Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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7/5/17: we have the politicians we deserve

From a political point of view I returned to the UK at a very interesting time.  I was only just over a week back when Theresa May announced a general election 2 years after the previous one, having repeatedly said that she would see out the full 5 years.  And then, after the general election campaign had effectively started, there were local elections over much of the country.  Whilst we cannot assume that people will necessarily vote the same way in a general election as in local elections, and there is still the main part of the campaign to go (oh, joy!) all the indications are that there will be a big majority for the Conservative party under the leadership of Theresa May.

So, we are in for strong and stable Government.  Under a strong and stable Prime Minister.  With a strong and stable Cabinet.  Implementing strong and stable policies.  Strong and stable.  Strong and stable.  STRONG AND STABLE.  STRONG AND STABLE.  YES, YES, YES!!!!!!!   WE GET IT!!!!!!  IS IT REALLY NECESSARY TO REPEAT THIS PHRASE OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN??????

Before answering that question, I want to look at another incident this last week, that of Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, making a complete mess of the figures for the proposed increase in police numbers, as considered here among many other places.

OK, let's try to think about this rationally.  Speaking as a mathematics teacher it is well worn territory for me that large figures are difficult to comprehend.  Some years ago, arising indirectly from some work I was doing looking at connections between mathematics and Citizenship I devised a workshop entitled, 'How big is a billion?' precisely with the intention of trying to find ways of comprehending that number, worksheets are available here.  And it is a concern that when we read, eg. in this news story, that the Liberal Democrats are proposing to, "increase the income tax by one percent to raise 6 billion pounds ($7.8 billion) a year for Britain’s ailing National Health Service," I suggest that for many of us this is completely meaningless, we have no concept of what one billion is, how much one billion pounds is, how far one billion pounds goes in terms of running the health service.

(Incidentally on this point, I ran this class several times shortly after I devised it, both directly with youngsters and also with student teachers.  Every time I ran the class, somebody would inevitably ask, "Is this a British billion or an American billion?"  That is, is one billion a thousand million or a million million?  Either this question is based on the idea that what happens in the mathematics classroom does not necessarily correspond to the outside world - where one billion has been standardised as one thousand million for some considerable time now - or we do not know by a factor of 1000 what is meant by a word which is frequently bandied around in the context of world populations and Government spending.  Which, in terms of political literacy, the electorate understanding the issues, is truly frightening, is it not?  Also, whilst still in parenthetical mode, I would observe that one million Tanzanian shililings is approximately equivalent to £300.  In practice what I found is that I could work in shillings up to about a million, after that I needed to convert to dollars or pounds, too many zeroes confused things!)

So, coming back to Diane Abbott, I am very sympathetic to her making mistakes with large numbers under aggressive questioning.  Whilst I consider that she dealt with the situation very badly, digging a bigger and bigger hole, I am not sure what the alternatives would be.  Whilst I personally would much prefer it had she said, "Look, I'm sorry, I'll send you an email with the figures when I'm back in the office with all the information in front of me," would that have been deemed acceptable by the media?  Would this not be seen as an irresponsible promotion of a policy without having costed it properly?  Is it not the case that we, the electorate at large, want things every which way?

And let me return to Theresa May's, "Strong and stable."  As somebody who speaks in public myself, I am quite happy to repeat the key phrase I want people to remember many times over.  In appealing to that section of the electorate who does not vote the same way at every election and does not follow every detail of the campaign, does it not make sense to try to put into the public arena a key phrase aimed at permeating people's consciousnesses in encouraging them to vote Conservative?  Perhaps it's worth having to endure the derision of the 'chattering classes' in order to achieve this.


So, much as I'm irritated by the things which are going on in the political domain, I do have some sympathy with the pressures politicians are under which point towards these forms of behaviour.  We have, I suggest, the politicians we deserve, the politicians we have created by the many and contradictory pressures we have put upon them.  If we think we can do better, then we should put ourselves forward.  That, after all, is what Donald Trump has done.

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