Hackneyed Hockney, American entropy and the dangers of devolution
January 25, 2012
The case for academies

To answer Philip Collins’s question (January), now that the government is encouraging every school to convert to academy status, will the original mission be lost? No. I believe this will create a critical mass of successful English schools.

Collins rightly argues that federations of academies will create economies of scale and have other advantages, notably in terms of lean management. Perhaps equally important will be the setting up of informal confederations of academies—and the presence within these of some of the best maintained schools will be to the advantage of the rest.

I see little to fear and much to cheer about in the expansion of the academies programme to include the best maintained schools. Indeed, it is probably best that the programme takes on as many failing schools as it can properly transform in the short to medium term, alongside a greater number of successful schools. If some highly regarded maintained schools are taking up academy status for economic gain, let them do so.

No revolution was ever carried through without a touch of enlightened self-interest.

Dr Joe SpenceMaster of Dulwich College

Philip Collins writes in relation to private schools: “It is not a fantasy to suppose that the expertise contained in these institutions could transform the long tail of comprehensives that are still not good enough.” It is a fantasy and the arithmetic is not, as he states, “compelling.”

There are around 2,600 independent schools. Of these, only some 1,200 are members of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). The remainder mainly cater for young children, are too small or poor quality to gain admittance to the ISC. Of the 1,200-plus ISC schools, some 600 educate pupils only to the age of 13, so have little to offer comprehensives. Of the remaining 600, most are not wealthy and are relatively small. Even if they have the skills to advise comprehensives, they lack sufficient staffing and financial resources to make the commitment that is needed.

Derek TurnerThame, Oxfordshire

Power and protest

John Chipman (January) makes a good point when he says that power in the world is “widely distributed” and notes that “the capacity of the apparently weak to determine the course of events,” is attracting both attention and money.

The international system now owes very little to the Cold War, or even to the post-Cold War era after 1989. We exist, if anything, in a post-post-Cold War age that is in the process of systemic transformation. Chipman’s analysis of different regional and functional dynamics in the world unearths symptoms of an even deeper transformation in the fundamentals of international power.

Conflict and war exist on the fault lines of any international system. In the 20th century, conflict and war were driven by the competition between strong states; now, as Chipman points out, it’s the weakness of states, both small and large, that creates instability.

Michael Clarke, Director, Royal United Services InstituteDevolution dangers

I am pretty certain that the unionist parties’ problem with a devolution-max option [independent tax-raising powers] is that they feel it wouldn’t work (Guy Lodge, Prospect online). I don’t think it would either; neither did the Calman Commission.

The Calman proposals were crafted in order not to make the West Lothian Question worse, by tying the base rate of Scottish income tax to the UK rate. Were Scotland to be self-governing on all matters except defence and foreign affairs, that would no longer be the case. To have Scottish MPs deciding taxes in the remainder of the UK to which their constituents could not be subject would break the connection between taxation and representation.

In other words, “devo-max” has a higher chance of breaking up the UK than no “devo-max.”

Chris Vine Via the Prospect website

Why banks remain risky

Adair Turner (January) argues that the fundamental problem with the financial system was that regulators allowed the international banking system to operate with too little capital and liquidity.

The real problem with the old rules on bank capital was that they encouraged all banks to take risks in the same way, by investing in prescribed classes of AAA-rated assets, in particular government bonds.

Regulators therefore rewarded herd behaviour in the management of risk. They also created “cliff risk,” namely, that when a bond issuer is downgraded banks will rush to sell because the capital cost of holding them rises steeply. And if all banks need to sell at the same time, the prices of the assets they are selling, such as AAA-rated US subprime mortgage-backed bonds, will drop very steeply.

Increasing banks’ capital requirement, as Turner recommends and as the new Basel III bank rules propose, without altering the risk-weightings assigned to different classes of asset, will have the effect of raising the stakes without lowering the risk.

Mark HannamChairman, Fair Finance

American entropy

American gridlock and ungovernability may be nothing new, as Cullen Murphy argues (January), but they are more significant today than they have been since the American Civil War. Today globalisation and the rise of the rest have undermined American power and competitiveness. America is increasingly floundering around for a response, and domestic political entropy is hastening its relative decline.

Philip G CernyUniversity of Manchester and Rutgers University

Gainfully occupied

A small group carried out heroic work at Occupy London’s original site at St Paul’s Churchyard (January) in the midst of some of the most intractable problems of our society—homelessness, mental illness, addiction. But it would be a mistake to see the struggle for social and economic justice as concerning only the poorest in society: it impacts on us all.

At a recent Occupy London event in Canary Wharf, figures from the two main parties praised Occupy for focusing debate on executive pay and challenging the prime minister’s suggestion that binding votes for shareholders will solve the problem. We are making a difference and we will continue to do so whatever happens to our site at St Paul’s.

Naomi Colvin Occupy LSX

A waste of energy

The billions spent in the EU in support of biofuels (Matt Ridley, January) would be far better devoted to cheaper measures proven to reduce emissions from transport. Electric cars fuelled by renewable power will be part of the long-term answer but, before that, the government must push for tougher EU car fuel efficiency standards when the existing regulation is reviewed later this year.

Kenneth RichterFriends of the Earth

Mrs Thatcher and Europe

John Campbell (January) repeats the shopworn story of Mrs T’s rebate. Yes, she was given a fully justified cadeau by Kohl and Mitterrand because in exchange she agreed a tripling of the European Community budget. British payments to Brussels surged from £656m in 1984 to £2.54bn in 1990.

Mrs T also supported Jacques Delors and until his ill-judged TUC speech in 1998 she led a full-hearted British engagement in the integration project that became the European Union.

From her Bruges speech onwards, she moved in the opposite direction. But Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece should be grateful to Margaret Thatcher who massively transferred British taxpayers’ money to help EC construction. Her Single European Act lives on in Europe as the most important treaty since Rome.

Denis MacShane MPHouse of Commons

Where are the women?

My first urge after finishing Ruth Franklin’s essay on the American short story (January), was to count the stories in my two collections and see what percentage feature male protagonists, and what percentage female.

When I write stories, I tend to forget I am a woman, and when a protagonist becomes interesting, I tend to overlook his or her gender. But what makes Franklin’s observation alarming is that the statistics—at least based on a quick tally of one literary magazine over the past three years and stories by my graduate writing students—seem to hold true: there are more male protagonists in the land of stories.

Yiyun LiAuthor of “The Vagrants”

Freudian slips

Freud (January) is out of favour because he was a deluded pervert who wrote a lot of idiotic tripe with about the same value as the Book of Mormon. I had to put up with this nonsense as part of a “balanced education in psychiatry” as a medical student in the 1980s.

Freud delayed true science in the field for a good 80 years. Good riddance.

Humphrey GardnerVia the Prospect website

Hockney is hackneyed

David Hockney’s earlier works, such as “The Splash” look remarkably like photos—but it’s as if he’s struggling to escape the technique which produced those earlier works. How else to explain the crude daubs he now produces? Why are art critics so sycophantic? Their very unanimity is suspicious. I cannot help but note that your article (January) is written by someone closely associated with the Royal Academy where the landscapes will soon be shown.

GH PeddersmithVia the Prospect website

Is Ed Docx for real?

Ha ha, but I would like to know the answer to Phil Vernon’s question about Edward Docx’s surname (Letters, January). Otherwise I will persist in my belief that Docx, like the equally implausible Will Self, is a fictional character, probably from one of his own novels.

JohnBVia the Prospect website

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