtful about it and have a well developed sense of style , whilst people like me blunder around shops wondering how on earth to replace my tatty old garments. You have to wear clothes, it’s too cold most of the time, so having some sort of style is unavoidable and people will make judgements about how you look. So, it is really important that as a society we do what we can to help young people explore this and school uniform does seem the best way of doing it.

Coal not Dole

Sometimes you just want to scream. In Britain the media is awash with various talk of competing Nationalisms, stoked by the issues of Brexit and Scottish independence. Public figures make announcements that we should be more or less European, more or less British or more or less Welsh. This is further complicated by each of these nationalisms can be either of two things, civic nationalism and imperialist nationalism. More often than not, the debate centres around distorting what each of these things is, to confuse and blur the issue, to distract from working out what will actually make things better. Perhaps the truth is that is is simply wrong to try and change your identity or who you are, there is no sense in it and there are never purely binary things and we are all different soups of various identities anyway.  Lets get on with something more useful.

Brexit, Scottish, or indeed Welsh independence represent choices. In recent times such choices have been subject to referenda. The problem I have with all the argument and political horse play is that the supposed public discourse has centred around national identity. Really such discourse is not about identity at all, such choices should be made on a rational weighing up of complex economics to choose which is the best option.

If Brexit is the better option than remaining in the EU, great,  I do hope that it is as this seems to be what is happening, the result will be that things get better rather than the worse. However I am not assured at all by what has happened since the vote, because hardly anyone is talking about how it will makes things better. It’s the same with Scottish independence, if it makes things better, then great, do it, if maintaining the UK is the better option then we should do that and make it better.

Then there is the two nationalisms thing. This has really complicated many of the farcical debates we see in our media. Actually I think this is just a manifestation of the old left right divide, the two political wings view patriotism is radically different ways.

On the left is Civic Nationalism, where a nation is defined as all the people who live in a society, with all their various diversity. Civic nationalism argues for equality to give everyone in that society an equal chance and to make things better for everyone.

On the right is Imperialist Nationalism. Here there is a predominant sub-culture with the society and everyone should have an equal opportunity to join that sub-culture, which then expands and thrives at the expense of those who refuse or are unable to join. The pre-dominant sub-culture declares that it’s view of the world is patriotic and if you don’t subscribe to those views you are a traitor.

Hence the left always argue for more support for those that do less well than the majority. If that group thus supported  does as well as any other then no increased support is required. Whereas the right argue that they these minority groups should just join the dominant group and should have no special favours for being different.


So, why the title, ‘Coal not Dole’. I was up in Ebbw Vale this morning and decided that as I was nearby, to finally get around to visiting the Big-Pit museum. It is a really good museum. The museum is a preserved working deep-pit coal mine, such mines were very common in the South Wales Valleys when I was growing up, so I was keen to have a look inside. The highlight of the visit is a trip down the mine in the company of a former miner to the coalface. The guides both explain how the mines worked and give an insight into what working down the mines was like with great humour and wit. If you visit Wales, I highly recommend a visit and it is in a crazily beautiful part of Wales, well apart from the modern open cast coal mines near by!

Being down in the pit, in the dark, seeing the cramped conditions where people used to spend all day working in dusty conditions, makes you realise what a horrible job working down the pits was. However it also makes clear how mining communities, really were communities, fostering really strong companionships between the miners and their families. My family traditionally were farmers and the farming community, pales into comparison as farming is often a lonely job  and traditionally the only time for socialising was on market day. Farming requires dependence on yourself as you are often miles from the nearest person, whereas mining requires reliance on others for your safety. This is a large part of the reason why farmers tend to be conservatives and miners socialists.

My point is we have national identities as part of our individual identity make-up and identities are stronger where there is a sense of comradeship, solidarity and working together for a common cause.  The mining communities built fantastic civic structures, such as libraries, male voice choirs, brass bands and chapels. Hence the mining communities had a very strong sense of their identity as miners, being a miner was their primary identity.

In the 1980s, the UK government decided to close down the mines. To the miners, this was an attack on their primary identity, so of course they were incredibly angry about it. A massive series of strikes were held, under the banner of the National Union of Mineworkers, which produced the ‘Coal not Dole’ badges; or it is better to work, even deep down in a coal mine than be looked after by the welfare state, which was the effect of the government policy. Today, Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the effect of that decision is still felt over thirty years later. The miners knew about mining so they should have been listened to, rather than those in their Ivory towers in London.

I can understand how people do feel passionate when their identities are attacked. However with Brexit and Independence, identities are not actually under threat in the same way. I know some people do feel that their British identity is threatened by Scottish independence, or their European identity by Brexit, but I feel that they do not quite understand what exactly identity is. These identities are not being threatened and they are not going to disappear. People in Britain will not be less European after Brexit, nor will Scotland no longer be part of Britain after independence. Britain will still be a set of islands off the North West coast of the European continent and Scotland will still be a part of the British Isles and they will still form part of our identities if they are parts of our identity now.

This is why I don’t get this whole binary argument that you must be for one identity over another. It’s a huge distraction from the difficult task of predicting the future and trying to work out how to make things better. The way to make things better is to make the political institutions better, the Welsh assembly, the UK government or the European Union. All of these institutions could be vastly improved and we need to ensure they do make things better, by being accountable to the communities their decisions affect, rather than winning some pointless argument about identity.

The Art of Language

The study of language has always been lumped together with the arts as an academic discipline. However it is only today that I have really connected how language, specifically learning a second language is really what art is all about.

We don’t learn a second language in order to communicate or to get by in another language; though sometimes this is why people learn a language as adults. We learn a second language to discover new ways of communicating. We learn how to express thoughts and ideas in a different way and when we receive thoughts and ideas through another language those ideas are quite different.

Essentially these new avenues of expression are the function of art, to express things in ways that are outside of our everyday language, so we can see and hear things in new interesting and enjoyable ways.

Probably the closest art form to language learning is poetry. Most languages have rich poetic traditions, because everyday words are combined in new ways to express different thoughts. This is exactly what we do when using a second language. It’s like we have instant access to art by trying to express the same thought in a second language, we instantly have a subtly different version of the initial thought that can be in itself thought provoking by making us view that thought in a different way.

Everything is somehow a different world in a second language and there is of course new realms of art of writing and music to explore in that language as a speaker of that language. Strangely this art argument for learning new languages seems to be seldom used to promote language learning. It is reason enough to learn  as a bonus to being able to understand more people in their native tongue.

The differences between language learning and the other arts is that use of the second language is not usually done with the intent of producing or appreciating art. There are no great works of language learning, the process is too messy to ever be considered great art. However for the individual learner this process is very much like the mental processes involved in absorbing ideas from great pieces of art.

Time for Wales!

Yesterday when the Scottish first minister announced that Scotland would be holding a second referendum on independence for Scotland, there was this irrepressible thought of why doesn’t Wales grasp the mettle and go for independence too. What exactly are we waiting for?

For me the argument is simple:

Decisions that affect the people of Wales should be made in Wales by the people of Wales.

This does raise a couple of questions: Why Wales and why now?

Often the advocate of self-government for Wales faces two reductive arguments: Why not each postcode and why not the UK. Basically I believe that there is an optimum size for a country. Too small and the community misses out on the advantages and efficiencies of scale, too large and a single common set of rules starts to leave some areas with don’t work well for that community. So, the ubiquitous ‘Area the size of Wales’ is I feel somewhere near the right compromise and in any case a coherent sense of being a country,  enough commonality in culture to work and it happens to be my home.

Now, Wales is one of the poorest countries in Northern Europe. The important question is to ask why this is. There is nothing better or worse about the people who live in Wales than anywhere else. To believe the reverse is somewhat perverse and suggests some people are somehow better than others.

To understand why people are making this argument you need to understand a merest smidgen of history and economics.

Wales rail

Take a look at the above rail map of Wales. Two thing that stands out is that there is no North-South mainline, well no North-South line at all in fact. Then you can appreciate that the railways were built to remove resources out of Wales, notably coal and steel out of South Wales to head east. The story of this coal is the modern history of Wales, lots of wealth created but only a small percentage of that invested back into Wales. Wales has never benefitted from the structural funding to provide the basis of a modern nation.

Instead and in consequence of this is that today Wales languishes near the bottom of the economic league table, seen by some as a burden to be propped up by hand-outs, which are never sufficient to truly build the Welsh economy or indeed other impoverished areas of the UK. Wales is left neglected and distracted by the machinations of the UK, such as Brexit, ever slipping further and further behind. The UK has had more than enough of a chance to do what was required for Wales to be prosperous. Not doing so was not out of any sense of malice, it’s just how politics and economics works. Surely now is the time to say we should do something about it. With independence Wales can build a better more prosperous economy for itself. Why do we in Wales always seem to sit back and wait for things to improve amd suggest the challenges to being a normal country are somehow too insurmountable for the people who put a red dragon on our flag? I don’t believe things will improve unless we all start working to improve Wales.

Arguing for Welsh independence is simply wanting the area you live or call home to improve. I think people from all over the world share this view, localism makes sense. This sentiment is not about hating anyone or blaming anyone. Wales’ neglect was never intentional, it simply happened in consequence of decisions taken elsewhere. Hence it would be better to make decisions in Wales! The question isn’t whether Wales should be an independent country but rather why isn’t an independent country.v It’s about positivity, not about why we can’t do something, but exploring how we can.

I’m Welsh and I hold a particular affection for all of  the British Isles. It’s not about separation from or abandoning England. The Republic of Ireland is already a separate state, but does not feel like a foreign country to those of us who grew up in Wales, it’s a mere ferry ride away. Wales wants England to thrive and when the time comes that all of Britain is ready for mutually beneficial cooperation as equals, Wales would be ready to take part in that. It’s not as if Scotland and England would suddenly become alien countries. The argument for Wales is simply to build a better country for the people of Wales, because no-one is going to do that for us and there is no reason why we can’t do it ourselves. But we really really need to start talking about it and not getting distracted by irrelevant arguments.

The Perils of Populism

I may have been a little unfair when i laid blame at the feet of Liberals. The true curse is populism. We seem to be a world of peak populism, with votes for Brexit and Trump. Bizarrely both of these campaigns focused their attacks on the establishment, which in itself is a populist construction. so, really the argument runs that the solution to the problem of populism is er… even more populism. The facetious populist claim of the ‘will of the people’ is really the will of populism.

As an outsider I generally do not value popularity. Some popular people i know are popular, through sheer luck, rather than from a desire to be popular. Perhaps it is the desire to be popular that is what is wrong with populism. Where there is popular [majority] support, that is not populism, that is consensus.

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time musing over politics, eventually runs into the thorny problem of populism. Allow me to describe the individual’s political progress:

Politics is essentially a subject. A subject that concerns theories of how society and the economy work with a view to exploring ways to make things better. After some time exploring politics in this academic way most people coalesce around a political position or political philosophy. What fascinated me, and I believe most people who think about politics is that everybody reaches their own consensus about the best way to improve things, but we all end up in different places, but share many things in common. you then start to notice subtle differences in how other people think which leads them to different political places. Whilst we may vehemently disagree with someone we nonetheless enjoy the rigorous debate and often friendships are formed. These friendships unite around the shared disdain for populists.

Of course, having done all this fevered thinking and finally reaching reasonably robust conclusions, we would like to actually put it into practice and make our economies better. For many politically minded this involves becoming active in political parties. Often democracy is seen as a sensible way of finding consensus and solutions that work reasonably well for most of a population. At this point the politically minded discover that they themselves are a minority, that most people do not concern themselves with politics, that democracy doesn’t really work terribly well. Because most people haven’t taken an interest in politics and flit from one position to another as the superficial ends of arguments that agitate around the general public sphere.

For example,  immigration, the issue which dominated the Brexit and Trump campaigns. High levels of net immigration are not good for an economy. They are a symptom of a poorly functioning economy. The populists focus all the attention on immigration rather than the root causes of the problems and by doing so create the impression that the immigrants are the problem , rather than innocent pawns of a bad system. There are two main reasons why immigration is a problem. Firstly lack of resources, in a bad economy resources become more difficult to obtain and these resources are essentially to a well functioning economy. The immigrants merely highlight the problem of a lack of housing, education or healthcare, as they need to use these scant resources too. The immigrants appear to make a bad situation even worse. Secondly this lack of resources means that the native population lack the ability to perform economically crucial roles, hence immigrants move into that society to plug the gaps instead of the real issues being tackled. Hence the political person will be aware of the real causes, whilst the populist will focus on the symptoms.

The trouble is often that the populists win, they win elections, they get to hold office. However we hold them is disdain because they are inconsistent, they have no solid political framework or political creed that links all their positions, they are charlatans. We become particularly intense when they claim to be ‘one of us’, from our political neck of the woods, so we seethe with frustration, that they are not truly one of us and more importantly that they besmirch the name of our political philosophy. For example, Tony Blair was regarded as a Social Democrat, so his governments record is often attacked as exemplifying why ‘Social Democracy is wrong’. The issue being that Blair wasn’t a Social Democrat at all, he just disguised himself in the clothes. The same is true of Conservatives who disdain those who wear the clothes of the right and Socialists disdain those who wear their clothes.

The thing is that in the UK, the populists have been in charge. The thing is the political class have long realised that in order to win an election that they must wear the populists clothes. Instead of advertising how they would improve things the focus is on being seen to be on the side of the populist argument, even when the populist argument is merely treating a symptom, which then allows the real problem to surface elsewhere in the economy. This lust to win power then takes over policy. Traditionally populism was merely for the campaign trail and the sensible thought through evidence based consensus policies would be implemented in government. However in modern times, populism has infected policy, so policy no longer tackles the underlying issues. Party politics has become a game about winning power, rather than using power to makes things better. And then come Brexit, where the UK government seek to satisfy the perceived popular will, for somethign they didn’t even have a poorly thought through policy for in the first place and merely ride the populist tide, forming positions retrospectively.

Something has to give, the populist bubble has to burst or we end up with even more extremes of populism than Trump or Brexit or bust.

For me the solution is bottom up democracy and proportional voting systems where democracy actually functions as it should, rather than society following the whims of the populist swirl and those who can best manipulate them for their own ends. As i’ve said before for me, from my long political journey, from root causes the answer is autonomy for regions like Wales and not the frippery of a symptomatic nationalism, that divides us from ourselves.