Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Orwell on Brexit

If you want a vision of the future, imagine an Icelandic boot kicking the ball past a fumbling English goalkeeper - forever.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Die Lösung

Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
Ließ der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbands
In der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen
Auf denen zu lesen war, daß das Volk
Das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt habe
Und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
zurückerobern könne. Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?


Independence Day

Just through with wiping the egg off my face. Anyone for an independent city state of London that is part of the EU? The border could be the M25. If they ask nicely we could let a few other cities join too.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Who is going to win?

It's a mugs game to try and call popular votes. Everyone is wise after the event but nobody has a magical prediction machine. I've really no more idea than the next person as to where we will stand on Friday.  Unlike the 1975 referendum which was a shoo-in for Remain it could go either way. Two months ago I was confident that Remain would win. Two weeks ago I was much more pessimistic. A week ago I thought the game was over and Leave would shade it.  

The polling evidence is not clear cut. My colleague Steve Fisher, who did the least worst job at the last General Election, has Remain slightly ahead in his model based forecast but the confidence intervals are so wide that Leave can't be sensibly excluded. The message from the financial and currency markets  now seems to favour Remain, but the signal is weak and there is still a lot of volatility. The betting odds heavily favour Remain. At the moment you can get between 2/9 and 2/7  on Remain  in other words roughly an 80% chance of staying and between 3/1 and 11/4 on Leave - about a 25% chance of quitting.

One of my colleagues put a sizeable sum on Remain at very good odds more than a year ago.  He may be feeling a bit nervous right now, but if you are a betting man you have to trust the odds. I'm not a betting man, but I do tend to put more weight on what people do rather than on what people say so my best guess is that Remain will win and since I'm now well down the path to getting egg on my face I may as well venture a guess at the winning margin. Let's say 4%.

And if I'm wrong, well, all bets will be off and we'll wake up on Friday in a rather different world. Will everything be utterly changed? No. Will the UK be a somewhat more unpleasant place to live in ? Probably yes. If we leave the EU and Scotland votes for independence I'll be joining the queue for a Scottish passport.


With a slightly heavy heart I voted in favour of inviting Michael Gove to become a Visiting Fellow of my college. It is part of the college's charter to actively forge links between the academic world and the world of business, administration, politics and civil society. This seems to me to be an entirely appropriate thing to do. It's not good for us to sit  alone  in the ivory tower all the time and it is good for non academics to have a space in which to reflect about their concerns away from the day to day pressures of their particular calling. I think that both sides gain from this. Maybe it  helps us do our jobs just a little bit better.

Once you accept the idea of Visiting Fellows you also have to accept that it will be necessary to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it to be. In practice that can quite literally mean supping with people you profoundly disagree with, even with people whose ideas and actions you find somewhat distasteful. It would be a strange kind of engagement with the outside world if you only invited into the club people you agree with. Moreover, a college community is not a monolithic bloc with one mind. Like the world itself a college contains people with different opinions, tastes and beliefs.

In appointing Visiting Fellows great care is taken to achieve balance across the mainstream political spectrum and that is entirely as it should be.  Just about the only significant disqualifications are a habit of serial incivility such that interaction with members of the college is unlikely to be productive and actions  on the part of a Visiting Fellow that are likely to bring the college into disrepute, for example the sort of thing that leads to detention at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Having said all that I now find myself wondering where exactly the boundaries of productive interaction lie. Today I read in the newspapers of an interview that Michael Gove gave to LBC. I didn't hear the interview so I only have the written reports to go on.  After being asked why he was disregarding the vast majority of expert economic opinion on the likely consequences of Brexit, Gove is quoted as saying:

"We have to be careful about historical comparisons, but Albert Einstein during the 1930s was denounced by the German authorities for being wrong and his theories were denounced, and one of the reasons of course he was denounced was because he was Jewish."

"They got 100 German scientists in the pay of the government to say that he was wrong and Einstein said: ' Look, if I was wrong, one would have been enough.'"

What this reveals to me is an attitude of complete contempt for intellectual expertise. It's the 'they're all in it together' know nothing attitude of a flat earth crank.  In fact it's worse than that because there is the implication that in some sense academic expertise has been prostituted. And to crown it all the comparison implies not just financial but intellectual corruption - the German scientists knew that Einstein was right but chose to say otherwise. In what way is that similar to economic experts trying to forecast the consequences of Brexit?
I'm not an economist, but if I were I would be insulted by such a comparison. It's one thing to disagree, that's the bread and butter of academic life, its another entirely to imply that you are only saying something because of a dishonorable ulterior motive.
It's not the first time that Gove has let slip what he really thinks about people who are making a genuine attempt to understand how the world works. I'm having second thoughts about the likelihood of productive conversations.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

On heterogeneity and homogeneity

Human populations are heterogeneous. That's a low level, but extremely important  fact of life that social scientists have to deal with. Heterogeneity  is, of course, a matter of degree and knowing when to treat differences as too trivial to merit attention is something that is mostly  learned by experience. Why these abstract musings? 

My 20 minute walk into work takes me through two distinct residential areas. The first is the South Oxford academic ghetto that I live in. As I'm walking along this morning I count the number of houses displaying an EU referendum poster.  I estimate that 10-15% of houses have a poster taped to a front window and 100% of these posters are for Remain.

Then I cross over the bridge and pass though a rather different area, mostly 1970s social housing.  The adults heading in the opposite direction to me, mostly taking their kids to school on the other side of the river, are different in all sorts of respects. When I look at the houses and flats they have come from  one thing is immediately obvious: not a single one has a referendum poster in the window. 

Two worlds separated by 25 metres of water. One confident enough to express their opinion the other...actually I don't know. Maybe most are not interested. Maybe nobody asked them. Maybe their tenancy agreement doesn't permit the display of posters in the window.

Friday, 17 June 2016

The break up of Britain

Whether they knew it or not, the interest that drew them there was purely psychological - the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions. Naturally nothing of the kind could be disclosed.

Konrad Korzeniowski