Support Sunderland’s industry with Spartans’ steadfast spirit

It seems we’ve been here so many times before: another scare story about the threat of Nissan leaving the UK and jobs being lost in Sunderland post-Brexit. This time, it’s all about the proposed trade deal between European Union and Japan. The argument is basically as follows: If the EU and Japan were to conclude a trade deal before the UK has one with Japan, it would put the UK at a competitive disadvantage and drive Nissan out of the UK.


I’m reminded of Philip of Macedon, who famously sent a message to Sparta: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” The Spartans replied with a single word: “If.” If our government is to make a success of Brexit, then it needs a bit of the old Spartan spirit. It needs to stop focusing on excuses, and develop a single-minded determination to achieve the best that it possibly can for Britain.Claim: If the EU negotiates a trade deal with Japan before the UK does, then it’ll be bad for British businesses. Quite probably so. How about, then, a solution? Let’s get on and make absolutely sure that we get there first.


The European Union claims that under Article 4(3) of the Treaty on European Union, we can’t do it. That gives us a duty of ‘sincere co-operation’ with the European Union whilst we’re members of it. It’s a great argument with just one small flaw: it’s utter baloney. My apologies for getting technical for a moment,  but whatever ‘sincere co-operation’ means, it cuts both ways. The EU isn’t ‘sincerely co-operating’ with us if they deliberately try to make it harder for us to succeed post-Brexit. They’re not meeting their obligations to their neighbours (ie. us) under Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty either. And ‘sincere co-operation’ is poorly defined: it couldn’t possibly take precedence over better-defined parts of the Treaty on European Union – like for example Article 21(2)(e) which speaks of “progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade”. A European Union telling us we can’t talk to other countries about the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade is a European Union ignoring its own rules, which to be honest is one of the main reasons we’re leaving in the first place. The European Union is supposed to respect the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994, of which Article 24(4) says that a Customs Union is to facilitate trade and not “to raise barriers to the trade of other contracting parties with such territories”. Which is precisely what the EU is doing – not because of the UK, but because they’re making it harder for Japan to negotiate a free trade deal with us by putting barriers in their way.


So the British government needs to get on with it, rather than playing into the EU’s hands. We know the EU takes a decade or more, on average, to negotiate trade deals (and if the EU suddenly develops uncharacteristic speed and negotiates the deal before Brexit, grandfathering arrangements will then apply to the UK). It’s a hugely bureaucratic process – not least because they need to get 28 countries to all agree a common negotiating position to be able to start negotiations with the other side. At every stage those 28 countries need to accept the deal, and any concessions made will disproportionately harm certain countries.  But we can do better than a decade. If our government has the bottle, we can get there first. If the Philippines can negotiate a deal with EFTA in just one year, surely the UK can negotiate deals quickly too.


What’s needed is the political will to make it happen. And that, with this Conservative government, is the biggest weakness in the whole Brexit process. Get Brexit right, and the benefits will be pretty much instant. Get it wrong, and it could take years. Courage seems to be in short supply at present: our government needs to develop a backbone – not just for the sake of workers in Sunderland, but for the many jobs that could be created if only it lost its self of self-deprecation and remembered that we’re a world leader in research, intelligence, science and technology, that we speak a global language and that we’re one of the world’s largest economies.


We’re an attractive catch for any nation to trade with; it’s high time we started acting like it.


Believing four contradictory things before Brexit

After Theresa May’s bungled election miscalculation and continued Conservative infighting with members of the cabinet actively briefing against one another, you’d be mistaken for thinking Mr Corbyn’s position is looking healthier than ever. However figures released from a poll of Labour party members expose the disjoint on Brexit between membership and leadership and the growing dislocation from their traditional support base. It’s not just Rebecca Long Bailey literally claiming that Labour wants to “have our cake and eat it”, but that Labour MEPs are openly criticising Brexit and trying to reverse it, whilst their Party leadership supports it.

The scale of the gap between Labour’s leadership and their own members is shown in research from the Party Members Project:

  • 49% of members think there should “definitely” be a vote on the final Brexit deal, with a further 29.4% answering “more yes than no” to the question, and only 8.8% definitely opposing it.
  • 66% of members think Britain should definitely stay in the single market with a further 20.7% saying “more yes than no” to the question. Only 4.2% of Labour members said they definitely believed Britain should leave the grouping.
  • There were similar levels of support on the customs union with 63.1% saying Britain should definitely stay within the group, 22.2% leaning towards the same position, and only 2.4% saying the UK should definitely leave it.
  • Of those members polled 87% voted said they remain in the 2016 referendum.

There is then a second disconnect, between the working-class Labour vote – particularly in the North – and the views of the Labour Party’s membership, so it’s totally unsurprising that there’s some muddled thinking going on as Labour try to please all of the people all of the time. As the White Queen said to Alice, “sometimes I’ve managed to believe six impossible things before breakfast”. That’s okay for a fairy tale, but not so good for a Labour Party intent on simultaneously believing four contradictory things before Brexit.

The 2017 Labour Manifesto Brexit position had promised to try to retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union but the leadership was clear: the UK could not remain in the Single Market and Freedom of movement would end. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary said “As it currently stands membership of the single market is incompatible with our clarity about the fact that freedom of movement rules have to change…freedom of movement will have to end”. Likewise John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, admitted staying in the single market would be seen by voters as “not respecting” the referendum vote.

Even since the election we’ve seen nearly 50 Labour MPs snubbing the Party whip and the sacking of three Shadow Cabinet members – in a Shadow Cabinet which has seen more reshuffles than a magician practicing his latest illusion. Could the current appearance of stability, of Corbyn’s belated honeymoon, be merely a passing ‘eye of the storm’ with future turmoil close on the horizon? Jeremy Corbyn currently enjoys the paradoxical position of the most favourable leadership ratings of his career, whilst holding crucial policies that only 2-4% of his membership support.

Part of Labour’s success on June 8th was generated by its sometimes ambiguous stance on Brexit. Pro-EU MPs warn Mr Corbyn’s “studied ambiguity” is unsustainable with amendments on the repeal bill likely to solidify the party stance in one way or another. Professor Tim Bale (of the Party Members Project) said Labour would eventually be forced to “show its true colours on this – and it can either go with the membership and probably the feeling of most MPs, or it can carry on with what is effectively a hard Brexit”.

With Theresa May’s authority repeatedly being called into question, rebellious Labour MPs are only likely to be emboldened in the knowledge that their arguments on issues like the single market have overwhelming support from the membership. Mr Corbyn on Monday night told Labour MPs he wants to actively engage with the party’s 560,000 members this summer. With time running out on ambiguous stances perhaps Mr Corbyn’s summer ‘homework’ is deciding which half of his voters he’s going to disappoint.

More than ever, we need to be vigilant. If the Labour Party were to move against Brexit, that could be an even bigger threat to the process than the Conservatives’ recent sell-out on immigration. I find myself in an odd position: I despise almost everything that Corbyn stands for including his fantasy economics (and Labour’s dishonesty over students has just been brought into sharp focus), but in terms of Brexit any other Labour leader would be far worse.


Five US Republicans and one Democrat sit down to dinner with a UKIP MEP…

It sounds like the start of a joke, but actually I learned a lot speaking to people from all corners of the United States on holiday last week. The conversation was as good as the steak, and the portions of both truly American. I answered a few questions about Brexit; as is usual with Americans they were shocked at the sheer scale of what Remainians euphemistically call ‘pooling of sovereignty’.

Most instinctively supported Brexit; one asked why I consider the EU federation any different to the US federation of states. The USA was built as a nation, formed as a nation already with a single language, currency, history, geography and legal system. It has been a nation for centuries, and yet to keep it that way required the bloodiest civil war in history in the 1860s. The EU lacks these advantages and was created as an artificial political construct against the will of the people. Fundamentally, the USA is a nation: the nebulous concept of Europe isn’t. But it was a good question, a searching question, the kind of question an intelligent outsider would ask of a British Leave supporter.

I turned the tables, asking their opinion on Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. Trump, the most unpopular candidate in American political history, is still just about in the race because he’s facing Hillary Clinton, the second-most unpopular candidate in American political history. Hyperbole? Perhaps not.

Let’s just say I’m not surprised that nobody had a positive opinion of either candidate. The Democrat and four of the five Republicans couldn’t support either candidate. Hillary Clinton was perceived as mired in controversy, part of a political dynasty, dishonest and self-centred.

Nigel Farage’s point that he wouldn’t ‘vote for Hillary Clinton if she paid me’ hit the nail on the head. Just because I dislike Trump, I’m under zero illusions about the appalling Hillary Clinton. From her time as First Lady to allegations of a cover-up of the terrorist attack at Benghazi, from the Clinton Foundation scandal to the misuse of a private email address for official State communications, Hillary Clinton has been mired in controversy for years.

As for Donald Trump, well, the list of complaints is too long but ultimately they were terrified of a man so temperamental and utterly inexperienced in anything remotely relevant to the White House having his finger on the nuclear button.

The three couples didn’t know each other, had come from different states, yet five of the six had made the decision to vote for a third-party candidate, libertarian Gary Johnson, in the Presidential election. A plague, they implied, upon both their houses. All of the six were substantially older than me, white and relatively affluent. I’d expected the majority to be Republicans. Yet like the various other Americans I had been chatting to for the last week, not one was a fan of Donald Trump.

Both Trump and Clinton have historically appalling polling numbers. Both are hugely disliked by the electorate as a whole; it all comes down to who voters see as the lesser of two evils. I suspect it’ll be another Clinton in the White House if no further scandal emerges about the emails.

The Republicans have scored a huge own goal. They didn’t have to pick Trump in the primaries. Around this night’s table I suspect amongst the Republicans there were two Rubio, one Kasich, one Carson and one Cruz supporter; all shared my frustration that the straight-talking Chris Christie had failed to live up to his potential and become mired in controversy. The one name which had universal positive approval was Marco Rubio. The Democrat also seemed delighted at the thought: she too would have voted for Rubio above Clinton in a heartbeat. Rubio could have delivered the White House without much fuss (the one argument validly leveled against Rubio is that he’s not tough enough on immigration, though the issue is different there. America’s population density is 85 people per square mile – ours is 679. But then, Trump has recently softened his stance on immigration too.). Yet with Trump at the top of the Presidential ticket, Rubio will have to work pretty hard just to hold his own seat in the swing state of Florida.

If any of them had fallen for Trump’s campaign at first, excusing his divisiveness as though it were just UKIP-style telling-it-like-it-is, they certainly weren’t admitting it. They now all hated him. However bad Trump might be, they all (bar the Democrat, who seemed to hate both equally) agreed Clinton would be worse. The Democrat would have reserved a special place in hell for the pair of them.

My own recollection of Donald Trump, the first time I realised I dislike the man intensely, was long before any of the current controversy. Two true American heroes, medical professionals who had gone to West Africa and found themselves in the midst of a terrible outbreak of Ebola, working day and night to save lives, themselves contracted the disease. The US government flew them home under the strictest quarantine and the pioneering treatment they received was life-saving. Heroes deserve the best.

What did Trump do? He made public pronouncements condemning the decision. Ignoring medical evidence, he whipped up a frenzy of fear, telling the US government to let their citizens die overseas, making false threats that it could lead to a huge outbreak in the USA. It was obvious arrant nonsense, and if Trump didn’t know anything about it he should have kept his mouth shut. That day, well before Trump announced he’d run for President, I realised what the man was like.

I’ve noticed that different people mention a complete spectrum of reasons to dislike him, given his rich and colourful comments of late. Some had liked Trump at first, his blunt and direct style. But it wasn’t long before they started to feel that he was out of his depth, and the crucial question ‘do you want Trump to be the one with the finger on the nuclear button?’ would seem problematic for his campaign.

If anyone can make sense of Trump’s statements on the minimum wage, where he seems to be simultaneously in favour of raising it and not raising it, of a federal raise and of states making their own decisions, then they’re highly charitable. That’s not surprising. Trump used to advocate one of the most hard-left policies possible:  proposing that the State should confiscate money from the richest in society.  It’s borderline Communism and a complete anathema to UKIP’s belief in the free market.

I just don’t get how some UKIP members will excuse Trump anything, just because he’s straight-talking. Whether straight-talking is good or bad depends upon the message! If the message is wrong, or ineptly delivered, it doesn’t matter how plainly you say it. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’d heard a Trump apologist tell me that I’ve ‘fallen for the mainstream media attacks’ on Trump. No; I disliked him before all that. And those who say so are actually rather patronising: I don’t agree with them, therefore in their view I must have fallen for the media. They never consider that, in fact, I might have made up my own mind.

The man who’s called some women “fat pigs, slobs, dogs and disgusting animals” and then when questioned insulted the interviewer saying that she had “blood coming out of her eyes” and “blood coming out of her wherever”. He later made the somewhat hard to believe claim that he wasn’t referring to menstruation. He’s repeatedly criticised a judge in a legal case where he’s the defendant, publicly attacked John McCain over his military service (McCain was captured fighting for America), and made rather odd comments about his own daughter (“if Ivanka weren’t my daughter perhaps I’d be dating her”). His ‘second amendment’ comments appear to threaten his opponent with assassination. I’m barely scratching the surface and I’ve avoided the ‘usual’ Trump controversies – his ‘rapists’ comments about Mexicans, accusations of bigotry and anti-Semitism: I’ll simply say that a skilled or adept candidate might be able to make their points without providing huge ammunition to their opponents. Comparisons of Trump’s buffoonery to Nigel Farage are an insult to Nigel; a far better comparison would be between Trump and Nick Griffin.

But however bad he is, many Americans will vote Trump to stop Clinton. That’s understandable, but we could also be about to see the biggest vote for a third party candidate for a generation in the USA. In exasperation the dinner table was independently turning to third-party candidates, and no wonder. If there is one thing uniting America politically, it’s that the country seems to share a common exasperation at the quality of candidates on show in November. On the Democrat side, Clinton’s challenger was Bernie Sanders – a far-left candidate who actually believes in something. He is not Presidential in any way. Such is the dislike of Clinton that he proved to be a thorn in her side for months on end during the primaries. Far better Democrat candidates declined to even stand.

I find myself wondering what I would do if I were in their shoes. I couldn’t possibly stomach voting for the odious Hillary Clinton, even to stop Trump. Could I vote for Trump to stop Clinton? I doubt that too. Perhaps I would join the growing ranks of those in the USA who intend to vote for a third-party candidate. Gary Johnson isn’t being squashed in the polls like most third-party candidates at this stage, and no wonder given the appalling choices proffered by the traditional parties.

If, as seems likely, the next US President is Hillary Clinton, many round that table will rue the day they didn’t choose Marco Rubio in the primaries. If my experience is anything to go by, there are plenty already regretting precisely that.


The values that we reflect as a nation in the Olympic Games are the values which we should embody on a daily basis

Success in life is earned, not given. What you achieve depends upon your innate ability, effort and industry, dedication and desire to succeed These statements should be inalienable truths, and yet sadly all too often they are not. For many, the fascination of the Olympic Games is that it provides precisely such a level playing feel. With one rags-to-riches, homelessness-to-gold triumphant story after another, all that matters at the most basic level is to run faster, jump higher, throw further or pedal more furiously than the rest. An athlete who does not dedicate their life to their sport does not deserve and will not receive a gold medal.

On a national level, Team GB – through Lottery funding and dedication – achieved the second-best results of any country on the planet. Our 1% of the world’s population achieved 9% of the world’s gold medals. Success was earned not just through the hard work of our athletes, but the ability to build a team around them. The European Parliament’s Twitter account, however, simply added up the individual medals for each of the EU’s 28 countries and made the fantastical claim that the European Union had the best results on earth. Yes, if you add up 28 countries’ results they beat any single country; it’s as unsurprising as the Pope’s Catholicism or what bears get up to in the woods. Whilst Team GB worked for their achievement, Team European Union Spin attempted to leach off someone else’s.

Mo Farah’s double Olympic triumph was again iconic. Having fallen to the floor in the 10,000 metres, it never seemed in any doubt to me that once he’d got up he would win the race. His backstory is pretty impressive too: coming to the UK at the age of 8 after a tumultuous time in Somalia, he barely spoke a word of English. Some vile bigots took to Twitter to condemn UKIP supporters for cheering on Mo Farah. As though UKIP were an anti-migrant party, when indeed Nigel Farage was the first leader of a major political party to call for the UK to take some refugees from Syria!

Here’s the challenge though: the values that we reflect as a nation in the Olympic Games are the values which we should embody on a daily basis. Those same values should underpin our education system, expecting our children to learn, to overcome adversity rather than retreat into ‘safe spaces’ if something causes the merest scintilla of offence We should be training the next generation of leaders not a generation of precious snowflakes, and it’s no wonder that we have astronomically high levels of depression and anxiety amongst teenagers when we create unrealistic expectations of how protected they should be, and how easy life ought to be: real life doesn’t match up. As inspiration, we need look no further than the forthcoming Paralympic Games where we will see those who do not allow adversity, disability, or often personal tragedy, to get in the way of that determination which is the very spirit embodied by the ancient Greeks so long ago.

As a nation we should strive for excellence in everything that we achieve. When it comes to immigration, people shouldn’t get a free pass to come here just because they happen to hold a passport from any of 27 other EU countries; those who we allow to come to the UK should be those who will strive to make our country a better place. My wife and I were sitting at dinner with an American couple last week. The lady had come from Canada originally, but was proud to be American. She didn’t describe herself as Canadian-American or anything else; she had become American through choice and would always see herself as American. Irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, skin colour or anything else, that’s what we should expect from those who come to live and work in the UK too. We should celebrate success, praise the self-made entrepreneur who makes millions and generates jobs and tax revenue for the Exchequer – not be envious of their wealth. We should celebrate our scientists as much as our athletes, but neither should we stigmatise a vocational route: after all, we’re a region of manufacturers, a region which builds things and a region which should be the engine-room of the British economy.

The day after the Olympics had finished, I headed off to a town called Rendsburg. I play a board game called Stratego. Not having picked up a board for a year, I rushed across Germany to play for the Great Britain team at World Team Championships. The team was short of players and wouldn’t have been able to compete if I didn’t make it, so I thought I’d give it my best shot. Sadly we didn’t manage to come away with a medal, but my personal consolation was getting my best ever result, a draw against a two-time World Champion.

If we want to get a medal next year in Greece, I’d best take my own advice and put some work in!

My Column – Let me try to beat Project Fear at their own game

Project Fear tells us that life in post-EU Britain will be terrible in their dystopian, cleverly constructed worst-case scenarios for Brexit.

The ‘Remain’ campaigners even rely upon the suggestion that we know what life is like inside the European Union . Better, they imply, the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

They fake a virtue out of the current EU disasters, shrugging their shoulders with an ‘Ah well, at least it’s a known problem’.

No one ever really discusses the real risks involved with staying in the EU, however. I try to be measured and balanced in what I write, but today – as a one-off – let me play them at their own game. What might happen if we vote to remain in the EU?

Just days after the referendum, even Cameron’s so-called ‘deal’ is under threat. It was never legally binding in the first place. A couple of weeks after that, the Greek financial crisis rears its head once more as their EU-imposed austerity is unsustainable. There’s another round of talks over Greece exiting the euro.

Because Greece left it so long to exit, the cost of Grexit has risen enormously. This time there is no fudge and Greece eventually crashes out. The economies of the southern European nations take a massive hit; their investors fear they could be next. It has an impact across Europe, putting our economic recovery in jeopardy.

The migrant crisis continues apace, with moves to make sure the UK takes in more asylum claimants.

The EU doesn’t take into account the fact that we’re pretty much already the most densely populated country in Europe and our infrastructure struggles to cope with the influx.

Amongst the 100,000-plus people who come to the UK there are just a few who are bad apples. Something like the mass sexual assaults in Cologne happens here too. There’s an organised Isis terror cell of just 25 people, but it’s enough to carry out a couple of atrocities in the UK on a scale of that seen in Brussels and France.

Back in the EU corridors of power, Commissioner Moscovici eventually gets his way. We have to put VAT on children’s clothes, medicine and food – hitting kids, the sick and the poor hardest. We get a Financial Transaction Tax which makes our financial services uncompetitive. Jobs leak from the City to Switzerland or America. That costs us tens of billions of pounds in tax revenue; your taxes rise to pay for it. Other EU nations shrug their shoulders; only the UK is so heavily reliant on financial services.

The Dublin II rules on immigration and asylum are repealed, leading to another mass movement of people to Britain. It is only a few years before Turkey joins the European Union, giving it a land border with Syria and unlimited movement of people to the UK.

Our heavy industry continues to decline and eventually gives up the ghost due in large part to astronomical energy prices caused by EU policy, and EU state aid rules.

The pollution is exported to India and China, increasing global CO2 emissions. Our healthcare system is opened up to private competition through large US corporations after the TTIP deal is signed, and we soon see US companies taking the British government to court whenever they dislike our policies.

The moves towards an EU Army step up a gear. Angela Merkel once famously said Cameron would only get his EU ‘deal’ if he dropped opposition to an EU army. It turns out that was his secret deal for getting his pot of stew during the negotiations. With the UK’s military capacity declining, we lose our seat on the UN Security Council. We’re replaced by an EU seat and our influence declines.

More and more businesses go bust thanks to EU red tape. By 2020 we’re begging for another referendum, another chance to leave, but nobody in the political class is prepared to give us another chance to regain our freedom. We’re trapped.

Will everything mentioned in this article actually happen if we vote to stay in the European Union? I can’t say, but it’s far more credible than the nonsense threats being made by the ‘Remain’ camp.

This article was originally published in The Journal.  You can view it online here.

My Column – The New GCSE Mathematics Syllabus: What’s Wrong

From 2017, the new GCSE Mathematics syllabus will be examined. There’s much to admire about the principle – more problem solving, a little more rigour for the strongest candidates, and because of the importance of Maths it will be given extra weighting in school league tables from now on (specifically it is now double weighted in Progress 8). The new system, though, simply exchanges one set of flaws for a different set. It’s yet another example of overcompensation; where the 1997-2010 Labour governments went wrong in one direction, the current Conservative government seems intent on going wrong in the opposite direction. Every time, teachers must get used to a massive change in the subject they teach. That’s why in my view, small incremental change is better than sudden transformation – but once again, sudden transformation is what we’ll have.

So what’s wrong with the current changes? To understand the problem, it’s first necessary to understand the nature of examination candidates and what our education system should seek to achieve. In my experience from teaching Mathematics, there are three distinct categories:

1. Those students who have the capacity to continue their study to A level and possibly beyond.

I’m referring here broadly to candidates who will obtain an A or A* at GCSE, or possibly those at the top end of a B grade.

For them, a GCSE examination needs to be challenging and intellectually rigorous. It needs a high level of problem-solving and for concepts like mathematical proof to be understood. The purpose of a GCSE syllabus for them is to lay a foundation; it should provide a platform for higher future study. There are a huge number of jobs which will require these skills, particularly given the highly technological nature of our modern economy.

2. Those students who will not have the level of abstract mathematical ability required to consider higher concepts.

I refer here, perhaps, to those who currently are expected to obtain grades E, F or G at GCSE. Their mathematical requirements in later life are likely to be functional in nature. What should we be teaching them?

I want to see them develop their numerical skills. When will they ever use a quadratic equation in later life, or even linear algebra for that matter? Instead, wouldn’t it be better for them to be competent with percentages, to come out with an understanding of how interest rates work and the skills needed to know whether you’re being offered a good or bad deal by a credit card company? Shouldn’t they have a good basic mental arithmetic, particularly given that many will end up doing jobs in the retail sector, and the ability to estimate so that they can broadly spot when an amount is a long way away from what it should be? How about the ability to compare different deals and offers, calculating percentage discounts? Or calculation of areas (imagine a decorator or landscape gardener needing to work out how much carpet or paving to buy in order to quote for a job)? These skills are taught already, but I would rather see a much higher level of competence in these rather than teaching unnecessarily complex algebra which will be of no use to them in later life.

3. Those students who fall somewhere between the two categories above. In my experience somewhere between half and two-thirds of all students are here.

It’s important to teach mathematical concepts; I can think of many B or C grade candidates who I’ve taught who have found need of their mathematical ability in later life. They may have had to work very hard at Maths at school, often asking the question ‘when will I ever need to know this after I leave school?’. They may be right of course, but equally they may be wrong. Nor can you ever know which part of the syllabus is important. There’s still an importance in focusing on the functional parts of the syllabus, but algebra and trigonometry are also important as part of developing a skill set which could prove to be useful in later life.

Back to the GCSE syllabus, some fifteen years ago it was split into three tiers: Higher, Intermediate and Foundation. It was broadly aimed at the three groups I’ve identified. The system was flawed, but aimed at the correct people. When the Intermediate tier was abolished, Foundation became more difficult and Higher easier, ensuring that the new examination and syllabus really didn’t suit the vast majority of candidates.

Fast-forward to today, and the Gove reforms are coming in. He correctly recognises that more rigour is required to test the top candidates. Maths will now be graded on a 9-point scale with the bottom of a grade 4 being the equivalent of the bottom of a C grade and the bottom of a 7 being the bottom of an A. The Higher tier will become more challenging, as will the Foundation tier – which will have a top grade equivalent to a low B. There is a ‘Functional Skills’ mathematics course, but its status is being taken away. Schools will try to put everyone through the new GCSE, because it’s in their best league table interests to do so. There’s even less incentive now for the functional course. That may be indicated by the AQA June 2015 examination entries; just 1974 students attempted the Level 2 examination, with a pass rate of just 38.6% – indicating that nationally, just 762 people gained that qualification with the country’s largest examination board. Take away its status, and even fewer people will attempt it. The level 1 course had 2079 entries, for comparison.

The annoying thing is how easy it would be to tweak the new system to meet the needs of all candidates. Keep the new Higher course, relabel the new Foundation as Intermediate. Revamp and soup up the Level 2 certificate in ‘Functional Skills’ mathematics, add a greater emphasis on percentages and estimation (for example), rebrand it as a new Foundation Level GCSE with a maximum grade D or possibly C in today’s grades, and then at least the system would actually reflect what it’s supposed to. The various entry-level qualifications (and possibly the Level 1 certificate) could be kept in pretty much their current form for anyone who would struggle to sit any GCSE examination.

With these straightforward amendments, the system would not be perfect – but it would be far better than the system which the government is introducing. There would be an appropriate, challenging examination available for every student. We would have a system which would be robust enough not to require constant structural change, and the residual problems could be dealt with through minor tweaks to the syllabus.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post website.  You can view it here.

My Column – The coming months are about project fear versus project hope!

Three weeks ago, I spoke at a public meeting to around a thousand people in Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre.

I’ve spoken alongside Nigel Farage many times before around the country, but what has been truly inspirational recently is the way that campaigners for Brexit, spanning all political divides, have been able to come together. Brendan Chilton, secretary of Labour Leave, agreed to speak as Kate Hoey MP was unavailable – and he wowed the audience. There were Conservatives, Trade Unionists and an even more politically varied audience. The UKIP members I spoke to afterwards were delighted by the Labour speakers. A Green Party member came up to me afterwards for a chat, as did many others – including a lovely couple who had been Labour for decades but couldn’t abide their Party campaigning to stay in the European Union.

I’ve never seen such agreement between people of different political parties. Nigel Farage maybe mentioned immigration a little more than the Trade Unionists did, whilst the Labour speaker mentioned it more than I did. But the focus of the message of freedom from the European Union was the same.

The whole event reminded me of the national campaign in miniature. There’s an incredible degree of togetherness and camaraderie across party political divides. It’s about so much more than ‘UKIP wants to leave the European Union’. The RMT and Aslef trade unions, over 140 Conservative MPs, a Green Party peer, a number of Labour MPs, the old Liberal Party, the DUP and TUV in Northern Ireland, a former Lib Dem MP, the Director-General of the British Chamber of Commerce suspended for daring to back Brexit, the founder of the SDP, entrepreneurs like James Dyson, businesses like Tate & Lyle, JCB, Legal & General and the manager of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. There’s top economists, Nobel prize-winning scientists, founders/co-founders of Superdrug, Littlewoods, Moonpig, Wetherspoons, the boss of Lloyds, the CEO of Next and many more.

The ‘IN’ campaign make much of security, but a former head of Interpol described Schengen as ‘like a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe’. There’s a former head of counter-terrorism at New Scotland Yard, a former Commander of the SAS, an ex-Major General of the Royal Marines, and even one of the names on the pro-EU document supposedly signed by Army chiefs at Downing Street’s request turns out to actually back Brexit.

Whilst the American President is publicly campaigning for the UK to stay in the European Union (I wonder if he’d accept a pan-American union where the USA had to subsidise smaller nations, where the USA didn’t have the power to write its own laws, where ‘gas’ prices more than doubled overnight, where they had to accept unlimited immigration from Mexico and where they had to ask other countries’ permission to set their own foreign policy), his political opponents – who may well be in power come November – take a very different view. Switzerland has just dropped its application to join the EU by a huge majority, with the MP sponsoring the bill saying that they are ‘calling Switzerland Britzerland’ in solidarity with the British people wanting to join them in freedom from the European Union. Like Iceland’s recent overtures, it seems that the European countries outside the EU want to show us that the grass can really be greener on the other side.

Those campaigning to stay in the European Union would have you believe that big business, science, economists, the military, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Trade Unions and half of the Conservative Party are pitted against UKIP and the other half of the Conservative Party.

It’s not working, partly because it’s untrue and partly because people no longer care for being bounced into things by the political establishment. So, they turn to Project Fear instead: before the derby they were claiming that the Premier League would suffer if we left the EU (really? Non-EU footballers ply their trade here – why can Lithuanian footballers come here no questions asked whilst Brazilians have a tough entry system?). They claim we’d be worse off (actually we’d save our membership fee AND rebuild industries like fishing that have been decimated by the EU). They claim we would still have to allow unlimited immigration after Brexit (odd, then, that Liechtenstein doesn’t).

That’s why I say the coming months are about fear versus hope: the conjuring tricks of those trying to terrify us into voting to Remain versus the hope of a prosperous self-governing nation if we Leave.


This article was originally published in The Journal.  You can view it online here.

My Column – Where’s Our Moral Compass?

Just as a powerful magnet can confuse a compass, so is political correctness confounding our society’s moral compass. What is right, what is wrong; what merits anger and what merits kindness; what should be lauded and what should be condemned.

Last week in Brussels we saw horrific terrorist attacks. The cruel callousness of those who would attack our way of life merits a robust response. The ideology which gives birth to the perpetration of such atrocities must be fiercely opposed.

When it is the job of political representatives to talk about how best to keep us safe from further attacks, Nigel Farage and my colleague Mike Hookem had dared to point out the elephant in the room – that the existence of the Schengen area adds to the difficulty of maintaining security.

Which of the two events I’ve referred to should elicit moral outrage from left-wing politicians? The butchering of innocent civilians, the devastation of communities, the pressure on emergency services and the all-round inhumanity of these barbaric attacks is what we should be condemning in my view, but instead the Left chose to gang up upon Nigel Farage. To them, that was the real outrage.

I saw an example of the same kind of nonsense myself on Sunday. One of my Labour colleagues tweeted her utter disgust at the protests which had taken place in Brussels over the attacks. From labelling them hooligans and fascists to saying ‘not in my name’ via ‘shocking’ and ‘disrespect’, in just 140 characters the scale of her anger at protestors was made known.

Now, I’m not saying that I disagree with the main point of opposition here: a protest march in Brussels just days after an attack isn’t exactly a sensible way to proceed. What I am saying is that there’s something spectacularly off-beam about using that kind of anger and language to condemn those who protest the attacks, who kill no-one, whilst studiously avoiding the same language to describe the vermin who seek to destroy our way of life by planting explosives in public places to kill and maim innocent people.

It’s human nature that people are frightened by terrorist attacks, and the threat of more. It’s human nature that some people will misunderstand the nature of that threat. Some seem to criticise all Muslims for the actions of Islamic State. It’s wrong to do so. Others seem to put their hands over their eyes and blindly imply that there are no problems which need to be addressed within any mosques in the United Kingdom.

We actually need a sensible, well thought out, considered response to the threat of terrorism. Sadly, that is impossible in the culture of intolerance caused by those who put political correctness above our national security. It’s time that the Left stopped demonising those who take a different view to them. Frankly, they have themselves become as intolerant as the ‘intolerance’ they claim to condemn.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post website.  You can view it here.

My Column – The idea goes that the EU would punish us for leaving is nonsense

As the Brexit debate hots up, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told a ‘divorce’ from the European Union would be messy.

The idea goes that the EU would punish us for leaving, like someone unhappy at the break-up of their marriage.

It’s one of the biggest pieces of nonsense I’ve ever heard. I mean, seriously. Pull the other one. You’ve only got to look at the treaties. Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty is perfectly clear: “The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness.”

That sounds nothing like a vindictive ex trying to hurt us. Frankly, if the EU were going to be that nasty, petty and vindictive, it would prove my point: if our continental neighbours did treat us with that level of contempt we’d be best to run a mile and get out whilst we can.

The European Union doesn’t want to cut off its own nose to spite its face. The big car manufacturers in Germany wouldn’t let it, nor would all the other big exporters who sell far more to the UK than we sell to them. Yes, three million British jobs depend on EU trade. But five million EU jobs depend on trade with the UK They don’t want to lose five million jobs, we don’t want to lose three million, and that’s that. Sometimes when you’re not arguing with your ex on a daily basis over nonsense, you might get on with them better after a divorce.

EU apologists just love to tell us that the North East is the only region which exports more to the EU than we import, as though that proves their point. It doesn’t; it puts the North East in a uniquely good position – our deal with the EU isn’t going to be negotiated by the North East. It’s long to be negotiated by the UK, the EU’s best customer. Because five million is more than three million we can negotiate a great deal. The North East, whose figures are the other way around, will benefit.

Of course, the North East is a net exporter to non-EU countries too – but you don’t hear so much about that. You also don’t hear much about the fact that the figures are distorted more here than anywhere else by the ‘Rotterdam effect’. This is where goods are shipped via EU ports (usually Rotterdam) to non-EU countries like the United States, but for official figures it’s recorded as trade with Holland. That impacts the trade figures by a few percent – no-one can say exactly how much.

Twice in debate recently, I’ve been told that the North East exports more to Ireland than it does to India and China put together, as if that’s an argument for staying in the European Union.

Actually it’s completely the opposite: India and China are emerging markets, which we should be tapping into. Together they account for one-third of the world’s population. We’re not trading much with them at the moment? Then there’s far, far more to be gained from a British trade deal with them.

Iceland – yes, Iceland, with a population similar to that of Newcastle – has a free trade deal with China. We don’t. We’re throwing away masses of untapped potential, and then the Europhiles try to tell us that our failure to tap it whilst shackled to the EU is a reason to stay in the EU.

Don’t tell me that Norway and Switzerland have bad deals either. Their people consistently vote against the EU in referendums, and 70%+ according to opinion polls in Norway don’t want to join.

Why do we think they’re happier outside despite such a poor deal? Wouldn’t Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, have much more clout to negotiate a better one?

I’m fed up of hearing political opponents talking down the United Kingdom and talking down the North East. They just don’t believe we, with all our advantages, are capable of standing on our own two feet. Going back to the divorce analogy, I’m sure many people stay in a terrible marriage because they lack the confidence to leave.

In one way though, the marriage analogy breaks down: a marriage is a solemn promise to someone intended for the rest of your life; our political relationship with the EU held no such promise. In 2016 we don’t need to be locked in a 1950s solution to a 1950s problem.

This article was originally published in The Journal.  You can view it online here.

My Column – No, Brexit Isn’t a Risk to the City

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, has just backed Brexit. Much of the debate will now switch to arguments that the City will lose out if Britain leaves the European Union, that businesses would relocate to Paris or Frankfurt.

I don’t see any risk of any significant move from the UK in the event of Brexit. And surely, in any event, there is a risk associated with staying in: there are serious moves afoot towards harmonisation – the Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) is a real issue. This would cause the UK to lose its competitive advantage over other countries, and would cause an outflow of capital and jobs from the UK, probably to non-EU countries. This doesn’t matter so much to the EU nations with smaller financial sectors, because their increased tax revenue from an FTT would outweigh the costs. Nations with smaller financial sectors are likely to be more focused on domestic transactions than on international ones, so an FTT would genuinely create income for them. The UK might be able to stay outside an FTT, but we don’t have to just trust our current Conservative government on that. We have to be able to trust any future Labour government too.

One of the pro-EU arguments is that ‘it’s okay, we have to agree to changes’. Yes, and no. On some issues we do, on others we can be outvoted. The problem is what we mean by ‘we’. If an unpopular government votes in a bad law in Westminster, our next government can repeal it. But if it hands a power to Brussels, the next government can’t bring it back.

So what could cause the City problems in the event of a Brexit? There’s no realistic threat of tariffs being imposed between the UK and the EU. Why? Because in the absence of any deal at all, we’d be subject to the Common External Tariff – which provides for tariffs for goods but not for services. The Common External Tariff would be a nonsensical position (for the EU), and for many reasons we would have a better deal than that: there’s a legal argument to suggest that we have a right to EEA membership and conditions. There’s a self-interest argument from other countries, and there’s WTO rules preventing punitive tariffs. There’s pressure from EU businesses. Then there is the Lisbon Treaty: Articles 8 and 50 spell out the conditions on which negotiation would be based: a ‘special relationship’ aiming to establish an area of ‘prosperity’. Does that sound like a tariff war to you? Yet that’s what’s written in the Treaty in the event of Brexit. So I think we can safely rule out the possibility of tariffs.

Next, would any bank really want to move financial services away from the UK? Of course, businesses which want to stay in will make empty threats to leave. We know that; Nissan used this tactic in the 1990s to try to force us into the euro. When we didn’t join the euro, they did an about-turn and expanded their business in the UK rather than leaving. We’re now seeing HSBC doing the same. But the financial services sector is split in any event: note that the hedge funds are generally pretty anti-EU (and have backed this up through campaign donations – which hints that they care somewhat more about the issue than other companies, which have not). A successful financial services sector requires expertise and experience. Neither Frankfurt nor Paris will be offering anything substantially cheaper than what the UK has to offer, Switzerland even less, and even if the talent pool exists they would have to find it. There is a gamble in staff recruitment, especially in that sector. The human cost of relocation is greater than in other industries for this reason.

Outside the EU, the UK would have to seek to be a low-tax economy for financial services. Generate business, generate employment, generate taxation revenue. We would be far less hampered in this respect as EU members. Consider the possibility: the UK tries to attract investment through low taxation and a regulatory system designed to prevent the worst excesses of the sector’s problems of the last decade – but otherwise to interfere as little as possible. At the same time, the EU is adding to the regulatory burden through the FTT. The Common Corporate Consolidated Tax Base is currently in the pipeline in the EU; would the UK not be again seeking a competitive edge? The advantage of English as a global language being factored in, isn’t it possible that actually the movement would be in the other direction? That firms would be moving from EU countries to the UK, to avoid the FTT and to take advantage of our reputation in the field.

Finally, ask yourself where the future of the UK’s financial services industry lies. Is it with the European Union, whose share of world GDP continues to decline? Or is it with the emerging markets? I believe that we need to expand in order to survive, to look wider than we are doing at the moment. But whilst in the EU, such bilateral deals are not permitted. We can’t, for example, look towards what will become a highly lucrative Asian market. On trade deals whilst we’re in the EU, we have to negotiate our negotiating position. The French will want our negotiating position to be different to the one that we want; the Germans’ requests are different still. The upshot of all this is that we might well sign trade deals whilst in the EU which do nothing to help our financial services industry. Outside the EU, we can guarantee that is precisely what the deals will do.

As for the question of foreign exchange markets, I don’t suspect that this is a problem either. Look at trade in dollars, for example. Twice as much trade in dollars is done in London as in the USA, for example. We don’t have to be governed by the USA for that to happen. London is the largest foreign exchange trading market in the world. The strength of our position here isn’t relevant to the EU debate: we trade more euros in the UK than the whole eurozone combined. If you said in the 1990s that London’s financial dominance was at risk if we didn’t join the euro, you’d have been wrong but the argument would have made some sense. Today’s debate isn’t about the euro, it’s about political structures and changes which could only make it easier to do business in the UK.

I understand that the ‘in’ campaign feels the need to scaremonger on these issues; after all, it is their primary tactic on the economy. Is there any substance to their claims? I don’t see it.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post website.  You can view it here.