Selling the Royal Mail, and the country that banned fee-paying schools

Finland, where fee-paying schools are illegal and league tables don't exist, does consistently well in educational surveys and produces some of the cleverest children. Plus: a magic formula for regulation.

Even by the usual standards of Tory privatisations, the sell-off of Royal Mail is an outrage. Ministers have offered the shares at a maximum of £3.30 each, valuing the company at £3.3bn. As I write, analysts reckon that is at least £1bn below the true value and predict that shares will sell at £4 once they go on the market. Even if the analysts prove wrong in the short term, they are unlikely to be wrong about the medium-term prospects for Royal Mail. The shares are a bargain, offered at taxpayers’ expense.

How can a government be so generous when it is cutting benefits, supposedly to repair the public finances? Why is it giving City banks and hedge funds, for which most shares are reserved, a free lunch? Why is it, in effect, transferring money from poor folk who can’t meet weekly food, fuel and rent bills to people who have enough spare cash at least to buy the shares for a few days? Dare I suggest it’s a straightforward bribe to potential Tory donors and voters?

George Osborne fusses about the UK’s credit rating, arguing that he must reduce debt if the government is to continue borrowing cheaply. Someone should explain to him that governments can borrow because they hold assets such as Royal Mail. He accuses Labour of failing to repair the roof while the sun was shining. He’s dismantling it in the middle of a downpour.

Press charges

To break the interminable deadlock over press regulation – the Privy Council has rejected the newspapers’ proposal and is now trying to adapt the Royal Charter to its tastes – can we have a dummy run?

Let both sides set up their complaints commissions. Give them two cases: the Daily Mail and its treatment of Ralph Miliband; the Sun and its treatment of the mentally ill. (The latter, in case you missed it, headlined “1,200 people killed by mental patients” over a story that, according to a Telegraph blogger, was not only “irresponsible and dangerous” but also “nonsense from top to bottom”.) Let their commissioners pass judgement and recommend penalties, if any. The Mail should get a mild reprimand for the headline “The man who hated Britain”. The Sun should be required to publish a prominent correction and clarification, pointing out that the true figure should have been 738, not 1,200; that, in an average year, less than 0.005 per cent of the 1.2 million people in touch with hospital mental health services kill anyone; and that the danger of their doing so is falling, not rising.

The one that comes up with the above answers –which I believe most people would accept as the right ones – would be declared the winner.

For Pete’s sake

I welcome the promotion of the cerebral Tristram Hunt to shadow education secretary. But the idea that he’s part of an anti-Blairite coup, dictated by Unite’s Len McCluskey, is laughable. When I edited the NS, we published several pieces from Hunt, then unknown. I was told he had written to a friend saying “I owe so much to Peter”, which seemed a refreshing change from contributors who griped about our modest fees. Further inquiries, however, revealed that the reference was to Peter Mandelson, Hunt’s political mentor.

Great Finnish

“England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills,” scream the headlines, and that’s just the Guardian website. The source is an OECD survey of adult skills in industrialised countries. What stands out is that, while English adults as a whole are around average when tested on literacy and numeracy, those aged 16 to 24 are behind even their Polish, Estonian and Slovakian contemporaries. Tories blame the usual suspects: comprehensive schools, lack of academic rigour, Labour governments.

Many comparisons are made with South Korea, where young adults score far better than their elders, while here there’s hardly any difference. Fewer comparisons are made with Finland, which, as usual in educational surveys, comes at or near the top in everything. “Older Finns,” the OECD reports, “perform at around the average . . . while younger Finns are, together with young adults from Japan, Korea and the Netherlands, among today’s top performers.”

Finland has no selective schools, no feepaying schools (they’re illegal), no streaming within schools, no league tables, no external exams until the age of 18, no national curriculum beyond broad outlines. Before the 1970s, its schools were similar to ours, with grammar schools, private schools and so on. Finland also has one of the most equal income distributions among the 22 countries in the survey; we have the most unequal, next to the United States, which also does badly in the tests.

I leave you to draw conclusions.

Finnish children on their second day at school in Vaasa, Finland. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle