Thursday, 30 August 2012


I guess it is not often that an academic's research results in his university losing thousands of students, and possibly its financial viability, but that seems to have happened in my case.

From 1997 to 2002, Franck Duevell and I conducted a research project to investigate how migrant workers from abroad entered the UK without proper immigration status, how they stayed here, and how they decided whether or not to settle; we also studied how the authorities tried to control the inflow of such immigrants, and with what outcomes. Franck and I were both in principle in favour of free international movement of people and of workers (we were both immigrants ourselves), and we wanted to explore some of the contradictions of immigration policies and control practices. In the event, these were not difficult to discover.

One glaring loophole was the large number of people who entered the country as 'students' (mainly of English language), registered at 'colleges' (which in fact made their money by acting as visa brokers for such people), and then went on to get work in the underground economy almost straight away, never attending any classes (the 'colleges' did not put many on in any case). Although our research interviews with the control authorities showed they knew about these practices, nothing was done about them; nor did this change when we sent the report of our findings to the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett (a personal friend).

The research was conducted in London, and London Metropolitan University kindly allowed Franck to use a room at one of its buildings as a base. Later I was given a part-time post in the same department, and did some teaching there. My contract was not renewed, on the grounds of my age, after I reached 65.

Today's news is that London Met has had its licence to grant visas to overseas students revoked with immediate effect, because it could not satisfy the UK Borders Agency that it was checking whether such students could speak English or were attending classes. This means that around 2,000 students will be eligible for deportation, unless they can register elsewhere, and that London Met's finances will be radically damaged, since overseas students pay at the highest rates.

The decision by UKBA is part of a programme that has seen the closure of hundreds of the kinds of 'colleges' that our research identified, carried through by the coalition government, presumably basing itself on our research. London Met's generosity in allowing us to find a home there has been badly rewarded.

Critics of research such as ours often say that it could harm individual respondents who tell the secrets of evading the law, but I have always maintained that the real ethical dilemmas concern policy changes following publication of findings. In this case it took 10 years, and the consequences have been borne, to my astonishment, at least partly by our host university.


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Sex and Social Policy: The Republican Party, Ayn Rand and Family Values

The hearts of Barack Obama's staffers must have leapt for joy at Mitt Romney's choice for running mate of Paul Ryan, the Congressman from Wisconsin, and a self-confessed disciple of Ayn Rand. The Russian-born Rand was a science-fiction writer and free-market 'philosopher', who thought that the development of computers would allow the role of government to be abolished, as statistical input to these enabled the economy to be regulated without human intervention.

So far so orthodox Republican, but Rand took this to radical conclusions in her private life. She surrounded herself with adoring acolytes (including Allen Greenspan, the future chief of the US Federal Reserve, who did so much during his term of office to create the bubble and bust of 2008) and - tiring of her long-term partner - took one or more of these as lovers over a period of time. Indeed, the whole point of her advocacy of free markets was that they would create prosperity and the opportunity for individuals to live out their personal desires and fantasies, without the constraints of traditional morality or religious superstition.

In other words, her libertarian views would be anathema for mainstream Republicans, who tend to be as hot on family values as they are on market freedoms. They present an open goal for the Obama campaign, which can represent her as challenging every right-mindeed principle in her vision of the future of societies. Rand was to sexual morals and religion roughly what Joseph Stalin was to human rights.

What I really like about American politics is the way that extremists nearly always discredit themselves quite unconsciously every time they open their mouths. Ryan, inside his capsule of right-wing utopianism, fails to notice that his idol favoured free love as well as a free economy, and that her story will scandalise the core Republican vote when they know more about her.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Intellectuals and The Crisis

The French (Voltaire, Rousseau and more recently Foucault, Derrida and Lacan) and the Germans (Goethe, Weber, Luhmann, Offe) have always enabled the role of public intellectual, and made space for them in their newspapers and other media.

We Btitish are much more suspicious of intellectuals, and those who have been elevated to the role of public sages have tended to discredit it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Ottery St Mary (footloose junkie), John Ruskin (impotent cuckold) and Bertrand Russell (pacifist philanderer) are obvious examples of how the popular imagination was fed images of the intellectual by our cultural organs.

I must admit that I have always gone out of my way to avoid the identity of intellectual, or even academic. In my younger days I thought of myself as a social worker, a social activist and a sportsman, and even now I somewhat puritanically confine my writing activities to the hours between 2am and breakfast time, using the daylight hours for farming and socialising.

But the intellectual classes have hardly covered themselves with glory during this economic crisis. Where are the great alternatives to the discredited nostrums of those fatcat economists when we need them? I haven't read much out of the French or German academies to enlighten or invigorate me just lately.

About the only thinker to enhance his reputation has been Guy Standing, whose book The Precariat has been a global smash hit. And he is English. Just don't appoint him to any distinguished post in the Royal Society or the Privy Council. That would be tempting fate.

Friday, 17 August 2012


Tomorrow morning, Pauline and I will take part in our seventh event at Killerton, the local stately home. Parkrun is a national movement that holds 5 kilometre runs all over the country, mainly in National Trust property, at 9am each Saturday morning. They are not competitive, and plenty of parents take part with their children, but times are all recorded and sent by email the same day. Pauline started training with me 8 months ago, and now beats me by 3 or 4 minutes.

Parkrun inform me each time that I have been placed first in my five-year age group, and congratulate me fulsomely. I assume I am the only person round here in this cohort daft enough still to be running.

I started running 30 years ago, when my bowling arm began to atrophy. Mostly, as a rural dweller, training has been a lonely business, but also a welcome chance to empty my mind after a morning's writing. It is surprising how few days in a year it is raining too hard to permit a run (two or three at the most, until this summer, when the numbers multiplied several fold). Taking part in the occasional collective event is a pleasure, and we always meet friends.

The proudest moment of my career should have come when, at the age of 52, I was placed third man over 40 in a 5k side-race to the Oslo Marathon. I would have received a fine commemorative plate on a podium in front of several thousand spectators in the historic Bislett Stadium (where Steve Cram and Sebastian Coe set their world records), if only I had understood the calls in Norwegian for 'Bill Jordan, England', to take his place. Having no idea what was going on, or clue I had been placed at all, I just wondered why one podium place was not occupied; but the authorities very kindly opened up the stadium and gave me the plate before I caught the plane the following morning, and it stands resplendent on our windowsill.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Citizenship Tests

Chris and Pauline have been living and working in the UK for more than 10 years, and they have decided to apply for British citizenship. The first step is to take the test which shows that they are familiar enough with British law, culture and institutions.

This is a subject close to my heart, since it was only 3 years ago that I became a British citizen, and then through administrative error. Before that, I was classified a 'British Subject', even though three of my four grandparents were born in the UK (Ireland still having been part of that unit in the 1880s). The only right of citizenship I held was to 'reside in the United Kingdom', my passport told the world, so of course my travel rights, among other things, should have been severely limited. I had a well-prepared speech, in German and that all-purpose Slavic tongue, Slovak, explaining away this anomaly. I only had to use each one once, without mishap, but it made my nomadic lifestyle in the 1990s a bit hazardous.

We decided to hold a 'How British Are You?' Quiz Night at their place yesterday evening, and our visitors this week, Nigel and Diane, took the test, sight unseen (as Chan Canasta used to say), while Chris and Pauline had read the booklet of information about the UK supplied to all applicants. We three Brits were pretty horrified at most of the subject matter that Damian, as quizzmaster, expected us to know about, and it seemed like a missed opportunity to familiarise applicants from countries which are not free and democratic with our political, legal and cultural distinctiveness.

Fair enough to be expected to know that Guy Fawkes did not attempt to blow up Parliament in 1066 or 1815, but is it really necessary to be aware that the proportion of minority ethnic population in Scotland is 10 per cent and not 9 per cent, or that more than 25,000 refugees from South-East Asia applied for asylum here since 1979, not fewer? The consequence of getting more than 25 per cent of these answers wrong is to be refused access to the next step in the application for citizenship, the payment of a fee of over £2,000 for a family with two children.

Nigel, Diane and I all managed scores of 60-70 per cent, so we would have failed. Chris and Pauline both got scores above 80 per cent, so they should be OK with the real thing. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

John Locke on Blackberries

As a fruit farmer, selling his apples for cider, I am horrified by the idea of having to buy any fruit (except, of course, bananas). So the conspiracy of the seasons to ruin my plum crop might have caused me distress, if the hedges had not been full of blackberries this year. They supply our staple desert, in place of plums, for August.

After she arrived from Slovakia, Anna seemed confused by the fact that I furiously cut and chopped back brambles (or 'brambories', the Slovak term for potatoes, as she called them), but ate their fruit at every opportunity. Eventually she has become an inveterate brambory-hacker, and an assiduous blackberry-gatherer on her strolls in the company of Jean. Brambles are not found in Northern or Eastern Slovakia, but gathering traditions are strong in the culture; so Anna reported in amusement that Jean had chided her for greed at having picked every last berry from the hedges, and left none for anyone else.

But of course Jean's philosophical position perfectly reflected her membership of the English school of thought on the issue. Staying at the home of a friend at Talaton , just up the road from here, in the 1670s, John Locke considered the different logics attached to the production and consumption of blackberries and butter, and used his conclusions later to justify  both the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the ownership of private property.

God gave Nature's Bounty, he argued, to all men in common; yet the invention of money, and its use by all the population, meant that farmers could enclose land and graze cattle, still leaving those lacking land or money enough and as good for themselves. So private property and markets passed for morally OK, and so should the revolution against King James II be if he resisted these things in the name of the Divine Rights of monarchs.

Locke failed to notice that butter is more nutritious than blackberries, or that butter producers could buy up so much land that blackberry gatherers had no access to God's free gifts. But by then Locke paid court to a replacement king from Holland, and didn't visit Talaton too often.

To my mind, Jean got it about right, and Anna's enthusiasm for the Full Monty on blackberries must be put down to her Slovak experience of unenclosed mountain environments, in addition to her pity for me over the failure of my crops.

The apples are fine.

Monday, 13 August 2012


Since my mother died in April, I have received an enormous amount of help from my first wife and the mother of my four children, Jane. Through this, we  have become friends again after 35 years. I still find her extremely attractive, but chastity is not a problem, since to lay a hand on her is much like touching a very fierce and muscular leopardess.

My mother remained fairly fit and incredibly mentally alert far into her 94th year, but the last two months of her life were dreadful. She had a fall, and although she escaped any real injury, her time in a district hospital caused a rapid and terminal deterioration in her condition. Mercifully, she died in a small local unit, in sight of her home.

I spent a lot of time visiting her and trying to advocate for better treatment, to no avail. By the time she died, I needed some recuperation, so I jumped at the offer from Jane to live in her house and sort out her belongings and the aftermath of her loss. As one of her executors, I thought I might have to pay many visits to my old home, which is an hour and a half's journey from my present one. In the event, I have been able to do all the probate stuff by letter and phone;  Jane has handled all the rest, cleared up and disposed of the excess items, made friends and condoled with her neighbours, and generally made life very easy for me.

My parents divorced in South Africa in the mid-1950s. It had become fairly common there, but returning to the British Isles I found myself the only lad from a single parent household in my class, except for my close friend Barry Stevens, living at the home of his grandmother through his school years. I managed to remain in good contact by letters to my father, and the intellectual content of his correspondence stimulated my academic interests. My parents, still in love I am sure, never stopped exchanging letters.

Jane lived in the same street, and like me had just arrived from the Empire - her father, the nicest of men, had taken Holy Orders after retiring from the colonial police. I shocked everyone by marrying her when I had not yet graduated from Oxford.

It is really nice to be spending some time in her company again. Divorce is far more prevalent these days, and I hope that our handling of the consequences for our children has been a bit better than my parents'. Perhaps each generation can improve on the previous one in managing it. The couple can certainly go on helping each other, even if living together does not prove possible.