Still loving the bomb: Britain and Trident, 2017

What is it with the British and nuclear weapons? I’ve lived in the UK half my adult life, but it’s only the current election campaign that has prompted me to ask this question. My answers, so far, are depressing.

It’s not that I’ve never before had to think about nuclear weapons. If the Americans had invaded Japan in 1945 rather than dropping those two bombs, my father, interned as a prisoner-of-war and slave labourer in the city of Kobe, most likely would have been shot. I exist because nuclear weapons were invented and I’ve never been passionately anti-nuclear; I just think there’s something peculiar about what I see today in Britain.

Britain acquired nuclear weapons at the very historical moment when it was losing its empire. While there was no causal relationship between these two developments, I can’t be the first person to suggest that this has led to the inflated significance of nukes in many British minds. Do I need an expert to demonstrate a correlation between nostalgia for the empire and a deep attachment to Trident? Probably, but I’ll go out on a limb regardless.

And so, despite any evidence that nuclear weapons are more likely to be used now than at any other time in the past sixty years, despite all the evidence that what the military needs most of all is more conventional equipment, and despite the fact that both main political parties are wilfully leading us into economic decline and diplomatic irrelevance, many people are clinging to the bomb as a sign of British greatness. For Lynton Crosby, it’s doubtless a wondrous dead cat. For the rest of us, it’s a symptom of national delusion. Clinging onto Trident gives us cause to feel powerful beyond our means.

Nuclear bombs, to state the obvious, are the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Even the testing of Britain’s early bombs, in supposedly uninhabited desert in Australia, caused damage to lives that is still evident decades later. Maybe, at a time when warfare has transformed into something that happens in faraway countries, that most of us watch only on television, that’s somehow hard to grasp. After all, we’re capable of watching the destruction of Syrian cities on the telly, then grumbling about the bloody refugees.

In the current election campaign, we have a candidate being pilloried for refusing to abandon his lifelong distaste for nuclear weapons. It seems that some people actually want him to say that he would strike first, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of, well, different kinds of people in the cause of a fantasy of British ‘safety’. For a start, this is all a desperate irrelevance; I mean, how many nuclear standoffs has Britain actually had, ever? More disturbingly, it’s an insight into how many British people appear to assess the ‘strength’ of their nation and its leaders.

Actually, I’m not sure Britain has ever had a prime minister who would have dealt with a nuclear crisis any differently from how Corbyn might end up dealing with one. Not many outright sociopaths work their way through the Westminster system, whatever their opponents might think of them at the time. But for me, what’s telling about this upsurge of emotion masquerading as rational debate, is what it reveals about the people – maybe many millions of them – who love our nukes. It seems to me this reveals rather a lot about a desire to approach complex problems in simplistic, binary, confrontational, aggressive terms. And it perhaps reveals a lot about Britain in 2017.

And in my next post, I promise, I’ll return to higher education stuff. This election campaign is winding me up a bit.

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How old is a voter? A peculiar British media obsession with age

I may be an immigrant, but I’ve passed my ‘Life in the UK’ test and I understand that people in this country can vote from the age of eighteen. But what’s really winding me up in this election is that you wouldn’t bloody well know it from the way the media behaves.

So, with apologies to those who flock to this blog for my considered views on higher education, I’m going to have a media-studies rant. I figure the BBC – though they’re not alone in this – has a view of a voter as being about sixty. And given the powerful data on age as an influence on voting intention, which suggests that age now has more influence on choice than class, I reckon this is distorting their professedly unbiased representation of the election.

 

Exhibit A: the vox pop

Journalists apparently love going out into the big wide world to gather the views of ‘the public’. Actually, I think they really hate it, which may be part of the problem, but the model is predictable and occasionally illuminating.

But I swear – and maybe I’ve missed things, but I’ve been stuck at home for the past two weeks after an operation, getting bored and listening to lots of news programmes, and I really mean that I’d swear to this – every time I’ve heard a BBC radio journalist doing this in the course of the current election campaign they’ve spoken only to people over the age of about fifty.

Now I accept that it might be easier to find huddles of older folk in the daytime; I accept also that it can be catchy to have someone saying ‘I’ve always voted X, but I’m buggered if I’m going to do that this time’; and I also accept that the average journalist might feel more comfortable approaching a sixty-year-old than a nineteen-year-old. But it’s unrepresentative and it’s crap. Every time we get the nice retired chap saying that Theresa May will be strong and stable, without a student chipping in with an opposing view, we’re actually getting an insidious little bit of bias.

I’d also bet that if I asked one of these journalists to visit a university campus, I’d be told that they know what the majority of students will say, so it would be unrepresentative to do so. Well, frankly, on that I’d rest my case. See you at the bowls’ club.

 

Exhibit B: Andrew Neil and the IRA

How much of his interview with Jeremy Corbyn did Andrew Neil devote to the IRA? Ten minutes? Eight minutes? Five minutes? Honestly, I couldn’t bear to drag myself back to it in order to check. And if it wasn’t the IRA it was other historic conflicts.

I wouldn’t argue for a minute that this isn’t relevant, nor would I argue that Corbyn’s political backstory isn’t an issue in this election. I’m one of those people who blew £5 by becoming a Labour ‘supporter’ last year in order to vote for Owen Smith. But is it really all that important as we look forward to the next five years?

I mean, there are millions of voters who can’t remember The Troubles. Maybe they need to learn their history, but perhaps most of all right now they’re worrying about the future. These are the people who voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, and whose lives are going to most affected by it, for decades to come.

But Brexit, Andrew Neil? I think he mentioned it once in that interview. The unmade costings of Brexit render all other calculations in this election pretty much meaningless. We’re living in a fantasy land in which we talk about education, social care and nuclear weapons without anyone questioning just how devastating a hit the economy is about to take.

I can’t believe I’m the only one who would rather hear Corbyn’s views on this – and, by the way, that could be the best tactic to expose him, because I don’t think he has any more idea about Brexit than May – than on the IRA. But the wait is becoming a little frustrating.

 

And so the press will turn around in due course and say that younger voters don’t turn out on the day. Frankly, the way they’re represented, who could blame them? In fact, though, this has been exposed as a bit of a myth in relation to the referendum, and I wouldn’t be surprised if younger voters surprise us again this time. I’m not sure any party has the answers they need, but they have every right to be mightily pissed off.

 

The idea of the university in the Conservative Party manifesto*

On the evidence of their election manifesto, universities make Theresa May’s Conservatives uneasy. Something about the modern university worries the authors of this document, as they pick away at higher education policy in one section after another. While Labour’s manifesto mentions universities only in relation to fees, it feels like there’s a lot more at stake for the Tories.

So I’d like to consider what’s troubling them, and also what they propose instead, by dwelling on some of the manifesto’s language.

 

‘We will toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards’

The curious thing about this sentence is not the commitment – hugely disappointing though it is – but the justification. What does it mean?

In technical terms, David Morris identifies two alternatives: ‘standards of visa compliance or standards of quality in higher education’. It’s also effectively meaningless; who’s asking for lower standards, of anything? But there’s perhaps something more fundamental, even philosophical at work here as well. It’s an anxious sentence. It has the tone of a head-teacher fretting that her pupils’ are being distracted by the latest social media fad.

British universities are accustomed to working in a global higher education network. Their ideal would be a world with frictionless movement of students, researchers and ideas. Mass movement of students is a good thing for the exporting country since it raises skill levels, and for the importing country since it generates income. And we talk about a ‘fourth age of research’, in which international collaboration makes our work more effective and visible.

But that’s not the way this manifesto sees the world. It wants the UK to be special, even as it struggles to put its finger on how. This is a document, after all, that positions the UK as a ‘champion of free trade’: using a metaphor from medieval chivalry to position a former colonial power as distinctive in endorsing a value that might otherwise appear to be all about international equality.

So ‘maintaining standards’, I’d suggest, is about having a little bit of globalization while maintaining British universities as a little bit insular. It is of a piece with the ongoing commitment to ensuring that international students return home after graduating, and that they pay more money towards the cost of the National Health Service. It says: you can be here, but just don’t affect us in any discernible way.

 

‘we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole’

In practical terms, one might ask: why on earth would they want to rip this hornets’ nest right off the branch, immediately after passing the Higher Education and Research Bill? The commitment is made in the context of a vision of a revived ‘technical’ education sector, yet it’s another statement that betrays more fundamental anxieties about the university.

There was a moment, not so very long ago, when vice-chancellors fantasized about freedom from state control. The state, it was said, was an unreliable partner. The fees settlement meant that primary educational contracts were now between students and providers, while research councils and independent funding bodies further served to keep the state at arm’s length.

But this election’s Tories don’t like this. Moving higher education into the Department for Education was symbolically important in this regard, indicating a perception that universities are fundamentally not independent businesses but part of a national educational system. This manifesto is a record of their scrabbling around in the dark looking for new levers to pull.

Not that all their ideas are uninteresting. There’s a proposal to ‘build up the investment funds of our universities’, enabling them ‘to enjoy the commercial fruits of their research’. But there’s also a reiteration of the Industrial Strategy commitment to a more interventionist approach to research funding. And there’s the controversial commitment that universities must involve themselves in secondary education: ‘We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools.’

Hence that ‘major review of funding’. Maybe differential fees according to an institution’s graduates’ record of repayment? Who knows? Maybe they don’t know themselves. It might never happen. But it’s important as a statement of authority: the state is in charge.

 

‘It is why we want to see universities make their full contribution to their local community and economy’

Universities argue that global recognition and local influence are symbiotic. This is powerfully stated in University College London’s strapline: ‘London’s global university’. But the Tories – the declared party of the ‘somewheres’, sceptical of the ‘citizens of the world – are suspicious.

Hence the free schools and academies. They also want to ensure that universities create ‘opportunities for local people, especially those from ordinary working backgrounds’ – frankly, the HE equivalent of a commitment to the family. But there’s more: new technical colleges will be linked with ‘leading’ universities (a phrase that, as Andrew McGettigan has noted, might leave the ‘non-leading’ post-92s feeling painted into a corner – most likely the Tories envisage some repurposing); and the relocation of government departments and agencies, which will supposedly create further opportunities for local development.

 

The Conservative Party manifesto moulds an idea of the university from the clay of British nationalism. It’s a university of ‘high standards’ and Nobel laureates, recognized in global league tables while maintaining an arm’s-length approach to the messy business of globalization. It’s a university that can be turned to address government priorities, from battery technology research to training more doctors, at the flick of a policy switch.

At one moment the manifesto declares a commitment to ‘enable top scientists to work here’. While perfectly in accord with its idea of the university, this statement is telling in its assumption that top scientists will actually want to buy into the Tories’ insular, containable, malleable model of a British university. They – like international students, like existing academics in UK universities, indeed like all those other potential migrants scuttling their way through the netherworld of Tory policy – may very well decide to go elsewhere.

* A version of this piece (ruthlessly stripped of some of its best lines) was published by The Guardian HE blog.