The abolition of EMA played more of a role in the riots than its creation

EMA helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out.

Perhaps it was wrong to except much of a Telegraph article that begins with "in my day". Brendan O'Neil, who describes himself as someone who wages a "culture war of words" against prejudice and misanthropy, claimed that the Education Maintenance Allowance [EMA] scheme provided a rock star lifestyle to teenage recipients, regardless of the fact that 80 per cent come from families whose household income is below £21,000 a year.

Of course there will be those who misuse any payment scheme - the MPs' expenses scandal is one obvious example. However, other than anecdotal evidence, there is no proof that the level of misuse of EMA is endemic. In fact, any research into what EMA recipients actually spend their money on has consistently shown that "Young people who were receiving EMA were more likely than other groups of eligible young people to be making a contribution to housekeeping costs, transport and books and equipment for school".

So far, so Jan Moir. More worrying were his other claims. Apparently EMA caused the riots. How you ask? By creating a "new state yoof (sic) gang" filled with a "sense of entitlement and disrespect for local community and parental authority". And by failing to put a "strong, moral case for the importance of education" to working class pupils.

The sad truth is that, if anything, EMA probably helped the poorest working class pupils to struggle on in education and avoid dropping out. Ironically, the best evidence for this comes from the one report the government tried to use to justify the abolition of EMA. The report, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, was not actually about EMA but instead barriers to education. In June, its author, Thomas Spielhofer, gave evidence to parliament in which he said the government "misinterpreted" his report and that he "opposes" EMA's abolition.

The poll of 838 recipients of EMA, cited by the government, found that 88 per cent of them would like to continue participating in their course regardless of financial incentives. What this really showed, according to Spielhofer, was the level of resilience and commitment among those teenagers who wanted to stay in education. He compared it to pensioners receiving free bus passes - many would still like to use buses if they didn't receive them. But, naturally, their use of that service would be affected by their ability to pay for it.

As Spielhofer went to lengths to point out to the select committee, there were no supplementary questions about whether they would have dropped out without the payments due to the cost of studying. When that question was asked of EMA recipients earlier this year, 70 per cent said they would be forced to drop out if they lost their EMA. It was probably no surprise, therefore, that the very next month the education select committee published a report that said the government "rushed" its decision to scrap EMA.

Brendan O'Neil offered not one strand of evidence showing EMA caused the riots. If anything, those teenagers who told journalists its abolition influenced them had more proof. Despite Michael Gove on Newsnight protesting that EMA has not yet been cut, he and others forget that those planning to start courses this September may not be able to without prior knowledge of their funding. According to research by the University and College Union, 40 per cent of EMA recipients would not have even started courses without the payments.

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for violence and many recipients of EMA played no part in the riots. But it's clear that the abolition of EMA, not its introduction, was to blame for the actions of some.

James Mills is campaign director of the Save EMA campaign.

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear