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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Punch and Judy Never Really Left PMQs

The headline on the BBC News site was about air pollution reaching new levels, and I did wonder for a moment if this wasn't an appositely titled heading to a report about today's Prime Minister's Questions, which seemed to be a particularly hopeless round of personal abuse even by current standards.

If we get the politicians we deserve then we should be genuinely concerned about the state of the body politic in the UK.  Not so much because of sex scandals or expenses shenanigans - though these things hardly encourage us in our attitude to our would-be masters - but because of the dismal calibre of our political leaders.  At least, if Prime Minister's Questions is anything to go by.  No-one expects this weekly parliamentary jousting to be a masterclass in political education - although it would be no bad thing if that were an appropriate expectation - but neither should the most regularly broadcast piece of parliamentary theatre be such a depressing collapse into unimaginative and uninformative playground name-calling.  One of the key participants holds the highest office in the land, and the other aspires to it.  You might reasonably expect some sense of gravitas, or dignity, from each man.  And yet Cameron and Miliband both perform appallingly badly at their weekly verbal battles.

Whatever the virtues of each leader - and their own parties interestingly remain distinctly divided on these - they have manifestly failed to reach anything approaching an admirable standard at the despatch box.  Cameron is a poor advert for Eton's debating tradition, as he stands shouting at his opponent, mock indignation and a constantly high volume his only verbal props; primary school level insults his stock-in-trade.  Miliband, meanwhile, responds in kind, laboriously shoe-horning his own carefully learned insult (today it was "not so much the Wolf of Wall Street as the Dunce of Downing Street") into his monotonously outraged attacks.

It isn't just the lack of any substantive political debate that so depresses.  If either man had a scintilla of genuine wit, or a slight appreciation of voice modulation, we might have a better impression of the farrago of nonsense that they bombard us with every week.  This is their showpiece, every week, to the British public, the public that elects them.  They are hopeless and inadequate representatives of their craft, but the real tragedy is that we so signally fail to bring them to book for their uselessness at the ballot box.  Perhaps it's because we're offered such a mean choice in the first place.


Monday, March 31, 2014

News of the Screws - is the traditional Sunday scoop returning?

It was as if a time-shift had occurred yesterday, with several tabloids leading their Sunday morning coverage with a classic kiss-and-tell sex scandal concerning one of the Great and the Good - in this instance, a Tory MP who was, perhaps, not so very great or so very good, but tabloids can't be choosers.

One of the great pressure group successes of recent years has been the Hacked Off campaign's targeting of the tabloid press, which some argue has led to a 'fear factor' amongst the papers that has denuded them of the classic sex scandal story.  Alex Wickham on Breitbart suggests that the climate of fear is gradually disappearing, and that the Sundays in particular may be resorting to type.  He also suggests, more tantalisingly, that there are more sex scandals still to come, although that these should concern primarily gay MPs could be an issue of concern.  Are they scandals because of the sexual orientation of the MP, or because there is a legitimate public interest to be served?  The recent Menzies case hasn't yielded a huge public interest case it has to be said - the story seemed in many respects to be a rather desperate one (a bit like the MP it reported on).

Nevertheless, if Wickham is correct, then the success of Hacked Off - whose activities are extensively reported by their principal mainstream media supporter, the Guardian, here - may indeed prove to have been merely temporary.  It takes more than a well organised, celebrity headed pressure group to stop the tabloids doing what they do best it seems - raking the muck.

UnBanning Books and Labour Party Faultlines - AS update on pressure groups and parties

The Howard League for Prison Reform has once again managed to raise the profile of a key issue in the conduct of our prisons management, and this time it's a reaction to a recent change proposed by the seemingly besieged Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

Mr. Grayling signed off on a policy last November to stop prisoners receiving, amongst other restriction, books.  His intention was to provide a more rigorous incentives policy within prisons to encourage good behaviour, and at first the policy passed with little notice.  Then, the Howard League for Prison Reform's director, Frances Crook, wrote a piece for online site criticising the policy, and a storm ensued. raised a petition about it, and a range of prominent authors joined in the chorus of opprobrium towards the policy.  The Guardian's Lindsay Mackie goes through the events and their possible consequences here.  As yet, Mr. Grayling has not offered to make any changes, but with a far higher profile accorded to his hitherto unnoticed ban, he may yet feel forced to bow to public pressure.  After all, stopping prisoners from reading does seem to be a particularly harsh and retrograde step.

Meanwhile, the Observer's seasoned political commentator Andrew Rawnsley has sought to identify the faultlines underlying Ed Miliband's Labour Party.  What is interesting is his assessment that most of these faultlines relate to strategic positions held by senior figures rather than substantive policy differences.  Indeed, the main area of specific policy mentioned in his piece is that of devolution versus centralisation.  So as an explanation of the party's current policy position, it is perhaps of less value than a raw political assessment of how a party looks at winning power.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pressure Groups Update for AS Students

38 Degrees – A very modern pressure group

One of the most active pressure groups in Britain at the moment is 38 Degrees, who are not limited to a single issue, and are thus a multi-cause group.  Their over-riding principle could probably be described as “people power”, and the desire to allow ordinary people the right to influence policy over a range of issues.  They have thus taken up a range of such issues.  Recent campaigns have included lobbying against the so-called Gagging Bill (more officially, the Lobbying Bill, designed to limit groups’ spending in elections by regulating such expenditure); gathering thousands of signatures to support MP Paul Burstow’s Commons amendment on hospital closures (which he then withdrew, to much criticism); action on flooding in the UK and data protection.  Success is varied – on the Lobbying Bill, for instance, they did not in the end gain the demise of the bill that they wanted. 

The 38 Degrees website is a comprehensive one, describing campaigns, blogging on their progress (good or bad) and giving a good overview of the group’s actions.  Nevertheless, they are in danger of being seen more as a centre-left political action group than a genuine pressure group, especially given the multi-faceted nature of their issue coverage which differentiates them from most single-issue pressure groups.  The website carries a podcast which questions the basis on which 38 degrees selects its campaigns.  The podcast acknowledges 38 Degrees’ success in mobilizing public support, but asks whether it is simply focusing on left-wing causes, and thus even acting as a left-wing spamming organization?  One of the reasons for this latter accusation is that 38 Degrees stands as a strong example of internet activism, in that they claim over a million supporters, not least through internet and social media mobilization.  They are, perhaps, the epitome of a very modern pressure group.

High Speed Rail

The government’s High Speed Rail project (HS2) continues to make news.  Today, its new chairman, David  Higgins, is reported as urging speedier action on getting HS2 into the North.  His comments, extensively reported here, (with responses being followed here), are undoubtedly a response to the strong support being given to HS2’s opponents.  The HS2 Action Alliance has been very successful in getting news coverage and opinion formers to articulate opposition to the HS2 plan, with Peter Mandelson leading the current charge against it that it will not benefit the North as its proponents claim.  To date, however, the Conservatives remain committed to the project, although Labour’s Ed Balls has indicated they would thing again if elected.

When Businesses Collide

Chancellor George Osborne is facing the problem of strong influence from two competing sectors of the energy industry over his plan to curb his proposed carbon tax.  This government came to power committed to green taxes, and their coalition partners are equally supportive.  Nevertheless, the non-‘green’ companies have a significant advantage in the battle against taxes – they control consumer bills.  What is currently persuading Osborne to back down on his carbon tax pledge is the prospect of increased consumer bills.  The Renewable Energy Association may hate the fact that this could imperil the development of green energy sources, but the fact is that nothing concentrates the mind of a politician as much as the electorate’s spending costs – and few leaders want to increase those.

Spreading the Message

Pressure Groups and trade associations will use any method they can to spread their message, and one opportunity is to use the burgeoning number of websites to do so.  Internet democracy is also a free noticeboard for organisations, and one example is the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union, who have taken the opportunity of the website’s ‘Opinion Formers’ page to advertise their concerns about cheaper bread.  Their article and video are here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mourning Bob Crow

It is always difficult to know how to treat the death of a controversial public figure, especially when it is someone who provoked strong reactions, and often adverse ones.  This was not a difficulty that particularly afflicted Bob Crow on Margaret Thatcher's death.  He hoped, he mused publicly, that she would rot in hell for what she had done to Britain.  No humbug in death there then.

So although Mr. Crow's death has come rather more unexpectedly, and thus rather shockingly, than the late Prime Minister's, it would be good to think we might apply the same principles to him that he so happily applied to Thatcher.  There is, in fact, rather less to say about Mr. Crow as it happens.  That he is a far less significant figure than Mrs. Thatcher is beyond question, and much of the prominence of his obituaries and tributes stems from the fact that he was a current union leader, very much in the driving seat of tube drivers' militancy in London at the moment.  Had he died, as he might reasonably have expected, some time after his retirement, it is unlikely it would have been such headline news.

Bob Crow was immensely irritating to those who used the tube, and utterly impervious to the needs of thousands of ordinary Londoners if the convenience of their travel got in the way of his own hard bargaining with tube bosses or the mayor.  In this instance he was indeed a classic union leader.  His priorities were the pay and welfare of his members, and he pursued them with a bloody-mindedness that certainly seeemed to work. It didn't, to be honest, take much political skill to do this.  Crow led a group of workers who controlled a monopoly system of transport in London.  They themselves did little to promote the wealth and prosperity of the city they depended on, using its growth as a bargaining chip for better pay and perks, and yet they were instrumental in its smooth running.  It is difficult to begrudge Crow his success in exploiting that simple dynamic.  He identified the fact that his workers controlled a key artery of the city and - good communist that he may have been - used the iron law of the market to bring munificence to his drivers.  It was not his fault that tube drivers were all gathered into one union, and he was entirely justified in using that situation to his and his members' advantage.  There are many who might argue that £44,000 a year for tube drivers remains cheap at the price in a city where so many bankers and attendant capitalist blood-suckers - whose positive impact on their society is dubious at best - can command hundreds of thousands, and even millions of pounds.

Crow may be the last of the successful union militants.  He recognised, as his successors surely will too, that the ongoing automation of the tube will eventually undermine the RMT's ability to hold Londonders to ransom for their own advantage.  That's obviously bad news for tube workers, but good news for Londoners generally, and Bob Crow's brand of union leadership, successful as a last gasp of bull-headed worker militancy, will be consigned to the dustbin.  Not everyone will be cheering that London can be left to the whims of the rich, wealthy and profligate with no recognition of the poor bloody worker. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Persian Fire Reduces Athens in 300, Rise of an Empire

Went to see the new '300' film, this time showing the Athenian fight against the Persians' gay friendly emperor, Xerxes.  Great spectacle - especially on the IMAX screen - but disappointing in terms of story.  The BBC's Mark Kermode commented that despite so much going on on the screen, it remained an uninteresting film (his eviscerating review in the Observer is here).  The history is nonetheless fascinating, and I'd recommend anyone to go and read Tom Holland's superlative book "Persian Fire", which gets your fascination with the ancient world racing through this grippingly told tale. 

I have reviewed the film here

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Republicans' Hate For Obama Turns To Love For Putin

If he was running for the Republican nomination for president Vladimir Putin would probably win with room to spare.  They love him, those warmongering old neo-cons, especially when compared with weak, vacillating Barack Obama.  Sarah Palin's in a swoon because Putin "wrestles bears and drills for oil", while former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani admires his decisiveness.  The Republican onslaught on President Obama seems to have admiration for the man they want to war against at its heart.  We have to go to war with Putin, they seem to be saying, but (sigh) what a man to admire nonetheless.

This nonsense tell us everything we need to know about the fatuousness of the Republican foreign policy outlook.  Two Republican presidents failed to come to terms with a post-Soviet world (or in the case of a third, Reagan, a transformational Soviet world) and certainly weren't willing to risk confrontations with Russian leaders if it meant direct action.  The most any of them managed to conjure was when Ronald Reagan - usually happy to speak loudly and carry a pantomime stick - agreed to send aid to the Afghan mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviet invaders.  That went well. The Soviets were duly defeated (like their own economic weakness wouldn't have accomplished that anyway?) and the friendly mujahadeen turned out not to be so friendly, using their American provided know how and weapons against, ahem, the United States.

At least Barack Obama tried to develop a new, 21st century world-view (rather unfortunately termed a 're-set').  That he has so far run into serious difficulties is not exactly his fault, but then the man in the White House is expected to resolve unresolvable problems that comfortable pundits the western world over all have clear, unworkable solutions to.  It comes with the territory of winning those four-yearly November elections.

Republicans - and a good few fellow-travelling hawks in Britain - urge tough, if largely undefined, action on Obama, and claim his weakness in ceding to the Russian plan for Syria has given Putin a further impetus in the current Crimean crisis.  Which is of course nonsense, but sounds good when you haven't got the foggiest idea about what is actually happening (which few of us have, to be fair).  Obama could not have done anything else with regards to Syria, even if he had wanted to, as the US Congress (Republicans heavily in charge in the House don't forget) was not going to authorise the use of force.  In this, they were following the example already set by the British House of Commons (although what on earth David Cameron thought he had to spare on the military hardware front if the vote had gone his way is a mystery to all).  Obama in fact achieved a pretty impressive diplomatic success by then joining with Russia and putting them in the lead in recovering the Syrian chemical stockpile.  A far better result than any Iraq-style solution.

And it is Iraq that still casts its shadow over US foreign policy making - or more precisely, George W Bush's own foreign policy is casting the shadow.  Bush may have fallen in love with Putin (he was the one who could apparently see into his eyes and identify truth, honesty and integrity there) but his gung-ho policy in other lands is what has lead to the catastrophic American retreat now.  Not only has the Bush policy left Iraq in an abysmal, murderous state, but it has infected the polity across the Middle East and finally exposed America as a superpower no longer able to act with any level of conviction.  Bush ruined Iraq, damaged America's international standing probably beyond repair, and exhausted Americans' own desire for any further foreign involvement.  Obama is having to deal with that legacy.  That he would have few strategic options available with regards to Crimea even if he didn't have the toxic Bush legacy hovering over everything is a further reason to acknowledge that tough action - whatever that should be - may be beyond America's ability.  As it was when Putin's predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, invaded Prague in 1968.

Obama's virtue as a statesman is his understanding of the limits of American power,  but in the supercharged atmosphere of modern American politics he'll get no credit for that, especially not from the Republicans who so admire Vladimir Putin, a man described by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as living in 'another world'.  Come to think of it, that's another thing he holds in common with the Republicans.


Michael Tomasky in the Daily Beast on "Why Neocons Love Obama"
Andrew Sullivan on his Daily Dish considers different opinions on Obama's foreign policy.
Simon Tisdall of the Guardian sees Crimea as an example of western hypocrisy, in a piece for CNN.
Jan Techau of Carnegie Europe lists the major mistakes made by the EU in its Ukraine dealings.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Tweet Inspired Diversion on Iain Macleod

In one of those politically neeky moments that do occasionally come about, even for the most suave and sophisticated members of the lesser suburbian intelligentsia, I was struck by a tweet from Times columnist and Conservative Home founder Tim Montgomerie.  Montgomerie had asked who originated the line "liberals may dream their dreams, socialists may scheme their schemes, but we have work to do."  Since it would be well known to Mr. Montgomerie  - a man one suspects of being thoroughly immersed in Conservative folklore - that the line was famously uttered by Iain Macleod in 1960, I assumed he was inferring that Macleod had stolen the line from someone else.  In the replies to his tweet, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson - who referenced the Macleod speech in a blog post just recently - did indeed imply that his famous predecessor might have 'borrowed' the line.  Could it be?  Could one of the Tory Party's greatest orators have done a Joe Biden and nicked a terrific line for his soaring oratory?

Determined to avoid the pile of marking in front of me, I started on an internet search of Iain Macleod's great speech.  There were plenty of references to it, but nothing to suggest it was anything other than original.  However, in the course of my all too brief career as a political researcher - amounting to little over 5 minutes - I did find a couple of curious facts about the late, great Iain Macleod nonetheless.  Macleod is, of course, one of the One Nation Tory breed's greatest modern heroes, and the party fighter who, in a stirring article in his own magazine, "The Spectator", famously denounced the infamous 'magic circle' of aristocratic influence that saw the selection of Alec Douglas Home as Tory leader in preference to the more socially liberal R. A. Butler in 1963.  Yet it turns out that Macleod had himself voted for Home as leader in a Cabinet vote undertaken by Lord Dilhorne (I am indebted here to an extract from the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).  Macleod believed that Home would refuse the leadership, and voted for him in an effort  to stop a bandwagon for Butler or Hailsham, intending then to come forward as the compromise candidate for the leadership himself.  Such machiavellian motives are at least ascribed to him by another Spectator editor, Nigel Lawson.

Even more entertainingly, it was actually Macleod who posthumously gifted Margaret Thatcher - often seen as the antithesis of his own brand of Tory politics - with the soubriquet "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher", since the decision to cut free school milk from primary schools had been one of the details of a forthcoming budget left by him at the the time of his untimely death after just a month as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in July 1970.

A chance tweet has thus uncovered, for me at any rate, a machiavellian politician par excellence and Margaret Thatcher's unwitting nemesis beyond the grave.  Such are the joys of political neekery.  And I'm still going to use Macleod's sentimental lines about his schooldays at the leavers' assembly.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Another Quango Head Proves His Worth

Chris Smith wasn't a very impressive minister back in the early days of Blairite government where he served in the middle ranks.  But he didn't commit any huge sins either, and is likeable enough, so the reward was to head a quango.  He has no environmental qualifications that I'm aware of, so naturally he became the chairman of the Environment Agency.  As it happens, since he can presumably draw on expert advice, what appears to have been needed at the top of the Environment Agency was a first class politician who could identify problems, sort through competing solutions and impose them.  A first class politician would also be able to communicate his agency's work effectively, and when things go pear-shaped - as they tend to when dealing with an environment that stubbornly refuses to engage in predictable or controllable behaviour - he should be able to go into damage limitation mode speedily and effectively.  Chris Smith has no environmental qualifications, but he doesn't seem to be much of a politician either, if his disastrous tour of the Somerset Levels yesterday is anything to go by.  His progress had a shifty, furtive air about it and he tried to avoid real people as much as possible - unsurprisingly as they had a few choice comments for him.

Chris Smith's performance brings the quality of quango heads to the fore again.  Smith is one of a long line of ex-Labour politicos (or diary secretaries, in Sally Morgan's case) rewarded with jobs seemingly beyond their ken.   Well rewarded jobs too, the sort that Baroness Morgan clearly thinks should be for life.  Many of them are well below the public wire, but organisations like the Environment Agency and Ofsted clearly do actually have an impact, and it is well beyond time that a proper, open application process was adopted for the appointment of their heads.  If Morgan's self-interested outcry and Smith's terrible performance bring about a change in the calibre of quango heads, then their otherwise very mediocre careers will not have been in vain.

The Secret of Good Schools?

Michael Gove thinks in headlines but then fails to do any necessary research for the actual story.  His latest headline was that state schools should become more like private schools, but without the money obviously.  Which pretty well makes the transformation impossible.  The things that Gove was lauding as good for schools - extra sports, Combined Cadet Forces, outside speakers, societies - area also precisely the area that his department and government has cut back on in school budgets.  Does he even look at his own budgeting arrangements? 

Nonetheless, because he is after all the Education Secretary, the Today programme ran a short discussion this morning between two heads - a prep school headteacher and a state school (Academy) headteacher, although the Academy head is nothing as lowly as a mere headmaster, he is an Executive Director.  The explosion of school titles is often in directly inverse proportion to the explosion in a school's results, although Mr Day, the Executive Director in question, appeared to be running a pretty good school up in Northumberland.  Unfortunately, the Today programme debate offered little illumination on the issue of how state schools could learn from the private sector, since both participants were understandably only able to comment on their own schools.  Which sounded like good ones.

There are in fact two key factors which often make the difference between the private and state sectors, the second of which is emulated in the top state schools for the most part.  The first factor is simple to identify but difficult to obtain.  Money.  Top private schools spend more than twice per pupil than state ones, and have wealthy foundations to fund capital projects to boot.  This means smaller classes (and even bad teachers do better with smaller classes) and fantastic facilities.  It also means paying staff higher wages in the very top schools, and giving them smaller timetables - no wonder everyone wants to work in them.

The second factor is less quantifiable, but more important.  Parents.  Most good schools achieve great things and  motivate their students because they have the support of a significant body of positive parents.  Education may be formally done in school, but the motivation for it and attitude towards it comes entirely from the home.  My own school is a good example.  Parents throng the parents' evenings and meetings, because this is what they regard as important in that complex, messy, unteachable process of bringing up their children.  The school benefits, and it keeps teachers on their toes.  We pat ourselves on the back when we return from school trips because the students have all been so impressive and everyone we meet has seen fit to mention how exemplary they all are.  But this isn't really much to do with us, and everything to do with their parents.  We just try and maintain the home ethos in school.  Positive parenting is also the secret behind the success of those Free Schools that are doing so well - the West London Free School springs to mind.  Money helps, but nothing engenders a good school more than the support of parents. 

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Cameron's Quandary and Tory Rebels

The papers have devoted some space today - at least in their non-celebrity pages - to last week's rebellion by Tory MPs, in which David Cameron was saved largely by Labour and Lib Dem votes.  That his backbenchers are more ferociously euro-sceptic than he is comes as no surprise - it's right up there with "public don't like bankers" on the revelatory scale - but the question is being raised as to whether Cameron has fundamentally lost control of his parliamentary party.  Or, indeed, whether he ever had it.

David Cameron was elected as Tory leader by a membership who were impressed with his ability to give a speech without notes, who realised that the party needed a fresh face and who had been uninspired by the main right-wing standard bearer David Davis.  They assumed Cameron was a basic right-winger, and accepted his modernising efforts in opposition through gritted teeth.  The problem has always been that Cameron himself has no deep roots in the Conservative Party (apolitical as a student, he came up through the ranks of the party's researchers to which he seems to have gained membership through social connections rather than political reputation) and thus no heft to wield against his more grassroots-connected colleagues.  Cameron understood the need for the party to "modernise" (i.e to moderate its overall outlook) and brought them into government.  His party members, and the MPs who most closely resemble them, never accepted the idea of diluting Conservative - or more accurately Thatcherite - positions, and certainly never came to terms with the idea of sharing power with the Lib Dems.  To compound matters for Cameron, a large segment of his 2010 intake were newcomers who gained political maturity under Thatcher.  That Europe, and all matters connected with Europe, has become alightning rod for wider discontent over what is seen as anaemic Tory leadership, is a fact of Tory parliamentary life.

There is another issue which bedevils Cameron's leadership.  The widespread public revulsion over the pre-2010 expenses scandals convinced many MPs that what electors wanted were more independent minded MPs who didn't simply follow party lines and feed at the parliamentary trough.  Except that, as ever, what electors want is contradictory.  Independence is good, but electors vote for united parties not divided ones.  This is the point made eloquently by John Rentoul in today's "Independent on Sunday".  He also quotes the findings of the guru of political rebellions - Nottingham University's Philip Cowley - that MPs have been getting more rebellious for years, and that Cameron used the tactic of abstention to reduce the public impact of his MPs' predictable disquiet over Europe-related bills.  Cowley maintains a regular assessment of parliamentary rebellions on his blog "Revolts", and the piece on the Raab Rebellion is here.

Cameron's Quandary is going to be that of any modern Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, and as ever in a democracy it in fact comes down to us, the electorate.  We want our MPs to show independence and to question the dictates of government.  But we are also less enamoured of them pursuing more personal hobby-horses (and Europe is certainly that for many Tories) at the expense of effective government.  That's our right as voters; it is the job of our representatives to interpret it as best they know how.

Sally Morgan's Politics

The chairman of Ofsted isn't happy about not being asked to do a second term in office, and she's been making that very clear across the media for the last few days.  Sally Morgan, the chairman in question, is a Labour baroness who owes her political prominence to the fact that she was for many years a close aide to Tony Blair - indeed, she is an old friend who became his No. 10 gatekeeper entirely because she was was an old friend.  Look up Sally Morgan's independent political or educational achievements and they are not quite so considerable. The reality with this present storm in  a teacup is that it is loyal Blairite Sally Morgan who has been making the most political capital out of her position, not the government.

Morgan's main claim is that she is being asked to step down because she's not a Tory, and that the present Conservative-Lib Dem coalition wants to put more Tories in top quango positions.  Which it probably does want to do, because after all it is a political government with a political agenda.  Previous Labour governments were not exactly leaping over themselves to appoint Tories to top quangos; by the time they finally left office the vast, and largely unknown and unaccountable, quangocracy was awash with dead-beat Labour supporters.  Morgan, indeed - a political person, as her present complainings make very clear - was appointed by the Coalition, presumably as a nod to the sort of political even-handedness that governments try for at the beginning of their terms.

Michael Gove has praised Sally Morgan's "fantastic" contribution to Ofsted, which we'll take on trust as to be honest I doubt whether ordinary punters, or the more directly affected teachers, could tell you what has been so fantastic about Morgan's time in office.  Most Ofsted waves are made by its chief inspector - currently Michael Wilshaw, who whatever his flaws has a distinctive record as a practising educator - so Baroness Morgan's contribution has been far more under the wire.  But the bottom line is that she has not been so darned good that there is an unanswerable case for keeping her on.  She was a political apparatchik appointed to a political job, and she's served out her term.  All her present fuss suggests is that she is yet another member of the unelected political class who doesn't want to hand over the perks of easily obtained office.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Education and the Private School Problem

It looks like the New Statesman carries an interesting and thought-provoking article this week, by George and David Kynaston.  George is another SGS alumnus and former Teach First teacher, while his father David is the widely regarded and very readable historian of modern Britain.  They've turned their sights on the issue of private school dominance in modern British society, adding to the wider debate about education and social mobility.

I haven't read the article yet - it arrives in the school library tomorrow - but NS editor Jason Cowley (a recent visitor to SGS himself) blogs his thoughts about it here, and George Kynaston was on this morning's "Today" programme (2 hrs 54 in) discussing it with Fiona Millar, the education campaigner.

Plenty of words have been exhausted on the issue of how education might best promote social mobility and of course there is no easy, ready-packed answer.  The Kynastons accuse the left of ignoring the issue of the private sector for too long.  They might equally - although I suspect they have not - accuse the left of having abandoned, for misplaced ideological reasons, one of the key engines of social mobility in the past, the grammar schools.  It has not always been so of course.

As I've blogged before, the problem of the mixed education system which ousted grammars was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.

He was not the first critic.  In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued that:

Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers.  Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.  Would that the left came up with such fearless thinking on education again.

Road-Blocked Obama?

President Obama's State of the Union speech was not expansive in its promises, and uplifting only in the form of a few rhetorical cadences rather than specific policy proposals.  In fact, of course, this is about as realistic as he can get, as a second term president facing a hostile House of Representatives and operating in one of the most poisoned and divided political milieu in Washington since the days pre-dating the Civil War. 

The Economist magazine carries a fair-minded assessment of his speech, and a couple of things stand out.  One is that despite his seemingly robust commitment to work around Congress, using Executive Orders if necessary, Mr. Obama has shown in practice a far greater respect for the limits of executive power than his predecessors, signing fewer executive orders in his first term than any president since the second world war.

The second point comes at the end of the article, where the Economist take a quick look back at Mr. Obama's two predecessors in their equivalent State of the Union speeches:

At the equivalent point in his presidency, Bill Clinton was musing on how to spend a huge surplus. A few years later that question was irrelevant. In his fifth state-of-the-union George W. Bush praised the strength of the economy; within three years he was dealing with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. 

Perhaps a less grandiose speech, recognising the limitations of his position and the road-blocks ahead, might just presage a more quietly successful final term than his predecessors enjoyed, for all their grand-standing.

Hillary Clinton's Dominance

Barack Obama may still have three years to run, and came out fighting in a State of the Union address which signified his desire not to spend the remainder of his presidency as a do-nothing lame duck, but it is in the nature of the game that second term presidencies see a lot of attention focusing on what comes next.  And here, the Democrats have always only had one name in the field - former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Washington Post records the biggest primary poll lead ever for the undeclared Clinton.  She leads her next putative runner, Vice-President Joe Biden, by an astonishing 61 points.  No-one has scored that highly before.  And Clinton's not just the biggest beast by far in the Democratic firmament, her name recognition dominates what is at the moment a puny set of Republican possibilities.  Bear in mind that the once mighty New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a disastrous January, with the George Washington Bridge scandal still likely to come back and bite him, especially if his sacked aide decides silence is not the best policy.

Of the other Republicans with decent poll ratings, Paul Ryan was hardly a brilliant performer as Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate, while Jeb Bush - the former president's younger brother - could certainly have traction but may find the Bush name more of a hindrance than a help in going for the Republican nomination.

Of course, we are only at the beginning of 2014, and the next presidential is due in November 2016.  Hillary knows better than any just how a seemingly invulnerable lead can be dismantled - as her own pre-2008 primary lead was by one Barack Obama.  She is also far from declaring; the third placed Democrat name in the primary polls, Elizabeth Warren (on 8%), is one of several women senators who signed a letter urging her to run, and yet even with all of the pressure and seeming inevitability to a Clinton candidacy we know that she is a woman who pulls surprises out of the bag.  The biggest one yet would be an announcement that she WON'T be running.

It's possible that Clinton herself doesn't yet know. Her time away from the political front line could have rejuvenated her or it could have persuaded her that she doesn't want to leap back into the piranha pool.  And yet.......  Clinton is such a well known figure, and has already battled such strenuous attacks since the time she was First Lady, that there are unlikely to be any more surprises waiting to ambush her candidacy - she is the best known quantity in American politics.  She also once talked of breaking the glass ceiling of a woman president - what are the chances of her not wanting to be the person who finally does that?

Until she declares one way or the other - quite possibly well over a year down the line - Hillary Clinton can at least bask in the knowledge that hers is the biggest non-presidential show in town, and likely to remain so for a good while yet.  She's never had it so good.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Jeremy Paxman's War

It’s only January and I must confess that war memorial weariness is already in danger of overtaking me, so heaven knows what I’ll be like come August.  Nevertheless, I did have some positive anticipation for Jeremy Paxman’s new series on the outbreak of the war, telling it from the British perspective, and I wasn’t disappointed.  In an age where many television documentary presenters are often a little anaemic and underwhelming on the small screen, Paxman somehow bursts through the medium with which he is so familiar, bringing his melancholy mien and authoritative tones to burnish his own telling of the story with some elan. 

Paxman’s documentary was imbued with a strong narrative drive, and the rather worn outlines of this history were somehow brought clearly into focus once again.  Amongst the more familiar aspects, Paxman gave us less well known stories too – the visit by Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, the bird-watcher of Fallodon, to the bird house at London Zoo two days before war was declared; the tears of Britain’s leaders; the early exploits of Boy Scouts on the south coast, given days off school after a night of watching for Germans; the tale of the first German spy, Karl Lody *; and the abominably self-serving, yet hugely successful, travelling recruitment show of Horatio Bottomley.  These were interspersed with some often excellently researched original footage and a carefully assembled picture of a Britain going to war which also challenged some received notions.  Foremost among these, perhaps, was the effort made by Paxman and his producers to show us that the war was not simply welcomed by a jingoistic public.  Its reception was far more nuanced, and the expectation of war was a bitter one for many even before it began.

Of course there are quibbles with the programme, not least the odd determination of producers and editors to intersperse archive footage and Paxman’s presentation with jarring modern images of express trains and 21st century city life.  I know it’s difficult to find a continuous stream of archive film, but the modern shots seem lazy and irrelevant.  But this is a small quibble in a programme that also gave us an interview with a 105 year old lady who remembered the bombing of Hartlepool, and the newly double barrelled Julian Kitchener-Fellowes on his distinguished ancestor, Lord Kitchener.

Jeremy Paxman has managed to set a high standard in this, 2014’s first substantive documentary on the outbreak of the modern world’s watershed conflict, although even as he described the reactions of the politicians to the oncoming storm in that distant summer, I couldn’t help find myself wondering how the Great Inquisitor might have interviewed them about their terrors and decisions.  With a little mercy, I hope.

* A brief history of the German spy Karl Lody is here at Rupert Colley's "History in an Hour' website.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Does Anyone in Education Like Gove?

The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is in full-on attack mode today.  And surprisingly, given his history, his targets are not teachers, or "middle-class grammar schools".  His target is the man thought to be one of his closest allies, Education Secretary Michael Gove.  In a further twist to the Gove dilemma, his shadow Tristram Hunt reckons that one of his own ministers - Liz Truss - is opposed to his distinctly one-sided approach to the teaching of World War One.  Which begs the question of just who in the world of education really does like the Education Secretary?

Ofsted first.  Whatever he says today, Michael Wilshaw is certainly an ideological ally of Mr. Gove's when it comes to reforming (or "attacking", depending on your view) teaching in the classroom.  It speaks volumes about Gove's political management that he has managed to alienate the Ofsted chief, who was said to be "spitting blood" (OK, we get it, he's angry) about what he sees as attempts to undermine his organisation.  We've been here before in Goveland.  What Sir Michael is concerned about is the sniping against Ofsted from political allies of Mr. Gove.  It wasn't that long ago that Gove's special advisers were accused of running a twitter account set up for the purpose of attacking critics of their boss's vision of a brave old educational world, so there is certainly form from an Education Secretary who enjoys nothing more than mixing it up with educationalists and getting political hatchet men to do some of the dirty work for him.  In fact, there are serious questions to be raised about the way in which Ofsted goes about its business, and that becomes even more important when you have a chief as combative as Sir Michael.  There has been, for some time, a belief that the political message which Sir Michael, up to now, has been keen to endorse has not always been supported by his inspectors on the ground, leading to clear confusion in schools as to what, exactly, is expected of them.  A conservative view of the Ofsted problem was made by the pseudonymous practising teacher Stephen Edwards on the Conservative Home site earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Gove's ludicrous caricature about the teaching of World War 1 history may also have engendered the frustration of one of his departmental colleagues, Elisabeth Truss.  Tristram Hunt is making hay with this one, as reported by the Observer today, but we have - once again - been here before.  When Gove originally attacked poor teaching methods he mis-used an example lesson from a practioner's website popular with teachers, and larded his attack with ill-researched generalisations.

For an intelligent man, Michael Gove clearly struggles with the detail of his brief, something which was apparent from the very start of his tenure.  Perhaps it's not that surprising after all that even people closely allied with him, and working alongside, tend to get frustrated.

Corruption and Death in Africa, Repression in China

A new country in Africa and a new leader in Beijing both, in their own ways, represented a small sense of hope and change last year.  Not any more.

The new country, South Sudan, has rapidly descended into the almost textbook condition of new African countries of inter-tribal violence and the financial corruption of its 'big men' leaders.  The signs were there long before its independence, and the reluctant conclusion of Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, in his article for African Arguments, is that after 50 years, African leaders have learned nothing.  Dowden's article is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the current bout of South Sudanese violence, tracking the historic enmities of the country's different ethnic groups.  It is also, perhaps, a rather rueful reminder that part of the reason we laud and elevate the memory of Mandela, is that his ability to transcend conflict and practise reconcilation remains a uniquely rare characteristic amongst African leaders.

The new leader was Xi Jinping, who even recently was saying he wanted to wipe out corruption in China's politics.  So a good way to do it, clearly, is to ratchet up China's repression of academics who come up with irritating campaigns.  Two such campaigners are being subject to judicial persecution.  Ilham Tothi, an intellectual who has argued for the rights of the minority Uighur people, faces a possible prison sentence.  Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar who set up grassroots movements to fight social injustice and official corruption, has just started his four year jail sentence.  And so the world turns.

Sex on Sunday

Whatever else is happening at the weekend, the Sunday papers will usually manage to find space for the latest round-up of sex scandals.  They're all pretty dreary, but clearly selling papers, and sometimes - when various celebrities' kiss and tell stories have temporarily dried up - there is even a political angle for the qualities to use as a hook.  If the British political establishment isn't providing enough sex news, then we can always co-opt a European one.  Most papers have Valerie Trierweiler somewhere on their front pages; the French 'first lady' is about to become an ex-first lady following president Francois Hollande's gallant statement that they are separating.  This adds nothing to our general knowledge of the world, other than perhaps a sense of wonderment at the rather dreary-looking Hollande's apparent success rate and lovely gallic approach in avoiding marriage at any cost, and the French did, on the whole, leave this one alone.  French leader has mistress was hardly cutting edge news.

In Britain, the Liberal Democrats are still shuddering from the aftershocks of the Lord Rennard affair, and the Sunday Times published the view that - reluctantly of course - Rennard might just feel compelled to lift the lid on a whole host of past Lib Dem scandals if he's forced out of the party.  Until they helpfully listed them all, I'd forgotten just how subject to sex and drink scandals the third party has been.  And this might be the point to flag up the Spectator article of ex-SGS student Alex Wickham, who writes about how he has been groped, leered at and chatted up by various male Tory MPs, usually in advanced states of inebriation, during his as yet brief time in Parliament as a newshound.  With the trial of former Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans due to start in March, I'd say Wickham's article is a mere preamble to what could come out (pun unintended) about the world of Westminster Tory politics then.  More grist to the Sex on Sunday mill I suppose.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

World War One Revisited

In the centenary year of the start of World War One we have already not been wanting in commentary, controversy and analysis of this watershed catastrophe.  Education Secretary Michael Gove kicked it off with a typically broad-brush and poorly researched article in the Daily Mail.  Gove is no historian, and has no historical credentials, but he did at least put the war on the front page for a while, even if his methodology was roundly criticised by Cambridge Regius Professor of History Richard Evans.  It is also true that there are plenty of myths surrounding the war which could do with a bit of bulldozing, a process that has been going on now for over a decade.

Television historian Dan Snow has written a useful and illuminating guide to ten of the most egregious World War One myths, and why they should be consigned to Tortsky's dustbin of history, on the BBC News site.

The debunking was given popular impetus some years ago with the publication of Gordon Corrigan's book, "Mud, Blood and Poppycock", which that admirable educator and historian John D Clare summarises in a series of well chosen extracts from the book here.

The inventor of the phrase "Lions Led by Donkeys", intended to raise up the British soldier over his incompetent leaders, was historian (and later Tory MP) Alan Clark.  No stranger to controversy, Clark originally attributed the phrase to German general von Falkenhayn, but never produced his evidence and later - apparently - admitted he had made it up for his book, "The Donkeys".  His trenchant view of the generals, however, didn't waver and he wrote a further article condemning Haig in particular, in 1998, which can be found here.

There are plenty of other links - pro and anti Haig and the generals - on John D Clare's website here, while the causes of the war have been subject to just as close a scrutiny as its consequences and conduct.  Max Hastings, Christopher Clark and Margaret MacMillan are three well known historians who waded into print on the subject of causes in their different, and each very readable, books.  It is probably Clark's which achieved most praise from the historical community, but Hastings and MacMillan were also well received.  For those who perhaps don't have time - doubtless because of other reading commitments - to wade through all three of these books, a useful summary article from the History Today blog about the different approaches to understanding the causes of World War One is here.

All in all, 2014 is clearly going to mark a tidal wave of views, articles and books on its notable centenary.  But this is just a taster of 2015, which is after all the centenary of some of World War 1's most notable battles, the bicentenary of Waterloo (which never properly received a centenary commemoration owing to the little matter of World War 1), the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  Oh, and the Sutton Grammar School CCF is 100 years old, and I'm 50.  I can hardly wait.