Joyful words at parting spoken…a day at The Leys School

The Leys School by Norman Wilkinson (c1938)

Reunions are full of nostalgia and the recent one for pupils of The Leys School from the 1950s and the 1960s was no exception. My first term at the school was Autumn 1959 so I fell pretty much in the middle of the group age-wise. We all looked reasonably prosperous this week though none of us was quite the same shape as we had been fifty or sixty years earlier.

Key to the nostalgia were the buildings. The Kings Building (above) was the same as it had been when Norman Wilkinson captured it eighty plus years ago. The same applied to my own House, East, which viewed from outside seemed identical. Indeed the same as it was when my father was one of its first inhabitants in 1930.

East House (left) and the Music Centre

The other building in the photograph is the “new” Music Centre a superbly equipped place where students can study any instrument (including the bagpipes!) and play in world class music rooms.

The Grand Hall, now ten years old, has a theatre that would be the envy of any professional Company. And, in truth, every other aspect of a modern day rounded education is covered by quality facilities. Sport, The Arts, science and the rest.

Back to the historic buildings some dating back 120 years. As I have said externally they are all as I remember them. Internally, however, they are unrecognisable from my day. The dormitories are gone to be replaced by study bedrooms and a range of other facilities. And it’s not just the internal physical fabric of the buildings that has changed. The Leys has been co-educational since 1990 and girls now comprise almost half the pupils.

The Leys was founded as one of the first Methodist public schools though by the time I came up in 1959 the methodism was fairly muted. Alan Barker, the new Headmaster, was an Anglican and that, to an extent, set the tone. The school chapel is magnificent and in my day we attended services every day, and twice on Sundays.

The Chapel at The Leys School

Author and polemicist the late Christopher Hitchens was at The Leys when I was there. He was a couple of years younger than me and in a different House so I didn’t know him well. Like me he did not emerge from the school a Believer – a Methodist or any other sort! That said this strident atheist did once say that he “learned more in the Leys Chapel than anywhere else in the school” ! I wouldn’t go quite that far but we did have some good visiting preachers including the Rev and very Red Donald Soper. The Chapel , opened in 1906, with its fine stained glass owes more to Oxbridge College chapels than it does to the rather austere meeting halls of the Wesleyan tradition. It is largely unchanged inside and out from 60 years ago.

Historian and Leys teacher Derek Baker called his book on the school “A Partnership in Excellence” . I like this descriptor, a tad boastful though it is, because there is a continuity in the thought that excellence is transferable from one generation to another. It was a fine school in the early 1960s and it is a fine one now – the times have changed radically but to be excellent is an achieved goal.

This brings me inevitably to the contentious subject of private education – the ability that parents with money have effectively to buy privileges for their offspring. It is perhaps a bit simplistic to say that “excellence” is the result if the ordinary can be transformed for the better. But surely if “Levelling up” has a meaning you need an excellent model of attainment to level up towards. The Leys is assuredly that.

The school motto “In Fide Fiducia” means “In Faith, Trust”. This has also morphed a bit over time but for a modern parent to believe that they can trust their child to be looked after and developed in a school is a prerequisite of education. For me this means much, much more than “just” passing exams.

We met today’s Housemaster of my old House East who said that all his charges go to University – no doubt it’s the same from all the other Houses as well. But the partnership in excellence between pupil and teacher, sports or drama coach, for unexamined subjects is at the heart of what the school does as well. I think it always was – culture is not narrowly defined. And examinations are not the only challenge.

Chris Hitchens in his memoir remembered a magical summer evening when our own home grown rock group “The Saints” gave an outdoor concert culminating in their version of “The House of the Rising Sun”. Of its time perhaps but my collector’s item copy of their LP “Saints Alive” reminds that they were pretty good. Today the School drama group regularly puts on performances in the wonderful theatre which like that rock concert all those years ago are open also to the good burghers of Cambridge. A recent performance of “Chicago” got rave notices.

Leysian talent 1964 and 2020

The school song “Joyful word at parting spoken” is unchanged except that the line “Distance from her sons can sever” is now “Distance from us all can sever” – a reflection, of course, of the now co-educational nature of the school. But better in other ways as well. “Us all” can be seen to cover all of us with Leysian connections even those like me and my friends at the Reunion whose connection started many decades ago

Each verse of the school song finishes with the Greek word Χαιρετε! Former headmaster John Barrett, in his splendid sermon to us in the Chapel, focused on this word which is a joyous expression very versatile in its meaning. I think our old boy community all hoped that it means “adieu” with its theme of meeting again. Let’s hope that we can.

Paddy Briggs, October 2021

Our “troubles” are manifest and all of our own making. We will get no sympathy from Germany, nor deserve any

There was rather restrained “more in sorrow than in anger” piece about Britain’s woes from German journalist Peter Tiede in The Times yesterday. Tiede concentrates on the present but for me underlying the differences between our two nations is how Germany has atoned for her hideous 20th Century past whereas we ignore our deadly mistakes and wave flags in a sentimental frenzy about ours. The Germans have moved on. We haven’t.

Membership of the European Union helped hold Germany and Britain together – that common purpose is gone.

Because our present and recent past is so singularly awful we cling on to the myths of a once noble land of hope and glory. What a pompous, boastful nation we are. In my baby boomer lifetime British soldiers and native civilians perished in large numbers in a last ditch defence of imperialism, in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus and other places over which collectively the sun never set.

We allowed the deadly partition of India. We walked away from Hong Kong not leaving a vestige of protection from the murderous Beijing regime. We so failed diplomatically to protect a few barren rocks in the South Atlantic that we had to fight a last, and deadly, imperial war to get them back.

When economic need dictated that we needed labour to run the buses we windrushed them in. Then we insulted and discriminated against these immigrants for years, for decades, and still do. And when their descendants told us that black lives matter and took the knee all too many of us booed from the sidelines,

We were told to find a post imperial role and eventually dragged ourselves reluctant and wingeing into Europe only a few decades later to walk away with our pram going around in circles and our toys all over the ground.

Our “troubles” are manifest and all of our own making. We will get no sympathy from Germany, nor deserve any. Brexit was the final straw. Membership of the European Union helped hold Germany and Britain together – that common purpose is now gone.

Great batsmen who honoured our game don’t need to be battered…

Jack Hobbs was a batsman, as is Joe Root. Not to mention every other male cricketer over the more than 200 years of the great game. If you check an authoritative dictionary you will find that the word “ Batswoman” is there – a gender determined descriptor like (for example) “Spokesman” and “Spokeswoman” and countless others.

The ugly and completely unnecessary “Batter” turns cricket history on its head. Is somebody going to tell Ian Botham that he played great innings as a “batter” – good luck with that.

Cricket terminology may change over time for good reasons. I don’t recall “Reverse Sweep” in my youth but accept that it’s a useful addition to the cricket lexicon. “Batter” most certainly is not. I’ll have my batter on a piece of cod thanks, not on a cricket pitch.

Batters ? I don’t think so !

As for the MCC they grow increasingly craven over time. These self-appointed guardians of the “Spirit of Cricket” sold their souls to the devil when they turned Lord’s Ground over to the drunken revelry that was “The Hundred”. When their history of malfeasance over Lord’s redevelopment was revealed in a recent book “The Covers are Off” the club loftily ignored it. As it has loftily ignored the legitimate complaints of members on a variety of issues for a decade or more.

The MCC may think that they own cricket as once they did. Any student of cricket history would shudder at the thought. May the batsmen and batswomen of today utterly reject this nonsensical attempt to rewrite cricket history.

Thoughts on Gas – is Del Boy in charge of consumer sales?

Natural Gas is a commodity. A very important one to our way of life and our economic welfare. Most homes are heated by it, many cook with it and without it our lives would grind to a halt. However the supply of Gas lacks a coherent and user-accountable structure. Here is a brief discussion of the gas supply chain.

Exploration and Production. Looking for and producing gas is generally a private sector activity. In The Netherlands, for example, the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), a joint venture between Exxon and Shell has been operating the Groningen gas fields for over 70 years. In Britain the still substantial Gas production covering 58% of inland demand is also entirely in the hands of private companies.

Supply. The shortfall between U.K. Gas production and U.K. consumption is covered by imports via pipeline from Europe and by Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) imports.

Cost. Gas at the point of transfer from the upstream (production) to the downstream (consumption) has always been determined by the market with classic supply/demand factors in play. Economic recovery, some limitations on supply, inadequate storage and some other factors have pushed prices through the roof. Whether the cost relates to local production or gaseous (pipeline) or LNG imports the same commodity market forces apply.

Transportation. The inland starting point is the point of landfall for gas – the point at which the producer or importer feeds the gas into the gas network. This network is an asset that logic says should be publicly accountable but the current construct under which it is owned and operated by the private sector “National Grid” is confusing and sub-optimal. The parallel is with the railway network which abysmally failed as a private sector monopoly (Railtrack) and had to be taken into public ownership.

Marketing. They are of course not “Energy Firms” at all. They do not produce, transport or otherwise have anything practical to do with electricity or gas. They exist only as agents to scam off a margin and give the illusion of a competitive market. They might as well be selling pork futures or the rouble.

The privatisation of energy supplies in the 1980s was a fraud. In the main the new firms only exist because proper gas producers feed their production into a single grid. And power generators do the same with electricity. Then it’s a free-for-all as phoney companies angle for your business with price-led promotional marketing. None of them has a distinctive competitive advantage. They simply operate in the margin between product cost and consumer price. When product costs escalate , as they have recently, the Energy Firms may not be able to pass on these increases immediately to customers because of promotional offers they have made.

Roll up for my lovely Gas”

Gas and Electricity are vital commodities where the main driver of price should be product cost – smoothed out over time to protect consumers from wild fluctuations. This would best be done by a single supply body operating hedging to create some forward price stability. Instead we have the delusional nonsense of dozens of agents operating like market traders conning the public with snake oil. You wonder if Del Boy is in charge.

Friendless Boris pals up with the equally vainglorious Scott Morrison to build some boats and piss off the French

Vainglorious posturing

What an absolutely preposterous story this is! At no point has China articulated any threat to Australia. Why would it? The only country in the region about which the Chinese have territorial ambitions, understandably, is Taiwan. This has nothing to do with Australia.

Wars start when there is a response to aggression. The building of these vainglorious boats is a provocative act and the Chinese may feel, who could blame them, that they will need to respond. So a weapons war will begin and the size and resources of the People’s Republic is such that there will only be one winner.

On the road to fascism excessive militarism is one of the signs. Scott Morrison shares Boris Johnson’s populist, nationalist ideology and love of shallow show. And his “mine’s bigger than yours” delusions. This unnecessary , unaffordable nonsense demeans a fine nation and gives it ideas above its station – and confirms that our tinpot Prime Minister’s futile search for friends in a world that despises him will take him in some very strange directions.

There is almost a nineteenth century mercantilist feel to Brexit Britain – certainly as far as labour is concerned

Desperate stuff from IAIN MARTIN

One of the rules of economics I learned fifty years ago was the relationship between Supply, Demand and Price. It seems that Iain Martin has forgotten what he was also taught in his desperate scramble to find a Brexit Benefit. One of the reasons that Margaret Thatcher was a great supporter of Free Trade was that she knew that if you increase Supply competition will lead to lower prices and better products. This rule applies to all the Factors of Production, including Labour.

The artificial restriction of Labour supply caused by Brexit is having a devastating effect on labour availability and costs. And on quality. Making it easier to become an HGV driver is a quality reduction and irresponsibly unsafe.

The way to ensure that workers have higher disposable incomes is not to close labour availability but to raise the minimum wage and to reduce taxation. And to rethink what “employment” should be. Proper jobs with proper contracts and proper worker representation and collective bargaining.

All economies have unique characteristics where skills, social priorities and restraints are concerned. The larger the labour pool the greater is the employer choice. Immigration widened that choice and furthered growth both new workers from the Commonwealth and Europeans using their Freedom of Movement rights contributed to national wealth.

There is almost a nineteenth century mercantilist feel to Brexit Britain – certainly as far as labour is concerned. Who would have thought that a country that once lead the world on Free Trade would become a closed society, denying itself labour choice ?

To argue that restriction on labour availability is beneficial you have to argue that thirty countries across Europe participating in Freedom of Movement (including some like Switzerland and Norway not in the EU) are wrong. And Little England is right. Ha !

Bin Laden may eventually have been caught but there was no 9/11 closure. And now it’s back to where we were twenty years ago.

There is a very good Leader on 9/11 in the Times today. They are right to call out the NeoCons as being instrumental in the lack of success post 9/11 – their regime change ideology lay at the centre of western failure. The ideology was based on the assumption that American military power was invincible. And on normal battlefields it would be. But like the Vietcong before them the Taliban didn’t do conventional warfare, and they moved to their own timetable not America’s.

Pax Americana achieved by violence has nowhere succeeded post war, or hardly ever. Instead from Korea via Vietnam to Afghanistan there has been humiliating defeat for the United States. And for a time the NeoCons wanted to attack Iran as well!

During WW2 the home front in both the US and the U.K. held firm. The moral rightness of defeating Germany and Japan was clear to all. Subsequent wars have had no such certitude. America was defeated in Vietnam as much by protests back home as by losses on the battlefields. The shock of 9/11 gave public support to America’s military action until, as the flag-draped coffins started coming home, it became clear that victory could not even be defined let alone anticipated. 

Catching Osama bin Laden and defeating Al-Qaeda proved difficult enough. Defeating a regrouped Taliban impossible. But still more troops headed East under confused political direction and poor military generalship. When after a decade the so-called “surge” was tried it just led to more body bags.

The Times calls the western response to 9/11 a “disaster” and they are right. It was understandable that after the horrors of the WTC attack we would all say “Something must be done” expecting that Western forces could do it. Up to a point they did, but after that point they didn’t know what to do. And, as later in Iraq, there was no post war political reconstruction plan. Bin Laden may eventually have been caught but that aside there was no closure. And now it’s back to where we were twenty years ago.

I don’t hear much “Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.” from the veterans associations or the bereaved families. RIP.

The game is nearly up for our overblown and dysfunctional Royal Family

Max Hastings contemplates the future of King Charles in The Times today. (Don’t worry the old girl is hanging on for now). But the key players in the future of the monarchy are not British. Out of respect for HMQ the governments and people of Australia, Canada and New Zealand (and a few other smaller independent states) have stuck with the absurd anachronism of having a non national of their countries as their Head of State. They won’t want Charles and Camilla – and who can blame them? The Commonwealth will surely also crumble away – Elizabeth II has held it together but in reality it has no purpose in the modern world, if it ever did.

Shorn of the remnants of post Imperial power Britain has to decide whether it wants to elect a President or persevere with the serendipity of having a monarch. If we choose King Charles, manifold faults and all, the firm may have to be slimmed down. The Dutch, and others, seem to manage with a constitutional monarch without the panoply of pomp and patronage that characterises ours.

The days of pompous self-congratulatory Britain may be fading away. Indeed Britain itself may be fading away entirely as Little England contemplates a lonely singular future. To be King of England has a certain historical relevance – cry God for Charlie, England and St George. And our benighted land might still make a few bob marketing the castles and the palaces as tourist attractions. But in reality the game is up.

National Insurance – a regressive tax by any other name. A closet Marxist explains

It’s not new but we are conned by it every time. When you do something nobody likes you pretend you are doing something everybody likes. Boo to tax increases. Hooray for increases in social and NHS expenditure. Like Income Tax was once a temporary measure to pay for some war or other. That went well.

“MPs will be asked today to approve the biggest personal tax rise in two decades to pay for a £12 billion-a-year package for the NHS and social care reform.” says The Times today. Whether the writer actually believes this Government propaganda or whether Rupert Murdoch has sent the Editor a message who knows? The truth is that National Insurance goes to the Treasury like every other tax. It will be spent on Trident as much as on Healthcare (etc.) There’s only one pot. And many eager to dip their fingers in it. The tax is regressive – something else that Tories like.

There are two things wrong with the descriptor “National Insurance”

1) It isn’t National

2) It isn’t Insurance

National taxes affect everyone. In theory anyway. Most of us pay Income Tax, VAT, excise duty…. A lot of us don’t pay NI. Me, as a non-working pensioner, for one.

Insurance is when there is a direct link from a premium to a benefit. NI is no longer that, if it ever was. NI is a payroll tax. Not really a stealth tax , though not far away. And certainly not insurance.

When Margaret Thatcher introduced her “Community Charge” we all saw it for what it was – a regressive Poll Tax. Tories don’t like progressive taxation (like income tax) so they try for a tax which can be sold as equally affecting all – VAT for example, and National Insurance. Even the uber Free Market Adam Smith Institute said that the Government is asking “ poorer workers to bail out millionaire property owners”

Natural Justice would lead us in another direction to “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” for example. Tories won’t like that , not least because Karl Marx said it. Seems good to me – perhaps I’m a closet Marxist after all !

Public services need a new pragmatic model which places public accountability and the citizen ahead of ideology

The politics of the past was a battle between those favouring the State and those committed to Private Enterprise. The latter won – most notably as a result of the Thatcher/Major’s privatisation programmes. These changes were made inviolable once Blair/Brown decided not to unravel any of them. In the battle of ideologies free enterprise triumphed.

In selling off the family silver Governments rewarded their class friends. In particular where privately owned and run monopolies were created. Some public services such as water and the railways became private fiefdoms where competition (nominally the driver of free enterprise) was absent. Fat cat profits and salaries for the head honchoes followed.

Analyse the provision of public services and you will find that they are all, in reality, public/private partnerships. Subsidies abound and the State often owns much of the infrastructure. When attempts were made to privatise the rail network with Railtrack it was an unmitigated, incompetently managed disaster. The NHS remains overwhelmingly State owned and run, but the private sector plays an important part throughout – and increasingly so.

In effect we are in a post ideology age. Jeremy Corbyn’s hankering after increased State ownership was antediluvian and the “hands off the NHS” brigades are equally shortsighted. What is needed is a new pragmatic model which places public accountability and the needs of the citizen foremost.

A crucial element now missing almost entirely from the private sector and under threat in the public sector is collective bargaining and union representation. Part of public accountability has to be respect for the employed. A problem is that for decades pre Thatcher Trades Union power became fiercely political with some Unions (notably the National Union of Mineworkers) exercising power way beyond their remit of defending the interests of their members. Though Thatcher’s coining the phrase “The Enemy Within” was offensive and hugely partisan there was an element of truth in it.

Union power is now almost entirely confined to the public sector , and selectively so. The NHS unquestionably needs efficiency improvements if it is to deliver value but the Unions (including the hugely powerful British Medical Association) rarely participate in reform. Meanwhile, as we have seen, some privatised service industries like Water and the Railways put profit and executive pay ahead of customer service.

Working together surely better than binary conflict ?

Our society is so divided that the very idea of cooperation in, say, improving the NHS seems alien. Binary structures are recipes for conflict . Ideology never helps. The moves towards the creation of an integrated railway service were forced on government by private sector failure. To think that the quality of the railway service you receive depends serendipitously on where you live is preposterous, but it’s true. A national network, national standards, a national fare structure (etc. etc.) is common across Europe. In comparison in Britain there is utter confusion.

As we gradually become aware of environmental threats the need for expanded and efficient public transportation becomes all the more important. HS2 will be a start taking customers out of their polluting cars and putting them in far more efficient and greener fast moving railway carriages. Again look at Europe to see the model. Note: We shouldn’t really care who actually owns the services so long as they are publicly accountable and deliver value. A properly constructed National Railway Service (NRS) is as necessary as a similar NHS. And it equally needs to be a public/private partnership.

I realise my “solution” will probably antagonise both sides in the public/private debate though as it seeks to put customers (the general public) ahead of ideology it shouldn’t. Our society shouts a lot, we need more mature debate and search for agreement and cooperation. Too much to expect? Probably.