Forging the Iron Lady with Terrence Casey

This could be the venue, or it could be the set for an upcoming Ken Loach remake of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Having attended quite a few guest speeches by this point, I expected tonight’s to fit into the familiar mould. I was a little thrown-off, as were the those in charge, to find that the fixed tiers of seats in the lecture hall were folded away at the back wall and instead we were circled around a splatter of smaller tables. In retrospect it felt a misstep to wear a business suit to the occasion.

This was the Annual Norton Lecture, delivered by Professor Terrence Casey of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Trying very hard to minimise his references to Trump or Brexit, he spoke to us about the turbulent politics of the 1970s and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

As someone who has watched a lot of old documentaries about British politics, as well as listened to a lot of Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures for Gresham College, I was on familiar ground for much of the talk. Casey took us through the story of how the post-war economic consensus broke down through the tenure’s of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, from the imposition of far-reaching price controls in 1972 to the Winter of Discontent in 1979. There was also the concurrent parliamentary story of the “Who Governs?” election, followed by Wilson’s achievement of a very slim majority, then the pacts with the Liberals when that got worn away.

The more original parts of the lecture (from my perspective at least) were on the backstage parts of the story – how policies were formulated and parties managed. Casey was keen to stress that the Margaret Thatcher of 1970, newly appointed as Secretary of State for Education & Science, was a far cry from the character that exists in public memory now. At that point, the notion of her ever becoming prime minister, let alone the godmother of a new political age, would have been considered farcical. Her emergence as a right-wing firebrand, he said, was more by a series of random chances (such as Callaghan’s decision against an election in 1978, or the backbench resentment of Heath in 1975) than by any divine ordination.

Casey rejected the idea that “Neoliberalism” – a term rarely spoken kindly but rather spat out in contempt by those who use it at all – was thrust upon the unwilling masses in an unethical manner by a nefarious elite. Instead he described it as the natural result of the masses falling out of love with the Keynesian regime that had prevailed before and looking for an alternative solution which the Thatcherite faction – with particular mention of Sir Keith Joseph – provided them. He also noted that whereas the throwing out of what is sometimes called Butskellism occurred quite rapidly after the economic breakdown and industrial unrest of the 1970s, the backlash against Blatcherism ensuing from the 2008 credit crunch took a much longer time to result in any serious change of course from the governments of the nations affected.

In the lengthy question & answer session which followed, I asked Professor Casey the same question which I had put to Paul Danahar ten months ago – When does he last remember politics being normal? He replied that there could never be a clear single cause or moment identified, but that the tide would have been turned by the culmination of many small factors. He also reassured us that although he had singled out the nineteen-seventies and the new tens for the purpose of his speech tonight he was aware of many other much rougher times in public discourse, all of which society survived mostly intact.

The Bits Between

Black Rod dealt with denser traffic.

Over the last few years, in which I have moved from secondary to tertiary education, I have become ever more aware of those unusual transitional times between academic terms. There was once a clear distinction: One would be at school while everyone else was there, and all would be at work according to a pre-planned schedule, otherwise everyone would be at home. Nowadays there tends to be an odd interlayer where it is possible to physically inhabit the place of education without there actually being any formal education going on.

My first glimpses at this occurred on a few occasions when I would be part of a school trip with small groups of other pupils. The destinations were sometimes a long distance away, requiring us to set off in the early morning before everybody else arrived and return after they had left. That meant we saw the buildings in a different light – quite literally, in some cases. Rather than bustling with students, the internal spaces would be populated only by a few cleaning staff. Corridors might be in pitch darkness, and chairs would be stacked on top of tables. The territory was at once familiar and alien. GCSE study leave – for many the end of secondary education – amplified this sensation, as one’s self and one’s own classmates could be outside of the regular timetable even while they could hear the lower years going about their normal business. At certain points it almost felt like being a ghost of an earlier time who haunted future generations.

At Wilberforce I, being a student governor, sometimes had to be on site at unusual hours for meetings. This added a new component to the oddity, for not only did the space feel different but there would be different people present also. A further change occurred whenever special revision sessions would be held during holiday periods – at which we would have to go in through the delivery gate because the proper entrance was closed.

Now I that I am at university, I sometimes wonder if the normal and abnormal have swapped around. Of the fifty-two weeks in a calendar year, only twenty-four are used for teaching. Further, the exam period and the settling-in week on either side of a lengthy summer break mean that over four months have passed since I last attended a lecture. The winter break is much smaller at around six weeks from the middle of December to the end of January. One major difference between school and university is that one would rarely attend the former at evenings or weekends. These short times exhibit the heterotopic effect in microcosm, especially if darkness has fallen in the sky, though often there is sufficient inertia to prevent the hubbub of activity from wholly disappearing in the brief time before it is summoned back.

A particularly strong indicator is the state of the institution’s intranet services, be they Virtual Learning Environments, file-sharing services or even just internal email. During ordinary times they assault their members with a blizzard of notices, notifications, announcements and communiques. During the odd times they can shut down very suddenly and remain static for weeks or even months on end. Right now I am noticing a sudden burst of activity on my university’s applications after a long period of silence, indicating that normality is soon to return. Such a phenomenon is akin to the first buds of a spring and the melting of long-established ice. The resumption of normal affairs is often more disruptive to the spirit than their cessation, for by then one can have become accustomed to having free roam in a wide empty realm, and thus struggle to adjust back to structured interactions with masses of others.

Fear not, for the cycle is deceptively fast, and it is not long before the liberty of loneliness is in full force again.

Farewell to Cottingham

Compared to other students who live in far off regions of the country, or indeed the world, university was no great distance away for me. Even so, the years I spent getting up at the crack of dawn for school and college convinced me that moving closer to campus would still be preferable to more long commutes.

In recent years Hull has constructed much new and lavish accommodation for its undergraduates, which it is keen to advertise to its applicants. There are also several private companies dotted around the campus offering homes to students. Since I accepted my offer at short notice it quickly became apparent that all of the more prestigious lodgings had been taken. In a fraught telephone exchange I was told that I could be offered a temporary dwelling on a camp bed until a space opened up somewhere else. A day later I was contacted again to say that a vacancy had been found at Ferens Hall. Through quick research online (mostly on The Student Room), I discovered that this was generally considered the least desirable of The Lawns’s buildings, the few compliments being reserved specifically for the recently-refurbished M block which I did not occupy.

In fact, my room turned out to be the perfect location, as I was opposite a bathroom and beside a kitchenette, as well as having one of the shortest walks to either the dining hall or the main road. Each shopping trip might have been up to ten minutes shorter than that endured by a resident of Grant Hall at the other end of the complex. Most importantly, for an undergraduate at least, it must have been some of the cheapest student accommodation in Britain.

One notable anecdote is of Christmas 2017 when Colin Colborn, the hall’s warden, invited residents to a film quiz. I was partnered with his daughter, and we were the winning team, which I found surprising given that I haven’t been to a cinema for about a decade.

That said, there were certain issues: The dining facilities consisted a small kitchenette on the first and second floor of each block, plus a proper kitchen directly under my bedroom which was apparently shared with two neighbouring blocks. This arrangement proved woefully inefficient as a cooked meal had often had to be carried back to one’s own room for lack of sitting space. There were also persistent problems with stiff windows that either jammed open in winter or closed in summer. Then there was the time that part of a ceiling spontaneously collapsed, though luckily few people were in the building at the time.

That hall was removed from the options list after 2018, as the university planned to sell it off. In the event it still ended up being used for temporary accommodation in the first few weeks of this academic year because some of the newer buildings on campus were not finished on time. By the winter it had become a ghost hall, with all the rooms empty but, for some reason, many lights left on, including new desktop lamps which projected ghostly white spots into the night.

For my second year I went to Lambert Hall. I chose it specifically because it was the one closest to where I had been before. In the autumn of 2018 there were several occasions on which I absentmindedly wandered back to my old door at Ferens and wondered why the key didn’t fit.

The experience here has been different, as it is easier to establish a sense of community with split levels and wide landings instead on discrete floors and narrow corridors. Whereas Ferens was built in the traditional quadrangle shape, the others are built in a more experimental design. Another distinction is that nearly every room has a small balcony, which sometimes gives the impression of being in a holiday camp. The much larger kitchen provisions also helped.

In my earlier posts I have noted the transitory presence which a student body constitutes, and how this is particularly true of Hull due to its major reorganisations and redevelopments in the last few years. Threads and discussions from as late as 2013 can already feel like archives from a lifetime ago, and therefore public records can be seriously out of date. In particular I notice references to the use of lounges and common rooms in the individual halls, but I would never experience this in my own time. During my time at Ferens I took every opportunity to sneak into all the other blocks in search of the place I had seen pictured on Wikimedia Commons from ten years before my arrival. I never found it. I can only assume that it was obliterated long ago. For the other halls the common rooms can be seen but not accessed. Through the windows I often saw that they were being used for storage of spare bedding. Opposite can be seen other locked doors with faded signage marking them as the entrance to laundry rooms, and next to them are empty post racks. All of these facilities have been transferred to The Lawns Centre. Notably I have often seen the lights on in Reckitt Hall’s common room as well as reasonably modern-looking books on the shelves, but never anybody in there.

Throughout the few years the university has been focusing all of its efforts, and the students all their demands, on the central campus. This means that the satellite facilities have suffered a slow death. Returning last September, I and my fellow residents noticed that our little commune was much quieter than it had been the previous year, with several blocks across the site being unoccupied. One could walk the other halls and peer through the windows to see bare shelves and uncovered blue mattresses. This spring we received letters to tell us that, since only a small handful of students had applied to live here in the 2019-2020 term, the whole site would be closed down and sold off. This follows the closure of nearby Needler Hall in 2016 (I witnessed it being demolished and rebuilt as an Aldi.) and Thwaite Hall in 2017 (still sitting there, boarded up and waiting for sale). The secondary campus in Scarborough appears to have suffered a similar fate. I have the odd distinction of being the last occupant of my hall two years in a row.

I have stayed on later than most other students, the majority of whom were quick to depart once their examinations concluded. For the last fortnight I have continually seen parents driving in to collect their offspring, and trudging past my window with suitcases whose tiny wheels dragged noisily over the undulated path. Eventually I found myself all alone in a house and park strewn with other people’s abandoned leftovers. Still, I got my money’s worth out of it.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Course Representative Forum (May)

With only one week of teaching left to go before the summer exam period, we were given a short-notice summons to the final forum of this academic year. We had few new issues to discuss, so the conversation was mainly about rounding off what had been accomplished in prior sessions.

This was Isobel Hall’s last forum as President of Education. In the autumn she will be taking on the presidency of the whole student union. She expressed sadness at giving up her “baby”, but was also proud that she had managed to secure an increased printing budget for students.

Certain issues had not changed – there were still complaints that the timetable website was inefficient and that the calendar application didn’t work. The faculty hubs continued to be a target of students’ scorn.

Our deliberations trailed off at certain points whenever we were distracted by the large lemon and chocolate cream cakes which had been supplied. Our president humorously suggested that next year there ought to be a database of which sorts of confectionery would be offered at each forum so that we could compare the effect on attendance.

At the end of the session we were given coloured luggage tags to hang on a model tree – each one inscribed with what we had achieved over the course of the year. Someone managed to suggest the idea of a group photograph in front of it, though the image does not yet seem to have been released.

This is the end of the SubjectRep series. With any luck the sequel will premiere at some point in September.

There are still more types of cake to try, after all!

Student Staff Forum (April 2019)

This is the right room, isn’t it?

For the final time in this academic year, course representatives for all years in mathematics convened to discuss grievances with the faculty. I arrived early and spent several minutes moving the tables and chairs to befit a conference rather than a class.

As is usual, we had little business to discuss and the meeting adjourned after barely one third of the allotted time.

The most prominent talking point was the positioning of our examinations, both spatially and temporally. Students were not happy at the prospect of using the Allam Medical Building, where they would have to balance their pencil cases, question sheets, answer booklets and identity cards on one tiny folding table. Some were also anxious that multiple tests would be placed within the same week, giving little breathing time in between.

We had the usual round of gripes about certain lecturers. A consensus emerged that students wanted their course leaders to be more consistent about putting lecture notes and assignments on Canvas.

I inquired as to the outcome of the faculty reorganization, and was told that essentially the old departments had reformed, so that much of the outdated signage is now in fashion again and the schools system to which my cohort were introduced in 2017 will likely be seen as a minor blip in years to come.

With the conversation fizzling out I was left to put the furniture back in its normal arrangement. I have not yet decided whether to run for this position again in the next academic year, nor even if it will still exist under the same name, so today’s forum could prove to be conclusion of this series.

Course Representative Forum (February)

Actually, that looks more like paper to me.

Today I attended another forum for the course representatives, for which the key topics were Canvas, the library, and access to constituents.

Michelle Anderson, the university librarian, was our guest speaker. The gimmick of her presentation, this being near St Valentine’s Day, was that attendees were asked to write love letters to the library extolling its virtues, or alternatively breakup letters articulating its shortcomings. Generally the negative sentiments focused on the building environment, with calls for water fountains, toilets and lifts to be cleaned more frequently as well as for more furniture to be more ergonomic. There were several calls for more quiet study spaces, though the frustration here seemed to be aimed more at other students than at the facility’s administration.

On the topic of Canvas, we were put in small groups and made to produce mindmaps of our likes and dislikes. Several delegates expressed a desire for the teachers within a faculty – or perhaps the whole university – to be more consistent in their use of the system. Currently there are some lecturers who put all their files and assignments online whereas others have left their pages practically empty. There were also complaints of the sidebars being cluttered with trivial messages for weeks on end.

Turning to the issue of representation, I found that I had little to contribute as my own coursemates have very rarely contacted me directly over issues that relate to my portfolio, so I have not been required to pursue any particularly onerous campaigns on their behalf.

Overall this meeting proved fairly unremarkable. There was, of course, plenty of cake.

From the Axis of Evil to Trumpland

A mere five days after hearing a lecture on Brexit, I went to hear about the other half of the present day’s news obsession – Donald Trump.

The university’s alumni association runs a programme called “Inspired in Hull”, whereby former students who have risen to prominence are called back to give their life stories before their successors. So far I have attended five of these events, though unfortunately I never got around to logging them here. They were Democracy & Theatre by playwright James Graham (8th February), From Hull to Hogwarts by illustrator Olivia Lomenech Gill (9th March), From Hull to the Cosmos by philanthropist Dill Faulkes (3rd May), Breaking open the Boardroom with businesswoman Denise Wilson, and most recently this one by journalist Paul Danahar.

Paul began his story with an anecdote from 15 years ago in central Baghdad, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein when he had to flag down an approaching American tank with nothing but a dirty hotel tablecloth. He said that he had witnessed many key historical events, including wars, revolutions and natural disasters. After being kidnapped, deported and fired upon several times, he decided that life might be quieter if he left his role in the Middle East and took up the role in Washington D. C. instead. But then, in his words “Donald Trump came down an escalator… it’s been quite busy since then.”.

Mr Danahar matriculated at this university in 1985, studying physics. He was the first of his family to go to university and arrived with a narrow view of the world and his career path. He joined the university newspaper over the objections of the English students who ran it and eventually went to work for BBC Radio Humberside. He described his path from Hull to Leeds to London, through India, South Africa, Beijing and Jerusalem before finally winding up where he wanted to be.

Paul described his work as the study of how decisions (and equally non-decisions) made in Washington would affect the rest of the world. He travelled through Afghanistan during the late 1990s and was in place to see the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Lately he has seen how decades of carefully lain international agreements can be casually destroyed by the upload of a few words online.

The rise of social media changed the nature of political journalism, especially the Arab Spring in 2011. Dictatorship, said Paul, relies on state control of the media – the party line and the face of the dear leader must be plastered on every public surface. The internet changed this, allowing young revolutionaries to organise a decentralised campaign. The establishment’s traditional strategy of capturing or bribing the leaders failed, because there were none. This could, however, prove to be the downfall of the revolution at a later stage, for there was no clear authority figure to succeed the ousted tyrants. The opposition “thrived on the adrenaline of revolt, but quickly got bored of the tediousness of government.” This loss of passion on behalf of the masses allowed their tormentors to return, consolidate their power, and snuff out those who had once threatened them.

Our alumnus lamented that it was easy to be passionate about politics while at university – when one has the time and the inclination to imagine a better world – but that the best and brightest among his audience would probably go elsewhere in search of more fulfilling lives. In his view, the statesmen of recent decades were neither best nor brightest, and rather than conspiracy or corruption most of the problems in the world today were caused by mere incompetence.

Paul then gave a somewhat ominous warning to his young attendees that they should not lose their voice upon graduation, assume someone else will fix everything, convince themselves that voting does not matter, or put blind faith in those who sought power on their behalf. “Shouting into the echo chamber of Twitter might feel good, but unless you use social media to organise – not rant – you will find that others use it to war.” He noted that in recent years fascists and other authoritarians around the world had gotten to grips with the internet and were using it to destabilise civilisation.

To contrast, Danahar spoke about his visit to the technologically-retarded North Korea. The capital of Pyongyang had bus queues into the hundreds and public buildings unheated through the depths of winter. As a foreign guest he was accompanied everywhere by two minders – they would monitor him as well as each other. China was a little different: there were unmarked policemen with umbrellas who would obstruct the view of news cameras. In Iraq the reporters could sometimes incapacitate their minders with a heavy meal, but in North Korea this was not possible. They will, however, do anything for whiskey. Paul briefly managed to interact with some civilian locals during a bowling tournament, but this was swiftly interrupted by a power cut.

Our inspired guest went on to recall his time in Jerusalem as Chairman of the Middle East Foreign Press Association. There the media were regularly harassed by the public and by political campaign groups. Death threats and abusive comments were commonplace. In particular, Mr Danahar highlighted the different ways in which domestic and international press covered conflicts in that region – the former would show graphic violence in all its gruesome glory whereas the latter would focus on dry statistics. This difference in coverage led to a divergence of Eastern and Western perspectives, so that the former think of the latter as detached and uncaring. He also said that there was a “blame game” around the reporting of these statistics (fights over “children died” versus “children were killed”, for example) with pressure groups hoping to harass the media into silence.

China went to the other extreme: In Paul’s experience, you only knew you had displeased the government when the already slow bureaucracy ground to a complete standstill and one could get no work done. If anything it was a delight to hear locals criticise your coverage, because that at least was proof that somebody could see it. Foreign press is heavily censored in China, and officials will even give out transcripts of interviews with inconvenient segments excised. He was keen to stress how hard it was to comprehend that country’s culture, even if you had some contacts and knowledge of the language.

It was at this point our guest moved to the United States. He claimed many of us forget that, although their tongue is the same as ours and we consume a lot of their media, America is still a very foreign country – a fact exemplified by the accession of Donald John Trump. Danahar told us that journalism in D.C. was “like trying to drink from a fire hose” in that reporters struggle to focus on matters of true importance when bombarded by the daily torrent of scandals and controversies which emanate from the White House. Many of this administration’s high level appointments have gone to hugely unsuitable people, and there is no unified voice from the executive – the president and his underlings will regularly produce antonymous assertions in their statements and briefings to the press, the public and each other.

We were treated to a case study regarding the United Nations General Assembly: Trump arrived late, then spent his speech inflating his own ego, then flatly denied the mockery he received from his foreign counterparts, insisting they laughed with him rather than at him. The pernicious part of this fiasco was that while most of the world had the true version of events reported, Trump’s domestic supporters knew only his take. Through their social media routines they filtered out the more critical evaluations. The president is able to communicate directly to his rural voter base without interference by the traditional channels, meaning that his supporters have no alternative worldview supplied to them. As a result, they believe Trump to be trustworthy and dismiss reports of his incompetence as enemy propaganda. Despite what most professional commentators would say, the president’s supporters believe him to be staying true to his campaign promises. They are correct with regard to tax cuts, immigration control, and shedding of environmental promises. They deny, or remain unaware of, the many areas on which he lied or failed.

That said, our guest did not hold America’s traditional news organisations in high regard either Most of them have become firmly entrenched as agents of either the government (Fox) or the resistance (CNN). Their motivation for this is financial rather than moral, for their ratings – and consequently revenue – have shot up in the last few years as Americans have turned on each other. How one communicates with the White House has also changed. Whereas professional observers would once have spent hours speculating over Barack Obama’s inner thoughts, nowadays the general public can know Donald Trump’s convictions before his own cabinet do. Danahar singled out the particularly tragi-comical example of the Honourable Rex Tillerson, formerly Secretary of State: He did not use Twitter himself, so had an aide print out his leader’s bulletins for him to read. One of these was the announcement of his own dismissal. Paul brought up the abnormally high frequency of leaks from high office. He put it down to the lack of any unifying creed between Trump’s officials. Many of them had accepted his invitations purely for personal gain, having previously languished in political obscurity. Once in office they dedicated much time and effort to lashing out at their colleagues in a battle for predominance and presidential favour. Another source of informational incontinence is what Trump calls the “deep state”. These are lower level officials who are firmly opposed to his policies and deliberately sabotage his every move, hoping to save the United States from its own president. Danahar notes that many on the left, despite their democratic principles, seem to favour this approach: They despise the current president so much that they would permit his removal by coup.

Paul’s friends in the media have accepted that this daily torrent of outrage and scandal will not subside while the current presidency lasts. To answer the inevitable question, he predicted that Trump could indeed secure a second term of office. The support among the president’s base has endured, and he has been seen to deliver on many of his campaign promises. Paul also predicted that the Democrats would still be in denial by 2020, and would pick a candidate who might have won last time around – such as Bernie Sanders – rather than one for the present.

To round up his speech, Mr Danahar turned to how he had indeed been inspired by the university, city and people of Kingston-Upon-Hull. He told his student audience that though the best years of our lives remained ahead, this time would be the most transformational. University would shape us for decades in the future.

There then followed the question and answer session. Again, I got the very last one and again the answer was a little off-point: In the last few years many newspapers, broadcasts and comments thereon, both in Britain and abroad, have alluded to a decline in the standards of political discourse and behaviour. This is not solely about Trump – it also relates to our withdrawal from the European Union, the rise of the Islamic State and the emergence of far right figures many formerly stable nations. I have found many people despairing at the rapid decline of democracy and discourse. Frequently their are remarks to the effect that “reality has ended” or that we have entered a new political dark age. One particularly illustrative example is The Thick of It. The series was still airing as late as October 2012 and was at the time considered the peak of cynical satire, with its unfiltered profanity and its dark, desperate atmosphere. By 2016, Armando Iannucci was already saying that it could never be renewed – real life has moved beyond parody. I wanted to know precisely when, in Paul’s mind, the cut-off point had been. When did he consider politics to have last been “normal”?

My question triggered much nervous chuckling from the audience and the speaker asked sarcastically how much time he had available. He pointed to the late George Bush senior’s presidency as a time when one had opponents rather than enemies, a fact which changed during the Clinton years thanks to the work of Newt Gingrich. He was not the first to make this observations. He said that the office has never recovered from the damage of the Lewinsky scandal, even with the impeccable behaviour of Barack Obama. He said the bar nowadays is much lower than it had been in the past – where once Howard Dean had ruined his bid with one inappropriate shriek, now Trump could brag about groping women and still wind up successful (he’s not the first to make this comparison either). Paul predicted that this change in standards could lead to more people of great wealth from outside the mainstream parties to run for office on their own steam, with better but poorer candidates being forced out as a result. In particular, he said that someone like Ross Perot might have a decent chance of victory if he ran again today, for the political environment has changed to favour him.

Finally, the event drew to a close. Paul was given another round of applause and handed the traditional goody bag of university merchandise. The audience withdrew from the lecture theatre to navigate home through the darkness which had fallen outside. This is the penultimate teaching week, so the semester is winding down. I am sure that there will be a further series of Inspired in Hull lectures in the new year, but that is a story for another post.

EXTERNAL LINKS

What Brexit Tells Us About The British

I think I left the oven on.

The Institute of Applied Ethics is a subdivision of the School of Histories, Languages and Cultural Research. Tonight it put on a talk by Professor Danny Dorling of St Peter’s College, Oxford. He came to show us his statistical research into the demography of the EU referendum two years ago and the history of Britain’s political consciousness. He also plugged his upcoming book Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, written in collaboration with Professor Sally Tomlinson. The event started late, as there had been an unexpectedly large audience signing up and so the venue had been changed at late notice.

The director of the institute, Professor James Connelly, introduced Dorling as a forefront thinker on the left. From this alone one could probably guess the general theme of the presentation and indeed Dorling himself gave a similar “warning” by starting with a slideshow of graphics used in his book – many of them relating to the British Empire and immigration.

Dorling attempted to counter some of the conventional wisdom which has emerged during the last few years concerning the circumstances of Britain’s withdrawal. In particular he drew our attention to a common assertion that people in deprived areas were more likely to vote Leave and those in wealthy areas to vote Remain. He said that, under statistical analysis, the correlation between deprivation and Euroscepticism was only 3%, whereas an 80% correlation could be found for obesity (not because Leave voters themselves were necessarily overweight, but because Remain-voting districts had higher concentrations of disproportionately slim foreigners). Dorling speculated as to why the referendum result had been misrepresented this way, and ultimately  suggested that the affluent leave-voting districts in the home counties included the parents of prominent television and newspaper journalists who – being based in cosmopolitan, Remain-voting London – decided to pin the referendum outcome on supposed northern backwaters instead.

The speaker also asserted that widespread Eurosceptic sentiment in Britain was a fairly recent phenomenon whipped up by certain self-interested media outlets. He displayed some very complicated graphs to show that the European Union had been a fairly low priority on most voters’ minds for most of the last decade.

For the bulk of his speech, Dorling emphasised the difference in political culture between the United Kingdom and the rest of the member states. He stated that, contrary to perceptions of fascism engulfing the continent, it was actually Britain which most supported the far right. Sensing that the audience’s doubt of his bold assertion, he explained that the Conservative MEPs had, in late 2009, broken away from the European People’s Party group to form the European Conservatives & Reformists group, which lay to the political right. In the 2014 election UKIP, which was in the group Europe of Freedom & Democracy, won 26.6% of the British vote and returned 24 members. The Conservatives won 23.1% and 19 members. The British National Party, the English Democrats and Britain First also contested the election, failing to win any seats but collectively garnering about 2% of the vote. From this Professor Dorling concluded that Britain, uniquely among members states, had given the majority of its votes and seats to far right parties. This analysis has some obvious shortcomings – it relies on defining “Far Right” in the most technical and elementary sense rather than the way most observers would understand it – but it does go to show that the political atmosphere in this country is very different to that in those it neighbours.

The rest of the talk followed much of the path that one would expect a presentation by a left-wing Europhile to take: Dorling expounded on the unusual level of economic inequality in Britain and suggested that the Leave vote was built on the public’s misdirected anger at social immobility. He noted that the protest vote against immigration was highest in areas with very few immigrants, implying that many Brexiters’ perceptions were based on racist hearsay rather than real experience.He also speculated on the role of education decades back, with references to old textbooks which explained Britain’s history in a manner politically correct for the pre-war era but less than palatable now, suggesting that older voters still harboured under delusions of imperial entitlement. As expected, our speaker took a swipe at private schools and elite universities, saying that they were designed to churn out an empire-ruling establishment. He disparaged the interview system for Oxford and Cambridge on the grounds that they allowed the personal biases of the interviewers to override a candidate’s objective merits. He even postulated that well-qualified applicants were turned down for being too fat.

Surely I wasn’t declined on that basis?

The talk wound up with a question and answer session. An audience member asked Professor Dorling to predict the next few years in British politics. Dorling suggested that Theresa May would step down before the next general election, with the plausible excuse of failing health, and hand the leadership to someone untainted by the departure process. He also hoped that Jeremy Corbyn would suffer a convenient stroke at some point and be replaced by a younger female (he didn’t much care which) who would then go on to head up a coalition with the Scottish National Party.

The microphone came my way for the final question. I asked if the professor thought that the much-decried London-centrism of Britain’s media and journalism had contributed to widescale misperceptions of the country’s demography. He didn’t quite answer my main query, but said it was a tragedy that the Guardian had left Manchester, and recommended that the capital be relocated somewhere near the Birmingham intersection of High Speed 2 so that the existing architecture could be opened up for tourism – an industry which he predicted to boom in the coming years as foreigners took advantage of the inevitable falling of the Pound Sterling.

FURTHER READING

Course Representative Forum (November)

Over there is my house!

Today I attended the second forum of this academic year. This time the meeting followed a more conventional format with officials making speeches and being asked questions.

Our guest speaker was Ian Aylett, leader of the scheduling team. Somehow, it is always the timetabling that is a student’s predominant grievance. Some of my colleagues complained of having large gaps between early and late lectures, requiring them to sit idle on campus for much of the day. Others protested at having blocks of more than four hours consecutively. Mr Aylett showed us the inner workings of the timetabling software, Scientia. Released in 1995, this program is older than most of the undergraduates – indeed, older than the county. A new package is due to be released a few years from now, so the current design is not set for much improvement. Students asked why the lecture timetables and examination timetables had to be delivered by separate services. The formal conduct of the session briefly dissolved as a few of the computer science students told those present of how they could synchronize the Scientia timetable with their Google Calendar. To assist this, they directed us to a helpful post on InfinityFlame, run by their classmate (and, coincidentally, my long-ago school bus companion) Aidan Crane.

The next segment of the forum concerned assignments and the student hubs. Several of the members present were displeased at having multiple deadlines on the same day – a gripe which some of my own constituency have also made. The hubs remain controversial. Several months ago the union held an ill-publicized referendum on reverting to the old department system, but it was invalidated by poor turnout. Tales were relayed to us of students going to their respective hubs and not getting answers. Those dissatisfied with the hub system were keen to see another referendum held immediately and reforms pushed through before the students with knowledge of the prior system aged out of the electorate.

That done, President Hall showed us a selection of newspaper headlines and made sure we were informed of national issues regarding higher education. In particular she highlighted the fierce competition between institutions for new undergraduates and a warning that some universities were on the brink of bankruptcy. In a more positive development, she reported that her campaign to increase students’ printing allowance had been successful.

The next proper forum is scheduled for February, though there will also be a Christmas event in two weeks. The date for the next student-staff forum is not yet known.

Course Representative Forum (October)

IMG_3018As the month drew to a close, I attended my first forum of the academic year. The format was rather different to that of the sessions I described in earlier posts here.

Congregating again on the ground floor of the library, we were arranged not in rows but in squares, with pamphlets and post-it notes. After a short ice-breaking activity in which we introduced ourselves to our immediate neighbours (and then in turn described said neighbours to everyone else), we were shown a slideshow about the details of our roles and asked to have group discussions about how we would carry out our mandate. In particular we were shown an organisation chart explaining the hierarchy of the education zone within the student union. We were also taught about the union money available for campaigns (examples given were campaigns to increase printing credits and reduce paper usage in assignments).

There followed a rather confusing exercise – one which President Hall claimed to have copied from a conference she attended some days ago – in which we were given small cards inscribed with examples of things which people at various levels in the hierarchy would be expected to do, and told to arrange them according to how well we thought they were being done. The exercise was confusing because the cards were written in such opaquely bureaucratic language that many of us found them unintelligible. I wish I could recant some examples here, but unfortunately they have proven impossible to commit to memory.

Finally we got to the key theme of this forum, which was – as one might have guessed – timetabling. In a powerfully ironic turn events the registrar, Jeannette Strachan, was not able to appear at the forum in person, so instead we were told to write down our complaints which the president would pass on to her at a private meeting on Friday. The representatives were dispersed and regrouped based on their faculties and told to share their thoughts on the topic. The usual issues arose – online applications not working, websites stalling, rooms being chopped and changed at short notice and even students finding themselves assigned to the wrong course. Our grumbling match was cut short after about ten minutes, though it likely could have lasted several hours.

We returned to our original seats for a closing activity – writing down what we were proud to have achieved in our representative capacity so far and what we wanted to accomplish in the future. For some of us this provoked an awkward moment of soul-searching.

Today’s forum was a distinctly different experience from those which I had last year. Only time will tell if this represents a mere introductory anomaly or a permanent change. Most of all though, I am pleased to see the return of the refreshment table to the flank of our proceedings.

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Three kinds of cake! It’s a wonder Norton doesn’t come to these.