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The Thai cave rescue and a universal instinct


Protectionism and why there is nothing much wrong with it


Strawberry fields, fruit picking and the work ethic


Syria and Brexit


GCSEs failing the test (3)



Thoughts on ...


The Thai cave rescue and a universal instinct                          15/7/18 


It was emotionally stirring to hear that the boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks had been rescued. In terms of its effect on human lives news of the rescue was far more important than watching the world cup or hearing about the latest developments in the Brexit saga. The sheer joy and relief felt by their parents was shared by the waiting world. Their agony was over as was the terrifying ordeal of the boys.


I can’t get close to imagining the agony of the parents or the ordeal of being trapped for so long in total darkness with no food and the prospect of not getting out alive. The resilience of the young lads was remarkable and we all wish them well with no lasting adverse effects.


The rescue was also remarkable – remarkable for its meticulous organisation, for the knowledge and skills of the cave divers and for the international support that was given.1


This international support and the way the whole world was willing the rescue to be successful provides undeniable proof that human beings everywhere possess instinctive compassion. This universal instinct is one of the supreme features of our species and one which crosses all national and ethnic differences.


Sadly our political leaders seem not to have grasped the fundamental truth that people are as much united by their instincts of love and compassion as they are by their instincts of anger and resentment. Too often our politicians strive to arouse our more unworthy instincts rather than harness those that are benevolent and caring.


It is time for us all to recognise that the building blocks of a more harmonious and peaceful world are immediately at hand in the benevolent instincts we have in common. We must constantly remind our leaders that they are our servants not our masters and whenever in the world there is discord or distress we must instruct them always to act in accordance with the instincts of love and compassion. In accordance with the instincts so inspiringly displayed in the Thai cave rescue.  


1   Quotes from The Independent online:


… Interviews with military personnel and officials detailed a rescue assembled from an amalgam of muscle and brainpower from around the world: 10,000 people participated, including 2,000 soldiers, 200 divers and representatives from 100 government agencies.

… On 25 June, Ruengrit Changkwanyuen, a Thai regional manager for General Motors, was among the first volunteer cave divers to show up at the scene. Dozens would follow, from places including Finland, Britain, China, Australia and the United States.




Thoughts on ... 


Protectionism and why there is nothing much wrong with it    5/7/18


Is protectionism as bad as the leaders of the G7 recently claimed? Or as bad as is claimed by economists, politicians and business leaders imbued with the orthodoxies of the free market and capitalism?


I don’t know enough about the history of protectionism and the supposedly adverse effect it has on the world economy to be able to evaluate its consequences in practice but I can see its theoretical advantages. And I am inclined to the view that Donald Trump is right to try and protect American industries just as any other country would be right to do so. This doesn’t mean taking measures in any spirit of hostility, which unfortunately seems to be the case with Trump, but in a spirit of genuine friendship in which it is accepted that nations should support their own industries whenever necessary.  


This support can be given through tariffs on imported goods that are similar to those that are home-produced, quotas on imports of similar goods, or state subsidies to home industries. It can also be given by encouraging, and if necessary offering incentives to, large-scale purchasers in the private and public sectors to buy British whenever home-produced goods and equipment are suitable.


The reason why such measures are dismissed so readily, even scornfully, by the free marketeers is that, by creating barriers to foreign trade and cheap imports, buying choices are reduced for the consumer and the commercial purchaser.


In terms of individual buying decisions the consumer would no longer be king.  Which in fact would be good for society for all sorts of reasons. As consumers we are too easily swayed in our decisions by slick marketing, by price rather than quality and by what other people are buying and doing – herd instinct in other words. Moreover, we are not always aware of the effects our spending decisions may have in our own or other countries, such as the loss of jobs at home or unacceptable conditions of employment abroad.


In terms of large-scale purchasing by private businesses or public bodies a different culture would be created in which buyers would be encouraged, incentivised and sometimes required, to consider buying British whenever possible. This would mean, for example, manufacturers buying home-produced machinery and materials, hospitals buying home-produced equipment and rail franchises leasing or buying home-built rolling stock. Rules for competitive tendering for purchases or the awarding of any sort of contract would need to be framed in a way that supported British made products.


It is time for many economists and politicians to reconsider their unswerving allegiance to some of the doctrines of the free market economy. They should look at the benefits that would accrue from a regulated economy acting in the interests of the well-being of everyone. In the sphere of consumer spending a bit less freedom to spend as we choose would motivate us to think carefully about the choices we make. Similarly, at the level of commercial purchasing, regulations that helped persuade buyers to give serious consideration to British products would be beneficial for our economy.


There is nothing wrong with competition in the world of business and commerce. It clearly benefits society in many ways such as delivering lower prices, improving quality, stimulating innovation and encouraging entrepreneurship. But competition must be fair, have as few adverse effects as possible, and ultimately serve a higher purpose than making the wealthy wealthier. It must exist in a culture where the well-being of everyone is considered to be more important than adding to the already substantial incomes of those who make money from financial wheeling and dealing in the markets.


To create this new and more benign culture we must accept the idea of a regulated economy and where necessary reject any long-established tenets of the free market. In the realm of overseas trade this means countries should be perfectly entitled to protect and support their domestic industries in order to benefit the well-being of their citizens. Tariffs, quotas and subsidies should be used to achieve the level of protection that is required.


I see no reason why these measures should not be seen as the basis for a fair global trading system and no reason why governments should be admonished for employing them whenever they feel the need to do so. We should see both free and regulated trade as a mutually beneficial activity and a way for countries to cooperate with each other in order to improve the standard of living for everyone wherever in the world they happen to live.


Trade should be about cooperation as much, if not more than, competition. It must be fair in all respects. It should not be about constantly striving to increase shareholder value, enlarging GDP or enticing people to buy a lot more stuff to throw away.


I certainly want us to help the economies of developing countries through buying goods and services from them. We must always be willing to do  everything we can to improve the lives of all our fellow humans through trade and other means. But we must be more aware of the consequences of an unquestioning allegiance to the doctrine of free trade. In the UK we should manage our trading relations in order to restructure our economy. We should move towards an economy in which we manufacture more goods for ourselves and produce more food for ourselves. Having more products made or grown in the UK will widen employment opportunities, especially outside London and the South East, and increase our self-sufficiency as a nation. We will clearly  continue to trade in a spirit of cooperation and friendship for our own and other countriesbenefit but the volume of trade will be less.


We should move away from our over-dependence on the service economy, especially the financial sector. Tax revenue from our vast financial services industry has certainly helped support our public services but this has not been the best way of distributing wealth equitably in our own country or anywhere else. Moreover, because of the volatility of the financial sector, we should be cautious about our excessive reliance on it.


The word protect is one of the most sublime words in our language. It embodies our basic instinct to protect our loved ones and our young, an instinct we share with every other living species on the planet. The need to protect is one of the highest virtues we possess.


It is sad, therefore, that in discussions about the economy, protecting jobs and livelihoods is not always seen as a priority. The time has come to question our current economic orthodoxies and seriously consider the many benefits of moving towards a more regulated global economy in trade and other areas of economic activity. I would be hopeful that this would provide protection for the billions of people who need it.



For another post on the same theme please see:

Free trade and protectionism - via Donald Trump




Thoughts on ...


Strawberry fields, fruit picking and the work ethic               12/6/18


I’ve worked as a fruit picker. Or to be precise a strawberry picker. Quite a long time ago admittedly. It was about this time of year that I cycled over to the strawberry fields in Cheddar and spent what could be a back-breaking day filling punnets with shiny red fruit.  


I don’t recall being paid on piece rates which is just as well as I was nothing like as quick at filling the punnets as the regulars who seemed to glide effortlessly up and down the long, neat rows of strawberries. Bonus payments came in kind when every so often we were unable to resist the temptation to sample the produce.


Fruit picking is hard work. It is physically uncomfortable and repetitive. I’m sure I was happy to come to the end of a day and cycle home again. The pay wasn’t good but it seemed like riches.


Apart from collecting raspberries from the garden I have had no other experience of picking soft fruit but from what I can see on various websites it is still hard work despite the production methods being different. For large enterprises growing strawberries in an elevated position in polytunnels enables picking to be done standing up thus making it a lot easier. Even so, fruit growing businesses looking for workers make no secret of the hard work involved nor of the early start: 5 am on at least three farms and 4.30 on one.1


Migrant workers make up a large proportion of the workforce and it seems that commercial growers prefer them to UK employees who, anyway, are not exactly queuing up for temporary employment in the industry. There is no reason why Brexit should make any difference to the supply of foreign labour if seasonal visas are issued but it would be good to see more young people from our own country out in the fields. They could start as soon as they finished their exams at school, college or university.


Being employed as fruit pickers would be good for young people as individuals and good for society at large. As individuals they would learn about hard work, perseverance and resilience; about being punctual, following instructions, working in a team, and taking responsibility. They would learn these essential employment skills as well as the discipline, and self-discipline, that work requires. They would begin to develop a work ethic that would last them a lifetime. Not so much strawberry fields for ever, as the song goes, but a positive work ethic for ever.


This learning would contribute more to their education than some of the things they learn in school and it should be seen by society as a vital part of their personal development. They would, of course, be paid for their endeavours which would give them some financial independence and, one hopes, ease pressure on household budgets.


Having more young people from the UK working as fruit pickers would also be good for society. It would reinforce our collective belief that hard work is usually necessary to give us an income to live on and it would also be evidence to show that our citizens can be as capable of hard work as citizens from other countries.


Apart from fruit picking there are other seasonal jobs that young people can do, and part-time jobs they can do all year round. Employment opportunities exist in cafes and restaurants, supermarkets and shops, and hotels and guest houses. Invariably I am impressed by the politeness and quality of service I receive from the younger members of the workforce I encounter.


Paid employment, in my view, should be an integral part of our education system. Having spent my working life trying to decide what was the most important purpose of education I eventually came to the conclusion that it was to prepare people to support themselves and their families. Other purposes are obviously vitally important but if we are unable to support ourselves and our loved ones, life will be a struggle.2


If preparing people for employment is the number one priority then, in addition to doing this through imparting the basic skills of literacy, maths and computing, our education system should be doing everything possible to ensure that from the age of sixteen all young people are able to have paid, part-time work that is regular or seasonal, or both. And if it involves an element of hard, physical work, like fruit picking, then so much the better.



1  This is what one business states: We would like to make it clear that working at *** Farm is very hard work. The work is physical and you will be carrying, bending and lifting for much of the day. You need to be exceedingly fit and healthy with strong backs.   


2  I have written about this in Chapter 7 of Forever Learning. The whole chapter can be read by following this link:




Thoughts on ...


Syria and Brexit                                                                       4/5/18


Syria and Brexit have been two of the biggest news topics of recent years, the former having been covered for a lot longer than the latter. (1)

The news from Syria has filled me with despair. Most of the time I'm optimistic about the world. I consider myself fortunate to live in an age when large swathes of humanity have access to the most amazing comforts and conveniences, to excellent health care and to extensive welfare provision. There seems to be less absolute poverty in the world and fewer people are dying of starvation.

The way we organise society and behave towards each other has also improved immeasurably over the centuries. We can see this in our strong commitment to the rule of law and the fact that most countries have democratic systems of government. We can see it even more clearly in the way we care for people with disabilities and in the lessening of prejudice against those who are different from ourselves.

But I feel despair at what has happened in Syria. Despair that people have endured, and are still enduring so much; despair that human beings can inflict so much suffering on each other; and despair that the international community has been powerless to bring the conflict to an end.

The suffering has saddened me enormously, as much as any other news I have seen on television in recent years. Constant bombardments have killed and maimed people indiscriminately and the anguish of losing loved ones has been visited upon many families. Living conditions have been appalling, homes have been destroyed and millions of innocent people have become refugees. The use of chemical weapons, and the way in which children have been caught up in the conflict, have added further unimaginable horror to an already horrific situation.


Compared with the trauma of the inhabitants of Syria the anxieties of some of some of my compatriots in the UK about Brexit are trivial. I certainly don't want to see anyone suffering as a result of Brexit and fervently hope there is no adverse effect on people's jobs.

But I'm not too distressed about currency speculators who may have lost money through the falling value of the pound, nor other speculators who may have seen share prices decline, nor the CEOs of financial institutions whose bonuses may be affected by a reduction in their business.

Nor am I going to worry too much about all of us having to pay a little more for imported goods as a result of a devalued pound. If we cut down on our expenditure on Costa coffees or upgrading our smartphones we will manage perfectly well.

As for the spurious difficulties over what to do about the Irish border they pale into insignificance compared with the situation in Syria.

Brexit should be good for our country in many ways but for me one of its great benefits is the opportunity it gives us to have a more global perspective on the world rather than one that is too centred on Europe. We must use this wider perspective to strive to ensure the well-being of individuals in whichever country they happen to live. We can do this by supporting the economies of different countries, helping to develop their systems of health care and education, and persuading their governments to govern in accordance with the rule of law and the principles of democracy.

We can also use our influence to exercise some global leadership to persuade other nations to join with us to exert all necessary pressure to avoid violence and conflict whenever there are disputes in the world. This leadership should ideally take place within the forum of the United Nations which we should do everything possible to strengthen.

It is only by having a powerful United Nations which is vested with the authority to intervene effectively in disputes between and within countries that we will be able to prevent terrible tragedies such as the one in Syria. I hope Brexit will inspire our politicians to take a wider view of the world and reach the conclusion that decisions and actions in the future should be much more global and much less European.


1 Lyse Doucet's reports on the conflict in Syria have been outstanding. She has described the events with clarity and compassion.

See also:

The suffering in Syria 

Brexit - a global, good news stor

Alternative manifestos (section on our global obligations)




Thoughts on ...


GCSEs failing the test (3)                                                       27/4/18

Spring is here. Blossom, bluebells, and warmer weather. Unfortunately for many it is also the season to prepare for public examinations. Pupils in the West Country and elsewhere are getting ready to sit in their school halls with heads down, brains whirring and pens racing.

Although I support tests at the end of primary school I am not persuaded that at the secondary stage our obsession with GCSEs is beneficial or even necessary. Without wishing to raise false hopes amongst our sixteen year olds I am sure we can safely dispense with these exams.

They are not as beneficial as they should be since the production-line model of education they create is not conducive to instilling a genuine love of learning. Cramming for exams and pressure to complete a syllabus limits opportunities to make schoolwork interesting and engaging. Acquiring knowledge, skills and understanding is seen as a means of attaining a good grade at GCSE rather than gaining intrinsic pleasure from learning.

But is it actually necessary to have a collection of good grades? I don't believe it is since GCSEs do not adequately fulfil two of the key purposes for which they are intended: selecting and preparing young people for their future employment.

With regard to selecting them they are steered into either vocational or academic routes on the basis of their results. This is not sensible at this point in their education as people continue to develop their cognitive and practical skills after the age of sixteen as well as change their minds about what they want to do. Moreover, I take the view that if people are well-motivated and work hard they can probably train for most occupations, whether academic or practical, thus making selection by GCSE results unnecessary.

Nor is the purpose of preparing young people for employment fulfilled. Looking at the exam process itself, rather than the content of what is being tested, the ability to write at breakneck speed about the characters in Romeo and Juliet, or the factors that led to the rise of Hitler, is not a skill that is ever likely to be required in the world of work. Nor for that matter is the ability to solve quadratic equations at a rapid rate.

An alternative model of secondary education would be one in which pupils acquired a wide range of knowledge and skills in an atmosphere that encouraged an intrinsic love of learning and at the same time gave them a high level of competence in basic skills. GCSEs fail the test of providing the right sort of education and should be phased out as soon as possible.


Used as a column in the Western Daily Press, 20/4/18

Same basic thoughts as the two previous versions but I'm happy to keep repeating the message. See:

thoughts on 1-5 and thoughts on 21-25