Thursday, 14 February 2019

Youthful priorities

Around the turn of the century, while I was still teaching part-time, I was dragooned into compulsory  after-school in-service training.  The speaker was a big-wigs from the Local Education Authority (LEA) whose mission was to instruct us in the importance of Citizenship Education.  Young people should know the  importance of voting, the important things the council did over and above the collecting of rubbish, how it was vital in a healthy democracy for citizens to be informed and to participate by exercising their vote

As frequently the only social science teacher on the staff, I have several times been lumbered with somebody's bright idea for a "Civics" programme.  I have never found  then particularly successful. My experience has been that pupils under the ages of 16 or so, just aren't all that bothered, nor in the intricacies of obtaining mortgages, or the perils of hire-purchase, as it used to be called.  Much the same applies to many things that adults years away from the classroom feel that the young "ought" to be taught. Maybe my approach was wrong.

I explained this to the speaker, and argued that, if we really want to interest pupils in democracy the  best approach is to offer them some democratic control over their own lives -  uniform, meals, meal times and break times, lengths of lessons, maybe what  sports, arts, subject options are available, school rules, rewards and punishment  - via some sort of school council  Simply electing a  from captain with the duty of keeping the form room tidy was not enough.

This did not receive a positive response.

A few weeks later hundreds of pupils in local schools (though sadly, not ours) abandoned their classes to go on protest marches on some aspect of government policy.  ( I had thought is was the Iraq War, but that wasn't until 2003 and I had retired by then - so I can't now be sure what.)

Predictably the LEA was outraged and highly condemnatory.

Similar negative reactions have been expressed about  the proposed co-ordinated action  tomorrow (Friday 15th February) when hundreds of thousands of UK school children are invited to abandon their classes to protest against our politicians' timid approach to tackling climate change,and their their rank failure to teat the climate crisis as a crisis.

All power to their elbows.

No one knows what exactly the consequences will be if climate change continues on its present course.   One speculation about the nature of our dystopian  future is depicted in John Lanchester's new novel, The Wall. (Faber and Faber, 2019.) 

It is not pleasant, and it is our children who will experience it, or something like it.  Lanchester's novel clearly expresses the contempt they will feel towards a previous generation which  failed to take action to avert what he ominously calls "The Change.."

Post script: (added Saturday 16th February.) 

Well, apparently between 10 000 and 15 000 turned out in the UK, which isn't a lot when you consider that there are several million schoolchildren.

There were some clever home-made posters.  My favourite was:

"March now - or swim later" (read Lanchester's book to see ho appropriate that is.)

"I've seen smarter  cabinet's in IKEA" is clever, but far from specific to climate change.

There's been plenty of coverage in the media and that I've seen or read (Channel 4 News, BBC and Guardian) has been hugely supportive.)  Maybe the Daily mail took a different take. Al I can find on their 0n-line edition is:

Nothing like accentuating the negative.

Nine year old Daniel Miliband was there with his Dad, former \Labour Leader Ed Miliband  to keep an eye on him. Young Daniel had learned his lines carefully:  "I am hare because it is our future  and we need to protedt it." 

All in all, a good and useful time seems to have been  had by all.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Lest we don't remember

The Guardian’s G2 has helpfully featured (7th February) the posters being put up around the country by a group called Led by Donkeys.  Each poster features the actual words of a Brexit-supporting politician.

In case you don’t see them all, or Led by Donkeys doesn’t come to your area, here are some of the actual quotes:

 I believe it is clearly in our national interest to remain in the European Union.
Theresa May, 25th April, 2016

The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.
Michael Gove, 9th April, 2016
Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy – the UK holds most of the cards in any negotiation.
John Redwood 17th July, 2016

They said business would flee if we voted to leave,  but instead we’re seeing  great British innovators like Dyson investing in the UK’s future.
Leave EU, 1st march 2017

I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but . . .we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.
Dominic Raab, 17th November, 2018

There is no plan for no deal, because we’re going to get a great deal.
Boris Johnson1, 1th July 2017

The activists behind this scheme describe themselves as “Four Dads with a Ladder.”   They invite suggestions for future posters and can be contacted via:

Apparently my own suggestion, of this from Jacob Rees-Mogg:

We could have two referendums.  As it happens it might make more sense to have a second referendum  after the renegotiation is completed.

has already been made.  They could add, from Nigel Farage (when he thought Leave would lose):

In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way.

All the above illustrate that the Leave campaign is led by politicians with little grasp of reality, (or no regard for the truth) and no consistency.

I find it appalling that in our mature and literate democracy their mendacious posturing still receives the support of around  a third of the electorate.

Why do so many continue to bury their heads in the sands? And why are our MPs, who themselves are fully aware of the truth and the damage any kind of Brexit will do to our country and their constituents, so supine as to fail the grasp the nettle, withdraw Article 50  and so put an immediate end to the whole nonsense.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Going it alone - but where?

Today's headline commercial news is that Nissan has decided  that the new X-Trail ( a  "family-sized" 4X4 road vehicle) originally planned for its Sunderland plant will instead be made in Japan.  This is in spite of Nissan's assurances given to the government in 2016 that, come what may (or May?) production would remain in the UK.  I can't quite see why we need yet another gas-guzzling 4x4, but if one is to be produced the I'd prefer that British workers and Britain's economy to be the beneficiaries.

About a month ago I read that the firm which  produces Britain's Centurion Tank has been sold to a German (sic) private equity fund. Again, I'd prefer beating swords into ploughshares, but if we're going to produce weapons on quite considerable destruction I'd prefer the profits to remain within the British economy

And a couple of weeks ago London's famous Fulle'rs Brewery was sold to the Japanese beer group Asahi, 
When I was a student in London in the 1950s we had some rather rude things to say about "Fuller'' S**t and Turnips" (it isn't a patch on John Smith's), but again, if Londoners are doomed to drink this stuff, I'd prefer the profits to remain in our economy.

Can there be clearer evidence that, rather than being the "soar-away Britain" of the Brexiteers' imagination, our country is going down the pan?  People with keener eyes on or memories of the business pages can probably cite even more examples.

Last week our MPs' Public Accounts Committee reported that  our  Ministry of Defence  lacked the ability to "accurately cost programmes" and that the shortfall could reach £14.8bn by 2028.  Interviewed on Radio 4, retried General  Richard Dannatt, a former head of the British Army and now a member of the House of Lords,argued  that Britain should remain in the "top tier" of the world's military powers, so the Treasury should find the money.

Surely the answer is obvious?  Britain can no longer afford to remain in this "top tier" alone, but we could if we pooled our resources and shared the cost with our friends and partners in the European Union.

I have no ideas on  how the rest of the world can help the benighted people of Venezuela, but I'm pretty sure that, in terms of both political influence and material help, the EU acting toghether will have far more clout that the UK on its own.  After all, Spain, an EU member and the former colonising power, hence with both special responsibility and special knowledge, can give the lead.

The evidence accumulates on a daily basis that Britain will be weaker, both economically and politically, outside the EU.  There is still time, but now less than 50 days, to prevent this self-harm

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Brexit: boxed into a corner

Unfortunately I think the "winners" in yesterday's parliamentary manoeuvres are the arch-Brexiteers (Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Reform group.)  They can claim to have shown themselves  to be "flexible" by supporting Mrs May's deal provided she agrees to re-negotiate the Irish backstop, and Mrs May can also claim to be a compromiser extraordinaire by agreeing to do this, despite the fact that up until now she has said that this was impossible. 

The most perceptive comment I have seen on the demand to substitute  "alternative arrangements" (as yet unspecified and with a technology as yet  undiscovered) for the current deal is that it is akin to the captain of the Titanic ordering the iceberg to get out of the way.

Be that as it may, if, and more probably when, this desperate attempt to create a deal acceptable to the Commons hits the buffers, both the ERG and Mrs May can claim:  "Well, we tried, we showed flexibility, we did our best.  We have hit the rock of EU intransigence.  It's al their fault.  So well leave without a deal."

Which is what the ERG have wanted all along.

And the anti-EU press, who today manage to distort  Mrs May's U-turn as her triumphant victory, will render gushing support.

It has to be admitted that, largely in its earlier days I think, the EU had the habit of taking difficult negotiations to the 11th hour and 59th minute and then, if no agreement were reached, stopping the clock and forcing  negotiators to carry on until the early hours of the following day, or even longer.  However, there is no sign of the EU agreeing to further amend the current deal which has taken two and a half years to complete and to which Mrs May has already signed up.  It could happen, but is unlikely.

More likely will be the production of a form of words, some clarification or interpretation, which the Brexiteers are almost bound to declare to be unsatisfactory, and so we continue towards the cliff edge on the 29th March.

I find the performance of our MPs hugely disappointing.  The overwhelming majority know perfectly well that the best thing for the future of the country is to stay in the EU.  They voted remain in the Referendum.  Everything that has been revealed since the Referendum confirms they were right. They know.

They cower before the mantras of: "We must respect the will of the people;"  "We must obey the instructions of the British people."   Sadly this rubbish passes unchallenged when it is repeated ad nauseam by government spokespersons and Brexiteers on the BBC and elsewhere.  Why don't the interviewers, every time, say it is the way 37% voted then, but 34% voted to Remain, 12% who could have voted didn't  bother and about 3m people most concerned weren't allowed to vote?  And the Referendum campaign was distorted by lies, unachievable promises. illegal activities and possibly foreign interference.

If they haven't time to say all that, why not just say the referendum was ineptly conceived and fraudulently conducted?

But no: "The people''s will" (aptly illustrated as the "people's willy" by a Guardian cartoonist) is hammered away and the referendum result is raised to the status of a sacred shibboleth which must be obeyed however deleterious the cost.

As argued repeatedly on this blog, the best outcome is for MPs to grasp the nettle, admit that the whole saga has been a terrible mistake, apologise to the EU for wasting so much of their time and energy, withdraw Article 50 and promise to be constructive and co-operative members in the future.

Failing that (and yet further delaying dealing with the real problems facing both this country, the EU and the World) they should at the very least  decide  to put whatever deal, if any, is achieved, against Remain, to the people in another Referendum.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

27th January: Holocaust Memorial Day

In 'If This a Man' Primo Levi, an Italian Jew incarcerated in Auschwitz,, describes (pages 134/5) the reaction of "civilians" to the prisoners who are marched out each day to perform work in the areas outside the camps.

. . . [We] are the untouchables to the civilians.  They think, more or less explicitly, - with all the nuances lying between contempt and commiseration - that as we have been condemned to this life of ours, reduced to our condition, we must be tainted by some mysterious, grave sin.  They hear us speak in many different languages, which they do not understand and which sound to them as grotesque  as animal noises; they see us reduced to ignoble slavery , without honour and without names, beaten every day, more abject every day, and they never see in our eyes  a light of rebellion, or of peace, or of faith.   They know us as thieves and untrustworthy, muddy, ragged and starving,  and mistaking the effect for the cause, they judge us worthy of our abasement.    Who could tell one of our faces from another? For them we are 'Kazett',, a singular neutral word. 

This naturally does not stop many of them throwing  us a piece of bread  or potato now and again, or giving us their bowls, after the distribution of 'Zivilsuppe' in the work-yards, to scrape and give back washed.    They do it to get rid of some importunate starved look,  or through a momentary impulse of humanity, or through simple curiosity to see us running from all sides to fight each other for the scrap, bestial and without restraint, until the strongest one gobbles it up, whereupon all the others limp away, frustrated.

The attitude of the "civilians" does not seem to me all that far removed from our present-day attitude to the increasing numbers of homeless, beggars and other misfits in our streets.

Happily Primo Levi describes (page133) a "more excellent way."

". . .[A]n Italian civilian worker  brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration  every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf to Italy and brought me the reply.  For all this he neither asked  not accepted any reward, becasue he was good and simple  and did not think that one did good  for a reward.

So  Good Samaritans don't just exist in the stories of Jesus (or they didn't in 1944)

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Say no to a Right Royal Compromise

In what is  apparently her annual visit to the Sandringham branch of the Women's Institute, the Queen has extolled the virtues of compromise and "coming together to seek out the common ground."

Although she doesn't actually mention Brexit this is widely, and probably rightly, regarded as a not very coded message to our parliamentarians to bash each others heads together and come up with a viable deal.

As a dedicated Liberal who believes that our MPs should be elected by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, so leading almost inevitably to a balanced parliament with no single  party with an over-all majority and therefore able to call all the shots, it follows that I must also be a believer in cross-party co-operation and, yes, compromise.

However, it has to be recognised that in some cases compromise can lead not to the best but the worst of all possible worlds.  That seems to me to be the case in every possible permutation of Brexit.

One compromise with a good deal of support is the Norway Option.  This would do the least damage to our economy becasue we would remain members of the single market and the customs union, so our advantageous trade position would be maintained. However, we should be required to observe all EU rules and regulations without any further say in making them, to respect the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, remain subject to the rulings of the ECJ on which we should no longer be represented, and continue to pay a membership fee.

So this would square the circle: we should have left the EU, have retained al its economic advantages but remain subject to al its rules with no further part in making them

Compared with our present situation as members, this is simply foolishness.  We gain nothing but lose a great deal - the worst of all worlds.

Mrs May's "Deal," which remains hemmed in by her "red lines" on which she appears unwilling to compromise, means that we shall leave both the single market and customs union but remain "aligned" to them.  This means that, for the foreseeable future at least, we shall observe all EU trading rules  unless and until some technological method as yet undiscovered is devised to enable the Irish border (our only land border with the EU) to be crossed without physical checks.

The advantage of this "alignment" is that we should be permitted to curtail the "four freedoms" (not least of labour - though we desperately need it) and  make trade deals with the rest of the world, although there is as yet no sign of the promised queue of other economies desperate to make them.

This option requires us to take a great deal of optimistic speculation on trust.

In actual fact those of us who would like to see Britain as a fully-participating and enthusiastic member of the EU have already compromised.

We have opted out to the Schengen Area, within which passports  and border checks are no longer required for people crossing frontiers, we have opted out of Monetary Union (the Euro) and are not required to join it (as would be any new countries joining the EU.) David Cameron even managed to negotiate us out of our commitment to "ever closer union": something to which we signed up when we originally joined in 1972.

In other words, those of us who believe that Britain should be at the very heart of Europe have already compromised and allowed us to be pushed gradually to the periphery - the slow lane.

Sadly, as both John Major and David Cameron have discovered, for every concession made the fanatical Brexiteers want more. They will not be satisfied unless and until every one of our ties with the EU is broken, regardless of the harm done to our political standing, our economy and our culture.

So sadly, Your Majesty,"thanks but no-thanks." I cannot see further compromise by we remainers  to be sensible or in any way advantageous.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Brexit - what next?

In a post in August 2018 I argued that, although  a People's Vote on Brexit would be highly desirable, an even better step would be for the party whips to be taken off and our MPs to be free to debate the merits and demerits of every conceivable option and then, perhaps having narrowed down the viable alternatives to two or three, make the final decision themselves.

 If they decided not to leave the EU after all on the grounds that no deal which involves  leaving, on whatever terms,  is anywhere near as good as the one we already have, then there would be a lot of harrumphing and perhaps even some French-style riots on the streets but we'd get over it and could, from that stronger position, begin to tackle the real problems facing the country - and not least the genuine grievances which led to the Brexit vote.

The idea did not receive much traction.  Nor did a letter in the Guardian the following month (26/09/18) arguing that if MPs took this step than the whole mess could be sorted out before  Bonfire Night.

Fiends with whom I discussed the matter seemed to take the view that I was probably right but "it ain't gonna happen."

Happily, I now feel opinion is moving  in that direction.

Having spent two and a half years devising a plan that has been rejected by a bigger majority than anything else British Governments have attempted in modern times, Mrs May carries on as if nothing has happened, and is expected to propose the same plan with minor variations this-afternoon.  The Leader of the Official Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, refuses to participate in cross- party talks unless the game is played according to his own rules.

 It is perfectly clear that, since the Brexit issue seems to have split both major parties equally, the traditional party structure is incapable of resolving the issue.

The prominent Tory Remainer and former cabinet minister Dominic Grieve  has proposed that MPs should be allowed  one day for free discussion and "indicative votes" on the various options.  Amazing that the body in which our sovereignty lies has to ask permission!

More boldly,  Sir John Major, the former conservative prime minister who designated the Brixiteers in his cabinet as "the Bastards" has called for the whips to be taken off and some free discussion and "indicative votes"  to take place.  Major points out that Edward Heath, under whose premiership, after several rebuffs, we actually joined the EU, allowed Tory MPs a free vote, so these free votes would not be dangerously innovative.

I'm not sure  if Major  goes as far as asking MPs to make the final decision. but he seems to allow the possibility of a People's Vote if MPs can't make up their minds.

In the wonderful words and music of Gilbert and Sullivan: "quite calm deliberation  disentangles every knot."

Rather than further weeks of Mrs May trying to foist her unacceptable deal onto a reluctant parliament, with an Opposition too timid to propose any alternative (other than a General Election, which would be absurd at this stage).  we need several  weeks, if necessary, of calm discussion form our MPs to enable them, fully informed,  to make the most serious decision of their and my political lifetime.