Thursday, 18 September 2014

things can only get better in Scotland

It has long been my contention that the Nationalists have been offering Scottish voters a false prospectus, and so on this momentous day I offer some extracts from Alex Salmond's Bumper Book of Lies - 

(1) We own the pound and currency union is inevitable.
(2) Even if there’s no currency union that doesn’t matter.

(3) We can join the EU without having our own currency or central bank.
(4) The EU will accept us with open arms without being obliged to sign away our sovereignty and adopt the Euro.
(5) Significant Scottish businesses are largely pro-separation. 
(6) Our financial services industry won’t melt away south of the border.
(7) We will keep all the oil revenues.
(8) Oil revenues are not falling and can only increase. 
(9) The NHS is at risk if we stay in the Union.
(10) Taxes will not increase in iScotland.
(11) Jobs will not be at risk in iScotland.
(12) Mortgage rates won’t increase.
(13) Interest rates on government borrowing won’t increase.
(14) rUK will accede to all of our negotiation demands.
(15) Pensions will be safe and affordable in iScotland
(16) The separation on offer is true independence.
(17) We will be immune from the budgetary pressures which force the UK to borrow about £2 bn a week just to stay afloat.
(18) We can walk away from the UK’s national debt without consequences.
(19) We can defend ourselves just as well on our own.
(20) English banks will be happy to make home loans to us in sterling even though there’s a risk that we might set up our own currency later.

And the biggest lie of all perhaps – 

(21) In iScotland “Things can only get better”! 

Some editions of Mr Salmond's book include another - 
(22) If we're wrong about the above we can always go and work in England

"Things Can Only Get Better"?  A more apposite anthem might actually be Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades”

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The decline of classical music - other people are noticing shock

An article in the Times breaks the news that, according to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the number of pupils learning to play the electric guitar "has overtaken those learning the violin for the first time".

In October 2009 I wrote a post entitled "Barry Manilow and the decline of classical music" which sums up my attitude to guitar lessons.  Part of it read: "hardly had I got into double figures when I realised that girls had an irrational weakness for boys who could play the electric guitar. So the violin was a chore (enjoyed playing, hated practising), whereas the guitar was a pleasure to be indulged whenever there was a free moment. The school had a visiting guitar teacher, but the kids who had lessons were universally useless at rock and roll. That's because you cannot teach someone to play it. You have to work it out for yourself. Classical music requires technique, and if you can acquire one it will take you almost to the highest level, where only the last few percentage points of musicality marks the difference between Alfred Brendel and a journeyman. But rock and roll is not like that. In a discipline which prizes above all else the ability to improvise, every player has to find their own way: after all, the great masters of the electric guitar, from Hendrix to Richard Thompson to Tom Verlaine, have styles so divergent they might be playing different instruments. Not only were lessons useless, but they were given by adults. Pop music was ours, the music of the young, and we would no more have let them teach us about it than they would have known how."

But not only are electric guitar lessons pointless.  The fact that so many kids want to have them is symptomatic of classical music's loss of prestige and relevance.  Jonathan Vaughan, director of music at the Guildhall School is quoted as saying "Classical music is being sidelined in every possible area. We are sleepwalking into a crisis and no one seems to be acknowledging it."  Vaughan has noticed a distinct falling off in the quality of home-grown students.  Actually I would argue that the crisis goes back a long way and that we are already well into it.

The rise of pop music is partly responsible.  So is the "call-me-Kevin" school of child-centred education, where anything that might be "difficult" is avoided (as if we would teach Harry Potter rather than Shakespeare . . . oh, wait).  So also is the old-school nature of acoustic instruments, particularly in times when every teenager has access to a computer on which the most amazing digital signal processing technology is readily available, often for nothing.  So also however is the determined effort by the gatekeepers of performance time to keep out new classical music which might be popular with audiences in favour of stuff which they themselves think might be edgy and impressive.

There is a very simple lesson here.  If you take an artistic medium with a sizeable audience base and by a series of choices over many years manoeuvre it away from the tastes and interests of that audience, firstly the audience will tend to dry up, and secondly the audience's children will be less likely to want to engage with that artistic medium themselves, whether as consumers or performers. Thirdly, as interest wanes the provision made for that artistic medium in schools declines.  After all, if no one cares about it, why should we teach it?

Why are we surprised that kids don't want to learn a classical instrument?

I have an interest to declare of course, in that I am myself a writer of classical music that on the whole audiences quite like.  I once had a piece performed by an ensemble with a reputation for its interest in the edgy and impressive.  Afterwards one of the administrators told me that she had never received so many expressions of interest in and admiration for a new work.

I never heard from them again.

Monday, 15 September 2014

iScotland and the impossible dream

I said I'd give up blogging, but in the face of the Scottish referendum this Thursday I can only plead St Augustine - Not Yet.

Sentimentally speaking I hope the Scots don't go.  But let's leave that on one side because I don't have a vote and anyway sentiment is hardly a basis for making a decision like this.

What would I do if I were Scots?  I'd vote No.  That's because I think Scotland would be worse off. Worse off both economically and in terms of international clout.

Why worse off?  Because iScotland won't have its own currency (something I've been pointing out on here for three years), which means it'll face higher government borrowing costs.  Its financial services industry will drift away south, and so will the many UK government jobs currently situated there (National Savings for example).  Oil revenues will decline, and anyway iScotland won't get them all - at the moment they belong to all parts of the UK and the rUK government won't have any incentive - political or economic - to give them away.  English banks will be reluctant to lend to people in another country where there are currency uncertainties, and so mortgage rates will be higher.

Scotland is disproportionately dependent on government jobs and services, so severance from the rest of the UK will leave that burden falling on Scottish taxpayers.  And the burden will increase, because Scotland will lag economically and has a population demographic which is ageing disproportionately, raising the proportion of its national income that Scots must devote to pensions.  Moreover Scotland has an unhealthier population than the rest of the UK, so the cost of running the NHS will be disproportionately greater.  At the moment all these costs are borne by all the UK.  Post Aye, Scotland will have to bear them itself.

It is a no-brainer.  Scotland's national income will go down at exactly the same time that the money it needs to sustain jobs and services will go up.  Taxes will have to rise or services be cut; or both.  The effect of this will be to drive business and investment south.

To be clear, there is one way in which Scotland might make this all work.  It is by having its own currency and central bank, running a low-tax small-government economy undercutting rUK from just over the border.  And this is actually what Alex Salmond wants - not for nothing were the SNP known at one time as the Tartan Tories - but it isn't what Scots as a whole want, and it isn't the prospectus which is being laid out.  Which brings me to the way the campaign has been run.

I don't blame the No party for being negative and lacklustre.  They were a long way ahead in the polls for a very long time and to them their case must have seemed overwhelming (as it does to me).  It's very hard to make a case which depends on the sheer stupidity of the Yes campaign to seem anything other than negative.  Against any other politician than Mr Salmond it would have been good enough, but Salmond is just as much a tactical master as he is a strategic duffer.

How has he managed to make Yes draw level in the polls?  By appealing to the very substantial element of the Scottish electorate which wants to live in the sunlit uplands of Scandinavian-style high-tax welfarist Social Democratic nirvana.  Salmond doesn't want this himself, and knows it isn't possible; the money is just not there, and things will actually get worse rather than better after Independence.

But he also knows that an awful lot of mugs with no grasp of economics don't know that, and by selling them the Impossible Dream he has hiked the Yes vote from 20 points behind to within snatching distance of victory.

I personally blame Labour for a good deal of this.  The overwhelmingly clear lesson after the Credit Crunch was that the bankers had been looking for more and more inventive ways of lending us money.  The Crunch happened because it turned out that we couldn't pay it back.  We had in fact been living beyond our means for many years.  This was obvious to everyone who had made a habit of reading the financial pages, which excluded almost everyone on the Centre Left (with the notable exception of Frank Field).

The Left blamed the bankers, failing to see that the bankers were just helping us all borrow, and that if the bankers had behaved responsibly we'd have just had to stop borrowing and face reality even sooner.  The Left railed against austerity without seeing that although services have been cut, government spending is still rising and that, awkwardly for them, the UK is still having to borrow about £2 billion every week just to break even.  And that's when the economy is growing at 3% per year.

What's this got to do with Scotland, and why is Labour partly responsible?

The leadership of the Labour party has connived in a critique of the Coalition which is misleading and does its supporters no favours.  It has maintained the illusion that there is a magic button which David Cameron could press which would restore the UK miraculously back a decade to the "good" times when Gordon Brown was Chancellor, when money flowed and there was a Diversity Co-Ordinator on every street corner.  There isn't any such panacea of course, but people who hate the Tories need no excuse to bury their heads in the sand.

If Ed Miliband were a responsible leader he would have pointed out to his supporters that there is no magic button, that we are not as rich as we thought we were and that we can in the end only have the public services we can afford.  He hasn't. So a lot of people still believe it could be glad confident morning again if only the mean old Tories could be booted out.

It just so happens that people who take this view are very thick on the ground in West Scotland's industrial heartlands, and it is this wholesale mobilisation of the Scottish working class (largely Catholic) vote which has brought the Union to the brink.

The argument favoured by the Left for solving Britain's fiscal black hole (that is, amongst those who can bring themselves to admit there is one) is to Tax the Rich.  Whatever its other weaknesses, this argument doesn't work in Scotland because most of the rich live in, er, England.  Please forgive me for finding that quite funny.

And so we find ourselves four days away from Independence.  For someone like me who loves Scotland and has had an emotional engagement with the country for fifty years that is a sad situation. But the people I feel really sorry for are those who think their problems of joblessness, deprivation and ill health will be solved by a poorly-thought through attempt to create a socialist version of Brigadoon.

Things Can Only Get Better, is the Nationalist refrain.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that they might get worse instead.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The last post

It having been pointed out to me that spending an hour or so each week writing this blog might not be the best use of a busy composer / conductor / househusband's time (something of which I was in any event subliminally aware), I've decided to pack in blogging.  So this will be my last entry.

I've posted here for nearly four hundred times in five and a half years, my first attempt being in February 2009, generating a readership that's grown from nothing to about 50 hits a day, a tiny figure in web terms but not bad for a small-timer.  I haven't re-read my collected blogging works in full, but looking back over the entries I see I've had certain recurring preoccupations, and it's instructive to consider to what extent events have borne out the views I had at the beginning.

Starting with the issue on which I've been most egregiously wrong, namely the Eurozone. I thought that after the financial crisis the Euro would implode under the weight of its own contradictions. In the first place I underestimated the extent to which those at the top would be willing to bend the rules to keep the party going - the famous Draghi put was almost certainly illegal under EU law, but the mere fact of Draghi's "whatever it takes" utterance was enough to quiet the panicking money markets. Secondly I had not appreciated the extent to which the free movement of labour laws would enable Mediterranean states to export their impoverished and angry unemployed youth (largely to Britain). This game is not over yet, but it's amazing that we're still playing at all.

Elsewhere I've done a bit better.

It remains true that the Left has not on the whole understood that the massive hole in Britain's budget (we're still borrowing more than £2 billion every week) cannot be filled merely by taxing the rich more. The contradictions this exposes in the Social Democratic programme (whose raison d'etre is to provide an expensive social safety net) have not even been addressed, let alone solved. This doesn't mean Labour won't win in 2015 however.

The dangers of excessive immigration, in terms of the environment, the economy, the strain on public services and on social cohesion have if anything become even more obvious, most recently with the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools. Race doesn't matter much; culture assuredly does. How Britain is going to absorb an awful lot of people who regard its social mores with contempt is a problem for the future.

In an allied issue, it has become even more apparent that Britain is overpopulated. Bar Hong Kong and Bangladesh, we are one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Partly because of immigration, partly because immigrants tend to have a higher birth rate, we don't have enough houses. In the year to 2013 the population increased by 400,000. Yet paradoxically the more we try and build the more we build on farmland (that's not to say that all new housing is or must be built there). A recent Cambridge University study shows that we already have a massive food import problem; and our capacity to grow our own is diminishing all the time the demand for it is going up. Something has got to give.

My contention that the police are on the whole absolutely rubbish rather than insitutionally racist has been borne out by event after event. In fact in the last five and a half years the only story out of dozens I can think of which suggests that the police really are "institutionally racist" rather than incompetent, corrupt, lazy and sometimes racist (on an individual level) was the recent one about references to racism being removed from disciplinary reports. Everything else has been about mediocre or dishonest people doing a mediocre job.

Next, that hoary old chestnut - BBC bias. No-one of course can prove that the BBC is biased, although the Corporation has sometimes seemed to be acknowledging every other week that it is. I prefer to look at the long list of senior figures, most recently Jeremy Paxman, who agree (shame Jeremy that you couldn't bring yourself to say so while you were still in the job). You only have to ask what the opposite of a liberal bias might be to see that the BBC is effectively admitting an anti-conservative bias. I have no objection to that. I only object to having to pay for it. If the BBC wants to carry on taxing us to pay for services other people get for nothing, it needs to put its recruitment policy in order.

Tony Blair is a much reviled figure these days, and even I - a former admirer - concede that he has much to answer for, not the least the baleful consequences of allowing market forces into the university system on the coat-tails of an unjustifiably expanded student intake. But Blair was right that there was a cost in failing to intervene in Iraq which his opponents are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone discuss. We are seeing this cost now with Syria and Ukraine; indeed, I sometimes think that the greatest benefit to black Americans of President Obama's election might be the revelation that one of their chaps could become the most powerful man in the world and still be just as rubbish as Bush, Carter, Reagan and all the other duffers. "There is a red line", says Obama. If so, I haven't seen any evidence of it. A very talented public speaker who will no doubt do very well as the new Nelson Mandela after his presidency is over.

The other area in which I have consistently felt we are sleep-walking into trouble is that of freedom of speech. There is no right not to be offended, nor should there be, and nowadays people are being prosecuted (under legislation like the Telecommunications Act, intended for other purposes) merely for saying things that the CPS thinks some people won't like. Ultimately there are no objective ways of determining what is offensive and what isn't. The true civil libertarian should acknowledge this reality and come down in favour of individual freedom wherever possible. It seems to me a tragedy that the liberal Left - the sector of society which fought so hard for freedom of speech - should have instigated these sorts of restrictions and that the unreflective Right in Britain should have gone along with it.

Lastly Art. I've tried to expand on some of my enthusiasms and dislikes. I don't feel Modernism has really spoken to the human condition in a useful and articulate way. My own somewhat gentler art has been liked by audiences but not by those walk in the corridors of power.

I like the story about Berlioz. When the French musical establishment finally decided he was worth a job in the Paris Conservatoire it was as Assistant Librarian. If this is what the greatest ever French composer had to endure, who am I to complain?

If you have been, thanks for reading.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Why I love . . . #10 Richard Linklater's Boyhood

The other day I went so see Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood.  As readers of the press will know, Boyhood's McGuffin is that it was filmed, a few days at a time, over 12 years, allowing the actors to age, most notably the child leads, who start the film fresh-faced ingenues and end spotty, hairy and sexually active teenagers on the verge of adult life.

Some reviewers have found Boyhood boring, but I found its poignant ordinariness transfixing.  And walking home afterwards I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen's much lauded novel The Corrections. Franzen is a wonderful writer, but the mistakes made by the parents in his family saga were at first repeated by their children but then "corrected", and all three as I recall walked away and lived happily ever after. A let down to end on such a false note.

The greatest merit of Boyhood was that it allowed its participants no such luxury.  The feckless Dad and the Mum who kept ending up with alcoholics were allowed in middle age a degree of resolution to their problems - after all, most of us can learn to avoid repeating our more obvious mistakes given fifteen years to reflect - but there was no sense that Mason and his lovely sister were going to be free of the kind of difficulties which beset their parents.  I found watching these children age and seeing them standing uncertainly on the threshold of adult life touching and uplifting at the same time.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Tony Hall and the curse of our present system

I've written in a previous post about Tony Hall's grilling in front of a Commons committee on the subject of the BBC DG's plan to boost black, Asian and ethnic minority representation in the Corporation's output.

It will be recalled that Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, berated Hall for the BBC's "racist approach" to diversity, saying that the white working class were being ignored. Davies is wrong because although this may be a bad thing, it's not a racist bad thing: even on his own case it is discrimination on the basis of class rather than race.

Interestingly though the admirably clear-thinking Daniel Hannan has written a wonderful blog in the Torygraph today discussing the meaning of diversity which makes Davies' point much more cogently and forcefully.

I have been saying for years that the BBC's most serious weakness when it comes to bias is that it tends to admit people from a narrow societal and educational base, that's to say metrocentric young university graduates with a humanities degree.

Why, I have written so often that the words are getting worn out, are we surprised that the BBC has, by its own admission, a liberal bias given the nature of the people who work for it?

Here is Hannan, in a different context admittedly, but the read-across is nearly complete:

"How has “diversity” come to mean only headcounts of women and ethnic minorities? When voters complain that the party leaders are similar, they don’t mean that they’re all white, or that they’re all male, or even that they’re all Oxford-educated. They mean that they seem cut off from the concerns of the country at large. Nigel Farage . . . has never tried to pass himself off as anything other than a public-school-educated broker. On duty, he wears pinstripes; off duty, tweed and cords. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because it’s what Nigel is saying that attracts his voters, not where he went to school."

". . . "diversity” has taken on almost the precise opposite of its dictionary definition. [For its advocates it] doesn’t just mean having people with different skin-tones; it means having people with different skin-tones who think in similar ways. . . But being diverse is less important to the diversity-wallahs than holding approved ideas about promoting diversity. . . The last thing its exponents want is actual pluralism. They want more Muslims, but not Muslims who hold Islamic views about, say, the definition of marriage. They want more black people, but not black people who get ideas about prospering outside the EU. They want more women, but not more Margaret Thatchers. . . [True diversity would involve breaking] . . .the attitudinal monotony, what the French call the pensée unique, that is the curse of our present system."

Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and people of colour

I raised a weary eyebrow the other day when Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, berated various BBC bigwigs, including DG Tony Hall, in a Commons select committee hearing for the Corporation's "racist approach" to diversity.

Hall has apparently planned a boost to black, Asian and ethnic minority representation in the Corporation's output, and Davies' objection is that this is itself racist because it ignores the white working class.

Whilst Davies is clearly wrong - if it's class discrimination it can't have anything to do with race - his argument is slightly more nuanced and interesting than it first appears. "I think the true racist sees everything in terms of race or colour", he said. "Surely what we should be aiming to be is colour blind".

I thought something along these lines a couple of years ago when the Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia said that he intended to cook fried chicken for Tiger Woods. The brilliant American tweeted his displeasure about this apparent piece of racial stereotyping, and Garcia, jumped on by the media, apologised for his remarks. Then the head of the European Golf Tour George O'Grady tried - ineptly - to stand up for Garcia, saying he had "most of his friends are coloured American athletes".

Only someone well out of the metropolitan loop could have made such a schoolboy error.  O'Grady soon found himself up to the nostrils in the media thick and sloppy.

The word "coloured" is now well out of order. As far as I can remember it was replaced by "black" at least twenty years ago, although now, at least in the US, the favoured expression seems to be "people of colour". I have no idea what the correct parlance is and personally use the "black", because that was the inoffensive term amongst "black" people when I was growing up.

We have become such a rainbow nation however that "black" no longer fits the bill accurately, not when latte is a more common colour on Britain's streets. I can't bring myself to use "people of colour" (it is ploddingly over-elaborate). "African-American" and "Afro-Caribbean" are cumbersome, and "coloured" reminds me rather too much of Apartheid South Africa. "Black" people have the right to call themselves whatever they choose, but it is of course patronising in itself to imagine that "black" people are a single homogenous group; the reality is that individuals will have different ideas about how they'd like to be addressed. It can be bafflingly difficult for the average white person to avoid giving offence. Sergio Garcia may be a prick, but he probably isn't a racist prick, and as for Mr O'Grady the words "well-intentioned" and "hapless" spring to mind.

All of which brings us back to Philip Davies MP. And yes, "what we should be aiming to be is colour blind". Absolutely. Britain is not a colour blind country, but it has made such massive strides in that direction that I sometimes wonder whether hyper-sensitivity about race is counter-productive. If we're trying to get to a situation where race doesn't matter, why do people so often make such a fuss about it on such modest pretexts? Of course there are various withering put-downs possible to that question, but are we not at least approaching the point where saying "Oh well, never mind" every now and again might at least be an option worth considering?

If Tiger Woods had simply shrugged and said, "Sergio can cook me fried chicken whenever he likes", he would have emerged from the furore with his reputation (and by association that of his fellow - cringe - people of colour) very much enhanced.