Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Where's Jezza?

Autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, when people of a certain bent turn their minds to party political conferences.....

You don't - can't -  expect much sense from Conference season. After all, they're basically big freebie jamborees for the converted: It pretty much doesn't matter what you say from the podium, you'll get a cheer.

Having said that, what has been emanating from the Conservative Party Conference would be genuinely jaw-dropping in the breadth of its inanity, asinine attitudes, and dementedly cheerful willing capacity to ignore basic truths, were it not for the fact that Brexit has inured us all to such lunacy.

Look at what's been said: We will essentially cut the continent off from the mainland; Africa is, according to Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, a country; the future of the poor will be picking fruit for the rich; we can sell English Air to the Chinese; We'll train more doctors and kick the foreign ones out by 2020 (I'll point out that it takes six to seven years to train as a doctor), or maybe 2025 by the latest if we really like you; And as for rich foreign students, well, there'll be fewer of them and they can only do approved courses at approved universities - though who or what will deign a course to be worthy of study, or what constitutes a 'proper' university is not mentioned.

Add in the fact that the two-year negotiation process to leave the EU will start, apparently, in March 2017, that this process will work entirely in the favour of the EU, and will almost beyond a shadow of a doubt lead to the withdrawal of the financial Passport from The City and other financial institutions, and you can hear something.

Can you hear it?

That's right, the deafening silence of nobody beating a path to our door.

The Conservative Party Conference has set out its vision for the future of this country, and it turns out to be one that is pallid, grey, monolingual, aged and unfit for purpose. There is no vibrancy to this vision, just a tired reliance on old tropes an outmoded images of a past that never existed. It is one that is fearful-  of the world, of the future, of those from any other background other than a misshapen concept of what The English are.

Note I say 'The English' rather than include the Welsh, Scots and Irish- that's because this whole farrago is peculiarly English in inception and execution.
And then there's another peculiarity - another deafening silence: The protest-shaped hole where Labour should be.

Where the hell is Jeremy Corbyn? Where are the voices of the Left? They should be tearing lumps out of the Conservatives right now, yet can't seem to make a dent.

What is happening?

Now, I like Jeremy Corbyn: He's principled and steadfast in those principles. He has a clear political philosophy and sticks to his guns. He's also an advocate of scrupulous politeness and respect within political dialogue.

But.....the trouble is, he's just not very effective. And importantly, he doesn't seem to be able to lead his party right now, just when we need it.

Is this a failing? Well, yes, obviously - but the fact is that all political lives are, in essence, doomed to fail in one way or another: All political discourse requires collaboration and compromise. I suspect conviction politicians have a bit of difficulty in getting their heads round this concept. You see, it's all very well having the moral high ground, but if you then refuse to engage in order to keep your ethics pristine and nothing changes as a consequence (or gets worse), then you are just as morally compromised as your opponent, no matter the height of your ethical hillock. It seems, unfortunately, that Jeremy is determined to be seen as being right, rather than doing right, to the detriment of us all.

Right now, we need another voice calling out the bland lunacies of the Conservatives for what they are, but we don't have one. For the sake of our countries, for the sake of our future, we need to give a counterblast to this arid unhappy vision being laid out in Birmingham.

And the really depressing thing?

It's still only Tuesday.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Er...where's my voice?

It has been, to put it mildly, one hell of a time in politics.

As I write, Andrea Leadsom has withdrawn from the contest to be the next Prime Minister, leaving Theresa May unopposed; and David Cameron has announced that Ms. May will take over on Wednesday evening. He must have one hell of a good removals company - it usually takes months to move house, but he appears to be going with extraordinary expeditiousness. It's almost as if he'd been planning this months ago...

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the chamber, Angela Eagle has announced she will challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. Just when we needed a united main opposition party the most, we find that once again we're back to the bad old eighties, and the Tories' capacity for holding onto power no matter the cost comes into play.

And while the chicanery and treachery continue in Westminster, all the rest of us are trying to get on with our lives, and I'm sure that I'm not alone in the feeling that we are being ignored: We've had our little fun with the referendum, now we're expected to wait for our betters to recreate the political landscape around them for their benefit.

Sorry, I'm not having it.

Dear reader, I'd like to make a suggestion. Maybe it's a daft one, and it's certainly something for the long term, but this seems like a time for ideas, ANY ideas, as our honourable representatives do not, at the time of writing, appear capable of finding their honourable bums with a map.

I'll start with a question: Who do you trust to represent you and voice your needs?

Another: Why do you trust them?

A third: When did you sign the contract that permitted that person to make decisions for you?

Now, we live, apparently, in a political system that relies on consensus and trust, in very much the same way that we trust that the bits of paper and metal in our pockets are commonly agreed to be money, and have a redeemable value (have you seen how Sterling's doing, by the way?).

Yet it strikes me that that consensus and trust have been severely eroded, not merely by the last few weeks, but going right back to 2003 and the invasion of Iraq. Last week, we saw the entirely unedifying spectacle of Tony Blair trying to explain away the dripping gobbets of blood that trail from his hands.

This erosion has become so bad that we must, in some way, rebuild it. Here's one way: a kind of Power of Attorney.

Let me explain. If you've got older or incapacitated relatives, you may well have one of these. In essence, Power of Attorney allows you to make decisions on behalf of someone else. It's a relatively simple legal instrument.

Why don't we apply this to voting? Currently, it's tradition and custom that allow our vote to count towards giving a politician our mandate to speak on our behalf. Yet tradition and custom are no guarantor of legality. Just because something is customary doesn't make it correct: Slavery was (is!) a custom; so is FGM.

Now, before you blanch at this, I'm not suggesting that everyone has to read and sign some massive wad of documents. Instead, I suggest that, by voting, you have in effect agreed to the putative MP being your representative. YES, I know that sounds remarkably like what we already have, but here's the catch: They are legally required to represent your views - and legally required to honour all commitments laid out in their manifesto. Should they not do so, then they are to be held in breach of contract, and therefore a new election, whether local or general, would be triggered.

By introducing a legal element to this process, we can achieve two good targets. The first is that political parties (or groups representing certain views in a referendum) would be held directly and legally accountable for the policies they claim to represent. Secondly, it invites the voter to be more closely involved in the process by actually reading what their party of choice stands for. You get more responsible politics and a more politically educated electorate at a stroke.

See? Not bad, is it?

Of course, it probably doesn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell of being actioned, seeing as the last thing our politicians want is an educated electorate.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

All in it together.

This has been quite possibly the five most depressing days in the life of the British body politic.

Well, it seems the Prime Minister was right when he said 'We're all in it together'.

It was just that he crucially omitted to mention what the 'it' was.

It seems I may well have been right when I said that senior politicians were playing a game with the referendum, but it is now apparent that the Opposition also need to pile in and play Silly Buggers, too.

There's an Ex-Prime Minister, presumably pining for the fjords of Chipping Norton or whatever, meekly bending over in Brussels to have his bum deservedly kicked by other European leaders; Labour's front bench resigning and Jeremy Corbyn so desperate for a cabinet that he's phoned IKEA; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looking as abject and useless as a pair of opened condoms in a lesbian orgy; Farage shouting Ya Boo Sucks in the European parliament; and only Nicola Sturgeon seems to have any form of plan, although even Baldrick is looking askance at it.

Away from this shower, back in the real world, the financiers are shoving more coke up their noses as the markets tank and the pound crashes, there is a very real sense of tension in Northern Ireland, and most distressing, report after report of racial abuse and attacks coming from round the country, as the facists now feel facilitated and empowered by everything shouted and said over the last few months. A weak government, a divided opposition, a split population, a weakened economy, accusations pointed at everyone but ourselves - this is the rich tilth from which dictators spring.

I am sick and ashamed.

This isn't who we are. Remember the 2012 Olympics? That's us - the real us, not the 'us' represented by the poisonous drip-drip-drip of rhetoric we've had this year.

The problem is that we never, EVER, really had any chance for proper, grown-up debate, not in public anyway. All the soi-disant debates on television and the radio were nothing more than politics as spectator sport: Bear-baiting for a world drowning in shouty tweets and opinionated, unsubstantiated Facebook pages. We have come to see the House of Commons as little more than Britain's Got (No) Talent with added suits and plummy voices.

Go and find the debates on Europe from the 70s: go and find the one with Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins. No, I'm not giving you the link - do the bloody work yourself. They're in a room remarkable only for its superfluity of beigeness, and Tony Benn smokes his pipe, and they talk and talk and talk. Bloody hell, it's long, but it's also polite, thoughtful and DEEP.

THAT'S what we needed. That's what we deserved. Instead, the entire campaign, on both sides, became dominated by whichever person could shout the loudest, shout the longest, and bend the truth the most - in other words, we were conned by demagogues. I'm not surprised Jeremy Corbyn was such a lukewarm advocate for Remain - this was politics as far removed from his aim for a kinder, more inclusive and respectful kind of dialogue.

It's no wonder that people have started regretting voting Leave - so many of us were barely informed, and the realisation that No, we won't be spending £350 million a week on hospitals and Milk and Honey, and No, you won't be getting more money in your pocket from now, has contributed to the despair and anger.

Ladies and gentlemen of Westminster, you have truly excelled yourselves on this one. But at least now We Are All In It Together.

Now excuse me while I go to find something to use as a paddle.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Honour, Respect, Dignity.

Three little words that mean so much to so many - and yet are used to mask so much.

It's coming up for midday on the post-Referendum UK now.

I can't pretend I'm not deeply affected by the outcome. Disappointed, yes; Somewhat angry, yes, but calmer now; Truly surprised? Not entirely.

And that honourable man, David Cameron, has done the honourable thing and respectfully, with dignity, has proffered his resignation.

Because, as we all know, David Cameron is an honourable man. Indeed, this covey of triumphant politicians - Mr. Duncan Smith, Mr. Gove, Mr. Farage, and above all Mr. Johnson - are all gentlemen of honourable intent.

The Prime Minister has said 'The British people have voted...and their will must be respected'. And he is a respectful man.

Mr. Johnson has said 'This is a glorious opportunity...for the UK'. And he is an honourable man.

Mr Farage has called today 'our independence day', with all his usual reserve and dignity, and with the candour that comes from his honourable nature has rebutted the claim that the money that goes to Brussels will now be spent on the NHS.

Honour, respect, dignity.

Oh, one word I omitted: Courage.

The PM courageously sanctioned a referendum that was wanted, in reality, by very few, apart from the honourable, respectful, dignified, courageous gentlemen on the right of his party and that honourable, respectful, dignified and courageous purveyor of media, Mr. Murdoch.

When the votes were cast and the results read out, Mr Cameron strode in dignity to the lectern outside no. 10 and, respecting the fig leaf of the National Will to hide his honour, resigned, courageously leaving the job that, in all reality, he has been trying to get out of for at least the last two years with his own, self-regarding dignity intact.

Honour, respect, dignity, courage.

Mr. Johnson, that honourable gentleman who enthralled us with the dignified manner in which he descended a zip wire, is a man of great respect - for his manifest belief that he should lead this country.

Mr. Farage, a man who has never known want, or fear, or insecurity, respectfully stands in front of a poster of a line of refugees, and courageously lies and lies and lies.

Mr. Gove maintains his calm dignity in front of each camera, and demands respect, and lies and lies and lies.

These fine and honourable gentlemen shall sleep soundly tonight, convinced of their worth.

I would not buy their treacherous honour, their trifling respect, their flaccid dignity, or their hollow courage for all the money that allegedly goes to the EU, and which they sold their souls for.

Honourable gentlemen all: You have sold your country for the sake of your personal aims, and a terrible day will come when you truly realise what you have done.

Still, done it is, so now my friends, we must consider what we should do next.
Let us take back these words - honour, respect, dignity and courage - and let them be our watchwords for the day ahead.
Let us add one more: Love, because that is what we need above all these - what we all need.
Let us not be fractured as a nation of nations by the greed, by the vanity, by the hubris, by the mendacity of these few honourable gentlemen.

Monday, 6 June 2016

EU In or Out?

...or doing the EU Hokey-Cokey, part two.

Right. I am now officially fed up of this bloody campaign.

I am fed up of these stupid, overfed, overentitled, immature morons treating this referendum as if it were some silly little game played out on Eton's fields, a game that will end with a 'well played, old chap' and a handshake, and nothing more.

I am fed up of the culpability, moral blindness, and sheer vanity of the politicians who have been most prominent in the media.

I am fed up that you do not understand whatsoever that you are playing with the very real lives of very real people, and all you can do is muster up false outrage, false claims, and false rhetoric. You splutter at the claims of the other side: it is false spluttering. You rebut a lie with another lie, and it is nothing more than a game of Risk played on a very real field of conflict.

You are a disgrace to us all.

Instead, I have talked with people in all sorts of places, and had real conversations about the real issues - and some of them are staunchly in, some are resolutely out, many are impossibly conflicted, yet all of them share this: We do not trust you, we are weary of you and we think you, ALL of you, probably couldn't find your respective bums with a map.

The conversation is going on, but it's frequently quiet, as if we feel we should not be involved, that somehow someone will be along in a minute to tell us off. And especially, it is conducted with perplexed, troubled voices.

Let me go off on a tangent for a moment and explain why I haven't been writing as frequently on here as I would like.

At the beginning of April, my dad had a bad accident that saw him hospitalised in Faro, Portugal, pretty much as far south and west as you can get in Europe. My mum was with him at the time, and my sister and I flew out several times to help out. The first time, I jumped on a bus, then a train, then into a plane, and within four hours or so I was at my dad's bedside. I stayed a few days, even managed to sample a few of Faro's restaurants and bars in between visits to the public hospital where dad was being looked after. My sister, quite brilliantly, dealt with the insurance companies and helped mum with her hotel stay. Mum showed a resilience and core strength that I think may well have surprised her, and dad, with those crucial first few days of care from the dedicated and overworked team at Faro Hospital, started pulling through and showed his power and determination to get through. Indeed, he returned to the UK several weeks later, and finally came home nearly two months after his accident, and is making an amazing recovery.

So, my point?

It's this. My father's treatment would have been ruinously expensive without the EU. The resources that were in the hospital, the training that the doctors and nurses received, would  have been much less available without the EU. My sister and I would never have been able to travel so freely had we not been in the EU.

It's also this. The grit and determination my parents exhibited are the very qualities we can all proffer, whether we stay In or go Out, and we will bloody well have to show them if the vote goes the latter way.

Yet these little freedoms we enjoy  - they were fought for, for us, by our own kith and kin. They were struggles won, and yes, it is absolutely right to say that there are many things that are rotten in the state of Europe. But these are struggles and battles to be contested and to be won by all of us, united. This is the real game, not the one waged by the buffoons on their playing fields. This is our country and our Europe - and our world. Let us not lose it by walking away, because I fear that if we do, some future historian will point at that exit and say, 'and that was the first domino to fall. After that, as we all know...'

Monday, 2 May 2016

TTIPping over the edge again

This is just a very short update post on a very big topic - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, aka TTIP, aka the Huge Big Deal That You Haven't Heard Of Because It's All Being Conducted In Secret.

Greenpeace Netherlands have just leaked a 248-page draft of the agreement - and this leak could spell doom for the whole deal.

If you're interested in having a look at the whole thing, you can download it here.

In summary though, as I know you're all busy people, just have a look at my previous post on the topic, which, even more compressed is:  - this soi-disant deal will create a net fiscal migration to the US, undermine democracy in the EU, permit currently banned GMO foodstuffs to be sold here, dismiss the ban on Neonicotinoids (the herbicide killing bees en masse), relax restrictions on the use of Glyphosates, and allow private companies to buy up whole swathes of public health and education - and, should you protest, allow companies to sue you into the ground.

This needs to be raised with your MP, your European MP, your local newspaper, your neighbour, your neighbour's cat, everyone - it really is far too important to dismiss.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Joined Up Thinking

There's already rumbling unrest in the Conservative back benches about the 'Academisation' of schools - but does this bill hide something more insidious?

One of the things that I've levelled at the current administration in the past is their seemingly inability to harmonise their political offerings - or, in other words, it looked as if they were planning everything on the back of a fag packet. Partly, this stemmed from the fact that we had a coalition until 2015, and this stymied some of the Tories' planned legislative shenanigans. However, it also derived from David Cameron's really rather laissez-faire attitude to whatever his minions in the various ministries were up to, an approach so laid-back even his body language needed subtitles.
The PM lets his team get on with things.

We saw this attitude resurface once more when Ian Duncan Smith spectatularly resigned: Cameron's letter had the air of a puzzled headmaster, bemused at the antics of the Lower Sixth, than Prime Ministerial authority. It is very striking how he seems to lack all conviction, apart from that of being born to be PM: He leaves ideology to his ministers, George Osborne in particular.

The Chancellor's announcement about forcing all schools to become academies was surprising, not least because it was Osborne announcing it: Why didn't Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, do so?
The Chancellor with his box full of Cunning Plans.

And then there was the announcement of the privatisation of the Land Registry. This was really odd. Here's a publicly held body that is openly democratic and accountable, that more than pays for itself and returns a healthy profit to the Exchequer - it's the very last thing one would expect to be in line to be flogged off.

In fact, there's more linking the two, I suggest, than meets the eye. Let me take you back a bit first.

Have you ever heard of the Infrastructure Act? No? Don't worry, you're not alone. This passed through the Houses last year, and ostensibly it's designed to speed up - you guessed it - infrastructure, in particular housing. The idea is it will be easier to get things put up. That's all good and well - I'm all for more homes, as I outlined in an earlier post - but there is a Dark Side to this. It makes it easier to get a permit to frack for shale gas deposits for one. Worse than this, however, is the fact that, should your local friendly fracking company pootle up to the brownfield site just across the road from you, you would have no legal recourse to prevent them doing so. Or, if a private company decided that they needed to fence in the public right of way next to their new factory extension, guess what? Yep, no recourse to consultation.
The reason for this is that the infrastructure act requires ALL local authorities in England and Wales to hand over areas such as brownfield sites to Eric Pickles' new quango, the Homes and Communities Agency, where just TWO inspectors will control planning decisions.

It gets worse: The Infrastructure Bill contains a clause that will allow ALL public land to be privatised, AND it supercedes previous acts such as the Forestry Act 1967 and the Countryside Rights of Way Act. That's right, pretty much anything public and open, that YOUR taxes paid for, is liable to end up in the hands of the few.

So, I hear you ask, what's that got to do with schools becoming academies?

I'll come to that in a minute. Let's take a quick look at what the Land Registry Act would mean first.

The first effect of privatising the Land Registry would almost certainly be the increase in property prices, as well as increases in how much you have to pay to see who owns what. However, it would also be very easy to justify not releasing information about ownership on the grounds of 'privacy' - and here's the insidious bit: because it would be a privatised organisation, the Land Registry would not be so amenable to Freedom of Information requests. So, we have land returned to a central government quango thanks to the Infrasctructure Act, that land being sold off to whoever, and that data about previously public land hiding behind the firewall of a private company that monitors who owns what.

Let's put the last duck in the row: Academisation.

There's a naughty little clause relating to academies. Basically, it states that whenever a school becomes an Academy, its physical assets, including the school grounds, leave Local Authority control and become the property of - guess who? - central government.

Many schools have a lot of land: For example, my old comprehensive sits in a splendid fifty acres of prime, eminently developable, green stuff. And just look at the price of plots in London.....

And there you have it. The academisation of schools is NOTHING to do with a better education. It's just the latest phase in the biggest land grab this country has seen since the Enclosures. This government, the most venal of the modern parliamentary era, is seeking to ensure that it takes OUR places and puts them in the hands of the very, very few.

There's their joined up thinking.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

What price education? It depends who's buying

The principle of schools and colleges collaborating in a learning network is a good one - but forcing schools to become academies is not the way to do it.

Today, Chancellor George Osborne is due to announce that all schools within England and Wales will become academies, whether they like it or not, by 2020. Quite why the Chancellor and not the Secretary of State for Education is announcing this seems a puzzle - until you realise that, once again, education is the thematic football of choice for those players vying to big up their political game. As an educator, I personally find it deeply frustrating when politicians with no knowledge of pedagogy or educational theory make broad announcements that will have a profound effect on the lives of everyone for years to come.
the image the government projects....

The last truly effective changes were, in my opinion, the Education Reform Act of 1988 under Kenneth Clarke - this lead to, among other things, the expansion of Higher Education and a generally successful reappraisal of the syllabus. Unfortunately, it all went pear-shaped after that. The Labour government couldn't help itself and began tinkering away, leading to the development of the first academy schools, the idea being that educational institutions that were centrally funded but free from local authority control would be more successful.
The reality? No, it's not QUITE that bad. Yet.

Then along came Michael Gove.

I know many people in the profession, all the way up to some of the most senior postholders, who have heart palpitations at the very mention of his name. In a nutshell, Mr Gove's policy appears to have been that a) all schools should be modelled on his own, rather mediocre, grammar school, except for b) schools that anyone could apply to open and were based on a now-discredited Scandinavian educational model.

The result, frankly, has been chaos: Money has been diverted away from local authority-controlled institutions to the new Free Schools, and even these have not been handled well. Laura McInerny's three-year attempt to get data on the selection process, which saw her end up in court, eventually revealed glaring inconsistencies in the way in which free schools received the go ahead.

And now we come to this - all schools will be academies. So, is this a good thing or not?
In some respects, the principle itself isn't bad - give educational establishments greater autonomy, goes the reasoning, and they will be able to provide an education that focuses more on the needs of the local population, or provide a syllabus with a focus on a specific subject - you could have one school with a more technical focus and another that aims to provide a more arts-based syllabus, for example. The government also wants academies to work in local groups, sharing best practice between teachers to ensure that each area has a network of pedagogical excellence. Again, I can't argue with that, except to say that it's not strictly necessary - most teachers I know are a pretty generous bunch and quite happy to share their ideas.

But here's where it goes all wrong. Horribly, terribly, wrong. The principle is not protected from the vicissitudes of the market - and peddling education as if it was just another product to be bought and sold is a grave error. In fact, the ground has been prepared for several years, but the introduction of the Academy Chain.

Academy Chains are simply controlling companies that run a group of schools. They often have exciting names, the kind we often associate with the team names that contestants on The Apprentice come up with.

Excelsior. The Excellence Trust. Bright Tribe. Communic8. And so on. Their strategic visions are virtually identical - 'providing excellence in education', 'encouraging the community to be active stakeholders', 'developing the minds of the future', 'sloganising active verbs', and so forth. The issue is that these companies are run, not by educators, but by business interests - and if it is good business to do so, then schools are sold off to the highest bidder. Let me be clear on this: There are NO safeguards in place to prevent this. The school, its staff and its pupils are sold as a commodity.

So, who's buying them? I'm just going to take a detour for a moment to talk about book sales and the generosity of teachers, then I'll come back to this question.

With the rise of the internet and ebooks, it should come as no surprise that sales of physical books have declined - nowhere more so than in the field of educational textbooks. Not only do publishers have to put up with blatant pirate copying of their materials globally, but they are also threatened by the rise of self-publishing and, horror of horrors, materials created by teachers and placed for free on learning websites. I imagine the creation of the Khan academy and the rise of MOOCs had many publishing executives wondering whether to jack it all in and go live in the forest.

However, the big educational publishing companies, such as Kaplan and Pearson have been strategising over this for well over a decade. Their reaction has been twofold: first, create a closed system of related products and services for which premium prices are charged, and second, start buying up schools. It's been the only way in which they could survive as publishers.

So, our academies of today and tomorrow are and will be bought by other academy chains which are themselves held by larger business interests, or by publishing houses directly, who increasingly represent themselves as Education Providers. And these publishers will still be aggressively pursuing schools to use their products exclusively, in effect creating regions where they have a monopoly on the provision of materials.

Just think about that for a moment: They will be able to charge you, the parent of a child going to that school, whatever they like for their textbooks and access to their online materials and resources, and you won't be able to do a single thing about it, apart from move your child to another school - where you'll probably face the same problem!

The current government, and indeed , the previous Labour administration, state that academy schools 'offer greater choice', as if you can get your child educated wherever you like. Just a moment's consideration will reveal that for the absurd lie that it is. It is a very good example, in fact, of how principles tend to get completely buggered up when they come face to face with reality. I'll leave aside for the moment the data that suggests that Academy chains perform no better than schools under local authority control.

OK, so what can be done? It's no use just bemoaning what is happening without presenting an alternative or a way forward. This is going to happen anyway, and I get the impression that a future Labour administration wouldn't have changing academies back as its top policy. So, just three things here, but I could go on:

1) Petition government to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect educational establishments. Education, like health, is a closed, finite system - it simply does not thrive when treated like a market commodity

2) Academy chains should remain under local authority control. This will not only ensure that minimum educational standards are met, but that core syllabus requirements are not ignored. It also means that the government's own Safeguarding measures are more likely to be adhered to - we do to want to see more 'Trojan Horse' issues as happened in Birmingham.

3) Where publishing houses own chains directly, they are required by law to be open to tenders for pedagogical materials from other companies. This doesn't address the issue of academies, but it will mitigate silghtly the financial impact that this system will have on the poorest families.

As a final point, I'll say this - converting schools to academies will not save the taxpayer a single penny, and in fact it'll probably end up costing us more: several chains have already asked for central government money and it is clear that many free schools have very weak business and syllabus plans in place.
So, what price education? You decide.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

TTIPping over the edge

It's the biggest set of trade negotiations you've never heard of - and it will cost us all dear

While our own UK politicians are getting their respective knickers in a twist over whether to stay in or get out of Europe, and claim and counter claim are flung about with gay abandon, there's something going on behind the scenes they really would rather prefer for us not to know all that much about.

It's the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. It's been the subject of intense negotiations between the EU and the US for over a year now. OK, so you're probably thinking 'So what? It's just another trade thingy' However, this trade thingy has been discussed rather secretively.

Incredibly secretively, in fact: The only information in  the public domain is that which has been uncovered through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. This is odd, as these negotiations will have a profound effect on everythhing you do, say, eat, drink and quite possibly think.

This article may make you think of voting to leave the EU, but I'll disabuse you of that notion later.

So, what will it mean? Here we go:

  • The NHS will be privatised. The TTIP guarantees that EU health 'markets' will be opened up to US Healthcare providers - and we've all seen how good they are. Don't be fooled by any promises from ministers about the NHS being ringfenced - TTIP has precedence over national laws and statutes.
  • On the same theme, water and education services across Europe will be open to American companies - companies like ETS, who really screwed up their provision of GCSEs about a decade ago, or Pearson, who happily admit that they fail students in order to get them to pay more for their resit exams.
  • Your food will be less safe - and your environment, too. Food standards in the EU are far more stringent than in the US. In the name of 'convergence', EU standards will be brought DOWN to those of our cross Atlantic chums - this means, for example, more genetically modified ingredients in our products, brought to you by companies like Monsanto. This same company, by the way, will also be able to break current EU limits on the use of certain pesticides, for example Neonicotinoids, which are strongly implicated in the deaths of millions of bees.
  • The Bankers will be back in charge of the money. Yes, that worked really well in 2008, didn't it? In fact, this is a bit of a reversal - EU banking laws are actually less stringent than in the US. Again, it seems that the TTIP actually prefers more lax regulations on everything.
  • They can spy on you, but you can't ask anything back. The controversial, scrapped ACTA bill of 2012 could be making a comeback. In essence, internet service providers would be required to keep a record of all your transactions, searches etc, while your right to ask what big companies are up to would be curtailed. Still, it's not like the NSA or GCHQ are bugging us all already, is it? Oh, wait....
  • You'll probably lose your job. The EU has already said that TTIP will almost certainly cause job losses as work migrates across the pond - and why? Because work legislation, workers' protection laws and wages are so much weaker there. When NAFTA came into being a few years back, it cost the US economy a million jobs.
  • You won't have a say, and if you do say something, a company will sue your butt into the ground. The biggest problem with TTIP, arguably, is that it erodes the very concept of democratic representation. If a company feels a governmental decision is not to their liking or even suspects that it, you know, might protect citizens from being expoited by said company, then they can sue, Basically, they can successfully prosecute if they feel there has been a loss of profits. Since the bankers will be back in charge and you won't be able to access their data, they'll win this one every time. That's tax payer's money being poured straight down a private company's wide open gullet.
Bearing all this in mind, it suddenly looks remarkably prescient of the current government to have created all these new academies, cut funding to FE and HE, allowed the surreptitious takeover of education by so-called 'supergroups' of education 'trusts' or by publishing companies muscling in (think Kaplan and Pearson), to have reduced funding to the NHS and to councils, to have shaken the public purse until it squealed for mercy.

It's almost as if they know something that we don't.

As for leaving the EU, forget it - if you think a pan-European TTIP is bad, wait to you get a load of bilateral trade agreements in place. 

I'll leave you with a little bit of history - did you know that England was one of the first European countries to create a bilateral trade agreement with the Ottoman Empire? That agreement was called a 'capitulation'. Eventually, the number of capitulations was so great that the empire fell apart under unsustainable debts.

The TTIP is capitulation on a grand scale - the capitulation of our rights and freedoms for the sake of a few more pounds. And, as the old Native American saying has it, 'you can't eat money'.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

In, Out, or Shake it all About?

We're all doing the EU Hokey-Cokey, whether we like it or not.

Wait long enough, and the same old things come back round. Fashions come, go and return - we seem to be in a bit of a 90s Nostalgiafest at the moment, for example. This is bad enough, as there is nothing worse than one's youth and young manhood being repackaged as History, but I am damn glad that there is currently no serious attempt to bring back the 70s.

Cheesecloth shirts. Flares and platform shoes. Really BAD hair. The great smell of Brut. And, for me, the sheer terror that was any form of group dancing. The Hokey-Cokey in particular - you have no idea how much I hated that bloody dance. My seven-year-old self couldn't grasp why anyone would ever want to do it - I mean, what for? OK, here's my left leg in...now you want me to take it out..right...and the same process with my right leg....why are we doing this, and why do we now need to do this again?
My Eyes! My Eyes! They're Bleeding!

I'll be over here with my book.
As you may be able to guess, I wasn't the most socially gregarious of children.

As with fashion, so with politics, and it's no less depressing than contemplating lobbing various body parts in, then out, then turning around and doing it all again - in fact, it's pretty much the same. It seems that debates that one thought had been consigned to oblivion have a nasty tendency to come back to life, rather like Phil Collins' musical career. The seemingly never-ending renascence of the debate on immigration is particularly grating - it's one that has popped up again and again, particularly over the last 120 years. Have a read of the papers from the late Victorian period if you don't believe me: the language is almost identical to that being used by Nigel Farage et al.

And now, of course, we have an impending referendum on whether to remain in the EU. I can almost hear the strains of 'Nights in White Satin' playing away in the background, as the 'Out' Campaigners talk about Sovereignty and the 'In' Campaigners discuss participation and trade. So, where to stand, and what to vote for - In or Out, and how long will it take before everyone gets so sick of the whole damn thing that they start going round punching campaign posters?

Taking the Out argument first, the strongest and most plausible claim is that of taking back sovereignty and control of the destiny of the UK. The idea is that national laws are subject to decisions made at the European level, made by politicians and groups over whom we have no democratic mandate to appoint or dismiss. For the Outers, leaving the EU is in line with the long democratic traditions of the country.
The problem with this is, as I see it, twofold. The first is that the very people who espouse this were the very same who campaigned for the 'No' vote in the Scottish Referendum, in particular Michael Gove. If you take the language being used and change 'UK' to 'Scotland', and 'the EU' to 'The UK', you pretty much have an SNP Independence Referendum campaign leaflet. How is it correct that sovereignty and independence is just and correct for the UK as a whole, but not for one part of it in particular?
The second point is that sovereignty itself is a very fluid concept, no more so than in the ever more globalised world market we find ourselves in. In fact, countries are always ready to broker deals that, in theory, compromise the independence of national parliamentary systems if that deal is ultimately in the national interest - and will get out of those deals if they are no longer advantageous. The notion that, with one bound we will be free of our Euro-shackles is plainly absurd - it's not as if, to torture an old headline from The Times, a fog will descend in the channel that will permanently cut the continent off from us. It'll still be there, much like Phil Collins.
The other point to bring up on this is that, if the No vote is successful, within five years there will almost certainly be no UK to speak of - Scotland would vote for independence and I suspect that even Northern Ireland would be weighing up its options.

Let's look at the In option. The core argument here, it seems to me, relates to the economic factor: The EU is our largest trading partner and for every pound we put in, it has been estimated that we receive back up to ten pounds of economic benefits. While this is very convincing, it should be pointed out that this reduces the whole of the EU to little more than business - it becomes all about the money, and not about the people. And that is the narrative that the INners are missing. Look at what's happening politically round the world right now: It's people angry at the traditional political narrative, that of jobs and money and stability and progress and blah blah blah - see, I even got bored as I was writing that sentence. Suddenly, there's a real sense of the personal about politics - that's why Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Leader, why people are flocking to Bernie Sanders and an angry Oompa Loompa in the States, why Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are so popular. People are tired of watching the same old faces trot out the same old solutions, and the In campaigners haven't twigged to that.

So - In or Out? My instincts are to remain within the EU: It promises greater stability, more security, overall a better outcome, and the UK is likely to remain as a single political entity. That doesn't mean, however, that I am enamoured of the European Union as a system. It has clear structural issues, but then again, it did so when we voted to go in back in the 70s.

Which brings me back to the bloody Hokey Cokey. We've put our limbs in and out and turned around to face the arid stretches of the global dancefloor, covered in the sticky residue of a tortured metaphor. What we haven't done, I would suggest, is Shake It All About.

The EU is not, should not, be the plaything of big business. It was conceived as a way of preventing further wars in the continent, as a way of bringing peace and reconciliation between people. The institution, primarily, should be a thing for the people, of the people and by the people, just as a certain country across the Pond likes to think of itself. What is needed is a grassroots movement within the whole continent demanding reform for the whole system - one that acts locally but thinks globally, or at least EU-wide. Too much of the running of the show has been left to politicians who rely on weary tropes and arguments and, more importantly, lack any real vision of what a Europe united is truly capable of.

I'm still not going to dance the Hokey Cokey though.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Gimme Shelter!

We're in the middle of a serious housing crisis. Here are two ways we could fix it.

It's long been a maxim that the best place to invest your money is in bricks and mortar. That's probably never been truer than in the housing market in the UK for the last thirty years or so.

Have a guess how much market prices have increased since 1970. Go on.


OK, 25%?

Hmm.. let's try a bit more....100%


In fact, average house prices, in real terms, have gone up an eye-watering 346% since then. And that's the national average - it doesn't take into account regional variations. For example, in my home town the average home has gone up in monetary value by 6% in the last six months alone, and it is estimated that house prices may go up by 43% once the new Crossrail scheme becomes active in 2017. To put that in context, a property 'worth' £200,000 (just about a two-bed place) would be 'worth'  £288,000 within the space of a few months.

For home owners, this may seem great news - but the reality is that it is an economic and social disaster that is waiting to blow up in our faces. Cities and towns cannot operate if people don't live in them, and what we are seeing is that people can't afford to live in them, largely because they cannot buy or rent at a reasonable price. Cities such as London have seen absurd increases, and desperately needs housing stock. A report yesterday highlighted the fact that there are some 22,000 properties there that have lain vacant for more than 6 months, a number that seems likely to increase with overseas investors buying property as investment rather than letting. Even so, this is a tiny figure - many more homes are required.

Rural towns and villages are suffering form this paucity, too. With the increase in the number of second holiday homes, people have found themselves being priced out of their own areas, leading to a loss of economic input and activity in the area, which in turn impacts on goods and services available.

For the last thirty years, it has been clear that successive governments have been reluctant to intervene in this situation - after all, home ownership is a prized notion for both Labour and Conservative, and the increase in notional values makes for a happier electorate. However, non-intervention is still a political choice, and one that appears to be an increasingly bad thing.

I'd like to suggest two ways in which this issue could be alleviated - they may be seen as difficult initially, but I believe in the long run they can only prove beneficial to all.

To deal with properties lying empty first: Since 2014, local authorities have been able to levy an Empty Homes Premium on properties that have been unoccupied for more than six months. This premium is anything up to 50% of council tax extra on what would be paid had the home been occupied. I feel that this is inadequate: Instead, councils should be allowed to charge an 'Economic Activity Premium' - that is, they can charge the amount that an occupant would be typically expected to spend on local goods and services. Not only would this discourage having empty properties, it would also contribute into the local economy. This would be particularly beneficial to rural communities, helping to sustain core services and amenities. If people can afford to have second homes, they should also be expected to ensure that they contribute to the area that home is in. Whether they do so by paying a premium or letting their property out doesn't matter. Homes are meant to be lived in, not moulder for six months of the year.

The next proposal is more radical, but achievable. It is this: All two-bed properties are to be worth no more than 3.5 times the average domestic income of any given region. Where it is the case that they are currently carry more worth, this triggers a wave of local housebuilding with the specific aim of reducing demand. So, a two-bed house  in, let's say, Burnley, is worth £70,000: If the average domestic income is £25,000, then that house is within the affordable range I have suggested. On the other hand, two-bed properties here in Reading are in the region of £280,000, and average domestic income is approximately £40,000 - meaning that the house price is seven times more than the income. By my suggestion, this would mean that new properties would be built to counteract this imbalance between demand and affordability.

I've suggested the figure of 3.5 times the value of domestic income because it makes the prospect of home ownership realistic. I've also suggested two-bed homes in particular because these are the ones most in demand from prospective buyers. The aim is to create true sustainability and stability within the housing market as a whole, but with the added benefit, ultimately, of averaging house prices across the entire country. For those who say, well, it isn't the government's job to intervene in a free market, I'll say that the government did and continues to intervene anyway - only in a negative way. The selling-off of council properties seemed a great idea in the 1980s, but it was accompanied by a cap on capital building projects by local councils - in other words, regional housing stock was deliberately suppressed in order to create a housing price bubble.

Unless something is done soon, that bubble will most definitively pop, and the outcome is not likely to be pleasant.

edit: This concise article very clearly lays out the disparity between earnings and house prices.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Way to Wealth!

English is a funny old language. 

Being a long-term TEFLer, I've always enjoyed its idiosyncracies and foibles - the variable pronunciation of 'ea', for example, or the way that consonant combinations lurk in the linguistic shadows, waiting to mug any unsuspecting language learner (try getting students to say 'dwindle'. Or 'lengths'). Languages are in a constant state of evolution - by the time I've finished writing this article, at least one neologism or new meaning will have entered the English language. Words themselves have a habit of shifting meaning over time, in much the same way that rivers meander sinuously across a flood plain through centuries of ever-flowing movement. 'Enthusiast' started off as having heavy religious connotations, before becoming pejorative and then ending up as a way of describing someone with perhaps a not-too-healthy interest in a hobby, as in 'train enthusiast'. Likewise, 'silly' originally meant something like 'holy', then 'innocent', and now it's a polite way of saying 'bloody stupid'.

And seeing as words are the way in which we describe the world, it should come as no surprise that what we are able to say informs what we are able to envisage. The reason English doesn't have the alleged Eskimo 40 words for snow is because, generally speaking, it hardly has enough time to settle for us to get much further than 'wet snow', 'slush' and 'fluffy'. I, for one, would like a single world that describes the kind of snow that rubs your face red raw while cycling through it, although I suspect that it would sound like a prolonged swear word.

Now, here's a good little word to consider - 'Wealth'.

Come on, who doesn't think of wealth at least once a day? Look at the newspapers, look at the ads, looks at your social media stream: Odds are there'll be at least one advert there saying something along the lines of 'Get wealthy now!' or 'Person from [insert town here] shows how they got wealthy!', or 'Get this Wealth Creation Tool Now!'

But let's consider the word itself. 'Wealth', originally, didn't have a purely fiscal connotation. In fact, its root is the same as the word 'well', and 'health'. It really refers to one's well-being: When you congratulate a newly married couple with the phrase 'May you have health, wealth and happiness', you are not actually wishing that they be financially well-off, but in fact that they have an all-encompassing well-being.

I think perhaps it's time that the original meaning was somewhat reappropriated. That way, when someone talks about 'wealth creation', they won't be thinking solely about money. If we think of wealth only in this latter sense, can we say that we are truly wealthy? Should we, in fact, be talking of 'well-being creation?' Have you ever heard a politician talking of that without being dismissed as something of a hippy?

OK, and we segue slightly clumsily into the political bit. It strikes me that the primary role of any government should be the preservation, upholding and enhancement of the Common Wealth. Not the Commonwealth - that's a group of countries that resemble a particularly fractious family gathering at a dodgy wedding. By Common Wealth, I mean the well-being of all the people who live in a state - not merely financial, but educational, health-wise, happiness etc. If a government does not aim to preserve, uphold and enhance these things, then frankly, what good are they doing? If they, for example, don't ensure that companies pay their fair share of tax, or turn a blind eye to assets being salted away in tax havens, or ensure that a health system is not fragmented and parts sold off, or privatise key national resources, how can they be said to be caring for the well-being of all? A government that thinks 'wealth' just means 'money' is one that is wrong.

In my previous article, I talked about how sometimes we don't have a word for something. When we don't have a way of describing a thing, then we may never even be able to visualise it, to conceive of its very existence. However, when we have a word whose meaning has changed, then that can warp our view of the world - 'wealth' is a very nice example of that. To paraphrase myself earlier, language is a tricky bugger. And our words and what we mean them to, er, mean, are inherently political. Language, like politics, is too important to be left solely to the politicians.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

No Word For Water

I’ve been reading Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill, ‘The Churchill Factor’, and I have to say that I’m quite enjoying it - it’s zippy, well-paced and entertaining, written with Johnson’s typical brio and zest. I’d certainly recommend it - if you like your history having a bit more emphasis on the ‘story’ bit.

Johnson, being a journalist, knows how to write, and as the saying is, he doesn’t always let the facts get in the way of a good yarn. To be fair, he does state, quite early on, that he ‘isn’t a historian’, which should be enough to put the reader on their guard. He is also, quite clearly, a bit besotted with his subject: The book teeters on the edge of fanboy fiction, and it’s also obvious that Churchill, journalist, politician and serial self-publicist, has been a profound influence on journalist, politician and serial self-publicist Boris Johnson.

He races through the life of his subject, placing Winston under the relatively lightest of scrutiny and conveniently skating over certain topics - the seriousness of his heart attack when staying at the White House, for example, or the absence of a mention of his involvement with the Black and Tans in Ireland. Johnson breezily dismisses much of the criticism of Churchill without going into detail - good for keeping the narrative going, but bad for objectivity.

Anyway, enough of the book critique. It’s still what is often termed a rollicking read. There are two points that really got my attention, and which hopefully I can use to segue into the point of this little essay. Firstly, it was the well-attested phenomenal work rate that Churchill had - he genuinely never seemed to ever stop, even in the later stages of his life: millions of words produced, a mind fizzing with ideas almost to the end, a compendious memory allied to what was clearly a gargantuan appetite for life. Truly, he was one hell of a character, regardless of what light he is cast under.

The second point was what enabled all of that life to happen - an army of servants, cooks, cleaners, secretaries and whatnot, a regiment of enablers, all at Churchill’s beck and call at any time. A phrase from the late, great Terry Pratchett came to mind: ‘It takes forty people with their feet on the ground to keep one man with his head in the clouds’. And then another, from Small Gods: ‘I imagine that fish have no word for water’.
In the final chapter of the book, Johnson makes a  brief mention of historians who write from the perspective  of society and the narrative sweep of time, and dismissesthem rather grandly, stating that his subject is a refutation of their approach. However, his own fanboy biography makes it clear that Churchill could not have been Churchill without the invisible jelly of support that is a human community.

In a way, we could say that Churchill the individual did not exist. Rather, we have Churchill the symbiotic organism, made up of all those secretaries, notaries, servants and whatnot, all facilitating the whims and functions of the Winstonian head teetering at the very pinnacle of the multi-limbed being.
Great individuals do not, cannot, function alone. Rather, they are the product of a great deal of work by others. The veneration of the individual, while attractive to our mindset, is a false act.

My point is that talent and work alone are often not enough - very often, where you find success, there also do you find some network that has nourished and upheld it, be it never so poor. Knowing this, it is perplexing how some people think that they have achieved everything by themselves, and that those worse of than them must in some way be defective. The current government, for example, seems to have a mindset that everyone can be just like them if only they’d Pull Their Socks Up A Bit. They can’t see, because they don’t have a word for it in their minds, that they have been enabled by privilege and happenstance to be as they are: If you’re lucky enough, and it is luck, then the invisible fluid that is privilege will uphold you, keep you up and allow you to flourish with a bit of work - and it’ll give you the confidence to take risks. Some people are already in the sunny upper waters - but many are further down in the murk, and for them, the effort to rise is much, much harder.

Still, it was ever the case: It’s not just the fact that the poor are always with us - so are the rich. Churchill was somewhat aware of this - it's often forgotten that he was involved in the creation of a form of state-based welfare system, even if it was one rooted in Edwardian paternalism. I’m not so sure that the current government are even this aware. If they could find a way to give a name to water, then perhaps they could help us all to swim upwards.

A new home

Welcome to the Nth Columnist, my new home for matters domestic, political and things that are probably best filed under 'other'.
Why'The Nth Columnist'? Well, let's face it - all my blog writing up till now has had a largely journalistic flavour, so I felt that a title that reflected that would be a good idea. It's also a reflection of the idea of outsider politics - despite the fact that life itself is very much a political thing, it seems that getting one's voice actually heard above the hubbub is increasingly difficult.
And, let's be honest here, 'The Joy of Raki' wasn't getting that well read.
I'll be including some old posts from there on here in due course.
As to what you can expect from this, it will largely be a continuation of ideas explored and written about in the Joy of Raki, with the exception of the Turkish stuff - I'll be dedicating a new blog to that, once I've narrowed down my choices of name.
Hope you enjoy!