Saturday, October 31, 2009

Layer 214 . . . Part Three . . . Mel's Journey into Darkness and Ignorance, Obama and City Bonuses

Well done The Guardian for giving Ed Hussain space in the paper to lambast the appalling Melanie Phillips.

The personal jihad of Melanie Phillips

In her McCarthy-style paranoid parallel universe, the Spectator columnist views every Muslim a potential Islamist terrorist
Melanie Philips's zealotry and ignorance frighten me. How did we produce a public commentator filled with such anger, venom and hatred?

I believe in the human ability to change and, in that hope of helping Melanie see the the flaws in her analysis, I met with her several times in private and appealed to her to stop blaming Islam and Muslim scripture for (the decidedly un-Islamic phenomenon of) terrorism. Why would she and her acolyte Douglas Murray not cease attacks on Muslim scripture that were based on bin Laden's understanding of Islam? And why would they not support Islam's inherent pluralism and recognise that Islam per se is not the problem, but iconoclastic interpretations of it.

With Melanie and Douglas, I probably failed. Just as humans can travel to enlightenment, they can also journey into darkness and ignorance.

Melanie has gone from being a tree-hugger during her Guardian days to ranter about climate change "totalitarians". And worse, seeing conspiracies and dangerous links where there are none. What else explains her suggestion in last October's Spectator magazine that President Barack Obama "adopts the agenda of the Islamists" and is "firmly in the Islamists' camp"?

Lots of good comments on CiF after this article, like this one from royj68 -
The reason i can't listen to the moral maze anymore.Taking lessons in morality from Melanie Phillips:hilarious.
And from notsuperstitious -
Don't forget the Melanie Phillips definition of 'anti-semitism' i.e. anyone who dares question that maybe, just maybe, the Palestinians have a right to their own state, perhaps should not be subject to apartheid restrictions in their own land with their resources and land stolen from them, and in fact deserve to be treated and viewed as human beings rather than the unpleasant brown stuff you sometimes tread in.

Talking of Obama -

Much remains for Obama to do – but what's remarkable is how much he has achieved in the face of financial crisis – by Ian Williams
After Obama's election I wrote here: "It may not be the second coming, but to use the eschatological phraseology of the Palins of this world, it is certainly the end of the reign of the Antichrist." I also recalled what I'd said during the campaign: "The world looked upon these elections as an IQ test for the American public. The electorate has aced the test. It has put centuries of racism behind it and elected a president who shows signs of knowing where the rest of the world is."
Frankly, while still far from euphoric, I feel vindicated. The coalition of not-so-covert racists, teabaggers, birthers and defenders of Medicare against the state should be a reminder to the purist Obama-detractors of the left just who could instead be staffing the US government now.

There's talk today about how Obama seems to have failed to create any positive change in the Middle East and Israel. It looks to me as though having appointed Hilary Clinton he's more or less had to allow her to go softly softly into the region and more or less be led round in circles by the various parties there.

However, there will surely come a point when he'll have to say in a big speech what he expects to see happening henceforward, and what the consequences will be as far as America is concerned if the Israelis continue to take the American billions and give nothing in return except piss-taking and a contemptuous refusal to cooperate in any enlightened way.

Time for a windfall tax on bonuses

We need to transform the banking sector by reasserting democracy and bringing the business elite to account

by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford
The Christmas bonus pay-out by the City is forecast to rise to £6bn. This excessive reward for market failure is morally and politically unacceptable. So today Compass is calling for a windfall tax on bankers' bonuses.
A minimum tax of 25% on banks' bonus funds could net £1.5bn to create jobs for young people and help to develop the future green economy. The government must show political leadership and act decisively because there are larger issues of democracy and economic development at stake.
Britain is now the only major economy still in recession. Three decades of the ascendancy of financial capital and the dismantling of the welfare state, employment regulation and workers' rights has removed many of the economic stabilisers that act as buffers to deflationary pressure – secure jobs, decent wages and proper benefits. With our capacity to weather the economic storm weakened, millions will pay for the bankers dynastic levels of wealth by facing a sub-poverty line Christmas on the £69-a-week Job Seeker's Allowance.
Lord Griffiths, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs, says the British public should tolerate this kind of inequality because it will lead to "greater prosperity for all". The evidence proves him wrong. A decade of booming bank profits has left the incomes of middle Britain stagnant. Between 2005 and 2006, when the financial services share of the UK's GDP increased from 8.8% to 9.4%, income poverty began to rise again.
The business model of the financial sector does not spread wealth and it does not create a significant number of jobs. It established a collusion between shareholder value and the business elite which engineered a massive transfer of wealth to the rich.

Layer 214 . . . Part Two . . . Any Questions & Any Answers

“It's going to be very hard to get poor men and women to stand for Parliament under the new rules that forbid additional incomes from directorships and consultancies”, says Shirley Williams. Oh no it isn't. Take someone who's currently earning £20,000 and tell them they can be an MP on £65,000 plus expenses, and they'll become an MP.

In fact we should identify a whole cohort of people who currently earn £20,000 or less and give them the necessary training, coaching and encouragement to stand for Parliament. It's long past time when intelligent and able people who just happen to be unemployed or on low pay are elected to Parliament. Maybe even some retired people and pensioners.

Shirley Williams thinks MPs should be paid the same as doctors and heads of secondary schools. They shouldn't be even be paid the same as the heads of Primary schools or senior teachers. Any old twat can, and often does, become an MP. They possess no professional knowledge, and they're not required to exercise any professional judgement. All they have to do is traipse through whichever lobby the party whips tell them to go through.

The only way we'll ever get a cohort of MPs who aren't afraid of the whips and can exercise independent judgement is if we get people in the House that aren't reliant on politics as a career path, and aren't afraid to go back to being 'poor'.

MPs don't even have to turn up and sit in the Chamber. Those green benches are almost empty almost all of the time. And don't tell me that “poor people” wouldn't be prepared to work hard on behalf of constituents. What makes anyone think that wealthy MPs really give a shit about helping their constituents, or do anything other than hand constituents' problems over to useless and apathetic minions in their office, which has been my experience.

Someone on Any Answers pointed out that our politicians are already the highest paid in Europe. They're just greedy bastards.

It was interesting, though, that Baroness Williams and other members of today's Any Questions panel were strongly of the view that the MPs that have cheated, lied and fiddled their expenses and 'flipped' homes in order to avoid capital gains tax, should have been up before a court before now, and banged to rights. So how much salary do the likes of Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith really deserve?

One of the callers to Any Answers reminded us that it's only a week since the government rejected in its entirety the expert opinion of the Cambridge Primary Review, and now they've done the same thing to  its own advisory body on drugs, and sacked its head, Sir David Nutt, because he dared to express his disappointment at the government's decision.

I'll say it again – this government is just an arrogant bunch of twats - and absolute power has corrupted them absolutely. Plus they have no idea how to govern with respect for those they are supposed to serve, let alone show any grace, humility and intelligence as they go about their work, which of course would be far too much to expect.They dont even have enough intelligence to do things in ways that don't make them look like an arrogant and corrupt bunch of twats.|+UK+News+%3A%3A+Double+MPs%27+pay+says+Tory&|+UK+News+%3A%3A+Moonlighting+MP%27s+earn+an+extra+%C2%A3200k+...&

Nutt was forced to quit after he accused ministers of "devaluing and distorting" the scientific evidence over illicit drugs when they decided last year to reclassify cannabis from class C to class B against the advice of the ACMD.

Nutt told the BBC today that Brown had "made up his mind" to reclassify cannabis despite evidence to the contrary.

"Gordon Brown comes into office and, soon after that, he starts saying absurd things like cannabis is lethal... it has to be a class B drug. He has made his mind up.

"We went back, we looked at the evidence, we said, 'No, no, there is no extra evidence of harm, it's still a class C drug.' He said, 'Tough, it's going to be class B'."

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Nutt said: "He is the first prime minister, this is the first government, that has ever in the history of the Misuse of Drugs Act gone against the advice of its scientific panel.

"And then it did it again with ecstasy and I have to say it's not about [me] overstepping the line, it's about the government overstepping the line. They are making scientific decisions before they've even consulted with their experts.

"I know that my committee was very, very upset by the attitude the prime minister took over cannabis. We actually formally wrote to him to complain about it," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of them stepped down. Maybe all of them will."

Layer 214 . . . Vince Cable, Bankers, Berlusconi and Wankers

It must be obvious to anyone who pays any attention to these matters that Vince Cable is the one politician who has any real understanding of what's happened and what's continuing to happen in finance and banking - and a man  who can speak with real authority on financial matters. When he writes about the continuing crisis, therefore, we need to pay attention to what he says if we have any pretentions at all to being knowledgeable and informed, and therefore to being active citizens rather than bystanders and helpless pawns in the political game.

In yesterday's Guardian he wrote the following column -

We rage at bankers, and the state-backed casino rolls on

Rough justice could backfire. But as long as unconditional guarantees remain, bankers can take wild risks with impunity

The public currently sees bankers and their bonuses through a red mist. Punches are being thrown, like one-off windfall taxes on profits or bonuses, which may feel satisfying but don't connect with the underlying problems. These relate to having a banking system where profit – and bonus – maximisation occurs on the back of state guarantees, for institutions that are deemed too big or important to fail. As long as the guarantees exist, the key issue becomes one of how best to make banks pay a fair fee for the privileges they enjoy.

The anger has had several causes. Even before the crisis, customers resented the capricious and unreasonable charges, the incompetence and the impersonal nature of modern retail banking. Then, highly paid whizz kids managed to destroy their industry through recklessness – the taxpayer then being called upon to rescue them. Then we had rewards for failure (Sir Fred). And latterly there have been bonuses in institutions on state life support. It is like a building contractor who made a fortune putting up unsafe dwellings and, when they collapsed, made another fortune clearing up the debris.

Of course people are angry, and they have every right to be, especially when so many are losing their jobs in a recession triggered by a banking collapse.

The immediate political question is what to do about bonuses. There will be a crescendo of indignation as bank profits and bonuses are announced in coming months. There is some force in the argument that governments should act collectively through the G20 or the EU, since the bits of banking that generate the biggest bonuses are global. But this can be a cop-out, like those pious calls for "general and complete disarmament" which signal an unwillingness to do anything much about reduction. A policy of unilateral bonus disarmament is less risky, not least because other governments are already decommissioning.

One option is to use nationalised and semi-nationalised banks to set a standard of behaviour, stopping or restricting bonuses. Some of us thought such an agreement was reached a year ago by the government for RBS and Lloyds, but it does not appear to have been implemented.
It's obvious that the government intends to restore banking to the status quo as soon as it possibly can, since it's only ideology is that of neo-conservatism and it can't bring itself to think creatively and seriously about real structural changes to the banking system, imcluding keeping the failed banks in public ownership in order to provide proper competition to the baking cartel by setting fair charges and rates of interest.

Don't reward risky business

by Pat Garofalo

Banks are still looking to get rich quick. Reckless risk-taking should be discouraged by limiting executive pay
Kenneth Feinberg, the US Treasury department's special master for compensation, delivered the highest-profile rebuke to Wall Street's excess last week, slapping the seven companies under his office's purview with a 50% cut in compensation for their top 25 employees, including a 90% average reduction in salary. Feinberg also curtailed many corporate perks for these executives, including the use of corporate jets and reimbursements for country club fees.

Feinberg assuredly made the right call, as these companies – AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors and Chrysler, plus GM and Chrysler's financing arms – have swallowed billions in taxpayer money and should not be regressing back to pre-crisis levels of compensation. AIG reportedly proposed pay packages worth millions, and full of perks, that Feinberg correctly quashed.

However, reining in these seven firms doesn't help to address compensation at the Wall Street firms that have paid back their bailout funding, and are thus immune from Feinberg's oversight. And the rest of the Street is where the real problems lie.

As Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote:"[Wall Street bankers] did what their incentive structures were designed to do: focusing on short-term profits and encouraging excessive risk-taking." And according to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, compensation at Wall Street banks is on pace to reach record heights this year, to the tune of a combined $140bn at the 23 largest firms. This would eclipse the previous high of $130bn in 2007, the last year before the crash.

Goldman Sachs alone has already set aside $16.7bn for compensation (with one more quarter of earnings still to come). And Goldman Sachs adviser Brian Griffiths actually said last week that we must "tolerate" income inequality, "as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all", revealing that some on Wall Street haven't learned any lessons at all.

If we want a financial system that serves a function beyond creating private profits with socialised risk, regulators need to step in and ensure that Wall Street's pay packages don't incentivise short-term gains over long-term viability. But will any besides Feinberg actually take that step?

Silvio Berlusconi, neo-fascist billionaire and politician, is the one European leader (apart from Gordo) who supports Blair's canditature for the European presidency. Say no more?


Charlie Brooker
in the Guardian today -


Sir David Nutt and New Labour

This is SO New Labour. Appoint a scientific advisor, ask him to find evidence to support what you think is politically expedient, and sack him when he tells you the opposite of what you've asked him to say.

They never had this problem with Chris Woodhead, Michael Barber, Andrew Adonis et al - because education's not . . . scientific.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Layer 213 Family, Friends, Politicians, Presidents, Expenses, Democracy, Admissions and the Age of Crappy Music

Back home after several wonderful days in gorgeous Devon, and what's new in the world? Eldest granddaughter had her 5th birthday, and a brilliant all-afternoon party attended by her parents, her uncle and aunt, her little sister and baby cousin, her cat, her guinea pigs, her mum's dog who now lives with her uncle, her aunt's new and very playful puppy, and her grandparents, one of whom was late arriving back from Devon owing to great granny not feeling very well, and of course due to the ever-atrocious traffic.

Aunt had baked a superb birthday cake, and there were cards and presents galore. One very happy and chatty little girl had a ball the whole day long. Dad had given himself a day off work for this very important occasion, which fortuitously fell during half term week. It seems more and more fathers are now questioning their work/life balance and saying to themselves that they owe it to themselves to enjoy more time with their family, especially on important occasions, as much as they owe it to their loved ones.

So what else is new in the world? I have a very dear and wonderful friend who's spending time in hospital, one who's just spent a couple of days in Paris enjoying the city in warm sunshine, and another who's just popped over to Brittany for a couple of half term days with two of his lovely daughters. I have a friend who's just getting ready to fly out to Nigeria for a month or so, another who will soon be flying out to Thailand, and another who's organising a musical soiree for a select group of friends who are willing to play and sing songs of their own choosing by way of entertaining one another. Should be interesting!

Meanwhile, ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was on Question Time, showing a lot of gall for a woman who might soon find herself in court for her ludicrously false expenses claims. How come she's still an MP and still appearing on QT? Oh well, if it's OK to invite Nick Griffin . . . Although she's given an apology of sorts she still reeks of an attitude that can only be summed up as New Labour - the professional hard-faced machine politician, clinging on to a career that's in ruins, thoroughly disgraced but determined to remain in post and in the public eye. Just like New Labour.

On the same programme the ever-cuddly John Sergeant strongly endorsed Tony Blair's canditature for the EU's Presidency, which immediately signals that this is a man who's a ridiculous twat of the first order, and in truth about as cuddly as a rotund little ball of fresh doggydoo.

How many more of these supposedly intelligent commentators and politicians can't see that Bliar is thoroughly detested throughout Britain and Europe, and not just by the leftist element of the chattering classes? That he's a war criminal? That to endorse him for this high office is tantamount to signalling to the world that you're an unreformed New Labour lickspittle and a halfwit of the first order?

Gordon Brown for one. Yes, our Prime Minister, who's a well-known Blair hater, who has more reason than most to know about Blair's egomaniacal and psychopathic tendencies, has strongly endorsed Blair to be the top man in Europe. For fuck's sake, Gordo - you're in a big enough hole! Stop fucking digging! What more can this man possibly do to alert the rest of the world to the fact that he's an idiot who no longer cares about getting re-elected? Clearly he wants to completely destroy the Labour Party and to be the only New Labour prime minister never to be elected to that post. How can anyone vote for a man like Brown who clearly lies through his teeth and recommends the vile Tony Blair for the European presidency?

Timothy Garton Ash wrote an interesting column yesterday about the EU job and its potential candidates -

This EU job is no presidency. It will rely on another. And it won't be Blair
As any reader of the Guardian knows, many on the British left are apoplectic at the prospect, above all because of Iraq ("war criminal", and so on). So are many mainland Europeans, especially those that opposed the Iraq war.
There is, however, one who fits the bill – although he'd need some persuading to take it on. This is Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, UN international mediator and last year's winner of the Nobel peace prize. Ahtisaari has the stature, gravitas and experience for the job. An elder statesman, he would have avuncular authority with the current generation of EU heads of government. He is an excellent chair, without being even remotely chairmanic. He would be taken seriously in world capitals without anyone feeling that he was stealing their limelight. As the co-chair of the European council on foreign relations, he has already spent a couple of years thinking hard about what a European foreign policy should look like.
But it's not just about Blair, is it? Why on earth would any Europhile want a Brit to be the first to hold this high office when Britain has constantly been the backslider and the opter-out as far as Europe is concerned? Bloody hell - we've even refused to join the Euro!


Roy Hattersley wrote a good column yesterday about the expenses scandal, in which he concluded,
The crisis of confidence in politics and politicians is not the result of Douglas Hogg claiming parliamentary expenses for cleaning out his moat. It is the product of politicians failing to debate the merits of a society in which one family lives in a moated grange while another survives in a bed and breakfast hostel.

If it becomes only possible to become an MP by making material sacrifices, there will be more conviction politicians. It is because the House of Commons has increasingly become a career, rather than a vocation, that a proportion (a small proportion) of members behave like bankers in search of a bonus.


Hattersley writes about financial inequality, whereas in today's paper Simon Jenkins writes about educational inequality and elitism -

Holy texts and lineage are no way to assemble state schools

The primitive barring of a child on ethnic grounds is the nadir of the pursuit of 'choice'. Pupils should go local, warts and all
Soon we shall cry, come back 11-plus, all is forgiven. The spectacle of the supreme court trying this week to decide whether racial purity should be the basis for admission to state education shows how close we still are to the dark ages. If I had to choose between putting my child through a test of the three Rs or trying to prove his mother's maternal bloodline, give me the three Rs any day.

The case of the London Jewish Free School (JFS), now before the supreme court, should never have been brought to trial. There is something primitive about religious adherence or ethnicity conferring privilege in state education. That this should be the result of Labour government legislation is extraordinary.

The 2006 act governing school admissions clearly states that, where a school is oversubscribed, its governors may discriminate by selecting on grounds of religion. This has driven a coach and horses through the comprehensive principle that state pupils go to their local school, as happens in most normal democratic countries.

I am against eccentricity or exclusivity being validated with public money.

It is preferable for a state school admission system to be based on locality. Schools are cohering local institutions, for richer, for poorer, and that is how admission is determined across most of the globe. If aptitude or ability are to be criteria, as was the ambition of the 11-plus, let the test be public and fair. It is not reasonable for admission to be based on parental class, background, faith or group affiliation. Those who want such schools can pay for them. Many do. It is a free country.

When I went to primary school, I went with everyone from my village.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the discipline of local catchment eroded, as white flight sought ever more devious ways of avoiding high-immigrant inner-city schools. Successive governments introduced the concept of "choice", and middle-class parents besieged church schools as havens of collective security. These schools were oversubscribed and found themselves not chosen but doing the choosing. Admissions criteria – and covert charging – became the rage.

The pews of London churches with school nominations were soon packed with desperate parents. Others were emptied of their congregations. In 2006, the government attempted to legislate that a mere 20% of places in church schools should go to non-worshippers. By then the pass had been sold, and even that was too many for the church lobby. The minister, Alan Johnson, capitulated as, more recently, has Ed Balls. Across a third of English schools, the Labour party has handed back to the church the keys to the door of the bourgeoisie.

Urban vicars, with hundreds of desirable school places in their pockets, are the new, mostly regressive, social engineers. Their discretion is remarkable. Some allow prospective parents who go to weekend "second home" churches in the country to include this in their attendance score.

From the moment "choice of school" gained traction under John Major, the old tensions resumed.

The 11-plus was abolished because thousands of middle-class parents were enraged at being denied access to their local grammar school when a child failed the exam. That was why the Tories swore never to reintroduce it and accepted comprehensive education – until leaders arrived who had forgotten, or never known, the battles of the 1960s.

Now to have parents roaming the country looking for an ever "better" school reopens the can of worms that 11-plus selection tried, but failed, to close. Allied to the pernicious league tables, so-called choice has left popular schools and eager parents in an unholy alliance to maintain the quality of intake and reject unsuitable pupils. Both know that it is enrolment that separates star schools from sink ones.

As schools get ever more cunning in selecting bright pupils, it is easy to see what happens next. The public will protest and the government will insist on a national admissions test to promise a level playing field. It may not be called the 11-plus, but that is what it will be.

Children should go to their local school, primary and secondary, warts and all. It does not matter how a school is run, but it does matter how the state allots places in what are public institutions. Labour's crude attempt to ingratiate itself with middle-class voters has ended in a ridiculous court case. If tests there must be, let them be proper ones, not recitations of holy texts or mother's birth certificates.
Some of the comments on CiF after Simon's piece are well worth reading too.


Seamus Milne wrote a good column yesterday with the heading,

Spying on us doesn't protect democracy. It undermines it

By branding protesters and mainstream Muslim activists as extremists, the police are effectively criminalising dissent

He concludes,
[This] is a timely reminder of the self-serving tendency to fantasy among intelligence organisations. Unleashing such people on those exercising their right to protest or take part in non-violent politics has got nothing to do with the defence of the democratic process – it's an assault on democracy.

On the music front, Lynsey Hanley wrote a column in which she says this,
There are few more obvious signs to be found of the revolution in opportunities for working-class people born between 1945 and 1970 than in the backgrounds of pop stars of the period.

Pop is in danger of becoming another of the closed-shop professions that anyone without the breeding or the nous finds it impossible to enter. The charts are strewn with posh pop stars who could, frankly, have found gainful employment at the higher end of the civil service. What do Florence and the Machine, La Roux, Will Young, and Lily Allen have in common? A private education, of course, which affords them the galloping confidence and social network required to make their way in whichever field they choose to excel in.

Then there are the state-educated artists – Amy Winehouse, Adele, Katie Melua, the Noisettes – who learned the same tricks at the specialist Brit School in Croydon. The result of such fame-farming is that you end up with the Kooks when what we really need for inspiration are actual kooks.

The one bucket-educated, self-made current star who has managed to steer his way through pop's Krypton Factor course completely on his own terms, without contacts, industry polish or the aid of reality television, is Dizzee Rascal.

How can pop stars any longer be at once the great inspirers and the great transformers when, thanks to stage schools and Simon Cowell, they're subject to a weekly time-and-motion study worthy of the Model-T Ford? Most of the Top 40 is guff at the moment to anyone over the age of 15 . . .
It's good to read this total condemnation of contemporary 'pop music' from someone who's clearly not just a grumpy old man [or woman].


And on the subject of music, try this -

Read what Guardian readers think about it here -

Monday, October 26, 2009

Layer 212 . . . The Way We Live Now and The Spirit Level

I heard the other day that there are people from the Ministry of Children and Parents and Carers and Families and Schools and Things going around talking about the book I blogged about earlier in the year – The Spirit Level. Maybe some people are indeed starting to take notice, but what a pity New Labia didn't give a lot more thought to what ought to be the raison d'etre of the Left in politics – the need for a more equal society – for all our sakes – instead of just droning on for 12 years about “more equal opportunities”. Obviously this equality thing smacks too much of socialism to make it palatable to the likes of Blair and Brown.

So it's time for an update. Here's what Lynsey Hanley, Equality Correspondent (see also Layer 210) wrote about it in the Guardian some time ago:

The way we live now

"We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens' incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks' holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we'd trust each other more.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don't soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why. 

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet's resources.

On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country's level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable "low" end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable "high" end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world's richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence - murder, in particular - that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality - within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging.

The graphs also reveal that it is not just the poor, but whole societies, from top to bottom, that are adversely affected by inequality. Although the UK fares badly when compared with most other OECD countries (and is the worst developed nation in which to be a child according to both Unicef and the Good Childhood Inquiry), its social problems are not as pronounced as in the US. 

Wherever you look, evidence favouring greater equality piles up. As the authors write, "the relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance".

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of reading this book is the revelation that the way we live in Britain is a serious danger to our mental health. Around a quarter of British people, and more than a quarter of Americans, experience mental problems in any given year, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in Japan, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

Wilkinson and Pickett's description of unequal societies as "dysfunctional" suggests implicit criticism of the approach taken by Britain's "happiness tsar" Richard Layard, who recommended that the poor mental health of many Britons be "fixed" or improved by making cognitive behavioural therapy more easily available. Consumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement and anxiety all follow from inequality, they argue, and so cannot rightly be made a matter of individual management. 

It's impossible to overstate the implications of their thesis: that the societies of Britain and the US have institutionalised economic and social inequality to the extent that, at any one time, a quarter of their respective populations are mentally ill. What kind of "growth" is that, other than a malignant one?

What Japan and Sweden show is that equality is a matter of political will. There are belated signs - shown in the recent establishment of a National Equalities Panel and in Trevor Phil lips's public pronouncements on the central place of class in the landscape of British inequality - that Labour recognises that its relaxed attitude to people "getting filthy rich" has come back to bite it on the rear. 

Twelve years in power is long enough to reverse all the trends towards greater social and economic stratification that have occurred since 1970; instead they have continued on their merry way towards segregation.

There are times when the book feels rather too overwhelmingly grim. Even if you allow for the fact that it was written before Barack Obama won the US presidency on a premise of trust and optimism, its opening pages are depressing enough to make you want to shut it fast: "We find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, driven to consume and with little or no community life."

However, the book does end on an optimistic note, with a transformative, rather than revolutionary, programme for making sick societies more healthy. A society in which all citizens feel free to look each other in the eye can only come into being once those in the lower echelons feel more valued than at present. The authors argue that removal of economic impediments to feeling valued - such as low wages, low benefits and low public spending on education, for instance - will allow a flourishing of human potential.

There is a growing inventory of serious, compellingly argued books detailing the social destruction wrought by inequality. Wilkinson and Pickett have produced a companion to recent bestsellers such as Oliver James's Affluenza and Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety . But The Spirit Level also contributes to a longer view, sitting alongside Richard Sennett's 2003 book Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality , and the epidemiologist Michael Marmot's Status Syndrome , from 2005.

Anyone who believes that society is the result of what we do, rather than who we are, should read these books; they should start with The Spirit Level because of its inarguable battery of evidence, and because its conclusion is simple: we do better when we're equal."

This whole issue is really to do with spiritual intelligence. Anyone with a substantial degree of spiritual intelligence doesn't need to be convinced by masses of statistics that gross inequality is wrong and just plain idiotic - they can feel it in their souls and their bones. To turn their gaze from poverty and inequality and not give a damn about it not only means someone is greedy and callous, it means they are spiritually stupid and impoverished.


Here's a review from the New Statesman by Roy Hattersley -

An interview with the authors, by John Crace, on “What might be the most important book of the year” - -The Theory of Everything - “These two British academics argue that almost every social problem, from crime to obesity, stems from one root cause: inequality.”,,9781846140396,00.html

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Layer 211 . . . Part 2 . . . Colin Pillinger

Professor Colin Pillinger,  he of the Beagle 2, was the guest on Desert Island Discs today.
A world-class planetary scientist, his first job was for NASA, analysing the lunar samples brought back by Apollo 11. He is best known, though, for being the public face of Beagle 2, the daring mission to search for life on Mars. Although Beagle 2 was unsuccessful, he is adamant that the mission was not a failure. Now it is hoped that the technology developed for the mission to Mars can be used to diagnose TB faster than has ever been possible.
Unlike a lot of scientists, this guy really rocks. Very interesting choices of music. eg “If Today Was Your Last Day”, by Nickelback. This isn't a band I'd listened to before I came across the track (Into the Night) that Carlos Santana did with their singer and guitarist, Chad Kroeger - a track that's definitely on my current list for the desert island. Great vocals and blistering guitar.

If Today Was Your Last Day

My best friend gave me the best advice
He said each day's a gift and not a given right
Leave no stone unturned, leave your fears behind
And try to take the path less travelled by
That first step you take is the longest stride

If today was your last day and tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday?
Would you live each moment like your last
Leave old pictures in the past?
Donate every dime you had, if today was your last day?
What if, what if, if today was your last day?

Against the grain should be a way of life
What's worth the price is always worth the fight
Every second counts 'cause there's no second try
So live like you're never living twice
Don't take the free ride in your own life

If today was your last day and tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday?
Would you live each moment like your last?
Leave old pictures in the past?
Donate every dime you had?

And would you call those friends you never see?
Reminisce old memories?
Would you forgive your enemies?
And would you find that one you're dreaming of?
Swear up and down to God above
That you'd finally fall in love if today was your last day?

If today was your last day
Would you make your mark by mending a broken heart?
You know it's never too late to shoot for the stars
Regardless of who you are

So do whatever it takes
'Cause you can't rewind a moment in this life
Let nothing stand in your way
'Cause the hands of time are never on your side


He chose a not very well-known Rolling Stones track, Salt of the Earth, from Beggar's Banquet

Pillinger makes no bones about coming from a working class background with roots in the countryside, which are still very apparent is his warm West Country voice.

Given the economic and political  times we're living in, this really hits the spot -

Raise your glass to the hard working people
Let's drink to the uncounted heads
Let's think of the wavering millions
Who need leaders but get gamblers instead
Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter
His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows . . .

(M. Jagger/K. Richards)

Let's drink to the hard working people
Let's drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let's drink to the salt of the earth

Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
And when I search a faceless crowd
A swirling mass of gray and black and white
They don't look real to me
In fact, they look so strange

Raise your glass to the hard working people
Let's drink to the uncounted heads
Let's think of the wavering millions
Who need leaders but get gamblers instead

Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter
His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
And a parade of the gray suited grafters
A choice of cancer or polio

And when I look in the faceless crowd
A swirling mass of grays and black and white
They don't look real to me
Or don't they look so strange

Let's drink to the hard working people
Let's think of the lowly of birth
Spare a thought for the rag taggy people
Let's drink to the salt of the earth

Let's drink to the hard working people
Let's drink to the salt of the earth
Let's drink to the two thousand million
Let's think of the humble of birth

Lets raise our drink
To the salt of the earth
Lets raise our drink
To the salt of the earth.....

This track was new to me – by Mercury Rev

The Dark is Rising

I dreamed of you on my farm
I dreamed of you in my arms
But dreams are always wrong
I never dreamed I'd hurt you
I never dreamed I'd lose you
In my dreams, I'm always strong
And now the creek is rising
And all my bridges burnt
I always dreamed of big crowds
Plumes of smoke and high clouds
But dreams don't last for long
I have my suspicions
When the stars are in position
All will be revealed
But I know that until then
Unless the stars surrender
All will be concealed
And now the snow is falling
And all my fences torn
I know you need someone
And I can hear someone
Somewhere in this song
I dreamed that I was walking
And the two of us were talking
Of all life's mysteries
But words that flow between friends
Winding streams, without end
I wanted you to see
But it can seem surprising
When you find yourself alone
And now the dark is rising
And a brand new moon is born
I always dreamed I'd love you
I never dreamed I'd lose you
In my dreams, I'm always strong


Prof Pillinger, a remarkable man, suffers from MS.


“Do all the things that make America great, . . . drive like a sociopath – buy Grand Theft Auto” - advert on Spotify

Layer 211 . . . Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Britain, Rome, Copeland, Private Passions and Music.

The clocks have gone back. Hooray – an extra hour before midday!
Boooooo! – dark before evening!

     Posthumus:    Kneel not to me:
The power that I have on you is to spare you;
The malice towards you to forgive you: live,
And deal with others better.
    Cymbeline:         Nobly doom'd!
We'll learn our freeness of a son-in-law;
Pardon's the word to all.

Cymbeline Act V Sc. V

"And deal with others better." A worthy goal for all of us. Social and emotional intelligence.

Shakespeare speaks of people having sufficient enlightenment and emotional & spiritual intelligence to practice restraint - to resist the temptation to seek revenge, and to show the capacity to forgive. His previously reviled son-in-law Posthumus demonstrates  his ability to behave intelligently and nobly, and the fierce king immediately responds to such generosity of spirit by exercising restraint and by giving a pardon to the wrongdoer.

The two sons of the king, missing for many years and believed dead, are reunited with their father.

      Soothsayer: [reads] '. . . when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches, which, being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock, and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end his miseries, Britain be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty.'

     Cymbeline:     Laud we the gods;
And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils
From our blest altars. Publish we this peace
To all our subjects. Set we forward: let
A Roman and a British ensign wave
Friendly together: so through Lud's-town march:
And in the temple of great Jupiter
Our peace we'll ratify; seal it with feasts.
Set on there! Never was a war did cease,
Ere bloody hands were wash'd, with such a peace.

It was especially interesting to see this play (at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street) at the end of a week in which an unabashed racist and xenophobe performed his bullshit on the BBC's Question Time.

What kind of lunatics spend their lives banging on about Churchill, the wartime spirit, fighting foreigners, racial purity, etc?

Shakespeare understood very clearly the need for peace and prosperity, and knew that peace IS the greatest prosperity. Not money. Not possessions. He also understood the need for the flags of different nations to “wave friendly together”, and understood the ways in which Roman (and European) culture had enriched Britain and made it a better place.

Cymbeline and his people almost died in a battle brought about by his wife's greed and her demand for the king to cease paying to Rome the annual sum that had been agreed in order to cement Britain's political autonomy and independence from Rome. It was only after the battle was over, his sons reunited with him, and his wife deceased, that he understood how his capitulation to her demands had almost cost him his life and his kingdom, and the lives of many others as well.

The twist in the tale is that having defeated the Roman force, Cymbeline nevertheless saw the error of his ways, regretted his dishonourable behavior, and determined to resume the payments to, and the friendship with, Rome – a forerunner of the Treaty of Rome, dare I say. Stick that big fat piece of spiritual intelligence in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Griffin.

It was sad that the theatre was only half full for such a superb production with amazing acting, wonderful lighting, great costumes and some excellent music from semi-hidden musicians playing a full drum kit and guitars.

Stewart Copeland – Private Passions – Radio 3
Michael Berkeley meets rock great Stewart Copeland, drummer with The Police, and a composer of operas and soundtracks as well as songs. He recently provided music and narration for a spectacular production of Ben Hur at London's O2 arena. His musical tastes, all of which have influenced his own style, range from Wagner, Ravel and John Adams to Booker T, Paul Simon and reggae from Desmond Dekker.

According to Copeland, music should be about feeling – not intellectual tricks. I reckon you can say the same about any art – painting, poetry, theatre, whatever. This is why the challenging language of Shakespeare is no block to enjoying it - on the stage, at least.

Sitting alone and reading it is a different matter – a bit akin to sitting and reading the notes on a musical score. The words are mere vehicles for an experience that's meant to occupy all the senses – it's about movement, spectacle, sound, light, darkness, voices, music, costumes and the suspension of everyday reality in order to become immersed in something that speaks to and appeals directly to the soul, the spirit and the emotions.

I was never a huge fan of The Police, and certainly not crazy about the artist formerly known as Sting, but I like Stewart Copeland because he speaks well, he's knowledgeable about music, and he's down to earth, honest, original, thoughtful and often amusing.

He says the best music (“It's all about spirit”) is about a very simple beauty – which for me sums up the Blues. He reckons his discovery of Booker T and Green Onions back in the Sixties was transformational for him – then just a kid living in Beirut, listening to a weekly music programme on “The Voice of America”.

For me Green Onions sets out what 12 bar blues really IS. It's so easy to hear it in such pared-down music : 4 bars of the tonic. 2 bars of the 4th. 2 more bars of the tonic. One bar of the 5th, one more of the 4th . One more of the tonic and and one more 5th. Why is that so great? I've no idea.

Copeland's very keen on the concept of negative space, and says that leaving gaps in the music is a very potent force. Rock and roll is mainly about 'backbeat' – putting the emphasis on the 4th beat in the 4/4 bar. The reggae 'revolution' – and Copeland loves reggae - puts the emphasis on the 3rd beat and thereby creates space in the music. Dah, dah, DAH, dah, and not dah, dah, dah, DAH. Chuck Berry sang (in 'Rock n Roll Music') “It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it!” But backbeat isn't the be-all and end-all.

Copeland pointed out that in the 60's we didn't recognise the real greatness of the music that came at us then – we just thought it was fantastic!

He reckons musicians tend to have terrible taste in music – because they listen to the wrong things in their quest for novelty and utilitarian value. Also – they go for things that are difficult and clever and intellectually stimulating – whereas they ought to stay with 'the visceral'.

“Let's kick jazzers”, he says, “That's always good for a laugh!” He reckons he can wind up any gathering of music lovers by being critical of most jazz. I can see his point – most forms of music are full of dross, but for some reason most music lovers are reluctant to acknowledge some of the crap that comes out of the jazz scene is just that, or to admit that there's ANY crap within the jazz genre.

What's music FOR?  Copeland reckons it's flourished as an art form because it's a form of human 'plumage' for all those that play musicand sing songs - it's part of the human mating dance. He goes on to comment on the 'strange' behavior that music induces in those that listen to it - girls waving their pudenda, guys thrusting their groins – all part of the sexual display.

He reckons jazzers don't get any sex, though, and that boy bands and girl bands are far more successful sexually in spite of their musically crap offerings – presumably because they build dance and spectacle and  movement into their acts, whereas a lot of jazz can be pretty 'cerebral' and visually dull. The trouble with Copeland is that he takes his colourful controversialism too far, and he forsakes balance for brilliant polemics, as is obvious to anyone who's listened to the very best of jazz, which certainly has rhythm, swing, drive, energy, emotion, soul and spirit powering it.

Copeland also mentions young adolescents who use heavy metal sounds as 'borrowed chest hair'.  Wagner does similar things, he says

He discussed the power of punk, which was happening here just as The Police were getting their act together. Also at that time 'dub reggae' became very popular – he thinks because it was similarly militant, hostile, aggressive music – songs and sounds about anger and despair and injustice. Copeland attributes to Bob Marley, and to reggae in general, his friend Sting's sudden emergence into being a best-selling composer and songwriter. When Sting discovered Marley, everything changed, apparently. Though he credits Andy Sumner with being the member of the band that enabled them to take off musically – because of the sophistication and style of his guitar playing.

I agree totally with Copeland's choice of Paul Simon's 'Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes' as an outstanding piece of music. He said, “This track's so beautiful, so poignant,  it hurts me to listen to it.” Definitely.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Layer 210 . . . Education, Equality, Transformation and Alexander

There were two columns in the Guardian yesterday that were worth reading on the subject of education.

Firstly, in the Response column, Warwick Mansell, author of “Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing”, wrote a piece under the heading,

Targets are not the way to make schools accountable
Sats tests cause pupils great harm and the information they provide is often of little use
Peter Preston, in discussing the Cambridge primary review, repeated misconceptions which regularly feature in the debate about whether the current system of holding schools – and other public services – to account is working effectively (In praise of targets, 19 October).
First, he said that "around a fifth of all children moving on to secondary education at 11 remain fundamentally illiterate". In 2009, 20% did indeed fail to reach the government's "expected" level – level 4 – in English tests. But most of those achieved level 3, which has been defined, for reading, by the people who set the tests, as "pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately". Level 4 was originally set at what the average pupil would achieve.
Second, Preston suggested that parents would be worse off if they "didn't know exactly what was going on" through the Sats tests. But this overlooks whether the information provided by the Sats is actually of much use. A report by Ofsted last year said schools could boost their pupils' performance in the maths tests without building underlying problem-solving ability, partly because the tests do not assess it well.
The English tests have been criticised for a mechanistic mark scheme which can overlook and marginalise imaginative writing. And the science tests were abandoned last year following widespread complaints from scientists that they sidelined practical science work.
More fundamentally, most of the difference between schools' Sats results is the product of pupils' backgrounds, while the artificial quality of the results generated after months of teaching to the test is reflected in many secondary schools' decisions to re-test pupils when they receive them.
Third, he implied that those – such as the authors of the primary review – who criticise this system simply want a return to the past and to do away with accountability. But the review was clear that it was not a question of whether there should be accountability, but of which type.
The targets/league tables/high-stakes testing system is widely disliked by teachers. But it is also letting pupils down. And while the "cerebral leader writers on the Times" may like it, other intelligent, disinterested people – including scientific and mathematical organisations and exam boards – have serious reservations about it: the government's was the only one of 52 submissions to a parliamentary investigation two years ago which backed it.
Read the rest of this piece here -

The quality of some of the comments on CiF after the article is enough to make anyone despair, but thankfully Warwick Mansell came back at them with this:
It's not the fact that children are tested, but the tests-plus-accountability system: the league tables, targets, Ofsted inspections, performance pay system which rests on the tests and says that the be-all-and-end-all for a school is its test scores.
Some schools clearly do resist this pressure, but for others it can and does lead to a narrowing of the curriculum so that non-tested subjects are marginalised, a narrowing of the school experience in the tested subjects towards months of revision/test practice in the run-up to the tests - official survey data suggests the typical school spends 10 hours a week on test preparation in the four month run-up to the KS2 tests - and a reminder to all children that they are being judged only in terms of test performance over a few days.
Here is some evidence on the downsides, taken from my website
I'm not a parent myself, but I would say the best way that people can react to this system is not to obsess about the test levels, and the league table scores.
The evidence below is a set of selected quotations from evidence submissions given by various organisations to the 2007 Children, Schools and Families investigation into testing.
- Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education: The continual testing and practising for tests has resulted in a narrow and impoverished mathematics curriculum, and poor quality teaching of that curriculum.
- Institute of Educational Assessors: We may be churning out individuals who can pass tests and who can achieve good results to a given, known test but who cannot necessarily apply their knowledge and skills to other situations, hence the concern from employers about skill levels among young people.
- The Royal Society: It is clear that aspects of our current assessment system are holding back students and teachers performance and creativity, contributing to a declining popularity in the physical sciences and mathematics and inadequate recruitment and retention of specialist teachers in these subjects.
- Hampshire County Council: The assessment regime has become enormously burdensome for schools. National Curriculum (NC) tests have now expanded out of all proportion to their usefulness. It also calls for a more humane system.
- General Teaching Council: Tests are used for too many purposes and this compromises their reliability and validity. The tests can depress pupils motivation and increase anxiety. They do not adequately serve the interests of parents or pupils and they lead to a narrowed curriculum and encourage ‘teaching to the test.
- Institute of Physics: We believe that current assessment arrangements are promoting too narrow a range of skills and understanding, principally there is too great an emphasis on testing students ability to recall facts. This leads to a situation where there is insufficient teaching for understanding or creativity, with accompanying negative effects on students motivation and enjoyment.
- Association for Achievement and Improvement through Assessment: We believe the current testing system is limited in measurement of childrens performance across the National Curriculum programmes of study.
- Campaign for Science and Engineering: We do not doubt that students appear to work harder at school than those of ten or fifteen years ago, but too much of this extra effort appears to have been devoted to the narrow and unremitting demands of national tests.
- The Wellcome Trust: Primary teachers felt that national tests had a negative effect on childrens enjoyment of science, because of the increasing tendency to ‘teach to the test. An over-emphasis on curriculum content and pressure to prepare for national tests were felt to reduce opportunities for investigative work and lead to science frequently being taught as a collection of facts.
- Institute for Public Policy Research: The current national tests do not provide highly reliable or valid measures at the level of the individual pupil...The current assessment and accountability framework can impact on valuable elements of assessment such as assessment for learning. This can happen through narrow and shallow learning, questions-spotting and risk-averse teaching.
- Association of School and College Leaders: Assessment in Britain requires a radical review. In England, young people take externally set and marked examinations at the ages of 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. The system is at breaking point as more and more examinations have been added to an already over-examined system.
- Mathematical Association: Coaching for the test, now occupying inflated teaching time and effort in almost all schools for which we have information at each Key Stage, is not constructive: short term ‘teaching how to is no substitute for longterm teaching of understanding and relationship within and beyond mathematics part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

Meanwhile, on the Leaders page (Comment & Debate), Lynsey Hanley, author of “Estates: An Intimate  History”, wrote this piece -

Equality, not education, is the key to individual transformation

Political parties fail to understand or address the root causes of the country's failing education system
Reading the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments on the "extraordinarily anxious and in many ways oppressive climate in education at every level" that has been created in the 20 years or so since the imposition of the national curriculum, made me wonder yet again about the wisdom of the competing parties' plans for education: whether Labour's lowering of the starting age and expansion of the academies programme, or Tory proposals for parents to open their own state-funded "free schools". Politicians on both sides talk of education as the key to individual and social transformation – as Michael Gove put in his conference speech, "the opportunity to choose [one's] own destiny" – but none properly address the link between education and social segregation.
It comes down to economics: what you're worth, in other words. Those who are valued the least think the least of themselves and others. Those who are valued the most think well of themselves and award themselves, as they are rewarded, with education and mobility to attractive, affluent areas largely untroubled by the difficulties experienced by people in poorer ones.
This week, figures released by the University and College Union have shown the extent to which Britain is polarised by access to education, money, safe surroundings or their lack. Dividing the data available on qualifications by parliamentary constituency allows you to see the vast discrepancies between areas. In Bootle, for instance, you're far more likely to have no GCSEs than to have a degree, whereas in much of the south-east the opposite holds true. Areas are becoming less like each other, and less easily averaged out, over time.
Schools without banding and lotteries for places – though these practices are becoming more common – become microcosms of the area in which they operate. Successful schools are those where staff and students feel as though they can take charge of the raw materials of life and shape something good out of it; the less successful are those which struggle to find evidence that such a thing is possible. As an adult, the difference between being seen and unseen often comes down to how well you're able to articulate what the matter is.
The affluent and highly educated concentrate themselves in areas such as Sheffield Hallam and Richmond, gathering so much power that they can afford to pretend that power is irrelevant; poor and low-educated communities are so stymied by the imbalance that they come to believe they have no power.

Attempts made by the mainstream British political parties to interpret the needs of the "white working class" – and, as is the government's current strategy, to throw money at the symptoms of malaise rather than to address the causes – is a classic example of how social stratification leads to the warping and splitting of common values. A deep lack of entitlement and confidence felt by working-class people, structured in large part by a combination of powerlessness, poverty and snobbery directed towards them by those who are better off, ought not to be confused with the entitlement to "Britishness" that's often invoked by the same individuals.

Starting school at four, or attending a spanking new academy with no social mix, won't alter this relationship between perception and experience because neither proposal has equality, the healer of divisions both real and imagined, as its driving motivation.
Read the rest of it here:

I'd be interested to know what readers think of the comments on CiF about these two articles. Forget about MoveAnyMountain though – it's understood that MAM is a raving long-winded neanderthal.


In today's paper have a look at this -

Ed Balls accused of 'lashing out wildly' at primary school review findings
• Head of review says Labour does not listen
• Growing anger among teachers at response

It's by Polly Curtis, the education editor.
The man behind a major inquiry into primary education today accuses Ed Balls and his ministers of "lashing out wildly" and dismissing his review findings without properly reading it.
Robin Alexander, head of the Cambridge review of primary schools, said the Labour government refused to "listen, engage and learn" from independent advice in its "micro-managed" system.
Writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free website, he sets out how the government's response to the review betrayed the fact that ministers had not properly read it, setting out inaccuracies in how both they and their Conservative shadows described it.
Alexander's intervention comes amid growing anger in schools and teacher groups about the government's dismissal of the review. It also comes after a tumultuous week in which Balls was accused of being a "bit of a bully" by Barry Sheerman, the chair of the Commons committee for children, schools and families, after he appointed Maggie Atkinson to the role of children's commissioner. He also faced heavy criticism at the national children and adult services conference in Harrogate.
The Cambridge review, the biggest inquiry into primary education in 40 years, was published last week after a three-year process which produced 31 interim reports, 28 surveys and thousands of submissions.
In a 600-word document it concluded that schools are in "good heart … highly valued by children and parents and in general doing a good job," but condemned the centralisation of the system under Labour and how the curriculum had shrunk to a narrow focus on the 3Rs.
t suggested schools should replace formal teaching with play-based learning until a child turns six and that national curriculum tests – Sats – should be replaced with improved end-of-primary tests.
The Cambridge review received support from every teaching union, agency and school support group but the government – led by the schools minister, Vernon Coaker – accused the review of being "out of date" and failing to acknowledge programmes that were under way to review testing, special educational needs and maths teaching.
Today, Alexander writes that after the government "instantly dismissed" the inquiry, "the review's email in-boxes [were] overflowing with messages not just about the findings that the press focused on – starting age, testing, centralisation – but with expressions of spluttering outrage shading into quiet despair at last week's statement."
"Nobody expects ministers to have the time to read every massive report that lands on their desks, not overnight anyway," he concludes. "But serious questions must now be asked about the advice on which the government's response was based, the advisers who provided the minister with such a hopeless script, and the wisdom of approaching a general election as the government which refuses to listen, engage and learn."
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said it had received a letter from Alexander about the issues raised in the article and would respond in due course.

Robin Alexander's piece is here:
The government's instant dismissal of the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review has become as a big a story as the report itself. The review's email inboxes are overflowing with messages not just about the findings that the press focused on – starting age, testing, centralisation – but also with expressions of spluttering outrage shading into quiet despair at last week's statement from schools minister Vernon Coaker.

Coaker said that by virtue of having started three years ago, the report was out-of-date. What a strange and desperate ploy. One would have thought that this testifies to its depth and thoroughness, especially as when pressed this week by the select committee to explain, Ed Balls wrongly claimed that the report had ignored the Williams maths inquiry (mentioned on pages 38, 46, 49, 433 and 436), the "expert group" on assessment (seven mentions) and the Lamb special educational needs review (the report argues for an SEN review with a broader and different remit).
That was not all the minister got wrong. Like many others, he (and, in this matter, the Conservatives) misrepresented as a bid to raise the school starting age our proposal that the government's early years foundation stage should be extended to age six, thus confusing curriculum (which is what the EYFS is about) with organisational structure. Although we said that, in light of international evidence, the starting age needs to be discussed, that was as far as we went. Get the early years curriculum right, we argued, and school starting age is no longer an issue.
Hopefully this will be another nail in the coffin of the sinister Ed Balls and the execrable New Labour hierarchy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Layer 209 . . . Diversity, Equality, Social Justice, the BNP and Anti Racism

So the leader of the BNP finally made his appearance on the BBC's Question Time last night and thereby brought about television's political event of the year. He came across as what he undoubtedly is – a not very bright, sweaty, shifty, smarmy, evasive, appalling toad of a human being, full of nasty and half-witted ideas and ambitions. It was interesting the way he claimed he was now hated by the real Nazis in this country because he's now holding back from any overtly racist speeches and provocations, and now confines himself to trying to be the man who stands up for the white working classes whose welfare and wellbeing have been ignored by the 'multiculturalism' of the mainstream parties.

Gary Younge wrote a superb column in yesterday's Guardian on this issue:

When you watch the BNP on TV, just remember: Jack Straw started all this
To set New Labour against Griffin is simply putting the cause against the symptom
Three years ago this month Jack Straw argued his case for urging Muslim women who attend his MP's surgery to remove their niqab. He said that he wanted to start a debate. In this, at least, he was successful.
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy said "the veil is an invitation to rape"; the Daily Mail columnist Allison Pearson said women who wear "nose bags on their faces ... have no place on British streets"; the then shadow home secretary David Davis argued that Muslims were encouraging voluntary apartheid.

And so Muslim women passed, in the public imagination, from being actually among the group most likely to be racially attacked to ostensibly being a primary cause of social strife . . .

There is little doubt that once the BNP is on Question Time, Jack Straw – or indeed anyone in the New Labour hierarchy – is in no position to take the fight to it. The same is true for most of the rest of the British political establishment that will be represented on the panel – they have either actively colluded or passively acquiesced in the political trajectory of the past decade.

But it is no accident that this happened on New Labour's watch and no small irony that Jack Straw should set himself up as Griffin's opponent.

Economically, its neoliberal policies have resulted in growing insecurity, rising unemployment, child poverty and inequality that have alienated the poor and made the middle class feel vulnerable. Politically, its lies over the war, stewardship of the expenses scandal and internal bickering have produced widespread cynicism with our political culture.

Meanwhile New Labour's race-baiting rhetoric gave the state's imprimatur to the notion that Britain's racial problems were not caused by racism but the existence of non-white, non-Christian and non-British people. This provided little material solace but plenty of vulnerable scapegoats.

Having inflated racism's political currency, New Labour vacated the electoral market so that others with a more ostentatious style might more freely spend it. Once they had made these ideas respectable it was only a matter of time before a party reached a position where it too would earn sufficient respectability to appear on prime time.

New Labour marginalised the white working class, assuming they had nowhere else to go, only to find some of them rush into the arms of the far right.

New Labour extinguished all hope of class solidarity and singularly failed to provide principled anti-racist alternatives, leaving a significant section of the white working class to seek cheap refuge in racism and xenophobia. In their identity they see not the potential for resistance against corruption and injustice, but only a grievance. They don't trust government and don't see any alternatives. The coming election simply provides the choice between two parties that share the intent to slash public spending, after the gift of billions to bankers.

Under such circumstances setting Straw – and the rest of the political class – against Griffin is simply putting the cause against the symptom without any suggestion of an antidote.

This has been New Labour's problem all along. While they have long recognised that racism is a problem, it never seemed to occur to them that anti-racism might be the solution.

The BNP's victories are a product of our politics. Its defeat, when it comes, will necessarily be a product of a change in our politics. But since New Labour's politics enabled the BNP, it is in no position to disable it. The BNP is a bottom feeder. But the system is rotting from the head down.

The most interesting contributions made to the programme last night came from the Conservative party representative, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action. How clever of Cameron to have given this post to this particular individual, who even retains a trace of a Yorkshire accent. And I mean clever in a good way.,_Baroness_Warsi

She was the only one who seemed alert to the fact that, as Gary Younge so rightly says, the white working classes have plenty to be angry about after 12 years of New Labour. Namely, “growing insecurity, rising unemployment, child poverty and inequality that have alienated the poor and made the middle class feel vulnerable”. Add to that list inadequate, expensive, unafforable and scarce housing, too many inadequate schools that alienate and frustrate their children, a minimum wage that's not only too low but is also seen as a maximum by far too many employers, inadequate State pensions, fewer and less well funded job pension schemes, the threat of a higher retirement age, repressive trade union representation, billions blown on becoming a surveillance society, billions blown on illegal wars and support for the the Bush regime, etc, etc. All of this alongside the well-off and wealthy sections of society becoming even more wealthy as a result of this government's business-friendly and laissez-faire policies, allowing the property bubble to inflate, and so on.

So the Baroness is right – there are plenty of legitimate grievances to address in order to deal with the anger of the working classes in general, and the lower middle classes as well – not just the white sections of those who are less well-off and downright impoverished.

These working class people are hardly likely to turn to the Conservatives, or even the Lib Dems to address their problems and express their anger. So who do they turn to?

Deborah Orr also had an excellent piece in the Guardian [G2] yesterday:

Diversity and equality are not the same thing

Racism, homophobia and sexism are on the wane, but Britain is more unequal than ever

The progressive agenda may have faltered in many respects over recent decades. But in challenging the evils of racism, homophobia and sexism, fantastic success has been achieved. Mainstream British attitudes, in the last 30 years, have been transformed. David Cameron, consummate public relations man that he is, recognises that a Conservative party that seems too male, too white, too straight, has an image problem.

Except that diehard critics of the Conservatives – people who would never vote for them – tend to dislike Cameron's party because it is seen as representing the interests of the privileged, whatever their race, gender or sexual orientation may be. Identity politics may have set out to promote equality. But the Conservative leadership has embraced not equality, but diversity.

This is social progress, of course. But it is not the progress that the left once envisaged. On the contrary, in the same time as the argument for diversity has made such strides, the increased equality that was assumed to be part of its goal, has not materialised at all. Instead, inequality in Britain is now much greater than it was prior to the success of its various "equality" campaigns.
Increased inequality is rightly understood as a consequence of the enthusiastic adoption of neoliberal economic policies, by both of the governments of the mainstream parties. But less honestly acknowledged is the fact that diversity is entirely compatible with neoliberalism. The growth stimulated by the promotion of skilled female employment, the economic advantages of immigration, the consuming power of the "pink pound" – these are the aspects of "liberation" that have been most amorously embraced by the political mainstream, in part because they chime so fortuitously with neoliberal economic goals.
Does this matter? Is it important to understand that diversity and equality are different things, and that they are sometimes even at odds with each other? After all, the rooting out of discrimination achieves social justice, whether in the name of diversity or equality.
It matters very much indeed, because the strange fruit of the confusion can be seen on Question Time tonight, personified by the leader of the British National party, Nick Griffin, who deliberately utilises the general increase in inequality to advance his anti-diversity, racist agenda. And even the very people who abhor his crude and frightening racism most find it hard to rebut his central thesis – that the white working class in Britain has had a raw deal over the last 30 years.
Rebuttal indeed is pointless. The important thing to remember is that the black working class, the female working class, the gay working class, the disabled working class and the elderly working class, have had a similarly difficult time, under Labour and under the Conservatives. Certainly all of those other groups have been lavished with attention under Labour in the form of legislation that protects their minority rights in the name of diversity, in a way that the white working class has not. But the real reason why the BNP is able to make capital out of racist assertions is because immigrants are the only group that has been overtly utilised as a tool to promote economic inequality. That's the link.
Since the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948 – the year Griffin promotes as the point when Britain's prelapsarian idyll ended – immigrant labour has been deliberately used to keep unskilled wages low. While the promotion of diversity has successfully staved off some of the most socially catastrophic consequences of such a divisive economic strategy, it has also ushered in a wrong-headed belief that immigrants are the actual cause of inequality, rather than merely part of the means of creating that highly competitive, fear-of-failure motivated, neoliberal economy that is such a splendid motor of empty "growth".
Many commentators have pointed out that under the strictures of "political correctness" the only group that can any longer be unabashedly despised is the white working class. A number of well-meaning critics suggested that with the character Vicky Pollard, the creators of Little Britain were doing just that. Some surprise was expressed when rightwinger Ferdinand Mount took up this general thesis, in his book Mind The Gap: Class In Britain Now.
But there is nothing in this to be surprised about. The application of the mores of identity politics cannot help the white working class. Even if the idea that the white working class is a special-interest cultural group that needs to be "respected" were successfully promulgated, this would advance only "diversity", and legitimise extreme economic inequality as an inescapable fact of life such as skin-colour, gender or sexual orientation.

This is exactly why the Daily Telegraph, before Karen Matthews was exposed as the kidnapper of her daughter Shannon, was at  pains t to portray Dewsbury as a vibrant community chock-full of Blitz-spirited decency, rather than an economically abandoned hellhole teeming with poverty-induced depression, mental illness, substance abuse, ignorance and desperation. It's just a sophisticated and identity-politics-informed reworking of that old saw: "The poor will always be with us."
Sure, some people will always be less rich than others. But less of a gulf between rich and poor should be a social goal because it makes us all happier, as a plethora of statistics have been marshalled to illustrate in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's important new book, The Spirit Level.
Yet who in the political mainstream is advancing this argument? Even Barack Obama, the world's most potent embodiment of the advance of diversity, has trouble setting out, let alone winning, the equality argument.