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How Britain has changed in my lifetime - a talk at Tytherington School

Britain is much richer, better educated, and diverse than in my childhood. Britons are also much better connected with the outside world.

Summary

Delivered 4 May 2018. Posted 22 December 2018.

I regularly speak to schools on behalf of the charity Speakers for Schools.

Tytherington School is in Macclesfield, an area with relatively low ethnic diversity, although the school’s headteacher, Mr Emmanuel Botwe (born in London) is of Ghanaian descent.

He asked me if  I could compose a talk which would help the school’s pupils better understand the diversity of Britain. Accordingly, I suggested that I speak about how Britain has changed in my lifetime.

I recorded my talk. Accordingly, below are:

  1. A 19-minute self-advancing PowerPoint presentation with a recording of my talk with a link to my PowerPoint slides in case you wish to look at the numbers more closely.
  2. A partial transcript of the question and answer session.

Video

Presentation outline

  1. Economic change
  2. Education levels
  3. Technology
  4. Television
  5. Travel
  6. Ethnic diversity
  7. Religious diversity
  8. The UK’s sense of self
  9. Q&A

How the presentation was recorded

My first presentation recording was done on the spur of the moment, just putting my iPhone 6 on the table and relying on its built in microphone. See my page Lecture: One Muslim’s Perspective on Religious Freedom.

Once I found recording presentations worthwhile, I purchased a high quality Sennheiser digital lapel microphone which plugs into the lightning port of my iPhone. That produces a much better recording.

The slides

I am happy to share the original PowerPoint slide presentation as you may want to read the data.

A partial transcript of the question and answer session

The question and answer session was also recorded. However, I am not publishing the audio recording for three reasons:

  1. I do not have the permission of those asking questions to publish their recording.
  2. While the sound quality of my responses is very clear, the questioners were some distance from the microphone. Accordingly, in many cases their questions are almost inaudible.
  3. Most importantly, the live dialogue heard cold is not particularly informative.

Instead, I have listened to the Q&A session and, where I regard the questions as being worth sharing, have written down a condensed version of the questions and my responses, improving the clarity of both the question and the response where appropriate.

The pupils had been encouraged by the school to look at my website and prepare questions for me in advance. That may explain why many of the questions are not directly about the presentation.

On your website, you say that Margaret Thatcher changed Britain radically. What did you mean by that?

I have very clear memories of the 1970’s, with a state-owned British Leyland car manufacturer losing large amounts of taxpayers' money, many strikes, and a declining economy with high inflation. In the 1800’s European diplomats used to refer to the Ottoman Empire as “The sick man of Europe.” That was how foreigners referred to Britain in the 1970’s.

Margaret Thatcher made several fundamental changes. Perhaps the two most important were the following.

Selling off state-owned businesses

The state is hopeless at running businesses, namely operations which seek to make money. Accordingly, it should not do it and should instead concentrate on things that governments can do well such as providing free school education and a free National Health Service.

Selling off state-owned electricity companies, water companies, telecommunications companies, airlines etc. was one of the best things that Margaret Thatcher did.

Reformed our labour laws

To have an economy that creates lots of jobs, you need to make it easier to fire people. See the article on my website “The principles of job creation.”

While this change is intellectually obvious, it is politically very difficult to make because it is normally unpopular. Margaret Thatcher forced it through.

What are your thoughts on Brexit?

I can understand why people voted for Brexit. Just because you disagree with someone, that should not stop you understanding how they think, what is motivating them, what matters in their lives.

The people who voted for Brexit were in general older, which links to my presentation about the older generation having travelled overseas far less than younger people. Voters for Brexit were also, on average, less well educated. Young educated people overwhelmingly voted Remain because they see the world differently from older, less well-educated voters.

I personally regard Brexit as a national act of self-harm. I have not given up hope of Brexit being stopped although the odds are relatively low.

Was it difficult growing up in Britain having a different religious and ethnic background?

The short answer is no.

My secondary school was very understanding, so I did not have to attend the religious part of the assembly each morning or religious education classes. That gave me a fair amount of additional free time.

I was never physically assaulted in school or discriminated against through having a different religion or ethnicity. I also had no problems at university, and no problems in my professional career.

I get annoyed when people continuously moan about how hard life is been, and how tough they are finding it. In reality, growing up in Britain and having a different set of religious beliefs was never a problem for me. There were sometimes practical issues about finding halal food etc., but that is all.

Your website mentions your pilgrimage to Mecca. What was that like?

The pilgrimage was totally life changing.

I was a practising Muslim but previously had not spent any meaningful amount of time studying or reading about Islam. I wrote about the pilgrimage for my colleagues at PwC after I returned to the UK. See “Personal memoir of Hajj.”

The pilgrimage illustrated just how diverse are Muslims around the world. There were Muslims from very many countries there, many of them clearly people of immense faith.

I saw the largest crowds I have ever seen in my life. If you imagine the biggest football crowd you have ever experienced, and multiply it by 10 or 20, that is what it is like being on pilgrimage.

On the day of Arafat, which is the most important day of the pilgrimage, I realised what I wanted to do for the rest of my life when I was no longer working at PwC. I realised the extent to which I have been blessed with an easy and wonderful life. I realised that I wanted to share with other people, particularly younger Muslims, but also people of all backgrounds, how to succeed in life, how to get on in society, and how to make sense of their lives.

That is the reason I speak at schools. For me, the pilgrimage was life changing for this reason alone. Furthermore, since the pilgrimage I have been reading and writing about Islam in a way that I never did before.

You clearly believe in change, whereas the Conservative Party does not. Why are you a member?

I am a Conservative with a capital “C” which means that I am a member of the Conservative Party. I am not a conservative with a small “c” because I do not want to conserve things. I want to change things.

I joined the Conservative Party precisely because I could see Margaret Thatcher radically changing Britain.

Previously, I used to be a member of the Liberal Party. The reason I changed is because I watched the TV series “Free to Choose”, which you can still find on YouTube today (first episode embedded below) and read Milton Friedman’s book “Free to Choose."

They convinced me of the virtues of free market capitalism as the best way to run an economy. That is the key reason why I became a Conservative.

There are of course many Conservative Party members who are conservative with a “c”, but I am not one of them. I am a radical Conservative.

Who is the person you respect the most?

That is a difficult question because so many people have inspired me over the years.

I was 10 years old when John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for president of the USA. He inspired me during his three years as president, and I was devastated when he was assassinated. I felt the pain of loss for many years afterwards.

I could give you a long list of other people such as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and others who have inspired me. I have been an avid reader all my life, both science fiction but also very large amounts of non-fiction. Because of that, I have been inspired by so many people.

As a teenager, I read 4 ½  volumes of Winston Churchill’s six volume history of World War II. If you read that much written by Churchill, you cannot help being inspired by him.

What are the opportunities for young people growing up in the UK today, and how should they benefit from them?

Firstly, all of you have far more opportunity, and life is much easier, safer and healthier, than when I was young. In my age group, about 5% went to university; now it is about 50%. Furthermore, in my time university places were rationed, so if you were not in the top 5% you simply could not attend. Now with the new student finance system, almost anyone who wants to attend university and gets A-levels can do so.

The technology available to you is far more advanced than when I was young. Conversely, this means that you have far more distractions available, which is something to worry about. It is easy to spend your time entirely on Facebook and Twitter, wasting it. That discourages young people from doing really useful things such as reading whole books, which is something I strongly recommend.

I believe that the biggest challenge you will face is to find things to do that are meaningful and worthwhile in a world of enormous plenty. I recommend watching a talk I gave at another school “Will our children be poorer than us?

You face a future with enormous availability of goods and services with robots and artificial intelligence eventually doing almost all work. Accordingly, you should not worry about your future finances. The key question then becomes “What gives your life meaning if you do not need to work?” Most of the time, most people define themselves by their work. What happens if you do not need to work?

This is not a new problem. While it is new for most people, the problem has always existed for the children of very rich families.

There is an endless list of highly inspiring people who were born into great wealth, who spent their entire lives serving humanity. I gave the other school the example of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His father was extremely rich and all four of the Kennedy brothers gave their lives to public service. The eldest brother, Joe Kennedy junior was killed in World War II as a bomber pilot. All three of the others, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Edward Kennedy gave their lives to politics.

They did not go into politics because they needed the pay; they did so because they cared about the USA.

I could give you an endless list of other similar people. Your key challenge will be, not what you do to earn a living, although many of you will still need to do some work, but what gives your life meaning?

Your website states that corporal punishment was a particularly beneficial part of your education. Do you think that this is still the case?

I recounted to the children the story which is on the “About me” page of my website at the section “Teachers who care make a massive difference.”

Let me stress that I only experienced corporal punishment once at primary school, in the above incident, and once at secondary school. At the secondary school, it should not really have happened, as my recollection is that I was an innocent bystander!

Should 16-year-olds get the vote?

I used to be against this but have changed my mind.

The reality is that educated 16-year-olds today know at least as much about the country and about politics and the world as 80-year-olds who may have had little education and relatively narrow life experiences.

To be honest, I think I would have been a perfectly competent voter around the age of 12. Accordingly, I would give 16-year-olds the vote. They have a stake in society as much as everybody else. It would encourage them to think more about politics.

One of my personal bugbears is people being disengaged from politics, especially young people. Giving 16-year-olds the vote, particularly while they are still at school, would help to get them more engaged.

Do British children take their free education for granted?

Some of them undoubtedly do, but not all. There are many hard-working young children.

What concerns me more than taking their free education for granted is the number of people in our society and in other societies such as the USA who take our freedom and our democracy for granted.

There was an opinion poll recently in America. I was shocked by the number of people, I cannot remember the exact percentage but it was in the region of 20% – 25%, who were willing to accept the idea of military rule.

If you think about how many people have died for the freedom of speech, the freedom to vote etc., survey results like that really pain me.

Is anti-Zionism equivalent to antisemitism?

I have written about this several times. See "When is being anti-Israeli evidence that you are antisemitic?"

Sometimes anti-Zionism is disguised antisemitism, and sometimes it is not. Ultimately, antisemitism is about what you think: “Do you hate Jews?

The problem is that we cannot look inside people’s heads. Instead, we need evidence. The evidence consists of “What does this person do?” and “What does this person say?

Any particular statement may or may not be a guarantee that this person is antisemitic. However, if you add up enough of what the person says, then you can assess the total evidence to decide.

What the person says about Israel may be an indicator of antisemitism, or it may not be. There is no easy way to specify, so that if you say “X” about Israel that guarantees that you are an antisemite. However, if you say “X” about Israel, is it likely that you are an antisemite? Quite possibly.

My articles discuss this question in detail.

How does Islamic finance differ from other types of UK finance?

Islamic finance is finance undertaken in accordance with rules set by Shariah scholars. For this purpose, Shariah scholars are the ones who say what qualifies as Islamic, although every Muslim is entitled to have a different view of Islam just as every human being sees the world differently.

Shariah scholars say that finance must be provided without charging interest. One can undertake other transactions which have the same economic results as charging interest, provided those other transactions do not involve charging interest. Whether you consider that makes a religious difference is something that each person must decide for themselves.

What are your views on gay marriage and LGBT rights and efforts to prevent climate change?

Preventing climate change is absolutely essential. However, this does not really connect with the rest of the question!

For the first part of the question, I am a great believer in personal freedom. You should be allowed to do anything that you like, provided this does not hurt me by physically assaulting me, stealing my property etc.

Nobody can show why two other people being gay and having gay sexual relations hurts me. Therefore, I am unambiguously supportive of other people’s freedom to be gay.

You wrote an article in 2013 saying that the government should publish a list of hate preachers. Where do you draw the line between a hate preacher and someone simply expressing a different opinion?

The article is "A Government register of hate preachers."

The boundary is complicated. However, let me explain the thought process behind my proposition.

Universities are often criticised for having Mr X visit to speak and then afterwards people say that Mr X should not have been allowed to speak there because he is a hate preacher. It is hard for venues to police speakers.

My proposal would not legally prohibit anyone from speaking anywhere. However, it would make it easier for universities to decide who they permit to speak on their premises. The process would be self-correcting since if innocuous people were wrongly listed, the register would fall into disrepute.

An example of hate preaching is preaching that gay people should be put to death.

Would your proposed register of hate preachers involve censorship?

Categorically not. The list would have no legal force. Universities could still give Mr X a platform if they wished to do so. The list would be for information only.

The Conservative Party recently lost its majority on Trafford Borough Council. Will this have an effect on the Conservative party in the north-west?

At present the Conservative Party is not doing well in inner cities. Trafford, Conservative run for many years, was an exception and therefore good for local Conservative morale. Losing it is not a positive development.

The Conservative Party needs to rebuild in inner cities from the ground up.

How much influence should religion have on how a country is governed?

This is an excellent question and I have written an article "The proper boundary of “Political Islam" setting out my views in detail.

In my view, only objective rational arguments are permissible in political debate, not religious arguments.

For example, believing that a foetus (which cannot survive independently of its mother) has the same religious value as the mother is a religious doctrine. You are entitled to believe that, but you cannot use that as the argument to restrict the mother’s access to abortion.

Why did you choose the Mandelbrot set to represent you and your website?

When I retired, I had to design a business card for myself, and wanted a logo. I was originally going to use the nine-point circle. If you have studied A-level geometry, you will know that every triangle has a nine-point circle.

Upon reflection, I decided that it did not look sufficiently exciting visually, but instead looked rather boring. However, I did want something mathematical.

Then I suddenly realised that the Mandelbrot set was sitting there waiting to be adopted. I have always loved it and it is a fascinating mathematical object. In terms of topology, one of its properties is that despite its complicated appearance, it is “simply connected.”

Because it is a mathematical object, like a circle, it cannot be copyrighted. I can be sure that nobody can sue me claiming ownership of the Mandelbrot set. The specific image I use for my business card and every page of my website was created using a computer program so that nobody else can say that I have used their image of the Mandelbrot set.

The larger copy below was created by Wolfgang Beyer and uploaded with the Creative Commons license. If you click it, you can see an even larger copy.

Mandelbrot set

If you could change one thing about Britain, what would it be?

That is a challenging question which I have never been asked before.

I would choose to encourage everyone to take politics more seriously. It really grieves me when people do not vote. The very least that a citizen in a free society should do is to always vote. I personally never fail to vote in any governmental election, whether national or local.

I would also like people to get more engaged in politics than simply voting in elections, by joining political parties. Even paying £25 a year to a political party can make a big difference to the party and to your engagement. It is fundamental in a free society that people should be engaged in politics, and let me give you a quote from Plato:

“Those who refuse to get involved with politics are condemned to be governed by those less worthy than themselves.”

The background to the quote is that in Plato’s time, some people thought that politics was beneath them.

You said that your father could not afford books. How could your family afford a TV?

The answer was hire purchase. We had to buy our TV on credit. My father always avoided credit and getting into debt, but for some things hire purchase could not be avoided.

The TV dramatically change my life because I learned so much about the world from watching it. You need to choose what you watch. Obviously, I watched programmes for pleasure such as “The Lone Ranger” but I also watched many documentaries and news programmes consistently.

The wonderful thing is that we have public libraries. Once I could read, my father used to take me to the public library as much as I wanted. We did buy the occasional book, but it was very rare because we were extremely poor.

Can too many people get involved in politics? For example, a non-politician such as Donald Trump is now president of the USA, and people are talking about Oprah Winfrey running for president. Is that a positive or a negative development?

Every American citizen is free to run for president. I do not have a problem with that.

The problem comes when voters start looking for a messiah and think that they have found the Messiah in somebody like Donald Trump. It is very dangerous.

That brings us back to voters’ obligation to be better educated, and to understand the world better. The more engaged voters are with politics over a long period of time, the more equipped they will be to identify the charlatans.

ADDENDUM: Mr Botwe's TEDx Talk 31 May 2018

A few weeks after my visit to the school, Mr Botwe spoke for 12 minutes at a TEDx event in Macclesfield. The talk gives an interesting insight into his outstanding qualities as a headteacher. The talk is on YouTube and I have embedded it below.

The introductory text on YouTube says:

The headteacher of Tytherington School, Macclesfield, UK talks about the cultural shift that has been improving the relationship between students and teachers, and his mission to create not just A* students but A* people. Sometimes, the key to creating the change you want to see in the world can be as simple as asking someone how their day is going.

 

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