Posts Tagged ‘referendum’

You are not just yourself

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

Sometimes people feel powerless, like their individual action does not matter. That is not true, it matters tremendously and it is enormously powerful, I am going to explain one of the reasons why.

When you make a decision it is not just you making that decision, it is also people like you making the same decision for similar reasons. No one exists in isolation or acts alone, every individual is part of many overlapping, interconnected, and interdependent groups, most of which they are not even aware of. When you make a decision you make it based on how you think and what you know (consciously or not). Other people like you will be in similar situations and make the same decision, you make it together.

This means that every action you take does matter because it is not just you, it is people like you doing the same thing. Your individual action might be tiny, but your collective action might be huge. If the only thing stopping you is that you do not think it will make a difference because it is just you, then do it, if you do it then other people will too, if you do not then they will not. You have the responsibility to make the decision and to do the thing, but in doing it, you will not be alone.

There are lots of reasons to vote and this is only one of them, but you should.

There is a dark side to the fact that you are not just yourself, you are a community, and that is that if others control the inputs to your community and target them carefully for every group, then you are not yourself, you are theirs.

Think carefully, think twice, install an ad-blocker and make your decision.


Now that sounds horribly patronising, which it is, and so this academic is going to get off his ivory tower with his simplistic notions and go and do some work.

The pursuit of peace

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

The primary purpose of the EU is peace in Europe (particularly between EU members). War is expensive and so the secondary purpose of economic prosperity is well served by the primary purpose.

The pursuit of peace makes he EU act in strange and seemingly inefficient ways: Parliament gets on a train and travels to a different country. Development teams are split in half with hundreds of miles between them. Research funding is contingent on moving to a different country or collaborations between institutions in multiple countries. All of which seems rather inefficient due to the overheads of travel and communication, at least when considering only the immediate purpose of each activity.

However, considering the pursuit of peace it makes perfect sense and is much more ‘efficient’. By mixing people up and having them experience different countries, barriers are broken down. It is much harder to dehumanise and demonise people you know well and are your friends. The EU tries to tie people from all its nations so tightly together with bonds of love and friendship (and commerce and mutual dependence) that they might never again go to war.

We could learn something from that within our own nation for addressing the deep divisions between our different regions and social groups.

We must also consider how we will actively and systematically pursue peace in Europe and the wider world from outside the EU.

Remaining feelings

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

A substantial factor in my feelings of despair at Brexit is guilt. I could have done more, and, given the result, should have done more. I voted, but more was required.

Anger with those who lied and misled, with those who failed to do enough. That leads however to being angry with myself.

Those who have made this mess have a duty to fix it, but that does not just mean Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. It also means each one of us. While those who behaved badly during the campaign should be held to account, the only people we individually need to hold to account are ourselves. For me at least that is painful.

You might say that no individual insignificant person like me could make a difference. However, in a democracy I am an instance of a group of people. There are other people like me and so we are both individually and collectively responsible for our actions. If I decide individually to act in one way then it is likely that, independently, other people like me will decide to act in the same way.

Hence, even though I voted to remain, I still have to bear some personal culpability for the overall leave vote.


Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

The United Kingdom of England and Wales will not be great in power but it could yet be great in love.

It will not be able to lead as it formerly could when it was a great power, but it could enthusiastically follow when other countries or supranational organisations like the EU lead in good directions.

It will not have the military power to wage war but perhaps it might help maintain peace.


It will be a long road back from fear and division, from racism and xenophobia, to tolerance, peace and love. Let us begin.

Defence of the Union: Britain is better together

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

In 2014 there will be a referendum in Scotland on whether Scotland should be an independent state and leave the Union. Frankly I find it ridiculous that the question is even being asked as the answer is so clearly no. Essentially nothing is gained that could not be gained by internal reorganisation within the UK and much is lost.

Personally I was born in Scotland and have lived slightly less than half my life there, the rest being spent in England and some of my great grandparents were Scottish. However I have always lived in Britain and always been British. I am one of the significant number of people who would need dual nationality if Scotland were to become independent because we simply do not fit into the ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’ categories, only in ‘British’.

All the arguments I have heard in favour of independence which are valid such as those which have convinced a slim majority of Scottish Green Party members are not in fact relevant to the question of independence. Rather they relate to the debate on the localisation of different powers at different scales from national to local. Obviously the positioning of park benches should not be done by act of the UK parliament and NHS policy should not be determined individually on a ward level – there is an appropriate scale for different decisions to be made at. There is a very interesting debate on what should be decided at what scale and I think a great deal of room for improvement on this. However none of that is relevant to the question of Scottish independence – or if it is it is just as relevant to the question of independence for the Highlands.

The only issues relevant to the decision on whether Scotland should break the Union are ones which must be decided at the national level and could not be devolved to Scotland. Fundamentally the only issues which then apply are international ones, all domestic issues can be reorganised as we like and the rest of the world does not need to know or care but the interface we provide to the world is that of the nation.

So only international issues matter to the debate on independence, and an independent Scotland would leave both Scotland and the rest of the UK worse off in many different ways and not make things better in any way. Currently the UK punches above its weight in international affairs, Scotland would not gain that and the rest of the UK would lose it. For example the UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is justifiable for more than just historical reasons (Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Lybia) but only tenuously and without Scotland it would be hard to justify it continuing to have a seat. Currently the UK is big enough that when it is necessary for something to be done on the world stage (take action on climate change, stop genocide etc.) then the UK can go ‘Well we are going to do this, who is with us?’ we don’t have to persuade a whole bunch of countries to act in lockstep with us, we can lead[0]. Obviously we then need to persuade other countries to follow us but it is possible to try to lead. I think it is easier to persuade people to follow if they can see that you mean it by your actions than when it can only be words because action is impossible without their help.

Similarly within the EU the UK has a fair bit of influence (for all that David Cameron tries to throw that away). We will not gain any more by being two countries rather than one, Scotland will probably need to reapply for membership post-independence and that might take a few years of sitting out in the cold. Currently when a country needs to take a lead on an issue the UK can do that. It would be hard to see Scotland doing so to the same extent and the rest of the UK’s hand would also be weakened.

A Union was made and formed Great Britain, whatever the perceived legitimacy by current standards of the people involved in making that Union the fact remains that it was made. That was not a temporary treaty or a fair weather thing. That was and is a permanent covenant thing. A sickness and in health, in good economic times and in bad, in peace and war for all time and without end thing. As such it should not be lightly broken. I fail to see what the pressing issue is as to why Britain cannot continue as it is. Some bad things happened in the past long before I was born, why does that even matter? The future is ours to decide and the past remains unchanging whatever revenge is taken for past evil actions they are not undone.

The breaking of a Union would also be a permanent and unalterable thing, not a decision to revisit in 10, 50 or 100 years if it does not work out but one made with finality for all time. While right now the world is a fairly safe place to be as a rich nation [1] that might not always be the case, it certainly has not always been the case. There are many reasons to be uncertain of where the world as a whole will be in 50, 100 or 300 years, let alone thousands of years. This is a decision which needs to be made considering such time-scales rather than just temporary political circumstances.

There have been times when we have stood together when we would not have been able to stand alone. There was a time, still just in living memory when the UK stood alone in Europe, a light against the darkness. Stood and lasted until others came to our aid but only by a very thin margin. Perhaps as allies we could have stood together and lasted, but perhaps disagreements and infighting would have weakened us and a darkness might have fallen across the world. For 300 years we have stood together, one nation against all adversities. Our soldiers have fought together against various foes, bled and died for us, for Britain as much for the mountains of Scotland and Wales as for the hills of England. Should we betray them?

This Union has been sealed with blood in more than one way, in those years people have moved freely between the two and married in each place, there is no real division by race any more. Not that divisions by race really have any meaning any more. What does the colour of the skin matter or where your great great grandparents came from. You are still human.

What then divides us? Not race for there has been much movement between the two. Nor language for British English is spoken in both and variation is greater within each than between them. Nor of geography for the border has been drawn at various places at different times. While different parts of the landscape of each are beautiful in different ways there are places in both where it is hard to tell a Scottish hill for an English or Welsh one and more difference between the Highlands and the Central Belt than between the Central Belt and other parts of England. Nor economics for while the statistics might be different for Scotland as a whole from England as a whole, parts of Scotland match closely with parts of England. You will find places where manufacturing died in both, where tourism is the main industry, where there are high-tech companies or a strong service industry. Is then all that divides us old grudges, memories of past wrongs? Then know this: this is a fallen broken world and the mistakes made by countries and people are many and varied and the depth of the evil that is committed knows few bounds. For life it is necessary to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness: To strive once again to build a better future out of the broken fragments of the past. Fundamentally we are better together and long may we be so.

[0]: Iraq was a terrible illegal mistake but that was not our idea, we were following rather than leading. We also lack the courage to lead as we should on issues like Climate Change.

[1]: To a first approximation no one dies from terrorism in rich nations, our security services do a rather good job at stopping that sort of thing. We should try fixing our road collisions problem that kills many more people.

Voting no to AV is just stupid

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

So that might seem a little insulting but it is a statement of fact rather than of opinion. A few days I thought that AV was simply better than FPTP and so “yes” was obviously the right answer. Further discussion and consideration of the issue moved me to the position that since there were no valid arguments at all in favour of FPTP over AV based on methodology (it is simply better in all respects) anyone voting no was either being stupid (believing the deliberate lies being spread by the no campaign) or immoral (voting no in the belief that by supporting an inferior more unfair voting system they were helping to rig elections in favour of their preferred party). Further consideration has led me to believe that even the immoral argument is invalid and so no one who has carefully thought out the issues can vote no.

Before I can explain why you will first need to have any questions you have about methodology addressed. Is AV actually always better than FPTP? Well yes and Tim Gowers (Cambridge maths professor) has written a rather good blog post about AV vs FPTP which has been getting a lot of mileage among the Cambridge students. Having read that and perhaps thought a little about it you will hopefully come to the conclusion that the only reasons you have left for voting no are the ones that I would call immoral – you want to rig the vote in favour of your party because it is easier to rig the vote so that they win with a minority than to actually persuade people that their policies are better than those of the other parties.

Actually those arguments are just stupid as well, at least in the long term – current MPs can perhaps vote no on the understanding that they are only being immoral and not stupid but for the voter that expects to be around (or care about) elections in 20 or more years time then the short term thinking which results in a no vote being a valid option for immoral reasons is no longer valid.

At this point some people might be thinking “Your a lefty I don’t believe anything you say”[0] to which I will make some Peterhouse specific comments: Nicholas Wilson, Nick Dixon-Clegg, Matthew Wells are Conservatives through and through, and are voting YES to AV because it is fair. Owen Woods is a Socialist and is voting YES to AV because it is better. I as a green/orange lefty kind of person who respects people on the right enough that there are even a couple of people in the Conservative party I would vote for am voting YES to AV because it is fairer and better and there is no other sensible option on the table. This campaign is not a party political one it is a campaign between those who are right and those who are afraid of change even for the better.

Consider the two cases where someone might be intending to vote no based on immoral reasons: they are either a Labour or a Conservative voter and think that AV might harm the chances of their party getting into power so often. Well if you are a Labour voter then as Tim Gowers so eloquently puts it “A LABOUR SUPPORTER VOTING FOR FPTP IS A TURKEY VOTING FOR CHRISTMAS”. However what of the Conservative voter?

Well first I will assume that whichever party you support you think that they are the best party, they have the best policies the best principles and are generally better than all the other choices. (If not why on earth are your supporting them.) Then since they are the best then surely eventually they should win under a fair voting system as it will be clear that their policies and principles are better when discussed rationally, over time historically it will become clear (or be possible to make clear) that if the policies of your favoured party had been adopted on a whole range of issues at a whole range of different points in time then the outcome would have been unequivocally better. What I am saying here is that under a fair system democracy should eventually produce the right result if you are correct in your assertion that your favoured party is the best one. It might take a long time, it won’t be easy and things are dynamic so who the best party is in your eyes might change as its current leadership retire and are replaced – but if you believe in democracy then hopefully you believe that given enough time and effort on the side of the best party then they win. (Perhaps I am assuming more faith in democracy than you have, hopefully you have enough that the rest of the argument follows anyway)

Currently the Conservatives might do better under FPTP than under AV in a (fairly small) number of constituencies because though the majority of people in that constituency don’t want them to win they are split between Labour and Lib Dems as to who they prefer first over the Conservatives though the majority would sill prefer Labour over the Conservatives and Lib Dems over the Conservatives. This is the general problem of split voting and is one of the places that FPTP fails really hard because it does not collect enough information from voters to be able to pick the candidate with the most support since FPTP is designed for and works perfectly fine in situations where there are only 2 candidates and fails utterly when there are more than 2 (and there are always more than 2 candidates in constituency elections – even in the speaker’s seat).
However when picking a voting system we are picking something for the long term, we have had FPTP for over 100 years and Australia has had AV for over 100 years. It is not something that we change all that often and so any time the question does have a chance to be decided it needs to be treated seriously with application of long term thinking.
Currently there is not much of a split on the right while there is a fairly large spit on the left, but who can say for sure that in 20, 50 or 100 years from now the situation might be the other way around. For example UKIP might gain support from Conservative party voters, the Lib Dems might move further right (they are currently in coalition with the Conservatives after all) and so pull voters away from the Conservative party resulting in a split vote on the right while Labour mops up everyone left of centre. Then we could have a situation where Labour gained power and were immovable from it for decades despite having only minority support while parties on the right fought over who was the true party of the right. A Conservative voter might hope that Conservative voters are too sensible to let that happen and perhaps they are right but no one can guarantee that.

So we get to make a choice on the voting system now, and we probably won’t get a chance like this again for a long time. While in the short term it might favour particular parties a little to remain with FPTP, AV is clearly better and no one can know the future well enough to be sure that voting no now won’t result in the party they hate jumping up and down laughing on them for decades with a minority of the vote.

Vote AV unless you are stupid, but then even stupid people should be able to understand simple logical arguments ;-)

[0]: Words to that effect were said to me yesterday fortunately there were some Conservatives around to do the persuading.

P.S. though perhaps you might have found this insulting I don’t make any apologies for that, however it doesn’t mean I don’t still like you as a person, I just think you are provably wrong or a little immoral.

“How do you think higher education should be funded?”

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

I am currently considering this question as the Peterhouse JCR is in the process of running a referendum and this is the first and most important question on that referendum the purpose of which is to determine how Peterhouse should vote at the next CUSU Council meeting.
The possible options are:

  1. Raised tuition fees
  2. A graduate tax
  3. Offer fewer university places / close down less well performing Universities
  4. Higher universal taxation
  5. Cuts to other public services instead
  6. Other / Abstain

However there are more fundamental underlying questions which need to be considered:
What are the purposes of University?
Why are those good purposes?
How well does University achieve those purposes?
What value to we place on outcomes beyond the simple increase in potential earnings such as on producing better adjusted individuals with improved support networks who are better able to play their part in society?
Should ‘Universities’ which are ‘rubbish’ and don’t actually provide ‘proper’ degrees be called Universities? (No clearly not: they should be called polytechnics or similar and not offer degrees but rather more flexible qualifications which actually fit the useful things they are there to teach)
Should these polytechnics exist? Should they receive government funding in the way that Universities do?
Is University the best way of teaching people the skills they need for work in areas such as Engineering and Computer Science? Does that matter?

Clearly a graduate tax is a stupid idea because it would mean that anyone we educated and who then left the country to work abroad would not pay for the cost of their education – and that many people would do this, particularly among the highest earners. It also does not provide the money directly to the universities which educated them and would instead go to some general pot and so not reward universities for how good they were at educating their students (from the point of view of earning potential).

Offering fewer university places / close down less well performing Universities… well to Cambridge students that seems like a rather appealing option (and it is the favourite to win the JCR vote). However it is important to ensure that we are not thinking that this is a good plan simply because it means that University funding becomes an issue affecting other people at other Universities rather than us which is easy to do on a subconscious level and to then justify on a concious one. One justification is that we know that our friends and fellow pupils at school did not always work as hard as we did in order to get where we have got and so why should they be supported at our expense? Clearly we put more work in than they did. However the question of what the value of University is to both society and individuals even if the University doesn’t manage to teach the individual anything is one for which I don’t have an answer. Putting concrete values on externalities is not something which we are particularly good at as a society. I should probably study some more economics in order to get better at doing so.
The problem with this point then is that while it seems appealing on a superficial level I worry that in the grander scheme of things it might not be such a good idea. For example how would reducing the number of university places be managed? Remove the same proportion from all universities? Clearly that would be a stupid idea as it places no value on the relative quality of teaching at different universities. We don’t want those who should go to University missing out due to lack of places in good universities while those who probably shouldn’t get in to the lower quality ones. How about making the number of places available on a course be dependent on how many people applied for it? So that for example if 200 people apply then a maximum of 100 places can be funded. However there might be problems with that if there are good courses which only appeal/accept candidates from a small pool of potential applicants and so most of those who apply should get a place as they are sufficiently brilliant.

Higher universal taxation? Well here we have to consider whether the benefit of university is for society as a whole than to the individuals directly as otherwise it is perhaps not fair to make everyone pay more. Here again I think we struggle to be able to make good decisions on what proportion of university funding for teaching should come from the students and what proportion from general taxation due to the lack of a function for determining the value of university and apportioning that to individuals and society as a whole.

Raised tuition fees? Clearly this is controversial for students as it affects us most directly and does cause real problems for students. It is thus perfectly understandable that many students and their representatives vehemently oppose tuition fees in general and their increase in particular. As per one of the CUSU motions “Education is a public good” which is true but to be able to weigh its value against that of other government expenditure we need some way of measuring relative worth of different public goods which I don’t think we have. At least not in a clear manner which allows decisions to be reached which don’t appear to be simply arbitrary. Instead long discussions are had and long articles written which skirt around the edges of issues and are dissatisfying in not being able to deal with these issues directly.[0]
However here it is perhaps useful to consider that compared with private secondary education University is still cheap even with increased tuition fees to £7,000. A private day secondary school could easily be charging in excess of £9,000 a year and at least in comparison to Cambridge not be providing nearly as high a quality of education. A private boarding school could easily be charging £26,000 a year per student. The cost my going to University per year is ~£10,000 including tuition fees, rent etc. this is significantly less than what my parents were paying for my sixth form education even with the 20% scholarship. My parents could still pay for the full costs of my university education if it was ~£14,000 instead and then I walk out with a degree and no debt… This only applies to a small minority of students though and somewhere around University children need to become adults and stop relying on parents for all supplies of funding. I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that there are students who have parents who could easily pay the higher fees (or even higher still fees) and not really be affected by doing so, however it is unfortunately probably not feasible to identify who these students are. Higher levels of debt are likely to put off students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying which is a serious concern as it is very important to find those people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the ability to perform and give them a helping hand to make sure that they can perform to the best of that ability.

Of the CUSU motions a and c seem reasonable, b is poorly worded and says things which are blatantly wrong and d makes some good points but also some silly ones and some of its action points seem unrelated to solving the issues identified. E which the JCR as a whole is not voting on also appears to be reasonable.

Peterhouse JCR people: Vote. Everyone else: vote early, vote often.

Apologies for the unsystematic and poorly written brain dump, really I should go back through this and rewrite it…

[0]: Here I am thinking back to discussions I had last night relating to the difficulty of expressing and discussing truly important things compared to the ease and simplicity of discussing trivialities.