Park Bench Tales and other writings

Thoughts and writings reflecting the poet within and the activist

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Assessing the merits of MOOCs

There is no doubt that MOOCs have taken off in the world of education and now engage hundreds of thousands of students from around the world. Apart from reflecting a very healthy thirst for education, what else can we learn from the experience? What purpose do MOOCs serve, and are we making the best use of them? Take the first point, what is the purpose of MOOCs and we find there is no simple answer. Some are clearly demanding in terms of work required and the assessments that have to be completed, others are orientated towards providing information and have little assessment, whilst some courses are merely offered to present a ‘tasting’ experience of a higher course offered by a university. All are excellent reasons for developing a MOOC, but what is a potential employer to make of a list of MOOCs completed when presented with a resume?

The potential for using MOOCs to secure career advancement and to promote professional development is almost unlimited, but we should first consider some of the features that will promote such usage, then how to achieve recognition. What makes a MOOC a creditable course for an employer?

Our first step, having determined why we want to develop the MOOC is to decide how we can deliver content. MOOCs rely heavily on the delivery of content through videos, rather less on readings and other media. Making a short podcast to help students understand a particular point, such as how to enter an accrual in double entry accounting, requires clear instructions and should be short. The appearance of the tutor / lecturer is often of no relevance. This is very different to producing a video on a topic such as sea level rise. Here there is a need to provide clear and meaningful illustration, to present data that is up to date, and the appearance of the tutor / lecturer serves as a good way of providing variety between these segments to help maintain interest and attention. For more philosophical arguments the appearance on screen of several people, perhaps having a discussion, can provide the variety. When preparing our videos we need to exercise some form of quality control, and encourage comment and criticism from peers during production and afterwards from students as clients.

The next step is to examine the various opportunities for further participation by students. There are two ways in which discussion boards are frequently used. The first is based on the idea of open forums, with forums being set up for each week. The second is for a specific topic to be set for a discussion. The two methods are often used together, and with set topics there can be a requirement to reply to the postings of others. Experience suggests there is a need to provide some form of moderation for forums. Multiple choice assessments are popular, they can be set up easily and require little, if any, moderation. They also provide feedback to students, which can be immediate. They can serve both for self-assessment and for course assessment. Sometimes these assessments allow multiple attempts, frequently they are offered without a time limit for the assessment, but with a rigid cut-off date. Short ‘essays’ are also used with topics presented to students. These usually limit the number of words, 300 or 500 being typical, but sometimes 1000. References for sources used for an essay may be required, and a particular format requested. Projects are less common, but the more adventurous have encouraged use of spreadsheets, slide shows,videos and audio recording. You Tube has frequently been used as the platform for video projects.

Assessment is by two methods, either through material set by tutors / lecturers, or through peer assessment. The first is largely through use of a weekly quiz, a few will also require a terminal examination. Peer assessment can be used to assess the postings to forums by fellow students, to assess essays, projects, even submissions consisting of a spreadsheet or a diagram. Providing a guide for grading helps to promote a uniform approach to grading, and asking for written comments helps improve the quality of assessment.

The number of MOOCs now runs into thousands and for employers to make sense of these we need to have some simple system of classification. I would suggest this is based on four areas, purpose, content, participation and assessment. Within the European Union we might then group these according to whether they met certain criteria for counting as a credit towards college / university courses, whether they had value for professional development, or life skills, or whether they just showed an interest and enthusiasm for further study.

The first steps have already been taken. There are a few MOOCs where sitting a terminal examination will gain acceptance as a credit for a higher education institution. This is the hardest to achieve since the demands to ensure assessment is of an appropriate quality are hard to meet. In the USA a number of MOOCs are recognized as professional development for educators and for some health professionals. The public sector could easily expand interests and make greater use of MOOCs for this purpose.

MOOCs can also serve to fill a gap in the education sector, by raising awareness on issues such as climate change, global health, sustainability and other topics. These are areas that are rarely or poorly served in secondary education, or where the ‘leap’ to a university course requires full time study.

Development of MOOCs has largely come from experiences gained through blended learning and through online courses that originated as modules for gaining credit towards a degree. As a result many are really filtered systems to serve the purpose, trying to keep the original structure as far as possible. There is an alternative, which is to explore the MOOC from the view of potential collaboration, of the wide variety of backgrounds of students in terms of ethnicity, culture and experience, and to start building from these foundations instead. What can be offered through a MOOC that could not be achieved through blended learning, or through the typical online course?

There are at least two areas that are being explored that could have added value for potential employers. They both relate to collaboration. Employers are always interested in the value of team work, looking for ‘good team players’, and how to achieve more through groups. MOOCs could be used to investigate group work through participation, either on an open framework, or through some scheme of assessment. The more recent arrival of DOCCs (distributed open collaborative course) offers even more potential and these are likely to prove popular as a way of improving participation.

As a potential employer how would a MOOC then be assessed? An MOOC classed as informative, or as a taster, shows interest in development. Is this related to a position a potential employee hopes to gain? MOOCs with greater participation might relate more directly to a position, and a means of assessing the degree of participation could be of use to employers. For older applicants MOOCs might be the only affordable way of gaining any recognition of continuing professional development and the employers might be the initiator of study.

However we assess MOOCs they are here to stay and they will develop, assessment will become more sophisticated, and more are likely to be offered by developers not working in established colleges and universities. Has the time come for bodies like the EU to make a start in classifying, grouping and assessing these for employers?

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Economics: If the metric is money we are mad.

We seem to have entered an era when we want to try and measure everything in terms of some value, or worth, that is related to little more than an arbitrary system of speculation. When we consider the value of a kilo of salmon, or a liter of gasoline all we are really doing is suggesting what a person might pay for the commodity in a market. Is there any real logic in this system? The problem is that the value can be altered so easily. Suppose we place a 50% duty on the gasoline, the cost of purchasing may have increased by 50%, but has the value really increased? The change was merely an arbitrary decision. We choose to express these values in terms of a currency, with many different forms of currency being available, such as dollars, Euros, and sterling. How do we consider the relative value? Well, this is also seems an arbitrary situation, a ‘market’ determining the relative value of say, a Euro to a US dollar. That value can be changed through speculation, which might be based on the perceived availability of a commodity such as oil or gas. Speculation almost led to a collapse of sterling, still considered by some to be a major currency, in 1992 due to an exchange rate mechanism.

A further problem arises when we think about how we measure total value by using money. The Bank of England, fairly recently, produced a pamphlet explaining that money is merely something that is created by banks through the issue of credit. A whole field of study has grown around these ideas of measuring a value in terms of monetary units? Does this really matter, or are we creating something of a myth, that you can measure value or worth in this way?

An alternative view is to look at economics in another way. Consider a commodity such as a fossil fuel, which could be coal, oil or gas. The combustion of these fuels yields a product that is slowly changing the atmosphere of the planet we live on, and if continued will make the planet more and more inhospitable to life. So I could measure the value of these fuels in a different way, by the emissions into the atmosphere. The more emissions the lower is the value to life, since the emissions could lead to eventual loss of life on the planet.

How about the way that we measure health? Should we be talking in terms of the cost of providing mosquito nets to Sub-Saharan countries, or the cost of producing and providing vaccines against diseases such as Ebola? Should we be talking about how much 1,000 additional nurses or doctors would cost? What we could be measuring and thinking about is the additional life we are giving through such action, and the improved quality of life we are providing.

‘Save the rain forests’ is the somewhat belated cry, but we are wedded to a system that demands more and more land to grow crops for food, or for biofuels, or for building upon. So land is given some monetary value for that purpose. What we could be measuring is the loss of biodiversity and the other benefits of the land in a more natural state. Are we altering patterns of rainfall, are we lowering water tables, are we increasing erosion and the risk of flooding?

We are moving towards new ways of looking at values, in particular through the consideration of planetary boundaries. Instead of measuring oil in barrels we can measure the emissions and then compare that to the limits we need to impose on such emissions. How do we move forward to apply that at the local, national and global levels? Where do we start, at a global level, a national level or a local level? We can look at land use and consider how much contamination there is from excessive use of nitrogen and phosphorus, how we can take steps to restore soils to a stable state for growth of crops.

Kate Raworth takes the idea of planetary boundaries and links these to social issues in her exploration of what she terms ‘doughnut economics’. We are starting to ask questions about what we understand by economics. She points out that the term was derived from the Greek idea of managing a household. What we are supposed to be doing is managing how we live on a planet, and how we use resources and provide services related to the quality of life.

Looked at from this perspective then there is a possibility that economics considered in terms of dollars, Euros, or any other currency, could be stupid. Humans do have this ability to be amazingly stupid, something that I discovered with education, where students struggling with English or math were subject to remedial programs based on the very techniques that had originally failed them. We are at risk of doing the same thing with our approach to climate change, using outdated ideas that are doing more to accelerate than mitigate climate change.

When our metrics are based upon monetary values, an arbitrary and speculative system, then we should also consider the relevance of such a system of valuation. Monetary values, we are taught, can be used to measure ‘wealth’. Oxfam has predicted that by next year 1% of the global population will own more than 50% of global wealth if this measure is used. In the USA 10% of the population own over 80% of wealth, in the UK the pattern is similar. This form of inequality also shows a pattern where the gap between the wealthy and poor is increasing, even in developing countries.

From a comparative viewpoint, wealth in monetary terms has little meaning to over 90% of the population because they have so little. Nations are setting budgets that consist of little more than juggling numbers around monetary terms. What does have meaning is the poor quality of life resulting from the inequality represented by a system of economics based on money. What does have meaning is the damage being done to the planet by this system of economics. Indeed, we could make a fairly convincing argument that four years spent at university studying economics is four years spent learning how to destroy the planet we live on.

The magical word for politicians is ‘growth’, but how is growth to be measured? The obsession with using money as a metric, of producing figures for GDP shows how narrow the focus has become in economics. I could suggest we use different metrics. How about numbers of people? Over the past 5 years in the UK there has been growth in the number of homeless people, growth in the numbers now considered to be living in poverty, growth in the number of workers paid a minimum wage, growth in pollution of the atmosphere, pollution of soil, pollution of watercourses, growth in the use of scarce resources.

The message here is that should you wish to set growth as a goal, then you need to think carefully about the metrics. What are the goals that we might use to measure growth? What about access to health, education, and other measures? The World Health Organization uses a definition of health that would be alien to most economists who can only measure in terms of money. Should we pay more attention to arguments for de-growth, particularly in terms of populations?

Economists who present a picture that all problems can be solved by juggling figures, that is, through using money as a metric, are not simply arrogant, they are probably stupid. If we are to have any meaningful discussion on sustainable economics then we need to go back to examining how we manage our household, be it our home, our nation or our planet. What are our goals, how will we measure them and how will we achieve them?

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NCD The millstone we are placing around our own necks.

Non-communicable diseases, which include cancer, diabetes, blood pressure and related heart problems, are still on the rise in terms of numbers, accounting for some 60% of deaths worldwide. The disturbing aspect is that NCDs are increasing in developing as well as developed countries, they are expected to increase by some 27% in Africa over the next decade, and they can no longer be classed as diseases of the wealthy nations. With life expectancy increases we are also seeing other diseases, such as arthritis, taking a toll as a disability for many people. The pressures and strain of modern practices in the workplace is adding a further burden in terms of mental health.

Today our thinking about NCDs goes beyond immediate causes, looks at causes of causes and contributing social issues such as poverty. What should our approach be to tackle the issue of NCDs? A friend recently suggested that the immediate question was rather like asking ‘Do you position the ambulance at the top or bottom of the cliff?’ Our focus is still largely on having the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, waiting for the illness and then trying to tackle the issue. There are two things that are wrong with this approach. Firstly, this is the most expensive of all the options available, secondly it does not stem the flow of those who are falling off the cliff.

Consider just one issue, that of overweight and that with obesity there will be increased risk for cardio-vascular diseases and diabetes. The health response is still shackled to treatment using pills or injections to treat the result rather than facing up to the cause. Look at the approach that is adopted to market food and there is clearly an issue. The market offers ‘Two meals for the price of one’, ‘Go large for only a few extra cents’, ‘Half price after 6:00 pm;, ‘Happy Hour’ and ‘Eat all you can for $15’. All of these are incentives to consume more food. Food is cheap, partly a result of unsustainable agricultural practices, and in part due to the use of subsidies to artificially lower the price of food on the market. How do we tackle the twin issues of marketing (to increase profits) and of unsustainable practices to produce food?

Take another issue, that of consumption of alcohol. In the UK one political party is making an election issue of reducing the price of alcohol, reversing previous policies designed to reduce consumption. In some African countries alcohol abuse begins with children under ten years of age.

Advertising alcoholic beverages often takes place in a setting attractive to young people, such as clubs and dance halls. Codes of conduct do not extend to film and television drama where alcohol is linked to ‘sexual success’ for young males. Almost any grain or fruit can be fermented to alcohol at low cost, so cheap alcohol is now a part of the market in developed and developing countries. How do we tackle the issues of over-consumption and the targeting of young people?

Whilst there is an issue with excessive consumption of alcohol, simply consuming tobacco products carries an element of risk. In developed countries smoking rates have fallen, due to taxation, raising awareness of harmful effects, prohibition in many areas, and packaging of cigarettes. However, these measures to reduce smoking are far less common in developing countries. Would these measures have the same effect in developing countries?

To return to the ambulance and the cliff analogy, taking measures to prevent over-consumption of food, alcohol or tobacco is acting at the top of the cliff. However, we can consider taking this a stage further, looking at some of the issues that encourage this over-consumption. This means looking at how lifestyles are changing. Many changes in lifestyle are considered to be beneficial to health, but others are having the opposite effect. The suggestion that we once got paid to do physical work, but now we pay to go the gym and do physical exercise does typify a change. More and more work requires less and less physical exertion, we are not keeping fit with our daily routines.

The focus may be shifting slowly to the ambulance at the top of the cliff, but can we do more? It is worth considering the three approaches used so far to try and encourage prevention of NCDs. These are taxation, regulation, and legislation. The only area where the impact has been significant is in the reduction of smoking. Taxation alone proved to be ineffective, as it is also proving to be with alcohol consumption. There are many reasons for this, one relates to level of taxation and the other to the purpose of taxation. Taxation is only going to be effective as a preventative level if the tax is high enough. If the amount of tax is small enough to be swallowed up in income rises then tax will be ineffective. The purpose of taxation is to raise revenues for a government, so the pattern has been to balance increasing taxation whilst also managing to increase the revenue from the tax. Clearly this latter approach is not designed to reduce smoking.

Regulation and legislation have fared little better, but have had an effect on smoking and alcohol in developed countries. Regulating the sale of a product makes it more difficult to obtain, but only to a point. Prohibition of alcohol proved ineffective in the USA and there is no reason to suggest this would be effective for other products, certainly the market for drugs has survived prohibition and grown extensively over the last two decades.

These three measures have proved to be more than ineffective in the face of an expanding market for fast food, and it is clear that a new approach should be considered. There is a need to be more flexible and inclusive in our approach. Alternatives can include greater emphasis on education, on rewards, on labelling, and on collaboration.

Education is one of the strongest tools we have to influence behavior for the better, as long as it is used sensibly. Teaching about nutrition should go beyond the ‘healthy diet’ approach and place emphasis on ‘unhealthy diets’. The importance of using specific examples of junk food, of explaining why they are bad, and both the long term and short term effects, helps prepare the ground for better choices by consumers. The use of labelling, by an independent body, can rate such items as beverages according to the amounts of sugar, with healthy green labels for healthy drinks. Eco-labelling has been used effectively in Scandinavian countries, and can be widened to include more countries. Rewards can be linked to changes in lifestyles, such as taking more exercise. In England one soccer club offered training to help supporters lose weight, rewarding those who attended and trained with a reduction in the price of a ticket on a match day.

How do we alter lifestyles of a population so that they pursue interests to keep them physically active and healthy? Is it possible to alter lifestyles where leisure activity is confined to playing video games, or to watching a television for hours on end? We can make great strides in altering lifestyles by promoting different modes transport, such as increasing congestion charges in cities for cars whilst reducing fares on public transport, but going the extra mile and setting aside certain routes as cycles only (rather than adding narrow lanes on roads also frequented by large vehicles). We can increase the areas open only to pedestrians and small vehicles used by those with disability, we can improve the amount of any pedestrian area by covering to protect against the elements.

Changing the TV couch-surfer (or should that be slouch-surfer?) might not be easy, but a change in planning new developments can make a great difference. More green space for walking, more playgrounds for young children, for playing soccer, playing basketball and playing tennis, more areas for skate-boarding and cycling, these are going to encourage young people to get out and be active.

Take a good look at the health services in your country, and the approach to non-communicable diseases and ask the question. Where is the ambulance parked?

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Four freedoms in the EU: help or hindrance?

The European Union is often praised for the principle of the four freedoms; the freedom of goods, services, capital and people to be able to move freely across the borders of the member states. The success of each of these has been variable, the most controversial being the free movement of people. As new members were added to the union there was a considerable difference between standards of living, health care and employment prospects between new and generally poorer states and the older richer members. The result was a flow of people towards richer states. At first this freedom was embraced, bringing a source of cheap labour. Enthusiasm waned from the richer states , many are now seeking methods to control movement, whilst still maintaining a pretence of adhering to the freedom.

If the European Union had managed to build leadership through collaboration, through promoting shared interests and looking towards a long-term future, the outcome might have been different. The four freedoms were designed to promote a ‘free market’. However, this placed new nations, whose industries were often old and poorly developed, in competition with those whose industries were efficient and more competitive. The rich nations, able to use an inflow of cheap labour, further improved their competitive edge and efficiency.

An alternative approach might have been giving sufficient aid to kick-start the modernisation of industries in new member states, including investment in health care and housing. By allowing free movement and giving insufficient support to new members the union has promoted a flow of economic migrants. New members have progressed slowly compared to established members, something that would not have happened if member states had been looking at the wider interest of the union, not just considering the benefit to their own nation. Inequality between member states was surely not the intention of the founders.

The problem with the European Union lies with being wedded to a package that is based on economic theories, rather than being linked with social policies that reflect movement towards equality in terms of access to education, health care, housing, work opportunities and leisure. Individuals, households and communities should be at the heart of European Union policy and not be subservient to market policy. The two areas need to be linked together in a manner that ensures one is not promoted at the expense of the other.

The history of the European Union is still littered with attempts to avoid a free market, including the continuing use of subsidies within the European Union. Energy subsidies for fossil fuels are used to distort a market and prevent progress towards a sustainable energy supply.

New member states cannot compete unless they are given greater help.

Now we have a further crisis, with southern states having to be loaned funds, often on somewhat unfavourable terms, in order to avoid bankruptcy. The tragedy is that the austerity that has been imposed impacts directly upon the citizens of those states, who were not really responsible for the events leading to the crisis.

There has to be hope and a way forward, and that path has to recognize the need to act in the interests of citizens as well as trying to support businesses and prevent banks from collapse.

We have the opportunity to take great strides in developing renewable energy sources with wind, solar and tidal. We can create jobs in all member states, improve the environment, and work towards a sustainable future. We can embrace equal access to education and promote the training of health care professionals at all levels. We can embark upon programs that work to construct both affordable and social housing, improving health and providing employment. The road towards a sustainable future affords the opportunity to change the way we look at transport. Hybrid and electric vehicles can be promoted, better buses and more train routes, looking at how we transport goods as well as people.

There is also an opportunity to make this path, combining the freedoms with social policy, through a different political approach. Until now the determination of policy has been almost entirely through representatives rather than through participation. Representation through traditional political parties has tended to be inflexible, representatives simply give the nod to a raft of measures that are part of their party interests. This often ignores the interests of those they are supposed to represent.

Perhaps we might even envisage the emergence of true European parties, whose policies are the result of listening to all citizens, and who represent a European vision and not a national interest.

The more we present young people in Europe with the opportunity to study in any member state the greater the chance of European interests coming to the forefront. The more we can develop exchange programs the more we will promote understanding and discover the interests and the hopes that we share.

The obsession with GDP tends to promote not only competition, but also division unless that growth is considered for the benefit of all member states. Moving towards that shared interest is more likely to occur if we can also promote welfare for the benefit of all members alongside the economic aims.

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Does the European Union need more leadership and fewer leaders?

The United Kingdom still uses a very antiquated system of ‘first past the post’ for electing members to the house and this is where the idea of beating an opponent may stem from. The election procedures favor a system of ‘bashing your opponent’ in the verbal sense, a character assassination exercise that attempts to promote one person as a ‘leader’. Once that ‘leader’ gains the ascendancy then a period of 5 years follows where a party leader tries to impose policies, whilst others see their duty as leaders in opposing any policy, and using every opportunity to launch assaults on individual opponents.

When this national ‘leader’ comes to the European Council we see a similar, but rather more diplomatic, process. The result is that heads of state from 28 countries represent and work in the interests of the nation state that they represent. If no consensus is reached then a system of qualified voting weights the outcome in favor of larger nations, unlike the US senate where each state has an equal vote. The Council of the European Union simply reflects these self-interests through ministers from each of the member states.

The result at the national level level and at the European Union level is a fragmented pattern of policies that are at best a compromise, and at worst a disaster, that favors stronger states over smaller and weaker states. Claims of corruption, waste and unfair treatment have persisted over the years as the influence of national leaders and global corporations have steadily undermined the principles that were used to found the European Union.

An interesting analogy can be made with health care. National political leaders are rather like doctors, insisting that their prescription is a remedy for an ill, such as treating a patient with high blood pressure by prescribing a course of tablets. They rarely consider the wider causes. At the level of the European Union the outlook is a little better, analogous to looking at the immediate causes of high blood pressure. One of these is an unbalanced diet, so the response would be to bring in legislation to provide a remedy. The European Union has shown itself to be fully capable of developing prescriptive legislation at an alarming rate. However, strong leadership in the European Union might view the problem differently, recognizing that poor diet can be a result of several factors, including poverty, and try and address the problem by alleviating poverty. Leadership is not about individuals portraying themselves as heroes, but about looking at the interests of those that they represent.

This portrayal of leaders as ‘special individuals’, such as those educated at Eton or Oxford or Cambridge, is disturbing, perpetuating the idea of Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’ and the idea that some are ‘born to rule’, implying that the rest of us lack the ability to develop leadership. When leadership is considered as representing and advancing the interests of citizens then the hero approach comes into question.

If leadership is to reflect the interests of a wider community then those seeking leadership need to do more than represent the interests of a minority; remember that there are few countries where leaders can claim to have received the support of more than 50% of the voters. Leaders who do not consider the interests of those who did not vote for them produce divided communities, those who take that attitude when at the European Council promote division among nations.

A recent example of self-interest has been the inability of European leaders to address problems relating to dubious financial behavior that produced a crisis early in the millennium. After the Great War we found European leaders acting only in their national interest, demanding reparations for every lost cent from a weakened nation enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. After the war of 1939-45 a different approach was adopted, recognizing the failure of the early Treaty. The European Recovery Program (better known as the Marshall Plan) offered aid, and a surprisingly small amount kick-started the economy in a number of nations. We can argue that aid rather than reparation demands helped in the founding of the body that has now evolved as the European Union.

Surprisingly we now see a series of loans offered to weaker nations, sometimes referred to as ‘bail-out money’, linked to demands for austerity policies and to high interest rates for repayment. The demands for policies imposed by one nation upon another remind me a little of the colonialism that England once attempted to impose on the USA before independence. The demand that every last cent that was loaned must be paid back is reminiscent of the post-Great War attitudes, and very much a reminder of the character of Shylock in ‘The merchant of Venice’. We are not addressing issues of inequality, of poverty, of loss of employment, or other social issues in many southern and eastern European areas because we have this lack of leadership, a lack of being able to view the European Union as a single entity.

The argument here is not that the current leaders of nations within the European Union are self-centered and selfish as individuals, rather that the systems that brought them to power, and the way in which nations build a fairer union with better representation need to be looked at more closely. Within the UK representation still shows an adherence to a feudal approach, within Europe there is a drift towards the individual nation states that led to a continent sleep-walking into a terrible and tragic conflict. The argument is not that corporations are inherently ‘evil’ in some way, but that their global approach is market-based and fails to recognize the importance of social problems. Corporations in particular do cannot address issues related to health or equality, nor do they address wider issues of the environment and climate change. Corporations may have leaders, but collectively they seem unable to provide leadership at a global level.

Leadership will only come to the European Union when we are prepared to accept that the union is not about a joining of nation states, nor should the union be about serving the interests of large corporations. The union is about citizens living within a defined area, about achieving their aspirations, improving the health and welfare of all, protecting human rights and providing education for all, having equal opportunities, and reducing inequality. Whether that can be achieved by the ‘four freedoms’ is debatable, maybe the time has arrived to consider how leadership can provide a better route forward for the citizens of the union.