.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Watch this space

After a two-year absence, I've decided to return to the blogosphere.

I stopped blogging shortly before Charles Kennedy's demise as leader of the Liberal Democrats (although that wasn't the reason). With yet another new leader about to be elected, now seems as good a time as any to resume.

Several people asked me why I stopped. No single reason. A mixture of other commitments, mainly, coupled with growing boredom at repeating the same arguments with the same few people.

Fortunately, enough new people have entered the fray to make the experience potentially more rewarding. It still depresses me, though, how much the blogosphere has become an outlet for passive-aggressive behaviour - a political equivalent of angry post-it notes left on the fridge door.

Posts will be sporadic over the holiday period but will become more regular in the New Year. I'll also get round to updating the links and generally improving the blog.

In the meantime, have a good holiday.

Friday, December 23, 2005


How times change

... the City Council is everywhere and in everything. It supplies water, light and heat. It carries us about our business and watches over our health. It builds many of our houses and educates most of our children, and every year that passes it adds to its burden. Until 1835 it could not even raise a rate. The individual parishes alone had that power, and the only rate they could levy was the Poor Rate. But even after 1835 the powers of the corporation were very limited. Nearly all public services - roads, water, gas, for instance - were looked after by independent boards and companies, and the work of poor relief was in the hands of an entirely separate body, the Guardians of the Poor. Gradually they were all absorbed by the corporation, especially after the Public Health Act of 1875. Instead of having separate authorities, each supplying a particular service and collecting its own revenue, they were brought under one great authority which, through its different departments, supplied the various services, and by means of its financial department, collected the revenue. In 1907 the nineteen civil parishes were amalgamated into one civil parish of Lincoln, and in 1930 the last of the independent bodies, the Poor Law Guardians, was brought in. What a Colossus it is, this City Council! And how vitally necessary it is that we should see that it does its multifarious duties properly.
(From The Story of Lincoln by E I Abell and J D Chambers, a local history textbook commissioned by Lincoln's Education Committee for the city's schools and published in 1939).

The 1930s can be seen in retrospect as the high-water mark for local government in Britain. A footnote added to the revised 1949 edition of this book reads,

The City no longer supplies water, light and heat.
The 1945 Labour government is well-known for having nationalised many privately-owned industries. It is often forgotten that the same government also nationalised many local municipal services, such as water, gas, electricity and health.

The depredations did not end there. Lincoln was until 1974 a single-tier 'County Borough'. The Tories' 1972 Local Government Act turned the city into a second-tier district within the county of Lincolnshire and Lincoln lost control of its schools, roads and libraries. In the 1980s, much of the council housing was sold off and the corporation buses were privatised (now being run from an office in Barnsley instead of Lincoln).

Today, under New Labour, local government (or what little is left of it) - when it is not acting as an agent for the delivery of central government targets - is being stigmatised as "political control". Meanwhile, on Lincoln City Council's
website today, the leading "what's new" item is the news that the council has just spent £130,000 on the refurbishment of some public toilets.

Yes, the Leader of the Council of the City of Lincoln, the corporation of one of our country's most ancient cities, has been reduced to cutting the ribbon to open a new lavatory. What a Colossus it is, this City Council?

Joseph Chamberlain must be turning in his grave.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


You gotta have faith

Religious extremism is a growing problem in Britain (see my earlier assessment of the problem). It is portrayed in the media as a mostly 'Islamic' issue yet Islam does not have a monopoly of intolerance or bigotry.

While street protests and terrorist attacks win the media's attention, the most insidious manifestation of this problem is the rise and rise of the so-called 'faith schools'.

I had always objected on principle to state schools being religious (the principle being that of the secular state) but it was not until I read Johann Hari's
article in the Independent (27 October) that I realised such schools do not warrant their reputation for high educational standards - and thus do not deserve the praise heaped on them by the government or the enthusiasm of some middle class parents.

My article in this month's edition of Liberator is devoted to this topic and is reproduced here:

When historians look back on this decade, one of the political curiosities will be why the Blair administration chose to hand over control of large chunks of the state education system to religious bodies, in an age when religious faith has fallen through the floor.

And as a footnote, they might ponder why the Liberal Democrats chose to endorse such a perverse and illiberal policy. Charles Kennedy, in a lecture to the religious group Faithworks (3 February 2005), said that he was in favour of faith-based welfare and thought that religious bodies should play a larger role in public life.

Kennedy added, in an interview with Muslim News (21 January 2005), that the Lib Dems would come up with a "package" of measures in which they would consider giving further privileges to religion. He also said that he would not oppose a growth in the number of state-funded Muslim schools.

Meanwhile, in a speech to the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges (2 February 2005), the party's education spokesman Phil Willis assured his audience that, "We have no proposals whatsoever to close Church schools or to prevent the establishment of others – indeed it is a Liberal Democrat Council in Islington that has jointly sponsored the St Mary Magdalene Academy, the first Church of England Academy in the country."

Both speeches read like a nervous pre-election pitch for an imagined 'religious vote'. This pathetic attempt to appease a dogmatic and vocal minority left Britain's majority of non-religious voters with no choice at this year’s general election; a situation where all three main parties were supporting 'faith schools'. It is truly bizarre that the number of such schools is already over 7,000 and rising when Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world.

Following the general election, the Liberal Democrats appeared to back-pedal somewhat. A press statement (23 August 2005), in response to a Guardian opinion poll (of which more later), said that the party would not want to see any more faith schools in the country as they could foster divisions in society. An unnamed spokeswoman said the party would not seek to close any existing faith schools but would not like to see any new ones emerge. She said the party did not believe in "segregation in education" – a position apparently at odds with Willis's clear commitment in February.

So the Liberal Democrats are at sixes and sevens – no change there. Given the obvious muddle, what ought to be the party's position?

The Liberal Democrats have rightly recognised the paramount importance of education because of its capacity to liberate the individual. But education is also fundamental to the enlightenment project. In a year in which ugly religious intolerance is back in fashion – from the fanatical protests against the Sikh play Bezhti and Jerry Springer – The Opera, through to the July 7 bombings – enlightenment values are at risk. As if that were not bad enough, Britain's education policy has been entrusted to a member of the extremist cult Opus Dei. In such dangerous times, Liberals would do well to remember Victor Hugo's maxim, "There is in every village a torch – the teacher; and an extinguisher – the priest."

It is obvious why the churches want more 'faith schools'. But why should anyone else? Such schools are allegedly 'popular' and 'successful' but both claims turn out to be bogus. In any case, the notion of 'faith schools' is fundamentally wrong in principle.

The first principled objection is a belief in the secular state – indeed, it is fundamental to civil society, which can function properly only on the basis of pluralism and rational debate. Liberals, whatever their personal religious views, must accept this principle because only individuals can have religious faith and the inanimate state cannot 'believe'. Further, religion must remain a personal matter because all religions have at their heart a dogma that necessarily precludes other beliefs. When religion is established within the body politic and there is only one 'truth', it leaves little room for argument.

Opposing 'faith schools' should be all of a piece with opposition to an established church, to blasphemy laws and to the proposed 'religious hatred' legislation. In a Liberal society, no-one should suffer discrimination or oppression for their religious views but, equally, no religion should enjoy any statutory privilege or state subsidy.

State funding for 'faith schools' is tantamount to spending taxpayers' money on religious proselytising. The state should not ban religious schools but there is no reason why the state should subsidise them.

The second principled Liberal objection to 'faith schools' is that, far from promoting 'diversity' as their defenders claim, they enforce sectarianism by segregating children according to their parents' superstitions. They pin religious labels on children too young to be capable of making any meaningful choice. The disastrous experience of segregated education in Northern Ireland appears to have taught the British political establishment nothing.

Sectarianism is not confined to Ulster. Lord Ouseley's report into the Bradford riots of 2001 warned, "There are signs that communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines. Segregation in schools is one of the indicators of this trend. There is virtual apartheid in many secondary schools."

After riots the same year in Oldham, there was another official investigation and another warning. David Ritchie (chair of the investigation) warned in his independent review that local 'faith schools' were "contributing institutionally to divisions within the town."

If parents genuinely wish to provide religious education to their children, and if churches wish to offer it, that is their right. But it should not be done at the taxpayers' expense. Nor should the state endorse segregation as public policy; publicly funded education should be secular and open to all children regardless of their parents' beliefs.

The third principled Liberal objection to 'faith schools' is that of choice. Promoters of 'choice' within the state education system hold out the prospect of a veritable smorgasbord of educational options. Instead of the 'bog standard comprehensive', you may choose from dozens including a Catholic school, a Shi'ite grammar school, a Vegan secondary modern or a City Academy specialising in macramé.

In reality, even in densely populated urban areas, parents are unlikely to find more than two or three schools within convenient reach. In rural areas, there is unlikely to be more than one. To hand over control of state schools to a management with a religious agenda inevitably restricts available choice for the majority of parents who would prefer something a little more impartial.

What's that? Did I say "majority"? Don't most parents like 'faith schools'? Actually they don't. An
opinion poll published by the Guardian (23 August 2005) found that 'faith schools' are opposed by almost two-thirds of the public. 64% agreed with the proposition that "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind". A MORI poll for the TES in November 2001 produced similar results.

Little wonder. It turns out that almost half the government's planned new flagship city schools are sponsored by religious organisations. Over 40% of the sponsors for the 'academies' due to open over the next two years are faith-based charities, Church of England figures or well-known evangelicals.

At least one of this next wave of privately funded city academies is a school planning to teach children creationism. The Grace Academy, due to open in Solihull this year (with another to come in Coventry) is sponsored by millionaire car dealer and born-again Christian Bob Edmiston, founder of the evangelical broadcasting organisation Christian Vision. He has reportedly dismissed evolution as a theory that "came from one guy called Darwin".

In a democratic and pluralist society, people are free to hold whatever beliefs they like. But 'creationism' – the dogma that the world was created 6,000 years ago – is demonstrably false and bad science, and it would be professional malpractice to teach it in school science lessons.

But in Blair's Britain, this seems not to matter. If you've got a nutty idea or an axe to grind, a state school can be yours for just two million pounds. In an age when only about 7% of the population regularly attends any form of worship, the church seeks to impose by force what it cannot win by argument.

But let's leave aside religion for one moment. Who would want to dismantle the best schools in the country? Aren't 'faith schools' supposed to be better? Isn't this why they are popular, despite parents' lack of religious faith?

The government and many parents are wedded to the idea that 'faith schools' achieve superior results. At first glance, the league tables of examination results seem to bear this out. We should examine these statistics more closely.

The right-wing think tank
Civitas did just that. Supporters of 'faith schools' tend to attribute the superior performance of these schools to the educationally beneficial effects of their having a religious ethos. Civitas found that 'faith schools' achieve superior results for one simple reason: they cream off the best and the brightest middle class children and tend to reject the less intelligent, the less motivated and the poorer children who would require more work.

In other words, there is 'choice' but it is the schools rather than the parents who are doing the choosing. And even then, 'faith schools' are not all they are cracked up to be. The Civitas pamphlet Faith in Education, published in 2001, reported on standards in Roman Catholic and Church of England schools and found "staggeringly large" variations in average standards between the best and the worst. It added that the problems of bad teaching, low standards and low morale are just as acute in the worst church schools as they are in the worst state comprehensives.

Overall, 'faith schools' on average performed only slightly better than conventional state schools, and the extent of under-achievement was still on the rise. 'Faith schools' are clearly not centres of excellence and do not warrant the disproportionate support they receive from the government or the ill-informed enthusiasm of some parents.

When you factor in the selective policies of these 'faith schools', it is clear that they are under-performing. But it is also clear that these schools have little sense of any Christian charity. Bring me your poor? Not if it affects their league table rankings.

Janet Dobson,
writing in the Guardian (29 November 2005), remarked, "Church schools that select their pupils carefully from a wide area have exceptional exam results and parents queuing down the street; those that fulfil their Christian mission by recruiting from the bottom of the social pile, do not."

Each person should be free to pursue his or her religious beliefs but one's faith should be a matter of private conscience, not state policy. Charles Kennedy and Phil Willis, in their statements earlier this year, placed their party on a slippery slope, in what appeared to be an ill thought-out piece of shabby populism.

The party would do better to oppose strongly the government's massive expansion of 'faith schools'. It would be a popular policy, it would be distinctive and, more to the point, it would be right. All it needs is some testicular fortitude on the Liberal Democrat front bench.


Christmas reading

Liberator 307 - out now! Posted by Picasa

If you already subscribe to Liberator magazine, you should by now (Christmas post permitting) have received the latest issue.

Highlights in this issue include:

This edition went to press too early to report on last week's leadership crisis but Liberator sleuths are uncovering the true story and will be reporting at length in the next issue - so subscribe now if you want to know what's really happening in the Liberal Democrats.

Liberator has been published regularly since 1970 and is now widely recognised as the leading journal for thought and comment among British Liberals. Indeed, it has been the only outlet for political thought that has stayed open for business throughout the lifetime of the Liberal Democrats since 1988.

If you are a member or supporter of the Liberal Democrats, you can't afford to miss it, so subscribe now! Send a cheque for £20 (payable to 'Liberator Publications'), together with your name and full postal address, to:

Liberator Publications
Flat 1
24 Alexandra Grove
London N4 2LF

(If you live outside the UK, details of how to subscribe can be found on the
home page of the Liberator website).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


I bet he keeps coal in the bath

Amid all the media comment about David Blunkett's departure from office last week has been an unpleasant recurring theme. Apparently the man had ideas above his station.

Aren't there enough legitimate political reasons for opposing Blunkett, principally his instinctive authoritarianism? Instead, there has been a litany of snobbish remarks to the effect that a man who is not only working class in origin but also from the north should have had the temerity to visit the Mayfair nightclub Annabel's.

One commentator (I forget who) likened Blunkett to Icarus. The message from such snobs is clear: if you're from Sheffield, know your place. (If you went to Eton, on the other hand, then snorting coke is just a bit of a lark).

A bizarre variant on this theme was Nick Cohen's
column in last Sunday's Observer, which suggested that provincial socialists should stick with their own. Cohen's criticisms of the plutocracy are spot-on but his advice to politicians that "rich, Tory southerners" inhabit "a strange and potentially vicious world whose rules you don't understand" is frankly patronising.

Several Liberal Democrat bloggers have been getting worked up lately about the alleged iniquities of the state education system. While they're about it, they might also ponder the problems of the fee-paying 'public' schools, which still do more than anything else to perpetuate Britain's nasty culture of class prejudice.


"Hello! I'm at the cemetery"

This report from the Inquirer is a sign of the times:

Undertakers in Ireland are noticing that more people are requesting to be buried with their mobile phone.

The country has had a tradition of people being buried with some of their most treasured possessions probably as a continuation of some ancient pagan practice.

According to AFP, some ask that their mobiles be buried with them in case they are buried alive, they wake up and can phone for help. One funeral director reported how some insist the phone is turned off so that if they so wake up they will have battery power when the phone is turned on again.

Of course this assumes that the relatives have not shut off their contracts, their batteries are not run down and the signal reaches six feet under.

Families burying phones with their loved ones, are encouraged to either turn them off or switch them to silent or vibration alert.

After all nothing is worse than the priest saying "Ashes to Ashes" and suddenly Crazy Frog goes off in the casket. Or you get the latest cricket score.
Nothing is worse? I would have thought that the worst thing of all is leaving evidence for future archaeologists about the extent to which one's culture and preoccupations are vacuous and vapid.

Friday, October 28, 2005


You too can have a policy like mine

Don't let Labour home secretaries kick sand in your face!

Treat yourself to a
do-it-yourself ASBO.

Only £1.99 each.


Lend us a quid till the end of the week

The controversy surrounding millionaire Michael Brown's donation of £2.4 million to the Liberal Democrats won't go away.

The first signs of trouble appeared in May when the donor's name first became public. The story suggesting a breach of election law broke in the Times during the Liberal Democrats' autumn conference (see the original reports on 23rd, 23rd again and 24th September). The party was subsequently let off the hook by the Electoral Commission.

This week, however, there are a couple of new twists to the story. Beginners unaware of the full sordid details may care to peruse this Thursday's and Friday's copious press coverage:

(Google News is terribly helpful on such occasions).

Party officials have repeatedly pointed out that the party acted in good faith and with due diligence. So far, the Electoral Commission has accepted their word. But I hear the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

In recent years, the Liberal Democrats have been shrouding many of their financial matters in secrecy, so that even the party's Federal Executive has been kept in the dark. Separate bodies have been set up to channel business donations, and the small number of party officers privy to these affairs have reacted angrily whenever any member of the Federal Executive has attempted to probe what has been going on.

With secrecy goes a lack of accountability, and one can't help thinking that the party might never have got into this embarrassing mess if everything had been above board in the first place.

There is also the little matter of hypocrisy. The party has a policy on the funding of political parties, which amongst other things calls for a cap on individual donations of a quarter of a million pounds. Now £2.4 million is not to be sneezed at, but isn't this a case of "do as I say, not as I do"?

In any case, the value of this large donation was diminished somewhat by the fact that much of it was blown on a series of national press adverts, which did little to aid the party's chances during the general election.

The Liberal Democrats are supposed to believe in open government, transparency and accountability. Isn't it time the party practiced what it preached?

Thursday, October 27, 2005


A wise choice

Liberator 306 - out now! Posted by Picasa

If you are a wise person and subscribe to Liberator magazine, then the latest issue will be popping through your letterbox any day now.

Highlights in this issue include:

Liberator has been published regularly since 1970 and is now widely recognised as the leading journal for thought and comment among British Liberals. Indeed, it has been the only outlet for political thought that has stayed open for business throughout the lifetime of the Liberal Democrats since 1988.

If you are a member or supporter of the Liberal Democrats, you can't afford to miss it, so subscribe now! Send a cheque for £20 (payable to 'Liberator Publications'), together with your name and full postal address, to:

Liberator Publications
Flat 1
24 Alexandra Grove
London N4 2LF

(If you live outside the UK, details of how to subscribe can be found on the
home page of the Liberator website).

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Interesting fact

In July 2005 alone, Israel seized more land in the West Bank than it surrendered in Gaza: it withdrew from about 19 square miles of territory while sealing off 23 square miles of the West Bank.

Israel's continuing
land grab is a disgrace. As is the silence from Washington and the European capitals, intimidated as they are by 'the lobby'. Israel's policy shares much with Apartheid-era South Africa's policy of Bantustans, yet receives nothing like the same level of international condemnation.

Ariel Sharon treats the 'Road Map' like toilet paper. His new-found reputation as a 'man of peace' rests solely on the perception that his arch-rival Binyamin Netanyahu would be even worse.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?