Here we go again! Every time a decade, century or millennium approaches its end and we have a year finishing with a nine, commentators, even academics who should know better, but especially broadcasters eager to please, rush to compile lists of the best this or the worst that in the last decade.
It could be the best Scottish Premiership goal or the most embarrassing miss; it could be the worst train-wreck of a political interview, or it might be the most wonderful natural history video clip. The potential is endless; compiling lists about “the last decade” as we pass it by generates considerable interest, fun and disagreement. I have no wish to be churlish and spoil that fun but I always feel the need to mention that the current decade has not ended, we still have another 367 days (2020 is a leap year) before the decade has ended.
For those that have never considered the question of how long a decade, century or millennium is, let me explain two aspects. Firstly a decade requires ten years to pass, a century requires one hundred years and a millennium one thousand years. This surely is irrefutable, although I am sure some correspondents will seek to try and challenge me on this point.
Taking that argument forward it follows that ten pounds, five hundred pounds and one thousand pounds Sterling is required to have a “Tenner”, a “Monkey” and a “Grand”. Imagine you take out a bundle of pound coins from your pocket and count out ten. You will notice that you start with “one” and you finish with “ten”. You do not start with zero and finish with nine. It really is that simple.
The same process goes for decades, centuries and millennia. We start counting the new decade on 1 January 2021, the next century on that date in 2101 (not 2100) and the next millennium on the first day of January when 3001 arrives.
I am not seeking to be pedantic or a spoil-sport for those making lists and reminiscing about the last ten years. I do, however, think it important that while authors and readers have their list-making fun our schools (and sadly our universities too) remind people how maths and language actually works.
Although the SNP seeks to play down the falling educational standards now being achieved in our state schools (as evidenced by reputable international surveys and rankings in English, Maths and Sciences) there can be no doubt that only the Scottish Government is responsible. Education has long been delivered separately from England by Scottish politicians whatever the arrangements for governance and whatever their political hue. Indeed it was the First Minister herself who claimed that education would be “her number one priority” partly because she has the powers available to make it so.
Neither David Cameron, Theresa May or Boris Johnson can take any blame. They have provided the funds (the Westminster pooling of spending and income delivers a transfer or subsidy to Scotland that is equivalent to the whole Scottish education budget).
Unfortunately it is becoming clear on a daily basis that when various Scottish writers such as Kevin Hague present the financial details of how Scotland’s public services are, in most years, underwritten by a combination of transfers of tax revenues from London and the South East and UK borrowing. This is not some Unionist anti-Scottish whinge, for the same phenomenon applies to many regions of England, such as the North East, that rely on transfers from other parts of England that are in surplus.
Going back to the educational establishment’s failure to explain to Scottish pupils how numbers work must, I would argue, contribute more generally to a poor understanding of other aspects of counting and its terminology. It is no coincidence that we have MEPs, MPs, MSPs and councillors that regularly confuse an annual deficit with public debt. If they cannot understand it themselves what disinformation and confusion are they circulating to voters?
This financial flatulence is not confined to the SNP but extends across many of the parties as evidenced by Labour’s manifesto offering to provide “free” full-fibre broadband or nationalise public sector utilities – while Conservatives have become attached to grand projects such as HS2 and now building a bridge across the Irish Sea.
If these ruinous policies or monuments to political ego are realised they will be paid for by our grandchildren, and probably their grandchildren too. That is generational theft of opportunity and wealth on a grander scale given they will not be able to vote on such policies but bear the costs.
It is no wonder then that if Scottish and UK politicians indulge in such unrealistic bidding for votes based upon spending money they do not have that the electorate will never get to hear of the genuine achievements being delivered internationally in healthcare, education, disposable income, and the ending of famines or droughts outside war. Good news, like the reality of how numbers work, is crowded out unless a politician can lay claim to being the cause of it.
For instance undernourishment in Asia has halved since 1992, and yes, it has been reducing in the last decade, however we measure that timeframe. The reason for man’s improving outcomes across the world is not to be found from the intervention of socialism as applied in Venezuela or Cuba but is consistently to be found in the application of technological advances and the deregulation and opening of markets to trade.
Too many of our politicians have a vested interest in running down what good news is being established from new drugs, new approaches to schooling for the poorest or how, for instance, mobile phone technology has revolutionised communications across continents that were once controlled by the political elites. For without being able to present “failure” by other competing politicians the case for government intervention of so many of our political parties and their leaders becomes weaker to the point of being meaningless.
We need, instead, to return to the honest truths of how real numbers work, how our economies advance despite the efforts of politicians to disguise the truth or make false claims about what they have done and encourage greater scepticism towards what we are told. Any politician that insists the current decade ends on Tuesday night is peddling an illusion – there was no year zero – we must ask how many other falsehoods are they offering?
l Brian Monteith wishes all readers a Happy New Year, however you count it.