Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Scottish school league tables 2012

Do we have to keep making the same point every year? Like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, the league tables show that not only is there no causal link between things like 'faith' and 'ethos' and exam results - there isn't even a correlation. Social class, on the other hand, is shown to be very strongly correlated to academic performance.

 However, in Glasgow there are two schools that seem to buck this trend: one that promotes Gaelic and the other that excludes boys. With regards the former, there's a significant degree of overlap with social class. A working class Gaelic speaker I have never met. This alone doesn't explain the very strong performance of the Gaelic school though. With regards to the school that excludes boys, on the other hand, the opposite is the case - with the overwhelming majority of the roll being working class Catholics and Muslims.


Update: Having taken a closer look at the Glasgow figures, perhaps a little qualification is required.  With regards to the Gaelic school, perhaps the overlap with social class is enough to explain much of its strong performance.  At 10% it has the lowest proportion of children receiving free schools meals in Glasgow and this figure is also below the national average.

With regards the girls only school, it remains likely that its status as a single-sex school is a more significant variable than religion since the mean score for Glasgow as a whole would tend to suggest that the latter has little impact.  In Glasgow, denominational schools actually score slightly lower (-2%) than non-denominational schools - with denominational schools having slightly more (0.7%) of their pupils receiving school meals.

I also missed the very strong performance of Hillhead High School, which scored around 10% higher than the Scottish average in Higher results, yet has nearly three times the number of pupils receiving free school meals than the national average.  There are a number of possible explanations for this but none of them have anything to do with religion, Gaelic or excluding boys, obviously.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A farewell to arms

There isn't much one anyone can say about the Newton school massacre that hasn't already been said in a different context.  Much of what has been said makes even less sense now than it did in the past.  Like the notion that what America needs to solve the problem of gun-violence is more guns.  Or the attempt to psychologise and discern the pathology of a nation.  One assumes that the Americans aren't any more disposed to violence or mental illness than anyone else - it's just that they have more guns.  It isn't, therefore, the time to have a debate about gun-control but for politicians to have just a fraction of the courage shown by those brave teachers and stand up and say candidly that the second amendment needs to be repealed.  To argue against this on the basis of what the 'Founding Fathers' intended for the American republic is to revere the dead over those who live and die today.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Leveson and the enemies of freedom

I'm already more than a little hacked-off with the celebs for censorship campaign but I'll do a deal with those who disagree; I'll refrain from making the ad hominem point that the most vocal among the pro-Leveson camp are a bunch of spoiled celebrities if they do the same with regards to the fact that it is largely the Conservatives who have, rightly in my view, identified the potentially statutory underpinning of any new system of press regulation as a Rubicon that should not be crossed.

The title of the post is deliberately provocative.  I don't doubt that many of those who support Leveson's proposals believe in a free press but I do think they are being naive in the extreme if they imagine that they represent some kind of British version of the 1st Amendment to the constitution of the American republic.  As Kenan Malik points out, this does not impose a duty on the state to guarantee the freedom the the press but rather carries an obligation to refrain from interfering with it.  While he doesn't use this phrase, Kenan Malik correctly identifies the division among liberals as one between those who favour what Isaiah Berlin called 'negative liberty' and those who do not.  I don't have much to add to this except to note that while Leveson's supporters may sincerely support free speech, there's been rather a lot of them that have used modes of argument that have had a familiar whiff of authoritarianism about them.  Among these are the following:

Something must be done!   Something always has to be done because, we are assured, the status quo is 'unsustainable'.  We are in 'new territory', the world has changed, that what is happening now is unprecedented.  With regards to this, it has been suggested to me that what is unprecedented is the degradation of the press.  What seems more likely to me is that it is our knowledge of this is the thing that is unprecedented.  I read about it in a newspaper.

The victims!  What about the victims?  An authoritarian argument wouldn't be complete without some victim-waving.  Don't you care about them?  This is why 'something must be done'.  If you reject regulation of those who made them victims you're as bad as those who perpetuated the original injury.  There's obviously a fair amount of moral blackmail here, as well as the insistence that you come up with an alternative.  "Well, what do you suggest?"  When what is being proposed strikes me as being less desirable than the present situation, I propose doing precisely nothing.

There's also the way in which 'accountability' is touted as an unarguably Good Thing.  Who could disagree with accountability?  It's like motherhood and apple pie.  You question the need for accountability?  You might as well own up - you shot Bambi's mum, didn't you?  And there's the usual managerial response to the discovery that laws have been broken.  What we need is not the present laws being enforced.  No, let's have new ones.  But what concerns me most is this...

What press freedom?  When you suggest that Leveson puts the freedom of the press at peril, it is put to you patiently that you are being so painfully naive.  "You can't possibly imagine we have this now?"  I can't see from behind my keyboard in sunny Glasgow the facial expressions of those who say this but I imagine them rolling their eyes at this point in the way that Marxists used to do when you'd failed to understand the Laws of History or something.  That many of these taking this line are Marxists or former Marxists is no coincidence   The notion that 'press freedom' in this context serves only the interests of corporations like News International is merely an updated version of the idea that 'bourgeois freedom' is an illusion that masks the dominance of the ruling class.  It has formed part of leftist thinking since the 19th century and despite the sinister trajectory it has taken in European political movements of both the extreme left and right in the 20th, it is still being wheeled out in the 21st.  I'd like to suggest that history teaches us that these 'illusory' liberal freedoms tend to be missed when they're gone.

Another thing: Through the power of social media it's being suggested that something should be done about the disproportionate market share enjoyed by certain companies.  Yes, but Leveson didn't even touch on this.  What's he's proposing is a system that would make those working in these 'monopolies' behave better, rather than doing anything about their dominant position.  (Using inverted commas because they aren't monopolies.) 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Humans for Hibernation

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new pressure group: Humans for Hibernation.  Like most pressure groups, ours is born from a frustration that none of the mainstream political parties are addressing our concerns.  I ask you to look at the present political landscape in Scotland, what our parties are offering, and to ask yourself: is there anything that even remotely touches on the concerns that are most pressing to us?

None of them have even considered the basic issue facing the Scottish electorate, which is that our country is basically unfit for human habitation and there is never a time when this fact is more obvious than in November.  Have any of your political representatives come up with a coherent plan to have our country towed nearer the Mediterranean?  They have not.  Instead it's all, "What kind of independent Scotland would you like to see?  Ooh, I'd like a no-nuclear, wind-powered one where everyone is equal and we all hold hands and celebrate the gorgeous mosaic of our diversity."  Oh fuck off!  Honestly, if you can't come up with some serious proposals to do something about this business of crawling to work in the dark tunnel that is the Scottish winter, you're just wasting everyone's time.  Instead, can we suggest the following?

1) Like the alcoholic, we should acknowledge we have a problem.  In our national case, alcohol consumption, contrary to popular belief, is not part of the problem but rather a symptom of pretending there's something normal about this business of crawling to work when it's dark, doing the same on the way home - either in the freezing cold or the horizontal rain.  Do our very bones not cry out in protest?

2) Our key manifesto pledge: November should be a national holiday.  Exception could be made for vital services, provided that it is understood that education is not counted among these.

3) We are a non-violent pressure group.  Should the Scottish Government fail to acknowledge our reasonable demands, we do not advocate self-immolation or even the tiresome business of protesting in a peaceful way.  Fuck that - it's raining.  Instead we call upon all right-thinking people to be the change in society they'd like to see and have a bed-in, only without the hair.  You know it makes sense.  We are a non-profit organisation and rely on donations so please feel free to click on the PayPal link below.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Scotland and the EU

Alex Salmond in response to the accusation that he is a 'bare-faced liar' on his pronouncements on the legality of an independent Scotland's membership of the EU has suggested submitting himself to an independent inquiry on the matter, one of his own making.

 It's a bizarre turn of events, which I'll try and summarise as briefly and simply as possible. Presently Scotland as part of the UK is a member of the EU. Salmond and the SNP have been and are very pro-Europe so have suggested that membership of the EU post-independence would be a legal foregone conclusions. Probing by the opposition the exact nature of the legal advice he and his administration sought, to the point of submitting a Freedom of Information request, evoked a prevaricating response. The suspicion arose that the advice Salmond received was adverse but what now seems to be emerging is that they didn't actually seek any at all.

 While I can't claim I don't enjoy Salmond & Co. being made to feel uncomfortable when confronted with credible accusations that they have been economical with the truth, I think here the critics are missing the wider picture. It could be that I'm saying this because I lack the necessary legal knowledge to comment but what I think is happening here is that the implications of the SNP's 'Independence in Europe' theme that they plugged heavily prior to the Euro-crisis are only now beginning to make themselves felt in a post-crash world.

 I didn't agree with the Nationalists and their slogan but it did at least represent a cogent alternative to the Union. Why bother interacting with the increasingly important EU via Westminster when a small country like Scotland could do this directly? A Europe of regions sharing a common currency didn't look at all ridiculous before 2008. Then all the prosperous exemplar countries Salmond liked to cite as models of what Scotland could be began to cave in - Ireland here being the most frequently used case. Ah well, there's always the non-EU Norway and let's forget about Iceland for the time being. (Nationalists pick on exemplar countries in the way Tories do when they're banging on about education.) The point here is to note the degree of confusion at the heart of the Nationalist campaign. It's now no longer clear whether membership of the EU is the foregone conclusion the SNP said it was but at the same time, it is also now no longer clear whether this membership is desirable.

 It's difficult to answer the question of membership of the EU when the very nature of this international arrangement is in a state of flux, which is why if they'd had any sense, Salmond and Cameron could have agreed to park this question for a while. I get to the point when I don't know the answer myself. Europe doesn't look at all like a good prospect just now and I've never favoured the single currency but would I defend the Union even if it got to the point where withdrawing from the EU was a serious prospect?  I'm not so sure about that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dear Michael

Thank you for your letter but I can assure you, no apology is necessary.  You write to express your regret that you asked "clever dick questions" and that you were "showing off"?  Michael, most people are aresholes and never more so than when they are going through adolescence.

Now, in any given year I have around three-hundred and fifty pupils on my timetable.  I think it's fair to say that usually the arsehole quota will reach triple digits most years.  While you obviously regret your particular brand of arseholeism, can I put your mind at rest and tell you that there was nothing exceptional about it?  It didn't bother me that much.  Coping with it is, after all, what I got paid for and when I wasn't working, I did and do things like drink, eat, sleep, read books, watch movies, hang out with friends, raise my children, fuck make love, play guitar - had a life, in other words. I see from your recent pronouncements that you disapprove of such things but most of us then were accustomed to thinking this sort of activity formed part of what we considered the Good Life.

Ego-centrism is part and parcel of the adolescent experience but I have to say that I'm more than a little disappointed that you don't seem to have got over this. I often meet former pupils and the more troubled but intelligent ones realise we were just falling into the roles society had assigned for us.  They give you a nod of recognition as if to say, "I was an asshole and I thought you were an asshole but we've both moved on from that."  And you nod back, saying, "Uh huh.  Peace - and all the best for the future."  So what's the deal with you, man?  You're talking about 'us'.  There is no 'us', dude - it was thirty years ago.  What makes you think I'm interested in your apology now? You weren't that important then.

 P.S. Don't call me 'Danny', you over-familiar little prick. It's 'Sir' or Mr McGlumpher.

Yours etc,

Mr McGlumpher

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The problem with academics

I read Will Davies' post on 'the problem with clever people' with amusement - and it reminded me of a another group of clever people who have an impressive capacity for annoyance and that is academics.

It's partly the way some of them give the impression that their specialism has absorbed all the energy that they might otherwise use for practical things like operating electrical appliances - but this is often too funny to be truly annoying.

No, it's the way some of them talk.  Some of them?  Most of them in my experience.  I think there must be post-PhD classes they attend:  "Now remember boys and girls - you should never ever say, 'I think'.  That's just too ghastly and pedestrian.  From now on it's always, 'it seems to me'."

But that's not anywhere near as annoying as their tendency to say things like, "I'm mystified by, intrigued by, confused by, puzzled by..." something you've said - when what they mean is they think you are puzzled and confused.  Why don't they just say so?  Annoying, especially when it comes from people who aren't even real academics.  Do you do this? You should stop it immediately.  It's pompous, patronising and makes you sound like a complete tosser.

(As I've said before, my dad was an academic so feel free to find something Freudian in this if you wish.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The long and boring road to referendum 2014

Tom Devine reckons the forthcoming referendum is the most significant event in Scotland's history since 1707.  As everyone who follows this debate knows, Mr Devine is Scotland's only historian so I suppose we should pay attention - but I'm fed up already and here's some reasons why in no particular order:

1)  I'm bored beyond belief with Nationalists who suggest - either implicitly or explicitly - that anyone who disagrees with them is suffering from some sort of pathology.  Sometimes it's posed as an inferiority complex they like to call the 'cultural cringe' but more often it's framed as a straightforward phobia.  "What are you afraid of?", is a common refrain - as if this was the only possible reason one could have for rejecting their rather protean arguments for something they still insist on calling 'independence'.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them that there are not a few of us who think independence is perfectly feasible, it's just that we don't happen to find it desirable.

2)  What characterises the 'debate' so far is amazing short-termism.  Don't like the Coalition and their austerity?  Well obviously the thing to do is to rip up over three-hundred years of history come 2014 since waiting another year for a General Election is too demanding for the average Caledonian attention span.  Those who understandably have better things to be doing with their time than follow this could be forgiven for missing that this has been a perennial feature of Nationalist rhetoric.  Salmond used to argue for 'independence in Europe' based on something as ephemeral as the price of a currency in the markets.  He doesn't do this now for obvious reasons but it's ok because no-one was paying attention anyway.

3)  The 'vision thing'.  Here the Nats really have some brassneck.  They engage in senior-school level of political fantasy - "What kind of independent Scotland would you like to see?  Ooh, I'd like a republican, nuclear-free, wind-powered one with full employment, Scandinavian levels of public services but with Irish levels of corporation tax.  One where everyone is equal and we all hold hands and teach the world to sing, please" - and they have the gall to suggest we enter the debate on their infantile level?  No, they insist - and frame this as making a 'positive case for the Union'.  I decline to do so.  Is there no room in their world view for people of a sceptical disposition?  I'm not that optimistic about the future of any European country at the moment, although I hope we'll muddle through - and I happen to think my country will have a better chance of doing this as part of the UK.

4)  Alex Salmond.  Space prohibits the reasons one could give for having had enough of this embodiment of self-regard we call our First Minister but his latest in a long line of demotic suggestions- that he and Cameron should have a debate - is worth a mention.  His reasons for wanting this should be clear: in the Nationalist mind, the Union becomes the repository of everything the Nationalists claim to be opposed to and this is why he wants the Prime Minister to make the case - being as he is an Englishman, the sitting Prime Minister, one that happened to attend an elite public school and one who is an architect of the present fiscal austerity.  If Cameron is being properly advised, he will have nothing to do with this nonsense.  All the polling evidence suggests that a majority of Scots oppose independence and of these only a minority are Conservative voters.  Among the reasons we wouldn't care for the present Prime Minister to make the Unionist case is that he is unrepresentative.  

5)  The outcome is already decided.  This is my main reason for being fed up with the whole process.  This'll seem counter-intuitive to many but I reckon the option that we now know is not going to be included on the ballot is the most likely outcome, and this is 'devo-max'.  If the referendum is won, it'll only be because what it being offered as 'independence' will be a package that lacks the essential features of what one has become accustomed to thinking were the defining features of a sovereign state; if it is lost, the Holyrood Parliament will acquire further powers nevertheless.  Like Quebec or Catalonia, in other words - places where national disputes have lead to constitutional compromises, which in turn seem to institutionalise dissatisfaction.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Savile obituary

Here's one that should have been spread a little more widely...


  Update: Seems that one has been taken down. So here it is again...


Sunday, October 07, 2012

Alex Salmond: the incarnation of the partisan style of politics

It's a sign that partisanship has gone too far when the significant political actors within a country cannot conceive of political institutions that are above the party politics in which they are so deeply-involved.  Samuel Huntington of  Clash of Civilisations infamy thought this a feature of what he called 'praetorian societies' where political disagreement was not merely one over policy but where there wasn't even a consensus over the institutions and mechanisms that produced governments in the first place.

While he was referring to countries in the developing world, I've often wondered if the United States itself hasn't edged rather too close to this condition for comfort in recent years?  Not to suggest they have reached the state of dysfunction one was accustomed to seeing in Latin America but you've got to wonder when, for example, supposedly 'umpire' institutions like the Supreme Court are routinely dismissed by partisans if they make decisions that are uncongenial to their particular political disposition.

It doesn't help that these institutions are indeed subjected to partisan pressure and seen as fair game in the political contest.  The desire to see policy preferences embedded in institutions that would subsequently bind successor administrations is, I suppose, an inevitable downside to having a legalistic polity like the United States and there's certainly nothing new about it.  But it seems to be getting worse in recent years with suggestions, for example, that purely partisan policy preferences like a balanced budget or a prohibition on gay marriage be embedded in constitutional law.

I was reminded of all this when I read that Alex Salmond has suggested that an independent Scotland should have a ban on nuclear weapons written into a new constitution.  Now by taking issue with this, I could be accused of partisanship myself.  I don't believe in Scottish nationalism and I have a particular animus towards Salmond, this is true.  However, in the unlikely event that Scotland becomes an independent country in the way that we have been accustomed to understanding the concept, I would obviously have a self-interest in our country doing well.  Moreover, it just so happens that I share the SNP's view on nuclear weapons.  But it would be folly to include this in a constitution.  It is a clear policy preference, not a constitutional principle and Salmond's suggestion that it should be considered as such is nothing but a sop to the peaceniks and fundies on his side who aren't too happy about his screeching hand-brake turn on the matter of NATO membership.  Wherefore, if Nationalists want an independent Scotland to be something other than a banana republic without the bananas they should eschew this nakedly partisan style of politics.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Totalitarianism then and now

The death of Eric Hobsbawm - or rather some of the subsequent commentary - has raised a couple of issues I've often thought need addressing.  One has to do with the concept of 'totalitarianism' and how it is used today.  The totalitarian thesis holds that Stalinist communism and fascism had more in common than what separated them.  It's an idea not without its problems.  Leaving aside its origins in the work of the American Cold Warriors, who in some cases used it to justify what might loosely be termed the Kissinger doctrine, it has been suggested that it is a rather brittle and static idea that tends to break on the application to history.  Given, for example, that the 'total control' the thesis identifies was never actually achieved by either Hitler or Stalin, how helpful is it to categorise regimes according to their aspirations?  And then there's the question of how useful it is when even the intention has been given up and the regime has succumbed to the forces of routinisation.  Is 'post-totalitarian' really the best way of describing the USSR under Brezhnev, for example?

Having said this, it would be probably fair to say that most political scientists and historians, while being aware of its shortcomings, are reluctant to dispense with the totalitarian thesis entirely since it does seem to at least approximate a reality that most people recognise; the one-party elevated above the state, the propagation through terror of an official ideology that has acquired the status of a religious orthodoxy, the shared hostility to bourgeois values and so on.

However, those who accepted the usefulness of the concept did not take it to mean that communism and fascism were the same thing - at least not until recently.  The vulgarisation of the totalitarian thesis was something that I had hitherto thought of being restricted to the American right, often stated in a rather crass and simple-minded manner.  "The Nazis were National Socialists.  All the same, these totalitarians.  Anyway, Stalin killed more people than Hitler."  When the disgraced former Independent columnist Johann Hari once described Hobsbawm as "the left's David Irvine (sic)", I dismissed it as a stupid comment made by someone who found making moral commentary on historians more lucrative and congenial than reading history.  It is therefore with a sense of dismay and more than a little concern that one notes this is appears to be a much more widely-shared view among those who identify themselves as the democratic left in Britain than I imagined.  I have in the last few days read how Hobsbawm can be considered no better than an unrepentant Nazi because totalitarianism is totalitarianism; there is nothing to choose between fascism and communism.

The Wild East
I was and still am completely incredulous.  Do they mean what they say?  Stalingrad, as everyone knows, is generally considered to be the turning point of the Second World War - a battle won at an enormous cost, one that was characterised by unbelievable brutality on both sides, as well as astonishing feats of bravery and human endurance.  Anthony Beevor writes of the way that the commanders of the Wehrmacht in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa osscilated between self-confidence and unease.  The former isn't difficult to understand.  Few invading armies have had the advantages that they did.  Stalin had purged the officer class prior to the invasion and refused to listen to those who were left when they told him four million enemy troops had crossed the border.  Yet there was the unease too.  Despite the stunning territorial gains, the Russian landscape seemed limitless like the ocean.  And despite the fact that two million Red Army soldiers had been killed in the early stages of the campaign, still more came.  Among the underestimates made by the invading German army was of the willingness of Russian soldiers to fight.  This they did some way beyond the point at which the British and Americans would have surrendered.  This no doubt partly accounted for by a knowledge of their likely fate if captured.  Over five million Russians were taken prisoner of war between 1939 and 1945.  Only two million of them survived the experience.

In relation to this, the advocates of the new updated totalitarian thesis might want to consider the implications of their position.  Do they think all this sacrifice was futile?  That since there's nothing to choose between totalitarianims, the outcome of the battle was unimportant?  Tell me this isn't so. All totalitarianism are not the same; they did not have the same intentions because they did not have the same ideology.  Call me old-fashioned but I had been accustomed to thinking of Nazism as worse because it had a genocidal project informed by a psuedo-scientific racist biology as part of theirs - and see no reason to change my mind.  Perhaps those who disagree might be persuaded to try a little counter-factual history.  We know what Eastern Europe under a routinised communism would look like because that is what we got.  Are we seriously being asked to accept that there wouldn't have been much to choose between this and one under a bureaucratic National Socialism?  It will remain forever as a thought-experiment anyway, given the intrinsically unstable and warlike nature of fascism.  After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks pursued peace, withdrew from the Great War and the country was plunged into civil war.  After Hitler comes to power, there is territorial expansion and then war.  Given that much of the debate has concerned the unpleasantness between 1939 and 1945, one would have thought this was a distinction of no small importance.  But it has disappeared into the generalising receptacle of the new totalitarian thesis.

There is something else as well.  Among the most prolific users of the 'totalitarian' epithet are some of those on the 'Decent Left'.  It's a grouping which I've been sometimes associated, something I'm not entirely comfortable with.  There are a number of reasons for this and one of them is the sense that there's a little too much of the zeal of the converted among the 'anti-totalitarian' faction.  Without naming names and linking to blogs, there are a few of the 'Decents' who have in the past been associated with factions within this broad political church we call the Left where they didn't have the reputation for being quite so unambiguously 'anti-totalitarian' as they like to see themselves now, to say no more than that.  Their newer and more vocally uncompromising social incarnation was prompted, they would claim, by the recognition that a significant chunk of the left had been prepared to make common cause with violent religious reactionaries, provided these had the over-riding virtue of being anti-American.  It's not the broad general analysis I would dissent from but rather the suggestion that this is an unprecedented event on the left.   It is argued to be so because the totalitarianism in question happens to be religious.  But as we have already seen, they insist that the precise nature of  the totalitarian ideology is irrelevant so this too should be a matter of no importance.  No, there's something else going on.  The fact of the matter is that there has been at least since the Bolshevik revolution a division on the left between those who were prepared to jettison democracy if it was an obstacle to socialist goals and those who were not - a point made, ironically, by Hobsbawm himself.  Not all by any means but I think quite a few of those who have claimed to have identified a new deviant strain of compromise on the left are experiencing something more mundane: they've been having their Krondstadt moments.  The 11th of September, 2001 is rather late to be having one of those.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

For Eric Hobsbawm

I was sorry to hear that Eric Hobsbawm has died.  His critics, while being right on the substance - i.e. his blindness to the crimes of Stalinism - are also wrong, and not just because of the utterly obnoxious way they have done the intellectual equivalent of pissing on his grave.  (If you've missed any of this, while it's a strong field in which to compete, this has to be one of the most gratuitously stupid and offensive pieces written so far.)

A couple of points and with the first I'm grateful, as is so often the case, to Chris Dillow for cutting through the bullshit:
"But what exactly is wrong with Hobsbawm's reply [to Michael Ignatieff]? The obvious retort is the deontological one, that there are some things we simply shouldn't do to people, even if they are necessary to create a radiant tomorrow. But many of Hobsbawm's critics cannot use this reply, because they themselves are utilitarians. Those who defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that civilian deaths were a price worth paying for the removal of a dictator, or who defend the use of A-bombs against Japan because they shortened the war are using the same calculus as Hobsbawm - weighing some lives against others' future well-being. The difference between them and him is one of accounting, not politics or morality."
While I was among those who supported the invasion of Iraq, I would go further: not a few of those who took the same position as I did on this issue made what I thought then and now a rather lazy comparison between the architects of Appeasement and those who disagreed with them on Iraq, and identifying - not always implicitly - with Winston Churchill.

To them I'd have to say - because they are over-represented among Hobsbawm's critics - that I'm sorry if this is too obvious an historical point to make but Churchill and FDR seemed to be able to distinguish between the threat posed by communism and that presented by the Nazis, which is why they were on the same side as the USSR during the unpleasantness between 1939 and 1945. What is it with young people today that they can't complete a similar intellectual exercise?

Here's another thing: from what one has read, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Hobsbawm was primarily a historian of the 20th century. This is not the case. His trilogy - the Age of... - which focused on the 'dual revolution' in industry and politics, taking place over what he described as the 'long 19th century', is what those of us who prefer reading history to moral posturing will remember him for.  He had, until the 'Age of Extremes', avoided the 20th century for fear his own partisanship would have coloured his work, as he remarked to Antonio Polito. Would that his critics were even half as self-aware.

Monday, September 24, 2012

To forgive Devine?

I've been wondering if it was worth saying anything about Bishop Devine's comparison of abortion clinics to Auschwitz since he's someone who has a long and ignoble record of making amazingly crass and insensitive statements whenever the opportunity presents itself and while it may not be a representative sample, I know that few of his co-religionists consider him to be anything other than an embarrassment.

 Nevertheless, a couple of thoughts present themselves. One has to do with the way extreme positions on sensitive issues like abortion are given the oxygen of publicity. The extremists are the first to the microphone - partly because they are the first invited to the microphone, on account of the extreme positions they hold. There are some who think abortion not only raises no moral issues at all but is something to be celebrated. Others take the Augustinian view that the soul is infused at the point of conception and therefore conclude that abortion cannot be justified under any circumstances. Most of us, I suspect, find ourselves on a spectrum somewhere between these absolutes but my point is that even if you take the latter view, it is still possible to dismiss Bishop Devine as a moral idiot. Possible and also desirable because anyone who compares the actions of a seventeen year old who has become pregnant after being raped with what happened in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is exactly that.

 There's also the specifics of the comparison he made. For those unfamiliar with the story, Devine defended the acquittal of two Christian anti-abortion campaigners who had asked themselves the question, "What would Jesus do?". Being obviously ill-acquainted with the New Testament, they came to the conclusion that he would have waved enormous pictures of aborted foetuses in the faces of distressed women attending an abortion clinic in Brighton. This Devine compares to the publication of photographs from Auschwitz. Now, whenever anyone compares anything to the Holocaust, they are suggesting that the issue they have chosen is something that demands and justifies an unequivocal and uncompromising moral stance.

 It is not my intent to implicate Bishop Devine in matters that he was, despite his age, too young to have participated in. Nor do I want to join in the thinly-veiled Catholic-bashing that some of the historiography of this period indulges in. The Catholic Church was not, is not, a homogeneous entity and it is not my purpose to debate the position it took in relation to National Socialism. It had underground networks that aided and rescued some of Europe's Jewry - and it also had those that allowed some of the most blood-soaked criminals in the history of the world to escape justice. The role that Pope Pius XII played in relation to these is a matter of heated historical debate, to say no more than that. The point in this context is that while I take the view that the 'Nazi-Pope' interpretation is too partisan and simplistic, in making the Auschwitz comparison Bishop Devine has not chosen something that prompted an unequivocal moral stance from the Catholic Church and for this reason alone he should show more humility.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On religion and free speech

Only if you've been asleep could you have failed to notice the international outrage at offences to the 'prophet' evoked by what everyone seems to agree is a tawdry and vulgar film on YouTube and now some cartoons to be published in a French magazine.  

Whenever I'm inclined to be all subtle and nuanced about this, which on occasion I am, I'm reminded of a passage in Peter Gay's history of the Enlightenment.  Towards the end of the book he remarks that while the modern secular reader might blanche at the extremity of the language Voltaire et al directed at established religion, it should be understood that this civilised and moderate position is a luxury that is possible only because these shock troops of the Enlightenment ultimately won.  (I'm paraphrasing because despite having a paper copy in front of me, can't find the exact wording for love nor money.)  

I've always been a little uneasy about drawing a comparison between this eighteenth century situation to the present day because attacks on religion then were quite clearly an assault on an establishment that sanctified ignorance from a position of power as opposed to something that can today look like having a go at a disadvantaged immigrant community.  

I'm increasingly of the view, however, that this is a feeling that should be resisted.  Nick Cohen in his latest and best book notes the globalisation of this process where offence has become first sanctified and then politicised.  What this means for CiF commentators trying to strike a reasonable and moderate tone is quite another for people elsewhere in this world of ours where those of urgent religious convictions exercise a temporal power unimagined by the commentators who have confined themselves to remarking on the production values of the 'Innocence of Muslims'.  The aesthetic qualities of the film have apparently exhausted any outrage these might otherwise feel for the fact that around fifty people around the world have lost their lives already.

One's concern is that the sheer cost of preserving the principle of free expression will fold under the weight of effort.  We saw this with the Salman Rushdie case, with various commentators with nothing better to do than complain about the expense.  They've put too cheap a price on something that the wisdom of ages and nations valued highly.  It's a conservative sentiment, I appreciate - these days, anyway - but the principle of free speech is something worth conserving.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Initial thoughts on the abolition of GCSEs

I'm an outsider so please feel free to correct me but on hearing Gove wants to replace GCSEs a couple of thoughts present themselves immediately:

1) A single exam board. Good idea and uncontroversial up here. The logic of the position - that competition to give the customers what they want doesn't necessarily make for a better product hasn't been followed through, obviously.

2) Getting rid of internal assessment. Good idea. Internal continuous assessment is the work of the devil. The original thinking was that continuous assessment reduces the stress of having everything depending on a final exam. Instead what you have is students being stressed all the time. Plus all the re-assessment nonsense is time taken away from teaching and learning, as some people have already pointed out.

3) The notion of a baccalaureate implies the necessity to pass a core of subjects in order to gain the qualification. If this is what is being suggested then this too strikes me as being a good idea.

4) Making the examination more difficult to pass. Unsure. It really depends on what you want your examination system to do - something which there's been little discussion on both sides of the border.  One could be forgiven for thinking it's a topic that people actively avoid.

I say this in the interests of non-partisanship because this is part of the problem with education, both in England and Scotland. Changes are announced and people adopt positions accordingly before anything one could reasonably describe as evidence has become available. What certainly doesn't seem to make any sense to me is Stephen Twigg's remarks that the changes run the risk of a "return to a two-tier system". I defer to those who know more about this that I do but from an foreigner's perspective, a move to a two-tier educational system in England sounds to me like a radical simplification of a confusing and Balkanised system.

I also don't get this idea of people being left on the scrapheap at 16 - when Mr Twigg is the representative of a party who in government proposed extending the leaving age to 18, something I'm led to understand will be a reality in due course? Given this is so, why do exams at 16 at all?

This from Gove's critics but his fans are also quick to takes sides. The Telegraph announces that something that remains as yet a proposal to be a success already - in much the same way that Toby Young announced in the same paper that his 'free school' is a success, despite having only one cohort that hasn't even come within sniffing distance of an exam system that is now in a state of flux.

The problem is that in this kind of atmosphere the political survival of a project becomes more important than actually measurable educational outcomes.

We shouldn't imagine things are any better in Scotland. One of the interesting things about this whole debate is how frequently people argue that our system is moving in a completely different, 'progressive', direction. I'm struck by the similarities, myself. Won't bore you with them except to point out that this problem of bureaucratic momentum driven by political partisanship is something that is, well, a rather British phenomenon.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

This day in history

On the 3rd of September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany.  How late it was.  Too late for Czechoslovakia, as everyone knows - but too late also to stop the rape of Poland as well.

There's always reason to remember days like this but what I'm finding is that in this job there are additional details that come one's way that makes you see these events as through a window that has just been cleaned.  On a personal note it's my mother's eightieth on Tuesday, which means this would have been the day before her seventh birthday.  But what's struck home is the manner in which this subject, something to which I'm returning after a couple of years absence professionally, moves and animates my Polish students.  Too young to remember obviously, and too young also to grasp the implications of being born and brought up in a nation that has forged its identity between the hammer and anvil of Germany and Russia - yet one gets the sense that it is felt pretty deeply nonetheless.

That there is a lazy and complacent view of those in the British establishment who pursued the policy of Appeasement is something I would agree with up to a point.  Easy to judge the generation who had lived through the Great War and the industrialised carnage of Passchendaele, Verdun or the Somme - this last, I think I'm right in saying, holds the record for the largest number of causalities in a single day.  But such contextualising can only take one so far.  On Chamberlain Michael Burleigh writes that Appeasement was a policy that he persisted with, "to the point where it had all the inflexibility of an ideological conviction or religious belief".  It should also be remembered that Churchill not only lived through the Great War but saw active service on the Western Front, having resigned his post after the catastrophe of Gallipoli.  He understood the horrors of war but thought that there were worse fates that humanity could endure.  It's not as easy to accept this proposition as some assume but it is the truth nonetheless.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

On games and green ink

What is needed in state schools is more sport: that is the conclusion that the Tories have drawn from the Olympics, with Dave and Boris disagreeing only about the means by which this end might be achieved.

Supporters of state-education have responded by pointing to the fact that all of the medal-winners in athletics went to state-schools, as well as remarking on the dropping of compulsory PE from the curriculum in England, cuts in funding and the sale of school pitches and so on.

Reasonable enough points, although they struck me as being a little defensive. One well-known Nationalist commentator piloted a 'Scotland is more egalitarian' line for the Commonwealth in 2014 by tweeting a comment related to this article, which shows that 70% of Scottish medal-winners went to state schools.

But 30% of them didn't, yet less than 5% of Scots go to private schools.  Instead of pretending that there is no disparity, shouldn't people be asking why the Tories are so concerned about this particular example of inequality of outcome when it comes to education?

 Fact is, private schools do indeed produce proportionately more Olympic medal-winners but they aren't anything like as good at this as they are at making barristers, journalists, doctors, CEOs or members of Her Majesty's Government.  That this state of affairs hasn't led a host of politicians and pundits to call for a reworking of schools' timetables prompted an uncharitable thought: could it be because they believe running around a track is a more suitable ambition for the lower orders to harbour, rather than having them entertain ideas about running things?

The other point is that, in as far as there is a relative under-representation of state-educated pupils at events like the Olympics, the explanation offered by the Conservatives has rightly been dismissed out of hand.  If I said Latin, Classics and sport were on the curriculum when I was at school, there are not a few people who would conclude that this formed part of a private education, rather than the comprehensive one I actually experienced.  It would be a reasonable enough assumption, given the sheer volume of competitive sport obituaries the average newspaper reader is likely to come across in any given year.

I think I have probably taught in more schools than the average politician or columnist has even visited.  An astonishing number of people have appeared genuinely surprised when I tell them I have never once been told to correct pupils' work in green rather than red ink.  Fewer would raise an eyebrow if I said none operate a 'prizes for all' regime, nor have any eliminated competitive sports from the curriculum.

These are easily-recognised elements of a right wing narrative about state schools, although it certainly isn't exclusive to the Conservatives.  Speaking at the end of the 2008 Olympics, Gordon Brown spoke about the need to end the 'medals for all' culture he had apparently come across somewhere.  It's a cross-party problem of a political class who have had contemporary state eduction described to them - by people who know very little about it themselves.

This is part of a wider phenomenon - one that has to do with the extent to which our representatives live and move in a sphere which rarely touches even tangentially to the place where the rest of us are.  Hardly a novel observation, I appreciate - it's just I've been struck by the way it seems to have increased so sharply in recent years.

There's a strand in thought about representative democracy that argues this doesn't matter so much.  While we might want politicians to resemble us to an extend, this should be trumped by expertise.  We wouldn't hire a lawyer or an accountant because they were like us, after all.

The problem with this is, even if it ever existed, this doesn't seem to be a trade-off one can make any more with a political class who generally seem to possess neither of the aforementioned characteristics.  If they were even remotely like us, the spectacle of them trying to behave as ordinary people do wouldn't be so excruciating to watch.  And they don't seem to know very much these days either.  They certainly don't know much about us - this being on account of them not being like us.

None of this is a prelude to a solution, only to record the sense that our representative system isn't working so well at the moment.  We seem to have government of the people, for the people - by the really spectacularly otherworldly.  The observation that this is vastly preferable to other forms of government is one I would agree with but it doesn't stop me from wondering how sustainable it actually is?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On 'creationist' schools

As an outside observer, I've been watching the free schools debate with some interest.  One of the developments that seems to have caused something of a stushie in the Twittershpere is this report that Gove has given the go-ahead for three schools to be run by creationists.

The 'church mouse' has responded with a piece in the same paper arguing that the belief that God created the world does not a creationist make.  In the narrow terms in which he poses his argument, I'm inclined to agree with him.  'Creationism' has to do with a literal interpretation of the creation story as outlined in Genesis and, consequently, a rejection of the theory of evolution.  But I was wondering more generally - what is it about creationism that matters so much?  We're only talking about a couple of (contradictory) chapters of Genesis here and believing these doesn't strike me as any more or less irrational than believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation, yet the Catholic Church already runs many more schools than 'creationists'.

So why get so excited?  It might be that people are concerned about the quality of science education that pupils will receive at these schools but I'm more inclined to think that 'creationism' is seen as indicative of an intensity of religious feeling.  This sense is more or less correct, in my view, but I'm wondering whether and to what extent those identifying it as such haven't fallen for what I've just decided to call the 'myth of the mainstream'.  Those belonging to ecclesia rather than denominations, sects or cults are more rational and moderate?  Arguably this used to be the case but one wonders if what we are seeing is the former increasingly behaving like the latter?  Organised religion is feeling rather defensive at the moment.  One wonders why, given the indulgence shown to them by the political class but perhaps they have an inkling that their time on this earth is short?  God is dead but there will remain, perhaps for ages yet, caves in which His shadow can still be seen.  So let's get some legal protection and institutional entrenchment for the aforementioned caves.

I appreciate I've posed a lot of questions in the above.  This is because I'm not sure about it myself but if people are concerned with the disproportionate influence that organised religion exercises in education, they would do better to address the general issue and advocate a separation of religion from the state, rather than getting exercised about what they see as the more egregious examples of the privileged position that the party of faith enjoys within the British state.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Short note on nationalist rhetoric (redux)

Sorry (again) but there’s a new (to me, anyway) and annoying strain in nationalist rhetoric which says in effect that the choice facing the Scottish people in 2014 is not nationalism vs the Union but rather what kind of nationalist do you want to be – Scottish or British?

 Nations and states have developed independently of one another and while the nationalist view is to see the marriage between the two as part of the natural order of things, not only is this not essential, historically it hasn’t been nearly as common as nationalists tend to assume. It certainly hasn’t been the case with Britain, which is of course not a 'nation-state' but a multi-national one.

 There is a political party in the UK whose disagreement with this simple fact is embodied in the very name of their party, which rather tends to reinforce the impression of them being a bit thick as well as bigoted. I’m talking, of course, about the BNP. Scottish nationalists should really be showing a better understanding of history and basic political concepts and stop this tiresome nonsense about how everyone who disagrees with them is a ‘British nationalist’.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On military schools

'Ethos', 'aspiration', 'changing culture'.  Bingo!  Can I claim my prize?  There's a lot of jokes and serious points one could make about Labour's enthusiasm for what was - of course - originally a Tory idea of the military running schools but I'll restrict myself to two whilst avoiding the more hyperbolic comments some have made about 'boot-camps' and 'cannon fodder'.

One is that 'aspiration' is all very well but to imagine it is this - and not the fact that there are at least five people unemployed for every vacancy in Britain - that is the problem in the inner-cities just isn't engaging with the real issues that young people have to deal with.

The other is that (again) even if one accepts that 'social mobility' is the goal of the school system, these are unlikely to improve it.  Say what you like about faith schools - politicians who praise them are quite literally willing to practice what they preach, in that they will send their children to them.  But how many do you imagine would have their children in one of these institutions?  I don't think the point requires explanation beyond this observation.

More persecution-lite

I think it would be fair to say that religion in schools - along with uniforms, phonics and choice - is generally considered to be a Good Thing by the political class in Britain.  In Scotland, the education secretary Mike Russell assured a CHAS conference that he sees faith schools as part of the 'bedrock of education'. Alex Salmond agrees and thinks there should be more of them, a view shared by David Cameron who sends his daughter to a religious school.  Admittedly Clegg has voiced opposition in the past but he isn't so hostile as to rule out the possibility of his own offspring attending one - and no-one cares what he thinks anyway.  You didn't need to be told Gove is in favour and given Labour's tendency to ape absolutely every Conservative education policy, regardless of how barmy,  it shouldn't surprise anyone that Miliband thinks they're fantastic 

 You'd think this would make any advocate of religious schooling feel secure but apparently not.  The Bishop of Oxford, for example - who explicitly calls for schools to be used as platforms for evangelism - is among the surprisingly high number of privileged Christians in the Church of England who has developed something of a persecution complex.  C of E schools are 'under attack', he says.  We've already established that these are not coming from anyone in power who might be in a position to do anything about the status of faith schools but it is also informative to note what constitutes an 'attack' in the eyes of the bish:
"The bishop highlighted campaigns to force the Church to relax its entry criteria to its schools, which reserve places for churchgoers, and calls for state funding to be removed from faith schools."
Translation: tax-payers should continue to fund schools that exclude their children and any suggestion that this should be at least modified qualifies as a full-frontal assault. Anyway, surely the bishop should rejoice an be glad because great is his reward in heaven - for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before him.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Comments systems

I don't know how to work them.  If you left a comment, I'm sorry but it got lost.  Unsure how to switch on blogger comments for all posts but you can leave a remark about my technological incompetence below this one if you like.

Some referendum advice for Salmond and Cameron

Apologies in advance for discussing this issue again. I appreciate it's boring but it's one with which we have to engage with here given the response of the political elites in Edinburgh and London. What Cameron and Salmond appear to have in common is that they have both misinterpreted the SNP's victory at the last Holyrood election - and Westminster in particular have responded by treating the issue of Scottish independence as an urgent matter which has to be addressed, hence the 'put up or shut up' insistence on a referendum.

The SNP responded as one might predict of a party who has a credo which it knows perfectly well is not shared by the majority of the Scottish people. The result has been a slow-motion car-crash where the advocates of national autonomy can't even spell out what this would actually consist of.

I have been concerned from the outset about the quality of advice that the Prime Minister has been receiving because despite this, the matter is apparently still being treated as if it were of pressing importance:
"David Cameron faces a "crunch point" in the next few months, senior Coalition sources have indicated, when he may have to take the most difficult constitutional decision of his premiership – that Westminster and not Holyrood will stage a referendum on Scottish independence."
It would be a disaster if Cameron was persuaded to initiate a referendum because contrary to the received wisdom, the issue of Scotland's constitutional future is not one that needs to be dealt with at this present time. Not only should Cameron not consider this option, he and Salmond should open talks where they discuss the sensible option of dropping this whole referendum idea. I don't think it would be as difficult to persuade Salmond of the virtues of this as one might suppose. All the polling evidence points to a 'no' vote, even when what is being offered is not independence in the sense that the term has been understood historically.

The reality of the situation is that the cause of Scottish independence is another under-reported causality of the Euro-crisis. The screech of the hand-brake turn that Salmond has performed on the whole 'independence in Europe' thing hasn't been heard as clearly as it should have been but the effects are being felt nonetheless. Nationalists, if they have any sense, would dearly love the breathing space to work out where they want to be in this uncertain world. Will the Euro-zone press ahead with fiscal integration as a response to the debt crisis and if so, do Nationalists want to be part of this country called Europe? Or do they want to remain part of the Sterling zone, which is a de facto admission that the UK will continue in some form?

These are questions to which the SNP has no coherent answers to. In fairness, one wonders to what extent it is possible to have them, given the uncertainty of the situation. Since this is the context, not only is it not urgent to ask questions about the place of Scotland in the UK, it is not even remotely necessary.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Dim clerics and God's judgment

Has your home been flooded? You shouldn't assume that this means God is annoyed, according to someone traditionally considered by people of a Christian persuasion to be an authority on these matters:
"He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
You wouldn't have thought that one's exegetical skills would have to be particularly advanced before you caught the drift of this but apparently some bishops in the Church of England have drawn rather different conclusions about the recent wet weather:
"The Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, argued that the floods are not just a result of a lack of respect for the planet, but also a judgment on society's moral decadence."
Judgemental and slothful, being obviously too lazy to read his own book. He better watch or he'll end up getting a smiting.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

On Scottish nationalism and the perils of political prophecy

Something one should learn from history is that human beings cannot predict the future. Throughout the ages soothsayers, prophets, sages, seers of various kinds - and more recently social scientists - have a long record of getting it spectacularly wrong about most of the things that matter. I studied for my degree during a time when an entire field of intellectual enquiry that was based on the assumption that human behaviour was at least in some way predictable had to come to terms with the largely unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union.

More recently it has been the banking crisis that has put the nails in the coffin of the secular prophets. Against this background, only a fool would attempt to predict the future but as regular readers will know, that is exactly what I am so I'm going to do it anyway and make the following prognosis. If a week is a long time in politics, how long is two years? Nevertheless, the cause of Scottish independence is already lost and everything that follows from this point in time is essentially a nationalist damage-limitation exercise.

It's difficult to be precise about the moment when this realisation came. There was the failure to capture Glasgow at the recent council elections. Described as the Nationalists' Stalingrad by one disgruntled Nationalist blogger, which is a little hyperbolic for my taste but there was a sense of a turning point nonetheless.

But it has more to do with the way it has been dawning on the SNP that they have quite simply misinterpreted their admittedly stunning victory in the Holyrood election. This was not a vote for independence but an anti-establishment Labour and even more so, a vote against the pro-austerity, pro-Coalition Liberal Democrats.

Alex Salmond, for whatever else he might be, is not a stupid man and understands this perfectly well, which is why he has been selling a version of 'independence' that would have been unrecognisable to nationalists of the 19th century. It's nationalism-lite - no new head of state, or currency and by extension monetary policy, a reluctance to disentangle the armed forces, and no-one seriously imagines that after 2014 we will need a passport to visit our English family or friends. It is for these reasons I make the above prediction with such confidence: if the there is a 'yes' vote in 2014 it will be because what has been offered is not national independence in the sense that the term has been understood historically.

The curious question is why? States and nations have grown independently of each other and while at least some nationalists know enough about history to understand this, they still take the view that the state and the nation are destined for each other - and the occasions where this doesn't occur are considered tragic. I'm wondering if it isn't this, the assumption that what is in reality historically unusual to be the norm that has something to do with the Nationalist undoing? This is why they argue the burden of evidence falls on us, rather than the other way around. But since you ask, some of us like being part of Britain - a polity that is based on civility rather than ethnicity, that evokes an sense of belonging born of a shared history that extends to this blogger's very DNA. I am half-Scottish, quarter English and quarter Welsh: it is for you to give a compelling reason why I should regret the Union that made me like this.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

On Gove and the scrapping of GCSEs

Michael Gove's proposals to abolish GCSEs in favour of a return to something like the old O Levels has caused quite a storm. I don't work in the English system so cannot claim anything resembling expertise and perhaps shouldn't comment at all. But a number of observations and questions immediately present themselves so I'll put them here and if anyone can shed any light on them, I'd welcome any comments. They are, in no particular order, as follows:

In Scotland, there is only one exam board. My understanding is that in England there are several and that Gove thinks the competition between them has led to a race to the bottom standards-wise. I can see why this might happen so why can't Conservatives realise the very same principle might operate with other areas in which there is competition - specifically within education?

I have no opinion on whether GCSEs are easier than they used to be but even if one assumes they are, why is the solution to get rid of them, rather than simply making the existing ones more difficult?

GCSEs: why on earth do English pupils do so many of them?

Gove is surely right to suggest that we, or rather you, already have a two-tier education system? As an outside observer, one is struck by how Balkanised your education system is. Part of this has to do with the notion that competition is per se a Good Thing? Brings us back to the point about exam boards, doesn't it?

Teaching to the test has correctly been identified as one of the problems of the 'British schools system' (sic). There's a balanced piece from a leftwing writer here which touches on this point. But I don't see what the point of complaining about this is. As long as schools are ranked by exam results and the career prospects of both teachers and student are affected by them, it will continue. There are only two possible remedies: make the tests better or reduce the quantity of them. What I don't understand is why the latter option doesn't appeal more in a system where young people are obliged to stay in education until they're 18? In this framework, why have exams for all pupils at 16 at all?

From what I've read so far, not one commentator identifies central control as the problem. The twitter feed for #Gove is largely vitriolic: he's pompous, he's living in the fifties, he's wrong in various ways they say - all without identifying rule from Whitehall as a structure that is bound to get it wrong a fair bit of the time. Central government has an opinion on teaching methods (phonics = good), uniforms (good), the way furniture is arranged in teachers' rooms (rows are good, groups bad), streaming and setting (both good, especially the former) and so on. One can't help being concerned that those opposed to Goveism are missing the point here. What you need is not an alternative education secretary who 'gets it right' but the realisation that this level of central government interference is simply absurd.

Scotland vs England. A number of people - including some of my colleagues - think that our education systems are moving in opposite directions. I'm not so sure. North of the border, the new National 5 exams look like O Grades to me, while the non-externally assessed National 4 resembles the old 'non-certificate' classes we had in Scotland under the old regime. It's an element of the CfE that has slipped under the radar.

Gove was privately-educated in Scotland, which I knew - and is younger than me, which I did not. He gives the impression of being nostalgic for an age in English education that he has no personal experience of. How significant this is I couldn't say but what people south of the border should understand is that to be a Conservative here is not so far away from being the political equivalent of a Jehovah's Witness. His Sitz im Leben made him an ideologue.

Whether right or left, in all the commentary there's very little reflection on what education is for - but what just about everyone seems to agree on is that it isn't about the pure pursuit of knowledge, something that Paul Anderson regrets. Criticism of Goveism has focused on the effect his proposed reforms will have on social mobility. Fine if you think the primary function of education is to be the engine of meritocracy but I would finish with the observation that some of us take the view that even if it was possible, it doesn't follow that it is desirable.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Educational blasphemy

I couldn't say for sure because it's been over a decade since I went for one but I'd imagine that if I managed to work into an interview that I placed a high value on uniform, homework and attendance I'd get the ticky-boxy, noddy-head in affirmation sort of response one was once accustomed to seeing at these sort of events.

Yet if I had to pick the three areas that constitute the greatest waste of human energy in schools today, it would be these - in that order.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Charles and the future of the monarchy

Nick Cohen argues that when Queen Elizabeth dies, Charles III will be a strong argument for republicanism. On Charles' unsuitability for the job it's difficult to disagree. Nick cites his enthusiasm for quack medicine and his interventions into public health debates and his political meddling generally.

It should indeed be of serious concern to advocates of monarchy in Britain that the heir to the throne does not appear to know what his job is going to be, despite this being a role he has supposedly been preparing for all of his life. Examples of this are legion but one that stood out to me was hearing him tell one of the Dimbleby brothers that his divorce and remarriage wasn't anyone's business but his own. But he will become titular head of the Church of England so I'm afraid that while many would agree matters like this should be a private matter, they just aren't.

However, those who favour the republican form of government - and I include myself in a half-hearted way - would perhaps do better to recognise the problems that it has had historically and the potential difficulties Britain would have making the transition from constitutional monarchy to this system of government.

We would do better to acknowledge that the record of republics just simply isn't that good. You only have to factor in China and the USSR to see this and there's also the important historical example specific to England that Nick himself cites:
"As so often, hyperbole will hide fear. In this case, the all-too rational fear of monarchists that Charles III will be the best advert the republican cause has had since Charles I."
But it is the very case of Charles I that creates problems for British republicans because the previous experiment with it didn't go very well and arguably it is this, along with republicanism's association in people's minds with Irish terrorism, that has made a majority of the British electorate adverse to the British republic.

Perhaps Nick is right to think that Charles will be sufficiently disastrous as a monarch to puncture this previously steady support but another thing I was wondering is - and I'm opening this as a sort of notes and queries exercise - how many countries have made the transition from monarchies to republics without a regime-change? By this we mean governmental collapse after defeat in war, revolution, coup d'etat or independence from an empire or merely a larger political unit. There may be one or two countries that have simply decided to ditch a monarchy but there's not many examples that immediately spring to mind - and it clearly isn't the usual historical path from monarchy to republic.

A number of political scientists - including Juan Linz linked above - have argued that imitation of the American example has been a curse in areas of the world like Latin America because whereas the first priority of the framers of the American constitution was how to limit government, in these places the problem has often been a history of having no properly functioning government to limit in the first place. I suspect many British republicans are also dependent on the American example. It's difficult to know which others, even in the European context, they would be using. Germany and France as they are now perhaps - but we wouldn't have wanted the path to modernity these two took, surely?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Roundheads and Cavaliers

This post from Martin on the above subject is that most fabulous of combinations; quite lovely and makes you think - which is why if it were a woman, I'd overcome my natural shyness, dash out and buy her a bunch of flowers and importune her with my affections.

Cavaliers or Roundheads: who are you for? Martin's answer is one I've come across frequently. "I know I'm supposed to say, Roundhead - but..." His answer is a subtle, interesting and personal version of a more common response that so many people, including myself, tend to give to this question - and one that arrives at what I think are valid historical conclusions.

At its core there is the pertinent observation that there is a tendency to view past conflicts and disputes through a modern prism that makes taking sides more congenial:
"In recent years, there has been a tendency to confer retrospective secular sainthood on groups like the Levellers and to throw an ahistorical social-democratic patina over the Roundheads generally."
Absolutely right. We tend to think that the modern questions of monarchy versus republicanism are prefigured in this age, forgetting that the Respublica advocated by Puritans was the very antithesis of the tolerant secularism imagined by the modern reader.

And by extension, this raises a couple of interesting and difficult historical questions, particularly for people of a leftwing disposition. One is that however difficult it may be to accept, it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that at various points in history, monarchy has been - particularly in relation to the power of the clerisy - a force for tolerance, liberty and the insistence that there should be a distinction between what is considered a sin and a crime.

Martin mentions Mary Stuart in this context but I am more interested in the reign of her son James VI with regards to this question. That James was a convinced Protestant is testimony to how little input his mother had in his upbringing. This is understandable given the amount of her life that she spent in prison.

James was, by modern standards, intolerably intolerant. The spike in the witch-hunting hysteria in late 16th century Scotland, for example, was due in no small part to the fact that he took a personal interest in the subject to the extent of personally participating in a witchcraft trial.

Yet it is testimony to the spirit of that age that he was in relation to the Kirk a force for relative religious toleration. There were a number of struggles between Church and State in this period and at base many of the grievances held by the Presbyterian faction had to do with the King's reluctance to take stronger action against those Catholics left in the Kingdom of Scotland.

One interesting footnote in this period of Scottish history is that while it is entirely cogent for Scottish Nationalists to argue for independence with the continuation of the British monarch as Scotland's Head of State, one could argue that it was the Union of the Crowns in 1603, rather than the Act of Union in 1707, that left Scotland in a position where the hard-faced Calvinists of the Church of Scotland were free to exercise an influence over the social and cultural life of this country so profound and lasting that its effects are still felt to this very day. I think it was Callum Brown who said that, "One could be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of the Reformation in Scotland was to eliminate purgatory by getting it over while people were still alive."

Or more briefly, prior to the eighteenth century a republican was not the secular creature we imagine today but rather someone more likely to advocate something we would now describe as 'theocracy'.

The other interesting question is, what attitude do we take to events that we can see as prefiguring historical developments that we would identify with now but if we'd have to endure them at the time would have found intolerable? I can't even begin to answer this question on the grounds that it's just too damn hard. There is also the fact that those who attempt this, whether it be Niall Ferguson on the right or Eric Hobsbawm on the left, tend to suffer the fate of being put noisily beyond the pale by posturing hacks and bloggers of various kinds. I dare say this is justified but it would be nice if their critics would come up with alternative answers of their own.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Things you just can't economise on

What with the economy being as it is, probably most of us try and save dosh by avoiding common consumer pitfall like using price as an indicator of quality or being a slave to brands, especially with stuff you buy all the time. So, for example, I reckon Sainsbury's own brand vodka is not as good as Russian Standard or Absolut but is both cheaper and vastly superior to that best-selling brand of paint-stripper known as Smirnoff. And I take the view that Calvin Klein underwear is both literally and metaphorically pants. You might not agree with these examples but you know the sort of thing I mean.

But I was wondering if there's anything people have found that it is impossible to economise on? I don't mean things that you can find cheaper or discounted if you root around enough - this could apply to any product. And I don't just mean things that may be a false economy in the long run but function properly. Cheaper washing up liquid might not last as long as Fairy but it cleans your dishes perfectly well. Rather, was thinking of things that just don't do the goddamn job? I reckon you get what you pay for with the following:

Razors. Cheap razors give you a shave that's a little too close, don'tcha find? You want to avoid turning up with bits of bogroll stuck to your face? You need to pay for it. Speaking of which...

Bogroll. Half the price but you need to use four times as much with nasty cheap abrasive bogroll. It's just not worth the suffering.

Guitar strings. More expensive ones last longer but sound better than cheapo ones even when they're freshly on. Knew this guy who had fabulous guitars. He had fabulous guitars because he had plenty of money - but said he would never pay more than a fiver for strings? Lost his damn mind if you ask me. I'm a strong believer in the power of strings. Want your guitar to sound good? Put some decent goddamn strings on it then.

Ciggies. Mayfair? Blech! You might as well give up. Although I guess we all should...

Jewellery. My girlfriend's suggestion. I wouldn't know but won't be challenging her view by trying to smuggle some Gerald Ratner shit past her.

Anyone disagree or have suggestions of their own? Would welcome contributions if this stupid comments system allows.

On public schools

I'm thinking I really should stop commenting on the English school system. It has a number of features that are strange and unfamiliar. One of these is the use of the term 'public school' to describe private institutions that by their very nature exclude the vast majority of the public. (It's like the Anglo-American use of conservative and liberal; depending on the context, the words seem capable of bearing exactly the same meaning.) Michael Gove with his repeated references to English private schools demonstrates that whatever else he might be, he is irreducibly Scottish.

Beyond the semantics, what was interesting about his remarks was the response they evoked. He thinks the dominance of the English private school system in public life in unjustified - and his preferred solution, as far as one can tell, is for the public sector to emulate the private - hence his enthusiasm for blazers, streaming, kids sitting in rows, rote learning, Latin, the King James Bible - the 1950s in other words.

Among his targets is the profession of journalism, which as he rightly points out is dominated by public school girls and boys - one or two of whom have responded to his comments. While they have different points to make both Laurie Penny and George Monbiot both seem to agree that the solution to this manifestation of entrenched advantage and privilege is the abolition of the private sector in education.

The question is, who's right? I'd suggest none of the above. One finds rather more to agree with in what Laurie Penny says than Michael Gove when she talks, for example, about the sense of entitlement that is part of the curriculum for the privately-educated. She could have added that there's the more tangible business of gaining access to a social network of people who have money and power. They have money because they have power.

Less so when she goes on about class sizes and the ability of the private sector to attract the 'best teachers'. Class size is largely irrelevant in my view, for reasons I won't bore you with. The question of the 'best teachers' is worth exploring though. Laurie Penny thinks the private sector attracts the best because they can pay for them. I'd have to disagree for a number of reasons. Firstly, the private sector doesn't pay that much more - and even if we accept that the 'good teacher' is motivated by money - which we shouldn't - in the long run there's more opportunity for this in the public sector because there are more opportunities for promotion. Teachers are like anyone else; we adapt to circumstances. I have a special set of skills I have developed on the Eastern Front in Glasgow. It's difficult to say how useful these would be in a private school but I'm thinking; not very. Same goes for my colleague in the private school. But if we swapped jobs, I'm sure we'd get the hang of it after a year or two.

Laurie Penny accuses Gove of thinking people are primarily motivated by money, yet she appears to believe the same when it comes to teachers - and this is not their only point of contact: what Gove, Monbiot and Penny all seem to share is the notion that education is the primary engine of social mobility. This is surely wrong and is a species of what Sarah Ditum has described as the 'Education fetish' - politicians and pundits wanting education to obviate through 'opportunity' something that only greater economic equality can actually achieve.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Seeing on my dashboard that people have left comments but they can't be seen on the actual blog for some reason. Sorry about this. It's a technical hitch that I'm too incompetent to fix.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A little 20th century history

Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Dresden, Coventry, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Treblinka...
After this, the century of Hitler and Stalin, the gravest threat facing humanity in the 21st century comes, for some people, from liberals?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Education as ideology?

A pupil once threatened a colleague with his father. The precise form of words was, "I'm going to get my da' up to kick your c**t in". My friend didn't really appreciate this, as you can probably imagine. On further investigation he learned that the reason the aforementioned pupil made this threat was because his father was a well-known local gangster.

To be fair to gangster-dad, he was entirely supportive of the school when his son was suspended for the maximum allowed time for this behaviour. I was reminded of this incident when reading Sarah Ditum's splendid piece on the contemporary 'education fetish'. She makes a refreshingly simple and practical point: the time a child spends in school up to 16 is a lot but it represents less than 10% of their time in this word of ours. Only a true believer thinks we can create a situation where as a matter of routine this can obviate the effects of the influences children experience the majority of the time.

I wouldn't describe myself as a Marxist but this cult of education we seem to be incubating both sides of the border sometimes appears to fit the concept of 'ideology' in Marx's sense like a glove. For the neo-liberals, inequality is justified by meritocracy. But anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the real world knows this does no justice to the present situation and from this it should be easy to see how the education system should become one of the leading culprits in the failure to produce 'equality of opportunity'. For one thing it's in the public sector, which is a Bad Thing. Also, the trades unions are relatively strong, which even more people agree is a Very Bad Thing.

Union-bashing has been experiencing something of a revival these days, even among - or perhaps particularly among - hacks of a liberal disposition. Here's Peter Preston, for example, using a fixation with attendance to do precisely this:
"[T]he importance of going to school day after day has never been more weightily stressed, nor more relentlessly enforced. Heads are being given less and less discretion. The message is clear: every single day matters."
Well, I know the message is clear - but that doesn't mean you're obliged to agree with it. Understand this: the single day can prove decisive when making love or making war but when you're going to school? Don't be silly. Who really believes this? Surely not the people who gave us a day off to watch two rich young things get married?

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