Monday, March 30, 2009

On the prospects of a British republic

Slim to nil, I would have thought. The attempt by Evan Davis MP to update the rules in relation to the succession to the throne have been, rightly in my view, dismissed as a waste of time from a number of quarters. What is the point of updating the rules with regards to monarchs or heirs to the throne marrying Catholics when, for example, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against non-Catholic teachers in the school system in this country? If one were to pursue the logic of discrimination, one would have thought it obvious that the monarchy by definition discriminates against just about everyone and that the next step would simply be to advocate the abolition of this institution, as Dave Osler points out here.

But I'm not sure the logic is even worth following: "calling" for a republic is probably certainly pointless because it isn't going to happen. There are, I think, a number of reasons for this - one or two of which have to do with the specific historical circumstances in which our constitution has developed:

1) It's a commonplace observation that we, unlike a number of our European friends, missed the 18th century - or at the latest, 19th century - window where monarchs were dethroned, sensationally in France beheaded, and replaced with a republican constitution. There have, of course, been 20th century examples too - but these have followed either independence, defeat in war or some other form of regime-change. This has not been Britain's experience.

2) To this we should add the observation that we have had a republic - before the French and before the Americans - under this miserable sod. Difficult one this. You're in the Unbearable Lightness of Being territory if you insist his reign bequeathed Britain lots of constitutional goodness. The historian in me would agree - but those living in rather closer historical proximity to the tyranny of this appalling Calvinist bigot didn't feel the need to repeat the republican experience - and for good reason, in my view. The point is, this had obvious knock-on effects for subsequent generations.

3) 'Republican' in the minds of many people of a certain age - and not just those of limited education - is synonymous with Irish terrorism. There were, and are, those of the left-loathing left who equated this with 'freedom fighting' - but I think it would be fair to suggest that these were always in the minority - leaving republicanism as a concept, undoubtedly unfairly, stained with blood in the minds of many.

Add to this the observation that democracies that are also constitutional monarchies have been the most stable - a point repeated most recently by Eric Hobsbawm here - leaves me wondering what is left of my republican views? An idea on paper that has no prospect of happening and may not even be desirable if it happened. A fairly pointless view then - so it is certainly a waste of time bringing it up in Parliament, I would have thought - especially if you're only going to allude to it - which is what Evan Davis was doing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bugger blogging - here's some big John goodness

Via Laban I see someone's put the studio version of Hurt in Your Heart on YouTube.

I'm liking this from Bless the Weather...

But some splendid individual has posted the following track. Unsure but it might be my favourite. It has the jazz, the blues, the sexual swagger, the voice used like a saxophone, the loose and lush instrumentation - the quintessence of John Martyn - from this album...

Also in the same year, the extremely spaced-out Hawkwind got to number 11 in the charts with this proto-punk number.

Speaking of punk, I learn from this volume that apparently John Martyn once gave Sid Vicious a beating. As if there wasn't enough reasons to like him already. Sorry to interrupt. What was that you were saying about the Middle East? Yeah, whatever...

Monday, March 23, 2009

On privacy and liberty

The revelation that a quarter of all public sector databases violate our right to privacy coincides with my own attempt to crystallise my thoughts on this whole matter: what is privacy and why do we tend to guard it as something important?

When I say 'we', this is perhaps a little ethno-centric. India Knight argues here that to place a high premium on privacy is a quintessentially English trait. I don't know about that - I'm not English and I certainly value my privacy highly. But it is certainly true to say that not only is privacy not valued everywhere as much as it is in the West, my understanding is that some cultures don't even have a word for it.

Furthermore, even here - where we would assume the word is readily understood - some would argue that it is not a distinct entity; when people talk about 'privacy', the reductionist view would be to argue that this is really referring to a cluster of other values that people hold or rights that they have - such as the right to own property or to be free from arbitrary searches.

I wouldn't claim competence to argue the point because I do history rather than philosophy and from this perspective I would have thought that there can be no dispute that not only has the concept of privacy been understood and valued but that states of a liberal disposition have included in the legal order provisions to protect the violation of privacy either by other individuals, corporations or the state itself.

The essence of privacy is the desire to reveal oneself selectively. There are a number of reasons - some of which I would have thought inescapable - why people would want to do this. Privacy is essential for the maintenance of important social relationships. Carrying out a vocation depends on it for example, because this has not to do with the revelation of our full personality but with the execution of duties. It is difficult to see how this would be possible without some level of privacy. I can't imagine that there's any teacher reading this who could disagree that their job would become more difficult, even impossible, if our charges knew the intimate details of our private lives.

Privacy is also essential to trust. This can work on a number of different levels but the example of the ghastly Julie Myserson illustrates the destruction that can be wrought to even the most profound of human relationships when one party chooses to be indiscriminate with information that another would rather was revealed on a more selective basis.

I think it goes without saying that privacy is essential for the development of intimate relationships. More specifically I'd argue that while sex and procreation is obviously possible without it, the cultivation of the erotic is not. This point serves as a convenient juncture to make the argument for privacy on the basis of liberty - as a sphere in which people may exercise their autonomy without the stare and disapproval of the majority. Perhaps some people reading this might argue that laws prohibiting sodomy, for example, are not a grotesque invasion of people's privacy - but no such person could claim to be a liberal.

Yet human nature being what it is, the desire to reveal oneself selectively cannot be considered entirely benign. People can and do use the shield of privacy to conceal the abuse of spouses and children - as well as crimes and intended crimes against wider society. It is for this reason that no reasonable person - and no legal order - has ever considered the right to privacy to be inviolable. However, what has been customary in relatively liberal societies such as ours is for the law to strike a balance - usually conveyed in legal norms that express themselves in concepts such as the presumption of innocence, reasonable suspicion and probable cause.

If you feel you're reading a patronising remedial lesson on the importance of privacy please don't be offended because this was not intended for you. Rather it is directed at one or two individuals who have taken to arguing - not that privacy has to be limited in the interests of security, not that we have the balance wrong between preserving the autonomy of the individual and the interests of the polity - but that the right to privacy either is unimportant; or positively malign because it serves only for preserving privilege; or even that it doesn't actually exist at all.

It is this last point that Rafael Behr seems to be arguing in a piece I've linked on a previous occasion:
"We are so atomised and anonymous that hundreds of thousands of us routinely invade our own privacy online, in search of recognition, to reinforce our identities, to find a voice. We post intimate details of our sexual preferences and political views on YouTube. No one cares. We are bits of cultural flotsam on a vast ocean of liberty."
This is arrant nonsense. You can't invade your own privacy. We may divulge in various places more than others would feel comfortable doing but you'll still find that we are still exercising our prerogative to reveal ourselves selectively. For example, I do this when my partner and myself go dogging: while we're exposing ourselves more than most people might find decorous, I'm still careful to pick a secluded spot and invite a select clientele to masturbate while they watch us having sex in the back of the car.

I'm only joking, I don't go dogging. But if you understand that if I did, I certainly wouldn't discuss it on this space, you'll understand the point being made here.

Someone else long on injunctions to get historical perspective whilst being surprisingly short on the actual history of liberty as a political cause is Connor Gearty:
"The idea that the state is an unwarranted assault on individual freedom is not a progressive one. This kind of libertarianism works to protect privilege by cloaking the advantages of the rich in the garb of personal autonomy, individual freedom and the "human right" to privacy. It is not at all surprising that the Convention on Modern Liberty is attracting strong support from those on the right of politics, politicians who hanker after a golden age of rights for the rich and responsibilities for everyone else. But the left, or at least those parts of it that believe in the progressive power of the state, need to be more careful about defining exactly where they stand when they join in this chorus of dissent."
This is but an excerpt from a fairly long and frankly dismal piece. Where to begin? First of all, while I dare say there's those of an anarchist disposition that believe the existence of the modern state per se is "an unwarranted assault on individual freedom", I would have thought they are a rather marginal constituency. So marginal I don't think it would be out of place to accuse Professor Gearty of engaging with a straw man here.

Then there's the ad hominem arguments. Apart from the basic fallacy of this position, and the fact that the Convention of Modern Liberty hardly forms an exhaustive cohort of people who are concerned about liberty, it isn't obvious to me - as an outsider - that the 'rightwinger' label is even accurate. I don't know - maybe I'm missing something but the list of partners? It includes Amnesty, Compass, The Fabian Society, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, Liberty, The Observer, Private Eye, Red Pepper, and the Work Foundation - amongst others. Phew - right bunch of Nazis there right enough.

Neither did Gearty attempt to flesh out his accusation that only those intent on preserving privilege are concerned about privacy. It might be in poor taste for him to try this now - given that it seems clear that it is in fact the most vulnerable in our society, particularly children, that have been adversely affected by this government's database blunders. Why anyone is surprised by this is beyond me. It was ever thus when power is concentrated to the centre in this way - and those presently making pseudo-leftist justifications for the expansion of state power might want to bear this is mind the next time they feel the need to draw from the wells of their own ignorance and lecture the rest of us about 'historical perspective'.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A voice cries out...

"Britain cries out for a great education secretary" - according to

Monday, March 16, 2009

Narcissism in education

Dr Carol Craig thinks the whole 'self-esteem' agenda is creating a problem here:
"The growing expectation placed on schools and parents to boost pupils' self-esteem is breeding a generation of narcissists, an expert has warned.

Dr Carol Craig said children were being over-praised and were developing an "all about me" mentality. "
Change that to 'have developed' and I don't think you'll find many teachers who would disagree. Carol's my new friend, I've decided. I was a little sceptical at first when I learned she heads the Centre for Confidence and Well-being but when I read further, I see that this is proper well-being based on the need for more press-ups and such like. She has a blog - and here's some notes expanding on what she said on Saturday. I'll do something serious on it in due course but right now I'm too knackered.

Speaking of ego-centric adolescents, some teachers are walking out in protest at one of their comrades who valiantly refused to stop wearing trainers on the job and was sacked as a result:
"For 17 years Adrian Swain wore trainers and tracksuit bottoms while teaching Maths and Science at St Paul's Way Community School in Tower Hamlets.

He also worked with children with disabilities and helped 96% of his GCSE students achieve grades A to C in Maths.

But the 56-year-old was fired in December after refusing to follow an unofficial dress code imposed by an acting head teacher three months earlier.

Mr Swain argued his clothing was irrelevant to his teaching ability and said staff had not been consulted over the "inconsistent" dress code."
Don't get me wrong, sacking the dude is totally over the top but for fuck sake, get a grip of yourself man. Would it kill you to wear a shirt and a proper pair of goddamn shoes and maybe a pair of decent trousers? How you dress is indeed irrelevant to your teaching ability but it isn't all about you. My own view is that by dressing a certain way, you create professional distance from your charges and send a message - the most important being: I'm not your pal so don't you fucking speak to me as if I was. I feel it is important to get this across. This is why I always take my classes wearing combat fatigues and a full-face balaclava.

What the fashion-conscious yet politically-minded teacher in North Lanarkshire is wearing this season.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On liberty and 'the big historical picture'

Norm links, and comments on uncritically, this offering from Rafael Behr who argues that any complaints about this government's illiberalism are essentially an exercise in nostalgia - that it is a failure to see the 'big historical picture' that stops the modern liberal from understanding that we are living in nothing less than the Golden Age of liberty:
"Go back a couple of centuries and most of us lived in perpetual fear of arbitrary violence. We couldn't read or write. Independent thought was a sin. Women were chattels. Children were labourers. Even 50 years ago, most us were restrained by bonds of class deference, rigid gender roles and sexual prurience. It has all been swept away. We have the maximum political, moral and cultural liscence of any people ever."
Behr's contextualising observations provide a necessary corrective to some of the more hysterical critics of the government. For instance, I would have no hesitation in agreeing with Mr Behr that we do indeed live in a relatively liberal and secular democracy - far from being a police state - and that this is now, never mind when one considers the broad sweep of history, the exception rather than the rule of human experience.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of problems with this line. One is from the internal evidence of his own argument: whether he was aware of it or not, much of the liberty Behr describes, and which I agree exists, has nothing much to do with government but is enjoyed despite government because it is essentially a function of technology:
"Thank God, we are free, I thought. We are free from the blanket of social opprobrium that once suffocated England as it did Ireland. We are free from the stern eye of the local cleric and his loyal army of petty parishioner informants. We are free to blaspheme, to swear. Holy shit! How free are we?"
Pretty goddamn free, I'd say - but this is because hardly any of us live in 'parishes' in the historical sense. Parish informants don't know who we are, parish informants don't really exist anymore - but this is a function of living in urban areas with mobile populations. This has nothing much to do with the government. And anyway, my understanding is that blasphemy is still technically illegal in English law?

Another has to do with the way important details can be lost when one draws the 'big historical picture'. For example, it is true our relatively liberal state is historically highly unusual. But for those of us living in northern European countries, so is our wealth. The family in Britain today on median income enjoys a standard of wealth that is astronomically high compared to that experienced by most people in most places since the foundation of human civilisation. Even someone on welfare benefits has a level of comfort that the comparatively well-off in the nineteenth century would have envied. But does this mean that today the average 'hard-working family' has no grounds for complaint over the fact that Sir Fred Goodwin will spend his retirement on an income that they would be unable to accumulate collectively over four generations? Perhaps it could be argued that they should stop complaining and get some historical context but it's an argument I would be personally disinclined to make. Should Mr Rehr be unfortunate enough to lose his job doing whatever he does and find himself claiming Jobseeker's Allowance, I don't think he'd find himself quite as indifferent to the intrusions of the state as he is now - which brings me to this:
"We are free. Most people can say and do what they like, when they like, where they like."
If this is Mr Rehr's assessment, I'm bound to say both he and his social circle have a somewhat limited life experience as well as a rather narrow range of interests - but this isn't the central point. Rather, I would take issue with this most people. 'Most people' is no good, no good at all. Most people give no cause for concern to the state, regardless of its character. People concerned about liberty and justice should not be concerned about most people but everyone - particularly those living on the margins of our society. What is this 'most people' crap? Most people, for example, will never find themselves in a police cell. Does this mean the erosion of the right to silence is unimportant? Most people will not find themselves at the receiving end of the powers the police have accumulated as the result of anti-terrorism legislation. Does that mean abuses flowing from these are unimportant? I'm all in favour of historical context but its uses are limited. If I ended up in jail I think I'd rather have access to a lawyer and brush up on my history later.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

So - you used to be a banker?

You'd think, wouldn't you, that these credit crunchy days might be a good point for this government to drop the Thatcherite-Blairite dogma that the ills of the public sector can be solved if only the methods, practices and indeed personnel of the private sector can be imported. But you'd be wrong:
High-fliers who lose their jobs in the recession will be able to retrain as teachers in just six months – to the fury of teacher unions who said the profession could not be "picked up at the drop of a hat". And those who are particularly gifted could become headteachers within four years, under a controversial new fast-track route into the classroom announced today.The initiative, which is part of Labour's public service reforms, will from September halve the minimum time it takes to train as a qualified teacher in England from a year to six months.
The unions, as is so often the case, are being rather imprecise with their criticism. Certainly you can't learn the job in six months - but you can't learn it in a year either - and the idea that teacher training college is the best place to do this is questionable, to say no more than that.

Rather, the insult lies in the idea that they would be able to learn it any quicker than anyone else. It isn't obvious why the government thinks this. There's some vague stuff about bankers being good at maths. Bit odd given the recent performance of the financial sector in recent times, you'd have thought. Crap at calculating risk - but they'll manage Key stages 1 and 2. Perhaps that's the logic?

Anyway, contrary to the unions' position, I think it's an excellent idea. Unwittingly, the government has fashioned a fitting punishment for failed bankers everywhere. Imagine going from being a Master of the Universe to attempting to subdue the track-suited fraternity in an inner-city school. I think the plan needs fleshing out a little though. Former bankers should be made to take classes in citizenship. Those of us already trained and experienced should be able to assess their performance and where necessary express our disapproval at substandard performance by pelting them with our bank statements and rotting vegetables. Then, after they trudge home with an aching heart and the smell of a decaying civilisation lingering on their clothes, they will be forced to listen to the opinions of every ill-informed blogger and journalist on the subject of education on a loop: "Vouchers are the answer - they have them in Sweden, don't you know?" Aaaargh!!!

I'll leave the final word to Jim Knight, Minister for Schools. He ministers to schools - hence the title:
"There are thousands of highly talented individuals in this country who are considering their next move, who want to do something challenging, rewarding, that is highly respected and where good people have great prospects," Knight said.
Mr Knight, sadly, will never know how much comedy he's managed to pack into one sentence there.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Scotland's drinking shame

We come 8th in the world for alcohol consumption - behind, amongst others, Germany and Ireland.

Given that drinking happens to be my hobby as well as our national sport, I think this is an appalling performance that we must improve upon.

The SNP take the opposite view and are intent on introducing measures to curtail our consumption.

It's not clear whether their plans to impose minimum prices are even legal.

If not, this would form part of a pattern set by the SNP; proposing crap ideas that never get off the ground because they clash with European or UK law. This was the case with their 'local income tax' - which wasn't local at all, given that they intended a uniform rate to be set throughout the whole country. This they intended to collect through the Inland Revenue. The trouble was this was outside the competence of the Scottish Parliament, what with revenue collection being a reserved matter. But apart from not being as described and impossible to collect, it was an excellent idea.

Anyway, if passed we are informed this would, for example, raise the price of an average bottle of blended whisky to £11.20 - raising the prospect that Carlisle will become the new Calais as Scots head south of the border to stock up on cheaper booze.

I have to say it takes a special kind of chutzpah to spend your entire political career complaining that Scots aren't getting a fair deal and then propose to make them pay more than anyone else for one of their own country's most successful products.

This post was powered by Buckfast - a charming vintage which I'm happy to say will be unaffected by the Scottish Government's proposals.

Supermarket annoyances

My unfailing ability to pick the slowest moving queue in these small villages they're trying to pass off as shops these days.

Today, for example - see one with only one guy waiting and think, "Ya dancer - I'll be out of here in no time." Then the guy hands the cashier a fifty pound note and she - having obviously never seen a fifty pound note - promptly calls for the supervisor.

After several days the goddamn supervisor turns up to examine the note - what with her being an expert in forgery and all.

I mean really! Who the fuck is going to forge a fifty pound note when whipping one out draws that much attention?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Liberty and human nature

I trust Mr Pullman will forgive me for misreading his address to the Convention of Modern Liberty. Truth is, I didn't read it carefully at all - I can't be doing with mysticism at this stage in my life, still less the English Christian mysticism of William Blake. Rather it was only really the final line of his piece that caught my attention:
"We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation."
I'll use it - I dare say out of context - to make what I consider to be an absolutely essential point about political liberty and the human condition. It is something that I believe should be expressed in the strongest terms: it should be taught in the kindergarten of political theory that the demand for limited government has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a belief in the essential goodness of human nature. No - all human beings can be, and often are, selfish, destructive, venal, vicious, stupid and desperately wicked. Rather, it is based on an insistence that the political class are made from the same human material.

This version of liberty expresses equality at its very foundation - and grasping this is a matter of no small importance. The failure to understand it leads to one of two extremes: the 'libertarian' imagines a political class occupied by people whose essential nature is more disfigured than the rest of us, whereas those who advocate deference of an uncritical nature to those in authority impute angelic virtues to our rulers. But the insistence on limited government has nothing to do with either of these. Men are not angels, so they need government - says Jack Straw. But those in power are no more angelic than the rest of us. For they carry the human stain in equal measure - no more and no less. So how can anyone argue that they are in any less need of restraint?

On liberty: laughter and forgetting

1) Traditional civil liberties have been eroded in recent years.

2) Amongst those concerned about the erosion of civil liberties are quite a few posh people.

3) Therefore, civil liberties are an issue only of concern to the elites and not ‘ordinary people’.

I would have thought the failure to apply elementary logical thinking in this formulation was pretty obvious - yet this is exactly this sort of argument I’m reading on what seems like a daily basis in the blogosphere.

Or it just feels like it. I’m getting a bit fed up with it, to be honest. Apart from anything else, it’s a little selective, isn’t it? The decidedly plummy tones of the New Atheists don’t seem to prompt the same dismissal. Only toffs are concerned about things like the extension in police powers and not ‘ordinary working class people’? I don’t claim to know the background of every blogger or journalist who comes out with this crud but I’ll guess they’re usually the sort of people who have never been arrested for anything except perhaps as a result of a disturbance at some wanky demonstration they attended as a student.

Working class people are more likely to be victims of crime but they’re also more likely to be arrested for them as well. More likely to get a doing in the back of a police van and they’re more likely to end up in prison – convicted and with a longer sentence because they can’t afford a good lawyer. Traditional liberties like the right to silence and trial by jury are – or I should say were – there to check the power of the state against the individual accused, regardless of who they are. It’s just a feature of our class-based society that the accused happen to be disproportionately found amongst the poor and the powerless. Has this really escaped the attention of those who are presently channeling the collective mind of ‘ordinary people’? Or do they think our criminal justice system is presently clogged up with people called Nigel and Samantha?

I could go on in this mode but the fact that this argument is sometimes put forward by bloggers whom I like and respect gives me pause for thought and makes me wonder how on earth left-wingers have allowed themselves to imagine that indulging in apologetics for state-authoritarianism is something worth doing?

I’m not sure but at least part of it has to do with partisanship. Paul Evans wrote a thought-provoking post for Liberal Conspiracy where he argues that it is the slide into a populist form of democracy, rather than individual instances of illiberality, that is the problem. Clearly heavily influenced by the late Bernard Crick, he suggests as an example that the use of referenda - celebrated as expressions of a purer democracy – represents a tendency towards the demagogic simplification of complex political issues and that this almost always produces a more illiberal form of politics.

On these narrow points I have a certain amount of agreement - although I have to say I have no sympathy whatsoever with the attempt to redefine the kind of politics that Crick and Paul favour simply as ‘politics’. This is a fairly shallow linguistic mechanism designed to delegitimise disagreement. If he could see that he is using it in much the same way advocates of referenda use ‘democracy’, perhaps he could be persuaded to drop this unfortunate habit?

But the biggest problem was the failure to ask: why do we have an increasingly populist form of politics? Surely at least part of the answer lies within the New Labour triangulation project? When he was Shadow Home Secretary, Blair used the mantra 'tough on crime – tough on the causes of crime'. But when in power, they soon forgot the 'causes' part and have been mistaking the Daily Mail for the electorate ever since. It is this desire to park their tanks on the Conservatives' lawn that has been the problem – rooted in the replacement of moral socialism with social moralism. And never let it be forgotten that this is the Conservatives' lawn. Who began the erosion of trial by jury; who dispensed with the right to silence; who set the machinery in place for a system of national ID cards?

But it is forgotten. Political opposition is a knee-jerk, ahistorical affair. So the party that brought us the abolition of the GLC, the police brutality of the miners' strike and Clause 24 are trying to pretend that they are the party of freedom. Instead of calling them for the frauds they are, not a few left-wingers have simply allowed them to steal their clothes and have retreated from the cause of liberty – a retreat reinforced by laughter and forgetting.

Blog Archive