Thursday, 15 December 2011

Santa Claus and Animal Cruelty

First, I would like to thank RedNev for standing in for me during my absence. He has hit on some sore political points which will be revisited in the coming year - unfortunately.
Moving on, I wish to revisit my previous criticism of that undeservedly popular figure, Santa Claus. As I pointed out last year, he is in flagrant breach of Health and Safety legislation in this country and should be held to account for it. If this was not bad enough, there is also the matter of his cruelty to animals. It is no secret that his Christmas workload is a heavy one; he has many premises to visit and very little time to do it. However, this does not entitle him to inflict excessive work demands upon dumb animals - i.e. his reindeer. No information is available for how well the reindeer cope with their incredible task on Christmas Eve, but it surely contradicts all Health and Safety legislation regarding animals in the workplace. Why the RSPCA has never taken action is beyond me.
This year, however, something needs to be done. When Santa Claus enters British air space on Christmas Eve, he should be arrested and brought before a magistrate as soon as possible. I suppose that RedNev will say that this will delay Christmas for many children, but the law is the law. There is no place for sentimental excuses. In any case. Santa will probably be let off with a caution and then be free to carry on distributing presents.

Monday, 5 December 2011

More Scottish Nationalist confusion

Strikers marching down
the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
One of Britain's most muddled political parties, the Scottish Nationalists, are giving out mixed messages again:  they say that after independence, they want to form closer links with Scandinavia - there is a report in the Independent here.  This is despite their long-standing policy to retain both the monarchy and the pound.  Either you go for full-blown independence from the rest of the UK, sever all constitutional and monetary links and create partnerships and alliances elsewhere, or you go for the half-way house favoured by the SNP.  The problem with the latter is you'll  be seen as a semi-detached part of the UK and therefore lack the credibility and clout to create much of a mark on the international scene.  There are, of course, other countries which have kept the British monarchy, but they are completely independent in all other respects, including their currencies and economies.

I am dubious about nationalism anyway, as it's a form of politics derived from geography.  The Scots are not a single people:  ethnically they are derived from Picts, Gaels, Norse, Britons (akin to the Welsh), Anglo-Saxons and (after 1066) English.  I would argue that, even today, most Glaswegians have more in common with people in Manchester or Leeds than they do with inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands.  The main unifying feature of the Scottish people collectively is that they live north of the border with England. 

Ordinary Scottish people face the same problems and - I would assert - the same enemies as their English counterparts.  We have all been affected by the recession caused by the greed and incompetence of big bankers; we are all suffering from the effects of minuscule pay rises or pay freezes while inflation is out of control; job losses are devastating communities in England and Wales as well as Scotland.  We are all affected by an economy that squanders scant resources on nuclear weapons and fighting wars for incomprehensible causes while cutting back on essential public services.

This situation isn't new, but the current recession reinforces the fact that that ordinary Britons have more that unites than divides them across national borders.  It demonstrates that, when it comes down to it, we're all cogs in a machine that exists to preserve the privileges of the rich, with their seven-figure bonuses and 50% pay rises.  From this perspective, the border marked by the River Tweed seems much less relevant than the divisions between people who are flourishing in this recession and people who who are suffering.  Identical strikes, marches and rallies took place in towns and cities in England, Scotland and Wales (in alphabetical order) on 30th November to challenge the attacks on the pensions of ordinary working people in the public sector; which nation you lived in was utterly irrelevant on that day.

The SNP's response as as muddled as ever:  the strikes were wrong because the public should have access to services, but they supported the attacks on the UK government's pensions reforms "because the short-term cash grab by the UK government has undermined the opportunity to secure agreement aimed at affordable and sustainable public sector pensions" said John Swinney of the SNP, clearly just using the dispute to have a pop at the Westminster government.  Sorry, John, stop sitting on the fence and recognise that in this situation you can't have opposition without strikes, because negotiations with an outcome predetermined by the London government could never go anywhere.  Unions know that verbal protests and humble petitions in situations like this simply won't work as they've tried them before.  I write this as a former trade union officer for 24 years who spent much of that time as a negotiator:  I can recognise official time-wasting and delaying tactics a mile off, and that is what the unions were facing here.  But the champions of the Scottish people came out sounding just like the Labour Party, their main opponents in Scotland.  When political opponents sound the same, as a voter you are deprived of choice, which is especially odd in Scotland, seeing that the SNP want to create a separate state on the basis of inherent Scottish difference.

The SNP stands for the idea of Scotland based solely on geography.  They seems incapable, just like the main Westminster parties, of discerning the injustices being heaped on ordinary people, wherever they live in the UK.  Except for their desire to make the border between England and Scotland into a national frontier, they are really little different from the London politicians they affect to despise.

I shall write another post shortly on the SNP's confused approach to alcohol control.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Striking for gold-plated peanuts

Pinched from Private Eye
It was announced today that unemployment for young people aged 18 - 24 rose to 1.02 million in the 3 months to September. The total number of unemployed people is the highest since 1994 and the number of women out of work increased by 43,000 to 1.09 million, the highest level since February 1988. It's usually the case that as unemployment rises, industrial action drops, and it's infuriating the government that that pattern doesn't seem to be happening now. Instead the country is facing the possibility of the biggest strike for 80 years on 30 November. How come?

As you'll know, one of the main reasons for the strikes is the attack on public sector pensions, which even BBC journalists have been heard to describe as gold-plated. Employees will be required to work longer and pay more to get less. Is this an injustice? Union members feel angry that the government has reneged on its deal with them, that they are not getting what they have been promised, in some cases over decades. It seems quite reasonable to be angry over broken promises, especially ones with such wide-ranging consequences that will affect their standard of living for the rest of their lives. That sense of injustice must not be underestimated.

To try to get the general public on board, politicians talk about the excellent pensions public sector workers will still have after the changes, especially when compared to the private sector. Let's deal with the private sector first:

Much of the private sector did once have better pensions, often based on final salaries, until the 1980s, until politicians stuck their noses in. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, noted that in the financial boom of the 1980s, pension funds had large surpluses, so he allowed employers to have contribution holidays, which many took up, in some cases not contributing for years on end. Some like Robert Maxwell even stole from their pension funds. That's an extreme example of a view of pension funds as dead money that would be better used for the business, but those who only stopped paying into (as opposed to stealing from) pension funds clearly had the same mindset. What Lawson and the employers chose to forget is something we are all told when we take out an investment - that they can go down as well as up. And so it came to pass - they went down.

The next body blow to private pensions was one of Gordon Brown's first decisions as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was to impose tax upon pension funds which had been previously exempt. These two measures by chancellors from both major parties, accompanied by an economic downturn in which investments weren't performing so well tipped many funds from prosperity in the early 1980s to an inability to meet their responsibilities by the mid-1990s onwards. All caused by a combination of both parties viewing pension funds as cash cows, either for the employers or for the Treasury, and many employers happily along for the ride.

One notable exception from the crisis in private sector pensions is the provision for chief executives and company directors, who looked after themselves by happily awarding each other massive pensions and large pay-offs from final salary schemes that somehow survived the pension crisis, while slashing the schemes for their own workforces. Fred Goodwin's final salary pension from the Royal Bank of Scotland pays him in six days what a retired executive officer (junior manager) in the civil service would receive in a year, providing s/he had completed 40 full years service (no career breaks or periods of part-time working). In contrast, Fred got his pension after 26 years in the industry between qualifying as an accountant in 1983 and retiring at 50 in 2009.

"Excellent public sector pensions."  Having messed up private sector pensions for the workforce (except for the top executives), politicians then turned their attention to public sector pensions. Gold-plated? Judge for yourself: the average civil service pension is £4800 a year, and its local government equivalent is even less. This is what the government wants to cut, and it's hardly surprising that public sector workers oppose having to work longer and pay more to get even less.  Yes, there are some in the public sector who get big pensions: politicians for starters, but also top civil servants (the Sir Humphreys) and local authority chief executives, but these represent a tiny proportion of the public sector and are in no way typical.

Some of the public, taken in by the propaganda about gold-plated pensions, believe that it's about time the feather-bedded public sector faced the real world like the private sector. If you apply that argument across the board, then logically you'd end up in a situation in which no one would get a pension more than the smallest in the private sector, which wouldn't benefit anybody. There is no doubt that private sector pensions have been treated disgracefully by governments and employers, but how does doing the same to the public sector help anyone? Some public sector staff are saying that if these changes are implemented, they will have to drop out of the pension scheme as they can't afford the extra contributions. If this happens, all we'll be doing is setting up a demographic time bomb whereby millions more from both the public and private sectors are forced to rely on state benefits in retirement. In what way is this "living in the real world" and planning sensibly for the nation's future?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Handing Over the Reins

Well, the strain of writing this blog is starting to tell! After continuous outpourings of wit and wisdom, I shall be taking a well-deserved break in the Far East for about a month. Regular readers of this blog will be reassured to know that my place will be taken by none other than RedNev, who I now appoint as Deputy Blogmeister. Nev will continue to run this blog in the spirit of our inspirational forbear, Major John Cartwright.
I shall return in December.
Good luck, Nev!
Good luck, all bloggers!
PS. I was only joking about the strain of writing.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Burning Poppies and the Blame Game

You may remember that last year, at this time, a small group of Islamists called "Muslims Against Crusaders" publicly burned poppies on Remembrance Day. Their leader, Anjem Choudhary, was fined £50. He was on TV last Sunday, announcing his intention to do the same thing this year. As might be expected, this planned gesture has been condemned by just about everybody - not least Muslims.
What I find of interest is that some pundits of the right cannot resist the temptation not just to attack this handful of Jihadi fanatics, but also to attack the Left.One such pundit is one Abhijit Pandya, whose views can be read HERE. Mr Pandya is entitled to his views, and makes some valid points, but he goes seriously off beam when he starts finding culprits for the rise of Islamic militancy. As he sees it, it's all the fault of the Reds:
"In essence, my thesis is as follows: Choudhary and his gang of poppy burners are much more a product (of?) anti-nation thinking that is fundamental to the left's critique of the world than to multiculturalism or failures of immigrant assimilation policy".
Mr Pandya does not sem to inhabit the same planet as the rest of us - either that or he is aiming to mislead people. Islamists loathe the Left (Marxist or non-Marxist) as much as they hate liberal democracy. I've discussed this in previous posts, but it still needs to be pointed out that both Britain and the USA found the Muslim Mujaheddin willing proxies in their battle against the USSR - in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Yet again, I find myself recommending readers to read "Secret Affairs" by Mark Curtis, which details how the UK and USA have worked hand-in-glove with Radical Islam over decades. Might not the present high profile of Jihadi militancy be something to do with encouragement from British governments - Tory and Labour? Don't watch this space. Instead, take a look at the picture below - it shows Muslim volunteers for the Waffen SS. The units to which these men belonged gained a reputation for savagery and fanaticism that rivalled that of their ethnic German counterparts. I would argue that Anjem Choudhary and his band of lunatics have more in common with these men than anyone on the Left. Nor did these SS men represent Islam as a whole - on Remembrance day, let's think of those who gave their lives to defend Britain from Fascism - including many thousands of Muslims from Commonwealth countries. Many Muslims fought and died on our side against Nazism - and Islamofascists like Choudhary, and his spiritual brethren in the Waffen SS.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Slow Death of Local Radio

It made no headlines, but last night on "Folkscene", which is a folk music programme on BBC Radio Merseyside, you would have heard me talking to the host, Geoff Speed, about the cd "The End of the Line". Not heard of it? Well, it's the 9th album of songs and poems written by me, and recorded by various artists. I'm pleased to report that the programme went well, as have the sales of the album - sold out, in fact. In one way, however, it was rather a sad occasion. The BBC, because of cuts to its budget, is planning to axe all its local radio specialist music programmes across the country. When my collaborators and I make album 10, we will have very few folk music radio programmes available that will be prepared to play our cd. And, of course, it won't be just folk music programmes whch will be affected - Blues, Jazz, Country and Gospel music lovers will all see their local programmes disappear. But why?
   Well, the obvious answer is that it is a cost cutting exercise necessary to save public money. The problem that I have with this view is that no figures of how much money will be saved have been published. Besides which, I happen to know that most presenters of such programmes get a very low rate of pay. Many presenters record their programmes at home, and rarely ever set foot in the BBC studios. There could be other factors at work, but I'll discuss those later.
There is no doubt, surely, that the loss of these programmes will deprive local music fans of information about what is happening in their local area. Not only this, but local acts will not get opportunities to be heard by a wider audience. Local radio, in other words, will become a lot less "local", as it will cease to reflect their area's music scene. It may be said that BBC Radio 2 has specialist music programmes, but I know from long experience how difficult it is to get played on national radio - once in 18 years, in my case. The Paul Joneses, Mike Hardings and Bob Harrises of this world are only interested in nationally established artists. It will be left to local commercial radio to pick up the slack - but only if it is profitable. Many commercial stations are not interested.
But what of those "other factors"? Well, I don't claim that there is a conspiracy at work, but both the musical and political establishments stand to gain from the shedding of specialist music programmes by the BBC. Instead, we will have more of the same old stuff that we already get on daytime BBC Radio 2 - and yet more of the manufactured hits from X factor winners and their ilk. Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh, etc, will be laughing all the way to the bank.
As for the political establishment, they stand to gain by shutting down an outlet for dissent. This is not to say that all Blues, Folk, Country artists are politically vocal, but the fact is that these types of music - especially Folk - have always included a radical, politically critical streak. If you listen to most music played on radio nowadays, you'd be hard put to find anything remotely critical politically - it's escapist, if anything. And with the axing of specialist music programmes from local radio, it will become even more escapist. Stalin would undoubtedly have approved.

Monday, 3 October 2011

OFSTED and a Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

Well, those ever-vigilant chaps at OFSTED are at it again - talking about the need for a shake-up in education. It always amuses me to hear this, as they have been saying the same thing for the better part of two decades. As a veteran of numerous inspections by both OFSTED and Her Majesty's Inspectors for Education (HMI), it's my belief that schools, to borrow Elvis' phrase,are "all shook up" already. So what was wrong with all the many thousands of school inspections that OFSTED have carried out in the past?There are two answers to this question - one that will be acceptable to OFSTED and one that definitely won't be - I shall provide the latter.
Nick Glibb, the Schools Minister, says that OFSTED will be concentrating upon things "which really matter". No-one seems to have asked him what they've been doing so far - still less has he asked them. The BBC article states:
"Overall, these new ground rules for inspections show a shift in emphasis from wellbeing issues, such as safeguarding children, community cohesion and healthy living, towards core academic standards."
This gives the impression that OFSTED inspectors have ignored teaching standards and gone around checking alarm systems and locks. This is simply not true, as anyone who works in a school will tell you. Anyway, the OFSTED supremo, Miriam Rosen, declares:
"Inspectors will spend even more time in the classroom observing teaching and learning, with a renewed emphasis on reading and literacy skills."
Parents reading this will no doubt be reassured - but lessons are observed anyway. In my first such inspection, I was observed for six lessons, and at that time, I was not unique in this. Some teachers I know had far more. All this happened when inspections lasted a whole week. The length of inspections has been reduced since, but, in my experience, the number of classroom visits pro rata has not dropped. All this talk of "shake-ups" is happening for another reason - one to which I have alluded before.
It is no coincidence that Nick Glibb and Miriam Rosen are new to their jobs, and want to make names for themselves. UK education is, as I have said before, a political football which is always being kicked around as in need of reform. It never seems to occur to people like Glibb and Rosen that things might improve if there were less shake-ups and schools could get on with teaching.
And there is something else about OFSTED that the general public does not know. This organisation has a habit of moving the goal posts when it comes to assessing the quality of teaching and learning. OFSTED has four "level descriptors": Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory and Inadequate. Well, lessons which may have been classed as Satisfactory by an inspector in one year, can be graded UNsatisfactory after the passage of time. I have been present at a meeting when an adviser has shown a video of a lesson graded Satisfactory in 2000, "but (said the cheery adviser) it wouldn't be now!". At another such meeting, we were told that the OFSTED grade of "Good" is now the new "Satisfactory". OFSTED, it seems, has the power to change the meanings of words, but we were not told what "Satisfactory" now meant. Imagine what would happen if the standards of bricklaying changed in the same way - would a wall that was "satisfactory" in 2005 have to be knocked down in 2011?
So why do they change the standards for lesson assessment? Well, they won't admit this - but I think that OFSTED is being governed by what Durkheim called "the dialectic of ends and means", whereby a means to an end becomes an end in itself. OFSTED inspectors enjoy fat fees and generous expenses.Anyone doubting this should look in  the school car park during an OFSTED inspection - the inspection team always arrive in a fleet of new cars. To justify its existence, OFSTED needs to keep repeating the need for shaking up education. One question - at a time of stringent budget cuts in the public sector, is it not time to shake OFSTED (and Mr Glibb) by the scruff of the neck?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Afghan War, Faith and Statistics

Mark Twain once said:
"Faith is believing what you know ain't so". He had a point, and atheists frequently use this quote when they want to provoke arguments with religious believers. That's not my intention here, however. I quote Twain because it seems to me that our leading poiticians are doing just that - believing in something that they know cannot be true. After ten years of fighting, British party leaders, including our incumbent Prime Minister, still seem to believe that we are accomplishing something worthwhile by fighting the war in Afghanistan. This is either what psychologists call "being in denial" - or simple self-delusion.
There is an abundance of hard facts to show that our miltary effort in Afghanistan is futile. There are the obvious ones, such as:
1. The Taliban is still fighting, and is even able to launch attacks in the Afghan capital without too much trouble. IED attacks are as common as ever.
2. Following on from the point above, there is the painfully inescapable fact that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have actually increased the risk of terrorism around the world. Al-Qaeda may have taken a severe beating, Bin Laden might be dead, but Al-Qaeda imitators, such as the 7/7 bombers and Al-Shabbab, are active in other countries outside Afghanistan.
3. British attempts to hold ground are made untenable because of the simple fact that we do not have enough troops out there to do it, as some US commentators have observed.
4. Civilian casualties, whether caused by ground troops or aircraft, have alienated the local population, driving some of them to support the Taliban.
5. Resources, that could be used to maintain the public sector, which this government is bent on attacking, are being squandered. It has been shown, for example, that one day's war costs as much as it would cost to pay 100, 000 nurses. Here is a short (2.5 minutes) video by Tony Benn which covers this issue:

Now, these are the obvious reasons for describing the Afghan War as futile. You can read them in any "Stop the War" leaflet. But there are others:
1. No-one ever points out that the people of Afghanistan never asked us to help change their society and, like Robespierre said: "No-one loves armed missionaries".
2. The Karzai government is corrupt and only survives thanks to massive infusions of US aid.
3. Even senior US soldiers are now admitting that the military effort in Afghanistan is doomed - SEE HERE
With all these compelling reasons for withdrawal, our leaders persist in asserting the need for combat operations in Afghanistan. I can only conclude that they are motivated by simple, blind faith.
Jesus said (Matthew 17:20) that a little faith could move mountains. Maybe, but there are a lot of mountains in Afghanistan - and I'm not just referring to the physical geography.

Friday, 9 September 2011

9/11 - The Forgotten Victims

The cliche is correct - everyone remembers where they were when they learned of 9/11. I was walking into an Ealing pub after school with a friend who told me how he'd heard that some terrorists in New York had let off a bomb in the World Trade Centre. Once in the pub, we saw it was much worse than that. Like most of the world, all of us in the pub stood and watched the planes crash into the two towers (and their subsequent collapse) over and over again. It was almost as if we were all hypnotised by events. Yet, even at the time, I had the feeling that it was all a monstrously successful "come on" - a provocation.
 Well, as we know, the reaction was not long in coming, and the counterreactions soon happened as well. The USA, rightly incensed at the attack on its territory, set out to thrash Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq - as we know. This, in turn, led to further terrorist attacks such as those in Bali, Madrid and 7/7 in London. Osama Bin Laden is now dead, slain by a small group of elite spooks.But, we know all that, and I don't intend to dwell upon it.
As the 10th anniversary of this appalling atrocity approaches, the focus of America's attention will be upon the memorial service on Sunday, in order to mourn the 3000 dead of 9/11. This is entirely correct, and I certainly would not wish to criticise it. Some people, though, equally correctly, point out that The US and UK "coalition" has killed far more people in Iraq and Afghanistan than the number who perished in New York on 9/11. Wikileaks puts the number as high as 111, 937 Iraqi civilians. According to the Guardian, no-one is keeping a precise count of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. And of course, there will be no service of remembrance for Iraqis and Afghans.
But there is another group of 9/11 victims that no-one sees fit to mention. These are the innocent victims of post-9/11 backlash who felt the anger of people in the USA and the UK. There was the Sikh petrol pump attendant in the USA who was shot dead by a bunch of rednecks because he looked like Osama Bin Laden. A Somali girl in my class at that time told me how her auntie, living in America, had been stoned and chased by a crowd for" looking Muslim".
Over here, a bunch of thugs showed their "solidarity" with the USA by beating up an Afghan taxi driver in Acton, West London. The taxi driver was left paralysed.
A Muslim man, whose own daughter had died on 9/11, was subjected to a racist attack by two girls.
Muslim pupils in UK schools reported numerous cases of bullying and harassment.
There were many such incidents in the UK and the US, and the ugly term "Islamophobia" became a commonly used word in the English language.
It hardly needs to be said that there will be no ceremonies for this group of victims, either.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Riots - Are We Missing Something?

It's hard to believe that a week ago today, we thought Britain was descending into anarchy. The Sun newspaper, last Tuesday, was actually entertaining the idea of using live rounds on rioters. Now, in the aftermath, our political leaders are at loggerheads about how to prevent it happening again. Everyone knows about this, but those who don't, can see the competing arguments of Cameron and Miliband HERE.
Actually, I think this discussion to be a worthwhile idea, and don't want to sound negative about it. From the far political Right to Left, a plethora of explanations and remedies are being explored and touted.
What concerns me is the fact that one very important aspect is being ignored or forgotten. The underlying economic situation, which "everyone knows about", is being left out of the equation. The inescapable truth is that there are simply not enough jobs for young people, and particularly the young people from whom the ranks of the rioters are drawn.
In sociological terms, most of the rioters (not all) come from what we used to call "the unskilled working class". That's when there was work for them, I mean. In 1966, 50% of the UK workforce worked in manufacturing industry; today, the percentage is only 14%. When Mrs Thatcher, with her monetarist fiscal "reforms", practically destroyed British industry in the 1980s, tens of thousands of people found themselves on the scrap heap in Mrs Thatcher's Brave New Britain. The unskilled sector, the people who had done the routine jobs in the factories, were particularly hard hit. Lacking the skills, education (and, let's face it,the will) to adapt to the new service economy, they, and the areas they lived in, stagnated. A new expression was coined - instead of the unskilled working class, the talk was of "the underclass" (an expression revived last week). Many of the youth of this class, as we know, drifted into gangs who blighted their local neighbourhoods in various ways.
I get the impression that our political leaders were happy to live with the problem - provided the gangs stayed out of sight on their "turfs". What no-one expected was for these gangs to bury their differences and go on the rampage, as they did last week. Suddenly - ooops! - we have a major problem to deal with.
The solutions being mooted at the moment, as far as I understand them, are of the "sticking-plaster" or punitive kind: parenting classes; sports training; citizenship education; ending benefit payments - even evictions.
The problem I have with these measures is that they simply will not work if these youths are not placed in well-paid, worthy jobs. What is the point of doing an 8 week course in citizenship (or anything else) if you just end up back on the dole? This idea was tried in the 80s (Who remembers YOPs?)It failed then, and will fail again. I wish I could say that I have the answer, but I haven't. The only idea that occurs to me is to increase the benefits payments to these youths massively - but that would be politically unacceptable.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Riots - the Ulcer Bursts

I took this photo yesterday, while passing down Ealing Broadway. All the shops that I saw to have suffered damage were retailers of consumer "disposables" - like mobile phone stores, shoe shops or fashion retailers, like the one here.

The choice of premises attacked was interesting;_ they were all retailers of fashion accessories, such as mobile phones, trainers, or clothes, such as the store in the photo. All of which sets the present riots apart from those of previous years. Previous riots in Britain have been political in intent (Lewisham, 1977), or over a recognisable grievance (public sector cuts) or a combination of both (The Poll Tax Riots of the 90s).
These riots, I think, are exactly what so many commentators have said already: a massive outburst of criminal activity. I have no intention of reproducing what has been written already - there is an abundance of that, but I would like to express a personal view. My opinion is that these horrendous events are the bursting of an ulcer that has ben building up in our inner cities for some time. A number of national newspapers have been chronicling the rise of gang culture and general anti-social behaviour in Britain for years. The media has highlighted numerous "spasms" of that ulcer, such as senseless murders, violence, drug taking and binge drinking. There has been much condemnation of "Broken Britain" (David Cameron's phrase), but precious little serious analysis of the problem, still less a national strategy to deal with it. And no-one predicted what has happened - the fact that these gangs might resolve their "turf" differences and act together, with devastating consequences.
Already, the blame game has begun ("liberal society"), as well as sensationalist, simplistic (or should it be "simple-minded"?) solutions ("put them in the Army"), coming from the Right, in their posturing, unimaginative way.. The Left, in their posturing, unimaginative way, are starting to regard the riots as some kind of latter-day "Peasants' Revolt", and linking it to cuts in public spending. Both need to wake up to the fact that we now have a national emergency on our hands that needs immediate pragmatic attention.
Instead of employing carrots OR sticks to deal with the problem, I would advocate the use of BOTH. If, as so many right-wing thinkers say, these rioters are a bunch of twisted, psychotic criminals, then we need to find what has made them that way and - very important - how to cure this psychosis and prevent it spreading to younger, potential rioters. The Left needs to recognise that criminal behaviour is just that, and needs to dealt with severely. There is no political motive at work here. As noted, the looting has been of luxury consumables, not necessities. Ordinary people have been attacked, robbed and made homeless by these rioters - hardly an expression of class consciousness. Wherever these rioters have met determined opposition, such as that shown (I think magnificently) by the Turkish/Kurdish community in the East End of London, they have been dispersed and defeated. That wouldn't happen if the rioters were the vanguard of the revolution, as my friends, the Anarchists, seem to think.
In conclusion, I would say that if we think we are having problems now - wait until these rioters have their own children, and see what problems we have then.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Three "Rs" and the Rising Stars of Education

As I have observed before, education in this country is a political football which politicians rediscover and set out to reform periodically, usually at strategic intervals (eg, when facing falling opinion polls), or to enhance their own reputations. Today, the BBC reported the pronouncements of the latest in a long line of such politicians:
"Schools Minister Nick Gibb welcomed the rise in results, especially in writing but he said a third of children were still struggling in the three Rs."
He said: "There has been a decline in the proportion of children - both boys and girls - who can read and write beyond the expected level. And the results of our weakest readers and writers also remain a real concern."
The "results" he is talking about are, of course, SATs results. These have been subject (no pun intended) to withering criticism for years by the leaders of the teacher unions and various educationalists. I totally endorse this view, having seen, at grass roots level, the effect that SATs pressure can have on some parents and children. I know that some 11 year olds are pressurised by ambitious parents into long hours of SATs revision - sometimes for periods of time that would do credit to undergraduates facing their Finals. I have seen young children in tears because they have not got the results they (and their parents) wanted. It has been known even for some children to be threatened with violence, should they not get high grades in their SATs. These tests, in a nutshell, should be abolished completely. They prove nothing of any value; they encourage "teaching to the test", not education; after SATS, year 6 children are as keen on coming to school as GCSE and "A" level students are after their exams (i.e. not at all) - except that the older pupils go on "study leave". Nor are SATs of much value to secondary schools, who implement their own ability tests in Year 7, making SATs results irrelevant.
Mr Gibb (or should it be "Glib"?) seizes upon the fact that many children cannot read and write as well as he would seem to expect. It may be true, but there is nothing new about this. If we look back to 1945 and beyond, we see that there has ALWAYS been a problem with general literacy, and Mr Glib deserves no credit for discovering something well known already. The real reason for this problem lies not in teaching methods, but in attitudes of wide sections of the population towards education - in particular, the hostile attitude of many in the white working class - the lowest attaining educational grouping. In my opinion, those negative attitudes need to be tackled root and branch, rather than making a few cosmetic changes in order to score political points over rival parties.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Norway's Agony

So, now Norway, one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the world -seemingly, at least - is  afflicted by mass terrorist slaughter. Understandably enough, we all thought it was the work of Al-Qaeda or even agents of The Mad Colonel (Gaddafi) at first. Commentators (on the BBC at least) seemed shocked to learn that intead of the perpetrator being an Arabic Muslim fanatic, he is a Norwegian Christian fanatic -or  more accurately, a local extreme right wing terrorist.
I won't go into details of the event, which are appearing in every media outlet today and can be read HERE.
What I'd like point out is the fact that European neo-Nazis are not so different from Islamic Jihadi terrorists as might be believed. There are, of course, obvious differences: Islamic terrorists, unlike fascist terrorists, are not racist. Anyone can be a Jihadi, whatever their racial origin. Also, there is the faith aspect - Jihadis kill in the name of their faith in Allah, while neo-Nazis usually, but not always, kill in the name of racial supremacy, and have no religious motivation.
Nevertheless, there ARE similarities:
1. They both hate liberal democracy and freedom of speech.
2. They both want to establish totalitarian states (Jihadis call it a "caliphate")
3. They both want to turn back the clock on women's rights.
4. They both persecute homosexuals (despite many of their number being gay)
5. They are both rabidly anti-semitic (although Jihadis try to disguise it by saying they are "anti-zionist")
6. They both are willing to employ terrorist tactics and kill indiscriminately.
We must not make the mistake of thinking that Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian arrested for yeterday's massacre, is an isolated case. Let's not forget David John Copeland, who carried out several bombing attacks in London in 1999. Copeland was no Jihadi, either, but, like Breivik, a right-wing extremist.
In short, when it comes to opposing terrorism, we must not be blind in the right eye.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

"It's No Sacrifice" at the News of the World

I know there are some people who welcome the demise of the News of the World (NoW) for the right reasons: ie, it is a scandal sheet that has indulged in illegal phone hacking, crude sexual sensationalism and various types of privacy invasion. Again, there are those who welcome its passing for the wrong reasons - these are the wrongdoers and criminals who have been exposed by its investigations. I don't want to get into that debate, but there is another issue here which I find disturbing and downright sinister. The fact is that a very rich man has the power to kill a newspaper at will - and has done so. If any more reason were needed to prevent Rupert Murdoch from getting control of BSkyB, this exercise in megalomania is another one.
For, let's not be naive - "The Dirty Digger", as "Private Eye" calls Murdoch, is not axing the NoW because he is embarrassed by the antics of some of its former journalists. If he felt any shame in that regard, he would have closed the paper down years ago. No, he has only leapt into action after large firms have announced their withdrawal of advertising from the NoW, making it unprofitable. Money, not morals, move Rupert Murdoch. If he cared for people's feelings at all, he'd think of the journalists about to lose their jobs at the NoW. They face what is euphemistically called "an uncertain future", while the Dirty Digger remains a rich and powerful media mogul. Terminating a long-established newspaper is no sacrifice for him; he's got so many more, in many countries.
I hope that I speak for all trade unionists in what I say now. If I could address the assembled staff at the NoW (which, of course, I can't), I'd say: "As one trade unionist to others, I extend my sympathy at the loss of your employment. I do hope you soon find work elsewhere, and that you will not forget your treatment at the hands of News International. If any of you ever write about industrial matters, such as the cuts in public expenditure, I hope you will write with more sympathy for ordinary workers who are struggling to keep their jobs, and understand that they, like you, are subject to the same callous treatment that you have received from the barbarians who run News International".
I wonder what reception I'd get?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

An Olympic Confession

I feel slightly guilty to say this, but I'm one of the fortunate minority of applicants for Olympics tickets who actually succeeded in buying any. Not that I spent as much as I thought - I applied for £750 worth of tickets, but only managed to get £128 worth (including postage). Had I managed to acquire all the tickets I wanted, I would have about 24 for my wife and myself. As it is, I will be getting just four for two events - one for badminton and the other for tennis. Neither event is a final - they are both just qualifying rounds. Still, I'm not complaining. According to news reports, two thirds of applicants failed to get any tickets at all, including Boris Johnson (there is some justice, after all). I suppose the situation was not helped by the fact that so many tickets were bought up by big firms as freebies for staff and clients. One report said that two thirds of the seats to watch the 100 metres final were "corporate tickets". All of which raises the question: just who are these Olympics for ? After all, it is the UK taxpayer who is footing the bill. I accept that there were always going to be losers, but there must have been a better way of selling the tickets. I'm glad that I'll get to see live Olympic events, but, if the organisation of the games themselves is of the same quality as the selling of the tickets, I might not consider myself to be so fortunate after all.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Arise, Sir Chris!

Like all teachers who remember Chris Woodhead's tenure as Chief Inspector of OFSTED, I was astounded at the news that he is to become a peer of the realm.
When he was the top banana at OFSTED, Sir Chris made the claim that there were 15 000 "incompetent teachers" in the UK. The right-wing press eagerly seized upon this figure, without questioning it; it gave them another excuse for "teacher-bashing". The fact is, however, that Sir Chris never provided any evidence for this astonishing claim, nor did he describe the methodology which he used to arrive at his conclusion. Personally, I always thought that this reflected upon Woodhead's competence, not 15 000 unnamed teachers.
He has also made the claim recently that middle-class children are more intelligent than working class kids - SEE HERE. Once again, Sir Chris fails to provide conclusive evidence for his views, although the claim should provide good publicity for his latest book,"The Desolation of Learning". He also fails to account for social mobility - the fact that people can change classes, if not their genes.
Now, as might be expected, his views on education were very welcome to the Conservative Party -which explains why he became one of their educational advisers after leaving OFSTED. As Francis Beckett said of "Woody" back in 1999:

"The things he is certain about tended to be the sort of things the Tory government wanted to hear: phonics good, real books bad; whole-class teaching good, group work bad; didactic teaching good, child-centred teaching bad; and so on. He rightly complains about the way British education debate divides into two armed camps, one of them arbitrarily marked "right wing", the other "left wing". Yet he has firmly dug himself into the trenches on the side marked "right wing".
Times don't change. Damian Thomson wrote in his Daily Telegraph blog in 2009:
"He (Woodhead) went too soon, though it’s amazing that he stayed at all under a Labour government whose client state is heavily populated by crap teachers. Do you think grade inflation would be tolerated if there wasn’t an unspoken contract between Labour and the teachers who benefit most from it, ie the worst ones?"
Now - you couldn't get the wrong idea about Sir Chris's political bias from that, could you?
However, much as I oppose and condemn his views on education, I have to say that I do feel sorry for Sir Chris. He has Motor Neurone Disease, and it is severe. So severe, in fact, that he is considering suicide - SEE HERE. In his own words:
"I am clear in my own mind that it is better to end it than continue a life that is extremely frustrating for me and onerous to others who are involved with me," he (Woodhead) said. "I certainly feel that the quality of one's life is more important than its quantity."
I sympathise with Sir Chris in his plight, but, as he ponders his fate, perhaps he will feel some retrospective sympathy for the late Keith Waller, Janet Watson, Jed Holmes and all the other teachers who took their own lives because of pressure brought upon them by OFSTED.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Ratko Mladic - Should He be Tried Alone?

First, I would like to say that I have no sympathy for Ratkan Mladic. He has an appalling record, for which he is justly facing eleven charges - SEE HERE. The Srebrenica massacre, which he oversaw, claimed 8000 lives, and he richly deserves to be brought to trial.
But there are certain aspects of this case that make me feel uneasy. The Mladic trial reminds me of the trial of Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Hoss had overseen the murder of about 1 000 000 people during his reign as camp commandant, a number that dwarfs the number killed by Mladic's merry men. At the end of the war, Hoss was captured, put on trial and hanged at the scene of his crimes - in the camp itself. A Polish survivor of the camp later spoke of his disappointment that only one man had been executed for the murder of so many. He was right - about 8000 to 10 000 men and women had "worked" at Auschwitz. Following the hanging of Hoss, no more than 2 000 Auschwitz "staff" were ever tracked down and punished. This was not an isolated case - many, if not most, SS and Gestapo operatives involved in The Final Solution were never brought to justice - SEE HERE.
That's my first point. Mladic did not act alone, even if he was in charge. Why are his subordinates- the men who relayed his orders and the men who pulled the triggers- not on trial? To use that dreary Marxist term - this appears to be "tokenism".
Next - let's cast our minds back to the European tribal war of the 90s - aka the breakup of Yugoslavia. We have forgotten how NATO planes bombed Serbian targets in the Spring of 1999, even though it was pretty controversial at the time. No wonder. The bombing struck at Serbia not just militarily, but hit a good many civilian targets. The campaign was supposed to protect the Kosovo non-Serbs from the Serbs and (Tony Blair's words) "prevent an impending humanitarian disaster".
So we were told. In fact the NATO bombing made the situation worse. The actual "ethnic cleansing" only began after the bombing, not before. Who will stand trial for this error of judgement?
NATO violated international law on numerous occasions during the campaign. The UN Security Council's permission is needed to launch miltary action. It was not even requested. The bombing also broke NATO Treaty Article 5, which states that force can only be used in self-defence. Again - where is the trial being held for this?
According to Human Rights Watch, 500 Serbian civilians died during the bombing, and a number of civilian targets were hit, including hospitals, schools and Serbian Radio and Television buildings in Belgrade. Amnesty International said at the time:
"NATO forces violated the laws of war leading to cases of unlawful killings of civilians".
Thousands of unexploded NATO bombs litter the Serbian countryside to this day.
I repeat - I approve the arraignment of Mladic - but should he be tried alone?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Youth Unemployment - at Home and Abroad

As I type, thousands of young protesters are camping out in Madrid to demonstrate their anger at Spain's appalling rate of youth unemployment, which stands at 45%. The protest, thankfully, has been peaceful so far, but needs to be taken seriously, not just by the Spanish government, but by all societies, including our own. The picture in the UK is almost as bad; recent news reports show that graduate unemployment in the UK is very high - the highest for 15 years. Official figures point to the fact that 20% of graduates were unemployed in late 2010 and data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that more than 45 students could be applying for each graduate job in 2011.
The inevitable official response will be that this is all a consequence of the international recession and we'll just have to live with it. There will, however, be other consequences, and they need to be thought about carefully.
The most obvious consequence will be the waste of human resources. Having so many intelligent people on the dole is not going to help us out of the recession. Far from it - we need them in work to help us OUT of this dire economic situation.
Another effect will be to push graduates into work for which they are over-qualified. You don't need a B.A. in Medieval Studies to serve burgers at Macdonalds, and is another example of how human resources can be wasted. But this will have an impact in another unwelcome way. The more graduates pushed into unskilled work will lead to less job opportunities for non-graduate young people,even  more of whom will be unemployed.
There will be knock-on effects throughout the education system, also. Young people will be questioning the need to go into Higher Education (I'm told that many are doing so already). The universities themselves will be adversely affected by a reduction in student numbers. Many degree courses and even departments may need to close.
It will also have a negative impact on schools. After all, if there's no point in taking a degree, why work hard at "A" levels or GCSEs? Hopefully, that level of demoralisation will not set in anywhere, but if it does, well, here's a story...
Some years ago, back in the so-called Thatcherite boom years, I met a secondary school teacher who'd moved from London to the West Country. Having taught in some tough schools in South London, she thought she'd seen everything. She was wrong. She found that for young people in the town she lived in, there were only three career choices: university, the armed forces or the dole. In this woman's own words:
"I had far worse discipline problems than ever I had in London".
Is this to be the future?

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Looking Back on the 7/7 Bombings

I shall never forget the morning of 8th July, 2005. Like many Londoners, I woke with a sense of shock at what had happened the day before. At that stage, I wasn't fully aware of just how much devastation had been caused. I only knew that people had died, the Tube system had been attacked and it looked as if Al-Qaeda was behind it. I hate to admit it, but the first thought that came into my head as I walked to the Tube station to get to work was to wonder how long it was going to take. I immediately reproached myself for that passing attack of selfishness, when I remembered that an unknown number of my fellow Londoners were lying in hospital wishing that they could be on their way to work as normal - and for some, there would be no journey to work ever again.
Having thus chastened myself, I rode the tube, feeling somewhat apprehensive. Ludicrous though it may sound now, while riding in that ominously empty tube carriage, I felt that I was in a city at war. After all, at that time, there seemed to be a possibility of further attacks - perhaps that day. Then something remarkable happened. I looked up at one of the adverts and saw a picture of Winston Churchill making the V for Victory sign as part of an advert for the anniversary of VE Day. Somehow, a feeling of calm came over me, with a determination to carry on as normal.
When I arrived at my destination - Alperton Station, on the Piccadilly Line - I stood on the deserted platform with mixed emotions. A line from "September, 1939" by W. H. Auden came into my mind, seemingly very appropriate for a day when it felt like war had been declared:
"Uncertain and afraid".
Well, I'd felt like that all right. I felt relieved to have arrived safely, and somewhat shamefaced at having been so nervous. As I left the station, my thoughts turned again to the victims - wounded and dead. An idea for a poem by way of tribute came into my mind, and I wrote it that night, including Auden's line.
The Coroner's verdict at the inquest is well enough known, and can be read about HERE. I have nothing to add to that. I can only offer my poem as a tribute to my fellow Tube travellers who died so tragically on 7/7:
(July 8th, 2005)

I stood on Alperton Station,
“Uncertain and afraid”
Of sudden, unseen terror –
My train was undelayed.

I left the silent platform
To start my working day,
When, on the darkened staircase,
A young girl barred my way.

She shimmered like the summer dawn.
“Please stay, my friend”, she said.
Her face was bright with metal shards
That garlanded her head.

“For you still have the working day,
The breakfast and the train,
The coffee break, the journey home
That I won’t make again.

My laughter lit the London skies;
I loved, and I was loved.
I filled a hole in many hearts
Till Hate had me removed.

If you’re in town at Christmas –
A time that I won’t see –
Please find my favourite wine bar
And raise one glass for me”.

Before I spoke – she vanished.
I slumped against a wall,
Shivered like a windblown leaf
And hoped I’d dreamed it all.

I walked from Alperton Station
And wondered what was real –
So glad for hands that trembled,
So glad for nerves that feel.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Osama Bin Laden - His "Achievements"

I must admit, I thought Bin Laden would never be caught. In fact, I didn't even think that he was alive. Well, now he is dead and everyone from President Obama to the relatives of those killed on 9/11 is jubilant. The USA is justifiably proud of the achievement of their Special Forces. This stands as an example of how to deal with a terrorist threat - good intelligence work, meticulous planning and the expertise of an elite military group.
And yet - there are a number of questions that need answering. Why, for instance, were the Pakistani authorities not informed? After all, Bin Laden was hiding on their territory. The answer would appear to be that Pakistani Intelligence (the ISI) have close links with the Taliban. In fact, they helped to create the Taliban after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and, according to some reports, some ISI elements still have those links.
Since he was located and eliminated by a small group of spooks, why was it necessary to invade Iraq and Afghanistan with huge conventional forces? In fact, the invasion of Iraq now seems to be even more pointless. Nor was he found in war-torn Afghanistan, where he was supposed to be based, protected by the Taliban.
We are told that the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden, but a number of commentators, including Mark Curtis and Michael Moore, claim that the Taliban (and others) DID offer to hand over Bin Laden before 9/11. In 1995, the Sudanese government offered to extradite him, but the offer was refused. Michael Moore gives details of three offers to hand over Bin Laden before and after 9/11:

"They [the Taliban] were saying, 'Do something to help us give
him up.'" – Milton Bearden, former CIA station chief who
ran war against Soviets in Afghanistan

September 21, 2001
U.S. refused to provide evidence of bin Laden's guilt, rejected recommendation
by Afghan clerics that Taliban tell bin Laden to leave Afghanistan

October 14, 2001
Bush rejected Taliban offer to turn bin Laden over to
neutral third country for trial "

Which leads me to what I meant by Bin Laden's "achievements". I am, of course, being somewhat ironic, but from his point of view, he achieved a great deal. He:

1. Successfully organised a major terrorist attack against the USA.

2. Provoked two massively unpopular and costly invasions of two countries by the USA and its allies, causing death, destruction and misery on a horrendous scale. These wars have done untold damage to the invading countries' prestige and their economies.

3. The invasions that Bin Laden provoked have led to further terrorist attacks, such as those in Bali, Madrid and London (7/7)

4. Some commentators have said that Al-Qaeda planned 9/11 because they were failing in their efforts to create a mass Jihadi movement. Bin Laden did not manage that, either, but the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have created groups that are similar to Al-Qaeda, who will carry on the fight.

5. Lastly - now that the raison d'etre for the "War on Terror" has been eliminated - is it not time for all UK and US troops to go home? That probably won't happen, but it certainly calls for a radical re-assessment of aims and tactics.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Royal Wedding - the Losers

I'd like to say this: I'm quite looking forward to the Royal Wedding on Friday. Foremost among my reasons for this is the fact that, along with everyone else, I'll get an extra Bank Holiday. I shall always think kindly of  William and Kate for that. Then, of course, there will be the entertaining spectacle of the guests - famous and not-so-famous - who will be parading for the cameras. The wedding ceremony itself will be deeply affecting for very many people, and the makers of Kleenex tissues will be delighted at the thought of all their products being used to mop tearful eyes during the wedding vows.
There will, of course, be people who feel let down, excluded and alienated from the whole thing. No, I'm not going to do the familiar Leftie thing about the homeless and the unemployed. Nor will I issue dire Rightie warnings about Anarchists, Muslim extremists and Damned Bolshies.
Instead, I'll focus upon two men who have really lost out - Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Both these ex-PMs have not been invited to the Royal Wedding. One can only imagine their feelings. After all they have done to help the Establishment, this is the thanks they get! Without Tony, we might never have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without Gordon, the economy might have gone into free fall and (let's not forget) another PM might have been a lot harsher on the bankers who have caused this recession in the first place. It really is so unfair.
Never mind, To and Gord - now you know where you stand with the people you did so much to please, you can still have a day off to watch telly like the rest of us.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

"The Trouble With Education"...Again

Education in the UK has been a political football for years. Both Labour and Conservatives have attacked each other's education policies while in opposition, while making what appear to be sweeping changes when in power. Whether it's Tony Blair with his "Education, education, education" mantra, or John Major with his "Back to Basics" campaign, all politicians with an interest in education declare their intention to sort out the problems they see in Britain's schools once and for all. It has been a recurring theme at Tory and Labour Party conferences for decades. And yet, in today's Daily Mail, we read:
"Despite a doubling of spending on education since 2000, from £35.8billion to £71billion, Britain has plummeted down world rankings, according to the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
During this period the UK slipped from eighth to 28th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science. It is now behind relatively poor nations such as Estonia, Poland and Slovakia."

Read more (if you can stand it) at:

As a teacher for 30 years, I am gripped by a sense of dejavu yet again. Back in the 1980s, before the Thatcher Government introduced the first ponderous (and horrendous) National Curriculum, the Government was quoting statistics that proved British children to be performing poorly in science tests compared to Japanese children. The National Curriculum that followed was an expensive, unworkable flop, with about 14 folders on every subject. They were later replaced by a single folder, but that did not prevent many hard-working and dedicated teachers ruining their health in trying to make Mrs Thatcher's folly work.
The Major years saw the creation (some would say "job creation") of OFSTED, which was supposed to be the instrument to galvanise schools into raising their standards. It certainly led to a good deal of pressure upon schools to do well in OFSTED inspections. For some teachers, as I have said before, the pressure was so intense that they committed suicide.
There have been many initiatives since, such as the Numeracy and Literacy Hours, the introduction and (optional) abolition of SATs testing and "Every Child Matters". All these schemes were usually preceded by a barrage of statistics such as the ones given above. So, there is nothing new about the "worrying" statistics in today's "Mail"; it is probably a sign that the ConDems are planning another "initiative". In the film "Apocalypse Now", the Martin Sheen character says:
"In Viet-Nam, the bullshit piled up so fast, you needed wings to stay above it".
Although we would put it in more restrained (and constrained) language, that sums up the view of many who work at the chalk face in education.
I have no access to statistics by way of confirmation, but I believe these observations of mine to be true:
1. British primary school children are not as good at Kendo as their counterparts in Japan.
2. London schoolchildren are years behind in the learning of French compared to school students in Paris.
3. Italian children are better at making pasta than British OFSTED inspectors.
4. British politicians are as adept and unscrupulous in their  use of statistics as politicians everywhere else.
I was once described as an "old cynic" by a Headteacher. Let my answer to that person be my last words here:
"There's only one thing wrong in being a cynic about education - I'm always right".

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Self-Righteous Indignation: the Daily Mail, Mrs Thatcher and Terrorism

The Daily Mail is incandescent with (self) righteous indignation. "Our Man in Washington Helped With Gaddafi's Son's "Dodgy" PhD", says the banner headline on today's edition. Sir Nigel Sheinwald, our ambassador in the USA and "a key confidant of Tony Blair", is alleged to have given tutorial support to Saif Gaddafi when The Mad Colonel's son was a postgraduate student at the LSE. It seems to have helped, because Gaddafi Junior graduated with a PhD in Philosophy in 2008. This is, claims theMail's leader writer, Michael Seamark, "...further evidence of the close links between the Blair government and the Libyan tyrant's murderous regime".
Well, I'm no fan of the Colonel, and I'm aware of the fact that a number of UK universities have received funds from Gaddafi in the past, but the high moral tone of this article is too much to take.
It may be that Blair and his cronies tried cosying up to the Libyan dictator, but the ex-PM, Mrs Thatcher, much revered by the Mail, kept some unsavoury company as well.
Back in the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the USA and Britain were covertly arming the Afghan resistance - the Mujahadeen - one of the Mujahadeen commanders receiving assistance was a man called Hadji Abdul Haq. He wasn't the only one , of course, but what made Haq special was his readiness to use terrorism. In September, 1984, Haq's men set off a bomb at Kabul Airport, which killed 28 innocent people. Most of the victims were students, waiting for a flight to the Soviet Union. In March 1986, Haq was welcomed to Britain by Mrs Thatcher and later went on to visit President Reagan.Facing his critics in London, Haq said that the bomb outrage was "to warn people not to send their children to the Soviet Union". A Downing Street official said that the PM had "...a degree of sympathy with the Afghan people".
Exactly how much sympathy Mrs Thatcher had for the relatives of the 28 dead at Kabul Airport is not recorded.
I often wonder what the reaction of our press would have been if 9/11 or 7/7 had happened in the USSR in the 1980s. I very much doubt that there would have been any sympathy for the victims in papers like the Mail. As far as I'm concerned, helping with a dodgy PhD is a good deal less reprehensible than wining and dining a terrorist and a murderer. Still, as Mrs T and the Mail would no doubt say: Haq was our terrorist and our murderer.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Eyewitness: the London Anti-Cuts March

After such a dramatic-sounding title, and the images that are all over today's newspapers and TV reports, I have to say that I was on the anti-cuts demo yesterday, and enjoyed a noisy, but good natured, slow walk through central London. With friends, I arrived at the Embankment tube station at exactly 11.00am, and we reached Hyde Park at about 4.00pm. The only anxiety of the day for us came when my friend's wife became separated from us for a short while, only to rejoin us happily, having been following a very lively steel band. I hadn't been on a demo for years, and it was exhilarating to walk down Whitehall in the company of thousands (no-one knows exactly how many). It took some time to pass through Trafalgar Square, but we were entertained by one marcher who climbed one of the statues and put a Unison jacket on the rider of  a horse.
In Piccadilly, we saw the signs of the violence that the media is focussing upon today. Bad as it was, and as frightening as it must have been at the time of the violence, many marchers walked by without seeming to notice. Apart from the damage to the Ritz, which was considerable, the rest seemed to amount to no mare than a few splashes of paint on walls. The action was over long before we got there. We arrived at Hyde Park at about 4pm, only to find that all the speakers had spoken and gone home. This was a flat end to what had been a lively day. It was quite a disappointment - and a missed opportunity for the Labour Party. Had Labour politicians appeared at staggered intervals, they would have got their message across far better.
As for the Anarchists and the subsequent evening violence, I can only say that I saw it coming. Without their acts of "propaganda by deed" (PBD), no-one would notice them, and it was obvious that they were not going to miss this opportunity. Near Temple Underground Station, I saw some of them wearing facemasks and carrying Anarcho-Syndicalist flags (the Anarchist flag is black) as we waited to join the main march, and wondered when they would kick off into action. I watched for them all along the route of the demo, but they never seemed to have enough troops to attack anywhere. I'm no psychic, but I guessed that they'd start something serious later - possibly after the main march dispersed. It looks as if I was right.
Sky News last night gave extensive coverage to the violence - more or less non-stop, all evening. Today's papers are showing lurid pictures of the action and no doubt have printed equally lurid articles. All I can say - and so will most of us who marched in London yesterday - is that we must not be tarred with the red and  black anarchist brush.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Private Eye, Posterity and the Verdict of History

When History pronounces its verdict upon Colonel Gaddafi, it will have a bewildering assortment of comments about him to choose from. One US President (Ronald Reagan, 1986) described him as "flaky" (ie, mad), while others have described him as "..a great guy believing in God" (Mohammed al-Fayed). Private Eye recently pointed out that in 2009, the UK sent an SAS team to train the Libyan armed forces. The Foreign Office (FO) said that this was: "...ongoing co-operation with Libya in the field of defence". Two years later, the government sent SAS teams to rescue UK citizens from what the FO calls: "...human rights violations by the Libyan authorities".
All this, of course, is as a result of trying to win the Colonel over to "our" side. This is the man whose regime supplied the IRA with arms, blew up an aircraft over Scotland and whose embassy staff shot dead a London policewoman in broad daylight. All pretty sickening, really.
Anyway, now it looks as if the UK and other countries are riding to the rescue of the Libyan rebels. While the concern of western governments for the fate of the Libyan people may be seen (not least by themselves) as commendable, one does wonder why no such military support has been given to the people of Zimbabwe. It is also remarkable that no support, moral or material, has been given to the protesting people of Bahrain, Syria or Yemen.
One TV pundit said today that Al-Qaeda has been strangely quiet throughout the recent events in the Middle East. I do not find it strange. I'm no expert, but I believe that Al-Qaeda will be watching the Libyan situation very carefully. They are probably waiting for the victory of one side or the other. When the outcome is decided, they will join in - on the side of the losers. If Gaddafi loses, he has said that he is prepared to ally with Al-Qaeda; if he wins, they will exploit the bitterness and anger of the anti-Gaddafi rebels against the West, who will be seen as having abandoned them.
Gaddafi has been panned for saying that Al-Qaeda is behind the Libyan Uprising, but there are some facts here that are worth considering. It is not generally known, but Libya was the first country to ask for an Interpol arrest warrant to arrest Osama Bin Laden - in 1998. Yet, according to Mark Curtis in "Secret Affairs", US and UK intelligence "buried the arrest warrant". It seems that this was because MI6 had been involved in a failed plot to assassinate Gaddafi with an Al-Qaeda affiliate group called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Five months after the arrest warrant was issued, Al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Africa.
Posterity, like John Osborne and Oasis, will look back in anger - and much disgust.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Gaddafi, Hague, and an Unthinkable Conversation

The Libyan Civil War is starting to resemble the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in a number of significant ways. Both started with a popular uprising which seemed to promise a people's victory. Both saw untrained militias going bravely into action against a better armed and militarily experienced enemy. We all know what happened to the Spanish Republicans and it looks as if the Libyan rebels are starting to face a similar fate. The superior weaponry and tactics of Gaddafi's forces are beginning to tell.
If The Mad Colonel ( as "Private Eye" calls him) is victorious in this conflict, he will doubtless come to resemble Franco in the treatment of his defeated enemies. I don't often agree with John Major, the ex-PM, but Major is right when he says that Gaddafi will exact a savage revenge on every former enemy that he can capture alive.
If Gaddafi wins, there will also be a lot of fence-mending (ie. grovelling) by western politicians who have supported the uprising and condemned The Mad Colonel. A fly on the wall at a (hopefully unthinkable!) meeting between Gaddafi and William Hague might hear this:
Hague:" Er, well, Colonel, I must apologise for my somewhat intemperate comments during the recent difficulties...."
Gaddafi: "Let bygones be bygones. The training you gave our military and the weapons you sold us were a great help".
Hague: "Speaking of which, Your Excellency, I do have a catalogue of our most up to date riot control vehicles..."
Gaddafi: "Thankyou. Business as usual, then?"
Even a fly on a wall would be sickened at this!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Mervyn King and the Internationale

Well, the top people are beginning to take a more realistic view of our present economic ills. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has said:
"The price of the financial crisis is being borne by people who did absolutely nothing to cause it."
The people referred to here, which is most of us, have known this for some time, but I suppose it's better late than never. He even went on to say that he was:
  "...surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has".
Mr King should not be surprised; the real cuts have not been implemented yet. Those of us who work in the public sector are bracing ourselves for the massive cuts that are promised at the start of the new fiscal year. This melancholy event is only a few weeks away.
The magazine "Money Week", which claims to have seen the credit crunch coming, says that 2011 will see a further fall in house prices and, following the rise in interest rates, a corresponding increase in repossessions and homelessness. It advises all its readers with money invested in property to buy gold instead. As very few of us are in that happy position, we could well see the explosion in public anger that Mervyn King speaks about. The tuition fees riots that we have already seen show that people still are capable of anger at the failings of the system. Worse could be on the way.
I have forgotten the words of "The Internationale"; I really must look for them...

Friday, 25 February 2011

The Revolution, Wordsworth and Gil Scott Heron

As the revolution in Libya and across the Middle East heats up by the hour, it's worth standing back and making some cool observations. Contrary to what Gil Scott Heron once sang, the revolution is being televised. It's also being reported round the clock by the internet, Twitter and mobile phone. I can honestly say that I have seen more images of Libya in the past few weeks than I have in the 40 years of Gaddafi being in power. Unlike previous revolutions( the American, French, Russian, Iranian, Velvet, etc), modern technology gives us a ring side seat to the making of history.
One wonders what Wordsworth would have made of it? He, of course, hailed the French Revolution with the famous line:
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive".
Wordsworth was in France at the time and felt so blissful that he made a French girl pregnant. In later life, he moved politically to the Right and bought shares in railways - but he never forgot his enthusiasm for 1789.
No-one outside Libya seems to feel much bliss for their revolution. All the non-Libyan faces we see on TV have an unmistakable look of concern and worry. There are the relatives of UK nationals trapped in Libya - and their anxiety is easily understandable. There are also the worried faces of our leading politicians - and I think that their worries are founded on more than humanitarian concerns.
They are, of course, worried about the possible outcome of events. There is the possibility of Islamists coming to power in Libya and elsewhere. Failing that, they must be aware that the Libyans fighting Gaddafi feel some bitterness towards the west. One Libyan said on TV:
"All the western countries care about is oil"
Many seem to feel that not enough has been done by western countries to help them by pressurising Gaddafi. They are also aware that Gaddafi's forces have much weaponry supplied by the west - especially from Britain. As they will no doubt see it, international condemnation of Gaddafi has only become vocal now that he is so obviously losing the fight to stay in power. A future Libyan government might not forget this.
Things were so much easier in Wordsworth's day - he didn't have up to date news from Paris. Things were so much simpler.
 An updated version of his famous line might be:
"Stressed is it in this dawn to be alive".

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Red Faces - Left and Right

As the reports come in from Libya and Bahrain about how anti-government demonstrators are being shot down ( 200 reported dead in Libya), it occurs to me that a great number of people on the left and right should, if they have any shame, be highly embarrassed by events in the Middle East.
We never hear much nowadays about the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). In the 1970s, even people on the Far Left thought of them as a bunch of sectarian lunatics. They were most well known for the fact that Vanessa and Corin Redgrave were leading members. Less well known was the fact that they were vocal supporters of Colonel Gaddafi's Libya. I cannot be bothered to look at their website, but I hope that the WRP are withdrawing their support for the Bloody Colonel (are those pigs I see, flying in formation over London?).
It also needs to be noted that many MPs, of all parties, have had junkets to Libya and enjoyed the Colonel's hospitality. Western politicians must be hoping that if the Colonel is toppled, whatever government replaces him won't be too piqued at the fact that the West was becoming very friendly with their erstwhile leader.
Who knows? Maybe the Colonel and his followers will seek sanctuary here in the UK? As the Vietnamese say: "Only when the house is on fire do you see the faces of the rats".

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Egyptian Revolution and a Book Recommendation

The Chinese statesman, Chou En-Lai, is reported as having said:
"The significance of the French Revolution? -- too early to tell." 
If that's true of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, then it is certainly true of the Egyptian Revolution, which is happening as I type. I wish the Egyptian people well - I hope that they achieve the freedom for which so many have struggled so valiantly and in pursuit of which, many people have died. It has been truly inspiring to watch the crowds in Tahrir Square and listen to them articulate their hopes and dreams for the future of Egypt. It shows once again that "people power" can still overturn tyrants and lead to a new dawn for democracy.
There have,of course, been voices expressing disquiet about events in Egypt. Some commentators have pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic body, are waiting in the wings for their opportuntiy to seize power. 
At this point, I would like to refer readers to a book called "Secret Affairs - Britain's Collusion With Radical Islam" by Mark Curtis. It is a fascinating book to read, and there is insufficient space here to give much detail, as it goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. Enough then, is to say that there is a startling and shocking fact on practically every page. The book paints a grim picture of how successive British governments have used Jihadist groups against political leaders and regimes they disliked at the time, despite the fact that these same Jihadist groups weren't too fond of Britain, either. Curtis claims that Britain's policies (and those of the USA) have helped to create the Jihadi terror threat we face today.
In the case of Egypt, he details how British policy makers secretly conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood to assassinate President Nasser in the 1950s. This continued until a more pro-Western regime came to power in Egypt in the early 1970s, when all connections were severed with the Brotherhood.
No wonder some people listen to the victorious chants of the crowds in Tahrir Square with apprehension; they dread hearing the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Pensions, the Public Sector and Cuts-A-Go-Go

With retirement looming, I wrote to my local MP expressing my concern about the switch from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This is a matter of concern for teachers like myself and all public sector workers, whether retired or not. I didn't expect much in the way of a result from writing my letter, but the reply ran into two sides of A4. My MP began by saying that the priority was to reduce the national deficit. Taxpayers' money goes to enhance public sector pensions and "This cannot continue to be justified..." (i.e. we can't afford it). She went on to say:
"...Lord Hutton highlighted the importance of the public sector to the health of our society...Public sector pensions serve as a reward for public service".
I am sure that many public sector workers, already retired, would say that their pension isn't much of a reward for years of dedicated service, but there are serious issues to be dealt with here.
Commenting on the review, Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), and no Bolshevik, said it was more "spin and myths" about public sector pensions.
She added: "It's total rubbish as usual. The average pension paid to a retired teacher is £9,000 a year, and £4,000 for a teaching assistant, which is far from gold-plated luxury as Lord Hutton agreed. All teachers contribute to their pensions and they are all in the same Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS) - there are no "special" pension schemes for those in the top jobs, unlike the private sector, and the scheme's rules prevent anyone benefiting from large salary increases in their final few years."
Quite so, and I'm sure that colleagues in other branches of the public sector would agree that the image portrayed in the media of we over-subsidised public sector workers retiring on a taxpayer funded pot of gold is an outrageous myth. It also fails to take into account the fact that we also are taxpayers. Politicians of all parties should remember that we are voters too...

Sunday, 30 January 2011

President Obama - Not What Was Said On the Tin?

Personally, I quite like President Obama. He seems a lot more genuine than most politicians, and being the first black president of the USA is surely a significant step forward for humanity? He has also, seemingly, tried very hard to improve the lot of the ordinary people of America. Mind you, I'm a bit vague on that score. I hope I never have to answer a quiz question on the subject.
It comes as a surprise to learn that, in some significant ways, he has shown himself to be not quite the shining liberal light I thought he'd be. For example, before he was elected President, gun owners in the US were buying up guns by the truckload. It seems that they thought Obama would impose severe firearms legislation - but that hasn't happened. Not only are guns still freely on sale, but President Obama has allowed firearms to be carried openly in America's National Parks. Mind you, Obama could argue that this is being liberal - for gun owners.
There is also the equally lethal issue of the War on Terror. President Obama gave the impression that the miltary adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan were abhorrent, and should be ended as soon as possible. Instead, he has sanctioned the biggest Military Spending budget ever anywhere. This has led John Pilger to comment:
"... many Americans actually believed Obama shared their opposition to Bush’s wars. In fact, he had repeatedly backed Bush’s warmongering and its congressional funding."
He has also continued America's unconditional support for Israel, and assured Cuban exiles that he will continue to impose the US trade embargo on Cuba.
This is not quite what was expected. Still, we in Britain should now be used to politicians who make promises before being elected to power, then fail to keep them when elected.
I wonder if Obama has ever met Nick Clegg?

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Where are All the Protest Songs?

In an interview found in "The Guardian" on the 11th January, Bily Bragg laments the dearth of protest songs, given the credit crunch and the Afghan War. He says:
"When I was first plying my trade, people were willing to talk about these issues. Now they'd rather write about getting blasted than changing the world".
For the most part, I agree, although there may be an unwelcome explanation for this. One explanation is simple political apathy, caused by the fact that most people feel that they can have no real influence upon events, whatever they do. After all, runs this line of reasoning, 1000, 000 people demonstrated in London before the start of the Iraq War, and it didn't stop the invasion.
There is also the age issue. I have not encountered the argument that protest songs are "old hat", belong in the past and are for the older generation, but I am sure that this attitude does exist.
Lastly, there is the argument that people like the anodyne pop songs of today because they provide them with an escape from reality. There might be some point to this. In the 1930s, when war loomed, people loved some of the most trivial, escapist music imaginable. How else can we explain the popularity of Gracie Fields and George Formby?
Some would argue that protest songs are a waste of time, pointing to the anti-war songs of John Lennon as an example. Yoko Ono is on record as saying that Lennon really believed that songs such as "Give Peace a Chance" and "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" could change the world and end all war. Ah, say the cynics, such naivety!
As someone who has penned a few polemical verses himself, I find this last point of view the most inaccurate. Songs of themselves change nothing; people do that. But a song can inspire and help to unite people in a common purpose, raising our spirits and pointing us towards the ideals we strive for (I think Lennon would have agreed). We may yet see peace marchers singing "Give Peace a Chance" again, and student anti-cuts marchers lifting their spirits with a chorus of "We Shall Overcome". Deep in my heart, I do believe...