Archive for the ‘politics’ category

Reformed thinking

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thereby setting in train the events that led to what is now referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’. The accumulation over a short period of time of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the printing press and widespread debate on issues raised in these processes changed western civilisation fundamentally and permanently.

Luther, like many of the leaders of the Reformation and for that matter many of those who opposed it, was not necessarily an altogether pleasant man. His strongly anti-semitic views gave a toxic prompt to some rabble rousers, with his influence stretching into 20th century fascism. But nevertheless, his actions opened up a new chapter of intellectual engagement and strengthened the position of Europe’s leading universities, as well as their capacity to engage in critical analysis and research – although Luther also opined that universities could be ‘the great gates of hell’.

Theologically, politically and socially, the Reformation was complex, and if it led to intellectual empowerment for some it also prompted narrow-mindedness in others. But the anniversary is worth celebrating, because our freedom of thought and of academic debate was reinforced through the posting of the 95 Theses and what followed. We are, in some respects at ;east, products of the Reformation.

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Brexit perspectives in the academy

October 25, 2017

Apparently like all university heads in the United Kingdom, I received a letter this week from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a Conservative Whip in the House of Commons and, as his own website states, a ‘fierce Eurosceptic’. In his letter, Mr Heaton-Harris asks me to supply him with the names of professors ‘who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also wants copies of any syllabus and links to online lectures ‘which relate to this area’. The letter gives no indication of why he wants this information or what he proposes to do with it.

The story of this letter has been widely disseminated over the past day or so, and it would be fair to say that he has been roundly criticised for sending it by pretty much everyone, including some who are in favour of Brexit. As a Times newspaper editorial points out, if Mr Heaton-Harris had legitimate reasons, unrelated to any desire to stifle pro-EU voices in the academy, he should have said what they were. In the absence of such details, the fierce Eurosceptic might appear to have motives to limit freedom of expression – though he himself is adamant that this is not his intention (while still not saying what is his intention). Meanwhile the UK Universities Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP, has spoken on his behalf to suggest that he now regretted sending the letter.

Anyway, yesterday the airwaves and cyberspace were full of people expressing indignation at Mr Heaton-Harris, who, it was suggested, was practising ‘Leninism’. Actually I doubt that Vladimir Ilyich, were he to return now, would regard Mr Heaton-Harris as a soulmate, so maybe we should leave some of the more over-excited responses to his letter to one side. I suspect he was indeed up to no good, but I’m not too worried about his capacity to achieve much.

But Mr Heaton-Harris is not the only star in this particular B-movie. He was preceded by others, politicians, and newspapers, who have argued that in one way or another expressions of opinion criticising Brexit or calling for a continuing membership of the UK in the European Union are not acceptable and undermine the will of the people (which by now may be different from that expressed in June 2016, for all we know). And so while we should all calm down about the MP’s letter, we should reflect a little more about a tendency to incite a public mood of intolerance that may be showing up here. Specifically, a university must always be a safe forum for the expression of all legal views and opinions, however unpopular they may be; and this should not be put at risk either by politicians or, indeed, by groups of students. But more generally, Brexit advocates – even Brexit fanatics – must accept that their views have not become mandatory as a result of the referendum. Freedom of expression must flower, no matter what. And if that bothers you, it means that your position is probably a weak one. Work on that.

Philosopher King

September 18, 2017

It is, I think, not so fashionable these days to consider history in terms of monarchs and leaders. To many, kings and generals have hijacked the ‘story’ that really belongs to those whose lives were more of a struggle and who paid the price for royal vanity or incompetence. Then again, the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful.

Friedrich der Große

For much of my youth I was in the presence of a copy of this rather famous painting of Frederick the Great, by the artist Anton Graff, painted in 1781 when the King was 69 years old, five years before he died.

It hung in our family home. My father was something of an admirer of the Prussian king. I probably never thought about it (or him) to any great extent at the time, except when I encountered some references to Frederick in history lessons. But a friend of mine who was a regular visitor to the house found the portrait disconcerting, and always claimed that Frederick eyed up the modern world with obvious disapproval and kept his gaze firmly on us as we did whatever we did back then.

So although I knew next to nothing about Frederick, he was a very definite presence in my youth. Then I left the parental home and, frankly, forgot all about him and Prussia and the times in which he lived. If I ever knew much about them in the first place. Recently someone gave me a book about Frederick, and I got interested.

As we sometimes wonder about the qualities (or lack of them) of our contemporary politicians, it is interesting to reflect on Friedrich der Große, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. In many ways one could describe him as the architect of the modern concept of the state. Although some will record him as a military leader who secured Prussia’s place as a growing European power, it is more interesting to note his establishment of a civil service, of his (relatively speaking) support for a free press, of his status as a patron of literature, music and art, of his championing of science and philosophy (his relationship with Voltaire in particular). In addition, he was a composer and performer of music – indeed a composer of music that is still played and recorded, his flute concertos being the most popular.

Sometimes we don’t really know what we want of our leaders. Sometimes we put up with leaders who manifestly will not give us what we need. The ‘enlightened absolutism’ offered in the 18th century by Der Alte Fritz really wouldn’t do today. But the enlightened intellectual engagement might. At least I would like to think so.

I now have the portrait that hung on my father’s wall. I don’t think I’ll take it down.

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

Erosion of support for higher education?

August 7, 2017

One of the points of wide consensus in the world over recent decades was the desirability of extending higher education to a much greater number of people, both so as to create a more equitable society and to ensure that high level skills were available to the economy.

Recent debates may be starting to call that consensus into question. In the United States universities have increasingly come to be seen as being part of the liberal political cluster, and their value has accordingly been called into question by some on the conservative wing of politics. In the UK and elsewhere criticism of pay and conditions for senior managers has become widespread, giving universities a bad press.

Opposition to universities is not on the whole based on arguments against higher education, but on dissatisfaction with this or that attribute or practice of the sector. This has the capacity to put at risk support for educational excellence at tertiary level, which would have more serious implications. Universities should therefore consider it a priority to look at how they are perceived by society (or sections of it), and how they can steer the system back to where a broad consensus supporting higher education can be found. This is vital for any number of economic and social reasons.

Brexit: come on, folks – get serious!

July 30, 2017

To really passionate supporters of Brexit – the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union – doubts about the wisdom of this decision are incomprehensible. This is clearly the right decision, and it does not of any necessity involve painful or difficult consequences. It could and should all be so easy. So we are told that Brexit is easy and that ‘tariff-free access’ to the EU’s single market isn’t hard to get if only we negotiate cleverly.

In fact we are assured by many of the great and the good (let us say, the elite establishment) that after Brexit we are all going to enjoy the ‘sunlit uplands’, an expression borrowed from Winston Churchill. So why can’t everyone (including the media) be a bit more patriotic and get with the programme? Why are we still hearing dissent and arguments and objections and reasons and pessimistic predictions? What’s wrong with these people, and why are they spoiling it for the rest of us? Daily Telegraph columnist and former editor, Charles Moore, thinks that everyone should stop complaining and follow the lead of the Brexiters: come on in, the water is fine.

Brexit was the decision of the UK electorate. I may (and do) deplore that, but as this was the decision it is of course perfectly reasonable to argue for its implementation. What is not reasonable, however, is to pretend that it doesn’t involve any problems or complications or compromises, and it is this tendency to paint a glib and wholly unrealistic picture of where we are going that keeps the objections alive. It’s not that Brexit cannot be a success (although I doubt it can be negotiated in a year or so), it’s that it will be an unimaginably complicated process that requires a high level of preparedness, a realistic outlook and impressive negotiating skills to achieve a good outcome. For a period of nearly 45 years every aspect of British public and commercial life has been integrated with the EU, and separating will be fiendishly difficult, as most of those with detailed knowledge and experience say repeatedly.

Actually Brexit supporters know all this, indeed I suspect are mesmerised by it. They are in charge of a grand project that was offered to the people without any proper analysis of what it entailed, and with facile and unrealistic promises of easy outcomes. Now it has to be delivered; and while it can be delivered, it won’t in the end be the ‘sunlit uplands’ model promised earlier. It may indeed work, but not for a while, and not without pain. So to cover their anxiety, the Brexit enthusiasts find it easier to attack remainers, or as the dafter ones amongst them insist on calling them, ‘remoaners’. The irony is that the term ‘remoaner’ is much less effective as an insult directed at remainers than as an example of a loud ‘moan’ by Brexiters – a petulant stamping of the foot.

If the move towards Brexit is to succeed, it needs to be led and conducted with a degree of seriousness and skill. My advice is to stop talking nonsense about how nice and easy it all is; in other words, stop insulting everyone’s intelligence. Stop moaning about remoaners, and start getting to grips with the issues. We still may not all like it then, but there would be a greater chance of grudging respect.

Universities and political elites

July 24, 2017

Politicians, as we discover from time to time, on the whole like social cachet. For men and women ‘of the people’, they often have backgrounds and enjoy privileges that the ‘people’ don’t always get close to. One way of assessing this has often been by looking at what (if any, of course) universities they attended. While the proportion of MPs in the UK House of Commons who are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge has been declining, it is still an extraordinary 23 per cent.

Interestingly, no Scottish constituency returned an Oxbridge-educated MP. A significant proportion graduated from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but it is not a outrageously disproportionate number.

For someone looking to pursue a career in politics in the UK, it still seems to make sense to apply to a handful of universities generally (button usefully) described as ‘elite’ universities, That should not be the case, and candidate selection needs to be more focused on this issue (amongst others)

I might add in parentheses that one university that seems to be getting closer to the people politically is Trinity College Dublin, who have recorded their first graduate as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar. I might suggest that a Dublin City University graduate should be next, and maybe that the next First Minister of Scotland should have studied in Robert Gordon University; but those might not be objective thoughts.