Friday, June 29, 2007

CCF Calling

Ah, July - time of Wimbledon, rainstorms and CCF main camps. And it's one of the latter that I'm off to for a week, so no blogging for a while. Perhaps I'll make it an extended summer break, and stay off the blog until September? That's the virtue of teaching, as everyone keeps telling me....humungously long summer holidays!

Perhaps I won't wait until September - if events keep unfolding at the pace they have this week the British political scene will be unrecognisable when autumn term begins! Meanwhile, as Jacqui Smith faces her first big test as Home Secretary, having had a good 20 hours or so to settle in to the job, and Gordon Brown presides over his brainy cabinet, I'll head north....

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Any More to Defect?

Westminster is apparently awash with two types of rumour tonight. One type essentially concerns who might serve in the new Brown cabinet. Amongst names mentioned by Nick Robinson et al are David Milliband for the Foreign Office, Alastair Darling as the well trailed Chancellor etc.

The other type of rumour concerns another Tory defector. Brown appears determined to produce his 'ministry of all the talents', and almost as soon as Quentin Davies went over the rumours started going that at least one other MP was imminently going to follow. The name being touted on the Guido Fawkes blog is John Bercow (here and here). I really hope not. I knew Bercow when he was a committed right-wing chairman of the Tory students and I was a Tory leftie, and at that time I was strongly factionally opposed to him, the more so perhaps because he was - and is - extremely bright and an excellent speaker. He has made an interesting political journey, and the last time I bumped into him was at Ken Clarke's last leadership launch; he has since become one of the more articulate 'liberal' voices in the Tory Party. Could he move to Labour? His wife, I think, is a Labour supporter, and Bercow's journey could take him further left, so we wait to see whether the rumours are true or not. One thing is sure - unlike Quentin Davies, John Bercow would be a loss to the Tories. They have too few intelligent liberals to be able to lose any of them!

Blair's Farewell Performance

Tony Blair is capable of performances that exude considerable bravura or great pathos. His farewell PMQ's was neither, whatever might have been expected. It was relatively low key, marked by tributes from his various questioners, and culminated with applause and a standing ovation. It was, of course, a chronic sign - perhaps the sign - of his premiership that it should begin again with a citation for soldiers recently killed in Iraq. Whatever other tributes are paid to Blair, let us not forget that his leadership has cost the lives of many British citizens, and considerably more Iraqi ones, and that echo was still with him in that farewell performance. He also gave us some of the spin for which he is so notorious. Did his recitation of improved exam results as an indicator of his government's success in education really convince anyone? Has the government's determination to keep pointing to ever increasing public exam results not demeaned the whole exam system, as this government's spin has demeaned so much else?

But whatever a prime minister does, if he or she is there for a long time in particular, they can expect the courtesy of a polite, respectful send-off from their own - their fellow politicians. Perhaps Blair was as honest as he'll ever be when he remarked on the commonality of feeling amongst all those elected to serve full time as 'representatives'. That was what was behind the oddly unconvincing 'tributes' from Cameron, Campbell, Paisley et al. And I wonder how many in the country at large will share that comfortable exchange of praise?

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Great British Tradition

Well it's come round again. The great British summertime tradition of living and dying with Tim Henman on Wimbledon's Centre Court. Every year we hear that he's had it, yet every year we're there either physically or in televisual spirit to urge him on. And he gives us everything he's got. I have rarely watched anyone squeeze such determined, plucky heroism out of every move he makes. Ten years this has been going on, and he's still at it! What is summer, after all, without that evening match from Henman, playing like the true English soul that he is, looking near to defeat and then suddenly rallying back. It happened again today. Don't expect anything from Henman, all the commentators told us - he's 78th., only won two matches etc. What do they know. On a partially washed out Wimbledon first day he gave us all the drama we needed to start this excellent fortnight, carrying on until he and Moya both quickly acceded to the referee's suggestion of a finish at 9.20, 2 sets all, 5 games all. Could it be any closer??

No wonder we like Henman. He represents the English soul better than any other sportsman I know (although, to be fair, I don't know many!). John Lloyd used to be the plucky English player, but never on quite the heroic scale of Henman. So Henman will be back on court tomorrow to finish off. And yet again, we desperately want him to win, but somehow can't quite believe he'll do it. He's reached semi-finals with that sort of backing - but not this year, I think. We should enjoy it while we can. All we need tomorrow is a fainting ball boy and the tableaux will be complete!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

L6 Film Visit

We will be going to see the 1325 showing of 'Taking Liberties' at the Panton Street Odeon. Given the timing, we will need to leave during period 5, but for most of you that is a PS lesson so not a problem. I will issue arrangements to everyone tomorrow and Friday if necessary, but it's pretty straightforward. The earlier start time does of course mean we will be finished earlier!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Taking Liberties

Since we're discussing liberty, this film has come out at an ideal time for an A-level class beginning the study of political ideology. This film - and its accompanying book - has, naturally, both its admirers and detractors, and clearly we need to see it and read it ourselves to make up our disparate minds. It has certainly generated comment on the blogs. Conservative blogger Iain Dale likes it, while pseudonymous New Labour political researcher (at least I think he is) Hamer Shawcross provides an eloquent, and theory packed, critique of the book. the comments thread on both comments is worth pursuing, especially on the Shawcross blog.

Suggested time to go and see the film en classe will be given tomorrow.

Pomposity versus Security

Not satisfied with giving the school a distinct prison likeness, with all the new gates and code locks, staff are apparently going to have to wear identity passes from next term. This does all seem a bit over the top when you consider that we have hardly been the victims of a sustained crime wave. I know a wallet went missing a few months ago, and a one-man crime gang tried to make off with a defunct computer once, but that hardly constitutes a besieged school in need of high security gates all over the place. However, they're here and that's that. But the passes! Is there really going to be some doubt in our minds as to whether or not the teaching staff should be here or not? And do we honestly, in this small community, not recognise each other?

Well, as I say, I have been getting a little indignant about the whole ludicrous process, but today I came across this item on the Guido Fawkes blog, with an update here, and it has rather calmed me down! I don't want passes in school, but I absolutely don't want to be like the irate, pompous and foul-mouthed MP described in that story. So I guess I'll just have to wear the stupid thing with a good grace, or at any rate not start foaming at the mouth if a member of the office staff challenges me for not wearing it!!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

How does Gordon Brown work?

In the hope that completing the exams doesn't mean AS students will have stopped following the news altogether, there is an interesting story here, on Iain Dale's blog, about Gordon Brown, the use of spin ,and the weekend coverage of his tough line on anti-terrorism. Some things, it seems, don't change.

UPDATE: Having had a chance to read the fascinating comments thread on the original Iain Dale post, above, it is perhaps worth noting that some of the journalists whom Dale accuses of going along with the Brown spin have responded pretty robustly. As it stands, the post and comments are an interesting dialogue - some of it pretty bad tempered - about the relationship of politics and journalism. One warning though - any comments place anonymously should be treated with serious caution. And while Mr. Dale rightly subjects the paper press to a thorough-going critique, blog commentators like himself, who are taken seriously as political commentators, also need to be open about their sources, and their stories are capable of the same critique that we should be applying to paper articles. If every reader is duly cautious and questioning, democracy emerges a winner.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The State of the Tories

From grammar schools to the appointment of the News of the World's former editor Andy Coulson. David Cameron has encountered more turbulence this week than at any time, I think, since he became leader. A number of right-wing commentators in the Telegraph and the Mail have come out in the last couple of days to lambast the direction he's going. It's a good point at which to ask how he is doing as Tory leader - especially for A2 students getting ready for 'Conservatism in the UK Today'!

The grammar schools row has illuminated the Cameron project rather nicely, although not in the way he would have liked! The reason for Willetts - inadvisedly as it turns out - being so loud in his rejection of grammar schools was part of the ongoing attempt to show that the Tories are a changed party who want to reflect the needs of a modern society. From the beginning, Cameron has been concerned to adopt new political positions - notably on the environment, the NHS and crime - and reject some of what he considers to be the hidebound policies of old. Until now that latter group included the Tories' commitment to lower taxation, but now incldues the rejection of academic selection.

This has been Cameron's version of 'Compassionate Conservatism' (no-one would call it New Toryism...comparisons with Blair can only go so far!). It is a new take on the 'One Nation' agenda - a post-Blair remoulding of the Tory Party. In rhetoric especially, Cameron has been keen to identify the Tories as a party who can respond to the wider community, not just to their own die-hard supporters.

Of course, very little of this rhetoric has translated into specific policy, and you could argue that the Willetts problem was either his move into this new and strange realm of politics for the Cameron Tories (policy!) or, more likely, his own lack of strategic sense (he didn't actually need to mention grammar schools at all in his original speech on education to the CBI).

Cameron's approach has undoubtedly yielded positive results for the Tories. For all the cautious reporting, the Local Election results in England were largely a victory for the Tories, who are now the largest party of local government by a substantial margin. True, they had less success in the devolved assemblies where their vote remained pretty static, and they have not made the inroads they would like into the inner cities and vast swathes of northern England, but they are quite clearly further ahead than they have been ofr over a decade. In local government terms, in fact, the Tories haven't been this dominant since the mid-70s. Some of the Tory move forward has been due to the unpopularity of a third term Labour government, but the job for David Cameron has been to position his party so that it can benefit from such disillusionment, and in this he has begun to succeed.

The school row has not been good, and Cameron's recent poll ratings reflect this. It will blow over though. There is no right-wing challenger to Cameron, and he retains pretty well untrammelled authority in the party, although - like Blair - large sections of it have no affection for him. In fact, the two big tests for him have yet to materialise fully.

The first is the challenge of Gordon Brown's leadership. For all their baravdo, the Tory high command is worried by this man. He represents a change from Tony Blair, and a shift in prime ministerial style that could well work to his advantage. He also understands how to use government to his advantage like no other politician around today, having been a supremely successful chancellor in terms of maintaining and extending his political authority for the last ten years. While Cameron has looked besieged over the past few weeks, Brown has been cruising towards his coronation, and is quietly developing his distinct policy on the way.

Which brings us to problem number 2 - policy! Cameron knows that policy is something oppositions engage in with trepidation, and the grammar school row will merely have confirmed that! Yet he cannot approach the general election in a policy vacuum. He has set up numerous policy task forces, but they give the appearance of having been so much window dressing. Policy will be decided by Cameron and his inner circle - not by task forces!

Cameron is the post-Blair Tory, just as Blair was the post-Thatcher Labourite. Much of his development is on style and appearance, and the appointment of the relatively non-political Coulson to the top communciations job will affirm that tactical direction. The most we can say is that he has been the first leader since Thatcher to break firmly from her legacy, and redirect Tory thinking back towards the current centre ground of British politics. Like Blair, he is in many ways a non-party party leader. Fascinatingly, just as the Labour party are starting to reject some of the approaches of their three-time successful leader - for example in the areas of spin - Cameron appears to be embracing them firmly. It was George Osborne who recently commented that the Tories would be better than Gordon Brown at continuing the Blair reforms, and the education squabble was entirely about that. The problem for the Tories, though, is that Blair faced John Major and a seriously divided party in government in 1997. Gordon Brown is a very different prospect, and his party is still a long way from serious division!

New Question Paper Format

Just so that everyone knows, there has been a minor change to the format of the question papers that are being set this summer. It is very minor, and unlikely to make you start with surprise, but in case you're interested, here's the link to the exemplar papers!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Lessons from the Deputy Leadership

If we needed another indication that our elected representatives are often a long way from the pulse of their own parties, never mind the nation, the current state of Labour's deputy leadership contest would seem to prove it! Having struggled to just get his 44 parliamentary nominations, thus entering the race very much as the straggler, it seems that Hilary Benn is now favourite to win, having secured the support of over 50 Labour constituency parties, including those of Gordon Brown, Jack Straw (Brown's campaign manager - tough call that), and Ed Balls (Brown's alter ego). What's more, Benn was one of only two candidates - the other being John Cruddas - to enter without being a Brown brown-nose. Benn commented that he would challenge Brown's policies where he thought they were wrong! Very different from the oleaginous and utterly sycophantic Peter Hain, whose campaign ran smoothly while it was confined to Westminster, but has now hit the rocks.

Sometimes I really like democracy.

BLACK GOLD Movie Trailer

This is the trailer for the film mentioned in the post below.

Black Gold - the real costa coffee

The Telegraph's environment correspondent Charles Clover carries an interesting wake up article about the true cost of the coffee we all buy from the burgeoning chain outlets. As an aficionado of the delightful aromas of the high street coffee brands, I've put up with the wallet busting prices just for the luxury of my morning, afternoon, or evening Latte. Clover reports the findings of a new film documentary, 'Black Gold', due out in cinemas this Friday. Take this - for every £2 we spend on our cup of coffee, just 2p goes to the actual coffee growers.

It was this dichotomy that inspired Nick and Marc Francis, 'Black Gold's' makers, to do their documentary. As Clover reports:

The Francis brothers were in Ethiopia, intending to make an entirely different film, when they were struck by the irony that there was a famine in the birthplace of the beans that supply the West's booming coffee chains...

...the shocking fact that the Francis brothers have uncovered is that Ethiopian women spend long days in factories hand-picking coffee beans for half a dollar a day (around 25p) while their children go uneducated and malnutrition is rife.

Somehow, my morning coffee doesn't taste quite so good. There are, of course, steps we can take, as a well known Head of Geography at SGS might have already told us. For a start, several certificated schemes operate (the best known of which is Fairtrade) designed to ensure more money heads into the pockets of the under-rewarded growers, and several of the chains do operate these if you ask them. I know I'm a little late in waking up to this, and as an unreconstructed capitalist believer I'd like to see the coffee growers benefit in a properly market oriented fashion, but at least kowledge can help guide our buying habits. Meanwhile, I'll certainly be in line to see that film - makes a change from those Michael Moore documentaries trashing Bush, even if Bush is clearly to blame for the plight of the coffee growers!

Cabinet Government? What Cabinet Government?

There is a useful post on Bill Jones' blog referring to comments made by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler about Tony Blair's dislike of cabinet government. Very useful stuff indeed for AS students looking for supporting evidence about the current PM's attitude to the cabinet, and I recommend reading it here.

Jones quotes Butler as saying that the only decision the cabinet took (as opposed to just the PM) during his eight months in office was the one to approve the Millenium Dome. Jones then offers a brief survey of the weakening of cabinet government through Thatcher and Major to Blair.

Tory Troubles

It had to come, of course - a genuine Tory dispute after months of being in thrall to David Cameron's bewitching media performances. The shame of this current spat over grammar schools is that it was so unnecessary. David Willetts didn't need to condemn the favoured state system of much of the Tory Party when he introduced his 'new' education policy. It was sheer tactical incompetence that blundered the party into this row, and Willetts may ultimately pay the price. There never had to be a debate on grammar schools, and after two or three weeks of party naval gazing the party leadership has been left returning to its de facto original position - if they wish to expand where they exist, let them do so. Actually, this is a slightly more pro-grammar position than they had before Mr. Willetts' ill-judged speech, as Tory MP's all voted for the 2006 education Act which has specifically forbidden further selection in England without primary legislation.

We have Dominic Grieve to thank for the Tory reversal on the best school system this country has ever devised. An able, competent and credible front bench hitter, he made it clear, as an MP for a seat with selective schools (Beaconsfield) that he believed grammar schools should be able to expand if they need to. Cameron and co. could not afford to lose someone of Grieve's calibre, and after weeks of discontent on the backbenches about Willetts' faux pas they finally caved in - one Old Etonian to another, so to speak.

Hardly their finest hour, but now may not be a bad time for Cameron to review his front bench team, and his inner circle. He's been fire-fighting on this issue where he needs to be leading. He had also just completed his two days as a'teaching assistant' when this blew up, thus neutering what might have otherwise been rather good publicity. Sadly, one announcement today does not offer a great deal of hope about any re-think. The Tories have announced that ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson is to become their communications chief. They obviously hope they're getting their own Alastair Campbell (another former tabloid journalist), but Coulson comes to them as the editor who allowed his Royal Correspondent, now serving at Her Majesty's Pleasure, to tap phones for one of his stories. Great pedigree.

The retreat of liberalism goes on

As communism seemingly disappeared from view at the end of the 1980s, in a sudden and unexpected blow-out, there was plenty of triumphal...