Monthly Archives: June 2012

Representing the Mambo reminds us that it was the Tories who originally dreamt up the abortion that is PFI in this excellent blog. So when the Tories mouth off about “the last government”, tell them that they need to read (and comprehend) their history.

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The Tory obsession with the past

Given their fondness for the past, anyone would think that the Tories knew something about history, but it isn’t history or the past that they’re interested in. It’s something else. Now they won’t admit it to themselves, but what they’re actually concerned with is nostalgia: the romanticized view of the past or, as I often put it, “history with all the bad bits taken out”. It is a ‘past’ where the rich could get on with being rich. The aristocracy controlled parliamentary politics and much more besides and the working classes and the poor knew their place.

This blog from (Fr)Ed West is a case in point. West asks “What was so bad about the 1950s”? This is a cue for his racist readers to complain that today’s Britain is full to bursting with those horrible ‘coloureds’. West opines,

But what do people have against the 1950s? It’s a strange insult to use because, not only were the 1950s an incredibly peaceful, ordered time but they were also, by today’s standards, very equal (and getting more so).

A “peaceful and ordered time”? I think I know where this is going. But let’s deal with the lie that the 1950s was “peaceful”. He forgets the Korean War, in which Britain was a participant. The Suez Crisis, the euphemistically-named Malay Emergency, the continued occupation of Iraq, the struggles that preceded de-colonization (Kenya was particularly nasty) and the ever-expanding Cold War.

It was a great time to be poor – the first time in history when a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids, as well as having enough to save, afford a holiday and, often even run a car. Today, especially when housing costs are considered, that is very difficult.

Hang on, it was a “great time to be poor”? Is he for real? Then, with a straight face, he tells us, “a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids”. He deliberately confuses being working class with being poor. I think the less time I spend on Westworld, the better.

So what is this Tory obsession with nostalgia? Is it because their knowledge of the past comes from fictionalized historical narratives? Or is it something else? Early into their government, some Tories were openly advocating a return to Victorian’values’. Cameron even told us how we should return to those days to ‘reclaim’ our industrial heritage (there was the subtext of Empire too). This blog from Andrew Hill of the FT, kicks a big hole in Cameron’s ‘vision’.

The Tories don’t like a citizenry that questions things. In fact, they would much rather we didn’t refer to ourselves as ‘citizens’ but as ‘subjects’ instead. A subject is not an active member of society but a passive one. Subjects question nothing, their role is to accept everything that comes from their masters. They are deferential to authority and are happy to take up arms against anyone whom the state has identified as the ‘enemy’.

The thing that started this sudden interest in 1950s nostalgia came from Pob (Michael Gove) and his plans to revive old qualifications, which he declared are better and tougher than today’s qualifications. Never mind that he insulted all those youngsters who have completed their tough exams by telling them that they have it easy or that he has practically set about destroying the comprehensive education system in this country. For Gove and his chums, it’s all about learning facts, dates and figures by rote. Forget about developing a critical mind. In today’s Britain, questions are verboten. Accept your place and like it.

Even many historians who self-identify as Tories are inclined to revisionism. Niall Ferguson, who was asked by this government to rewrite the history syllabus, is notorious for his ‘counter-factual’ histories. Not content with seeing the past as it was, the Tories want to create a new past in which social reforms never existed. They despise the idea of a ‘people’s history’ or social histories because these tell the real story of the people not the Tory version of history with its emphasis on ‘derring-do’ and Empire.  Starkey, in particular, dismisses social history as “feminized”. This probably tells us more about his misogyny than any concern he may or may not have for ‘real’ history.

In the Tory version of history, the Peterloo Massacre was entirely necessary because the Chartists represented a threat to the ‘natural’ order. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867  should never have happened because a modicum of power was ceded to some of the people (the property qualification remained until 1918 and women were only permitted to vote in 1928) – too much, in other words. It also meant that politicians were now accountable to the electorate, which was anathema to those who wanted retain their tenuous hold on power through the rotten boroughs.

The 1950s was a time of political deference that was only disrupted by the appearance of Beyond the Fringe and even then, half of the participants in that production came from ruling class backgrounds (Miller and Cook).  This longing for another age is indicative of an inability to face up to the present or confront the challenges of the future. This attitude is best represented by the image of the ostrich with its head in the sand. Gil Scott-Heron, writing about the US Republicans’ penchant for nostalgia in his rap poem B-Movie,  sums it up,

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can – even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment – someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in “B” movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan – and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at – like a “B” movie.

B-Movie may have been written about the US but it applies to Britain as well. Instead of John Wayne, we have Winston Churchill or any number of rehabilitated right-wing heroes. Enoch Powell, for example. These figures have been detached from history, airbrushed and re-presented to us as demi-gods or prophets. This shouldn’t surprise us, because the Tories don’t like taking a critical look at their objects of worship. It’s easier to accept easy answers to complex issues and if that means re-ordering the past to suit their thesis then that’s what they’ll continue to do.

Nostalgia isn’t real: it’s a representation of history. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Finally, nostalgia is easier to deal with than history because of the uncomplicated nature of the fantasy. Nostalgia is free from the ugly realities of life. This is why the Tories find it so much easier to engage with nostalgia than history itself.

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The Doctors’ Strike

Some called it a strike, others called it industrial action, whatever it was, it was a sign that something wasn’t right. The last time doctors took industrial action was in 1975.

Yesterday’s strike was greeted with the usual round of media booing and hissing. Wednesday I received a couple of tweets from Kathryn Stanczyszyn of LBC Radio. The first asked if I knew anyone who’d had a routine operation or an appointment cancelled and the second said “the BMA say it’s not a strike”. I didn’t know anyone, so I couldn’t help.  I sent a final reply, “Like I say, if GPs are taking industrial action, then something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. I wasn’t expecting a reply and I didn’t get one.

I support any industrial action. People have the right to withdraw their labour and that includes doctors. This government hasn’t been able to label the British Medical Association (BMA) as ‘trots’ but they have trotted out the usual spiel about the strike being “wrong” and “pointless” (Lansley’s word not mine). Industrial action is never pointless and most certainly isn’t wrong.

The front page of today’s Evening Standard (which came with an “EXCLUSIVE WORK BY DAMIEN HURST FOR OUR READERS”) screams, “PATIENT FURY WITH STRIKING DOCTORS” adding “But four out of five London GPs refuse to join pension protest”.  The article continues on page 4 where we are greeted with a quote from non-striking GP, Dr. Aseem Malhotra, “Other people are facing hardship, this is an own goal for the BMA”, he opines.  Pravda couldn’t have done a better job. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that this paper was owned by a Russian oligarch. It is, you say? Well, there’s a surprise!

MPs even suggested ministers should now look at further cuts to medics’s “gold plated” pensions, which are far higher than those for millions of workers in the public and private sectors.

Now they’re laying it on with a trowel. Notice how these hacks casually drop in “public sector”. This is the same public sector that the Evil Bastard has been attacking since the Con-Dems took power.  To give their article a veneer of ‘balance’ they provide the views of a doctor who “didn’t vote for industrial action” and one who did. The doctor who didn’t is… yes, you guessed it, the same doc who was quoted earlier. Yeah, that’s objectivity.

The BMA’s chairman, Dr. Hamish Meldrum, gets a single sentence in which to offer a defence, compared to the smirking, smarmy Lansley, who gets three paragraphs, his case made for him by the trio of hacks who wrote the article.

The strike is over but the backlash from the right-wing press will continue. For them a strike is always wrong and the government line should never be questioned. And that’s the problem: the media never asks why. Instead they try to find vox pops that support their predetermined position and thus create the impression that there is a consensus against industrial action.

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Enoch was right!

Well, no he wasn’t.

It must be Rehabilitate Enoch Powell Month over at Telegraph blogs because I’ve now counted at least 5 blogs defending the “prophet” as one blogger called him.  Of course, this month marks the centenary of Powell’s birth. It’s a time when racists and their free-market chums light a candle and say a prayer for the man whom they believe was ‘right’.

Today’s blog from (Fr)Ed West purports to tell “The real history of British racism”. Somehow, given West’s form, I doubt that but let’s have a look anyway.

There was that wonderful Mitchell and Webb sketch a few years ago in which they play German officers on the Eastern Front, who suddenly turn to each other and ask: are we the baddies?

It’s a question conservatives often ask of themselves, aware that in the popular media the baddies generally are conservative, and the prevailing orthodoxies are liberal.

Here he sets out his stall: “the Right are victims! We’re misunderstood”! So what’s caused this irritation for Eddie?

 I was slightly stung by one response to last Saturday’s blog, by Dorian Lynskey in the New Statesman.

Oh? Tell me more.

The gist of his piece was that Powell’s speech led to widespread misery and violence against minorities, and so “rehabilitating” him is wrong, even in effect justifying racist incitement or violence. To many people, Powell is blamed for the rise of the National Front and for a generally poisonous atmosphere of racism, epitomised by Eric Clapton’s drunken rant about “wogs” at a gig in Birmingham in 1976.

You can just see the tears streaming down his lickle face. Diddums. Grab yourself a tissue Eddie and stop sobbing.  Let’s have a look at the article to which he refers. Here’s a snippet,

There’s an ongoing effort on the right to rehabilitate Powell. In a mealy-mouthed piece in the Telegraph on Saturday, Ed West did the “very clever man” routine (Powell picked Wagner, Beethoven and Haydn on Desert Island Discs, don’t you know?), threw in some flattering anecdotes and skipped daintily past the rivers of blood to focus on one area where Powell might feel vindicated: his Euroscepticism. Let’s remind ourselves of what West left out.

And so West’s blog goes on to discuss apologise for those things that I pointed out in this blog.  What West appears to want is the right to apply lots of lipgloss and mascara to a pig and substitute it for a human.

Let’s have some more West,

Taking aside whether Powell was “racist” or not, since I don’t think we’re going to agree on a definition of that, let me address the issue of whether he was responsible for inciting racism and violence.

My bold. This is something that right-wingers like West often use in response to questions about racism. “Well, what about anti-white racism”? They’ll ask as if to suggest that there is a form of institutionalized racism against white people. West’s argument, such as it is,  is one of denial. The history of racism does not begin with Powell. It began with chattel slavery and was rationalized by the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism.  The economic doctrine of classical liberalism that Powell supported and West continues to support, fully embraced the notion of racial superiority. After all, the Empire confirmed this notion in the minds of 19th century politician, so it was divinely ordained. Right?

Like pretty much all my conservative friends, I feel repulsed when I hear casual racism in conversation. So I can see why someone who seemingly raised this to a national level should be so hated.

Oh, do you really? Gosh, you’re such a bleeding heart liberal, Westie.  But if you think that’s bad, have a look at this,

…the racial violence that followed the April 20 speech has been exaggerated in the public consciousness for political reasons. I may be wrong about that, and I don’t doubt that there were incidents of hatred, nor that many people felt scared, but I cannot find any figures to justify the popular idea that there was some sort of pogrom.

What? Put down the crack pipe, Freddie, you’ve clearly lost the plot. But he persists.

Bear in mind that there was far less violence, either inter-racially or intra-racially, in the period following Powell’s speech than in Britain today. The actual, factually recorded rise in inter-racial violence in England began in the early 1970s with the phenomenon of mugging, but this has been largely suppressed in the national consciousness, despite its role in sparking the iconic anti-racist victory at the Battle of Lewisham. People in inner-cities were far more likely to be drawn into political extremism by the experience of street violence against them or friends than by something a politician said in a speech in Birmingham.

West offers no figures, just a lot of hearsay about there being “more inter-racial violence today”.  He won’t say it, because he lacks the courage to do so, but the subtext here is “Enoch was right”. He adds,

Certainly the National Front had a spike in followers after Heath sacked Powell, being before only the preserve of “cranks and perverts”, in the words of one of their leaders. But electorally the NF were nothing, and even at their peak they barely polled more than 10 per cent in their strongest councils wards. This is ignored in the popular imagination, where NF marches were as ubiquitous as gay pride marches are to paranoid old conservatives. (And the dress code was pretty similar, now I think about it.)

This is disingenuous stuff. The “NF”, he tells us, were “nothing” in electoral terms. The fact that they were “nothing” electorally speaking is pretty meaningless when one considers their penchant for violence. Indeed the rise in the NF’s fortunes is directly attributable to Powell’s hate speech. No question about it. It wasn’t just the NF that profited, others did too. Members of the NF could even be found drinking in Conservative clubs around the country. Some were members of the Monday Club. West’s analysis is sloppy but it is sloppy because he is pathologically mendacious.

But did Powell’s speech cause this? No people in history have felt comfortable about large numbers of foreigners moving into the neighbourhoods, whatever their skin colour.

And there you have it: it’s all the fault of “the coloureds”. This is one confused puppy. Here he begins his excuses.

That’s human nature – it would be the same in Pakistan if loads of Brits started moving there. British people actually responded with a fair amount of tolerance, considering the changes they were experiencing. In France in the early 1970s there were a dozen racist murders of Arabs in just one year in Marseilles. Throughout recent English history, popular expressions of nastiness towards minorities has never been tolerated, despite most people opposing mass immigration; the vast majority of people were horrified by the violence of Teddy Boys in Notting Hill in 1958. When Eric Clapton said that “Enoch was right” in 1976  most people thought he was an idiot, including, once he got clean, Clapton himself.

The thing is, Freddie, Clapton has never retracted those words. He continues to believe that “Enoch was right” to this very day. He repeated his admiration of Powell on The South Bank Show in April 2007. In fact, The Guardian reported that,

In 2004, he told Uncut mag that Powell was “outrageously brave”, rather than dismiss his past comments as drunk ravings.

So no, Clapton did not think of himself as an “idiot” for saying those things. But again, West offers another excuse.

If there was violence following the speech, and if racists and extremists were inspired to hatred, then Powell certainly bears the blame. Much of Powell’s speech was inflammatory, which is morally indefensible but also self-defeating, since it alienates moderate followers. Why did he make it? He was a loner and an academic, and perhaps low in what today would be called emotional intelligence. Using such language in the 1880s, when the people who mattered were acquainted with classical literature, might have been sensible, but less so with a mass audience in the 1960s, who had in recent memory endured the horrors of a war inspired by a doctrine of racial supremacy.

The problem with West is that he’s an intellectual coward. He admires Powell but doesn’t have the guts to admit it or to even produce a convincing argument in defence of him.

He concludes,

The arguments are there, and it can be made without recourse to hatred or inflammatory language, and without talk of foaming rivers. In fact it’s less likely to provoke hostility from minorities, who either want to integrate and have British grandchildren and great-grandchildren, or keep separate, than from white liberals, for whom diversity has become a central part of their moral fabric and a successor religion to Christianity.

What is it with this phrase “white liberals”? Notice how he suggests “diversity” is a religious substitute for Christianity.  It’s an appalling analogy to be sure. But what more did you expect of (Fr)Ed West? A coherent argument?

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How Britain lets down its postgraduate students

As any postgraduate student knows, it’s tough trying to study and keep your life together in the face of economic hardship. While many of the UK’s postgraduate students struggle to make ends meet, the little funding that exists is being ruthlessly cut and some universities are using their postgraduates as little more than free labour. By contrast, postgraduates in other countries are well supported. Even in the US, the home of hyper-capitalism, there is generous support for postgraduates. The stereotypical image of the student that has been fixed in the public mind is based on a fictionalized representation of an undergraduate who is a binge-drinking, drug-taking, all-shagging, soap-dodging layabout who prefers to watch The Jeremy Kyle Show or Countdown in his/her semi-darkened hovel rather than go to lectures or seminars.

The attitude of the hacks at the Torygraph and the Daily Fail is one of, “Haven’t you had enough education” and”Why should my taxes pay for you to study? Why can’t you get a job and stop sponging off society”? These sentiments are often echoed by “the man on street” whose position has been at once mediated for him by the press and influenced by his lack of understanding as to what the pursuit of postgraduate study entails, as well as its long-term societal benefits. “Well, what good is a PhD in English Literature? Can you get a job with it”? With this, the vox-pop interviewee falls into the trap of believing that education, like training, should always end with a ‘proper’ job that is directly related to the field of study.  The production of knowledge is omitted from the reply because the speaker does not have an understanding of how knowledge is produced and may possibly believe that it appeared of its own accord or that it has simply always ‘existed’.

But that is not all.

There is a worrying trend towards a kind of anti-intellectualism among the political mainstream.  The idea that academic study can exist for its own sake is despised and dismissed as whimsy.  Witness the lack of creative thinking that emanates from the small minds of the government and opposition frontbench with their preponderance of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) graduates. Witness the contempt in which certain academic disciplines  like Media Studies and Sociology are held. The knowledge that is produced in these fields and others is deemed “worthless” by the Conservatives and their allies in the press. It is in these disciplines and others in the arts and humanities where we will find those postgraduates who are most likely to be self-funded. The sciences will always attract funding, much of it from central government schemes, wealthy benefactors and pharmaceutical companies. The Russell Group universities will also have no trouble attracting funding. Indeed, many of its students will have oodles of daddy’s money at their disposal. The same cannot be said of someone from a modest background, who is working on a PhD in Cultural Studies at a post-1992 university, which is not a member of any university grouping.  Does that mean that the knowledge that is produced in such an institution serves no use to society? That is absurd.

As a consequence of cuts in Higher Education, disciplines that involve critical thinking are being effectively limited to those who can afford to study them. Higher tuition fees and the rising cost of living combine to have the effect of excluding working class candidates, adults who are returning to study and the low-waged from certain forms of knowledge. For a Conservative Party that is preoccupied with a nostalgic vision of the Victorian Age,  this is ideal  because it allows them to control the flow of knowledge; to filter it, to stifle it and to keep the people in their place. Since the 1980s, the provisions contained in the 1944 Education Act have been effectively torn up before our very eyes. Nu Labour did nothing to stop it.

If the government continues on its present course with regards to education generally, we will slip back to the 14th century in terms of our knowledge base. We already have a massively de-skilled workforce as a result of the systematic shrinkage of our industrial base, now we risk a major knowledge deficit to go with our other deficits. Universities rely on postgraduate students; they attract funding and they produce new ideas.

Currently there is no serious form of support for postgraduates. Academic funding bodies like the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have changed the way they distribute their funding. Now, money is placed into a pool between a group of universities, which then dole out the money to those applicants whom it deems to be worthy of funded study. The rest can pretty much go to hell.

This Guardian article from April paints a bleak picture. This one asks “Why is postgraduate study missing from the social mobility debate”?

Postgraduate students need access to the kind of funding that allows them to live without the threat of financial ruin if they should fall ill or lose their job through redundancy or injury. The work of postgraduates of all disciplines needs to be recognised as an investment rather than a ruse to avoid doing a ‘proper job’. Higher Education should also be returned to The Department of Education (Gove should be removed as Secretary of State but that’s another blog).

The Postgraduate Workers Association (PGWA) has been set up to fight for the rights of postgraduates who are working as hourly paid lecturers and researchers. It has the support of the University and College Union (UCU). The PGWA has a blog here and a Facebook page here.

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Filed under Cuts, Education, Government & politics

Hammersmith & Fulham Council: a personal story (Part2 )

Hammersmith and Fulham Council is right up there with some of the worst local authorities in the country. Its very name is a byword for maladministration, arrogance and incompetence. Even though it claims that it is “transparent”, I have found it to be anything but.

Yesterday, I received a Council Tax Final Notice. It had been sent on 7 June. It demanded that I pay in full by 14 June; the same day that I received the notice. The notice gave a number to call: 020 8753 6681. Yet, as on so many occasions, when I phoned this number, I was greeted by the standard outgoing messages about being in a “queue” and “somebody would answer me shortly”. Well, after hanging on the phone for 15 minutes, I could wait no longer. I had things to do. So I used their “callback service”. I was told that they “would endeavour to return the call within 24 hours”.  As per usual, they returned my call but I was sitting on a deep level tube train. The caller didn’t leave a number and mumbled her message. Mobile phone displays will always say “Unknown Number” if the call came from a large institution. So I assumed it was the council. I phoned the same number and got the same message as before. Again I used the callback facility. That was at 1400 yesterday afternoon and no one has bothered to call me back. In desperation I sent them an email. I am still waiting for a reply.

The Council’s officials are, on the whole, an inept bunch. I had a meeting with one official on Tuesday. I must have asked him 3 times to provide me with a breakdown for an alleged overpayment. He failed to provide me with the requested information. His manner was odd: he seemed nervous and shifty. He avoided eye contact and said very little. I thought he was hiding something. He did, however, admit that “restructuring” of the department had caused problems. But this was the most I could extract from him. There were no apologies. Nothing. It was as if I was dirt beneath his feet.

The attitude of H&F Council towards those who have to use its services is high-handed and arrogant. It behaves in a bullying fashion towards all who come into contact with it. Its administrative systems are chaotic and no one accepts responsibility for mistakes.  Instead, Council officers shift the blame onto those who are trying to get answers. Its telephone “hotlines” are nothing of the sort and it is nigh on impossible to speak to anyone by phone. And even when you manage to speak to someone, they aren’t listening to you.

Living in Hammersmith & Fulham is like living in a real life version of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare to be sure.

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Nightmare on King Street (Part 10)

Breathtaking stuff from Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s Chief Executive, Derek Myers, who has thrown his toys out of the pram over the ongoing Earls Court ‘redevelopment’ saga. Myers is also Chief Exec of Tory-controlled Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea (okay, yah?).

Anyway, this is from Shepherds Bush Blog,

An extraordinary letter. I have never seen a Chief Executive of a local authority feel the need to write or send anything like the letter which you can view here, passed to me by the residents campaigning to save their homes from the property developers demolition ball.

Derek Myers, now joint Chief Executive of H&F and overseeing services across the new three borough giant of H&F, K&C and Westminster, took the allegations made by the residents of willful obstruction and bad faith on the part of our Council so seriously that he responded to each and every one in detail, rejecting each.

You may remember the Council sought to restrict access to response forms that had been submitted, even though the personal information had been redacted, on the grounds of “data protection.” Apparently 45 minutes access was enough to “protect data” but any more was not. Perhaps realising this is a bit silly Mr Myers now accepts that the residents can have as long as they like but in the main he absolutely refutes their allegations of bad faith.

The question that Nowhere Towers would like to ask is “does he get a salary from each of the three authorities or does he get an inflation-busting super salary with a sizeable ‘performance-related’ bonus on top”?

There’s also an amusing Twitter exchange between Chris Underwood and Peter ‘Tory Boy’ Graham.

You can read the rest here.

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