Friday 28 December 2018

The drones (?) of Gatwick

Gatwick Airport was put out of action for, I think, 36 hours over three days during the pre-Christmas rush  by alleged sightings of drones flying dangerously over the air corridors.  I have no informed comment to make over the obvious questions:

  1. Why is not the sale and operation of drones strictly regulated?
  2. Why is such a technologically proficient nation unable to catch and disable the drones within minutes?
  3. Why, with all our superior technology, are we now unsure as to whether there were any drones at all?
Doubtless there will be a full enquiry and in the fullness of time excuses will be given and we'll be told that no one was to blame (cf Albert and the Lion) but we'll be better prepared next time.

What interests me is, if there really were drones, who was responsible?

I hoped it would be some sort of Echo-warriors rather than a foreign power with evil intent.

Travelling by air is one of the most environmentally unfriendly this we can do.  If you need convincing about this then  look  here and here (there are plenty more) for facts, figures and suggestions.

During my "year abroad" when I was studying French in Pau I was surprised that many of my fellow students, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, used air travel as causally as I would hop on a bus.  For them it was quite normal to take a return flight to the UK (and perhaps elsewhere) for a birthday party, a family weekend, even just to see a Harry Potter premier.

Some years ago I subscribed to an organisation, I can't remember now what it was called, which had the motto "Live simply that other may simply live."   

Among the usual paths to virtue such as  wearing clothes  until they are worn out rather than just out of fashion, putting on an extra jumper rather than turning up the heat, eating locally produced food, even growing your own, walking and cycling rather than driving, etc., was the recommendation that we should limit ourselves to one return flight a year.

I dropped out of the organisation becasue, after a year or two, I found the newsletter  to be somewhat repetitive variations on the same themes, but I've tried to stick with most of the guidelines and especially of limiting myself to an average of one return flight per year.

Most of my friends are responsible citizens who worry about climate change, pollution and the depletion of natural resources, and bequeathing  a sustainable planet to future generations, and urge the government via their various political parties to do something about it.

Yet many seem to have a blind spot about air travel and happily go flying off  to exotic parts two or the times a year.

In this area, as well as many others, in addition to urging action on our governments we need to take action ourselves by changing our own lifestyles.  The usual excuse is, of course, that one individual or family is not going to make much difference.

But, as one of our supermarkets advertises, "Every Little Helps."

And every little helps to change the climate of opinion.

Illegal and disruptive action such as closing  down airports at holiday times may not be the best way, but, as the suffragettes showed, it may be a necessary way.

Whether environmental activists were responsible for the disruption we don't yet know.  But whether they were or not, I hope we will receive the message.  Whizzing hither and thither by air is not a God given right, put something that should be used sparingly, or not at all.

Sunday 23 December 2018

Education doublethink.

When I trained as a teacher in the later 1950s it was implied that we should  be proud that each individual school decided on its own curriculum  and taught whatever the professional teachers, in discussion with the school governors,  representing  the community, thought was most suitable for the young people in that community.  There were only two compulsory subjects: religious eduction (RE) and physical eduction ( PE.)  For  RE each local authority had an "Agreed Syllabus," presumably thrashed out between the local religious leaders.  I've no idea how the PE syllabus was determined.  At college, for primary schools we used a book called "Moving and Growing,"  universally referred to as "Moaning and Groaning."  I suspect that for secondary schools each PE teacher was free to be sadistic in his (or her?) own way.

This trust of the professionals was contrasted favourably with the French system , where we were told that  all schools taught to a rigidly imposed national curriculum, such that the minister of education could look at his watch at, say 10h50 on a Tuesday morning and know  that all collegians  in the 3rd grade would be  studying page 53 of the algebra book. We presumed this was something of an exaggeration, but took the point.

This English  system (Scotland was different and presumed to be better - I'm not sure about Wales), trusting professionals and local knowledge, was firs disturbed by the Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, who in speech in 1976, called for a great debate on eduction.  From this eventually flowed  a National Curriculum, micro-managed to something like we assumed happened in France, and ferociously policed by the grimly entitle OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education.)  the current system even specifies how children should be taught to read - by something called synthetic phonics* whatever they are.

Now comes the double-think.

The government has a policy of allowing, even forcing, schools to opt our of  "Local Authority Control" and become Academies or Free Schools.  These a freed from the constraints of the National Curriculum and can, presumably, do as they like. In other words, or so it seems, back to the status quo ante.

According to a recent statement by the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb:

Headteachers are using the freedoms afforded by academy and free school status to make [rising standards in primary schools] a reality, as illustrated by the progress disadvantage pupils in multi-academy trusts are making in writing and maths.

Well, maybe so, and maybe not.

Gibb's assertion is based on a statistic which shows that whereas 70% of comfortably-off pupils reach the government's expected standards in English and maths at the age of eleven, only 51% of those on free school meals do so, but that the gap between the two is narrowing.

A great deal depends on whether you think that such statistics are worth the paper they're printed on - not to mention the hours of boredom suffered by both teachers and pupils in practising for the tests.

But if you do think credence should be given to such findings,which Mr Gibb clearly does  here comes the double-double think.

The narrowing of the gap between comfortable off and those "on free school meals" applies to all schools, not just those experiencing, if not enjoying, "freedom." Only 61% of al children in free schools reached the government's expected standards, compared with 66%  of those in schools still maintained by local authorities.

According to the report on the Callaghan initiative cited above, educational experts were “deeply shocked” at the prime minister’s impertinence. [Callaghan's policy advisor] was asked to relay to Downing Street that education was not the business of the prime minister.
They were right.  Let's get the experts and communities  back in charge, and the fun back in education.

"  I had never heard of "synthetic phonics" until I read this article, but am very proud of having  actually taught a handful of non-readers, one of whom was about 11, to read.  Any parent of more than one child will tell you that all children develop and different speeds in different areas, and any infant and primary teacher (of which I was one for a very demanding three years of my career) that different children respond to different methods.  In my day most responded to what was called "look and say" - so that after page 5 of the Janet and John book every long word was "aeroplane." Some didn't and had to be encouraged to slog though every word phonetically.  The trick was to find ways of making that fun.

I might also add that until about two years ago I had never heard of a "frontal adverb": something which the current National Curriculum demands  that primary school kids  recognise and use in these unenlightened time.

Thursday 13 December 2018

The Bastards thwarted

 (The impolite word in the title is not mine, but is borrowed from John Major)

So, Mrs May has survived a vote of no confidence among Troy MPs by 200 votes to 117.  Last night I caught leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg on television explaining that in his view this was a very narrow majority.

I make it 63% to 37%. Yet Rees-Mogg regards the 52/48% vote in favour of leaving the EU as the sacred "will of the people" which it is almost blasphemous to question (even though the 52% represents only 37% of those entitled to vote.)

Is there no limit to Rees-Mogg;s chutzpah?*

 As mentioned in the previous past, three times towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century  Liberal governments proposed Home Rule deals for the whole island of Ireland.  Broadly speaking Ireland would have had its own  government in Dublin with control of all domestic policies, leaving only the currency, defence and foreign policy to the UK government.

Had any of these offers been implemented much of the violence, death and destruction which afflicted Ireland throughout the last century could have been avoided.

But extremists in the Tory party (aka the Unionist party) managed to scupper each deal.  The Third Home rule Bill was actually passed by parliament. In the Curragh  Mutiny officers of the British army threatened  to refuse to obey orders, or resign, if they were required to take action to implement the provisions of what was now and Act of Parliament.

This  mutiny was actually endorsed and encouraged by leading Tories.We don't hear much about that in the Daily Mail.

The implementation of the Act was postponed becasue of the outbreak of the First World War.  When Irish Home Rule was eventually implemented, six counties of the North were excluded and became Northern Ireland, with its higgledy- piggledy  border with the rest of Ireland

It is perhaps poetic justice that this creation of the early 20th  century Tory extremist is instrumental in frustrating the aims of today's extremists.

The message is that, while it may be argued that some "one nation" Tories (of the likes of  R A Butler, Harold Macmillan and  Francis Pym  - I can't think off-had of any current examples) did have the interests of the whole nation at heart, though in a patronising and patrician way, there has always been a faction of the Tory party that puts its own selfish interests above the national good.  These, in my view, have done far more damage to our country than any extreme "red" factions on the left.

Where Mrs May's survival now  leaves us is anyone's guess. Even if she achieves a cosmetic "interpretation" of her deal, it cannot be anywhere near as good as our present highly advantageous arrangement. My own hope is that, now the European Court  of Justice has ruled that the UK has the right to withdraw Article 50 and carry on with membership on the same terms as before,  MPs will grasp the nettle and vote  to do precisely that.  Such a direct solution is now being mentioned by some commentators.

As a second best, we must hope that the implementation of Article 50 will be postponed to give time for a People's Vote,with Remain on the ballot paper.

Post Script

A letter from a Professor Jane Caplan in the Guardian 14/12/18 clkaims these exact qutoations:

June 2016: 52% support Brexit -"a resounding victory."  (Jacob Rees-Mogg)
December 2018: 63% support May - "a terrible result  for the PM." (Jacob Rees-Mogg.)

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Not so subtle racism

I'm not particularly y interested in sport so usually regard the sorts pages of the newspaper to be disposable tissue.  Hover, an incident involving a Raheem Sterling hit the main news pages yesterday.  Sterling is a footballer of Jamaican origin who plays for both Manchester City and England*.  In a match against Chelsea last week he was  subjected to racist  invective by a (presumably) Chelsea supporter.

Sterling has responded by accusing our media of helping to sustain the conditions which keep racism alive.  He cites two stories regarding two young footballers, one black and one white, who had both bought houses for their mothers.

Regarding a young black player, Tosin Adarabioyo, The MailOn-line reported:

Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25 000 a week splashes out  on mansion on market for £2.5m  despite never having started a Premier League match.

Regarding  a young white player, Phil Foden, the report (which may or may not not have been from the Mail stable -it doesn't say - was the much less judgemental, indeed favourable:

Foden buys £2m home for his mum.

There are of course many other instances of this "hint-hint, nudge-nudge"  style of reporting.  If criminals are from a Muslim background we are usually told so, yet rarely are indigenous criminals defined as Christians, or even  C of E.  Before the 2015 election great play was made of Ed Miliband's inelegant eating of a bacon sandwich (nudge-nudge; he's Jewish and shouldn't be eating bacon) and that his Dad was a Marxist.

And although it's nationalist rather than racist, before the 2010 election the Mail made a great fuss of the fact that Nick Clegg's great-grandmother was Russian  (and possible a spy and even double-agent.)  And, shock horror, his wife was (and is) Spanish.

The climate that legitimises  racism and nationalism was undoubtedly softened duning the Referendum campaign.  Nigel Farage shamelessly stood by UKIP's poster depicting a seemingly endless but entirely fictitious,  queue of foreigners coming into Britain.  The Leave campaign quite openly (but untruthfully) spoke of millions of Turks standing at the door.

Sadly our prime minister, she of the "Go home" display lorries sent to tour areas of high immigration, and creator of the "hostile environment," for immigrants, is in no position to combat this evil.  Nor are the chief Brexititeers.  It may not have been the dominating factor, but it was certainly a significant factor that many Leave voters saw "take back control" as closing our borders to foreigners. Even sending them "home."

And the peak in racist crimes after the Referendum result was announced, tends to confirm this.

 Last night some punning whiz-kid in the BBC sent a team to Deal, the coastal town in Kent,  to see what the people there made of Mrs May's deal.  One interviewee was blunt;  "We've got to go ahead to keep out the foreigners."

I hope he won't need  treatment on the NHS any time soon..

Closer to home  Chapeltown, a district  of Leeds, an area I know well becasue that's where the church is where I sing in the choir, and until recently, gave ESOL lessons,  has a young football team comprising  largely of  black players and youngsters from Eastern Europe.  They have been subjected to racial abuse, not so much by the players of the opposing sides as by their parents on the touchline.

We are living in a society which is becoming increasingly sick, and the media are at least in part responsible.  Racial innuendo sells papers.

*  This surprises me.  I had supposed that to play for England you had to be born here. Certainly within living memory to play cricket for Yorkshire you had to be born in the county.  Sterling was five years old when he arrived here.

Friday 7 December 2018

Taking back control

That the government has been defeated in the Commons,  not once but thee times, on its Brexit plans, is good news.  The votes, to  force the government to publish the formal advice it has received on the legal consequences of Brexit, to turn down a government compromise to refer that matter to the Privileges Committee, and to permit Parliament to suggest and debate alternatives if and when Mrs May's "deal" is voted down, show that Parliament is, at last flexing its muscles.

Ironically, this is exactly what the Brexiteers demanded in the Referendum: that we should "take back control" and re-assert the UK's "Sovereignty."  And under  the British Constitution sovereignty resides in Parliament (actually "the Queen in Parliament" but let's not be pumpernickel) .

 However, although these decisions are valuable, our MPs are still not debating the real and only issue, which Guardian columnist Raphael Behr identified in a perceptive articlee on Monday, namely 

  "given what we now know about Brexit that we didn't know then, should we still do it?"  

  Plainly this issue transcends party loyalties and personal ambition, and it is time to stop messing about, take off the Whips and allow MPs a free vote on this very question.  If they vote with their true opinions the answer will be a resounding "No."  Article 50 can then be  withdrawn and the error  can be disposed of before Christmas. 

Such a move would avoid  all the argy-bargy of concocting a suitable question for a second referendum: who should vote; the rules to be observed; the spending limits; honesty  limits; and and all the other things that were so glaringly lacking in the 2016 referendum.

Of course, if Parliament did indeed "cut to the quick" and dispose of the problem itself (which it is constitutionally and morally obliged to do) there would be hell to play, and maybe French-style riots on the streets.  But they would blow over 

And then Parliament could get round to tackling the real and urgent problems the country faces: growing inequality; tax evasion; a desperate NHS; acute poverty, especially among children; a crumbling social care service, especially for the elderly; inhuman conditions in our prisons: a frighteningly large  balance of external payments deficit  - all these and more which have been neglected i the past three Brexit obsessed years.

 If some MPs with Leave- majority constituencies eventually lose their seats, so what?  Last month we commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the end of another failure of politics in which millions of many nations, inducing ours, paid a much greater price.   It is time for MPs to show similar guts.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

EU, UK and the Republic of Ireland

As detailed in many previous posts, I believe  that no deal which could be contrived between the EU and the UK outside the EU could be anywhere near as good as we already have if the UK remains inside the EU, so  I  haven't bothered my head with all the minutiae of the alternatives, be  they Norway+, Norway ++, Canada + or whatever.

However, I am increasingly concerned that the apparent impasse over the "Irish Backstop" is being portrayed by the government and their supporting media  as an intransigent EU behaving unreasonably and frustrating the legitimate aims of the UK.

This is nonsense.

The "Backstop," as I understand it, is an arrangement whereby Northern Ireland will continue to shadow  many of the EU regulations unless and until some technological or other method evolves whereby goods leaving Northern Ireland for the Republic can be checked elsewhere than the border.

The UK want to be able to decide unilaterally when this aspiration is achieved.

The EU says it must be a joint decision.

Which seems to me to be very reasonable.

For  the EU in this context read "the Government of Ireland."  They, and the people of the Republic, are just as  much concerned for the effects of the new situation, if and when it is achieved, as the people of Northern Ireland, (and the UK government acting on their behalf.)

A premature unilateral decision which is ineffective could lead to a return  of the hard border and thus the Troubles. and the (relative)  peace which has existed since the Good Friday Agreement, of which the EU is a guarantor, could be dissipated.  The people of the Republic are naturally desperate to avoid this and thus anxious that no alleged "solution" should introduced without their agreement.

Naturally, they are backed by the other 26 members who will remain in the EU, becasue they are members of the Club, and that's what Club members do: support each other.

And so should we.

The people of the Republic of Ireland are our "kith and kin."  (Remember how that phrase was bandied about by the Tories in the Rhodesia crisis in the high-and-far-off days of the Harold Wilson?)  Not only that, until less than a hundred years ago they were our fellow citizens.  They still have freedom of movement into and out of the UK without even passports,  and even the right to vote in our elections if they choose to live here. If they want something special they are probably of all the citizens of the EU the most entitled to it.

But their demands are not special: they are legitimate and common sense.  The EU is not using the "Irish Backstop" as a device to bully or trap the UK: they are merely defending the peace and security of  of their members