Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Death Comes to a School

A teacher helping a student in a busy, focused classroom.  A normal scene in schools up and down the land, barely worth a mention.  Then the whole scene becomes tortured into something violently, scarily different, as a boy approaches the teacher from behind, thrusts a knife into her back and then does it again and again, until the teacher collapses in a pool of blood, and later dies.  No wonder the appalling murder of Mrs. Maguire in her school classroom has drawn so much attention.

It is an exceptional incident, and the multiple coverage of it sticks to the pathos and tragedy of the story itself, rather than suggesting there are some wider lessons here.  But there may be one or two, and both are drawn out by a former pupil of Mrs. Maguire's, novelist Anthony McGowan.  In a powerful article for the Daily Telegraph, McGowan both remembers why Mrs. Maguire was such an important teacher for him, and combines it with reflections on the difference that has passed in schools between his time and now, the time in fact that Ann Maguire has been teaching.

The article as a whole is worth reading, as McGowan employs his novelist's eye and personal memory to reach a little further into this tragedy.  But a couple of his observations should be noted by educationalists and politicians who fancy themselves as such.  The first is his comment - as a novelist who visits many state schools - that schools now (and they are mainly comprehensives of course), whatever their rating on the Ofsted system, are gentler, more welcoming places than he remembers Corpus Christi being.  The violence has been giving way to greater tolerance.  This is a welcome and positive message, a sign that liberal ideas on the teaching and care of pupils in school are indeed having an impact.  Talk about indiscipline and taking on authority if you must, but remember that when corporal punishment reigned in the corridors, so did pupil violence on a wider scale.

McGowan's second observation is that while violence seems generally to have become less, where it happens it has the potential - as on Monday at Corpus - to be utterly lethal.  Knives have become too commonplace.  And a knife can end a struggle before it's even begun.

I don't know what wider lesson we might draw from that latter observation.  McGowan sensibly doesn't seek to do so.  But the liberal battle for a stay of violence seems as urgent now as ever, as a new front has opened up over the past decade.

As for Mrs. Maguire, the testaments to her are humbling indeed for anyone to read, but especially teachers.  I hope they were being made during her life as well, I really do.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bashing Blair, Cabinet Confusion and Other Stories

A quick round-up of some recent commentaries, starting with the Economist's Bagehot on Tony Blair and his Middle-East speech.  Blair has never been the most profound political thinker in the world, and his observation that radical Islam poses a global problem was a little akin to a modern scientist reminding us that the world is round.  Nonetheless, Bagehot begins with the harsh statement that "One of the most hated men in Britain gave a speech on 23rd. April...." Admittedly, the Economist columnist's point was to suggest that while Blair's stock remains low - almost down at banker levels - we should be reminded that he was a giant of his times.  In fact, Bagehot is trying a rather schizophrenic approach to Blair in his column, spending the first half eloquently reminding us why the man is such a political millstone these days, but then trying to recant that view with a less convincing call to recognise his real greatness.  The worst part of Bagehot's contorted approach is at the end, when he seems to suggest that David Cameron is a mere minnow in foreign policy terms because he focuses too relentlessly on pragmatic stuff like trade, while at least Blair had a vision that took him marching dementedly into other countries.  It was at least 'ambitious'.  Er, yes.  I bet the Iraqis, the Afghans, and the countless victims of Blair-Bush Middle-East interventionism are over the moon about the scale of Blair's misconceived and even worse executed 'ambition'.  Cameron?  Wouldn't even send a few planes and troops into Syria, damn his timidity.

Less weightily, but indicative of confusion at the heart of government when faced with the unexpected resignation of a cabinet minister who had been under intense media pressure for days, is a piece that recounts the farcical tale of Nicky Morgan's brief Cabinet career.  30 minutes long, it seems.  Politics Home reports on how the need to replace Maria Miller with a man - Sajid Javid - led to confusion about the "Women's Minister" role.

Incidentally, while Miller showed poor judgement and worse morality in both her initial expenses scam and then her attempted recovery, the whole affair did at least seem to prove that there's no beast bigger or more fearsome in the political jungle than the press.  They may have wittered and whinged about how the Leveson Inquiry was going to damage freedom of the press, consign us to being an authoritarian dictatorship, send us back to the Dark Ages etc., but in fact their ability to handily dispatch a minister still seems pretty potent.  And her replacement is a man who is certainly not going to be putting regulatory bodies in place over the only institution that matters in the body politic.  Which is good news for a free press, and bad news for anyone who happens to get in the way of the next sleazy-but-inaccurate story they choose to print.

Two thoughtful pieces on the Tory and Labour strategies in the last year before an election are printed in the Telegraph and New Statesman respectively.  Benedict Brogan, who appears to have survived the Telegraph cull of real journalists, has an excellent commentary on the fractured nature of current politics, and the opportunity this offers to Cameron to finally reinvent himself successfully.  His comparison of the populist demagogues Farage and Salmond, with their weird mutual love of Vladimir Putin, is particularly apposite, but his conclusion on Cameron is one that should be read with care in No. 10.  Meanwhile, Nick Faith in the New Statesman looks at the difficulties facing American strategist David Axelrod, as he tries to weave some Obama magic around Ed Miliband.  The main problem being that Miliband isn't Obama.  Or anywhere close.  More sort of Jar-Jar Binks without the silly accent.

And on the subject of Jar-Jar, the really big news comes from Deadline Hollywood with their revelation that Harrison Ford could be playing a 'gigantic' role as Han Solo in the new Star Wars film.  Because you wouldn't want to leave anything to chance like, say, a new character or plot-line.

Oh, and if any historians get this far, I've put a little piece with links about the Hungarian Rising on the history blog.  It's worth looking at, really.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Democracy Deficit and a Participation Crisis? AS Politics

The powerpoint for AS politics students on political participation and the democracy deficit is here.  The quote, or slogan, that starts it is suggested by Roger Scruton in his "Dictionary of Political Thought", while an article by Rowena Hammell for "Politics Review" provided much of the substantive evidence for the 'democracy deficit'.

I mention at the end an article by Sebastian Payne for the Spectator, which suggested that elected mayors is where it's at, if you want to get things done as an elected politician.  He summarises some of his key findings here on the Spectator website.  His article had extolled the virtues of Bristol's George Ferguson, amongst others, where he noted that the officially Independent mayor had, in the space of 17 months, banished cyclist-unfriendly bendy buses, revoked Sunday parking charges and signed off on several new primary schools.  The broader thrust of his article noted that mayors were not only able to take city-level action far more effectively than national governments and leaders could in their current ossified state, but that mayors also picked up new ideas from different cities around the world.  Payne ends his blog post by acknowledging that directly elected mayors have not really taken off in Britain, and that the jury is still out in those areas where they exist (including London of course).  Nevertheless, in a time of apparent institutional decay and political ennui, powerful, individually elected mayors may still be a possible answer to the crisis of political participation in Britain.  As Payne says:

But with ever-decreasing turnouts and the rapid rise of Ukip, our mainstream parties, politicians and institutions are no longer catering to the needs of voters. Powerful mayors may well be the solution Britain is waiting for.

[Incidentally, even Payne's example of a successful activist mayor, George Ferguson, has some serious down-sides, according to a letter on the Spectator site from one disgruntled Bristol resident ("The man in red trousers") who points out that Ferguson was elected on a mere 28% turnout and has pursued a rigorous anti-motorist agenda.]

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Punch and Judy Never Really Left PMQs

The headline on the BBC News site was about air pollution reaching new levels, and I did wonder for a moment if this wasn't an appositely titled heading to a report about today's Prime Minister's Questions, which seemed to be a particularly hopeless round of personal abuse even by current standards.

If we get the politicians we deserve then we should be genuinely concerned about the state of the body politic in the UK.  Not so much because of sex scandals or expenses shenanigans - though these things hardly encourage us in our attitude to our would-be masters - but because of the dismal calibre of our political leaders.  At least, if Prime Minister's Questions is anything to go by.  No-one expects this weekly parliamentary jousting to be a masterclass in political education - although it would be no bad thing if that were an appropriate expectation - but neither should the most regularly broadcast piece of parliamentary theatre be such a depressing collapse into unimaginative and uninformative playground name-calling.  One of the key participants holds the highest office in the land, and the other aspires to it.  You might reasonably expect some sense of gravitas, or dignity, from each man.  And yet Cameron and Miliband both perform appallingly badly at their weekly verbal battles.

Whatever the virtues of each leader - and their own parties interestingly remain distinctly divided on these - they have manifestly failed to reach anything approaching an admirable standard at the despatch box.  Cameron is a poor advert for Eton's debating tradition, as he stands shouting at his opponent, mock indignation and a constantly high volume his only verbal props; primary school level insults his stock-in-trade.  Miliband, meanwhile, responds in kind, laboriously shoe-horning his own carefully learned insult (today it was "not so much the Wolf of Wall Street as the Dunce of Downing Street") into his monotonously outraged attacks.

It isn't just the lack of any substantive political debate that so depresses.  If either man had a scintilla of genuine wit, or a slight appreciation of voice modulation, we might have a better impression of the farrago of nonsense that they bombard us with every week.  This is their showpiece, every week, to the British public, the public that elects them.  They are hopeless and inadequate representatives of their craft, but the real tragedy is that we so signally fail to bring them to book for their uselessness at the ballot box.  Perhaps it's because we're offered such a mean choice in the first place.