Wearing Theresa May’s shoes…

Imagine if last summer you were in Theresa May’s shoes; you’d just inherited a party and country that had voted to Leave the EU, while you had (reluctantly?) voted to Remain. Setting aside your own preferences, but remembering that you have a party to hold together, what would you do?

Decisive action was needed. Leadership. Brexit must mean Brexit and we must make a success of it.  But how?

How we negotiate the process I would have left to the constitutional experts. I’d not try to second guess the Supreme Court and I’d make a point of strengthening democracy and giving back power. There’s nothing to be lost in being gracious.

Guiding the nation to success would be my role. So first to identify the challenges, then find the solutions.

Challenges are still appearing, but if we’d started by asking for them to be declared we’d probably now (March 2017) be further on. They would include:

  • Replacing the skills and energy of EU citizens who are currently vital to our economy. We’ll need to replace them without increasing net immigration from other areas, as that was such a key issue in the referendum. This will include NHS staff, domiciliary and care staff, farm workers, scientists and engineers, skilled tradesmen and entrepreneurs.
  • While there is a freedom to reallocate EU funding to deliver UK needs, there will also need to be a transition to post Brexit UK without too much disruption. So how would UK priorities differ from EU ones? We’ll need to think about agriculture, manufacturing, research and development, social investment and more.
  • On trade we’ll need to think about whether we’d be best inside or outside the Single Market – not just a knee jerk reaction but a rational assessment, considering the different impacts on different sectors. How much can trade outside the EU expand? Do we have enough people with the right skills in marketing and languages to exploit the opportunities – if they aren’t already doing so. And for key sectors, like food, do we need to become more self-sufficient?
  • We’ll need to consider the masses of regulations that have come from Europe. We could start with the very few that we actually voted against, but maybe presume that the others we need to retain, unless. there is good reason to reject If we are to have closer relations with other countries than Europe, maybe we will want to align to others’ standards for procedures and equipment from aeroengines and accountancy to pesticides and workers’ rights. We need to know what the implications of change might be.
  • Last, but not least, we need to consider our society. How can the families and friendships that have developed across Europe over the last 40 years (and more) be considered an asset, a help to stabilise and support our changing relationships, not a problem to be resolved?

I’m pretty sure that Theresa May has not done this exercise, as if she had, one of her top priorities should have been NHS staffing. If she’d been thinking as I’m suggesting she would not have cut bursaries for nurses just when we’ll be needing more nurses as we Brexit.

But then I usually wear more practical shoes that Theresa!

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Universities and higher education

Tomorrow MPs are due to debate the Higher Education Bill.  It therefore seems to be a good time to make a few points about post-school education.

Let me start by saying that I went to university, enjoyed three years there and came away with an academic qualification that set me on the road to becoming a chartered engineer. But then, as now, it was not the only way to achieve such a qualification, and other routes are not inferior, indeed they can be better. But there was a presumption by my school, and from home, that university would be my route into a career.  And alternative advice was weak.

I encouraged my children, and I encourage other young people, to consider whether alternatives to university might be a better route into their chosen career.  Or indeed, whether postponing university for a few years until they have more idea what they want to do, might also be a good option.

So I come to the issue of higher education from the view that more is not necessarily better. The university sector has grown enormously over the last 50 years, both with existing universities expanding, and with waves of new ones being created.  Do we need more?

I’m not that close to the subject, but if there is a clamour for more, it certainly isn’t very loud.  It’s apprenticeships that I’m hearing calls to be expanded – and higher apprenticeships can lead to a similar level of qualification as a first degree.  So shouldn’t this be at the centre of any Higher Education Bill?

Post the Brexit vote, higher education is in new territory.  Our existing universities will need to reassess their student numbers and research base without EU membership.  Is this the right time to unsettle their environment in other ways with new organisations and private sector competition?

And for students, higher fees are already changing behaviours.  I’m particularly concerned that trends in the ‘marketisation’ of higher education mean teaching styles are moving away from students taking individual responsibility for their learning to staff being expected to direct learning in a much more school-like way.  Is encouraging this trend by linking fees to teaching ‘quality’ better for individuals? How is that ‘quality’ to be judged by progress in post-university careers?

So I don’t know what problem this Bill seeks to address.  I can’t see it having value to existing universities.   And I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling that the driving force for the changes it proposes is a dogma to expand private provision in the university sector. And I hope it’s not the result of lobbying by a few individuals with deep pockets.

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After the referendum

On Thursday roughly a quarter of people in the UK voted to leave the EU.  Roughly a quarter voted to stay.  A quarter who could have voted didn’t and a quarter living here were unable to vote because they were too young or not eligible for other reasons.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Where are we now?

On Friday, the prime minister resigned.  That probably means that the formal process to leave the EU can’t start until we have a new one, maybe in October.  We are in limbo.

Later on Friday and on Saturday, we started getting better explanations from the media about what ‘Leave’ actually means.  Why didn’t we get these explanations before we voted?  I don’t know, but that’s history.

Also history is that by Saturday morning over a million people had signed a petition asking our MPs to change the rules on the referendum to make remaining in the EU more likely.  People were continuing to sign it at a rate of over 2000 a minute.

We have millions of people jubilant that we will leave, but concerned that we aren’t yet, and some who voted leave now worried that we might.   We have millions of people mourning our changed relationship with the EU, the falling pound and worried about what the future holds.  We have people who’ve lived here for years, even born here, now feeling unwelcome in the country they think of as home.

What many thought of as a process to empower people has left us feeling disempowered and broken.  People in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London are talking about going it alone.

It’s early days, but what should we learn?

Three things are important to me just now:

  1. That we treat each other with respect and understanding whatever our backgrounds or how we voted. Most people are not happy at the moment.  We need to be gentle with each other.
  2. For the UK to have a voting system that means everyone’s vote counts, for both local and national elections. If we trust the system, we should be more trusting of those elected to represent us.
  3. For schools to teach more about how decisions are taken in the UK, and crucially how to get involved and influence them. We should have done this decades ago, but starting now is better than never.
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Imagineering. Where is travel going?

By the end of this year there may be the first driverless cars on our roads.  Not science fiction, but science fact.  We already have unmanned planes in our skies – drones.  How soon will these be combine to become the 21st century norm?

Imagine a vehicle that you can drive a few miles from home to your local runway.  Log in your destination and relinquish control to the auto pilot, which communicates with all other such vehicles in that area – a bit like being in a race using your games console and others in the room/online.

You sit back and relax as you automatically join the queue for take off.  You’re informed of your arrival time according to auto-route planning.  Maybe you are in a hurry and are willing to pay a premium to queue-jump and route-jump.

Either way the vehicle automatically converts from road to air mode, does fuel and other pre-flight checks and you take off.

Motorway repairs no longer delay you.  The preceding train can’t break down and cause a hold up.   You’re meeting in person, and travel times are probably comparable to current short-haul flights.

You land at the arrival runway – probably dedicated to arrivals – and convert back to road mode for onward travel to your destination.

No luggage to transfer, and no border checks so long as you’re still within the EU/Schengen area.

Could this happen, and happen safely?  The ‘soft’ engineering and political structures are very close.  The hard engineering has a little way to go.  But 100 years ago powered flight was only just starting, and barely 30 years later the world was getting excited as passenger travel took off post WW2.

If this vision appeals to the masses, then technically it could happen, and sooner than you might expect!

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