Friday, December 31, 2004

Captain Richard Annand VC

One story you won't have picked up this week was in the obituary columns. The first man to be awarded the VC in the Second World War died on Christmas Eve, aged 90. I took a special interest in this case, because just over five years ago I had the privilege of sitting next to Capt Annand at a dinner, when he was guest of honour at an event my dad was involved in. My memory of him is of a wonderful man; totally modest about what he actually did during the war, and tremendously interested instead in hearing all the stories of those sat around him.

Sixty years ago, Capt Annand was in a far more perilous situation. His act of bravery came on a day when his company were coming under heavy attack - as they fought, he went into enemy lines flinging a whole box of hand grenades as he went. Later, they were ordered to retreat, but he went back to the enemy lines, again throwing a whole box of hand grenades, this time largely to prevent the enemy from crossing a bridge. Subsequently he found out that his batman was missing, injured and unable to travel on the retreat; he went and found him, and pushed him back in a wheelbarrow until he collapsed of his own wounds. Many say he could easily have won the VC 3 times for what he did that day.

Thinking about this case, and also thinking about the Malta Convoy (of which my grandfather was a part), makes you realise how much of a better place the world is today. With reference to the Malta Convoy, the statement "if just one boat got through, the mission was a success" could never be uttered by a military leader today. There is uproar in certain circles in America that 1,300 troops have been killed in Iraq; 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day of combat in the Somme. Capt Annand's death means there are only 13 surviving VC holders. In many ways I hope he is the only VC I ever meet.

What the actions of Capt Annand also show is that there is a kindness and honour within the human spirit that cannot be diminished. The stories of the good Samaritans following the tsunami disaster in South-East Asia are a further demonstration of this. Doom-spreaders like Simon Jenkins in the Times today may say that we are always seeking for something to blame; but the problem is that bad news sells much more easily than the acts of kindness that make life the pleasure that it is. We should remember that the world is a better place now than it was in the past; more than that, we should be actively celebrating it. And we should thank the men like Capt Annand who were willing to sacrifice themselves to help others, and to help shape the society we live in now.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Disaster Zone

No-one can have been left unaffected by the images coming from Southern Asia in the last couple of days. If ever there was need for a reminder of the awesome and terrible power of nature, the tsunamis would fit. We cannot come close to imagining the terror of seeing and feeling the waves strike, but the grief India Uncut has a wonderful post - it is sad to describe something as wonderful when it deals with such tragedy, but the word is right - about how much the "refresh" button on his computer scares him. I know exactly what he means, for when I turned on Sky News a few minutes ago, it was reporting that AP estimated 55,000 were dead in the disaster.

And the implications of the tsunamis shall be much greater. Disease will spread in these areas quickly; as they are struggling to cope with merely rescuing the dead, I dread to think how adequate medical provision can be provided swiftly. Looking at it from a longer term perspective, the countries affected will have their tourist industries decimated by the floods. Millions have been left homeless, but if their businesses and infrastructure have been totally destroyed, then it will be almost impossible for them to restore order to their lives quickly - even if governments relax their fiscal policy and pump money into the region. According to the Times on Monday, two-thirds of the Maldivan capital was under water following the tsunamis. Restoring the damage will be a seriously long-term project. Loss of the tourism industry will affect up to 19 million people in the south-east Asian area.

No doubt there will also be a psychological effect upon prospective travellers - to a certain degree irrational, but I for one would not wish to travel to an area so soon after such a catastrophic occurrence. So yes, this is a gigantic human tragedy, and one which needs immediate aid to give some relief to the areas, and to do as much as possible to restore a sense of normalcy to the region (this, of course, will be an impossible task given the all-consuming nature of the disaster, and one which occurred on a Buddhist bank holiday to boot).

Long-term investment in the region, therefore, is necessary, as well as the world's "largest rescue mission". And here I make a plea to Gordon Brown, Hilary Benn, and anyone else involved in the decision-making process with regards to international aid. Rather than cancelling huge amounts of Third World debt, please, please give some of the money you would have been prepared to write off to help encourage investment and to rebuild industries in the worst-affected areas of south-east Asia. The BBC article linked to earlier suggests the effect of the disaster could be to slow down growth as much as 1% on its own in these countries. Only investment can lessen such effects.

Now, I know that there are always problems with giving grants to governments. But most, if not all of the countries affected in this disaster are democracies. Yes, corruption appears to be a problem in some areas - but ultimately, these governments are controlled by the people and foreign investment will have to find its way into the right areas. The politicians will be held accountable otherwise. If the money were put to cancelling the debts of dictatorships in Africa, then there is a strong danger it only helps to prop up their evil regimes - a far bigger stumbling block for progress. We can do far more in Africa if we start removing the corrupt governments in place - governments who used their loans from us to buy guns, and who chose not to help their people. No-one could do much to lessen the impact of such a terrible natural disaster as the Asian earthquake; in that region we can make a real difference with our aid.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas!

At this time of year, it is customary to wish peace and goodwill to all men. And indeed I do. I look forward to this time of year, even more so since I have been to university, because it gives me a great chance to catch up with a lot of friends who I don't see that often but find very pleasant company. We always keep it very much as a family occasion, and particularly now that myself and my brother are away from home for large periods of time, it is great to be all back together.

However, I do get dismayed by much of the commercialism that surrounds Christmas. Sure, it is nice to receive and to give presents; but why do the stores fill up with so much Christmas tat? Why would people suddenly want to have mince pie socks in December when sales the rest of the year would be non-existent? The advertising drives surrounding Christmas really do drive me crazy. A present is worth buying if the recipient is going to appreciate it. If not, then all that happens around Christmas is that it turns into a mass market-fest; suiting commercial owners and advertising companies but not really achieving as much as it could. The fact that Christmas displays seem to begin in November, and on occasion even as early as October, further serves to dilute the Christmas message.

Now, I suppose part of this is an inherent problem caused by the fact that Christmas is a celebration of a religious festival in an increasingly areligious world. Perhaps this is best expressed by the fact that Christmas is actually the least important of the major Christian festivals (an interesting parallel to be drawn here with Judaism, where Hanukah is the least important of their festivals). Yet I strongly believe that the symbolism of Christmas is relevant and highly useful if taken within its proper context (by that, I mean not the saccharine, politically correct, "Happy Holidays!" style celebration that is pushed at us by the media too scared to offend anyone).

For academic work has shown - as if it needed to be proved! - that the Christmas story as understood by us is, to a greater or lesser extent, fictional. Newsweek ran an excellent article in their latest issue fully placing the gospels in their historical context, and explaining the religious ramification of the Christmas story. Mark's gospel, written earlier than the rest, doesn't mention Christ's birth at all; John's gospel, insofar as it deals with Christ's birth at all, mentions it in highly figurative language. The historical context of the writing of Matthew and Luke, furthermore, was at a time when Christianity was still seen very much as a cult, and great efforts were having to be made by his followers to convince the rest of the world that he was indeed the Messiah.

Thus, the emphasis placed on Mary's sexual virtue (which historically is highly questionable), for example, is designed to show that although miraculous births were seen throughout the Jewish tradition, this one was more miraculous than any other. Luke goes to great lengths to explain why Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem; almost none of the 'facts' regarding the census are historically verified. Even the language placed in the mouths of the participants in the story is designed to remind readers of prophecies contained in the books of the Old Testament.

But the story is even more valuable than that. The friendship and warmth shown by the innkeeper, who found room for Joseph and Mary when he could quite easily have turned them away completely. The notion of kings coming and bringing gifts, submitting themselves before a small child. The fact that shepherds - perhaps the "chavs" of the time - arrived at the manger before anyone else.

In short, that virtues of kindness, friendship, hospitality, generosity, family allow society and community and, ultimately, humans, to function in the face of terrible hardship. Or, to put it another way, that materialism and greed can be conquered by the values listed above. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and trust you will all find time for the true message of the season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The point of sarcasm

Given the large role that sarcasm plays in my everyday conversation, I probably ought to take this article to heart... Then again, I thought half the point of sarcasm was the uncertainty...

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Temple of Free Speech

The forces of violence won. The Sikh protestors succeeded in their aim to see a play in Birmingham removed from production, having forced its premature cancellation through storming the theatre on Saturday night. As such, all the well-worn arguments about freedom of speech have been dragged up. My sympathy is very definitely on the side of the playwright - if a play can find an audience, then it is right to show it (assuming, of course, that the play does not fall foul of current laws banning incitement to racial hatred). If it is offensive, raises no valid points, or is simply not very good, it won't last long on production. Now, I have neither seen nor read the play in question. But it seems to me that a couple of important points have been missed in the controversy surrounding it.

Birmingham's Repetory Theatre, which cancelled the play, has said that being 'forced' to take such action was a curbing of free speech. This is a view with which I would definitely concur. Yes, the play may have been offensive to certain members of the Sikh community, although this article suggests that it was far more offensive to Sikh elders than to younger members of the faith. The key question must be, however, whether or not it was gratuitously offensive. If it was, then I have to question why the play was ever afforded a production at a prominent theatre. It would confirm thoughts I often have that modern "art" (and here I am using art in the broadest sense of the word) is used more to shock people and drag them out of their "comfort zones" than to raise valid points about societal issues.

So I read the following article with dismay. It suggests that it is OK to be unnecessarily offensive. I think such comments also detract from the message the play appears to have been trying to put forward (the letters page in today's Times brought up this point which I had been thinking about earlier). The point of the play is to discuss the nature of hypocrisy within religious belief - and the way in which it is done actually raises a significant number of valid points for discussion. To this end, it is absolutely essential to the message of the play that the rape and murder scenes take place in the temple - for it is this seemingly inappropriate juxtaposition of action and location that is necessary to the message.

Why would the Sikh community have found it acceptable for Sikhs to have been portrayed raping and murdering outside of a temple? Surely it is outside of any religious morals for these vile acts to be perpetrated? And this is the crux of the scene, as far as I can tell. The scene is set in the temple so as to set one man's proclamation of religious values against the immoral and corrupt acts he is prepared to carry out. If rape is wrong, it is equally wrong whether carried out in some bushes in a park or in a temple itself. Religion demands standards of personal morality throughout daily life - not just once a week, or when you are inside a place set aside as particularly spiritual. Personal probity should be on display the whole time. The point of the play was to highlight the hypocrisy of those who may otherwise appear as upstanding members of the community.

Did the message have to be portrayed in such a way? Possibly not, but the key point was made all the stronger by the symbolism of the location. Yes, the playwright was undoubtedly courting controversy with the script, but we should remember that this is her right. Free speech demands that views, however unpalatable, have the right to be aired. In the context of the arts, views of no merit simply get no audience. And this is as it should be - views should be met with debate and not blanket repression. But a stronger lesson should be taken from the controversy brewing over this play. That upholding a moral standard has to take place everywhere, and all the time. It may not be easy, or even possible. But making a distinction between the same crime based solely on location is a large mistake.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Turkey for Christmas

I suppose it is quite fitting that the last EU meeting before Christmas should have Turkey on the menu. The question of Turkey's admission to the EU seems to be a thorny issue - one that will undoubtedly come under severe pressure due to the fact that the population of Germany and France, according to the latest opinion polls, are heavily against Turkish accession (other countries were moderately in favour, but with large swathes of people undecided). The question of membership will therefore be prevaricated upon and delayed for as long as possible; Chirac has promised France a referendum on the matter, and the opposition in Germany are unsure about how far they want to tap into German uneasiness on the issue. Such powerful forces aligned at the centre will be able to find some excuse to delay further discussion of the issue for much longer. My guess is that this will centre on the question of recognising Cyprus.

If that is what the matter comes down to, then I think Turkey will eventually be admitted to the EU. There are, of course, compelling reasons against Turkish membership. The strongest is that of security - Turkey has significant land borders, and there are clear concerns about having an EU land border with Iraq, Iran, and other such countries - it may provide a very easy route to Europe for terrorists. I hope this would not be the case, but it must be considered. Other reasons that are given seem to have less merit to me - most notably the cultural question, although I will return to this at the end.

Again, the question of EU expansion demands an answer to the question of what the real purpose of the project is. I blogged earlier about the twin pressures operating on the EU - expansion (which up to now has been used as a very effective tool for bringing about liberalisation in many countries) and integration. The closer the EU moves to political integration, the less feasible expansion becomes. Yes, this very definitely includes Turkey. But I mention this more from an economic standpoint - there is little other option than a two-speed Europe when the old countries share the single currency, and the new countries could not be admitted without causing economic disaster. I personally think that expansion is the best option for the EU. Its strength lies in being a trading bloc; it has helped achieved great democratic reforms across Eastern Europe, and the debate that is currently going on in Romania is a testament to the power for good that the EU can achieve (it appears that a reform candidate has been elected, in part because of the desire not to delay EU membership).

The path of too close an integration, by contrast, will end in disaster unless the EU can define limits on how far it intends to dangle the carrot of membership in response to reforms. It's probable that moves to closer integration would demonstrate divisive forces across Europe anyway. This was seen in the Buttiglione scandal, but can be extended further. The secularism of France and the pillarisation of the Netherlands stand in stark contrast to the heavy religious values prevalent in Spain, Portugal and Poland. Admittedly, countries can stand united in the face of regional tensions - how far can we speak of a British, or a Spanish, or even of a German identity? But trying to extend this across Europe would go too far. People feel attached to national governments, in spite of regional differences, in a way that they cannot identify with Europe.

This is in no small part due to the EU's own image problems. If it stopped trying to strangle the continent with a raft of bureaucracy, I have no doubt it would be held in higher regard. But at the same time, to try and create a genuinely European identity just would not work. It is for this reason that I read the comment of Tony Blair today with dismay: ""On the contrary, if [Turkey] fulfils the same principles of human rights, then Muslim and Christian can work together."

I know that Blair is trying to express an admirable sentiment here. But dividing the democracies of the world into Christian and Muslim is not something which I feel is positive. Turkey should be supported, because it is just about the only example I can think of where an Islamic country is making a real go of making liberal democracy a success. We must hope most strongly that this works, because it is the best chance of demonstrating that the values of liberal democracy are not tied to any particular religion.

It is within that last comment that lies my disappointment with Blair's comment. The EU shouldn't be pursuing a course of political integration so that cultural differences become a major stumbling block. Instead, it should take action where international co-operation is necessary; strengthen the economic growth of Europe as a whole; and perhaps most importantly promote the values of liberal democracy. The world is a richer place for having seen the courage and the success of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. And that is what we should be defending - the values and inherent strengths of liberal democracy. These do not depend on values of any religion. So making the distinction between Muslims and Christians in this context is actually unhelpful - it presupposes that these are insuperable divisions. They are not; in fact, with regards to the EU, they are totally irrelevant. So, if there are other compelling reasons to block Turkish membership, fine, then block it. But don't use religious reasons to try and drive a wedge there which is totally unnecessary.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Open Rebellion

I am utterly disgusted by the Tory Party and their refusal to offer any opposition to the Labour plans to introduce ID cards. It is amazing that they think they look most principled if they try and position themselves to the right of the Labour Party when it comes to law and order! Yet the Conservatives have opposed a culture of political correctness, and object to the "nanny state" because it affects the freedom of the individual. How they can oppose abolishing the freedom to fox-hunt, and yet support an act that if misused could erode freedoms like never before, is entirely beyond me.

What are the supposed benefits of ID cards? We are told that it will help fight crime, but I have never once been told how this would happen. Besides, even if it would assist in these matters, it is far too draconian a measure to be taken seriously. Installing CCTV cameras would help guard against domestic violence, but would be an unacceptable infringement on the liberties of the ordinary citizen. There is a balance between liberty and security; ID cards take the balance one stage too far. We are told it would stop terrorism; again no evidence has been presented as to how.

We are told that it would help fight illegal immigration. This it may well do, but I doubt it will be a panacea to all the woes of administering immigration controls. If figures are to be believed, most illegal immigrants leave the country of their own free will rather than being deported; we have hundreds of thousands of guests in our country who the authorities have no record of, no idea of where they are. Simply enforcing everyone to carry an ID card will not help track down these missing people.

We are told that it would stop benefit fraud. Yet we already have the option, if we choose, of obtaining official documents that prove who we are - photocard driving licenses and passports. Official letters with proof of our address are not difficult to come by, either. And one of the biggest drawbacks of any ID card scheme is that it would be open to fraud itself. Whether through corrupt officials supplying cards to people not entitled to them, or through elaborate criminal schemes, people would be able to obtain fraudulent ID cards and "prove" their entitlement to national public services.

What then, are the drawbacks of such a scheme? The biggest is probably identity theft. No government would introduce an ID card scheme that it would admit to being fallible - that is, that it was easily open to copying and abuse. However, if someone's identity was to be "stolen" and used on a criminal's card, there would be very little he could do about it. Samizdata earlier this week had a post about a case of mistaken identity; there was a case a couple of years ago where a retired Brit got held for hours on holiday by the FBI because they confused him for someone else. Institutionalising this through an ID card scheme is profoundly worrying.

The second is the power to create a national database. Giving everyone a single number makes the transferring of information between government departments far more achievable; it will end up with the health service, for example, having access to information on social security or other information they simply do not need. More worrying is the amount of power a national database and ID card system will give to the police. We know the police have been prepared in the past to round up the "usual suspects" and prosecute them for crimes they know they could not possibly have committed. Automatic powers of asking for ID cards, which will be needed if any scheme is to work, will increase the powers of the police to an extent that I simply cannot agree with.

Finally for now is the question of what information is on the cards themselves. I don't know what the government is planning to put on now; what I do know is that once the cards have been introduced they will be almost impossible to remove. Once the cards are in place, it is a much smaller step for the government to ask for certain pieces of information to be placed on the card. And yet, a government scheme of this magnitude should hold up for all circumstances. History shows us, for example, that information considered unobjectionable at one time has later had catastrophic consequences. The Austrians in the 19th century demanded that all Jews have a special stamp on official papers; at the time this was a mark of pride due to the intellectual Jewish circle in Vienna at the time. Of course, when the Nazis came to power, rounding them up became a lot easier. Similarly in Rwanda - the Belgian government marked on identity cards whether one was Tutsi or Hutu. Come the genocide, all you had to do was ask for someone's papers. The fact is that we do not know if information which may seem harmless enough now could cause serious damage in the future. What would happen if, God forbid, the BNP ever came to power? What sort of information would they want on our cards, and for what vile purposes? Yet once we have the ID cards the tide cannot be stopped; once the principle is accepted, the information provided by them will be extended.

I implore British readers of this blog to join me in protesting this action. And if it does get passed, as it almost inevitably will, I ask you to join me in an act of civil disobedience. Refuse to carry the card. The legislation has no justification. Resist the illiberal and dangerous acts of this Parliament.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Role Models

Have just seen the results of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. The result was highly deserved - Kelly Holmes achievement in doing the Olympic double was sensational, and the excitement of the two races was a joy to behold; something I will remember for a long time. What pleased me most this year, however, was to look at the leading candidates for the award. Holmes, Matthew Pinsent and Andrew Flintoff were the top three; I don't know about the nominations after that, but I imagine Amir Khan and Steve Harmison were fairly high up. It is refreshing to see such thoroughly nice, level-headed and down to earth people having so much success in sport. The media is very quick to criticise fallen heroes or surly stars (see the bad press circulating about Barry Bonds at the moment for a case in point), but it is often slow to celebrate the nice guys who succeed. It makes me very happy, for example, when I read about how Steve Harmison often has misgivings about touring because he misses his young family so much. It is great to see British sport represented by such wonderful role models.

On a similar vein, I think that we must also praise Arjan de Zeeuw for his reaction to a vile incident a couple of weeks ago. El-Hadji Diouf, a most unpleasant character with a reputation for spitting at all and sundry, including young fans of opposing teams, went eyeball-to-eyeball with de Zeeuw and spat in his face. de Zeeuw stood there and made not a flicker of reaction. To keep one's cool in the face of such provocation is admirable, and he should be lauded for his reaction.

Bombs at the Bernabeu

Tonight's match between Real Madrid and Real Sociedad was called off with three minutes left to play, on account of a bomb threat made. The lesson that must be learnt from this is that sportsmen are huge targets. It has been a recurring theme of my blog that we underestimate the links between sport and politics at our peril. When we come to write histories of the twentieth century, we are foolish in the extreme if historians choose to ignore sporting culture and sporting history as the best means to understand our past.

In Madrid, the fact that Real have been targeted is nothing new. Indeed, as the linked report states, just before a Champions League in 2002, there was a car bomb exploded outside their stadium. Why do I mention all this? Because I think it is far too easy to be complacent about the security of our top sports stars.

Anti-Americanism in Romania has risen recently because a rock star was killed in a car accident involving a drunken Marine, who has since been seconded out of the country and thus unable to stand trial for his actions. I think effects on public opinion in the Western world would be very similar if a terrorist attack was to be carried out at a major sporting event. In fact, not just in the Western world - the India-Bangladesh series was in doubt earlier this week in light of a terrorist threat.

The effects of such an attack would be huge. We don't think about it, but we actually take sporting events for granted. A weekend comes by, there's another round of league matches. The extra-special events we build up to in our minds, but in reality they occur with a degree of regularity - a Test series every summer and winter; a major football championship every two years; a set number of international matches per year. If the supposed security of this schedule was to be interrupted due to a terrorist attack, it would shake our society far more than we might imagine. Al-Qaeda and their vile supporters plan for "spectaculars" because they attack things that we take for granted. The Twin Towers were a symbolism of American financial power; the Madrid bombings resonated around the world because we all realised how mundane the journeys of the victims were.

So to 'take out' national sporting heroes would have the desired and long-lasting impact that terrorists long for. Abu Hamza earlier this year attacked British culture because all people wanted to do was "drink pints and watch football". An attack on an England football match would by no means be out of the question, and from the point of view of these vile fundamentalists would have precisely the desired effect. Something we take as a centrepiece of national culture (it is very interesting how large amounts of nationalism are now expressed most forcefully through football matches) destroyed and shaken to the core by Islamic supremacists. A truly shuddering thought, but one we must be prepared for.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Days of Mario

This article makes some very interesting comments about the way that the music industry is having to adapt. Namely that up-and-coming artists are finding new ways of breaking through into the popular market, most commonly by trying to get link-ups with computer games. I can see a large amount of merit in this argument - being a devoted fan of the Madden series referred to in the article, I remember quite clearly how I had heard of very few of the artists whose songs featured in the game, yet within a year just about all of them had risen to prominence.

However, the further the article stretches its point, the less valid I think it becomes. That is, that most of the bands which it cites in terms of having specific contracts to write for the computer games are already famous. They are probably very popular, and have a high "name recognition" amongst the "video game demographic", and do much to promote the game itself. Therefore the link that the article tries to make between viedo games and artists rising to prominence should actually be stated in reverse. The fierce competition between video games means that getting high-profile artists to write the music for their games acts as a form of advertising in itself.

Of course, getting the music in video games just right has long been a crucial factor in their success - despite the article's criticism of the "mind-numbing melodies of... Super Mario", the entire Mario series has managed to get the music almost totally right. On a random and personal digression, one of my favourite "Mario Kart" courses is Rainbow Road - not for the interest of the course itself, but because the choice of music is brilliant. But the need for the music to be just right for the game highlights the other weakness of the article cited - that is, that although exposure can help launch new acts, there is also the imperative of writing songs for a very specific audience. One much more specific than could be achieved just with general song-writing prowess. Admittedly this is a fairly normal and predictable means of sales. Adapt your style sufficiently to fit into a vehicle that will gain you exposure, and then trust that the strength of your other music is sufficient to attract new listeners regardless of a difference in style.

Perhaps what is more interesting, though, is the way that this demonstrates that the music itself is only one means of enjoying the art. Background music, or music that can tap into certain emotions, can give just as much enjoyment as focusing purely on music itself. OK, I'm probably beginning to ramble a bit here. But, in the light of a music industry that has been under threat due to increasing music piracy, it is interesting to see them have to find new means of advertising their product. Ultimately, too, I think that having to find these new outlets of advertising will help revitalise an industry that is all too often far too conservative. Here's hoping, anyway!

What won't make the White Paper

Call me a cynic if you must, but one aspect of the Tomlinson report that most definitely will not make the Education White Paper when it is released in the New Year is the proposal to introduce A+ and A++ grades at A-Level. I may well be wrong, but at the time of the A-Level marking fiasco in 2002 (one of the most disgraceful and under-reported whitewashes of the current Labour government), when it became clear that Labour's "curriculum 2000" proposals had not achieved anything like the end that they were supposed to, it was mooted that an A* grade should be introduced at A-Level for the top 5% in every subject.

Why then, was this proposal later scrapped? Because it was found out that if such a move was to be introduced, it would favour university applicants from private schools disproportionately. A new study has shown that if A+ and A++ grades were to be introduced, at each higher grade there would be a higher percentage of private school pupils. Such facts are of course hard for the Government to deal with. They would rather attack Oxbridge for being 'elitist' rather than embracing the fact that we have two academic institutions in the top 10 in the world, and that they have no interest in taking anyone other than the brightest and best students to teach. This is why you will so commonly see the statistic quoted that only 7% of pupils go to independent schools - in fact, at sixth form, the proportion is nearer 20%, and of the A grades awarded at A-Level, about 56%, according to the report above, go to private school candidates.

The problems of the education system cannot be masked by targeting university admissions to make it seem as if state school education is getting better. Of course, this is the entire rationale behind government policy on higher education. Why do the government want 50% of students going to university? Because, in this country, going to university carries with it an impression of having achieved a high academic standard. Ergo more students going to university means that the system is educating our children better. Similarly, if government pressure can 'encourage' Oxbridge to take more state school students, it will give the impression that the state school system is performing better. Is anyone really suggesting that the almost linear improvement in the percentage of state school candidates going to Oxbridge has a strong grounding in the performance of the state sector?

The government consistently tries to massage figures to launch an attack on private schooling and to embark upon a massive "social engineering" programme. To do this, it ignores one basic but unpalatable fact - quite a lot of the best candidates for university entry go to private schools. Another fact - the universities will take the best candidates regardless of their social background. The government should concentrate its efforts on genuinely trying to improve state schools, rather than their unimpressive and unconvincing targeting of private schools. Most parents would not send their kids to private school if the local state school was good enough. The government should introduce the higher grades as a further differential between top candidates, and then focus on how they can get more state school candidates reaching that standard.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

EU expansion

One thing that has come out of the recent crisis in Ukraine, and perhaps more to the point, the recent elections in Romania, is the lure that EU membership presents to many countries in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in Romania many have seen the election as being pivotal in deciding whether the country enters the EU in 2007 as planned, or whether it must wait for longer before acceptance. And Ukranians campaigning for Yushchenko, whether directly or indirectly, are in effect campaigning for an alignment with the Western world as opposed to an alignment within a murky Russian sphere of influence (although the effects of this may be more limited given yesterday's news, in which constitutional amendments were passed to increase the amount of devolved power within the constitution so as to avoid a secessionist movement in the East).

The EU has had one major tool in spreading economic "westernisation" and establishing democratic principles in eastern Europe: the promise of future membership. Expanded membership has in itself brought about a number of organisational problems for the EU, exemplified best by the ensuing debate over the constitution. Despite Lithuanian enthusiasm in signing the document, it is going to be pretty much impossible for it to pass the legislatures of all countries, especially given the strong "No" movements in several referendum campaigns. Yet a bigger question is going to emerge soon: how far can the policy of expansion actually go?

It has been one of the biggest paradoxes of expansion that at a time when the more "original" members of the EU are embarking on a programme of ever closer union, and in particular ever closer monetary union, that the membership of many still-developing economies into the EU, if not the euro, has taken place. If the process of territorial expansion is to continue, then the Howard proposals of a "two-speed Europe" will probably become fundamentally necessary. Accesion countries do not have economies robust enough at present to enter into economic and monetary union. And this will be of great disappointment to those who really do see Europe as a potentially centralised superpower (I'm looking in your direction, France and Belgium). Because if the accession countries cannot be made to join the euro, then it would be illogical to try and force Britain to join. Of course, France and Germany desperately want us to join the euro, because the economic strength and gravitas we bring to the table is quite immense. In any case, the drive for further integration must surely be checked by the new countries, who would quite reasonably seek to wait to be given the chance to catch up before other ambitious programmes could be embarked upon.

Returning to the limits of expansion, however, I think that there are two options ahead for the EU. One is to define the limits of Europe territorially and culturally. The other is much less plausible, for it would involve an expansion of the Union beyond areas traditionally considered European - certainly into Turkey, and quite possibly into the southern Mediterranean. What considering hypotheses like this highlights is the difficulty of actually establishing any kind of "European" identity. I, personally, am strongly pro-European; am often embarrassed by the Eurosceptic press in Britain, and think that a greater British participation in the "European project" would see a greater restructuring of the political institutions that could achieve highly desirable ends for the whole continent. What is ridiculous, however, is the controlling tendencies of central EU directives. We need instead a more nuanced German-style model of hierarchies within government and devolved power.

Of course, a study of Germany would be a salutary case for realising the limitations of arguing too strongly for national identity over any level. These arguments are even stronger when placed on a European level. How do we define Europe? Territorially, France, Spain, Germany are all very close together. Yet culturally there is a divide between the more liberal and 'secular' morals of Northern Europe and the more Catholic models of Southern Europe, which in turn has strong economic, if not religious, links with other countries in the Southern Mediterranean. Where would we place the borders of Europe? Does the mere desire of the Ukranians to push for a greater western-leaning policy justify eventual inclusion in the structures of the EU at some point in the 2010s, or do we say that territorially the EU is only viable over a certain expanse of land? With the question of Turkey, do we give EU membership as a reward for progress towards instituting "democratic norms" in the country, or do we say that cultural and territorial differences are just too great to be surmounted?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I suspect that I shall return to them at regular intervals in the course of my postings. My preferred solution would be to try and avoid many of the controlling aspects of the EU government, and perhaps returning somewhere nearer the original aim of a free market governmentally speaking. Creating a genuine free trade area and allowing Eastern Europe, and possibly even further afield, to participate within the benefits of the economic liberalisation of the European Union would be a highly desirable end. Furthermore, on issues which need greater co-ordination, and in particular many facets of foreign policy, the EU has a great chance to act as a power for good. The example of Ukraine shows the benefits and weight of taking a united stand on a continental basis. Obviously I am not arguing for the entire harmonisation of foreign policy, and I believe constitutional provisions for a foreign minister for the entire EU are unhelpful and unnecessary. Such a model would provide for a huge expansion of the EU, which is something I would welcome, for it provides a wonderful framework for reconciliation and a greater feeling of shared destiny in world problems. But at some point, expansion will have to stop. Where these limits will, or even should, be fixed, I do not know. This won't stop me from trying as I write this blog.

A white Christmas?

This story vindicates why a free speech policy should work. Basically, it is the story of a BNP party at which the music was supplied by a black DJ. Rather than face the embarrassment of actually having to stand up and justify their odious beliefs, members either left the party or continued dancing and enjoying themselves in any case.

My favourite quote in the story is as follows: "But it was a bit difficult to say we were even the BNP. We even had to be careful what we said when we did the raffle so we didn't offend this guy.
What are you supposed to do? Tell him to clear off? It was very, very embarrassing."

All I can say to this is - cowards. The BNP ban membership to those not of British or European extraction, and they make highly offensive and racist statements regarding asylum policies, immigration, and make far-fetched claims about the integrity of our society being under threat. They are a racist party, and yet when they have to actually stand up and be counted, in terms of following through the logical nature of their positions, they shy away for fear of "offending this guy?".

Why is it acceptable to distribute propaganda around the country telling blacks to "clear off" but not when face-to-face with one? Why are they too ashamed to say you are the BNP in the presence of a black DJ? Because they have no testicular fortitude to do so. They are ashamed and embarrassed of their vile beliefs when faced with the consequences of their actions.

This should show up the hypocrisy of the party once and for all. Not only are they offensive, racist, and wrong, but also stupid.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Twickenham in December

Tomorrow will be the scene of an annual event that in many ways is quintessentially British, and seemingly becoming an increasing anachronism in the culture of British sport. I refer, of course, to the Varsity Match (in rugby union) - the contest between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Of course, if your understanding of the world was derived purely from the Guardian (and if it is, I feel very sorry for you), then you would be unaware that this event was actually taking place. The last two years I have searched the paper for a mention of this event, and I have failed. If I have erred, please feel free to correct me, but the lack of prominence in itself is telling.

The reason I make such a big issue about this is that there will be a crowd of about 50,000 watching this match tomorrow, and the game will be of worldwide interest - from what I understand, fans in South Africa and Australia are particularly taken by the game. That attendance, of course, places the match of greater direct interest to most people than the capacity crowd at nearly all Premiership football grounds - and this an event invariably held on a Tuesday afternoon, not at a weekend.

And for all the friendly rivalry that exists between supporters of the two universities, the match ultimately is that - little more than a friendly receiving greater media exposure because of the historic nature of the two institutions themselves. It is this fact, I believe, which makes the match so special and worthy of retention well into the future. As was stated so correctly in the Times at the weekend, the standard of the match will probably be around the same as league level 4 - the first level at which league rugby is broken down into geographical leagues. Being a supporter of a team playing at this level, I can verify that the interest in these games is not particularly high, although it can command a local crowd. What, then, can the increased interest in the Varsity match be attributed to? The fact that it still represents an amateur ideal of sport in an age where "meaning" is attached by the media to just about any event where some sort of competitive structure can be given. Of course, in rugby, it harks back to a time even just a few years ago when the sport was strictly amateur, and in a sport where just 20 years ago the only competitive club match was in county or national cups, before the introduction of a league structure.

Of course, this appeal to amateurism can only take it so far. The high standard of the teams of the past has dissipated; the two sides prepare for the match by taking on the academy or development sides of the Premiership clubs, and not the top teams themselves as they used to in the past. Similarly, it used to be a match played between two teams largely composed of undergraduates; last year one started (from the two teams combined), and I think it will be the same year. This is regrettable - it turns it into as much a charade as the Boat Race, with the real skill being in finding the better postgraduates rather than being a properly representative team. That said, it has probably helped the match maintain its limited prominence, in contrast to, for example, the cricket match which is now largely an irrelevant sideshow.

Will the match sustain its popularity? I hope so, but it will probably have to put on either more compelling or more entertaining spectacles than it has done in the last few years. I hope it's somewhere between the two - turning it into an exhibition match will probably be its death knell, for part of the reason behind the interest is that it is still seen as a contest. Indeed, part of the reason that there is a declining interest in the Barbarians fixtures is because it is in many ways too uncompetitive, and thus of little interest to the non-rugby fan. The primary reason behind the Guardian's refusal to cover the match - that it is a match between two bastions of educational excellence - is the reason that it still maintains popularity, for it has managed to keep a guarantee of quality whilst tapping into the tradition of the match.

But there is another reason that I hope the match continues, and that is for its symbolism within each university. For by having teams of quality rugby players representing them in such a prominent manner, it sends out another message about the importance of university. Time at university is more than just time spent working, it is about the development of someone's character in total. Changing the way people think in an academic manner is part of this; but challenging their perceptions of the wider world is just as important within personal development. And participation in activities like rugby is a crucial part of this. If only for the sake of this symbolism, may the Varsity Match continue long into the future.