Friday, February 27, 2009

Lobby fodder

The Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning held their lobby of Parliament on Wednesday to protest about the collapse of much adult education provision. I was not there, but those that did go felt that it went well. Around 400-500 people turned up, not a vast gathering, but enough to register the discontent felt at the loss of adult education around the country.

Again MPs were sympathetic, though NIACE report that, "Whilst CALL supporters displayed their passion and commitment for adult learning, DIUS Secretary of State - John Denham - gave a robust defence of government policy". And that sums it up. It keeps the issue on the agenda, but changes nothing. The government will not listen.

And this raises a problem with Paulie's determined defence of representative democracy against populism. If, when confronted by people who are well informed and in touch with reality in a way that those in power are not, elected representatives simply dismiss genuine concerns with platitudes, then we are witnessing a failure of representation in much the same way that giving in to a regressive populist media campaign would be.

I don't offer a solution, merely to raise the issue of a democratic dilemma that has left me bitter and frustrated about the ignorant destruction of something as valuable as adult education, despite blanket condemnation from those who know best.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Two reports from Greece at the weekend highlight the continuing unrest at the political situation. One speaks of the rise of a 1970's style terrorism that sounds chillingly nihilistic.
...the Sect of Revolutionaries, believed by experts to be a branch of Revolutionary Struggle - a group that made its debut with a rocket attack on the US embassy in 2007, and also thought to be behind the attack on Citibank - has stood out for its cold cynicism and marked lack of ideology. "We don't do politics, we do guerrilla warfare," it declared.
There was also a long and thoughtful piece on the disturbances by Helena Smith and Ed Vulliamy, based predominantly on interviews with some of the protagonists. It is worth reading in full. Two contrasting interpretations caught my eye. First, here is a leftist veteran of the events of 1973 that brought down the Colnels' junta.
One leading member of the polytechnic occupation was Dimitris Hadzisokratis, who now leads a left-wing parliamentary group wary of the current insurgency... He meets us in his office in parliament, to contrast then with now. "What happened last December was an explosion, not a revolt," says Hadzisokratis, "which means something else. The situations are entirely different, we were rebelling against a dictatorship, they are rebelling against a democracy. We had a set of demands and goals. Yes, there were ultra-leftists and anarchists involved, but they were doing something else, and that's all I see in this explosion. Who are they fighting, exactly? It is amorphous, it has no aim and, as such, it will reach an impasse and will be judged as pointless."
However, Constantinos Tsoukalas sees something else, the serious degeneration of hope and disillusion with mainstream politics.
He sees "the uprising as a symptom of the end of political hope and the beginning of something else. One of the nefarious consequences of the end of the Cold War and the emptiness of the global market that was supposed to put an end to ideology but, in crisis, has instead created this moment of great ideological tension".
And now the British Police fear that the same could happen in this country. I am sceptical, as is Olly, but the most perceptive expression of doubt comes from a young Greek Anarchist who knows England well.
"We are at one extreme edge of Europe, but not really part of Europe, and you are at the opposite edge, but also not part of Europe. Here, an uprising, there... nothing. Though the violence is the same in your country, in fact it's much worse. But you commit it against each other; knife crime, drunken fights and gangs. Here, we challenge the state and the banks, not each other".
Besides, if disturbances did break out here this summer, it would be guaranteed to rain.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rights and Liberties

I was looking through the Convention on Modern Liberty's web site. It highlights a range of issues, surveillance, data protection, free speech, legal rights, etc., all important certainly, though I wonder if they constitute quite the profound threat portrayed. There is one thing missing however, probably the biggest attack on rights in recent times. A Bill going through Parliament at the moment will take away many of the economic rights of the poor.

Further, the imposition of a regime of conditionality on our benefits systems allows a systematic invasion of privacy by the state under threat of sanction. So egregious are the changes that they have actually led to Madeleine Bunting writing an excellent article. So where are the civil libertarians? I can't see them.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The sandwich of knowledge

The bottom tier contains eight strips of bacon, six sausages and four burger paddies; followed by a second tier of black pudding; topped by a third tier comprised of two diced chicken breasts and six fried eggs.

Mmmm ... This is taken from the ultimate in food porn, This is why you're fat.

The site is one of the gems from the Premier Portal of Pointlessness. Paulie dug this one up and I can't thank him enough. No moments of dreary tedium for me now when I can use it to find such stimulating reading as Cows Go Moo. Every link is a complete waste of your life - marvellous.

And this cheery tune is just what you need to give you a lift.

Another Sunday

And another defeat, but a different mood leaving the ground. After a promising spell Swinton gave Leigh a 26-4 half-time lead through some extravagant errors and I feared the worst. The second half was another matter with a great Swinton comeback against the higher division team, eventually losing by 26 points to 34. Not a bad way to while away a cold February afternoon. Not bad at all.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


One of my many prejudices is a dislike of the writer and broadcaster Clive James. As biases go, this one is harsh and wholly unreasonable. My antipathy is solely down to one snide remark made in a review many years ago about Ravel being the world's "most boring composer". I could never forgive him.

This was brought to mind by a moving radio programme (available here for a limited time) about the dementia that allowed Ravel's creative mind to stay active but left him unable to communicate, trapping his music in his head. It is a tragic story and though the programme focused on the possible effect of the illness on his music, it was a celebration of his brilliance as well. And brilliance is the right word. The music is full of colour and fire and, at its most lyrical, ravishes. Boring? Never.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cherished liberties

Here's something of substance for the Convention on Modern Liberty to get their teeth into. Pies. Pies with restrictions on the amount of pastry to meet government guidelines on 'healthy eating'.
Thousands of public sector workers, hospital visitors and leisure centre users face having to eat pies that are missing half the pastry and having to ask specifically for the salt because of a healthy eating initiative being drawn up by the government.
There is only one solution, liberate yourself from the tentacles of the state and bake your own. And if you want to be a real subversive, a revolutionary even, eat them with obvious pleasure in front of the poor sods who have to munch through flavourless, lightweight 'gold standard' crud.

Pass the salt and free the world.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Warrington commuters now face segregation into kissing and no kissing zones. Apparently, a kiss goodbye can hold up the train and stop people getting on board.

A Virgin spokesman said: "It's just a quirky thing. It's nothing more than a light-hearted way of getting the message across."

No surprise the spokesman is a virgin then.

I reckon romantics should head up the line to Widnes where legend has it that Paul Simon wrote this.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Healthy eating

Charlie Brooker gets it dead right.
The standard tuckshop brands of crisps are shameful things, to be eaten in secret on a car journey. Of course, the fey "gourmet" varieties - thicker, hand-cooked "artisan" crisps with flavours such as Aged Stilton and Ambassador's Port - are still considered acceptable by the food Nazis, provided they're served in a bowl at a cocktail party, surrounded by organic vol-au-vents and snobs. That's because our food neurosis is actually snootiness in disguise.
We can't just enjoy food, it has to be the food that we are told we have to enjoy because it is 'good' for us. And 'wholesome' food is an indicator of class. Its consumption is an act of worthiness, not of pleasure.

For instance, I hate wholemeal bread with a vengeance. It contains the indigestible, cardboard-tasting bits that millers spent centuries learning how to remove and gives me chronic indigestion. I ate it for years and told myself how nice it was until one liberating moment when I saw a video about teaching methods that showed a charismatic doctor throwing bread rolls around the lecture theatre ranting about how bad bran was for you. I went straight out and bought one of those rare endangered species, a white bread sandwich, and relished it. It has been white for me ever since. Indigestion tablets are now reserved for a surfeit of cheap, rough wine.

The class angle is important though, and not just because of food snobbery. A bad diet and rotten health go with being poor. However, this is not an issue about educating the lower orders about the virtues of the vile, it is about ending poverty. And that means making delicious, fresh food easily available without it carrying covert meanings about the sort of person you are.

A Brooker column wouldn't be the same without some superb invective and I love his descriptions of the new crisp flavours:
It captures the feeling of sitting in a greasy spoon, being dumped via text while your food repeats on you. Depressing.'s like kissing someone who's just eaten a plateful of scampi. Halfway through they belch in your mouth.

They taste precisely like a tiny cat piping hot farts through a pot-pourri pouch into your mouth.
Trouble is, they sound quite appetising to me, especially if eaten with a pint. Pub snacks should be disgusting, that's what's enjoyable about them. And you know what? I love pork scratchings.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The delights of Dewsbury

Swinton played their first match of the season away at Dewsbury this afternoon. At last the frost has relented and some watery sunshine found its way through high clouds to shine on the seats, making it feel almost warm after the recent cold.

The weather had wrecked the pitch, which was a mixture of sand and clogging mud, reducing the pace of the game and putting the premium on power over skill.

From the top of the stand there is a fantastic view at one end, stretching right across the moors to the Emley transmitter mast. On the hill behind the goals at the other end stands a fine water tower.

On the pitch, the view wasn't that great. Swinton lost 50-0. Oh well, the fresh air was nice after a large Yorkshire pub lunch. There are compensations for my sad obsession.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Knowing your place

I post the odd rant here about adult education and my despair over New Labour's policy on lifelong learning. However, nothing I write can compete with the clarity of this wonderful short article by Alison Wolf in January's Adults Learning.

Wolf has long questioned the deterministic assumptions about the link between economic growth and educational qualifications. Here she takes on the stifling narrowness of the government's thinking and its limitation of human possibilities.
The virtues of ‘lifelong learning’ may trip off every minister’s tongue, and launch countless speeches, but the only sorts of adult learning which actually have legitimacy, or are seen as deserving of support, are those which make people do their current jobs better.
She concludes,
If we want to stop, and reverse, the destruction of adult education perhaps we have to start here; with the mysterious fact that our concept of education is more narrow and impoverished than any previous generation. Change that, and the rest will follow.
Read it all.

Praising the enemy

The first column I turn to in my Sunday paper is Nick Cohen's. He's a beautiful writer and usually a stimulating and enjoyable read. We don't always see eye-to-eye, but last Sunday he produced a review that I had big disagreements with. He gave qualified praise to a book that was written to oppose everything he has ever stood for. Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, as described by Cohen, strikes me as an attempt to justify a conservative ideological position by the use of some dubious, anachronistic history.

I have to say that I am only writing a review of a review, a risky business that opens me to the possibility of misrepresenting the book in question. But come on, it is 496 pages long and I have a life. However, the theme of a close relationship between fascism and socialism is a familiar one, especially if you have any knowledge of right libertarian thinking. This discourse, in its modern form, originates from Hayek's assumption that state planning and collectivism are steps on the road to totalitarianism. However, some of the literature extends this further and suggests that social democracy is in itself totalitarian. I have engaged in debates before on what I see as the over-extension of the term here and here.

I would always approach a book that links two mutually contradictory terms, such as liberal and fascism, with extreme suspicion. Liberalism is not fascism and fascists are not liberals. I know the title is taken from a quote by H G Wells, but by the end of his life the kindest description one can give of his elitist views is 'strange'. However, this is typical of the genre; take an extreme, and preferably barking, comment from an unrepresentative individual and then write about it as if it were a key to the understanding of the whole, rather than the product of a lunatic fringe. This is bad enough, but compound it by using the words 'secret history' and alarm bells should be ringing. Anything labelled 'secret history' usually refers, as in this case, to something with a voluminous published historical literature. It doesn't half add to the air of conspiracy and intrigue though.

Let's take a few points from the review. First there's this:
In America, flustered liberal critics have had far greater difficulty with the notion that they and their predecessors are the inheritors of ideas that began in the fascist movement.
Chronology matters, just ask the BBC. Socialism pre-dated fascism. Therefore it was fascism that inherited some ideas that began in the socialist movement and not the other way round. If the left had imitated fascism it implies they admired and sympathised with it and clearly that was the impression the book intended to convey.

The problematic relationship between fascism and communism has been the topic of extensive debate and research, stretching from totalitarian theory to the Historikerstreit. There is a perfectly respectable school of thought that sees fascism emerging from the early socialist movement and even, at a stretch, being a malign form of socialism. This position can be maintained in that fascism shares a statist, anti-capitalist, collectivism with some parts of the socialist movement.

However, common roots do not make a common ideology. Crucially, fascism replaced the notion of class conflict with national unity, drew in irrationalist concepts of struggle and the utility of war, a worship of inequality and later added the poison of pseudo-scientific racial theory. And so I cannot agree with "Goldberg’s definition of fascism as the 'right wing of the socialist movement'".

By the time we get to this bit though something should have clicked.
He begins with Woodrow Wilson and shows that before Mussolini came to power, a Democratic president imposed a militarised state. When America entered the First World War, the progressives of the day used the conflict as an excuse to arrest dissidents, close newspapers and recruit tens of thousands of neighbourhood spies. Wilson began the overlap between progressive and fascistic politics, which continued for the rest of the 20th century.
Eh? After all the crass Bush=Hitler guff, shouldn't the idea of Woodrow Wilson as Mussolini have grated? Describing Wilson as a proto-fascist is simply absurd and ahistorical. However, this is a persistent trope amongst American conservatives. Take this example where Ralph Raico this time associates Franklin Roosevelt with Mussolini and writes on the National Recovery Administration, part of the New Deal, under the heading, "Fascism comes to America".

I could pick up on more but I want to finish with his start.
It is undeniable that the best way to have avoided complicity in the horrors of the last century would have been to have adopted the politics of Jonah Goldberg. Much can be said against moderate conservatives, but it has to be admitted that their wariness of grand designs and their willingness to place limits on the over-mighty state give them a clean record others cannot share.
Actually, most of the horrors of the last century could have been avoided if almost anyone else had been in power other than Hitler and Stalin. However, in history we can't deal with ifs. Hitler came to power and it actually was conservatives of Goldberg's stamp who formed the governments of the Western democracies and who had to deal with him. What did they come up with? Isolationism and appeasement. Neither can be described as a howling success. What about more recently? The colossal failings in former Yugoslavia was one of theirs, as was the decision to allow Saddam to stay in power and murderously crush the risings against him after the first Gulf War. They are also the ones who would leave the Afghans in the hands of the Taliban. Nick, they have produced the journalism of Simon Jenkins. A clean record?

Sorry, this book reads from the review as simply an attempt to discredit socialism by equating it with fascism. There are really interesting studies and critiques of the extension of state power from the 19th Century onwards, but playing games of guilt by association is not serious history, it is merely a way of denigrating the success of social democracy in building prosperous and stable post-war democracies by its entrenched enemies.

Let's get the relationship between social democracy and fascism right. It didn't borrow from it, it defeated it. It defeated it militarily, economically, socially and morally. Fascism only re-emerges where social democracy is diminished. Social democracy is the success story of the 20th Century. Nick, comrade, we do not need "a plea of mitigation" for "the undoubted crimes of the left". We need to celebrate the success of the democratic left in reconstructing the post-war world and to resist the dismantling of its achievements. Let's have some confidence and faith in the possibility of a better future.

Any mentally honest leftist will be aware of the abhorrent trends that the left has spawned, from Stalin to Galloway. We should not spare them our scorn, but we do need to differentiate between different versions of 'leftism'. The democratic left may have got some things wrong, but they also got a lot right. A bit of self-criticism does no harm, though not to the extent of lionising the opposition who will gleefully wallow in your mea culpa and seek to undermine all the values of the left. There is a long way to go and different paths to travel, but with intelligence and clear thought, as Terry Glavin likes to say, the people will win.

Stuart Jeffries gives the book a kicking in a good review. I particularly like this:
His book, as published here, is a triumph of the terminological will whereby words mean just what the author means them to.
Jeffries neatly expresses contempt for the book's ludicrous thesis:
Anyone who believes in collective action through the state to improve people's lives is fascist or operating with unconscious fascistic impulses, Goldman argues. Our 1944 Education Act and the NHS, then, rest on the same foundational principles as Kristallnacht and al-Qaida.
This makes Nick Cohen's misreading all the more perplexing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trivial pursuits

It has been a bad day for Wikipedia and for British politics. The latest shocking accusation that the Tory leader David Cameron has thrown at the Prime Minister is that he got the age of the artist Titian at his death wrong. Wow! Clearly this man is unfit for power. What else could disqualify a leader from wrestling with the credit crunch? Being unable to recite Tennyson by heart? A less than intimate knowledge of the novels of Thomas Hardy?

The only problem is that the date of Titian's birth isn't known, so some bright spark from Conservative Central Office decided to alter the Wikipedia entry to match the age at death given by his leader. Someone should have told them that there are other works of reference. Encyclopaedia Britannica says he was born in 1488/90 and died on August 27th, 1576.

And people say the blogosphere can be puerile.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

One eye on the opposition

The spectacularly hideous Jeremy Clarkson seems to have something against the monocular. He ought to be careful. And here is another one-eye he might like to call an idiot.

Unimportant elections

Yossi Sarid writes in Bitter Lemons about the Israeli elections and concludes that peace is possible, though only through international intervention to by-pass a hopelessly compromised local leadership.
There are no good peoples or bad peoples; no peoples who by their nature are peaceable or warlike. The differences are in the leaderships, and only there. A responsible, courageous and farsighted leadership will formulate policy accordingly and move in that direction. An adventurous, cowardly leadership that can't see beyond the present day will adopt policies without vision that lead nowhere.

The Israeli and Palestinian tragedy is one of leadership.

A war of no choice?

I am posting this link without comment as I am unqualified to write with any authority on it.

Gershon Baskin of IPCRI writes in the Jerusalem Post on the causes of the Gaza war.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

It's back

In weather cold enough to bring the country to a standstill and bring sneers from Canadians, the fourteenth season of summer Rugby League started this weekend. Swinton's first match was postponed due to a frozen pitch.

Friday, February 06, 2009

"Ultimate power foods"

Apparently this interactive guide on "on how to eat your way to a fabulously healthy mind and body" is an Internet sensation. It is rubbish. However many circles I click on, the magic words 'pork pie' do not appear. Ludicrous.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Working rights and wrongs

Misguided xenophobia and chauvinism? Or an heroic working class struggle against neo-liberalism? What has been going on just over the river in Immingham? I am not an expert in industrial relations so I can only offer some tentative thoughts.

The events of the past week are not new, nor are they confined to this country. In the 18th Century anti-Irish rioting was commonplace against what was known as 'Irish wages', rates of pay supposedly lowered by migrant workers. Incidentally, this combined with strong working class support for Irish nationalism. Then again, especially when faced with the challenges of the militant New Unionism in the 1880's and 90's, employers became adept at bringing in non-unionised blackleg labour from outside. Both traditions have been seen in this dispute, which was not originally about immigration or migrant labour, but about sub-contracted 'posted workers'.

Some years ago alarm was raised about a possible implication of the free movement of labour within the EU as a consequence of enlargement. This was not about an influx of the legendary Polish plumbers, but the possibility of 'social dumping', an unfortunate phrase if ever there was one. This meant that workers for an overseas firm in one country could work in another under the legal conditions of their country of origin rather the one in which they worked, thus undermining hard-won employment rights and ensuring the exploitation of the posted workers themselves. The Posted Workers Directive was introduced to stop this happening and was adopted into British Law in 1999.

However, the legality of trade union action against breaches of the directive was restricted by two decisions of the European Court of Justice, Viking Line and Laval (details here), creating difficulties with enforcement. The current action first arose about a suspected breach of the directive. However, an unofficial dispute ostensibly about the legality of the conditions under which Italian workers were contracted began to evolve into one about "British jobs for British workers", questioning the legitimacy of foreign workers per se.

People in this country, other than the workers whose livelihoods were lost, have been relatively sanguine about losing jobs to overseas workers, so long as they stayed there. Nor have they been particularly concerned at the gross exploitation of cheap labour overseas provided they have a continuing supply of cheap clothes, DVD players and computers. When it becomes visible they react differently.

As a result, the iconography and language of the dispute has become increasingly chauvinist, though the dispute itself is rooted in the continuing attempts of employers to exclude trade unions and exploit cheap labour. It is also foolish to deny that racist discourses flourish in all classes, not just the white working class as the latest fashionable apologists would have it, and provide a simpler vehicle for the expression of discontent than discussions about EU directives.

There is a real danger, especially in a recession, that a legitimate dispute becomes a populist, xenophobic campaign. I don't know how this can be prevented, but from my comfortable, middle-class, salaried position I wish I was seeing calls for 'British rights for all who work in Britain'.


Over at the cross-post on DSTPFW a commenter, matewan, has rightly corrected me on a mistake I made. Here is an extract:

I think you are making a common error ... in claiming that the EU Posted Workers' Directive is intended to prevent "undermining hard-won employment rights and the exploitation of posted workers". Far from it. The PWD is legislation intended to prevent 'unfair competition' ...

This is very different in both intention and effect from legislation intended to protect social conditions for workers. This is not a matter of semantics. Social protection legislation sets standards that employers must apply for all workers. Anti-competition legislation such as the PWD merely requires employers to apply the minimum national terms and conditions (in Britain that means the princely minimum wage of £5.73 an hour for workers aged 22 and above), which is massively below the agreed hourly rates set out in the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry - hence 'social dumping'.

If one believes (wrongly) that the solution to the evil of social dumping can be attained by amending the PWD in order as some have argued to ensure that 'Posted Workers' are entitled to be paid 'market rates', 'the rate for the job' (whatever that is), or the appropriate terms and conditions set out in the collectively bargained agreement with the recognised trade union(s) then the European Court of Justice has blocked off that avenue by its determinations in Viking/Laval (barring collective action to uphold collective agreements in cases of firms offering services in another EU member state) reinforced by its Rueffert and Luxembourg judgements last year that bar collective social standards in public procurement contracts by local authorities, or even in national legislation.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Green shoots

William Shawcross reports on the relative, and under-reported, success of the Iraqi elections and offers some hope.
The peaceful polling was remarkable and so were the results. All the Islamic parties lost ground, especially that associated with the so-called "Shia firebrand", Moqtada al-Sadr, whose share of the vote went down from 11% to 3%. The principal Sunni Islamic party, the Islamic Party of Iraq, was wiped out.
Is Iraq's long national nightmare coming to an end? Shawcross thinks it may be.
There will be further setbacks. But who knows, Iraq may yet even become a model for democratic change in other Arab countries.
The response from the catastrophists? All is silence.

Catholic tastes

After the Holocaust denier another Papal promotion has raised eyebrows. Gerhard Wagner is to be made a bishop.
In 2005, Wagner was quoted in a parish newsletter as saying that he was convinced that the death and destruction of Hurricane Katrina earlier that year was "divine retribution" for New Orleans' tolerance of homosexuals and laid-back sexual attitudes.
Life is imitating Father Ted.

Hat tip to Kev again

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Your health

This weekend I have been recovering from a minor operation. I am somewhat sore and limping, but, above all, grateful. I am lucky enough to live in a country with a National Health Service.

I got the latest hospital treatment and, especially as this Hull, experienced nothing but friendly helpfulness and a down-to-earth sense of humour. Since the first symptoms occurred and I was forced to seek treatment, I have met wall-to-wall niceness. And it cost me nothing, other than the taxes that I, unlike many major corporations, actually pay.

As this is the season for lecturing President Obama, I would tell him that if he wants to do one thing of unquestionable benefit to the American people, he should come and have a look at our NHS. It is something we should be proud of.

However, the cheery professionalism of the clinicians can easily be dispelled with a single magic word - 'management'. This is not simply the usual moans about those who manage from those that do, nor is it solely a reflection of the current trend for the creation of internal markets in the public sector, it reflects a hostility to an insidious political agenda. Part-privatisation by stealth is still a threat to one of our most important collective rights.

Just as I cannot conceive why anyone would want to waste money by paying for private health insurance, other than for social cachet and an illusion of better treatment, so the idea that privatisation could conceivably be a benefit to anyone apart from the profit makers, is beyond my comprehension. The 'reform' agenda has dropped out of the news lately, but when the time comes for you to need health care, it is a real reminder about just how much it should be resisted.