"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Anglican's "symbolic" boycott

Via norm:
"here's one little piece of symbolic reflection I'd like to share with the Anglican consultative council and the Archbishop of Canterbury. After the responsibility borne by Christianity for two millennia of anti-Jewish hatred and persecution - a factor, one might think, in what befell the Jews of Europe - a boycott decision prompted just by the misdemeanours of the Jewish state could be said to be prejudicial, to put it no more severely. Or have I missed out on the fact of the Anglican churches already being on the cases of China, Sudan, Zimbabwe... you get the picture?"
Amen - if you'll pardon the expression.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Critics lay into Blair on ID cards

From the Guardian:
"The independent information commissioner, Richard Thomas, a long-term critic of ID cards, stepped up his rhetoric yesterday describing the government's plans as "excessive and disproportionate".

In a paper timed for today's Commons debate, he claimed the cards - backed by a comprehensive national identity card register - could become part of a new "surveillance society".

He claimed so-called function creep would see demands grow for access to a person's data trail and increasing demands for an individual to reveal their identity."
As mentioned yesterday, the unions aren't too impressed either:
" In a letter to the Guardian, a broadening alliance of leaders of 10 big unions condemned the cards.

The letter says: "It is anathema to us in the trade union movement that a Labour government should try to reintroduce them.

"It is a sorry state of affairs when even the Tory party and the Liberals are opposed to a Labour government's Big Brother big idea."
Quite. So what did Charles Clarke have to say to this?
"Defending ID cards on the BBC Today programme, Mr Clarke said: "They will allow people to identify themselves and ensure that the data that is held about them is data held about them and not someone else.

"In that sense, they are a means of attacking the ... Big Brother society."
So, the efficiency of ID cards will be proven by the fact that the citizen can be assured that it is really them, and not someone else, that the state is snooping on. Thanks, Mr. Clarke - I'm re-assured: the truth is a lie and freedom is slavery. Thank you for looking after us, Uncle Tony...

Workers take to the streets in South Africa

From the Scotsman:
"HUNDREDS of thousands of workers yesterday staged a general strike and marches through the cities of South Africa in protest against appalling unemployment which has left more than half the population living in poverty.

The strike, called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was the biggest day of industrial action since the African National Congress came to power with the fall of apartheid in 1994.

Ironically, ANC ministers were yesterday meeting in Kliptown, a poor district of the township of Soweto, to commemorate the launch there 50 years ago of the historic Freedom Charter, a clause of which spoke of "the right and duty of all to work".

However, with unemployment running at 40 per cent, some 22 million of the country's 43 million people are now below the official poverty line.

All the main sections of industry - mines, iron and steel, vehicle assembly, transport, tourism and textiles - were hit."
The key demand of workers is that the government reduce the high value of the Rand, which has hit South Africa's exporting industries particularly hard.

That yesterday was an occasion to mark the anniversary of the Freedom Charter is indeed ironic, particularly if we are reminded what it says:
"The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;

All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people;

All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions"
Because apartheid has been abolished and representative government elected on universal suffrage has been introduced, most of the other aims of the freedom charter have been fulfilled. These economic aspirations have been rather more problematic - and are unlikely to be achieved in the near future, given that they represent a commitment to nationalisation and the regulation of industries - which is in retreat practically everywhere in the world.

Both John Pilger and Peter Hitchens - obviously coming from different standpoints - have been sharply critical of the new South Africa, pointing to the fact that the collapse of apartheid has not brought about a great improvement to the living conditions of ordinary South Africans. Unemployment is running at around 40%; inequality has actually increased amongst blacks; Aids is rampant - a situation not helped by the government's incompetence in this area; and crime, although it has improved in the last couple of years, is still very high with Johannesburg having a reasonable claim to be one of the world's most violent cities. Both Hitchens and Pilger have also highlighted the RSA's involvement in arms sales to the Suharto regime in Indonesia.

Both, I think, were rather unfair in their assessment of the achievements of Nelson Mandela but nevertheless, the criticism - unless one thinks the ANC is above this - is perfectly valid. During the apartheid years, everyone on the centre-left supported the ANC's struggle for the franchise (although people disagreed about tactics) and everyone understood that this implied a regime-change, since the majority black population was hardly likely to return the National Party - the architects of apartheid - to power.

Couple of points, and I hope you don't think they're cheap ones: firstly, while all people of good-will condemned the iniquity of apartheid, I don't remember anyone arguing that the right of the RSA to exist shouldn't be recognised, despite the fact that it's foundation was rooted in Dutch and British colonialism. Also, while most people lost interest in the country after apartheid was dismantled, those who continued to follow events there would not have dreamt of arguing that because the country had grown actually more violent, and because so many of the ANC's aspirations had disappointed - maybe in the interests of stability or utility, the National Party's rule shouldn't have been ended after all. In those days, people on the left used to understand the non-consequentialist argument for regime-change.

Monday, June 27, 2005

"The US is a theocracy suffering from galloping spiritual inflation"

Or so Mark Lawson thinks. Personally, I think we're seeing an inflation in dodgy historical comparisons and the misuse of political concepts. States that are authoritarian become "totalitarian" or "fascist" and any country where rulers make reference to religious ideas or imagery become "theocratic".

It should go without saying that to describe the United States as a "theocracy" is completely ridiculous. The word literally means "the rule of god" - but historically, of course, it has meant the rulership of priests. Lawson describes well the impression European visitors have when they visit the United States and see the unashamed religiosity of many Americans.

But what also should strike the visitor is how rigid the separation between religion and the state is in this country. Religious education - even lessons in comparative religion - is illegal in the American school system because the Supreme Court ruled that this would be in violation of the constitutional ban on Congress either establishing a religion or interfering with its free exercise. It is for this reason that prayer, worship or indeed any kind of religious assembly is forbidden.

But having emptied the concept of its political content (and thereby rendering it meaningless) what Lawson is really saying is simply that America is becoming more religious and it's politicians reflect this trend. Worrying for those of us fairly hostile to organised religion but the term theocracy is not applicable.

This example is merely one of the more absurd uses of a concept that has been misapplied to countries that are religious - but not theocracies. Historically, few countries have been fully-fledged theocracies. Even ancient Israel ceased to become a pure theocracy when they appointed a monarchy (note to religious monarchists: God was very miffed when the Israelites wanted to be like all the other nations by having a King). Monarchial sponsorship of an official religion does not constitute theocracy and this is the reason that Saudi Arabia should not be classed as a theocracy. Iran, even, isn't a pure theocracy. America used to have virtual theocracies at local level, until the Supreme Court established the principle that state-sponsored religion at the local level was constitutionally forbidden too. One of these, which one would have thought someone of Mark Lawson's learning would be aware of, was the Mormon state of Utah - which remained outside the union until they agreed to drop the open practice of polygamy. Yet religion is extraordinarily powerful still in Utah and polygamy is still practiced. It's hardly typical of the rest of the country but that doesn't stop Lawson using it as an example:
"Last week an 11-year-old boy from Utah disappeared during a scout camp. After four days in the wilderness, the child was found, thirsty but perky. It's true that even British phone-ins in these circumstances would have freely invoked a "miracle", but the public comments of the boy's relatives and family friends resembled scenes from Iran of the ayatollahs unexpectedly dubbed into American."
Family friends and family, relieved at the return of a loved one, waxing lyrical in a religious way - what could be more sinister?

America is a very religious country. The chances are that anyone visiting one of the "Bible-belt" states will have been asked by a wide-eyed religious enthusiast if they know Jesus as their "personal saviour". Very disconcerting for us Brits who "don't do god" but it doesn't amount to a confrontation with theocracy and we can be grateful that the constitution bans religious loons from enforcing their confessional preference on the rest of the country. Imagine what use they could make of Britain's constitution where the monarch is the titular head of an established church that controls about 25% of the schools in England and Wales; which has unelected representation in the second chamber of the legislature; and whose influence ensures religious instruction and assembly is compulsory in British schools. Secular Americans should thank god for their godless constitution...

New Labour and legal moralism

Legal moralism is the name given to the notion that it is the proper function of the law to enforce morality - or, in other words, that government can and should make people better. Having given up, in Larry Elliot's phrase, "moral socialism for social moralism" much of this government's domestic legislation can be understood in this way.

Asbos, smoking bans, fox-hunting bans, the hectoring of fat people, religious incitement legislation, the attempt to ban smacking, and their ridiculous witterings about "hoodies" are all attempts to get people to behave in a way that this government thinks it should.

The problem with this legal paternalism is, the attempt to criminalise bad behaviour results in good people being made criminals.

Iranian election

Joking apart, the landslide election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismayed Washington, London and the EU, not least because he has vowed to resist pressure on Iran's nuclear programme.

Worrying, to say the least - but Martin Woollacott has an interesting take on this, seeing it as a "last-ditch" attempt of the regime to retain the power which is palpably ebbing away:

"Those years have seen a slow draining away of legitimacy from the republic and its leaders, and in particular from Khamenei, who could never match the dominating presence of Khomeini and who could not stem the increasing hostility of most of the Iranian people to political religion, but who nevertheless has been determined, along with his satraps within the system, to maintain his grip on power.


The ultimate destination in a journey of this kind is an authoritarian state without authority, and that prospect seems much closer today in Iran. For years the men in charge of the key positions in Iran, including the Council of Guardians, the judiciary, the security ministries and the security forces, have periodically been able to recapture some popular support by allowing reformists a margin for manoeuvre in parliament and in the presidency, particularly under President Mohammad Khatami.

But, with the subversion of the 2004 parliamentary elections by the conservatives, who banned most liberal candidates and made the resources of the state available to the rightwingers, that era began to close. It is now definitively over, with the election to the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran whose politics are fundamentalist to the point of simple-mindedness, marking the point at which the Khamenei regime has passed over into a fearful consolidation of power that has no room even for a loyal opposition."

The strength of democracy is that not only does it legitimise opposition, in some sense it is one's civic duty. A fatal flaw of religious regimes everywhere is this civic duty becomes rebellion against god. When this line is combined with the reality of rulers who are all too human, it becomes increasingly intolerable - robbing the regime of legitimacy and inevitably requiring recourse to the state apparatus of oppression:
"Khamenei and his fellow conservatives...have increasingly come to depend only on the security state, and upon the physical coercion, or the threat of it, which that dependence implies. They have also begun, as it increases, to admit representatives of the security arms into the inner circle of power, hitherto confined to clerics and a few devout laymen. Ahmadinejad is himself a former Revolutionary Guard.

Certainly, the losing candidates in the presidential election charge that the assets of the security state were deployed on a large scale to ensure his victory. The meetings of liberal candidates were disrupted, mysterious bombs went off - presumably the contribution of the intelligence services - government money was said to have been made available in large quantities and the volunteer militia groups, which dot every community, were on hand as unpaid election workers and enforcers. In addition, there are so many of these people - 300,000 in the militia, police, and Revolutionary Guard, not counting the regular armed forces - that the impact of their votes, if directed toward a particular candidate, is bound to be significant.

Whether such support was as extensive as some of the losers claimed, it was not the only reason Ahmadinejad won. His diatribes against corruption and his pledge that oil wealth would be used to improve the lives of ordinary people had an impact. Yet this is precisely the field in which he cannot deliver."
The other fatal weakness of religious regimes is they have the same flaw as the Soviet model - with bells on: an inability to efficiently harness technology to the business of production, something which can often be masked in oil-rich regimes but which inevitably produces intolerable strains. My concern would be the fear over Iranian nuclear technology will bring nearer a confrontation with the West, which could artificially strengthen a bankrupt regime and distract from the fact that it is one that ultimately has no future.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Green light for Enfield academy

And bad news for the Enlightenment. From the Guardian:
"A Christian charity has been given approval to press ahead with plans to build a new academy in Enfield, north London.

The Oasis academy, being built by the Oasis Trust, is scheduled to open on a site in Enfield Lock in September 2007 after winning final approval from the Department for Education and Skills."
The Oasis Trust was set up by Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister. If you don't know who this unctuous individual is, take a look here. This is a face you would never tire of punching. I mean, I'm sure he means well and he has raised a lot of dosh for charity but my objection is that god-botherers should not be running schools, and especially not ones like Steve Chalke - who, despite falling foul of some ultra-conservatives, is himself a deeply conservative evangelical - and not exactly the sharpest tool in the box. If that isn't enough to convince you, look who he gets an endorsement from:
"The schools minister, Lord Adonis, said: "The Oasis academy is a really exciting opportunity for the pupils and community of Enfield and I am confident it will help raise educational standards in the area."
I noticed Meaders asking the pertinent question, "Why, incidentally, are we asked to imagine Gordon Brown as more "left-wing" than Blair?" I've wondered that myself - but one of the benefits of his leadership, surely, is we would be done with these sickly, smiling god-botherers? Seculaphobes, the lot of them. Stirring up religious hatred (in me) - I'm consulting a lawyer...

Strange outbreak of agreeing with Islamic hard-liners

From the Scotsman:
(T)oday, Mashideh and Zeinab, both 22, will pledge their allegiance to the cause of Islamic traditionalism, by voting for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran who is the dark-horse contender in the presidential run-off. Originally written off as a presidential no-hoper because of his strong religious orthodoxy, Mr Ahmadinejad has ridden an unexpected swell of support for hardline Islamic values."
Doesn't sound so good, I hear you say? Ah - but get this bit:
"While supporters of his more reform-minded rival, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, played the Beatles' Let It Be in fealty to his campaign hopes last week, Mashideh and Zeinab frown upon even the most mild- mannered rock music.

"We believe that some music can destroy your ability to make decisions," said Zeinab. "Jazz, rock music, like that man, what is his name, Chris de Burgh?"
Yes, that's his name - and if you're saying he's in league with Satan, you'll get no argument from me. And it's worse for them than having to put up with the odd unsettling appearance of the eye-browed one on the telly:
"de Burgh is omnipresent in Iran these days, blaring out the fast-food and internet cafes. But if Mr Ahmadinejad gets in, many Iranians fear he may disappear for good".
If that isn't a good enough reason to vote for Ahmadinejad, I don't know what is. His other policies are, of course, dodgy in the extreme so I think, in the spirit of international peace and co-operation, we should persuade the Irish government to have de Burgh killed - in public and very slowly...

Is being Scottish bad for your health?

It is according to this:
"HAVING Celtic genes or even just living in Scotland could put people at far greater risk of heart disease, scientists claimed yesterday.

Researchers at Edinburgh University revealed that an unknown "X-factor" - not linked to the usual suspects of poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise and poverty - appears to be responsible for those living in Scotland having a 50 per cent higher chance of getting the potentially fatal condition than people south of the Border."
Interesting - although I'll reserve judgment: one piece of research I saw showed that people in Bearsden - a relatively prosperous Glasgow suburb - has health rates much the same as the South of England. In neighbouring Drumchapel - one of Glasgow's four peripheral council housing (I should say, housing association now) estates - one can expect to die 10 years earlier, on average. Still, there does appear to be something in the air. From the same article:
" SCOTTISH pets have the UK's worst record for heart disease. According to the records of 245,000 animals treated in the UK by the PDSA veterinary charity, Scots dogs, cats and other animals have the worst cardio-vascular health."
Bloody hell! I'm off to France; they let you smoke and you live longer. It would, as the Americans say, be a "no-brainer" except I canny speak French, beyond ordering a beer, asking where the toilet is and...um...saying I regret nothing - my life has been short but beautiful. Tend to get strange looks when you come out with that last one...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

"Clearance denial"

Michael Fry, the right-wing Scottish historian was on Newsnight Scotland last night defending his thesis that much of the brutal history of the Highland Clearances has been exaggerated. He argues that much of the mythology stems from the seminal text by John Prebble , which he says, "caught a turn in Scottish psychology":
"Scotland was changing in its own mind from being a victor-nation, which had made a success of modernity, into a victim-nation, the hapless plaything of alien forces beyond its control. What better example than the Highlands, their fate foreshadowing the doom of the whole country? There a rich way of life had been destroyed to the cultural and material ruin of a noble race."
I'm not an expert on this period by any means and Fry's book hasn't come out yet but I think I'm unlikely to agree with it. While Fry is right to suggest that the idea of a uniformly brutal wave of evictions from the Highlands belongs to a mythology of moustache-twirling baddies, it is undoubtedly true that some were. Tom Devine is surely right to consider Fry's comparison of the Clearances with Glasgow's 1960s slum-clearance programme as "simple causitry".

Nevertheless, I was astonished that a distinguished historian like Prof. Devine went on to suggest the following:
"Devine...believes the Tory polemicist's contribution to the clearances could have far-reaching consequences.

"When the two extremes come together, such as the people who wanted the Duke of Sutherland monument destroyed, and figures such as Fry, you can see the possibility of a war that would make the debate on sectarianism tame by comparison," he says.
The idea that this sort of debate could ignite passions on the scale of an old firm game could be interpreted as a perverse form of optimism; Prof. Devine understands perfectly well that sectarianism isn't exactly fuelled by a good grasp of history on either side of the fence.

I confess I was surprised to learn that the composer James McMillan had come to Fry's defence because although I'm sure it's unfair of me, I never thought of him as having a particularly subtle take on Scottish history (he once described Scotland as "Belfast without the guns"; makes a valid point but a wild exaggeration, nonetheless). But in defending Fry, McMillan was making a righteous stand against some of the ludicrous attacks on him. In particular, McMillan singled-out the rather nasty Brian Wilson for his idiotic expression "Clearance Denial". Just in case the link with Holocaust denial wasn't obvious, Wilson also specifically mentions David Irving. McMillan went on:
"Fry's views represent a refreshing, revisionist challenge to the tired and hoary old myths so beloved of the complacent, self-obsessed Scottish Establishment.

"Fry deserves our encouragement and thirsty curiosity rather than an archetypically Scottish witch hunt with its attendant and predictable immaturity and hysteria."

He added: "The reaction to Fry's views has exposed a tyrannical intellectual agenda in Scotland which shames many of our academics. Fry has, worryingly, pointed to the effect that low academic standards are now having on Scottish Executive policy."

Scotland's academic community also receives the full force of MacMillan's anger. In particular, Professor Tom Devine is accused of attempting to ward off Fry by appealing to the "fear factor" in describing the Clearances as "potentially even more divisive than sectarianism".
The key point is in the first sentence: it's not that Fry is right (although please bear in mind that this book isn't even out yet); it's that this kind of debate is refreshing. And who doesn't agree that Scots academia could do with being refreshed?

Depressingly, no other Scottish historian was willing to give Mr. Fry the courtesy of rational disagreement on the programme last night - leaving the redoubtable Mike Russell to do the job instead. Mr. Russell accused Fry of trivialising the suffering of those who had to flee the Highlands and I would say that if the Glasgow slum-clearance comparison is a fair representation of Fry's book, then he's absolutely right. But I'll wait to read it for myself. And in the meantime, the charge of trivialising history more appropriately lies at the door of those who coined this ridiculous phrase, "Clearance denial".

This isn't, I have to say, the first time when people who aren't any kind of historians have slandered real historians. Enough witch-hunting, already...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Olympics to create 'sporty Scots'

From the BBC:
"Staging the Olympics in London would give an enormous boost to sport in Scotland, Sports Minister Patricia Ferguson has said.
The MSP said that if the UK capital does host the games in seven years time it would excite and inspire Scots of all ages to take up sport."
Hmmm, don't fancy the chances of London getting the Olympics and if they did, I doubt it'd have much impact north of the border. Still, good luck to them. Those of us in the educational sector have done our bit: by design or accident, practically everyone under the age of 50 owns a tracksuit and a pair of trainers...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

For good or ill, institutions matter

For the anti-war left, the elections in Iraq were a sham: with voting taking place under occupation - and the result unlikely to alter this fact, they argue that democracy has not broken out in Iraq.

For the pro-war left, the Iranian elections are used as an example of constitutional illusion: they have competitive elections but with so many candidates barred from the outset, and the result unable to even dent the hegemony of the priesthood, the elections are a fraud.

In this case, I would argue that, to some extent, both are right: Iraq's elections mattered - but so does the Iranian one, not because either are exactly models of free and fair elections but because institutions matter.

They matter because they generally outlive their creators and their maker's original purpose. The Duma, for instance, was set up by Nicholas II in response to the 1905 revolution. Everyone understands that the Tsarist state was a creaking relic from an absolutist age and this parliament did not alter that fact. As well as excluding the most popular parties - the Social Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats - it had no power over the choice of the cabinet or over the privileged position of the Orthodox Church or the aristocracy.

Yet consider the fate of the Duma: it outlived the Romanovs and their sickly offspring, the ill-fated Provisional Government; it survived Stalin, the Kruschev thaw, the Breshnev stagnation and the collapse of the USSR itself. Post-Soviet Russia is scarcely a model of democracy but apart from a few Stalinist die-hards and the Chechens - no-one believes either Stalin or Ivan the Terrible represented a more congenial regime than Putin.

A similar point could be made about the German Reichstag: it survived Bismarck, Hitler and defeat in two world wars.

The endurance of institutions is one of the reasons why I think some Scottish nationalists were short-sighted in opposing devolution: the pattern for regional assemblies in Europe has generally been that they accrue more powers over time, rather than less.

It's one of the reasons the minimum wage was such a good idea: it was and is certainly parsimonious but the importance of it is it established the principle of a floor for wages.

And it's one of the reasons why ID cards and religious incitement legislation are such bad ideas. It's all very well for the Blairites to insist that the former won't be used to control the population or the latter won't censor criticism of religion. If these pieces of legislation are passed, ID cards and incitement legislation will be around long after Blair is dead and buried, and who knows what uses some future regime may put these.

The Iranian elections are like this. Because they can't really bring about a change in government, they have been dismissed - but if there's anything in what I've said, perhaps they shouldn't be? Firstly, that they're held at all is more important than is often supposed because it serves to illustrate the point that democracy - rather than inheritance or religion - is understood all over the world as the basis for authority and the fact that Tehran feels the need to pay lip-service to it is not insignificant. It's not a coincidence, for instance, that women are permitted to vote in Iran's phoney elections and also have more liberty than they do in Saudi Arabia. And neither is it insignificant that these elections have become occasions for dissent. It falls very short of authentic democracy obviously, but they represent institutions that could someday form the basis of genuinely competitive elections.

And if this point can be accepted with regards to Iran, surely it should in the case if Iraq? Unsurprisingly, I don't share the anti-war view of the Iraqi elections. There's no evidence that people voted out of fear of the Americans; there is rather more evidence that people didn't vote because they found the chillingly simple slogan, "You vote; you die" off-putting, to say the least. The elections were far from perfect and they haven't, of course, ended the occupation but as I said before, they represent a hopeful sign because they establish mechanisms and institutions that will hopefully provide the basis for proper free and fair competitive elections.

In other words, parliamentary-type institutions and competitive elections, regardless of how phoney, are one of a country's features that allow us to determine whether the internal conditions for regime-change exist. With Iraq, the fact that all other possible mechanisms had been attempted and failed demonstrated that these internal conditions were absent, which was one of the reasons why I supported the war. Iran, in contrast, does have these - which is one of the reasons why I would not support externally imposed regime-change.

The pressing issue of the day

is, why does my living room smell of cat piss? I'm looking for a scientific explanation and I've eliminated the following:

1) My cat - because I don't have one.

2) My neighbour's cat. I know they're more intelligent than dogs and all that - but I think house-breaking is beyond the average moggy.

3) Me. You might be thinking I'm the sort of person who would come home drunk and relieve myself on the living-room carpet. Well, maybe after several libations, the old accuracy isn't what it should be - but I'm not that bad.

I know how: my son barfed copiously on the carpet on Saturday but I'm mystified as to why it now, after being cleaned, smells like cat piss.

This is a sort of "notes & queries" plea because I don't think the pong will make me attractive to women at all.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Sharp-dressed men

Interesting piece by Nick Cohen on the dastardly deeds of management consultants, prompted by a new book by David Craig. I was particularly interested to read this:
"Craig is fascinating on why the public has lost so much money. Civil servants are used to dealing with each other and generally assume that people they meet have the country's best interests at heart. They aren't prepared for negotiations with consultants whose guiding principle is often how to hit the client for as much money as possible. They don't understand a world where the acronym Afab - 'anything for a buck' - is thrown around with sniggering nonchalance. Even those who have learned the score after hard-won experience can't use their knowledge because the line from Downing Street is that they're hopeless while the consultants are absolutely fabulous".
A similar thought occurred to me on seeing PFI in practice: it's not just that PFI is an expensive way of borrowing money, or that it actually creates more bureaucracy (I would argue), it's that the public bad - private good mantra stops those dealing with contractors from asking fundamental questions - simply because in many cases the bureaucrats are unaccustomed to asking them.

The examples I was thinking of, however, have rather more to do with cheapness, rather than excessive expense: on acquiring the various services to furnish these wonderful PFI school buildings that are all over Glasgow, it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to ask why a given contractor is able to do the removals/re-furbish the interior of the buildings/install the telephone and computer network so cheaply.

It's too bad: in the case of the removals, for example, the honest answer would have been, "Because we're a bunch of cowboys, mate - why d'ya think?" Not just things being send to the wrong place or damaged in transit. When we were moving to this building, the theft of computer equipment was something to behold. My head of department unpacked his computer and tried to set it up. It wasn't working and on closer inspection, the reason became plain: everything, the hard disc, the processor, the...um...bits inside that make it work, were completely gone. I think every department had a similar experience.

Funny because despite the enthusiasm for private involvement in public services, one of the slogans of the monetarist schools seems to never have been learned: I think it was Milton Friedman who said that there were no free lunches?

Lazy Sunday Round-up

Bush isn't keen enough on fresh air, for my liking.

Blair's too keen on fresh air, for my liking.

Silly boys with toys.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Iranian election

Lazy blogging: Norm does the Iranian election, so I don't have to.

Polly Toynbee: in Europe, not America

Polly Toynbee, despite the present Euro-crisis, attempts to rally the troops to the European cause. As usual, Polly likes to get in a bit of national self-loathing:
"But look at him, the man who promised never again to see Britain isolated in Europe, now in a minority of one against 24, opposed even by his closest allies as he scrambles for every penny of "our money" handbagged by Margaret Thatcher."
Well, firstly - being isolated doesn't mean you're wrong but in any case, it seems that this line is a little out of date. This from the Times:
"JACQUES CHIRAC suffered a double blow as the EU summit opened last night when he was forced to admit defeat over the European constitution, and Tony Blair won powerful allies for his campaign to cut French agricultural subsidies.

Mr Blair feared isolation in his battle over Britain’s £3 billion rebate unless there was a thorough overhaul of EU farm spending as well.

But Dutch and Swedish leaders backed the Prime Minister’s call for the £600 billion budget to be reduced, and Mr Blair received a surprise incentive to stall in negotiations when the conservative politician expected to be Germany’s next leader told France to cut back its agricultural subsidies.

Angela Merkel, favourite to replace Gerhard Schröder in September, said that it was unreasonable to expect Britain to surrender its rebate if France would not cut farm subsidies."
Quite - and while it is correct to say "Only three leaders supported him over Iraq", this only applies to the 15. I realise it's very inconvenient for those who have used Iraq as an opportunity to advocate European unity as an alternative to the USA but the fact remains that a majority of the enlarged EU supported the invasion of Iraq.

Finally, apparently the Cold War was won with cuddles:
"It will take visionary leadership to persuade people that Europe's great mission has been spreading democracy to fascist and communist dictatorships, not by invasion but by the soft power of embrace."
Nothing to do with Reagan spending the Soviets into the ground, then? Not that I don't wish she was right; who couldn't use more cuddles?

Cameron declares candidature for Tory Party

From the Guardian. It's a sign of ageing: not only do policemen look younger to me these days, but if Cameron won, that would mean both the leader of the Tories and the Shadow Chancellor were younger than me. Depressing. Nowadays, the only person I can guarantee being younger than is a judge - and I can only enjoy that experience by getting myself arrested, which I really need to stop doing.

In the same piece, Theresa May - who hasn't ruled herself out of the leadership - apparently urged the party to become "more female".

Now, I'm all in favour of people getting in touch with their female sides but the Tories? They could try but I fear some horrible spiritual equivalent of a collective drag act. It would be much worse than when Hague had all the Tory MPs away for an informal "bonding" weekend. They all turned up in their casual clothes - a very disturbing spectacle.

Scottish first with a humanist wedding

From the Herald:
"A COUPLE will be married tomorrow in the first humanist wedding ceremony in the UK.

Edinburgh Zoo will be the setting when Martin Reijns and Karen Watts marry under new rules which make humanist weddings legal in Scotland."
Well, that's cool - but I'm wondering why they picked the zoo? Are they rubbing the animals' faces in it a bit in a, "There's no God and we're top of the food-chain, suckers", sort of way?

Politicians are positive dopes

From the Metro:
"THE POLITICIANS MUST have thought it a good idea - suggesting colleagues volunteer to try out a new drug detection gadget.

But after urging them to take part, William Graham got a shock - when he tested positive for cannabis. Traces of the drug were found on the Welsh Assembly member's fingers.

'I can't think where I could have got it from,' said Tory Mr Graham. He arranged with police to demonstrate the £40,000 Ion Track drug detection system to assembly members in Cardiff Bay.

A swab of Social Justice Minister Edwina Hart's hands also proved positive. But their results were caused by cross-contamination of the drug from money, door handles or other public areas.

'It can come out of cash, out of a cashpoint, a beer mat, or anything else,' said Ms Hart."
It wasnae me - what an original excuse. And if they're not telling porkies, what's the point of the technology?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Tory boys on education

Here EU Serf sticks the boot into teachers. I've dealt with the myth of choice in education before and won't repeat myself - but I do think the Tories' attitude to teachers illustrates very neatly the state they're in. Teachers tend to be of a conservative disposition, for reasons that should be obvious - yet few of them translate this into support for the Tories and from EU Serf's post, it's not difficult to see why; their contempt for teachers and anything provided by the state is clear for all to see. Take this line, for example:
"Curricula are over prescriptive, teachers are paid the same whatever their skill..."
Can't disagree about curricula - but who do they think introduced the National Curriculum? The bloody Tories, that's who. Is the second bit a plea for payment by results? Ok, so - let's hear the fair way in which the input of each individual teacher can be disaggregated from all the other educational influences in the pupils' lives. And once you've done that, explain why you think having a load of teachers who are motivated by money and willing to let their struggling comrades fall by the wayside is a good thing. Then once you've done that, explain what possible motivation anyone would have for taking on board the more difficult classes in the more difficult schools. Then there's this:
"If teachers are right about their low pay..."
My English comrades are. Why do you think the average length of time a maths teacher lasts at the chalk-face in London is one year? They get fed up with doing a difficult job with little pay and wise-ass commentators telling them what a crap job they're doing. Who wants to put up with that shit?
"competition would certainly make them better off."
Really? How?
"Schools that were run by their headmasters would focus on education not on box ticking, so teachers would be free to do the thing they joined the profession to do. Teach."
Even if schools were run by their headteachers, staff would still have a mountain of bureaucracy to wade through - courtesy of...you guessed it: the Tories!
"The only real losers I can see in such a system are the Teachers Unions and The kind of people who found their jobs in the Guardian. To which one can only say:

That’s a terrible shame isn’t it. :)"
I said before teachers are of a conservative disposition yet don't support the Tories and this is why: the Tories hate teachers, their unions and the public sector in general.

We hate them right back...

Conservative MPs reclaim the power to choose leader

From the Scotsman:
"CONSERVATIVE MPs moved last night to reclaim from the party's rank-and-file membership the power to name a leader.

The move could hurt the ambitions of David Davis, whose support is strongest among party activists, although Tory insiders said last night that the shadow home secretary remains favourite to replace Michael Howard."
A very wise move, methinks - for the following reason:
"Before he gives up his post in the autumn, Mr Howard wants to replace the rules that allow grassroots Tories to pick a leader, a process that prompted the election of Iain Duncan Smith in 2001."
One is always inclined to think: internal party democracy = Good Thing. But let's face it, this is the Tory party we're talking about here and their rank and file activists hail - as often as not - from the mad-dog wing of the party. You know, the lot that turn up to the party conference baying for blood, drooling in anticipation that some group of social deviants are to be flogged and/or corralled on a lonely desert island somewhere, by an incoming Tory government. The lot whose presence makes otherwise reasonably intelligent people like Portillo make a complete and utter arse of himself (Remember his "Who dares wins" speech? What a complete berk...).

It's probably a sign that the Tories realise the state they're in that they see the need to change the selection process for the leadership. The next positive step they should take is a public beating for the next idiot who starts banging on about Tony Martin...

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Writing reports: the culture of compulsory euphemism

From the Scotsman:
"(W)e live in litigious times. Teachers have to watch what they say and be careful what they write. If the parents think "truculent" untrue and "tantrums" an exaggeration, it can be their word against that of the school. Short of producing CCTV footage and calling Dr Tanya Byron as an expert witness, evidence can be hard to come by.

That is why the compiling of banks of suitable euphemisms is almost a cottage industry. When the 5-14 Scheme was introduced, this was an informal and covert activity. Now schools are up front about it, at least within the confines of the workplace. Staff can access the approved list of appropriate phrases.
This is true - I was actually given one of these in a Lanarkshire school, believe it or not. Although I'm not sure if the "litigious times" we live in is a satisfactory explanation (has anyone actually been sued for writing a bad report?) - more the fear of litigation, I reckon.

The thing is, these banal, euphemistic comments - pressed on the grounds of "positive re-enforcement" - are incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't learned "teacher-speak". I mean, are they aware that "must realise the importance of homework" actually means he/she never does any? Or that "must employ a more focused approach" means they never shut up and never produce any work that a well-trained chimp couldn't better? Or that "must realise the importance of maintaining good relations with his/her classmates" means, "your child is a sociopath"? I doubt it.

Fortunately, under the protective shield of my head of department, I don't have to do this crap and can say pretty much what I want, provided it isn't too outrageous. (Everyone, including the HT, is scared of him and he is wonderfully contemptuous of all things that are pants and PC in education). My favourite, which I stole from somewhere, was "Pupil X sets for himself low standards, which he consistently fails to achieve".

From the mouth of babes

Just had a "please-take" for an absent Science teacher (off due to excessive gorgeousness, I reckon). Pupils, if they're repeating a swear-word, often spell it out. One pupil says, "Ooh, sir - did you hear what she just called me? A K-U-N-T."

I blame the English Department, myself...

Finland's education system

This wee bit from the TES reminded me of a BBC report on Scottish TV that was on a while ago. Among the things one could learn about the groovy Finnish system were: they don't start formal education until the age of seven; their schools are fully-comprehensive, with a strong social ethos that favours attending your local school; little formal assessment; no equivalent of Her Majesty's Inspectorate (they have the novel idea that teachers are professionals and can be trusted to get on with the job); and - something that would please Tommy Sheridan - free school meals.

The net result? They reckoned Finnish fifteen-year-olds were the best educated in the OECD.

Our education minister's response to this funky notion of reducing the amount of assessment and general government interference in schools?

"Um, yes...well, we can learn from them but they are also learning from us (What? Other than how not to run an education system)...blah, blah...we're looking at having Scottish pupils doing Standard Grade at the end of third year, rather than fourth".

In other words, our executive's response to the news that less formative assessment is good for attainment is...more assessment. Brilliant. Just brilliant, Mr. Peacock...

UK unemployment continues to fall

From the BBC:
"The government's preferred ILO measurement of unemployment fell by 15,000 to 1.4 million between February and April."
Anyone else remember the Tories campaiging back in 1979 under the slogan, "Labour isn't working" because unemployment had reached the shocking figure of over one million?

Rumsfeld: Guantanamo's image "unfortunate"

For anyone that didn't see it, the Rumsfeld interview can be found here. I don't think there's anyone on the face of the planet that would disagree with his statement that America could do a "better job" at communicating their policies to the rest of the world:

"I think the US is notably unskillful in our communications and our public diplomacy," he said in Washington.
Indeed. It's occurred to me before that Bin Laden & Co. have been rather better at "coalition-building" than the Americans; his success in identifying himself with the Palestinian cause - something I doubt he gives a shit about - illustrates this.

It also involves no understatement to say that Guantanamo's reputation around the world was "unfortunate". It's also "unfortunate", in my view, that they haven't drawn the conclusion that the solution to this "image problem" would be to close it down.

The American's general lack of concern with how they are viewed in the world infuriates many people, including myself. However, I think they're like the French in some ways in that their sense of national pride is misunderstood: Guantanamo wasn't an issue in the Presidential campaign in the way that Europeans would expect it to be and pointing out to Americans how this sort of treatment is viewed throughout the world doesn't really get you anywhere. I think if more people took the line that Guantanamo is un-American, they would probably be surprised at the response they would get because theirs is a Republic founded on ideas.

And un-American it certainly is. Those campaigning against the death-penalty in the US have tried to interpret the constitution as backing their case, arguing that, for example, the length of time inmates remain on death-row breeches the constitutional prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment". As an opponent of the death-penalty, I wish them well but this aspect has absolutely nothing to do with the death-penalty and everything to do with the use of torture. The American revolution mirrored the French in this respect: both outlawed torture - it was an article of faith for the Enlightenment thinkers that its use belonged to Europe's medieval, superstitious past - but both retained the death penalty.

And a couple of features of the medieval use of torture need to be remembered: there was never a time when it was not justified by reference to some higher good - and there was never a time when the evidence gained from torture could be considered reliable.

Americans speak in reverential tones about the "founding fathers" of the Republic but too few are reminding Rumsfeld et al what they had to say on the subject of torture.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Blair rejects rebate freeze plan

Really don't know what to make of this. Britain's rebate may not make a lot of sense but neither would the position, were it to be given up. As nosemonkey points out, this would result in Britain paying around 15 times as much as France.

On the other hand, under the present arrangement, Britain's rebate doesn't really make a lot of sense; we originally lost out because of our relatively small agricultural sector. Blair is right to raise the issue of the CAP (although a bit late in the day, I reckon) but again, as pointed out here, there ain't the least chance of Chirac taking the rational, self-sacrificing role.

It's a pity because the CAP - which consumes nearly half of the EU's budget - is a piece of nonsense that brings the whole EU into disrepute. It's not that there isn't a case for protecting agriculture - countries have a traditional and rational interest in ensuring that they are not completely dependent on agricultural imports - but I'm really not sure why the EU's role should be so large in it, given that this sort of protectionism is a national imperative.

As it stands, the CAP must surely be one of the most harmful policies of the EU vis-a-vis Africa, where producers of primary products struggle to gain access to European markets? It's at least one instance where freer trade really would be fairer trade...

Caption, anyone?

Labour links run deep amid 'cronyism' of Scots quango establishment

One of these "Pope a Catholic" stories from the Scotsman:
"A CULTURE of cronyism continues to pervade Scotland's quangos despite promises to stamp it out, The Scotsman can reveal."
You don't say? You could have knocked me down with a feather...
"Most of the board members whose appointments came under scrutiny four years ago - when Henry McLeish made the "bonfire of the quangos" one of the central planks of his administration - are still in their jobs, while others have moved on to new and even more lucrative placements.

Despite previous denials of cronyism, many of the high earners among Scotland's 790 quangocrats still have extensive links to the Labour party or the Scottish Executive."
I'd like to be able to say that this is a result of the Thatcherite war on local government and if these quangos had most of their functions returned to local control, cronyism would begin to retreat in Scotland...but I can't, of course - when was it ever any different in the West of Scotland?

Probation for naked interviewer

From the Beeb:
"A man who tried to conduct a job interview naked has been sentenced to three years probation and placed on the sex offenders' register.
Glasgow Sheriff Court was told that Saeed Akbar, a manager at an interpreting and translation company, "had wanted a bit of excitement".

Sheriff Brian Lockhart described the behaviour as "wholly unacceptable".

He heard that Akbar, 35, left the interview room and came back in naked clutching a clipboard.

When the job candidate refused to strip as well, he put his clothes on and attempted to continue the interview as normal, the court was told.

Akbar, from Fife, said: "I wanted a bit of excitement that afternoon, that's purely all it was."
The excitement cost him dear:
"Passing sentence, Sheriff Lockhart said Akbar's partner had now left him, he had lost his job and his friends refused to associate with him."
It goes on:
" He worked at Alpha Translating and Interpreting Services in Glasgow, which advertised for a translator.

The woman answered the advert and was invited to attend an interview at the firm's Glasgow office the following day.

When she arrived, Akbar - who was held in "high esteem" by his company - asked if she would mind if they took their clothes off.

The £25,000 per-year executive tried to restart the interview after putting his clothes back on, but his victim fled and reported the matter to police.

He initially told police his strip was a consensual "role play" as part of his "tough interviewing technique".

Aamer Anwar, defending, said: "He totally accepts his guilt. It was a serious abuse of his position as he foolishly believed the complainer was interested in him."
Um, ok - but perhaps whipping all your clothes off so soon isn't the best strategy. Maybe ask for a phone number or something first?

Monday, June 13, 2005

Sisters are doing it for themselves...

In Iran, that is. From the Independent:
"Hundreds of women demonstrated outside Tehran university, calling for greater rights and a boycott of Friday's presidential election.

They shouted "down with dictatorship!" and "shame on you!" in response to the aggressive tactics of police, who tried to prevent protesters reaching the demonstration yesterday.

(...)

"Iran's most famous woman poet read to a hushed audience on the ground. But soon afterwards, the crowd roared and surged forward as somebody was dragged away by police. A weeping elderly woman said that she had been struck by a policeman as she tried to approach the rally.

"We don't want to recover our rights at the expense of men," said a journalism student, Shafiq Khanbani. "We want the democratic rights of all people to be respected and we're protesting because they're not."
Via Norm.

.

More pictures here...



Gulags again

Nick Cohen wrote in last week's Observer making much the same point as here - that to compare Guantanamo with Stalin's gulags was rather a disproportionate response.

Irene Khan responded by saying, "The people for whom we campaign see no hierarchy in human rights abuses, no categorisation of injustice."

No, of course they don't, dear - but by the historically inept gulag-comparison, you obviously do; that was rather the point of Cohen's criticism and it's that your response doesn't address.

Elections in Iran: pre-cooked

In one of those "Pope a Catholic" stories the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch says un-elected religious leaders are keeping Iran from holding a free and fair presidential election.

Yet is it not a sign of how successful democracy has been that even dictators - who do not depend on elections for their position - nevertheless feel the need to have the appearance of democracy in order that they might gain some of its legitimacy?

Something those who hold to the "Muslims don't do democracy" line should bear in mind, methinks...

Adoption changes: some questions for the god-squad

This refers to the Scottish Executive's proposed legislation, which would improve the rights of homosexual and unmarried couples to adopt. Scotland's Catholic church, unsurprisingly, is opposing the move: Cardinal Keith O'Brien said to allow homosexual couples to adopt was "contrary to the common good".
"Such a measure would distort the understanding of the family, cause harm to children and promote the status of homosexual relationships.

"Homosexual unions are notoriously fragile and unstable and the small number of homosexual couples living together make the suggestion that this measure would increase the number of potential adoptive parents unrealistic."
The Church of Scotland, not wanting to be out-done by the Catholic church's heart-warming concern for the welfare of children also have opposed the move:
"Ms Milne said the Church of Scotland saw marriage as the best way of providing a happy and stable environment for a child.

She explained: "For a child, welfare is seen in terms of security and happiness and stability and a loving environment.

"The church sees marriage as the best way of providing exactly that situation of stability and security and happiness."
Let's be clear about this: children who are eligible for adoption are wards of the state and will either be in residential care or with foster parents on a temporary basis. How is it in the "common good" for them to remain in institutionalized care rather than in a supportive family environment? And anyway, surely it's the good of the child that should be considered, not some nebulous concept of the "common good"?

The problem with the churches is they hold on to this concept of an ideal world when what they should be considering is the best possible world. I know a couple of people working in the residential care sector; they are dedicated and do an extremely stressful job, which is poorly paid and has a rather low status in the "caring professions". None of those I've met working in this sector would disagree that a stable home environment, regardless of family type, is better than raising children in an institution. Are the churches not aware that many children are taken into care from heterosexual couples who are unable or unwilling to look after their own offspring? Surely being in a loving homosexual household - or one with unmarried parents - is better than being in a heterosexual one where daddy comes home drunk and beats his children or worse?

My own circumstances don't match the church's notion of an ideal: I'm separated from my son's mother and share custody of him with her. I wouldn't try to pretend that this is ideal, it isn't - but are the god-squad seriously of the view that my son should be taken into care in the interests of the "common good"?

And given the revelations over the last few years about those abused under the care of the Catholic Church, why aren't they embarrassed to pontificate about what is in the best interests of children?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Anger over Warnock's criticism of special schools

From the Guardian:
"Educationalist Lady Warnock, who in 1978 advocated greater inclusion, conceded that the policy had backfired, leaving a "disastrous legacy."

In the pamphlet, published today by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, she called for a radical review of the closure of special schools, arguing that pressure to include children with special needs had led to "confusion, of which children were the casualties."
It's swings and roundabouts: anyone acquainted with 19th century British social history will tell you that the Victorians just loved their institutions. The favoured solution to the social problems presented by the sick, the poor, the orphans and widows, the deaf and the dumb, the mentally ill - not to mention society's criminal elements - was to segregate them and dump them in these institutions.

That there should have been, in the late-20th century, a backlash against this rather hard-faced approach is entirely understandable and the well-meaning desire to "mainstream" children with learning and behavioural problems into regular primary and secondary schools was a part of that. However, I think you'll find few people working in education today that would disagree with the proposition that this process has been overdone somewhat.

Most teachers have had pupils, who in the past would've gone to a special educational facility, who simply cannot cope with the mainstream educational experience. Moreover, we're reluctant to take the blame for a lack of success in this area because most of us haven't been trained to deal with this level of need. I'm a Secondary teacher - and my training works on the assumption that the children I teach from first year can read and write. All of us have had children who are not literate. One feels guilty because there's no doubt that their needs are not being catered for but I simply don't know how to teach basic literacy - even if I knew what the obstacle to them learning to read and write was in the first place.

"Social inclusion" in education is a bit like "care in the community"; motivated by the best intentions but as the policy hits the ground, inevitably planners at the local authority level see it as an opportunity to save on the undoubted costs of sustaining specialist educational facilities.

As it stands at present, the inclusion policy consists of the belief that results can spring from simply throwing everyone - teachers, social workers and psychologists, along with children with a wide range of emotional, educational and physical needs - into the same space. It is, frankly, an idea that has rather more in common with a superstition, rather than a coherent strategy for education - and Lady Warnock's comments are an entirely welcome and refreshing contribution to the debate.

Anti-semitism, again

In a previous post, I said, "I can't rid myself of the sickly feeling that we've been here before."

This sickly feeling stems in large part from the question: if people can't learn this lesson from history - what the hell am I doing in this job?

One of these book meme thingys

From Chris Dillow. I'm completely crap at these things but I'll give it a go:

Number of books I own - I've no idea - a couple of hundred, I think. Like my CDs and videos, my book collection fell victim to the most radical property-reduction mechanism known to man: divorce.

Last book I bought - The Plot Against America, by Phillip Roth. Amazing, absolutely brilliant. If you haven't read any of the stuff that Roth's been producing in the last few years, rectify this now. Extraordinary.

Last book I re-read - This was difficult; I'm not one for re-reading books or watching films over and over. I think the last book I re-read was The Catcher in the Rye - and that was a few years ago.

Five books that mean a lot to me - Argh! I'm rubbish at these things at the best of times and I feel I can't compete with people who put books about econometrics on their list. I suppose the books that mean the most to me are the ones that made a big impression on me when I was young.

One of these would be the one I listed as having re-read; The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger. Every maladjusted teenager should read this to know they're not alone. Also brilliantly funny.

1984, by George Orwell. Absolute power corrupting absolutely in a dystopian near-future. The best critique of totalitarianism in the history of the world - ever. I love Orwell's distinctively British pessimistic socialism.

The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. I read this around about the same time as the above two. Wrongly described as "Calvinistic", Golding's take on the human condition strikes chords and rings bells down the generations.

Reflections on the French Revolution, by Edmund Burke. I was brought up in a household where the assumption was that conservatives were conservative because they were either stupid or mean or both. Reflections helped me hear the liberal voice of British conservatism for the first time - and I think my understanding of conservatism in general improved immeasurably. As Conor Cruise O'Brien points out in his excellent introduction to the Penguin version, conservatives will often read Marx in the interests of understanding what their political opponents are thinking; it is to their loss that socialists are rarely acquainted with the key texts of conservatism such as this.

Herzog, by Saul Bellow. Extraordinary, beautiful - surely a contender for the great 20th century novel? Lines and paragraphs that leave you breathless. Heart-breaking, funny and true observations on this world of ours - especially for those of us who, like Herzog, have had the soul-tearing experience of separating from the mother of our children.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Skool uniform

Laban Tall posted about his former school and it's uniform policy, amongst other things.
"Isn't it just a strange coincidence that you can pretty much exactly correlate a school's results inversely with the number of boys wearing their shirts outside their trousers?"

One of the reasons for my skepticism about uniforms is that the above statement doesn't stand up to too much scrutiny. The best performing school in Glasgow, by a pretty decisive margin, has a rather lax uniform policy and most of the students go for the goth/grunge look that is so popular with Glasgow's West End youth. Aesthetically displeasing certainly but it doesn't seem to have affected their results in any discernible way.

And in international comparisons, the thesis breaks down completely: the Scandinavians (yup - the bloody Swedes again) don't go for uniform but have by any objective measurement, higher academic standards.

Nevertheless, I think I'm becoming converted, and not just because I think I'd cut a dashing figure in a gown (although I think I'd feel a complete pillock with a mortar-board). Conservatives tend to favour uniform as a mechanism of social control and the liberal-left traditionally tend to recoil at this, preferring that children be allowed to "express their individuality." But there's no getting away from the fact that school children need a bit of controlling : I firmly believe that on a visit to this school, no sane person - whether of the left or right - could possibly come to the conclusion that less, rather than more, order is what's needed here. Furthermore, uniform is a much more subtle mechanism for establishing the appropriate roles for staff and pupils than some other measures that could be taken. Or to put it another way, I'd rather work in a school with uniform than one with metal detectors.

But there are also one or two specifically left-wing arguments that one can make for a uniform policy. Pupils, left to their own devices, do not express their individuality. Instead, one gets rampant consumerism, with pupils vying for status with the latest, most funky labeled goods. In this context, uniform can be a force for equality - as well as being a mechanism for ensuring the classroom is one of the few advertising-free places that pupils will ever attend. Also, connected to the struggle for status is the fact that non-uniformed pupils express not their individuality but their membership of certain groups - which can cause conflict in what is supposed to be a learning environment.

Finally, although the Scandinavians don't equate the wearing of uniform with good education - many people in Britain do, and this has a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy aspect to it: a school adopts a uniform policy and this gives aspirational parents in the area the impression that the place is on the up and up. People are less inclined to bus their children elsewhere, the role rises as the school becomes more successful in holding on to those pupils in it's catchment area and eventually the results do improve.

Uniform is no panacea and one of the reasons that I've not been so fussed about it in the past is that too much is claimed for it. But in the on-going struggle with the forces of barbarism, the shock-troops of the Enlightenment have sustained a few serious set-backs and we need all the tools we can lay our hands on.

Morrison investors battered by profits warnings

From the Scotsman: Good - I hate Morrisons. While there may be lots of Waitroses, Asdas and Sainsburys elsewhere in the country - Glasgow used to be almost completely dominated by Safeways, now Morrisons.

I live round the corner to one that's about the size of a small country - and it's complete pants:
"But Morrison has struggled to integrate Safeway against a trading backcloth of slower consumer spending and intense price competition, and amid rumours many Safeway's customers have been put off by Morrison's more budget-focused offering."
I'll confirm that rumour: ok, it's cheaper and with a sproglet to cater for, this would be no small advantage to me were it not for the fact that the goods are so pish, you have to fork out for a better brand in order to get something of a decent quality. I mean, what's the point in getting "two for the price of one" bin-liners when you have to use two to stop anything heavier than an empty packet of crisps from ripping the bottom of the bag?

And the staff since the takeover all look completely miserable; what the hell have the management being doing to them? Hope they go bust and get taken over by someone decent.

Anyway, moaning about supermarkets - my life is officially over and I will be killing myself in due course...

Anti-semitism in the workplace?

I posit the title as a question because this is something that I'm not sure about. I certainly do not equate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism and I'm generally skeptical of political correctness, not least because of the way some use the epithet "racist" to deflect criticism of their own position. So instead, I think it'd probably be wiser simply to describe my own experience and thoughts and let readers judge for themselves.

One of the causes of my uncertainty is the fact that overt expressions of racist attitudes are today, thankfully, socially unacceptable - one of the undoubted benefits brought by anti-racist education. In my professional capacity as a teacher in an ethnically-diverse Glasgow secondary school, the only explicitly anti-semitic statements I have ever heard have come from a minority of the Muslim pupils - another reason why I find this a difficult topic to write about. There is no doubt whatsoever that those most likely to be on the receiving end of racist abuse and violence in Glasgow are Muslims. I've witnessed it in school and in doing so, have been forced into the position of physical intervention. Inter-racial violence is one of the reasons that my present locale has the unenviable status as Scotland's second (or third, depending on which report you read) most violent school. However, there is also no doubt at all that a significant proportion of Muslim students at my school - how many, I have no idea - have been infected with this oldest of reactionary European hatreds.

..............................

The analysis that the United States launched the invasion of Iraq because "America is full of Jews" is not, I've found, confined to the pupils - although it tends to be put more subtly as the influence of the "Jewish lobby", which apparently controls the balance of power in Washington. Is this anti-semitism? I don't know but it's certainly inaccurate : American Jews are - along with the much more numerically significant African-American voters - the most solidly Democrat-supporting constituency in the country. Richard Dawkins was one of the few to make the point that the large swathes of fundamentalist Christians in the US who not only align themselves to the state of Israel but to it's most extreme Eretz-Israel elements were likely to be a more significant influence on the Republican Party - given that they comprise around a third of the GOP's electoral support.

It's the multiplication of small instances like the above that have raised the question in my mind : why is an exception nearly always made in Israel's case?

............................

The day I registered my son's birth at the Martha Street registrar's office in Glasgow was September 11th, 2001. On returning to my parent's house to retrieve my son, my then partner and I came in to see my father, incoherent from a number of strokes but gesticulating at the television, the word "planes" just barely audible from his lips. I looked to the screen; everyone knows what I saw.

It was that - and the Taliban's well-documented, stone-faced, theocratic tyranny - that led me to support the invasion of Afghanistan. To borrow one of Billy Connolly's phrases - this position made me about as popular as a fart in a space-suit with many of my colleagues. During the customary Friday libations, some of my colleagues on the Jurassic left - their knees jerking in unison - took it in turns to climb down my throat : the "root-cause" of 9/11, they vociferously explained, was America's support for Israel.

Again, whether this represents anti-semitism I'm reluctant to charge; they may have simply been unaware that Bin Laden himself had cited the presence of US servicemen - and worse, service-women! - on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia as the primary motivation for the atrocity. (I never found out; in my experience, the Stalinist left like to stop you finishing your sentences, if they possibly can.)

In the same way, it was probably just ignorance behind the standard UN-resolutions argument : in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, everyone learned to say that Israel had more outstanding resolutions against her than Saddam's Iraq; hardly anyone added the qualification that Israel's enemies - particularly Syria - also had obligations under the same resolutions, which they hadn't fulfilled; and I don't recall anyone making the point that Turkey also trumped Iraq in the outstanding resolutions contest.

None of this constitutes firm evidence of anti-semitism - but I'm left wondering why it is that this ignorance always seems to favour Israel's enemies? Why, for example, were so few unaware that more Kurds has been displaced by Saddam Hussein than Palestinians by the Israeli state? Why were so few people even aware of the Syrian occupation of the Lebanon? Why is American support for the House of Saud, the Jordanian monarchy, the autocracy of Egypt (the second biggest recipient of US aid in the region), and the military junta in Pakistan thought so insignificant in the search for the "root-causes" of terror, compared to the apparently unforgivable sin of supporting Israel?

A colleague of mine who I don't know very well - and with whom I'd been unaccustomed to discussing politics - on one occasion launched into a fairly standard anti-Israel spiel. Of course criticism of Israel is not synonymous with anti-semitism - but why did he, on seeing the unreceptive expression on my face, pause and ask, "You're not Jewish, are you?"

I don't know, I just don't know - but I can't rid myself of the sickly feeling that we've been here before.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Swimming against the stream

From the Scotsman: The gentleman that penned this article, as well as being a some-time education journalist, is a fellow Modern Studies teacher. He was at St. Paul's in Glasgow where the head teacher pioneered the streaming of classes from first year. He writes:
"Last June, numerous articles appeared in the national press claiming the streaming experiment to be a great success in raising SQA attainment, an odd claim given the national examination results of the first classes to have experienced streaming wouldn't be known until August."
He goes on to say that he wrote to the press in his capacity as an EiS representative "pointing out that assertions that streaming was the panacea for poorly performing schools were premature. Unsurprisingly, the messenger was shot."

Indeed - but if the full story I heard about this is correct, Hugh's missed out the best bit : the head teacher of the aforementioned school went on to a radio talk show to hail the success of the streaming policy. One caller phoned up to say that he taught at the same school as the talk show guest and that his claims were bollocks for the reasons outlined above. Guess who that was? Everyone found it very amusing - except, of course, Rod O'Donnell, the head teacher of St. Paul's.

Hugh applied for a voluntary transfer. It won't surprise you to learn that the directorate agreed.

The West Lothian Question

Third Avenue has an excellent post over at the Sharpener. Good to read an eloquent defence of the present constitutional settlement.

I won't comment further because embarrassingly for me as a Scot, I think he knows rather more about it than I do.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What would Jesus eat?

Came across this a while ago. It is a book by Don Colbert, a Florida doctor, which outlines the diet typical in first century Palestine. Unsurprisingly, Clobert finds that this diet - with little meat and without the sugar-based snacks of today, but with healthy beans, lentils and fish - is much healthier than the average American's diet. Colbert said: "If you truly want to follow Jesus in every area of your life you cannot ignore your eating habits."

This is an extension of a question that unthinking Evangelicals are encouraged to ask themselves in any given situation, "What would Jesus do?" Now, if you want to imitate Christ and you're not too bright, I suppose this is a reasonably good way of going about it. The problem is, you shouldn't really extend this to too many situations.

It's weakness, of course, is that even if what someone did in the first century was always appropriate now, in so many cases we simply can't know what "Jesus would do" because we simply haven't enough information. What would Jesus do, for example, if his partner was screaming obscenities into his face and his children were going insane before his very eyes? We don't know; he wasn't married and didn't have children. There's also practical pitfalls: best not to do "what Jesus did" when you're confronted with a lake you want to cross; you'll drown.

It doesn't work with this diet either. The gospels tell us "the birds have their nests, the foxes their holes but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head". What would Jesus do? I reckon he'd order a pizza.

City's anti-bigotry drive "success"

From the BBC:
"School pupils in Glasgow are to reveal how more than 100 community-based projects have helped to combat sectarianism.
Glasgow City Council launched its Sense Over Sectarianism campaign in 2001 to deal with the problem.

On Tuesday, pupils will be joined by Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson and the city council leader to explain how they have tackled the issue.

Winning campaign posters will be rewarded at St Gregory's Primary.

Representatives from Celtic, Rangers, the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland and Strathclyde Police will also attend the event.

The community-based projects to tackle sectarianism have received £482,000 in grants since the launch.

Speaking before the event, city council leader Stephen Purcell said the anti-bigotry drive was proving a success.

He explained: 'As an authority we have always made it clear about our commitment to tackle bigotry and sectarianism in all forms.'"
Anyone who knows anything about Glasgow City Council will find this amusing - or infuriating, depending on how one is feeling. The one step Glasgow City Council could take that would really help to overcome bigotry - the integration of our schooling system - hasn't been considered, of course.

Instead, will get more of this sort of well-meaning, but ineffectual gestures - plus no doubt some use of the incitement to religious hatred legislation, if it becomes law. I'm looking forward to see how that'll go: "Hello, police? Yes, I'm witnessing a crime - an incitement to religious hatred. Where am I? Ibrox. What do the perpetrators look like? Difficult to be specific; there's several thousands of them..."

The rise and rise of the surveillance society

The Guardian carries a story about the use of mini computers that workers in warehouses, which can also be used to track the movements of workers and how many "unauthorised breaks" they take and so on:
"Under the system workers are asked to wear computers on their wrists, arms and fingers, and in some cases to put on a vest containing a computer which instructs them where to go to collect goods from warehouse shelves.

The system also allows supermarkets direct access to the individual's computer so orders can be beamed from the store. The computer can also check on whether workers are taking unauthorised breaks and work out the shortest time a worker needs to complete a job.

Academics are worried that the system could make Britain the most surveyed society in the world. The country already has the largest number of street security cameras."
With this government persisting with the introduction of ID cards, it's easy to forget the extent to which much of the constant surveillance that workers have to put up with comes directly from their employers. In my own case, all outside calls and emails are monitored by the council and like the vast majority of workers, I have to account for all time spent working on a time sheet. (Despite this, I feel my liberty is reasonably secure; this council couldn't organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery.)

By all accounts, the private sector is worse with grown men and women having the length of time it takes to relieve oneself recorded by their employers. For those in customer service, the surveillance of all telephone conversations is perfectly normal. I once worked in an agency where the number of key-strokes you made per hour was automatically recorded.

If what the Americans do tends to be imitated elsewhere, the future's not looking good: workers being randomly tested for drugs in their blood-stream; cases of workers being dismissed because they've been unable to stop smoking and the like.

The problem with this form of illiberalism is those on the receiving end tend not to gain so much attention from those one might normally expect to speak up for them: the "bruschetta" liberals get (rightly) very animated about detention without trial and ID cards but tend not be be so tuned into these sorts of infringements of liberty simply because the overwhelming majority of well-meaning middle-class liberals have never worked in these sorts of environments - except, possibly, when they were students. The hard left, on the other hand, tend not to take these very seriously, preferring instead to shrug its shoulders and say, "Well - that's capitalism for you". (It's worth pointing out that many of them don't have much experience of a monitored workplace either.)

The only people taking this seriously are the workers themselves and their trade union representatives. And we all know what they get called if they dare to question the brave new world of technological progress on the shop-floor, don't we? Luddites. The use of this term drives me and my fellow historians mad (our HT uses it all the time): Luddism is used to denote an irrational fear of technological change - one step away from being the unabomber, in other words. But the real Luddites were engaged in a rational defence of their economic interests. That the term is still used in the former, incorrect sense is, perhaps, significant.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Prospect of a re-alignment at Holyrood?

Via Bill (Happy Birthday, btw) from the Scotsman - where the probably unlikely but intriguing possibility of a deal between the two parties who opposed the devolution settlement from the beginning: the Tories because they didn't want any kind of political power repatriated to Scotland and the SNP, for whom devolution didn't go far enough.

Despite not being a fan of either party, it would be at least a welcome change for them to get real and realise devolution's here to stay for the time being. Some people (not me, heaven forbid!) might unkindly suggest that they have more in common than is commonly supposed: the SNP used to be dubbed "the Tartan Tories"; dunno if SNPers still go all purple when you call them that - you'd have to ask this man.

Hitch was in town

Being impressively rude again, if you like that sort of thing - which I do. I liked the smoking interchange, which you can get here. One shouldn't but I really enjoyed this. I didn't think there was anyone on the face of the planet that was a more unapologetic smoker than my late father until I came across Hitchens.

Banning Bibles

From the Beeb, via Harry's Place. This is very silly:
"Hospital bosses may remove Bibles from the bedsides of patients amid concerns over offending non-Christians and spreading the superbug, MRSA.

Leics-based Gideons International, which distributes Bibles, described the move as "outrageous".

University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust said it was committed to equality and religious diversity.

It is to meet on Friday to discuss whether the tradition should continue at the city's three main hospitals."
So Bibles carry disease, do they? And there was me thinking that the rise in MRSA was due to hospitals not being cleaned properly. And what's this drivel about "equality and religious diversity"? Surely if they were committed to that, each patient would have a wee pack with maybe the New Testament, the Torah, the Koran and something secular - maybe the Communist Manifesto - thrown in for good measure.

Couple of serious points : dishing out these Bibles that hardly anyone reads is a long, fairly silly but rather endearing British tradition. I bet this hasn't been motivated by any complaints from atheists or Muslims or Jews. In my experience, Muslim kids aren't the least bit offended by this sort of thing; they have integrated very well into our local customs and make paper aeroplanes out of the pages just as well and enthusiastically as all the rest.

Furthermore, the idea that any books should be banned simply because someone finds their presence offensive is simply an extension of this bizarre modern idea that I just don't get: since when did the over-sensitive get an extra layer of human rights?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Dutch say no

But everyone except me is off in the department today and I don't even have time to think about it, never mind post anything sensible.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

EU consensus needed to scrap UK vote

From the Scotsman again:
"THE British vote on the European constitution can only be scrapped with the agreement of other European Union leaders, Downing Street admitted yesterday."
Eh? I have to say, I don't get this: the constitution has to be ratified by all member-states; one of the most important has rejected it and the French Prime Minister said there was to be no second referendum; and another of the founding 6 looks likely to reject the constitution today. So what possible reason can there be for having one here?

Latest fashion - pierced eyeballs

From the Metro:
"EYE SURGEONS IN Holland have found a way to implant tiny pieces of jewellery - in your eyeballs.

Dutch eye surgeons have implanted tiny pieces of jewellery called "JewelEye" in the mucous membrane of the eyes of six women and one man in cosmetic surgery pioneered by an ophthalmic surgery research and development institute in Rotterdam.

The bits of jewellery are about 4mm wide and come in half-moon or heart shapes.

They are put into the eye's mucous membrane under local anaesthetic. It costs between £270 and £540.

'In my view it is a little more subtle than (body) piercing. It is a bit of a fun thing and a very personal thing for people,' said Gerrit Melles, director of the Netherlands Institute for Innovative Ocular Surgery. The piece of jewellery is inserted in the conjunctiva -- the mucous membrane lining the inner surface of the eyelids and front of the eyeball - in sterile conditions using an operating microscope in a procedure taking about 15 minutes."
It's something I've inherited from my mother; shit like that gives me pains in my legs just thinking about it. Hate anything to do with eyes. I'll never wear contacts and pervs who indulge in "eyeball licking" should be exterminated...

Degree no guarantee of big money

Also from the Scotsman: Another one of those Pope is a Catholic stories; just thought I'd cheer up the students...

Sheridan hails his 'little rebel'

From the Scotsman: Tommy Sheridan's had a wee baby girl - aw.

.

Tommy dubbed her a "little rebel". He obviously thinks she's going to follow in his footsteps. Critical error here - she's going to rebel against you, Tommy, that's what kids do. She'll probably grow up and join some mad cult like the Scottish Conservatives, or something.

Seriously, congrats and...like the pink shirt; you obviously don't spend much time in Pollock these days...

The EU and the politics of fear

Reflecting on the French result with a hangover resulted in missing the absurd leader in yesterday's Guardian which suggested the French vote was based on fear. What a pile of shite! How can that possibly be argued when the government and the media hectored voters with dark warnings of the disastrous implications of a no vote? Futhermore, the insinuation that no voters were a bunch of xenophobes who don't want Turkey to join the EU does not appear to be borne out by the polling evidence.

At university I did an honours paper on the economics of European integration, which I confess is very sad. Now, the thing is - Europe is very boring and the economic historians of the EU (yes, there are such people) are correspondingly very dull. And having waded through these turgid tomes, I can now inform you of a very boring conclusion that most of them reached: historically, the EU has had hardly any impact on the growth of trade in postwar Europe at all. The elimination of tariffs obviously has helped but this has been in the context of lowered tariffs throughout the world under the GATT (now WTO) regime. The idea that membership immediately catapults a country into economic prosperity is easily demolished with a few dates and rates of GDP growth.

Yet it is the pro-European politicians who have been resorting to fear telling people that a no vote will invite economic catastrophe, telling people inward investment will collapse if we don't join the Euro or whatever. Those of us that possess memories recall the Labour Party being rightly critical of the Thatcher government and her dependence on foreign investment at a time when British manufacturing was being crucified on the altar of a tight monetary policy.

As someone who is vaguely pro-Europe (but anti-Euro), this garbage really has to stop.

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