Thursday, 29 November 2012

And now for something completely different

After all the lectures, seminars, marking and other activities of this week, I'm off for a day's intellectual stimulation: a conference on Politics and the Power of Print in Manchester. I'm really looking forward to it. Not sure if I'll have web access, but I'll live blog it if possible.

It's at Chetham's Library, the oldest public library in the UK, and one of the most beautiful.

Chetham's Library from gareth taylor on Vimeo.

Leveson: Vole's Initial Reckon

OK, here's the Leveson points reduced from 2000 pages and four volumes to a few words:
It's 'essential' that an independent press regulation should be set up by law. They've failed to regulate themselves and lives have been wrecked because they're often self-serving and amoral.
The Metropolitan Police have behaved very badly indeed.  
And here's the political response.

David Cameron: Nice idea, but it's too complicated, it wouldn't work and any laws relating to the press are wrong on principle. And Jeremy Hunt is as honest as the day is long. I've never heard of, let alone met, Rebekah Brooks or Rupert Murdoch. 
Ed Miliband: passing a law setting up independent press regulation isn't state regulation. The press have failed, let's implement a Leveson law. 

Watching the parliamentary debate about the Leveson Report is a disgusting experience. Tory after Tory has stood up to agree with Cameron that politicians have always guaranteed a free press, which is just plain wrong - as I explain here. They queue up to praise Jeremy Hunt and they bay like seals in heat as they make petty partisan points.

The basic strategy is to sound pompously in favour of the free press while making sure that they don't do anything about it. Most sinister is the assumption that the 'freedom of the press' is the same thing as 'the freedom of the press and its owners to behave exactly as it wishes'. Meanwhile the cosy little parliamentary coterie bay like walruses in heat whenever their friends reinforce their deluded and detached world-view.

Cameron's opted for a high-wire act: all the soundbites which will make the evening news will make it sound like he's going to do something urgently from the highest principles. He keeps saying things like But the small print, carefully expressed in language tailored only for nerds and obsessives, reveals that is plan is completely the opposite: he intends to do absolutely nothing.

I'm really sad. I don't think the Leveson Report is particularly radical, but within one hour of publication it's become a weapon in the usual political sniping - and it's clearly destined for the long grass. The result? The papers will go back to business as usual and we'll all be back here again in 15 years.

O Frabjous Day

I hereby ordain that from henceforth, 29th November be known as Leveson Day. For on this day, Lord Justice Leveson – or as the Daily Mail has it 'Orthodox Jewish Leveson' because his religion is really relevant – did cause much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the office of cant-purveyors such as Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and of course David Cameron.

Obviously I have no idea what Leveson's conclusions will be. But I did watch pretty much every minute of the Inquiry and noted his frustration and exasperation whenever a newspaper editor, hack or politician attempted to cloak their disgusting seediness in lofty principle. So I'm pretty certain that Leveson won't be recommending the status quo or anything close to it. And then it will be up to Cameron et al to explain why they might not go for it.

The latest tack is to claim that any legal basis for press regulation is an attack on a tradition of press freedom stretching back to 1695, when the authorities (literally) forgot to renew the press licensing laws.

This is of course what's known in the trade as 'purest bollocks'. Yes, the licensing laws were dropped, but governments found plenty of other ways to block 'subversive' newspapers, as any history of the radical press will tell you (my favourite newspapers were the original and 1968-1972 Black Dwarf).

In particular, massive taxation was the favourite weapon, ensuring that only political parties and very rich organisations could afford to publish one: the 1817-1824 Black Dwarf cost 4-6p, most of a day's wages for a labourer. And then there's the case of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party's newspaper which was banned for most of 1941-42 because opposed WW2 until Stalin out with Hitler (but don't get me started on the CP's craven, cynical and disgusting Stalinism).

Only the Daily Worker was banned, but Churchill tried to do it to the Daily Mirror too. He objected to this cartoon:

The Price of Petrol Has Been Increased By One Penny - Zec

It calls for people to conserve their petrol for the sake of the war effort, but Churchill interpreted it as an attack on the profiteering oil companies (Tory PMs more devoted to Big Oil than the people aren't a new thing) - and perhaps he was right. Certainly the Tories were determined to ensure that the collective war effort didn't undermine Capital and Empire, which is why Churchill was thrown out on his ear in 1945. Press freedom has never encompassed the full range of ideological opinion.

After that, attacks on press freedom moved into the economic and legal spheres. The Oz trial and ensuing prison sentences were a savage attack on the underground press, occasioned by cartoons of Rupert the Bear with a rather engorged procreative organ. The libel laws, especially libel tourism, are a global disgrace: if one reader in the UK has read an article from any newspaper in the world, the British courts will act for the rich and mobile oligarchs and tyrants who want free speech stifled. And then there's the corporate assault on freedom. While my appalling MP Paul Uppal defends something he calls 'corporate freedom of speech', Britain's decision to treat the press as a deregulated free market means that the Murdochs and Maxwells of this world can corner huge swathes of the market and cross-subsidise their loss-making rags with Sky profits. Result: Murdoch ideology everywhere you look, while even puny alternative voices like the Guardian are on the verge of closure.

There's also the D-Notice system: a cosy little arrangement whereby newspaper editors get called in - or receive a briefing - telling them what stories shouldn't be printed for reasons of 'national security', however that's defined.

So when you hear politicians and press barons pontificating about the noble ideals of a free press, remember that it's always been a fiction, and what they really want is the freedom to trample over the rights of the little people, to bring you exclusive pictures of celebrity mammary glands and the harlot's right to dictate public policy to venal, frightened politicians who lack the energy and originality to reach out to us in new ways.

To listen to these people go on, you'd think that Leveson's proposing a little man sitting in Whitehall deciding which articles can and can't be published (like stage plays until 1968!). I don't think this is what anyone's proposing. But we do have a problem. Newspapers are essential to the proper functioning of a democracy. We need rude, raucous, nosy publications which don't let those in power do whatever they want without scrutiny. This is why we need bloggers too, by the way. But newspapers need money. So they fill their pages with vicious reactionary politics and naked women and Richard Littlejohn because they know that the public will buy it - which means that if you want to know who bears the guilt of the Daily Mail, it's you and me. Journalism is expensive. Tits and opinions are cheap. So papers inevitably take shortcuts, safe in the knowledge that most of us would rather read speculation about Jennifer Aniston's haircare routine that what's going on in the Department for Paperclips or over at MegaCorp. Newspapers are incredibly powerful. If they go wrong, the country goes wrong. They have the power to wreck the lives of individuals and whole swathes of people. Imagine being a Gypsy, Roma or traveller in the Mail-reading counties. Then ask yourself why Jimmy Savile's phone was never hacked, or why the Sun didn't pick up on the Trafigura story. Most newspapers don't have morals. They have balance sheets and political ambitions and they're happy to ride roughshod over the rights of any one of us in pursuit of these aims, whether that means hacking the phones of dead girls or accusing odd-looking men of murder.

And that's why we need to treat newspapers as something more than cans of beans in the shop.

Whatever Leveson proposes today, it's going to be better than the existing system.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The preventive principle

You may have heard that the government has decided to legislate for a minimum price of 45p per alcohol units. A bit less than Scotland's 50p per unit, but still a move to make sure that alcoholics quaff more refined substances than heretofore.

I listened to a government minister explain the decision (which I largely support) on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. He said this:
It's a fact that when you put up the price of something, demand drops. 
He's absolutely right.

As a random example picked entirely off the top of my head, let's consider university tuition fees. They were £3500, which I thought was pretty bad. Then the Conservative/ Lib Dem coalition put them up to £9000. Demand for university places slumped, particularly amongst mature students who might like to retrain in the midst of a Depression.

So the minister's trite bit of pop-philosophy reveals a cunning plan. Like New Labour before them, they actually don't want a highly-educated population. They want a low-wage service economy which enriches shareholders like them who don't need decent services. The imposition of high tuition fees wasn't a matter of scarcity: the loans will be borne by the taxpayer for decades and cost us more than the cheaper system.

Instead, it's demand management. The Tories and their Lib Dem lapdogs want to price people out of the market. 'When you put up the price of something, demand drops'. And lo! It came to pass.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

From the video vaults

One of my Twitter friends asks why children's news requires a musical background. Here's why: it's because children and adults are assumed by TV producers to be stupid bags of meat with the attention span of a distracted gnat.

Back in the 80s and 90s, news was very serious. You could tell this from the Bongs and Trevor McDonald's moustache (which is why Chris Morris did this). This was very off-putting for young people, it was thought. A lighter touch was needed.

Enter L!ve TV, the short-lived Sun spin-off. Its news (followed by the weather in Norwegian, the zany scamps, and Topless Darts) featured News Bunny. News Bunny's job was to stand behind the poker-faced newsreader and interpret each story. Genocide in Africa? Sad face, slumped forepaws. News International share price up? Happy Bunny.

It's all very different now. No more News Bunny. Just Celebrity News. News with thumping musical beats. News with no news. How naive those 90s people were.

(News Bunny was Ashley Hames. Meet him here. He's a bit of a dick).

Happy happy happy

Morning everybody.

I've had complaints.

Specifically, I've had complaints that Vole Towers has become a dark, miserable place in which weeping and lamentation has replaced the usual upbeat sunny disposition which is my natural state.

It's tempting to direct you to take it up with the management, but as I don't believe in God, I'll merely point out that I'm a product of my environment. The cure for happiness is, I believe, a daily newspaper. In many ways, I'm very happy. Great friends, brilliant teaching duties (though far too much of it at the moment) and all sorts of things are going well and so on. I've even read 6 novels in the past few days while only receiving one book (a critical guide to Volpone). It's just outside my little box that the misery is relentless.

But for today, I'm going to bow to popular demand and make lemonade from lemons (one of my least favourite phrases ever).

What's made me happy today? Well, I received a new CD of Luke Bedford's music, Two-Headed Nightingale and other pieces, beautifully played by the Scottish Ensemble Modern and others. I can't put any up here because Youtube is woefully lacking in modern classical composers' works, but some of his older stuff is playable here. He's a bit like Arvo Pärt without the smug ineffability which comes from being pompously religious. There's a bit more zip and drive to Bedford's work, and beautiful parts for viola, that loveliest of instruments. Even my post-punk office colleague asked what it was approvingly.

Also, I woke up this morning with Inspiral Carpets songs playing in my cranial juke-box. Long dismissed as second-rank Mancunians, I think they're rather wonderful, especially as a singles band. The singer had a sharp, distinctive voice, the organ driven songs are insanely catchy and the lyrics bear more weight than, say, the Happy Mondays. How many upbeat pop hits feature the words 'I took food from the hand of a starving child'? as 'Two Worlds Collide' does?

Then there's 'Commercial Rain', an out-and-out floor-filler whose video really reminds me of those heady days in the mid-90s when getting bashed and sweaty at the front of a gig was my idea of heaven:

Inspiral Carpets - Commercial Rain (US Video) by InspiralCarpets-Official

Or the Mark E Smith-sung 'Saturn 5' and 'I Want You':

Much underrated, I felt. When they split up, their keyboard player Clint Boon headed out on his own as The Clint Boon Experience, and gathered about him a Boon Army. I bought the albums. Fun organ-driven pop. I can't resist spin-off and splinter group music. They're often glorious and sad at the same time. Some bands are more than the sum of their parts. Some members transcend what they did as a group, to the world's total indifference: just look at Scott Walker's career. The man is a stone-cold genius, but the world doesn't want to hear the musical experimentation of a man with an apocalyptic world-view and a devotion to Kurt Weill and Brecht. Clint Boon doesn't care. I saw him a couple of times. He'd turn up dressed in head to toe white denim, play a set, then a DJ set which was frequently very, very dependent on music he'd made on his own or in the Inspiral Carpets. Not a shy or retiring character, but one who communicated an infectious joy.

So there we are. Me being happy.

Now feck off or I'll set the dogs on you.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Welcome to the Daily Hate

Good morning everybody. Or it will be until you finish reading this. 

I don't normally draw your attention to the Daily Mail mostly because we all know what it's like: racist, bigoted, impervious to evidence yada yada yada. But sometimes it's good to be reminded what 4 million people think is a reasonable newspaper. I read these pieces so you don't have to. 

Two articles came to my attention this week. One was on the Leveson Report, which is released on Thursday. The Mail doesn't like it because the Mail and the Mail on Sunday were the biggest customers of Steve Whittamore, the go-to guy for illegal activities, and because the Mail's stock in trade is pictures of pubescent girls in bikinis with paedophilic straplines like 'all grown up'. 

This particular report was notable for its retro qualities. Yes, it's back to the Mail's 1930s heyday:

Mr Boles, who came under fire in the press earlier this year after he claimed expenses for lessons to learn his male partner’s native Hebrew. 
Brian Leveson PC [Privy Council] QC is a Liverpool-born, Oxford-educated Orthodox Jewish lawyer and judge
Poor Nick Boles. Yes, he's corrupt Tory scum, but the Mail's editor must have orgasmed at the chance to combine homophobia and anti-semitism. And of course Mr Leveson's religious identity is completely relevant to his report. 'Not one of us, don't you know'.

The second piece was today's effort by Roger Lewis, 'Tyranny of the Welsh Taliban… the Nutty Welsh Language Society'. Agreed, Wales is a hilly country and one that's been frequently invaded by the English, but most of us would think that there the similarity ends. Unlike Afghanistan under the Taliban, the Welsh women I know are rarely genitally mutilated and often enjoy a foaming pint of Brains (they're not zombies, overseas readers: it's a local beer). British helicopters are rarely shot down over the Brecon Beacons and Heddlu Cymraeg (the Welsh Police) tend not to shoot their English colleagues in 'blue-on-blue' attacks. 

No, Mr Lewis is upset that some Welsh people still speak Welsh, and that they finally have a limited legal right to access some services in Welsh. 

He's not big on consistency or logic, is Mr Lewis:
In South Wales, where I am from, there was never any tradition of Welsh speaking. And at the turn of the last century, though my great-grandparents spoke Welsh to each other.
So nobody spoke Welsh there ever. Except for his great-grandparents. 
English was seen as the language of the future, Welsh as the sign of regional backwardness. In some respects, I rather fancy knowing more Welsh. It would appeal to my hankering after lost things, like steam trains or gas chandeliers.

Ah yes. The Matthew Arnold Manoeuvre. He said this in 1867 in 'On the Study of Celtic Literature'. It should be a nice hobby, he said, but for the Welsh to get on in the world, they needed to speak English, like the rest of the world was being made to. At the point of a bayonet. It's a utilitarian position, and one enunciated usually by a dominant hegemony and its converts. It existed on the left too: socialists in Wales saw the language as dividing them from the global proletariat. Notions of cultural value and autonomy were not then - and in the Mail now - considered worthy of attention. 

Back to Mr Lewis:
Welsh has become a political and divisive weapon in the principality

He doesn't find time to mention the 400 years in which Welsh was banned in education, public service and the law. If any language was a 'political weapon', it was of course English. 

Now, we learn that at one school in  Ceredigion - which used to be quite happily  Cardiganshire when I was a lad - the children are not allowed to use  the toilet unless they ask the teacher in Welsh.
Obviously there's no link or evidence offered here, but my guess is that it's either a Welsh-language school, or a Welsh-language class. But at least these evil Welsh fascists aren't using the 'Welsh Not': the board hung round the neck of anyone caught using Welsh. The last one to wear it by the end of the day got an entirely utilitarian beating.
Some children are, it seems, too frightened to speak English, even at home. This sort of thing would have done the Warsaw Pact proud. It is despicable.

At least he's dropped the Afghanistan reference. Evidence? None. Warsaw Pact? Eh? Polish seems to be thriving. So are Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian. In fact the Soviet Union seems to have more regard for its minority languages than the UK.
But what can be done about a place that now states, on job applications, 'Welsh speaker preferred'? Unless you are willing to go to classes and learn Welsh, what such xenophobia means in practice is that third-rate local people get the posts - as doctors, teachers, psychologists, architects, and so forth.
That's right. Anyone who speaks another language is third class in Mail world. Especially if it's Welsh. Because obviously speaking two languages (all Welsh-speakers can speak English as a second language) is a sign of mental imbecility. Even if you've managed to qualify as a doctor… in your second language because there are currently no Welsh-language medical degrees available: you're a loser. And obviously the same applies to all the other professions: being taught in Welsh makes them intrinsically inferior. 

But Roger's got academia on his side!
I asked a former colleague of mine at Oxford, whose speciality was changing speech habits in the United Kingdom from 1800 to 1914. He explained that an analysis of the late 19th-century census data revealed that Welsh-speaking was in steep decline and that, left to its own devices, the language would have 'died of inanition because Welsh people themselves were casting it off as a mark of backwardness'.  
Actually, he doesn't. Lewis doesn't exactly claim his friend is an Oxford University academic. He was 'at Oxford' with Roger and his 'speciality' may well have been an undergraduate one. He's wrong, anyway. Current scholarship says that industrialism saved the Welsh language. With plenty of jobs in the mines and steelworks, Welsh people could stay in Wales rather than emigrate to Anglophone places. The proportion of Welsh-speakers dropped until recent decades, but the number of Welsh-speakers has risen consistently since the mid-19th century. 

Welsh isn't dying of 'inanition'. It's struggled in the face of official censure, but in the streets it's thriving, especially in the North. A language survives when it's used to work and play: my last visit to Bangor certainly demonstrated that it's in – literally – rude health. Hordes of lads and ladettes were drinking, fighting and shagging in slangy Welsh. If you can do that, you've nothing to worry about. Where Welsh is struggling is those areas in which English second-home owners drive up property prices and drive out working-class Welsh-speakers. 'Twas always thus. 

But never mind that. We get to the heart of the matter: Roger Lewis's self-hating racism.
This is what those teachers in  Ceredigion - and those who support them - can't accept: what my friend at Oxford called 'the evident cultural superiority of English', i.e. that  English has, for example, a richer  literature, going right across  the world, from Irish writers such  as Shaw or Wilde to everyone  in America.
Firstly, English doesn't have a 'richer literature'. It has a bigger literature - as you'd expect from a larger English and English-speaking diaspora, one which colonised empty places and displaced or subjugated the populations of un-empty ones. Why did Wilde and Shaw speak English? Because the Irish language was banned and burned too. But Roger is desperate not to mention the link between culture and military or economic power. No, it's all about essential qualities. I wonder who else he thinks is 'inferior'? The French? Jews? Black people?

He makes the astonishing assertion. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but as of yet there isn't a Welsh Shakespeare.
This of course misunderstands Shakespeare as much as it displays his ignorance of Welsh culture. Shakespeare was largely unperformed for 200 years after his death, and the Victorians liked to tack happy endings onto the tragedies. Furthermore, while there are world-class Welsh authors, the literary culture was different: many of the greatest texts are accumulations of the work of anonymous writers because authorship is a function of a capitalist and individualist culture which didn't reach Wales until later. Drama wasn't a feature of Welsh literature until recently for religious reasons, and because Welsh economic and social development didn't provide space for the form. Poetry was the thing, and what magnificent poetry there was. 

I'd point him in the direction of the Mabinogion, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Kate Roberts, Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths, Ceiriog, Wiliam Owen Roberts (amazing, postmodern) amongst a host of others. 

So how did Welsh survive, according to Roger?
the Liberal Government in 1907 created a  Welsh Department of the Board of Education, which 'captured state resources' i.e. taxpayers' loot, and allowed Welsh to be taught in the schools and artificially revived.
Right. Because Welsh-speakers aren't taxpayers, are they (and never mind that Welsh? And what damage they did!
Tenby was always Tenby, for example, until a few years ago when it suddenly became  Dynbych-y-Pysgod - a bit of nonsense about 'bay of the little fishes'.
OK… so you'd rather have a misheard translation of a name with a specific meaning than the actual name? Let's all call London 'Londres', shall we Roger?

Most depressingly, Roger seems to place no value on any kind of cultural diversity. Let's get rid of Welsh, he says. Flemish next? Then Dutch? Perhaps we might then dispose of German and the Scandinavian languages. Who needs them? We can then get rid of Spanish and Russian, and before long, we're left with the Queen's English, proud medium of the Daily Mail and all who sail in her. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Friday. Time to kick back

I don't know about you, but it's been a difficult and dispiriting week and I need something frivolous to end the week. Actually, I do know about you: if you're reading my blog then you're in sore need of relaxation.

Here's Mr B's banjolele-led compressed history of hip-hop. The good Mr B is – alongside Professor Elemental – the musical section of the Chap movement. Chaps tend to be urban sophisticates who have ironically (I hope) reclaimed tweed, waxed moustaches and all the accoutrements of the flaneur. It's so postmodern and self-regarding that I'm incapable of working out whether they're reactionaries or progressives, but I do know that the juxtaposition of Oxford Bags and Run DMC makes me smile. 

Here's Professor Elemental's 'diss' of Mr B: 'Fighting Trousers'. 

And as we're in an arch mood, let's finish with the Puppini Sisters murdering the Smiths. I was informed recently that there's a surprisingly large female barber-shop competition scene - it's crying out for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. 

Newsnight: the Reply

Afternoon everybody.

The big news of the day is that after a series of obstructions, I've had a response from Newsnight about my complaint that they invited Peter Lilley MP on to the show to discuss climate change (which he thinks is a monstrous lie) without mentioning that he's a director and shareholder of an oil exploration company.

I asked a series of questions:
1. Did Newsnight know about Mr Lilley's position?
2. Did it ask Mr Lilley or did Mr Lilley bring it to the producers' attention?
3. Does it have a policy of asking about and highlighting potential conflicts of interest?

The answer is predictably high-handed and evasive. Newsnight appears to have learned nothing. Here it is in full:

We forwarded your complaint to the programme team who respond that:
Peter Lilley was invited onto Newsnight as an economist, politician and supporter of the Global Warming Foundation. He joined a discussion that acknowledged that global temperatures are changing but asked whether there should be human intervention to attempt to reverse them? The previous day Mr Lilley had published an analysis of the economics of tackling climate change which we felt made him well placed to appear live on the programme.
It is a matter of public record that Mr Lilley is Vice Chairman and Senior Independent Non-Executive Director of Tethys Petroleum - it appears in Parliament’s register of members interests. Many MPs have interests outside Parliament and generally, as in this case, that does not affect their participation in media interviews. Peter Lilley has long held strong opinions on climate change which is why we wanted him involved in our discussion on the Newsnight.
I hope this is helpful and would also like to assure you that we’veregistered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of senior management within the BBC. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions and they ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.
1. Peter Lilley is not an economist. He has a degree in economics and physics, and worked as an energy analyst for a stockbroker. His report is somewhat hampered by his lack of credentials in the field  of climate science.
2. His report was not discussed, explored or challenged.
3. It's true that Mr Lilley's Tethys Oil position is on the register of members' interests - but are Newsnight viewers meant to consult it every time someone appears on the screen? It takes five pages to get through to the correct information. I think this is a fundamental evasion of the programme's responsibility to fully inform viewers. For the record, Lilley's hourly rate as a board member is £375.
4. My general questions about Newsnight policy have been completely ignored. They're treating me - and all viewers - as outsiders with no right to information or opinion.

I'm actually pretty angry about this. The news media is the only way to hold power to account, and if it has no checks and balances, power wins. In this instance, Newsnight failed to fully disclose a fundamentally relevant fact which would have influenced viewers' assessment of a guest's credibility. To airily claim that we can look it up in a parliamentary register is to assume that viewers have the time, skills and inclination to chase details – or it's an arrogant brush-off from an Establishment that has lost sight of the audience's needs. Not every viewer knows the Register exists. A casual viewer, I think, would have been under the impression that Lilley was a disinterested expert in the field rather than a man who is financially and ideologically committed to one side of a debate. This is why I think Newsnight behaved dishonestly.

The refusal to disclose Newsnight policy on guests' interests is similarly arrogant. It's announcing that some things are none of my business. Yet Newsnight  is in deep trouble precisely because a closed group of editors has resisted scrutiny and become detached from basic common sense. I don't think it's too much to ask for a news programme to ensure that guests' interests are made known. Ignoring my question indicates an institutional failure to address key questions about its practices.

But this is the end of the line. There's nowhere else for this to be taken up: I can't even reply to this email, as it comes from a no-reply address. Newsnight wins - and journalistic integrity loses.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

I for one welcome our new BBC overlords.

So, Lord Patten and the BBC management have searched the world for the right person to lead the BBC into a new post-Savile, post-paternal age. They've picked Tony Hall, poaching the former Newsnight journalist and editor (oh dear) from the leadership of the Royal Opera House. I've just sent this letter to the Guardian:
Sir, Lord Patten and the BBC are to be congratulated on their brave choice of Director-General. It's about time that male, white, privately-educated Oxford PPE graduates with seats in the House of Lords got a chance to show the rest of the world what they can do, freed from the institutional discrimination which has kept them down over the generations. 
Baron Hall may well be a fine Director-General. He may well be more than the sum of his massively privileged parts, and cope just as well overseeing My Big Breasts and Me as La Traviata (and no doubt he'll be singing 'Your Tiny Budget Is Frozen' within a week) But I can't help thinking that the recruitment procedure consisted of two stages.

Act the First. The scene is the Athenaeum Club, or it might be the Groucho, or a post opera drinks reception.
'I say, Lord Patten. Who's that chap in the Keble tie?'
'I rather think it's Baron Hall of Birkenhead. I wonder if he'd like to be the next DG. He'll keep the riff-raff out'.
'Steady on, Chris old chap. We need to make damn sure we've got the right chap'. 

Act the Second. The scene is Lord Patten's office at the BBC. Gathered round an iPad are Lord Patten, some lawyers and a balding man in combat trousers and a Half Man Half Biscuit t-shirt. He is he IT specialist, and he's here to work the iPad for his Lordship.
'So you're sure then?'
'Absolutely, Lord Patten. There isn't a single picture of Tony Hall posing with Jimmy Savile anywhere on Google Images'.
'Then he's our man! Trebles all round!'

Another day, another Uppal idiocy

Smarmy Paul, back from shilling for the Israeli government, got a question at PMQs this week. Let's have a look, shall we?

May I highlight for my right hon. Friend a free school that will be opening in one of the most deprived wards in Wolverhampton next year? It will provide a real ladder for social mobility for young people. It is a great, tangible advert for what this Government are doing in education, and he is more than welcome to visit.

Oh dear. The usual tissue of untruths. It's true that a 'school' is opening in the city. The rest is spin, starting with the adjective 'free'. It's not free. It's paid for by us, the citizens of the UK. 'Free' in fact means 'outside the planning and supervision of the wider community'.

The School is Anand Primary. It has a revolting and rather evasive video which may induce vomiting:

Its mission:
working tirelessly to deliver a new Sikh ethos
Which rather implies that there's a coherent, discrete Sikh identity, of course. And that Sikhism, alone of all religious doctrines, is entirely beneficent. But let's not get into those deep waters.

What else? Well:
Our school will be a safe, happy and eco-friendly place dedicated to giving your children the best start in life. The highest standards of teaching will be complemented by a wide range of extra-curricular activities to enable all the children to fulfil their academic, creative and sporting potential.
A wise man once said that if a statement's reverse can't be plausibly delivered, then it's meaningless. I'll give it a go.
Our school will be an unsafe, unhappy and wasteful place dedicated to giving your children the worse start in life. The lowest standards of teaching will be complemented by no extra-curricular activities to enable a few of the children to fulfil their academic, creative and sporting potential. 
See? Nonsense. And I'd be very surprised if a school of 60 pupils with no actual premises is equipped to deliver all this anyway. To say nothing of the nasty little secret at the heart of Free and Academy schools: they're exempt from laws requiring qualified teachers, minimum nutrition standards, democratic governance, Freedom of Information compliance and a host of other rules which have transformed state schools in recent years.

Then we reach the Sikh values:
  • Kirat Karau – which means that we should all earn our living through honest means and hard work. We should all take responsibility for ourselves and should never compromise our integrity.
  • Vandd Shakau – which means that we should share the fruits of our toil with all. We should respect everyone and work in the self-less service of all.
  • Naam Jappau – which means to keep God in mind at all times. To not waste a second of the time we have on this planet but to use it to become the best that we can be.
Wow. What a radical and distinctive moral vision. Don't cheat, work hard, be responsible for your actions and be community minded. All very nice, but I'm not sure we need an entirely separate school to promote these values: I very much suspect and hope that all the other schools in the locality hold the same ideals. Except Business schools of course. Those people are scum.

Naam Jappau is, I suspect, the real point of this establishment. Despite the video's claim that the school will be open to all, its purpose - like that of all religious schools - is to provide segregated education without interference. Plenty of dishonest non-religious parents send their children to Catholic schools, for example, but I suspect that it won't happen in this case. The proof is in the eating, of course but religious schools tend to become ghettos, which are not well-known for achieving social mobility.

'Oh, but you're just a big racist', I hear you objecting. 'Catholics and Protestants and Jews all have separate schools'.

Don't worry, dear readers. I hate those schools too. And I know whereof I speak. I only attended Catholic schools. I've been physically assaulted by the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers and the Benedictines. I'm also familiar with the Northern Irish education system, whose segregation has perpetuated state-sponsored sectarian hatred for generations. Schools controlled by a particular religious ethos promote separation, isolation and superiority. They encourage students to see themselves as Chosen People with a secret code to Paradise rather than as free and equal citizens rather than privileged members of an Elect. They also retard intellectual development: at one of my secondary schools I became convinced my name had been changed to 'Shut Up', as that's the reply I got to every question on religious matters. Inquiry is never given free rein in a school which assumes as a matter of policy that there's a deity (or deities). The rights and needs of subjugated groups are never accepted - what links most religions is misogyny and often homophobia.

My Catholic education was psychologically and culturally damaging. It was also, with the honourable exception of one school, educationally substandard. Inquiry was limited, certain subjects were verboten (I lived in a state of perpetual ignorance with regard to sexuality, gender relations and basic biology for many years afterwards) and challenging ideas went unmentioned. It was no battleground of ideas. There were no questions, only pre-packed answers.

This city doesn't need religious schools. The ethnic groups which want them aren't persecuted and fading away - the Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are strong, proud and enduring traditions here. They're free to educate their children religiously at home and in their places of worship. What we don't need is an educational system which systematically promotes segregation (and let's not forget that Sikhism is one of the few non-proselytising religions: it's an ethnic category as much as it is a religious denomination). Children should learn about each other's cultures in school without a teacher telling them that one lot is right/Chosen/going to heaven and the rest are misbegotten heretics. Schools shouldn't, to be blunt, exist to reinforce division, untestable claims and the status quo. How many free thinkers will we get from schools whose ultimate answer to every question is 'Because God says so'?

But returning to Paul Uppal. What's this bit?
It will provide a real ladder for social mobility for young people.
Seriously? How? What's the metric? How will removing some children from existing primary schools and sending them to a new school based on religious and ethnic identity promote social mobility? As far as I can see, it will retard it. Social mobility is about working-class people moving into the professions and income brackets (though those who like the idea rarely mention the possibility of downward social mobility). It's a class and economic issue, not an ethnic or religious one. At this point, Mr Uppal is just spouting arrant, embarrassing nonsense. They're just words, signifiers with no signified.

Social mobility means closing the fee-paying schools, abolishing Academies and Free Schools and taxing the rich and the likes of Apple and Google to make sure that the resources of Eton are available to all children everywhere. There's no secret to how fee-paying schools get good results. They weed out any child they don't like. They have tiny classes and resources coming out of their ears. In the state sector you don't get £30,000 spent on you per year until you go to prison, where there are fewer ski trips and lacrosse lessons.

This city doesn't need more money diverted to vanity schools. This city has a food bank. I'd humbly suggest that an economic structure which ensures people don't depend on charity to stave off hunger would be a greater contribution to 'social mobility' than any amount of niche educational establishments.

I despair, I really do. My only explanation other than wilful stupidity is that Mr Uppal is a racist cynic. He's decided that the Sikh community will deliver him a bloc of votes if he promotes this scheme – and that's all he needs. Personally, there's a lot to admire in Sikhism, and I've got nothing against Sikhs, just as I have nothing against most religious bodies, other than their baffling need to install some form of deity in the scientific gaps.

Paul has just returned from a country which explicitly identifies itself as a Jewish state. Its Muslim population is legally discriminated against in every area of life. Both sides see the other not as humans, or fellow citizens, but as enemies. Despite the similarities between Judaism and Islam, religious difference has become religious hatred because the communities never meet - just like Northern Ireland, only hotter. Is this what's inspired Paul's mission to Balkanize this small and relatively peaceful city?

Will the other politicians in the city oppose this and other 'free' schools and 'academies'? Not a chance. None of them see any electoral advantage in challenging the discourse of 'choice' (as though it's a magic solution for all ills) or 'identity politics' - and votes trump principles. Personally, I think secular schools run by a democratically-elected council which has the resources and the strategic oversight to plan for the city's needs is a proud and radical idea. But everybody else would rather retreat to the tactical jockeying and appeasement we call democracy.

And people call me cynical.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Like a dog returning to its vomit: Uppal once more

After taking an all-expenses paid trip to Israel courtesy of the Conservative Friend of Bombing Children sorry Israel (and I think we can all guess where they got the money), Paul Uppal MP thinks that he got a 'balanced' view of the conflict. After all, he visited the Golan Heights, though without mentioning that it's sovereign Syrian territory occupied by Israel. I rather think that's a minor political scandal: an elected British MP and government minister (Uppal is a PPS to David Willetts) stepping on to an occupied country's land in the protection of the Occupier. It's like a British MP accompanying Mussolini's forces into Abyssinia: it legitimises an occupation. Sadly, I don't know how to get this addressed by anyone but I've written to the FCO as follows:

could you direct me to the correct protocol for political visits to Israel and the Occupied Territories? My Member of Parliament visited Israel with the Conservative Friends of Israel and while there visited the Golan Heights as part of a trip organised by the Israeli Government.
Given that the Golan Heights are the sovereign territory of Syria, currently occupied by Israel, is there any FCO guidance about this kind of visit? I'm concerned that the presence of a British parliamentarian on occupied territory - escorted by an occupying force - legitimises that occupation. Should the Member have sought Syrian permission for the visit? Should he have remained on internationally-recognised Israeli territory? Is there any guidance for private citizens, MPs or elected government ministers?
Yours, Vole.  

Anyway, Paul got a terrible column out of it, which I covered here. He also managed to shoehorn his conflict holiday into a Parliamentary question:
I refer to my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have just spent a week in Israel and I came back and spoke to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Despite prejudices in this House, I can assure hon. Members that everybody to whom I spoke has an absolute thirst for peace, but one of the greatest obstacles to peace is the Israeli dilemma of how to trade off intangibles for tangibles. Israel will happily give up land, but how can it have guaranteed security and peace?


Firstly, there's no mention of the trip in his Declaration of Financial Interests yet. Only a line about his previous jolly with the Conservative Friends of India to Delhi (paid for by the Indian Government). 

Moving on: I still don't know which Palestinians he spoke to. There's no evidence that he visited the Palestinian territories, and it seems unlikely that the Israeli government or the CFOI would have introduced him to their enemies. What's the point? Both sides know where the various parties stand. So I'm afraid I'll have to remain sceptical on this one until Paul furnishes us with details. 

The rest is just hot air. People 'thirsting for peace' don't bomb buses or bombard civilian areas from air and sea. What those in charge on both sides want is victory, not peace. For the rest of the paragraph, Uppal is parroting Israeli propaganda without reflection. Israel doesn't have land to 'give up': Israel is illegally occupying Palestine and some of Syria, according to myriad international laws and UN resolutions. It shouldn't give up this land as part of a deal: it should give up this land and then pursue a peace treaty with Palestine. Israel gets 'guaranteed security and peace' by withdrawing to its internationally agreed 1948 boundaries, compensate the Palestinians thrown out of those borders, reverse the apartheid laws imposed on Israeli Arabs and respect the human and legal rights of Palestine and Palestinians. There are extremists on both sides who've made this a religious war, but improved legal and material conditions will cut off their oxygen. 

Uppal's just a shill. Despite his protestations, he's taken money to expose himself to the Israeli government's propaganda machine and he's not concerned in the slightest with critically evaluating what they're telling him. He doesn't want to believe that not all Palestinians are terrorists, that they have justified grievances, or that Israel has behaved cruelly and unreasonably. Why not? Because it's not in his personal interest to find complications in his party's world view. 


A few photos from yesterday's trip to the Land of Lost Content, Craven Arms' premier museum of everyday material culture. As I've been there before, I didn't take hundreds of pictures, but you may like these. Click on them to enlarge, and I've added the rest to the Flickr set.

Stuffed fox: acquired for £20 from a charity shop

1950s? football boots

It isn't? It is… a bust of Hitler

Outsider art, to put it kindly. I think this is meant to be George Harrison

Tin rocking horse

Frightening child on a bricklaying game box

Brut men's aftershave. Perhaps it doesn't quite work in English. 

Nick Owen, West Midlands news-reading heart-throb. And supposed model for Alan Partridge.

It turns out that Uncle Mac was quite a predatory paedophile as well as the best-loved children's broadcaster of his day.

Anti-Tory badge demonstrating how far we've moved on…

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

We're all going on a winter holiday

No blogging from me today (other than this, obviously). I'm taking a group of students to the Land of Lost Content, a sure contender for Shropshire's oddest museum. It's basically an old warehouse filled with the contents of the charity shops nobody ever goes to. Old detergent boxes, 1950s underpants, a telephone exchange, Wham records and a very disturbing collection of golliwog memorabilia. You can see the disturbing photos I took last year here.

The name of course is from A. E Housman's 'A Shropshire Lad', which also features the line about Shropshire's 'blue remembered hills'. The irony is of course that the narrator is looking to Shropshire from Herefordshire, and the subtext of the poem is homoerotic… which would no doubt horrify the tweedy Tories who like the line but have never read the poem. It amuses me though.

Talking of homoerotic, the only book I've acquired so far this week is Rhys Davies' 1947 The Dark Daughters, a rather melodramatic Lear retelling which features the first Welsh cocaine abuse in literary history. Davies was proper Valleys boy (though not a miner) whose works carry a considerable homosexual charge, albeit one rarely mentioned by his contemporary reviewers. Apparently this books is 'sustainedly unpleasant' and carries hints of 'perversion'. Excellent.

I'm hoping the bus breaks down - otherwise I get back to the Hegemon and go straight into another meeting, damn it. Have a good day.

Monday, 19 November 2012


Amidst all the Savile and McAlpine furore, you may have missed this little exchange on Radio 4's Today programme:
The BBC has apologised to the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, after Radio 4's Today presenter Evan Davis asked him a question about the violence in Gaza without telling him he was live on air.
When Sacks finished his Thought for the Day on Friday morning, Davis asked him to comment on the Gaza situation before he left the studio.
Sacks, seemingly unaware that he was live, said "I think it's got to do with Iran, actually", before Davis' co-presenter Sarah Montague whispered: "We, we're live."

This seems to be a reasonable thing to happen. Jonathan Sacks appears on Today regularly and clearly listens to the show. He knows how it works. As the leading Jewish cleric in the country, he frequently gives his view - as perhaps he should - on Israeli affairs.

So what's the problem?

The problem was that Mr Sacks, being unprepared, was honest.
His tone then changed markedly and he called for "a continued prayer for peace, not only in Gaza but for the whole region, no one gains from violence".

Apparently this is infra dig at the moment.
According to a number of BBC sources, Sacks was said to be "angry" about the incident and made his feelings known to Today's production team.

The Chief Rabbi appeared to think that there are things it's OK to think and other things it's OK to say in public. Which is not my idea of spiritual leadership.

What is going on at the BBC? This is the response:
However, according to one senior BBC executive, the incident reflects the chaos at BBC News. "This is another cock up for BBC News – they are a law unto themselves on this one," said the source. "It is a cardinal law that you don't do that to a Thought for the Day presenter – that's a separate thing and you don't ask them questions like that. Lord Sacks is the chief rabbi. You show him some respect. This may also fuel the idea in some people's minds that the BBC is anti-Israel."
So apparently asking the country's most prominent Jewish cleric his opinion of events in Israel is 'a cock-up' rather than a decent bit of impromptu journalism. Sacks has never been afraid to mix politics with religion. He has a view on the Gaza bombardment that doesn't fit the Israeli government's line. So what? It's only an issue if - like Rupert Murdoch - you think every Jew has to be slavishly loyal to current Israeli policy, which I don't. Clearly Sacks thinks that it's dirty linen to be kept indoors. To me, it's news. The BBC's grovelling shows that it doesn't understand what that is any more.

Uppal's back with an (Israeli) bang

Well well well. The Member for The Dark Place Southwest and PPS to the Minister for Universities has resurfaced after a long and troubling silence.

Is Paul Uppal MP in his constituency? No. Is he beavering away in the Department of Education? Er, no? Is he, perhaps, working hard to bring the fruits of his labours to the needy citizens of the city he represents?

No, no and thrice no. He's in Israel, and he's writing articles for a Conservative website. On our time and money.

Who paid for Paul to go to Israel? Well, he's on a jolly with the Conservative Friends of Israel, so my guess is that the Israeli government flew them in for a close-up view of what they do to Johnny Arab when those benighted people get a bit fed up with their land being occupied, farms bulldozed, movement restricted and children murdered. I can't absolutely tell you who pays for it because the CFOI website is very, very coy on the matter. In fact virtually all the links on the site are broken… unless they just don't work for socialists. And Paul's not saying.

But we can assume that this is a propaganda trip organised to ensure that the Israeli government's perspective (just think South African National Party's attitude towards black Africans in, say, 1965) reach the highest levels of government.

So what does Paul have to say?
To say that this week has been eventful would be a serious understatement. Its events culminated yesterday when rocket sirens went off in Jerusalem where I was staying with a Conservative Friends of Israel delegation. It was an experience I will never forget.
I admit it Paul. I pulled some strings to get Hamas to fire off some rockets when I heard you were there. It's worked out nicely for you. You're a veteran now. A big man.

And then there's this:
On Tuesday we visited the Golan Heights. The news at the time was that errant fire from the Syrian civil war had landed in Israel; the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
You'd be forgiven for think that the Golan Heights is some tourist spot threatened by those dastardly Palestinians, and not part of Syria illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. They're not giving it back: a third of Israel's water comes from the Golan.
The escalation began earlier this month following the detonation of a tunnel on the Israeli side of the border which targeted Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers. An anti-tank missile also destroyed an IDF jeep travelling on the Israeli side of the border fence, injuring four soldiers.
That'll be the illegal border fence which marks the extent of Israel's illegal occupation. And I reckon the 'escalation' started in 1948 when Palestinians were thrown off their ancestral land without negotiation or compensation, to salve the consciences of the Western Powers which had done little to nothing to save Jews from the Holocaust.
In response to the extended missile barrages on its sovereign territory, Israel launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ as part of a series of attacks on Hamas terrorist installations. Wednesday saw the completion of the targeted killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari 
Ah yes. Because the Israelis are stern respecters of 'sovereign territory'. Naval and air bombardment of the most densely packed urban space in the world is a standard 'defensive' strategy. These 'extended missile barrages' have (sadly) killed three Israelis and mostly landed in desert. It's not exactly the Blitz. 'Terrorist installations' have so far included houses, schools, hospitals, transport infrastructure and traffic lights. Targeted killing = assassination (and it's not very targeted: lots of children related to Hamas officials have been killed too) and Jabari was, it's said, about to sign a ceasefire agreement with the Israeli military. But there's an election coming up.
we toured Israel’s security barrier
Ah yes. The illegal 'security' barrier which confiscates large swathes of Palestinian land under international law, and (coincidentally?) separates them from the scarcest commodity of all in the area: water.
Terrorist groups like Hamas do immense physical and psychological damage and conversely, Israel, with its large and technologically advanced army has been unable to put a stop to the continued assault.
No they don't. Their weaponry is largely useless, as any news report will tell you. The assault is not 'continued': it occurs every few years when the hotheads can't think of anything else to do in response to being despised prisoners. As to 'terrorist': that's the epithet applied to any armed group which doesn't have the resources of the United States' newest gear. What military tactics would be acceptable to Paul? As far as I can see, launching obsolete and largely harmless missiles is just a weak version of Israel bombing Palestine from air, land and sea.
Israel’s military responses in Gaza have been targeted and precise. Hundreds of military installations have been destroyed and civilian casualties have been astoundingly low, considering Hamas is known to hide its terrorist infrastructure deep within civilian areas. 
Oh yeah? Not according to the international press and the BBC. It's as though Paul's taking dictation from the Israeli Ministry for Propaganda. The language is exactly the same being used in press releases and interviews.  Those children killed must have been dwarf militants disguised as children. What does Paul mean by 'terrorist infrastructure' in 'civilian areas'? Gaza is an open air concentration camp filled with the numerous descendents of Palestinians herded out of their ancestral lands in 1948. There are only civilian areas. How many civilian deaths count as 'low' for Paul? How many dead children?
Already, three Israelis have been killed by a missile strike, including one pregnant woman. With hundreds of rockets being fired upon Israel each day, it cannot be long before Hamas’s kill count rises.
I don't like 'whataboutery', but we should just remember some facts. 'Hundreds' of rockets are not being fired upon Israel 'each day'. They haven't got that many. 3 Israelis have died, and that's wrong. How many Palestinians? 5 women and 4 children in one house on Saturday, bombed by the Air Force. 90 Palestinians dead, half of them civilians. So if anyone's 'kill count' is rising, it's the Israelis.
Israelis are stoic about the circumstances under which they live, but only at a painful stretch of the imagination can Brits understand what this is like. The last time we faced such a threat was over half a century ago. 
Actually, Paul, it's not so hard to understand. If you just pop over to Northern Ireland, you'll find 750,000 Irish people who lived under armed occupation by a colonial power which planted settlers on their land, then used the full force of the British Army to ensure that their descendants enjoyed total military, civil and cultural domination, resulting in a vicious resistance movement and at times, civil war.  But then, you'd be supporting the Orange, wouldn't you? And anyway, what of the 'stoic' Palestinians: herded into the prison camp for over 50 years. More and more land taken from them. Economically isolated. Starved of food, water, construction material and all the necessities of a civilised life. Bombarded from all sides. I reckon that's pretty stoic.
For Palestinians, the status quo ante is unacceptable. The emergence of a viable and sovereign state of Palestine that exists peacefully beside the Jewish state of Israel must be the goal. My time spent speaking to Israelis and Palestinians this week has illustrated to me just how difficult this will be to achieve.
This is just so many words. What is 'viable'? What about the Palestinian right to the territories illegally occupied? How do we arrive at a 'Jewish state' of Israel without expelling the Israeli Arabs who live there? How do democracy and an ethnically-pure state co-exist?

How many Palestinians has Paul spoken to? Who are they? I'm sad to say that I no longer take anything Paul says at face value. He has a track record of fibbing for convenience. If he can prove it, I'll take this back happily.
Israel’s land for peace policy has been historically successful.
At the risk of becoming boring: it's not 'land for peace' if you're grudgingly handing over tiny parcels of land that doesn't belong to you while using the full military and political weight supplied by America and the West to keep all the rest.
My contributions to this debate will now be based on real experiences with Israelis and Palestinians. Visiting the region has enabled me to broaden my comprehension and understand one of the most complicated and protracted conflicts the world has ever seen. The Conservative Friends of Israel are to be credited with such an excellent, informative and balanced visit.
Again: which Palestinians?
One trip, as part of an openly partisan group has 'broadened' his comprehension?
'Balanced'? Really? Funded by the Israeli government or its allies? Surely even Paul isn't this deluded. He's just happy to be a puppet.

What's most depressing about this article is Paul's failure to consider the history of Israel/Palestine. He's simply repeated the talking points handed out by the Israeli government and refused to contemplate the actual complexities of the situation. He's a shill, nothing more.

In the interests of disclosure, I should state my position here. I don't begrudge Paul's decision to take sides on this conflict. I've done the same thing. But I do begrudge his deliberate, cynical and dishonest refusal to do anything more than propagate Israeli government propaganda.

I have Jewish antecedents, though I am not Jewish. I am a socialist. I reject the narratives put forward on both sides which root statehood in ethnicity and religious identity. The fundamentalists on both sides would get on very well: they hate democracy, women and dissidence. They're racists and bigots. I can empathise with the Allies' decisions at the end of WW2. Guilty about allowing European Jews to be massacred in their millions, they decided that the survivors should be shipped to Palestine (from which their ancestors had departed over the course of 2000 years) rather than make Europe face what it had done by refounding the historic Jewish populations across that continent. The Palestinians - who had lived in relative peace with the small Jewish population of the area for centuries - were of no account. Killed and displaced without mercy, herded into camps and narrow strips of unproductive land, they naturally fought back. Many of them failed to comprehend the difference between Judaism and Zionism, and vicious anti-semitism (previously the preserve of Christians: Jews were protected for centuries by Muslim cultures such as the Ottoman Empire) arose.

I condemn the assault on Israeli citizens in the legally-determined territory of Israel. But don't let Uppal and his propagandists fool you. The Palestinians are friendless prisoners barely existing in a cramped, unproductive strip of land. Their tactics are often barbaric and useless. But they are not solely motivated by religious or ethnic hatred: these things are the poisonous result of an injustice which has never and will never be addressed by Israel or the international community. They're the collateral damage of colonialism and European determination to shuffle a problem off onto somewhere else.

What would I do? I'd found a single state in the area in which religious and ethnic identity is irrelevant. The Palestinians thrown off their lands in the various wars would be housed and compensated, perhaps not in the same places. Hamas and Co need to abandon the poisonous anti-semitism they've adopted too. They could learn to respect each other under a political system which treated everyone equally.

As to Paul Uppal: this piece exposes him yet again as a dishonest and third-rate thinker. Yet another reason to vote him out in 2015.

Meanwhile, I'm writing to ask him some questions. I'll let you know when/if there's a response.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Democracy's finest hour?

Well, my little rant about the Police Commissioner Elections yesterday hardly encouraged the burghers of the Black Country to vote in droves: the Dark Place's turnout was 12.87%, and the West Midlands average was even lower: 12.35%. You can guarantee that most of those voters were golf-club fascists voting UKIP, birch-wielding Tories and of course police officers. So even if a single candidate gets 50% of the vote by some miracle, the most they'll command is 6.15% of the region's 5 million+ people.

We shall have to bear this in mind when the next Tory MP claims a strike is illegitimate if fewer than 50% of the members voted. But in the meantime, let's ponder this. When elected mayors were proposed, people got to vote in a referendum on the concept itself. Some places voted yes, others voted no. Hartlepool voted yes, and yesterday decided to abolish the post. So if the Tories are so keen on local democracy, why no referendum?

The answer is, of course, that the like the appearance of democracy rather than the thing itself. That's why they like police commissioners. They've watched a lot of Westerns and really believe that a lone hero can clean up this town. Not coincidentally, that's the argument the Daily Mail and other Tories made about certain other law-and-order types: Mosley, Mussolini and Hitler. Democracy is not served by concentrating power in the hands of a lowest-common-denominator demagogue.

Which brings me to my next example, Mr Michael Gove.

You may think he's a harmless Pob lookalike, but one of his favourite concepts is the Academy school. It's a really simple idea. You take a school run by the elected local council and you give it to a 'sponsor', who could be, say, a Tory Party donor and Christian fundamentalist, or a university not entirely unadjacent to The Hegemon. You then exempt it from Freedom of Information laws. You sack the governors and replace them with an unelected advisory board. Parent and staff governors are not replaced. You exempt the school from requirements that teachers actually have qualifications, from minimum food standards and from measures banning vending machines and the like.

To whom is the school answerable? Not the parents. Not the staff. Not the students. Nor the local authority, who you might think would have a keen sense of the areas educational needs and plenty of expertise in logistics, supplies, legal advice, pay, and all the other complicated things a school requires. A council that can be sacked if the local voters decide it's doing a bad job. No, the school is answerable only to one Michael Gove and to whichever dubious corporation decided that running (but not funding) a school would be a good bit of PR.

And that, children, is 'democracy' in action. See also: the privatisation and restructuring of the NHS.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Keystone Kommissioners

Morning everybody. It's voting day! No, really!

I usually vote at 7 a.m. partly because democracy is still a bit exciting even in its British form, and partly to ensure that just for a second, there's a 100% majority for Truth and Justice.

Not today. I lazed around and didn't get to the polling station - in the Civic Offices at the heart of The Dark Place - until 9.48 this morning. It didn't bode well when the election officials actually cheered when I walked in and shouted 'An actual voter!'. I know more people will vote at lunchtime and in the evening, but it's not a good sign, and some of my friends were the first to vote at their stations too.

To be honest, I only voted because I feel strongly that you should vote at every opportunity or shut up when everything goes wrong. I utterly oppose the idea of elected police commissioners. I suspect it was dreamed up by some boomer Tory who remembers Commissioner  Gordon and Chief O'Hara from the 1960s Batman TV show.

They think these guys will shine a symbol into the sky and Eric Pickles will land on the roof and shoot skateboarders.

This is really why I voted. I know damn well that the only turnout will be from the Daily Mail-reading, Neighbourhood Watching, curtain-twitching reactionaries who vote Tory and mutter darkly about 'coloureds' and property prices. The kind of people elected will pander to the paranoia of the aging white suburbanites who will never be persuaded that crime is falling, that the police can't be trusted without supervision (Hillsborough, the Birmingham Six, various paedophile cover-ups, Jean Charles de Menezes and multiple other things were 'isolated incidents') and that policing shouldn't be an extension of Conservative Party policy. They want youths and dogshit off the streets and that's what they'll get in their areas if the motley crew of ex-coppers and ex-politicians who've stood get through. The non-white kids are in for a hard time if they stray from their slums and upset the commissioner's voters. My appalling MP Paul Uppal explicitly envisions a city swept clean of anyone who isn't a 'shopper': these police commissioners will turn the police service into private security guards looking after businesses and rich Tory voters' areas, because that's what will attract votes.

The argument for election is that the old policing boards were unaccountable and distant. They were appointed from the ranks of councillors elected in police areas. I have no idea who my commissioners were, but I did know that if I threw out my local councillors, the police board would change. I also knew that with a certain distance from the electorate, they couldn't canvass for the Rambo vote or play dog-whistle politics. Justice and policing shouldn't be politicised in this way: it's political enough already. Elected commissioners will become the bursting zits of a foul body politic.

Finally, it enrages me when Tory MPs call union strikes illegitimate if the turnout is less than 50%. By those standards, most MPs shouldn't have seats. Perhaps they'll pipe down when the policing commissioners are elected with less than 10% of the eligible vote.

I voted for Bob Jones, a Labour councillor and longstanding member of the policing board. One reason made me bother: he, like all the Labour candidates, promises to stop moves to privatise police activities. I fear and distrust the police as it is. A for-profit police force will be the stuff of dystopian novels. I've seen Robocop and it's not that far-fetched.

What of the other candidates? The Tory is one of John Cheever's 'quick civil servants of extinction': one of those hard-faced technocrats with no regard for civic virtues and too much for the iniquities which can be committed under the name of 'efficiency'. There's Derek Webley, an 'independent' who calls himself a Bishop, and says he as 'acted as media spokesman for the West Midlands police', so we need say no more about the Evangelical shill for repression. There's a UKIP candidate, so let's hope nothing blows up on nights when there's a full moon. Bill's an interesting guy. He used to be a Conservative until even they objected to him and his wife posting Facebook photos of them with golliwog dolls. Bill runs the Campaign Against Political Correctness, so I think we can assume that under his leadership, black chaps will find themselves falling down police station stairs like in the old days. Predictably, Mike opposes 'red tape', 'anti-social behaviour', 'elf-and-safety', 'chalkboards' and 'abroad' (I may have made this last one up). He hopes Jimmy Savile will burn in hell with a spike up his bottom. He is also the local head of The Freedom Association. That sounds nice, but they spent the 80s campaigning for apartheid and took money from the South African government, so you can just imagine the kind of policing he's keen on and who deserves freedom. He'll probably do quite well.

Cath Hannon (Independent) is an ex-copper, so she's out on the basis of quis custodiet ipsos custodes and anyway the daughter of Irish immigrants should have known better than to have joined the force which fitted up the Birmingham Six. The Lib Dem, Ayoub Khan, is a barrister who seems far too friendly with a force notorious for its treatment of ethnic minorities. And finally, there's Mike Rumble, a frightening-looking ex-officer with business fingers in some unsavoury pies and who can't spell 'independent' (and as an ex-rozzer during the darkest days of the WMP, probably couldn't be independent either).