Friday, December 30, 2011

On Kindles

Ooh, finally caved-in and got one. Aren't they good? But first impression is they won't replace books and for a reason that is stronger than with the whole music download thing. A CD box might be aesthetically-pleasing and have a wee booklet in it with lots of information that someone might want to read - but they can never be as gorgeous as a book, can they?

Anyway, downloaded a whole lot of classic books, either for free or pennies. So excited I had to share. You know the sort of things I'm talking about - the books people claim are the best they've ever read when asked on one of Norm's profiles. "Oh, well it has to be Ulysses by James Joyce." Aye, right. ;-)

The trouble with Ed

Some good people have been defending Ed Miliband of late. This isn't something I feel able to do. When Ed Miliband was elected leader, I thought, "Oh no - here we go again..." Another leader who can't win elections yet regardless of how dismal a performance they put in, we'll get calls to 'pull together' and stop sniping.

Whether these carry any weight with party members, I couldn't say but as a mere supporter, I don't feel obliged to pay any attention*. There's too many problems with Ed, all of which combine to make him unelectable. Most of them fall into two categories:

1) No-one's listening to what he has to say. In fairness, part of this has to do with the intrinsic difficulty in framing a distinct and coherent message in these present circumstances. If the government says they are taking the steps necessary to avoid the economy going Greek-shaped, how are people to judge whether this or the Ed Balls analysis is correct?

But the most important problem is one people seldom mention. So seldom, I wonder if this is because if they do so, they would be concerned that this would signal a superficial interest in politics that has to do with personalities rather than policies? I don't know but I'll put the problem in the most basic way I can and you can accuse me of being superficial if you wish. It doesn't matter what Ed Miliband's policies are because he's never going to be Prime Minister. And the reason he is never going to be Prime Minister is because he reminds people of Wallace from Wallace and Gromit.

Or someone else... Point is, I don't understand why people put so much energy into pretending this sort of thing doesn't matter. FDR was in a wheelchair, Ike was bald. One of the ironies of today is that while we're all so much more PC nowadays, I think everyone knows the USA will never have another President who is either in a wheelchair or bald in an age of instant mass-media. Britain isn't so different. One of my mother's postwar anecdotes was that while she could remember what he looked like from newsreel at the cinema, she could never recall hearing Atlee speak.

These days have gone. Miliband isn't in a wheelchair and he has lots of hair - we know what he sounds like so we also know he doesn't talk like a Prime Minister, he doesn't walk like a Prime Minister and he sure as hell doesn't look like a Prime Minister.

Saying it should be about policy and 'the ishoos', as Tony Benn used to say is just empty moralising. I dare say it should be but it just isn't. The question is, what are people who come out with this line seriously intending to do about it? Because the pretending it doesn't matter strategy isn't working.

2) Does Miliband have anything to say anyway? It's a genuine question because I don't listen to what Miliband has to say about anything after he said this, which is actually the only thing I can recall him saying that stuck in my mind:
"While out campaigning during the local elections, not for the first time, I met someone who had been on incapacity benefit for a decade.

He hadn’t been able to work since he was injured doing his job.

It was a real injury, and he was obviously a good man who cared for his children.

But I was convinced that there were other jobs he could do.

And that it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work, when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by."
He was convinced. I thought, why is he convinced? Because he had knowledge of vacancies going in this poor bugger's area? Tesco specifically looking for people with dodgy backs who hadn't worked for the best part of a decade perhaps? And if he knew of actual vacancies, did he get any of his staff to do anything to help get this man one of these jobs he knows about? Of course he didn't - because he had no knowledge. It was only the sort of thing someone who's never had to do any heavy-lifting in his life would say. Pious catch-phrases without any practical help. So I stopped listening and joined the ranks of those who never started.

*If you're thinking this status disqualifies me from having an opinion, you might want to question an election procedure that gave me a vote by virtue of being a member of a trades union...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cameron and the King James Bible

One of the aspects of his speech that I haven't seen commented on was his praise for the poetry of the King James version:
"One of my favourites is the line "For now we see through a glass, darkly.

It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective.

The key word is darkly - profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning.
I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations.

The New International Version says: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror"

The Good News Bible: "What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror"

They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don't quite have the same magic and meaning."
Hmmm, here's a passage from James in the KJV:
"Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth."
And here's the same in the NIV:
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.

Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.

Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. "
I dunno. Which translation d'ya think best conveys the point that Cameron is missing when he goes on about "values and morals we should actively stand up and defend."?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scottish school league tables 2011

They haven't changed that much - so I don't have much to add to what I said last year.

Couple of things about the publication of data though. I agree with the criticisms people make of league tables and their tendency to produce perverse incentives to narrow the curriculum - but not publishing them hasn't helped.

For one thing, some people seem to have got the impression that school exam results aren't published at all. They are - just not in a, well, league table format. You can find quite detailed information here if you can be bothered searching through schools individually - but most people can't so rely on the press to do it for them. Problem here is that this is even cruder than the tables the government used to publish.

For example, the Scotsman data linked above has two key indicators, one of which is the proportion of the roll who get 5 or more Standard Grades at General level. My old PT used say rather unkindly that if you were a sentient being, you should be able to get a pass at General 4. It's a bit harsh. Pupils may have difficulty at this level for a number of reasons. However, given that it is normal for students to take eight Standard Grades and that it indeed the case that getting five of them at General level is no great academic feat, all this statistic does is identify those who are doing really quite badly. Whereas the other statistic - those passing Highers - has to do with those staying on and then doing really rather well.*

In other words, while league tables are crude measures, I'm not sure it's an entirely good idea for the Scottish Government to leave it to the media to make them even more so.

*Just occurred to me people might not know what I'm on about here. The legal school-leaving age in Scotland is still 16.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reformation and witchcraft

When Princess Anne (of Denmark) was popping over to Scotland to meet her husband to be, James VI of Scotland, she was forced by bad weather to stop off in Norway. The cause of the storm? Well, witchcraft obviously - which is why James VI personally presided over a witchcraft trial in 1590.

This is the dark side of the 'elimination of magic' which Max Weber rightly identified as a defining feature of protestantism; in the early modern period of European history, the elimination of magic was accompanied by the physical obliteration of those who were believed to practice magic. It won't surprise many people to learn that the Edinburgh University survey estimates that about 84% of these 'witches' were women.

It is for this reason, amongst others, that those who call for a Reformation in Islam should be careful what they wish for. They've had a Reformation and while it is a controversial point, I'd argue that this is part of the problem.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

That Europe thing

I had a much longer and even more boring post in the pipeline but I realised I'd lost the plot when I found myself writing a sentence about how difficult it was to disaggregate the contribution the EU had made to the expansion of world and European trade since 1945 from the general reduction in world tariffs.

Instead, I'll restrict myself to a few observations. The original post was asking whether a too vivid memory of history wasn't something of a problem in the European debate and to what extent this contributes to the hyperbole that we see when it comes to the EU?

The misnamed 'Eurosceptics', for example, rather give the impression that the outcome of the Second World War is in some way undecided, hence the ludicrous comparison of a pre-veto wielding Prime Minister to Neville Chamberlain, made in a popular tabloid newspaper that I won't link to.

But the ghosts of history haunt the Germans, the French and the east Europeans too - all of whom respond to the past in a way that prefers containment, rather than 'splendid isolation', as a way of burying a European past characterised by conflict interrupted by economic depression.

For the Germans it is the Weimar hyper-inflation that keep them awake at night. This is the only conclusion one can draw from their reluctance to allow the ECB to carry the debt of Eurozone members. It's understandable, but I think it was Chris Dillow who said, in his day job, that there's not a lot of point in taking steps to preserve the value of a currency if it means that the currency ceases to exist.

As a number of people have pointed out, it was not hyper-inflation but rather deflation and unemployment that provided the economic backdrop for the capture of the German state by the Nazis. But here the ghosts of the Great Depression are being evoked in an inappropriate way. It is the crudest form of reductionism to attribute the rise of fascism to this. Moreover, there are reasons to think that while one could argue some of the mistakes of the thirties are being repeated, rather more lessons have been learned than one would gather from reading some of the more apocalyptic commentary. These are as follows:

1) The Great Depression was characterised by both fiscal and monetary tightening. No-one thinks we have the latter now - but also the former has been more relaxed than it was during the thirties.

2) The 'outlawing Keynesianism' aspect of the proposed and misnamed 'fiscal union' isn't good in my view but there's two reasons to think it might not be as bad as supposed: a) We've been here before: it looks pretty much like son of Stability Pact to me - and if it's anything like that the European powers will simply ignore it if they deem this to be necessary, b) It might pave the way for the ECB to step up to the plate and issue Euro-bonds. I agree this looks unlikely just now but on the other hand, one shouldn't underestimate the political capital invested in the Euro project (see 'historical ghosts' above).

3) The American economy appears to be growing at a surprising rate. No student of the interwar period would underestimate the role that American contraction played in those circumstances. Nor their response to it, which brings me to the final point...

4) Protectionism: as far as one can gather, there has been no tendency for this to be seen as a solution or even a damage-limitation exercise in the way it was in the interwar period.

This last point should underline the importance of the survival of the Euro. For what's the alternative? For the Greeks to say, "Ok, we'll pay our debts - in drachma, if that's ok with you?" And then what? A Europe of competitive devaluations, which is protection by another name but with the same consequences. It is for this reason that while I was never a fan, I hope the Euro survives. On the UK stance, one is inclined to say that if Cameron is sincere in his professed belief that its survival is in our interests, he has a rather eccentric way of showing it.

Finally, on a parochial point, if David Cameron has an interest in the survival of the Treaty of Union, the same verdict applies. The SNP's 'independence in Europe' was looking a little threadbare in the wake of the Euro crisis. His behaviour in Europe has given it a new lease of life.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Jeremy Clarkson, technology and freedom

First they came for the apologists for terrorism. I did not speak up because I was not an apologist for terrorism. Then they came for disagreeable cretins with an internet connection - and I did not speak up because while I have an internet connection, I flattered myself that I did not belong in that category. But now they're coming for people who make shit jokes in poor taste, I have to confess I'm feeling distinctly edgy...

As Padraig Reidy says, this is just Clarkson being Clarkson - his point being, would anyone have even cared in a pre-Twitter, pre-YouTube age? His is an interesting take which asks whether democratic access to the means of communication might have inadvertently shrunk our liberty by creating instant publicity for outrageous behaviour that would have in a time of slower and more primitive communication be confined to a smaller audience?

There is something in this. There's two effects of technology that are bound to make anyone of a liberal disposition uneasy. One is that by removing the boundaries of bad behaviour, it also removes the more limited context in which such behaviour might have been more appropriately dealt with. For instance, the racist tram woman would and should have been barred from using the service on which she has demonstrated she is unable to behave.

Beyond this, perhaps a minor punishment for being drunk and disorderly or for breech of the peace. But the extensive publicity has created a climate in which this kind of limited action might be deemed insufficient, which brings me to this: extensive publicity for misdemeanors makes it increasingly likely that individual cases are more often to be treated as examples. "This is exactly the sort of thing we've been talking about and we must send a message here." Beware those who think the function of the law is to send messages. You'll be uncomfortable with this if you're uneasy as I am about the symbolic nature of punishment that is intrinsic to utilitarian theories of criminal justice.

But all of the above lends too much weight to the role of technology here. We have to make a clear division between detection and punishment and insist that what makes many of us really uncomfortable is the frankly draconian sentences being dished out for simply being a loud-mouthed fuckwit these days. Imagine a world where absolutely everyone who parked in the chevrons outside a primary school got a ticket. Police state? Only people like Jeremy Clarkson would argue this. The rest of us, I imagine, would think, "You don't want a forty quid fine? Well don't park there then!" Ok, I should speak for myself... But arrest and possible jail-time every time someone says something stupid and offensive? Maybe this should be a liberal rule of thumb: imagine a situation where there's a hundred per cent detection for a given crime. If the force of the law that is meted out in this thought experiment looks too draconian, then the law as it stands probably is.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some thoughts on N30

I doubt whether I've anything to say to this matter that hasn't been dealt with by others rather better and more comprehensively than I could but I'm finding the remorseless repetition of what have already become rightwing cliches has created an itch that demands to be scratched. Here's some of them in no particular order:

1) Low turnouts being used as a reason to cast doubt on the legitimacy of strike action and as an invitation to threaten more anti-union legislation.

The conclusion we can draw about people not voting is that they didn't vote and nothing else, since the procedure affords no opportunity to record why they didn't vote. I would have thought the reasons why politicians should refrain from going beyond this and casting themselves as the interpreters of the will of the silent would be obvious, but apparently not. All one can say is that if they insist that low turnout undermines the credibility of ballots, any rule that they propose to enact to remedy this should be applied consistently. Would any MEPs retain their seats if this were done, I'm wondering?

2) The strikes will cause disruption.

Um, well, yeah - that's generally the point of strikes. Next...

3) Day after dreary day we get some hack arguing that private sector workers would love to get pensions like wot we do in the public sector so why should they fund ours out of their taxes?

That it is often beeb jounos posing this question would tend to indicate that irony has taken a holiday from Auntie. I'm sure it's true that a lot of private sector workers would indeed love a pension scheme like ours. Yet amazingly they still continue to work in the private sector. While there are obviously a host of likely reasons for this, some of them presumably have to do with the fact that there are benefits to this that are absent in the public sector. A number of possible reasons suggest themselves but one might be that the relative stability and security of public sector work is traded off against higher rewards in terms of present income in the private sector?

Anyway, all this ignores the fact that the present arrangement forms part of a prior contract that the government is trying to shuffle out of. For the right it seems that the legal conventions of a contract shouldn't apply, if one of the parties in the agreement happens to be a trade union.

4) Public sector pensions are unaffordable

We've been down this road already with the tuition fees thing and it isn't a better argument now. If 'the country can't afford it' a sub-set of tax-payers can't afford it either. But the reality is that public sector pensions are declining as a proportion of GDP. I'm not really taking the deficit-reduction argument seriously anyway. No-one's suggested that once the 'structural deficit' has been eliminated, the original arrangement will be restored, are they?

Having said all this, I personally regret that my union along with all the others has focused narrowly on this issue. In my own case at least I wish they'd taken issue with the general package, which has to do with managers using the present situation to carry out a more general erosion of the wages and conditions of workers. In our case, this has been demonstrated in pay freezes for us (i.e. real wage cuts), nominal pay cuts for temp staff (i.e. real wage cuts with bells on), demands for useless rituals of presenteeism and the insistence that we should be 'flexible' and do tasks that we never stopped doing - as well as the raid on our pension schemes, which are just deferred wages, after all. It's for all of these reasons I'm going on strike on Wednesday. I appreciate many will disagree with this but I'm sure we can find some common ground...

5) Strikes will cost the UK economy £500 million!

Given that this claim is being made by the sort of people who routinely dismiss the public sector as 'unproductive', surely we can and must insist that they can't have it both ways?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Scots schools risk being left behind by other nations, teachers told

They were told this by Prof McCormac. The reason for this is photocopying. Elsewhere teachers are expected to do this whereas in Scotland the mere hint of the suggestion that we do our own is met with a demand to down tools.

Meanwhile, back in the real world can we agree that academics have to be amongst the most spaced-out people on the face of the planet? (As I'm sure I've said before, my late father was one of these so you may find something Freudian in this if you wish.)

I photocopied stuff today, btw. Stapled and on coloured paper and everything.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

On the McCormac review

Apologies in advance because this is for a narrow audience. McCormac is a review into the pay and conditions of Scottish teachers and the reassertion of managerial control therein is, I would suggest, an added factor behind the now almost certain industrial action on the 30th of November.

That the aforementioned review should come up with proposals that, amongst other things, codify presenteeism and represent a deterioration in teachers' conditions of service shouldn't surprise anyone who's paid any attention to the make-up of the panel. It consisted of: one academic, one former head of HMIe, two Headteachers (one retired), one retired Herald hack, one chief executive from Edinburgh City Council, and one businesswomen/lawyer. Amazingly, the findings of the review were generally considered to be anti-teacher - who would have thunk?

But I wouldn't want to over-personalise the process; they're just channelling the Spirit of the Age, which is anti-public sector, anti-union, pro-employer, pro-management and therefore in favour of the mechanisms by which these demonstrate their power - hence the enthusiasm for presenteeism and 'flexibility'. This is the case even when the aforementioned advocates wear tartan, as is the case with Nationalist blogger Burdz Eye View who asks, "Am I missing something?":
"I am sure there are some nuances in the detail that pass this layperson by. But if that is the case, then be warned unions, for they will pass the average person, and indeed parent, in the street by as well.

So teachers will have to stay in school all day? Some of us will be surprised to learn they can and do leave. What, do they take themselves off to Starbucks when they have no contact time?!"
Space and the attention of the reader disallows an exhaustive list of what the 'Burd' is missing here so I'll restrict myself to a couple of points - the first relating to the above. The present relatively liberal arrangement is that when we are not teaching, we can work at a time and place of our own choosing. For example, while my present timetable doesn't actually allow me to leave early ever, if it did I could spend my time in Starbucks doing what I spent a fair chunk of Sunday doing, which was marking and reading about the Scottish Reformation. You'd think the Burd might be pleased I was brushing up on my Scottish history. But apparently it doesn't count unless I do this in a specified location at a specified time.

It doesn't count because teachers can't be trusted. Except if they're in management, of course. In this case, obviously they should be given more power. Hell, giving more power to Headteachers is like uniforms and religion: seems like all the hacks - amateur and professional - agree these are Good Things and that there should definitely be more of them in schools. I appreciate I'm only someone who actually works at the chalkface but I'm afraid I must demur. Take the following sentiment, for example (please):
"Do unions not trust headteachers to make the right judgement call?"
Don't be silly - of course we don't. Only someone who has had schools described to them could wonder why.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

EiS members vote to strike

Yes we did. Hootsmon commentators speak they're branes:
"Teachers go too work after the traffic jambs are over, leave too go home before they begin, don't work week-ends, have great holidays and retire early on ill health...
From someone calling himself 'McNasty', who is apparently too McStoopid even to know what time school starts. And Pa Broon?
"I certainly won't be loosing any sleep over the teachers strike...
I blame the teachers, myself.

You don't really need a date for the last time teachers went on strike, do you?

Update: I like this one too:
"Exam scores keep going up yet educational attainment keeps going down. Not much of a system. Lets hope they strike for a long time so the educational system can be retooled."
Well, Alan Craige, you're certainly a tool - perhaps you might consider yourself a candidate?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A short note on Nationalist economics

First it was John Swinney now we have Nicola Sturgeon saying the same bollocks about the state of Scotland's finances - this in a piece that purports to be myth-tackling:
"To take one of the most repeated, pernicious and damaging myths head-on, there can no longer be any doubt that Scotland more than pays its own way in the UK. The latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) reports shows that Scotland has run a current budget surplus in four of the five years to 2009-10, while the UK was in current budget deficit in each of these years, and hasn’t run a current budget surplus since 2001-02."
Uh huh? Three quick points:

1) There was a thing called the bank-crisis, which accounts for the rather large budget deficit that the UK has. Think you'll find that as a part of that there was a couple of Scottish banks that received humongous wads of UK tax-payer's cash. You know the ones: they were Scottish when they were doing well, but British when the whole house of cards fell down.

2) To say the Scottish Government has been running a balanced budget is to make a virtue out of necessity because the devolution settlement does not include borrowing powers. I wouldn't dream of accusing Swinney and Sturgeon of being disingenuous on this point - perhaps they just forgot?

3) I'll take their word for it that the Scottish Government has run a surplus for four years. It raises the question of why the hell they think this is something to brag about? There's a recession on, dammit! Running a surplus in such circumstances is just plain stupid.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prejudicial inversions

Find what: Jew. Replace with: Zionist. Result? Through the power of this handy editing tool, you have an article ready for posting on Comment is Rancid. On this occasion it happens to be courtesy of Deborah Orr on the subject of the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange deal.

I would reiterate Norm's rebuttal of her prejudical inversions - but in rather less subtle and understated terms than the ones he has chosen.

It works something like this: imagine Hamas offered to exchange Gilad Shalit for one Palestinian prisoner. Then imagine the Israelis respond by saying, "This is absolutely unacceptable to us! We absolutely insist that we release many hundreds more of your lot. We are, after all, the Chosen People and such an exchange would be a more accurate reflection of our true value."

Can you imagine such a thought experiment corresponds to reality? Welcome to the world of Deborah Orr. Norm doesn't think it needs spelling out like this. I hope he's right but I fear the opposite.

I've been wondering what it is about this concept of being Chosen - the Elect - that some people seem to find so offensive? By asking this, I trust it is understood that I am in no way conceding that this was a motivating factor in the case discussed above.

The contribution of Christianity to anti-Semitism is well-understood. Or rather, it should be well-understood. But beyond what is familiar about traditional Christian anti-Semitism - the Blood Libel, the conspiracies - there's an aspect that is rarely discussed but which I'm convinced is historically enormously significant, which has to do with this concept of the Elect. For it is not an idea that is unique to Judaism but which is shared by all the monotheistic salvation religions. Given that Christians and Muslims - if they are in any way remotely orthodox - also consider themselves to be the Chosen Ones, why should it cause so much offence when it appears in Jewish thought?

I'm wondering if the answer doesn't lie in a paradox that exists in Western liberal thinking? Because for the modern student of history, proselytizing zeal is something that carries connotations of cultural arrogance, imperialism, domination and genocide - and for good reason. But one wonders if some Christian ideas aren't prowling around the minds of modern Western men like the ghosts of dead religious beliefs? In Christianity the invitation to join the Elect is universal, as it is in Islam. Not so with Judaism. Could it be the problem some people seem to have with the concept of Judaic election is simply that they haven't been invited?

So, what might be considered to be a virtue of Judaism - the absence of a desire to convert - has this, is this, held against the Jews? Unsure but surely it's plausible? What is certainly the case historically is that Jewish disinclination to convert has been bitterly resented - a feeling that has been expressed with fire on numerous occasions in European history.

Whatever the heart of the historical matter, there's another inversion that is being played out in front of our eyes. As an explicit and genetic result of a disposition to proselytize, in human history the responsibility for blood-letting in the name of winning souls for the One God can surely be ranked in an order that no reasonable person would contest? It's Christians first, then Muslims, then Jews. But when it comes to being the subject of prejudice and persecution? This is obviously more contentious but I'd argue that it has been exactly the other way around.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Two problems with plebiscites

Democracy is like liberty, choice, accountability, tolerance and justice; these are Good Things that one should be seen to support, lest your credentials for membership of polite liberal-democratic society be called into question. It is because this is well-understood that hucksters of all political persuasions have learned the rhetorical trick of identifying their desired policy outcome with one or more of the above sanctifying concepts.

The ease with which they are able to do this is something I find frankly terrifying. It doesn't seem to matter how ill-conceived, narrow or vainglorious the project is, declaring it to be about 'freedom', 'choice', the 'will of the people' is astonishingly effective. Which brings us to the topical subject of referendums. The Tory rebels want one - and the SNP want one. While obviously different in a couple of respects, they are both about 'constitutional' issues and both groups of protagonists feel the sense of having the wind at their backs. Because referendums are 'democratic' means by which the 'people' express their 'view'. You disagree with this? At best you're an 'elitist' - but in reality probably something much worse.

There's obviously more than two problems with this nonsense but I haven't written anything for a while and don't want to make assumptions about your attention - so I'll restrict myself to two:

1) Are we allowed to say short-termism is a problem inherent in democracy? Because I wonder how many people who like to quote Churchill's maxim that, "Democracy is the worst system, except for all the rest", actually accept its implication that democracy does in fact have one or two problems. I'd have thought this is obviously one of them - and it is a problem magnified to frankly grotesque proportions with plebiscites.

It is received wisdom that referendums are appropriate for 'constitutional' questions but these are precisely the kinds of questions they are least appropriate for because they involve decisions concerning the membership of institutions which, if they are designed properly, will endure for generations. That this shouldn't be so - that it is the proper function of politics to revisit these questions of membership every generation in a plebiscite - represents nothing less than proposing the institutionalisation of crass egoism, as well as an appalling lack of any sense of history.

And understood like this, aren't referendums a waste of time by their proponents own definition? If the 70s referendum on EEC membership isn't binding now, why shouldn't people apply the same ephemeral criterion to any plebiscite-based decision to withdraw from the EU now?

2) But this is to concede too much to the notion that there's some kind of consistent principle being applied here - in the name of the 'people', naturally. Fact of the matter is, referendums are a mechanism by which party politics takes perhaps its most dishonest form.

I've said it before but it bears repeating: the only time governments and opposition parties call for referendums is when they think they'll yield the result they want. If they don't think this, they avoid them.

Occasionally circumstances - those consisting of internal irreconcilable differences - impose it on them, as was the case with the one on membership of the EEC. But the general pattern is clear - and should a miscalculation occur, regimes usually draw a little inspiration from the legend of Bruce and the spider: if at first you don't succeed...

It's this dishonesty at the very heart of all known referendum projects that really sticks in the throat. It is, I would argue, substantially more mendacious than the more mundane 'bundle' voting discussed by Chris Dillow. Why has the SNP - despite their thumping majority in Holyrood - not set a date for a referendum on Scottish independence? Because they don't think they'll win. They are right to think this, in my view.

They are also right to think that no matter how unpalatable the status quo might be, it would still win in a straight fight against a nationalism that proposed a new head of state, border control, currency and armed forces - hence the multi-option proposal. I don't mind the Catalonia model being the nationalists' preferred option but do we really have to endure all this bluster and posturing merely for it to remain the already badly-kept secret that it is?

These preposterous parties, presidents and politicians of all persuasions with their populist posturing pretending with their propaganda to be at one with the populace through their professed preference for plebiscites? Pretentious pish - of a much more sinister kind than that demonstrated in the last sentence...

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Loch Ness Monster Raving Loony Party

The title is one of the suggestions for new names the Scottish Tories might adopt if leadership favourite Murdo Fraser is successful in persuading the faithful that effectively disbanding the party is the only possible means of reviving the right as an electoral force in Scottish politics.

While I trust this re-branding will be unsuccessful, the proposal at least has the virtue of attempting to confront the fact that Tories in Scotland really are an endangered species. The story caught my attention because I was told a few months ago by one of the aforementioned dwindling band that this was the way that Murdo Fraser was intending to go. According to him, Fraser is not entirely unsympathetic to the idea of something approximating full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, or even actual independence because he thinks that having to raise the taxes which they spend is the only way the Scottish Parliament will be confronted with the fact - or as we might say, the view - that the state is too large in Scotland.

One of the interesting features of this is the way that the parties who were the most sceptical about devolution seem to have been quicker to grasp its implications. For the Nationalists, devolution did not go far enough but the basic political position of their party means that they had by definition no issue with forming a distinctly Scottish electoral identity.

The Tories were fundamentally opposed to the devolution project in its entirety, yet it's worth remembering that while they are obviously in a fairly dismal state, proportional representation has actually revived their representation compared to where they were after the pre-devolution 1997 Blair landslide.

Whereas one could argue that Labour and the Liberal Democrats, despite being ostensibly the most pro-devolution parties, are the ones that have fared the worst because of their failure to distinguish themselves from their respective Westminster machines. This is particularly the case with the Scottish Liberal Democrats. It really is impossible to over-state the extent to which mere association with the coalition has brought them to the edge of electoral oblivion north of the Border.

This last point illustrates the scale of the problem Murdo Fraser faces - for while he grasps the dire straights the Tories are in, it does not follow that his suggested remedy is tactically wise or likely to be successful.

For one thing, while some Tories have made generally approving noises about this proposal, others will see it as an admission of defeat and will be implacably opposed. Dividing an already small party in this way doesn't strike one as being a very good idea.

The other more fundamental point that most of us would argue is that the problem is not primarily one of poor presentation. Rather, the Nasty party is seen as such because we think it really is quite nasty. There's something about the Scottish - and the Welsh, and the Northern English - experience of de-industrialisation that I think people living somewhere like London simply cannot grasp. Because here recession changes the very landscape. Towns dominated by a single industry become full of ghosts as now idle industrial enterprises acquire the eerie desolation that one associates with dystopian sci-fi. Like the way the grass breaks through the concrete that still carries a memory of the days when ships were built there.

But it isn't my purpose to indulge in sentimentality. While I wouldn't do so personally, one could reasonably argue that such a process was inevitable or necessary - or both. But what you don't get to do is sneer about it - not if you want people to vote for you again, that is. It's this, I would suggest, that is the Tory problem in Scotland.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

On the 'squaddies to teachers' programme

The Phoenix free school in Manchester is planning to employ a staff entirely solely of ex-soldiers. I wouldn't imagine getting approval for this idea from the DofE was too difficult as it fits perfectly with Gove's belief that ex-military can provide the strong discipline and positive male role models that are supposedly lacking in English schools.

Now there's a number of fairly obvious criticisms anyone could make of this particular plan but I'll restrict this to one or two. The first thing that occurs to me is that this will be presented as a welcome shift away from wet liberal 'progressive' educational practices that seeks to rationalise bad behaviour rather than dealing with it. But in as far as this stereotype has any bearing in reality - and it does to some extent - this is merely a species of the same problem. It is the hard-nosed side of the same coin that sees schools primarily as agencies of socialisation rather than learning.

The other point is that in as far as there is Tory support for this, it strikes one as being rather hypocritical. Because those who take a rightwing position on education - and I include amongst these a depressingly large number of supposed lefties - are always complaining that advocates of comps are supporters of schools they wouldn't dream of sending their own children to. In contrast, the average Tory would be absolutely delighted to send their child to an enterprise of this nature? Aye, that'll be right. It's a personal prejudice on my part but apart from anything else, it's the name. Whenever I hear of a school with 'Phoenix' in the title, it gets mentally filed in the same category I reserve for those with 'community' in their name - under 'too crazy'.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fear and incentives

Whilst reading Chris Dillow on incentives, I was reminded about Mr Letwin's remarks a while ago about the need for the discipline of fear amongst public sector workers. I was wondering what kind of world does he live in where fear of losing one's job necessarily makes people behave well, by which we mean in this context: more productively?

I was also wondering what kind of world does he live in where public sector workers don't already fear for their jobs? Being more productive is not necessarily, or even usually, the thing that will get one noticed by management - particularly in jobs where productivity is rather difficult to quantify. As a consequence, workers - in my experience, teachers - will focus on more general matters as well as trying to ingratiate themselves to their managers.

This tends to encourage sycophancy, beggar thy colleague competition, and conformity expressed in the spouting of managerial jargon - rather than a focus on the more narrow specific skills one needs to be good at one's job but which will pass unnoticed by managers who often only understand what you are doing on the basis of memories. And increasingly, they don't even have these. Not an edifying spectacle.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Independence within the UK?

According to Scotland on Sunday, the SNP is backing off from its long-standing policy of Euro membership. Significantly, they have also appear to have rejected the idea of creating a new Scottish currency and would retain Sterling as the currency in an independent Scotland.

It's hardly a shock. For many observers this is not only the best, or the least worst, option but the only one that makes any kind of economic sense. Apart from the present travails of the Eurozone, what appears to have put a nail in the Euro-membership coffin is the realization that if the Euro is to survive, it will require some kind of common fiscal policy.

The question is, where does this leave the independence project? To my mind there is no reason why the SNP shouldn't now talk about 'Independence within the UK' but I doubt they will for a couple of reasons:

1) One would imagine that when the real-world economic restraints are discussed in terms of a relationship to London rather than Brussels, there'll be a lot of rather disgruntled Nats.

2) It would be rather difficult, and almost certainly too late, for them to be doing so, given the rhetoric of previous years. Alex Salmond could be made to look rather foolish if he is reminded of his previous statements on the position.

It's unfortunate for the Nationalists because 'Independence within the UK' doesn't make any less sense than 'Independence in Europe' in terms of the monetary and fiscal restraints that come with being a member of a common market with a single monetary policy - but the latter didn't make much sense in the first place anyway, at least not in the way that it was sold by the SNP.

I'm repeating myself but I think it's a point worth driving home. It's been suggested to me that the SNP are rather enjoying themselves at the moment. I wouldn't know but I doubt it. They certainly shouldn't be because there are some uncomfortable times ahead for them as the rhetoric of the past collides with the present reality - and the more thoughtful members of the party, I think, realised this some time ago.

Monday, August 15, 2011

David Cameron on the riots and the general moral degradation of our society

Courtesy of the Gruaniad, edited selectively - but not entirely inaccurately:
"Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort.

Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control."
Sentences without verbs. Typical PR-man bullshit. Like Blair - only worse. Despite - or perhaps because of - expensive private education.

Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off!

Oh, slipped a verb or three in there - on account of my bog-standard comprehensive education. The only sentence I lifted that broke continuity was this: "Behaving as if your choices have no consequences." Bankers? Uh, no. Anyway, what's this crime without punishment shit? I'm sure I read somewhere that some sad fucker got jailed for six months for nicking some water?


Gaping asshole.

Yes he is.

(Verb again - sorry!)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

#ukriots: Defending Alex Salmond

Difficult thing for me to do, what with not being a nationalist and taking the view that Salmond is not a political colossus who towers above the Scottish body politic but in fact something of an asshole. Still, he has a point in his comments about the English riots. Perhaps his mistake was to complain that the description of them as UK-wide was unfair. Rather, it is simply inaccurate.

I'm not sure what Salmond means by Scotland having a different society but the criticism of his comments is absolutely absurd. It has been described as the 'worst face of nationalism' by the Scottish Lib Dem leader - a man in need of some remedial history, if ever I've seen one.

It's not even the worst in terms of the tedious exchange of accusations that passes for debate in Scottish politics. Blaming all your own country's problems on a historic connection to another is boring, stupid and can get fairly unpleasant at times - but what Salmond is saying isn't even this. What he is saying is perfectly accurate. These are English riots. They have not happened in Scotland yet all the conditions that have been cited as factors are present here, not least in sunny Glasgow. So why not here? It is others who are too parochial and narrow-minded to ask why this is. World doesn't revolve round London, y'know.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reflections on the English riots

Like many people, I've been following the mayhem on Twitter. First it was the #Londonriots. Then as they spread, they became the #ukriots. Last thing I noticed on the beeb rolling strapline was more accurate: these are the English riots, with Scotland being trouble-free.

Now I'm going to look a bit of a knob if it kicks off in Glasgow tonight but I don't think it will and the mere fact that it hasn't yet should, I would have thought, prompted people to put down their broad-brushes, step away from their keyboards and think about about they are saying. Because regardless of the position on the political spectrum people occupy, if they had correctly identified the 'root causes', it should be happening in Glasgow.

For many on the left, the riots are a function of austerity, poverty, shit housing, unemployment and lack of opportunities. Or more specifically for some, the closure of youth clubs. Some people have had faith in the magical properties of youth clubs for as long as I can remember. Well, it's not as if we have full employment here with all our youths happily playing ping-pong so these factors are at best incomplete explanations.

Same goes for the right - with lack of discipline, a 'dependency-culture', family break-down and shortage of press-ups being identified as the usual suspects whenever something bad happens. But we have all this in Glasgow too.

The commentary rather gives the impression of being a wee bit like that which followed the Norwegian tragedy. Loads of pundits who claim to have identified the causes in the very things they've been banging on about for years and reading into a situation exactly what they want to see. Probably the most absurd and pathetic example of this is those internet-Tots presently finding something Arab Spring about a bunch of fuckwits stealing trainers.

And like the Norwegian tragedy, one gets the impression that people would be deeply unsatisfied with narrower, more mundane explanations. So why not Glasgow? Perhaps it's the weather? I'm not being entirely facetious. You don't get long hot summers of discontent in Scottish cities because you don't get long-hot summers. But more likely, these English riots have at their root stuff to do with gangs, ethnic minorities and their interaction with the police? Wouldn't claim to know what the answer is, but looking at more specific practical things is likely to be more helpful than people just whipping out their prejudices?

Not that I'm free from these myself, obviously. I want to vomit when people start bleating about the need to find out why people involve themselves in acts of 'communal self-harm', like they need therapy or something. My own view is that there's an amazing amount of bullshit smuggled into arguments under the cover of 'community'. Maybe if the rioters had been torching their own homes, it could be seen like this - but they haven't, have they? So it shouldn't. Why do people go on the rampage? Really have to insist that the right doesn't get a monopoly on having a pessimistic view of the human condition. People do this sort of thing because they are arseholes and because they can. As Chris says, you need structures where the the costs of rioting outweigh the benefits. The difference between left and right is the former traditionally does not see the costs solely in terms of punitive criminal justice. But the left has traditionally seen a role for criminal justice and it's a tradition worth maintaining. Or alternatively you could pretend a bunch of feral scumbags stealing DVD players are at the vanguard of the English revolution - if you want to go on looking like a complete tit, that it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Civic vs cultural nationalism

There was a curious article in Better Nation last week where Pete Wishart, the Nationalist MP for Perth and North Perthshire declares himself 'proud to be British' and will continue to be so even when (if) Scotland gains independence.

What he has in mind is the idea of Britain continuing as a notion of identity in much the same way Scandinavians see themselves as sharing aspects of a common culture, as well as a history and a geography, but have independent political institutions at the national level.

It's curious because this unequivocally is not what nationalism has been about historically, with Scottish nationalism being no exception. Simply put, nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy that maintains the boundaries of the nation and the state should be congruent - and that what makes a nation has a great deal to do with culture.

Scotland does not have the different language that most nations have had as central to their sense of identity, which has led Scottish nationalists to focus on other aspects of culture, such as art, religion, literature, music, customs and so on.

Now Pete Wishart deserves credit for not maintaining the absurd suggestion that Scots have a completely different culture from the English but without this, one is left wondering why he has chosen to undermine what is arguably the central tenet of the nationalist credo?

My guess is this is just Wishart's way of addressing the SNP's elephant in the living room, which is that in all probability the Union will continue in some form or other and at an institutional level, not merely a cultural one.

In any event, even if we did have the more distinct culture of the nationalists' fantasy, I would still be left with the frustration also felt by the late Ernst Gellner who pointed out that despite the fact that the homogenous 'nation-state' has been more theoretical abstraction than historical reality, nationalists take their political theory of legitimacy as a given and assume that the business of explaining one's position is the sole responsibility of the other side. Being British means different things to different people. For me, one of its benefits is that I don't feel the need to insist on this fiction.

I think it's about time the argument was shifted. It's about time nationalists made the case for the Scotland they want to see - and they might start with a definition of what independence actually means. Warm words about a brave and exciting future are simply not good enough. People are, one assumes, going to be asked to express an opinion on practical policies. It isn't difficult to see why the SNP might want to avoid this issue because when you break it down, you are very quickly confronted with the limits that 'independence' is likely to operate within.

For example, the issue of monetary policy raises an interesting paradox here. Arguably the present Euro difficulties highlight the limits of both internationalism and nationalism. The former because the strains on the Euro are exacerbated by the fact that the EU has a supranational monetary policy but with no equivalent budget to obviate the inflexibility this brings. And the reason it doesn't have a common treasury is because the electorates in member states would not support it.

But it leaves the Nationalists with a question to answer. Do they really still think it's a sensible idea to join the Euro? One would hope not. But given Scotland's size, a completely new currency would simply become a satellite of another. The most sensible thing would obviously be to maintain monetary union with the UK for the foreseeable future. But this was not what the Nats imagined they were fighting for during the long years of opposition.

We could do with some sensible answers to problems like this, rather than going on about identity. Someone suggested to me that the Nationalists are really enjoying themselves at the moment. I'm not so sure. Sometimes collectively they strike me as a bit like Robert Redford in the Candidate. Having won against the odds, they're now saying, "So what do we do now?" That they're wasting time proposing legislation on sectarianism and alcohol and discussing identity rather than answering the big questions is telling.


As a footnote to Wishart's notion that it's now ok to acknowledge a shared British culture, I noted with amusement that as well as minor details like the Industrial Revolution, he includes cultural achievements such as "great rock and pop bands." I hope he doesn't mean Coldplay - but it raised a smile because a friend of mine was at T in the Park recently. Coldplay were described as dreadfully pretentious and anodyne, as you might expect. The band he enjoyed most were Primal Scream playing in one of the big tents. Bobby Gillespie and the boys playing pumping rock and roll like it should be played to crazy Scots, most of whom were nearly as wasted as the lead singer. You couldn't get a more typically Scottish musical experience than that but for obvious reasons the Nats have preferred to pretend they spend their time listening to Runrig. Or maybe they really do listen to Runrig, which is almost as uncool as liking Coldplay.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mass murder in an age of instant punditry

On the Norwegian tragedy, Chris Dillow writes that, "[C]omment about Breivik tells us more about the commenter than Breivik."

If so, these terrible events and the response to them has something very depressing to tell us about the state of the average commentator.

First up, there was the instant imputation of this to Al-Qaeda or some other Islamist terrorist group. Now obviously this shouldn't have been done and one would hope that the 'experts' that did so have the grace to be a little embarrassed by now.

But the corresponding reaction wasn't exactly the model of reason either. "Ooh, they've blamed jihadists, the Islamaphobes!" - as if Islamist terrorists wouldn't dream of doing such a thing.

I was also surprised that no-one thought to make a point about the nature of our 24/7 rolling news culture. Someone sticks a microphone in front of some academic who researches this sort of thing, says something like, "So, Professor Anorak, you're an expert on all things that explode: who do you think might have been responsible for this?"

Did people really think he was going to say, "Don't have a clue, mate - we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?"

Then when it emerged that this was Oklahoma, rather than 9/11, 7/7 or Madrid? Let's be clear about this: in the face of such carnage and grief, what moved most people to hit the keyboards was the impulse to use human suffering to score points against their internet enemies. "The Oslo terrorist cited Melanie Phillips in his manifesto", declares Liberal Conspiracy.

Yeah - but as Chris Dillow points out, even if these sorts of massacres weren't so vanishingly rare, it would still be difficult to establish cause and effect: does reading Mel make you lose your damn mind, or do you read her and find yourself nodding in agreement because you're already fucking metal? (I'm paraphrasing, naturally.)

But so far, the prize for most tenuous link to the Norwegian massacre goes to Chris Bertram below one of the Flying Rodent's characteristically objective posts. On the whole 'creating the atmosphere where homicidal rampages are more likely' theme, thus saith Mr Bertram:
"The "decent left" shouldn't be let off the hook either since they legitimized some of these lunatics by linking to them, giving interviews to FrontPageMag etc, and generally making them look more respectable than they are. Case in point: Professor Norm, who took down his blogroll link to Gates of Vienna some time shortly after the Norwegian massacres."
So check your links list, boys and girls; you never know if you might be inadvertently killing people with them.

Or alternatively, have a little decorum - and think before you speak, or rather type. To my mind, this from David Osler is one of the very few offerings on the subject that shows any evidence of someone who has done just that. You may disagree but I don't think that necessarily makes you a Nazi.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Privacy and liberty revisited

Gratifying to read so many articles for so many days referring to the 'scandal now engulfing' News International. The closure of the News of the World looks like what some called it at the time - an act of desperation. I've nothing particular to add to what has already been said but I have been struck by what has not been said, which is that invading privacy is no big deal or indeed that privacy doesn't really exist in the modern world.

Because this was the line from some on the left when it was HM Government that was doing the snooping. Here's two articles from that ilk, which I distinctly recall being linked in an approving way in various quarters.

Rafael Behr made the absurd argument that since we invade our own privacy all the time, it cannot have any real value to us.

Connor Gearty took a similar line with a couple of rather unpleasant add-ons, which included the ad hominem notion that only posh people trying to protect privilege could possibly be concerned with such bourgeois and passé notions like privacy.

I took issue with these nasty and ahistorical articles at the time but I'm wondering if they are still prepared to repeat this 'fetishizing of liberty' cant or be so dismissive of privacy when it News International rather than a 'progressive' Government that has been doing the spying?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sectarianism and the National Secular Society

"The National Secular Society (NSS) has submitted papers to Holyrood demanding an end to taxpayers’ money being used to fund religion-based education north of the Border.

Officials have insisted a separate schooling system for Catholic children is helping to fuel religious divisions and the kind of tensions witnessed during Old Firm matches.

And, in written submissions to two parliamentary committees, they said it was now time to stop children being segregated in school because of their faith."
Exactly the sort of thing you might expect me to support. I do in general principle but I have a couple of concerns with this particular campaign.

One is the naivety. If you suggest that there is a connection between separate Catholic schools and religious bigotry in Scottish society, you might as well stand up and shout, "I am Oliver Cromwell." As noted in the piece...
"John Lamont MSP, the Scottish Tory justice spokesman, sparked anger after accusing the west of Scotland school system of overseeing 'state-sponsored conditioning of sectarian attitudes'.
"[T]he Catholic Church rejected the remarks as 'inflammatory and insensitive'."
But my main concern is that while the NSS is trying to bend it towards its own agenda, at base it just accepts the logic of Salmond with his distinctively Scottish version of a 'Dangerous Dogs' moral panic legislative agenda. Keith Porteous Wood is quoted as accepting that, "Sectarianism is getting worse." But where is the evidence for this? A couple of bad-tempered Old Firm games, lunatics sending bullets in the post? Football is getting worse, perhaps but sectarianism is in long-term decline. The Orange Walk in Glasgow is, I'm happy to say, a shadow of its former self. Again, as the original piece reports...
"Police made 32 arrests yesterday for a 'variety of offences' at an annual Orange Order Parade. Only six were for sectarian offences as 8,000 people from Glasgow’s 182 lodges marched through the city."
I'm not sure if utilitarian arguments are the best basis on which to argue against religious schooling anyway - but if the National Secular Society are determined to used them, they should come up with better ones than the one they're using here.

Update: Bish Joe Devine then...
"Catholic education is "divisive" and contributes to the problem of "sectarianism", according to a Scottish bishop.

But Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell, told the Sunday Herald newspaper it was sometimes "a price worth paying"."
And now...
""The claim that Catholic schools are the cause of sectarianism is offensive and untenable," said the bishop, also president of the Catholic Education Commission.

"There has never been any evidence produced by those hostile to Catholicism to support such a malicious misrepresentation."
Take your pick.

Via: The Flying Rodent

Saturday, July 02, 2011

An interview with Johann Hari

My goodness, the memory space on this computer is groaning under the weight of articles about the Johann Hari plagiarism debacle, I fear the thing's going to give out on me. They range from the more forensic allegations of cut and paste to the more wide ranging "J'accuse Hari of being a lazy bastard who doesn't do any research" variety.

I sought to get to the bottom of this so I tracked Hari down, now holed up in a high-security compound on the outskirts of Greenock. Johann, looking disheveled and twitchy - but much slimmer than he had been the last time I saw him on Newsnight Review - agreed to this interview.

"Awlright, big chap - how's it goin'?", I said in the Glasgow dialect. I was trying to put him at ease. I remembered his mother was from Glasgow, Or was she? Hmmm... Anyway, he directed us to the lounge, I sat and he poured drinks.

"Would you like to smoke?", he asked.

A rare courtesy in this politically-correct age, I thought.

"Don't mind if I do", I replied - and whipped out a Cuban cigar the size of Havana and started puffing away like a maniac.

"Soooo - what d'ya want to ask me?", asked Johann, tugging at his bottom lip pensively.

I said, "Well, I'm really not that interested in a whole lot of the stuff that's been written about this case, to be honest. This might be a bit of a relief to you? Or perhaps not. No, not really that interested in whether you took ecstasy or not. No point in going over old ground, know what I mean 'nat?

"There's really one question that sums it up for me. You're a big Chavez fan, yes? Can't say I share this view but each to their own and all that. No, it's really this: yer pal has cancer, apparently - and has had a wee operation.

"Now, this is a matter of no small importance, given the nature of these regimes and the problems they have with succession, as I'm sure you know. So the question is this: if you went to interview him now, how the fuck could we possibly believe a goddamn word you're saying?"

Johann caught my gaze and then looked away saying nothing, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

Was it, as he claimed, the piles that made him squirm so - or was it the guilt? I'll let the reader decide...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

SNP: Fast-tracking stupidity

From the Herald on the Scottish Government's proposed 'anti-sectarianism' laws:
"The estimated costs of introducing new laws targeting hate crime at football matches are "way off the mark", according to a leading police chief."
Yeah, but suggesting that the problem with the proposed legislation is the cost is a criticism that rather misses the target as well.

The problem with this proposed legislation is that it is stupid, illiberal and unjust. Kick someone's head in and you'll get eighteen months, if the judge was feeling particularly strict; say you're going to kick someone's head in because they're an Orange/Fenian bastard and you could get five years in the 'New Scotland'. Actually, seems you don't even need to go that far:
"Football supporters could be jailed for singing God Save the Queen or Flower of Scotland under the SNP's new law to crack down on sectarianism.
Making the sign of the cross or singing Rule Britannia could also be regarded as an offence under certain circumstances once the legislation comes into force next football season.

Community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham yesterday said that such songs and gestures could be regarded as offensive acts when she was questioned about the SNP's anti-sectarian bill being fast-tracked through parliament."
Community safety minister? Jesus wept! But the purpose of this is not to make an easy point about free speech; support this and you obviously don't believe in it - period. But if it wasn't this it would be something else, will be something else, just as stupid and illiberal in a constitutional framework where a voting system that was supposed to avoid overall majorities has delivered one in a unicameral system with no revising second chamber.

The other point is, why has our new strident majority government opted to make a priority of this and excessive drinking? For these are both problems that almost everyone agrees are Bad Things yet at the same time are features of Scottish life where it is doubtful that government has the ability to change without very drastic measures.

I would doubt, for example, that Salmond & Co would go ahead with restrictions on alcohol consumption of Scandinavian proportions. As for sectarianism, it is in any event a much-exaggerated problem. Glasgow 'Belfast without the guns'? Please don't be mislead; the sort of people who say this are exactly the same kind of people who describe only moderately authoritarian politicians as 'Nazis'. But in as far as it is a problem, we already know the Nationalists are unwilling to countenance measures that might actually do some good - such as eliminating religion from schools.

So what are the SNP playing at? I have to confess, I don't know but it seems to me that they're behaving like Blair did when he was first elected; huge majority yet still falling into the opposition default? Or in the case of Salmond, like he's still in minority government. Or maybe he's playing the long-game, avoiding controversial issues like the local income tax and keeping his powder dry for the forth-coming constitutional confrontation? But whatever happens, one is beginning to suspect that in the 'New Scotland' being Scottish will be elevated as a virtue above boring conventions such as the independence of the judiciary or legislative scrutiny.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Michael Gove and school standards

It's a dispiriting time to be a teacher in Scotland at the moment. CoSLA, the umbrella group that represents the local authorities who employ those of us who work in the state sector, are engaged in a concerted onslaught on teachers' pay and conditions. That some of the changes to the latter will not save local government a red cent rather reinforces the impression that budgetary restraints are simply being used as a cover for teacher-bashing.

Meanwhile, 'union militancy' is, sadly, in rather short supply. The main teachers' union rather gives the impression of having completely lost sight of whose interests they are supposed to be defending. Being not very good at one's job is one thing but one really does despair when we are being represented by people who don't even appear to know what their job is.

Represented by people who don't know what their job is and working for people who don't know what my job is; CoSLA explicitly state here (p 12) that they do not consider that the main job of a teacher is to teach children. It's grim stuff, which was why I was beginning to wonder if some of the ideas coming from down south might not turn out to be rather better? It's certainly difficult to get all misty-eyed about local government if you live in this part of the world, I can tell you - so maybe schools being released from council control might not be such a bad idea?

I don't know but the problem with autonomy from local control is that it leaves the institution with nothing standing between it and central government - and the latter is at least as capable of being as stupid, capricious and belligerent as councils, which brings us to some of Michael Gove's remarks over the last week or so.

First he suggested that schools have 'tough targets' for GCSE passes imposed on them. Those failing to reach this new hurdle will face regime-change. Even one of Gove's most uncritical groupies has argued that this is arbitrary and unfair.

Then more recently he has suggested, at the most inappropriate time imaginable, that standards at the exam board aren't good enough.

Now, I have no idea whether exams in England are getting easier or not but that Gove can't see the obvious contradiction between these two positions is profoundly depressing. We can identify schools as 'under-performing' by the proportion of their intake who pass GCSEs, says Gove. However, if they improve on this record, we already know he would take this as evidence that examination standards have fallen because 'rigorous' exams can be identified by the proportion that fail them.

Here the attitude of Gove towards standards in schools is typical of the general Tory view, which in turn very much like their attitude to crime. Academic standards are falling and crime is rising - and whenever some objective statistical measure suggests this might not always be the case, the veracity of the measures themselves are called into question because what we are dealing with here are positions that are articles of faith rather than observations of how the world actually is.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On Rambo movies for Guardian readers

I was watching another in this genre, this time with Hillary Swank in Freedom Riders.

You may not have seen it but you know the script: naive but enthusiastic teacher takes on a job in grim inner-city gang-ridden hell-hole and wins her charges over with the power of commitment and the ability to see their true potential. Meets the usual resistance from cynical establishment. 'Based on a true story', yet almost completely unbelievable. You know the sort of thing.

Now I've discussed this before but neglected to mention an absolutely crucial ingredient to this genre: ever noticed these teachers only ever seem to have one class?

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

University fees and the celebrity premium

For a university education, it is being suggested that it should be 100% more than those English universities who choose to go for the maximum possible under this government's new tuition fee regime.

I don't have too much to say about this except to point to one or two rather good pieces elsewhere in the blogosphere.

There's some perfectly calibrated contempt from David Osler:
"MOST reviewers considered ‘The Expendables’ to be a pretty mediocre film, as action flicks go. But there was no arguing with the box office pulling power of a cast that included Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke.

I detect something of the same thinking at work when I read the names of the academic rock stars lined up to teach at the New College of the Humanities, which opens up in London next year. Students will benefit from one to one tutorials from the likes of AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Niall Ferguson.

Short of raising Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell back from the dead, it is hard to imagine how the founders could have assembled a more bunch of profs more attractive to a target demographic of extremely bright rich kids."
A small point of disagreement, though. Rich kids this project may appeal to. By definition, it can only appeal to rich kids - but could we really describe them as bright? (Or 'Brights', in Dawkins' deeply cringe-inducing epithet.) I take leave to doubt it, which brings me to Paul's comments on the subject:
"Big famous names are not the same as good, serious educators of university minds. If you go to TDU thinking you’ll get a good education just because some famous people are there, you’re a fool. "
A fool and his money are soon parted, indeed. But to strike an optimistic note, I'm wondering if it might turn out that there aren't so many of these as one might suppose. My father was an educational academic and used to talk contemptuously of private schools that were 'schools for thick rich-kids'. Now, the experience - in Scotland anyway - is that these schools have struggled to survive, many having suffered death by amalgamation. I'm wondering if the fate of this enterprise might not turn out to be something similar? They may find that there are simply not enough thick rich kids to go around? If I'm wrong, it would be a profoundly depressing development - this X-Factor meets academia.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Labour in opposition

Are not doing very well. Given that the single biggest issue is the economy and the government's fiscal response, they have failed to make plain one very simple point: reducing government borrowing and cutting government spending, while closely related, are not the same thing - as is becoming increasingly obvious.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the Strauss-Kahn case

In the corner of this Time cover, you'll see in tiny black print that this story is about the accused bomber Timothy McVeigh - published as it was prior to his trial and subsequent execution.

That the crimes which Strauss-Kahn has been accused of bear no comparison to this goes without saying but I'm using it because I don't believe for a minute that the 'discomfort' that so many people have told us they're feeling in relation to the indictment of Strauss-Kahn have much to do with a general discomfort with the experience of suspects and their treatment by the media or the American criminal justice system prior to a criminal prosecution.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that it is the position that Strauss-Kahn occupied in the French hierarchy and in world politics when this allegation was made that is the source of all this 'unease'. Henri Bernard-Levi has made himself ridiculous in the eyes of many, but he has done so by merely expressing what I suspect a number of people really feel:
"This morning, I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other. [Emphasis mine]"
Imagine doing such a thing! Regardless of the outcome of this case, it's worth considering the possibility that this represents a kind of progress? I feel the need to share this because I've read a fair bit about the case and have been struck by the sheer scale of 'unease' out there. It hasn't quite reached Bin Laden proportions - but still... A friend of mine put it to me this way. Say what you like about liberal-democratic capitalism; is there, or has there ever been, any other system where the word of a chambermaid would have been taken seriously in a case like this? Or, one could add, where a chambermaid would have even dared? I'll leave you with Lord Acton's most famous phrase - with the interesting bits left in...:
"I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. [Emphasis mine]

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Suggested in a previous post:
"No matter how effective the SNP machine is, I still can't imagine the Scottish electorate being persuaded to disengage from institutions which - no matter how much people might wish it otherwise - they have a certain degree of affection for. I doubt this would even be offered as a choice. The model of 'independence' that will be offered is likely to include the retention of the Queen as Head of State, monetary union with England and, much more controversially, continued participation in the British Armed Forces."
It's the sort of thinking that often attracts, "Boo - unionist! You wrong - and you smell!", type comments - but it now seems the version that the 'independence-lite' now favoured by the SNP is even lighter than this version, which some of us assumed was the SNP game all along:
"The Scotsman can reveal Alex Salmond's party is aiming for an "independence-lite" constitutional settlement that could see Scotland sharing defence, social security and foreign policy with England, in the knowledge the SNP would struggle to win a vote on outright separation."
This is described in the same article as a "sea-change in Nationalist thinking" - to which the only appropriate response is to say, "Bollocks!".

Friday, May 13, 2011

The problem with education in this our two countries...

The answer to this varies a great deal, depending on whom you read, although those taking a regular interest in this will note that there's always one single big problem rather than numerous small ones - the latter being altogether too mundane and demanding on the attention for the average online pundit.

For some the core of the problem is the dead hand of the state. 'Producer-capture' has given us schools controlled by unions who are invariably described as 'Jurassic', or some other epithet used to indicate the state of being on the wrong side of History, and 'trendy teachers' who distribute condoms to teenagers in a value-free environment and think all must win prizes.

Or it could be the influence of ideologically-driven reactionaries who want to pursue the twin objectives of returning to the 1950s whilst turning the school system into a supermarket - contradictory goals reconciled with the assumption that the liberated consumers will use their new-found freedom to make the right choice.

Or it could be a bit of both but I'm increasingly of the view that it is neither for reasons I'll attempt to explain in my usual cack-handed way...

My country first. Unlike my own pusillanimous union, I see that the SSTA has decided not to take the line of least resistance to the Scottish Government's plan for pay cuts and reduced conditions of service for teachers. And amongst the grievances are included a criticism of the new curriculum as not being 'fit for purpose'. This is a repetition of a previous line, which was echoed by one of the curriculum's architects, Keir Bloomer:
"Keir Bloomer, a member of the team that created the Curriculum for Excellence, described it as "not good enough". The former council leader and director of education was particularly critical of the literacy element, calling it "complete nonsense".
Complete nonsense it undoubtedly is but to reproduce it for your amusement might distract from what is for me the most important piece of information in the excerpt above.

This is that the gentleman making these remarks is a former council leader and director of education. He had nothing to say when he was doing the job. Perhaps he only formed this opinion when he was approaching retirement but the more likely explanation is that he didn't say anything earlier for the same reason everyone doesn't say anything if they are in a similar position. You don't spend all that time climbing a hierarchy in order to say things that would immediately identify yourself as not belonging there.

This is the problem with projects like the Curriculum for Excellence. They will be a mixture of good ideas and bad, will have elements that work and some that will not. It is not that these are difficult to distinguish, it is that the institutions through which changes like this are mediated simply do not allow for this process.

Because it gains a bureaucratic momentum that is difficult to stop and, above all, they become projects in which people have invested political capital to the extent that the practical functioning of the initiative becomes secondary to survival of it as a partisan political project.

What is happening south of the border with the whole 'free-school' plan illustrates this point. As a way into this, I'll make a token effort to be even-handed. There are in Gove's plans one or two things that strike one as being reasonable ideas. For example, the idea of having five core subjects is from a Scottish perspective uncontroversial since this has been the practice here for many years.

On the other hand, from what this outside observer can gather from any concrete proposals suggested thus far, there's more than one or two elements of the free school plan that don't make any sense to me at all. Perhaps it's not representative but there seems to me to be an obvious contradiction between insisting that free-schools will have no academic entry requirements and suggesting - no, guaranteeing - that the "vast majority of...pupils will get 5 grade Cs at GCSE in academic subjects", as Ms Birbalsingh does for her proposed "Michaela Community School".

However, to focus on this would be to miss the point I am trying to make. This excerpt is from an article entitled, "How to dispel the myths surrounding free schools". Even if this were possible, I somehow doubt the pages of the Telegraph is the place where this is likely to happen, being as it is a space to preach to the choir rather than the unconverted.

In some respects it has already ceased to become important whether free-schools are a good idea or not because they have become a partisan political project and people will, have already, assumed positions accordingly. People will oppose this Conservative plan because it is a Conservative plan, with rightwingers occupying the defensive trench for exactly the same reason. Political capital has already been invested in this and its survival has likely already become more important than whether it actually works or not. Wheels looking a little wobbly on the NHS reform wagon so better make sure this one stays on course... But the felt need to maintain this course necessitates the sidelining of those voices that might carry the practical knowledge that might come in handy if they want to avoid the potholes that would impede the journey.

Enough with the clunking metaphors. Education in our countries has been a political football for as long as anyone can remember. Some of this is unavoidable in a representative democracy but in Britain it is felt more acutely than elsewhere in Europe. At the risk of producing my own monism to replace those on sale elsewhere, I would suggest this is simply because our educational systems are more centralised than in most other countries. Any proposed reform would work better if there was genuine decentralisation at almost every level. Central government should back away from local government, who in turn should back away from the management of individual schools. I would go on to suggest that school managers should also desist from attempting to micro-manage individual departments but they are but creatures of a system that gives them little incentive to do so.

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