Friday 24 December 2010

Which side are you on ?

Everyone else in the lefty-blog world has an opinion. And although I have no inside information, and probably no original insight, - here's my view on Tommy-gate:  

It's not quite the same as my party - I don't see the need to juxtaposition the caricature of Tommy-the blameless and persecuted  hero to that of Tommy-the evil megalomaniac who destroyed the Scottish Left.  But it's certainly not that either of the Anti-Tommy alliance  from Anarchists to Tories who are rubbing their hands in delight at his downfall.

I don't know - or care that much - if Tommy was technically guilty of the charges against him. But although - as the official party line says he is  'innocent of crimes against the working class' - he is as far as I can see guilty of hubris, weakness and lack of judgement. It seems contradictory that a man strong enough to go to prison for his beliefs should also succumb to the social  pressures of convention in denying his sexual tastes. Tastes that if revealed would undermine a carefully constructed public image of a family man and regular guy. But then again (like myself) he was raised as a Catholic before he became a Marxist.

But contradictions are at the heart of the whole sad Tommy-gate tale - most fundamentally the contradiction that he could be the most charismatic left leader of a generation, the man who perhaps  made the single biggest contribution to a renaissance of a movement, and at the same time the man whose actions did the most to pull it apart.

And the biggest and most shocking contradiction of them all is that people who once called themselves Marxists - who understood that the State is an instrument of the ruling class - should think that a court case could deliver some sort of objective 'justice'  or 'truth' abstracted from its political context - and even worse were willing to collaborate in what can only be described as a conspiracy with those who were openly the enemies of the working class movement.

So, however much I may wish that back in 2004 when confronted with the evidence Tommy had taken a 'published and be damned - I'm kinky deal with it' line  - it is not possible to now  take a neutral stance and hand-wringingly reflect on the sadness of the whole affair. And for that reason alone I'm siding not so much with Tommy -  as against the state, the Murdoch press, embittered former comrades, and the Tories.

Thursday 23 December 2010


I watched the Ken Burn's epic documentary series. Twice. I read Shellby Foote's monumental three volume history. And numerous others. I chose to do a paper in it when I was at uni.

It's out of my system now, but I was a bit obsessed with the American Civil War. 

Not as obsessed however as many Americans  - as evident from the 150th anniversary this week of the secession of South Carolina from the Union. This obsession is probably a good thing - it is the skeleton in the closet of the American Dream. It's relatively recent and it still poses unresolved issues - an itch that needs to be scratched - whilst us Brits in typical fashion chose to politely sweep our own - equally defining - civil war under the carpet.

But their obsession seems to be for so many of the wrong reasons: Naivety - the romance of Rhett Butler and crinolined Southern belles and a romantic lost cause. Unabashed racism - and the lie that slavery in  the antebellum South was some sort of benevolent paternalism. Or sheer ignorance of how history works -  individuals and groups may say they are doing something for a stated reason (states-rights or  crusading abolitionism ) - they may  genuinely believe they are acting for these reasons - but it still doesn't make it objectively true.

My favourite Southerner -  Steve Earle -  cuts through this nonsense in a couple of minutes in a song intro that puts many academic analyses to shame. As Steve says 'it never sees to amaze me - the pinko-shit you can sneak in to a bluegrass song':

Monday 20 December 2010

Aspirational journeys

For a long while one of the main indices of social mobility was how many young people went to university from families where previous generations hadn't done so.  For many post-war working class grammar school kids it was probably the index of mobility.  

I've written before about my own experience of this and how social mobility isn't the same thing as social justice - by a long chalk. But it says something of a society that education - and at the very least a veneer of meritocracy -  is held up as  vehicle for mobility.  So the irony hasn't escaped me that in the same weeks as that  social ladder is being kicked away from a generation of school-leavers , we have the phenomenon of 'The Apprentice'.  It's a telling reflection of our times that brown-nosing, back-stabbing and bullshitting are now the preferred routes to 'betterment'.

This year and as in previous years, the winner was someone -  like Lord SirAlunSugar himself - who was self-made and had experienced a heart-warming 'journey' to get into the corporate world. I've got nothing against winner Stella English. I've been to Thamesmead a couple of times on anti-fascist activities - and can confirm that the estate she is from is every bit as desolate and downright scary as it is portrayed: Fair play to anyone who has managed to get out of it. 

But surely after all that  there are more worthwhile things to aspire to than a middle-management position at Sugar's IT-to-the-public-sector business Viglen Limited ? 

Tuesday 14 December 2010

The Decembrist Revolt

Today I've again got a guest piece at 'On This Deity' to mark the Decembrist Revolt; In a senario that sounds horribly topical, the mutinous troops were 'kettled' in St Petersburg's Senate Square before the Czarist authorities let loose with (actual not water) cannons - and killed over a thousand people in less than an hour. The Daily Mail would have been proud.

Monday 13 December 2010

Wrong priorities

An extraordinary - and rather obscene - juxtapostition in the media fall-out after the 9th December's fees protest:

Whilst it has been reported - although without any particular sense of burning outrage - that Alfie Meadows was truncheoned by the riot police and required brain surgery, focus is still on that incident when the royals found themselves in the middle of the protest and their car got a bit man-handled.

Never mind the outrageous revelation that police at Charing Cross Hospital tried to prevent Alfie from being treated and that he may well have died had it not been for the insistence of an ambulance paramedic. The Home Secretary has confirmed that in the royal incident  'contact' was made by a protester with the Duchess of Cornwall, and she may even - it is said in hushed tones - of been poked with a stick.

Resisting the temptation to crack funny about Camilla and barge-poles, I'm struck by this popular obsession with the sanctity of the royal personage. Touching a royal,  or in certain circumstances looking at one inappropriately, was once sufficient to warrant a death sentence (conversely a royal laying on of hands was thought to have healing powers). Not so long ago Aussie premier Paul Keating caused outrage when he put his arm around the queen. Maybe the divine right of kings is alive and well after all. 

There's  certainly an  obsession with the symbols of authority - notice the emphasis in recording how posh-boy protester Charlie Gilmour didn't just make a prat of himself - he actually swung on the union flag

Climbing on the cenotaph and re-decorating Churchill's statue are always going to be PR-home goals, but the real and  lasting damage and offence to society caused is nothing in comparison to what is being done by these cuts. And it's hard to believe that those who died in the war against Fascism ever envisaged that paramilitary police would be kicking shit out of their great grand-children right outside the 'mother of parliaments'.

Friday 10 December 2010

Slackers at the taxpayers' expense

Here's another  typical layabout who  got pretty mediocre results as a student but still feels the world owes him a living.

With only 5 'O' Levels and a B and a C at 'A Level' - he still somehow managed to blag his way into Trinity College Cambridge. When he was there he didn't study anything socially-useful or practical  but chose a soft subject - Archaeology and Anthropology - with one  of the worst rates of graduate employment. Fortunately  he didn't fancy going  into teaching because his 2.2 degree wouldn't be considered a sufficient qualification in some circles nowadays. 

Still he has undeniable  'street-smarts'  - he's one of the only people who last year managed to increase his income to just under £20million whilst at the same time also reducing his tax bill by 10%.  

Thursday 9 December 2010

The not so strange death of the LibDems ?

Although of course they are 'all in it together', the LibDem end of the coalition has become the particular target for anger at the attacks on education for all. And rightly so - odious though the unashamed defenders of privilege in the Tory party may be -  there is something particularly fucking offensive about the smug sanctimony of the Liberals who wring their hands (rather than gleefully smiling) whilst  putting the boot in on the hopes and ambitions of a generation.

The personification of all that is offensive in the LidDems can be found in the MP for the constituency neighbouring my own -  Lynne Featherstone of Hornsey & Wood Green. 

Of all things, she was the previous LibDem spokesperson for Youth & Equality (!!!) and is now the ConDem Minister for Equality. A quick look at her blog will show how she sees no irony in now being part of a government who with  a single set of measures, will turn back the clock on social mobility and equality of opportunity to before 1976 when student grants were first introduced.

But hey it's not all doom and gloom: George Dangerfield's 'The Strange Death Of Liberal England' described how it took only four years (1910-14) for the previous incarnation of the Liberals to go from the party of government to terminal decline. This time round it might just take a single parliamentary vote to lose its base in the angst-ridden middle classes and misguided Labour protest voters ...

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Secrets and lies

The whole WikiLeaks saga is unravelling like the plot of a lost Stig Larson novel. 

I'm not sure whether the diplomatic revelations expose sinister international conspiracies at the highest levels of the world's ruling class, or the petty bitchiness of overgrown-school boys with too much time on their hands. 

From what I have seen  I'm clear that there is an air if unreality about the whole business and very little to do with my life.  I'm reminded of  the Le Carre novels   - and their labyrinthine intrigues  of plots  and counter  plots - and the feeling that the world of diplomacy and epsisionage serves no more purpose other than just to keep going. A self-perpetuating game played in the final analysis for its own sake. 

Does the  diplomacy need to be secret? Within the narrow confines of the 'game' - then probably yes. But as soon as we start questioning whether the game is necessary at all or  if we are content to have a ruling class making decisions behind our backs then the answer has to be -  no. 

At the moment only the usual suspects on the Left and some eccentric right-wing libertarians have ralied to Julian  Assange's defence - Although he does seem to have pissed off all the right people;  from Sarah Plalin proclaiming some sort of fatwah, to the  US federal government banning employees from accessing Wikileaks... to the Colombian goverement telling students that they jeopradise their future job prospects if  they access the website.

Tellingly  though, these  diplomatic  revelations are supposedly just the tip of the iceburg and Assange is holding back dishing the dirt on international  big business until the shit really hits the fan. It speaks volumes that pissing of powerful national governements is one thing but taking on global capital is something else.

Thursday 2 December 2010

'Working from home' ?

The past couple of days I have chickened out  of riding my bike in the snow and have resigned myself to taking the tube to work. Today, looking at the surprisingly empty carriages, and now that I am in work at the half empty studio - I seem to be one of the few who hasn't succumbed to the bullshit of 'working from home'.

The concept of 'working from home' is a telling indicator of our times.

Firstly it shows quite  how far we have become ruled by the corporate culture of work and 'presentee-ism'. The snow is a freak occurrence for fuck's sake - many people can't get into work without ridiculous efforts - others are effectively cut off. But it is still not acceptable to say I'm staying in bed / watching daytime TV or DVDs of old black  and white movies / having a snowball fight / going sledging with the kids / drinking whisky hugging a radiator.  Instead there is the pretense of 'working from home'.

Which leads to the second point - the vast majority of  people with a 'proper job' simply can't work from home. If you actually make something or  provide some practical service you need a workplace to do it in - and usually other people to do it with. In the old days when most jobs were like this working from home would have been  unthinkable.

However if your job consists of gazing blankly into Excel spread sheets, preparing Powerpoint slides for meetings or writing a report of a meeting  you've been to - then working from home will suit you fine. And fucking good riddance too.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Everywhere I look - policing without consent

I seem to be in danger of turning into an 'all coppers are bastards' stuck record at the moment. I don't mean to give the impression that I'm vehemently anti-police - some of my best friends are coppers  - well come to think of it they aren't, nor are they ever likely to be -  but that's not the point.

It's just at the moment everywhere I look  I seem to see hordes of police intimidating - or actually attacking - legitimate protest. 

The latest was at the council meeting in Lewisham last night where anti-cuts protesters where met with riot police and a mounted charge. This came at the end of the same day when it was announced that the Met were disgracefully finally getting round to looking into possible 'misconduct' on the part of the TSG's PC Simon Harwood who attacked, and very probably killed  Ian Tomlinson last year. 

And today we see a repeat of the scenes from last week, in Whitehall (although the snow has ensured it is on a smaller scale)  -  as I write  mounted police are again charging students - many of them young school students.  

The Met have also  taken the opportunity today  to warn the parents of underage protesters (and most importantly I suspect potential protesters) that they should be aware of the dangers of protesting. In effect we are being told that we enter our own streets at our our own risks.

It's becoming a dangerous time to be a protester - but it's also becoming a dangerous time for authority. The state in this country has always rested on the idea of policing by consent - it's what gives the basis for our supposedly 'peculiarly english' tradition of shying away from political confrontation. Now, probably more so than at any point since the miner's strike of 84-5, that consent appear to be  being withdrawn.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Chip off the old block

I suppose it is every left-y parents' dread that their kids will rebel against them by becoming Young Conservatives, Born Again Christians - or doing a degree in Marketing.  

But when my daughter led the student walkout from her school yesterday, my feelings went way beyond relief. Not because she simply joined in the protests but because she used the full  force of her teenage smart-arsery (which we are usually on the receiving end of)  to challenge and  face down the authorities at her school.  We are all slightly nervous of what the repercussions of  this might be today - some teachers are taking a principled stand in supporting the students - but the spiteful wrath of humiliated authority cannot be underestimated.

Fingers crossed on that account. She  has already experienced the arbitrary and naked misuse of power when she, along with thousands of others were kettled by the police for eight hours on the coldest day of the year. I had given her some advice about how to handle being in a situation that like - but nothing in all my years of demos and protests has come close to that experience. It is a conscious tactic to intimidate protest. And I suspect to create situations - such as the unsurprising trashing of a police van conveniently 'left' in the middle of the kettle  - which will make good media stories to de-legitimize protest.

Someone I spoke to this morning told me that I was irresponsible to encourage my daughter (as if she needs any encouragement). I said that the day had more genuine educational value than any school trip to the Houses of Parliament to learn about our political system or so-called 'civics' lessons - and watching the manipulated news coverage is worth any amount of 'media studies'.

Here's to the future - there's still hope ...

Wednesday 24 November 2010

A little bit of Zen ?

Breaking my usual blogging rule that martial arts is for training not talking: Recently since my teacher moved out of the country, he visits twice a year to put on  a weekend seminars. I organise these for him,  film them and  make DVD's  to sell. It means that I don't get to sweat much at the actual seminar - but on the on the other hand in editing the footage I get to review the content many times over. I've been to many of these over the years so there's naturally some repetition in them,  but there's also always a few new insights that  keep my thinking. This time there are two thoughts turning over in my head (these are my Sifu's and I take no credit for coming up with them):

Think about the mechanical beauty of a crafted sword or gun - it's cleverness in mechanical and aesthetic perfection in fusing form and function. It is innocent of the consequences of its actions with no pre-meditation  and no consciousness of its effect. Becoming a martial artist is about perfecting ourselves mechanically whilst also ridding ourselves of emotional intent.

The karmasutra wasn't written by a virgin but it wasn't written by a pervert either - and similarly the 'instructional manual' for a martial art - its syllabus of forms and drills etc - whilst grounded in the real world of fighting application is not intended to foster an unhealthy obsession with violence either.   We need to be wary of  developing this as a side-effect of training.  


Monday 22 November 2010

Never had it at all.

I deliberately restrained myself from commenting on Lord 'never-had-it-so-good' Young's remarks and subsequent downfall. Displaying insensitivity and crass class arrogance of such cunt-ish proportions, there was just nothing more I could add. 

It's clear that the  attempt to pass his comments off as a slip of the tongue were ridiculous. Actually what he said was considered and representative - of that section of not-so 'middle' Middle England who sit around at dinner parties and take as their economic indicators house prices and mortgage rates. Cuts in child benefit and the increased costs of putting their kids through university are minor irritantants but essentially they fly in a stratosphere above both recession and austerity packages.

Thinking about that got me to thinking about my local community: Despite a good local anti-cuts campaign, the most-affected, those large swathes of people here whose daily existence is dependent upon public services, are  also those least aware of what is coming - and least placed to do anything about it.

Far  from luxuriating in a soft-touch benefit system, life for these people  is largely a constant grind to navigate a way through a crumbling system to get what they are entitled to. It's a world apart from  my own experience, but one I see just a tiny piece  of when using my local health service and bouncing back and forth from one mis-managed and under-resourced service to another, with a confusing labyrinth of different agencies, ever-changing procedures, staff shortages and lost communications. 

But that's just for one small non-life threatening part of my life - multiply the humiliation, frustration and time wasting ten-fold  if your income, housing, child welfare etc are dependent upon 'the system' and it's easy to understand why living on benefits can became a full time job. And if you are in that position then your expectations may well have been so lowered that it's  difficult to imagine that things could actually get any worse. 

It is understandable that what  should be anger passes into fatalism - when you've never had it all.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

On This Deity - Victor Serge

I'm honoured to have a guest post today - marking the death of one of my favourite revolutionaries, Victor Serge  - over at the excellent 'On This Deity'.  

For anyone with a taste for radical history Dorian Cope's blog should be in your bookmarks.

Here we go again

When Charles and Di got married in 1981, I'd just taken my O Levels - and me and my  mates managed to avoid the mass-hysteria by going walking in the Highlands of Scotland. My reaction on hearing the news about William and Kate was much the same - followed of course by outrage at the cost at this time of recession, austerity and cuts. And then frustration  at the opiate effect it will undoubtedly generate in this bizarrely deferential celebrity-hungry age.

We've been here before: For most of their history the royals have kept their family affairs to themselves. Not because they   desired privacy - they simply felt that it wasn't any business of the plebeian masses what they got up to. Granted;  coronations, funerals and the royal 'progresses' were important demonstrations of royal power and mystique. But generally the royals and their hangers-on  could happily feud and shag  themselves stupid  because they saw themselves as above the moral reproaches of the great unwashed and most definitely not answerable to them.

Significantly a sense of royal PR-awareness only seemed to develop in the nineteenth century. Maybe  the first instance was the marriage of Caroline of Brunswick to the then Prince Of Wales, later the Prince Regent and then George IV. Engaged in the traditional royal manner before they had actually met,  she ticked the required  boxes of princess/protestant/available. All this would have been  business as usual if George hadn't have been such a monumental  arsehole - Blackadder's caricature of him is in fact charitable. His increasingly appalling treatment of his wife - including having the doors shut in Caroline's face at his own coronation - captured the popular imagination in a period of economic hardship,  reactionary governments and radical upsurge. This manifested itself in a ground-swell of sympathy for her - and after her early death the prime minister, Lord Liverpool even tried to divert her funeral from London to prevent rioting. 

From then on the royals seemed to take on board the need to play  the PR game and keep the masses 'on message':  By the 1870's  Queen Victoria had slipped out of the public eye and into reclusive widowhood. So Tory prime minister Disraeli, worried at social discontent and growing radicalism,  re-branded and re-launched  her  by reviving the Mughal title of 'Empress Of India' and stage-managing lavish jubilee celebrations.  By the 1930's prime minister Stanley Baldwin was pulling the strings behind the scenes of Edward VIII's abdication - and as he saw it safeguarding the institution of the monarchy and the fabric of society at another time of economic crisis and popular discontent.

Economic crisis. Radicalism. Discontent. Tory prime ministers. It all sounds horribly familiar - and it's why the monarchy still matters - it's not just about the money, they are always there to be wheeled out by the ruling class when things get a bit iffy ...

Tuesday 16 November 2010

The dirty South

Despite Joe Strummer's best efforts to immortalise the Westway - songs about roads in this country lack the romance of tales of Route 66 and dusty lost highways. But the cold late night ride home from seeing the Drive By Truckers at the Shepherd's Bush Empire somehow felt like a very appropriate end to the evening.

Don't know why their Country Punk / Southern Grunge  - with its  peculiarly Southern-Gothic tales of whisky, feuds, domestic violence, shotguns, farms  and broken dreams- should ring so true; but it just does. And like  all the best Country music  it finds the extraordinary  in the ordinary and makes you feel that the song was written for you. It fucking rocks too.

This from Sunday's show  at the Shepherd's Bush Empire - not my own footage but fantastic stuff:

Thursday 11 November 2010

Fires in the belly of the beast

In the aftermath of yesterday's 'riot' the sensible-tendency are falling over themselves to condemn the students who trashed Tory HQ - peaceful protested 'hi-jacked' by a minority of anarchists bent on violence ? Quite possibly. And for the middle-England tendency -  the end of western civilisation in that most heinous crime the attacking of private property. Certainly.

But my own reaction to watching the students - and I imagine that of quite a few of us - was to cheer them on. Granted, a few trashed windows do not a mass movement make. But if the Tory HQ, quite literally the belly of the beast, isn't a legitimate target what the fuck is ? If ever there is an argument for the 'propaganda of the deed' it is here: watching the scenes on TV will give a bit of inspiration to those millions who at the moment just feel impotent anger whilst they await the next round of austerity cuts. 

The important question of course now is - what's next? - but just for a moment let's celebrate that there's a change in the air. And an answer to those who had politically written off the X-Box generation or moaned that the British are genetically more docile than the  French or Greeks .

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Remembrance - look back in anger

As the world wars fade into memory, Remembrance inevitably focuses on wars fought since 1945. The trouble with this is that platitudes like ‘they died so that we might be free’ simply don’t wash when it comes to these wars. Because – let’s be frank about it – Britain’s post 1945 wars have been bad wars. Wars that were colonial policing operations; wars that were part of Cold War real-politic; or wars fought for brazenly economic interests. They have more in common with the ‘little wars’ of the Victorian era than with the moral certainties of the Second World War. And the motivation of the professional armies that fought them – largely economic conscription - has little in common with the patriotic hysteria of the First World War either. 

The history of these ‘bad’ wars is essentially that of the suffering of working class young men for causes that had bugger-all to do with their own lives or those of their families back home. Recruits have always tended to come from the poorest layers of society – Wellington referred to his common soldiery as ‘the scum of the earth’. Even in that brutal age, life in the ranks of the nineteenth century army was particularly grim, and a career option taken only by those most desperate to avoid prison or the workhouse. And before Rudyard Kipling popularised the virtues of the ordinary British soldier, the army was generally viewed by society as a whole with distaste and suspicion, In part at least because it was used as much for policing its own countrymen as it was for fighting foreign enemies.
I’ve been doing some family research recently and have uncovered something of a military tradition on one side of my family – it’s quite an insight:
The first soldier I’ve found seems to be my Great-Great Grandfather - Albert – a private in the 10th Hussars in the middle of the nineteenth century. His father had been a master bricklayer and a prosperous artisan but the family struck hard times. He joined after the regiment returned from the spectacularly disastrous and pointless Crimean War, and he seems to have left before they went off to the equally futile Second Afghan War. He probably would have spent at least part of his service stationed in Ireland on policing operations.
Albert died young and his family must have been fairly poor, his widow is listed in the census euphemistically as ‘laundress’ (or more prosaically washerwoman).  So his son - my  Great Grandfather Frederick - joined the Royal Horse Artillery. He served for twenty years  and fought in the Second South African War - a shameless bit of land grabbing by the British Empire that introduced the expression ‘concentration camp’ to the world. When Fred left the army the municipal authorities appointed him as the town’s resident fireman – in those pre-welfare state days this was typical of the charity given to the deserving poor of ‘good character’.  This would have been a stroke of good fortune- then as now, ex-servicemen were disproportionately represented amongst the homeless and beggars of Victorian London.
In the Great War, Fred’s youngest son – my Great Uncle Albert Victor – seems to have enlisted underage in the Hampshire Regiment. He also fought – and was killed – in a far-flung corner of empire - Mesopotamia - or Iraq as it is now  known. Even in a war of vainglorious futility and bungling this particular campaign stands out as a spectacularly misguided and pointless waste.
Fred’s grandson, my Uncle Charlie, served as a gunner in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. His time was not spent liberating Europe from Nazism but with the ‘forgotten’ 14th Army in Burma defending the empire from Japanese expansion. Before the war Charlie had been a bright grammar school lad destined for better things but his experiences led him to stay on in the army after the war and he ended up retiring as a senior NCO. That was in a pre-Rambo age when PTS hadn’t been discovered.
In all this of course I’ve deliberately omitted to mention those parts of the family who did participate in the defeat of Fascism. But that’s my point – in the tradition of Britain’s ‘bad’ wars,  WW2 or the 'People’s War’ is an aberration.  A century after Queen Victoria's death our servicemen are still being sent to serve in imperial outposts -  in fact still in Afghanistan and Iraq. 
My family’s military history - like Britain’s military history -  is a story of ordinary people fighting for causes that are not their own; poor men fighting rich men’s wars. I see no glory or sacrifice in this history, only sadness and anger – and that should be the best form of Remembrance.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Defending a liberal education

Just as I find it particularly offensive that a tax-dodging plutocrat should get to lecture us on how to save money in the public sector I find it offensive that a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge grads should now get to tell ordinary kids and their families that university education is a privilege that it is only fair to pay for with higher tuition fees and  student debt.

Their arguments to justify this are essentially philistine and small minded: That the main benefit of education is to bestow a competitive edge in the employment marketplace - and that this advantage needs to be paid for. And that by the laws of this market the economically useful subjects would be promoted and frivolous ones discouraged. 

This we are told is both fair and good for society as a whole. Pure fucking hypocrisy. Of the present ConDem cabinet 19 went to Oxbridge. Specifically in the big four jobs,  the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Home and Foreign secretaries, all went to Oxford. And six of the cabinet studied the same distinctly 'un-practical' subject there;  PPE Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

I have a personal insight into this - and not just because my daughter is coming up to the age when she has to think about all this. Back in the days when the state still saw university education as right not a privilege, an oik like me managed to sneak under the radar into Cambridge and study the equivalent subject there. And I can let you into a secret - it was a doss: Far from being hot-housed and groomed for leadership it was a perfect subject if you didn't fancy getting up for lectures in the morning and preferred to spend your afternoons shooting pool in the JCR bar - and you could still get a very respectable degree. I  even switched to it from doing history - which was hardly onerous in the first place. I actually worked much harder when I studied afterwards for a year at the London College of Printing on a far less prestigious vocational diploma course.

I feel absolutely no need to apologise for this. In between my idling I developed myself in an environment that encouraged the broadest form of learning that had nothing whatsoever to do with the course - by undirected reading on my own initiative in the libraries and by contact with other enquiring minds. I think that constitutes the very best of what is meant by the old-fashioned term of a 'liberal' education. And I'm sure that students at unglamourous  former polytechnics studying media or gender studies - or any other of the subjects that are snootily scoffed at now - go through exactly the same journey. They come out more rounded individuals, more enquiring, more rational and altogether more open-minded than when they went in. And a civilised progressive society needs this - every bit as much as it needs the obvious doctors, engineers and scientists.

The ConDem  cabinet who yesterday put higher education just a bit further out of the reach of working class families know this full well. After all, it's why they studied humanities themselves. So they are not actually philistines - just  hypocrites and vicious snobs - they don't think that it should be for the likes of us.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Know Nothings triumphant

At what might be the high-tide of the Tea Party movement in the US mid-term  elections yesterday I can't help recalling a previous US political force with a similarly stupid name - the Know Nothing Party of the 1850's.

It's said that America is a land without irony, and the name is supposed to come from the movement's underground origins - when supporters were encouraged to respond 'I know nothing' if quizzed about their activities - these activities often being the violent intimidation of immigrant communities. But they also came to revel in their name and take pride in the down-to-earth folksiness it implied. (Shades of Sarah Palin ?)

Primarily the Know Nothings were a 'nativist' movement - on what we today call a populist right-wing anti-immigrant platform. Their main target were the large number of Irish Catholic immigrants who flooded to the US in the wake of the famines of the 1840's. Their hostility was also extended to any other European newcomers who threatened to upset the Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony with their 'un-Americanism'. At the height of their success they even re-branded themselves as the 'American Party'.

They had their moment with election success in the 1854 election but they rapidly declined as they split along Northern and Southern lines over the slavery issue in the years running up to the civil war. It's therefore  tempting to dismiss their significance, but in fact they did have a lasting legacy in speeding the demise of the old rather patrician Whig Party and the rise of the populist new Republican party in its place. And ironically in the reconstruction period their ideas were revived to fuel the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan.

And I also can't help thinking  that the Tea Party probably see themselves as fitting  comfortably into this tradition...

Monday 1 November 2010

The joy of fixing stuff

Every now and then a book comes along that you feel is the book you could have - should have - written and Matthew Crawford's is one of them.  Not so much because it  is especially  insightful but just because it comes so close to my own experience: Crawford has  followed a similar career path to me - a supposedly  'elite' academic background  that was then  followed by  a career where he learned a practical trade. His trade - motorcycle mechanics - is only a hobby for me but I  completely identify with the unsurpassed feeling of pride and satisfaction  he describes when a once dead engine fires up.

Essentially the thesis of the book is that there is a false dichotomy between academic and practical education -  at the expense of the latter.   'Knowledge'-based white-collar jobs are actually as subject to the mind-numbing de-skilling that once characterised factory production-lines.  And that true happiness lies in the trades - particularly those that are community based and focus on 'fixing stuff' - like mechanics, carpentry, plumbing and building. 

Crawford argues that  tradesmen in these sectors actually get to exercise the intellectual disciplines of deduction and hypothesis  more than graduate  middle-managers whose functions largely consist of reinforcing  the 'culture' of their employers' organisations and the repetition of low-level administrative tasks. He shies away from the term 'craftsmnship' seeing it as laden with sentimental associations, but he comes very close to the ground covered by Richard Sennet in the Craftsman - although with a more personalised slant.

Crawford's weakness is that he steers clear of the other C-word - Capitalism: The devaluation of work he describes is very close to the classic Marxist theory of Alienation -  and in fact he draws quite heavily on the work of the Marxist sociologist Braverman. But ultimately the author is a Jeffersonian Democrat who sees civic virtue in a community of small scale artisans. He rejects the idea of surplus value and the exploitation of labour by capital - and sees the main problem for the worker - in business or industry - as  a disconnection with the community of his consumers.

For this reason, whilst  the book serves as good career advice, it is of  less value  on a  societal level: We can't all be tradesman in community based service sectors - and so the kind of happiness that Crawford describes can only be achieved by a small minority. 

My own experience confirms this - I enjoyed the exploration of abstract thought in my academic education, but I equally enjoyed the practical learning of my later vocational training. I choose a career in the printing industry based on the belief that  it  was  more 'real' and bullshit-free than either the options of corporate middle-management or public sector administration that are the more usual pathways for humanities graduates..

Unfortunately  the industry I choose is not community-based but depends on big businesses, and has been de-skilled by technology. With the result that we are being replaced by software and  'off-shored' to wherever labour is cheaper.  So ironically  I now spend more and more of my time using the skills of bullshitting that turned me off academia in the first place, in a rearguard defence of what we have - arguing our worth to corporate reptiles. But  the few remaining enjoyable parts of my work still  lie in using my technical and deductive abilities to forensically deconstruct a job that has gone wrong - or as Crawford would put in - solving and fixing. 

I just wish I was better at motorcycle mechanics ....

Friday 29 October 2010

Death of a radical action hero.

Ironically just a few days after the anniversary of the Putney Debates in 1647, comes the anniversary of the assassination in 1648 of one of its most prominent radical protagonists - Colonel Thomas Rainsborough.

His life was that of a  swash-buckling hero and a political visionary. Every movement needs its heroes and Rainsborough more than fits the bill:

Born into a naval family from Wapping, Ranisborough was a ship's master in the heavily puritan-influenced navy. With the outbreak of civil war the 'Royal' Navy came out solidly in support of the parliamentary cause and Rainsborough commanded the frigate Swallow in a number of actions against Royalist privateers. He was also involved in raiding parties on land and played a part in the lifting of the seige at Hull. By 1645 he had transferred to the army and commanded a regiment of infantry in the New Model Army, which he led at Naesby, Langport, Worcester and Bristol. 

Rainsborough had been heavily influenced by the radical ideas  of the Levellers and in addition to his military duties he also became the MP for Droitwich. Whilst he was at Westminister away from his regiment, it mutinied at the threat that it would be disbanded by parliament - dominated at the time by Presbyterian faction who were looking to negotiate a compromise settlement with the king and so wanted to weaken the radicalised army. 

In what was a pivotal moment Rainsborough returned to his regiment to support his troops. He led a number of regiments to march on London to prevent the prospect of a Presbyerian counter-revolution which in the troops eyes threatened to throw away the gains they had made  - and in parliament  he proposed the 'Vote Of No Address' which pledged no more negotiations with the king. 

However in doing so Rainsborough not only drew a line in the sand between himself and the Prebyterians he also made an enemy of Cromwell and the army grandees of the Independent faction. Although more resolute than the Presbyterians in their opposition to the king, they still were far from the democratic position of the army rank and file. At the Putney debates, Rainsborough emerged as the highest-ranking and most influential Leveller spokesman - arguing for a position of republican government and universal male suffrage.

This probably sealed his fate, and from then it was clear that Cromwell wanted him out of the way. Rainsborough returned to the navy - whic by then were dominated by the Presbyterians - and he was ignominiously put ashore by his crew who refused to serve under him.  Returning to the army he successfully commanded a new regiment in the Second Civil War, defeating the Royalists at Colchetser, but he was then sent to take command of the armies in the North, as far away from the centre of events in London as possible.

Whilst on his way, he was assassinated by Royalist agents who managed to smuggle themselves into his lodgings in Donacaster. Conspiracy theories abound and it is widely believed that Cromwell  connived in his killing - it was certainly a most convenient death  - and in many ways marked the high water mark of the Leveller movement.

And as an epilogue: He was given a Leveller funeral and  the streets of London  were lined with mourners wearing green - the colour of English radicalism until it was replaced by the symbol of red imported by European socialist exiles.  This may be the origin - rather than the Irish nationalist connection - of the English folk-song 'all around my hat I will wear the green ribbon'. 

• Picture of Rainsborough from the BBC's costume drama 'The Devils Whore' which appropriately mixed a bit of bodice-ripping romance with a bit of history and a sprinkling of radicalism.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Made In England

Back when we were the 'workshop of the world',  'Made In England' was a bench mark of quality. A slow and painful  decline in our manufacturing base, with a finishing stroke from Thatcherism put paid to all that, and all we hear about now is outsourcing to  'leaner' (possibly a euphemism for hungrier ?) producers in China and India.

But in one area at least it appears that the knowledge that a product is  'Made In England' is sufficient to ensure that no more questions are asked - the manufacture of lethal drugs for use in judicial killings.

Jeffrey Landrigan was executed in Arizona - this week  after having been sentenced to death in 1989. As so often in these cases  there had been a successions of appeals and reversals , including the original sentencing judge saying that she would not have given him the death penalty if she had known  full extent ofLandrigan's congenital brain damage.

The last appeal had been granted on the grounds that the anaesthetic - Sodium Thiopental - the first of three drugs administered in lethal injection executions, was from an unknown source. There has been  a  shortage since the  US manufacturer of the drug  -  Hospira - have made it know that they are not to happy about it being used in executions, and so a number of US states have been importing the drug. And because the source of the drug was unknown, its 'quality'  couldn't be assured, and it might  therefore constitute a 'cruel and unusual punishment' - and so an illegitimate execution. 

The  Arizona Attorney General argued that they had the right to keep the anonymity  of their overseas supplier, citing legislation used to protect the identity of the officials who preside over executions. However he did say that the drug had been sourced from the UK - and on this basis it was deemed that it was a reliable source and therefore the Supreme Court overturned the appeal and allowed the execution to go ahead.

The identity of this UK supplier has still not been announced- although it appears that there is only one known manufacturer in this country - Archimedes Pharama UK. Although it is of course possible (and will no doubt be argued) that they were unaware of  the intended use when they supplied it. I couldn't possibly comment.

There is an obscene sophistry at every stage of this story:  A man with brain damage kept on death row for over 20 years; arguments over what constitutes 'cruel and unusual punishment' - even a truly bizarre suggestion that the 'weapons' used in judicial killings in future should require FDA approval ! And all this so that western democracies can sleep soundly  - and smugly - whilst condemning the uncivilised practises of stoning or garroting.

Monday 25 October 2010

Soldiers and radicals.

The anniversary this week  (28th Oct to 9th Nov) of one of the most extraordinary and significant episodes in English history - the Putney debates of 1647. 

With the First Civil War effectively over, Charles Stuart in prison, and the ranks of the New Model Army in radical ferment, the leaders of the parliamentary armies - the Grandees -  under pressure of their own troops on the verge of mutiny, convened a week of meetings with the rank-and-file, essentially to discuss  'what kind of victory' ?

The debates have been much recorded and analysed - with on one hand  the position of the Grandees, favouring some sort of constitutional compromise with a monarchy controlled by 'godly' men of property,  summed up by Ireton:  'no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom... that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.' 

 And on the other, that of the Leveller-influenced  'Agitators' - famously articulated by Rainsborough: 'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he ... every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under'.

A few days later the debates ended when the king escaped from captivity - and in the end,  following the regicide,  a brief  republican interlude, the repression of the Levellers, and two more subsequent civil wars, it could be said that it was a version of Ireton's vision that triumphed. 

But perhaps what was most extraordinary was that the debates happened at all:  The army leaders would have been happy to have had a loyal army defeat the royalists militarily, then be paid-off  and go home - thereby permitting  a negotiated constitutional settlement.  But in five years of civil war they had come to rely on forces they couldn't control and so - in an early example of proto-Permanent Revolution - the masses had entered on to the stage to push the process of change far beyond the realms of what was initially envisaged. 

As a footnote -  it is impossible to avoid drawing a parallel with the 'Soldiers' Parlaiment' convened in 1944 in Cairo by the British Eighth Army: Some of these troops had been posted overseas for three or four years and they had been radicalised by their involvement with liberation movements in Greece, Italy and the Balkans. 

Their 'mock' parliament again debated 'what kind of victory?' - and in answer elected a  Socialist/Communist coalition 'governement' and passed 'legislation' nationalising the heights of the economy - actually going beyond Labour's platform  in the landslide 1945 election.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Tory pay-back time

There were  obscene cheers from the Tory benches after Osbourne had delivered  the CSR yesterday. Shadow chancellor Alan Johnson was quite right in putting their unconcealed glee down to  the long-awaited fulfillment of a Tory ideological vision. 

Forget their home-spun bullshit about diligent housekeeping - the Tories have never liked the welfare state and generally think that the working masses perform better without a safety net - presumably it sharpens our attention.

It has always been so: The welfare state's origins do not lie in the  1945 Labour Government, but - ironically - in Lloyd George's Liberal government before the Great War.

The Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, the People's Budget of 1909, and  the National Insurance Act of 1911 were the building blocks of the benefits system.  Lloyd Gerorge talked about moving out of 'the shadow of the work-house'. In truth the reforms came about largely because the Liberals were leaning on the support of a newly-enfranchised working class, political allies in the embryonic Labour Party, and reacting under the pressure of an upsurge in trade union militancy.

They were modest measures, applying to only certain sections of the 'deserving' working class -  and generally they had some sort of contributory angle. But the Tories fought them tooth and nail, perceiving a threat to undermine western civilisation - or at least free market capitalism. And using their in-built majority in the House Of Lords they took the country to the brink of constitutional crisis.

This history matters - don't imagine for a moment that these people don't have long memories: 

When I heard the news  that Thatcher had been taken in to  hospital my first thought was that she can die happy now knowing that the work she began 25 years ago  - declaring war on 'society' - is now well on it's way to being done.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Let them eat cake

This is the list of shame: The fat-cat chairmen of 35 top UK companies who have publically come out in a letter to the Daily Tory-graph to support the ConDem's austerity programme - And to hurry up and do it quick; because they just can't wait for the working class to be made to pay for the mess that their boardroom-bonus guzzling mates have got us in to. Fuckers - one and all:

Will Adderley - CEO, Dunelm Group
Robert Bensoussan - Chairman, L.K. Bennett
Andy Bond - Chairman, ASDA
Ian Cheshire - Chief Executive, Kingfisher
Gerald Corbett - Chairman, SSL International,, Britvic
Peter Cullum - Executive Chairman, Towergate
Tej Dhillon - Chairman and CEO, Dhillon Group
Philip Dilley - Chairman, Arup
Charles Dunstone - Chairman, Carphone Warehouse Group Chairman, TalkTalk Telecom Group
Warren East - CEO, ARM Holdings
Gordon Frazer - Managing Director, Microsoft UK
Sir Christopher Gent - Non-Executive Chairman, GlaxoSmithKline
Ben Gordon - Chief Executive, Mothercare
Anthony Habgood - Chairman, Whitbread  - Chairman, Reed Elsevier
Aidan Heavey - Chief Executive, Tullow Oil
Neil Johnson - Chairman, UMECO
Nick Leslau - Chairman, Prestbury Group
Ian Livingston - CEO, BT Group
Ruby McGregor-Smith - CEO, MITIE Group
Rick Medlock - CFO, Inmarsat; Non-Executive Director, The Betting Group
John Nelson - Chairman, Hammerson
Stefano Pessina - Executive Chairman, Alliance Boots
Nick Prest - Chairman, AVEVA
Nick Robertson - CEO, ASOS
Sir Stuart Rose - Chairman, Marks & Spencer
Tim Steiner - CEO, Ocado
Andrew Sukawaty - Chairman and CEO, Inmarsat
Michael Turner - Executive Chairman, Fuller, Smith and Turner
Moni Varma - Chairman, Veetee
Paul Walker - Chief Executive, Sage
Paul Walsh - Chief Executive, Diageo
Robert Walters - CEO, Robert Walters
Joseph Wan - Chief Executive, Harvey Nichols
Bob Wigley - Chairman, Expansys, Stonehaven Associates, Yell Group
Simon Wolfson - Chief Executive, Next