Wrenching pension tensions

(‘My God, that’s no way to run a university. What are these creatures?’
Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare, c. 1790-1791 version. )

It’s getting on for ten years now since the Times Higher Education’s ‘The Poppletonian’, Laurie Taylor’s weekly bulletin from that hotbed of learning and stringent academic standards, featured as the ‘Thought for the Week’, the famous contribution by Jennifer Doubleday, Head of Personal Development: ‘What if the hokey-cokey is really what it’s all about?’

I wondered then – and I wonder now. On the home front, even taking precedence over the Punch and Judy Brexit show at the moment is the ongoing strike in defence of university pensions. Have there been surprises? Not really. The major news outlets, for the most part, refer to ‘the lecturers’ strike’: perhaps they genuinely don’t realise that it’s other professionals—librarians, clerical and technical staff—too. Lazy journalism, anyway, as is the consistent presentation of the £6.1 billion pension fund ‘deficit’ as an established fact rather than a projection based on disputed figures. There may have been surprise at the degree of contempt with which university employers evidently view their staff, who are, after all, the people who keep running the campuses from which those employers derive their astronomical salaries. But perhaps nobody’s surprised at all, given the violent changes inflicted on the higher education system in recent years and some of the people that have been put in charge of what used to be endearingly called ‘centres of learning’. I suppose the term is ‘profit centres’ now.

Things are beginning to liven up, anyway. After the Minister for Universities called on Universities UK and the University and College Union, to ‘get back to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions’, UUK agreed to resume talks – but they would not ‘re-open the Joint Negotiating Committee decision made on 23 January’. It was precisely because of that decision, of course, that university staff went on strike in the first place.

See https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9358/University-and-College-Union-response-to-UUK-call-for-talks

Then, too, articles and documentaries are appearing now which suggest a strong family resemblance between the revelations about expenses claimed by vice-chancellors (and their senior colleagues) and the MP expenses scandal of glorious memory. And more people seem to be querying the very odd arrangements whereby some vice-chancellors are pulling in up to £90,000—on top of those teeteringly high salaries—for sitting on that very committee which proposes slashing the pensions of university staff.

So much of this stuff is what we call in this country ‘how things are done’ or, if we’re feeling bold, ‘conflict of interest’—if it occurs in other countries, we seem to know precisely what to call it.




Glimpses into the obvious: Paradise, a taxing issue

Swan, Robert John, 1888-1980; William Cowper (1731-1800), Poet

Robert John Swan, William Cowper (copy of George Romney): The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
(‘Home life, he thought, was a bit of leftover Eden’: Alexandra Harris, ‘My Hero: William Cowper’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/01/my-hero-william-cowper-harris )

In 1953, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to her friend Leonard Bacon about having visited the poet William Cowper’s house the previous summer. ‘I wish someone would write a sensible book about Cowper’, she added, ‘David Cecil’s, that is considered so sensitive and sympathetic, is really shockingly sloppy, and filled with what my grandmother called glimpses into the obvious.’[1]

A useful phrase, its variant—‘stating the bleeding obvious’—used to be uttered frequently in the office as we reviewed the day’s news. We are belaboured with it constantly now, as earnest newsreaders inform us for the very first time that the Brexit negotiations are not going well, that the government is in chaos and that some Americans are not fervent admirers of the 45th President of the United States.

But another feature of news presentation, especially in the case of the BBC, is the nervous rush to offset any implied criticism of government policy in a report by following it immediately with a vacuous statement by an official spokesperson, claiming billions of pounds in extra funding here, the creation of thousands of skilled posts there and the imminent arrival everywhere of miraculous deliverance strapped to the backs of unicorns.

Exposed to the latest bulletins detailing the contents of the Paradise Papers, I was repeatedly reminded that ‘this is legal’, that there was ‘no suggestion of wrongdoing’, that a yawning legal gulf existed between ‘evasion’ and ‘avoidance’. I had constantly to distinguish between, on the one hand, rich greedy people who paid others to engage in grubby deals for the purpose of helping them dodge their fair share of tax and, on the other hand, rich greedy people who paid others to engage in grubby deals for the purpose of helping them dodge their fair share of tax. Some of them just wanted more money, more yachts, more properties, more trinkets; others wanted even more gargantuan profits for their companies, while yet others wanted to pursue such expensive political projects as influencing a referendum or an election.

Martin, John, 1789-1854; The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

John Martin, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise: Laing Art Gallery. Newcastle-upon-Tyne

As John McDonnell wrote a few days ago, this ‘is not about a few individuals seeking to undermine the system, it is the system.’

Given the obvious social, economic and cultural damage caused by individuals and corporations not paying the taxes that they should, the reasonable response to ‘this is legal’ would seem to be: ‘Why?’ Similarly, the reasonable response to ‘I am not concerned with the day to day running of the company’ is ‘Then you bloody well should be’. If shedloads of money are being shovelled in your particular direction, there is surely a requirement to know where it comes from or at least, where it doesn’t come from.

Nearly a century and a half ago, John Ruskin (‘a violent Tory’) wrote: ‘Whereas, in true justice, the only honest and wholly right tax is one not merely on income, but property; increasing in percentage as the property is greater. And the main virtue of such a tax is that it makes publicly known what every man has, and how he gets it.’[2]

Publicly known: how much and how acquired. That seems about right.


[1] Letter of 11 January 1953: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 138. The Stricken Deer or The Life of Cowper (1929) was Cecil’s first published book (of more than thirty) and a winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

[2] John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, new edition, four volumes (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), I, 142; see I, 188: ‘I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school’.


Imagined past or possible future


(Adolph von Menzel, via https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/)

Three days to the General Election. The true state of the parties is curiously opaque, though the current movement in the polls is reflected in the increasingly hysterical headlines in the Tory newspapers. (It’s been a marked feature of the past few weeks that the Conservatives have concentrated almost entirely on negative campaigning, using primarily personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn.)

There are still, it seems, great numbers of voters undecided or switching from one side to the other. Such fickleness is baffling to those who’ve long ago made up their mind. There have been elections in the past where there seemed—not nothing to choose between the parties but certainly not enough—though it’s not true of this one. The futures envisaged on either side are radically different. A lot of it’s to do with the EU referendum, no doubt. Political allegiance in the United Kingdom may still be tribal but not in the old ways: the divisions are different, sharper, fiercer, more extreme.

The choice now seems quite clearly to be between a vote for an imagined past—or one for a possible positive future.



Furious fancies: defence in Bedlam

(‘Scene in Bedlam’: Plate VIII of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress.)

Hearing politicians declaim about ‘defence’ these days often puts me in mind of the anonymous poem, ‘Tom a Bedlam’ or ‘Tom o’Bedlam’s Song’, probably dating from the early seventeenth century if not before. Its last two verses are:

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander.
With a burning spear
And a horse of Air,
To the wilderness I wander.

By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond
The wild world’s end-
Methinks it is no journey.[1]

Phantasmal armies; equally phantasmal foes. Knowing the reality of what actually threatens us now, who are these enemies that can be defeated or discouraged by a massively expensive and inevitably anachronistic nuclear weapons system?

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in the wake of the mass murder in Manchester, Theresa May, other Tories and the right-wing tabloids launched a predictable attack.



It’s only too possible that Michael Fallon didn’t wholly grasp what Mr Corbyn actually said. Certainly, on Channel 4 News, he dismissed a statement simply because he believed it to be by Jeremy Corbyn when in fact it was a quote from Boris Johnson. Theresa May would have understood what Jeremy Corbyn was saying but chose to wilfully misrepresent him, safe in the knowledge that most people would not have seen the text of his speech, and that a great many voters’ grasp of defence policy is hardly nuanced or anything much more than a drowsy assumption that Trident is something to do with an intelligent ‘defence policy’—rather than expressing a determination of the ‘size matters’ lobby to stay at the big table of the Security Council of the United Nations.



The primary misrepresentation was to pretend that Mr Corbyn had claimed that the Manchester atrocity and other terrorist acts were solely due to British foreign policy (though that pretence also entailed an apparent unfamiliarity with the English language’s distinction between ‘excuse’ and ‘explanation’). Neither he nor anyone else worth attending to would claim that this country’s foreign policy was the only factor but it would be naïve, misinformed or, frankly, deliberately misleading to claim that there is no connection whatsoever.[2]

Jeremy Corbyn actually said (in what was a perfectly reasonable and rational response): ‘We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.
‘That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.
‘But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.
‘Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.
‘Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone.’
‘And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.’
‘So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.’

But it seems that we can’t do that in this country. We have to impugn, we have to dilute, we have to posture.

I am always busily resisting the temptation to align myself—mutatis mutandis—with the Major in J. G. Farrell’s novel Troubles, set during the Irish War of Independence:

‘The Major only glanced at the newspaper these days, tired of trying to comprehend a situation which defied comprehension, a war without battles or trenches. Why should one bother with the details: the raids for arms, the shootings of policemen, the intimidations? What could one learn from the details of chaos? Every now and then, however, he would become aware with a feeling of shock that, for all its lack of pattern, the situation was different, and always a little worse.’[3]


[1] Famously, this poem inspired Kenneth Patchen’s extraordinary 1941 novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight.
[2] Shiraz Maher, ‘In the minds of the murderers’, New Statesman, 26 May—1 June 2017, 24.
[3] J. G. Farrell, Troubles (1970; London: Flamingo Books, 1984), 169.