Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Layer 108 Three Wise Men, The End of an Era, and Moving On

Three Wise Men

I think I have to take issue with at least one of Jackie Ashley’s conclusions in the Guardian yesterday. Her column was headed, “In terms of spreading values, Mitchell mattered most”.

This may be true insofar as Adrian Mitchell was not only far more prolific than his more famous contemporaries who also died recently - Pinter and Crick - and in terms of a creative output that was seen, heard and enjoyed by the masses, so to speak, but he was also a performer who loved connecting directly with audiences and giving his words and poetry the oomph that can only come from hearing its author declaim it aloud.

Mitchell was on the college and pub circuit back in the sixties, and I heard him many times, along with people like Paul Foot who could also bring laughter to any audience by speaking satirically and wittily about politics and current affairs. I loved these guys, who could both write and speak brilliantly, and do it with passion and humour. They had voices that told it like they really meant it, and indeed they did. As Ms Ashley says, we shan’t see their like again.

I loved the cleverness of these guys - the sense that they saw the big picture and could articulate what the rest of us saw and felt, and then some, and do it in a way that gave wings to our rage and our passion for change, for reshaping and ordering the world differently.

Jackie Ashley says we’ve had plenty of cleverness, but I’m not so sure. You can never have too much of real intelligence, real wisdom, real enlightenment. I don’t think we’ve had nearly enough of it. Cleverness in this sense should be a term of approbation. When Ian Dury said, “There ain’t half been some clever bastards”, he wasn’t being ironic - he appreciated genuine genius.

I know what she means, though. There are plenty of conservatives, for example, who have done well academically and can appear well-informed, on top of their subject and brilliantly analytical. But their world view is just plain wrong because it’s built on false premises. And they’re usually not capable of an original or creative thought.

I don’t know much about Bernard Crick, though I do have a copy of his biography of George Orwell. I’ve already admitted to not having read or seen enough of Pinter’s output. Even so, it’s clear that these guys were libertarians, humanitarians and socialists, even if they were in some ways remote and austere as far as the (wo)man in the street’s concerned, assuming (s)he’s even aware of them. It’s probably not fair to imply they were lacking in ‘heart’.

Ms Ashley is right, though, to point out that what the world needs is more ‘heart’- meaning, as far as I can see, more passion, more of the ability to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve - meaning more courage to speak out openly for one’s values, for one’s core beliefs, to give vent to one’s disgust with the way things are when we see so much injustice, inequality, ignorance, violence and exploitation. We also have to be able to argue for our beliefs, and to do it engagingly, with wit and originality, in language that’s accessible and transparent. Currently our education system doesn’t equip young people to do any of this.

So yes, our Jackie, we do need more people who can spread the word, with passion, conviction and humour, about values and how to make a better world. But first we have to start producing such people, which means completely changing the way schools and colleges are organised, the way that learning takes place, and the way the curriculum is determined.

If we do that then we may not produce any more of those who are truly gifted, but we’ll at least enable more of our children to fulfil their potential to be self-confident, articulate human beings who know how to speak in their own genuine voices, with ideas that are truly their own and not the product of brainwashing that teaches them to accept the status quo through not giving them the language and the ideas to think critically about values, about politics and about life.

Interesting, by the way, that Mitchell, Crick and Pinter were born within three years of one another, 1929 - 31.


The Schlock Doctrine Update

I learnt today from Seamus Milne’s column that Israel’s attack on Gaza, according to the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, was a “stroke of brilliance”. And why was this? Because “the element of surprise increased the number of people who were killed”.

And the daily Ma’ariv obviously agreed, saying “We left them in shock and awe”.

Milne reminds us that there has been no western denunciation of the slaughter that’s going on because such aerial destruction has been routinely carried out by the US and the UK in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The attitude is clearly that Hamas and the Palestinians of Gaza are themselves responsible for what’s been inflicted on them. Obviously they had it coming to them, on account of the fact that over the past seven years 14 Israelis have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza, with, as previously noted, just one of those deaths occurring during the past six months during the ‘ceasefire’.

During this period 5,000 Palestinians were killed by Israel using “some of the most advanced US-supplied armaments in the world”, according to Milne, who also points out that 45 Palestinians have died this year alone in the West Bank, killed by Israeli firepower in spite of no rockets whatsoever being fired by Palestinians from that area.

Once upon a time American governments would have got hold of the Israeli leadership, sat them down and said, “Listen guys, this bullying and killing is not going to get you anywhere. Either sit down with your enemies and work something out, find a two-state solution that you can settle for, even if it means giving back the West Bank land you’ve stolen, or else we’ll stop sending you weapons and shedloads of money and you can just deal with it on your own.”

Unfortunately that kind of aproach doesn't sit well with an American government that's notorious for an approach to international affairs that's based on bullying and killing.

Ever since the neo-conservatives have been in power in Washington - roughly from the onset of the Reagan era - a rational, reasonable and enlightened approach to Israel hasn’t happened for the simple reason that those power-crazed Bible-bashing boys and gals sincerely believe that the US has the right to be the world’s only superpower, and that it’s will can be enforced around the world down the barrel of a gun, if necessary, and that capitalism’s destiny is to erase from the planet all competing ideologies, including religions that are in competition, as it were, with the approved Judeo-Christian varieties that are dominant in the US. Any beliefs that are not derived from the Bible, in other words, have to be ignored, marginalised and bashed, very hard indeed whenever deemed 'fundamentalist'.

It’s suited the US hawks and neo-cons very nicely that similar nutters have been elected in Israel, on the very same ticket - that might is right, that their particular God is almighty, and that one’s will shall be done, thanks to Stealth aircraft, unmanned drones, satellite imaging, cruise missiles, Apache gunships, computer-guided weaponry, etc. Such people need a state of perpetual war to achieve their political ends, and also because perpetual war makes for very big profits for the manufacturers of arms, and indeed for the Haliburtons and Blackwaters and their shareholders, who service and support the war machine.

Obama has the somewhat difficult task, therefore, of sweeping aside the Shock Doctrine, and replacing it with more civilised approaches to problem-solving and crisis resolution. Hilary, bless her, whose husband managed to do fuck all to ditch the Shock Doctrine or curb the excesses of voracious disaster capitalism, will be the one doing the globetrotting on Obama’s behalf. It’s going to be interesting.


White Cat Update

The cat is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s an ex-cat. It’s gone to meet its maker.

It passed away peacefully in its sleep. When I came down in the morning it was still in its basket by the radiator, still in the position it had been in for the previous 24 hours, but no longer breathing.

It’s the first time I’ve watched any warm-blooded creature dying. In truth, it was a good death. It happened exactly the same way my ex-wife described what had happened to our favourite cat, dear Booda, all those years ago. Loss of interest in eating, sleeping virtually all day and night, followed by drinking less and less, and then complete inability to move around, even to get up to go to the litter tray.

Today my daughter came round to see the cat one last time, took a photo of her motionless pure-white form, and shed some tears. She was no doubt thinking about all the times they’d played together, and slept together.

She was the only one who really had positive feelings for the pathetic, fearful, irritating little overbred brainless wretch. But that’s my daughter in a nutshell - tough as nails on the outside, and with a heart of gold and immense caring and concern for all creatures great and small, especially the weak and the helpless.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Layer 107 Shock and Awe, and the Shock Doctrine

The ITN reporter actually used the phrase, when reporting on the continuing Israeli air attacks on Gaza this morning - “shock and awe”. Blasting the shit out of Baghdad using ‘shock and awe’ tactics was assumed to be a good thing, We’re therefore encouraged to believe that the people of Gaza had it coming to them. 240 targets were said to have been hit in the first hour of ‘operations’, which have now been going on for four days.

By this morning more than 300 people were said to have died, with more than 1,000 seriously injured. Mortuaries are filled and hospitals unable to cope, given the shortage of drugs and equipment brought about by the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has been turned into what is essentially a massive prison camp.

The people of Gaza clearly made the ‘wrong’ choice when they voted Hamas into power, to be their government, and they must continue to suffer the consequences . . .

The deputy Israeli ambassador to Britain was on R4 Today, speaking about the situation, in a voice whose tone and delivery were bordering on hysterical, clearly in the grip of a shedload of destructive emotions.

Yesterday’s Observer reported Gordon Brown as expressing “deep concern”. He apparently said the only way to reach a lasting solution was through peaceful means, no doubt recalling events in Northern Ireland.

"I understand the Israeli government's sense of obligation to its population. Israel needs to meet its humanitarian obligations, act in a way to further the long-term vision of a two-state solution, and do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties," he said.

In other words, Israel is not meeting its humanitarian obligations, is not acting in a way to further long-term solutions, and is not trying to avoid civilian casualties.

Our Foreign Secretary has at least condemned the Israeli action on the grounds that it’s disproportionate and it will fuel Palestinian militancy. But disproportionality is what ‘shock and awe’ is all about. And perpetual war is what keeps American funds flowing into Israel.

In order to remain financially and politically viable, and remain in power, the Israeli hawks need to maintain the status quo whereby their people are perceived to be seriously threatened by Hamas, amongst others, and require political leaders who are prepared to use shock and awe tactics, and so on.

The Guardian editorial , meanwhile, says that this carnage is being inflicted on Gaza “in reply to hundreds of rockets from Hamas militants which have killed one Israeli in six months”.

The editorial ends by saying, “Shock and awe, Israeli-style, have done nothing more than paralyse the very processes which both Israelis and Palestinians need in order to survive in peace”.

Precisely. That’s what it’s meant to do.


The Shock Doctrine

I’ve now read the first six chapters of Naomi Klein’s masterpiece, and I’m awe-struck by her ability to write such a well-researched narrative that puts so much of the history of the world since the sixties into proper perspective.

I thought I was reasonably well-informed, and had a pretty in-depth knowledge about Friedmanite (‘Chicago-School’) economics, CIA involvement in the military juntas that crushed democracy in places like Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia, and the spread of ‘globalisation’, but clearly I didn’t understand the half of it.

Her introductory chapter is called “Three Decades of Erasing and Remaking the World”, and this is clearly what went on, thanks to tens of millions of US dollars being channelled through the CIA in order to subvert and overthrow, in the first instance, democratically elected governments in South America and Indonesia that were successfully implementing economic and social policies that benefitted their people but displeased the US government and US corporations with huge financial interests in the region.

As far as the CIA were concerned, they were fighting the spread of socialism and communism, ‘by whatever means necessary’.

Also in this chapter Klein describes the way in which big business saw the New Orleans disaster as “an exciting business opportunity”- since the shock of what had happened enabled the authorities to replace huge areas of social housing with middle class apartment blocks, and enabled the business community to cash in on huge construction projects, including rebuilding and renovating schools, business premises, public buildings, etc.

“One of those who saw opportunity in the floodwaters of New Orleans was Milton Friedman, grand guru of unfettered capitalism and the man credited with writing the rulebook for the contemporary, hypermobile global economy.”

Three quotes from the people of New Orleans:

“I don’t see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn’t have died.”

(Levees had not been repaired and upgraded. There weren’t enough evacuation buses.)

“What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?”

“No, they’re not blind, they’re evil. They see just fine.”


Evil seems a pretty good description.

“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back on line, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4. Before that storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its 4,700 members had all been fired. Some of the younger teachers had been rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.”

“I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism’.”

“Friedman first learned how to exploit a large-scale shock or crisis in the mid-seventies, when he acted as adviser to the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. Not only were Chileans in a state of shock following Pinochet’s violent coup, but the country was also traumatised by severe hyperinflation. Friedman advised Pinochet to impose a rapid-fire transformation of the economy - tax cuts, free trade, privatised services, cuts to social spending, and deregulation. Eventually, Chileans even saw their public schools replaced with voucher-funded private ones. It was the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere, and it became known as a “Chicago School” revolution, since so many of Pinochet’s economists had studied under Friedman at the University of Chicago. Friedman predicted that the speed, suddenness and scope of the economic shifts would provoke psychological reactions in the public that “facilitate the adjustment”. He coined a phrase for this painful tactic: economic “shock treatment”. In the decades since, whenever governments have imposed sweeping free-market programmes, the all-at-once shock treatment, or “shock therapy”, has been the method of choice.

Pinochet also facilitated the adjustment with his own shock treatments; these were performed in the regime’s many torture cells, inflicted on the writhing bodies of those deemed most likely to stand in the way of the capitalist transformation.

Exactly thirty years after these distinct forms of shock descended on Chile, the formula re-emerged, with far greater violence, in Iraq. First came the war, designed, according to the authors of the Shock and Awe military doctrine, to “control the adversary’s will, perceptions, and understanding and literally make an adversary impotent to act or react”. Next came the radical economic shock therapy, imposed, while the country was still in flames, by the US chief envoy, L. Paul Bremer - mass privatisation, complete free trade, a 15 percent flat tax, a dramatically downsized government. . . . When Iraqis resisted, they were rounded up and taken to jails where bodies and minds were met with more shocks, these ones distinctly less metaphorical.”

September 11 appeared to have provided Washington with the green light to stop asking countries if they wanted the US version of “free trade and democracy” and to start imposing it with Shock and Awe military force.

As I dug deeper into the history of how this market model had swept the globe, however, I discovered that the idea of exploiting crisis and disaster has been the modus operandi of Milton Friedman’s movement from the very beginning - this fundamentalist form of capitalism has always needed disaster to advance.

It was certainly the case that the facilitating disasters were getting bigger and more shocking, but what was happening in Iraq and New Orleans was not a new, post-September 11 invention. Rather, these bold experiments in crisis exploitation were the culmination of three decades of strict adherence to the shock doctrine.

The Falklands War in 1982 served a similar purpose for Margaret Thatcher in the UK: the disorder and nationalist excitement resulting from the war allowed her to use tremendous force to crush the striking coal miners and to launch the first privatisation frenzy in a Western democracy.

When the September 11 attacks hit, the White House was packed with Friedman’s disciples, including his close friend Donald Rumsfeld. The Bush team seized the moment of collective vertigo with chilling speed . . . seized upon the fear generated by the attacks not only to launch the “War on Terror” but to ensure that it is an almost completely for-profit venture, a booming new industry that breathed new life into the faltering US economy.

The ultimate goal for the corporations at the centre of the [disaster capitalism] complex is to bring the model of for-profit government, which advances so rapidly in extraordinary circumstances, into the ordinary and day-to-day functioning of the state - in effect, to privatise the government.

To kick-start the disaster capitalism complex, the Bush administration outsourced, with no public debate, many of the most sensitive and core functions of government - from providing health care to soldiers, to interrogating prisoners, to gathering and “data-mining” information on all of us.


More on interrogation techniques in the next blog.


"What of the contemporary crusade to liberate world markets? The coups, wars and slaughters to install and maintain pro-corporate regimes have never been treated as capitalist crimes but have instead been written off as the excesses of over-zealous dictators, as hot fronts of the Cold War, and now of the War on Terror. If the most committed opponents of the corporatist economic model are systematically eliminated, whether in Argentina in the seventies or in Iraq today, that suppression is explained as part of the dirty fight against Communism or terrorism - almost never as the fight for the advancement of pure capitalism."


"This book is a challenge to the central and most cherished claim in the official story - that the triumph of deregulated capitalism has been born of freedom, that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy. Instead, I will show that this fundamentalist form of capitalism has consistently been midwifed by the most brutal forms of coercion, inflicted on the collective body politic as well as on countless individual bodies. The history of the free market - better understood as the rise of corporatism - was written in shocks."


“The bankers responsible must be held to account.”

Will Hutton was in good form, writing in yesterday’s Observer:

Could there be a greater corporate disaster in British history than the humbling of the Royal Bank of Scotland? Without £20bn of taxpayer support, the bank, with assets of £1.7 trillion, more than Britain's GDP, would now be bankrupt. Its mutation from bank to de facto giant hedge fund, cheerleader for casino capitalism with a portfolio of £500bn in derivatives and £100bn of takeovers in its wake, perfectly sums up our times.

The financial wreckage it has induced explains why the wider economy is in such trouble. There were many other asinine banks, but RBS was leader of the pack. News that it had lent the hedge funds of the now disgraced American fraudster Bernie Madoff £400m with insufficient due diligence was symptomatic of the failure of every aspect of RBS's corporate strategy.

Sir Fred Goodwin, the now deposed CEO, and his team should be asked hard questions by both shareholders and the police. So should the outgoing management at sister Scottish bank HBOS, whose incompetence rivals Goodwin's. The former RBS chief has rightly been dubbed the world's worst banker by Slate magazine's Daniel Gross.


Labour's philosophy in favour of government activism, never wholly abandoned, was right for new times. It could not be clearer that markets were inefficient, made horrendous mistakes and needed governments; the philosophy that argued otherwise was bust. The public noticed and Labour's opinion poll ratings climbed out of the abyss.

The criticism of Brown and Darling should be not that they are Keynesian, it is that they are not radically Keynesian enough. They only understood the severity of the crisis too late, disbelieving that markets could make such enormous mistakes. They were too slow to nationalise Northern Rock. They should have introduced the package of schemes to make lending less risky not next month but last spring, as I and others argued. They have allowed the governor of the Bank of England to be too conservative and restrictive on the terms the Bank supplies cash. They have not urged police investigations into senior bankers, so vital for our collective sense that justice is being done, nor quickly introduced the tougher regulatory regime for which many seasoned bankers (privately) beg. They do not propose root-and-branch reform of the City. The terms of the bank rescue plan were far too penal. As a result, Britain is much less well placed than it should be.

If the government moves to radical Keynesianism - reconstructing and restructuring the financial system - it is possible that it might avert the need for [printing] money. It needs to develop policies that will assure us all that capitalism will be arranged more fairly in future. That would be crucial to lifting depressed expectations. There are many civil servants and senior financiers who are desperate that we are still in mainstream Keynesianism, however well-intentioned and even aggressive it is. This is a time for outside-the-box thinking.

For in one respect, the arguments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury are right. People everywhere are taking stock. The last decade and its values have ended in disaster, in potential depression. Everybody knows that we cannot go back. The bankers responsible must be held to account. Capitalism has to be done differently, both here and abroad. It has to be fairer. It has to comprehend that enterprise is a collective as much as an individual endeavour. It cannot just be based on "fairy money". Recovery will require radical Keynesianism. It also needs a moral vision.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Layer 106 Survivors, Syndicates, and a Couple of Cohens.

Survivors I

There was a feature on the news last week about a school for kids who’d been considered unteachable, and were being offered an alternative curriculum and different approaches to learning.

There was a clip of one of their outings, with kids walking in the sun across a broad expanse of sands. A very pensive looking girl, walking on her own, said to the interviewer, “It gives you time to think. Too much time to think!”

How incredible is that - we deprive these kids of the very thing they need most - time to unwind in silence, and be alone with their thoughts. The kids themselves know how important this is to them - and how scary it can be. All the same they see its value and its importance. Walking meditation. Spiritual growth.


Survivors II

‘Survivors’ came to the end of its run this week. Not a great series, but some interesting ideas. Not least, the notion of different groups of people forming after an annihilation and breakdown of society, in order to support one another and aid one another’s survival.

Naturally there’s someone who’s bent on establishing some overall ‘government’, and insists that the various groups (syndicates) accept the non-mandated authority of the so-called government.

She insists the individual groups must relinquish their autonomy and accept the will of the ‘government’, since ‘the alternative’ will be ‘anarchy and disorder’.

And here we have it - the old mantra which associates anarchy with disorder and chaos. Anarcho-syndicalism can’t be allowed to be put into practice, because it’s TOO democratic, it allows people TOO much freedom, and TOO much direct engagement with the running of their local affairs.

There’s always someone - in fact hundreds of individuals - who think they know best, and their ideas and preferences alone ought to decide what happens throughout regions, and whole countries.

The British political classes hate the idea of a Federal Europe, because it would dilute the absolute power of whoever controls Parliament. They know that the Establishment will always be in command in this country for as long as we have our quaint little elective dictatorship, with absolute Prime Ministerial power lightly and discretely hidden by the fig leaf of monarchy.

Most European states remain steadfastly Social Democratic in their approach to social welfare, industrial and commercial policy, etc, even under the supposedly right-wing governments of Merkel and Sarkozy. Under New Labour this country has remained steadfastly Thatcherite and Neo-Conservative.

My programme for change would be:

a) More local autonomy through syndicalism
b) More Parliamentary democracy through proportional representation, more small parties, and syndicalism
c) More European democracy through Federalism, which is a form of syndicalism
d) A World Council of the United Nations to ensure a Federal planet, run on principles of social and economic justice, peace, health and prosperity for all.


‘A Christmas Carol’ is a brilliant piece of work, but too often its message is taken to mean simply that we should be generous at Christmas time.

Whereas, it’s a far more radical critique of society. In the words of the young Ebenezer Scrooge’s sweetheart, who has fallen out of love with him - “One master passion engulfs you - MONEY! May you be happy in the life you’ve chosen!”

A Tale of Two Cohens

1) Hallelujah

Long-time Len lovers* don’t actually give a damn about what non-Len lovers think about him and his music.

(*Let’s not call ourselves ‘fans’. Len himself speaks to us as ‘friends’. McCain tried that approach at his rallies, but it didn’t sound right coming from ‘that one’ - the Great White Hope. When Len says it you know he means it. “I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.”)

Lovers of Len never consider his music gloomy or depressing. We love the fact that it contains elements of sadness and melancholy, as well as sublime spiritual joy. Because that’s the way life is.

We love the fact that Len, like any true artist, deals with relationships, the human condition, and our inner worlds AS THEY REALLY ARE - not as we might like them to be in our dreams and fantasies.

Joy and sadness, laughter and misery, achievement and failure, justice and injustice, make up the yin and yang, the warp and weft of the universe.

The Buddha’s smile, like Len’s, is the outward manifestation of the inner state of satori, or bliss, that is attained by those who see life for what it truly is, and still believe that life is worthwhile and sublime, whilst acknowledging that it’s also absurd and paradoxical.

This is clearly not the smile of the nihilist or the cynic. Or, for that matter, the romantic or the religious.

Taoism and Buddhism seek truth through philosophy and science, in contrast to the religions, which depend on ‘revelations’ by Gods and prophets. The scientific truth about matter and spirit is that these two are one and the same thing, both part of the same continuum, and that pure energy, like electricity, depends upon oscillating currents, alternately negatively and positively charged, for its very existence.

Too much ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ energy and it simply goes off the scale, and ceases to exist. The flow of life, like water, cannot tolerate extremes. When water becomes vapour or ice then it’s no longer water, as such. There’s a fairly narrow temperature range within which it can continue to flow.

If human beings could accumulate nothing but positive energy then essentially we would just vaporise. The accumulation of nothing but negative energy leads to rigidification and rigor mortis.

Laughter and melancholy are two sides of the same coin. The artist and the poet know this, and smile, and say Hallelujah.

2) Tesco

Jack Cohen opened his very first market stall in Well Street, Hackney. Some years later he built a large Tesco store at the top of the market. I sometimes wonder what his motives were for doing that. Were his experiences as a market trader:

a) so bad that he came to hate market traders and resolved to wipe them out?

b) so good that he resolved to be a provider of quality food and goods for even the poorest communities at prices they could afford, i.e. rock bottom.

On Christmas Eve I was passing by Well Street and went into Tesco to do last-minute shopping. It was an interesting experience. There was no chaos, or disorder, or aggression, or unpleasantness of any kind. People were quiet, calm, considerate, and helpful.

We often focus on the negative behaviour we see in our cities, but it’s amazing really how much spiritual composure and emotional intelligence most people, especially the poorest and most hard-pressed, possess.

Which goes to show that you don’t have to be wealthy in order to be a warm, generous, highly evolved human being. What’s more, being extremely wealthy can be an impediment to the development of high levels of emotional and social intelligence. It can cut you off from others, as Scrooge was to discover.

Sometimes when you live cheek by jowel with others, and have to rely on the kindness of strangers, you learn quicker about human values. WE culture perhaps is more liable to produce better human beings than ME culture.

Perhaps you also find, in a supermarket in places like Well Street, more of the kind of people who, out and about dutifully shopping for families and partners, are the ones who provide and nurture, who take care of others, who have learnt and practiced empathy, self-restraint, ego-control and emotional intelligence.

How’s it go again? Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth . . .

Merry Christmas, and Hallelujah.


And looking ahead to 2009, Peter Preston in the Guardian at last has something interesting to say:

“How do we Brits . . . manage without Jon Stewart’s Daily Show around voting time?”

He makes the point that we need a daily comic commentary - but who’ll be brave enough to start one?

“It could be C4. It ought to be BBC2, because the Beeb will need to be brave as Mr Brown’s big moment arrives And who - no mimic, but a sharp-elbowed comedian - could play master of the revels?”

I think Jon Stewart is possibly unique, and a real treasure. A British Daily Show might need a team effort, something like The Now Show and featuring Jeremy Hardy, Ian Hislop, Paul Merton, Andy Hamilton, Russell Brand, etc.


Harold Pinter

One of Britain’s national treasures - Harold Pinter - died this week. Michael Billington wrote a masterly 2-page obituary in The Guardian. A Hackney lad made good, he possibly did some shopping in Well Street market.

I can’t say I know his work intimately, though I well remember going to see No Man’s Land at the National in either ’75 or ’76, with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud performing at their peak. It’s maybe time to get down to reading his plays.

His main concerns overall seemed to be human relationships, emotional illiteracy, sexuality, power, politics, human rights, injustice and dissidence. He himself was a lifelong dissident.

It was brilliant that he won the Nobel Prize. The obituary’s well worth a read.


The Shock Doctrine

News today that all of Gaza’s mortuaries have been filled with over 200 dead as a result of Israeli air attacks. No doubt we’ll find out in due course how many Israelis have recently been killed by Palestinian rockets, but I’d guess the 200 amounts to slightly more than an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

This morning I started reading Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’, subtitled The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This doctrine is basically the doctrine of the bully and the over-mighty.

Rolling Stone magazine said, “Anyone who wants to understand how the world really works should read it immediately”.

Dow Jones Business News said, “You must read what may be the most important book on economics in the twenty-first century”.

The New York Observer called it “her compelling study of the dark heart of capitalism”.

Johann Hari said in the New Statesman said, “this brilliant book should stir a tsunami of shame - and of political action”.

Tim Robbins said, “It could very well prove a catalyst, a watershed, a tipping point.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Layer 105 More Gore; Guthrie, the R word, and Zen

I’ve been neglecting Zen recently, so this being Christmas and all, it’s time to get back to it.

One of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited is Mount Koya [Koya-San - Mr Koya] in Japan. Beginning with a single monastery in the year 819, the Buddhist community on Mount Koya (in central Honshu) grew and spread into a fantastic agglomeration of temples and monasteries.

Considering that Buddhism is a philosophy and a way of life that advocates individuals looking within for truth and enlightenment, it might be asked why on earth so many Buddhists would want or need to gather together in one place.

It seems logical to me to consider that Buddhism is a kind of anarcho-syndicalism in practice - where individuals reject the notion of a ‘god’ and some higher external authority, they take responsibility for their own individual decisions and actions, but they find it useful and practical to band together in sects or syndicates to develop and pursue their various beliefs, teachings, rituals, etc.

There’s also a security and self-defence aspect. Living on a semi-remote mountain, or for that matter, within any walled and gated community, would provide some degree of safety, in times that could be hazardous and perilous.

Anarchists and Buddhists are essentially non-violent, peaceful individuals, who reject the idea of aggression and harming others. They even reject the notion of harming animals, insects, etc. However, when it comes to self-defence, Buddhists developed the martial arts, which have a very spiritual basis and can never be used for aggression and domination, if you’re a true Buddhist.

Clearly it makes sense in certain circumstances to join with one’s fellows in order to provide protection against bands of lawless and dangerous outlaws. Hence the need for syndicates. It makes a lot of sense for individuals to learn the principles and practices of Buddhist philosophy together in groups, under the tutelage of spiritual leaders, and it makes sense for those who have graduated to work together in groups to spread their philosophy.

It was very interesting this year to witness the mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks and nuns in both Burma and Tibet as they attempted to shame the authorities into allowing them more freedom and civil rights. These mass movements, or attempts at revolution, if you will, remained peaceful and orderly - at least on the side of the Buddhists.

They may not have reached their objectives by such methods, but they were very effective in calling attention to their grievances and raising consciousness. But the revolution must be peaceful, otherwise it is gained by illegitimate means. True anarchists have the same beliefs and practices - they do not seek to impose their beliefs on others, and they refuse to bow to the beliefs of others. An anarcho-syndicalist believes in bonding and peaceful association with like-minded others, not the violent overthrow of a system.

In the USA this year a mass movement was mobilized to support a peaceful revolution that was led by Barack Obama. People who had never joined a political party, and often never even voted before, got together to raise funds, raise awareness, and ensure that the masses voted against the Republican movement that has done so much to damage and destroy peace and wellbeing in the world.

Obama’s peaceful revolution has been an astonishing event. Virtually no-one had previously believed that a black man with obviously liberal views, who had voted against the invasion of Iraq and denounced the notion of a ‘war on terror’, could possibly be elected in a brainwashed and propagandized America. But it happened. So the people weren’t so brainwashed after all. There’s hope, after all. We’ll soon see what it all really means in practice.


The word ‘gore’ interests me. Collins says it may be derived from the Old English ‘gar’, meaning spear. But the definitions are all to do with blood and violent stabbing. And yet Gore Vidal chose it for his first name, probably for his own sardonic and amused reasons, as discussed in the last blog - because he liked the play on (Russian) words, as well as the link with his family.

The first time I stopped to think about ‘gore’ as a concept was when Arlo Guthrie, son of the great Woody, working class hero and inspirer of Bob Dylan, used it in his track ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ back in the 60’s. The track he recorded is really a monologue about how he was called up to serve as a soldier in Viet-Nam and how he went about being interviewed for the draft.

I walked in and sat down and they gave me a piece of paper which said, "Kid, see the psychiatrist, room 604."

And I went up there, I said, "Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I
wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and
guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill,
KILL, KILL." And I started jumpin up and down yelling, "KILL, KILL," and
he started jumpin up and down with me and we was both jumping up and down
yelling, "KILL, KILL." And the sargent came over, pinned a medal on me,
sent me down the hall, said, "You're our boy."

Didn't feel too good about it.

To find out how the story ends visit:



Last Word on God

This is just to mention that last week the Today programme on Radio 4 had someone doing Thought For The Day who talked about the need for religion to act as a corrective to people’s tendency to self-delusion, when they become too full of feelings of omnipotence, possibly as a result of having too much political power.

Well a fat lot of good it did for both W and Blair, who both believed that God spoke to them directly, and presumably told them it was right to bomb and invade Iraq, killing thousands of innocents in the process, and starting a societal breakdown that’s still harming thousands, and affecting the wellbeing of millions, every day. We’ll never forget Blair’s “I did what I thought was right”. Never mind what anyone else thought, or how many got killed and wounded.

The speaker was completely without irony, and it was as though he’d never come across Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Self delusion is bad enough, but deluding oneself with God is even worse.


The Pope (aged 81) has been having a rant. The man’s an inspiration for us anti-ageists. You may not be able to think as logically and intelligently as you get older, but by God you can still have a damn good rant.

According to the BBC website:

Pope Benedict XVI has said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

He explained that defending God's creation was not limited to saving the environment, but also protecting man from self-destruction.

The pope was delivering his end-of-year address to senior Vatican staff.

His words, later released to the media, emphasised his total rejection of gender theory.

Pope Benedict XVI warned that gender theory blurs the distinction between male and female and could thus lead to the "self-destruction" of the human race.

So here we are, on a planet that has an increasingly unsustainable population, and this nutter is banging on about the human race dying out unless we can somehow prevent people being, or becoming, homosexual.

Aaaargh! Where do you even start on this?

The Today programme interviewed the editor of the Catholic Herald, who might have been expected to say, well look, the message has been mistranslated . . . He didn’t actually say . . .

But no. She banged on even more insanely:

“We’re dying!” “There’s not enough children being born!” “Biological truth!” “Christian wisdom!”

I love this idea of Christians having a very special kind of wisdom that the rest of us can’t access. What a fucking arrogant ignoramus.

So there we have it - all you gays had better get busy fucking one another and having babies, or the human race is doomed. Doomed!

This is the best Christmas message ever. Proof positive that Christians are led by total crackpots who are even more barking than the dog next door.

Later in the programme Jarvis Cocker did a brief interview with Richard Dawkins, who said, “The human imagination can do a lot better than the invention of God”. I love that man.


Today featured another complete crackpot in the form of the American ambassador, Mr Tuttle. His job was to support the notion that George W is leaving the presidency ‘with his head held high’.

So this is the way it’s going to be with the Right from now on - a cast-iron belief that W was a good president who brought democracy to the Middle East, did more to combat Aids in Africa than anyone else, and brought unprecedented prosperity to the people of the USA.

The interviewer put it to him that the USA is now trillions of dollars in debt, has a ruined economy, a busted financial system, huge unemployment, and has inflicted financial collapse and ruination on the rest of the world. It made no difference - the man stuck to his mantra, and clearly will do so for evermore.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Layer 104 Gore Vidal, New Approaches to Politics, and Instinctual Intelligence.

The Guardian’s New York Review of Books supplement yesterday carried a review by Jonathan Raban of a new collection of Gore Vidal’s essays (chosen by Jay Parini), under the headline ‘The Prodigious Pessimist’.

In the review Raban points out that the phrase “goré vidal” in Russian means ‘he has seen great grief!’, and sometimes colloquially, “fuck you!”. Synonyms for ‘goré’ include disaster, calamity, misery, anguish, woe, melancholy, depression and yearning.

Vidal actually changed his first name to Gore when he was 14 years old - from Eugene - supposedly on account of the fact that his maternal grandfather was Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma. However . . . who’s to say such a precocious wit didn’t know exactly what he was doing?

As Raban goes on to say, “Grief is his speciality as an essayist, most particularly grief over the decline of the United States from the best hope of the Enlightenment, via its disreputable adventures as a land-grabbing imperial power . . . to its present sorry condition of mass functional illiteracy and corrupt and bloody-handed government . . .”

Some years ago a Guardian reviewer wrote, “Gore Vidal is the most elegant, erudite and eclectic writer of his generation”. That’s about a good an epitaph as any writer could aspire to.

An Observer reviewer said, “Vidal’s combination of learning, wit and distain gets into your blood. He can change the way you think.”

Melvyn Bragg put it like this: “Vidal is the outstanding literary radical of America.”

For many years Vidal exiled himself to southern Italy, and lived in a villa near Sorrento. It’s crazy that he’s so little known or appreciated in this country.

The most recent book of his essays that I have in my collection is one published in 2002 - “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace”, subtitled “How We Got To Be So Hated - Causes Of Conflict In The Last Empire.”

Those essays focus on the destruction caused by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in 1995 and by Osama bin Laden in NYC and Washington in 2001. A key paragraph in the introduction says,

“Things just happen out there in the American media, and we consumers don’t need to be told the why of anything. Certainly those of us who are in the why-business have a difficult time getting through the corporate-sponsored American media, as I discovered when I tried to explain McVeigh in Vanity Fair, or when, since September 11, my attempts to get published have met with failure.”

Clearly it’s not helpful to finding an American publisher when he writes paragraphs like,

“Since 1947 America has been the chief and pioneering perpetrator of “preemptive” state terror, exclusively in the Third World and therefore widely dissembled. Besides the unexceptional subversion and overthrow of governments in competition with the Soviet Union . . . Washington has resorted to political assassinations, surrogate death squads, and unseemly freedom fighters (e.g. bin Laden). It masterminded the killing of Lumumba and Allende; and it unsuccessfully tried to put to death Castro, Khadafi and Saddam Hussein; and vetoed all efforts to rein in not only Israel’s violation of international agreements and [U.N.] resolutions, but also its practice of preemptive state terror.”

Bearing in mind that this was written before Bush and Cheney really got going in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s no wonder that so many of us are now looking at Barack Obama and wondering what the hell’s going to happen to him, and asking what he can realistically do to change the entire culture and the values of a country (and in particular its political establishment) that was once “the best hope of the Enlightenment”.

As it happens the lead story on the front page of the Observer today is

Obama's revolution on climate change

Barack Obama ushered in a revolution in America's response to global warming yesterday when he appointed one of the world's leading climate change experts as his administration's chief scientist.

The president-elect's decision to make Harvard physicist John Holdren director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy reveals a new determination to draw a line under eight years of US policy that have seen George Bush steadfastly reject overwhelming evidence of climate change.

News of the appointment was hailed by scientists around the world, including former UK chief government scientific adviser Sir David King. "This is a superb appointment," he told the Observer.

Revolutionary stuff indeed. And it goes on:

In one telling remark, he added that respect for the scientific process was not "just about providing investment and resources. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted nor obscured by politics nor ideology."

So here’s a U.S president-elect telling the world that ‘politics’ and ‘ideology’ are not going to be allowed to get in the way of solving the world’s problems, and that henceforward policy and programmes in the United States are going to be formulated with reference to facts, to science, and to truth. Which is nice.


It also leads into the next item, which is:

“Any Questions?”

A very interesting edition of the programme went out on Radio 4 yesterday - the panel was completely politician-free. And it contained Shami Chakrabarti (CBE) and Joan Bakewell (DBE), who are always good value, and pretty wonderful human beings.

Shami was shortlisted in the Channel 4 Political Awards 2006 for the "Most Inspiring Political Figure" award. The award was voted for by the public and she came second to Jamie Oliver - beating Tony Blair, David Cameron and George Galloway. Not a lot of people know that.

Shami made a point of saying on air that the show was so much better for the absence of Parliamentarians. And so it was. The quality of discussion was excellent - intelligent, respectful, insightful and enlightening. No dumb-ass political posturing on fixed positions spouted by political robots who’ve been prepped and briefed to death by Party apparatchiks prior to the programme.

Clearly the majority of our elected ‘representatives’ are incapable of doing any thinking that’s in any way creative, unbiased, not self-serving or otherwise enlightened. There’s always calculation in everything they say - or at least 90% of it, which amounts to the same thing since it’s not reasonable to expect the rest of us to even bother with trying to work out which bits just might be worth believing.

After the broadcast you couldn’t help but ask yourself what Parliament would be like if it was full of enlightened Independents with integrity like Shami and Joan. I for one would like to see both of them in Parliament, but not (out of pity for them) in Parliament in its present form.

And certainly not through having to join either New Labour or the Tory party and having to suffer all the party political bullshit that MPs normally go through as they climb the greasy pole towards becoming a Parliamentary candidate. What a destructive, desperate waste of their time and talent that would be. And what a waste of time once they actually got there, as I’m sure the fast-tracked Glenda Jackson would agree.

In an anarcho-syndicalist system of representation every MP would be elected as an Independent, standing on account of their own views, ideology and characters, and not needing to pretend to agree with the views of a party hierarchy. On entering Parliament they would group together in syndicates both large and small in order to pursue agreed political programmes and agendas.

A system of proportional representation would at least be a small move towards this, since it would allow small parties that have a decent level of support nationwide to get access to the Commons. But it wouldn’t change the nature of our system, which is about individuals and coalitions we call ‘parties’ vying for power, instead of enlightened individuals coalescing around ideas and policies.


Instinctual Intelligence

Guy Browning’s columns in Guardian Weekend are always good value. Yesterday’s was “How To . . . Be Instinctive.


The iPod is the enemy of instinct . . . Instinct can make itself heard only in silence, which is why it's almost completely unnoticed and unused in the modern world.

Instinct acts as a kind of behavioural satnav. It's a quiet and reassuring inner voice that will always give you guidance, provided you can be bothered to tune into it.

Instinct is the accumulated wisdom of a thousand generations of human beings hard-wired into our little heads. Sadly, this is then very quickly obscured by the formal process of education.

This irony-filled column would be quite amusing if it’s wasn’t so tragically true that the formal process of education never addresses the need to cultivate and nurture instinctual intelligence, and in fact wipes out any possibility of developing it.

Listening to inner voices and inner feelings is not what instinctual intelligence is all about. As the ironic Len Cohen says,

“I don’t trust my inner feelings,
Inner feelings come and go.”

It’s the perennial problem of differentiating between feelings, emotions, thoughts and instincts, and it’s crucially important that we’re educated into being able to do so. Which is quite a difficult thing to do in a world where teachers and professors aren’t themselves able to do it, or even see the need to do it - to make it central to what goes on in schools, if we really want kids to have a 3-D all-round array of intelligences - intellectual, emotional, social, physical, spiritual and instinctual.

Schools need to teach the theory and practice of sitting (or walking) in silence - to cultivate our readiness and our ability to let what’s within come to the surface of our consciousness, and develop our readiness and ability to focus on what’s within.


Review of Childcare Protection

The NSPCC has become involved in the great debate about the quality of our childcare services.

A damning indictment of childcare services has been made by the NSPCC, accusing both the government and local authorities of abandoning vulnerable children in "extremely dangerous situations".

In a submission to Lord Laming's Review of Child Protection, commissioned by the government after the case of Baby P, the charity paints a devastating picture of childcare services in the UK. Its report reveals a lack of high-level political leadership and calls for substantial changes to the law.

It goes on to condemn local authorities and the government for "losing focus" on child protection issues and criticises a "rule of optimism" among frontline child protection professionals, including social workers. This attitude, the charity says, frequently blinds professionals to the truth of child abuse by families and carers.

The submission denounces the government's lack of focus in child protection issues and reveals a frontline culture paralysed by a lack of trust between professional agencies. It also reveals that social workers are struggling to meet "absurdly" high government thresholds for intervention and allocation of services.

"The NSPCC has been keen to avoid adding fuel to the public outrages generated in recent months, but we are extremely concerned about the fragility of the system," said Wes Cuell, the charity's acting chief executive. "Organisations are struggling to cope with the number of new initiatives to implement and the workforce, which has a number of vacancies and is relatively inexperienced, is being overwhelmed by the complexity of what it is being ask to do."

But the NSPCC's report reveals that, far from improving the system, the Climbié inquiry reforms have weakened local authorities' focus on protecting children. "This has, tragically, been the inadvertent consequence of the inquiry's emphasis on a broader safeguarding agenda, with its emphasis on prevention, early intervention and the supporting of vulnerable parents," said Cuell.

Maggie Atkinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said she found the NSPCC's criticisms of leadership "harder to accept" than those of the system."

Well Maggie would, wouldn’t she? As for me, I say - did any of the Directors of Children’s Services whom she’s trying to shield from criticism ever stand up and denounce the ‘system’ she’s actually willing to criticise? And if they haven’t stood up and put their heads above the parapet then they’re complicit and therefore guilty of a failure of leadership - for that alone, let alone the ineffectualness of their departments.

What are you actually saying, Maggie? They were just following orders? Is that what we pay these people to do?


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Layer 103 Euthanasia, Tax Havens, Desert Islands, Greece and the Education Olympics

Even the staunchest supporters and defenders of Cancer Cat’s right to live have come round to saying that it’s time to have her put down. Seeing her looking so manky and grubby, so weak and thin, her ear blackened and bloodied by cancer, the consensus now seems to be that it’s time to call time on her wretched little life, lived as it is within the confines of a conservatory.

However, in a week when the issue of assisted death has coincidentally been so much in the national news and consciousness, I’m not convinced.

I observe Cancer Cat through the glass kitchen door as she crouches sleeping on the blanket in her box, and I think - this is the way it is with old age. Out in the wild, where she’d be prey to predators, she’d have been taken and eaten years ago.

Here, where she’s safe, she ekes out her days and weeks in a state of inactive sleep and semi-sleep, and who am I to judge that she’s in pain and that she should be killed?

I’m not against mercy-killing, and if there was clear evidence that death would be a merciful release, then I’d do it. But the vet, when consulted, said only that the cancer in her ear wouldn’t spread to other parts of her body, and that it’s no longer seen as necessary to amputate a cancerous ear. By implication, therefore, she should be left alone to get on with the rest of her life in the best way she can.

This week the UK authorities ruled against prosecuting a couple who had helped their son to die, on the grounds that it would not be in the public interest . He’d been in a state of complete paralysis since breaking his neck whilst playing rugger.

He had no quality of life at all, since he couldn’t lift a finger to do anything for himself. No doubt he could also observe that taking care of his needs was having a very detrimental effect on the quality of life on offer to his parents, his carers. He’d had enough of just existing, and wanted to die.

This week Sky TV broadcast a documentary featuring a 59 year old man who was terminally ill, who’d asked for his assisted death to be shown on TV, so that people could see for themselves that dying in this way is not unpleasant and distressing, other than the fact that a human life has ended. Inevitably this TV ‘first’ caused an almighty ruckus.

Today the Observer published an editorial on this issue: “Parliament needs to address the moral case for assisted suicide”.

The government must anticipate the need for a new law and establish a commission of enquiry to recommend what it should be. Otherwise, while the issues continue to be debated in the media, cases will come to court and conflicting precedents set on the basis of particular circumstances. But justice requires that, on such a difficult ethical question, the law be based on universal principles. The proper place to establish those principles is Parliament.


Somehow it’s clear-cut when you have a human being who is clearly expressing a desire to die. It’s a more complex business when it’s a dumb (or very dumb) animal that’s not even communicating clearly with body language.

What to think, for instance, when the cat goes for several days refusing to eat anything, and doesn’t even make an effort to keep herself clean, and then has a day like today when she enthusiastically crunches up a pile of her favourite food, chicken bones, and spends a whole hour cleaning herself and her manky ear?


Tax Havens Revisited.

In the Observer today Nick Cohen gives over the whole of his column to the issue of tax havens: ‘These vile tax havens have had their day’.

After giving the Barclay Brothers a pasting for their activities on Sark, Cohen goes on to say,

[Sark is not] the only British territory to become the modern version of pirate statelets of the Spanish Main. In a list of 37 'suspect jurisdictions' drawn up by American politicians pushing a 'Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act' through Congress, 11 are under British control - Alderney, Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Sark and the Turks and Caicos islands.

Since 1997, Labour has not shown the slightest squeamishness about allowing the Barclay brothers and their kind to avoid the taxes that you, dear reader, must pay on pain of imprisonment. Ministers had the sovereign power to stop them, but in the bubble years they would do nothing that threatened the City, which routed so much of its business offshore.

The energy they put into defending rich men and rich companies is shameful to recall. Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK was not exaggerating when he said that, after the departure of George W Bush, Gordon Brown will be 'the most important supporter of tax havens in the world'.

Accountancy Age added: 'Sarkozy wants to launch attacks on the havens, the Germans want to target Switzerland in particular, and seemingly only one major country, Britain, led by Gordon Brown, who in opposition made his name pledging to crack down on tax avoidance, is standing in the way.'

I could despair about his hypocrisy, but I will leave the polemics for another day, because the world in which politicians regarded tax havens as necessary adjuncts to the all-powerful financial markets has crashed, and overdue reform may be coming.

Barack Obama is among the sponsors of the proposed American assault on tax havens. 'We need to crack down on individuals and businesses that abuse our tax laws so that those who work hard and play by the rules aren't disadvantaged,' he said in 2007. He will certainly ally with Germany and France against Britain after he becomes President next month.

They understand that tax havens allow multinationals and local kleptomaniacs to siphon off Africa's wealth to Guernsey, Jersey and their competitors. So widespread has the looting by the African elite become, that a study for the Tax Justice Network concluded that the hell holes of sub-Saharan Africa were a 'net creditor to the rest of the world'.

The dismantling of offshore finance is a necessary precondition for African development. And for our development, as well.

I get a sense of renewed radical self-confidence. Ideas that were impossible to contemplate in the bubble seem common sense now.

If they were to decide that Sark and the failed economic model it represents were not so quaint after all, they would be on the side of the honest taxpayers and international progressive opinion, and against African dictators, tax-dodging multinationals, money launderers, organised crime and the Barclay brothers.

Labour is talking a great deal about the need to make 'tough choices' at the moment. This is not one of them.



Making Schools Enjoyable

Desert Island Discs last week featured Prof. Marcus du Sautoy, the new Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, who is taking over that post from fellow-atheist Richard Dawkins.

The Prof is obviously a brilliant guy, mathematically-speaking, and also pretty dynamic in many ways. He seems to pride himself in having developed a taste for classical and operatic music at a time when his contemporaries were getting into punk rock. He clearly enjoys the mathematics of complex music, and his music choices were all abysmal, boring and turgid.

The only part of the programme that made me feel pleased I’d listened to it was when he described his time living in Guatemala, and his child’s experience of school there. (And credit to him for sending his child to a local school, and not an ex-pats only ‘international’ school. Maybe that’s something to do with having attended a state comprehensive himself.)

Kirsty wondered what the school had been like, and he said, “Schools are so much more fun in Guatamala - they ran a farm, did woodwork, and so on.” This is a man who believes that maths can be fun when it’s approached in the right way.

So bloody shame on Britain for failing to provide schools that are even as good for kids as those in poor bloody Guatamala. But nobody here even gives a damn about schools being fun places for kids, where learning takes place within meaningful contexts. Kids deserve so much more than the pompous misguided shits who run our system, who care only for high ‘attainment’, regardless of how it’s achieved or how badly our methods impact on our kids.


Greece Revisited

Yiannis Yiatrakis, who preferred to leave his study of abstract mathematics to take to the streets of Athens last week, is quoted in the Observer today: “It's like a smouldering fire - the flames may die down but the coals will simmer. One little thing, and you'll see it will ignite again. Ours is a future without work, without hope. Our grievances are so big, so many.”

Reporter Helena Smith goes on to say,

“The orgy of violence that has gripped this beautiful land masks a deeper malaise.

These are a lost generation, raised in an education system that is undeniably shambolic and hit by whopping levels of unemployment - 70 per cent among the 18-25s.

Often polyglot PhD holders will be serving tourists at tables in resorts. One in five Greeks lives beneath the poverty line. Exposed to the ills of Greek society as never before, they have also become increasingly frustrated witnesses of allegations of corruption implicating senior conservative government officials and a series of scandals that have so far cost four ministers their jobs.

It began with one death, one bullet, fired in anger by a hot-headed policemen in the heart of Athens' edgy Exarchia district on last Saturday.

No one thought they would wake up to a revolt in the streets. But the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a tousled-haired teenager from the rich northern suburbs was the match that lit the inferno. If the killing had happened in any of the capital's wealthy satellite suburbs, the reaction might well have been more subdued.

Exarchia, however, is Athens' answer to Harlem (without the racial component). It is here that anarchists, artists, addicts, radical leftists, students and their teachers rub shoulders in streets crammed with bars and cafes that are covered with the graffiti of dissent. It is Athens's hub of political ferment; a backdrop of tensions between anti-establishment groups and the police.

Within an hour of the boy's death thousands of protesters had gathered in Exarchia's lawless central square screaming, 'cops, pigs, murderers,' and wanting revenge.

Theirs was a frustration not only born of pent-up anger but outrage at the way ministers in the scandal-tainted conservative government have also enriched themselves in their five short years in power.

Now the million-dollar question is whether protests that started so spontaneously can morph into a more organised movement of civil unrest.

With daily demonstrations planned in the weeks ahead Greek youth are not going to give in easily.



The Olympics of Education - Marjorie Scardino, The Guardian, Thursday December 11th.

Learning To Learn

Finland was top science performer and second in reading and maths in the latest results, announced last year, while South Korea was first in reading and Taiwan topped the maths table. Study the winners and you'll see that success isn't tied to class size, facilities, study time or money. The key is simply the winners' care for and attention to their education system, focused in three important areas.

First, individualism. In Finland students start school later and spend fewer hours there than almost anywhere else, but schools emphasise "learning to learn", not to get a job or a university degree. They focus on personalised, diagnostic assessment that works to "support and guide pupils in a positive manner", as the Finnish education board phrases it.

Second, technology. High-scoring countries like South Korea use technology to make connections and to share information. Teachers share ideas online and parents become more involved in their children's instruction. The South Korean education minister recently said access to technology over the last 10 years has changed how their students relate to teachers, so they question rather than merely absorb.

And finally, teachers. Probably most important, the best-performing countries tend to set great store by how they select and train teachers, starting a virtuous circle that elevates teaching to a noble and honourable status and attracts the best. "Are You the Right One?" Singapore's education ministry asks aspiring teachers visiting its website.

Only one in five applicants is admitted to teacher education, and of those who train, nine out of 10 become teachers. Applicants are advised that "teaching is not for the short term" and are assessed for communication skills, willingness to learn and "the passion to teach and the belief that you can make a difference".

We're intently focused right now on how to relieve a severe economic contraction. But perhaps we're not looking in the right place. Our long-term economic health might revolve as much around the classroom as the boardroom, the trading floor or the halls of parliament. One effective long-term economic stimulus package might be a massive teacher recruitment, development and reward programme. That would repay the taxpayer - and all taxpayers of the future - many times over. And it would help boost us to the very top of the most important champions' league.


Well said, Marjorie Scardino. It really is simple, and so obvious that anyone with half a brain has known this for decades:

* Put the emphasis on the enjoyment of learning for its own sake, and on learning how to learn - not on learning for tests or extrinsic rewards or the job market.

* Make teaching a proper profession again - a noble and honorable status - and make sure you attract people who know how to be creative and how to make learning interesting and exciting.

* Use computers and the Internet to the full, and enable students to pursue their own interests and learning objectives as independently as possible.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Layer 102 Groomed For Success

Christine Gilbert was the eldest in a working-class Irish Catholic family of five children. After convent school in outer London, she took history and English at Reading University.

This is from an article by Peter Wilby in the Guardian last November:

“What drew her to teaching? "To be honest, I can't remember," she says. She climbed the career ladder unusually rapidly . . .”

She can’t REMEMBER? Here’s Her Majesty’s chief inspector and she doesn’t even know why she became a teacher! Not a clue, then, darlin’? No.

"I was talked into being deputy director, resources, about which I knew so little I had to ask somebody the difference between capital and revenue spending".

Duh! This was a fast-tracked headteacher who’d been talked into becoming a top bureaucrat. Is that what you’d call qualified to do the job? Didn’t know the difference between capital and revenue? Was that an equal opportunities appointment, by any chance? Or did her face (Nessa’s face), somehow . . . fit?

Tidy. She became Harrow's director of education before moving to the same position in Tower Hamlets. There, she became chief executive. She says: "I was captivated by the broader community dimension and realised, if I had seen things more holistically, I could have achieved change more quickly."

So seeing things holistically was never her actual forte. Hmmmm.

“By her own account most of Gilbert's career was an accident, with one damn promotion following another. Mann backs her up: " She was always perceived by colleagues and superiors as having the capability. She was groomed for success."

The trouble with effortless success is that, when you get to the top, you can sometimes fall flat on your face. Somehow, I don't see that happening to Gilbert.”

Good call, Peter.



As Glenda Slag, Queen of the Tabloids, would say: Christine Gilbert - doncha just love her! Stickin up for all the poor kids of this country! Drivin up stannads! Get yuwa Stannad! Evenin Stannard! (I don't want to digress so I'll come back to the subject of John Stannard, the National Literacy Strategy, and Ruth Miskin, in another blog).

But yes - the Office for Standards in Education. That's Ofsted in Newspeak. How come they never changed its name when it took on responsibility for inspecting social services? Ofstedsocser still has a resounding Stalinist ring to it. It may have lost a little je ne sais quoi, a little punchiness, perhaps. So I'm going to propose shortening it to OfstedSS. That'll do nicely.

I'm also going to suggest changing the head honcho's job title. Chief Inspector was fine for an era when the office holder had come up through the ranks and had spent time as an HMI working alongside the great and the good of the education world. That was a time when natural selection ensured fitness for purpose, when you really had to demonstrate that you cared about and understood the needs of children.

Now that the office holder has to demonstrate an understanding and caring about the needs of New Labour (that's Right Wing Totalitarian Reactionaries or RWTR in Oldspeak) the job title should be Commissar. That's much more in keeping with a job whose purpose is to oversee the drive to meet the production targets of the glorious five year plan.

Christine Gilbert is the ultimate Commissar - married to a senior Party member, completely on-message, dedicated to the achievement of arbitrary targets, or at least the semblance of their achievement, through rooting out all those who oppose the efficient operation of the education factories, the hot-houses of youth, the collective farms of academia, force-feeding the new generation on imperial gallons of Facts, like so much passive veal being readied for the appetites of the System.

The era of the Commissars began with the appointment of a certain Christopher Woodhead, or 'Chris', as he's commonly known. That's the one - thick glasses, hair like a Brillo pad, the scourge of schools. Scourer of dirty dishes. Like vigorously applied wire wool he managed to turn a sophisticated 20th Century education vessel back into a basic Victorian pot or pan.

"Chris" was the first of the ignorant bureaucrats to be fast-tracked to the top job, a man who'd spent a couple of terms trying to become a teacher but quickly gave it up. He may not have liked teaching, and he may not have liked teachers, dumb creatures that they are, but he sure knew how to bully and put the boot into them, as any Commissar surely must. Zey must not be allowed to stand in ze vey of Progress. Back to ze Future!

As my blues hero, Seasick Steve, would say - you might think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. Christine Gilbert is the ultimate OfstedSS bureaucrat, the New Model Commissar. Her department now measures progress by the sackful, the hectare, the tonne. It's all about numbers and targets. She wouldn't recognise a happy child if s/he came and spat in her face.

Watching her in front of the Parliamentary committee on TV yesterday was an experience. The old-style HMIs and Chief Inspectors of Schools had about them a certain aura, an aura of goodness, integrity, and calm confidence. Ms Gilbert looked like a stuck pig, her face strained and drained, as well it might.

To cut a long story short, the committee reckon she’s doing a shit job as an inspector of social services, but an OK job as an inspector of schools. Well, it’s stating the bleeding obvious to say she’s doing badly as an inspector of social services.

As for understanding the needs of children;
1. Ms Gilbert never taught in a Primary school.
2. She doesn’t know why she became a teacher.
3. She has no children of her own.

She’s never been an HMI - so how come she’s qualified to be their Chief? She was a history teacher. She was a targets-driven headteacher. She was a fast-tracked bureaucrat. Do we need to know more, or say more?


One of these days someone needs to do a thorough job on Ms Gilbert’s performance as Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets and why her political opponents (i.e. Not New Labour) found her so hateful.

I for one would like to know more about what George Galloway meant when, on the night of his election as a Respect candidate, he attacked returning officer Christine Gilbert, saying she had presided over a "shambles of an election which would disgrace a banana republic".


I somehow missed this in the press when it first came out:

SHAMED Haringey Council squandered £19,000 trying to make Baby P scandal boss Sharon Shoesmith look better.

MPs were furious last night after learning spin doctors were hired following the tot tragedy.

Their role was to give media advice to the head of children’s services and her colleagues.

Ms Shoesmith, 55 — now suspended — was given role-play exercises by up to three firms on how to answer probing questions from journalists.

She twice refused to apologise at a press conference over her department’s shocking failure to save the 17-month-old “at-risk” tot after his evil mother and stepdad and a lodger were convicted of torturing him to death.


Lynne Featherstone also says this in her blog:

I read front page in the Guardian yesterday that Christine Gilbert, Ofsted's Chief Inspector, has come out publicly to say that Ofsted were lied to by officers in Haringey in terms of the information they provided when they inspected Haringey. Result - Ofsted gave Haringey three stars just weeks after Baby P's death.

Well - I'm glad she said it. I've no doubt Haringey did present inaccurate information and was trying to pull the wool over Ofsted's eyes - given they wanted three stars because the government hoops they have to jump through mean resources, money and political advantage all come from three stars.

However, as neatly as Ofsted wishes to put all the blame on Haringey, I would just like to point out the feebleness of that as an excuse for an inspection regime. Ed Balls has now moved to say basically these interim inspections are useless and Ofsted must do face-to-face inspections annually. But what on earth confidence can we have in any inspection regime given this failure? Surely the questions and examinations have to go deeper.

And last but not least in this dishonourable performance management system is the Government itself who set it up. Ed Balls is only too willing to look at the narrow focus of the social work and systems end - but not really so far said anything about the Government's part in this devastating failure. It is the Labour Government who set up a performance management system with targets, tick boxes and gold stars on inspection. What bigger perverse incentive can you have in a rotten borough then to be allowed to present false information to achieve a false status? Come on Ed - look at your own part in all of this.


This is from today’s Guardian:

The chairman of a Commons committee has said he has "lost confidence" in the inspectorate Ofsted over its handling of children's services in Haringey, the north London borough where Baby P died.

Barry Sheerman made the statement after questioning Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, at the children, schools and families committee yesterday. He accused her of failing to recognise the strength of public opinion over Baby P's death and acting with an "air of complacency" after she presented data showing that three children a week had died from neglect and abuse in the 16 months to August this year, then moments later defended the inspection of the services designed to protect them.

Sheerman said the statistic on child deaths - nearly three times previous estimates - was "horrifying". The 210 deaths included 21 babies, but only two of the infants were known to social services.

Of Ofsted, he said: "I'm not confident at all. This session made me less confident rather than more confident that there isn't going to be another Haringey waiting."

Gilbert is under pressure after acknowledging that Ofsted labelled Haringey council "good" in an inspection based largely on data supplied by the council's managers weeks after Baby P's death.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Layer 101

Room 101 has lost its original meaning and purpose. Orwell’s Room 101 was a place where citizens were sent to be tortured and interrogated. TV’s Room 101 is a place where people and things are sent to be banished and eliminated. Clearly you’d need more than a room to contain all the things and people that deserve banishment.

As for elimination - I’m not in favour of killing (or torturing) anybody. Therefore it would take something much bigger than a room to contain all the stuff and all the people that ought to be removed from any decent society, from a decent planet. You’d need a planet.

Mars might be suitable, especially since its ruler is supposed to be the god of war - there’s poetic justice there since a lot of the stuff and the people that I’d banish are instruments and advocates of war and aggression.

However, being realistic, we don’t have the capability to establish a colony and a massive rubbish dump on something that’s so far away from Earth. So being a realist I propose that we might finally have found a use for the Moon. Yes folks - Moon 1(01).

Colony 1 on Moon 1 - to describe this thing and how it would operate will take a whole book, so I guess I’ll now have to write it since I’m convinced this is an idea whose time has come. The zeitgeist - c’est moi!

The principle is fairly straightforward. Moon 101 is where people are sent in order to have the opportunity to rethink their lives, their beliefs and their attitudes. From that barren platform they can gaze endlessly at our beautiful blue planet and remember what they used to have - what a privileged, awesome and wondrous place this planet is - and what kinds of lives they could have lived.

When they arrive at Colony 1 they will have a choice of where to go. Either Camp A, if they already sense they might be capable of reforming themselves and are willing to pledge themselves to work hard at discovering a pathway towards enlightenment. Or they go to Camp X if they show no remorse and have no intention of re-thinking their ways and their beliefs.

Those who choose Camp A will be kept under review and continually assessed for signs of becoming more enlightened. Residents of Camp A will need to pledge themselves to non-aggression and non-violence. Anyone who reaches a minimum threshold of decency of behavior, belief and attitude will be considered for repatriation to Earth. Anyone who chooses Camp A without any real intention of seeking greater enlightenment will be permanently banished to Camp X.

Camp X will be self-governing and self-policing, and its residents will be allowed to conduct themselves in any way they choose. In effect it will be an experiment to see what kind a society is produced by a species that is entirely made up of psychopaths and the spiritually destitute. They can elect their own governing body, or they can opt for a kind of violent chaos. They can make their own rules, and do to one another whatever they want. They can put into practice their deepest beliefs and impulses.

If at any point a resident of Camp X decides they’d like to transfer to Camp A then they can apply for a visitor’s pass, and after a period of quarantine in Camp B, where they’ll be in a private room alone with their thoughts, they’ll be allowed into Camp A for an initial period of between a week and a month. Effectively they’ll be on probation, and breaking any of the conditions they sign up to will see them turfed out and put back into Camp X

The existence of Moon 1(01) will be a powerful incentive for people on Earth to consider very carefully how they live their lives on this planet. They may well think there’s a very real incentive to opt into the ways of living that show proper respect for human life and an enlightened attitude to the planet itself and everything on it.

Common criminals and the mentally ill need not fear transportation to Moon 1(01). Their needs will be continue to be met on Earth. Prisons will provide high-quality therapy and rehabilitation. Only crims who fail to participate fully and fail to make proper progress will be considered for 101.

The rubbish dump on Moon 1(01) will be pretty vast. It will consist of:

1. All weapons of mass destruction.
2. All weapons confiscated from criminals.
3. Any weapons of war deemed surplus to the efficient and effective defence of individual countries.

Camp X on Moon 1(01) will contain

1. Anyone who advocates a war of aggression.
2. Persistent violent criminals.
3. Anyone responsible for the production and distribution of computer viruses.
4. Anyone persistently responsible for the production and distribution of newspapers and magazines that contain fascist and neo-fascist lies and propaganda.
5. etc
6. etc

Today is the 60th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1951 Britain was the first country to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2008 New Labour decided to pander to the Daily Mail and the general right-wing bleating about ‘human rights gone mad’ and started to guff on about responsibilities being as important as rights. Oh yeah? Whoever disagreed with that? So they now intend top force the poor to show some responsibility to society by agreeing they should no longer get ‘handouts’ without doing something in return for society. Fair enough. So when are they going to start to insist the rich do something for society? How about never?


It’s the fifth day of rioting in Greece. Today the trade unions went on a general strike. A state of emergency is being considered. The banks have been bailed out to the tune of 28 billion dollars, but the government seems to care little for the poverty or dignity of the people. Government supports the capitalists but not education or those who live in poverty. This is making the people very angry. The riots and demands for the government to resign are the result.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Layer 100 Justice, Democracy and Accountability

Interesting news from Greece - the cradle of democracy. It looks like people are in revolt against their government - taking to the streets and rioting. It seems the police can’t contain the situation - there are too many people who are clearly very angry with the government. A sign of the times? And of things to come? Power to the people?


I’ve changed my mind about Christine Gilbert. Last week I wrote a couple of blog pieces about the way in which Ofsted had totally failed to make the correct judgment about the effectiveness of Haringey’s children’s services, and the fact that Gilbert admitted that Ofsted must take ‘some’ of the responsibility for the death of Baby P. I also said that I didn’t really care whether or not Gilbert remained in post as long as the Ofsted regime was reformed root and branch.

Well, actually, I DO care. I now realise that I care a lot. Gilbert has continued to say that the last inspection of Haringey’s children’s services was right to judge them a ‘good’ and effective local authority - she says it’s only that the quality of their work has gone down since that inspection.

Does anyone believe this, outside of the self-serving ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ circle of senior bureaucrats who run government departments and local authorities?

The reason Gilbert deserves to be sacked is because those who live by the sword should be prepared to die by the sword. Thanks to the regime she’s been responsible for, there are a great many decent and dedicated people who’ve been thrown out of their posts because Ofsted decided that their schools weren’t hitting arbitrary targets, and that there’s ‘no excuse for failure’.

Leaving aside the issue of whether those schools were indeed ‘failing’ because their targets weren’t being achieved, the point here is that natural justice and proper process demand that people who are accused of lacking competence should be given the time, opportunity, encouragement and support they need (we all need) in order to improve, and only if they fail to apply themselves diligently, conscientiously and energetically to improvement should they be recommended for dismissal.

Since this no longer happens in a pseudo-macho world where aspirational careerists like Gilbert have no time to waste in their determination to prove their value to the world by ‘driving up standards’, then neither should it happen when the advocates and drivers of the current system are seen to fuck up badly themselves.

Did Gilbert and Ofsted help to prevent Baby P’s death? No. Did they fail to identify Haringey as a failing local authority? Yes, of course. Is Gilbert now appealing to all local authorities to come clean and admit to failings that Ofsted itself has failed to spot? Yes. Is the Ofsted inspection procedure bureaucratic and lacking in rigour? Yes. Does anyone have any confidence that Ofsted has made correct judgments about other local authorities they’ve inspected, or about quite a lot of schools for that matter? NO.

Gilbert is a lame duck, and I for one want to see her dead in the water. After a short suspension the director of Haringey children’s services, Sharon Shoesmith, has been summarily sacked. Fair enough - if she was in fact directly responsible for the fakery and bullshit that was only discovered when inspectors finally got round to looking closely at what went on, or didn’t go on, within her department. Or indeed if she failed to make herself aware of what was happening. Now it’s time for Gilbert to go.


I slipped the following web reference into yesterday’s blog even though this piece wasn’t officially published till today.


SATs are indeed the elephant in the room, as Jim Rose says. In an age of accountancy and ‘accountability’ we live and die by numbers. The number crunchers rule. Facts and figures are what’s needed, as Dickens might have said. Give these people nothing but facts and figures. These alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.

Thomas Gradgrind would be proud of Ed Balls, our esteemed Minister of State for Education, etc. Dear Ed, ‘the scrote’ as he’s becoming known, has made up his mind that we need to adopt another great American idea - giving grades to schools.


‘Every school in England could be rated on a scale of A to E under plans published today to introduce a New York style "report card" for schools.’

New York style eh? So that’s it then - reduce everything to a single letter in order to describe an entity as complex as a school. How fucking dumb can we get? What a great wheeze to appeal to idiot voters who need everything to be SIMPLE. Is the electorate so stupid as to welcome such a thing? Well, New Labour wouldn’t be New Labour if it hadn’t already run this one past some ‘focus groups’, so we have to assume it’s a runner.

Would any parent be happy to have their child categorized as a B, a C or a D? Would anyone feel comfortable with hanging that label on a child, knowing that the sum of its parts cannot possibly add up to a single letter?


Will New Labour never understand that the age of dumb-arse neo-conservatism is OVER? Stupid solutions to complex problems will no longer be tolerated. Obama is putting in place a team of intellectuals and experts. Could New Labour possibly do the same? Could they hell.

To the contrary - Brown is bringing back Mandleson and no doubt some of the old crew who screwed things up in the first place. Which speaks volumes about the bunch of supposedly bright young things that he promoted to the cabinet when he became PM. None of them have a clue about what’s now needed to deal with the issues of the day. They’ve been brought up in the age of Thatcherite and neo-conservative orthodoxies, and they have no other frames of reference, or ideologies or sets of beliefs. There’s no real wisdom or enlightenment in their thinking - just management-speak and business-school orthodoxies. There’s no capacity for creative thinking either. A useless bunch.

Interesting that Frank Field wrote a column in the Guardian yesterday suggesting that a government of national unity might be a solution to our problems.


He’s of the opinion that this is the way to show the rest of the world that our political class is united in its outlook and its economic policies. In principle a government of all the most able politicians from the various parties sounds quite attractive, but not when they all occupy the same middle ground with the same middling ideas and none of them has a real clue about what’s actually needed in order to forge a better and more prosperous society where fairness, social justice and equality are the guiding values.

My betting is still on a hung Parliament next time. (No more scrote jokes, please.) In which case it may make sense to try to build consensus through bringing together a cabinet of all the talents, and letting them debate issues properly before making policy. That at least would be better than letting the Tories take over and run amok.

The Commons itself would then have to do a damn decent job of scrutinizing the Executive. And we’ll need an elected second chamber that’s also seen to be an effective body with real powers of scrutiny and challenge. And we do need proportional representation.


Returning to my opening paragraph, there are two columns of note in today’s Guardian.

1. In his, Terry Eagleton notes that John Milton was born in Cheapside 400 years ago today. “Our great dissident poet who did more than just hymn the praises of revolt.”

At the heart of Milton's political vision lay a belief in liberty and self-government. Pressed to an extreme, this doctrine could appear anarchic: grace freed humanity from law and authority.

Milton did more than hymn the praises of revolt, as Blake and Shelley did. He was also a political activist and propagandist, an architect of the modern liberal state. As a militant ideologue in the defence of liberty, he assisted in the revolutionary upheaval that brought modern Britain to birth - a revolution all the more successful for us having quite forgotten that it ever happened.


2. Polly Toynbee’s usual excellent column focuses on incomes, social justice and tax policy:

The hard truth is that a middle-class child is 15 times more likely to stay middle class than a working-class child is likely to move upwards: birth is destiny more than people know.

Thirty years ago people had a clearer idea of where they stood in the social hierarchy. The politics of class described the nature of social injustice. Widespread membership of trade unions and noisy public pay bargaining ensured that most people had some understanding of the distribution of incomes and the unjust inheritance of power. But once Labour - in need of the middle-class vote - abandoned the cloth cap for the illusion of classlessness, it stopped spelling out inconvenient class facts.

Instead Britain has absorbed the great American Dream - anyone can make it, opportunity is there for the taking. The celebrity culture encourages that statistical myth, with its images of Cheryl Cole or Alan Sugar, who made it against the odds. If religion was once the opium that kept the people in their place, the celebrity fantasy does it even more effectively now. If you don't escape a poor background, that's your fault for lack of talent: nothing structurally wrong with the chances you had. Without the politics of class, people are left to internalise their disadvantage: it's personal, not political.

Richer people simply [do] not believe that 90% of the population earn less than £40,000, or that the middle fifth of the population earn around £20,000. If people don't know these facts, how can they judge what's fair?

So if Labour wants to make fairness its guiding light, it will have to make up for lost time by the energetic explaining of some essential facts. Ignorance, even among the supposedly well-educated, is greatly underestimated by politicians. A few in the group who started out thinking the new top rate of 45% might be too steep revised their opinion greatly once they understood it. The more they knew about how incomes were distributed, the more they were inclined to opt for a progressive system.

Researchers working on these focus groups over several months note a marked change of opinion since the credit crunch hit. In recent weeks attitudes not just towards bankers but to all the rich have hardened into real anger about the greed that now puts jobs, homes and pensions at risk. Labour politicians have rightly sensed that change in mood. They have left it late; they are on the back foot now with polling data showing them not trusted to put across facts and figures honestly. How different it would have been had they talked more openly from the start about the unfair distribution of money and power. But better late than never - if that's what they mean to do.


PS Yesterday I forgot to mention two excellent letters to the editor in the Guardian:

From Ross Sutton:

Christine Gilbert, head of Ofsted, now seems to be admitting what many workers in social services have known for a long time - Ofsted is incompetent, naive and not fit for purpose (We failed over Haringey - Ofsted head, December 6).

Successive governments have persistently signed up to the philosophy that every service provided can be evaluated in the same way as the sale of groceries, started, unsurprisingly, by Thatcher, but they are seriously mistaken. The government culture of avoiding risk at all costs while leaping to allocate blame has systematically eroded the professional judgment, confidence and optimism of the workforce in local government, and the health and education services.

Christine Gilbert appears unwilling to take responsibility for the serious failings of Ofsted, and likewise the government is much more inclined to blame the poorly paid, overworked and largely unsupported workers rather than accept any culpability for their part in the wasteful and delusional inspection process. Since the government stands four-square behind the inspection service, all stick and no carrot, why has neither the home secretary nor the children's minister resigned, and why is Christine Gilbert not considering her position?

From Ian Willmore
Former Deputy Leader, Haringey Council

Christine Gilbert's defence of Ofsted is a little more sophisticated than Haringey council's early efforts in that she is at least willing to appear to acknowledge responsibility for failure, but it is ultimately no more convincing. In particular, there is no good reason to accept her claim that Ofsted's 2006 review, which gave Haringey a three-star rating, was accurate. This is yet another shocking parallel with the Victoria Climbié case, where it emerged that the Social Services Inspectorate (Ofsted's predecessor) had only the year before Victoria died given Haringey a positive review. Until the Laming inquiry began to ask difficult questions, the inspectorate continued to claim that there had been a sudden deterioration in performance between the review and Victoria's death. This claim was rapidly exposed as nonsense.

Ms Gilbert's own remarks expose the truth of Ofsted's performance in the Baby P case. As long as inspectors took council officers' assurances at face value, everything seemed in order. As soon as individual case files were examined, multiple failures rapidly emerged. Of course, Ofsted had no choice but to conduct a review after Baby P had been killed. The issue Ms Gilbert and ministers need to address is how inspections can be improved so that problems are exposed before a disaster occurs. This is unlikely to happen as long as Ofsted continues to pretend that its previous inspections were accurate. So far, Ms Gilbert is simply accepting responsibility in theory while denying it in practice. At least Haringey's council leadership had the decency in the end to accept their failures and resign.