Sunday, January 30, 2005

There are some bad people in the world

I don't just mean the international terrorists who have threatened to kill those planning to vote in the Iraqi elections today. I don't mean the George Galloways, John Pilgers, and the Stop the War Coalitionists of the world, whose hatred of America blinkers their senses and leads them into supporting islamofascists who do not care one iota for the best interests of the Iraqis. Instead, I am talking about some of the people on this BBC thread who try and discredit the Iraqi election taking place today.

I mean people like Usuf, from Kannur, India, who says that "what is done in Iraq is a colonial farce."

I mean people like Mark Beauchamp, from Montreal, Canada, who asks "if this kind of so-called democratic election were carried out in Syria, Iran or North Korea, would the US accept it as a legitimate election?"

I mean people like Vlad, from Toronto, who wants to know "How can any elections in an occupied country under constant threat of terrorism ever be a success?"

I mean people like James K, from Exeter, who believes the elections are "completely farcical. It's a mess and has nothing to do with democracy."

What planet do these people live on? Do they really care about democracy? It has been heartwarming to see so many Iraqis turning out to vote today, despite the dire threats made against them. For no matter what people thought of the war, that is in the past now. We can bicker all we like about it, but it cannot change the fact that the US and the UK invaded Iraq and toppled the Ba'athist regime. What is important now is making sure that Iraq can work, and that for the first time Iraq is run for the Iraqi people themselves.

The people making these bone-headed comments on the BBC website should look at the posts from the Iraqis themselves. They are delighted by the fact that for the first time, they have had the chance to vote for their leaders. Those who wish non-participation in the elections are only harming themselves - the primary purpose of this Parliament will be to write a constitution for the running of the country in the future. Will it be a success? Well, establishing democracy is a success, but the chances of the constitution surviving a long time into the future are slim, if historical precedents are anything to go by.

Without wishing to be premature, today was a great day in world history. Not because it vindicated George Bush, but because the democractic freedoms that we take for granted here in Britain are one step closer for the Iraqis today. There is still a long road ahead, but there is much to be hopeful about. Let us hope the Iraqis prove their detractors wrong.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Fog on the Tyne

Today the last deep coal mine in the north-east of England was forced to shut as a result of extensive flooding that occurred in the last two weeks. In many ways this signals the final end of an era for the North East, and I for one am very sorry to see the mines disappear.

This is not because I hold a deep love of mining. Indeed, there was something that was depressing about the regular cycle of north-eastern life. I remember a junior school teacher of mine telling us with pride how he was the first of the family not to go down the pit. If ever there was a dispiriting job, it was coal-mining.

Yet to go to the former pit villages of the North East today is even more depressing. Since the collapse of the coal industry, very little has come to take its place. A large number of the poorest, most deprived areas of the country are in the North East - a factor that often gets overlooked for the bleating of the need for inner-city regeneration. There are few jobs, and the community spirit that used to infuse the miners has disappeared.

For the loss of the mines sparked off a deeper cultural malaise. There is a cricket team I play against every year from Trimdon - in Tony Blair's own constituency. The ground always used to be owned and run by the Colliery Welfare organisation. Now it is run by the Parish Council and is almost totally ignored - the ground is kept up by the endeavour of some highly committed members. Even then, the clubhouse was burned to the ground last year.

The thing is, action could be taken to solve this problem. But while we have an education policy that is determined on destroying educational excellence rather than raising the standards for all, little achievement will be made. That is perhaps my strongest point. By and large, the schools in the North East are not great. With communities suffering from a lack of aspiration, it is the duty of the education system to give hope to the children of the North.

That alone will not do, however. Another major problem that faces the North East is that it is the only area of the country that suffers a net loss of population (according to the last census). The job prospects for the brightest in the area are not great - instead they get sucked away to London and other metropolitan centres. If they could be brought back to the North East, then the area would have a much stronger chance in the future. Similarly, funding formulae which divert money to Scotland and Wales at the expense of the North East should be changed.

There is a restoration of civic pride taking place - and one that I have been proud to see. The investment of the area in arts centres puts the rest of the country to shame, and it will rise above the petty prejudice of mindless snobs like Brian Sewell. It was a huge shame that Newcastle and Gateshead failed in their bid to become European City of Culture - the attention it would have brought would have generated would have been a real boost to the entire region. With the Centre for Life carrying out pioneering research that may eventually provide a cure for diabetes, there is much to be proud of.

Similarly, I read the other week that Newcastle is the boom town in Great Britain as far as new technologies go. I can only hope that this continues - for only sustained investment in the region will entice back the former sons and daughters who have fled to more prosperous climes. This is a somewhat folorn hope. But it offers the best chance for the region to prosper.

The North East has the potential to be a real success story. But for that to happen, it will need attention. It will need the media to move their focus from concentrating on urban deprivation to highlight the stark but unnoticed problems that exist in the North East. It will require a change in the education system so that the children of the North East can fulfil their potential both academically and vocationally (one under-represented group in the university sector is students from the North East). It will need a new entrepeneurial spirit and for there to be genuine job prospects for people to return to. These are achievable, if hard goals. But making the North-East a less depressing place would be a feather in the cap for the nation.

Let Oxford Burn On A Pyre Of Heathenism

The Simon Jenkins' opinion piece in today's Times at least engages seriously with the issues of Oxford University's proposed reforms and the wider question of its future. In it, he advocates Oxford "return" to its roots as a private institution and throw off the shackles of twentieth-century state interference. Berating dons and masters with comparisons to American institutions ("the best," allegedly), his key demand is that "they should decide for themselves whom to charge and leave the poor to scholarships and the state."

This is a foolish course of action, based as it is on the assumption of undergraduate financial independence and the ability of eighteen-year-olds to make educational choices in the same spirit in which Simon Jenkins makes decisions put to him by his stockbroker. An investment mentality is killing elite education in Britain; it is a mentality reflected in reforms of the financing of British educational establishments and in Charles Clarke's comments that medieval history wasn't a useful thing to be funding. The management consultants who have nearly surplaced Sir Humphrey in the corridoors of Whitehall, now bang their firsts at the lodges of ivory towers, and education is now required to return investments or suffer rationalisation and reorganisations.

Education is a public matter, because it is concerned with equipping the nation with skills (hurrah!- an investment!) but also because it reflects the level to which a society is willing to make sacrifices for the personally and socially-enriching activity of university study and academic research. Education is a brilliant investment, not for the quantifiable financial returns sought by Westminster, but for the cultural, social and personal enrichment of individuals and wider society. Such claims sound like airey-fairey liberal notions, but it is reflective of a society how much they are willing to invest in long-term prospects and cultural projects for which they can see no empirical return.

Jenkins also makes an error in his assertion that, "universities do not need to 'go private'. They are private already." That is a rather unusual interpretation: Oxford has traditionally been neither a German-style state or Ivy League-style private institution, but public institution. They have recieved state capital and been intwined in a symbiotic relationship with the state, whose elite personnel are nurtured in its tutorials and lectures, but are yet independent agents, in which the nation has an interest but not political control. This situation has been abused, Jenkins is correct, by increasing interventions in the admissions system and university funding.

The move to tie university funding to the research produced by tutors has been the death-blow to elite universities. It is a move clearly based in the 'investments' mentality, as it latches onto the output of articles or monographs as a means of empirically measuring a faculty's success. It ignores the quality of their research or the quality of their teaching- the latter only ever judged in broad terms designed to curb failure rather than to acknowledge remarkable excellence.

The tutorial system of Oxford (and Cambridge) is now under threat froma funding system which pays for research done by tutors, not the hours they lavish on a socratic dialogue with each student. There is a reason the tutorial system defines Oxbridge: it is expensive, in time and money, but utterly brilliant and irreplacable. It seems to be the first casualty of the heathenism of British politicians, with tutorial provision either slashed or scrapped in favour of second-rate classes.

In response to anxieties such as this, British institutions do themselves not disservice by appealling against a funding system designed to churn through young people, and to slap a mortarboard on their head, thus increasing their future earning potential, rather than any goal connected with academic rigour and scholarly standards. These appeals are dismissed as public service whining by Simon Jenkins. For shame! The real disservice Oxford dons assume is when they defend stint reform (i.e. tutorial cuts) with platitudes about their working hours, assuming that students expect them to put up with the shoddy deal offered by Westminster. The willingness of elite institutions like Oxford to debase standards in the face of falling funding is wrong-headed. Innovations such as the use of alumni support can help plug the deficit. (And Simon Jenkins complains he has never been contacted by Oxford to give a donation- I shall e-mail him and give him the details of his old college's fundraising office!). But the willingness of university leaders to make cuts in academic standards, which is what the shift to classes can only be, is pathetic. It is far better for us to do things properly and allow the University to burn on a pyre of political heathenism than allow it to survive as a hollow shell, clutching the buildings, trademarks and vestiges of Oxford University, but no longer deserving to use that name.

In the acknowledgements to The Crisis of Conservatism (London, 1995), Euan Green thanked his deceased dog, Cadbury. He reflected, "to any readers who might feel sceptical about this canine contribution, I can only say that she was infinitely more helpful to my studies, and certainly talked more sense, than any education minister of the past fifteen years".

He can now make that twenty-five years, and the crisis of education still burns with the heathenism of successive short-sighted governments. It is better to burn, though, than to whimper quietly into the night as a 2nd-rate academic institution.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Who to Convince?

I have a new post at the Dustbin of History - follow the link below to get to it!

Monday, January 24, 2005

What's Michael Thinking?

The launch of a Conservative focus on refugees during this election campaign seems a rather odd move, and would appear to suggest that the Tory party is still worried about securing its base vote than reaching out to the middle ground on which elections are won and lost. While anti-immigration viewpoints may be regretfully common, Labour have hardly been fainting liberals on this issue and it seems one unlikely to sway any large number of voters unless the government is truly apathetic to the question. The idea isn't new, and matches one floated by Michael Howard last year, but the fact this is one of the Tories' main campaigning planks is staggering, and perhaps indicative of their new desire to mimic John Howard's successes on that issue in Australia.

As it is, the policy unveiled, a carbon copy of the one proposed by that serious political figure Robert Kilroy-Silk, stands as testament to the desperation and moral bankrupty of Conservatism in modern British politics. The very idea of withdrawing from the UN convention on refugees and imposing a strict quota system defies the basic principle of immigration and asylum. Why? Because Michael Howard has failed, along with many sections of the media, to understand the practical, legal and moral distinction between immigrants and asylum seekers.

Deciding on the numbers of immigrants, that is to say individuals moving to Britain for economic or personal reasons, each year is an established part of planning and ethically justifiable. Their entry is essentially a contract between the admitting nation and themselves, undertaken from a mutual consent they will benefit from it. To decide if it is always advantageous for Britain to admit new Britons would be perfectly reasonable and, indeed, it is.

However, asylum seekers are, plainly, those in need and distress, where Britain's role is as a bastion of civilisation and protection in a world filled with oppressive regimes and vile repression. In such cases, the idea of imposing a quota, when we act based on need, is foolish. Cases must be judged only on their own individual merits for asylum. In some years that could mean only 12 asylum seekers are admitted, whereas in others in could mean, 15,500. Imposing a quota of 15,000 would be an ignorant and imbecilic act, leading to easy and unjustified admissions in quiet years and the abandonment of desperate individuals when chaos reigns in troubled sectors of the globe.

Michael Howard has used his own background, as the child of Jewish asylum seekers from Nazi terror, to attempt to shield himself from accusations of callous politicking and downright racism. In many ways, it is particularly odious that someone who owes his chance in life to British liberalism now claims that it is time to abandon a historic role as a place of stability, liberty and tolerance. Britons often like to associate themselves with a Whiggish pride, not entirely misplaced, in this country's historic englightened stance on many issues. They would do well to remember that such achievements were due to stances now under assault from cheap and ignorant populism.

Integration and immigration are legitimate issues for political debate, but to simply renege on asylum obligations is evidence that the Conservative Party now proposes to surrender Britain's membership of civilization. Our only consolation must be that the quota on Conservative votes at the next election looks to be pathetically low. With policies like this one, it deserves to sag far further.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Race and South African Cricket

I was reading a blog yesterday about one of my favourite topics - cricket. It dealt with one of the thorniest issues in sport - that of "positive discrimination" in South African cricket teams. Following the abolition of apartheid, and the desire of the cricket authorities to present South Africa to the world in the best possible light (going so far as to call the team the Proteas rather than the Springboks, lest comparisons be drawn with the apartheid era), provincial teams were for a period of time ordered to pick a quota of non-white, or "development", players.

This led to many white players leaving South African cricket, most notably Kevin Pietersen, who came to England and has just qualified to represent the national team. Perceiving that doors were open to others which were shut to them, they rejected the system in its entireity and sought a climate where they had a greater chance to shine.

Most controversially of all, a few years ago the selection board ordered that a white player be dropped from the national side for a coloured one. This is a debate which is still running on - in the recent series against England, South Africa's wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher, was dropped in favour of a young black cricketer who showed little of the standard necessary for the highest rigours of Test cricket. This coming by ruling of the SA Cricket Board's President, in the process overruling the majority of the selection committee.

Obviously the issue of how to integrate a country so deeply riven by racial splits for so long is always going to be a thorny issue. Once apartheid was over, a new national identity needed to be formed - that of the "Rainbow Nation" - and sport, the area in which South Africa had their most positive reputation, was always going to be a testing ground for such matters.

The post to which I referred in the first paragraph points out that the black cricketers of South Africa had a fantastic club tradition, and indeed a great tradition of their own in the way they adopted the West Indies as "their team". And at the end it implies an amount of positive discrimination is needed for the South African team to truly be the embodiment of the nation it represents.

I cannot agree with such a viewpoint. My views on "positive discrimination" largely concur with the words of Joe Lieberman - "As soon as you discriminate for someone on the grounds of race, you discriminate against someone on the grounds of race". And that must surely be unacceptable.

But from a symbolic point of view, the issue of racial selection is much trickier. I have written previously here about how I consider sport to be politics in many forms; one of these forms is that national sport is often the last true vestige of nationalism - certainly the one most popularly felt by populations at large.

To this end, picking people who aren't good enough poses a huge problem, especially when the blight of unofficial racism within organisations is taken into account. For a successful cricket team is one of the means through which the successes of the "Rainbow Nation" can be judged. However, the selectors are in an invidious no-win position.

For it is impossible to deny that racial tension still exists in South Africa, and that it will be a long time before barriers can be broken down. I firmly believe that sport has the power to break down these barriers - just as when in baseball Jackie Robinson demonstrated that black players could take on the best white players, so an infusion of black players into the South African team would be demonstrative of their talents. But, with a couple of exceptions, most notably fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, they are not there yet.

However, if the successes of a national team are achieved by a mainly white side, it will reinforce the prejudices of the racists that the black players are simply not as good - and I believe this sort of attitude will have wider cultural connotations as well. On the other hand, if the team performs poorly through the selection of players who are not up to the expected level, then it will again reinforce divisions. Only this time it will be the whites who feel victimised, and there may be many more stories similar to that of Kevin Pietersen.

Maybe the ideal situation from a political point of view would be for a weak South African team to emerge in whatever form. With expectations lowered, new players could be brought into the side under the aegis of giving them greater experience, and there is a chance of it being less contentious. There are two problems with this. One is that it is highly fanciful to believe that these divisions would be so easily accepted. The second is that it is no good for South African or world cricket for them to have a poor team. They have contributed far too many world class players to the game - Barry Richards, Clive Rice, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, to name but a few - for such a situation to be acceptable.

The struggles of the new South Africa are thus played out in a fascinating, if saddening, situation on the cricket field. A country having to adjust and adapt to the expectations of a new political structure is bound to have difficulties. It is regrettable that it should have to be played out to the detriment of a great cricketing nation. All we can hope for is that the new investment in the game in the townships will pay off. Soon, we must hope, this debate will not happen. There will be so many good black players that the question of their worth will not even arise.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Old Friends

One of the indulgences I allowed myself following the arrival of Christmas money was the purchase of the new Simon and Garfunkel live CD - my main disappointment being that I never realised they were touring Europe until I read the newspaper report of the London concert. It is even more disappointing because it is probably my last chance to have heard them together. Let's hope I'm proved wrong.

The CD itself is absolutely fantastic. Their voices may not be quite as strong as in the past, although Simon's in particular holds up very well. And although some of the higher parts of the harmonies are a little stretched, the performance is still a cut above many well-heralded, more modern bands.

For me at least, the major achievement of the concert was that it really conveyed a sense of enjoyment. Despite being some of the most familiar songs of their generation and beyond, Simon and Garfunkel sounded fresh. They were bringing something new to songs - nothing much, but enough to make the whole thing a very enjoyable listen.

The point that I think I want to make from this, therefore, is that in everything we do, we run a risk of saturation. The cricketers of England and South Africa look absolutely shattered in the current Test match - no wonder, as they are into their 5th five-day match in little more than a month. My interest in the Premiership has subsided as the intensive and intrusive media coverage increased. I even began to feel fatigued at the coverage of the tsunami relief effort - little new was being reported, but the intensity of reporting stayed the same.

The problem with new communications is that whilst they greatly increase the opportunities for everyone, they can become overbearing. Simon Armitage's Millennium Poem writes about a monkey never satisfied until he gets fed the news - and his sarcastic ending is about a West Yorkshire village where one week, nothing happened at all. An incident room was set up at the scene, and security cameras installed.

Instead, we should learn to appreciate that not everything is able to come at the touch of a button. That some things are indeed worth waiting for - that having everything you want, when you want it isn't a totally desirable end. Indeed, waiting for things a while can make them even better. The fact that Simon and Garfunkel hadn't toured together for years certainly made their last concerts all the more memorable.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Monsters, Freaks & Charles Clarke

The recent visit by the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe to the Cumbria location where his father's ashes had been scattered has aroused the ire of his victim's families and some sectors of the media. The idea that he should be allowed to visit the site has provided newspapers and broadcasters to put microphones in front of the living victims of Sutcliffe's crimes, and invite them to give a suondbite on their pain.

This is exploitation and cheap copy on its grandest scale. Outrage that the murderer can honour his own father seems to be merely another manifestation of a desire to constantly villainise the perpetrators of horrific crimes. There can be no argument that the crimes were awful, but the constant desire to succour on them seems to reflect a base desire to assert one's own distance from them by repeating your abhorrence and lack of understanding for it. Therefore, the incomprehensibility of the Ripper murders becomes something to wear on your sleeve, as a personal and public declaration that you could never do that. the same is especially true for the Bulger killers, Venables and Thompson, whose villainisation reassured parents that they were utterly apart from their own offspring, and were permeated in every ounce of their soul with otherliness.

Charles Clarke made his first correct decision as Home Secretary in upholding a visit by Sutcliffe to his father's grave. It will not bring back the victims to deny such a visit and the pain of the families is heightened more by the press's eager return to the issue than the fact he had a couple of hours out of Broadmoor Hospital on a heavily-supervised visit. It is the mark of a civilised society that we should we able to permit a man mourn his father, no matter how angry we may still be on behalf of his victims. Brutalising criminals, no matter how horrendous the crime of the target, often brutalises the society as much as the criminal

The Dustbin of History

... is a new blog that I have set up with a few friends from university. I intend to keep this blog going, but I'm not sure to what extent that will continue - especially if we become very active over on the new site. The new site will be much more as a discussion forum between the group of us - quite probably there will be several posts on the same subject in a semi-dialogue.

Anyway, go and have a look!

Return to the forefront

A Dutch MP whose name was on a "death list" pinned to the body of Theo van Gogh after his murder by an Islamic fundamentalist has returned to public life after more than two months in hiding. And the message that she has given in her press conference following her return to Parliament is one that should be more widely heard:

“I prefer to confront people with the principles that cannot be combined with liberal democracy than to choose a strategy that denies the whole issue. And even if you deny the issue, we are still all on the death list.”

No matter how much some people may try to hide it, there is an organised group of fundamentalists who are hell-bent on the destruction of western civilisation. We may quibble about how well-organised they are, but the fact that they exist is undeniable. And unless we are sensitive to the problems that this can cause, then we are only going to help them in their aims. It is disgusting that there appear to be many on the left who support the Iraqi resistance because it will teach America a lesson. These people don't care about the Iraqis, they care about spreading their vile message as far as possible.

In this country we have got to stop allowing the islamofascists to hide under the mask of calling themselves a religion. We have got to say that there are limits beyond which a religion can stop being treated as such - instead we will treat them as the extremist political organisation which they are.

“I will go on with my work here in parliament. I will attend all the meetings, I will control our government. And, beyond that I will keep on writing articles, I will keep on writing scripts for not just Submission Part II but Part III and so on. I will do anything in my power to keep the oppression of women on the agenda.”

It is nice to hear about a politician with such seeming conviction. A liberal democracy demands that injustices of all kinds are exposed. And this is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali is trying to do with her political career - to point out that there are many aspects of Islamic culture that are not and should not be accepted by those of us who want to hold up the values of liberal democracy. Hirsi Ali focuses on the oppression of women, and it would also be more than legitimate to look at the way Islam treats its apostates (all Islamic schools of law believe it should be punishable by death).

This article from Charles Moore (a man who I normally disagree with vehemently) shows how Muslim leaders believe that however unpleasant their views may be, they should not be challenged by Christians - perhaps more worrying is his assertion he cannot find a Muslim association in Britain that will unequivocally condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq. I do not wish to sound Islamophobic - but I have no qualms about saying that I believe some of the views of Islam to be repugnant, and I feel similarly about the public statements of some leading Muslims.

And this is why laws on inciting religious hatred worry me so much. Liberal democracy demands that if you hold a viewpoint, you have to be able to justify it in argument. Or, if you cannot, that you accept that other people have the right to conflicting viewpoints just as much. To try and deflect criticism of "dearly cherished beliefs" under the veil of religious hatred is not acceptable. The key distinction between religious and racial hatred is that you CAN choose which religion you are. The government's proposals on this issue seem to be ill-thought out, and border on making punishments for hate crime. We must protect the values of liberal democracy from those who wish to carve out protection for their beliefs.

Procedure, Tradition and George W. Bush

Today will see the latest installment of a tradition, and the precise rehearsal of a procedure to annoint a new sovereign in the United States. The second inauguration of President Bush will be a sobering but final reminder of the 2004 American Presidential race, which vanished from British headlines almost as swiftly as it came to dominate them. Many American friends have expressed both bemusement and some unease at the passions the recent race aroused amongst Britons (and many others outside the United States), including myself.

In many ways it was the most exciting election I've ever followed, being a child of the 80s who was only really active in watching British elections since 1997, when a new (and New) Labour hegemony has risen, so seemingly impenetrable that in 2001 and 2005 we ask only how many seats Blair will lose, not whether or not he wins. So, perhaps it has been so fascinating because it was so closely fought? That may be an answer in part, but I think there are other reasons it has aroused greater passion and anguish in me, and others like me, than any British elections.

The greatest of these must be the disparity of the candidates, which is as striking as the closeness of the race. Domestic commentators and many British journalists often remarked that Bush and Kerry were fighting on a very small piece of turf, with similar positions. It became the faux-insight of the press here to point that less would change under President John F. Kerry than we might think. And yet whilst their disagreements on Iraq were largely nuanced, the differences they expressed on that issue, and others, seemed fundamental, and were, I still believe.

A great deal of this is one of respect, and it is no mistake that John Kerry made "respected in the world" part of his campaign slogan. I was always surprised he did that, assuming that such a sentiment would play poorly with many in America who, sadly, do not seem to consider the respect of the world community of any value whatsoever. President Bush speaks a great deal on the topic of 'leadership' and leading the world; yet he seems to forget than in order to lead, people need to be convinced they should follow. He is aware of the fact that America does not physically require support to achieve his foreign policy aims. Any support he recieves provides only domestic political and international moral cover to his activities. And yet such overwhelming military might as the United States commands cannot be used without international consent, even for good, if it is to establish precedents that prove unimaginably damaging.

While those of us who opposed military action in Iraq have been proved right, there's little to be triumphant over. I recall conceding to one friend that there might be weapons in Iraq, I couldn't be sure, but that there were still better methods of exposing or removing them. What matters, in leadership, is the precedent established and the perception of fairness and wisdom, as much as results. I don't begrudge President Bush his immense lack of judgement on Iraq, although he should certainly admit there was one, but the breach he made of accepted standards of international behaviour. Arguments about the threat posed by Iraq ot the tyranny of Sadam are not legitimate rebuttals in response to that: I am delighted that Saddam is gone, but the issues aroused by Iraq bring in wider questions that will echo down the decades and centuries. America has taken its actions in the name of spreading freedom and democracy around the world, and yet it has, ironically, sacrificed moral legitimacy in order to pursue its goals. The tragedy of Iraq is not one only based on the suffering of its people in an ill-planned occupation, and petty fights over whether a counter-factual United Nations solution would have been better for them, but regarding future standards of international behaviour.

In acting with arrogance and imperiousness, the United States has foresaken exactly the reputation it needs if it is to inspire hope, democracy and liberty around the world, as I very much wish it would. Even if America believed Iraqis to be better free of Saddam and their own borders safer without him, it was vital that she retained the moral highground she indisputedly had after the Septermber 11th attacks. Instead, she has justified and validated the tiny number of extremists who perpetuated those attacks, and reinforced the opinion of those small sections of the Moslem world that danced for joy when the World Trade Centre fell.

When I admitted that I couldn't be sure Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, I was tacitly conceding something that no professional politician has the luxury of admitting: uncertainty. I backed my position, albeit it now correct, from instinct and judgement, not undeniable empirical proof. Political questions are almost always ones of judgement, but we sometime seem to confuse strength of feeling with an entitlement to agency in acting. President Bush was no doubt certain his actions would be good for Iraq, and he still thinks they were. I cannot prove the mulinational process that could have emerged would have produced better results, although I think it would. What matters, though, is a respect for procedure and the precedent established. Even if Bush's actions in Iraq were the best of a poor array of options, in their effects on Iraqis, they were not legitimate given the principle they established: that might was right, and international consensus bankrupt, when the most powerful nation cared strongly about something. The damage done to the strength of a procedure which curbs the excess of uncivilised quarrelling between nations is immeasurable. A utilitarian argument on Iraq must also consider the precedent set and the damage that will be done in countless future conflicts as a result of the damage to such a tradition. We cannot know whose vision for Iraq would have seen fewer causalties and less destruction for its people, but we can discuss which principle of decision-making will lead, in the long run, to the least worst international process. It is for similar reasons Bush supports democracy: it often produces poor decisions, but tends away from the worst excesses of other forms of government. We support it not because it always produces the result we want, but because we trust it to produce a net improvement over despotism or oligarchy, as you can never guarantee your despot or oligarchs will be Solomons or Saddams.

Today's traditions and procedure, where Bush will swear his oath on a bible, are ones I am sure he, and many Americans, hold dear. The President's ignorance of procedure and disinterest in his effect of tradition have marred his foreign policy: he has worked on short-term presumptions without concern at the effects he would have on future decision-makers. The United States' reputation lies in tatters and international respect for communal resolution of conflicts has been held up as a fig-leaf for Bush's naked arrogance. The procedure by which a civilised community makes its decisions is important, in addition to the effects of that decision itself. As a man apparently so keen on spreading democracy, rather than propping up pro-American dictators (as America did with Saddam Hussein, and it does now with Pervez Musharraf), President Bush should be aware that the legitimacy of the decision-making process matters as much as the decision itself. And the reason that I still burn with dismay at John Kerry's loss is quite simple: I believed he saw America's responsibility for procedure as well as its power to decide.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Colonials and natives

Well, what a surprise. We now know that Prince Harry has all the tact of his grandfather and the intellect of his father. There's been quite a lot of media controversy about this - and rightly so. As a public figure, whether by choice or birth, he should know better than to go to a fancy dress party in such an insensitive costume.

Of course, the fact that he doesn't know better should tell the country something that republicans have known for a long time. The Royal Family are no different to any of the rest of us except by the accident of birth. To the real world, Prince Harry is not some fantastic embodiment of Britain. He is instead a foolish 20-year-old who thought he could have a joke, and it backfired. He is no less likely to make mistakes than the rest of us.

The fact that the media have made such a storm of this is indicative of the sad fact that the majority of the country really isn't ready to get rid of the monarchy. The reason that Prince Harry dressing up in a Nazi costume courts so much controversy is that the population clings to the misguided belief that the country can be embodied in one family. That somehow, by accident of birth, one family can automatically be assumed to be the absolute definition of what the country is.

And that is fundamentally wrong. When people say that we should feel sorry for William and Harry, they still shy away from the uncomfortable logic of their situation. For if their birth into the Royal Family did have symbolism, then we shouldn't feel sorry for them. There is a certain amount of providence behind their station. If we should feel sorry for them, however, then it is because they have been born into a public situation they may not want, through no fault of their own. In effect, that the Royal Family is no different from the rest of us. Of course it isn't. And that's why we shouldn't pay for their privilege.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

We, the lobbyists, in order to form a more perfect union

Peter Beinart has written a highly interesting article regarding Arnold Schwarzenegger's "State of the State" address to the California legislature. I have not read the whole of Arnie's speech, but it seemed to gain a favourable media reaction - quite cleverly written and designed as an attack on the political class. He began with the line "most politicians like to begin their speeches by announcing the successes of their rule. I would like to do the same. Last year, there were 300 days of sunshine in California. This year, there were 312." (Although this asks the question - why didn't he get such good lines when he was an actor?)

The point Beinart wants to make about his speech was Arnie's attack on gerrymandering. Whilst gerrymandering is in the finest of American political traditions - the term is named after Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention (who refused to put his name to the document) - it is manifestly against the principles of good government. When redistricting after a census becomes an exercise not in creating fair electoral districts, but rather an exercise in protecting jobs, democracy becomes a sham.

Because politicians are supposedly elected to serve their people. For all the faults of the British system, and there are many, the fact that politicians of all parties in safe seats still depend on the acceptance of their party for their career provides a clear incentive to continue acting in the wishes of the people. And, as far as I am concerned, politicians serve their communities far better when they have to justify their positions at elections - not know that they are going to be voted in because the voters would choose a monkey in a red rosette. (Incidentally, gerrymandering at the Boundary Commission is an under-appreciated tactic of New Labour - for a case in point, look at the shape of the Sedgefield constituency.)

A divorce of politicians from constituents is in no-one's interests. There is already a problem inherent in unrestrained capitalism that big business can stifle competition if allowed to become too powerful. Similarly, if politicians become too powerful, and people who effectively have tenure on their positions, then they can stifle effective movements from the populace. Instead, much shadier, less accountable groups (on all sides) set the political agenda for their own gain. Now that really is inimical to a proper popular democracy.

The shame of the Times

I was furious on Thursday when I read the latest wrecking job that the Labour government were carrying out on our education system. Rather than pursuing true educational excellence, we instead see a post-modern view that "all education is equally valuable" leading to ridiculous fallacies that what is important is not what is learnt, but how much learning is done.

Any system which allows for a distinction in a vocational course in cake decorating to be rewarded more heavily than a GCSE Grade A in Physics is a sham, and nothing short of a national disgrace. It is justified by saying that the course in cake decorating requires 100 hours of “guided learning”. However, in exactly the same paragraph of this article from the Times, a spokesperson from the people who offer the course say "it might have equal weighting to a GCSE but we would never market it as such. These are practical qualifications."

And this is the entire point that I am trying to make. Academic and vocational qualifications are entirely separate. They both have their own value, but this does not mean that they should continually be compared to each other. It cheapens both - people refuse to take academic qualifications as seriously as they should when vocational "double A-levels" are given the value on UCAS of two academic ones, and at the same time it prevents vocational education from being able to develop independent standards of excellence. For more often than not, in a desperate scramble to try and legitimise their hatchet job on the education system, governments demand that vocational courses adopt unnecessary academic requirements.

Of course, the whole point behind the new changes in the GCSE league tables is designed to attack private schools and to increase the reputation of state schools. The government has abrogated its responsibility to actually raise the standards in state schools, and instead tries to destroy the private schools in an underhand manner. All kinds of qualifications now count in the GCSE league tables, rather than actually focusing on the best qualifications that are a better barometer to future success. All kinds of vocational qualifications now gain "points" for the league tables that are aggregated. An NVQ qualification in computing skills is equated to four GCSE passes at Grade C - yet there is a GCSE course in information technology! Now, in official GCSE league tables, aggregating meaningless qualifications in vocational subjects is equated with academic achievement. Never before has the "scouts badge" jibe at GCSE qualifications seemed more accurate.

What really riled me, however, was the leading article in the Times on Thursday. It contains lots of points with which I passionately disagree - in particular it lauds specialist schools, when in fact the system is riddled with flaws. But I will leave those concerns till another day. Instead I will pick up on the areas of the article that particularly irk me with regards to the question of an academic/vocational divide.

The fee-paying fraternity protests that this allows “cake decoration” and “pattern cutting” to be treated as if they were the equivalent of maths and English. A degree of care must be taken in making comparisons. Those who represent the independent schools should themselves take care, though, and not repeat the decades-old British mistake of undervaluing vocational skills.

I would be the first to accept that Britain's education system - from the 19th century onwards - has been sadly lacking in providing a high standard of vocational education. However, the problem is not that people are taking exams in "cake decoration" and "pattern cutting". The problem is very much that they are being treated as if they were the equivalent of maths and English - as if these basic skills can suddenly be ignored. Literacy and numeracy are far more important than these vocational skills, for they are absolutely fundamental to the modern world. In this case, the fee-paying sector is right on the mark. If we want our education system to be taken seriously, we should avoid overlapping academic and vocational qualifications as far as possible.

Tony Blair must press on and ignore the ignorant critics.

This was the phrase that annoyed me most of all. As far as I am concerned, there is barely a thing that Labour has done with regards to our education system that has actually been of any success. Instead, he prefers to meddle with the system so as to make it look as if there is significant change, whereas in fact little has actually altered. And some of the time, he is far more dangerous - launching ideologically-based attacks on private schools designed not at educational excellence, but trying to coerce parents into not exercising their freedom of choice. My position on private schools is clear - most of them would go out of business if the state sector was good enough. What won't convince people about state education is if minor vocational qualifications continue to be equated with important and crucial academic ones. WHAT is learnt is in many ways more important than how much, or what type of learning has been carried out. Until the Labour government faces this head on, and creates a proper separation of academic and vocational education, we will not get the education system that this country deserves.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Murali's redemption

If anyone doubted that sport really can be a power for good, they should have had their doubts cast aside by watching the tsunami appeal charity cricket match on Monday. Hastily arranged, yet still raising £6million, and getting an audience in the ground of 70,000, the game was a great exponent of just how fun sport can actually be.

I'm not in favour of regular exhibition matches. For me, half the fun of sport comes in intense competition. However, when exhibition matches are played in the right spirit, and not just as an unnecessary money-spinner, then they are fantastic to watch. I remember a Barbarians match a few years ago against South Africa - a great example of running rugby and really enjoyable to boot. It is just a shame that the Barbarians have failed to make a niche in the new era of professional rugby and look likely to fall by the wayside.

The Tsunami Appeal match, however, was fun because of what it symbolised. The cricket world is often riven with divides, and all too often those are racial ones. You can often tell what is going on in the India-Pakistan conflict just by looking at how regularly the two countries square off against each other outside of international competitions; this time, their players were side by side in an "Asian XI"

And the game was fun, too. Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara gave some sublime displays of batting; promises to donate Aus$100,000 for every six had to be capped after five were taken off one over alone. Glenn McGrath, the stereotypical 'bunny' was promoted to number 6 to give him a chance to prove he could bat - one ball later he was back in the pavillion.

But the best story of the day was one of redemption. Muttiah Muralitharan is probably the most controversial bowler of all time - taking chuckloads of wickets, but with fairly strong accusations that those chuckloads were illegally chucked. Australia was the major base of these allegations; Murali had been no-balled there several times, and even the Prime Minister had waded in on the debate. As a consequence, Murali refused to tour Australia, denying millions of cricket fans the chance to see the two greatest spinners of all time, Warne and Muralitharan, going head to head.

And yet, when Murali came on to bowl in the Tsunami Appeal match, he received the loudest cheer of the entire day. Hopefully this will result in him agreeing to tour Australia in the future. But the day showed that sport, as much as it has caused divisions, really does have the power to bring people together. And that is something I hope continues for a long time yet.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Fresh food is un-American

This story in today's Independent tells of a marketing backlash against health campaigners trying to educate people about the benefits of a nutritious diet. Apparently monstrous burgers containing as many as 1,420 calories are being advertised as a fightback against political correctness and are proving highly popular with young males. Of course, this is provoking all the usual blather from health groups about how irresponsible the burger chains are.

The only relevant point about irresponsibility, however, comes at the end of the article where the point is raised that those with poor access to supermarkets and fresh food are far more likely to make junk food an integral part of their diet. That is something which would need to be addressed.

However, the blathering about irresponsible fast food firms seems to be counterproductive. This demonstrates the key fact that seems to be missed concerning diet - we are all perfectly free to choose and eat whatever the hell we like. Despite the derision of the Independent, there is actually something American about the "Monster Thickburger". It is a living embodiment of the pursuit of happiness.

The rights of the individual should be supreme except where they impinge on others. If people feel they are happier by eating pounds and pounds of beefburger and bacon, then let them do that (yes, in England it may have an impact on the NHS - but we are quite happy to fund drug rehabilitation programmes for people who have chosen to consciously break the law). If people feel happier by watching their weight and shunning fatty foods, that is equally their choice.

But the burger fightback against political correctness demonstrates one thing loud and clear. People do not like being told what to do - and in particular they dislike the moralising nannying tones of the health food lobby. For the obesity campaign has managed to cross the line from educating people about health problems to sounding like they want to micro-manage everyone's diet. What we eat is our choice. And it's as simple as that.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Down the drain

The House of Commons educational select committee has found that there is no proof that the amount of money being thrown at our education system is effecting any significant change.

The chairman was quoted as saying:

It is no good just putting money in without reform and without very
carefully checking which policies add value over time and which don't.

Of course, I don't think that this will have the slightest impact on Labour's poll numbers whatsoever. The Conservative Party's attempts to counter Labour on education have been anaemic at best and deservedly make little impact. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely detest Labour party policy on education - but I think that national attitudes towards education for the last thirty or so years are a large part of the reason as to the mess we are in right now.

The problem for the Conservatives is that the current Labour line is very easy to swallow for the electorate. More money = better schools and hospitals is an equation which seems to make sense. Of course, it doesn't. Institutional reforms are needed to make sure that the money spent gets to the right places (something which in the short term will require increased government spending). Ploughing money into a wasteful system, as the Government are currently doing, achieves nothing. The Commons select committee has proved this. Let's hope a major party can make a major issue out of it.

Correcting a national failure

For once, the Chief Inspector of Schools seems to be talking some sense. Although, let's be fair, there's no way that he could be worse than the village idiot, Mike Tomlinson. It has been a cause of shame to the nation for many years that the provision of vocational and technical education to our children has been practically non-existent. And when any changes to the system are effected, it is invariably on the principle that all forms of education are equal, and therefore can be graded in the same way.

Yes, all skills are valuable in society - but they are valuable for different reasons, and as such, they must be taught and assessed differently. To try and fit vocational teaching to an A-Level marking system is counter-productive, and ultimately degrades both forms of education, preventing them from being taken seriously. Work-related learning can and would work if the educational establishment had the will to implement it.

American Freedom?

I've come across the following story via Samizdata.
Professor Woolcock didn’t grade my essay. Instead he told me to come to see him in his office the following morning. I was surprised the next morning when instead of giving me a grade, Professor Woolcock verbally attacked me and my essay. He told me, “Your views are irrational.” He called me naïve for believing in the greatness of this country, and told me "America is not God's gift to the world." Then he upped the stakes and said "You need regular psychotherapy."

I don't really know entirely what to make of it, because the fundamental parts of the story are essentially unknowable - the extent to which the Professor did actually threaten his student. However, to help understand, as through Samizdata, here's a link to the guy's essay.

Now, having a strong interest in the forming of the US Constitution, I think that there is more than enough in the essay that could be questioned, and it is excessive in its praise of America (even if the basic thrust can be easily defended). But if the student is right in what he says about the professor's reaction to the essay, then he is failing totally in his duty to get his students to use critical reasoning to approach any subject. Certainly the question asked in the essay is leading, rather than actually inviting a proper discussion of the subject at hand.

And this, more generally, is something that always concerns me about education. I worry about religious education in schools because a curriculum will be determined by someone with a particular axe to grind. It annoys me intensely I was taught in RE for nearly two terms about Islam without once being introduced to the concept of jihad, for example. I worry that the teaching of history in schools can be used to teach people that the Marxist interpretation of history is essentially correct. Is there anything we can do to stop the indoctrination of children by teachers they respect? I guess there isn't, short of there being strong institutional safeguards. But even these aren't perfect - especially when the educational elite in a country is very definitely of a particular political persuasion. Although the original post at Samizdata suggests the power of the Internet may limit similar professor's actions in the future.

Do I think this sort of criticism is a major problem? Probably not. If our schools were full of political cranks like this then there would be hell to pay in the media. But in many ways, a more limited bias can be just as damaging. Because it is less overt, people are far more likely to be subliminally affected by it. Those things, I suppose, are unavoidable in any walk of life. However, it shows the need for vigilance where educational systems are concerned. There's a reason why the Anglicans in England forced Balfour to protect their Church schools in the 1902 Education Act. There's a reason why the evangelicals in America are so desperate to get creationism on the curriculum.

And that is the reason why we need to be constantly vigilant to ensure our education systems are as objective as possible.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Proof at last!

That for some people, just living in France really will send you to hell!

For the non-Francophones among my readers, it's a story that reports some schools in France are threatening to expel Muslim students if they refuse to eat non-halal meat provided by the school canteen. Now, I have some sympathy with the headscarf law, provided it is applied uniformly (and that means I am in favour of banning Christmas trees from schools in France, provided that you accept the tree as a religious symbol...). However, that is because these schools are secular institutions, and the headscarves are more a symbolism of the religion. Eating halal meat, however, is clearly forcing students to violate their religion. That surely can't be considered acceptable? Even a militant secularist should accept that people have a right, within limits, to their own religion and act in accordance with those beliefs. This sort of act does nothing to help convince the moderate Muslims that liberal democracy is compatible with Islam.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Lessons from History #1

The Hague Peace Conferences

In 1899, peace campaigners were understandably concerned at the imminent threat of wars between the Great Powers. The scramble for Africa epitomised the the rivalry between the countries - land of little obvious value was gobbled up to stop the "other lot" getting their mitts on it. Thus when the first convention was called by the Tsar of Russia and the Queen of the Netherlands, peace campaigners were excited at the opportunity of having so many countries sitting down and negotiating with one another. However, the first peace conference was not called for such obvious altruistic motives as obtaining a general world peace, but more due to the inability of Russia to keep up with the arms race between Germany and Great Britain.

A spirit of mutual distrust filled both peace conferences - one in 1899, the other in 1907. Despite this, however, some successes were achieved - the first convention banned the use of chemical weapons and instituted a general agreement to treat POWs humanely. Perhaps more significantly, it set up the Hague Tribunal - an international arbitration court - which in its first years had some notable successes. To get the ball rolling, the US and Mexico submitted a dispute to binding arbitration; Norway declared independence from Sweden in 1905 with a minimum of disruption under the auspices of the tribunal.

Yet the real hope of the peace campaigners - to get some sort of disarmament agreement - never materialised. Indeed, for all that the second conference had 46 participants (as opposed to 26 at the first), it was clear the mutual distrust between the major countries, with Germany in particular being reluctant to commit to any sort of agreement. That said, the conference did publish further resolutions regulating conflict in the case of belligerence between two signatories, and it was hoped a third conference could be held eight years later. We are still waiting.


I think that study of the Hague Peace Conferences would be highly instructive for the strongest opponents of the EU, and in particular the constitution. Countries may come together and agree to certain treaties - but they can never be forced to make changes that they are unwilling to do in the first place. It is ironic that the two greatest cheerleaders for centralisation in the EU (France and Belgium) are also the two countries with least compliance. However, when I hear concerns about, for example, the creation of a European foreign minister, I think people do not understand the realities of European politics. ANY powers ceded to the EU will only be done so with the full and express consent of the national governments - even with qualified majority voting. This is even more the case with a country like Britain, which is ultimately a key player in the EU. We won't suddenly start losing powers en masse to Brussels without the express consent of our Government. Now, you may be worried about the current government - but in that case, you need to find a change to our democratic system.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Descartes was good, but Benaud is brilliant

This fortnight's Private Eye carried a cartoon that appealed to me. Two mourners are at Susan Sontag's gravestone, trying to read her epitaph. One says to the other "I'm sure it's very good, but I don't actually understand any of it." It reminded me of the death of Derrida late last year - an event so notable in France it was announced by the President - whose major contribution to the world's corpus of knowledge was that the use of language placed arbitrary and constraining limits on understanding, and that all knowledge was ultimately totally dependent upon personal perception.

Of course, useful lessons can, just about, be garnered from the messages of the likes of Sontag and Derrida. But what is it about intellectual culture that makes it so ultimately unaccessible to the ordinary man? Surely one of the reasons why Greek philosophers continue to have an impact into the modern world is not just because of the advanced nature of their culture, but because their ultimate message is also quite easy to understand, and not made impenetrable. (Admittedly, another reason for their continued importance is because they came from a culture with a love of learning - but that is a different matter entirely). When people criticise 'dumbing-down', they forget that half the problem is not the desire to appeal quickly to a mass audience, but the fact that guardians of moral and intellectual culture place themselves well above the plebs. The hostility in certain historical circles towards telly dons, for example, completely ignores the great work that television programmes can do in actually getting more people to take an active interest in history.

A familiar theme in the early days of this blog, and one to which I will continue to return, discussed the impact of sport on society. It's not necessarily a fashionable viewpoint, but the use of sporting symbolism actually tells us a lot about society, its politicians, and their shared or differing moral values. For proof of this, one need look no further than China - the effort that they are putting into making their team competitive in all sports at their Olympics is phenomenal; new ventures such as the Chinese GP are deliberately designed to showcase the successes of Chinese society to the rest of the world.

Because a flourishing intellectual culture is totally redundant unless it actually communicates something to a wider society. Yes, I believe that study at university is beneficial to society even if it does not have a direct impact on jobs, because it is firstly a life experience, and secondly the overhauling in the ways of thinking that occurs. But beyond that, academia should have use in aiding our understanding of the world. I probably sound overly critical here, but oh-so-learned works that write to a tiny audience are of little practical purpose, except insofar as they may manage to influence other, more accessible works. And yet there are too many prominent circles which laud these writers (and not just writers, but artists, composers, etc) beyond the merit that they hold.

At the same time Jacques Chirac was announcing the death of Derrida, Tony Blair was sending his condolences on the sudden death of John Peel. I know, in terms of accessibility, impact, and ultimate benefit to society, whose side I am on.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Fermat could have used blogs

Ben Macintyre normally writes an interesting column on Saturdays in the Times - generally different from what's been in the news. His last couple have been no exception, and today I'm going to write about the column in which he bemoaned the loss of the art of writing in the margin. As he explained, books were designed with margins to allow thoughts to be written in the pages alongside them so as to guide reading in the future, or to provide the springboard for further thought. The most famous marginal scribble must be what became known as Fermat's Last Theorem - when reading a book which posed the theory that x^n + y^n = z^n had no solutions if n was larger than two, he wrote "I have found a brilliant solution for this, but do not have space to write it here".

Nothing was heard of this from Fermat again, sparking off a challenge to mathematicians for hundreds of years, eventually being solved in the 1980s by a Cambridge (pah!) mathematician. It also spawned some excellent jokes, my favourite being a graffito on the New York Subway: "x^n + y^n = z^n, n>2; no solutions. I have found a brilliant solution for this, but cannot write it now because my train is coming".

In any case, when I was reading Macintyre's lament about the absence of margins in newspapers, I realised that in fact modern technology has found a new type of margin. Except this time, it isn't as limited in the space it allows. I am referring, of course, to blogs. They may not have quite the same romantic appeal as a scribbled note in the side of a book, but they are a hell of a lot more useful. They allow ideas to be expanded fully; they open up the thoughts of one person to many more.

It is believed that, as the eventual proof for his Last Theorem was so complicated, Fermat probably made some mental error before he wrote his famous marginal comment. Yet think how useful an online community could have been had he posed his question in the modern era! The solution would not have had the media attention, of course; the marginal scribble could not have possessed its tantalising romance. But Fermat may have been able to solve his own problem far faster than the world imagined.