Sunday, 26 February 2012

Cameron’s Tories are more ‘anti-business’ than anyone on the left.

This week David Cameron took to the bully pulpit provided by the Business in the Community conference to attack the ‘snobbery’ and ‘dangerous rhetoric’ of people who say that business is inherently self interested and cannot be trusted.

He told delegates that over ‘recent months we’ve heard some dangerous rhetoric creep into our national debate that wealth is somehow anti-social and that people in business are out for themselves.’ The country had, he said, got to ‘fight this mood with all we’ve got’ because such thinking is ‘wrong for our economy’ and we ‘need the jobs and investment business brings.’

Anyway even if we were still a little worried about the ethics of some parts of the business community Citizen Dave reminded us that business isn’t all about making money, perish the thought, business people can be philanthropists too; blimey who’d have thought it eh; in fact in the right hands business can be ‘the most powerful force for good the world has ever known.’

He went on to proclaim himself to be ‘sick’ of the ‘snobbery that says business has no inherent moral worth like the state does.’ Cue a thunderous round of applause, a shot of the Union Flag fluttering in the breeze and a burst of patriotic music before our ever busy PM bustled off to host yet another ‘summit’ at Downing Street.

Criticising the speech Labour shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna said Mr Cameron’s message was ‘confused and inconsistent’ and that despite loud protestations to the contrary he had made a ‘truce’ with the vested interests that give good business a bad name when he allowed state owned RBS to hand out huge bonuses to ‘loss making investment bankers.’

The Prime Minister was, Mr Umunna said, now ‘seeking to smear those who argue for a more responsible capitalism by claiming they are anti wealth creation and guilty of snobbery.’

You don’t have to be an unreconstructed Trot to feel that just now the business community isn’t exactly covering itself with glory. Banks are doling out huge bonuses to failed senior employees, energy companies are guilty of using a ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach to billing to confuse their customers and several major companies are fighting shy of paying their fair share of tax, often with the active collusion of the authorities through ‘sweetheart deals’ cooked up by HMRC.

David Cameron wants the story of his government to be one where everything comes down to a simplistic fight between the pro-business Tories in the blue corner and the anti-business lefties in the red ones; as ever things aren’t quite how they seem. Despite all the noise they make on the subject the Tories are less of a friend to business than they’d like you to think they are.

For all their talk about getting tough with the banks over lending to small businesses the government are incapable of turning words into actions. As a result small businesses continue to be starved of credit whilst the bonus fuelled gravy train trundles on regardless.

Then there is the small matter of the extent to which they are in thrall to the credit rating agencies, Moody’s or Standard and Poor’s only have to frown in the general direction of 11 Downing Street and George Osborne start hacking frenziedly at public services. The result of this, of course, isn’t financial stability it is a collapse of business and consumer confidence and a further contraction of the economy.

Apart from on the loonier elements of its fringe the left is not and never has been anti-business. People on the left are pragmatic enough to know that soaking the rich seldom works because the rich can afford clever accountants. What they and a lot of people who don’t identify themselves as being on the left too want to see is responsible behaviour being encouraged.

The government have so far failed to do so; instead they have put placating the credit rating agencies and appeasing the financial sector ahead of every other concern. That isn’t being pro-business; it is a cynical ploy to placate their lucrative sponsorship from the city and to shore up their ideological assault on the state.

Not the best of British.

The only thing sporting history will recall if it can be bothered to do so, about Derek Chisora and David Haye is their undignified brawl at a press conference in Munich.

Chisora is the sort of journeyman who exists solely to give more accomplished fighters someone to hit and Haye will be best remembered as the only world champion to surrender his belt because he had a poorly toe.

Their antics are the ugly endpoint of the sad road boxing started down when fighters began being encouraged to engage in ‘trash talk’ to help build publicity for usually mediocre fights. If boxing wants to keep what’s left of its audience then it must clean up its act; putting a lid on the trash talk would be a good start.

Carson was a cracker.

Much loved comic Frank Carson died this week. As a comedian he was about as far as possible from being ‘edgy’, perhaps that is why he was so well loved.

Unlike more modern comics Carson used humour to bring people together rather than to drive them apart. He was also a tireless worker for charity for which he was awarded a papal knighthood.

The secret of his success and the source of the admiration expressed by many who knew him only though his television work was that he saw the job of a comic as having to do that most important of things; cheer us all up.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Pray all you want but teaching RE still isn’t a ‘priority’.

It isn’t just the earnest young evangelists on the bus who want to talk to you about god these days, everyone from the government on down is getting in on the act.

Baroness Warsi flew to the Vatican this week to make a prissy little speech about how Britain was still a Christian country, but only just, because it was being attacked from within by ‘militant secularists’. The tabloids joined together in a collective moral panic because Bideford town council, have lost a legal case brought against them by the National Secular Society and would no longer be able to begin its meetings with prayers.

A new all party group of MPs has joined the debate or maybe that should be sermon, calling for the teaching of Religious Education to be a ‘priority’ in schools in England and Wales. Liberal Democrat chair of the new group Stephen Lloyd told the BBC that in ‘today’s world where our children can be open to an enormous amount of misleading information I believe it is absolutely essential they are taught about different cultures and religions by trained and experienced RE teachers’.

To do so, they claim, RE must be included alongside Maths, English, science and a humanities subject as part of the English Baccalaureate being touted as a replacement for A Levels. A position supported by several faith groups including the Religious Education Council of England, Chair John Keast told the BBC that coalition plans to change the school curriculum could ‘challenge’ how RE is taught and that as a result the ‘RE community’ feels ‘under fire’ and welcomes the new all party group as a means of giving ‘the subject a strong profile amongst parliamentarians.’

Responding a spokeswoman for the Department of Education said ‘RE remains a statutory part of the curriculum but it is up to schools themselves how it is taught.’ Quite so; I’d like to make the case that they shouldn’t be teaching it at all.

Not too long ago a report published by the Royal Society of Arts revealed that one in four people in England struggle with basic mathematics, standards of literacy have been in decline for decades; is teaching children a pasteurised version of the world’s major religions really a priority? Wouldn’t it be more useful to teach our kids to read, write and count properly? After all most religions are more than adept at educating their younger followers and hardly need the help of well meaning educators.

This is not, I hasten to add, an attack on religion even though I am not and never have been a believer myself. Unlike the National Secular Society I don’t choose to define my lack of belief by what I am against and so can sit through the mild mannered burbling of the Lord Mayor’s Chaplin before council meetings without being offended; but schools are a special case. They bring together young people from such a wide range of cultures, classes and communities that agreeing everyone, including atheists, should pack their beliefs away whilst within their walls is vital to maintaining harmony.

As for the assault on faith Baroness Warsi and the sillier columnists on the payroll of the Daily Mail seem to see lurking around every corner it seems to me like so much sound and fury about nothing. After all we give twenty three bishops a free seat for life in our legislature, they’ve been mostly on the side of the angels in the recent debates on welfare reform, but so long as they are there believers cannot seriously claim to be an oppressed minority.

An (almost) never ending story

Author Caroline Smailes has published a novel, 99 Reasons Why, that allows its readers to choose from eleven possible endings. Speaking The Independent Ms Smailes said this would allow her readers to have ‘different reactions, interpretations and feelings about the story depending on which ending they choose.’

Crumbs; is this the end of the novel as we know it? Hardly, it is, at best, a clever if not original game played with the form of the novel; at worst it is an annoying gimmick.

A good novel gives its readers endless scope for exploring how they feel about the characters and their fate, this isn’t a brilliant new discovery; it’s why we read them.

Space- the tidy new frontier

The Swiss have, so the BBC reported this week, developed a device for cleaning up the half a million items of ‘space junk’ orbiting the earth.

Right now the Chinese are looking up at the night sky and seeing the arena in which the people’s revolution can achieve its ultimate triumph. Americans have for years seen space as a pristine frontier where they can rediscover the pioneer spirit that made their nation great. The Swiss though look up at the limitless vastness of the heavens and think ‘we really must tidy this up’; don’t you just want to shake them?

The again maybe I shouldn’t be so smug. After all if Britain had a space programme we’d probably have to cancel the inaugural mission due to there being the wrong sort of leaves on the launch pad.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The fact that Two Jags Prescott wants to be one proves that elected Police Commissioners are a bad idea.

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has thrown his hat into the ring in the race to be one of the government’s new elected Police and Crime Commissioners. Prescott (74) will stand in Humberside and plans to fund his campaign using part of a £40,000 settlement he received as a victim of phone hacking.

A cynic would say that after forty years in parliament and ten years at the heart of the New Labour project Lord Prescott knows all about crime. The good lord seems to see things differently; he’s on a sort of crusade in fact.

Speaking to the Hull Daily Mail he said that over the past nineteen months he had ‘fought to hold the Metropolitan Police to account for its unwillingness to investigate illegal phone hacking’ as a result of this experience he had come to ‘believe that there should be greater transparency and accountability of our police.’

John Prescott, a staunch defender of the last Labour Government’s record on law and order along with, of course, its love affair with CCTV cameras and ASBO’s; not to mention crushingly bureaucratic managerialism plans to spend ‘the next few months touring the region, listening to people’ and that the people ‘will help draft my manifesto.’ A noble aim but one that was all too often missing from the last government’s approach to policing with its bushels of unnecessary paperwork and endless targets.

John Prescott will run in Humberside against ex council leader Colin Inglis and former Chief Constable Keith Hunter. There will probably also be a man dressed as a giant cod in the race too since such competitions are often a magnate for eccentrics. Given the low esteem politicians are held in at the moment the big fish ticket might just be to one to back.

Other former Labour big beast keen to get in on the act include former Home Office minister Alun Michaels who will be running in South Wales against Falklands veteran Simon Weston. You probably don’t need to be psychic to predict the outcome of that particular race; a decorated was hero will always trump a political time server when it comes to garnering the popular vote.

The trouble is that even if none of the past their best politicians currently truffling around after another shot at the big time get elected as commissioners a nasty policy will still have won the day; thousands of Britons from waking up the morning after the election in a country that has a politicised police force for the first time in its history.

When it comes to the creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners the British public are being sold the same mangy pup they were over elected mayors a few years ago. We’re being promised a new and innovative approach that will throw up the blinds and let a little sunlight into a stuffy national institution; what we’ll get is a half garbled version of something a policy wonk thinks works well in the US.

It won’t work here though; in fact it will be an expensive and divisive disaster. The fact that political has-beens like John Prescott want to take the job on because it lets them caper around in the spotlight for a little longer demonstrates that this is a role that has everything to do with ego and nothing to do with serving the needs of local people.

If he is really serious about local people helping to write his manifesto then John Prescott will rapidly find out that what the people want from the police isn’t for resources to be wasted on a four yearly popularity contest, they want to know that when they dial 999 there is someone on the other end of the line who is willing to help.

Snow joke

Last weekend it snowed over the UK, not perhaps the most surprising of evens in Northern Europe in February, but still it seemed to take us by surprise.

Trains stopped running, the roads snarled up in a matter of seconds and Heathrow descended into utter chaos faster than you can sing a chorus of Dean Martin’s wintry classic ‘Let it Snow.’

The way we seem to be paralysed by a few inches of snow is an annual abdication of national competence that is a constant source of shame. How can the country that thumbed its nose at Napoleon and Hitler be so utterly pathetic in that face of what is just a lot of prettily frozen water?

This week Jeremy Hunt, part time Culture Minister and full time Tory twit, said that more needs to be done to persuade potential tourists that the British weather isn’t as bad as they think. Quite so, but maybe he should work on we natives first.

Fat mouth

Weirdly wizened fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld gained himself pages of free publicity this week by describing singer Adele as ‘fat.’ Cue much offended gasping in the papers and on Twitter.

I don’t much want to add to the furore but it is just too tempting to point out two pretty salient points.

Compare their photographs and just who looks like they’re the happier and healthier person, buxom Adele or Karl the stick insect impersonator?

Then there is the small fact that people will still be listening to Adele’s glorious blue eyed soul long after Lagerfeld’s dreary collections of fright frocks have been gobbled up by moths.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Gove wrong to downgrade vocational courses

At the risk of sounding like a latter day Mrs Dale I’m worried about Michael; Education Secretary Michael Gove that is.

Since he took office in 2010 he seems to have approached the project of reforming Britain’s schools at something like ramming speed. Free schools, bringing back Latin lessons and even sending a copy of the King James Bible to every school in the land all hovered up valuable publicity for the ambitious Mr Gove.

Perhaps this is all par for the course, education secretaries tend to flash across the political hemisphere like meteors, but now he has moved out of the realms of self publicising eccentricity into an area where he could cause lasting damage to the life chances of millions of students.

Michael Gove has given his support to downgrade the value of 3100 vocational courses, previously courses in horse care and hairdressing were counted as being equivalent to four GCSE’s, from 2014 though only around 70 vocational courses will be treated in this way.

The rationale behind the move prompted by a report on vocational education in the UK prepared by Professor Alison Wolfe is that the old system created ‘perverse incentives’ for schools to use vocational courses to boost heir position in the league tables. As a result many schools may well cut back on the number of vocational courses they offer even though take up has grown exponentially in recent years from around 15,000 in 2004 to575, 000 students in 2010.

Professor Wolfe told the BBC this week that too many students were taking qualifications that were ‘getting league points, but which when they went out into the labour market they found nobody actually valued’ schools were, she said, ‘essentially lying to kids and that’s a terrible thing to do.’ Revising the number of vocational courses that can be counted as equivalent to GCSE’s would, she went on to say, mean they would have exactly the same status as other more academic forms of study.

The report, according to Education Secretary Gove has ‘laid bare’ the ‘weaknesses of the current system. He goes on to say that ‘for far too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend all qualifications are the same.’ So with the sort of logic that deals with a chip pan fire by burning down the rest of the house Mr Gove has decided to ‘solve’ this problem by devaluing every vocational course; way to go Mikey.

The ink was hardly dry on the report before criticisms of its conclusions began to pour in, engineering employers were unhappy that the popular and well respected Engineering Diploma, previously worth five GCSE’s will now only be equivalent to one. Christine Blower of the NUT said the proposed reforms ‘are likely to exacerbate the vocational academic divide.’ Chris Keates of the NASUWT questioned the wisdom of downgrading qualifications taken by so many young people saying that doing so would ‘remove qualifications employers value, narrow the curriculum even more and lead to disaffection amongst young people.’

Even the Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg, not exactly a socialist firebrand, got in on the act saying that whilst he agreed with government attempts to improve the standard of vocational education on offer saying that ‘we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ Quite so, although in this case Michael Gove seems intent on throwing out the baby, then the bathwater before sending the bath itself clattering down the stairs after them both for good measure.

It would be unwise to suggest that all vocational courses are either perfect or equal, often when they are designed by educationalists with little experience of industry, but this assault on vocational education as a whole is nothing short of vandalism. Not least because it fails to address the real problem; the idea that schools can or should be ranked in a league table.

This week Michael Gove branded opponents of academies as ‘trots’, implying they put ideology ahead of common sense. I can’t help but feel there is more than a little projection going on here.

If anybody is gripped by an inflexible ideology it is Mr Gove, and like all ideologues he alternates between a smug conviction that he is always right and hysterically paranoid denunciations of anyone who dares to question him. Time and tide have moved on, vocational and academic learning aren’t opposed armed camps, they are parallel tracks to success with the connecting door between the two propped open.

That Michael Gove either can’t or won’t accept this and persists with an attempt to return Britain’s schools to some imagined golden age of mortar boards, Latin prep and Victorian hymns is a shocking dereliction of his ministerial duty.