I watched as much of the televised/streamed debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling as possible given the STV Player’s own independence struggles.

Here are some impressions I took from the evening:

1. The format of the debate did not serve to enlighten the public. Candidates were allowed to “cross-examine” each other but as Mr Darling, a lawywer, would have been well aware, this is impossible to do forensically in such a short time. He shouted a bit, which looked bad, while Mr Salmond asked about aliens, which was odd. It reminded me at times of a fervent night in an Edinburgh pub. The questions from the audience were smart (see below) but there were too many of them. The candidates were not able to answer them in full, through no fault of their own. Read more

On Tuesday morning George Osborne was asked by the BBC’s Evan Davis whether he’d rather fund Crossrail 2 or trans-Pennine rail, assuming that both projects had a positive benefit to cost ratio. Politicians tend to shun hypothetical questions but the Chancellor of the Exchequer used this one to make the following argument:

‘I hope we don’t have to make a choice between the two. I think the real choice in our country is actually spending money on this big economic infrastructure, transpennine rail links, Crossrail 2 in London and the like, and spending money on, for example, welfare payments which are not generating either a real economic return and at the same time, are trapping people in poverty.’

Whenever someone mentions what the “real” this or that is, be careful. There are many choices involved in how the British state should spends its tax revenues and indeed what size the state should be in the first place. To reduce them to one “real” choice representing a fraction of overall spend is like saying that the real choice I face is between a Heart of Midlothian season ticket and feeding myself. (Essentials, both.)  Read more

An independent Scotland would not have to join the EU. But most Scots want Scotland to be an EU member and it is a central plank of SNP policy. There is no precedent, however, for what happens if part of a member state becomes independent and wishes to remain part of the EU. (Greenland, Germany and Czechoslovakia are all relevant but different cases.) This is one reason why both sides have been vigorously engaging in claim and counter-claim over EU law.

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On September 11, 1997, Scots voted for a devolved parliament with tax-raising powers. If that seems like a long time ago consider that there are tens of thousands of Scots born after the devolution vote who are eligible to vote on independence. These teenagers were also born after Braveheart was released – and how it shows: they seem to be far from the ardent Yes voters that many nationalists hoped for.

When it was announced that 16- and 17-year-olds would be eligible to vote in the referendum on independence, I instinctively thought that this would give a wee boost to the Yes side. Here are voters who have grown up under a devolved parliament. They are another generation removed from those with powerful experiences of British institutions and events such as the second world war. And why would Alex Salmond want them to vote if they were not more likely to be in the Yes camp?

Nevertheless, research by Dr Jan Eichhorn and his colleagues from the University of Edinburgh suggests that young Scottish voters are sceptical of independence. If accurate, these surveys will have negative implications for the Yes campaign. Young Scots may turn out to be yet another example of the ungrateful enfranchised; both Disraeli and Wilson were turfed out by the electorate they expanded. Read more

According to the old saw, the past is a different country. But different countries are keener on their pasts than others, as this chart from IpsosMori suggests:

This is one of many fascinating findings in the pollster’s Global Trends Survey, an annual report produced from samples from 20 countries. One theme that emerges is the divergence between the US and China on issues such as how keen people are to embrace new technology, new brands, and how optimistic they are for the next generation. In general, China is looking forward while the US is looking back. Read more

Well, this is awkward for someone who has written a magazine article entitled the New Baby Boom. On Wednesday the Office for National Statistics published new data showing that the birth rate in England and Wales dropped from 2012 to 2013. I was more interested in the qualitative aspects of the boom – its diversity, how legal and scientific changes have allowed more people to become parents, and advances in knowledge about child development – than whether its size would be maintained. All of those trends look set to continue – the baby boom will still change Britain. I also used the latest data available, which showed that the increase in the number of births that began at the start of the 21st century was still apparent in 2012.

And yet, and yet, and yet ….

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I don’t want to get carried away – it is all too easy to admire someone’s goal and their tenacity while forgetting to evaluate them based on their results and in their historical context. At this point, it takes Govian willpower to say that his structural reforms to the education system have been a success – for three reasons.

Firstly, and rather obviously, we hardly know anything about the performance of children that have attended free schools, or those who have been taught under the Gove era. Ofsted reviews of free school suggest they are no better than others. What we know about the features of the best performing schools across the world (mostly teacher quality but also data-driven classrooms, high aspirations, longer hours, etc.) are only sporadically apparent in the first waves of free schools.

Secondly, the National Audit Office and others have raised serious concerns over the transparency of the selection process, free schools’ availability where they are most needed, and the looming trouble in the department’s capital budget. Collateral damage from a battle against an incalcitrant bureaucracy? Perhaps. When you blast a blob goo comes out. But one can not read these reports and celebrate success.

Thirdly, Mr Gove may have been the most radical reformer in the coalition but his changes should be seen in their proper context. Checking them against Thatcher’s legacy is important. So too is realising that they are a turbocharged version of the reforms began under the Blair government – free schools are academies. (Literally – they are academies under law.) I sense a tendency among some Conservatives to confuse how Mr Gove revolutionised the party’s views on education with him being the first and only person in the country to want to shake up the schools system.  Read more

Today’s young people are less likely to booze, take drugs or commit crimes than previous generations. They are sober, serious and staid. Socially, their maturity belies their years. But as a new report makes clear, the Great Recession has made them economically juvenile: in receipt of more support from the state and from their parents. Young people are growing up faster and slower than their forebears.

In their annual survey on living standards in Britain, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggest that the fastest growing type of inequality over the past five years has been between the young and the old, rather than between the rich and the poor or London and the rest of the country. (There is of course overlap here, and the IFS says the rich-poor divide will soon widen.) This rupture promises to affect the future of Britain’s economy for generations to come.
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Without North Sea oil and gas it is unlikely that there would even be a referendum on Scottish independence. Its discovery is the first chapter in the foundation story for nationalists who believe that Margaret Thatcher was in effect Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. But oil is about more than the past; it is critical to the Yes campaign’s arguments about the present and the future, too. It anchors the (somewhat spurious) argument that Scotland would be richer than the rest of the UK, and allows Alex Salmond to promise the creation of a sovereign wealth fund.

Scots’ perceptions of the economic consequences of independence will be vital to the outcome of the vote on September 18. But unfortunately for Scots there is a big discrepancy between the forecasts of direct tax revenues from the North Sea made by the Scottish government and those made by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s fiscal watchdog. In this post I want to try to explain why these forecasts differ and why I believe the Scottish government’s optimism is misleading.

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The grey tower blocks that wrap around the Gascoigne Children’s Centre in Barking, east London, are in various forms of disrepair. Demolition jobs stand unfinished; cross sections of smashed homes reveal pastel wallpaper flapping in the wind. Families from more than 80 countries live in the remaining houses. Gascoigne is the last stop for many people who have been shunted around the UK’s social housing stock. It is also the epicentre of a demographic earthquake transforming Britain.

There are more babies per person in Barking and Dagenham than in any other local authority in Britain. One in 10 people in the area is under five and the local pre-school is thrice oversubscribed. Lunch “hour” at the packed primary school runs from 11am to 1.30pm. Inside the children’s centre, high-pitched wails ricochet off the walls. After 20 years working on the estate, Rahat Ismail, the centre’s manager, is used to the noise. Showing me into a quieter room, she sits down on a carpet beside nine mothers and nine babies. It is time for Babbling Babes, a singing session designed to help infants with their cognitive skills.

A 15-month-old boy with a wispy afro is asked to pick from two plastic figures, each representing a song. Handling objects improves motor development and, at this boy’s age, a baby begins to see that others’ experiences are different from his own. Glancing at his peers, the boy rejects a farmer by the name of MacDonald and opts for a black sheep. We sing, inquiring as to its wool. Read more