Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for November, 2014|Monthly archive page

LEFT INSIDE: Labour Wobble

In C.Spiby on November 11, 2014 at 1:14 pm

An early un-edited edition of my next Clarion article (in print in the Dec 2014/Jan 2015 edition, if not pulled before then!)

It’s time for One Nation Labour to set out its electoral stall for real now. Scotland has force the point, chased hotly by doubts over Ed Miliband’s ability to lead our party or being a suitable Prime Minister.

Scotland – and in particular the huge turnout of the Independence referendum – has given Westminster-based politics the kick up the arse voters knew it desperately needed.

Now there’s a leadership contest there and it proves to be shaping what Scottish Labour ought to look like and represent. Is it just a branch of Parliamentary Labour or something distinct in the Labour movement in Scotland?

Clarion readers will probably agree that the latter might also prove the kick up the arse our Parliamentary Labour Party needs to become meaningful for the electorate.

Given a meaningful choice on Independence, the voters demonstrated they are hungry to engage in proper change. Indeed, I doubt whether a remote branch in Scotland was what John Robertson and Jim Sillars had in mind when they first set-up the breakaway the Scottish Labour Party back in 1976. Instead they sought to be a voice distinct from Westminster.

I believe there’s appetite for more of that kind of independent thinking within Labour, and furthermore we can have that without having to abandon our Party. In fact, I’d wage it might be a way to electoral success.

I certainly witnessed this desire for local distinction among some of our number in the 2015 District Council Forest of Dean CLP Manifesto Drafting Group which I had the honour to lead. But this doesn’t have to be a binary thing: you can follow Labour Party principles and rules and still have a distinctive voice in local politics. In fact, I rather think it’s what the electorate expect of us.

Difference and choice are vital to voters. I am reminded of what George Monbiot once told me in an interview…

“Its mainstream parliamentary party politics we’re all pissed off with. You can choose between the party of big business and bombing, or the party of big business and bombing.”

It’s in looking for new choices that some have been persuaded by the shadowy repulsiveness of UKIP. We need to demonstrate that our Party and our local candidate, and indeed local and country councillors offer the electorate meaningful choice, not just more of the same.

The defence for the leadership of Milliband is mostly characterised by the principle of having to stick with the choice made a couple of years ago at the Leadership Election. But by that logic we would allow Ed Miliband to do virtually anything to destroy our movement before we’d kicked him into touch. Although I’m not saying he has or will destroy Labour, I’m just questioning the principled stand of permissiveness just for the sake of a principled stand. To me that’s not much of a defence.

The argument also goes that ‘we’re only 6 months away from an election!’ Agreed, not a desirable time to switch leadership. But again, says who? Based on what? If there’s evidence that the leader is not polling well when actually he should be at his strongest (into the final term of opposition) then that is an argument for decisive change not capitulation. If total unity isn’t the current, it won’t appear just because we’re running out of time. What you’ll get instead is internal maneuvering for the post-defeat Labour Party. Put another way, sticking with an unelectable leader just because we’re running out of time is not a good reason to stick with an unelectable leader.

The final argument appears to be that there’s no willing or able candidate to replace Miliband. Is the shadow cabinet really so moribund to not one capable shadow minister willing to stand up for our movement? I don’t think it is. So that too is a false defence.

If the NHS is the one binding element of our campaign which universally moves British people of voting age, then clearly the robust, capable and comparatively natural leader is the person leading that part of campaign: Andy Burnham. I’d support that move in a second, and I think the British people would too.

Voters would see a Labour Party willing to listen to the public (in their dislike of Miliband) and make meaningful change. If Burnham is seen as the saviour of the NHS in austerity, then he might just save our movement and the legacy of Labour. It should also guarantee us success at the next election.

True, a Burnham Labour won’t take us back to the manifesto of Michael Foot in 1983, but it wouldn’t be New Labour either.

Those who agree with my general argument might also take heart that when asked during the local Parliamentary candidate hustings as which member of the current shadow cabinet did he/she most admire or ally themselves with, our chosen candidate – Steve Parry-Hearn – cited Andy Burnham.

Andy BurnhamNOTE: The views expressed in this column are the personal views of C. Spiby and not the Forest of Dean Labour Party or Steve Parry-Hearn.

REVIEW / SYNOPSIS: Hannah Arendt

In Guest Feature, Reviews on November 11, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Yasemin Sari offers a review of the film ‘Hannah Arendt’ (2012 – now available on DVD) and in doing so gives us an overview of Arendt’s most important work. Sourced & edited by C. Spiby, this article first appeared in Philosophy Now, issue 100 in a slightly different format. 

A man walks a dark road. And is kidnapped. That man is Adolf Eichmann, ex-SS officer, Nazi bureaucrat and one of the architects of the Holocaust. He is captured in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents. It is 1961.

A woman stares at the ceiling, smoking a cigarette. This is Hannah Arendt, thinking.

Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic Hannah Arendt hit the big screen on the 50th anniversary of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt first published it in The New Yorker as a series of articles following Eichmann’s trial at the District Court of Jerusalem in 1961. This work occupies a special place in Arendt’s corpus, as it appeared after her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958), but before her masterful investigation into how we think, The Life of the Mind (published posthumously in 1978).

In the Origins, Arendt analyzes the circumstances which give rise of totalitarianism, while in The Human Condition, she posits the idea that political action is the freedom-manifesting self-disclosing action of the individual in concert with others, grounded in conditions of plurality and equality. Both of these works stand at the core of her political theory.

Her Eichmann book is a fact-based report that presents a reflective political judgment about a man and his deeds, while The Life of the Mind is the culmination of her thinking, where she presents the activities of the mind; that is, of thinking, willing, and judging. The chapter on judging was never completed but we get an insight into how she differentiates thinking and judging and the relationship between them that is significant for understanding Hannah Arendt the public thinker. And without any reservation, I can say that von Trotta’s film aims at capturing the relationship between thinking and judging for Hannah Arendt (played by Barbara Sukowa).

Arendt the Public Thinker

‘Where are we when we think?’ is one of the central questions Arendt poses in The Life of the Mind. Although this question focuses on an invisible activity, one of the central tenets of Arendt’s work on thought concerns spatiality and how this relates to the significance of appearance in human life. As she says:

“Mental activities are invisible themselves, and… become manifest only through speech. Just as appearing beings living in a world of appearances have an urge to show themselves, so thinking beings, which still belong to the world of appearances even after they have mentally withdrawn from it, have an urge to speak and thus to make manifest what otherwise would not be a part of the appearing world at all.” (The Life of the Mind, p.98)

For Arendt, thought is manifest in conversation. Conversation happens at two levels: one personal, and the other interpersonal. In thinking, we are in a dialogue with ourselves. Thoughtlessness, then, for Hannah Arendt, is the absence of inner dialogue. This thoughtlessness, in turn, leads to the absence of judgment, which is a ‘moral collapse’.

And Von Trotta does a brilliant job in depicting Arendt’s conversations. We see with almost every significant character in her life: Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer), someone with whom she shares private thoughts; her husband Heinrich Bluecher (Axel Milberg), whose love and companionship is revealed not only by words but also by expressive gestures and kisses; and with her old friend Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), whom she listens to, laughs and argue with, and seeks to be heard by.

This movie is about a particular period in Arendt’s life, and its mastery is in showing us that where she stands cannot be understood without understanding where she has come from and what she has left behind.

The relationship between her present and past features in three flashback scenes where we see her conversing with her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), who later joined the Nazis. In Heidegger’s office in Marburg, we see him tell the young student Arendt, that, “thinking is a lonely business.”

By contrast the film brings to life Arendt view that thought is meaningful only when it is heard in public.

The culmination of the quest for meaning comes when Arendt delivers a lecture. We hear her talk about the inability to think and its outcomes while at the same time showing her own courage to speak to the world:

“In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true, I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”

Politics & Judgment

The only recorded appearance we have of Arendt is her famous television interview with Günter Gaus in 1964, in which she claims that she is not a philosopher. This statement has been interpreted in several ways. I contend that there is a simple way to understand it.

Firstly, Arendt meant she was a critic of traditional political philosophy. Her criticism lies in her questioning the ‘ideal’ elements found in certain political doctrines starting from Plato and culminating in Marx and Hegel. Unlike them, Arendt didn’t offer us a vision of a future state of human society stemming from some ideal-directed (‘teleological’) understanding of history or human behaviour.

Secondly, Arendt did not propose an ideal theory of politics because she didn’t believe that ‘politics’ or ‘the political’ even exists as an ideal, abstract entity. Instead, politics, or the political, exists only insofar as it exists between human beings (see Promise of Politics, p.95).

Arendt contends that ‘the political’ is not an inherent quality of any action or thing, she herself thinks politically insofar as she thinks with others or about the ‘in-between’ of our existence together. (This ‘in-between’ concerns the conditions of living together, which binds and separates us at the same time, yet where we are aware that we share the world with each other.) This ‘political’ thinking can only appear meaningfully in public, since it is thinking with others. Here one reflectively judges what is happening in the world around her. Such reflective judgment enables us to understand the world and what kind of world we want to be part of.

hannah-arendtSo plurality is a condition for thinking in this sense, and this thinking is a precondition for judging. Adolf Eichmann, however, did not think; hence, he did not judge. In turn, through his actions, he demonstrated what Arendt infamously labelled “the banality of evil.” Here she put forth neither a general rule nor a philosophical thesis concerning the nature of evil, but rather, an explanation of a particular phenomenon in order to show how this instance of evil was possible. Von Trotta forcefully presents Arendt’s judgment as she is conversing with her old Zionist friend Blumenfeld, and says: “Eichmann is no Mephistopheles.”

Eichmann’s evil consisted in its banality. It was not condemnable because of its demonic (non-human) qualities, for his evil was not demonic. It was, however, still un-human in the sense that in the absence of his thought this human being had no presence to himself. Arendt’s term ‘banality of evil’ in no way excuses Eichmann’s actions: they were evil, and they led to a vast genocide, and he was responsible for what he had done. He did not stand in indifference, nor did he resist. He acted, in Arendt’s words “without motives” – which points to the absence of an inner dialogue with himself. Von Trotta’s use of newly-found original footage from the trial emphasizes the particularity of Arendt’s judgment, and how she saw the man, whom she judged to be a ‘nobody’.

Judging Arendt

There is an argument throughout the film about what kind of a person Hannah Arendt was: how she lived, thought, wrote, spoke, and smoked.

She cherished her relationship with her loved ones, and found this to be at the root of her existence. We see the importance of this in a scene where her husband tries to leave the house without interrupting her while she’s writing. He says that philosophers should not be interrupted while they are thinking, and she replies, “But they cannot think without kisses.”

Arendt responded to the world around her in her quest for truth – not for eternal truth(s), but for the meaning found in one’s judgment of what appears to them. Many critics have taken issue with her shift from her analysis of the Nazi terror as ‘radical evil’ in The Origins of Totalitarianism to her later idea, the ‘banality of evil’, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. As we see in the film, this judgment on Eichmann was welcomed neither by Arendt’s close circle of friends, nor by the Jewish community, nor by The New Yorker readership at large. She was accused by Gershom Scholem of not loving the Jewish people (in the film these words are uttered by Kurt Blumenfeld, at what we understand to be his deathbed). To this Arendt replies, “I only love my friends. This is the only love I am capable of.”

As she makes clear in The Life of the Mind, thinking is a faculty of the mind, and the mind is different from the soul that moves us, as the seat of the passions. For Arendt, lack of human sentiment was not enough to explain evil. Our shared world can only be meaningful and good when we can be seen and heard by others. The principle of this involves not sentiment, but thought, whose reality can only tangibly appear in conversation, maintained only through our public use of reason. What Arendt does by way of Eichmann’s trial is to argue that evil lies not in the passions of a monster, but rather, in Eichmann’s inability to reason with and for himself.

This film urges us to think, to reason and it shows us that the stakes are high. One needs to have the courage to think, and to make one’s thoughts public. Von Trotta shows us that Arendt would have been unlikely to give up this courage. To Heinrich Bluecher’s question as to whether she would have written what she had written had she known the consequences, she replies, “Yes,” and so affirms her responsibility to the world.

© Yasemin Sari 2014

Yasemin Sari is working on Arendt for her PhD at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Thanks to Yasemin and all at Philosophy Now for their permission in reprinting this article.

REVIEWS: ‘Writings Against the First World War’ & Harveys ‘lost’ novel

In A.Graham, John Wilmot, Reviews on November 11, 2014 at 12:29 pm

“Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War”, edited by AW Zurbrugg. Published by Merlin Press, 2014.
{review by John Wilmot}

The First World War was noted – certainly during that first year of conflict before war-weariness set in – for an upsurge of patriotic excitement and flag waving that, in same cases went beyond mere fervour, often approaching something akin to hysteria. How else could one explain the burning and looting of German shops and property when hostility commenced?

But there was an anti-war movement that stood firm and declared that it was “Not Our War”. This book consists of a range of anti-war writings and declarations. It’s only natural that the majority should come from the Socialist or Anarchist left, or the pacifist movement. Many take the form of lengthy manifestos, from the pens of such committed individuals as Lenin or Keir Hardie. Others though are brief calls from the heart.

The war, of course, split the Socialist movement. Many Labour leaders (no doubt after some soul searching) across Europe chose to support the war, weakening any chances of international solidarity.

But there were many, many, more across the theatre of conflict who maintained their anti-war stance – even in Germany. Eventually, as the carnage took its toll, the unrest in Russia led to the uprising that put Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power in 1917. And, of course, the Easter rising in Dublin in 1916 grew out of Ireland’s anti-war movement and the conditions created by the war. Meanwhile, there were strikes and mutinies across the board.

The quotes are divided into sections which are prefaced by commentaries to introduce each of them. These help to explain the context in which these defiant declarations by those opposing the madness of the conflict were being made. They are, in so many cases, cries of opposition to those who created and fuelled what was essentially an imperialist war.

John Wilmot.

WILL HARVEY’S LOST NOVEL

Forest of Dean poet, F.W. Harvey wrote only one novel, and that was never published in his lifetime.

But then the neglected manuscript came to light, and finally it’s appeared in print – under the title The Lost Novel of F.W. Harvey (published by The History Press, price £12.99).

In many ways it’s a strange novel. It’s semi-autobiographical, taking us through the hero’s childhood with his parents and brother Eric, on to the trenches of the First World War, serving in the Gloucestershire Regiment.

The harsh reality of the conflict has its effect on the young hero. But here the action becomes somewhat surreal. He meets up with a young gypsy girl who disguises herself as a fellow soldier. They are both captured – but after they escape from captivity in a German prison of war camp they head for the Dutch border and freedom, falling in love on the journey – until she leaves him to travel the roads alone again.

Altogether, it’s a bit of a curiosity. There are sections that are lucid and well written, but it becomes increasingly difficult to swallow. And though it does draw strongly on the writer’s own life, the chronology is distorted – and the gypsy lover is wholly fictional (one might almost suggest that she’s a myth).

Will Harvey was taken prisoner during the war – but he never escaped, engaging himself instead in helping to produce a PoW newspaper. Incidentally, the book has also been turned into a play, Will Harvey’s War, which was performed at the Everyman theatre, Cheltenham, at the beginning of August. It possibly came over better on the stage than it does as a book, despite the minimalist stage settings.

Incidentally, the book was turned down by a number of publishers before Harvey gave up on it and buried the manuscript in a desk draw. But it remains an interesting curiosity.

AG

PUTTING OUR HEALTH SERVICE TO RIGHTS: a new document

In A.Graham on November 11, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Since the passing of the Health and Social Care Act, our NHS has lurched towards crisis and fragmentation. And privatisation of the service has continued relentlessly, to the point where Andy Burnham (Labour Party spokesman) has called for a halt until the election. He fears that by next May there will be little left of the NHS apart from a hollow shell.

But now, Professor Allyson Pollock and Peter Roderick have published a paper entitled “The proposed NHS Reinstatement Bill”. It takes the form of a Parliamentary White Paper and is open for consultation by all those concerned at the state of our Health Service.

It starts from the premise that the rot set in some time ago – during the grim years when Thatcher was in power, and continued through the years when Blair was PM.  As the authors say, “the Bill proposes to reverse 25 years of  marketisation in the NHS by abolishing the purchaser-provider split, re-establishing public bodies and fully restoring the NHS in England as an accountable public service.”

The document itself runs to some 50 pages, but in summary, the proposals are as follows.

  • Reinstate the Government’s duty to provide the NHS in England,
  • re-establish District Health Authorities, with Family Health Services Committees to administer arrangements with GPs,  dentists and others,
  • abolish marketised bodies such as NHS trusts, NHS foundation trusts and clinical commissioning groups, as well as “Monitor”, the regulator of NHS foundation trusts and commercial companies,
  • end virtually all commissioning and allow commercial companies to provide services only if the NHS could not do so  when otherwise patients would suffer,
  • abolish competition,
  • re-establish Community Health Councils to represent the interests of the public in the NHS,
  • stop licence conditions taking effect which have been imposed by Monitor on NHS foundation trusts, that will have the effect of reducing by April 2016 the number of services that they currently have to provide,
  • bring the terms and conditions of staff employed in providing NHS services under the NHS Staff Council,
  • prohibit ratification of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and other international treaties without the approval of Parliament  (and the devolved bodies) if they would cover the NHS.
  • re-establish Community Health Councils to represent the interests of the public in the NHS,
  • stop licence conditions taking effect which have been imposed by Monitor on NHS foundation trusts, that will have the effect of reducing by April 2016 the number of services that they currently have to provide,
  • bring the terms and conditions of staff employed in providing NHS services under the NHS Staff Council,
  • prohibit ratification of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and other international treaties without the approval of Parliament  (and the devolved bodies) if they would cover the NHS.

The document is, naturally enough, written in legalistic language – but from the brief summary the thrust of the document is clear. Indeed, Nye Bevan and early pioneers of our Health Service would recognise the spirit in which these points are made and agree with them.

Such a Bill would restore overall Government responsibility for the NHS as a duty to us all. It would re-introduce a structure of democratic control over the Health Service (much of which was abolished by Thatcher), and eliminate market forces from a service that was set up to serve the people.

The authors are calling for consultation on their paper (which is available from the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health, Queen Mary, University of London).  Or the authors can be contacted at: p.roderick@qmul.ac.uk   or a.pollock@qmul.ac.uk

Responses should be sent before the 15th December 20124.

THE COST OF OUTSOURCING:

Serco, the company that loves to gobble up Government contracts, has been accused of overcharging the NHS by millions of pounds for “services provided”.

The hospitals affected are Guy’s and St. Thomas’s, both in London where Serco overcharged for services to hospital laboratories – run by Viapath. Such overcharging ran over a number of years, though Viapath say that the problem has “now been resolved”.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health has said that “all providers of services to NHS patients, whether independent or NHS providers, are required to meet the same high standards on patient care and financial control.”

Well, it would say that – wouldn’t it?

CLARION COMMENT: That referendum – how it could affect us

In Editorial on November 11, 2014 at 11:55 am

The Scottish referendum debate dominated the news coverage over the first few weeks in September. Arguments, analysis and the ubiquitous opinion polls swayed back backwards and forwards right up until polling day on Thursday, 18th September.

It may possibly be that there are some folk in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley who weren’t much interested. Or perhaps wondered whether it was any concern to those of us living in our neck of the woods. After all, Scotland’s a long way away – so what’s it got to do with us? Now, if it had been Wales seeking independence, that would have been a different matter. Whichever side of the border we lived, we’d have been caught in the thick of it. But that’s not on the cards, is it?

But the Scottish referendum, and its results did, at least implicitly, affect us here.  It’s not just the state of the union and its possible impact  – though this might well have been of concern to some (particularly if your name was David Cameron). But it’s the kind of way that we, in the remoter regions of England, are governed.  Who pulls the strings? What kind of control (if any) do we who live between the Severn and the Wye have over our lives?  What kind of political decisions can we make?

Less and less, it would seem. Power, both political and financial, is being increasingly centralised, with decisions made in London dominating, possibly even suffocating, all of us.

Local government is increasingly emasculated as its powers to act meaningfully are stripped away – or privatised. It was of course a process that began during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, but it has accelerated under the present Lib Dem government. So in these circumstances, is there a case for establishing a structure of regional (even provincial?) government to reassert a level of more localised participation and, more importantly, control?

Stimulated particularly by the debate in Scotland, such a possibility is already being discussed in many parts of England.  In Yorkshire, for example, there have been meetings to discuss the feasibility of regional government in the north east of England. One spokesman declared that there was a “need to say it loud and clear – devolution to the north must be on (the) same basis as Wales and Scotland (and the Greater London Assembly) – not unaccountable combined authorities run by the same old faces. Regional assemblies elected by PR working with strong, community-focused local government” (Paul Salveson, from Huddersfield).

Some (though by no means all) of the arguments used during the Scottish referendum debate have a resonance here. Particularly those concerned with the ability to control, or at least influence, social and economic decisions at a more local level, or to fit the needs of the regions concerned.  And the campaign overall generated a sense of involvement and enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen on the political scene for nearly seventy years.

As for regionalism as a concept, it might be that it’s an issue that divides opinion. But it’s interesting that even those on the right (ie, amongst the Tories) are now talking about it. And the Lib Dems have suddenly claimed that it’s a concept that they’ve always believed in.  But we suspect that in practice it might be somewhat different from the ideas put forward by those on the left.

SCOTLAND’S REFERENDUM:

In Scotland, the referendum campaign is now over – and the call for full independence has been rejected by a fairly narrow margin (some 46 per cent of the electorate voted Yes, against over 50 per cent who plumped for a No vote).

But what was significant was the size of the vote. It averaged out at over 80 per cent of those on the electoral register, rising to over 90 per cent in some districts.  These were percentages that many politicians this side of the border could only dream of!

The second point is that it was a campaign that engaged so many of the electorate, with a passion that’s usually lacking in elections. The “No” campaign, after a lacklustre start characterised by negative campaigning and doom-laden threats, finally managed to galvanise itself  – thanks interestingly to the intervention of a re-vitalised Gordon Brown.

It’s perhaps only natural that defending the status quo would be difficult (particularly the unedifying sight of Labour leaders on the campaign trail shoulder to shoulder with Tory counterparts like Cameron) .

But the campaign certainly galvanised the Scots. There may well be a sense of temporary demoralisation amongst “Yes” campaigners, but in the longer term it’s an issue that won’t go away. And if the extra powers belatedly promised to the Scottish Parliament are actually delivered, then a victory of sorts will still have been achieved.

Which brings us back to the notion of devolution for us in England. Worth campaigning for, or not?

BRING THE RAILWAYS BACK UNDER PUBLIC CONTROL!

In a powerfully presented article in a recent issue of The Observer Will Hutton argues that the present system of privatisation on the railways, with a short-term franchise system at its heart, offers passengers and the public the worst possible deal.

Fare levels are now the highest in Europe, as rail companies fleece passengers in order to maintain profit levels. Fares have risen by almost a quarter since 2010 – and are likely to rise by another 24 per cent over the next four years. This is “a poll tax on wheels”, declares Will Hutton. Even buying the right ticket is a minefield (as some Clarion readers will testify!).

He also makes the point that dividing up the network into a multitude of franchises was absurd. It was from the first, “a conceptual disaster”.

First, the railways are a natural monopoly. And second, the system of franchises encourages short-term thinking – making as much profit as possible whilst the franchise lasts, at minimal cost and investment.

Lastly, it was “crazy” to believe that running a public service, as the railways in effect are, could be achieved without any public subsidy.

EAST COAST MAINLINE:

Will Hutton cites East Coast Mainline as a success story, since it was brought back under public control. “Five years of public ownership and it is now the best run and most efficient operator, making a net surplus of £16 million for the taxpayer.”

And it’s reward? It’s to be sold off to a private company early next year.  So where do their profits go? Into overseas tax havens, suggests Will Hutton.

For example, “the ultimate owner of Virgin trains are Branson’s family trusts in the Virgin Islands. Operating in a tax haven allows him to move from business to business without massive tax liabilities.”

Hutton concludes that public services such as the railways are natural monopolies… and other countries respect that truth. Britain’s attempts to escape such a truth have been a costly debacle.

Incidentally, it’s ironic that one franchised company that operates locally, Arriva Trains, is actually owned by Deutsche Bahn – Germany’s state-owned railway system. Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?

EDUCATION MATTERS: Back to School

In R.Richardson on November 11, 2014 at 11:44 am

As the new school year begins, academies have been receiving more bad press, on both local and national levels.

Locally, both Lydney’s Dean Academy and the Forest Academy in Cinderford are now without sponsors. The E-Act academy chain suffered a series of poor Ofsted inspections and offloaded ten schools in February, including the Forest Academy.  Three months later, the Prospects Academies Trust relinquished the Dean Academy because it had “difficulty in providing the required support and services”.  Both schools are now on their own, but as they are now academies, neither of them can look to the Local Education Authority for support. But the respective Heads are putting a brave face on things, declaring that it will be business as usual.

ELSEWHERE:

The country’s biggest academies chain, the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), has been censured by Ofsted following a survey of twelve of its schools.  It found half of them to be “inadequate”.

Matthew Coffey, Ofsted’s chief operating officer, said that AET failed to provide the support that its schools needed.  This failure was due in part to a too-rapid expansion. It’s all particularly embarrassing for David Hoare, the newly appointed chair of Ofsted, as he’s currently a director of AET. It is of course a post that he’ll relinquish.

FREELY SELECTIVE:

Meanwhile, a new study by London University’s Institute of Education suggests that free schools (which can be set up by parents, groups or other bodies) are socially selective. Michael Gove, when he was promoting free schools insisted that they could help disadvantaged communities. In fact, says Mary Bousted (general secretary of the ATL), “Free schools have brought in selection by the back door…. dominated by children of the pushiest parents.” Fewer pupils at free schools are entitled to free school meals and more score highly in assessments for school readiness.

CONDEMNATION FOR NEW CURRICULUM:

The new National Curriculum which is being launched this academic year comes in for criticism from many quarters.  Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, declares that it has been written by government advisers and officials, not teachers.  The content, he says, is not “age appropriate”, and gives little opportunity for individual learning styles.

The timescale for implementation is one year only – much too short – and little thought has been given to how it will be rolled out in practical terms.

There is an interesting video on the NUT website, in which Christine Blower, general secretary of the union, voices her concerns about the “synthetic phonics” reading test which all children in year one will have to take.  It’s unpopular with teachers as well as other bodies including the UK Literacy Association.

It is yet another example of the lack of trust that the present Government has in teachers.

WHO’S PAYING FOR FREE SCHOOL MEALS?

A year ago Nick Clegg announced his scheme to provide free school meals to all four-to-seven year-olds. Even Dominic Cummings, a senior advisor, claimed that the scheme was “a gimmick” that had been “dreamt up on the back of a fag packet”.

Now it appears that the policy is seriously under-funded, with Councils facing a shortfall of over £25 million. They’re having to divert money away from repair programmes and from improving facilities. There are even fears that support services may be affected.

Kent County Council is the worst hit county. It has been allocated £2.7 million to carry out any necessary work to improve school kitchens – but a spokesman claims that £7 million would be a more realistic figure.

“FOR PROFIT”??!

Meanwhile our new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has set the cat amongst the pigeons by leaving the door ajar for state schools to be run for profit.

She said it was an idea that would have to be thought about “very carefully”. Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary, responded, “Parents will be alarmed … by the prospect of using state schools to generate dividends for shareholders.”

RUTH RICHARDSON

MODERN TIMES: the Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on November 11, 2014 at 11:35 am

Caught up in the NATO circus:

Well, the NATO summit jamboree in Newport has been and gone. The delegates have departed, the high security fences have been taken away, along with all those spooky black-uniformed cops.

I confess that I missed much of it. Whilst the delegates plus their entourages were flying in to Bristol airport, we were flying out – for a brief visit to Denmark to see family.

At the airport we failed to  see any of the delegates, so I wasn’t able to ask for any autographs. They were kept safely away in a separate part of the terminal.  But the place was still chock-a-block with police. No “low profile” for them it seems. Unlike me. I tried to mingle unobtrusively.

Whilst we were waiting for our Easyjet flight to Copenhagen, though, I did accidentally bump in to one large gun-toting cop. Briefly I felt cold metal jab into my ribs. I stuttered a quick apology and fled.

Meanwhile, our MP Mark Harper has described NATO as a force for “peace”. It’s no such thing of course. It was a product of the Cold War, an alliance of western powers to present a common armed response to the “Soviet threat”. In response, the other side formed the Warsaw Pact – and a dangerous nuclear arms race was initiated.

With the collapse of the USSR, any perceived need for NATO disappeared, one would’ve thought, into oblivion. It should have been quietly retired, but instead its backers have turned into a kind of roving police force ready to act on behalf of  its sponsors, wherever the fancy takes them

Having it in for the Co-op:

I was gob-smacked when I saw the front page of the Citizen back at the end of August.

Taking up the whole page was a piece headlined in red, “194,000”.  That, it said, was the “bill so far as council fends off Co-op’s Asda challenge.”

Beneath the headline was an artist’s picture of the giant Asda megastore planned for Cinderford. I don’t know how other folk reacted, but it scared me. Asda don’t build small. And it takes no prisoners.

It seems that the Citizen is telling us that it’s the Co-op’s fault that all this taxpayers’ cash has been spent.   In other words, the Co-op is not entitled to fight its corner against a giant that threatens the whole shopping centre of Cinderford.  After all, it’s not only the Co-op’s future that’s at stake, but also all the smaller convenience stores or speciality shops that exist in town.

In Cinderford, the Midcounties Co-op won its legal battle, at least for now. But as far as the District Council’s concerned, they could have saved all this money by not backing Asda’s application  in the first place.

Who’s paying for those deep-fried Mars Bars??

One of the more ludicrous attacks on the Scots’ independence campaign came from Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire. In the Sun newspaper (where else?), she asked, “Why are we paying them (ie the Scots) to eat deep-fried Mars bars when we can’t even get decent healthcare in this country?

Personally I think this image of obese Scots all tucking into deep-fried Mars bars is a bit of an urban myth, But what I think Ms. Dorries is getting at is that “we” are having to pay for them all to be treated under the NHS.

But of course Scotland has its own Health Service – and how much deep-fried Mars bars addicts cost to be treated is, I feel, an unknown quantity. Rather low down on the list of priorities, I reckon. But Nadine Dorries told the Sun that as a story “it’s going to be explosive”. Rather like a damp squib, perhaps?

Incidentally, I noticed that Glasgow (alleged home of the deep fried Mars bar) voted by 55 per cent to 45 for independence in the referendum.  Edinburgh, though, voted the other way.

But I don’t think it had anything to do with Mars bars, deep-fried or otherwise.

Dinosaur

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