Those days when I was young enough to know the truth

I went back to Warwick University last weekend for a dinner to celebrate fifty years since the class of 1966 arrived there. I was one of them and we were the second University cohort (it opened in 1965) but we massively outnumbered the previous year’s crowd.

When I arrived back then the place was a sea of mud and construction. The student residences were not completed so I found myself a guest in the home of the pro-Vice Chancellor for most of the first term. It wasn’t exactly student life as we know it!

The new university was a strange place. There was no student union and many of the teaching staff were only a few years old than the students. The place was stuck in the countryside straddling the border between Coventry and Warwickshire as part of a peace deal over funding. It was quite a long way from Warwick!

It might have been the swinging ‘60s but I was only eighteen years and one month old with a social age of about fourteen and a half and I had only ever been further north than this once in my life. I had been to a primary school run by nuns and then a boys Grammar School so I had a fair bit of growing up to do. My only asset was an exceptional collection of American R&B which got me into some discos and University entertainments.

So, going back was an odd experience. First of all, I was surprised by how old everybody was which implied that I must’ve been that old as well. Secondly, the people who turned up mostly ended up as teachers, lecturers or other forms of public servant. If there were merchant bankers, celebrities and politicians in our number they didn’t own up to it! There was no evidence that, as a group, we had changed the world through widening access to higher education.

It was a nice enough dinner and although we paid something it was well subsidised and lubricated and you had to appreciate that. Ironically, it took place on the top floor of what we used to call the Social Building. This was the building which the student body struggled to appropriate in the early years of the University and did finally succeed in turning into the first student union against the implacable opposition of the administration. The University has taken it back now and there is a fast food franchise where the rebellion took place and the Vice Chancellor has a private dining room on the top floor. There is a student union elsewhere on the site but, symbolically, you felt that something was lost.

As a university site today, there is still mud and new development. The site oozes affluence from new international partnerships and a giant new multi-storey Warwick Business School block squats over the central site which might say something about the place’s priorities.

After the dinner, we had the customary appeal with a basic message of don’t forget us when you die coupled with a talk about how successful the place was, how international, how connected and how it now ranks just behind Oxford and Cambridge in addition to being well placed in international rankings.

That was kind of sad. Warwick and the other new universities of the 1960s were, I naively thought, established to do something different and to open up access to more students with novel courses and a sense of excitement that we were engaged in doing things differently. Warwick hasn’t done that but, instead, has emerged as a match for Oxford and Cambridge by being more like them in terms of high-level research and international relationships and not by being different. The students still come low in the pecking order and you sense that the place is still run for someone else.

The second part of the dinner was anecdotal and carefully stage managed so that we chuckled about the mud and a catering boycott over the price of egg and chips. We were treated to memories of how wonderful some of the lecturers were and invited to chuckle over the exploits of Germaine Greer. It wasn’t just that there wasn’t anything about the genuine politics of the place or what it was about but there was a sense of being part of the manufacturing of a convenient history about the rising curve and the great success of Warwick University incorporated.

I don’t think everybody felt like this. A few people openly admitted to remembering nothing from their University days and a few others looked as if they hadn’t felt anything for quite a long while! It all ended with an overnight sleep in the opulent conference centre, a place where students are not encouraged, an impossibly large breakfast and a drive home. It was a nice day so I opened the sunroof, turned up the Stones and decided I might give the next reunion a miss!

Senior Labour Party Sources are saying …

It has been another bad day for the Labour Party. Not really unexpected, just bad and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn is going to be blamed. Over the weekend, senior Labour Party sources will be calling for his immediate resignation, wondering if the new Mayor of Manchester could take over and crying into their beer. What they won’t be doing is taking the blame.

Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, he was elected by the party twice under procedures which the entire party had democratically approved and which they thought would deliver a leader who the Parliamentary lead party would also approve of. It didn’t work out as expected and these influential backbench and ex-ministerial politicians and grandees started, first, to sulk and, secondly, to actively oppose his leadership.

They would be surprised to be told it and would hold up their hands in innocent amazement but they have legitimised the onslaught of media criticism and abuse and tacitly fed the flames through their journalist friends. The BBC, as it does, follows the news and does not make it but that has also meant that it has followed the Murdoch, Mail and Express headlines.

Previous Labour leaders have had a hard ride from the right-wing press and have been frequently ridiculed but the level of abuse this time has been exceptional because for every negative story there is an unnamed source to back it up. Without any proper resistance or opposition this public abuse has been coupled with the drip feed criticism from what might be thought of as the independent media so that the public on the doorstep simply cannot think anything else.

They believe that Jeremy Corbyn is old, incompetent, bumbling, too left-wing, is soft on defence and has an inexperienced team around him. Of these, the last bit is true because the PLP haven’t helped but if you hear him speak he comes across as clear and opinionated, he understands that he doesn’t make policy and he cares about people.

There is something else behind all this vilification. The networks of power in this country like to operate without being uncovered and Jeremy Corbyn has frightened them – not just the press barons but also the tycoons, the establishment, the defence industry who run the place. Maybe that’s why the process of accusation and alienation has been so bitter. Theresa May is also running scared of public debate and that is simply because she does not want Jeremy Corbyn to be heard. That’s quite a chilling thought in a modern democracy.

The really sad rub in all of this is that the Labour Party is on the way to writing a stunningly good manifesto – probably the best in the last twenty years. It will have clear messages about jobs, benefits, health, taxation, defence and care which show how the Labour Party approach is different in values, emphasis and priorities from that espoused by an increasingly right-wing Conservative party.

I’m still hopeful that in the last few weeks a few voters will realise this but the current level of abuse is just a starting point and we can expect a tidal wave. Riding on the top of it will be the unnamed Labour Party sources who, for my money, have behaved disgracefully in failing to support a party leader and as they have undermined him they have also undermined the party.

They have also been disloyal to the regular members who trudge the streets and seek to turn out the vote. These are the people have to put up with some of these received messages on the doorsteps and no wonder they feel isolated. Some of them think Jeremy Corbyn is the problem as well. Maybe he isn’t the ideal leader but he could have grown into one with a strong team around him had he been allowed to march forward over the past couple of years rather than constantly watch his back.

I can already hear Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC news bulletin on June 9 telling us how senior Labour Party sources are not surprised at the disastrous result for Labour and are calling for Jeremy Corbyn to resign. Their campaign has been cowardly and anonymous and, if I’m honest, I think they will succeed in the end but the Labour Party will lose, and lose a lot and the recovery will be slow and painful.

A Labour Party Manifesto

Europe: ‘Partnership not Exit’. Labour will respect the wishes of the British people but we will not seek a hard Brexit as our opponents will. We seek a new partnership with Europe committed to free trade and freedom of movement but we will retain the supreme right of our Parliament to make law and the Supreme Court to protect it. We will respect European legislation and within Europe we will comply with it but within our own shores will retain the right to support industry, to encourage commerce and to ensure security in our own way. Instead of making it difficult for our industry to trade with Europe, we will create a unique environment encouraging manufacturers to settle here and to trade with the EU.

Immigration: ‘Free Movement Which Is Earned’. We understand the contribution made to our culture and economy by people from other countries and we deplore racism in all its forms. However, our benefits system and welfare state was never devised to subsidise immigration. Under Labour, benefits will be earned and five years in employment within the UK will be required in order to seek state benefits. Immigrants from outside the EU will be expected to be moving to the UK to work and will be required to prove this. Free movement will allow the passage of workers from within the EU back and forth between the UK and Europe but our requirement to prove entitlement to benefits will mean that new workers earn their place in our society. Our new model of earned benefits will also apply to young people who will not automatically be entitled to unearned employment, housing or social benefits.

The NHS: ‘A Public Health Service’. We will protect the NHS by moving it to a contributory model with a visible taxation levy where employment will earn the benefits. There will be safety nets but no giveaways. Immigrants will be expected to provide their own health insurance or pay health insurance to the NHS until they have earned the entitlement to free use. Labour will continue to provide a public health service which is free at the point of delivery and with the capacity to expand in relation to the needs of a population which is growing older.

Education: ‘Less Selection, More Opportunity’. Education policy will evolve without recourse to selection and with an emphasis on improving all schools. Schoolchildren and their test results will not be used as a way of measuring the effectiveness of the system. Instead, an annual sampling of performance related to world and European measures will replace endless testing to no purpose. We will retain high level qualifications for the brightest pupils but we will radically improve educational opportunity for all of our children with a new emphasis on post-14 work-related training, and basic skill training in literacy and numeracy which relates to life and work and provides a workforce to create a new skilled manufacturing sector for the 21st-century. Student loans will be phased out but a regionalised university system will be encouraged with two-year degree courses related to research, development and employment.

Work: ‘A Planned Economy’. We will specifically encourage the development of skilled manufacturing and technology as a sector of our economy and will also expand and encourage world financial services to base themselves within the UK. We will support British heavy industry and agriculture which creates a self-sufficient model for our country. The condition for support in all of these industries will include a collaborative workforce environment and decent pay and conditions for all workers. As part of this, the minimum wage will be raised and wage gaps will be narrowed.

Our Government and Young People: ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. Society has changed and we will give all 16-year-olds the right to vote. We will also modify the House of Lords within the space of a Parliament so that the upper chamber is created on a list basis and reflects the percentages of support obtained by political parties at an election. This means that every person’s vote will count and to make this work we will introduce a compulsory ballot for general elections. We will allow online voting ‘on the day’ but scrap the postal voting system which is increasingly discredited. Constituency reform will be gradual and designed to secure approximately equivalent numbers in each constituency while respecting established local boundaries.

Social Care: ‘Compassionate Care’. Care for the elderly will come under the remit of the NHS and will be funded by a local taxation levy which is visible and transparent and subject to local scrutiny. Pensions will increase but will include a contribution to local social care to which all will be entitled. Statutory retirement ages will be discouraged so that people can continue to work for as long as they wish or retire without penalty.

Our Constitution: ‘A Changing Society’. Moving out of Europe creates the need for a new constitution and a new model of rights and responsibilities. We will consult on the shape and form of this within the first Parliament and will consider the role of the new Upper House, removing the constitutional role of the monarch and disestablishing the Church of England to reflect our social democracy and our multicultural society. These changes will not happen overnight and will be widely discussed but our direction of travel will be to create a new constitutional model for the United Kingdom.

Scotland: ‘Supporting Self-Determination’. We understand the wishes of a large number of people in Scotland to be more autonomous and we appreciate that there is not a clear majority for independence. In our constitutional changes, we will seek with our Scottish partners to find solutions which will satisfy all of the people of Scotland. As part of this and as part of our constitutional reform, it will be necessary to assign more rights and responsibilities to the Scottish parliament and to no longer have Scottish constituency MPs within the House of Commons. The Scottish parliament will be seen as the Government of Scotland within the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland and Wales: ‘Supporting Regionalism’. We will encourage the devolution of power to the Northern Ireland parliament and respect the structures which emerge through an extending and growing democracy.

Defence: ‘Protecting the UK’. We will recognise the changing nature of the world and while retaining a nuclear deterrent we will not seek to expand or modernise it. We will commit to build, within the UK, ships and planes designed to secure our borders. We will retain a highly effective, highly mobile military capacity which can be rapidly deployed anywhere that it is required. However, our foreign policy will be to support global democracy without interference and the first principle will be our own protection so that we allow other nations to be self determining. Britain has become associated with regime change and failed interventions in other countries. We will realign our foreign policy to provide support not intervention but, if it is necessary for our protection, we will work with our allies and not take unilateral action.

Spending and Taxation: ‘Fair and Transparent’. We will not be the party of high taxation. The NHS will receive an identified share of national taxation and social care will be additionally supported by local taxation. We want to make taxation visible. We expect to make savings in the nuclear defence budget and on vanity projects such as the high-speed train link. We will consult on replacing council tax with some other form of local taxation but we consider it is right in principle that local government expenditure, local policing and social care should be locally managed.

This could be the saddest dusk …

February 1 2017 was a really bad day in the history of this country. With a lot of talk about heavy hearts and misgivings and a wish for more detail and reassurances together with some platitudinous weasel statements designed to provide those, our elected members of parliament gave in to the mob.

They’ll claim it was the will of the people and that although it was less than 40% of the population that was sufficient. They’ll say that some people knew the referendum result would be binding on government. They’ll say that a better opposition at the time would have delivered a different result. So, what?

Politicians and democracy are there as a balance, as the first line of constraint against the mob and they are there because history shows that mobs are easily whipped up around single causes. It was considered the will of the people at the time which burned down the Reichstag and it was the will of the people which conveyed numbers of people to the guillotine. If the will of the people is supreme then we should have capital punishment, no rights for gay people, fewer rights for women and no speed limits. That’s nonsense!  Society and the political system are there to balance the cries of the mob.

Is it fair to describe Brexit voters as a mob. Wasn’t there a fair debate with both sides given a hearing conducted over a reasonable length of time? Well, if you live in BBC La-La Land that might seem to be the case but not if you read the papers where a racist press provided a constant repetition of bile and was able to control the agenda for any discussion. Politicians and the broadcasters fell into line with this agenda regardless of the facts. Facts? Precious few of them. Lies about the benefits to the NHS, lies about rates of immigration and refugee numbers, lies about worker and human rights dominated the discussion. In the end, the Brexit vote was very close in numbers to the reach and readership of the tabloid press

That’s how a mob is fired up. Feed it lies from what seem to be authoritative sources, constantly repeat them so that the truth gets confused, engage rabble leaders and give them platforms, and create diametrically opposed points of view. If you think this is populism or a disenchantment with politicians that Parliament must respond to then you too have swallowed the tabloid pill. This was a mob.

If we know this from history then why are our politicians so short of moral values and moral leadership? Why don’t they act as the elected representatives of the people, not by carrying out their will, but by legislating on their behalf? If they cannot understand the difference, who can? Yesterday, a large number of MPs representing constituencies where there was a majority vote to remain in the EU, supported the government. They didn’t carry out the will of the people who live in their constituencies or represent them and, worse still, a lot said they didn’t feel too good about it. That is incomprehensible. Moral leadership means standing up for what you believe, taking tough decisions, and not following the easy way or the shouts of the mob.

Nuclear Options!

 

Today’s Parliamentary debate about the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine system is another indication of how low down and dirty our political system has become. The Conservatives have no choice about how to vote even though they are talking about the biggest single item of expenditure they are ever going to vote on and the vote about developing an apocalyptic weapon which, if ever used, would lead to the destruction of most life on the planet has been kindly arranged not to highlight the issues and to encourage a wide-ranging debate but, instead, to embarrass the Labour Party.

Today, we’re going to hear constantly repeated tosh about how a nuclear deterrent guarantees a place at the top table, frightens our enemies whoever they may be, maintains world peace because the thing has never been used yet and, ultimately, we should have one simply because we can! These arguments were rubbish in the 1960s and are even more rubbishy today.

History agrees. The Cuban missile crisis was made worse by nuclear weapons, the Cold War was extended because of them, they didn’t stop the Falkland Islands being annexed and in all of the Arabian conflicts they have been an irrelevance.

So does strategy. If the USA, China and the USSR start popping off their weapons then that’s it, so us having one will not make any difference except to make us an easy but necessary first strike target for everyone.

If somebody drives a boat up the Thames with a dirty atomic bomb on it and blows London up just exactly where are we going to send our submarines? The sad truth is that there isn’t a neat place called Terrorist Land where we can aim our weapons.

The same thing applies if we are threatened with weapons of mass destruction by terrorists. We have no idea who to threaten back!

OK, let’s suppose somebody, takes a truck into the middle of Jerusalem and blows up the same dirty bomb are we going to take a pop at Iran on the off chance? Are we all in favour of that?

Of course, the most likely scenario is that any of the three superpowers bops off a missile by mistake. The likelihood of human error in any system like this is so small that it is certain to happen. So, when we detect an incoming nuclear missile and some president rings up the Prime Minister to say sorry, really sorry, are we really going to take the joke option of arranging to fire just one back. That isn’t really fair anyway as in exchange for London we just get Detroit! In the end, you have to decide whether you would prefer to be magnanimous.

There’s another big consideration. Any use of nuclear weapons causes absurd collateral damage to other countries or the planet and that is why we have a surprisingly effective nuclear non-proliferation treaty and how, as a world, we have achieved a significant rate of superpower disarmament to the extent that most authorities believe that Great Britain now has more weapons than China.

These kind of agreements are achieved by big powers taking sensible decisions and us joining the multilateral world decision not to develop these things would be quite different from a unilateral decision not to have them which is the way it keeps being framed. We could be a world leader in disarmament and multilateralism instead of a curmudgeonly aggressor!

If none of this convinces you and you still have an emotional attachment to these things somewhere below your belt then surely there are better options? We could have a low-level maintenance programme to extend the life of the existing deterrent, we could devise some small nuclear bombs that fitted in Ford Transits and park them in British embassies in trouble spots and we could recognise that given the amount of satellite scrutiny the world receives the notion of a surprise strike is inconceivable. If there is one coming, there will be plenty of warning! The nuclear submarine was a theoretical response to a theoretical threat and is an idea that has completely outlived its time.

Anyway, I’ve got that off my chest. I’m afraid this absurd vote will be carried but I do hope that any Labour MPs who vote for renewal are promptly deselected by their constituency parties. As for the rest of us, we need to be taking little steps to getting this country back to sanity not behaving even more stupidly.

 

A Profoundly Undemocratic Decision

We are where we are but one thing should be clear. The referendum result was not achieved by democracy. The same stubborn 30+ percent of the population which has complained about immigration since the 1960s, is largely weighted towards the elderly, is comparatively uneducated and reads right-wing tabloid newspapers day in and day out achieved more votes in the referendum for the Leave campaign than anyone predicted.

Why isn’t that democracy in action? Firstly, there isn’t a majority and there wasn’t a majority for such a substantial change in our international relationships and economy. Over 60% of the population either supports our links with Europe, doesn’t know enough to suggest they should be changed or is happy to leave things to politicians and policymakers. The overwhelming message of the campaign was that many people couldn’t make a choice between two starkly different narratives supported by shaky evidence.

The Remain campaign was a failure not because of who joined in but because the agenda was set by the press barons and because government has not engaged with the issues of inadequate housing, refugees, economic migrants, overcrowded schools and the downward drive to a low-wage zero hours economy. Perhaps it was never going to be possible for Cameron and Osborne to face these issues, but the broadcast media swallowed the Daily Mail and Murdoch agendas and made things worse. They will argue that they were only discussing the issues on the street but they should have broadened the debate and they didn’t. The Parliamentary Labour Party was disunited and bickering so the opposition wasn’t consistent or sufficiently focused on the genuine issues. But, even if the campaign was better than that, it does not make the result more or less democratic.

Secondly, there’s an irony, if not an absurdity, in all of this. Much of the campaign has been about the sovereignty of the British Parliament and yet that sovereignty has been scuppered by this vote. Parliament does not have to be bound by any expression of opinion although it has to take notice of it and the weasel statements of the past few days show Parliamentary democracy in a poor light. The setup of the referendum is partly to blame for this with a 51% majority, a confused issue and the background where it served the interests of David Cameron to secure unity in his party and win the last election without thinking about the consequences. It was a political strategy which has come disastrously unstuck but a failure in the Conservative party to manage itself and its policies should not be sufficient to usurp the primacy of Parliament. Would people really be happy to see Parliament voting through a decision to engage with Article 50 when the majority of elected members of Parliament did not want to vote in that way? That would be profoundly undemocratic and morally reprehensible.

And, thirdly, we are on the brink of a democratic crisis with far wider ramifications. David Cameron has resigned and is likely to be replaced as leader of the Conservative party by Boris Johnson. He could also, de facto, become Prime Minister and organise the nation’s departure from the European Community but it is surely questionable whether there would be a public mandate for this. In terms of the checks and balances within our system, Parliament could vote against his policies but if there was any notion that this was somehow a done deed so that opponents should abstain that would reflect very badly on the integrity of our politicians and their accountability to us for good and sound government. The Parliamentary way for Boris Johnson to proceed would be to call a general election and then there could be policy arguments around all of the issues, members of Parliament would be elected and they could vote, or not vote, to leave the EU. At least, that would restore the sovereignty and democracy of Parliament.

Finally, there’s a wider background to this. The referendum has noted, and arguably created, some stark divides in our society. The arguments have not been green and pleasant and one of the duties of Parliament is to take a balanced view and bring society back together. It hasn’t been doing this well recently not only in terms of policy but also in terms of the apparent remoteness of the political system and this should be a wake-up call before extreme views get expressed in extreme ways. We do not need strong or authoritarian leadership but we do need democratic leadership and everyone should understand the difference. In all of this, and despite everything which has happened, our democracy will be in serious trouble if we fail to protect the primacy of our elected Parliament.

 

How not to be a Catastrophist!

 

There’s no doubt that it is a bad day but it wasn’t difficult to see it coming. Every day of this campaign, and well before, five million newspapers rabidly opposed to immigration and the European project have been published every weekday. It has been a huge and uncontrolled leafleting campaign frequently bordering on lies and confusing news with ideology. Its major success has been to shift the agenda so that the campaign has all been about immigration, refugees, foreigners taking your jobs, and the EU taking your money.

You don’t need a degree in psephology to guess that the age weighted readerships of the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Express all voted for Brexit. The broadcasters haven’t challenged this agenda and, possibly, neither have many of the politicians involved. One of the most frustrating things about this whole campaign has been that we have been talking about the wrong things for most of it. The other is that the image of the UK projected by the Leave campaign has been bought hook, line and sinker by many people living in areas where there simply are no immigrants to be seen.

So, where are we now? First, this is a tiny majority and it is absurd that it should have such an impact on our national politics. When David Cameron set it up to serve his own interests and win the last election he didn’t think through the possibilities. He appears always to have thought it was a rather clever ploy to get rid of some irritating Conservative right-wingers and it has hopelessly backfired.  We shouldn’t be sorry to see him go and we should talk up the need to move slowly. I think his gradual departure is a dramatic device to allow Gove and Johnson to rip each other apart over the next three months.

I hope the result doesn’t allow the mean spirited people on the right of the Labour party to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. He has been out talking about worker rights and mutual security and the gripe is that he didn’t get involved in the right wing agenda. He took a principled stand and I respect that. I don’t think some ‘steps to curb immigration’ from Labour would have made the slightest difference against the media onslaught.

Also, we shouldn’t ignore that we have accidentally restarted the Scottish independence discussions. I think Scotland now has a mandate to stay in Europe and will be warmly welcomed by the EU and that means leaving the UK. I don’t see how anyone can argue against that if the first past the post argument applies to the rest of the UK.

Where does that leave us? Conservative grandees would like to see a smooth transition in the leadership and a strategy for withdrawal developed in the autumn which would make UKIP look pointless since it is a single issue party that has achieved its objective. They could ask people to tighten their belts a little more in the national interest and enjoy a honeymoon basking in the facade of independence before the difficult issues reared their ugly heads.

What might disrupt that? I’d like to see the SNP propose a vote of no confidence in the government. Labour would have to do a deal to support it and recognise the case for independence which would be hard but not impossible and the fractious Conservatives would have to be more united than they probably can ever be to defeat it. Then, we could have a General Election with a radical manifesto from Labour based on economic growth, housing and turning back the tide of austerity. Would it work? Who knows, but it might be worth a try!

 

Well that’s another fine mess you got me into…

There’s a lot of hot air around about the what and how of this referendum – what it might cost us to leave or stay in the EU and how many migrants might or might not flood the country but we seem to have forgotten the why.

That might be because nobody is telling us! So, let’s be clear, this referendum is taking place because some conservative MPs and party members have never accepted the decision to join the EU which was arrived at politically and democratically. This relatively small group has threatened to split the Conservative party on more than one occasion so the Cameron strategy shared by many in the middle of the party has been to promise a put up or shut up referendum. In return for that promise, which created an interim truce, an apparently united Conservative party kept its divisions under wraps and won the last election.

That promise was a mistake because, first of all, this should have been a political decision. We elect politicians to act in the national interest and in the clear understanding of their views and a parliamentary vote, which would have been won overwhelmingly by the remain camp, would have solved any possible national problem even if not the Conservative party one. It would even make more sense to have a general election now in the light of the understanding that the next Parliament would take that vote rather than to have a referendum on this issue.

That is not to say that a referendum is a bad thing as a genuine indicator of public opinion. I wouldn’t mind one on drug legalisation or the abolition of the monarchy which are social issues and there is a genuine social divide. It wouldn’t matter who won but it would get the nation talking politically and that can’t be bad. In contrast, this one simply allows people to realise that they have no idea.

Part of the reason for this is that should we remain or should we leave is a pointless question. We are in Europe geographically and the fact is that we are actually part of its politics. We’re not dithering on its borders and in time we will become a democratically governable and independent entity within the European structure. What’s wrong with that? We might even be there already.

We joined in the interests of peace, mutual trade and prosperity and to put Europe on a mutual par with the superpowers and, in general, that has worked in everyone’s interests. We also joined because we wanted to and we committed the nation to the collaborative endeavour.

This is worth saying because the subtext of the current debate is that the electorate have forgotten that and operate at a pretty low level. That disenfranchises a lot of people who think they are above this kind of catcalling. All this froth about the pound in your pocket and the immigrant floods is polemical and designed to distract people from the fact that we are already there and, really, there isn’t anything much to talk about. We live in Europe, full stop. We didn’t need a vote to stay when we weren’t thinking of going anywhere and that leaves a lot of people uninvolved.

Some people are trying to make that an issue for the Labour Party but remember that this is a Conservative party argument and always has been. It has been rewarding to see Labour and the unions constantly repeating the same message about what we currently get from being in Europe and shameful to see conservatives talking up race issues. If you think Labour hasn’t said enough or should have shared a platform with somebody it is worth remembering that the interventions have been there but aren’t newsworthy.

That’s another issue in this referendum. Large sections of the press are fundamentally anti-European so, while people differ about who can say what and is this leaflet or that leaflet distribution acceptable, the newspapers are pouring out a torrent of political rhetoric to millions of people. Even when you know the individual story is nonsense, the constant drip of bile affects people.

The defections of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove derailed the Cameron strategy in this campaign. If we vote to remain, this group is set on overthrowing him and moving the party further to the right whatever happens. And, if we vote to leave the future is catastrophic with the existing state underpinnings pulled away in the interests of greed, perceived self interest, flag waving and intolerance. As we vote to remain, or stay as I would prefer, we should be clear about who got us into this mess even as we encourage everyone to vote.

 

Forward to the Past: A Manifesto for English teaching

I have always admired the way that English teachers can appear to be going along with any school policy you might care to name while, in practice, being as subversive as ever in the business of protecting what it means to be literate, in engaging with broad definitions of culture, in subscribing to an open multiculturalism and, above all, being critical, questioning and evaluating of the world around them.

It has been hard to keep to the true path for the past few years and it seems to be getting more difficult year by year so, perhaps, it’s time to set down some fundamental truths about the nature of the subject even where these truths are not always allowed to flourish. So, here goes:

1              You learn to read by looking at books and recognising words as you go. That is where you start and learn to create meaning. You can also learn words by sounding them phonetically but that is not reading. The notion that teaching phonics is a good way to teach reading started with some discredited research in Clackmannanshire, has been supported unthinkingly by various governments because it contributes to the notion of measured improvement in league tables and is allegedly proved to be effective by research which shows without any doubt that the laboured teaching of phonics increases children’s understanding of phonics. The jury is still out as regards what it does to their reading but the empirical evidence is that it puts them off real books.

2              You learn about language by encountering it in all of its beautiful variety. Grammar is a way of categorising, describing and analysing language once you’ve written it. The study of grammatical systems can help children to reflect on their reading and writing but teaching grammar as if, in some mysterious way, good writing is predicated upon its teaching is getting things back to front. Knowing that an adjective is a describing word will not help anyone to describe better. Testing the understanding of grammar as if that is an indication of the capacity to read and write is pointless. All you measure is the understanding of grammar. Children do need to learn to spell and construct meaning in sentences and that is much better done by modelling and experiencing good writing, by learning about progression in the structuring of language and by being encouraged to be ambitious learners.

3              The slavish teaching of writing types and genres in terms of lists of features has proved to be a long and torturous blind alley. As examinations and national tests have become more doctrinaire about what genres look like and how to reproduce them by imitation, in the real world they have become more slippery and overlapped than ever. In the digital world, formal and informal writing are distinguished not by presentation but by content and tone although the English curriculum still has to catch up. Scaffolds provide representations of these flawed models of writing where filling in the gap replaces original thought but, helpfully, appears to be capable of being marked and assessed to give a grade. The teaching of writing in schools should be as authentic as possible, purposive and it should relate to the real world and new literacies. There is nothing to fear from this approach and everything to gain.

4              Children in schools need to encounter a vast range of good reading. In fiction, it is worth remembering that children have historically read as a way of encountering the world of adults and understanding how they relate, conflict and resolve. The notion of literature for children (featuring children and childish issues) has had its day and it is a true test of the best books for children that they are enjoyed by grown-ups. Teachers need to remember that quality is not measured by length or inaccessibility. Reading for pleasure is an achievement for any child and is not encouraged by set text study, the absurd notion of historical and cultural context and the cultural accident of the literary canon. Even the most able students in today’s English classrooms are often bereft as readers – working through set texts, supported by notes and commentaries with the aim of answering questions in limited time in an examination. It is a myth that children do not read because of the digital distractions around them. They fail to read because their reading habits have been straitjacketed in their schools.

5              The notion of developing literacy has always been valid but the methods have failed and continue to fail. We have not developed a literate generation. There are no young people in sixth forms and universities who look back fondly on how the literacy hour shaped and developed a love of anything. The current focus on reading and writing with its clumsy attempts to marginalise speaking and listening is stupid enough but is nothing compared to the refusal to recognise the digital literacies of the 21st-century and the variety of creative media which surround us today. English teachers should be teaching children how to read film and video, to scan websites, to search effectively and how to evaluate sources. There is a 21st-century skill set which is simply being ignored because politicians want children to learn what they did in schools and learn like they did, forgetting that in those schools only a handful succeeded and many failed completely.

6              And finally, the way English is taught in schools needs to be seen as problematic because the way in which it has always been done and the traditional models which are currently encouraged are not working. Gobbet-based lessons, filling the gap exercises and photocopied worksheets turn English lessons into sequences of activities as opposed to learning. English teachers know in their hearts that children ought to talk more and be supported to read in silence. They know the value of extended topics and the real engagement with learning which that can bring but they fear OFSTED and retreat into the old mantras, telling children what they are going to learn rather than letting them find out, chopping lessons into sections, avoiding controversial topics and questions and, in the end, simply playing safe. Children ought to enjoy English lessons, be stimulated by them and learn from them. That is not always the case currently and it is time to state the arguments for a new approach to English teaching and a new debate over what it should include.

It’s not for those who die as cattle

I don’t buy a poppy each year and I don’t wear one. I’m comfortable with that but, increasingly, I’m conscious of the insidious pressure. Suddenly, it’s not just whether you’re a politician or you work in the media but now I see that it is simply not appropriate to go un-poppied in education, the civil service or local government.

I was born almost three years to the day after the atomic bombing in Japan at the end of the two wars to end all wars. I was vaguely conscious of the Suez invasion and then I was a teenager during the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis. I joined CND out of principle despite the sensitivities of my dad who admitted once that if it had not been for Hiroshima and Nagasaki his service record would have taken him into the Far East within six months.

It took me a long time to realise how damaged the post war civilisation was. I didn’t really understand why my school friend Mick’s dad licked the family plates clean after family meals – he was a tea planter imprisoned and starved by the Japanese for over five years. I thought my ex-RAF geography teacher who had mad uncontrollable rages didn’t like children – it is obvious now he had serious post-traumatic stress. The local boy who came back from national service broken, ill and deranged after some experience nobody would speak about and all those tense, angry fathers falling out with their children in the 1960s were quite unable to tell people why.

I have nothing against remembering on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I think it’s good for all of us to do that but the hijacking of the occasion into a military festival which we have become so accustomed to is simply weird. In some peculiar way the dead become the justification for the jingoism of the present.

And, bizarrely, the dead still find it difficult to have a voice. We patrol and guard the places where the dead are buried, corral them in foreign countries but we have never let them speak. Wartime censorship, the idea that it’s better to forget and post-traumatic stress have combined to silence them. We know what happened in the Falklands because Max Hastings wrote the book and Simon Jenkins showed the scars but we don’t know what it was really like just as we don’t know about Iraq or Afghanistan. Whether it is weapons of mass destruction, securing the Suez canal or regime change the public excuses are never the true reason for going to war and, sometimes, we’ve been there on the back of the United States which has its own reasons and these are precious little to do with ours.

Have we defended freedom? Did we really do this in Malaya and Cyprus? Did we single-handedly sort out the Balkans? If we had rehoused a couple of hundred Falkland Islanders in the Scottish Highlands would it have mattered in the greater scheme of things? And, why is a military commander sounding off today about how we ought to be joining in the bombing of Syria when, at the very least, the military should be leaving the decisions to politicians – however misguided they may be.

Islamic State, whatever it really is has to be resisted equally across military, technological, political and social fronts but we need to remember the roots of that organisation in the treatment of the Palestinians, our support for some evil regimes in the area down the years, our military adventures and our military cock-ups. It hasn’t sprung up out of nowhere and we helped to create it.

War is not good. The people who ‘gave’ their lives – an absurd word given jingoism, conscription and the mad activities of generals – did not have much choice and if we could hear from them they wouldn’t say it was worth it for the most part. It’s good to remember the people who died each November but we don’t need the church bells of the bishops and the popes who legitimised the conflicts and, personally, I’d be very happy to see the politicians, commanders and royalty crawling down Whitehall on their hands and knees to say sorry and – more than that – promising to think twice before they do it again.