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The playing fields of Moscow, regional revolts, Murdoch’s satire and the great British bin

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

Tristram Hunt’s threat to deprive fee-charging schools of relief from business rates – which accounts for only a small proportion of the tax breaks available to them – provoked contrived fury from head teachers. In fact, the shadow education secretary’s attempt to persuade the schools to enter “partnerships” with the state sector would do little to reduce inequalities of opportunity and social divisions. Rather, it offers the schools an easy way to legitimise themselves. Their response shows their arrogance and their indifference to the public good.

The elite fee-charging schools haven’t the slightest interest in a fairer education system. Their soaring fees – up nearly twice as fast as inflation over the past decade and reaching an annual £42,000, in one case – put them beyond the reach even of many lawyers and accountants. As the head of King’s College School in Wimbledon, south-west London, confessed recently, these schools now “teach the children of the very wealthiest families in the world”. The high fees pay not for better teaching, but for lavish dormitory, arts and sports facilities. At one time, children at the top public schools, subjected to beatings and compulsory games, at least had to undergo a degree of hardship to earn their lifelong privileges. Now they are as pampered as the customers of a luxury spa.

At the present rate, however, the elite schools’ role in perpetuating the English class system may end at last. Not because of anything Hunt does, but because only the international plutocracy will be able to send their children to the most expensive schools.

 

Lessons in fraud

In its crazed mission to bring enterprise, competition and market forces to the public services, the coalition government allows students at private colleges – or “alternative providers”, as ministers call them – to receive loans and in some cases grants from public funds. Since 2010, the number of students benefiting from such support is up from under 5,000 to more than 50,000 and the sums disbursed up from £35m to £675m. As repayment of the loans is contingent on income, much of this money is likely never to be recovered.

Now the National Audit Office reports that 20 per cent of students aren’t registered for the exams they’re supposed to be taking; dropout rates in nine colleges are above 20 per cent (the average for the established universities and colleges is 4 per cent); and some “students” aren’t even resident in the UK, a scam that cost £5.4m but could have cost £65m if the Student Loans Company hadn’t acted. The auditors don’t quite say so, but it looks as if some colleges are harbouring large-scale fraud.

The whole thing is reminiscent of Labour’s scheme for individual learning accounts, under which poorly qualified people received modest sums to “buy” training courses from “new providers” rather than from anything so stuffy and undynamic as a local authority college. Many of the “accounts” turned out to be criminal inventions; 6,000 were created for a single address and the names of some holders were Hindi swear words. Out of £290m disbursed, at least £97m was pocketed by fraudsters.

Will politicians never learn?

 

Local is as local does

Proposals that because Scotland will get more devolved powers, so should the English “regions”, face a big problem: England, in most people’s minds, has no regions. Historic loyalties are to counties, cities or towns. Citizens of Leicester, for instance, do not wish to be ruled from an East Midlands “capital” in Nottingham rather than from London; if anything, they prefer the latter. The leader of Darlington Borough Council has told the Financial Times that Teesside will not tolerate being “subsumed” into a region run from Newcastle. Negotiators trying to form a combined authority for Birmingham and the Black Country can’t even agree on a name.

For more than 40 years, national politicians and Whitehall bureaucrats have tried to create larger and, as they see it, more “rational” units of local government. They put people into places nobody had heard of, such as Kirklees, Halton and Sandwell; created and then abolished a Humberside County Council for people separated by, er, the Humber Estuary; and ended up with a more irrational distribution of powers than they started with. It is time they gave up.

 

Just your average mogul

To the 21st birthday party of Women in Journalism, held on the 18th floor of the News UK building, the new Rupert Murdoch press headquarters close to London Bridge. My eye is caught by an extraordinarily long inscription emblazoned across the entrance hall. I take it to be the Murdoch mission statement: “Telling the stories that matter, seeding ideas and stirring emotions, capturing moments, meaning and magic . . .” On and on it goes (does Murdoch no longer employ sub-editors?), until it gets to “sticking up for the little guy”, at which point I stand in silence, quietly mourning the death of satire.

 

Rubbish newspaper

“The great betrayal”, screamed the Daily Mail headline. Had David Cameron, to secure an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, secretly agreed to instal an imam in every state school? Had ministers decided to hand over all public services to the Chinese? Were BBC news bulletins to be dictated by the CIA? None of these. “Families” must wait 12 days on average for their bins to be emptied. Truly, the Mail understands what causes terror among the British as no other paper does.

 

The Only Way Is Delhi

A footnote to my visit to India. From a car in Delhi, we spotted a shop/café called Essex Patisserie. The cast of the ITV2 series The Only Way Is Essex have two shops in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, and nine in Brentwood. Has their brand spread across the world? More information gratefully received. 

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 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.