Friday, 26 February 2010

No common sense please; we’re talking about, well you know….

This Tuesday the world as we know it cam to an end, well it did if you are an ‘activist’ on either side of the ugly row over how sex education is delivered in British schools.

The liberals think the sky has come crashing down because the government has caved in to pressure from faith groups and ‘watered down’ plans to teach children about sexual relationships by framing part of what they say with the beliefs of their particular creed; conservatives, meanwhile are still in the most frightful tizzy about the dread word S*E*X even being mentioned in a classroom context. Everybody knows babies are deposited under gooseberry bushes by the stork and anyone who says any different is a danger to the nation’s morals.

I surprised myself this week by simultaneously feeling sympathy for Schools minister Ed Balls and recognising him as speaking, for once with the voice of common sense, when he told the BBC’s Today programme that the amendment to the bill allowed faith schools to say, for example ‘we as a religion believe contraception is wrong’, but not to turn a reasonable statement of a faith based position into a refusal to discuss the subject at all.

This, despite the best efforts of several campaign groups who really should know better to say otherwise, is by no means a charter for unrestrained bigotry, its merely the sort of compromise sensible people make in order to get on with the business of living in harmony.

Unfortunately whenever the subject of sex rears its head all common sense seems to go out of the window. I well remember my own school sex education lessons, or lesson since we only ever had one. We were all herded into the school hall at the age of about twelve and sat down in front of a television programme that began with some bad cartoon images of unidentified body parts and a stentorian voice intoning ‘boys and girls are different’ and didn’t go into much more detail about the subject over the forty minutes that followed. Frankly we’d have probably learnt more about sexual relations from watching an episode of the Benny Hill Show.

There is a serious problem here, the discussion about a vital issue, namely how we teach our young people that there is more than one type of relationship and that it is better to wait until you’ve abandoned childish things once and for all before entering into any of them, has become totally divorced from reality. Both sides have adopted extreme positions from which they refuse to retreat for the sake of their collective ego.

Let’s be honest, ignorance about sex does not automatically lead to chastity, a liberal acceptance that young people by their very nature will want to experiment with relationships has to be backed by a recognition that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. Worst of all the ugly squabble about sex education allows a very British belief that sex is either smutty fun or a cause of toe curling embarrassment that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history long ago to be endlessly perpetuated.

What young people need is to be given the fact about sexual relations that will allow them to make informed decisions and the moral courage to ignore peer pressure and wait for the right person and circumstances. They will never get that until the debate about how the subject is taught in schools becomes more mature that it is at present.

Ban the bomb and build a better future.

Britain’s former top soldier Sir Richard Dannatt, now a defence advisor to the Conservative Party, has said the government was right to renew the Trident missile system ‘but only on a very narrow points decision.’

He went on to say that none of the three main parties had much enthusiasm for maintaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent and things might be different in five years time.

Five years; just who do we think we’re deterring with this relic of the cold war right now?

Our troops are fighting a very hot war in Afghanistan without the equipment they need and facing huge casualties as a result, at home the public purse strings are being tightened to breaking point and even more swinging cuts are promised for after the election, if either Labour or the Tories want to cut the deficit and regain a little public trust after what looks like being the most angry election in British political history they would be wise to scrap this monument to cold war hubris and invest the money saved in building for the future.

And another thing:

After a week of rumours and revelations I’m more or less convinced there is not so much a grain as a whole darned boulder of truth in the stories about Gordon Brown’s volcanic temper.

He was; of course, wrong to take his frustrations out on his aides and hurling mobile phones around like a stroppy toddler does little to add lustre to the office of state once held by Gladstone and Churchill. Spare a thought though for the two Downing Street employees who phoned the National Bullying Helpline only to have their concerns passed, admittedly anonymously, on to the media. Isn’t betraying their trust also a form of bullying?

Full marks to UKIP MEP Nigel Farage who this week scandalised the stuffy European Parliament by describing EU President Herman Von Rumpoy as having the ‘charisma of a wet rag’ and looking like ‘a second rate bank clerk.’

His outburst may have got him cast into outer darkness so far as Brussels is concerned, but Farage, who plans to stand against commons speaker John Bercow at the general election, could cut a real dash at Westminster. If only because he would have the time of his life popping the inflated egos of his fellow parliamentarians like so many cheap balloons.

And finally, Cheryl Cole is to split for her footballer husband Ashley after he was caught playing away yet again.

She’s the nation’s sweetheart and determined to make it big in America; he’s a fading footballer with a charming habit of texting naked pictures of himself to female fans, anyone surprised that their union has ended in the divorce courts is going to be in for a real shock if they ever find out what bears get up to in the woods.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Is it time to start being beastly to the bankers?

Don’t lets be beastly to the bankers has been a quiet refrain in the sometimes fraught national discussion about the economy since Northern Rock hit the wall in 2007, like dentists and tax collectors they may never be our favourite people but they do have their uses. At least that’s what we thought until recently, now most people are moving to a view of a seemingly out of control financial sector that used to be the province of the Socialist Workers Party; meaning outright hostility.

This is almost entirely the fault of the banks themselves, according to figures released by the Institute of Directors on Tuesday 60% of small businesses are still struggling to get credit from their bank. According to the public accounts committee the banks nationalised in late 2008 are particularly reluctant to hand out loans despite having themselves benefited from the biggest payday loan of them all courtesy of the British taxpayer.

Phillip Hammond, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told the BBC this ‘made a mockery’ of government claims to be helping small businesses cope during the recession. Remember when it comes to our financial woes, so the received wisdom goes all roads lead back to the government and its relationship with the banks; too cosy during the good times and far too timid once things started to get a little stormy.

‘The nationalised and semi-nationalised banks’ said Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats, still the popular prophet when it comes to all things related to the economy despite his fumbled ‘mansion tax’ proposals during their party conference, ‘owe their existence to us, the taxpayer and they must make good on their commitments to increase lending at reasonable rates.’

That doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon, not in a week when Barclays, who admittedly never took a penny from the government in 2008 but are still slow to lend, announced a rise in profits of 92% to £11.6billion and plans to pay out £1.5billion in bonuses to staff.

It would be wrong to lay all of the blame for our economic woes on the pinstriped shoulders of the bankers, for every irresponsible lender there must be an equally feckless borrower. You would be hard pressed to make a case for allowing personal debt to continue rising at the rate it did before the crash; but lending to small businesses is different.

The financial services sector has proved to be too unstable a platform on which to build an economy, public services cuts will mean the government itself cannot any longer create jobs to rescue areas that have lost their traditional industries from economic decline, only small businesses can save the day and return Britain to prosperity. To do that they need the banks we all rescued back in 2008 to release the funds they need to grow.

Nobody has the right not to be offended.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has rejected a complaint lodged by the civil partner of the late Boyzone singer Stephen Gatley that an article written about his partner’s death by Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir was offensive.

The article in question attracted 25,000 complaints to the PCC and two made to the Metropolitan Police, it was also the subject of a campaign on the social networking site Twitter.

Giving his ruling Tony Connell of the CPS said that he had considered Article 10 of the Human Rights Act which protect individuals right to freedom of expression saying ‘Though the complainants and many others found the article offensive, but this does not make its publication unlawful.’

The article, in which Moir alleged there was something sleazy about the way Mr Gatley met his untimely death, was indeed offensive, particularly so since it was published only a couple of days after the event. I disagree with every word she wrote, but have to defend her right to write what she did, not least because it is the job of a newspaper columnist to challenge whatever stands for the received wisdom of his or her day.

Freedom of speech and a press free from the shadow of the censor is one of the things that prevents witless prejudice, of which there was no shortage in Ms Moir’s article, from turning into brutal persecution because nobody dares challenge it, for that having to occasionally hear, or in this case read, something we don’t much like is a fair price to pay.

Too many twits make….

Here’s a handy guide for Labour MP’s planning to make use of that new fangled Twitter thingy all the youngsters keep on about to ‘connect’ with the electorate: 1) open a twitter account, 2) then open your, virtual, mouth and 3) swiftly insert both feet into said orifice.

That, anyway, seems to be the advice followed by David Wright who this week got into hot water for describing people who voted Tory as ‘scum sucking pigs.’

Conservative Party Chairman Eric Pickles described this as ‘not the language you expect from a minister of the crown.’

You can, just about, forgive the likes of Ashley Cole and Vernon Kay for being too dim to realise that in cyberspace everybody can hear you twitter, however tedious of dumb what you have to say might be, but politicians should be a little more worldly, or failing that capable of creating insults that rise above the level of the playground.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Could Ethel Austin follow Woollies into retail oblivion?

Ethel Austin, for years a feature of most British high streets, has gone into administration for the second time in two years, all 276 stores are still trading but administrators MCR said that some may have to close. In an ironic sidebar to coverage of the announcement it was noted that Ethel Austin bought twelve sites that belonged to that other now vanished high street stalwart, Woolworths.

Geoff Bouchier of MCR told the BBC that the global economic crisis had hit retailers hard and that as a result many companies have ‘struggled to secure funds which has in turn impacted on their ability to generate sales revenue. The recent cold snap has also hit the retail sector hard with shoppers staying at home in front of the fire.

I’m not really the sort of customer that Ethel Austin ever considered part of its target market, I ‘m more ‘man at C&A, and that didn’t turn out too well did it? but I’d be sorry to see them go. If only because there are more than enough boarded up shops on the nation’s high streets as it is.

You don’t, I think, have to be a retail expert, what we used to call a shopkeeper before everyone who wanted us to think they were someone had to have a title, to see why Woolworths and now Ethel Austin have come a cropper. Put simply they were too cheap to cash in on the obsession with all things chic that has gripped the country for the past fifteen years and not cheap enough to compete with the rise and rise of the pound shops.

‘2010 will be tough,’ said Mark Hudson of Pricewaterhousecoopers, predicting that the performance of the retail sector would be ‘slow but steady until summer, then all bets are off until the first budget after the election.’

If you’re willing to ignore how little the willingness of a respected firm of accountants to abandon simple punctuation in favour of something their marketing people told them was ‘hip’ says about their capacity for common sense, and I am, then Mr Hudson might just have a point. Maybe what we need is a new government willing to tackle the deficit, or just the old government with a new mandate and someone a little calmer at the helm to restore a little confidence amongst Britain’s retailers. It would be a shame if by the time it does poor old Ethel Austin has lost her shirt and cheap hoop earrings on the economic roulette wheel.

Politicians: don’t call us and we won’t call you.

s they limber up for the coming general election the Labour Party has got itself into trouble over cold calling voters. The calls, which featured the voice of former Coronation Street star Liz Dawn, were made to 500,000 people without their consent and the party has been heavily criticised by the Information Commissioner.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have also faced criticism for subjecting unsuspecting voters to what the Americans call ‘robocalls’ designed to drum up support ahead of an election.

At a time when they need to regain out trust after the expenses scandals of the past year the three main political parties seem to have shot themselves in both feet by resorting to the tactics used by dodgy double glazing firms in a vain attempt to ‘connect’ with the electorate. Even if they do use the voice of a much loved celebrity unsolicited phone calls are a nuisance most voters can well do without.

Death of a fashion maverick.

How sad to hear late yesterday of the death of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, about which some in the media have dropped dark hints concerning possible suicide.

His clothes were unwearable, let alone unaffordable for most mortals, but in their design they embodied a wilful eccentricity that was uniquely British.

Without doubt the fashion world and the London social scene will be a much less colourful place now that he has gone.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Learning the wrong lessons about adult education.

Britain is broken and it is all the fault of the baby boomers, the lucky generation born between the end of the war and the mid sixties. That’s the line most of the media and all three main political parties have taken and run with like a dog chasing sticks in a suburban park for the past couple of years.

I don’t usually give much in the way of credence to rumours of impending national decline, Britain has been going to the dogs since before Julius Cesar landed and things still seem to shake out ok most of the time, this week though a story floated onto my radar that gave me cause to feel a lot less sanguine.

According to the Association of Colleges (AOC) further education colleges across the UK could face cuts to their funding of up to 16% as the current government or the next grapples with spiralling public sector debt. The axe, if it falls, will see courses in construction and GCSE and A Level courses cut and the same blow will be dealt to the provision of courses for adults struggling to reach Level 2 in Maths or English.

AOC Chief Executive Martin Doel told the BBC this week that his members understood the challenge faced by the government as it struggles to balance the books and placate a nervous stock market but said that they feared the loss of ‘high quality courses that are essential to economic recovery.’

Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) took up the case saying ‘the government has rightly identified education as a key driver of social mobility, making cuts to adult learning now would be an outrageous affront to the millions of people it promised not to let down.’

What, you might ask, has all of this got to do with the baby boomers, the generation we love to hate for having every opportunity you can think of handed to them on a plate and wasting the lot? The answer is quite simple, further education colleges, along with the former polytechnics that later turned themselves into universities like so many bookish caterpillars, are the concrete symbol of all the generation that still provides most of our ruling elite stands for.

They are, depending on your political persuasion, the engines of egalitarianism, a means of transforming education into a common good rather than something people who are too rich to ever really need it enjoy amidst dreaming spires; or a hothouse for dangerously ‘progressive’ ideas that have brought about social and economic chaos. The most notable feature, of course, of the baby boomers is their unfailing ability to mistake one extreme position or another for the moral high ground.

Those of us living in a less rarefied, meaning anywhere outside Notting Hill or Islington, know that colleges are something much more prosaic and more important; they’re the difference between success and failure.

Colleges are where kids, many of them boys, the perennial underachievers in the educational steeplechase, who were bored rigid by school get the chance to discover that education can be something other than tedious; it can be useful and even inspiring. Many people don’t make this discovery until they have experienced the daily grind of having a dead end job or having no job at all, which is why adult education is more important now than ever. F Scott Fitzgerald was wrong, life does have a second act and education is the tool we use to write its script.

There is also another argument to be made in favour of adult education, one that many people in and out of politics in this country find troubling because it requires them to believe in something. Education is a force for good not just because it helps to produce an efficient workforce to power the country out of the economic doldrums, but because it has the power to create fully rounded citizens by exposing participants to new ideas and teaching them the value of questioning everything.

This used to be something the ambitious men (and not a few women too) who formed the backbone of British civic life and could be found in the ranks of every political party represented at Westminster understood implicitly. Their descendents, many of whom benefited from a free university education, have forgotten this vital truth, meaning that by failing to value the benefits of education, education, education, they risk creating economic and social problems for which future generations will pay a heavy price.