Policy Press is offering 50% off on all books on its website, including 9 of mine. Well, 8 actually, because one of them, Liberty Equality Fraternity, is already available free for download. The sale lasts until midnight on Sunday.
While Jonathan Sumption’s Reith lectures offer some food for thought, some of his claims are questionable. This is from this morning’s lecture:
Democracies operate on the implicit basis that although the majority has authorised policies which a minority deplores, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision-making processes.
Well … up to a point, m’lord. It’s true that democracies depend heavily on legitimate processes in order to deliver legitimate outcomes. But it’s also true that those processes are not enough in themselves to ensure legitimacy. Majorities, and apparently legitimate processes, authorised policies by Hitler and Mussolini. Sumption cites James Madison in another context; this is what Madison has to say about majority rule:
It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure…. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects … In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger …
It’s fundamental to democracy that the rights of minorities are protected; if they are not, it is no longer a democracy.
Sumption’s view of the legal process, oddly for someone in his position, veers at times towards an ideal.
Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous.
If law was rational and coherent, it would be predictable. We should be able to state with confidence what the law is as soon as we have seen an unequivocal statement in a statute, without waiting for confirmation from the courts. Look at Sumption’s own comment on a Supreme Court decision:
The majority’s reason, however dressed up, was that they didn’t approve of the power that parliament had, on the face of it, conferred on ministers. Three of the judges thought that it was such a bad idea that parliament could not possibly have meant what it plainly said.
If the law was consistent and rigorous, it should be the case that the Supreme Court would deliver consistent, clear thematic judgements – but even when they say they agree with each other, they can’t bring themselves to say the same things.
More fundamentally, if the law was consistent and rigorous, whether or not people’s interests are protected shouldn’t depend on whether or not they contest it. Courts routinely rubber-stamp oppressive orders relating to debt simply because the debtors don’t make a submission. The big utility companies notoriously can afford to play the odds – losing a few cases they don’t seriously argue about because they routinely win so many without an argument. The law, as Sumption says, has certain biases: “in favour of individual rights and traditional social expectations “. But it also has a ferocious bias towards people who can afford to hire lawyers.
The Scottish Parliament has agreed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to twelve. Now there is pressure on the English government to raise criminal responsibility from the age of ten, which is where it’s been since 1963. Under English law, there are special rules governing children aged 10-14, and there is even talk of raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.
It’s more than forty years since I studied law, and at the time everyone was confidently saying that the age of criminal responsibility was set to go up any day now. (One social policy textbook of the time said it already had done, because the author had no reason to suppose it wouldn’t have happened by the time the book came out.) The proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 was initially made, if I have it right, by the 1960 Ingleby Committee, nearly sixty years ago. In England, the Children and Young Person’s Act 1963 raised the age from eight to ten (s.16.1); and then the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act raised it to fourteen (s.4). You may reasonably blink at the last part of that, because it never happened. The Act was passed, but it needed a commencement order to come into force, and the order was never made – basically, no Secretary of State had the courage to do anything about it. Eventually the provision was removed by the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which had a tidying-up provision to cancel laws that hadn’t been brought into force.
I’ve heard it said that making Acts of Parliament is a national sport; no-one should take them too seriously. It’s a reminder that campaigns can’t afford to stop when the legislation is passed. It’s also perhaps a reminder of something Churchill once said about another country. You can always rely on our governments to do the right thing, once they’ve exhausted all the other alternatives.
I was in Italy this week, taking a view of research ethics for a seminar organised by Pro-Res , a project to develop guidance on ethics for the EU. The seminar was under Chatham House rules, which means I can’t comment on other contributions, but I can share my own, which I ran under the title “Research is not a private matter”. The slides are here.
Universities are in the news because of ‘grade inflation‘: the government is taking steps to penalise universities who award too many top grades. Other recent coverage has focused on plagiarism and essay mills. Over the course of my career, as a teacher in some institutions, and as an external examiner in several others, I’ve seen standards fall while marks improve. Part of this has been a change in what marks mean. A competent, sound piece of work without special merit used to be given a 2:2 mark; now it is routinely given a 2.1. A piece of work that had some deficiencies but enough to be passed used to get a third class; now it would receive a 2.2, sometimes better. The third class mark in many institutions has almost disappeared, and is mainly arrived at only because results are being averaged.
Some standards have genuinely improved. It has become much easier for a student to find a range of resources to support an essay, and word-processing and graphics programmes mean that standards of presentation are somewhat higher than they were thirty years ago. However, in most other respects there has been a fall in the standards achieved. When I was an undergraduate, I routinely did 36 essays or more in a year, plus unseen exams – that’s how I learned to write. By the time I started teaching, the students were doing 12. Now, many do six or less – so they write less in a whole degree than I had to in a year. Some universities have reduced the number of assessments but increased the number of words required in an assessment, apparently in the belief that more words will give equivalent coverage. That doesn’t work, because with more words there’s still only one exercise in structuring and ordering material, and students can’t develop through iterative feedback. The fewer exercises that people engage with, the less they learn; the less feedback they get, and the slower it comes, the less opportunity they have to improve and develop. Clearly, if students aren’t given the same opportunities to learn and develop, they can’t achieve develop the skills, or achieve the same standards, that students did in the past. That’s true regardless of some of the other factors which may affect standards – such as students having to divide time between college and work to fund themselves. This is not the fault of students; it reflects a marked deterioration in the service that universities offer, and limits on what students are able to achieve as a result.
The reduction in the number of exercises that students do is part of a broader problem. When I started teaching, four educational principles were widely accepted.
- Universities were supposed to show students how to learn, not what to say.
- Active learning – where students do something, like writing or talking – is better and more effective than passive, where they sit and listen.
- Teaching has to be student-centred – the central issue is that the student has to learn how to learn, not that the teacher has to deliver a product.
- The curriculum has to be designed as a structured learning experience. The development of expertise in subjects and disciplines depends on specialisation and depth, not just on extra information.
Much of this has gone by the board. Curriculum design has given way to ‘cafeteria’ courses, or pick and mix. (That also allows researchers to pass off narrow topics of personal interest as courses for students, which is simply bad practice; that type of course is centred on the predilections of teachers, not the needs of students.) Credit accumulation and transfer generally means that students who have acquired a knowledge base get nodded through – but what matters is the skills base, and that’s a different matter. Some universities now carry forward marks from courses taken in the year before finals – that must mean that no progression is expected.
Inevitably, as the numbers of students increase, students don’t get the same treatment as they would in smaller cohorts. Lectures are more common, seminars much less so, and personal tutorials rarer still – the larger the student cohort, the more difficult it is to make the time available. Students have limited personal contact with teachers. Beyond that, in most institutions, the sheer numbers of students mean that frequent assessment and rapid feedback is out of the question. This hasn’t happened by design or deliberate action; it’s just that if numbers go up, and the methods and approaches don’t change with them, the experience of students and teachers is going to be different.
Expanding the numbers of students has happened without a serious rethink of traditional educational processes, and that’s had a pervasive effect on how universities operate. A colleague once suggested to me that I was talking about ‘boiling a frog’, and I promised him I’d steal the phrase. People will put up with things done slowly that they wouldn’t tolerate if they were done all at once. I’m not sure at this late stage that anything can be done about it, but many students are getting a terrible deal.
I’m old-fashioned, and I’ve just been upbraided for it. An article by Brian Monteith in the Scotsman made a number of claims which I thought rather far fetched, so I looked at some other evidence. Monteith had written, at some length, that “the Euro currency project has been an economic catastrophe”, that since 1994 the growth of the US economy had far outstripped the Eurozone, and that if only the UK had not been within the EU we would all have been much richer. I checked some basic figures with the World Bank’s data and wrote this:
It’s being reported that Serco, which is responsible for providing accommodation for asylum seekers, has given 300 people in Glasgow warning of immediate eviction. Eviction from residential property without notice used to be illegal, but in 1999 the Labour government amended the Protection from Eviction Act to exempt accommodation provided on these terms. Govan Law Centre has starting legal proceedings based on Scottish common law.
3rd August. I’ve amended the original post because Kim Long has given me permission to include her full comments on her recent work with her constituents.
People get very muddled over ‘free speech’. The primary objection to the case of the ‘Nazi Pug’ is not that someone was saying something which was upsetting or offensive; it is that repeating the phrase ‘Gas the Jews’, whether or not it is presented as a joke, goes beyond the bounds of what is permissible.
Liberty is not licence. It’s generally accepted that the point where one person’s liberty stops is where it limits the freedoms of someone else. The freedom to swing your fist, as the saying has it, ends where my nose begins. Your rights and liberties are not just about the freedom to speak. They may also protect you from having to hear some things directed at you – threats, intimidation, and assaults among them. No-one should have to to listen to other people saying “we’re here to burn your house down” on the basis that those are just words. Words are not empty – they are often the precursors to action. We often accept trivial and silly sentiments from comedians – Monty Python’s design to slice up the public with rotating knives – because we’re not taking them seriously. “Gas the Jews” isn’t silly or trivial. It’s a threat, and a threat with real meaning; repeating it, as my friend Ephraim Borowski argued for the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, normalises it.
There is another fundamental objection, too. Free speech, Scanlon argues, does not reside in the rights of the person who is speaking, but in the rights of the person who is listening. You are entitled to hear many views that are objectionable, offensive or unpleasant to some people: for example, you may want to read The Satanic Verses, even though it is offensive to many Muslims. That’s about your rights, not the author’s. However, your rights to hear things are not limitless, and there are things you don’t have the right to hear. In the UK, you’re not at liberty to hear libels (that is, falsehoods which are damaging to individuals), or treason, which is damaging to the security of everyone. You are not entitled to hear incitements to commit crime, threats to minorities, attempts to raise an army for the purposes of civil war.
There’s a tendency to dismiss words, on the basis that they’re harmless; that’s far from being the case. Words can crush people. They can threaten, intimidate, bully, and destroy. (The US laws on hate speech largely fail to deal with this; it’s only chargeable as hate speech after the action has been taken. Most European legislators don’t think that’s good enough.) The central objection to hate speech is not that it is hateful – lots of stereotypes are – or even that it is bad manners, but that it is dangerous. “Let’s kill these people” – there are plenty of examples of that kind of thing on the internet, but I’m not going to link to them – is illegal in most European countries, for a good reason. And “Gas the Jews”, whether or not it is said with a smile, clearly falls into that category.
I’ll shortly be leaving for a semester in the University of Łódź in Poland. It’s an adventure – an opportunity to learn about a country I’ve not been to before, to learn a language I don’t speak, and to get a different perspective on life. It comes at a time and the effect of Brexit on rights to travel and work in the EU may well mean that it would be much more difficult to do anything of the sort in a year’s time.
My other work includes books on collectivism (close to completion) and on poverty, where I’m currently waiting for input from my collaborators. I’ll continue to watch and comment on issues in the UK, such as the development of social security in Scotland.
In September, I commented on the controversy about a paper on The Case for Colonialism. This week, a similar argument has exploded in the University of Oxford. A proposal for a series of seminars on the ‘Ethics of Empire‘ has been established in the University’s McDonald Centre. It states that ’empire’ can mean many different things, that both “apologias and critiques” of empire need to be tested against the historical evidence, and that there are lessons to be drawn for contemporary engagement by the Western Powers. (Note that it refers to “apologias” rather than “defences”; this is not an agenda that puts arguments for and against empire on an equal footing.) The seminars that have taken place to date have considered the Assyrian, Roman and Chinese empires.
In reply, a letter to the Guardian has been sent by a large and assorted collection of 58 academics, mainly historians, who object to the premises of the proposal. They claim that that the project is based in ignorance of current scholarship and proposes a “crude cost/benefit analysis” of empire. (I cannot comment on the first, but if it is true, then a dedicated series of seminars featuring presentations of historical empires by international experts should help to diminish the scope of the organisers’ ignorance. I do know something about cost-benefit analysis, and I think I can say more confidently say that there is nothing in the proposal, either explicitly or implicitly, which does argue for such an approach.) The objectors are on stronger ground when they write: “Developing a ‘Christian ethics of empire’ is not an intellectually sound, let alone an academically robust, endeavour ”. The suggestion that the project will offer “a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire” seems to imply that there can be such an ethic, analogous to the idea of a just war; that is controversial, and it may indeed be “political” in the terms criticised in the letter.
It hasn’t helped that the Daily Mail has now stuck its oar in. The objectors are advocates of an “ugly totalitarianism’, and to prove the point the Mail digs out any mud that it can throw: some of them are opposed to Brexit, five are anti-Israel, and several are (gasp!) supporters of the Labour Party. The Mail‘s article, by Guy Adams, is rambling and ill-focused, but at the core it does have a point. The objectors are basically trying to suppress a dispassionate discussion of issues in an academic context, because it is framed in terms that they disagree with. If we can’t discuss the Assyrian empire without prior political genuflections, we’re in trouble.