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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


The story of Gordon Brown's political career seems to have all the makings of Greek tragedy. From Midas touch to Nemesis via vaulting ambition that overleaps itself (OK, the last bit is Shakespeare but let's not get too fussy). It also evokes the classical ingredient of pity for the man raised up and capriciously cast down by the Gods (or the Media) with the course of events determined by a seemingly trivial event the effect of which is magnified out of all proportion by a fatal character weakness. The story even has the 'there but for the Grace of God go I' aspect which is pure Aristotle. Somebody will write it one day, but I'm not sure I'll want to see it.
So what did he do wrong yesterday? I think his biggest political mistake was that he didn't shrug off the gaffe and leave the Media to make what they could of it. It was always going to be a story but by going back he gave it more legs than it otherwise might have had. What were his advisers thinking of? 
As for the substance - well, ordinary people often have poorly articulated, relatively shallow and occasionally distasteful views about political matters. No surprises there. It's difficult for the politically sophisticated to make much sense of those views or react to them in a serious way. Again no surprises.  Brown was polite, if wooden, in the face-to-face and in a private conversation said quite calmly what most of the Mediaocracy were probably thinking. I'd be more worried if he had showed any signs of populist pandering on legal immigration. But the legitimacy of representative democracy partly depends on adherence to an asymmetrical code of conduct which permits the voters (and their self-appointed media tribunes) to heap scorn on politicians for any sign of human  weakness whilst obliging the  politicians to pretend to respect the opinions of the voters - no matter how incoherent, bizarre or indeed bigoted these might be. This is the Faustian bargain and woe betide anyone who betrays the illusions that sustain it. The sin is not that Brown insulted a harmless grandmother who may or may not be a supporter of  his own party: it is that he exposed to public scrutiny one of the unpleasant truths about how democratic politics works.

Monday, 26 April 2010

What has happened to crime?

The Guardian is running an interesting piece in it's Datablog which includes a map showing for each local authority area (LAA) in England and Wales the number of (grossed up) criminal offences reported in the British Crime Survey (BSC) as a rate per 1000 of the population. The map is shaded according to figures for 2008/9 but comparisons are also made with 2007/8 (though you have to download the data to find out what the base year actually is). The map is very pretty, but I wonder whether it is an example of statistical overreach. The accompanying text helpfully tells us that the BCS sample size is about 40000. That sounds a lot until you count the number of obervations per LAA: there appear to be several hundred LAAs. Now think about how many of those observations are likely to be zero - ie no experience of crime during the year in question. I would imagine that quite a few of the underlying numbers are based on the positive reports of a handful of people in each LAA. The confidence intervals around the counts for a single year will, I guess, be quite large and very large around the year on year differences. Yet the map gives me no sense of the uncertainty around these numbers. Has the number of offences in Oxford really gone up by 4%? I don't know and I don't think the creator of this map knows either. Let's see the confidence intervals or if you feel a bit Bayesian the credible intervals for the differences within each LAA: then we can start to have a meaningful discussion. Otherwise, this is just another piece of "data art".

Monday, 19 April 2010

Market, Class and Employment

The reviews of MCE are at long last rolling in and OUP have started to use them for publicity blurb. So this is what they say:

"In sum, this book is an extremely useful contribution to the field, and one that deserves close reading by all those interested in the nature of contemporary work and employment." - The British Journal of Sociology

"This book significantly advances knowledge and it will doubtless become required reading for anybody interested in debates over the changing nature of work and employment." - Colin C. Williams, American Journal of Sociology

"'Market, Class and Employment is essential reading for those interested in how experiences of work changed in Britain in the 1990s and sits well alongside other large-scale surveys such as Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) series." - Industrial and Labor Relations Review

"Taken as a whole, McGovern and his colleagues have given us a clearly written, provocative analysis of recent changes in employment relations in Britain. As such, this book makes a useful and significant contribution to the debates on this important topic." - Arne L. Kalleberg, European Sociological Review

"Overall, we have here a treasure for anyone who likes to see general theses about trends in modern capitalism submitted to the verdict of high-quality representative survey data... We need more books like this if we are to understand what is happening in the modern history of the workplace." - The British Journal of Industrial Relations

Friday, 16 April 2010

The importance of...Shakespeare

The popular children's writer Celia Rees, when she was a secondary school teacher, taught my sixth-form English class Richard III with thorough and at times, grim, determination. I still like the play, but I would be the first to admit that after the dazzling opening speech there are, shall we say, long passages of historical background filling in dialogue that hold up the action. By chance I noticed that she recently wrote a guest blog entry for the Times on the teaching of Shakespeare in school. I reckon she gets it right: the cult of "relevance" can turn into shackles for the very people it is meant to liberate. She also has an interesting writing blog on her own website.

Blowing our own trumpets

I'm told that being "high profile" is now an essential part of the approved manner of academic life and that those of us for whom self-promotion is indelibly associated with vulgarity are indulging the manners of the Edwardian drawing room. I suppose one must move with the times even though it is so easy to mistake scruples for vanity. With that in mind I was delighted to see that Stefan Collini writing in the LRB shares my view of the Milburn Report and has nice things to say about the report of the National Equality Panel that I sat on.
Note to myself: I must get round to adding long lists to my CV - every seminar I've ever given; every course I've ever taught; every book review I've ever written; every journal I've refereed for; every conference I've attended; every time I've been rung up by a journalist; every committee I've ever sat on... Hey, I can easily get to 30 pages that way!

Debate I

So this is my small contribution to the blogosphere babble about last night's opening round. One and a half hours went by quite quickly, though I must confess I did get a bit distracted in the middle when my nearest and dearest, sitting at my side with computer on her lap, started to talk to me about the intricacies of a particularly involved data entry task.
Discussing the debate over breakfast this morning we both were struck by how young two of the debate's particpants looked. Do I really want to be governed by somebody who looks scarcely older than my graduate students?
The media headline seems to be that Clegg 'won' by a large margin; but why should I be interested in the fact that the 'winner' was the one contestant who has no chance of winning the election? I was also wondering why Brown persisted in looking stage left at something off-shot while Clegg and Cameron always looked straight down the barrel of the camera? Was there a non functioning camera there? Hadn't anyone told him that that particular non-verbal made him look shifty and nervous?
It's easy to get sniffy about the political theatre of elections or pretend that in the past things were more cerebral. In the 18th Century the hustings in my own home town of Coventry were frequently little more than a carnival of drunken riot and I don't suppose everyone who attended one of Gladstone's 5 hour Midlothian speeches was dissecting the logic of every sentence. These kind of events are and have always been partly show-biz.
I first voted in the 1979 election. During the campaign I obtained tickets for myself and a few mates from a Labour councillor who lived across the street to get into Jim Callaghan's speech at Coventry's Methodist Central Hall. It was the days of the kind of left politics that eventually led to Labour's wilderness years. There was considerable fear that the speech would be disrupted by Militant or suchlike. I guess I was young and naive and had bought a copy of one of the many far-left "newspapers" being sold outside. So in I went openly clutching this inflamatory organ and not appreciating at the time the significance of the look of horror on the face of my kindly benefactor who was serving as a steward at the entrance.
The speech was interrupted briefly - though not by me - but the only other thing I can remember of it was the feeling of being in the presence of something important. Callaghan was charismatic and I watched spellbound. He looked, if not exactly a movie star, like a very distinguished elder statesman. In fact it was the first time that I noticed that major politicians on duty look different from ordinary people. Their clothes are better cut, they carry themselves better and most important, they are made up for the cameras. When I got home my Mum told me that she had seen me in an audience shot shown on The News at Ten.
When Callaghan lost the election I was crestfallen: it was the end of political innocence. I already knew that nothing in British politics would be the same again but I didn't forsee quite how devastating the consequences would be. I was about to go to university. Within 2 years Coventry was the Ghost Town and many of my ex schoolmates were signing on. I never went back.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Holiday Reading

Well, the Easter break is here and you should be able to make some time for recreational reading. I was intrigued by the Lost Man Booker Prize. Apparently because the rules about publication dates changed after the first two years no prize was awarded for books published in 1970 (the 1970 prize was awarded for books published in 1969 and the 1971 prize for books published mainly in 1971). So now there is a retrospective competition for those books published in 1970 that fell between the two stools. Literary prizes are inherently a bit silly, but they are amusing and who could begrudge a bit of puff for serious fiction. Of the six short-listed books I've only read one, J. G. Farell's Troubles, which I can heartily recommend. The fun thing is that the winner will be selected not by a panel of judges but by popular vote. Happy reading.