The Big Short, or why Margot Robbie explaining economics in a bathtub works

Margot Robbie in "The Big Short" via YouTube

Just how often does one leave the cinema these days having actually learnt something?

It’s a question The Big Short, a movie about the men who managed to profit off the 2008 financial crisis, seems badly poised to answer in the affirmative. Economics plus douchebags seldom, if ever, equals entertainment.

Yet somehow, The Big Short works. And why? Because you’ll leave the cinema both smarter and angrier.

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George Osborne’s biography shows the shallow success of the Tory modernisers

George Osborne, Trade Mission, January 2014 by Lee Davy

In the wake of Labour’s humiliating summer it is tempting to think that the Tories have returned as the natural party of government, and are set to dominate politics for at least the next decade.

Few have profited from this perception more than the chancellor George Osborne, credited as one of the chief architects of the surprise Conservative general election victory, as well as the party’s success against New Labour more generally.

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The Importance of Being Elderly: Maggie Smith Stuns in The Lady in the Van

Image Credit – From The Lady in the Van by BBC Films

The Lady in the Van ‘s BFI London Film Festival premiere comes a week after new figures revealed that more than half  a million adults are missing out on care due to government welfare cuts.

I expected the film to entertain me – after all, it’s written by Alan Bennett (of The History Boys fame) and stars the brilliant Dame Maggie Smith. However, I didn’t expect the film to have such an emotional impact.

Adapted from Bennett’s 1999 play of the same name, The Lady in the Van is the “mostly true story” of Bennett’s relationship with Mary Shepherd, an elderly, homeless oddball whose van was encamped on the playwright’s driveway in Camden, London over a period of fifteen years.

Some criticism has been levelled at the film for its use of drama. For the most part, the film is a wonderfully whimsical comedy, with a predictably perfect performance by Smith. But what, to me, truly elevated the film was its engagement with issues of homelessness and old age.

Last year, the Institute of Economic Affairs labelled the government’s welfare spending a “debt timebomb”, suggesting that to solve the problem the government needed a “fundamental reform of pension and healthcare provision”. And the Lady in the Van reminded me of just how important welfare for the elderly and homeless is.

Over the past year, both of my elderly parents have relied heavily upon the NHS – I have to admit, I haven’t been particularly impressed. However, the movie alerted me to the plight of even the most impolite senior citizen.

Many of us are guilty of disregarding the aged and impoverished, despite campaigns by various charities attempting to encourage us to think about the loneliness of both situations. The multi-organisation Campaign for Loneliness claims that nearly one million over-65s feel alone and isolated.

In The Lady in the Van, Smith’s character is both verbally and physically abused. There were only a few of these moments on-screen, but they were some of the most important.

Vulnerable people like the old and mentally ill Miss Shepard are undoubtedly more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. And yet, most of us avoid such people due to a momentary sense of fear, or perhaps embarrassment.

In the film, Bennett’s arc compellingly exposes a man who transitions from perspectives. The begin with, Bennett sees Smith’s character as just a homeless old woman. Society has all but dehumanized her, and she is nothing but a nuisance to all.

But as the story unfolds, Bennett sheds this view, coming to appreciate that Miss Shepherd has, like anyone, a complex and rich history. She deserves dignity and care, things all too often missing from many people’s final years.

The Lady in the Van is one of those rare comedies that, after all the laughter, makes you pause to consider the real world. It is, without a doubt, one of the most affecting comedies I’ve seen all year.

The Lady in the Van is set for release in the UK on November 13th 2015.

Image Credit – From The Lady in the Van by BBC Films

Anti-austerity protestors attack and intimidate Tory conference delegates

George Osborne, September 2014 by Gareth Milner

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A small group of anti-austerity protestors spat on and intimidated attendees at the Conservative conference in Manchester on Sunday, with one Tory being hit on the forehead with an egg.

Journalists from Channel 4, the Huffington Post and LBC Radio were all reported on Twitter as having been spat on by protestors, with Channel 4 even filming an incident in which police had to intervene.

One Tory who was stood on Oxford Road was hit with an egg to jeers of “Tory Scum!”, forcing him to retreat from the baying crowd.

Other protestors picketed the entrance to the conference, telling “soulless Tories” that they were not elected in Manchester and that they were “not welcome here.”

Many protestors also made a point of referencing the recent piggate scandal, in which Tory leader David Cameron was accused of performing a bizarre ritual involving a pig’s head.

Despite this police reported that most of the 60,000 protestors were well behaved, with chief superintendent John O’Hare of Greater Manchester Police telling the Guardian:

“Today around 60,000 people took part in a demonstration and I would like to thank them for their cooperation. The overwhelming majority of people have exercised their democratic right to protest with dignity and good grace. The fact that only four arrests have been made throughout the day so far was particularly pleasing.”

Image Credit – George Osborne, September 2014 by Gareth Milner

Outrage Erupts as Osborne Charges Poorest University Students Extra £8,200

Students Protest at Conservative HQ in 2010 by Simon Patterson

In a summer budget that dismayed students across the country, chancellor George Osborne announced that the treasury will scrap university maintenance grants.

And the change, which comes into effect in the 2016/17 academic year, will hit poorest students hardest.

Currently, students from families with annual incomes of £25,000 or less get a full grant of £3,387 a year towards university living costs. More than half a million students in England receive this maintenance grant paid for by the taxpayer, at a total cost of £1.57bn a year.

Delivering the first Tory Budget since 1996, Osborne said the cost of maintenance grants was set to double to £3bn in the next decade due to the cap on student numbers being lifted. Defending the decision to cut the grants, Osborne said to “ensure universities are affordable to all students from all backgrounds we will increase the maintenance loan available to £8,200, the highest amount of support ever provided.”

He added:

“There’s also a basic unfairness of asking taxpayers to fund the grants of people who are likely to earn a lot more than them.”

Whereas the grants were not repaid, the new maintenance loans will be. Graduates will start paying the loans back when they earn over £21,000 a year. Osborne declared that this “major set of reforms” would make sure Britain continued to have the top universities in the world.

On top of this, Osborne threatened that tuition fees could rise with inflation above £9,000 from 2017/18, at least for institutions which offer high-quality teaching.

Scrapping maintenance grants will therefore come as a huge blow to aspiring students across the country. A devastating report by the Higher Education Committee, published last year, has already estimated that 73 percent of all students will be unable to pay off their loans after 30 years, when debts are automatically wiped.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank, the average student debt is set to rise to £44,015 – higher even than in the US.

Cat Turhan, president of Warwick University’s Student Union, thinks the new loans equate to sending the poorest students a bill for an extra £8,200.

Speaking to The Right Dishonourable, Turhan said that “maintenance grants are often vital for the students who need them. Getting rid of them will act as yet another financial barrier to university.” In response to Osborne’s comments, she added:

“Getting young people to a place where they are earning more and spending more benefits everyone. This budget has targeted the poorest people in society, including the poorest who wish to access university. That, to me, is basic unfairness.”

These sentiments echo those of Megan Dunn, president of the National Union of Students, who told The Independent that the new move would “affect where students choose to live and which courses to take”, and warned that it could result in less qualified graduates as new students will start “applying for shorter courses to reduce costs”.

Less than 24 hours after the announcement an online petition protesting the announcement has reached nearly 23,000 signatures and continues to rise. With student unions around the country releasing statements criticising the governments new policy, further protests are sure to follow.

You’d think the Conservatives might have learnt to leave students alone after tuition fee rises led to the party headquarters being attacked in 2010. But perhaps the Tories aren’t worried about the repercussions – they probably think billing the poorest students close to an extra £9,000 again will mean those pleb students can’t afford a bus to London…

Header Image – Students Protest at Conservative HQ in 2010 by Simon Patterson