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Update 3 August 2010
This page is a total mishmash of material accumulated over a period of around six years. While I stand by most, if not all, of what I’ve written here, I have to admit to becoming pretty disenchanted with politics - to the extent that I haven’t added to this page at all since the beginning of January 2009 (I’m writing this on the 3 August 2010). The most recent additions (as distinct from mere edits) are Politics and education (March 2008), followed by Capital punishment and Government IT cockups (December 2007).
I was genuinely optimistic about the Labour leadership passing from Blair (you can read what I thought about him below!) to Brown, and therefore all the more disappointed by his performance as leader and PM. I still think he’s basically a decent, principled man, and there’s no way of guessing how different things might have been if the Islington dinner deal had gone the other way. However, by the time he got the leadership, the man he had become was clearly not the man for the job. I felt deeply sorry for him when the result of the 2010 General Election eventually played out, and I wish him well for the future.
I really thought the LibDems would form a coalition with Labour but...read what I wrote before the outcome was finally decided here.
I was brought up by a father who would never be anything but a Conservative, despite being a close friend of John Beavan, a prominent Labour-supporting political journalist who ended his career as Political Editor of the Mirror group and was elevated to the peerage, as Lord Ardwick, by Harold Wilson.
To my shame, when Dad took me to the polling station at the age of 21 to ’show me how to vote’ (this must only have been for a local council election), I seem to remember that I was soft enough to vote Tory.
Pretty gutless, that, when you consider that three years before, in 1961, I had become involved in CND and done an Aldermarston March!
But by the time of the next General Election I was a firm Labour supporter. By then I was living in my own cheap little flat in Constantine Road, on the edge of Hampstead, and mine was one of the votes that elected Ben Whitaker as Labour MP for this previously solidly-Tory constituency.
Politics in Cornwall
In the early seventies, while living in Cornwall, I was invited to join Redruth Local Labour Party. I took on the job of Publicity Officer and was later elected Vice-Chairman of Kerrier District Labour Party.
I stood for the Redruth North Ward in the Kerrier District Council election in 1975 and only missed winning one of the three seats by 26 votes, coming fourth out of a field of six. The depressing part was that my running mate, Dave Berriman, who was ’a proper socialist’ (NHS electrician, union man, member of the local Trades Council), came sixth. I, on the other hand, was a teacher, and - even better - was teaching mentally-handicapped children (as we were then allowed to call them). All of which says a lot for the political awareness of the Cornish at that time!
Around the same time I was asked to chair an ad hoc Anti-Apartheid committee set up to demonstrate against the visit of a particularly obnoxious Monday Clubber to speak to the Anglo-Rhodesian Friendship Society at a lunch in Falmouth (this was about the time of Ian Smith’s Ulilateral Declaration of Independence). We had a good demo with plenty of press coverage (I hit the front page of The Camborne/Redruth Packet - ’ Teacher of Handicapped Leads Race Riot’ or something like that!) and police interest, including Special Branch photographers in the bushes!
I was involved with many of the same group - a mix of Labour, Communist, Socialist Workers and general lefties - in the ’No!’ campaign in the run-up to the Common Market referendum. I remember with great glee the moment when a Communist comrade and I lowered a huge banner over the balcony behind the speakers and a rally in favour of the Market: it read Common Market prices - Cornish wages? No! We lost - and today I’m an enthusiastic pro-European!
If any of this rings any bells, please click theContact me button.
Less politics in Derby
I joined Derby North Labour Party when I moved to the City (though my 24-hour-a-day job as Third-in-Charge of a large residential special school prevented me from being a real activist) and left noisily the day Tony Blair announced that he was sending his son to a Grant-Maintained School - an institution whose status was, to me (I was by then an Advisory Teacher in Derbyshire, a very left-wing Labour council), the very essence of Margaret Thatcher’s vicious and sustained campaign against the democratic management of local services. This after having voted for him in the leadership election and written to him to express my misgivings about him then.
I had already written to David Blunkett, then Shadow Education Secretary, expressing concern after reading an article about Labour’s plans for education in the Times Educational Supplement. Now I could see that my concerns were fully justified. I wrote to Harry Butterton, a colleague in the Derbyshire Advisory Service and secretary of my local ward Labour Party, resigning my membership. I copied this to Blair with a covering letter and the chopped-up remnants of my old and new membership cards. And for some reason, I wrote to Ann Taylor MP with copies of both letters - I guess she must have been the former Shadow Education Secretary, or maybe Shadow Leader of the Commons, at the time.
A toe in the murky water...
Until May 2003 I continued to support Labour/’New Labour’ at every local and national election because - for all my old party’s growing list of serious faults under Blair and his cronies - it still remains infinitely preferable to the Tories, for whom I have a simple, visceral loathing. However, the Liberal Democrats’ gradually-improving electoral performance, and the fact that on many important issues they were now well to the left of Blair’s party, led me to give them a vote in the May 2003 Derby City Council elections (I was even considering joining Derby LibDems and giving them a decent - and free - website!). To my delight the candidate for whom I voted took the seat from Labour. Imagine my horror, then, when the LibDems promptly formed a coalition, with the Tories as the junior partner (just), to take power from Labour, the majority party. If I felt disenfranchised before, I now felt - and continue to feel - quite politically bereft.
What’s going wrong?
My list of New Labour’s appalling policy shifts, if I chose to write them down, would be very long indeed. But they are summed-up as a wide-ranging move to the right. What I find particularly repugnant is Blair’s ongoing love affair with the super-rich.
In 1994 I wrote to Ann Taylor ’Does the Leadership really believe it can beat the Tories by becoming indistinguishable from them?’ Well spotted, Paul - but mistaken, because it did just that.
I am even more repelled - not to mention ’baffled’ - by his bizarre infatuation with George Bush, who for me represents all the most cynical traits of the extreme right.
The Neo-Conservative movement in the USA scares the hell out of me. I recall asking a delightful American couple whom we met in a brasserie in Paris a few years ago how they could reconcile their wide-ranging liberal views with living in a country where the political centre-of-gravity was so far to the right - and that was during the Clinton presidency. The current US administration has dragged the country far further to the right, and its dramatic shift from apparent indifference to the outside world into the crude interventionism of the second Iraq war is as sinister in its way as the rise of the Nazi party in the ’30s. More sinister, even, because as the world’s only superpower the US dominates a world with a frighteningly skewed balance of power. The attitude seems to be ’If you’re not our friend, then you’re our enemy.’ Neutrality, it seems, is not an option. It follows that the European Union - the only economic power-block with sufficient muscle to influence the US - should be developed as rapidly as possible into a force for reason and moderation in the world. The downfall of the Soviet Union made NATO obsolete: there is no identifiable common enemy shared by the US and Western Europe; we need to dissolve the old alliance and create new ones that reflect new realities.
Blair must divorce himself from Bush - and, longer-term, from the US - and embrace European unity. Europe must resist American economic power and might one day have to resist its military might too. Entry into the Euro, for all its possible short-term economic dangers, would commit Britain once and for all to its natural European status. A US trade war against Europe would be a trade war against the UK too. US foreign policy that went against European interests would also go against our interests.
Above all, we need to separate ourselves clearly from the US in relations with the Islamic world and work to heal the long-standing tribal rifts between Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions. Being identified with the American Right in its unconditional ideological support for Israel against its Arab neighbours is morally indefensible and probably economically suicidal - not to mention its implications for our security. Anything we do to increase US power in the Middle East will only help the greediest nation on this planet to continue its mindless consumption of irreplaceable resources, and the chances of our getting a fair share of the spoils - even if we could justify joining in the pillage - would be remote indeed.
Our political chickens have already started coming home to roost. The US has had its 9/11. Spain the Madrid bombings. Australia the Bali atrocity. And now we have had 7/7 and 7/21. And we have to face the fact that, just as with the IRA, we are home-growing our own lethal terrorists. Influenced by ideas from the Islamic world, for sure, but frighteningly self-motivating. We need to know why a young British man, whose parents run a fish-and-chip shop in Leeds,and who has been through the British primary, secondary and higher education systems, gets to be a suicide bomber. But do our politicans want to understand, so that we may be able to intervene in the process? On the contrary, they hide behind the idea that ’understanding’ equals ’sympathy’. Remember ’Tough on crime...tough on the causes of crime’? Whatever happened to that? We need to identify the causes of home-grown terrorism - as well as international terrorism - and tackle them. Sure, we have to catch those who have already committed themselves to murder and suicide, but we need to stop other young people getting caught up in the same madness.
What to do?
As a teacher, I believe that education can make a major contribution in the longer term. Blair wants ’faith schools’. Why? That’s the last thing we need. And it’s no goods pointing out how good CofE and Catholic primary schools are - they both take children of all faiths and none, which is not what Jewish and Muslim schools are intended to do. We need to secularise education completely, and a good start would be formally to secularise the state.
Disestablish the Church of England. Accept that this is not a Christian country but a multi-faith one (and that includes no-faith, which may be the largest single group). Crown the next monarch - if we must have one - in a completely non-religious ceremony, and if it has to be Charles let him become ’Defender of Faiths’ (one of his less daft ideas). By all means marry and bury the Royals with religious services - but because they want this, not because of state religion. Take the daily Act of Worship off Radio 4 long-wave and Songs of Praise off BBC1 - our national public-service broadcaster has no business putting out religious content, and particularly not exclusively Christian religious content. If religious people want God on the box, there are plenty of satellite and cable channels to choose from.
Now religion in education...
First, every state school must be strictly secular, with no state education funding or tax breaks going to any educational establishment with a religious base.
Second, the school ethos must be based on total respect for the beliefs of every child. This means that, if a child’s religion requires special dress -a crucifix round the neck or a confirmation ring, a skullcap, a turban or a headscarf - this must be catered for in school uniform regulations (yes, I am in favour of uniforms as a way of keeping the scourge of fashion competition out of schools).
Third, get rid of religious assemblies. I don’t believe there is a place for acts of worship in our schools at all, but if there is they should be arranged by clerics from outside the school for each faith. Any members of school staff attending these should do so as members of the congregation, deriving no reliigous authority from their educational authority.
Fourth, Religious Education should be a compulsory, inspected subject in the National Curriculum at least to the end of Key Stage Three and preferably to GCSE level. It must deliver a totally objective, unbiased account of the histories and teachings of the major world religions - including the great good and the great wrongs done in the names of all of them. These teachings can also be discussed and explored in the context of moral and social education, but children must learn that religious belief is not a pre-requisite for a moral life. In this way, I hope, children of all religions and none would grow up accepting diversity. Independent schools, including private faith schools (no charitable status, no tax breaks) must be required to teach the full National Curriculum, including RE, in the same way as state schools.
Religious instruction is the business of the churches, temples, mosques, gudwarras, synagogues and the rest. If parents want their children instructed in their own religion, it should be done during evenings and weekends - though all religious institutions must of course be subject to the law against fomenting religious hatred.
There is so much more to be explored here. I am developing my ideas about religion here...
Politics and education
Yet again we hear politicians talking garbage about educational expectations. Today (8 March 2008) I was incensed to hear both Labour and Conservative spokesbodies talking about the desirability of getting at leats 50% of children into university. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard similar (if not the same) people saying that every child should reach Level Whatever in their SATs.
I’ve taught kids who will never read a word if you keep hammering away at them until they die. Their brains just don’t have the necessary bits. But if you stop hammering away at reading and teach them something more practical they can succeed. That’s what a lot of special education was about before its pupils were given the ’entitlement’ to a broad and balanced curriculum. Now, I suspect it’s condemned to bash away at a very narrow and unbalanced curricum - trying to teach them the simplest intellectual skills for the whole of their school lives.
And this university stuff - have these lunatics never heard of the Normal Distribution Curve?
If you haven’t, google it. You’ll find lots of pictures of something that looks like a bell (it’s even called the Bell Curve in some circles). It’s a graph. If you look at one for Intelligence Quotient (IQ) - not a measure I’m comfortable with, but it will do for now - it will show you that the largest number of people have an IQ around the average/mean/norm/whatever, and that the further away from the average you go, either upwards or downwards, the less people there are - until you get to the bit where the curve gets less steep, where you are in the realms of the terrifyingly clever and the depressingly dim. Both these groups are tiny and statistically (though not morally or socially) insignificant.
Assuming - and it may not be a safe assumption - that the 50% of children who go to university are all ’brighter’ than the 50% who don’t, these institutions are going to be full of millions of average and somewhat above average youngsters - plus much smaller numbers of bright ones, even less exceptional ones and very few absolutely brilliant ones. And I can’t help asking whether a university is really the place for these hordes of perfectly decent but inescapably ordinary students. If it isn’t, and if it is forced to become a suitable place for this vast majority, will it still be able to nurture the bright, the exceptional and the brilliant? Or will we have to invent a new sort of elite institution to ensure that we get the best out of our best? In which case we will be back where we were when there was a layer of polytechnics in the system - before they were all arbitrarily promoted to the rank of university.
Intelligence...intellectual capacity...cognitive ability... Call it what you like, but you won’t change the fact that it exists - and exists in different quantities in different people. Some of it is almost certainly genetically determined - but that doesn’t mean that a child born into favourable home circumstances, to aspirational but humane parents, who is lucky enough to get to a school where the educational opportunities are optimised, won’t end up more ’intelligent’ than one with a greater genetic endowment but none of the subsequent advantages. I am convinced that, if we could somehow measure intelligence at birth with an MRI scan, we would find that it is distributed ’normally’ (follows the Normal Distribution Curve). But I’m equally convinced that, if we repeated the measurement at regular intervals, we would see some children moving up the scale and some moving down. But the same old curve will always be there.
If this sounds fatalistic, that’s not my intention. If we can push some kids up the scale and prevent others sliding down it, we must do that. If we can increase the overall intelligence of the population, we must do that. But we must never forget that some people will always be adamned sight more intelligent than others. Could we somehow skew the curve so that there are far more bright people and far less dim ones? I doubt it. We may move the whole thing to the right in the sense that an average score represents a higher level of attainment, but the very bright will probably become even brighter and even the very dull may become a little less dull. That bloody curve won’t look a lot different.
I don’t know for sure when I first became opposed to capital pubishment. I probably picked opposition up as part of the portmanteau of standard middle-class leftie attitudes along with nuclear disarmament, anti-racism and ’tolerance’ of gays (adding feminism and environmentalism somewhat later). I do know I’ve had some serious dinner-party ding-dongs about it much more recently, often to the embarrassment of Patricia, partly because she’d not as sure as I am and partly because I get pretty stroppy about politics after one glass of wine too many.
I find it quite obscene that the United States - supposedly ’the greatest democracy in the world’ - leaves the issue to be decided on a state-by-state basis. That the ritual killing of any human being, however appalling his or her crimes, should be seen as an acceptable tool of social policy by any modern, civilied nation is beyond my understanding. Equally, it is a vindication of our own albeit flawed democracy that, although Margaret Thatcher was personally in favour of the death penalty, she never seriously considered bringing the issue back to parliament because she knew that even a House of Commons with a substantial Conservative majority would reject it - despite every member knowing that the majority of ordinary citizens would be in favour of bringing back hanging. It was good to know that, faced with the gravest decision short of taking the nation to war, most of our MPs would be guided by their own convictions. In those days, at least, MPs believed that they were representatives but not delegates. I wonder if the present crop of spin-and-focus-group-driven specimens would be as courageous or as scrupulous. Thankfully, we would now be thrown out of the European Union if we re-introduced capital punishment.
But why shouldn’t we join many American states in the practice of killing murderers? We wouldn’t have to hang them: we could use lethal injections adminstered under strict medical supervision to victims rendered totally unconscious by drugs. And we wouldn’t have to do it in front of witnesses, as I believe most American states do: it could be a much more private affair.
Here are some of my reasons:
A Europe committed to greater fairness in the world, to a sane, secular approach to political practicalities and to rational long-term management of the global environment would be an enormous force for good. Britain needs to be at the centre of that force, not in the pocket of its most powerful and dangerous opponent.
’Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The United States has immense power, and is immensely corrupt. Its democracy has become a plaything of the rich. Its media is a tool for deluding vast numbers of its people into supporting a government that offers them nothing. Its glorious Constitution - perhaps the most idealistic ever committed to paper - has become a sick joke.
Europe is far from perfect, but it is our only hope. We need to commit totally to it and work to move it a little nearer to perfection.
Government IT cockups
The first of the recent string of disasters with mislaid confidential data belonging to citizens (the HM Revenue and Customs one) got me aroused politically as I have not been for a long time. Having been an IT ’power user’ in Government and local-government service, I was outraged by the sheer blundering incompetence of it all. I emailed my initial thoughts to Henry Porter of The Observer, who has been waging a one-man war against the whole apparatus of government interference in our lives, and particularly its obsessive gathering of detailed information about every one of us.
Despite publishing his email address at the end of his articles, Porter didn’t reply - unlike Nigella Lawson, to whom I sent an email when she had her general-interest column in the same paper around 10 years ago (her reply is pasted inside one of her cookbooks as a sort of electronic autograph).
Then I heard Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of DNA fingerprinting, on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and was so impressed that I found his email address on the Leicester University website the following day and sent my thoughts to him:
He replied within minutes:
I forwarded his message to Henry Porter...
...and emailed Sir Alec to let him know I’d done this:
I got a very fast response indeed from Mr Porter - three cheers for name-dropping! The reply was pretty pathetic, though - and not the most literate piece, coming from someone who writes for a living:
’I do not believe in...’? If you do not believe in God, you believe that He does not exist. Government databases don’t just exist: they are absolutely essential to the functioning of our complex society.
.My final email of this series was a rather triumphalist one to Sir Alec:
Eventually I found out that there is a Government minister responsible for all aspects of information - Michael Mills MP - in (for some reason) the Department of Justice. I emailed my thoughts to his office, and received a fairly prompt reply:
I look forward to seeing the outcome of his review. You can send your thoughts to Martyn.Taylor@justice.gsi.gov.uk.
All the emails above were copied and pasted direct from Outlook, with both my errors and those of Mr Porter and Sir Alec unedited.
You can read the latest version of the document I sent to Porter, Sir Alec and Mr Mills here. It hasn’t been updated since the appalling incident of an MoD officer losing a laptop containing personal details of applicants to join the forces.
What in heaven’s name do these cretins think they’re doing? When I worked part-time from home for the NHS I could log my company laptop onto the local (30 miles away) NHS network via my home broadband connection. I needed:
Although the laptop was connected to my router, I couldn’t access it across my own network. This was a pain, because I had to email anything I wanted to transfer between the two networks from my NHS mailbox to my personal one and vice-versa.
Pretty secure, I’d say. Until recently, my daughter worked for a huge accounting firm in London, and she had the same setup for when she’s working at home.
Once in, I had administrator rights over a whole SQL Server database system, on which I could create, delete, edit and query databases to my heart’s content, using Microsoft’s serious professional multi-user relational database management system. So why on earth would I ever want to download numerous records onto the laptop so I could fiddle with them using whatever Mickey Mouse software that contained - especially if I was the sort of dingbat who would then leave it in my car to be nicked?
As to dumping huge quantities of data onto CDs, DVDs or portable hard drives and sending them by post or courier, so that they can be lost on the way, when it can be squirted down a secure chunk of Internet (or even a dedicated landline owned by the Government) - well, the mind really does boggle. Read more here...
Meanwhile, the sad story goes on (3 March 2008)...
Today we hear that the NHS electronic patient record system is pathetically insecure. Despite what is called ’rôle-based access’, it seems that non-clinical staff are being given access to confidential health data about patients. These people should be able to get at data like addresses and phone-numbers for administrative purposes, but not details of health conditions and treatments. However, this is apparently not working.
(I heard this on the Today programme this morning but can’t find the story on the BBC website.)
We need a fully-automatic way of handling access across all Government databases. A standard piece of software should be used when every new employee is given computer access or an existing employee’s rôle changes. This should look directly at the employee’s personnel data to establish which access group he or she is assigned to, and that should control what data he or she can or cannot see. If exceptions are needed, they must be requested formally, with a written justification, by the line manager. The request should be copied to the head of whichever department or unit employs the person and to the Government’s Data Management Authority (my proposed body - see above). Access should not be granted until the senior manager’s office confirms the request and should be on a probationary basis until it has been audited by the Data Management Authority.
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.