Tuesday, December 21, 2004

New Year Predictions

Taken this one down - along with the Christmas tree.

Btw, how bad is it being back at work?

a) pants

b) big pants

c) big nylon pants

d) big nylon pants that have gone all bobbly

e) as d) with unmentionable stains

ID cards and the Tories

The government won the vote to secure a second reading of the ID cards scheme by 385 votes to 93. The Liberal Democrats were opposed and 19 Labour MPs - mostly leftwingers also voted for the rebel amendment. I think the Tory response is further evidence of the state the Conservatives have got themselves into: while only 10 actually voted against the government, this number included members of the Shadow Cabinet with John Redwood and Peter Lilley explicitly rejecting Michael Howard's two-line whip. Also, a further 70 Tories went Christmas shopping, rather than support their beleaguered leader.

Further evidence for someone like myself who subscribes to the view that the Tories cannot take their survival for granted. The ID card issue - one would have thought - would be a perfect opportunity for them to embarrass the government by siding with their left wing critics on the backbenches, and could do so by dressing it up in lots of Burkean language about the ancient liberties of freeborn Englishmen. But Michael Howard, as he has done on so many other issues, has demonstrated his unfailing ability to pick up the wrong end of whatever stick happens to be lying about.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The reassurance of Newspeak

I've been a tad worried about the state of British liberty of late - prompted, I thought, by recent departures by this government from established legal liberal principles such as the right to trial by jury, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, and now the proposed introduction of ID cards. I needn't have worried: freedom is slavery and those who advocate "woolly liberal thinking" are the real enemy, as Melanie Phillips and Charles Clarke have helpfully explained. Take this, for example, from today's Times:

I claim that the ID Cards Bill that I am introducing today is a profoundly civil libertarian measure because it promotes the most fundamental civil liberty in our society, which is the right to live free from crime and fear. Both in practice and in principle ID cards are right. I hope that they will gain wide support throughout our society, and the sooner the better.

So giving citizens the obligation to pay to be monitored by the state is "civil libertarian"? What a relief; had I known this, I would have supported them earlier. But I was still worried by the detention of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh Prison where, I understand, they have been detained without charge, trial or access to legal representation. Given this mindset, I was inclined to agree with the Law Lords who ruled 8 to 1 that these detentions violated all known principles of human rights. Fortunately, Melanie Phillips is on hand to explain that liberal societies, when under threat are entitled to cease to be liberal, thus preserving freedom - and it's anyone who disagrees with this erudite reasoning that is the real enemy:

The human rights culture is actually a mortal enemy of life, liberty and democracy. The Law Lords' judgment is but the latest example.

Phew, these meddling judges really are a menace! Hitherto, I'd imagined that it was countries such as ours with a "human rights culture" that enjoyed the most liberty. Now I've seen the light: freedom has been most advanced in countries unburdened with this insidious legal sophistry. Only I'm still a bit confused because one historical example would be the Soviet Union, where the state was protected from its enemies in much the same way - but inexplicably, Ms. Phillips doesn't like the comparison. Can't think why...

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Blunkett's resignation

David Blunkett made an emotional farewell last night, having finally been brought down by the persistent stories concerning his affair with Kimberly Quinn and the related issue of her nanny's visa application.

Polly Toynbee, no fan of Blunkett's authoritarianism herself, is one of a number of liberal journalists who see Blunkett as a victim of a scheming socialite:

"So everyone wonders what on earth this working-class minister, driven by a genuine passion for social justice for those who came from backgrounds like his, was doing with a Spectator society lady? Sleeping with the enemy, he fell among the most frivolous rightwing effete scoundrels of the Westminster political scene. That is part of the tragedy in the downfall too - seduction of a simple man by someone from a world he rightly despised.

Then, the final coup de grace. What was he doing slagging off his colleagues one by one to rightwing Stephen Pollard, who should never have been his official biographer anyway? When such an astute and experienced politician makes an error like that, it begins to look as if his marbles are rattling around. Even his dog might have barked out a warning."

This, and the fact that Blunkett took the novel step of trying to prove paternity of a child born as a result of an affair, have created a level of sympathy that otherwise probably wouldn't be there for this most rightwing of Home Secretaries.

But at the risk of striking a sour note, his personal problems notwithstanding, his departure is entirely welcome to most people of a liberal disposition. He has been an extravagantly authoritarian Home Secretary, with the detention of terrorist suspects without trial in Belmarsh prison, the attempts to withdraw the right of appeal for asylum seekers and to limit jury trial, and the misconceived plan to introduce ID cards. Furthermore, prior to that he was education secretary and was responsible, in my view, for pushing the Blairite agenda in education - amounting to little more than the revival of the Thatcherite approach, which hitherto had showed some welcome signs of waning under the Major government.

That this would be considered a woolly liberalism of the "chattering classes" by Blunkett and his supporters was and is something that I've become increasingly annoyed with, not least because I have a wee bit of sympathy for the "tough on crime" argument: it is, for example, a perfectly valid point to make that the people who suffer most from crime are the working classes in the same way that they are also most likely to suffer from substandard education. It is not, however, valid to dismiss all criticism on the grounds that one is "taking the side of the criminal"; a distinction has to be made between the suspect and the criminal - and it is the function of the judicial system to determine whether the former is indeed the latter, a process hardly helped by undermining the rights of the accused.

I'm also not sure that Blunkett's demise can be attributed solely to a media feeding frenzy, driven by a prurient interest in aspects of his private life that are nobody's business. After all, the rightwing press, clearly recognising one of their own, were largely supportive of his war on British liberty. He had the support of the Prime Minister and probably, at first, a majority of his Parliamentary colleagues were sympathetic to his personal predicament. The key ingredient to his downfall, I would suggest, was the loss of support in the Labour Party. Many backbenchers were already alienated by his rightwingery - and his arrogant and stupid remarks to Stephen Pollard lost him even more support, not least in the Cabinet itself.

Among the wider implications are that Blair is, of course, damaged by this - having lost one of his key allies in the Cabinet. Another possibility is that in future it will become more difficult for ministers to claim "a big civil servant did it and ran away", which would be welcome. Charles Clarke, predictably, has already declared himself unwilling to rethink ID cards - but has, at least, adopted a more conciliatory tone than his pugnacious predecessor. Whether Blunkett's departure will have any implications for the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred remains to be seen. I plan to deal with this more fully in a future post but meanwhile, Lenin has made some interesting points on the subject here and here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Skool discipline

I've been struck lately by the number of non-stories in the newspapers recently. You know, articles of the Pope is a Catholic; bear shits in the woods; doctor writes prescription, variety. One that caught my eye in the Guardian a few days ago was Butler saying "Blair obsessed with control".

Today's non-story is this one in the Herald: "Problem pupils are wrecking discipline, say teachers". It includes the breath-taking revelation that the policy of "social inclusion" - which means plonking every pupil, regardless of need, disability, psychological and/or behavioural difficulty, into main-stream classes - is not necessarily consistent with the other lofty goal set for us by our leaders in the Scottish Executive, "raising attainment" - education-speak for the quaint notion that schools are supposed to be places where pupils learn stuff:

In a readers' survey about social affairs by The Herald Society supplement, nearly nine out of 10 of those working in education said the inclusion of children with behavioural problems in mainstream classes was causing discipline problems.
While 82.1% of all responses said this was the case, this rose to 88.9% when responses from those in education were singled out. Only 6.3% of educationists defended the policy.

The choice of words is significant; "educationists", in this context, being those people for whom teaching a class is a distant memory, if at all - and say profoundly stupid things about disruptive pupils who have a precocious interest in violence and sadism like, "well he's alright with me" - to which I invariably respond, "that's because when he's with you, he doesn't have another 29 of his peers as an audience - idiot!"

Teachers' unions welcomed the findings. Lindsay Roy, president of the Headteachers Association Scotland (HAS), said many teachers supported inclusion in principle but there was a lack of support for teachers to help them cope with difficult pupils.

For "lack of support", insert "lack of light, hand-held weaponry" to understand how most teachers feel (what are they doing asking a Headteacher anyway?).

Solution? Remember Rosie Kane of the SSP, arguing that the use of the word "ned" should be banned? As ever, nowhere near radical enough: a more effective measure would be to ban neds altogether - problem solved.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Spectator: Butler Interview

For those doing "Decision-making in central government", there was an interesting interview with Butler (of WMD enquiry fame) in the current edition of the Spectator. On one level, it's a fairly standard overweening executive, what happened to cabinet government line. Standard because much the same was said of Wilson and Thatcher - but in the comparison with Thatcher, Butler has a couple of interesting observations:

‘I would be critical of the present government in that there is too much emphasis on selling, there is too much central control and there is too little of what I would describe as reasoned deliberation which brings in all the arguments.’

If you were Blair what would you do about that?

‘I think I would restore open debate in government at all levels up to the Cabinet. The Cabinet now — and I don’t think there is any secret about this — doesn’t make decisions.’

But wasn’t that also the case under Mrs Thatcher? ‘She was much more formal about this than her reputation is. She certainly wanted to get her own way, and she was very dominant, but she certainly took the view, as Harold Wilson did, that important decisions should be taken by Cabinet.

‘I think what tends to happen now is that the government reaches conclusions in rather small groups of people who are not necessarily representative of all the groups of interests in government, and there is insufficient opportunity for other people to debate, dissent and modify.’

Does he think that on the whole the country is well governed?

‘Well, I think we are a country where we suffer very badly from Parliament not having sufficient control over the executive and that is a very grave flaw. We should be breaking away from the party whip. The executive is much too free to bring in a huge number of extremely bad Bills, a huge amount of regulation and to do whatever it likes — and whatever it likes is what will get the best headlines tomorrow. All that is part of what is bad government in this country.

Butler's remarks are significant when we bear in mind that his enquiry - wrongly dismissed in some quarters as a "whitewash" - identified "collective failure" in the bureaucracy with regards to the non-discovery of WMD in Iraq.

In the same issue, scary case of agreeing with Bruce Anderson, that rarest of creatures; a Scottish Tory.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

George Galloway's libel victory

Before Galloway became a celebrity south of the border, he was already well-known as a divider, as anyone in the Kelvin constituency Labour Party would tell you. Now he's having that effect elsewhere, although more purely to do with his position vis-a-vis Iraq, rather than his personalisimo political style.

Young Johann Hari of the Independent has got himself very worked up about Galloway, as you can see here. Bat, on the other hand, has a slightly different take on the man, to say the least. In his piece on Galloway's libel victory, Bat - who was writing for the Telegraph at the time - raises the question as to whether the "disgust at the conduct of this war – and in particular, at the warmongers' contemptuous attitude to legality, civil rights and truthfulness – has penetrated deeply into the heart of the legal establishment itself."

Marcus, at Harry's Place uses this occasion to cast doubt on whether Bat worked for the Torygraph at all - working on the assumption, presumably, that newspaper journalists are of a political homogeneity that reflects the editorial position of the newspaper.

At the same place you'll see that Oliver Kamm pitches in to the fray in the comments boxes with the suggestion that because Bat made a wee grammatical error in his post, this is reason to doubt that Bat has worked as a journalist at all (obviously never read the Guardian, then). For those of you who don't know who Oliver Kamm is, neither did I until comparatively recently. I'm still not sure but if I told you he appears to make a living from writing columns in the Times, defining words that no-one ever uses, you'd probably raise a skeptical eyebrow - but buy a copy on Saturday and that does seem to be precisely what he does. Anyway, the dispute goes on, with Lenin taking Harry and Kamm to task for their remarks. (Personally, I think Kamm's jealous because Bat's blog looks so much better than his).

To a number of us north of the border, the idea that Galloway can so neatly divide people into prowar and antiwar camps comes as a surprise, to say the least. I've had the dubious pleasure of having Galloway as my MP for most of my adult life and personally I can't be doing with him; I'd repeat some of the stories I heard from members and former members of the Kelvin constituency party but I don't have £150 000, so I better not.

My already low opinion of him sunk further on seeing him caught on camera, groveling before Saddam Hussein. His subsequent explanation of this - that he was saluting the Iraqi people, is unsatisfying and unconvincing, as is one of his other defences - that Rumsfeld too shook hands with the Iraqi dictator, which is entirely true, as shown in the picture below, but a strange line for someone to take if you're trying to convince people that what you did was reasonable behaviour.


Now, a number of the charges leveled against Galloway by Hari et al are, I think, rather unreasonable. It is, for example, apparently de rigour to cast up someone's support for the Soviet Union in the past and use it against them. Hari is too young to remember the expressions like "you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs", which some used to account for the Stalinist purges. Ignorant and reprehensible perhaps (I confess I may have used something like that when I was 17, will that be used against me sometime in the future?) - but not a million miles away from the justifications he himself uses for the (in my opinion) entirely unnecessary assault on Fallujah. There is also Galloway's alleged support for Musharraf. I've no idea if that's true or not and don't really care but given that this is also Bush and Blair's position, he might want to save some criticism for them too.

But it remains the case that it is unequivocally not just supporters of the war that'll be glad to see the back of Galloway as he heads south to take on Oona King in Bethnel Green. Now, Oona King - with her support for the invasion of Iraq - undoubtedly has her coat on a shaky nail in a constituency with a large number of voters who strongly opposed this war, but I still reckon it's likely that George will find out what he definitely would have found out had he stood for the newly-drawn constituency of Glasgow Central; that the only reason he became an MP in the first place was because he was wearing a red-rosette.

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Scottish Enlightenment

Interesting post at Harry's Place about Scotland before the Enlightenment. Scotland was - and sometimes still feels on a bad day - the most Calvinistic country on the face of the planet and prior to the Enlightenment, we have - as Marcus reminds us - the infamous case of young Thomas Aikenhead who was put to death for atheism as late as 1697. Yet in the next 50 years or so, the intolerant power of the Church of Scotland had waned so much that by the time David Hume had published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the church took no action against him on the grounds that they were powerless to do so, since he wasn't a member.

Marcus then goes on to draw a parallel between Scotland's relatively rapid transition to modernity and the situation in the Arab world today. Now, I agree up to a point with this: I've been thinking for some time that the Scottish example should be a good refutation for "Islamophobia"; I imagine that if you took the Calvinists' claim to epistemological infallibility, add some hot weather and the proliferation of small arms, you'd get on the streets of Glasgow scenes similar to those seen in Beruit, Bahgdad, or Jerusalem.

But there's much else to disagree with - and I do so on the basis that, contrary to received opinion, religious fundamentalism is always and everywhere a modern phenomenon. The Pope declared himself to be infallible in the 19th century around about the same time that Protestant Evangelicals produced the doctrine of the verbal inerrancy of the scriptures. Both of these doctrines claimed a cloak of antiquity but were in fact innovations - produced, I would suggest, as a defence against the onslaught of modernity.

The situation with Islamic fundamentalism is similar to this, I think. The Iranian theocracy, for example, while claiming an ancient precedence, is a model of a state which is no older than the 1970s, as Eric Hobsbawn has pointed out. Other barbarisms, such as the stoning of adulterers, are often thought to represent a backward attachment to a pre-modern scripturalism, which will be dispelled in due course as the "Enlightenment" gains ground in the Middle East. But, like the Iranian theocracy, this too is a practice which is not sanctioned by the Koran (it states that adulterers should receive a thousand lashes); it is the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) that has stoning as the punishment for adultery.

In other words, if I'm right and fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, the experience of it will not dissolve like Scottish Calvinism as it withered in the winds of philosophical enquiry and technological change. Rather, like other types of fundamentalism, it is a product of modernity - rather than some kind of pre-industrial hang-over that can be just shaken off. Moreover, as well as being a reaction to ideas as in the Christian example - Islamicism is also a reaction to the disorientating impact of rapid industrialisation and all that brings; displacement, confusion, huge income inequalities and political oppression.

Hitherto, the primary repository for anti-capitalist discontent has been communism - but the collapse of the Soviet Union has left the secular opposition to capitalism largely in disarray, leaving radical Islamicism as the only alternative in many parts of the world. So, any lasting solution to this problem will take, I would argue, more than just fighting opposition where it appears; it will also have to address the reasons why so many people rush to the opposition in the first place. In other words, the Middle East doesn't just need political democracy, it needs social democracy as well. Problem is, I don't know if the Americans do that...

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Bush, Iraq and the implications for the Modern Studies syllabus

Updated: bit went missing in original post, sorry...

I’m planning to do a piece on the implications of the Bush presidency in general and the Iraq war in particular for the Modern Studies syllabus and I would welcome any other teachers’ comments on this, which you could e-mail to me and I could shamelessly rip off. No, only joking – although you could remain anonymous if you wish. (Although, the readings from my site meter would suggest that most people visiting the site are not modies teachers, but never mind). I would be particularly interested to hear from those who teach areas of the syllabus that I don’t but which might be relevant.

Anyway, here’s some preliminary scribblings of my own:

UK PoliticsDecision-making in central government

Obviously a rich seam, which I won’t attempt to explore in any detail just now but I thought the information coming out of the Hutton and Butler enquiries provided particularly vivid and dramatic examples that refreshed an otherwise rather dry section of the course, namely the section on the civil service.

There’s also the example of the demonstration against the war, which I thought could scarcely be a better example of what I try and get across in the pressure groups section: my customary technique is to get a class to name any pressure group that they can think of. 100% of the time I get “cause” groups rather than “interest groups” and from here I go on to make the point that the dramatic demonstrations of groups Greenpeace and now the Stop the War Coalition are indicative of a lack of power and then go on to contrast them with those interest groups, such as the BMA and the CBI who don’t need to take to the streets for fairly obvious reasons.

Ethnic Minorities in the USA

I did a wee breakdown of some of the election stats, which you can find here. There’s also the appointment of Condeleeza Rice, which I mentioned here. I thought Florida – both in 2000 and in 2004 – was a very dramatic illustration of the importance of the Hispanic vote, which hitherto had tended to be dismissed as relatively unimportant. The interesting thing about the Hispanic vote, it seems to me, is that it’s importance has a lot to do with the fact that the parties have something to compete for, in contrast to the black vote, which is more solidly Democrat than ever.

There was a very interesting piece about the experience of Arab-Americans in the Guardian. Unfortunately, I ditched my paper copy, assuming that the article would be in the online version – only to discover that it wasn’t. It was about Detroit, which has a fairly large Arab community and not a few of them were Shias from Southern Iraq. Prior to the war, this section of the community was divided roughly in half over the proposed invasion. However, since then – what with the postwar difficulties and with some rather negative experiences at the wrong end of the Patriot Act - a majority of them now oppose Bush. I’d be grateful if anyone has any info. on this…

Conspiracy theories

I don’t know if you’ll agree with this but increasingly I’m finding that the propensity to believe these - most recently with the various 9/11 conspiracies and the (to me completely inexplicable) popularity of Michael Moore – is a barrier to learning that has to be overcome. Last year in particular, a majority of my class appeared to be adherents to a philosophy that perhaps could be best described as vulgar Marxism meets the X-files. I’m getting increasingly exasperated with students whose self-image is one of worldly cynicism but who in reality appear to be willing to believe literally anything. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has had similar experiences.

Ok, that’s all for now; I’ll do a proper piece in due course.

There's an e-mail link on the side bar...

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

New website (to me, that is)

I found this excellent site - by fellow Glaswegian, Richard Kimber - absolutely bursting with useful links on all things political. In particular, there is a groovy page on British politics; also see the pages on China, South Africa, and the USA.

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