July 16, 2014

QotD: Runnymede

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

We went over to Magna Charta Island, and had a look at the stone which stands in the cottage there and on which the great Charter is said to have been signed; though, as to whether it really was signed there, or, as some say, on the other bank at “Runningmede,” I decline to commit myself. As far as my own personal opinion goes, however, I am inclined to give weight to the popular island theory. Certainly, had I been one of the Barons, at the time, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

July 6, 2014

Henry II – “from the Devil he came, and to the Devil he will surely go”

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:40

Nicholas Vincent looks at the reign of King Henry II, the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty who died on this day in 1189:

Although in December 1154, Henry was generally recognised as the legitimate claimant to the throne, most notably by the English Church, his accession was fraught with perils. Among the Anglo-Norman aristocracy there were many who saw Henry as an outsider: an Angevin princeling, descended via his father, Count Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, from a dynasty that had long been regarded as the principal rival on Normandy’s southern frontier. King Stephen had left a legitimate son, William Earl Warenne, still living in 1154, and Henry himself had two younger brothers who might well have disputed his claims to succeed to all his family’s lands and titles. Asked some years before to judge Henry’s chances of success, St Bernard of Clairvaux is said to have predicted of Henry that ‘from the Devil he came, and to the Devil he will surely go’.

Yet, from what contemporaries termed ‘the shipwreck’, and modern historians have described as ‘the anarchy’ of Stephen’s reign, Henry II was to emerge as one of England’s, indeed as one of Europe’s, greatest kings. The Plantagenet dynasty that he founded was to occupy the throne of England through to 1399 and the eighth successive generation. Henry himself came to rule over the most extensive collection of lands that had ever been gathered together under an English king – an empire in all but name, that stretched from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees, and from Dublin in the west to the frontiers of Flanders and Burgundy in the east.

In part this empire was the product of dynastic accident. From his mother, Matilda, daughter and sole surviving legitimate child of the last Anglo-Norman King, Henry inherited his claim to rule as king in England and as duke in Normandy. From his father, Geoffrey, he succeeded to rule over Anjou, Maine and the Touraine: the counties of the Loire valley that had previously blocked Anglo-Norman ambitions in the South. Rather than share these inherited spoils with his brothers, Henry seized everything for himself. William, his younger brother, was granted a rich but by no means royal estate. Geoffrey, the third brother, threatened rebellion but was bought off with a shortlived grant of the county of Nantes.

Henry, however, was far more than just a fortunate or crafty elder son. Through his own exertions he greatly expanded his family’s territorial claims. In 1152, two years before obtaining the throne of England, he had married Eleanor, heiress to the duchy of Aquitaine and only a few weeks earlier divorced from her previous husband, the Capetian King Louis VII. As effective ruler of Eleanor’s lands, Henry found himself in possession of a vast estate in south-western France, stretching from the Loire southwards through Poitou and Gascony to the frontiers of Spain. Henry’s marriage to Eleanor was regarded as scandalous even by his own courtiers. She was eleven years older than him and was rumoured to have enjoyed extra-marital affairs not only with her own uncle but with Henry’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet. By temperament she was as fiery as Henry, and as determined to stake her own claims to rule. As a result, Henry’s domestic life was far from tranquil. From 1173 onwards, Eleanor was to be held under house arrest in England, whilst Henry, to judge by the bastard children that he fathered, had long enjoyed the favours of a series of mistresses. Even so, by his marriage, Henry laid the basis of the later claims made by England’s kings to rule over southern France: claims that were to unite Gascony to the English crown as late as the fifteenth century and which were to play a vital role in the history of Anglo-French relations throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

June 23, 2014

World Cup sour grapes for England

Filed under: Britain, Soccer — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:03

While the England team may not need to worry about what to do in the elimination round (because they’re not going to get that far), James Delingpole claims that this is the greatest World Cup ever, and offers five reasons he’s right:

1. Filthy, cheating foreigners are conforming satisfyingly to stereotype.

The reason England are already out of the competition, claimed Wayne Rooney over the weekend, is that we are far too nice. If ever we wish to win again at the game we invented, he suggested, then we will have to learn to cheat like all the filthy foreigners with their effeminate hairstyles, their casual fouling and their extravagant diving.

But obviously we can’t do that sort of thing because then we’d look like the kind of people who still live with their mothers and eat garlic on toast and ride around piazzas on mopeds.

Which is why we prefer to lose because it shows our national superiority. Anyway, football is fixed now — so really it’s not up to the players who wins any more anyway, it’s decided by the betting syndicates in India and Pakistan and Ghana.


3. It has given the Scots something not to grumble about

Nothing — not a warming draught of deep fried Irn Bru (copyright Michael Deacon) nor the skirl of pipes nor the reassuring “pit” of the latest welfare cheque landing on the floor of your council flat — gladdens a Scotsman’s heart quite so much as the sight of England losing in a major (or indeed minor) sporting event.

It’s quite possible that, had England won this World Cup, the backlash would have driven the whole of Scotland into voting “Yes” in the forthcoming referendum. Those of us who love the Scots and dearly wish them to remain part of the Union, therefore, should rejoice in Britain’s tactical defeat in the World Cup.


5. Nazi Pope Reefer Man

Do I really need to explain?

My favourite Twitter post from the start of the World Cup now seems prescient:

June 20, 2014

The Black Death, the peasants’ revolt, and … tax increases

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:47

Put yourself in the position of an advisor to the 10-year old King Richard II shortly after his coronation in 1377. You’ve just witnessed one of the greatest population disasters in European history — the Black Death — where one third of the people of all classes died. The crown is at war with France (the Hundred Years’ War), and there’s little or no money in the treasury. You could probably come up with better policy ideas in your sleep than what Richard’s advisors did:

Fixated with outright victory in the One Hundred Years War, started by his grandfather Edward III, Richard’s government introduced hugely unpopular poll taxes in 1377 and 1379. A further tax introduced in 1381 was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Irrespective of wealth, the tax was fixed at a rate of 12 pence per person, meaning that it was a huge burden on the poor, but a minor inconvenience to the wealthy. In addition, rumours spread of widespread corruption in the government. The peasants were ripe for revolt.

Following the expulsion of a tax collector from the town Brentwood, 30 kilometres north-east of London, a band of rebels swept through Kent and Essex, swelling their numbers with volunteers as they went. They advanced upon London in a pincer movement from the south and east. The two leaders of the rebellion emerged as Wat Tyler, of whom little was previously known, and John Ball, a radical priest who had been broken out of prison by Kentish rebels, where he had been held for his beliefs in social equality and a fair distribution of wealth within the church. Indeed, as he preached to the crowd of thousands of rebels at Blackheath, then just outside London, he cried: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.’

Londoners willingly opened the gates of their city to the rebels who set about their task with fervour. They sacked Savoy Palace, the home of the key adviser to the now 14-year-old Richard. Guards in the Tower of London opened the gates to the rebels, who freed the inmates and executed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Treasurer of England, who had been hiding inside. There were also several incidents of misplaced rage among the rebels, like when the crowd set their sights upon Flemish immigrants, many of whom were wealthy wool merchants, and murdered them in the streets.

Faced with a grave situation, the young king rode out to meet the rebel leaders at Blackheath. Their demands were an end to poll taxes, an immediate end to serfdom, the introduction of a more democratic form of government with local representation based on the Provisions of Oxford in 1258, and a fair distribution of wealth and power from the nobility. Richard initially gave into their demands as well as issuing pardons for all involved.

It got worse (for the peasants) after that brief high point…

June 16, 2014

The tomb for Richard III

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:16

BBC News has images of the tomb designed for the re-burial of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral:

Design of Leicester tomb for Richard III

The design of the tomb King Richard III will be reburied in at Leicester Cathedral, has been unveiled.

The wooden coffin will be made by Michael Ibsen, a descendent of Richard III, while the tomb will be made of Swaledale fossil stone, quarried in North Yorkshire.

The total cost of reburial is £2.5m and work will start in the summer.

The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester, said the design “evokes memory and is deeply respectful”.

Judges ruled his remains, found under a Leicester car park in 2012, would be reinterred in Leicester, following a judicial review involving distant relatives of the king who wanted him buried in York.

A new visitor centre is set to open in July, which will tell the story of the king’s life, his brutal death in Battle in 1485 and rediscovery of his remains.

Magna Carta

Filed under: Britain, History, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:35

Allan Massie says there was “nothing revolutionary” about the signing of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215:

The document was presented to the king and his signature, by seal, extracted. He had violated so many customs of the realm and infringed long-established liberties, which we might rather call privileges, that his rule in its present form had become intolerable to the barons and landholders, to the Church, and to the merchants of boroughs protected by their own charters.

The Magna Carta rehearsed these customs and liberties. It was a reproof to the king, to compel him to mend his ways. Far from being an abstract statement of rights, it was a practical document: calling the king to order, reminding him of the limits on his power, and insisting that he was not above the law, but subject to it.

This was not unusual. Kings had been brought to a similar point before. Medieval monarchy was limited monarchy, in theory and of necessity. Kings had to govern in collaboration with “the Community of the Realm” (essentially the propertied classes) and with their consent. Ultimately, having neither a standing army nor a police force, they had little choice. Moreover, the society of the Middle Ages was intensely legalistic – and the purpose of Magna Carta was to remind the king of what the laws were and of his duty to observe them if he himself was to receive loyalty and obedience.

If Shakespeare makes no mention of the document it is because in the years of the Tudor despotism the balance between government and governed shifted in favour of the former. The Tudors made use of what were called the Prerogative Courts to bypass the common law of England. Torture, practised on “subversive” Roman Catholics by the Elizabethan government, was illegal under the common law (and indeed under Magna Carta), but inflicted by the judgment of the Prerogative Courts (the Star Chamber and High Commission).

It was the parliamentary and judicial opposition to the less effective (and less oppressive) despotism of the early Stuarts which revived interest in Magna Carta, now presented as the safeguard or guarantee of English liberty. Though it had been drawn up by Anglo-Norman bishops and presented to the king by Anglo-Norman barons, the theory was developed that it represented a statement of the rights and liberties enjoyed in Anglo-Saxon England by the “free-born” Englishmen before they were subjugated to the “Norman Yoke”.

This, doubtless, offered an unhistorical and rather-too-rosy view of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, but it had this to be said for it: that the Norman and Plantagenet kings had regularly promised to abide by the “laws of King Edward” – the saintly “Confessor” and second-last Saxon king.

June 10, 2014

England’s World Cup team – where’s the hype?

Filed under: Britain, Soccer — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

BBC News Magazine has expatriot Scot Jon Kelly wondering where all the traditional pro-England hype has gone, compared to previous World Cup campaigns:

The flags are missing from the cars. British newspapers aren’t heralding imminent victory. In pubs from Penrith to Plymouth there’s a distinct lack of gaiety, optimism and hope.

I for one couldn’t be happier.

As a Scotsman resident in London, I’ve come to dread the wildly delusional over-confidence that grips my adopted homeland every time an international football tournament is staged.

The certainty of victory. The talk of a “golden generation”. The interminable references to 1966. And the inevitable splutterings of anguish when it’s eventually confirmed on the pitch that, actually, Germany or Argentina or Portugal are superior teams after all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like all things Anglo very much. While Scotland will always be the national side I support, in spite of our dependable rubbishness, I’ve always felt the Anyone-But-England tendency among some of my fellow Scots diminishes our status as a self-confident, modern nation.

1966 – it seems like only yesterday to many England fans

But the bellicose hysteria that envelops many in England — not to mention the irritating assumption by certain broadcasters, newspapers and advertisers that their audiences are comprised entirely of England fans — makes the team in white a difficult one for non-English folk to like, never mind cheer on.

And I say all this as someone who takes an interest in football. For those who dislike the game, it must be excruciating.

This year it’s different, however. No-one with more than a cursory knowledge of the international game seriously believes England will win.

That much is true: if they stick to the traditional formula, they’ll go out on penalties in the quarter-finals.

Invariably, a motley crew of psychologists, positive-thinking gurus and snake-oil sellers will be forming a queue outside FA headquarters, offering cures for the English penalty curse. I think there’s a simpler solution. Let’s campaign for spot kicks to be scrapped. We should use whatever arguments we think might work. I’d play the inclusion card. Penalty kicks clearly discriminate against the mentally frail. The English, who suffer from a collective, penalty-induced trauma, will always get a raw deal. How can that be fair? If FIFA wants a truly level playing field, the answer is to get rid of the pseudo-lottery of spot kicks. What we need is a proper lottery. We don’t want skill or nerve to play any part. Tossing a coin, rolling dice, drawing straws, a game of scissor-paper-stone — anything is better than a shootout. Come on Mr Blatter, give us chokers a chance.

Still one of my favourite World Cup comments (and I’m flying the English flag for the tournament):

May 30, 2014

“Historical” High Court judgment that ignores history

Filed under: Britain, History, Law, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:46

Last week, the High Court decided that the remains of King Richard III will be re-buried in Leicester, not in York. As you might expect, that leaves a lot of people unhappy.

When Richard III was hacked to death in rural Leicestershire in 1485, the royal House of York fell, bringing an end to the Plantagenet line that had lasted for 16 kings and 331 years. Many people see his death as the end of the English middle ages.

Despite this country’s ancient legal system, the courts do not often get to deal with real history, although they make many historic decisions. Yet the ruling of the High Court last Friday truly made history, as three judges decided that Richard III should be buried at the scene of his violent defeat, and not in York.

One side is always unhappy after a court hearing. And in this case those who sponsored York Minster may have more to be sore about than most.

The High Court acknowledged the case has “unprecedented” and “unique and exceptional features,” but nevertheless went on to give a rather bland ruling supporting Chris Grayling’s decision to leave the matter of reburial in the hands of the University of Leicester team running the excavation. In doing so, the court treated the hearing as a straightforward matter of public law, and affirmed that the government had been under no duty to consult widely before handing the responsibility over to the University of Leicester.


History and legacy mattered to medieval monarchs. Their actions, even the less obvious ones, were intended to make statements to reinforce their dynastic power. York Minster is an ancient foundation, home to the throne of the second most senior churchman in England. There has been an Archbishop of York since at least the seventh century. For Richard, a scion of the house of York, the Minster was an obvious place to fuse the sacred and secular, binding royal and church power together in one of England’s most venerable religious buildings. By contrast, Leicester Cathedral, although a lovely building with a long tradition of worship on the site, was a parish church until 1927 when it became the city’s cathedral. Although there was a church there in Richard’s day, it does not have the dynastic associations that Richard was clearly building with York.

And there’s always the religious aspect to consider (which would have been true regardless of the High Court’s decision):

And finally, the question of the liturgy is also set to run. As the old joke goes: Q. What is the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? A. You can reason with a terrorist. Leicester cathedral has diligently teamed up with an expert medieval musicologist, who has painstakingly uncovered and proposed the finer details of prayers and music appropriate to a 15th-century reburial. However, strong feelings which go beyond the musical arrangements have been expressed in many quarters, including in an online petition, and by Dr John Ashdown-Hill, the historian who led the excavations. These views reflect a conviction that Richard should have a Roman Catholic ceremony that respects the faith in which he grew up and died, and which is honest to what his wishes would have been. Leicester Cathedral will certainly have their hands full trying to reconcile Richard’s pre-Reformation religious beliefs with the Church of England ceremonies they are permitted to conduct.

May 28, 2014

The “servant problem” of post-Victorian England

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:36

Before the widespread availability of electricity, no middle class household in England could get by without at least one servant. Even as modern labour-saving appliances (along with proper plumbing) started to take their place in the home, servants were still deemed an essential part of being middle- or upper-class. It may account for some of the fascination with TV shows like Downton Abbey or the earlier Upstairs, Downstairs to modern audiences — they give at least a bit of a glimpse into a very different domestic world. At Bookforum, Daphne Merkin reviews a books that look at the “servant problem”:

Servants is chockablock with incredulous-making details about the exploitative conditions in which household help lived and worked (these included cramped, chilly, and spartan sleeping quarters, endless hours, and the overriding assumption of inferiority), as well as anecdotes of supreme helplessness on the part of the coddled rich, such as the following: “Lord Curzon, whose intellect was regarded as one of the glories of the Empire, was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servants being available so late at night), that he simply picked up a log from the grate and smashed the glass.” Even after World War II, when homes had begun to be wired for electricity despite the gentry’s insistence on the vulgarity of such improvements and the ideal of the 1950s self-contained (and servantless) housewife was hoving into view, so otherwise gifted a chap as Winston Churchill was unable, according to his valet John Gibson, to dress himself without assistance: “He was social gentry … He sat there like a dummy and you dressed him.” As easy as it is to snicker at such colossal ineptitude on the part of the cultural elite, it is also intriguing to consider how this kind of infantilizing treatment might have facilitated their performance in demanding grown-up roles — like someone playing with rubber ducks in the bath before going out to lead men in a military campaign.

Servants takes the reader from the days of Welbeck Abbey, the home of the eccentric and reclusive Duke of Portland, where upper servants had their own underservants to wait on them, to the gradual erosion of the older forms of domestic service and on up through the new world of do-it-yourself home comforts as devised by technology and a greater show of equality between employer and servant. This world, ushered in with the 1950s, shunned the “badge of servitude” that was conveyed by uniforms, surreal daily routines (whether it meant Ladyships who couldn’t sleep with creases on a pillowcase or Ladyships who insisted on cutting their boiled eggs with a letter opener), and a feudal attitude that took no more cognizance of domestics than it did of the furniture. “It was in the best houses considered quite unnecessary (in fact poor form),” Lethbridge notes, “for servants to knock before entering a room. This was partly because they lived in such everyday familiarity with the family that there was nothing to hide from them and partly because … their presence made no difference whatsoever to whatever was being said or going on.”


There’s much to think about in both these books — not least the particularly British style of treating domestics, both less casually sadistic and less casually amorous than, say, white Americans’ attitude toward black slaves. Indeed, I suspect that one of the reasons American audiences delight in the travails and triumphs of the gaggle of domestics on Downton Abbey is out of a sense of superiority that the “servant problem” in such acute, institutionalized form isn’t ours. Much as we may envy them all that pampering, we also like to look down our noses at it as going against the democratic and independent Yankee ethos. To this point it’s worth noting that Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique referred precisely to “the servant problem” as one of the besetting woes of the upper-middle-class housewives she was looking to liberate, and that our habit of befriending those who clean our kitchens and bathrooms and look after our children can’t disguise the fact that we value their hourly labor less than we value a twenty-minute haircut and that we live largely in ignorance of their thoughts and feelings.

England’s sorry World Cup history

Filed under: Britain, Soccer — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Published on 27 May 2014

James Richardson updates the story of England, through the occasional ups and regular downs of the English national side, from the first international ever played in 1872 (a 0-0 thriller with Scotland) to the present day, via glory in 1966 and failure, well, pretty much all the rest of the time

Yep, the World Cup is coming up soon. Here are the opening fixtures for each of the groups:

World Cup 2014 groupings

Note the joyful placement of England (#11 in the world rankings) with Uruguay (#6) and Italy (#9). Much angst to be enjoyed as the round-robin plays out… Of course, if England is looking to an uphill struggle to get out of the group stage, imagine how Costa Rica is feeling (currently #34 in the world rankings). And Canadians can’t poke too much fun … we rank #110 at the moment.

May 9, 2014

Shakespeare: Original pronunciation

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:04

Jon, my former virtual landlord sent along an interesting link:

An introduction by David and Ben Crystal to the ‘Original Pronunciation’ production of Shakespeare and what they reveal about the history of the English language.

May 7, 2014

Peak inequality in England – about 200 years ago

Filed under: Britain, Economics, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:18

An interesting article that starts and ends talking about Thomas Piketty’s new book, but in the middle goes a long way to explain what happened to English aristocracy over the last few hundred years:

Extravagances like the stately homes of England made economic sense before the 19th century because the relative wages of servants and construction workers mostly fell from 1500 to 1800 as the supply of English workers slowly recovered in size from the Black Death of the 1340s.

But, outside of economic theory, the rich have often tended to get poorer, especially when they spend more than they make. It’s a common theme in English literature (Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust) and television (Downton Abbey). For instance, by the time of Winston Churchill’s birth in 1874, the English ultra-rich weren’t getting richer.


The long agricultural depression of 1873-1896 meant the great houses of England began falling apart. Wings had to be shut as servants found higher paying jobs in factories. Repairs could not be paid for.

The usual solutions were to first auction off the art collection, then marry American heiresses, as in Downton Abbey, where Countess Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern, is from the Chicago Levinsons. Winston’s mother Jenny was from the Jeromes of Wall Street.


Servants had steadily become more expensive in England. One reason was the increase in jobs elsewhere in a modernizing economy. On Downton Abbey, to illustrate, a maid applies for a job in town as a secretary, which is a much better post.

A forgotten reason, though, was that the massive emigration from the British Isles reduced the supply of workers and thus raised their wages. While Tony Blair’s Labor Government liked to claim that Britain had always been a nation of immigrants, it was in truth a nation of emigrants. Today, there are perhaps two or even three times as many people descended from the British Isles living in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina as there are in Britain and Ireland. Without all that outflow, wages in Britain would be lower and land prices astronomical.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

April 27, 2014

Soaring English house prices due to “discriminatory zoning, keeping the urban unwashed out of the home counties”

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:19

This wasn’t in the Torygraph, it was actually reported in the Guardian:

More of Surrey is now devoted to golf courses than housing, according to provocative new research that claims to dispel many of the myths associated with Britain’s housing boom.

A study by the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE suggests soaring house prices are not caused by an influx of foreign buyers but are down to restrictive planning policies that have ensured the country’s green belt is a form of “discriminatory zoning, keeping the urban unwashed out of the home counties”.

Paul Cheshire, professor emeritus of economic geography at LSE and a researcher at the Spatial Economics Research Centre, has produced data showing that restrictive planning laws have turned houses in the south-east into valuable assets in an almost equivalent way to artworks. He points out that twice as many houses were built in Doncaster and Barnsley in the five years to 2013 than in Oxford and Cambridge.

As a result of the policy that specifically safeguards green belts, Cheshire claims houses have not been built where they are most needed or most wanted – “in the leafier and prosperous bits of ex-urban England”.


“We have a longstanding and endemic crisis of housing supply and it is caused primarily by policies that intentionally constrain the supply of housing land,” Cheshire claims. “It is not surprising to find that house prices increased by a factor of 3.36 from the start of 1998 to late 2013 in Britain as a whole and by a factor of 4.24 over the same period in London.”

Once inflation is discounted, house prices have gone up fivefold since 1955. But the price of the land for houses has increased in real terms by 15-fold over the same period.

As a result, houses are becoming like investment assets, creating incentives to hold on to them in expectation of future price rises.

April 25, 2014

England’s mixed-up, renamed, lost, and forgotten counties

Filed under: Britain, Government, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:16

I was born in Yorkshire. If anyone ever asked, that’s what I’d say. But there’s Yorkshire and then there’s “Yorkshire”. At some point shortly after my family emigrated to Canada, they moved my hometown out of Yorkshire and into a new county-like entity. Then they moved the boundaries again. And again. And again. I’ve long since lost track of which county Middlesbrough is officially located in … I think it was now part of Durham (which is nice, because I currently live in a different county-like entity also called Durham). As this BBC News Magazine post illustrates, the counties of England are very confusing and in some cases bear almost no relationship to the historical counties most of us still think of as being “the real counties”:

Middlesex dates back to the 8th Century but Middlesex County Council was abolished in 1965. Middlesex County Cricket Club and Middlesex University live on. So too does the historic county of Middlesex even though most of its inhabitants now live in the ceremonial county of Greater London.

Still following?

England’s counties are the source of much regional pride, not least on cricket pavilions. To identify as a Yorkshirewoman or a Devonian or a Northumbrian is to invite certain expectations about the forthrightness of one’s views or one’s tolerance for cider and clog-dancing.

County boundary sign for North Yorkshire

But successive waves of local government reform have left many people deeply unclear as to which county they live in – the answer to which depends on exactly what you mean by the word “county”.

Now, in an effort to support the “tapestry” of ancient place names, the government has changed its rules allowing councils to put up boundary signs marking traditional English counties – including the likes of Cumberland and Huntingdonshire, names which no longer have any connection to local authorities.

If you’re attempting to keep score at home, here are the different kinds of “county” you need to track for historical purposes:

First there are the historic counties, which date as far back as the mid-Saxon period. Some, like Westmorland, no longer exist in an administrative sense. But especially in places like Yorkshire, Durham and Cornwall, they are important expressions of geographic and cultural identity.

Then there are administrative counties and unitary authority areas created by the 1972 Local Government Act. These include non-metropolitan county councils like Oxfordshire and Surrey (where some services are also provided by districts). Others, like Northumberland, are single-tier unitary councils. Some areas like Berkshire have no county council and the districts are the sole local authorities.

And finally there are the ceremonial counties, established by the 1997 Lieutenancies Act, each of which has a Lord Lieutenant. Bedfordshire and Cheshire, for instance, do not exist as councils but do as ceremonial counties. In metropolitan counties like Merseyside, Tyne and Wear and Greater Manchester, county councils were scrapped in the 1980s, but some services including transport and the police are run jointly by groups of councillors within the old boundaries.

If you’ve followed that, well done. Catherine Staite, director of the Institute of Local Government at Birmingham University, says there was no consistency to the way these overlapping boundaries were drawn. “We’ve ended up with a patchwork of arrangements for which there is no logic.”

There is a new website to attempt to resolve the confusion, but I’m not sure it will do much:

English county maps

April 20, 2014

Those dismal, uncaring economists

Filed under: Economics, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:39

Tim Harford found a recent assertion by a clergyman to be troubling:

‘Some research on students suggests economics either attracts or creates sociopaths’

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently bemoaned the way that “we are all reduced to being Homo financiarius or Homo economicus, mere economic units … for whom any gain is someone else’s loss in a zero-sum world.”

The remarks were reported on the 1st of April, but I checked, and the Archbishop seems serious. He set out two ways to see the world: the way a Christian sees it, full of abundance and grace; and the way he claims Milton Friedman saw it, as a zero-sum game.

Whatever the faults one might find in Friedman’s thinking, seeing the world as a zero-sum game was not one of them. So what do we learn from this, other than that the Archbishop of Canterbury was careless in his choice of straw man? The Archbishop does raise a troubling idea. Perhaps studying economics is morally corrosive and may simply make you a meaner, narrower human being.

However, the Archbishop appears to have been misinformed:

Economists did actually give more to charity in Frank’s survey. They were richer, and while they gave less as a percentage of their income they did give more in cash terms.

What about those hypothetical questions about envelopes full of cash? Were economics students selfish or merely truthful? Anthony Yezer and Robert Goldfarb (economists) and Paul Poppen (a psychologist) conducted an experiment to find out, surreptitiously dropping addressed envelopes with cash in classrooms to see if economics students really were less likely to return the money. Yezer and colleagues found quite the opposite: the economics students were substantially more likely to return the cash. Not quite so selfish after all.

Most importantly, classroom experiments with collective goods or the prisoner’s dilemma don’t capture much of economic life. The prisoner’s dilemma is a special case, and a counter-intuitive one. It is not surprising that economics students behave differently, nor does it tell us much about how they behave in reality. If there is a single foundational principle in economics it is that when you give people the chance to trade with each other, both of them tend to become better off. Maybe that’s naive but it’s all about “abundance” and is the precise opposite of a zero-sum mentality.

In fact, some of the more persuasive criticisms of economics are that it is too optimistic about abundance and peaceful gains from trade. From this perspective, economists should give more attention to the risks of crime and violence and to the prospect of inviolable environmental limits to economic growth. Perhaps economists don’t realise that some situations really are zero-sum games.

Older Posts »
« « If Scotland chooses separation, should it take Northern Ireland too?| When is a carrier not a carrier? » »

Powered by WordPress