Saturday 30 May 2020

If you want to oppose separatism, don’t be separate.

I am a Conservative voter. I support Boris Johnson completely and think he is the best thing that has happened to our party for decades. I believe in free markets, gradually lowering taxes where possible and leaving the EU. I am represented by no one in the Scottish Parliament.

There are a lot of people like me in Scotland. 38% of Scots voted to leave the EU, but not one mainstream party campaigned for this view either before the EU referendum or after it. Four years on and it was more important for Douglas Ross to continue being part of the Remainer Rearguard than it was for him to attack the SNP. He would rather join the attack on Johnson and Cummings than come up with reasons why Scottish nationalism is hindering Scotland. Absurdly he did this even though he knew that he had driven from London to Moray and back again in order not to look after a child but rather to obtain better broadband.

The mistake that the Scottish Conservatives made in 2016 was to not fully get behind the British decision to leave the EU. 38% of the vote gives you a lot of seats both in a General Election and in the Scottish Parliament. Of course, not all of them would vote Conservative, but a distinctive message about the EU rather than agreeing with all the other Scottish Parties would have attracted votes to the Conservatives.

Ruth Davidson was an excellent leader, but her strategy was flawed not merely on the EU, but more importantly on where she placed Scottish Conservatism. She chose a position of consensus with the other Scottish parties on most issues thinking that this would appeal to generally left-wing Scotland. But you don’t win by being the same, you win by being different.

The task for the Scottish Conservatives is to be become the only party that British people vote for. In recent years both Labour, and the Lib Dems have flirted with Scottish nationalism.

Labour needs to find a way to attract its former supporters who deserted for the SNP. Many Lib Dems prefer membership of the EU to the UK. For this reason, both Labour and the Lib Dems are inherently soft on independence. Westminster Parliamentary arithmetic suggests that Labour could only come to power with the support of the SNP and the Lib Dems. When push comes to shove, they will make a deal that grants another independence referendum.

This is why an absolutely unequivocal Scottish Conservative attitude to independence is the key defining characteristic that can attract votes.

While opposing independence the Scottish Conservatives have always been wobbly about a British Prime Minister saying “No, you can’t have a second referendum”. Why? Because they are trying to attract people, who would never vote for us anyway.

The mistake was to have an independence referendum in the first place. There is no right to secession in any other European country and none would allow a referendum on such an issue. We are one nation, indivisible.

But the problem is that Scottish Conservatives don’t believe this. They think of the UK as a Union of Four nations as a sort of confederation. But this is not true. We are a unitary state like France that happens to have parts that are called countries, and which rather absurdly play international football against each other.

For historical reasons the Conservatives are called unionists, but the word unionist helps the SNP. Why else do they use it as an insult? Britain is the result of a union like a child. It is not itself a union. That is to confuse essence with origin.

Devolution did not change the unitary nature of Britain, but it did make our politics unfair and incoherent. This has never been clearer than during the present crisis.

The task of Scottish Conservatives is to become devolution sceptics. Is it really a good idea that there are four different policies on leaving lockdown? Is it sensible to allow Nicola Sturgeon to tell Scots in minutiae what we can do every day? I don’t believe that when Scots voted for the Scottish Parliament that they imagined this. We recently had the absurd situation where Boris Johnson spoke to the nation, only for BBC Scotland to immediately contradict him and say that his words were not for viewers in Scotland. Is he not our Prime Minister too? It is as if we didn’t take part in the General Election.

After the crisis is over Scottish Conservatives must analyse carefully if devolution hindered the response to Covid. Did the confused message that devolution gave us cause lives to be lost in Scotland? Scottish Conservatives need to argue that Britain needs less devolution not more.

The situation now is that Kate Forbes is begging the Chancellor for more money while at the same time demanding that Scotland holds a referendum on independence next year. This is untenable.

The Scottish Conservatives must make clear that it doesn’t matter how many seats the SNP wins at the next Scottish Parliament election there will be no independence referendum. If there were to be such a referendum, it would be logical for the Chancellor right now to exclude Scotland from the British bailout. If you don’t want to be British, how can you demand British money? We are receiving Treasury money because we are fellow countrymen. If you want to be a foreigner, you can whistle for it. Why invest in someone who wants to leave?

In every one of Nicola Sturgeon’s sentences Scotland or Scottish is mentioned as often as possible. The task is not to imitate this. No other European speaks this way. Potatoes in Poland are not called Polish nor do they have Polish flags all over the packet. It would be better therefore if the Scottish Conservatives were simply Conservatives no different from Conservatives on the Isle of Wight. Our leader would then be Boris Johnson and someone else could manage things in Holyrood. If you want to oppose separatism, don’t be separate.

Friday 29 May 2020

MacHack, what was your price?

Sometime back in 2013 or 2014 a Scottish politician or journalist became aware of the biggest story of the year, but he kept silent. He didn’t ask a question about it in the Scottish Parliament and he didn’t write about it in a newspaper or broadcast about it on television. He decided to keep silent, even though a revelation about the First Minister may have had a major influence on events in September 2014 when we held a “decisive” once in a lifetime vote on Scottish independence.

We have a close-knit community in Holyrood. The press, the politicians and the civil servants socialise together and their friendships, loves and marriages frequently cross-party lives. Many have known each other since childhood, many more are the children of previous generations of the Scottish establishment. Are we to believe that none of these people heard anything whatsoever? Were there no whispers. Did no one see “ein Mensch geht um die Ecke” [a man going round the corner]?

Of course, no one saw.

Und MacHeath, der hat ein Messer
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht

And MacHeath, he has a knife
But the knife you don't see

This is Scotland. Kurt Weill’s Weimar Germany may have been decadent and would soon get worse, but the German press would still have been more likely to point out that MacHeath had a knife than our MacHacks would mention that someone from the SNP did something with his dirk that he ought not to have.

The Scottish press missed the biggest scoop of the century or else buried it, but something worse happened after September 2014.

As the block Scottish Labour vote transformed en masse into a block SNP vote our Labour supporting media and establishment made a similar transition. 

There was a change in Scotland when the SNP were first elected in 2011, but it was as nothing to the change that blew through the country like an autumn gale in the winter that followed the No victory in 2014. It somehow caused people to give up just when they had won. The fierceness of the SNP counterattack was too much for them. As their beloved Scottish Labour collapsed so did they. It left something empty in Scottish politics where the opposition was supposed to be.

As a child I would read the Press and Journal and listen to Mary Marquis on Reporting Scotland. It was dull, but useful reporting. If I wanted to know the price of a Turra Coo at the Mart I would get it from the P&J. The intrepid reporter would be paddling in the sharn [muck] to get at the truth. Reporting Scotland reported about Scotland. It did a good job without pretending to be something that it wasn’t. But it wasn’t enough. It agitated for a “Room of its own”, but instead of becoming Shakespeare’s sister it got a "Scottish Six" that no one watches and a TV channel paid for by a Britain it despises.

What is it about Scotland that so many of us behave like robots with our politics? First you could put up a donkey for a Labour seat and it would win now you put up a sheep complete with its crook and it would win the same seat by bleating “Baa Baa Yes Sheep have you any oil?”  

I haven’t learned anything insightful about the inner workings of the SNP from any Scottish journalist. I haven’t read anything the SNP doesn’t want me to read. There are no damaging leaks from Scottish civil servants or ministers. If there is a Jock BernStein and Hamish Woodward exposing the heart of the Scottish Government I have not read them.

The same can be said for the opposition politicians in Holyrood they refer to their SNP opponents as colleagues and defend them even when they chase after little boys. There was even a sisterhood. We can be friends with people we disagree with as is the case also in Westminster, but at least the fight is for real there.  In Holyrood it’s all rather pretendy.

Ruth Davidson is a first rank politician as is Nicola Sturgeon, but every other Scottish politician of note is either based in London or made their name there. It as if we ended up with the second team.

While journalists in London go on a feeding frenzy when they spot Cummings in the water Scottish journalists never stick the dirk in let alone twist it. Their opinion pieces are derivative and follow the same middle ground sharn in which all Scottish politics is mired. No one dares to question this slightly left-wing consensus. No one makes life uncomfortable for Sturgeon.   

The Scottish Conservatives think of the UK as if it were their beloved EU. They think it is held together by subsidy and that this subsidy makes us “Better together”. It is a narrative of managed decline and it prevents them from questioning the SNP’s assumptions and attacking their record. They fear that in attacking the SNP they will be seen as attacking Scotland. They therefore accept the conflation of SNP and Scotland that is central to the SNP's success. This is why they are unable to make a positive case for Conservatism, free markets and Britain. There is hardly an original Conservative thought that steps outside of the Holyrood consensus. Scottish Conservatism still hasn't got over the trauma of dying through wipeout in 1997 and the constant need to atone for Margaret Thatcher and being that most awful thing in Scotland a Tory [Sturgeon's pronunciation]..

It is for this reason that they never really oppose and therefore are never really an opposition. They apologise for existing.  

Meanwhile we get hagiography from the Scottish media who wait at the bottom of Mount Sinai for Sturgeon to give us her Covid commandments. It would be one thing if it were only The National who bowed down to St Nic, but when did any other paper or TV programme report about Sturgeon in a way comparable to the criticism that Johnson and Cummings faced? When did a Scottish newspaper probe Sturgeon's lockdown movements if any.  When did you last read an article that took the SNP and their leader apart piece by piece? Can you people even write one?

The song ends just as it began in 2013 or was it 2014.

Und die minderjährige Witwe    
Deren Namen jeder weiß
Wachte auf und war geschändet
Mackie welches war dein Preis?

And the minor-aged widow,
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was violated
Mack, what was your price?

There is a story about Covid in Scotland that needs to be told. It is the biggest story of the year, but the chummy club of Scottish Press and politicians will once more look the other way.

Scottish children are paraded in front of the camera like Young Pioneers and go down on one knee in devotion to the blessed Nicola. This comes from a supposedly impartial broadcaster. Yet this same broadcaster has reporters who know the name that everyone knows, the mistakes that were made, the lives that were lost and the rules that were broken. The politicians in Holyrood know these things too. It is this that makes me feel violated every time I realise that Scotland is living a lie. 

If there were a break-in to a MacWatergate building and an insider telling the truth you'd never demand Nicola Sturgeon to sit in the back garden of Bute house while you fired questions at her. 

Our whole country has become a Potemkin village propped up by our politicians and our press. One day we will all look round the corner and see the reality. At that moment the whole Scottish establishment will look like the apologists for Stalin who pretended they could see neither Kulaks being sent to the Gulag nor starving millions dying because of collectivisation.

Our press sees only what the SNP permit them to see. In the same way they can see no dirk, Nelson could see no ships. Only later will they face the devastating question.

MacHack, what was your price?

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Go on Mr Blackford cast the first stone

I think I am beginning to see a new variant of Covid or perhaps it is just a function of the lockdown. It is causing otherwise rational people to lose all perspective and behave in ways that their Pre-Covidian selves would have considered bizarre.

I’ve always found Britain to be relaxed sort of place. If you don’t do anything wrong, you need almost never come into contact with officialdom. The police don’t stop us to check our papers. The people who check your passport are friendly and its unlikely that a customs official will go through your bags. I’ve been a little concerned lately about some of the thought crimes that have been made up, but I never worried about my neighbours informing on me or being turned in for re-education for making a joke. The last few weeks have changed this.

There is doubtless a lot of stress at the moment. We are worried about getting ill or friends or family getting ill. We haven’t been able to socialise, but something very illiberal is happening. We are beginning to judge the private lives of individuals and if we don’t like it, we are informing the police or the papers.

Britain has done extraordinarily well under lockdown, but my guess is that millions of us have once or twice broken either the spirit of the letter of the rules. Nearly all of us have also done a little more than 30 miles an hour in town and a little over 70 on a motorway. Do we really want to live in a country where our actions are minutely patrolled to see if we broke a rule?

How many MPs are still living in London if they have homes elsewhere? Some of them were quick off the mark and left prior to lockdown. Others like Ian Blackford drove all the way from London to the Isle of Skye.

Mr Blackford, I assume needed to go to the toilet during this journey and didn’t go in the car, as some journalists appear to think Dominic Cummings child should have. Nor did Mr Blackford go in the woods. I strongly suspect that he had a couple of meals in a service station.

When Mr Blackford travelled, he didn’t know if he had Covid. A lot of people who subsequently caught it such as Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock possibly talked to Mr Blackford anyway there were lots of cases of Covid in those days in London and as far as I am aware none at all on Skye.

Did Mr Blackford consider that he might possibly spread Covid on his trip to Skye? He did. Apparently, he self-isolated from his family when he got there. If so, he must have thought that he could have been infectious.

Should the police throughout the UK demand to know what exactly Mr Blackford did to determine whether he correctly followed lockdown regulations all the way from London to Skye? No, of course not.

Cars do not spread Covid. They do not become sick by breathing in the smoke from their exhausts. It strikes me that Mr Blackford’s journey was reasonable. Why should he be separated from his family for months on end just because he happened to stay a day or so after lockdown? With normal care he could have avoided coming into close contact with workers at the service stations and other than that there was zero chance that he could infect anyone on his long journey home.

But if I were sitting in my house in Skye free to drive wherever I pleased on the island, I would be rather more considerate of others making similar journeys to the one that I had made. Mr Blackford after all did not need to go to Skye. He would have been safe and no doubt comfortable wherever he lives in London.

Under those circumstances I don’t think I would have been quite so vociferous in my criticism of English tourists who wanted to visit the Highlands. I likewise would not have been the first to pick up the stone that was thrown at Mr Cummings.

I would be surprised if a single SNP MP is still in London, perhaps I am wrong. But very many of them will have travelled back from London in a variety of ways to places that were at that time free from Covid. Did Angus MacNeil return to the Outer Hebrides? Did other SNP MPs return to remote communities? If so did they not realise that these communities were more at risk from Covid due to their MP’s return home than from anyone else?

Lots of people have faced dilemmas. I know of a son who travelled from the South of England to Northeast Scotland to rescue his mother who was unable to cope on her own. What he did was covered by the rules, but he would have gone even if it was not.

We are going to have to learn tolerance of each other’s mistakes. I think it is perfectly possible that the SNP decision to send elderly patients back to care homes will have led to more deaths than if there had been no lockdown at all. But it is necessary to remember that all Governments were under enormous pressure to empty hospital wards and that we didn’t know at that time that people could have Covid with no symptoms. We weren’t able to properly test even doctors and nurses let alone patients.

It is clear with hindsight that mistakes were made but would other politicians have made similar ones. Probably they would have.

Millions of us have broken lockdown.   Girlfriends have stolen kisses from their boyfriends in every town and village in Britain though it would be hard to find a better way of passing on Covid. Politicians in a hurry and with limited information have made decisions that have cost lives.

We are not going to be able to keep up this level of anger about all those who have made mistakes. We cannot be so judgemental because there are too many of who bent or slightly broke the rules. We cannot live in a country where there is surveillance and a network of informers to ensure that we do what we are told, because that would turn us into China.

So, I am not going to condemn Mr Blackford, but I would suggest we all show a little more tolerance and understanding because we are going to face difficult decisions in the months ahead and some of us will make mistakes. Better by far if we all use our common sense and do the best we can to prevent the illness spreading. Let us not lose sight of the fact that it is this that matters, not whether Mr Blackford drove a little more than he should have to climb a mountain or if Dominic Cummings drove too far when he visited a castle.

Monday 25 May 2020

This show trial turned my stomach

This evening I witnessed perhaps the most disgraceful scene of Television that it was ever my misfortune to see. Dominic Cummings being hounded by a pack of journalists who were shaking him as if he were a bone that they were determined not to let go until they could say Gotcha, turned my stomach. It reminded of me of nothing less than a Soviet show trial where the victim is paraded before the court until he confesses his crime only to be taken from that place to the basement of the Lubyanka where a bullet awaits.

After about an hour I could just about manage a bowl of soup and some toast. I watched Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, to remind myself that there used to be kindness and romance in the world and because I wanted to think about something else than scoundrels taunting a good man who had done his best for his family and his child.

I have written frequently about journalism since the start of this crisis and will do so again shortly, but nothing has angered me more and reminded me that I was on the right track when I described Journalism as missing the mood of the country.

Yesterday when we had the daily press briefing, we had interesting and useful questions from members of the public. Afterwards we had Pretty Polly Peston and friends parroting the same question about Mr Cummings and receiving the same answer from Boris Johnson. They think that if only they hound someone long enough, he will either resign or else he will kill himself because of the pressure. At this point Mr Peston will lead tributes to their great friend and he or she will be elevated into the sainthood of the departed. The hypocrisy of this process tells me that journalism has nothing whatsoever to do with truth, or morals or honour.

I have faithfully stayed inside since lockdown began. I am not a lockdown sceptic. I go once a week to the shops. But if someone else doesn’t follow the rules it is their business not mine. I rather admire their courage. Lots of people are travelling throughout Britain. Journalists for instance are allowed to travel where they please including abroad.

Morality is about focussing on what I do. It is not about condemning others. That is for their conscience, not mine. I did not condemn Catherine Calderwood for visiting her second home. She did no harm. First do no harm. I did not condemn Professor Neil Ferguson for having a friend over. Nor did I condemn Stephen Kinnock for visiting his parents. The vast majority of Brits are obeying the rules, much more than expected. But the law if it is to remain human has to allow for exceptions. It has to allow for the defence that the person had a good reason.

I would have done the same if I had walked in Mr Cummings’s shoes. I would have been frightened that both my wife and myself would be unable to look after my child. But even if I disagreed with what he did I would reflect that he made his decisions while infected with Covid and that this illness makes thinking and judging difficult. The illness itself is an extenuating circumstance, to all but the hounds with the bone.

Mr Cummings has always appeared to me to be an exceptionally intelligent and original thinker.  Our Government needs him in this crisis.

None of the journalists who were desperate today to trip him up have anything approaching his intellect nor indeed his morality. They were not acting for the good of Britain, rather they were acting out a drama that is only of concern to their failing profession. The task they set themselves is to keep attacking as a pack until the victim breaks psychologically under the torture or gives up with submission. If this is morality it is the morality of the mob.

I listened to Mr Cummings’s humility expressed in his rather nice Durham accent. I heard how he admitted his imperfection and his mistakes, and I believed him. This is someone who is doing his best for Britain.

I heard no such humility from the mob that were attacking him from all sides. I heard nothing about the mistakes they have made in the judgements they make with 20/20 hindsight. I have yet to hear remorse from a journalist about the damage he has done.

Dominic Cummings is marmite. Remainers and the Left despise him because he has consistently outfought and outthought them. Journalists despise him because he rightly views them with contempt. But this is a human being who made incredibly difficult decisions while about to become sick with a life-threatening illness. Would I have made better or different decisions? No, I don’t think so.

People who have recently been ill with Covid are frequently very vulnerable. It takes a long time to recover fully even when you rush back to work because you are needed. When someone is vulnerable the last thing, they need is to go through a struggle session with the People’s Liberation Broadcasting Corporation. They need peace and quiet and to be left alone.

There has to be a reckoning for what happened today. We need to tell journalists that we don’t want show trials and gotchas and that their morality is not our morality. If necessary, we need to cease watching their Television stations, refuse to pay our TV licences and cease renewing our satellite subscriptions. We have already ceased buying newspapers.

I hope tomorrow I will be able to eat normally, but the memory of various dogs with a bone that they would not let go will live with me forever.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Nickleodown: a fable

Once upon a time in a land called Rus there were two brothers Sanya and Kolya.  Everyone loved Sanya, but he was tormented about the path he had taken to power. Had he known about the plot to kill his father Pashka? He could hardly remember himself. One or two other youthful misjudgements he hoped would remain unknown. Sanya’s wife was much older and by now barren.  He had lost all desire to be with her just as he was no longer welcome in her bed. But he couldn’t pass a young woman without undressing her in his mind and trying to find a way to do so for real if he could get her on her own. 

Kolya had always been in Sanya’s shadow. He both envied Sanya’s confidence and success while secretly hating his brother looking always for a way to take revenge both for the death of their father and for the fact that he owed Sanya everything. 

Rus was involved in a great struggle for independence from Galliya. Sanya and Kolya spoke the lingua Galka as did all their friends. Only the peasants spoke Russki.

But Leonid had gone too far this time. Sanya had tried to make friends with him, but the demand to cease trading with Anglia was too much. Now Leonid was invading, and the Rus kept retreating. Sanya was stricken. He liked to gamble, but what horse could save Rus. “A hors a hors my kingdom for an œuvre” cried Sanya.

Kolya had married Alexandra, born princess Pyotra of Murmansk, but while each found the marriage a useful bushel each also looked for pleasure elsewhere. Alexandra preferred the company of her maids, while Kolya was devoted to the salon run by the Gallskii Herald Boba Saphier. They read Greek poetry together.

Sanya lost the great battle of the year fourteen. He couldn’t figure out how the great one-eyed Rus general had cut us off so badly from the rest of his troops and then became so bored o’ the din oh so bored that he asked Leonid if he could give in.

Kolya continued his secret correspondence with the Gallskii Herald Saphier seeking ways to arrange a truce with Leonid, but most of all seeking ways in which Kolya and Boba could be on the same side again.

Moskva was captured Sanya wanted to continue the fight, but Kolya staged a coup in Pyotraberg and Sanya was forced to abdicate.  Kolya sent an envoy to Boba telling him that he was willing to make peace with Leonid.

As the worst winter in memory began Kolya became tsar and all the Rus food and warmth kept Leonid cosy. Kolya and Boba were reunited and cosy too.

Sanya was exiled but plotted how he could return to power. Kolya pretended to be pleased when Sanya was successful in Lutetia in bringing about better terms for Rus. The Kuznetsov Commission gave Rus much more power than anyone expected.

But Kolya had waited long enough to be tsar and he realised the threat that Sanya posed to his power. Rus was ever more divided into the Sanya faction and the Kolya faction. Samara, Novgorod and Petrozavodsk were divided in half as was Rus.

Kolya knew that Sanya’s greatest weakness was his gambling and his insatiable desire for mental and substantial undressing. He sent spies to listen at Sanya’s bedroom door hoping that he might discover something incriminating.

Eventually there was enough evidence to put Sanya on trial, but just at that moment a great plague was starting in Rus.

The whole of Rus had waited for this moment for months. Those who loved Sanya took one side, those who loved Kolya another. But it didn’t go as Kolya had planned. Sanya was acquitted. People wondered what Kolya knew and when he knew it. More and more questions were being asked about him. Some thought Sanya had been lucky because the trial was hurried, and everyone wanted to go home. Others began to worry that all the witnesses worked for Kolya and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t given evidence even though he had constantly been in the same Palace or “Biutska domska” as Sanya.  

But there was no time. Everyone was sent back to their homes to stop the plague spreading. It was known as Nickleodown.

Kolya’s power and popularity increased every day he appeared before his public. He would dispense the wisdom he had learned from Boba who told him of the discoveries and advice of the Gallskii scientists. But Kolya never mentioned either Boba or the Gallskii.

But Kolya had a weakness too. He had always felt ugly even as a child, but since gaining power he had become swanlike with his stylish clothes his manicure and his carefully cut and coloured hair.

The Rus were forbidden to go to the hairdresser. It would spread the plague. So, they had cut their own hair with whatever implement was available from knives to garden shears. They were forbidden to visit anyone outside their own home unless it was to avoid starvation or else to listen to Kolya. One of the Gallskii scientists was ruined when it was discovered that he had been visited by his mistress. The Rus called him a plag-idiot.

But Kolya thought that the rules for Rus only applied to peasants. He wasn’t going to appear in public unless his mirror mirror told him who was the vainest of them all.  

Each night he would secretly go to the hairdresser. He would then go to the manicurist, the pedicurist, the tailor, the trainer and the waxer from Brazilka. Finally, he would get into his carriage and drive until he reached the back entrance to the Gallskii College of Arms. He felt clean, trimmed, coloured, perfumed with all the perfumes of Arabia, and smooth, ready for anything that the night might offer.

But Sanya had his network of spies too which he had cherry picked from the most talented of the Sanya faction and they carefully watched each breach of Nickleodown. They wrote down the time and the place of each infringement and Sanya began to fill his book with the details of not only Kolya’s past misdemeanours but his present ones too. As Sanya’s book grew larger he became ever more determined to show that Kolya was not merely a liar and a cheat he was a hypocrite and not at all the saintly figure he liked to present to the peasants.

Sanya had reflected and had read as well as wrote. He saw that the moral of the story was as Tolstoy put it “Бог правду видит, да не скоро скажет” [God sees the truth but waits].  So, Sanya also saw the truth but waited.

Friday 22 May 2020


Scotland entered lockdown at exactly the same time as the other parts of Britain. We did so because we were following the advice that had been given to the British Government by the SAGE committee of scientific experts.

Boris Johnson announced a very cautious easing of this lockdown some time ago, but Nicola Sturgeon decided that nothing would change in Scotland. Why?

 I’m not a politician, but this is the sort of question that opposition politicians should be asking. Are there really scientific grounds for Scotland following a different policy? I’m not a doctor, but while there are a lot of Covid cases in the Central Belt especially in care home, the number of cases in rural Scotland is comparable to England. Overall the number of cases in Scotland per 100,000 preoplr is just a tiny bit worse than in England. So, is the delay that applies to Scotland really scientifically justified?

The SNP have come up with a document called “Scotland’s route map through and out of the crisis”. Did Nicola Sturgeon write it? No. She has no medical training. Did any other SNP politician write it? Perhaps someone from the SNP is a member of the SAGE committee, but I doubt it. So, on whose advice are we staying in lockdown and diverging from the advice given in London?

The best scientists from every part of Britain are already advising the UK Government so which scientists is Sturgeon using? Those who couldn’t quite make it onto SAGE? No, she is using the same experts as the Boris Johnson and his Government, but she is taking that advice and telling her civil servants to give it a Scottish rinse and spin.

The last time there was a major pandemic in Britain was in 1968-1969. There was no devolution. Is there any evidence that Scotland faired worse than other parts of Britain because we followed the same Government advice? If not, why are we following different advice now? Any future inquiry will have to ask Nicola Sturgeon if devolution saved any Scottish lives and if so, how many? It must also ask whether devolution helped or hindered the British response to Covid. If it turns out that devolution led to confusion and that this confusion cost lives in any part of Britain then it will be imperative to address questions why for instance SNP politicians expect to influence and vote on health issues that apply only in England, but the British Government has no say on health care in Scotland apart from funding it.

The Scottish route out of lockdown is remarkably similar to the English route, because the science behind it is the same. Sturgeon may allow or ban this or that on a particular date, but the essence of getting us to go back to work and school is the same.

The future inquiry must ask Sturgeon how many Scottish lives were saved by her deciding to wait a few weeks longer that Boris Johnson? But more importantly it must ask her how many Scottish lives did her policy cost.

There is a careful balance between the costs and benefits of lockdown. There was no lockdown in 1968 and a certain number of British people died as a result. But how many would have died if lockdown had been introduced then. If no one had gone to work in 1968 for three or four months how would this have changed the health outcomes in the next decades?

In the next few years we will discover quite a lot about health in Scotland. It may be that the effect of lockdown lasting longer in Scotland than in England will be measurable in terms of educational attainment, unemployment, cancer rates, heart disease and poverty.

There is an experiment going on. We all entered lockdown at the same time. But Scotland is choosing to leave later and move more slowly than England. This could save lives in the short term, but what if it costs them in the long run? In that case it will be the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon who are to blame.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with devolution. There are various forms of it around the world, but devolution only works when the devolved parts accept that they are subordinate. The states in the US and the Länder in Germany do not think of themselves as countries or nations. They are not continually agitating to be independent and therefore they are not coming up with different policies for the sake of it and in order to justify their existence. It means that this system of Government works well. Devolution plus nationalism is explosive and unstable inherently. You have to take away the one or the other.

Devolution in Britain is lopsided. England has none while the SNP in particular continually uses the Scottish Parliament to assert its independence while relying on Treasury money to fund that independence. This has become incoherent.

Scotland cannot decide to leave lockdown later and more slowly than the rest of Britain while these separate decisions are not funded by the Scottish taxpayer and or Scottish borrowing. If Rishi Sunak is paying Scottish wages and bailing out Scottish businesses, it cannot be that he has no influence at all on when Scots return to work.

Because England is leaving lockdown earlier and more quickly than Scotland, it will follow that English workers will no longer be furloughed while Scottish workers wait for Nicola Sturgeon to tell us to start earning money again? This means that English taxpayers pay for Sturgeon’s desire to be different from England. This might have been justified if Covid was significantly worse in most of Scotland, but it isn’t.

Devolution for the first time has led to border controls in Britain. Covid is being used to further the SNP independence agenda. While the gullible in England cheer on Nicola Sturgeon’s caution and compassion, it may be costing Scottish lives by keeping us inactive, making us fatter and ruining still further our education and job prospects. I have always thought that the long-term economic costs of Covid would kill more than the disease. If that is the case, then Nicola Sturgeon must be held to account for Jockdown, but of course neither Scottish opposition politicians nor voters would dare to do that.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Are we having fun in lockdown Scotland?

The task of leadership is not to get people to do things they want to do, but rather to get them to do things they don’t want to do.

It was remarkably easy to get the vast majority of the British people into lockdown. We were scared and we hardly needed to be told at all. With very few exceptions nearly everyone has obeyed the rules even when we thought they were excessive. There has been minimal grumbling, hardly anyone has been arrested and few fines have been paid. The police may have annoyed some of us, but they have enforced the rules and regulations with minimal force and for the most part with consent. A quiet word has usually been enough. This has been a good effort by everyone. It was far better than form filling authoritarianism seen in some European countries.

There are a few lockdown sceptics who will need no encouragement to leave their homes, but I think most of us were quite content to stay at home so long as we  could either work there or got paid 80% of our wages for not working, but this cannot go on much longer.

Staying like this isn’t going to work economically. It isn’t going to work mentally, and it isn’t going to work socially. People are going to have to be able to make new friends, go on dates and get married. Young children will not develop linguistically or learn to behave with others if they are stuck at home.

But how do you get a reluctant population to begin making the steps to normality that are necessary. Boris Johnson and his Government has tried to get Britain back to work, but his leadership in encouraging people to do something they don’t want to do has been hampered by the lack of leadership shown by the devolved administrations with their message to stay at home.

There isn’t going to a completely safe moment when we try to get back to normal. We might wait a year and still there would be a chance that people would catch Covid on their way to work or even in a school. But by then there wouldn’t be any wages and there might not be any food either.

 Nicola Sturgeon may have increased her popularity in Scotland. There is a rally round the flag effect in any crisis. Whether this continues afterwards is another matter. Her argument for Scottish independence is worse now that Britain has demonstrated the solidarity that goes with being a single nation state versus the lack of solidarity that is so evident in the European Union. She also isn’t doing quite as well as some Scottish nationalists think.

Scotland has a number of advantages with regard to Covid. We are sparsely populated compared to most of Europe. We don’t have an international airport hub and we don’t get that many tourists in the Winter and Spring because of our weather. Yet in terms of Covid cases per 100,000 people Scotland is doing rather worse than England. This may be pure chance. One infected person who happened to fly back to Dundee rather than Derby might have made an enormous difference to the statistics

It’s worrying that the SNP have not been entirely transparent about Covid cases such as at the Nike conference in Edinburgh in February. Can we trust them to tell the truth about what has gone on in Scottish care homes? Can we indeed trust their figures at all if for instance they were inconvenient for Sturgeon’s argument for Scottish wondrousness and independence?

While Boris Johnson’s Government faces hostile questioning from most journalists and relentless negativity from the BBC, Sturgeon reacts with fury at a reporter suggesting she might be enjoying the crisis. The reporter repents repeatedly and offers to wear sack cloth and ashes if only Sturgeon will call off the swarm of gnats buzzing relentlessly like the Scottish form of water torture.

If Boris Johnson reacted in such a way to a reporter in London he would be ridiculed and anyway it wouldn’t do any good. Reporters in London are not scared of the Prime Minister, but they are scared of the First Minister. Why? Does Donna Nicola Sturgeone play the fairy godmother with horses’ heads?

Sturgeon’s justification for not following Johnson’s lead on lockdown was that Scotland caught the bug a bit later. While England has 259 cases per 100,000 Scotland has 269. Wales tragically has 400 while Northern Ireland is doing a bit better with 235. But the differences within Scotland are greater than between parts of Scotland and England. On that basis it would have made more sense for her to have put a border between the Central Belt and Tayside and the rest of us north and south of those places.

But having gone her own way Sturgeon is going to have to find her own way out. She has helped those in England who don’t want schools to go back and who don’t want to take any risks at all. But Sturgeon still faces the same task as Johnson. She is going to have to somehow get a scared Scottish population to go back to work and school, this week, next week or next year. She has rejected Boris Johnson’s method. So, what will her method be?

The British Government is facing great reluctance from those of us who are too scared to go back to normal. But it at least it has the ability to offer carrots and ultimately it will have the stick of withdrawing the wages of those who are furloughed. But what can Sturgeon offer? She is paying no one’s wages and the money she is offering as subsidy is Treasury money tied up with a Tartan ribbon.

The fear in Scotland or perhaps the prejudice is such that there are people telling Northumbrians to stay away by writing swear words on the border sign. They are apparently unaware that Northumbria is safer than Scotland. Imagine how Scots would react if we were banned from traveling to England and if English lorries refused to travel to Scotland for fear of getting ill. It also makes little sense for the Welsh to try to keep the English out when the danger of infection is the other way round.

Sturgeon has doubled down on “stay home” rather than go along with the gradualist approach from London. She couldn’t possibly be enjoying having an independent policy, could she? No one is suggesting that she is glad that people are dying, but generals throughout history have taken advantage of wars, they didn’t want to fight, in order to gain fame and success afterwards. To take advantage of a crisis is to be human. To deny this is to claim to be a Saint.

But how does Sturgeon change her message. Perhaps she will be a MacGradualist, only everything will be that much slower than in England. But gradually Scotland is going to fall ever further behind and ever more in need of the Rishi Sunak money coming our way even when England no longer needs it. I’d enjoy hearing from Nicola Sturgeon how making Scotland ever more impoverished and dependent on British money is preparing us for Scottish independence.  Maybe Sarah Smith could ask her.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Universities need to learn to survive Covid

I have been in higher education almost my whole life. I spent my school days studying always with the goal of continuing to study. I spent nearly ten years as a student at a variety of universities and have mostly worked in universities since then. I love education, but it is going to have to change.

The teaching profession whether in schools or universities is dominated by people who prefer equality to achievement, who spend someone else’s money rather than earning their own and who see themselves as protected by the state from the need to perform, compete and produce value from the work they do.

The public sector views profit as a vulgar word that concerns other people who work in shops and businesses. It relies on these people to pay its wages, but it is horrified by the idea that its work too might be judged on these terms. For this reason, it always pretends that education is free just as it pretends that healthcare is free, when what it means is that it is paid for by someone else, usually the Government.

What matters in schooling is that it results in pupils being able to lead successful, fulfilled and useful lives. It matters very little indeed for most of us if we learn chemistry rather than biology, history rather than geography. What matters is that we are literate, numerate, moral, able to get on with other people and have the discipline to get up every morning to go to work in a job that brings us a degree of success.

Children have differing abilities and these differences are probably fixed from the moment they go to school aged five. Some five-year olds are not destined to go to university no matter how well or badly they are taught. But education can bring out the potential of every five-year-old and make it the best possible eighteen-year-old with the best chance of leading a happy successful life. This is the task of education and in this we are failing.

People are capable of doing amazing things if their ambitions are not limited. But there is no point trying to turn every child into a scholar. I am completely useless with my hands. I am clumsy and have no ability to fix things. I would be unhappy if I tried to be a mechanic or a plumber. But I know people who do these jobs and who earn more than I do.

The problem with education is that it is both too academic and not practical enough. Studying English literature at school was tortuous enough for me. I have always found literary criticism to be pointless because I would rather read the play or the novel or the poem rather than the critic. But what point does literary criticism have that is beneficial for someone who is not going to work in an English literature department. How does it help them? The task is to expose children to a wide variety of literature in order that their reading improves and most importantly so that they develop a love of reading. If you enjoy novels you always have entertainment that you can carry with you. If you enjoy non-fiction you are always learning something new. It is the desire to read that schools should focus on teaching. It matters not one little bit if a child can analyse Hamlet’s character, though it matters a great deal that it should be able to understand Shakespeare.

Education is not about the subjects that we learn. Unless you are going to use a particular subject in your work it matters very little that you remember the details or indeed that you study the subject at all. I can no longer remember how to do differential equations or trigonometry. Much of physics and chemistry is a distant memory because I have never had to use this knowledge. The purpose of studying these subjects was that they taught me to reason and to think. They required discipline and I had to make an effort to learn. This was their purpose.

The most important thing I learned in school however came about because of the absence of teaching. I went to an average school. The teachers were good and did their best, but still there were gaps in my knowledge. There were things that I needed to know for exams that either the teacher failed to explain well enough or else I failed to understand through inattention. These things I set out to teach myself. It was the most important lesson I learned at school. The task is to go beyond your teacher. Then you can learn anything.

When I started university there was almost no hand holding. A lecturer would stand in front of a group of students and start talking as if he were talking at an academic conference. Essays were set with next to no guidance apart from there is a library over there with lots of interesting books. The task was to work out for yourself what to do. It was assumed, because you had been able to reach university that you could teach yourself and that university would give you the opportunity to continue doing so.  This was its purpose.

Everyone I knew in those days did university on their own. We would go to the odd lecture, but frequently didn’t bother. We struggled with the books that we had to read. If we didn’t know something that we had to know we taught ourselves how to do it.

I decided from the beginning to never write anything in an essay that was not my own thought and never to have too much respect for great people whether they were academics or dead philosophers. You cannot argue against something you respect too much.

After a while I learned how to write arguments that academics thought were sensible, well-reasoned and original.  I learned to read books that were hard and kept going even if it took me an hour to read a page. I discovered by myself how to find anything I wanted in the library and to discuss with academics on a variety of topics in a rigorous but amiable way. If later I needed to learn a foreign language, I got hold of a textbook and a dictionary and taught myself.

What I learned was that the subject that I had been studying was almost irrelevant, because the process of learning it had meant that within reason, I could learn any other subject. It wasn’t necessary to have studied economics at university to understand it. You didn’t have to be a historian to have interesting thoughts about history. Education taught students how to think and learn and this gave us something invaluable. We could think and learn about anything.

This is what has been lost in the past decades.

When I was a student in the 1980s universities were smaller and there were fewer of them. The level reached at school was far higher and only those with the very best results could expect to spend the next three or four years at university.

Fees were paid by the state many of us received grants and we could sign on for unemployment benefit during the holidays. In most respects we got a much better deal than present day students, but the vast majority of present-day students would not have gone to university at all.

At some point various Governments decided to expand higher education. They did this in two ways. They turned colleges and polytechnics into universities, and they expanded the numbers of students going to university from somewhere less than 10% of the population to something approaching 50%.

How do you go from 10% to 50%? You have to make school leaving exams easier and you have to make university courses easier too.

The course I studied in the 1980s was hard. I studied every day and received minimal help from anyone. There was no continuous assessment and the mark I received at the end depended on seven three-hour exams and a dissertation. In order to prepare for finals, I wrote an essay a week for two years. Finals were so draining it took months to recover. Everyone I knew worked hard.

But a course that was hard for someone in the top 10% would have been impossible for someone in the bottom half of the 50%.

Such a person would have an IQ of approximately 100. Given how averages work, it is likely that some students with IQs slightly less than 100 will pass degrees if 50% of the population go to university. But what does this tell us about degrees and those who study for them?

There are likely to be just as many intelligent students at university today as there were when only 10% went to university. But these people will no longer find the courses to be suitable. A course that someone with an IQ less than 100 can pass will not stretch someone with well above average IQ. Worse than that such a course will no longer even be able to distinguish between the able, the moderate and the poor. First Class degrees used to be very rare indeed and were sometimes not awarded at all by a department in a particular year. Now moderate amounts of study will get you a second-class degree and you will be in a pack with thousands of others. Even if you get a First it won’t really distinguish you from anyone else. These too have become less and less rare.

With the expansion of student numbers, we have had an expansion of university staff. The number of subjects has increased, the number of academics has increased, and the number of administrators has increased. Who pays for it?

Students pay fees either directly or indirectly, but British students are either paid directly by the Government (the case in Scotland) or indirectly by being offered a loan which is only paid back if the student earns a certain amount each year. Universities also get grants from the Government based on their research performance in the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The problem is that universities have expanded so greatly that most of them and certainly those in Scotland could not survive on these sources of income alone. Universities require foreign students.

In recent years a typical Scottish university would receive fees from English, Welsh and Northern Irish students, but Scottish students and EU students would have free tuition. The Scottish and the EU students are therefore a cost to the Scottish Government and not as lucrative for a Scottish university as the “foreigners” from the other parts of Britain and from the rest of the world outside the EU.

Attracting foreign students has become crucial for the finances of Scottish universities, but there has been a problem. While students have to reach a certain standard in English language tests such as IELTS it becomes obvious when they arrive that their English is not always especially good.

The difficulty however is that if the finances of the university depend on attracting and retaining foreign students it is highly necessary that they pass their courses, go back home and tell everyone else what a wonderful time they had. This will not happen if they spend thousands of pounds only to be told that they have failed. The result is that very few do fail.

So not only has the standard of degrees fallen. The students are now given immense amounts of help in order to keep them studying.

Students are provided with a virtual learning environment which contains all of their lecture notes written out with bullet points. Everything they need to read for their course is made available online. There is a huge amount of teaching on how to find books and other resources, how to write essays and dissertations, how to make a bibliography. There is any amount of hand holding to make everything easier. If we could invent a programme to write your essay, we’d give it to you for free.

But what is lost is any sense of initiative. The purpose of university in the past was that you were on your own and had to figure out for yourself what to do. This was the most useful skill university taught, because when you started a job there probably wasn’t someone to hold your hand.

The fact that a student had to learn how to find books in the library, learn which were worth reading and which were not, learn how to write an essay and a dissertation without any help whatsoever was what made university useful and a serious form of training.

We have reached the stage now where not only are the courses easier, the assessment continuous and the exams easier to pass, students, especially those who pay large fees, must try very hard indeed to fail.

There are Ph.D. students who get their doctorates even though their English is moderate, and they make obvious grammatical mistakes throughout their dissertation. They don’t even need to make corrections. There are English literature students who read Shakespeare in translation, because they struggle to read it in English. There are native German speakers doing degrees in German in Scotland and finding their studies surprisingly easy. There are students who pass their degrees without once setting foot in the library, because they followed the bullet points on the lecture notes that they could read online.

Universities have expanded to such an extent that a degree no longer distinguishes between someone who is intelligent and someone who is not. For this reason, many students find that their degree does not help them to get a job. 

The solution to this problem is to do a further usually one-year course. But the same problem results. The universities that specialise in these one-year courses that help students to get a job also depend on these students paying their fees. What’s more they have to make their one-year courses sufficiently easy that almost nobody fails them. The moderately able undergraduates who pass their first degrees equally moderately pass their one-year post-graduate courses. The result is that these courses don’t really distinguish between the intelligent and the moderate either.

After five years of education the student is still in a pack of people who have had lots of education but nothing that really distinguishes them from anyone else. The most able have not been stretched and no one has really had to take any initiative. The fact that they have been helped at each stage means they miss the most important lesson of all. They have not learned how to learn.

Universities in the past were relatively cheap. You didn’t work in a university to get rich and if that was your purpose you would fail. Rather you worked in a university because you wanted to continue to study, read and write and be part of a community of people who did the same. You were there for the company rather than the money.  

Universities were useful. They provided the country with enough doctors, lawyers and scientists and they provided mental training to those who studied things like classics, philosophy and history.

The expansion of higher education has been a form of levelling. Rather like the abandoning of grammar schools and streaming in schools. It has been neither useful for the country nor the students. It has done harm.

Because it is necessary that student numbers are maintained for financial reasons, a child who struggled at school may with a minimal amount of effort and dedication become a teacher. It is possible indeed quite likely that there will be teachers with IQs less than one hundred attempting to teach children what they themselves don’t know and can’t understand.

The same goes for any number of jobs. People with no great ability just by sticking at it will reach the top of their profession on the basis of a degree they obtained when they were 21 or 22. Climbing the slippery slope of a career does not necessarily require talent. It requires playing the game and being willing to flatter bosses. It requires turning up, saying and doing the right thing. The expansion of higher education means that any number of rather stupid people can run councils, libraries and quangos and any number of other areas of life that require minimal intelligence.

In the past most jobs were done by people who hadn’t gone to university and they were done well. Nurses, policemen bank workers and journalists did not require university education nor did any number of other skilled jobs.

We have replaced this with a system where students of all abilities go through four or five years of education to do a job that previously could be done from school by learning it on the job. But the four or five years of education provides the person with fewer useful skills than working did, not least because education no longer distinguishes between the able and the less able. This has a terrible consequence for students.

When A levels and Highers were sufficiently hard that only the best pupils could pass them and get good grades employers could judge from those grades that it was worth hiring someone to start a job at age 17 or 18. Likewise when degrees were hard enough that they demonstrated that the student had a good intellect and could work hard employers were willing to take on students on the basis of the fact that they had degrees. It most frequently didn’t matter what they had studied. But now there is a glut. It is no longer possible to distinguish the able from the less able on the basis of school results, nor is it possible to distinguish this after three, four or five years of university study. It is for this reason that so many graduates end up doing jobs they might have done without going to university, while on the other hand those who would have been more suited to doing a job that required little thought frequently end up in jobs for which they have little ability simply because they have a piece of paper that says they obtained a degree.

The consequence of this is that there is a closed shop mentality in some professions with people guarding their positions based on what they did when they were 22. The prime example of this of course is teaching.

The teaching profession would rather have someone who scraped through their Highers or A levels struggled through university and did a one-year teaching training course, than a Professor from Cambridge who lacked the one-year course. Unless you have learned the latest education jargon and the latest theory from those who never did work in a classroom, then you are unfit to teach. Poor Aristotle he was taught by Plato who couldn’t even pass his PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education).

There are any number of professions that require pieces of paper that do not in themselves demonstrate ability and are not required in order to learn how to do the job well.

The expansion of higher education means that our country has to put epic numbers of students through 4 or 5 years of learning that they frequently are uninterested in. This education neither teaches them useful knowledge nor does it teach them how to work or think, but it is necessary solely so that they can get an interview for a job that could equally well have been done straight from school and learned on the job. This is not merely inefficient, it is stupid.

There is zero point doing a course in hotel management, tourism or librarianship. If someone wants to work in these fields, it is far more useful if they start working and have someone teach them what they really need to know in order to do the job well. The effect of expanding higher education in order that people need to do courses in these subjects in order to get interviews is to make an artificial barrier that prevents talented people later in life from taking up these careers.

If you need a piece of paper that you obtain after a years study, it means that anyone in their thirties or forties who fancies a career change is blocked because they lack the piece of paper that they might have obtained quite easily when they were younger.

Qualifications are required for some areas of work. It wouldn’t do to have someone unqualified work as a doctor, but if work can be done well by someone who didn’t do a course when they were younger it should be no barrier to being interviewed and gaining promotion. It does not matter if you have a journalism qualification, what matters is whether you can write. It is no form of meritocracy to reward a bad writer because he happened to do a course that everyone passes when he was a 22-year-old student. Unless a qualification is absolutely required to do a job, it should be made unnecessary. If someone can be a good teacher without doing a PGCE or even without having a degree, let him to do it. The students will benefit even if it frightens the teachers who can't teach despite their qualifications

The failure of Higher education is that it has created a society that is obsessed with qualifications that are frequently artificial hoops to be jumped through by the untalented.

Huge numbers of British students go to university and take out Government backed loans that they never earn enough to pay back. This money is not merely wasted because it is not repaid it is wasted because it should never have been paid out in the first place.

With a few exceptions if someone is unlikely to be able to earn enough to pay back his graduate loan, he ought never to have gone to university in the first place. The job that he is doing could have been done without that study.

The place to distinguish between those who are likely to be able to earn enough to pay back the cost of their study is school.

If only the most able pupils could pass their school exams and if only they were chosen to go to university, then not only would it be more likely that they would pay back their debt, it would mean that those employers who require graduates would have to pay them enough to be able to pay back the debt. There would once more be a shortage of graduate labour and the laws of supply and demand would mean that their wages would have to go up.

What needs to happen is that higher education contracts. Academic education is not useful for everyone. This is especially the case with subjects that are theoretical.

Our country needs a certain number of doctors, lawyers, dentists and vets. These people need to go to university. We also need a certain number of scientists, teachers of History, English, Geography and so on. We need a very few people to study classics, philosophy, theology and so on. If they study these subjects to the highest possible level, they will receive an excellent form of mental training suited to jobs such as the Prime Minister. We also need a very few people to study the social sciences.

Departments that teach theoretical subjects that do not obviously lead to a particular job need to contract the most. Perhaps these subjects could be taught in only a few universities, or alternatively these departments could go back to the size they used to be. Once a department is full, school pupils could be told, I’m sorry we have enough medieval historians this year, if you want to go to university, you’ll have to study physics. The result would be that only the very best would study medieval history, but areas where we need people to study such as engineering would be able to fill their places and indeed expand.

What of those who would be unable to go to university because the number of places had contracted. Would their education be finished? No. they would be directed to practical courses taught by the former polytechnics, which would most usefully return to that status.

School too would do best if it were to teach every pupil according to its need. It was unnecessary and frequently cruel to sort the sheep from the goats at 11. Far better to distinguish between those who are academically able and those who are more suited to a practical education within a school. It should also be possible for pupils to move from one form of education to another according to their interests and abilities.

Schools should focus on teaching useful skills that will help pupils to get well paying jobs. They should involve local businesses in providing work experience and training. Theoretical education has little relevance to pupils who won’t use it after leaving school.

There needn’t be a sharp dividing line. Everyone can do some practical and some theoretical. But both school and further education should be adapted to the needs and abilities of the person studying.

Higher education has expanded greatly in the past decades and it is likely that this would have continued, but the present Covid crisis might just be what is needed to make education more effective and useful for everyone. The funding model that universities have been using was untenable in the long run anyway. Too few graduates obtain graduate level employment and graduate level wages. In time they were always going to realise this and vote with their feet. But if the model was untenable before it is still more untenable now.

A Scottish university in particular depends on fee payers coming from the Far East and the other parts of the UK. But because of the Covid crisis teaching is virtual, books are read electronically, and travel is difficult. Are Chinese students really going to pay £15,000 to talk to an academic in the middle of the night? Are English students going to virtually travel to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, or Glasgow when they are stuck at home? I think not. So, who is going to pay?

What do universities need to do to survive? How do we need to change?

We need to provide a service that is useful to our clients. Students need to know that if they study for four years, they will come out with a qualification that will help them get a job that would enable them to begin to pay back their graduate loan. They need to know that studying at university will make them more employable and much more likely to obtain better pay.

The way to do this is by being much more selective especially with those subjects that are least practical. Not only do we need to do this every other university needs to do it too.

Covid is going to damage the job market. It is not going to do to say to someone of 18 that you can study psychology for four years and then do a further one-year course, but even then, you might struggle to get a graduate level job. In times of affluence people might have been willing to do this, but not now.

Universities must be honest about graduate employment and they must cease encouraging people to take out ever higher levels of debt and waste ever greater amounts of time when many of them are simply not suited to higher education.

Universities must move to virtual teaching and virtual learning. Many if not most books are available electronically. It is possible to put the libraries of the world onto a Kindle.

What this means is that the model of having a building full to the brim with books is dead. Students do not want to read physical books apart from a few textbooks.

We need to invest in digitising our libraries in order that we can make them freely available to anyone in Britain. We might charge people outside Britain. Many books are already available online, but we allowed Google and other providers to do the work for us and frequently they charge us to read our own books. That was short sighted. The process of accessing digital copies of the books in our libraries must be both free and simple.

The cost of storing books that no one wants to read is enormous. Once all the books in all the libraries in Britain have been digitised, we should keep everything that is old and rare, but only a certain number of copies of books that are commonplace, not that old nor rare.

There are endless physics textbooks from the 1910s to the 1950s in university libraries up and down the country that will never be read. If one or two such physical books were kept in national libraries that would be enough. The rest could be recycled.

At present we pay academics to write books and journal articles. They most frequently give these for free to publishers, who then sell the books and journal articles back to us. This is enormously costly and unnecessary

Prestigious publishers and journals are only prestigious because academics give them their work.

Publishing instead should be done by our universities and academics must be told that they must publish in these journals. Of course, in their own time and at their own expense they can give whatever they please to any other journal.

In time the Oxford university equivalent of the Lancet will become as famous as the Lancet. More so because the Lancet will go out of business as no one will give it any articles. If academics chose despite this to write for expensive journals their work need not be considered for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), only free journals and books could be considered. This would help concentrate academic minds as their personal reputation and salary depends on their contribution the REF.

British universities would of course continue to buy books and journals from overseas. But we could put up a united front against publishers. We would only be interested in electronic books and journals and we would only pay for what we wanted at a sensible price. We would accept no more bundles of millions of ebooks no one wanted to read for the sake of the few that they did want.  If publishers didn’t agree we wouldn’t buy at all. Having lost all their customers in Britain the laws of supply and demand would suggest that publishers would lower their prices.

The vast majority of university teaching and learning can be done online quite successfully. It will take a major effort to make material available. The Government may wish to adjust laws on copyright in order that books that were purchased physically can be copied and made available on the Internet for British students.

Some subjects, of course, cannot be studied remotely. Students of medicine are going to have to be around patients. Science experiments with chemicals cannot be done at home. But much of what is at present done in university buildings and lecture halls could quite easily be done virtually.

It won’t of course be the same experience for students if they stay at home and interact virtually with academics that may never meet. But this could turn out to be a bonus.

The expansion of higher education has been driven not so much by the desire to learn, but rather by the desire to have a university experience involving lots of drinking and the chance to meet girls and boys. University has become a sort of finishing school. Three or four years of fun where you get to leave home live in some new city and afterwards get a job.

What I have seen in the past decades is that for many students the only thing that is wrong with university is that you have to read lots of boring books. If it wasn’t for the exams and the essays university would be perfect.

The way to reduce the numbers of students who go to university is to take away from them the thing that motivates them to go in the first place. Without the beer and the sex they will decide that university has few attractions and will recognise that work is a more suitable activity than studying.

The virtual university will leave us with those students who actually want to learn. They will be able to do so successfully and with some adaptation just as well as before. But it is going to require massive change if universities are going to adapt to this. It will mean focussing on what is essential and it will mean becoming smaller. The end result may be better, but there is no alternative even if it turns out to be worse.

Universities have been running a Ponzi scheme. We get ever more students to pay ever more money for a degree that is ever more useless in order that ever more academics and others can be employed. The purpose of university has ceased to be education it has become maintaining ourselves in the comfort to which we have become accustomed. This model is now bankrupt and unless we embrace change we will cease to exist.