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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

EiS union members accept revised teacher pay offer

Shame on them.

It's not the pay freeze that's the problem. Teachers' pay fluctuates over time and inflation is one of the mechanisms by which this happens. It isn't very realistic to expect our pay-packets not to take a hit in this time of more general fiscal squeeze in Scotland.

It's the change in conditions. Supply teachers are to take a nominal, not just an inflation-induced, salary cut.

Meanwhile those presently* on 'conserved salaries' are to be ring-fenced, from what one can make out.

Shorter: those actually doing the job get a pay cut while others continue to be paid for a job they are no longer doing.

I'm not so naive and understand that one of the historic functions of unions is to preserve wage differentials - but I'd like them to do two things for me:

a) don't make it quite so fucking obvious...

b) spare us the rhetoric about equality and solidarity, comrades.

*But not in the future. A cause not worth fighting for, as Hugh Reilly points out.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Miliband: out of touch?

Ed has warned of 'disaster' for Britain if the SNP's rise in the polls should lead to victory in the Holyrood elections on the 5th of May.

There was a time when I would have been inclined to agree with him but I now no longer associate an SNP win in Holyrood with independence. Anecdotal evidence would suggest I'm not alone. Devolved politics in Scotland has become a little more practical and mundane and consequently less absorbed with the constitutional question. I would suggest that this is one of the reasons that Labour is doing so badly. On the constitutional question, most Scots agree with them - but as for presenting themselves as an alternative administration that could be more effective than our present one? Oh dear, oh dear. I get the sense people don't believe the constitution is what is at stake in this election. While this might be complacent, I think they're probably right. The nationalists would, after all, still have to win a referendum.

Miliband doesn't get this because he isn't particularly interested in Scottish politics. I'm wondering if this doesn't mean the 5th of May will be a bad day for him because it looks increasingly like it's the day when he'll be seen to have backed two losing causes: Labour in Scotland and AV. I'm for the former and opposed to the latter but take the view that neither deserve to win. Both thus far have failed to persuade because their advocates don't feel the need to persuade. Instead they treat their opponents like disagreeable schoolchildren. If people were more familiar with the Scottish political landscape, they'd appreciate the assumption of a right to rule is not an exclusively English and Tory phenomenon. You should see just how uneasy Scottish Labour are with the whole business of persuading people to vote for them. They're not used to it, you see. How they squirm...

On republicanism

With a Royal Wedding in the offing, it is entirely predictable that the online contrarians on the blogosphere should take the opportunity to make the republican case.

It's the sort of thing where I end up taking issue with the people I ostensibly agree with because I find them annoying. What annoys me about my fellow republicans is the way they assume the case for it is self-evident and unarguable. This failure to make an effort is perhaps why they don't make any converts.*

While obviously more rational, modern, and democratic as an idea, there seems to me a few obvious objections to the idea of a British republic:

1) The 'brand' has been historically 'toxified' though the experience of Cromwell. Our experience of republicanism was too soon before the 18th century window where it could be associated with liberty and equality. As it is, the English republic is remembered for banning Christmas and killing Irish. That in the 20th century republicanism was more likely to be associated with Irish terrorism serves to illustrate that there's something in this cause that can piss most people off.

2) The shift from monarchy to republic is normally linked to a regime-change of some kind; revolution, defeat in war, or cessation from an empire. Surely no reasonable person could argue that having none of these in our recent history is entirely a bad thing? Let me put it another way: Germany is a republic and you could argue it is better for it. But you wouldn't want the path to modernity that Germany has taken.

3) The record of republics with regards to liberty, equality, human rights or even basic regime-stability isn't very good. The 20th century was the most violent in human history. Think you'll find the American, Russian and Chinese republics played not an insignificant role here. And to keep it contemporary - Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya? The republican form of government is fairly well represented in the Middle East - as it is in Africa, as it is in Latin America. Hardly regions that were noted for their stability in the 20th and now 21st century.

I wouldn't have thought that the experience of finding British Royal pageantry more than a little kitsch and irritatingly inescapable was an overwhelmingly heavy weight to put on the other side of the scales in this argument. Neither is the technical description of our status in the UK. We're called subjects but in practice are citizens, whereas the difference between being a citizen and a serf in various despotisms throughout the world both past and present is difficult to discern.

*Or the wrong sort of effort. See this, for example. Nice attitude.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

On sectarianism

Came across two rather different articles about this today. The first from Tom Devine:
"We should all be clear that the world is now fully aware about our sinister little secret."
Ho hum. Then there's this from Steve Bruce in CiF:
"Most Scots are not football fans; most fans do not support Rangers or Celtic; most Rangers and Celtic fans are not religious bigots. That some Rangers and Celtic fans wind each other up by falsely claiming to have strong religio-ethnic identities which are offended by the equally false religio-ethnic identities of the other side is not a reason for the rest of us to take such ritual posturing as the basis for judging the polity, society and culture of an entire country."
Felt like someone had opened a window. The Old Firm game was nil-nil today. Who give a fuck? Not me - nor do a majority of Scots.

Update: The Scotsman reports that there were...
"[N]ine people arrested after the game, with six arrests made in the grounds and another three immediately outside.

A police spokesperson said all arrests were for "minor offences", such as being drunk inside the stadium and breach of the peace."
The horror! Lennon makes a gesture. Not even a rude one. Police involved. We've got our hands full up here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nick Clegg: he's not the messiah; he's a very naughty boy...

"It would be barmy and blasphemous...to seriously compare Nick Clegg with Jesus Christ." So says Martin Kettle - who then goes on to do just that:
"The thing we really hate, I suspect, is the difficulty of getting hard things right rather than those who grapple with them. Yet we take it out on the hate figures. This only makes the difficulties greater, not least by implying that there is some obvious solution to hand which the politicians are wilfully ignoring. Handel's Messiah, quoting the Book of Isaiah, speaks to this collective failing with unrivalled power: "The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." Once again though, they could be talking about the increasingly hapless Clegg."[Emphasis mine]
Uh huh? The idea, if you can bear to read the piece, is that Clegg is suffering vicariously for our own flaws like the 'leper messiah' - an interpretation of Isaiah 53 which was subsequently incorporated into Christianity and applied to Jesus.

I wouldn't have dreamed of making the comparison myself, but Kettle started it so I thought I might continue... The New Testament accounts are obviously a source of debate but I don't think anyone seriously doubts that solicitude with the poor, the despised and the marginalised was central to the kerygma of Jesus of Nazareth. I like the edge to the Beatitudes that you find in Luke's account; blessed are not the 'poor in spirit' of Matthew's more ethereal account - just the poor.

What is more debatable is Jesus' attitude to power. I don't mean the disputes that focus around Jesus' injunction to 'render unto Caesar what is Caesar's' but rather whether he wanted power for himself.

For there is an interpretation of the events leading to the Crucifixion that have Jesus as the leader of an armed insurrection against Roman occupation. Against the historical background, it is by no means absurd. In traditional Jewish theology, the Kingdom of God ushered in by the Mashiach was a this-worldly affair. But the injunction to 'sell your cloak and buy a sword' notwithstanding, I don't think the gospel accounts bear this out. The promise of earthly power was one of the Devil's temptations that he resisted in the desert. That the messiah should indeed enjoy earthly power was what was behind Peter's incredulous response to the notion that Jesus would not seize power but die the death of a common criminal. That the writer of the gospel has Jesus rejecting this with the same form of words is obviously no accident.

How unlike Clegg who strikes a number of people, including myself, of being rather the opposite. For did he not succumb to the temptation of worldy-power? And for the poor - has he not passed by on the other side? His toe-curling 'alarm clock Britain' homily contains one reference only to the unemployed; he talks about those who have 'opted-out of work'. No mention of those who have been evicted from their jobs and have nowhere else to go in this undoubted echo of Osborne/Cameron rhetoric about the 'benefits culture'.

One would have thought this would be enough to explain why some people don't like Mr Clegg very much but if Martin Kettle feels there's some kind of mysterious superabundance of hostility that needs accounting for, he might want to factor in Clegg's piety prior to assuming power and his transformation into an imploding bag of poisonous self-pity afterwards.

Martin Kettle thinks 'Clegg-hatred' says more about us than it does about him. Allow me to demur. That his sympathies lie with the rich and the powerful says rather more about him. It suggests someone locked into a Westminster media bubble that has long since lost any sense of how the shoe pinches - not for the 'squeezed middle' - but for that growing minority who live their lives on the edge of desperation. If Mr Kettle was looking for people who suffer vicariously like the leperous messiah, like the scapegoat of Leviticus, for people who have become a lightening rod for our own discontents, he might have spared a thought for them this Easter.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Clothing and liberty

As with a number of commentators, I don't really think the French burqa ban is a terribly good idea but I'm intrigued by the way people argue against it. What I have in mind is this idea that liberty has to do with 'controlling your own appearance'. I'm not saying this isn't so but if it is then liberty isn't very advanced, even in those societies thought to be the most free.

Whilst not being in favour myself, I have a couple of problems with some of the arguments made against the state enforcing dress codes:

1) Why is it only a problem when the state does it, when even in the freest societies workers and school-children regularly have to conform to some kind of dress-code imposed on them by their schools and their employers?

2) Why do even secular liberals insist that exemptions made on religious grounds are better than those made for any other reason? Freedom of religion is being infringed by the burqa ban, we are told - but a freedom infringed that was argued on any other kind of basis would be unlikely to attract the same level of pious indignation, I would guess.

SNP launches manifesto

Shorter version: lots of stuff for everyone and you won't have to pay for it.

Sadly, it's probably a vote-winner.

NB: Education bullshit watch: "On education, the party said it will "look first to maintain the recent improvement" in reducing class sizes before going on to reduce them further."

That'll be why they're increasing class sizes in s1 & 2 English and Maths and making dozens of teachers surplus then?

Turkeys and Christmas

The Green Party is backing a voting system that would make it more difficult for their sole Westminster MP to retain her seat, which shows either a refreshing lack of self-interest or an ignorance of how AV actually works?

I have to say I don't really get the rationale - that it would show an 'appetite for change'? Surely it's not change per se they're interested in but a change to the voting system they actually believe in, which isn't AV?

I'm interested in the way some proponents of voting reform pooh-pooh any suggestion that voters might be confused by complicated voting procedures yet simultaneously seem to be suggesting that being opposed to AV because you're in favour of PR would confuse the issue by sending mixed-messages or something?

Yoof of today

Had to laugh at this survey which "found that a surprising majority—almost 60 percent—of American teenagers thought things like water-boarding or sleep deprivation are sometimes acceptable".

Laughed because I take it we're supposed to be shocked but the only people likely to be so are those who never talk to any actual teenagers. Teenagers are, as James rightly reminds us, mostly idiots - and tend to be, in my experience, fairly bloodthirsty.

For example, discussions about the death penalty in your average class are usually quite illuminating. Opinions will usually break down as follows: some against, some in favour, and some in favour of slow lingering torture before the death penalty is administered. "What was that thing called that they did to William Wallace? Hung, drawn and quartered? Yes, that - we should bring that back."

But at least you get a debate - whereas with a bunch of graduates, opinions on matters like this tends to be much more homogeneous. Better in some respects, one could argue? But definitely less interesting.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Education and the paranoid style of politics #1

I see this largely, but not exclusively, as a rightwing phenomenon where people with power and influence strike a pose - apparently in all sincerity - as oppressed outsiders. I was reminded of this when reading the following by James Delingpole on the state of education:
"Britain’s state school system is a conspiracy against the public on an epic scale."
A nice piece of understatement, I think you'll agree. I found this via Ms Birbalsingh on Twatter who adds the comment that this hysterical nonsense does a "fab job of saying exactly what I'm trying to say!"

Now, I'll return to this in more detail later because the whole 'debate' about schools in England has become extremely silly indeed. I'll confine myself to a couple of observations just now:

1) I refer to schools in England advisedly because despite what Ms Birbalsingh and Mr Delingpole would have us believe, there is no such thing as 'Britain's state school system'. I hope you don't think this is too pedantic a point to make. I'm not doing it on nationalistic grounds. It's just a plea for simple accuracy and one I think is worth making to those whose criticisms of education include the idea that learning facts is underrated in today's system.

2) I was reminded of the paranoid style after reading Mr Delingpole's line about "a period of at least three decades" where "generations of children have been sacrificed on the altar of an entrenched ideology". The question of whether and to what extent the criticisms of 'progressive education' have any validity is one I intend to return to later. I'll restrict myself for now to asking the question: even if this were so, who on earth do these people think have been running the country during this time?

Three decades ago Thatcher had been in power for two years and the Conservatives did not return to opposition until 1997. Then we had Blair and his notion of 'progress' seemed to draw a good deal of inspiration from Gladstonian Liberalism - this being amongst the reasons that Mr Gove declared himself to be such an admirer of him.

One would have thought at the very least those who complain about the progressive takeover of education, and liberal elites controlling the media and so on, would have drawn from this a lesson about the limits of what can be achieved by having their lot in power?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Koran burning

Two short points on this:

1) It shows, again, that those most likely to engage in acts designed to outrage people of a religious disposition are other religious people.

2) There's been the usual pious nonsense about free speech not meaning a right to offend and the need to respect other people's religious traditions.

One should be clear here. Those responsible for the murder of the seven UN workers think a particular book is more sacred and valuable than other human beings.

This represents a long tradition seen in most religions at various times in their history where the invisible deity or deities, along with physical objects, places or buildings that are taken as being sacred because of their proximity to, or actual possession of, the divine material, must be protected from desecration to the point of shedding blood.

Respect that if you must but I don't think you should. And I personally find the suggestion that I should very offensive. You could go as far as to say it hurts my feelings and strikes to the core of what I believe. But I won't be killing anyone because of this.

[See also this. Filed under, Making My Point For Me.]

AV and minority parties

In a previous post, Norm rightly argued that AV can't make it easier for minority parties to get elected because the hurdle required by this system is higher. Now with this post he addresses the question: what if it did?
"But if your commitment to democracy means anything, is an electoral method to be rejected just because it accommodates results which you don't like? What's the difference between this and simply outlawing the party whose influence you don't wish to see grow? What I'm asking is, how much weight should we give, anyway, to the consideration that an electoral method might increase the influence of a party or parties we judge to be pernicious?"
It's a reasonable point, although I would have thought the difference between banning an extremist party and simply having a system that makes it difficult for it to flourish was fairly obvious. But I'm not happy with Norm's choice of words. It's not a question of what parties I don't want to see flourish; the concern with some voting systems is that they can allow extremist parties to exert disproportionate power and thereby produce situations that the majority, by definition, did not want. I don't quite see how taking this into consideration is indicative of a shallow commitment to democracy.

But this isn't, in any event, the issue with AV when it comes to the question of extremists. It is right to suggest that it will almost certainly be more difficult for minority parties to win under AV but their second preferences will matter more. They must matter more simply because at the moment they don't matter at all, as FPTP has no mechanism to record them. What I'm not clear about is why people are so convinced that they should matter. This is not confined to the issue of redistributed BNP votes, although I think this is a legitimate concern. Why is a potential situation where parties of the right might vie for these and where a winning candidate could easily get less first preference votes than the person who comes second so obviously superior to what we have now?
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