Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category


Sunday, October 12th, 2008

On Friday I put up a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free about the hideous philistinism of Andy Burnham, the minister for “Culture, Media and Sport” who wants to turn libraries into community centres, with coffee bars, music, mobile phones, and so on. It got a lot of comments cheering it on on general principle, and one or two from librarians saying that Burnham wasn’t proposing anything new, but merely driving on what is already happening. The saddest of these came from a commentator signing herself Mswoman. Here is an excerpt.

The city centre library where I’ve worked for the last 5 or so years already allows mobile phones, hot drinks, snacks, and all the other philistine anti-learning activities that Andrew Brown references in this piece. Staff are not allowed to ask customers to keep the noise down, and they’re not allowed to eject people from the premises except in very exceptional circumstances (and by that I mean you’d practically have to start a riot before any of us would be allowed to do anything about your anti-social behaviour). Oh yes, and we play dvds all day long on a large plasma screen near the library entrance, with the sound on, to help advertise our dvd collection…..and to keep the kids entertained.

The library was deliberately designed and built with no specific quiet/study area, and there is no separate reference section – all the reference books are inter-shelved with the lending stock. Having a quiet area and/or a reference section was deemed to be too elitist and contrary to the ethos of inclusiveness the authority wanted to promote.

However, and this is the bit that will annoy everyone here. The library is a huge success. It’s the busiest library in the country, and while other libraries are experiencing falling visitor numbers and falling loans, our figures have been going up year on year. I suspect we’ve set the standard, and other authorities, along with Andy Burnham, are looking at ways to replicate that success across the board. Sorry about that folks!

Predictably my authority plays down the downside of all this, and only boasts of their successes, so you don’t get to hear about the hordes of teenagers making everyone’s lives, both staff and customers alike, a complete misery, or the fact that, having decided uniformed staff were intimidating and not the image the library wanted to present to the world, and thus redeploying our security staff to other roles, the authority has now been forced to employ the services of a private security company to keep staff and customers safe on Saturdays and during the evenings, as well as debt collectors to chase down missing stock and unpaid fines.

You don’t get to hear about the punch ups, the anti-social behaviour, the ever-present handbag thieves, the customer who didn’t want to give up his computer when he needed the loo and who resorted to peeing into an empty coffee cup while he remained seated at his desk, the couple I caught engaged in oral sex in the children’s toilets, the pensioner who kicked a 2 year old who was lying on the floor having a tantrum, and who was banned for 6 months but not reported to the police for assault, or any of the other incidents that occur on an almost daily basis. Or of the staff who are too intimidated to speak out, and who are so worn down from being told it’s all their own fault ‘cos they just don’t understand young people and they need to learn to be more tolerant, that they can’t be bothered trying to do anything about these things anymore.

I would almost rather have libraries censored by Sarah Palin if they were orderly. I suspect that kind of reasoning will increase as the slump takes hold. There is a reason for the popularity of authoritarianism at some times, and it is not just the personality defects of authoritarians.

Goodbye to Swiss banks?

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

There is yet more from the FT about the crash: an article suggesting that while the US government had to nationalise the finance system to save it, no European government is big enough to do the same, if that proves needful:

<blockquote>a formal default by AIG would have exposed European banks to large increases in regulatory capital requirements, with possibly devastating effects on their ratings and market confidence. Thus, the US Treasury has saved, inter alia, the European banking system.</blockquote>

Now, we don’t know whether the US government has in fact saved the European banking system. The most we can say is “so far, so good”. But if it hasn’t. the authors have some jaw-dropping figures:

<blockquote>the largest European banks have become not only too big to fail, but also too big to be saved. For example, the total liabilities of Deutsche Bank (leverage ratio over 50!) amount to about €2,000bn (more than Fannie Mae) or more than 80 per cent of the gross domestic product of Germany. This is simply too much for the Bundesbank or even the German state, given that the German budget is bound by the rules of the European Union’s stability pact and the German government cannot order (unlike the US Treasury) its central bank to issue more currency. Similarly, the total liabilities of Barclays of around £1,300bn (leverage ratio 60!) are roughly equivalent to the GDP of the UK. Fortis bank has a leverage ratio of “only” 33, but its liabilities are three times the GDP of its home country of Belgium.</blockquote> The only body which can rescue such banks, they say, is the ECB: the European Central Bank. But that only works within the Eurozone. Britain and Switzerland both stand outside it. Obviously it’s no comfort to think that I don’t have any money in Barclays. If it were to go down, I wouldn’t have any money anywhere, and neither would you, gentle reader. All we would have left is the gratification of knowing how very very very very wrong the Right in Britain has been about economics for the last twenty years and under the circumstances I would rather that the Right had been right.

A short Q&A with Melanie Phillips

Monday, September 22nd, 2008
In this morning’s Mail she has a pop at Baroness Warnock:
Q: Has there ever been anyone who has displayed more inhumanity towards her fellow human beings, and yet had more influence over British society, than the noble Baroness Warnock?
To which the plain helminths of this log reply:
A: Paul Dacre.

The return of socialism

Thursday, September 18th, 2008
I have been saying for years that the FT was the best left-wing newspaper in Britain: just look at today’s issue which proclaims the end of Thatcher/Reagan capitalism. Just as New Labour, built on the rejection of Clause Four (for younger readers, a commitment to nationalise “the commanding heights of the economy”) implodes, the Financial Times welcomes the nationalisation of the biggest insurance firm in the world, and the leader asks whether such measures should not be permanent:
the reach and power of the state has been greatly extended. The Bear Stearns bail-out involved the Fed moving to cover investment banks. With the AIG takeover, it has moved into insurance. In the long run, policymakers must turn their minds to how systemically important institutions should be governed without creating over-powerful regulators, and whether any parts of the financial system might best be kept in the public sector.
Extraordinary to reflect that I have lived long enough to see communism die and then the capitalism that replaced it too; to see the nation state and the empire wither away in Europe, and now to return in Asia, and that I have managed to do this without getting very old at all.

Lost knowledge

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Of which British 20th Century figure was its said by an American onlooker that his misfortune was that “He was born a Roman and died an Italian”? It could have been Churchill or possibly Keynes, though I think that Keynes died too early for the full weight of the lash to fall. But the phrase is not in Google and I need it for a piece I am writing. Though, of course, if you have lived this long from the days of the empire, you are in danger, though born Roman, of dying a Romanian. I wouldn’t like to claim Italian levels of civilisation for modern England.

A Pelican History

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

England in the Eighteenth Century is a lovely, succinct and succulent volume from the Pelican History of England, written in 1950, at a time of fierce self-improvement. To quote the contemporary review in the Listener: As a portent in the broadening of popular culture the influence of this wonderful series has yet to receive full recognition and precise assessment. No venture could be more enterprising or show more confidence in the public’s willingness to purchase thoughtful books”. So there it was in the Oxfam bookshop, alongside more modern works less eloquent of the public’s desire for thoughtful books.

I had forgotten how terrible were the lives of the urban poor—that until the very end of the period, the population of the cities were maintained only by immigration from the countryside because the infant mortality rate was so high; things grew better in London until the adoption of plumbing, and water closets, which meant that all the shit was flushed into the Thames, instead of being collected for night-soil and carried out of the city, so that typhoid became a scourge. Men and horses drowned in the potholes of the Great North Road. But then I suppose it was very little larger than the bridleway that presently runs on a chalk ridge north of Saffron Walden, which at one point crosses clay, and there turns to a quagmire every time it rains.

The naked greed for empire, too, was something we easily forget. There is nothing in the American attitudes to Mesopotamia today which is not to be found in British attitudes to North America in the eighteenth century, right down to the preference for trade over empire. Here are Pitt’s reasons for capturing Canada from the French …

set out in a memorandum, sent by the Duke of Bedford, with Pitt’s approval, to Newcastle. It contained five points, and their order is interesting and significant. They were:
1. The conquest would secure the entire trade in fur and fish.
2. The French would be prevented from supplying their West Indian islands with lumber, which would drive up the price of French sugar, to the advantage of our sugar merchants.
3. France would lose a market for manufactures.
4. France would no longer be able to build ships in America or acquire masts and timber. Their naval armament would be limited.
5. The expulsion of the French would give security to British North American colonies.
The last point carried the most weight with Newcastle, but not enough. He was haunted by the increasing cost of the war, which had led to a sharp increase in taxation, with consequent grumbling from the landed interest in Parliament. To embark on a costly expedition which would gratify neither the King nor Parliament, but only a handful of merchants in America and London, seemed folly and waste to Newcastle. The project was dismissed, but carefully preserved by Pitt.
Should we perhaps regard him as a neo-Whig?

But there are also moments of pure delight to be had from the contemplation of eighteenth century science: Louis XV was so impressed by the discovery of electricity that he had a line of monks a mile long hold hands, and then ran a shock through all of them, and was himself convulsed with laughter when they leaped into the air.

To see brandy ignited by a spark shooting from a man’s finger became one of the wonders of the age. Wesley became a firm believer in electricity’s curative powers because he regarded it as a kind of elan vital, and he warmly recommended intense and prolonged electric shocks for a wide range of diseases from malaria to hysteria.

Explaining creationism in British schools

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

The first impulse for Melanie Phillips’ long journey to the very very right came from her experiences as one of the Guardian’s education writers, where the gap between propaganda and reality was just unbearable. Today’s paper shows what she was up against. There is a story from Polly Curtis about a former Admiral pointing out that sink schools are a complete disaster in which even clever children will learn nothing because they are run by thuggish older ones whom the teachers are unable to discipline. This isn’t even controversial. (Today’s Daily Mail, for example, carries a report of a fifteen-year-old girl raped in school apparently by two boys apparently fourteen and fifteen). So what is the official response to Mr Parry?

He said children might flourish if they are taken out of their state school and put in a private school, but they would fail again “if they go back to anarchy and chaos” of a troubled home.
In an apparent admission that private schools may have an effect on the state sector, Parry said: “The minute you take what you and I would call middle class bourgeois elements out of that social context … you have [a] disadvantaged, deprived underprivileged critical mass, these schools are fighting a losing battle.”
John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, denounced Parry’s words. “It’s that kind of ill-informed, snobbish idea of state schools which opens up the divide between the sectors that I don’t think most private school heads would support,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said it was “a deeply misguided picture, frankly insulting to the hard-working and talented teachers and pupils in the state sector”.

It is absolutely clear from his remarks that he was talking about a minority of state schools and not about the sector as a whole. What he said was daily currency where Guardian writers discuss the education of their own children: anyone who lives in London asks of a state school whether it has enough middle class parents to make it worthwhile, and if it doesn’t, they try to avoid it. Yet the reaction of the ministry and of the biggest teachers union is simply denial and misrepresentation.

This isn’t just a story about one eccentric journalist. It also explains why there are creationists teaching in British schools today: because Tony Blair and his advisers looked at the educational establishment and decided that it was so wedded to failure that only schools where the union and the local authority had no power could hope to educate children in poorer areas. Hence the Academies, run by philanthropic businessmen, and—since some rich philanthropists are also fundamentalist Christians—the fact that some Academies are run by creationists. And, yes, of course I would rather my own children were educated by decent creationist loonies than in schools run by adolescent gangs.

But the theology of the academies was entirely irrelevant to the decision makers. Religion got its chance because the secular state failed and lied about its failure. It really isn’t a story about superstition versus rationalism.

More things that Telegraph readers say

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

The Guardian has a piece today lamenting that there is an elected BNP councillor who has a blog at the Telegraph site. Fair enough; but if the man has been elected and if what he posts is legal it’s hard to see why the paper shouldn’t be associated with fascists, if that’s what it wants to be. And if it doesn’t want to be associated with fascists, it will really have to put some work into cleaning up the comments section of its site. Obviously, a Simon Heffer piece blaming youth crime on the welfare state makes a big steaming pile of troll bait, but as far as I can see these people are entirely serious. Below the fold some results of doing a quick search through its comments for “scum”

Don’t have sex with Roman Catholics

Monday, May 26th, 2008
Last Monday I went to see Nick Davies talking at Wolfson College, and in consequence bought his book; quite by coincidence. Kevin Myers’ memoir of life in Belfast Watching the Door turned up on Friday, so I read that too. The take-home message of Davies is that news business in Britain is screwed; the message you remember from Myers is “don’t ever have sex with Catholics”.

I don’t think I have ever read a better told journalistic anecdote than his account of being caught in bed with an IRA man’s wife when the husband returns unexpectedly from the border.1


The things that Telegraph readers say

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Perhaps by coincidence, Damian Thompson was very quiet for a couple of months after I wrote about him reproducing a neo-nazi propaganda story on his Daily Telegraph blog, though he did ring up to say he would never speak to me again. But recently he has resumed his usual mixture of hating Catholic bishops because they are liberal and hating Muslims because they are not.Telegraph readers just lap it up. In the excerpts below from the latest comments thread I particularly like the call for Muslims to be “interred without trial”. I hope it was a misprint, but one can never be certain.