Thursday, February 26, 2009

Layer 127 David Cameron, Progressive Conservatism and Progressive Education.

A Man of the People?

It’s an extraordinary coincidence that both David Cameron and Gordon Brown have fathered severely disabled children, and both have experienced the death of their first-born. These are the things that every parent fears most - abnormalities, extreme illness and death.

According to Michael Gove, living with their son Ivan has changed the way that the Camerons see the world, and life. Obviously for the better. Various people have said that Cameron used to be an arrogant toff.

Presumably bringing up a severely disabled child forces a parent to understand more than most of us that all children are different, all children have specific needs, all children have a right to love and care and also appropriate provision for their differing abilities, disabilities and special needs.

Expectations cannot be the same for all children, and more than anything else children have a right to enjoy life and to live without undue pressure, coercion and unrealistic expectations. All children progress at different rates, and their wellbeing must not be compromised by forcing them into inappropriate moulds.

It would be immoral to run a health service or an education service in the interests of the staff - their managers or their policy-makers. It is immoral to run a public service on the basis of performance data and statistics, driving practice according to the need to prioritise government targets.

Unfortunately there’s no evidence that Brown has views on education that differ in any respect to Blair, Blunkett or any of the other fools that have set the policies and targets for schools.

Cameron, on the other hand, has already made it clear that he’ll sweep away the targets culture and free schools from the oppressive yoke that’s been placed on our schools these many years. We shall see. If he does that and restores education to the profession it should be, then he’ll certainly win over that section of the population.

In the meantime we should allow him the benefit of the doubt, assume that he’s a man of his word, and offer him and his wife condolences on the loss of their son, and warm wishes for their future happiness.


By an incredible coincidence David Cameron was the main story in G2 yesterday, with a photograph of him in white shirt and tie on the front cover. Andy Beckett’s article sprawls across six pages, with large photos of DC playing with a Frisbee on a beach, reading a speech, in his toff gear at an Oxford ball, surrounded by his shadow cabinet, and of course the famous one on the sofa at home with his family, looking down at Ivan, who’s lying across his lap.

He says the four aims of progressive conservatism are “a society that’s fair, where opportunities are equal, that’s greener, and safer - with people protected from threat and fear”. If that means he plans to abolish privilege, inequality, poverty, homelessness and unemployment, then what’s not to vote for?

The main cloud on his horizon appears to be that neither he nor his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, understand Keynesian economics. There’s also the little matter of his “progressiveness” being completely against the traditions and instincts of the Conservative party.

The ideal scenario would be for him to split the Tories and force the remaining toffs, the reactionaries and the backwoodsmen to go off and start their own party, or join UKIP. If he promised to do that then he’d definitely be worth voting for. That and promising to bring in proportional representation and an elected second chamber.

I’ve been saying for a couple of years that the best outcome of the next election would be a hung parliament and a government of all the talents. New Labour doesn’t deserve another term, unless of course they get rid of Mandy and Blears and their ilk, and suddenly become a proper socialist party, which seems unlikely to the point of pure fantasy.

Vince Cable clearly is best qualified to be the next Chancellor. Clegg and Hughes have a basic decency and intelligence. Willetts and Hague and aren’t idiots either, and are probably entitled to call themselves progressive conservatives if they subscribe to DC’s ‘four aims’.

Harriet Harman, currently parked in the Prescott slot, deserves better. The fact is she’s the most intelligent, decent and progressive of the current cabinet. And she’s intelligent in the sense of socially, emotionally and spiritually intelligent, being empathetic and intuitive as well as knowledgeable and genuinely ‘progressive’ in her beliefs and values.

Others will, of course, favour David Miliband for future stardom, but he’s done himself no favours in his current post over the torture cover-up, which is stupid and unforgivable. He’s also tainted by being a Blair advisor and collaborator for so many years, as he climbed the greasy NuLabour pole within the Downing Street clique. He was also useless as an Education Secretary.


“Soft Skills and Starters for 10”

The Guardian published an interesting column yesterday by Yvonne Roberts, a senior associate of the Young Foundation.

In it she refers to both Jade Goody, whose affliction with terminal cancer and recent marriage have been big news in the tabloids, and in fact in all the papers, and Gail Trimble, who’s become a national superstar as a result of her excellence in captaining the winning team to the final of University Challenge.

To her great credit, Gail Trimble has said that her performance on television is no demonstration of real intelligence or understanding - it’s just quick recall of facts.

Unfortunately Yvonne Roberts refers to the development of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence as ‘soft skills’, which I think is pretty unhelpful, even if it is the current jargon at the Young Foundation and elsewhere. These intelligences are neither hard nor soft, so what’s the point? It only antagonises the kind of people who equate ‘soft’ with female and touchy-feely and of lesser importance.

Interestingly in the Cameron piece in G2, there’s a quote from Chris Patten: “We know he is clever in an orthodox sense. But the tests he will face as prime minister are tests of temperament, and he has a good temperament.”

So there we have it - ‘orthodox cleverness’ can only get you so far. What really matter in life, and in one’s career, are the things that make up ‘character’ - the things that Obama clearly has in abundance - judgement, tenacity, self-confidence, self-discipline, vision, compassion, determination, empathy, integrity, emotional intelligence and balance. It’s a blessing that we now have a leader of the Tory party who may indeed have some or all of these qualities, especially when you think about those who have gone before.

I need to quote extensively from Ms Roberts’ piece, as it hangs together so well:

The British education system is based on a form of apartheid. Those with a reasonable IQ are deemed "bright", and therefore they matter; the remainder are labelled failures, and know they are from infancy.

For decades, education has been artificially divided between the academic and those deemed inferior, who are possibly "good with their hands". Cognitive skills (academic knowledge, long-term memory, the ability to think abstractly) are still considered all that really matter. As the interim report of the primary review, published last week, points out, the result of this focus plus a distorted emphasis on numeracy, literacy, tests and targets, leaves teachers little freedom to bring out the best in each child.

As a result, we have illiteracy and alienation at one end of the spectrum and academic inflation at the other - producing young adults unsuited for work. Some schools and universities are exceptional in their determination to make education work for individuals, but most are pushed to produce young people who are anything but rounded, resilient, confident - or employable.
Much of the debate around the primary review missed the most important point: no matter what parts of the national curriculum are overhauled, expanded or removed, our system in the 21st century is not fit for purpose. It needs transformation, not reform.

The government is aware of the challenge. Verbally, at least, it endorses creativity and innovation and the importance of the soft skills - non-cognitive attributes such as attitudes, values and beliefs, self-confidence, enterprise, creativity, determination and persistence. These skills are much loved by the right as the ingredients of "character". It is these soft skills that the allegedly dumb Jade Goody has developed in public over the past several years.

In its actions, however, Labour still sticks to the past: IQ, exams and rigidly unimaginative didactic teaching rules.

US research by Martin Seligman, among others, has shown some people of superior intelligence who lack sufficient soft skills never make their mark. Conversely, others who produce low results on IQ tests, but who score highly in soft skills, can shine.

Yet with the absence of those skills and poor teacher expectations, hundreds of thousands of children are outstripped by their more affluent (and sometimes dimmer) peers who have their non-cognitive abilities developed to the hilt by middle-class parents able to invest hugely in project junior.

Flexibility, teamwork, problem-solving and determination are what's required - and while Trimble might have almost singlehandedly won it for Corpus Christi, as a society we can no longer afford to leave the thinking to an academic elite. Or endorse an education system that does not sufficiently invest in developing the non-cognitive skills and character that allow a child to achieve his or her full potential.


Further to my comments in the last blog, the Guardian published a survey yesterday which confirmed that most voters (two thirds) think that Labour would fare better with a new leader.


Alistaire Darling on Radio 4 this morning was continuing to witter on about the need to return the banks to the private sector - to “fully commercial operation”, “run on a private basis”, as soon as possible. He was also at pains to emphasise that RBS is one of the biggest banks in the world.

So bloody what? Since the banks imploded aren’t we, the public, entitled to aquire them at little or no cost, then hire capable managers to run them properly, and in doing so make fat profits that benefit us - the people? Or am I missing something?


Also in the news today the fat cat bastard who dumped RBS (and almost the whole of the financial system) in the shit, and on his ‘retirement’ became ‘entitled’ to a pension of £600,000 per year for the rest of his life. He’s only just turned 50 now. Mr Darling is going to ask him politely if he’d care to give some of the money back, since he was evidently so useless at his job, and ought to have been sacked anyway. Mr Darling said it seemed only right to give the money back since these are hard, indeed dire, times for RBS. Like - that amount of pension would be OK if RBS was making ‘normal’ profits? Fuck off!

Speechless. Just speechless.


As indeed I am at Mandy’s determination to part-privatise The Post Office. The man is a complete maniac. Brown was an idiot to bring him back into government, and can do nothing about him now. He’s no idea of the scale of revulsion for this unswerving determination to privatise public assets.

Any fool can make profits from a public monopoly - you just put up prices. The point is - it’s a matter of public policy that postal rates are kept low. Another problem lies with NuLabour’s willingness to let private sector companies cherry pick the bits of the former postal service they can make profits on.

You want the post office to be more efficient? Hire better managers, and let them work with the unions on ways to improve efficiency.

There’s a problem with the pension fund? So what? It’s a pittance compared with the banks’ bail out. And do NOT let that be an excuse - that’s we’ve given so much money to bail out the banks that we can no longer afford to bail out the Post Office. Bullshit.


Springwatch 4.

The very first tiny yellow blossom on the forsythia outside my kitchen window.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Layer 126 Gaza, Vegas, Pollock, Brown and the Bankers.

Human rights researchers were featured on Radio 4 yesterday, since they’ve issued a report on the Gaza slaughter of hundreds of civilians. Their central concern was the use of weapons that were guaranteed to kill innocent women and children, and men. White phosphorous that causes flesh and guts to burn unstoppably, tank shells fired through the windows of houses, bombs that release ‘flechettes’ or barbed arrow-heads by the thousand, high explosive bombs and shells fired into streets, markets and public buildings, all caused carnage. Israel more or less shrugs its shoulders, says the Hamas fighters shouldn’t have hidden themselves in urban areas, and says the use of phosphorous was unauthorised by their government. No apology though.

Could it be that the Israeli state sees God as its role model, I wonder, since the Bible tells us that God was very much given to smiting bad guys? He apparently smote places like Egypt with plagues of locusts, unhealable boils and the death of first-born children. When He got really pissed off with the human race He apparently just drowned the lot of them, with the exception of good old Noah and his missus.

Maybe the Israeli government sees itself as enacting God’s will in smiting the people of Gaza? They’ve certainly gone further than extracting an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They presumably see themselves as the Chosen Ones, carrying out the will of God.

So did God tell the Nazis to murder 6 million innocents? Was that God’s will? Or the Devil’s? And if the Devil can be responsible for the killing of innocents, could he then be responsible for the killing of more than a thousand innocents in Gaza? In which case, was the Israeli state acting on behalf of the Devil?

And in any case, how does all this square with God’s commandment that thou shalt not kill? It’s all too much for my poor little Zen brain.


On a much lighter note, the BBC are re-running the Johnny Vegas comedy vehicle - Ideal. Last night they showed the episode where the Vegas character and his girlfriend are discussing their simultaneous affairs, which are supposedly at an end.

The girlfriend berates him for the way he carried on his affair so indiscreetly, so blatantly, whereas as she blah, blah . . . To which Johnny replies, “What’s this? An infidelity masterclass?”

Their relationship, however, is messed up by Johnny’s acquisition of a massive television set. She makes it clear that the TV has to go, and that he has to choose - her or the TV. The TV stays.

She later returns to the flat to try a reconciliation, and the new girlfriend has to quickly hide - behind the TV. From her hiding place she overhears a conversation about how Vegas had talked about the new girlfriend as a complete idiot. She bursts out of her hiding place and wails, “I know I’m stupid! I’ve tried learning, but it just doesn’t happen for me!”

Finally they’re happily curled up on the sofa, with the TV towering over them, and Vegas murmurs contentedly, “You and me and the big telly were just meant to be.”

And what are they watching? “Clangers - as relevant today as it was then.”

Well, he is a dope dealer, after all.


This bit’s going to be boring, but it has to be said. Gordon Brown is an idiot. He tried learning, but it just didn’t happen for him.

He clearly thinks we’re idiots. The article he wrote, or was written in his name, for the Observer on Sunday was headed “We will put people first, not bankers.” Future tense, we notice.

And this is the crux of the matter, and why people now despise him and want to punish him, to smite him, as well as the bankers - precisely because we’re not idiots.

[Guardian front-page story yesterday - Britain Faces Summer of Rage - Police. ‘Middle-class anger at economic crisis could erupt into violence on streets.’]

For 10 years and more Brown presided over unregulated casino capitalism and ignored the calls from a multitude of critics, notably Will Hutton as far back as 1995, who were demanding that he do the things that he’s now saying he’s going to do.

In the article he blathers on about our values as a nation and the need to protect people from the ‘downturn’ and prepare ourselves for ‘every future challenge’. Quite right, Gord, but we wouldn’t now have a ruinous banking crisis and a recession if you’d taken action back in ’97 to re-regulate the bankers, prevented a property bubble developing, insisted on due caution when handing out mortgages, put limits on people and companies building up ‘portfolios’ of residential houses and flats for private renting, etc. “No more boom and bust”, indeed.

Gord goes on about “a reformed and more responsible banking system”, which is exactly what Will Hutton wrote about in “The State We’re In” before NuLabour came to power - so why didn’t our great leader do something about it before the shit hit the fan, before the horse bolted? Only now he wants to shut the stable door and clean out 10 years’ worth of droppings.

Gord says he “understands and shares people’s anger towards the behaviour of some of the banks”, but he doesn’t see the anger that’s towards HIM? I’m sure he does, but a complete lack of integrity and honesty prevent him from acknowledging it.

If he had any integrity he’d resign and allow someone who’s consistently advocated proper banking regulation to become the party leader and PM - if such a person could be found within the Labour party. (It’s surely axiomatic that there’s no such person within NuLabour.)

But lo! There’s more. “We must make changes both in the banks themselves and their regulation.” (Why didn’t he do it 10 years ago?)

“Banks must act in the long-term interests of their shareholders and therefore of the economy as a whole.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)

“This starts with a rejection of the old short-term bonus culture.” (Why didn’t he do it 10 years ago?)

We must have “long-term incentives and claw-backs if future performance is poor”. (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)

We must have “better governance of banks. Their boards must have the expertise and power to challenge management and they must be able to understand the risks the company is taking.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)

Board members must have “the necessary expertise and the right incentives to monitor executives.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)

“We need both better national and global regulation.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)

“Institutions with global reach should be regulated in a global way, not by a patchwork of national regulators.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)

“We have to be clear as a nation about what we expect from our banks, and clear too about how people . . . expect these vital institutions to be run.” Fuck off, Gord! You weren’t clear about that, 10 years ago? 20 years? I certainly was. A great many of us were clear about it. Socialists certainly were. It was just NuLabour that wasn’t. Even the Tories and the neo-cons were clear about what they wanted, which is exactly what you gave them.

“Britain needs to lead the world in reforming and restructuring our banking system.” Too late, you arrogant twat. Leaving aside your crappy syntax - since the world can’t restructure OUR banking system - many other countries never had governments that made their central banks independent of their government, never deregulated to the ridiculous extent that we did, and never had so-called watchdogs that were as useless and pathetic as ours was.

What’s happened is thanks to YOUR laissez-faire lack of attention. Thanks to YOU appointing the actual mad bankers to run the so-called watchdogs.

AND it was YOU who appointed mad bankers to be your top economic and financial advisers. Instead of competent professional economists with an independent and disinterested, non-partisan, non-neo-con viewpoint. People like Will Hutton, for instance.

New Labour did none of the above, did none of the things Gord now says he intends to do, in spite of a crying need to do so, because it was bent on slavishly following the neo-cons and the Chicago Boys, not leading us towards a more enlightened system that was “the servant of our economy, and society, never its master”, which is now what Gord says he wants.

Fair enough - he’s now (finally, belatedly) seen the light. But where’s the credibility? It’s not like he can say he was busy doing something else with fisheries or the health service or education whilst the economic time-bomb was being constructed. He was right there, in the Treasury, surrounded by advisers (the wrong ones - Ed Balls!) and able to take decisive action any time he chose. Except that he wasn’t able.

Oh dear! Tony wouldn’t let him! George wouldn’t let Tony! No doubt these will be the excuses he’ll trot out in his memoires. Better to be in there, tinkering around as best he could within the neo-con straitjacket, than not there at all. No doubt.

Except that he could have resigned. He could have made a stand. He could have drawn our attention to what needed to be done. The reason he didn’t do that either was simply because he was an idiot and he believed people like the ex-head of RBS when they told him that all was for the best in the best of all possible capitalist worlds. Wasn’t London now the epicentre and the hub of the world’s financial markets? How great was that? Brilliant!

Gord has now learnt from hard experience that this wasn’t the case. That’s ‘hard’, by the way, in the sense that other people’s lives are now being devastated. Gord himself continues to occupy Number 10 and still spends his weekends in the splendour and comfort of Chequers. Why?


Polly Toynbee wrote an interesting article last week about the Labour leadership. She makes the point that a change in the leadership won’t necessarily improve NuLabour’s electoral chances. What’s needed now, she points out, whoever leads the party, are the right policies that will lead to economic stabilisation and recovery, with the least amount of pain and misery for the innocents who will take the brunt of the implosion of the current free-market, globalised system.

It's life and death for Labour in the here and now, never mind who leads the battered remnants if Labour loses as badly as looks likely.

Fiscal rectitude can wait: for now, 100,000 more unemployed every month matter most. Promise a job or apprenticeship for every school-leaver, create green jobs, build homes and railways. Make mortgage rescue work. Talk openly about the divide between the majority in work, doing rather well with low mortgages and falling prices: they will need to share more with jobless families and pensioners in real hardship. Explain the need to spread pain and gain more fairly. Describe what's happening honestly and why there must be no cuts in public services. Make bold savings on Trident, aircraft carriers and ID cards among other things and, for the sake of foreign investor confidence, admit that later taxes will need to rise for those who came through this well.

Clarity and honesty are the only hope: April's budget is Labour's last chance. It's an all or nothing gamble. But since the Tories will go for the jugular on debt anyway, Labour needs to take a bolder Keynesian line that really will save millions from suffering. Brown's talk of the "spirit of the Blitz" might start to resonate if he makes a braver fight against this ever darkening depression.


Last night I watched a superb film about the life and times of Jackson Pollock, the notorious Jack the Dripper, and his ever darkening depression. It was fascinating to see such a good drama depicting his development as an artist, his poverty, his rise to fame, his madness and his alcoholism - the affliction that eventually ruined his work and ended his life through a car crash whilst out driving when he was completely pissed. Tragically he also killed the young woman who had taken the place in his life of his long-term partner and wife, Lee Krasner.

I can still remember the first time I saw paintings by Pollock in an exhibition. What was stunning, apart from their size and apparent simplicity, was the fact that they clearly weren’t painted, in the accepted use of that word. There were no brush strokes - just incredible surfaces looking as though they were actually moving, swirling, shifting. They had this sort of rhythm and sway, and were truly mesmerising, which I hadn’t been expecting. Completely abstract, with no figurative elements, they spoke directly to the soul and the senses.

A body of work like Pollock’s reminds me that it’s not the length of our lives that matters - it’s what we do with them. He died at 44. Van Gogh at 37. Hendrix died in his twenties. All of them ruined by drugs and/or personal demons. All of them produced bodies of work that were stunningly original, incredibly vibrant and uplifting, and will never be successfully copied or replicated.


A Final Word on Gaza and Iraq

I’ve been meaning to blog about this article for a couple of weeks. It’s by Pankaj Mishra, author of Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet.

When last week in Ha'aretz the Israeli historian Tom Segev judged Israeli "apathy" towards the massacre in Gaza as "chilling and shameful", he brought on deja vu among Indians. In 2002 the Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat supervised the killing of more than two thousand Muslims.

As the Israeli right looks likely to be the latest electoral beneficiary of state terror, it is time to ask: can the institutions of electoral democracy, liberal capitalism and the nation-state be relied upon to do our moral thinking for us? "Trust in the majority," they seem to say, but more often than not the majority proves itself incapable of even common sense.

Hannah Arendt's phrase "banality of evil" refers precisely to how a generalised moral numbness among educated, even cultured, people makes them commit or passively condone acts of extreme violence.

Shallowness and ignorance have been our lot in the mass consumer societies we inhabit, where we were too distracted to act politically, apart from periodically deputing political elites to take life-and-death decisions on our behalf. We were shielded from many of the deleterious consequences, which worked themselves out on obscure people in remote lands. The free world's economic implosion is bringing home the intolerable cost of this collective deference to apparently efficient elites and anonymous, overcomplex institutions.

It is too easy to blame Bush, who told Americans to go spend and consume while he ratcheted up pain levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the grotesquely overrated technocrats running banks and businesses. As the New York Times columnist Frank Rich reminded Americans last week: "We spent a decade feasting on easy money, don't-pay-as-you-go consumerism and a metastasizing celebrity culture. We did so while a supposedly cost-free, off-the-books war, usually out of sight and out of mind, helped break the bank along with our nation's spirit and reputation."

The prosperity many democracies enjoyed lulled citizens into political torpor. The prospect of economic collapse has persuaded a majority of Americans to exercise more individual judgment than they showed while re-electing Bush in 2004. But collective failures of the kind Barack Obama spoke of in his stern inaugural speech will continue to occur among citizens of other democracies - and they will have no Obama to exhort them to personal responsibility.

In any case, economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy. They are more likely to make authoritarianism attractive, as European democracies in the 1930s and Russia in recent times demonstrated. Many Indians and Israelis seem set to elect, with untroubled consciences, those who speak the language of torturers and terrorists. More disturbingly, these corrupted democracies may increasingly prove the norm rather than the exception.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Layer 125 Primary Review, Private Tutoring and Adult Education.

Labour came to power in 1997, on that glorious sunny Mayday, with a nifty little catchphrase, Education, Education, Education, which seemed pretty stupid at the time, as a programme for progressive government, and looks completely hollow and meaningless now. Personally I’d have settled for something like Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, but no - it was all about education. That was all Tony could think of.

Well, we’ve learnt a lot since then, alright. They weren’t kidding when they said they’d come to power as New Labour and they’d govern as NuLabour, whose translation into NuSpeak turned out to be ‘Neo-Conservatism’ - from the Greek ‘neos’, meaning ‘new’, and ‘conservatism’, meaning . . . Conservatism. Meaning, ‘what we have we keep, we preserve, we maintain’.

We’d had the Thatcher and Reagan revolution - the overthrow of the post-war social democratic or vaguely liberal consensus - and by golly (Tony), or by God (George & Tony), we were going to keep it.

As for Liberty - don’t make me laugh. A surveillance society, detention without trial, Guantanamo, torture and rendition.

Equality - you are definitely joking. Tony and Peter were ‘intensely relaxed’ about the filthy rich, meaning, they were up their arses, and were getting on with joining their ranks.

And Fraternity - well buddy, can you spare a dime? We became a mean-spirited, violent, tax-cutting, tax-dodging, beggar-thy-neighbour society under Thatch, and, well, let’s just say - things can only get better.

The only example of fraternity I can think of since ’97 is George and Jeb Bush working together to steal the election in Florida, steal the presidency, and instigate the rule of George Cheney, the neo-con gang bang, the Project for the New American Century, and all that’s followed since 2001. Some Odyssey.

Tony, of course, was a great follower, and acted like George’s gormless, hick cousin from across the water. A great believer in trickle-down economics, deregulation, casino capitalism, privatisation, globalisation and might is right foreign policy. You could almost believe he’d done a post graduate correspondence course for a Chicago School masters degree in the Shock Doctrine, but it’s more likely he had a personal tutor assigned to him by the White House, with daily swot sessions in his study at Number 10. It’s the Oxbridge way.

I certainly can’t remember seeing anything in the ’97 manifesto about maintaining and promoting casino capitalism, tax havens, a housing bubble, financial meltdown, further privatisations, or billions squandered on illegal wars under the banner of a ‘war on terror’. I’m not sure I’d have voted for that. I’m not sure anyone voted for that.

So what’s happened to education, in the meantime - meaning schools, colleges, teachers and pupils? The Guardian’s headline on Friday pretty much summed it up.

“Tests blamed for blighting children's lives.”

Children's lives are being impoverished by the government's insistence that schools focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of creative teaching, the biggest review of the primary school curriculum in 40 years finds today.

Labour has failed to tackle decades of over-prescription in the curriculum and added to it with its own strategies in literacy and numeracy.

Children are leaving school lacking knowledge about the arts and humanities having spent too many years "tied to a desk" learning times tables, the head of the review, Robin Alexander, said.
"Our argument is that their education, and to some degree their lives, are impoverished if they have received an education that is so fundamentally deficient," he said.

The report says schools should be freed of Sats and league tables to allow them to make more decisions about what and how they teach.

The compulsory daily act of worship should be reviewed and a curriculum that values knowledge and understanding as well as basic skills should be brought in, it says.

Teaching unions, headteachers and major educational bodies all backed the plans, setting the government on a collision course with schools if it fails to consider the proposals.

So there we have it. It’s not so much on a collision course though - this appalling government of shysters and traitors has already hit the buffers in every single direction it’s taken the country. From landslide to train-wreck. There’s been a staggering arrogance, an ability to listen only to the neo-cons and their right-wing allies in the press and the City, and they’ve learnt precisely nothing.

They admit nothing, and they apologise for nothing. They’ve tried to position themselves in what they imagine is the ‘middle ground’, but assumed it was pretty much where Thatch was standing. Even the Tories and the Libdems are well to the left of them now.

So much for education and learning. So much for enlightenment.

The review finds:

• Children are losing out on a broad, balanced and rich curriculum with art, music, drama, history and geography the biggest casualties.

• The curriculum, and crucially English and maths, have been "politicised".

• The focus on literacy and numeracy in the run-up to national tests has "squeezed out" other areas of learning.

• The Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which sets the curriculum, have been excessively prescriptive, "micro-managing" schools.

The review accuses the government of attempting to control what happens in every classroom in England, leading to an excessive focus on literacy and numeracy in an "overt politicisation" of children's lives. Despite this too many children still leave primary school having failed to master the 3Rs.

Sats have also narrowed the scope of what is taught in schools, it claims, concluding: "The problem of the curriculum is inseparable from the problem of assessment and testing."

Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the proposals "have depth, credibility and, above all, respond to the realities of the primary classroom".

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Rather than continue to tinker around the edges of primary education we would like the government to heed the proposals and reopen the debate about the purposes of primary education."

Mary, dear, you’re being too polite. The “debate” has been going on since Plowden, since the last time anyone took a good look at Primary education, and concluded that it should operate in the interests of children and not teachers or anyone else, least of all the government, who have ruthlessly politicised education ever since Sunny Jim Callaghan (re)started the “great debate” back in the seventies. The needs of children are paramount - that’s it. There’s no debate. That’s it.

The needs of children are for a broad, balanced and stimulating curriculum that motivates all children to want to learn and to enjoy learning for its own sake, enabling them to develop social, emotional and spiritual intelligence as well as intellectual and creative abilities and critical thinking skills. There’s NO fucking debate. Why should we debate these things? The Cambridge Primary Review is right - the government, this government pledged to education, education, education - got it all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

That's the way it is”, said the headline above yesterday’s Guardian lead editorial.

The literacy and numeracy strategies, admirable though they were in intent and even achievement, have spawned a target-dominated primary school culture which distorts the balance of early-years learning and which locks schools into a politically determined agenda rather than one that is centred, as originally intended and as any such policy should be, on the needs of the child.

The Alexander team have gone back to first principles. They have also delivered a shattering verdict.

At the core of the report is the conclusion that the government's preoccupation with tests and standards has become the cuckoo in the primary school nest. The report is positively in favour of the national curriculum. It is not hostile in principle to the focus on literacy and numeracy. But it is insistent that the prioritisation of measured standards in these fields, which Mr Rose's terms of reference do not allow him to question, creates pressures - particularly intense at the start and finish of the primary phase - which "increasingly but needlessly" compromise children's right to a broad and balanced primary education. The most prominent casualties of this distortion - which is driven by Whitehall's conviction that breadth is incompatible with "the basics" - are the arts, humanities and, in some cases, science.

The Cambridge report is one of those rare documents which one reads and then says: yes, that's exactly how it is, that's what is wrong with the way things are being done and, yes, that's the way a better system ought to be run. In the past, reports of this authority and quality were often commissioned by governments which were genuinely concerned to obtain the full facts and best advice for dealing with difficult problems - and respectful of politically inconvenient conclusions too.

Mr Alexander has written a report that ought to define the collective approach to primary education for a generation. When Rose is published too, there will be a huge opportunity to put the system right. New Labour rarely listens to advice it does not script or control. But this is an issue and a moment that should not be sacrificed to political dogma.

Rarely? How about never? Political dogma? Blimey - that’s all NuLabour understands. Being ‘on message’ is all that’s ever counted. The Bible according to Tony, Gordie and Peter. NuLabour’s fundamentalism is more like religious, rather than political, dogma, since it’s based on a message passed down by father, son and holy ghost, rather than anything scientific or testable.

Tony, of course, was the first PM for donkey’s years to father a child whilst ensconced in No 10. Gordie is the son of the manse, as well as the inheritor of the NuLabour leadership and legacy. I quite like the idea of Peter M as wholly ghost. The animating spirit of New Labour.

And as for Tony’s - “I did what I thought was right.” You thought? You fucking thought? So did Hitler, Stalin, and all the other power freaks and dictators, do what they thought was right. I don’t really think you can use that as a justification, Tone. That’s not a good line. What you should have said was - “I did some very bad things because I was convinced of my own unique brilliance. Sorry.”

Blair and Mandleson. Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. According to Wikipedia, “The Tweedle brothers never contradict each other, even when one of them, according to the rhyme, "agrees to have a battle". Rather, they complement each other's words.”

Do any of the NuLabour leadership ever contradict each other, or show any capacity for independent thinking? Robin Cook, the most intelligent and honourable of the Tweedle brotherhood, was the only one to resign over a point of principle - the invasion of Iraq. Could you ever imagine Tweedle-blears or Tweedle-brown or Tweedle-straw doing such a thing? Maybe there was fraternity after all.

Oxzen said this in Comment Is Free:

It's to the Guardians great credit that it made this piece today's lead editorial, and also made the Primary Review the lead story on the front page yesterday - "Tests blamed for blighting childrens lives".

This wretched government has indeed blighted the lives of a generation of children and teachers by continuing and making even worse the policies begun under Thatcher and Major. It has slavishly followed the prescriptions of the neo-conservatives in education - just as it did in finance and economics, in industrial policy, in the invasion of Iraq, and in justice and civil liberties.

It's time the more enlightened members of the present Cabinet spoke out and welcomed the Primary Review's work, instead of branding it as insulting to teachers and children, as reported by the BBC yesterday. The DCSF's instant denial that primary pupils are getting inadequate schooling does them no credit whatsoever.

More enlightened countries use continuous pupil tracking against clear learning targets, as well as formative assessment, to monitor how well pupils are progressing - not timed tests at the age of 11. Pupils have an absolute right to develop a love of learning for its own sake, and to develop their powers of creativity, as well as their personal, social and emotional intelligences, instead of being processed through results factories for the greater glory of politicians and bureaucrats who equate only test and exam passes with educational achievement, and actually believe the main purpose of primary schools is to begin grooming children for the world of work.

This flies in the face of what the more enlightened employers have been calling for, which is young people who have well-developed thinking skills, creative capacity, high levels of social and emotional intelligence and team working skills, and so on. If these aspects of achievement are not developed from the nursery stage onward then they are either stunted or not developed at all. The Primary review has rightly concluded that the current DCSF and Ofsted regimes have impoverished the learning that goes on in far too many of our schools.

Far too many of our children are suffering from stress, boredom and alienation. Thanks to government policy and its efforts to micromanage learning and teaching, what's been happening to many of our children, who, in too many schools, have been denied access to the sheer pleasure of learning skills and knowledge within the context of a broad, balanced and stimulating curriculum, has been tantamount to abuse.

‘GreatGrandDad’ posted this:

The historians of the future will look back on the National Curriculum as having been institutionalised child-abuse.

The teachers of the future (if the teaching profession resumes) will look back on the late twentieth century as the time when the teaching profession was destroyed and a misguided attempt was made to replace it with corps of curriculum-delivery operatives.

We bang up kids in schools for half their waking hours on half the days of the year. They deserve something less dreary than being 'drilled for the test'.

‘martinusher’ said,

Testing regimes in schools are just another example of a management culture that rejects the notion of workers as partners, they're merely production units that have to be monitored 24/7 to make sure they don't slack off. The process in schools has been interesting to watch. It starts with a tightening of budgets which leads to a decline in the environment ("Deferred Maintenance"), increase in class sizes and the dropping of subjects and activities that aren't part of the core curriculum. Gradually, over time, this leads to erosions in standards, a problem which is pinned squarely on the teachers so obviously they need monitoring (and constant retraining).

Anyone with half a brain can see what's wrong with this process, how corrosive it is, but it pervades all aspects of life, not just schools. Its part of a realignment of society, a realignment that fits with the idea of schools and universities being primarily training units for employers, turning out docile work units with appropriate skillsets.

‘ArseneKnows’ said,

As the farmer said

' T'pig don' get no fatter cos en keeps on weighin' en. '

The testing regime exists for political reasons only and the biggest reason for its failure is that it tests the children not the teachers and/or the system.

Give me a test, its marking scheme and a few examples of what a good answer looks like. Tell me my job is on the line if I don't produce a certain % of passes.

I can give you a class that has been coached in taking the test for 2 years, the required number of passes (very possibly involving a few strategic absences on the day of exams and a few well-timed exclusions) and a classful of students who have been cheated of an education and who are in many cases unable to operate without being spoon-fed.


The Rose Red Empire?

I forgot to write some more last week about the Book of the Week, “Hackney: The Rose Red Empire”, - to remind readers not to listen to listen to it on Radio 4, and definitely not to buy it. Unless you’re into pompous twaddle passing itself off as poetic reflections. God, it’s bad.

It’s surely a sign of a crap writer when he uses idioms incorrectly; and a sign of a crap publisher when the bad usage doesn’t get spotted and subbed. What’s tolerable in an amateur blogger and self-publisher, for example, is completely unacceptable in a book that you’re asking people to buy.

He writes about Jayne Mansfield, many years ago, coming to the East End, to Haggerston, to open the annual show of the Hackney budgerigar society, and describes her as being ‘at the end of her tether’, when he clearly means she was at the end of her career, and past her sell-by date, reduced to making money from personal appearances at budgie shows.

There was nothing about her that spoke of being at the end of her tether, since she was described as being cheerful, smiling, still ‘glamorous’ and able to ‘perform’ well for a smattering of her few remaining admirers.

Being at the end of one’s tether, at the other hand, is like someone gritting his teeth and continuing to listen to over-written, supposedly ‘poetic’ bullshit that you’d really much rather distance yourself from, simply in order to perform his bloggerly duties, as it were.

Just for a laugh, though, do have a listen to some of it on the Radio 4 website. Do it quickly before it gets deleted.


Springwatch 3

It’s now light before 7.00am, not dark till nearly 6.00pm, and some of the daffodil shoots already have the beginnings of heads. At the weekend I saw some delightful clumps of snowdrops in a local nature reserve. There’s a mature camellia in my street partly in blossom. Friends tell me there are crocuses out in the churchyard. Temperatures back above 10 - 12 degrees.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Layer 124 The Working Classes

It’s obviously a zeitgeisty thing, but Radio 4 started a series on the working class today.

Class consciousness is definitely making a comeback in Britain. It’s surely impossible NOT to think about Us and Them when most people are feeling fucked over by the bankers and the financiers, and have become acutely aware of the fact that there’s a whole group or class of people who manage to avoid paying their fair share of taxes whilst simultaneously paying themselves phenomenal amounts of money in salaries, profits and ‘bonuses’.

No doubt many of those people work hard, but it’s not necessarily ‘work’ as we know it, Jim. And many of them only work because they feel driven to get seriously rich - like, mega rich. Many of them don’t work at all, of course, and this is also becoming clearer to many - that there’s a rentier or property-owning class who have become richer and richer on the basis of their families having bequeathed to them property and share portfolios which they pay other people to manage, whilst they themselves swan around the place and live the life of Reilly.

Not that anyone would seriously want adopt their useless and pathetic lifestyles, their parasitical and trivial existences. As someone said in the programme, even if he won the lottery he’d still want to live near his family and mates, use the same pub, and go to football at weekends.

But this is something the footloose and aspirational middle classes have difficulty understanding - ‘up there’ in the midlands and the north there are people living happy and fulfilled lives who are not driven by a restless quest for life behind suburban walls, behind electric gates, thinking that’s where happiness and contentment lie.

You can’t buy community, you can’t buy lifelong friends and a loyal extended family. Money doesn’t bring happiness, especially if it’s used in ways that cut you off from those who bring joy and friendship into your life.

Of course we’d all like a year’s sabbatical and enough money to go traveling - but ultimately there has to be more to life than being idle. Prince Siddharta found meaning in life, and ultimately enlightenment, by becoming a bodhisatva and striving to serve people in need.

According to the programme:

More people now identify themselves as working class than they did 40 years ago

Engles was shocked by the conditions of the working classes in Manchester.

For many years it’s been ‘unfashionable’ to talk about class

Who now speaks for the working class? (Certainly not NuLabour)

Unfortunately they interviewed Hazel bleeding Blears, “one of the few senior politicians from a working class background”, blathering on about having a string permanently around her neck as a child. It turns out the string held a latch key. There’s quite a few of us who’d like to see the string back round her neck.

So how do people define their class? Is it about attitudes?

“There’s only one way to get money, and that’s to work,” said somebody. But that’s so not true. There are now thousands of people who live off inherited wealth. Trustafarians abound in the wealthier parts of London, for instance.

So is a working class person someone who works for a living, or someone who HAS to work for a living, because they have no choice?

There’s also the issue of identity - identification with a section of society, such as the working class, plus whether you need to work for a living.

The programme made the point that in Australia & the USA it’s different - since people there usually have a sense of being able to (and wanting to) reinvent themselves. Invariably as better off and more aspirational beings. Nobody in those places apparently wants to consider themselves as working class, let alone feels any pride in it.

The programme then focused on how change comes about in society - how working class people can fight back against poverty and exploitation. Pressure from below? Mass movements agitating for social change?

Thomas Paine - England’s greatest radical - was mentioned. "These are the times that try men's souls," declared Thomas, in his pamphlet The Crisis - and indeed they are. Are we also on the brink of a revolution? Not necessarily a revolutionary war, as such, but certainly a revolution in consciousness and political sophistication, leading to the radical economic and social changes the world desperately needs. Perhaps. Who knows where the current turmoil will lead? (see also the bits on Cameron and Chavez below)

Ewan McColl was name-checked by the programme, as was Anthony Burgess - a working class lad who grew up in Manchester and also went to university there.
Interesting that there’s such a good section on Ewan on Peggy Seeger’s website, and a coincidence that Pete Seeger’s reputation has been boosted lately by the man himself performing at Obama’s inauguration concert (see below), and by Springsteen’s brilliant “Seeger Sessions Band”. The Boss, as we know, has always been the champion of blue collar folk, in both senses of the words - champion and folk.

(And to digress even further - there was a superb documentary on Seasick Steve on BBC4, or Sky Arts, last week - his life and times. Plus 30 minutes of him playing the blues at the Reading Festival and the Albert Hall - literally rags to riches. Go out and buy Dog House Music if you don‘t already have it.)

- great video of Steve performing Dog House Blues on 3-string bottleneck guitar on Jules Holland’s prog. Play loud. (great camera work, by the way. Respect to the ‘Later’ team.)

Another coincidence for me was rooting around on my bookshelves last night and coming across Anthony Burgess’s ‘Earthly Powers’, which I bought second-hand for £1.30 several years ago and never got round to reading. It was written in the year of my son’s birth, and has written inside the front cover: “Dear Daddy, Happy Birthday 19/11/81 lots of love Helen xxxxxxxxxx”.

I wonder what Helen and her dad are doing now, and whether he managed to read the book. (see below)

The programme concluded with some thoughts about working class people getting by in life, helping one another out when times are hard, having a sense of community

Whereas middle class & comfortably off people can afford to let things stay the same, and can seemingly live anti-socially, in isolated nuclear units.

Right at the end there was a reference to John Cooper Clark, the Bard of Salford, whose dad worked in car factory. “Working on the midnight shift”, no doubt. Coincidentally John’s about to go back on the road, and had a gig reviewed in the Guardian this week.

Looking ahead to the next programme the presenter asked: Is it just what we earn, who we identify with, whether we feel a part of a community, and which newspaper we read? Is it in fact a question of values and culture?

Stay tuned.


There’s a brilliant advert on TV at the moment for the Co-operative movement, showing dandelion seeds floating on their parachutes to a soundtrack of Dylan’s ‘Blowing In the Wind’, letting the lyrics speak their message - “How many roads must a walk down? . . . “How many times must a man look up? . . .“

The message of the voice-over right at the end is simply about the Co-ops’ community projects, sharing profits, fair trade, etc. Excellent.


1) A Cat Among the Pigeons

David Cameron set a cat amongst pigeons with an article in yesterday’s Guardian, “A Radical Power Shift: Our future depends on putting more political responsibility in the hands of local people.”

Tony Benn once spoke about wanting a fundamental shift of power and wealth to working people. I too want that fundamental shift - to local people and local institutions. Over the last century Britain has become one of the most centralised countries in the developed world as power has been sucked to Westminster. Some might wonder why this matters. After all, isn't politics just about what works? But there is a deep connection between where decisions are made and what works.

When one-size-fits-all solutions are dispensed from the centre, it's not surprising they so often fail local communities. When people experience a yawning gap between the changes they want to see and those they can directly affect, it is inevitable that demoralisation and democratic disengagement follow.

225 responses in CIF so far. Worth a read.


2) A catamite among the pigeons.

So I started reading Earthly Powers, and was immediately grabbed by it. How many books do you come across that have a word in the very first sentence that you need to look up in a dictionary, or Wikipedia?

A catamite is the younger partner in a pederastic relationship between two males, which was a popular arrangement in many areas of the ancient world.

Kings and Emperors in some ancient cultures had not only concubines but also catamites (male concubines), in addition to their many wives.

The word is also used to describe the practice in early Japan, where monks would have sexual relationships with younger monks[citation needed]; samurai with pages; and noblemen with younger members of the aristocracy.

The word catamite is derived from the Latin catamitus, itself borrowed from the Etruscan catmite, a corruption of the Greek Ganymedes, the boy who was seduced by Zeus and became his beloved and cup-bearer in Greek mythology.

So there. And then we discover that Burgess is having a laugh -

“I have lost none of my old cunning in the contrivance of what is known as an arresting opening.”

A novelist is having a siesta on his 81st birthday. An archbishop comes to visit and the novelist asks his manservant to take him into the bar and pour him a drink.

“The bar was across the hall, to the right, between the wreck of an office where Geoffrey neglected his secretarial work and my own fussily neat study. On the wall between the bar and the study was the Georges Rouault - a scrawled ugly ballerina, impatient thick black strokes and bitter washes. In Paris that time Maynard Keynes had hotly recommended that I buy it. He had known all about markets.”

600 pages to go.


Hugo Chavez has won his referendum to entitle him to keep on putting himself up for reelection in Venezuela. Say what you like about him, and his methods, but the man’s got a head, a heart and balls. After all that the USA did to the proletariat in South America, after all the killings and torture inspired by the Shock Doctrine, the revenge of the neo-cons and the Chicago Boys against leftists and progressives, it takes guts to stand up to the USA when it’s in the control of Bush and his ilk and is determined to get rid of you, and considers you a threat to its ‘national security’.


Obama’s Inauguration

Last night on TV there was a broadcast of the ‘concert’ that preceded Obama’s inauguration. A dog’s breakfast of an event, but very stirring in parts. Some naff speeches, but how fantastic to see so many black people taking leading roles in their country’s affairs. Some truly awful music and songs, but some wonderful stuff from the likes of Springsteen and gospel choirs.

After the truly hideous years of the neo-con ascendancy how incredible it all seems - the possibility that the affairs of a great nation are at last being coordinated and supervised by people with intelligence and credibility.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Layer 123 Signs of the Times; In Praise of Will Hutton

Chantelle Loves Alfie

Max Clifford is now handling the publicity for the happy couple, and has said that Alfie will soon take a DNA test to prove he’s the 13 year old father of Chantelle’s baby. Several other diminutive lads have now stepped forward to claim they’re the father of the sprog - i.e. they’re responsible for getting Chantelle up the duff. Which presumably entitles them (or one of them) to a share of the Sun’s payout for photos of the children and their child.

Chantelle swears she’s never had sex with anyone other than Alfie, who she truly loves. And anyway, she only shagged him the once. Vikki Pollard couldn’t have said it any better - yeah, but, no, but . . .

Alfie has said he will do his best to do well at school as well as be a good father to the baby. When asked by a radio reporter how they will manage financially, Alfie said, “What’s financially?”

Circus? What circus?


Radio 4 this morning broadcast a fascinating programme about wives. I hope Chantelle was listening, as she went about her motherly duties.

“Nobody knows what a wife is anymore, and if they do, they certainly don’t want to be one.”

“Although it takes two to make a marriage, it’s on the wife that happiness depends.” (Which might explain why so many marriages are less than happy, I heard a misogynist mutter.)

“The very being or existence of the woman is suspended during marriage. We are willing these days to make sacrifices for our children, but not for our husband.”

“Arguments, resentments and negotiations are endemic when the terms of a relationship are not clearly defined.”

“After children are born the workload quadruples and nobody gets a day off.

“Shopping, washing and ironing are usually seen as the province of the woman.”

“Harmony, equality and sharing are the ideal, but relationships become attritional rather than companionable.”

“If you don’t have clear-cut roles then every day you have to work it out, which is hard work.”

“The important thing is the deal. If a woman specialises in being the homemaker and child carer then the man ought to be the financial provider.” (Alfie was presumably not listening to this, as he’s having to do extra maths classes to learn what financially means.)

“Is it any wonder that working women are scratchy and resentful?”

“Maintaining hygiene and comfort takes over a thousand hours a year.”

“Is marriage on its last legs? Who is now prepared to trade domestic labour for financial security? Most women don’t need marriage any more, and often see it as licensed prostitution.”

“Obligation, being someone else’s property, servicing someone. But to inherit property, women need to change their status from concubine to wife.”

Interesting. Lots there for Chantelle to chew on, after she’s discovered for herself the delights of Radio 4.


Book of the Week?

Also on Radio 4 this morning - the first part of the new book of the week, by Iain Sinclair. It’s even worse than I’d imagined.

What I really dislike is the fact that his pretentious, prolix, so-called love-letter to Hackney will make people who don’t know the place say to themselves - well damn it . . . if this gimp likes the place then I’m bound to hate it. And I wouldn’t blame them.

Actually it’s not all that clear that he does like the place. He sees himself as some sort of pioneer/discoverer, like a modern day David Livingstone or Walter Raleigh, who loved the ‘virgin’ territory he found many years ago, but hated what it later looked like becoming.

There’s no doubt Hackney, like anywhere else, especially after 30 years of Thatcherite and NuLabour despoilation, has a mass of problems, but so what? Why does this toff think he’s qualified to pontificate about it? What makes him think that anyone actually cares what he thinks? He’s got nothing original to say anyway.


Signs of the Times

#1 More and more kids are putting on the Internet explicit sexual images of themselves which they’ve taken with their phones and digital cameras. Well they would, wouldn’t they? Does anyone seriously doubt the stupidity and thoughtlessness of teenagers?

#2 More and more of us are, in these hard times, spending our hard-earned funds on buckets of delicious ‘Kentuck’. KFC expect to open many more “restaurants” this year and next.

#3 An eight year old girl became terrified of losing her milk teeth. The doctors tried to help - by removing them. The girl refused to eat or drink, and subsequently died. The ‘authorities’ said that ‘with hindsight’ there was a ‘lack of communication’.

#4 A panel of senior figures in the legal establishment has said it’s time to repeal the abusive laws regarding privacy, detention without charge, civil liberties, etc, that were enacted after the events of 2001. They say they were, and are, illegal and counterproductive.

#5 BMW has dismissed hundreds of workers at its Oxford ‘Mini’ plant, having given them no notice at all. It simply called its ‘agency’ workers together at the end of a shift and told them not to come back. Some of these people are highly skilled and have worked at the plant for some years, but because they’ve remained on the books of agencies they have no protection, no employment rights, and no entitlement to redundancy pay. As a Union official said, if it was in Germany they wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. But that’s the very reason why they’re here, is it not? The unions have been asking NuLabour to do something about the excessive use of agency staff, and their entitlement to employment rights, for several years, but to no avail.

#6 According to makers of a scary documentary about Christianity, “The missionary boot is now on the other foot”. So look out Britain - the Pentecostals from Africa and elsewhere are on the rise and on the march. Millions of them, it seems. Doing their missionary best to evangelise us into shouting hallelujah, happy clapping, speaking in tongues, and carrying out exorcisms. We can only blame ourselves.



Last night was the first part of Paxo’s much-anticipated series on the Victorians, as seen through the eyes of their artists and painters. And it was good stuff - brilliant close-ups of paintings by relatively little-known artists such as Grimshaw, Egley, George Joy and John O’Connor, plus Gustav Dore and Ford Maddox Brown.

It make you think of how much of our infrastructure and our culture is directly attributable to the Victorians, and how little, relatively speaking, was added during the 20th Century. I guess the jury’s still out on how much of a benefit we ultimately get from the digital age.

It’s going to be interesting, for example, to see whether electronic surveillance helps the power elite to keep us all in our little boxes, or whether, on the other hand, the little people can use the technology to by-pass the ‘official’ media and communicate with one another about what’s really happening in our society. The phone video taken inside the mass meeting at the BMW/Mini factory would be an example of this. Will it galvanise and stir up opposition to what’s happening?


Where would we be without Will Hutton in these insane times? For three decades or more he’s written intelligently about economics and finance, never deviating from his Keynesian understanding and insights, and he’s now the “go to” expert for all those who get even a glimmer of the reality of what’s happening. Anyone who wants to understand the big picture should definitely read his 1995 classic, The State We're In. We're in it now, alright. Big time.

This Sunday he had an entire page in The Observer, which is a must-read for anyone with any intelligence.

Obama has picked the wrong hero for our times.

In order to save the global economy, the President has to stop trying to satisfy everybody. He should follow the example of Roosevelt and leave Lincoln behind.

The ideological divides that have racked the US remain as entrenched as ever. Obama may be a champion of the importance of government, but he and the Democrats have a long battle to convert a political victory into an intellectual one.

What is beginning to look doubtful is whether he can build around him a buttressing team who share the same passion and capacity as President Roosevelt had in similar economic circumstances. Obama has no equivalent of Roosevelt's two key lieutenants, Harry Hopkins, who led the fight for work, or Jesse Jones, who took on rebuilding the financial system.
Instead he is resolutely following his hero Abraham Lincoln, trying vainly to build a cabinet of all the talents.

It is the incapacity to trump the voodoo belief systems that have laid the US and world so low that is so dismaying and dispiriting. We are living through nothing less than the disintegration of the global financial system, shattering the western banking systems' capacity to lend. The risk is growing of a worldwide debt deflation. The west's governments have no choice but to put their balance sheets behind their broken banks and to make good the consumer demand that is no longer there via fiscal policy. They may even collectively have to print money, much more effectively done together than separately. Yet conservatives deny these truths.

The acute problem is that, although the old order and ideas do not work, there is no consensus on what the new order and ideas will be. The lack of coherence is plaguing these early weeks of Obama's drive for economic recovery. Thus Geithner's disappointing speech last Tuesday setting out the next steps in his financial recovery programme, and then stone-walling the senate budget committee the following day.

The administration wants to act decisively along the same lines as Sweden in the early 1990s in putting its banking system back on its feet. But it hesitates to nationalise banks as Sweden did. And it hesitates to commit what could be 14% of American GDP in creating a "bad bank" to take over crippling toxic debt as the Swedes did. It wants the same ends, but cheaper - an intellectual challenge too far.

Bankers are in no position to complain. Their avarice and the scale of their business misjudgment have vastly complicated the politics of a bank bail-out, which will have to be on a stupefying scale to be effective. The open question is whether the US can afford to create a "bad bank" or equivalent that might cost up to 14% of GDP, on top of a budget deficit already of that same size. The answer is that it cannot afford not to do it. Otherwise it might suffer the same fate as Japan in the 1990s, whose refusal to accept the size of the problem meant that it temporised with half measures - and suffered a decade of economic stagnation.

The G7 is a cacophony of different plans and preoccupations. Everybody, including Gordon Brown, is looking for legitimation for short-term political advantage. It needs the Obama administration to cut through the cackle and impose an agenda equal to the scale of what needs to be done at home and abroad.

That inability is the gravest source of concern. There are signs that the Obama team is getting the message; it backed off the worst protectionist excesses in the Stimulus Bill, and both Obama and Geithner say we need decisive, large-scale action. The worry is that they will make too many concessions to the ideas and people who got us into this mess. Lincoln was a great man. But it is a Roosevelt America that the world needs now.


In Saturday’s paper the blessed Will had a column in the Guardian on tax avoidance:

Behind tax avoidance lies an ideology that has had its day. We must end it.

Neoconservatism has collapsed. The need for the state should now be evident to all - and that includes big companies.

Nearly a third of our top 700 companies pay no tax at all. At best, the spirit of the law is being obstructed.

How do they justify to themselves what they do?

The economic wreckage is now all around us.

Tax avoidance was a central part of yesterday's exploded financial structure.

The stench is overpowering. The takeover of Boots by the private equity firm KKR has become exposed as a transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to its astonishingly rich partners, only one of whom is domiciled in the UK, for tax purposes. The headquarters is moved to Zug to avoid tax. Nottingham is stripped of key jobs.

Boots no longer pays UK corporate tax because the interest on the debt overwhelms its profits. And the banks that lent KKR the money, now worth between 60 and 70 pence in every pound because of doubts about whether it can be fully repaid, have to be bailed out by the self-same taxpayer. No wealth is generated. It is transferred. How the libertarians, self-styled wealth generators and fighters against Big Government must mock the little people whom they run rings around.

What is required is the will. Neoconservatism has collapsed. The western financial system is bust. The need for the state, and for international collaboration, is now evident to all. President Obama is keen to act. If we cannot slay tax avoidance now, we never will.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Layer 122 Benjamin Dover and the Pig Roast; The Culture of Greed

This should have been posted two days ago.

If you have time for a moment of Zen today then consider this - the civil servant who accepted the most invitations to corporate hospitality last year, the guy who on more than 50 occasions bent over, spread his cheeks and said to his pals in the business sector, “Stick it in there, boys”, was called Sir Brian Bender.

SIR Brian? For services to corporate cluster fucks, presumably. As the astute Matthew Parris said on R4 this morning, you have to admire someone who has that level of dedication to self interest and corporate self-interest. It can’t be easy spending so much time schmoozing with slimy business lobbyists and boring PR arseholes. I paraphrase Matthew, and his remarks were far more subtle and witty, but you get the point.

Yesterday’s moment of amusement was provided by an article in the Guardian pointing out that the film Slumdog Millionaire has been a great boon to headline writers. Apparently the Sun had an article about bankers with the headline Scumbag Millionaires, and on the sports pages Kevin Pieterson was described as a dumb-slog millionaire. Private Eye also has a cartoon of KP with the same caption. Excellent.


It’s impossible to overstate what an appalling individual Hazel Blears truly is. This ghastly muppet had the nerve to put herself forward as a candidate for the deputy leadership of NuLabour, and was duly trounced, coming last in a five dog race. Which probably struck her as grossly unfair since she’s consistently been a slavish adherent to every neo-conservative policy put forward by her party leaders, unlike at least one of the other candidates.

I mentioned briefly in Layer 119 that she’d had the ‘audacity’ (i.e. foolishness) to write a repost to George Monbiot’s recent piece in the Guardian, calling him cynical, blah, blah, blab, blears.

Since then I’ve been looking forward to George’s next column, licking my lips in anticipation, and duly feasted on it this week. Well done George! Hazel on a skewer, on a spit - a pig roast of the first order. Wonderful stuff.

Just what exactly do you stand for, Hazel Blears - except election?

The minister claims to have political guts, but the only principle her voting record shows is slavish obedience.

An open letter to Hazel Blears MP, secretary of state for communities and local government.

Last week you used an article in the Guardian to attack my "cynical and corrosive commentary". You asserted your political courage, maintaining that "you don't get very far in politics without guts, and certainly not as far as the cabinet table". By contrast, you suggested, I contribute "to the very cynicism and disengagement from politics" that I make my living writing about.

Courage in politics is measured by the consistent application of principles. The website records votes on key issues since 2001. It reveals that you voted "very strongly for the Iraq war", "very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war" and "very strongly for replacing Trident" ("very strongly" means an unbroken record). You have voted in favour of detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days, in favour of identity cards and in favour of a long series of bills curtailing the freedom to protest. There's certainly consistency here, though it is not clear what principles you are defending.

Other threads are harder to follow. In 2003, for instance, you voted against a fully elected House of Lords and in favour of a chamber of appointed peers. In 2007, you voted for a fully elected House of Lords. You have served without public complaint in a government which has introduced the minimum wage but blocked employment rights for temporary and agency workers; which talked of fiscal prudence but deregulated the financial markets; which passed the Climate Change Act but approved the construction of a third runway at Heathrow; which spoke of an ethical foreign policy but launched an illegal war in which perhaps a million people have died. Either your principles, by some remarkable twists of fate, happen to have pre-empted every contradictory decision this government has taken, or you don't possess any.

You remained silent while the government endorsed the kidnap and the torture of innocent people; blocked a ceasefire in Lebanon and backed a dictator in Uzbekistan who boils his prisoners to death. You voiced no public concern while it instructed the Serious Fraud Office to drop the corruption case against BAE, announced a policy of pre-emptive nuclear war, signed a one-sided extradition treaty with the United States and left our citizens to languish in Guantánamo Bay. You remained loyal while it oversaw the stealthy privatisation of our public services and the collapse of Britain's social housing programme, closed hundreds of post offices and shifted taxation from the rich to the poor. What exactly do you stand for Hazel, except election?

The only consistent political principle I can deduce from these positions is slavish obedience to your masters. TheyWorkForYou sums up your political record thus: "Never rebels against their party in this parliament." Yours, Hazel, is the courage of the sycophant, the courage to say yes.

It seems to me that someone of your principles would fit comfortably into almost any government. All regimes require people like you, who seem to be prepared to obey orders without question. Unwavering obedience guarantees success in any administration. It also guarantees collaboration in every atrocity in which a government might engage. The greatest thing we have to fear in politics is the cowardice of politicians.

I believe there is a vast public appetite for re-engagement, but your government, aware of the electoral consequences, has shut us out. It has reneged on its promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform. It has blocked a referendum on the European treaty, ditched the regional assemblies, used Scottish MPs to swing English votes, sustained an unelected House of Lords, eliminated almost all the differences between itself and the opposition. You create an impenetrable political monoculture, then moan that people don't engage in politics.

It is precisely because I can picture something better that I have become such a cynical old git. William Hazlitt remarked that: "Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be." You, Hazel, have helped to reduce our political choices to a single question: whether to laugh through our tears or weep through our laughter.


Meanwhile Polly Toynbee wrote an excellent column this week, headed:

End this culture of greed. If Obama can, Labour must.

Culture change may be coming, but it's not here yet. The financial sector will pay itself £3.6bn in bonuses this month: banks are rumoured to be rushing to beat any proposed cap. Even 70% state-owned RBS will pay generously, despite losing £28bn at the blackjack tables of investment banking.

Barack Obama's thundering words resounded around the world this week. He castigated "disgusting payoffs" and "lavish bonuses", fixing a $500,000 pay cap on bailed-out banks and firms. Is it heartening or depressing that Labour only dares echo such words when Obama has said them? It raised top tax two weeks after Obama won an election promising the same. After 12 years of celebrating the filthy rich, Peter Mandelson finally tells RBS to reconsider "exorbitant bonuses" and "how it looks and what public opinion will be".

The rationale for runaway pay was market competition; but the crisis revealed they were not brilliant, just deluded group-thinkers harvesting bonuses in a rising market. Often, when meeting them, they seemed lacking in intellectual curiosity, ignorant about ordinary life, breathtakingly selfish, and to have testosterone where their brains should be. Ask the universities: those heading for the City are rarely the cleverest, just the greediest.

What could be done? Abolish bonuses altogether. The evidence is that they don't work or have perverse effects. Performance-related pay demotivates losers without motivating winners. Changing the greed culture needs champions, so turn the Low Pay Commission, which sets the minimum wage, into a pay commission with a remit to set guidelines on the maximum shareholders should tolerate. Obama's $500,000 translates in the UK to 15 times the median pay of £23,000. That seems a generous maximum: CEO total pay packages have risen in the UK to 75 times the average pay within a company.

At this budget Labour should consider reward from top to bottom. It would be the right time to raise the minimum wage. If inflation is likely to be zero or less, will benefits be adjusted accordingly? Labour should take steps to narrow the great income divide in this last chance to halve child poverty by 2010. That would cost £2.7bn - less than this month's City bonuses.

Obama arrives to clean up the explosive aftermath of Cheney-Bush neo-conomics. He reasserts the communal values of the state and public services, and the fairer distribution of rewards.

But in the UK everything is out of joint. It should be Labour riding to the rescue after a Tory era of City excess, debt and bubble. The idea that the Tories can reinvent themselves as the nation's saviour from the City culture is bizarre. They are the City, and the City roots for them, however ardently Labour wooed its denizens.


Scams and Scumbags

This month is the Office of Fair Trade’s Scams Awareness Month. According to the OFT at their Consumer Direct site, almost 3 million UK consumers fall victim to Internet, post, email, text and phone scams, costing in the area of £3.5 billion per year.

£3.5 billion. Every year. And most of those are probably the old and gullible and the young and naïve, who are the people least likely to be able to cope with being cheated and robbed. We live in a world full of scumbags and complete *&$%*!$%££! Words fail me. Bankers, politicians, lawyers, tax accountants, estate agents, and scammers.

My mum’s phone bill was considerably higher than it should have been last quarter as a result of phoning premium rate numbers to claim prizes she was supposed to have won, spending at least £1 on each call. She knows better now, but the conniving bastards who devise these scams surely ought to be locked up at their own expense? How come we don’t do it?

Off with all their heads.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Layer 121 A Series of Gaffes; Bankers and MPs in the Dock.

This should have been posted yesterday.

Being a full-time carer (for son and dog) and keeping up with reading and TV viewing about the appalling things happening currently leaves precious little time for journal writing. Makes me feel nostalgic for quieter and less momentous times when it seemed easier to focus on pleasanter and more enjoyable events.

Nevertheless there are lighter moments in the day, like this morning listening to veteran star of radio comedy Clement Freud on the Today programme, discussing ‘old age’ - “At 84 your memory begins to go . . . a bit . . . and also . . . at 84 . . . your memory . . . begins to go . . . a bit.”

Other good chuckles include hearing that Prince Harry is being sent on an ‘Equalities Course’ “after a series of gaffes”. Also hearing that (following the rows about the bankers’ greed and incompetence completely collapsing the economy and ruining our financial system) “there’s now concern that ‘quality bankers’ won’t now come forward to sit on supervisory boards.” God help us.

And why indeed should they want to do us any favours (leaving aside the fact that the bastards get paid shedloads for doing it) when the rest of us want to see them hanging from lampposts? I’m right in saying that, aren’t I? Is there anyone who doesn’t want to see bankers hanging from lampposts?

And can you even imagine Harry sitting there studiously on his equalities course, taking in the idea that all people are created equal and deserve equal opportunities, respect, blah, blah . . . ?

HEL-LO? This is a fucking PRINCE we’re talking about! Who voted for him? The very epitome of elitism, inequality and privilege!

So what else is worth recording and celebrating? Marina Hyde wrote a very witty piece in the sports section this week, remarking on the fact that this year the football transfer window deadline was on Groundhog Day.

She focused on Sky Sports News’ “clone army of deadline-day reporters . . . getting snowed on outside Andrei Arshavin’s burrow . . . informing viewers whether or not Punxsutawney Phil Scolari had seen his shadow and thought there might be another six weeks in this for him”. (There wasn’t)

Remember the moment where Bill Murray narrows his eyes at the camera and drawls: "This is one time when television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather"? That's the kind of sarcasm-dripping bitterness I'd have liked to see from Sky's David Craig, stationed outside St James' Park. "This is the one time when television really fails to capture the true excitement of a possible Ryan Taylor move to Newcastle."

A personal favourite moment was their parading of a kid who obligingly told the cameras something along the lines of "it's brilliant – you just watch Sky Sports News all day and you never miss a single thing". It's a living, my son. But it's not a life. Still, I hope he got his tenner and went out and enjoyed the snow.

As the day wore on, though, I couldn't help feeling that the joke might be on us, we cynics who decline to celebrate the transfer window deadline day for the charming spectacle that it really is – the moment we mark the end of a month originally designed to get people to behave decently, but which swiftly became a licence for them to behave like absolute shysters from around mid-November.

Perhaps it is we who deserve to be woken by the alarm each morning, only to switch on Sky Sports News and discover that it is still deadline day, and will always be, until we somehow manage to transcend the experience. Because the lesson of Groundhog Day – and the reason it has been praised by Buddhist teachers, among others – is that a wretched experience will repeat itself until you stop trying to take petty advantage of it. Only when you resolve to be better will you transcend it.


But there’s no getting away from the main issues of the week, which are still the bankers, the bonuses, the corruption, the City, Wall Street and the financial crisis (credit crunch!!!) in general.

The pithiest and funniest comment on it was on today’s Daily Show, from the brilliant Jon Stewart, naturally:

“Wall Street didn’t like the particulars of the latest trillion dollar bailout? Wall Street doesn’t seem to understand the particulars of the rescuer/rescuee relationship! They’re like someone complaining about not getting a window seat on the rescue boat! What the fuck were you doing in the water in the first place!?”

Trudging through the rain in town yesterday I was handed copies of thelondonpaper and London Lite, groovy free sheets full of first class journalism and fascinating facts and opinions.

Thelondonpaper headline - Revenge of the Whistleblower: Brown Adviser Quits Over Sacking of HBOS Banker (i.e. sacking of the bank’s ‘head of risk’, who’d pointed out that HBOS was making far too many dangerous investments)

London Lite headline - PM’s Aide Quits Over Bank Row: Regulator Goes After Whistleblower Speaks Out. “Gordon Brown’s favourite City regulator was forced to quit today amid claims that he sacked a whistleblower. Sir James Crosby was handpicked by Mr Brown to become the deputy head of the FSA, the City watchdog.”

Clearly Mr Brown is in deep shit.

The Guardian’s editorial yesterday focused on the appearance of the bankers, the former head honchos, in front of the Treasury select committee.

“They dutifully mouthed their apologies, just as the PR men had said they must. On cross-examination, the admission of culpability turned out to be less than it had appeared. The former HBOS chair, Dennis Stevenson, clarified that they were sorry "for what happened to their businesses", namely the drying up of global money markets. He might as well have expressed remorse for the foul February weather.

The committee heard allegations that an employee who had blown the whistle over risk had been fired for his pains by one-time HBOS chief and Gordon Brown associate Sir James Crosby. This reinforced the sense that hubris had sown the seeds of nemesis. That hubris should have been the focus of remorse yesterday.

Sorry may be the hardest word, but it was not the only thing the guilty men found it tough to say. They agreed there was an "interesting debate" around remuneration, but none accepted that their own outsize pay packets were connected to the poor decisions they had made.”


It’s worth reading the whole of that editorial, but everyone MUST read Simon Jenkins’ brilliant opinion piece - “The banker show trail is in vain. Put MPs in the dock.”

Yesterday's show trial of bankers in the House of Commons was a waste of urgent time. It was an exercise in apologetic hindsight conducted, so it seemed, almost entirely in Scottish.

Extracting parliament's favourite word, sorry, was predictably easy, and meaningless. Anyone can say sorry.

What we await is the remotest idea as to why bankers, or the institutions they represent, should still be trusted with rescuing the British economy from recession.

At this point a banker has no profession, let alone a role as a national hero.

The money has gone into relieving balance sheets coated in red. It is throwing good money after bad, otherwise known as madness.

Giving it to already failed institutions in such a way that they were sure to cause it to vanish was plain stupid.

The banks should have been taken into temporary public ownership, their deposits protected by the state and their commercial lending ring-fenced with public money. It happens in war. It is not that difficult.

Just as Labour opposed privatisation when it was needed, so now it opposes nationalisation when it is needed. Its ideological knickers are in a total twist. Some ministers were allegedly persuaded by officials (and journalists) that they should not "play banker". It is hard to see what else they were playing when they were devoting such huge sums of public money to bank subsidies. Why give the money if not for some public purpose?

Unless banks are nationalised and directed, and financial institutions can channel public money into credit, these sums will just vanish into balance sheets.

The show trial that should be staged is not of bankers or journalists but of ministers, who have now blown £200bn of public money on a massively failed strategy for staving off recession – indeed on making it worse. Because ministers are from the same club as MPs, they are let off lightly. There will be no show trial of the chancellor.

The truth is that if anyone has slept through this sorry affair, it has been parliament. If I were the second team of bankers appearing before the Commons today, I would take a large mirror into the room and hold it up in the face of the committee. Let them see themselves in the dock for once.

What were they doing as the economy lurched to war? Perhaps they might say sorry too.