29 October 2007

Miscellaneous Matters

This blog entry contains a number of remarks on a mixed bag of matters.

Inquiry into torture

A serious enquiry, i.e. one not run by by a security insider with his hands tied, would almost certainly reveal a great deal about the Blair and Brown governments' involvement in torture.

Yet, it seems to me that there is already sufficient evidence in the public domain to put Blair and Straw on trial for their involvement in torture. But the call to "lets find out more" seems to substitute for actually doing anything..

How can we even take today's Labour Party seriously when it is still happy to accommodate Blair and Straw in its ranks?

British rendition to Libya

To me it is inconceivable that the British security services could send people for torture to a "politically controversial" country like Libya without ministerial approval, or indeed without primeministerial approval.

The claims by Blair, Straw and some others that they did not facilitate torture have been fully disproved. It's time The Guardian stopped pulling its punches.

Scottish Tories

If the Scottish Tories become a separate party, its effect in Westminster terms will be minimal with one MP.

More of interest is whether such a move would put pressure on Labour to break up along national lines. It would be hard to imagine a future Labour government in London not needing the participation of their junior coalition partner, Scottish Labour.

The attraction to Scottish Labour of acquiring such enhanced influence must be tempting indeed.

Britain as a property owning democracy

It is wrong to believe that after 1979 the Tories were attempting to build a property owning democracy.

The "right to buy" policy was mostly a populist sledgehammer to smash Britain's would-be social democratic state. The same point could be made with the myth of a share owning democracy resulting from the Thatcherite privatisations.

What is unfortunate is that it has taken three decades of mounting public and private debt for these points to receive public recognition.

Middle-Class Homelessness

What is this nonsense about middle class homelessness? Homelessness is homelessness whoever is suffering from it.

The right to a roof over your head (granted even to prisoners) is a fundamental human right. That a country as rich as Britain can’t even guarantee that minimum to its citizens amply shows the dysfunctionality of the political and economic system in the UK.

Banning marches

What can be more short-sighted than the left asking the coalition government to shut down political freedom as a means of curtailing the EDL?

A better example of cutting off your nose to spite your face you will not find.

Politicians Britain

Most politicians today in Britain are self-serving careerists who willingly change their hats according to the weather. The dominant climate is established by money, corporate interests, the Murdochs, the policies of the US government, etc; and politicians accommodate themselves accordingly,

The only two skills modern politicians seem to need is to be sound-bite apologists for the interests of the rich and powerful – and, if in office, to be bureaucratic trouble-shooters without principles.

scrapping GCSEs

First, GCSE’s are a first rung on the exam ladder. Take them away and the A-level stress, already massive, only becomes worse.

Second, sixteen-year-olds are old enough to decide to leave school, and rightly so. No sixth form benefits from having young people there who don’t want to be there. Without GCSE’s many sixteen year olds would have no qualifications at all.

And finally for mid-teens you need an exam to check that they can do basic maths and English before giving these subjects up.

Injustice after the riots

Zoe Williams writes a piece which describes how two pathetic people received injustice at the hands of the British state for minor misdemeanours.

The first comment is from mikeeverset who writes:

Five dead. Shops burned to the ground. Homes burned to the ground. Dozens jobless. Dozens homeless. Dozens mugged. Dozens beaten. Thousands terrified.
Who speaks for them?

His comments defy sense. How do injustices of the type described by Williams do anything to help victims of riots?

Hitherto, the threats of terrorism and paedophilia were the pretexts for restricting justice and building a police state. To those we can now add the prevention of riots and the need for the exemplary punishment of rioters.

School uniforms

It is really hard to believe that we are reading this kind of nonsense about school uniform in 2011.

The ideology of the age is that the right of individual to make choices for him or herself is paramount. Yet all of that is junked with this plethora of petty rules about uniform and dress codes. They serve no educational function, but merely seek to humiliate the young.It is very seldom that I ever feel proud or patriotic towards England. The reason is that at least from Thatcher to Brown, Britain has invariably been on the wrong side of most international disagreements (ranging from the invasion of Iraq to opposing a convention of human rights for the EU). Added to that, the internal politics of Britain has been characterised – a least compared with our continental neighbours – by more pro-capitalist policies and by more hostility to civil liberties and freedom.

Pride in Britain

The only time I do feel a tingling of pride is on the very rare occasion when Britain is in dispute with the US over a matter of principle. The norm, though, is for London to play a reflexive sycophantic role to Washington. Nowhere was that more obvious than the detention yesterday of Shahid Malik the British minister for International Development at a US airport. Had one of Her Majesty’s Ministers been detained and searched by say Russia – or indeed by any EU country – there would have been an outcry of protest at such a breach of diplomatic protocol from London. As the breach was committed by the Americans, respectful silence is the order of the day.

Britain, Libya, Bahrain

British foreign policy is formed according to the needs of Britain, not foreign countries. And in Britain the most powerful interests are those of business, which are reflected in foreign policy decisions.

When the balance of advantage lay with coopering with Gaddafi, arming him sending people to his torture chambers, then that is when happened. When the opportunity arose to back one side in a civil war and establish a totally pro-Western government, in Libya that option was pursued.

In Bahrain it has always been in Britain’s interest to support the repressive ruling family.

There is total consistency in Britain foreign policy.

When Blair, Brown and Cameron spoke about promoting human rights, it was a means legitimising the military action, never an end in itself.

Liberal Education

The only way humanistic education can be “saved” is to maintain a clear distinction between education and training; the latter being about teaching someone how to do something. In terms of this distinction, TEFL is 90% about training.

Actually training interests me far less than does education.

I do not dissent from the purpose of education being the self-realisation of the student. What has always disturbed me is how “totalitarian” are some of the methods of allegedly bringing that about. When teachers “personalise” and delve in the psychological space of their students (all with supposed purpose of teaching them to learn as individuals) in their striving for student autonomy they are in fact removing it.

It has often struck me as ironic that the old mug-and-jug approach, teacher talks and students listen, in fact gives the student the power to listen or ignore.

I do not wish to restore traditional education at all, but merely want to suggest that we should be critical of the assumptions that lie behind some allegedly liberal education techniques.

Pantomime opposition

One of the features of the market fundamentalism which has ruled for the last three decades through different governments is that it has coincided with the near total collapse of the political left.

Today, market fundamentalism rightly suffers from a crisis of legitimacy, but there is no opposition which involves or connects with the mass of ordinary working people in the struggle for meaningful social reform. Instead, we have pantomime opposition which is good therapy for those involved. The most it can achieve is to bring about is a small rise in public consciousness.

20 October 2007

Tony Blair and the Middle East

Last week at a formal dinner party hosted by his American backers, Tony Blair, now reincarnated as (sic) Middle East Peace Coordinator, said something quite significant. In relation to Iran, he challenged the often implicit assumption of many people in Britain and elsewhere that if ‘we’ (the western countries) left Iran alone they would leave us alone.

This widely held view – quite correctly - maintains that the west, as an aggressor and exploiter, has invaded, intervened in and overrun the Middle East either directly or through its surrogate, Israel. This correct understanding further sees that however revolting the regime in Teheran, the conflict is widely at the instigation of Washington and London. Blair’s intention was to undermine the majority view.

Blair instead wanted to tell us that even if Israel were able to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement, and if the west were to leave the Middle East to its own devices, Iran would nonetheless seek conflict with the overwhelming more powerful western countries. The implication of this judgment is that a war with Iran is both inevitable and desirable. It is a farce to have someone who is merely a pawn and apologist for US imperialism as a peace coordinator.

18 October 2007


The property market in England has turned. No more it would seem can house owners have an asset which ‘makes money’ while they set back and do nothing.

So that is bad news for buy-to-let entrepreneurs who in the last decade have borrowed money at low rates to buy a portfolio of houses which they can subdivide if necessary and then rent to the poor and the young. The rent income more than covered the costs of the mortgages and maintenance, while the fixed asset, the houses, increased in value. Indeed, this form of profiteering was almost self-perpetuating as the demand from buy-to-let spivs helped drive up house prices forcing those who could not buy property into the private rented sector.

New Labour in the past decade has been quite happy to allow the buy-to-let entrepreneurs cream off the wages of the young and the poor. Many middle class people saw the purchase of a second or third house as a short cut to pension provision. But now with house prices and rents falling they are starting to lose money. New Labour’s first instinct, however - as demonstrated over inheritance tax and the twenty percent tax rate- is always to pander to the needs of ‘middle England’. So when repairs and maintenance don’t get done and the supply of private rented housing dries up, the victims need not turn to Gordon Brown for help.

17 October 2007

APPELFELD, Aharon - To the Land of the Reeds

Quartet 1994

Read September 2007

This dream-like short novel is typical of Appelfeld’s style, and contains yet again the themes that characterise his work.

The story features a Jewish mother from Ruthenia who defied her parents to marry a gentile from Vienna. The husband turns out (as we would expect from Appelfeld) to be a violent alcoholic and the relationship breaks down. The woman is left with a son, and survives through a series of relationships with rich men, one of whom bequeaths her his property and she acquires financial independence.

The body of the story follows a several-year long journey by mother and now adolescent son from Vienna to Ruthenia back to the parents’ home. Along the way, as is typical in Appelfeld’s oeuvre, they meet kind and cultured Jewish people and vulgar, cruel and anti-Semitic Ruthenian peasants. The boy faces an inner struggle of identity between the gentile and Jewish, but ends up – after having been separated from his mother – with a young pious Jewish girl. The novel ends with the young couple among a community of Jews from a village sharing stories and food as they wait for a train which will deport them.

8 October 2007

No Election in Britain

So Britain will not, Gordon Brown has decided, have a General Election a mere two years after the previous one. Though opinion polls suggested that New Labour’s vote might be up from the 35 percent trough of 2005, many marginals in the Midlands and South could fall to the Tories. Higher numbers of working class people in the cities and in the north voting Labour are of minimal value to Brown in Britain’s democracy.

Brown’s dithering is met by the rank hypocrisy of the Tories. For Brown to call an election after two years with a working majority, Malcolm Rifkind tells us, would be a constitutional outrage. Cameron meanwhile says the decision not to call an election is cowardice and a fraud on the electorate.

There is a principle here. Just as the system of voting (first past the post, proportional representation) is not switched backwards and forwards to suit the whim of the Prime Minister, so the timing of an election should be free of immediate political calculation. Citizens should have a right to expect an election at regular fixed intervals, not when it suits those in power to hold them.

1 October 2007

You now need to be eighteen to buy cigarettes

Youngers should not smoke, but sixteen-year-olds should make that decision for themselves.

I am a strong supporter of the prohibition of smoking in public enclosed spaces across Britain and Ireland. It seems obvious to me that nobody has a right to pollute my air; and workers have the right to a smoke-free environment at their place of work. The law commands overwhelming public support, and it is one of the few things the New Labour Parliaments have got right.

Today under secondary legislation brought about by the same act and new law came into force across Britain rising the minimum age for the purchase of cigarettes from sixteen to eighteen. Now of course I believe that it is unwise for young people to smoke, but I disagree with the new law for several reasons.

First, young people who are sixteen and seventeen have a right to decide whether they want to smoke or not. The whole point of freedom and moving along the road to full adulthood is the acquisition of choice with regard to one’s own life and well-being – not having that freedom taken away as this law undoubtedly does.

Second, smoking is a vicious addictive drug. Tell an addicted forty-five year olds that they must now stop smoking and the cry would be simple, ‘Well even if I want to, I can’t.’ Most people accept this, but why should it be different for a seventeen year old who is perhaps going through one of the most stressful periods of his or her life?

And that takes me to my third point. Young people who want to smoke will continue to smoke, and the law will be by-passed by crooked corner-shops and by intermediaries re-selling cigarettes. One question that should always be asked about a new law is: can it be meaningfully enforced. If the answer is no, don’t introduce it.

This law fits easily into the pattern of New Labour legislating merely for its ‘spin effect.’ And at the moment we are going through a period where ‘clamping down’ on the young is the fashion of the day.