Wednesday, 7 October 2009

A fisking response to Quentin Letts:

I, like most without a masochistic streak, avoid the Daily Mail. Hence it was with some concern that I noticed Quentin Letts upon the Cherwell’s pages. Putting aside the writing style of a man desperately trying to be Boris Johnson, and failing, there were certain key points which must be addressed.

Firstly, Mr Letts is not persecuted, and is not akin to the poets in the PRC’s darker days. He makes a fine living as part of the main stream media, both in print and on the state broadcaster, the BBC. He is not Liu Hongbin, seeing his father shot and fleeing into exile. Mao didn’t invite the agents of reaction onto political panel shows.

Secondly, he proves he knows remarkably little about the British character. Proclaiming oneself to be superior is something other nations do. We Brits traditionally take the view that overt displays of personal ability are rather, well, American. Fundamentally what is important is not whether you win, but how you play. Hence why the most famous date in English history is a defeat by the Normans, and national pride is built around the spirit of Dunkirk.

Further, what Mr Letts’ writing reveals is not a thrill for meritocracy, but for an old, nineteenth century class structure, only without all that namby-pamby noblesse oblige. An accent other than ‘received pronunciation’ is called “crass and grotty”. That rules out I suppose Shakespeare (a Nouveau riche Brummie), Cockney-Keats, and Wordsworth (for whom matter and water were full rhymes). Bobbie Burns and Yeats don’t count of course, too Celtic, though Wilde might be allowed as an adopted son.

This should not surprise us. Previous books have had as villains Kenneth Baker, who abolished corporal punishment in schools, and Helen Willets for the crime of “parading her Chester accent”. His Daily Mail columns show what this man is. The forcefulness of Quentin Letts’ recent attack upon the new Speaker, John Bercow, reflects the horror that the (Jewish) son of a North London taxi driver would not only dare to go against an old Etonian, but beat him. I mean if that can happen to an Oxford educated baronet, just about anyone could defeat a tabloid journalist who only went to Haileybury.

We in Oxford are not a besieged citadel of “bog-standard Britain”, fighting the Roundheads on North Parade. We’re university students who worked hard, regardless of our social background. We are here for a variety of reasons, but none of them are to fight some strange fiction of class war. Especially not at the summons of someone who went to Cambridge.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Republic of Mancunia

With the consultation on whether to have an elected mayor for Manchester closing today, I thought I'd reproduce the article I did for the current issue of the Mule newspaper. Enjoy.

“Manchester has a Harvey Nicholls!” The shock on the face of my Londoner friend was clear. I felt like assuring him that we had running water too, and had finally gotten the hang of this new-fangled electricity. It was the Labour conference of 2008 that brought the London media elite north, with many it seems expecting to still see the bomb craters of the Luftwaffe amongst the cobbles. The incomprehension of many that civilisation did not stop at the Watford gap was comical, yet profoundly tragic. The attitudes of this country, the view of ‘the provinces’, has not changed since Orwell’s day. The M6 is just the road to Wigan Pier.

Perception is important, and there can be little doubt that the 2008 conference, and the shift of the BBC to Greater Manchester, has a great deal to do with the government’s decision to delegate more powers to a city region. Economically the case is already proven. The City Region of Greater Manchester already accounts for a fifth of the North’s economy, adding £47 billion to the UK accounts. This is more than Wales, which has its own Assembly, on both a raw numbers and per capita basis. With 3.2 million people after this year’s structural changes, it has a greater population than 5 of the EU member states. It has the largest airport outside of the South East, the largest media centre outside London and a powerful University presence worth £670 million.

Yet since 1986, with the dissolution of the Metropolitan Counties, the city has been punching far below its weight. Victories, such as acquiring the Commonwealth games in 2002, have been few a far between. The siphoning off of £500 million designated for improvement of the Metrolink system to in effect prop up London’s Jubilee Line in 2004 ensured that many voted against the congestion charge this year, sceptical that money would be forthcoming. The revoking of Manchester’s right to open a super-casino after a fair contest, meant that the city spent £2 million in good faith on a bid that could not be won. While Manchester is paralysed by the effect of deregulation, Transport for London remains a public concern. When politicians and civil servants keep public transport in public hands where they live and work, one must conclude that they consider it to be the most reliable system. Which begs the question why, and by what right, they subject the rest of the country to chaos. That such a progressive city as ours pours millions into the pockets of Stagecoach boss Brian Souter, an anti-gay, anti-union fundamentalist, rather than back into the local economy via a public service is a travesty.

With all this in mind, it is important that pressure is applied to our political leaders for greater devolution of powers. The current pilot scheme is unclear. As the motley crew of different councils and local authorities make a grab for funds, there is a danger it will remain so. That is why political reform must come before economic reform. The Manchester City Region needs its own authority to match its own identity. It needs a council drawn from each of the fifteen districts, and most importantly it needs a mayor. We can then strip away the bureaucracy of the North West regional assembly, and confusing muddle of the county councils. Each district can elect a local council for local issues, and a representative for the City Council. The entire region would also vote for a mayor, who would chair this council, and determine its agenda.

With the political infrastructure in place, this city would have a voice on the national stage, while its citizens would still have a direct link with their representatives. Under the current arrangement, impotent and anonymous local councils take decisions which people then ascribe to national government, and complain to their MPs about. This is harmful to all. Constituents do not get their problems addressed, councils are not scrutinised, and MPs divert time from holding the government to account to being social workers. A devolved assembly would bring transparency to the system. In addition, a Greater Manchester Assembly would also have the clout to actively pursue those who flout the law. The bully boy antics of Tesco against Stockport Council in 2005-06 over Tesco’s violation of planning regulations were committed because the company assumed, rightly, that the council would lack the will or resources to fight them. The police would likewise become democratically accountable to a single body across the city, removing the “us and them” divide that has dogged Manchester since the Moss Side riots, if not since Peterloo.

The strength and determination with which this old, industrial giant has renewed itself is something every citizen should be proud of. It has survived the decimation of its industry, the machinations of Margaret Thatcher and the devastation of the IRA, and it has come back stronger. Though I like the weather, I am not a North-Westerner. Though I like the history I am not a Lancastrian. I am a Mancunian, and my city deserves a voice: as one city, united.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Education, education, education...

Melissa Benn's condemnation of the 11-plus, as always, comes with the best of intentions. With fox-hunting gone, there are few issues remaining that have the totemic power to flare the passions between Left and Right. However, she, Fiona Millar and Comprehensive Future make three crucial mistakes.

The first is that they have won the argument politically. While none of the three main parties are committed to selection on academic ability, selection upon the grounds of parental wealth, geography, religious faith and interview technique continues. All of these are surely less equitable than testing upon ability. Surely, if selection is to be ended, Comprehensive Future would be better using its energies against these discrepancies, rather than a smattering of remaining grammars?

Secondly, they allow ideology to trump good practice. If an LEA wishes to continue with a selective system, then to dictate from Westminster that it may not do so, regardless of the views of local people, seems to go against the progressive spirit. We see the apotheosis of this in Northern Ireland. There a reticent community is being forced, by a woman who educates her own children in Eire, to renege upon a system that consistently delivers the best GCSE, A-level, and Oxbridge entry rates in the UK. Why this system is to be torn down few can say, especially given that Ulster's secondary moderns outperform Britain's comprehensives, thwarting the argument that little value is added.

Lastly, they do not consider what the effects of their actions are. Rather it seems, they consider only what they would wish them to be. The effect of comprehensive education has not been to make every school a grammar, it has been to make every school a secondary modern. The result has been to push the best grammars not into state control, but into the private sector, the opposite of the progressive aim. Far from bringing about a classless society, the comprehensive system has entrenched class status, and protected the middle class children of journalists who eulogise it from the clever poor. The rich pay the fees for private school, the middle classes move to a good catchment area. Only the poor are condemned.

I do not doubt the author's zeal, nor that of her compatriots. I merely invoke the law of unforseen circumstances. It is often the cry of these groups that we must care about the education of the many, not the few. I concur. Fix the comprehensive system, and then we may debate about Kent and Trafford.

Monday, 16 March 2009

In Vino Veritas, In Cervesio Felicitas

The advice of the chief medical officer to set minimum prices for alcohol addresses an important problem in exactly the wrong way. Britons drink more than anyone else in Europe, yet in attitude you'd think we'd only just discovered the stuff. The stereotype of French kids sipping wine at a family dinner, German teenagers knocking back a few social half-litres, and British youths marauding on White Lightning is extreme, yet the number of alcohol related incidents that tax NHS and police resources in Britain tell us there's something to it.

And it seems, we've always been this way. Samuel Johnson saw it as the great escape, Byron as an end in itself. Ambrose Bierce even credited it for the creation of an Empire, and the triumph of the Christian over the "abstentious Mohammedans" of India. This idea, that conquerors get drunk, work hard play hard, continues to permate our society. Why shouldn't we have a drink after work? Why, after spending all week bored at work and sat in traffic, can't we let our hair down at the weekend? This goes to the heart of the issue. When we work the longest hours in Europe, and are the most likely to live alone, is it any wonder the bottle seems a decent option?

The mixed messages from the government don't help. The issue time and again is that what works in other countries just doesn't work here. We all know that alcohol is far cheaper on the Continent, and more widely available, so that can't be the problem. Yet governments continue to participate in a sort of double-think. "Cafe culture" wouldn't work over here, because of existing issues with British society, so we're going to enact laws which restrict consumption, without dealing with the social concerns that make it a problem. It's cyclical. We won't have a more healthy relationship with alcohol until we approach it as adults, yet we can't do that while constantly being treated like naughty children whenever we pick up a bottle. Denial leads to excess, just look at 'abstinence only' sex education.

This action will not do one thing to limit the abuse of alcohol by anyone. If it takes an extra tenner a month out of a drunk's pocket, that's a tenner less he'll spend after alcohol. Another regressive tax from the party of the people. Alcohol in moderation is fairly benign, and a pint is probably doing you less damage than the pork scratchings you have with it. Taken to excess, drink is a route to oblivion, same as any other. And people who want to escape reality will do so, regardless of the cost. Someone who realises the risks to their health and wellbeing from getting trashed, and does it anyway, will not be discouraged by an extra quid from their pocket.

No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.
-P.J. O'Rourke

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Sometimes we do learn from history

The success of the rallies by UNITE in opposition to the shootings of two British soldiers and a police constable demonstrate that the people of the six counties are tired of bloodshed, whatever their community. There will be no loyalist retaliation, there will be no slide back to civil war. The Real IRA are on the wrong side of history. The utter abhorrence and contempt with which these killings have been met across the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic shows that the civilian support which sustained Sinn Fein-IRA for so long has gone, and is not coming back.

This has been top of the news for a week, and many have wondered why. The cynical have pointed out that these men were about to fly off to Afghanistan. Had they done so, and died on the Asian steppes instead of on an Ulster army base, they would scarcely have registered in the press. Yet I think the media attantion is more than justified. It is necessary to show these murderers what the world, even the people they claim to fight for, think of them. For murderers is the term. They are not warriors, they are not soldiers, they are hnot even terrorists. They are criminals, and when caught will be treated as such. That is the progress we have made, and it cannot be hidden by a balaclava, nor killed with a kalashnikov.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Gordon in Oxford

It seems somehow fitting that the first post on my now ressurected blog should come with the visit of a Labour Prime Minister to Oxford. Addressing a packed Sheldonian theatre, the PM was witty, charming, entirely different from the image we so often see on television. He referenced Gladstone, Disraeli, and of course the left's new icon of protection, Barack Obama. Indeed, the peculiar way the Vice-Chancellor introduced the PM put me instantly in mind of the inauguration. "We have had many Prime Ministers give this lecture; past, present and future." Now, perhaps I am just a suspicious sort of chap, but I think this may have been a reference to David Cameron who presented the lecture previously. Talk about calling it early! The Vice Chancellor probably objects to a non-Oxonian as PM, they don't go down too well.

Gordon's point though, about Britain needing more scientists, more engineers, more inventors was sound in many ways. Yet it's an old cry. The fact is that even during Britain's industrial heyday, the mills were just there to buy you a title. The giants of industry might have made their fortunes as Northern innovators, but they died as squires in the Home Counties. It seem we all want to read Greats. Even in the midst of a recession Teach First, one of the surest jobs around, can't get enough science teachers. The shift has to be cultural. We don't think an engineer is as good as a barrister. We'd like to be the boss, but actual employers? As my politics teacher once said, none of us want to be Mike Baldwin. And this in a way has led us to the financial mess. We want jobs where we don't get our hands dirty. We're a great nation for ideas, and a great nation when it comes to owning the fruits of those ideas. Yet the middle bit, the grimy bit, where the idea is made real with dirt and sweat and steel, that we don't like. We're above it. Or at least we think we are.

Yet that's the crucial step that gives you a manufacturing base, that provides the high tech jobs Gordon's always talking about. And it's why you should never count out the United States, who still have a passion for it. For you see, still in Britain, it's not how much money you make. It's whether that stain on your fingers is ink or oil, whether your uniform is a black gown or a blue boiler suit. We remain the most class-bound society on earth. We shuffle money. And we're damn good at it. But there's only so long you can trade on the Imperial reputation. Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to get our hands dirty.