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27 june 2015, back to school

As the eurozone faces its very sternest test and the british death toll in tunisia rises by the hour, I go back to how these things come about and one inescapable but true cliche, that there is little not helped, or even solved, by education. I made a small contribution today, speaking at a hungarian weekend school that has sprung up in manchester. Critical to it, as all schools, is the quality of teachers. It is too bad that rigorous performance management comes late to many school systems, although also understandable given that performance in this context is hellishly difficult to measure. Some kids of course, not least through socio-demographics, should be expected to do better. Teacher value-add comes most where they are not, so straightforward like-for-like comparisons with other areas are not right, though like-for-like of the same areas over time might be. Experience also has a value. An interesting point that emerges from the research is that most schools have a full spectrum of good and bad teachers, which is strange. Better systems, places or heads might be expected to bring forward the best; lesser ones tolerate the worst. Better pupils though are assigned to better teachers. This is highly pertinent for me as my second-born makes the transition into secondary school and, unusually, to a state school that has streams. He worked extremely hard to get in the top steam, where, research would suggest, the better teachers are deployed; evidence from my first son (same school, same stream) suggests so. On the other hand, getting the best teachers to work with the worst pupils would likely create the maximum value for society, though at the cost of the highest-performers doing less well. Cause and effect though, as ever, might be an inverse relationship here. We can of course be utopian and just wish that all teachers were excellent, or at least nudge things towards that: better pay for teachers would help, as would rather more ruthlessly rooting out and moving on the poorer ones. Someone was perhaps right with the "education, education, education" mantra.

20 june 2015, shoot first, ask questions never

Once the immediate horror of the charleston shootings moved to consideration, the next thought was torn between the fork of race or guns. The latter won a moment later, when the news reported that the murderer received a gun for his 21st birthday present. Typically, jonathan freedland managed both. He points to the excellent jon stewart commentary. Somehow america, such a leading global light in so many ways, is unable to wrestle with its twin race and gun pathologies. This time, it's not different. Last year there were 283 mass shootings in america. 283. Here's another much-commented on string of thought: 525 people have been shot in america by police so far this year, probably more by the time you check the record. Every day in america 7 children are shot. Yet even when the american president puts the full weight of his office behind it, attempts at gun control are crushed. The people's rights as set out in constitution, or more accurately in the willfully literalist translation of it, are sacrosanct. Even though the right to bear arms makes no more sense than the right to arm bears. Sometimes, it feels good to be a european.

15 june 2015, stamp of approval

There's a beautiful stamp to commemorate today, 800 years since magna carta. I saw it at the post office as I sent several sets of stamps, the first wave, perhaps, of a mass sell-off. I collected stamps avidly as a boy, both me and my sister (she was given a coin collection) were pleasantly encouraged by my father, under whose guidance I built up a decent contemporary collection, bolstered by a family gift of older stock. It was in and out of albums until my early teens, since when it has ossified, albeit added to occasionally by me and, I now recall, my mother. I have tried to get my two sons into the habit, to no effect. I am not upset though, as they have their pastimes and pleasures; philately is just not one of them. Nor any longer is it mine, much as I enjoy the aesthetic beauty as I flick through what is now quite a fine collection. However, I have a growing feeling that my time to horde has gone, my time to unclutter arrived. Stuffocation. Clutter therapist says get rid, purge, clear, toss, abandon, and with relish, too. So I am going through the process of selling my stamps. My first punt was to put two dozen presentation packs on the ebay. Though I found the trial and error element quite therapeutic, I sold just 3 (which I was posting). I am deeply uncertain about the sale: it is odd for a historian to write about selling stamps on the 800th anniversary of magna carta, rather than debunking myths about a document that first made everyone equal before the law. I will have that much less family silver to pass on to my kids. Somehow though the glove needs to fit the hand and there are no tears when it doesn't, when my own hand has turned to other things and when we are all content, as were the barons.

8 june 2015, alea jacta est

Having just watched the eurovision (11 may 2014, the morning after) with my youngest - little more than a blatant attempt to stay awake after bedtime - I was struck, again, by how pervasive, in song and commentary, english was. Across the continent it's no longer a question of what language europe would adopt it had a lingua franca, but rather whether or not to officially adopt english. This is somewhat ironic, given that those who speak three languages are trilingual, those who speak two are bilingual and those who speak just one are english. Some 38% of europeans now speak english, well ahead of german (12%) and french (11%). The reasons for this are of course less olde england and more new world, but no less potent for that - and of course self-reinforcing. As more and more speak the common language, more and more want and even need it. In the european institutions, where 30 years ago french almost totally prevailed, some 70-80% of eu documents are now produced in that funny language where skating on thin ice can get you into hot water and fat chance and slim chance are the same thing. Even french oscars (the césars), much to my francophone other half's disgust, now go to english-language films. For the eu single market, this is a useful trend. Compared to the internal mobility of americans, the biggest barrier in europe is language. The ability to actually talk to each other is a crucial element in encouraging people to shop around and to work where they are needed. At a more philosophical level, can there ever really be a "community" let alone a "union" when its supposed citizens only actually speak to others of their own nationality ? Whereas once upon a time nations harnessed language to the cause of a common identity through compulsory use in universities, courts, civil service and the army, europe's language is emerging in a resoundingly "bottom up" way. The english may yet edge away from the eu, but at least the new neighbours will be able to communicate across the channel.

31 may 2015, copenhalfgone

A busy half-term, with relatives staying from australia, and then we hopped over to denmark for a few days, a first for my other half and the boys. It came on the back of a rather rash promise to visit legoland if my youngest got into the top stream in his new school, which he duly did; we hadn't considered which legoland he meant. We were also inspired by the bridge, and indeed it was a constant theme, as we took the train over it, walked through a new dock development for a sweeping view and then climbed the little-gem rundetaarn tower for an ariel panorama. The other side is malmo, and we also spent a surprisingly interesting day in the other half of greater copenhagen. There were election posters absolutely everywhere, but this was a strictly leisure visit. We ate well, squeezed in the libeskind-designed jewish museum, saw the sights (even the little mermaid) and in the dying hours a tuk-tuk from the new harbour showed us what we'd missed; a refeshing break.

23 may 2015, the alternative vote

Born of reaping the grim fate of being on the tory-led "establishment" side of the scottish referendum, the otherwise-excellent tristram hunt (aspiring shadow chancellor) has been talking about the eu referendum, following the emerging labour line in favour of staying in, but oppositiontunistically decrying cameron for failing in his much-vaunted reform negotiations. This does rather seem to be backing themselves into the corner of saying cameron failed and got nothing, but vote yes anyway to the same old eu. The main event is of course the prime minister getting out of his own corner, as he doesn't want to leave, but is leading a referendum where the country may very well vote to do that. There are worse things, as switzerlerland and norway know, than voluntarily being bound by the rules and paying the bill for full access to the single market without clocking up the air miles to brussels to negotiate them in the first place, but britain's place in the world outside the eu is a diminished one. It's also one that the much-maligned establishment doesn't want, and now the referendum is real eu leaders are already working to make reform as substantial as possible, and business leaders are coming out of the closeut and making the case for the pros of sharing not losing sovereignty. There is a route which enables the eurozone to merge much more in the fullness of time (see 21 february 2015, le demos nouveaux et arrivé !), but provides enough power and form to the slow-laners led by the uk as to maintain an equilibrium of powers that makes such second-class membership worthwhile. Whether the disgruntled brits though are going to vote for it (see 24 february 2014, sleepwalking towards the exit) is quite another matter.

9 may 2015, 331 not out

Tony blair was right, warning his successor as labour party leader, ed miliband, some months ago not to make the election a rerun of those before him "in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result" of a conservative win. We took the kids to vote after work, and they were suitably interested in the morning to discover I now have a conservative mp for the first time in my life. Within hours, miliband was gone, as was his other half, justine, who I spent a very pleasant if obscure week with in kazakstan and krygystan in the 1990s. Clegg resigned too, as the final hope of reward for their noble narrative of national sacrifice proved entirely unfounded; the liberals now return to their traditional corner of also-ran eccentric think tank. For all the heat and light of ukip, the greens and the me-too welsh nationalists, they managed just 5 seats between them, although the lion that did roar was of course the scottish nationalists. I stayed up until after 4am to watch the biggest swings ever seen in the uk and the 100-year old political certainties of labour scotland come spectacularly crashing down as a 20-year student easily beat labour's shadow foreign secretary in a seat that had been labour since 1924, and gave a very decent speech. And on it went, until there were more pandas in scotland that conservative, liberal and, incredibly, labour mps (see 10 february 2014, less than chinese pandas). Although the new government's agenda, especially on europe, and a poor, poor labour result leaving a quasi-existential crisis for the main opposition will quickly become the legacy stories, the biggest one of all is the uk's now very-different politically-coloured nations: yellow scotland, red wales, london and northern/urban england and a blue south. And can we finally get around to changing the voting system as well, please: the snp's 1.5 million votes gave them 56 seats in parliament; ukip's 4m gave them 1.

Attached File: kaz1.pdf

Attached File: kaz2.pdf

3 may 2015, neither a n g e l o r d e v i l

I remain in mixed feelings mode about my adopted quasi-homeland of hungary. On the one hand my honorary consul role firmly co-opts me into supporting trade, investment and the large local hungarian community, with events such as a recent one in cheshire I anchored. Of course though the support is seen as wider, and indeed a couple of weeks ago I was a special guest at the house of lords where hungary took over the chairmanship of the international holocaust remembrance alliance from the uk. To hungary's credit there were many survivors, who pulled no punches, and a contrite and sensible minister who was ruthlessly frank about both the past and the present. Taking into account the extensive programme, of many years in hungary, I do feel this is all more than a foreigner-facing front, and a genuine attempt, at many levels of governance, to confront the past. However, the problem is how little that bleeds into the rather shocking present, where most hungarians still consider themselves victims: of the nazis, the communists and many now of the eu and western financial world. That is the foundation stone on which the brutal, nationalist, revanchist and blatantly racist jobbik party is built. Attempts to adapt to its move into the mainstream, dissolving its violent militia and claiming to have moved on from anti-semitism, are unconvincing. Its growth is frightening: coming third in the general elections, second in the european elections and recently winning an unprecedented by-election. Yes, across europe, not least with france's national front, extreme right wingers have been on the march for some years (see 21 september 2013, europe is not (too) right), but none are quite so disgraceful as jobbik, and none have marched so far. As in most european polities, the extreme is pulling the centre-right with it. As to my own role, in every world there is good and evil, but the worst of all I used to say was the vaguely-hungarian elie wiesel's silent observer.

18 april 2015, bibin there, done that

As the initial month's mandate approaches, we wait with trepidation for a new israeli government to be formed. We know already the prime minister will be the same man that played such a vile role in creating the atmosphere in which yitzchaq rabin, the last best chance for israeli-palestinian peace, was murdered in 1995 (see ...and that's how it ended). He held firm against the territorial compromise that peace required then, and he's held firm since, making something that was incredibly hard a generation ago virtually impossible now. This excellent diagram charts how israel has moved steadily from being a centre-left polity in the 1950s to a harder right one today. Bibi was on the far right of his party twenty years ago; today, he is its moderate anchor. It is hard not to see that somewhere in this period the final opportunity for a two-state solution passed, as the palestinians' grip on their ever-diminishing territory got ever less and israel's vested interest in keeping what they had ever greater. "We have no partner" became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as now there probably isn't. The respite in gaza came in september, yet there was no making hay while the sun shined. No plan, no progress; just more of israel and egypt's joint blockade: bankruptcy, bombast, blankets; broken, even as hamas surrendered control to the pa. Negotiations on re-opening the border have stopped entirely. Meanwhile the decades-long partnership with the pa that has more-or-less kept peace in the west bank has frayed to the thinnest thread, as bereft of even the pretence of a peace process palestine joined the international criminal court (which it has every right to do) and israel withholds the taxes it owes the pa and which maintain the whole edifice, pushing it towards bankruptcy and anarchy and leading it to withdraw security co-operation. Netanyahu maintains the possibility of a national unity government as a stick to beat his rightist coalition partners into submission with, but it's not hard to be assured that what will emerge will, again, be the most rightwing government israel has ever had. Alas, it will likely also be one of its most stable, and in september 2018 netanyahu would tellingly surpass david ben gurion to become israel's longest-serving pm. What an epitaph to what was once such an astounding civilisational beacon. An opportune time to take stock of these last years.

6 april 2015, and finally, the middle kingdom

Other half and kids in budapest; I'm back from china. An experience. Once through hong kong, spent time first in schenzen and then in chengdu - cities that no-one in europe has heard of, with populations of some 15 and 10 million. The first is probably the more remarkable, as while chengdu has a rich history of 3000 years, schenzen, a fishing village of 30 families in the 1980s, is a growth "unprecedented in human history" poster (only) child of various global "special economic zone" aspirations. I was privileged enough to stand in the city's nasa-style integrated command and control centre, and see a massive bustling metropolis of finance, industry and all means and manner of commerce, plus skyscrapers as long and as far as the eye can see. Its a rather drab version of hong kong cubed, with some fabulous gems interspersed, such as an amazingly designed airport (serving 36m a year) and some curios, like our hotel. It was nothing to our lodgings in chengdu, supposedly the biggest building in asia and a little world in itself. At restaurants, shops and markets we had a small glimpse of the prosperity dipping down ever deeper into the layers of chinese society, not that there aren't those layers below on whose backs, as in every society, wealth is built. We flew back to hong kong on an airline again no-one in europe has heard of (sichuan, with a fleet of around 100 planes, flying to a dozen international destinations, though mainly domestic). Chengdu airport was similarly impressive behind the scenes. This is a country bursting to break out into the world, as the aiib story, which broke while we were there, totemically shows. It was an eye-opening, and mouth-watering, few days. Photos here.

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