Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Toryism moves right....

Lynton Crosby's general campaign advice for the right-wing politicians he expensively manages generally seems to be to tack right, and then right again, until you've out-manouevred anyone else who might be coming from that direction.  It seemed to work in Australia for John Howard.  It didn't work for Michael Howard in Britain in 2005.  And the jury is obviously out on its impact on David Cameron's campaign in 2015.

Mind you, there used to be a time when the Conservative Party didn't see tacking right as a useful or honourable tactic.  This was a party that held a variety of centre-right views together - including, yes, some of the 'ultras' - but believed firmly in its national position as a "One Nation" party, needing to look beyond its own borders for support and affirmation.  It was a party that understood the welfare state, tapped in to the aspirations of lower income earners whilst maintaining their safety net, and vigorously challenged any onset of incipient racism that might come up, especially under the guise of "immigration reform". To his credit, one of Michael Howard's finest blasts came in his searing attack on the BNP.  It was always a great shame that this fundamentally decent man allowed his campaign to be defined by posters of the inflammatory nature as the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" kind.  If you want an inkling of what this Tory Party used to sound like, give Michael Heseltine's piece in today's Mail a read.  It is a full and wholesome put-down of Nigel Farage's race-meddling and brooks no thought of dealing with such a man, likening him to a less intelligent version of Enoch Powell, another politician at ease with the far right.

The vigour of the Heseltine attack on Mr Farage is all the more satisfying for the weak-minded, feeble appraoch shown by the Conservative Party's actual leader, David Cameron.  He seems to have embraced the Crosby mantra of not annoying UKIP supporters, and as such has successfully conveyed - yet again - an image of flaccid, unprincipled, short-termist leadership.

If you want a sharp and unforgiving assessment of the Cameron mode of leadership, read Nick Cohen in the Observer.  I know Cohen is no conservative, but he is a clear-headed commentator on politics who gives no quarter in his honest assessments of both right and left.  His condemnations of Cameron are given greater force because they ring so true.  He compares his approach to that of Angela Merkel, who denounced the anti-Muslim protestors in Dresden in no uncertain terms as having "prejudice, hatred and coldness in their hearts".  Try listening for anything even remotely similar from Cameron about UKIP and you'll end up getting your ears tested.

Cohen also - rightly - mocks the Tory choice of candidate to challenge Nigel Farage in South Thanet as an attempt to simply provide Faragism without Farage.  Might as well have thrown in their lot with Farage from the word go.

If the modern Tory Party really can't attack a man who openly plays with racist ideas, no matter how cunningly phrased, then it does need to start asking why it is even in business.  Time used to be that we knew what broad-mindedness differentiated the Tory Party from fringe right-wing groups.  It looks as if that time is no more, and the UK is the loser.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Michael Gove and the destruction of school history

There’s an odd little article in the Spectator this week.  Written by Emily Hill, and titled “MichaelGove’s secret fan club”, it purports to show how teachers across the nation secretly mourn the passing of the late Education Secretary and have finally been released to teach vigorously and properly as a result of his reforms.  All heart-warming stuff, no doubt, although I counted only three teachers whose views were actually used to propel this lovely tale of education re-booted – one an  anonymous friend (always useful for journalists), one the author’s mother, and one a bona fide teacher seemingly unrelated to the author. 

I did feel a little sorry for Ms. Hill’s mother.  She was apparently nervous at being ‘outed’ as a secret Gove supporter in the totalitarian world we know as British Education, and only felt able to teach demanding lessons to her students once Mr. Gove had finally given her the say-so.  The anonymous friend, meanwhile, teaches Ancient Greek at a London state school, apparently unaware – according to Ms. Hill – that ordinary kids were never allowed near such a subject in the Dark Ages of the pre-Gove era.  Mind you, the fact that Ms. Hill then notes that the only person she ever knew who learnt Ancient Greek at school went to Eton with Prince William probably tells us more about her social circle than the wider cause of education.

My favourite quote from what seems to be a rather mis-conceived article is this one from an apparently very left-wing teacher who boasts huge success with his debating teams.  He comments to our intrepid reporter that “Under the last government we were being utterly micromanaged in how we taught our lessons.  Gove trusted teachers to a greater extent….”.  Seriously?  Gove “trusts” teachers?  And this isn’t satire, right?

In many ways, I should be one of that little fan club of Gove supporters in education.  I disliked the AS level system and am rather pleased his reforms encompassed getting rid of it, returning us to a better, more thought-through two-year A-level.  I could see grade inflation taking the lustre off top grades that were being hard won by earnest students.  My school benefitted financially from becoming an Academy (although yes, there was the lurking thought that for so many of us academy status was simply a financial bribe which dried up after a year or so).  But I happen to be a history teacher, and there are few history teachers who have much of a kind word to say about Mr. Gove (I haven’t yet turned up one on meetings with a fair range of such teachers over the years).

If you want an example of disastrous, mendacious micro-management, then look no further than the disaster that was Gove’s attempt to re-mould the school history curriculum in his own image.  His efforts were underpinned by lamentable research leading to unwarranted attacks on practitioners.  The most egregious of these remains his singling out an innovative lesson idea on a popular website for peculiar invective in one of his rabble rousing speeches (the response of the teacher who developed this is worth reading in full here).  The inability of either Gove or his advisors to either read the offending material properly, or understand its context, should have ruled them out of making any comment on history teaching ever after, but this is Michael Gove we’re talking about.  Learning isn’t one of his skill sets.

As he drove his bulldozer through decades of carefully constructed history schemes for students, Gove also turned his wrath on one of the respected academics he had once praised, perhaps because the good professor had had the temerity to challenge Govian historical thinking – if ‘thinking’ isn’t too strong a term.   In a diatribe about right thinking towards World War One, Mr. Gove had this time singled out Blackadder as his Goldstein target, perhaps unaware that it was satire and not actual, you know, history. (The academic in question, Sir Richard Evans, continued to harbour doubts about the veracity of Mr. Gove’s historical thinking, for example here.)

Now, as his parting gift to history teachers, we are about to embark on the utter mess he’s managed to cause in GCSE history.  I do wish, if Nicky Morgan had indeed been given instructions to weed out the worst aspects of Govianism from the education system, that this had included his pernicious undermining of school history, but alas her echoing silence on the subject suggests it didn’t. 

For years, secondary schools have followed carefully thought-out GCSE history syllabuses.  Many of them, having given strong and often exclusive coverage to British history in Years 7 to 9 (something Gove was never willing to acknowledge) sought to teach a Modern World course to their students.  It proved popular, and provided an admirable grounding in recent world history, the better from which to be able to form judgements about the world they live in today.

Michael Gove, the man who apparently “trusts teachers”, demolished all of this and insisted instead on an incoherent mess of historical periods and subjects instead.  Amongst his demands were that students should cover at least three distinct periods of history – medieval, early modern and modern; that 40% should be British history (i.e. repetition of the previous three years); and that there should be a thematic study over a period of some 1,000 years.  All this in two years and across a mere three hours a week.  That the history establishment accepted this nonsense is another matter, but let us at least put paid to the idea that Michael Gove didn’t seek to micro-manage teachers, or that he somehow trusts them enough to let them inspire students. 

Michael Gove had no professional experience in education, and no academic expertise as an historian even at undergraduate level.  This is no bar to bringing interesting thinking to teaching or challenging teachers, but it should have provoked caution before dumping, wholesale, a history teaching plan of credibility, authority and coherence. 

Gove’s relentless attack on history teaching turned me from an initial cautious ally into a confirmed opponent.  Knowing the carelessness and ineptitude with which he formulated his own ideas on history teaching has made me forever wary of anything the man comes up with.  Looking at the way in which he sought to bullishly impose his own – and his alone – ideas on history teaching across a national profession has forced me to treat any attempts to portray him as a man who believes in loosening the dead hand of the state with extreme caution, if not outright incredulity.  If three people make up a fan club, then I suppose Ms. Hill is right to suggest that Michael Gove has one in teaching; but I’ll wager it doesn’t extend far, and for good reason.  The man was  a state-power-wielding menace, and no-one yet has offered to clear up the mess.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The leader of the Middle-East's only nuclear power speaks to Congress

Binyamin Netanyahu's speech to the US Congress tells us much about him and much about the Republican lawmakers fawning over his every word.

The Israeli prime minister has been engaging in a reckless gamble, as he deliberately sets out to alienate the president of his country's only reliable friend in the world.  This is the man who openly sought a Romney victory at the last US presidential election and who has now once again flouted the non-partisan rules of international engagement by taking up his invitation from the Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, to speak to a joint session of Congress without doing the president the courtesy of even letting him know.

Mr. Netanyahu may be holding on to a belief that no matter how much he offends Mr Obama, the US president would not, in the last resort, leave him and Israel hanging in the wind.  And yet Mr Obama has shown that he is willing to redraw the map of American political allegiance in the middle-east if it suits him, especially in the aftermath of an Arab Spring that left the region in a continuous state of turbulence and unpredictability.  It is just possible that by speaking to a Congress which carries little actual foreign policy heft, in defiance of a president who does, Mr. Netanyahu may have placed himself firmly on the outside track as the Secretary of State continues to pursue a deal with Iran.

Let's hope so at any rate.  Netanyahu is a man who revels in confrontation, sees himself as a latter-day Churchill and, modestly, the leader of all Jews in the world.  There are definitely shades of Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Netanyahu's own messiah complex.  He also heads up a nation which has not been shy of employing vigorous aggression against enemies imagined or real.  His military's foray into Gaza last year killed somewhere over 2,000 Gazans, including 513 children.  There were also admittedly Israeli deaths - 66 soldiers and 5 civilians.  And, of course, while Iran protests that it merely wants to develop a uranium enrichment programme, and is nowhere near producing a nuclear weapon - all under intense international scrutiny - it is Israel which continues to deny its own actual nuclear capability, revealed in the 1980s by disillusioned scientist Mordechai Vanunu.

Israel is no slouch, either, in dealing with citizens who reveal uncomfortable truths.  Vanunu was kidnapped while in Italy - having earlier fled Israel for Britain - and after a closed trial spent 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement.

Mr. Netanyahu pursues the politics of violent sectarianism with relish.  He used the post-Charlie Hebdo marches to egoistic effect, and has entered the political arena of another sovereign nation with an indecent partisan glee.  This is no statesman, and he does his country severe discredit at a time when he might have been better off trying to embellish its tattered credentials as a bulwark of stability and tolerance in its region.

He is well joined by congressional republicans.  It is not surprising that some dissenting Democrats have likened the Netanyahu speech to the calls for war against Iraq in 2003 (a war firmly supported by Netanyahu at the time).  The international sores of the last Republican administration's malign foreign policy remain clear in the murderous scars across the Iraqi nation and the rise to power of ISIS.  Netanyahu and his Republican allies may be made for each other, but the world would be well rid of both if their respective electors woke up to the dangerous reality of their blinkered sectarianism.

Iraq fights back against ISIS

With Iraq launching its offensive against ISIS in Tikrit - supported by Iran but not the USA - this quick overview on The Week's "Speed Reads" should be a go-to for A2 Global Politics students.  The short BBC video accompanying it is also a useful summary of the current state of Iraq's military.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

As the parties sectionalise their appeal, is British politics fracturing?

This far out from a long-planned general election, you can understand why political commentators are becoming desperate for any sort of hook on which to hang yet another election-related article, and why such articles are increasingly speculative.  Everyone suspects the next election will yield results which are some way transformative.  There will be more smaller party representation perhaps.  Another coalition is on the cards maybe.  A party representing the national interest of one part of the UK will have a stranglehold over the other two parts we're told.  All of which may be true, but not until May can we speak of these things with any degree of certainty.  Hence the apocalyptic speculation that is currently the norm amongst commentators.

Nonetheless, the search for new angles can produce some interesting assessment of the current British political condition, and two notable commentators - James Forsyth from the right and Andrew Rawnsley from the left - have produced this Sunday's best conjectures.

Both, through different arguments, are essentially noting the fracturing of the British political scene into areas of geographic or sectional interest.  Forsyth, in the Spectator (summarised here on the Coffee House blog) considers the notion that the main parties are no longer properly national ones.  This is in large part because they are now so uncompetitive in different parts of the UK that they have pretty well abandoned any attempt to win their 'lost' regions back.  Look at the Tories in the north, or most of the large cities.  Look at Labour in the rural south.  And this is to make no comment on the situation in Scotland, largely of their own making.

In his blog post, Forsyth goes on to note that in addition to their regionalisation, the parties are also competing ever more narrowly on topics that benefit them and their perceived target voters.  This is a point which Andrew Rawnsley explores in more depth in his piece for the Observer.  From David Cameron's promise to ring-fence the financial well-being of older voters, to Ed Miliband's promise to reduce the tuition fees for students, Rawnsley notes the knock-on effect of such narrowly targeted policies  and compares them, in his opening, with the 18th century image of voter bribery that was illustrated by William Hogarth (in the picture that adorns this post).

The fragmentation of British politics in this way is more likely than ever to produce fissures across the UK landscape, in addition to the huge one that continually threaten to split widely on the northern border.  It may be symptomatic of the current political leaders' loss of faith in their political principles.  It may be the result of their own life-long insularity, which saw their career move through political jobs to youthful party leadership with barely any upsetting intrusion into the grainy, gritty world of most voters.  Such a continuous political trajectory makes them all more susceptible to the statistification of politics, where you look for x thousand votes from a particular group or region to ensure you get those crucial key seats that give you a majority.  The Guardian's Rafael Behr commented on this aspect earlier this week.

Every election is important.  It is just that some are more likely than others to be watersheds.  1945 and 1979 were classic examples of ideological watersheds; without much ideology on the table, 2015 might be a watershed for the very structure of the British polity itself.