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Free trade and protectionism - via Donald Trump


Driving in the middle lane


Grammar schools and the case against them


Well-being and the Olympics


For Thanking a tree this autumn click here 




This post is a bit longer but hopefully sheds light on the subject. 


Thoughts on …


Free trade and protectionism – via Donald Trump 


Like many people I am not attracted to Donald Trump. If I lived in America I certainly wouldn’t be voting for him in the presidential election. Some of the things he has said have been extremely unpleasant and his attachment to the acquisition of great wealth is at variance with my values – as is his tax avoidance. I am alarmed at the possibility that he could become America’s next president.


But, as we know, he has struck a chord with many electors. His views have appealed to a large number of people who have felt let down by those in authority. They are people who may have suffered a significant reduction in their standard of living, or even real hardship, as a result of the downturn in the economy. They have become disaffected with politicians and see them as belonging to an elite that is out of touch with their needs and concerns. It is a disaffection we are all too familiar with here in the UK.


One of the issues that Trump has seized upon in his campaign is that of protectionism. He claims that the US government has failed to protect manufacturing industry and the jobs that go with it, especially in the rust belt. His argument is that there has been too much free trade and not enough protection. Whilst his analysis may be over-simplistic, and many would say flawed as there are other crucial factors in the long-term decline of America’s manufacturing industry, it is understandable that his views resonate among those affected by the decline.


However unappealing we may find Donald Trump it is important not to dismiss his ideas given that so many people are drawn towards them. If he is challenging conventional wisdom that is even more reason not to dismiss them.


At present conventional wisdom asserts the supremacy of free trade. The proponents of this approach to economic activity argue that it has promoted growth and prosperity within nations. I broadly agree with this even though it seems to me that such prosperity is far greater for the middle classes than for the many who continue to suffer poverty and deprivation in other countries or here at home. But the fact that free trade in the past has brought benefits in terms of a rising standard of living and an ever-expanding supply of material comforts does not mean we have to accept that it is necessarily the best way to organise our increasingly globalised society in the future.


I think we can, and should, do better in the way we organise our society. We need to be much more aware of the damage inflicted by free trade when it causes major industries, or businesses of any sort, to close down and people’s livelihoods are taken away from them. When people are suffering for this or any other reason governments have a duty to try and alleviate their distress, a duty which is in accordance with ethical principles as well as our natural instinct to show compassion to each other. 


Despite the system of welfare provision that we are fortunate to have in this country people suffer when they lose their jobs. They suffer from a fall in income, they may suffer considerable poverty and their mental health may suffer. Inevitably, becoming unemployed will have a huge effect on someone’s family who will be forced to adjust to new circumstances and will worry about an uncertain future. Stress, anxiety and tensions in relationships will be unwelcome features in many homes.


Serious harm and suffering is caused when people are put out of work and this occurs anywhere on the planet not just in our own country. We must train ourselves to look behind the headlines whenever a firm goes out of business and see the cost to individuals and their families. And we must train ourselves to be more empathetic than perhaps we currently are.


Helping and supporting each other is a fundamental ethical precept that is central to living together in communities. One way we support each other is through having a wide range of jobs available in society which enables us to provide for ourselves and our families. If these jobs are threatened for any reason it seems reasonable to take steps to protect them and prevent the suffering that is caused by putting people out of work. An established method of protecting jobs is to regulate the economy so that goods and services produced in the home country receive preferential treatment. Using trade is a way of doing this and this requires reducing the volume of imported products by means of quotas or tariffs if similar products are made at home. This helps preserve the existing domestic market for home-produced goods.


Restricting products in this way is clearly interfering in the marketplace. It is a form of control that is anathema to the free marketeers and free traders who live by the creed that the consumer is king and must be allowed to buy whatever he or she wants at the price he or she wishes to pay. According to them it is for the consumer to choose whether to buy products made at home or products made abroad.  Freedom to choose, they say, is fundamental to the market economy and fundamental to individual liberty. It is a freedom that should not be denied to people.


The response to this argument should be well known by everyone. If the exercise of our liberty in any aspect of life is having a harmful effect on other people then it needs to be restricted. We are not at liberty, for example, to steal things, drive quickly in a built-up area or smoke in a public place. Nor, for that matter, are we at liberty to do many things in the area of economic activity. Why should it be different to restrict our liberty to buy foreign goods if this is having a harmful effect on workers in British industries? Why should this be left to individuals to decide and not to society acting collectively in the interests of the well-being of everyone and in line with desirable ethical principles?


I acknowledge that in the case of consumer purchases the issues of harm and individual liberty can be finely balanced. If there is more harm done to consumers having to pay a high price for home-produced necessities than there is harm done to employees being laid off work then the balance could move in favour of the consumer. On the whole, though, it is more likely these days that workers who become unemployed will suffer greater distress than shoppers who can’t find the bargain they are looking for. 


I also acknowledge that in a global market economy it is perfectly fair, and essential for the well-being of individuals and families in other countries, that overseas producers should have the right to produce goods that will help people in their country earn a living. This, too, is in line with desirable ethical principles. However, no one is saying that countries should not trade with each other or buy each other’s products and nor is anyone saying that firms should not compete with each other. What some of us are saying is that it is unfair to the producers in one country if another country is able to produce goods far more cheaply either because of lower labour costs or generous subsidies.


Human beings have been consumers since they bartered with each other in the Stone Age. They were looking for the best deal then and have been looking for the best deal ever since. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all want a good deal especially when we’re short of money. But given the high level of prosperity for many people in Britain, as measured in terms of disposable income spent on smartphones, new cars and holidays, I wonder if we should be giving more thought to the implications of constantly being on the lookout for good deals and price reductions. It is time, I think, that we modified our behaviour and did rather less of this – which will not be easy as we are constantly being bombarded in the media or shopping mall by special offers, promotions and discounts. We have been brainwashed into permanently possessing price check mentalities. It has become a part of our culture – a culture that is far too obsessed with materialism and not sufficiently absorbed in the things that really matter.   


We can change our behaviour if we change our mindsets. Do we need to keep on buying so much “stuff”? Does saving a few pence here, or even a few pounds there, make that much difference to our lifestyles? We must begin to make more considered judgements when we are buying things and become more aware of the needs of those who are producing the goods we consume. We should, of course, remember that we are often producers ourselves as well as being consumers. If we think about the basic need for people to have paid employment in order to provide for themselves and their families we will be less inclined to accept the belief that as consumers we should always have unfettered access to cheaper goods produced in other parts of the world.


With a change of mindset we would become more willing to pay a fair price rather than getting a bargain. If we paid a little more for our products this might mean buying fewer of them. This would help us appreciate them more and make them last longer instead of disposing of them as rapidly as we do. A change of mindset might also help us understand that there are more important things in life than just spending money in shops or on the internet. The greatest happiness and contentment we can have usually costs very little and comes from loving relationships and from enjoying simple pleasures like reading a book or watching a favourite television programme.


We must balance our freedom as consumers to get a good deal by having access to cheap imported products against preventing the hardship and suffering caused by people losing their jobs. We should understand that the latter is a vital consideration to take into account. If we have quotas on certain imports there will still be plenty of foreign products to choose from but we may end up buying more goods that are made in our own country thus supporting our own industries. Restricting consumer choice is a small price to pay for helping British businesses.   


Protecting jobs means countries taking democratic decisions to support their own businesses by having quotas or tariffs, by owning them, subsidising them, or by offering tax concessions. These should be policies any government of any nation is perfectly entitled to pursue in the interests of the well-being of their citizens. They are policies which can be implemented irrespective of whether a country is large or small or has a developed or developing economy.


It would not, however, be sensible to prop up struggling industries or businesses indefinitely as this would undermine the functioning of an economy. If businesses are not able to sell their products because they are not of good quality, or they cost an excessive amount or there is no demand for them it will always be a hard fact of economic life that they will have to close down. If all efforts fail to prevent the closure of a business it should be incumbent on a government to encourage the creation of new firms or industries through the use of grants or tax concessions.


In recent decades society has enthusiastically embraced the doctrine of free trade which has led to the discrediting of the concept of protectionism. This is wrong. Protection is a good thing. The instinct to protect is one we have in common with other creatures. It is an essential part of human existence. There is no reason why trying to protect employees when their jobs are under threat should be viewed negatively. It is perfectly natural, and in accordance with basic moral conduct, that we should try to protect our fellow human beings.   


We should start looking at the idea of protectionism differently and remind ourselves of the word from which it is derived. There should be a global expectation that each country is entitled to protect its citizens from any harm arising from taking in too many imported goods. This will result in the loss of a very small amount of liberty for consumers but this is a price worth paying.


I do not believe the concepts of protectionism and free trade are mutually exclusive. There is no reason why countries cannot have both at the same time. Free trade must be allowed to flourish because of the enormous benefits it brings: having access to goods which provide people with comforts and convenience, access to goods which are necessities like oil, gas and raw materials, and access to agricultural produce which is suited to a particular climate. As well as these benefits free trade brings benefits in the form of ensuring good conditions of employment in all countries, in the form of providing incentives to innovate and in the form of supporting developing economies.


But protection should be in place alongside free trade for the reasons I have outlined. It should be used when necessary and accepted by everyone as a fair and legitimate policy to pursue. A combination of protectionism and free trade can easily be achieved by having a system in which countries agree quotas with each other for specific products. Such a system should be called balanced trade and would enable countries to import what they needed in a controlled manner in order, when necessary, to protect home producers. It would also help them maintain a steady balance of payments.


Trade should not be about conflict. It should be about mutual benefits, cooperation and bringing people and nations together. It should be fair to everyone and seek to achieve the best well-being for all the inhabitants of a country especially the disadvantaged and those on low incomes. It should not seek to gain advantage by dubious means, it should not cause harm by putting people out of work and it should never involve exploitation at any stage in the production or distribution of goods.  I hope these principles will be paramount in the extensive trade negotiations the UK is about to embark upon with Europe and the rest of the world. They go well beyond what Donald Trump has been saying.




Thoughts on …


Driving in the middle lane


The middle lane I’m referring to is the one we are all familiar with: the one on the motorway. It’s the lane in which I spend most of my time when I use this sort of road. I would actually prefer to spend most of my time in the slow lane – which would then match the slow lane in which I prefer to spend my life.


But it’s difficult these days to stay in the slow lane on the motorway as it is mostly occupied by massive lorries travelling at a steady 60 mph. Anyone who wishes to drive a car at this speed in the slow lane must therefore be willing to be wedged between two towering vehicles which often form part of a convoy. This is not an appealing prospect.


Sometimes the slow lane is clear for a while which means it can be occupied by those of us who wish to drive at a faster speed, say just above 65 but below 70. However, it is not long before we catch up with a lorry doing its regulation 60, so, at this point, if we wish to maintain our speed, we need to move into the middle lane. The problem is there can often be a steady stream of traffic in the middle lane which means we have to squeeze into it, sometimes with little space between ourselves and the vehicle coming up behind.


Knowing this it is surely sensible to avoid frequently having to squeeze into the middle lane in order to overtake traffic in the slow lane and there are two ways to achieve this. One, whilst driving in the slow lane, is to look out for any slow-moving vehicles a long way ahead and hope the traffic in the middle lane eases sufficiently to allow us to move into it smoothly well in advance. The other is to stay in the middle lane if we can see lorry traffic ahead in the slow lane anticipating that if we moved into the slow lane we would very shortly have to move back into the middle lane.


Because traffic in the middle lane is often travelling at 70 mph I have to keep up with this speed even if I don’t wish to as otherwise I would feel obliged to move into the slow lane. When I am doing 70 I am certainly not inclined to move into the slow lane, even if I sense there are cars behind me that would like to overtake – they should not be exceeding the speed limit.


Clearly it can be hazardous if people are driving slowly in the middle lane when the slow lane is clear with this causing congestion or making other motorists impatient. The latter is the last thing we want on our fastest roads. But if people are doing something like 65 in the middle lane and there is a lot of lorry traffic in the slow lane I can’t see this as a problem. In fact I would argue it is probably safer for these drivers and those around them to be doing this as it reduces the amount of lane switching and squeezing in they have to do.


I don’t know how many prosecutions there have been for hogging the middle lane but I think I’ve only seen one instance of it. I accept it is reasonable for it to be an offence but there are many other directions into which we should be looking to put our energy in order to improve safety on motorways. We can immediately begin to enforce the 70 mph speed limit and we can couple this with regular campaigns aimed to reduce the whole culture of speed. We can do more to educate drivers to lessen and control their aggressive instincts which too often come to the fore when driving a car. We can constantly put across the message of allowing more time for journeys. We can greatly increase awareness of the dangers of being distracted in any way and of being tired. In due course we should consider lowering the speed limit for cars and vans on motorways to 65 and to 55 for lorries.  


As for reducing the problem of congestion we should be coming up with more sensible proposals than converting the hard shoulder into an extra lane. In the longer term we need more people on buses and trains, we need more freight transported by rail and we need less commuting.


I continue to be amazed there are not more serious accidents on motorways. The statistics on fatalities and serious injuries are perhaps not as alarming as one might expect. However, with all of us resolving to drive more slowly and more safely there is no doubt they could improve.  




Thoughts on …


Grammar schools and the case against them


I am strongly opposed to grammar schools. If their raison d’être is to enable children to receive a high quality education I am certainly in favour of that. But I want all children in every school to receive education of the highest quality and in order for this to happen it is surely logical and sensible to insist that every school, not just some, delivers high standards in a wide range of learning


Although there is room for considerable improvement I believe that educational standards in terms of academic attainment are higher than ever before and that the best way to ensure all pupils attain these high standards is to continue with the strategies we have had in the past decade or so. As Michael Wilshaw the head of Ofsted says, these strategies have enabled many pupils in socially disadvantaged areas to do well at school and go on to higher education.


My belief that our existing schools are perfectly capable of delivering high quality learning for every child is one reason for my opposition to the establishment of new grammar schools. A second reason is their capacity to be divisive. They create an artificial and unnecessary divide within society – a divide based on misconceived notions about the nature of so-called intelligence, the possession of which, among some, is still worn as a badge of superiority. Moreover, the use of grammar schools to promote social mobility and the meritocratic society underlines their divisiveness. They encourage the idea of inequality by endorsing the idea that the brightest should win life’s top trophies while the rest make do with the consolation prizes. They are hailed as engines of equal opportunities but it is conveniently overlooked that these are equal opportunities to be unequal.  


A third reason for my opposition to grammar schools is that admission to them will be based on some sort of selection process which will in all probability involve passing an exam. This will inevitably produce a large group of children who in fact fail the exam or who are not considered clever enough to take it. Whether, these days, this will have a great effect on the self-esteem of many of these children I don’t know but it will surely be wounding for some of them to be identified as a failure at the age of eleven. And that is something I have no wish to see.


Which takes me to reason number four. I profoundly believe that if pupils work hard and are well-motivated they are capable of learning almost anything. This means that although some may not have developed their mental capabilities as much as others when they take exams at eleven they still have unlimited potential to expand their minds and learn new skills at any age thereafter.


But perhaps the most powerful reason why I am opposed to grammar schools is that their emphasis on academic excellence is hugely misguided. Like all schools they are locked into a collective mindset which sees the main purpose of this phase of education as being to select pupils for their future occupations. Those who do well at school by obtaining good GCSEs pass through the gateway to the academic route in the next stage of their education which it is hoped will lead on to university and the employment prospects this brings. In their pursuit of academic excellence grammar schools aim to have a high success rate in steering their pupils through this gateway – which is what parents expect of them.


I am not persuaded, however, that cramming pupils to attain as many high grade GCSEs as possible is evidence of high quality education. Schools should undoubtedly be teaching children a wide range of subjects which inform them about the world they inhabit and they should be doing this to a high standard. What they should not be doing is perpetuating the dubious notion that getting an A star in history, English Literature or biology is an indication that somebody will be suited for a particular sort of occupation. Instead they should ensure that by the age of fifteen all pupils have thoroughly mastered the essentials of English, maths, and IT and have acquired the ability to think effectively and incisively.1


The time to be thinking about gearing education to future employment is when young people reach fifteen. They should then begin a programme of intensive training in the occupational sectors that interest them some of which will require rigorous academic study.


High quality education is not one in which learning is measured by exam results in grammar schools or any other sort of school. It is one in which learning lasts a lifetime and is not forgotten as soon as pupils walk out of the exam room. It is one in which an enduring interest is developed in every branch of knowledge and human endeavour. It is one that equips young people with crucial life skills, fosters their well-being, shapes their behaviour, values and character, and, as has just been said, provides them with a mastery of the basics and a capacity for analytical thinking. Above all it is one where all pupils learn to respect and care for each other and understand what they need to do to become better human beings living in a better world.


It is time our education system moved in a different direction with different purposes and priorities.2 If we can bring this about there will be no point in having any more grammar schools.



1  Instead of GCSEs we should have national tests at fifteen in functional English, functional maths, computing and critical  thinking. Fifteen should be the new school-leaving age but only for those who have a job to go to.


2  My book, Forever Learning, sets out some of the different purposes and priorities we should be moving towards.




Thoughts on ...


Well-being and the Olympics


What a fantastic couple of weeks it’s been for sports enthusiasts. It’s been good, too, for the millions of other people who are not particularly interested in sport but who have been caught up in the excitement generated by the Rio Olympics. I haven’t been glued to the TV screen these past two weeks but I’ve managed to see plenty of Olympic action partly because I’ve had the television on whilst scraping off wallpaper in the sitting room.


My viewing has been exhilarating. I’ve been applauding unashamedly whenever team GB has won. Applauding loudly whether on my own or when someone else has been in the room. Applauding and also making an assortment of approving comments. When my  emotions were stirred I know the reason why – because it was a Brit who won. Not an emotionally mature response, I admit, but emotionally satisfying undoubtedly.


I have admired the incredible skills and amazing levels of performance on display. How can people run, cycle or row at such speeds for such a length of time? How can a table tennis player return the ball so accurately from so far behind the table? How can two divers twist and somersault in complete synchronisation? How, in the dressage, can horse and rider perform such a complicated routine to such perfection? And, more than just admiration, I have been totally awestruck by the brilliance of the gymnasts – on the parallel bars, on the pommel horse and on the floor. To Max Whitlock and every other gymnast from every other country I can only say you were fantastic, phenomenal, absolutely superb.


The Olympics has been good for my well-being I’m sure and good for the well-being of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world – which is a remarkable achievement. There is the uplift in well-being that comes with the eager anticipation of an event. There is the uplift when we watch the event and share the excitement of the commentary teams and spectators thousands of miles away. And there is the uplift when we revisit what we have seen afterwards – when we talk about it and feel the same sense of pride that others feel.


In our global community we should be careful not to over-indulge in national pride but a little indulgence is not going to do any harm especially in the context of friendly, sporting rivalry. The need to identify with others in a group, in this case the group being our fellow British citizens, is a powerful human instinct and a sizeable factor in our well-being. The same is true, of course, when we support a team or individual in football, rugby or any other sport although I am inclined to think we seek too much well-being from identifying with groups of various kinds.


What about the well-being of the participants? What drives them to compete to be the best in the world and to stand on a podium and receive a gold medal? Enduring the punishing training regimes they have to undertake for years in advance doesn’t strike me as the best way to find well-being. I certainly believe we can derive enormous satisfaction, and therefore strong feelings of well-being, from accomplishing goals and  achieving things in any sphere of life, but most of us are content with more modest goals and achievements.


Let’s leave these superhumans to work out for themselves why they strive to be the best in the world and return to the well-being of mere mortals like us. One question we could ask is this: how much of our well-being should we obtain by sitting in front of a screen watching sport and how much should we obtain by getting ourselves out of the house and participating in it? Clearly the two activities of viewing and doing are not mutually exclusive. We can enjoy ourselves and improve our well-being by watching sport, as many of us have over the past two weeks, and we can enjoy ourselves and improve our well-being by taking part in a sport.


But do we need to do both? I don’t think adults necessarily need to as long as they get plenty of physical exercise in other ways. However, I’m in no doubt that children and young people do. Participating in sport is essential for their well-being. It is important for their physical well-being and their general health; important for the well-being and self-esteem they gain through achieving something in a sporting activity; important for the well-being that comes with the confidence and resilience they acquire; and important in their overall social development which is a prerequisite for well-being. And added to the well-being they build up while they are young is the well-being they will continue to find when they decide to carry on with their sporting pursuits long into adulthood.


I have long believed that children and young people need to be doing a lot more sport than they do. They need to be doing more in school and more in the evenings and at weekends. One obvious way of encouraging more participation is to insist that school playing fields and sports facilities are available for use after school, at weekends and during the holidays. It is a collective embarrassment that they are virtually deserted at these times. The legacy of our extraordinary success at Rio must be that four years hence there will be more young people actively engaging in sport not more young people watching the next Olympics.


In the spirit of those who won medals and thanked their back-up teams and families for all they had done to make their success possible I am going to say some thank yous for the uplift in well-being I have had over the past two weeks. Thank you to the ancient Greeks for coming up with the idea of an Olympics and thank you to the Frenchman who revived it. Thank you to everyone who plays the lottery which has enabled a huge amount of funding to go into UK Sport. Thank you to the cameramen, television producers and brilliant commentary teams. And a massive thank you to each and every competitor who took part in Rio 2016 – you made us all feel good.