Nov 302010

I find myself in a bit of a dilemma.  I’ve agreed to have a builder’s bagful of grit and sand delivered to my front garden by the borough council.  The idea is that local residents will be able to help shovel the stuff onto what will shortly become very treacherous pavements and roads.  We live near a canal and the air is always damp.  When it freezes, the area becomes a skating-rink and the gritters very rarely come by.  (Though after last night’s parish council meeting, where the circumstance was mentioned, curiously enough the gritter did pay a visit this morning.  For which, I have to say, I am very grateful – as, I am sure, are the residents.)

Simply to add that our road is one big circle with far too many exposed surfaces which the very occasional winter sunbeams very rarely reach.

So what’s my dilemma?

Well, my borough council is Conservative and I am a Labour Party member.  If I encourage local residents to get involved in gritting operations, I may – long-term – be allowing the council to get rid of quite a few gainfully employed workers.

I have previously discussed this issue along with Tracey here and we continued to examine the potential for exclusion in the Big Society on Bryonny’s website here.

The temptations are clear: if you can get residents to do your work for you, you’ll have no health and safety regulations to comply with, no unions to soften up, no payroll to administer and no workforce to have to manage.

So what should I do?  If I do not encourage residents to help out, the pavements will almost certainly remain icy, elderly neighbours will feel fearful and we can complain for another winter about how nothing gets done.  If, on the other hand, I do participate in what is essentially a Big Society act, am I abdicating my obligation to protect the very real livelihoods of working families across the borough?

This is the hole all progressives find ourselves faced with.  And this is why we must take the Big Society seriously.

Nov 292010

… and guess what – surprise, surprise – with the excuse of copyright infringement to back the process up:

The US is really ramping up its war on intellectual property infringement, a war which I’m sure will be just as successful, cheap and supported by the people as the wars on drugs and terrorism. The US has started seizing the domain names of various websites through ICANN – not because owners of these sites were convicted of anything, but merely because complaints have been filed against them. […]

 As the report goes on to say:

[…] Anyone want to take a guess how long it will be before the US government blocks WikiLeaks?

Perhaps that will be the way forward for governments around the globe, terrified of the integrity of their communications.  Try to convince newspapers like the Guardian or the New York Times not to publish diplomatic cables by appealing to their sense of public duty is a damn fool task and an almost certain waste of time.  But tell them they’d be infringing US government copyright law by publishing Clinton’s opinions of the Argentinian president and you might find that such publishing organisations would respond with a much greater fervour than expected.

Though, as I have previously argued on these pages, any politician in a democratic society is where they are precisely because we voted them in to power.  Consequently, any public or private act carried out on behalf of the voters is surely something we as the people fully deserve to own and communicate to others.

That is to say, what our politicians do in acts of public service belong to the public and cannot be subject to the restrictions or impositions of copyright infringement.  They belong, by virtue of the where and who, to the public domain we all have a right to access.

Funny thing though.  I always did know that the end of the Internet as we know it would come at the hands of the US government.

Sad, isn’t it?  Those who engender magnificent monsters are condemned – eventually – to destroy them.  No one, not even the US in its purest and most libertarian form, can resist forever the temptation to exert its power and make dirty a thing of beauty.

ICANN is dying.  And we will live to regret it.

Further reading: the next set of WikiLeaks

Nov 282010
Mr Spock – Wikipedia

From the reaction I’ve been following on Twitter, opinion would seem to be unevenly divided.  Most people seem to be in favour of the leaks currently being released by the Guardian, El País, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the New York Times.  A few see it as an unreasonable development which will, in the future, affect the ability of governments to carry out the due process of diplomacy and international relations.   I myself have expressed the belief that such indiscriminate revelations change the ground rules unfairly halfway through the game.  If freedom of information policies had indicated prior to these revelations that working in government would be a goldfish bowl, everyone I am sure would’ve been more likely to be on their best behaviour.

And government – for better or worse – would have been conducted in a different manner.

The truth of the matter is that at lowly levels in both business and public office, control systems, procedures and processes make it very difficult for such workers to get away with anything politically incorrect, abusive or telling.  It’s only higher up the food chain that such activities begin to reproduce themselves with an unfortunate frequency.

Thus it is that those against organisations such as WikiLeaks might suggest this is a battle to protect the anonymity and freedoms to do good of millions of people across the world – from bloggers to journalists, from diplomats to politicians.  (And it is quite easy to hold the position that international relations require ambiguous areas of greying intercourse.  The easy blacks and whites of demagogic exchange most definitely do not suit the inexactitudes of cross-continental morals.)

Whilst others might equally argue that this is simply a battle of the lowly versus the high and mighty – that is to say, a battle between those who must always play by the rules versus those who generally get away with breaking them.

What is undeniable is that indiscriminate acts of any kind rarely serve a long-term useful purpose on their own.  However, in this particular case there are far wider implications for the body politic in what is going on than the red faces of a few diplomats.  And it’s not only WikiLeaks I’m talking about it when I suggest the consequences are deeper.  The contrast could not be clearer here in Britain at the moment: from the obfuscations of Coalition politicians as they currently spread their lies – on a range of subjects from tuition fees to economic recovery – to the openness with which protesting students are conducting their protests, what I think we are really beginning to witness is nothing more nor less than a much more profound and integral demystification and deprofessionalisation of the act of being a public servant.

Whatever your level, WikiLeaks is telling us, you must act in private as you would prefer to be seen in public.

For some, generally the young, this still comes easily.

For others, generally the experienced, this is no longer an option.  And the experience that makes them unable to act coherently on the frontiers that divide their inner and outer Chinese walls is precisely what, to date, governments and companies have valued.  The experience that imposes a loyalty to a cause over a loyalty to a truth.

But in a world of massive leaks of classified and secret information such as these, power is no longer in the hands of the rich, wealthy and knowledgeable – for, as the rest of us were relatively without possessions, it is now their turn to become the dispossessed.

Dispossessed of the information which – before – gave them such power.

Thus the rule-changing moment that I now surely feel will divide generations.  The students now protesting the evils of ideologically charged government feel no obligation not to intervene, despite their lack of training in such matters as professional political discourse – that is to say, that discourse of restricted access.  Instead, they feel free and empowered – with every right in the world – to take part in such a discourse, to participate in such policy-generating dialogues; even as they see no need to experience the greasy pole of professional political devices.

They are participating because they are fighting for their lives – fighting for their lives as they know them.

Thus the process of demystification and deprofessionalisation I identify above.  Thus the wider implications of WikiLeaks – which transcend the short-term miseries of the professional politicos amongst us.  Thus the reality that such politicos must not deny: this is a historical trend that will not be bucked.


One final point before I sign off tonight: whither now those freedom of information policies I mentioned earlier?

For if everything is now potentially to end up in the hands of the electorate, what’s the point of having such legislation in the first place?  Wouldn’t it be easier simply to do politics on the basis of assuming everything will be known sooner or later – and, presumably, these days, in the light of recent events, sooner rather than later?

Shouldn’t any politician or public servant with any degree of foresight choose to give in to the inevitable and begin to work for a world of far truer transparencies?

Wouldn’t that, as our dear Mr Spock might inform us, be the most logical thing to do?

Nov 272010

This post is about cooperatives – even though it may not immediately appear to be the case.  Bear with me, though, and all will shortly be revealed.

Président Camembert comes in a beautiful wooden box.  As you can plainly see, its design harks back (or perhaps we should now say forwards) to a different world from the world we live in: the latter being a world which has accustomed us to the cheap and cheerful output of whopping great factories.

We see on the front of the box, nestling down at the bottom, a friendly little village – the sort we would all love to end up living in.  Not a whopping great factory in sight, mind.

Nor is there anything cheap and cheerful about Président cheeses – except when our local supermarket puts them on offer.  Then is when I eat them quite often – though, like Guinness and Ireland perhaps, they always seem better in France than they do over here.

So they’re not expensive and they’re not at all bad – yet along the way, I would still argue, something has been lost.  Perhaps not in the taste, perhaps not in the presentation.  Maybe not in the end result – maybe it’s got more to do with our perception of process.  For – I’m sure you’d agree – something so very true and life-enriching in all of these corporate products has gone visibly missing, and the proof of this something is in the marketing strategies that so many companies are beginning to use.  The video that follows is an example of such a strategy.  It uses a hand-held camera and soft lighting to such an extent that not having seen it on TV, I actually wonder if it’s an advert made for the company in question or – instead – a gentle take-off by some admiring consumer.

The question, then, that I really ask myself is as follows: if big companies, in their droves, find it necessary to refer back to a different age – an age of small and local and real and familiar – then why cannot they act on that need and reconstruct their business structures accordingly, so that they may align themselves with what people really seem to want, which they themselves have determined people yearn after, rather than schizophrenically detach their outer selves from their inner truths?

You think I ask a foolish question perhaps.  A rhetorical question maybe.  An impossible question even.  Well, no.  Via Twitter, as so often happens these days, the following link came my way:

Google was started in a garage in 1998. It now has a market capitalisation of $173 billion. It is one of a number of companies of comparable size – Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Cisco – who are leading an information and communications revolution which is redrawing the economic landscape. This is the necessary starting point for a review of the future of co-operation.

As this introduction to a massive new cooperative project goes on to point out:

The informal information economy is open and global. It is driven by interest and enthusiasm rather than money. The bulk of its traffic is free. It is taking time to digest the implications of these changes, and for those involved to work out what rules are necessary to govern behaviour. Some have seen it as a new form of the commons, and looked at codes of behaviour that have been developed by those using common land or fishing grounds. But this informal economy is more than sharing a common resource, for with the web the resource is unlimited. It is merely a site for relationships, and where joint projects are involved, it requires the kind of qualities found in those pioneer communities where everyone worked together to raise the roof of a home.

It is nothing other than a co-operative economy that is now growing with the speed and diversity of a tropical forest. It is informal and astonishingly inventive. It shares many of the same values and practices of formal co-operatives, and opens up numerous possibilities for a meshing between them. William Morris’s News from Nowhere depicted a world based on mutualism that for more than a century was seen as utopian. But in the last decade it has emerged as a reality not on the banks of the Thames but in the world of the web.

It also underlines that:

Previous technological changes of this magnitude were about material production – textile mills, railways, steel and Ford’s mass production factories. The information and communications revolution is different. It has created a virtual economy that sits in cyberspace above the material economy of goods and services. It is connected by airwaves and spectrums rather than roads and railways. It sends messages by satellite and ethernets, and uses cloud computing. Like the sky its horizons seem to stretch to infinity.

But its impact is only too material. Traditional industries are finding their foundations dissolving – music, broadcasting, the press, publishing, postal services, travel agents, branches of retailing all face a receding economic tide. Others are expanding in their place. Design, data processing, scientific research, software and computer systems, management and technical consultancy, education, artists and a host of maintenance and support services – these top the list of most rapidly growing sectors.

The traditional pillars of the 20th century economy – the great centralised corporations and welfare administrations – are far from finished. But they are being hollowed out, bypassed, or if they are banks, have to be publicly propped up in order to survive. What at once felt solid is being remoulded. Which forms will become dominant is not yet clear. Their emergence is contested. There are alternative paths of development and how they are organised. I refer to this as a second industrial divide.

This is, I’m sure you’ll agree, awe-inspiring stuff.  A nexus of communication which, almost despite itself, has already created so many products and services that we exchange at the level of individuals, rather than buy or sell in singularly overpowering quantities, and that is ripe for decent and sincere business models to be applied to its functioning – thus making, from what many have judged to be entirely unsustainable relationships, firmer futures for all those of us who would like to eke a better living out of what is clearly a marvellously expansive and opportunity-filled virtual landscape.

For in the future of cooperation lies another opportunity we may grasp: to turn the outer selves of our existing structures – those real and familiar places our big companies insist we not only yearn for but are also superficially regaled with over and over again – into the inner realities of new structures.  If, via the web and its mutualist instincts, we could somehow square the circle of those friendly little villages that are currently outperformed by all those whopping great Camembert factories … without traumas, without victors or losers, with simply an all-encompassing change in political and socio-economic instincts … well, it would be quite another world, wouldn’t it?

Quite another world indeed.

And then a friendly little village nestling at the bottom of a wooden box would represent an honest reality of undeniable strength and vigour.

Now wouldn’t you prefer to work for a community of interests such as the one I have outlined above?

Nov 272010

It’s becoming a bit of a habit of late.  Last weekend I received some fascinating snailmail on the subject of compassion in farming – today it’s the turn of what would appear to be eleven miles of railway shame.  The organisation in question is called Selrap – the Skipton-East Lancashire Rail Action PartnershipIts mission as follows:

The 11.5 mile link between Skipton and Colne is the missing link in what would otherwise be the lowest level trans-Pennine rail route between the Humber & West Coast ports, between Preston and the West Coast Main Line and Leeds and the cities of Yorkshire. It is an alternative to the heavily graded and trafficked Huddersfield & Calder Valley trans-Pennine routes, and also avoids the already congested lines in Manchester. Although under increasing threat, the trackbed is essentially intact and the railway could be restored at a relatively low cost: any further incursion would destroy a resource of national value and would be contrary to government policies.

The line connects the socially deprived and depressed areas of north-east Lancashire (Nelson, Burnley, Colne, etc) to the more prosperous West Yorkshire area, and provides an alternative to road transport for people visiting Skipton/the Aire Valley from Lancashire, and vice versa. Car ownership is low in East Lancashire leading to social exclusion.

And this example shows how mad the situation currently is:

To show how ridiculous the “Missing Link” is between the Railways of Yorkshire and the Railways of Lancashire we ran a train from Skipton to Colne, the first for 38 years. When the railway is reinstated it will be just 11 miles, take 15 minutes and cost maybe £3 for a standard single. But our hired train had to go the only way currently available to passengers, via Leeds, 100 miles and 2hrs 30 minutes. Travel by a scheduled service and it will take another hour on top of that, 3hrs 30 mins and set you back £23 for a standard single.

So the objective of Selrap seems patently obvious.  Give back, at very low cost, to an area already suffering from social exclusion, a resource which would both support and help develop the opportunities for growth and societal cohesion in the area.  A small-scale Big Society proposal if there ever was one.

I’ve been asked to request that my local parish council offer its support to the project at its next meeting on Monday and find it impossible not to accede to the petition.  This is a most deserving cause.

Eleven miles of railway shame indeed.

Nov 272010

Anthony Painter has a couple of paragraphs in a piece recently published on Labour Uncut which deserve reproducing in full:

This obsession with social mobility is the root of the culture clash between Lord Sugar and those he faces opposite him in the boardroom. Despite being a heck of a social climber himself, he recoils from those who place that sensibility at the front and centre of their personality. He wants people who are creative, good team-players, emotionally intelligent, and hard-working. He wants people who can adapt and initiate change; he wants them to be motivated by the process rather than the personal status gain. Amazing as this may seem, this makes him utterly (post) modern despite the gruff exterior.

He couldn’t give a fig about enlightenment man or woman. “Old” and “new” progressives are utterly obsessed with the enlightenment virtues of progress, rationalism, and universalism. So Gradgrind Gove wants to return to traditional subject matter in the curriculum, taught in the traditional Fordist way with traditional exams; a new faddism abounds driven by status obsession behind elevating subjects like Latin over living languages such as German; traditional academic higher education expands relentlessly with ever diminishing returns at ever greater cost. The confusing thing is not that students are protesting. It’s that those who have just graduated and have realised the big lie they’ve been told aren’t.

There is another way. Let’s get out while we can. Let’s put these enlightenment values in their place. They are just one aspect of humanity. Instead of measuring people by the income they earn, the social class they are in, or the status they acquire, let’s value them for the people they are.Every person has passion and talent; let them discover it.

I must admit I had never seen Lord Sugar in such a light – always considering him the English epitome and equivalent of that ambition-trampling capitalism that some Americans, along with their intercontinental cousins, have long wished to impose on us (more here on the problems of the Atlantic Bridge’s British arm as the Charity Commission gets involved).  Yet now I can see him utterly differently – and am pleased that this is the case.

If we can believe that the capitalism Sugar represents can value us all as human beings – however critical and bombastic his version of it may appear on the outside – and we can also believe that it is fair to understand, as a starting-point at least, the value of human beings in terms of what we are rather than what we do, then the world could be a much happier and more productive place.

The future of capitalism does not lie in turning us all into wage slaves – though some of its proponents may believe, with a massive dose of hubris, that this is precisely the direction it should take.  The recent student protests are but the beginning of a generational resistance to such a future.  For what has changed for this new generation, and what is changing the rules of the game for everyone else, is, as Emily concludes in her piece, the following:

And if protestors all across the country are at all representative of the National feeling, then the collation government will do well to remember that we are the voters at the next election…

So how can the Coalition government be getting it so wrong, after all the planning and networking and ambushing that organisations such as the Atlantic Bridge and their hangers-on constitute?  Well.  I would suggest that it is precisely because leading a country means saying things not that people want to hear but – instead – need to hear.  The Coalition government has made a recent virtue out of telling us that hard times require hard medicine.  They acknowledge that governments must sometimes tell the public things it is unhappy to be told – and very few of us would surely be inclined to argue with that.  Where they have fallen down, however, in their political narrative I mean (in the objective efficiency of such a narrative is what I’m really talking about here), is in that second part I mention above which relates to the emotional necessities a nation has in times of crisis to be convinced that at some point things will return to a shared equilibrium.

It is not the evil capitalists out there in the boardrooms who are telling this new generation to knuckle down to the mind-numbing and RSI-generating data-processing roles so beloved of their grand processes and procedures.  No.  It is, instead, our governors themselves – those who we understood were out there to defend us from abuse and malpractice – who are telling us we have little more to expect than to grin and damn well bear it.

This is, as you may realise, a form of governance without hope – where hope has no place and only a poverty-in-work is ours to claim.

Nor does this government promise this equilibrium we yearn after in that future.  Rather, it offers us the kind of capitalism I suggested Lord Sugar represented – the kind of capitalism that Anthony Painter so surprisingly showed me is not part of Sugar’s essence.

Nor, indeed, the British tradition of social and economic intercourse.

I said recently that a bit of one-nation discourse wouldn’t come amiss right now.  When I talk about the public’s current needs, this is, I think, what I am essentially referring to.

We want to be treated as human beings, not cattle.  In fact, I imagine I could go further – some of us don’t even want our cattle to be treated as cattle.  Which is why capitalism’s proponents – both inside and outside government – need to brush up their acts.  That they don’t currently seem to want to (or even see the need to) just shows how powerful they believe they have become. 

It may, therefore, become our job to brush it up for them.

Only time, and the hubris of our leaders, will indicate exactly how involved we will have to get.  But what is clear is that we are all beginning to see this as the fight of our lives – the fight for our lives.  A fight for humanity.  A fight in favour of a qualitative approach to life as opposed to an exclusively quantitative and number-crunching limitation of all the glory that it is to be human.

The truth of the matter is that we still believe capitalism is the only way forward. 

Meanwhile, the real issue to hand is that the men and women currently at the top want to make it the kind that destroys all will to live.

No hostages.  No prisoners of war.  Just dead meat for the carrion eaters amongst us.

Nov 262010

Bryonny asks a fascinating series of questions of the proponents of the big society idea:

[…] It often seems to me that what Big Society advocates use as examples are things that I would consider small-scale community action.  Should we call it a community, then?  And, what if we call it community?

She then goes on to describe the implications of using the word community in the following way (my bold):

Cohen says, it should be obvious from the book title, that communities are symbolically constructed and, also, bounded.  Symbols are used to unite.  Symbols are also used to exclude.

So if we call the Big Society community, this raises a very big question about symbolic boundaries.  Who is excluded from the Big Society and how does this happen?

This is an important perception and follows inevitably on from the Conservative choice of construct: after all, any society always has its boundaries – boundaries, as Bryonny underlines, which limit just as much as they define.  And it is, in any case, in definition where we lose the freedom to be anything and everything – as Barack Obama (and, indeed, throughout history, rainbow coalitionists of very many kinds) has most recently learnt to his unhappy cost.

Just as importantly, however, I’m also inclined to believe that the big society idea was, as I pointed out earlier this month, designed to exclude from the start:

Trends like these – and others we may perceive – are working together hard to make our blessed Big Society nothing more than an  old boys’ network of the retired and semi-retired.  Putting people in their places and pigeon-holes is the game we’re playing now.

We are in the process of disenfranchising politically and democratically whole swathes of the population, re-engineering society’s wider expectations and leaving in the hands of both the conservative and the Conservatives amongst us the running of our schools, hospitals, local communities and neighbourhoods.

What’s more:

And all the above will – one day – be a breeding-ground for petty corruption.

On a pretty grand scale, I would say. 

MPs’ expenses?  You ain’t seen nothing yet …

Which is why I think Bryonny is onto a crucial series of questions here, questions which need further discussion and debate.

Firstly, because if she is right, the big society idea is rather smaller than might be at first thought.  If, as she suggests, it doesn’t contemplate including the “workshy” – curiously enough, those best placed to provide their services free-of-charge – the question then will be why not? 

Meanwhile, as a secondary question to the thrust of this post’s thesis but of obvious relevance nevertheless, if it does rather more eagerly include the retired and semi-retired – curiously enough, those generally most conservative in outlook and interests – the question then will be why?

Thirdly, because any institution, community or nexus of people will lose its ability to stay free of corruption and its resulting inefficiencies, the more similar and alike its component parts become – something all of us should surely wish to avoid.  Yet, the profile – or ratio – of inclusion versus exclusion as described above would seem to suggest that the Conservatives do not anticipate giving everyone an equal handle on the levers of power.  And this is why I suggest the big society idea may lead to what I also called the Mediterraneanisation of our communities – where families and personal contacts are far more important and far more highly prized in the governance of our society than those transparent, and supposedly more objective, processes and procedures that belong to a more technocratic way of doing things.

So to come back to my initial question and add a second: is there evidence that the big society idea aims to exclude?  I would suggest that it is beginning to appear – would seem to be evermore patent, in fact, as the big society idea’s definition and coalescing inevitably allows us to better understand the ambush of ideas it has involved.

The question that faces us now – as always in these moments of regime change – is what do we do about it?  What can we do about it? 

For an ambush, once sprung, requires action of some kind.

And that is where we find ourselves right now.

Nov 242010

Here’s an example of that corporate thinking-out-of-the-box that makes or breaks governments – a marketing coup if there ever was one:

I’m with Janet Daley in applauding Michael Gove’s stress on getting former soldiers into teaching, especially after catching part of an interview with a teacher working in Sandwell – (sorry, missed his name) – on the BBC news channel about an hour ago. He caught my eye first because he was wearing a tie, which is no big deal you might say, plenty do, but it stood out. And he was delightfully blunt about his motivation – having voiced the criticisms of teaching, he wanted to put his money where his mouth is. Teach First got him into a ‘challenging’ school, and he is now fully fledged. The BBC also has the example of Steve Priday, a teacher at Bedminster Down School in Bristol, a former police officer who then spent 14 years in the Royal Military Police, with service in Iraq, Kosovo and Northern Ireland. I wonder what effect their example might have on the children currently stuck in Whitehall shouting ‘Tory scum!’

In any other circumstances I’d also be inclined to applaud the creative thinking – the integration of war heroes on their return to civvy street is always a thorny issue and requires imaginative responses from all concerned.  What’s more, a society which can learn from its soldiers in a programmed and consistent way is a society far less likely to go to war unnecessarily – a reality which nobody should wish to decry.

But today’s events, where there have been widespread reports on Twitter of young people being deliberately kettled by the police, are not normal circumstances.  To play on the public’s sensibilities and invoke such sensitive ideas – ideas which deserve a far better hearing in far less heated times – is to play with political fire.

My immediate response was consequently thus:

How about turning ex-teachers into soldiers? They could court-martial ex-students for going on extra-parliamentary demos. #demo2010

And it’s true – they jolly well could.

So how about a bit of job mobility for all?

How about if Mr Gove’s eager band of brothers and sisters (more detail here) goes on to do the job our ex-soldiers used to perform and then we encourage our ex-soldiers into the honourable business and duty of national politics?

Nov 242010

For those of you who’ve been at all attentive, Paul Chambers has recently been convicted of tweeting an “obviously menacing” tweet.  House of Twits held a poll today on the matter and it’s clear, at least to a majority of Twitter users, that “obviously” isn’t the right word.

Which made me wonder what exactly a clearly signalled fake @pauljchambers account would constitute for the real world.  Let’s say such an account existed (which surely, by now, it must).  My musings essentially would then lead me to ask myself what the legal implications of such an entity might be.  If, at any point, such an obviously ironical and self-referential device threatened, for example, to do something nasty to a piece of privately-owned property, would the person responsible for running the account be taken to a magistrates court or a kangaroo court?  That is to say, to a court of law or a court of lore?  Or would he or she not be taken to court at all?  Surely, with such a frame around it, there could, in this case, be no mistaking of intentionality.  This version of Chamber’s persona would be interpreted as having been set up exclusively as a piece of satire.  And you’re not going to tell me that the state is now outlawing the right to satire.

Where, in fact, the satire is clearly and duly signposted as being so.

Even in medieval times, the jester had his place.


Perhaps it is entirely apposite that the airport mentioned in Chamber’s unhappy tweet was named as it was.  For both this matter of ill-advised tweets and today’s demonstrations by students against government cuts don’t half make me think we’re back in the times of Sherwood Forest’s Merry Men of yore. 

You know what I mean: that time when an Englishman’s home (“obviously”) wasn’t his castle – and the Sheriff who held sway had an absolute and arbitrary control over everyone who ever dared move a constitutional muscle:

#Gove on the BBC: My heart and mind is changed by reasoned argument and debate. Emily: so your mind could be changed Gove: No #demo2010

Enough said you say?  Personally, I think we’ve only just begun.  And “obviously”, I would argue. 

Now wouldn’t you?

Nov 242010

People demonstrating in the streets under circumstances which lead to violence are a symptom which needs understanding.  Human beings become violent under extreme pressure.  The more intelligent you are, the more that pressure may be inferred instead of explicitly brought to bear.

This is the intellectual pressure that is being brought to bear on our future, highly educated and intelligent generations:

Understanding Schools White Paper like trying to separate two mixed up decks of cards. Two opposite approaches combined.

As Anthony indicates in his subsequent tweet:

You read one para which is all about freedom and autonomy. And the next is prescriptive centralism. It’s a mess basically.

And as I read this morning about the finer detail of the Schools White Paper as per Anthony Painter’s Twitter feed, I found myself simultaneously transported to a completely different scenario – here it was Laurie Penny’s turn as she described the horrors of being kettled by the police:

The cops have blocked us off at the back. This is a kettling now. It’s gonna get nasty. #demo2010

Mind you, if any police officers involved in policing the demonstration had been tweeting the same events from their own point of view and responsibilities, I’m sure there would have been a similar – if perhaps more contained – terror at what it all meant.

For police officers have sons and daughters who would like to go to university and they can hardly be too happy with the turn of events.

So let’s nail this lie once and for all.  Violence in the streets is a symptom not a cause.  And, as political animals who profess to be human beings first and foremost, we need to understand such a symptom rather than take easy political advantage of it.  If one of your first political acts is to encourage people to believe you want to make it more difficult to bring down the Coalition from within the House of Commons itself, then – for the disaffected at least, of which there are now clearly many – extra-parliamentary action is essentially all that remains.  And where there is no Speaker to ensure order in proceedings that often go awry even in his or her presence, extra-parliamentary proceedings of an initially orderly nature will inevitably acquire their elements of pain.

In lieu of the educated acts of the Speaker, then, we have the police.  Ordinary people with extraordinary demands placed on them by their superiors, the public and their political masters.  Ordinary people who find themselves having to mediate between the force of the state in all its intellectual cruelty and the emotions of the wrongly-done-to who often find it hard to express all their ire correctly.

As Penny also tweeted today:

This is the new children’s crusade. There are no leaders. Epic and tragic. #demo2010

And it’s true.  An element of “Lord of the Flies” perhaps.  Except that, instead of our students, the wayward children in question are becoming those politicians who, at the very highest levels, choose to impose their will upon us because they think they mainly can – rather than persuade us of their positions with a considered strength of conviction and measured intelligence.

Nov 242010

The Twitter Joke Trial indicates how powerful words still are in a society long – and heavily – influenced by the image.  Another story this morning confirms much the same:

A British member of the European parliament was thrown out of a debate on Wednesday, after quoting Nazi slogans in German in the chamber.

‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer (One People, One Kingdom, One Fuehrer),’ said Godfrey Bloom from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain’s exit from the EU.

To be honest, I think the phrase in question can also be translated as “One people, one nation, one leader” – which, for the emotionless Anglo-Saxons amongst us, may hardly seem – at that dispassionately neutral and entirely semantic level we may choose to inhabit – to make it worthy of any considerable discussion.  What’s more, those of us who find ourselves here in Britain choosing to be utterly unaware of historical precedent, suffering as we currently are at the hands of an awful two-headed Coalition government, might respond by saying: “Yes please, a bit of that would come in very handy right now!”  If only we could build the foundations of a cohesive society with a clear-sighted government that cared to understand the importance of truly being in this all together …

Intentionality cannot be excised, however, from the plain and simple meaning that words enshrine.  And the MEP in question clearly intended to reference the supporters of Nazi Germany and, by implication, their dreadful legacy.

Not good stuff to be happening at the heart of European integration.

But then words are like that: the baggage they contain is both highly personal and inexactly shared.  Which is what makes writing such a beautifully hit-and-miss affair.  And what makes politics such a dangerous and demagogic matter.

Nov 242010

So there I was, officially in the queue for around an hour, looking to buy a 37 inch Toshiba flat-screen TV at the useful price of £249.99.  Amazon now indicates that the deal expired whilst they had me waiting in their queue, verifying, as they had to, other people’s applications first – but, in the meantime, and get this, no one on the entire globe has cared or been able to claim a single sausage before that expiration time was reached!

Evidence at the end of this post (click on the image for the larger version), for those of you interested in such things.

Incidentally, Amazon is my favourite online store and has treated me very well in the past, both with admirable and occasionally unparalleled pre- and post-purchase service.  I really do have no axe to grind here.

So isn’t there any consumer legislation appropriate for such virtual instances?  Or is this a loophole others might care to take advantage of in the run-up to Christmas shopping glory?

Or have I simply come to the wrong conclusion and everything is above aboard and all correct?

Legal types out there – what do you think?


Update to this post: Amazon’s website now shows the item in question as sold out. It would therefore be useful – in the interests of transparency – if on future occasions they could provide along with the offer itself a summary of how many units were available and then, at the end of the process, how many people had ended up trying to buy them. That way you could get an idea of the odds you were up against next time round and whether spending an hour of your time was really going to be worth the bother.

Nov 242010

Via David Allen Green today, this thought came my way:

Our greatest legal blogger @Charonqc introduces the apt phrase “post ironic Britain” at re #TwitterJokeTrial

Meanwhile, Charonqc’s full post can be found here.

The problem is that we’ve been in the grip of post-ironic Britain for quite a while now.  Possibly all our history, in fact.  The sensitivities of small “c” conservative heartlands – whether Tory- or Labour-voting – have been with us as a brake on free thought and broadmindedness for almost ever and always.  From the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” trial in the early 1960s to the claustrophobic nature of the traditional English village, hypocrisy and cant have never been far from the British soul.

And hypocrisy and cant do not countenance the freedoms of insensitive honesties.

But the process is not limited to the actions of individuals happy to describe themselves as conservatives with a small “c”.  Those on the so-called “progressive” side of politics have also played their part in creating the conditions for the Twitter Joke Trial to reach its unhappy, post-ironic conclusions.  At the hands of their well-meaning political correctnesses, humour has become a high-risk activity, with criminal conviction staring us all in the face.  Much as the Nazis were allowed to ride to power on the back of a more widely-shared distrust of Jewish culture and belief, so tolerance of judicial and political intervention in irreverent content and social discourse is unhappily high and has prepared the ground for awful actions on the part of the state. 

Of course, I’m not arguing in favour of a society which is generally offensive to its component parts.   I’m simply suggesting that the fact certain people may take offence should not be the only – nor even determining – factor in how we judge the level of perceived risk generated by such potentially inflammatory discourse.

Farmers burn stubble every autumn.  We also may need our society to regularly go through analogous processes of catharsis to maintain a steady bearing on where our compass of common sense should lie.

We live dangerously when we give up our right to be offensive without fear of criminal retribution.

And I’m afraid this already happened a very long time ago.

Nov 232010
Zaphod Beeblebrox – Wikipedia

So then.  This is the truth of the matter.  As dear old Zaphod might have said:

“On the one hand, we need to make welfare spending cuts of £7 billion because our housekeeperly household economy can’t stand the strain.

“On the second hand, we surprisingly discover that we are able to support Ireland with £7 billion of our hard-earned welfare spending cuts because their neo-liberal economy (and our business mates) can’t stand the strain.

“And on the third hand, we suddenly decide we can, after all, afford a £6 billion bank holiday, which business informed us we couldn’t afford three years ago, in order that we may celebrate Adolf Hitler’s wedding anniversary …  That is to say, what I really meant to explain, in order that we may celebrate the marriage of two very nice but moderately irrelevant individuals.  On what incidentally happens to be Adolf Hitler’s wedding anniversary.”

So let’s just run this past the populace again.  First we get exposed to savage twenty percent public spending cuts because our economy is tottering over the edge of a precipice.  Then that precipice disappears and the money we’ve saved can be used to prop up Ireland’s neo-liberal and worker-unfriendly policies.  Finally, on top of that, we quite gladly factor in another £6 billion of regal bank holiday allowances.

I wonder what the CBI would say of all of this now.

Clearly a decision taken by a committee of the truly wise and good.

Nov 222010

I saw Panorama this evening.  It was on the subject of how the Saudi authorities, through their cultural institutions, their educational materials, their national curriculum and via their embassy here in the UK, are essentially poisoning British schoolchildren’s minds through part-time educative actions carried out after normal school hours in some cases and in hired state schools in others. 

The documentary showed us official Saudi textbooks teaching young children exactly where hands and feet would need to be cut off as punishments for assorted crimes – and in accordance with traditional Islamic teachings.

A pity the programme doesn’t currently seem to be on iPlayer.  You really ought to try and catch it some time.  It would open your eyes to the underbelly of religious faith.

I was never entirely sure of Blair’s policy of faith schools.  Choosing to learn from the good that those who profess a faith can constructively get up to in society is certainly laudable.  I know, from personal experience, how many kind people believe in God and – also – how many people who believe in God are kind.  Gentle is, in fact, the word that comes to mind when I think of the religious people I’ve come into contact with – quite a different word from the general tenor of all those views the Dawkins of this world would prefer to hold.  In the name of religion many unhappy acts have been committed, it is true.  But an intolerant expression of strongly held beliefs is not the preserve of the believer.  Disbelievers exhibit their own fair share too – whether rightly judged or not.

But there was something about faith schools, from their very inception, that seemed cock-eyed, misplaced and poorly defined.  On the one hand, there was this wonderfully overarching vision of Blair’s to place faith and its good works at the centre of our communities – and yet, on the other, Blair seemed to suggest that the best way forward in order to achieve this vision lay in dividing society into discrete layers of understanding.

And today’s Panorama shows us just how misconceived such a policy was, paving as it did the way for all kinds of educational bolt-ons – and freedoms to tinker – to enter our sociocultural mainstream.  But – in a way – this is now the least of our worries.  In the film, it was notable that on a number of separate occasions Michael Gove, one of the Coalition’s most eloquent and least coherent speakers, kept on underlining how xenophobia wouldn’t be allowed to have its place in the British education system – as Ofsted, the education inspection authority, would be encouraged to tighten up its procedures. 

And, as he did so, he kept referring to the English education system!

Incoherence is Gove’s personal trademark and stock-in-trade.  It was probably a slip of the tongue – or possibly an administrative exactitude.  Either way, it doesn’t bode well.  In times of welfare and public spending cuts, inspection processes usually go to the back of the queue.  A fragmenting education system, inherited from Blair’s faith schools legacy, is a clear example of how more inspection, not less, would be needed to ensure cogency.  Only more inspection is not what we’re going to get.

One of Mr Gove’s flagships is the equally misconceived “free” schools policy:

Free schools, founded by parents and teachers, are one of the government’s flagship ideas for reforming education in England. The schools will be run by private firms or charities when they start to open next year. As academies, they are state schools, but operate outside the local authority. They will be able to set their own curriculum and control their own admissions.

As we can see, the same damn fool mistake that Blair made with his faith schools policy is being repeated seven years later – here in a curiously secular manner – by the Coalition government.  As the Place Group organisation, an example of partnership organisations in such movements, underlines on its website:

Place Group has been deeply involved with the Free Schools movement since its inception and continues to be instrumental in advising and supporting Proposer groups in how they approach this challenge.

We were responsible for producing one of the first applications under this policy and are currently working with Proposer groups nationwide, including a number of the first Free Schools set to open in September 2011. These groups, led by inspirational community members, have chosen Place to support them in the journey to open their schools and to make them a success in the first year and beyond.

To achieve this high level of success, we have drawn on our experience in establishing over 40 Academies and many other major education projects, to ensure that the vision of each group is turned into an economic and educational reality. We continue to liaise with the New Schools Network and DfE on the challenges our groups are facing, and have also suggested refinements to the process. This knowledge and experience means we are ideally placed to advise on the skills, time and resources needed to successfully establish and run a new school.

Place understands that no two new schools are the same and that each reflects the vision and aims of the Proposer group. Our consultants will advise and guide you to establish a school that you want, rather than one that fits a pre-defined model. From the initial application through to the successful running of the school, we can provide expertise and access to partnerships that allow your group to concentrate on ensuring the governance and community aspects of the school remain at the fore.

And as it indicates on a news item published recently, the appointment of “visionary leaders” is key to ensuring that these “free” schools function:

The recruitment of a visionary leader is crucial to any school – and arguably, this appointment takes on even more significance when the position is as Head of a new Free School.

Place Group is managing the recruitment and selection of new Headteachers for both Stour Valley Community School and Haringey Jewish Primary School – and we are delighted to announce that the first provisional offer, for Haringey, has already been made.

Commenting on these assignments, New Schools Director for Place Tom Legge said, “Place Group has always had a strong reputation on Senior Leadership appointments in Academies. The skills required to recruit top talent for Free Schools are similar but require a real appreciation of the Proposers’ vision and the profile of the movement in general, both of which we are ideally positioned to offer.

We worked very hard to ensure that high quality candidates are attracted to these key roles – and we have been delighted at the level of interest and enthusiasm for the Free Schools movement, which has parallels with the early Academy appointments we made. There is a real sense of optimism and passion for change.”

Place expects to appoint its second Head Teacher designate for a Free School before the end of November.

Surely, though, we’ve had quite enough of the sort of damage that “visionary leaders” can bring to our society.  Surely we need a different approach.

For all of this seems quite wrong to me.  Education systems need to bring us together, not spin us apart.  Creating so many different layers of discrete practice seems to me entirely wrong, foolish and simply asking for future trouble.

We need a new way of doing education.  Not monolithic but – rather – binding.

And we need it now.

Before the afternoon bell rings awful changes on the age of cultural cohesion and respect.

Nov 212010

The Observer has a piece on the big society idea today.  The thesis of the article is that the aforesaid concept will essentially and inevitably run out of steam due to lack of enabling resources.  Something I pointed out more than a month ago now.

From my experience in open source software, working as I did as a volunteer HTML coder just before CSS invaded practically all good practice and made practically all websites beautiful to look at even when not easy to use, all I can conclude is that the big society idea comes several years too late and is entirely unsuited to times of economic crisis.  In times of such crisis, in order to make ends meet, people start working far more of their hours in far less well-paid employment and spend far less of their precious daylight time doing stuff for free.  If times will be tough here in Britain for such an established dynamic as open source volunteering, just think how much more difficult it will be to convince people to participate fully and widely in sticking-plaster a savagely cut welfare state.

In open source software, the “enemy” is common – and serves to bind its supporters: it can be large companies which abuse dominant positions in the marketplace; it can simply be an inability of such a marketplace to respond to patently obvious niche needs which are nevertheless too small for a traditional licensing structure to want to take up the challenge.  This common enemy leads to a gathering of forces around a very singular idea and – more often than not – an almost and apparently automatic channelling of quite freely-given resources.

That is why I have often compared the big society idea to the dynamics of open source.  Where the big society idea differs, however, is in the fact that it has been proposed by what most of us would see as that common enemy itself, as a solution to problems it is perceived as having wilfully generated on its own.  It would almost be as if Microsoft suggested that we set up a community website to help develop its Office software so that it could then fire fifty percent of its software development staff.

Now there’s an idea.

So to summarise: the big society idea is a beautifully – and even usefully – ambiguous concept which has been proposed at precisely the wrong time.

And since half of politics is in the timing, half of what we need is simply no longer in our possession.

Great times ahead of us.  Great times ahead.

Update to this post: the Telegraph publishes an interesting report on what the Church of England has to say today about the potential emergence in our urban landscape of – amongst other things – those degrading pockets of the Third World in the Old and New that an unequal distribution of wealth may lead to.  And it may soon be the case that “townships” in Britain will shamefully remind us, on our very own doorsteps, of our awful responsibility to entirely colonial, but perhaps no longer so historical, continents of people living a daily deprivation – continents which formerly found themselves thousands of usefully distant miles away but which now begin to attach themselves to the suburbs of our larger cities.

Bad stuff – sad stuff – on the way.