Brilliant Mistake

Elvis Costello

I’m listening to King of America, Elvis Costello’s 1986 album, while receiving my fourth and final dose of Cytarabine for this chemo cycle. Unlike the over-produced and rather directionless ‘Goodbye Cruel World’,  this album still works for me 32 years on as the songs and production remain coherent for the whole hour.

The first track is ‘Brilliant Mistake’, and the first verse seems to resonate when listened to against the backdrop of Trump and Brexit. I hope fervently that in a couple of years these brilliant mistakes will have been consigned to the dustbin of history. But if not, well, a few listens to ‘Suit of Lights’, also on this album, will probably make me feel a little better.

Brilliant Mistake – Declan MacManus

He thought he was the King of America

Where they pour coca-cola just like vintage wine

Now I try hard not to become hysterical

But I’m not sure if I’m laughing or crying

I wish that I could push a button

And talk in the past and not the present tense

And watch this hurting feeling disappear

Like it was common sense

It was a fine idea at the time (*)

Now it’s a brilliant mistake

 

(*) I was obviously never convinced that Trump or Brexit were fine ideas, but understand why many people thought they were. Hopefully change is coming …

 

Poll: 73% say ‘Brexit dividend’ is a lie

A poll conducted on Monday 18th June 2018 found that 73% of those asked said the claim of a ‘Brexit dividend’ was a lie. 11% of respondents said that there would be a Brexit dividend, with the remaining 16% undecided. The sample size was 1,003, with a margin of error +/-3% (*).

 

A fake graph to demonstrate confirmation bias

A fake graph to demonstrate confirmation bias

If you’ve read this far, your initial reaction to this ‘poll’ is likely to have been determined by your existing beliefs about Brexit. If you oppose Brexit, you were probably more likely to have seen this as further evidence that your view is right. If you support Brexit you probably haven’t even read this far, but will have dismissed or ignored this article on the basis of the headline itself.

A psychological explanation often offered for this effect is confirmation bias (Darley and Gross, 1983). Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek evidence to confirm your existing beliefs rather than look for evidence that might counter them. Regardless of the actual truth of the information, finding support for your beliefs boosts your confidence in them. Crucially, this makes it less likely that people holding these beliefs will alter them.

Many people on the pro-EU side of the debate are placing a lot of faith in calling for a ‘people’s vote’ on the final EU exit deal. They express confidence (often citing the way that opinion has subsequently changed on the Iraq War pursued by the Blair government) that people won’t be fooled again.

I remain unconvinced that the outcome of any such referendum would be different.

Although opinion pollsters YouGov claim there has been a slight drift towards people thinking that the decision to leave the EU is a bad one, the difference is nothing like as pronounced as the shift over the Iraq War.

There’s also another important difference compared with the Iraq War – Brexit is a current issue. On both sides of the argument, people still have a lot of psychological capital invested in their beliefs. Much of the shift in opinion over the Iraq War seems to have happened afterwards, when it was seen to be both a disaster and with a premise based on a lie.

The challenge for those of us who want no truck with Brexit is to overcome the confirmation bias of the leavers. If I was well enough to attend, I’d be at the march in London on the 23rd June. But no matter how large and well organised it is, it’s unlikely to have much impact in shifting opinion.

What’s needed as well are emotional, media attention-grabbing demonstrations of the benefits of remaining in the EU. The equivalent of the Farage/Rees-Mogg fish throwing incident, if you will.

 

 

(*) For the avoidance of doubt, these figures are completely made up. Sorry. (But that doesn’t mean they bear no resemblance to the truth and that the Brexit dividend isn’t a lie, naturally).

 

Update 18th June – 2200: Sky News has published a genuine poll in the last few minutes that does indeed indicate that the majority of those asked say the ‘Brexit dividend’ claim is a lie.

 

References

Darley, J.M. & Gross, P.H. (1983). A hypothesis-confirming bias in labelling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20-33.

Vince Cable’s lifelong learning commission – a missed opportunity?

An under-reported part of Vince Cable’s first conference speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats was his announcement of an independent commission on lifelong learning. Being a lifelong learning geek, this announcement thrilled me far more than anything else he said that day. Lifelong learning has shamefully been political tumbleweed for far too long. It’s not a topic that the Conservatives or Labour have seriously engaged with over the last decade or more. It’s to Vince’s great credit that he’s the first national party leader to take lifelong learning seriously in the modern era.

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It’s been a long wait since last Autumn’s speech, but yesterday the TES revealed the twelve-strong commission. They are:

  • Chair: Rajay Naik – Chief Executive of Keypath Education
  • David Barrett – Associate director of fair access and participation, Office for Students
  • Stuart Croft – Vice chancellor of the University of Warwick
  • Stephen Evans – Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute
  • David Hughes – Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges
  • Simon Hughes – External adviser to the Open University (and former Lib Dem MP)
  • Shakira Martin –  The current president of the National Union of Students
  • Polly Mackenzie – Director at Demos (and former Lib Dem SpAD)
  • Ruth Silver – President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership
  • Ruth Spellman – Chief Executive / General Secretary of the WEA
  • Matthew Taylor – Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts
  • John Widdowson – The principal of New College Durham

I have no doubt that they will do their job to the best of their abilities, but I can’t help but feel incredibly disheartened and annoyed at the lack of balance on this commission.

With due respect to the NUS president, there’s not a single member who represents the “consumers” of lifelong learning opportunities. There’s also no-one who directly represents the needs of industry. Concerningly, the representatives of the educational providers and regulators are all (very) senior managers. I do wonder precisely how much time they will have to devote to this task. A sprinkling of talent from elsewhere in the education hierarchy would have been a very good thing indeed.

In my view these omissions are a huge missed opportunity. Without effective challenge, the commission is in real danger of delivering something bland, seen primarily through the eyes of education providers. While I trust that evidence will be taken from lifelong learners and industry, it’s not the same as having these voices directly shaping the commission’s recommendations.

Hopefully, it’s not too late to address these flaws. There are lots of talented people who understand what it’s like to be a lifelong learner, juggling the demands of family and career to ensure their skills stay up to date. There are people who understand what it’s like to be an employer and how difficult it can be to persuade people to take up learning opportunities.

I’d volunteer, but I probably won’t get a call now that I’ve written this!

But please Vince, address these issues. Otherwise you won’t get the radical proposals that you’re looking for, or what lifelong learners need.

Gammons, remoaners and everyone else

Immediately after Theresa May took power following the referendum she had a brief window of opportunity to unite the country behind a common course of action. Given the narrowness of the victory for the ‘leave’ side, a leader who genuinely had the interests of the country at heart would have aimed for the greatest possible degree of consensus.

Instead, she was weak – pathetically weak – and decided to ignore the 48.1% who had voted ‘remain’ – which, of course, included her. But her decision-making turned out to be far worse than weakness. The appalling tone in which political debate is currently conducted is due in large part to her disgusting ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech. I hope that she regrets her choices, but I’m not convinced that she does.

Her catastrophic miscalculations during the process of leaving the EU (Davis, Johnson and Fox! ECJ red lines! early election! no customs union! no to the EEA! no plan!) and in particular, her choice of words, have led directly to the country’s current difficulties.

Once a genie is out of a bottle it is difficult to see how it will ever go back in. It helps no-one to demonise the ‘other’ as a gammon or a remoaner or anything else. What’s required now is a way of reconciling differences, so that the minimum possible damage to the people of the UK results from the Brexit nightmare. You don’t reconcile different groups to each other by hurling insults. More importantly, there’s another group to consider (certainly the majority) – everyone else. They certainly won’t be won over by such childish name-calling.

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Politics in the UK needs to become less of a zero-sum game, and adopt structures that encourage consensus and power sharing. Electoral reform is therefore an essential prerequisite for a post-Brexit society, not a nice to have.

The country will need to find a new common cause – a positive one, rather than harking back to the dark days of Empire – to enable the current divisions to start to be repaired. No number of royal weddings or appeals to a mythical bulldog spirit will deliver this.

However, my fear that it is now far too late to have any reasonable chance of finding a way out of the mess the country is in for a generation or more. Many people I know view the inevitable economic and cultural damage that Brexit is causing as being sunk cost, but the damage will be lasting. Public discourse has been seemingly poisoned beyond repair. If there is to be a realignment of politicians across parties, it will come too late to save us by next March. And a realignment will never happen if all we do is insult each other. Political differences are the life-blood of a healthy democracy, but they need to be expressed constructively.

People of goodwill must work together to defeat the intolerance that has descended on our country. Delivering such an outcome would be a truly patriotic cause worth supporting.

Pauline Latham MP on the impact of leaving Euratom and the EMA

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently wrote to Pauline Latham, MP for Mid-Derbyshire, to ask about the impact of leaving Euratom and the EMA on lymphoma patients (*).

My first question was:

I understand that your government intends to withdraw from Euratom as part of our exit from the European Union. Could you advise me what the impact of this decision will be on the availability of medical radioisotopes used in the treatment of my condition, for example, during a PET/CT scan.

The substantive response to this question came in the 5th paragraph of her letter to me.

I do not believe that leaving Euratom will have any adverse effect on the supply of medical radio-isotopes. Contrary to what has been in some reports, medical radio-isotopes are not classed as special fissile material and are not subject to nuclear safeguards. Therefore, the UK’s ability to import medical isotopes from Europe and the rest of the world will not be affected.

This is a clear response – albeit one that is at odds with independent fact checkers fullfact.org, who state that this belief

[…] isn’t certain, and will depend on what future arrangements are negotiated. The UK may find it harder to guarantee a supply after leaving.

That my MP is happy to be held accountable for any interruption in supply of medical radioisotopes caused by an exit from Euratom and the EU is therefore commendable.

My second question was:

Furthermore, I also understand that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has decided to relocate from London and that as part of our exit from the European Union, alternative arrangements to approve medicines will need to be made. Could you reassure me that plans have been enacted to ensure that approvals will not be disrupted after our exit, and that there will be no additional waiting time for new treatments to be approved compared to citizens of the other 27 European Union countries?

Her response to this concern was rather less clear-cut.

The UK is fully committed to continuing the close working relationship with our European partners, and as part of the negotiations the Government will discuss with the EU and Member States how best to continue cooperation in the field of medicines regulation (including with the European Medicines Agency).

 

Our aim is to ensure that patients in the UK and across the EU continue to be able to access the best and most innovative medicines, and be assured that their safety is protected through the strongest regulatory framework and sharing of data.

We’re 13 months away from our EU exit. Hope is not a strategy. There’s no obvious plan here as far as I can work out and her answer worries me a lot. Especially when you hear Leslie Galloway, the chair of the Ethical Medicines Industry Group, talk about the issue. He provides a cogent argument that the consequences of leaving the EU will be that new medicines will be delayed by up to two years. For mantle cell lymphoma patients, such a delay could be the literal difference between life and death.

 

I start my first cycle of chemotherapy on Thursday. Many people currently seem to think that Brexit is purely about what kind of trade deals we can strike. It quite clearly isn’t. We need to remember that, and make sure that our MPs remain accountable for all of their decisions on this matter.

 

 

(*) A copy of my letter is available here and the reply is here.

March 1st: chemotherapy cycle one

The PET/CT scan results came back on 14th February. The comparison with November was startling. It means I’ll be having my first cycle of six chemotherapy sessions on March 1st. Before then I’ll be going back for a talk with one of the specialist nurses to go through the process once more. I’m also due to go back in to see the consultant to sign the consent forms for treatment. Then, a couple of days later, I’ll be punting off into the unknown. A heady cocktail of Cyclophosphamide, Doxorubicin, Vincristine and Prednisolone will be used. In later treatment cycles these will be joined by Rituximab. On the even-numbered cycles I’ll be having high dose Cytarabine, which means a hospital stay of a few days. I’ve never been hospitalised before.

When I heard the news, my overriding emotion was one of … excitement. Which quickly felt wrong, but as I’m new to all of this perhaps it was excusable. Being on watch and wait for nearly four years has been great. I’ve been able to do lots of things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done, but it has sometimes been difficult to cope with the waiting. Moving on to a phase where I’ll actually be doing something to address the lymphoma rather than waiting for it to get worse did, initially, seem exciting.

I’m anticipating that it will seem rather less exciting once the side effects of treatment kick in. Perhaps in much the same way that some people who voted to leave the EU are finding the prospect of blue passports exciting now, but will eventually come to realise that our time in the EU was infinitely preferable. (And didn’t actually stop us from having a blue, pink, green or polka dot patterned passport either).

Carrying on in a political vein, I’ve recently written to my MP. I’ve asked her what her government is doing to mitigate the impact of leaving Euratom for patients who, like me, rely on medical radioisotopes for diagnostics.

I’ve also asked her what her government is doing to mitigate the impact of leaving the EMA when it comes to the approval of new lymphoma treatments. As there’s no cure for MCL at present, but it appears that one may be on the horizon, delays in approvals of even a few months could be fatal. I’ve promised to publish her response here should she choose to make one, as it should be of interest to anyone in a similar position.

Lord Digby Jones is right – we should never give in to bullies

I find myself intrigued by Lord Digby Jones’ recent tweet.

Lord Digby Jones tweet 11-02-2018Grammatical errors aside, if we have such a strong negotiating position with the EU, as Lord Jones believed would be the case before the referendum, then no amount of talking down by supposed ‘enemies within’ should matter. That he now thinks that it does matter suggests he may have been wrong about the strength of the UK’s position. Now, call me naive if you wish, but I find it unlikely that a distinguished Lord would have deliberately lied to us. The only alternative explanation is that he was skillfully conned by the leave campaign. He doesn’t need to apologise for that – many good people including my MP were seduced by their siren call. There’s no disgrace in being wrong, provided that you attempt to repair any damage you may have inadvertently caused through your misjudgment.

If enough people who, like Lord Jones, were duped by the leave campaign tell their MPs that they’ve changed their minds, then there is still just enough time to put things right. An exit from Brexit is possible. After all, as David Davis once pointed out, if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.

I do, however, want to agree with Lord Jones on one specific matter. We should never give in to bullies. For example, people who use the term “Remoaner” in an attempt to belittle their opponents and shut down democratic debate.

So perhaps, on balance, Lord Jones would like to apologise after all.

Thank Trump or tackle homelessness this Christmas?

I received two Christmas messages from political campaigners yesterday. The first was from a right-wing US website. I have no idea how I ended up on their mailing list. I’ve tried to unsubscribe many times without success. Their endless stream of nonsense is now fed directly into my junk email folder.

The Christmas mailing asked me to thank Donald Trump for fulfilling 150 campaign promises by choosing one of “… six beautiful digital cards you can personalize and send to the president without cost … to counteract the constant attacks on his policies, his character and his dedication to putting America’s interests first.”

The second message came from Vince Cable. In it he asked us to do something to support a local charity tackling homelessness this Christmas. In Derby, the Padley Group have helped people with a range of issues including homelessness, debt and destitution, drugs, alcohol, mental health issues, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, severe autism and long-term unemployment since 1985. It’s challenging to maintain services when £250,000 in local and central government grants have been removed.

However, they’re trying hard to attract new supporters to their Padley 4000 scheme which you can subscribe to for £2 a month – less than the price of a cup of coffee. They’ve asked their existing supporters to publicise the scheme this Christmas. If you are local to Derby, please think about joining it. There are also opportunities to volunteer if you’d prefer to donate your time.

 

A Happy Christmas and peaceful new year to you all.

The consequences of kicking the can down the road

Kicking the can down the road is sometimes a useful tactic for avoiding short-term political pain, but often results in significant long-term damage. If a politician can kick a particular can far enough away, they may avoid personal damage for poor decisions, laziness and lies. Instead it’s the people in the can that’s being kicked who suffer. I’m fairly certain that’s the strategy of the current government when it comes to finalising the exit process from the European Union. When it proves to be the national disaster everyone with any foresight predicted that it would be, the culprits will be long gone from office. No doubt they’ll manage to scrape the odd book deal or two from the wreckage. As for the rest of us, we need to make whatever contingency plans we can.

The EU exit can appears to have been successfully kicked away for a few more months. However, one that’s been kicked down the road by politicians of all parties for the last decade or so and has largely been forgotten about has been found hiding in the long grass by the National Audit Office (NAO). Their report into the higher education market makes grim reading and not only because of the seemingly unstoppable trend towards the marketisation of HE. Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), remarked that “There is a world of difference between buying a tin of beans and making the right decision about higher education“. Quite.

Far and away the biggest losers from the last decade of funding changes in HE in England have been part-time, mature students. The charts in the NAO report show the scale of the disaster for this group of learners since 2011, but in truth, the damage to this group had already started under the previous Labour government with the withdrawal of funding for equivalent and lower qualifications.

Since 2010/11, the number of part-time students has fallen dramatically, both in real terms and as a proportion of learners:

Figure 4

Part-time enrolments for undergraduate study in England have declined markedly since 2010/11.

… with mature, part-time undergraduates feeling the brunt of these changes, through policies that have created an especially hostile environment for this group.

Figure 14 - Mature students

Mature and part-time undergraduate student entrants in England 2011-2016.

Peter Horrocks, the Open University vice-chancellor tweeted this morning that the fall in part-time mature learners had mostly hit “… the career learners who need new skills”, adding “This is an own goal for government’s aims on productivity and social mobility.”

He’s right, of course. This is a can that the government needs to stop kicking. Proper policy and investment in lifelong learning will be essential if the UK – inside or outside of the EU – is to thrive in future.

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