31 January, 2011

Broken Britain

When he was in opposition David Cameron achieved some kind of notoriety by talking about 'broken Britain' - a reflection on the perceived negative culture of broken families, single parents, child abuse, benefit cheats and the like. The cry was soon taken up by that fine example of upstanding morality, good taste and intellectual rigour, The Sun newspaper. I don't think anyone could not conceivably dispute that in some respects Cameron had a point - there is clearly much to concern us about the prevailing culture of our island. It's often difficult and disheartening to seek for 'good news' in what I too often sadly see as a dumbed down and get rich quick society.
The Oxfordshire Set? Broken Britain?
No, the Cheshire Set at Ellie's sixth Birthday Party - Jan 2011
The trouble is, however, that in my view the 'broken Britain' culture is not restricted to the bottom end of society which is where Cameron was (and still does) pointing his finger. In my view it goes right to the very top and indeed, because of that  is far more prevalent and influential. If there is such a culture then it starts at the top and permeates down. The examples set by those in power or influence - in short, the celebrity culture - are hugely damaging and, in my view, far more detrimental to the whole society than the doings of  perceived benefit cheats and single parents. Whether it be bankers, Premiership footballers, newspapers and newspaper tycoons, media commentators, the Royal family or whatever they all exert a disproportionate influence on the rest of us. Put simply, if it's OK for a banker to take a huge bonus in these days of austerity or for Wayne Rooney to seek to    limit his tax liability by 'playing the tax system's loopholes' why should we point the finger at the single parent on the bread line  seeking to increase their benefit? If it's OK for a famous football commentator to make sexist comments, then why not the guy in the office? If it's OK for the Royal family to be riven with failed marriages and be the the classic dysfunctional family then why should I look down my nose at the broken  families on my street. If it's all right for films and TV programmes to be filled with violence or foul language then why not the workplace or the pub or the street.

I've thought much about these things in recent days after the revelations  that David Cameron attended Sunday lunch with the 'Oxfordshire Set' - which apparently comprised of politicians, celebrities and senior newspaper and media personnel from News International and the like. This was against the background of the News of the World exposes - phone hacking, the awarding of vast contracts to SKY, issues of irregularities in the Metropolitan police investigations and the like.  And, there was me, for all these years, believing that anyone in the 'Oxfordshire Set’ must be something to aspire to and to admire from afar. A group that  would define itself by its academic excellence, its intellectual rigour, its social exclusiveness, its good taste and its moral and ethical purity. In short, the cream of English society. And now, I discover,  this group who lunch together is in fact comprised of  what one could only describe as riffraff - upper class examples of  broken Britain - and arguably closely linked with a number of very dubious and perhaps illegal events. Rebekah Brooks, for example, who has worked for and headed  some of the nation’s  most  scurrilous newspapers - the Sun (the same paper who castigated the low life of Britain and took up Cameron's cry of a broken society) and the News of the World. A woman who was once condemned by a chief constable as being  ‘grossly irresponsible’ . A woman who,  in 'Who’s  Who', makes dubious claims about her higher education credentials. A woman who allegedly assaulted her first husband and then married  a race horse trainer of dubious reputation and known as a  'champagne Charlie’. Charlie is a fine pillar of society - writes a racing column for the Daily Telegraph which is read by the royals we are told. Oh, just one tiny blemish - he earned his fortune by setting up a sex-toy mail order business - but we won't talk about that, it sounds just too lower class. But, Charlie and Rebekah  married in a tasteful 'lakeside' ceremony on their estate – complete, I'm sure, with blow up dolls. Oh, and I see that various senior members of an international  media empire - the Murdochs - are also part of the Oxfordshire set – an empire that has had numerous scrapes with the law in various countries and in our own country one of its many tentacles  is currently embroiled in serious allegations of illegal activities in relation to phone hacking. And what's this? That epitome of male chauvinism and tasteless boorish 'blokishness', Jeremy Clarkson, is in the Set. Good old Jeremy - oh, what a wag he is, don't we love his rudeness - he allegedly plays cards with Bono when the U2 front man (who in recent years has superficially, at least, almost become a saint such are his many good works and words) drops in to join the revels. We all know what wonderful good these people do - in Bono's case at least that is perhaps true - but we won't mention the fact that Vertigo, the company set up by Bono to channel his receipts, is set up so that tax is minimised. Nor will we mention that Jeremy's destruction of the atmosphere with his penchant for high speed cars might be a little passée in this day and age. When Jeremy does his boy racer routines we all chuckle and dream of owning the Ferrari or the Aston but when the boy racers thunder down my street I want the police onto them ASAP!   It seems there's one law for the rich and one for the rest. But, there's nobody here I would want to break bread with or indeed buy a used car from - but they are the Oxfordshire Set.

And then........ into this august gathering sweeps the prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland – the Head of Her Majesty’s Government and member for Oxford Witney  –  he too, we discover,  is a member of the Oxfordshire Set. And this all goes on against a backdrop of intrigue relating to allegations of media and possible police misbehaviour plus the awarding of huge financial rewards if the Prime Minister’s government allow a planned business manoeuvre involving SKY and News International to  go ahead.

From where I stand it has the look of a Gilbert and Sullivan satire about it. W.S. Gilbert really couldn't have dreamed up a better list of characters to mock and parody. As the News of the World would proclaim (as it does about itself) - 'all life is here.'  Absolutley true, but with one additional word - 'all low life is here'. But even better that G & S! Is Colin Dexter around? Can Morse be resurrected?  Morse, that scourge of wrong doers in Oxfordshire would soon have them sorted. He’d soon spot the villains. Morse and Lewis would soon show the Oxfordshire set up for what they really are -  a group of  shady characters, none of whom should be trusted and each of whom is out to make a fast buck at the expense of lesser mortals.

No, the 'Oxfordshire Set'  is not the cream of English society. They’re just a set of opportunists of little intellectual standing, no ethical or cultural foundations and even less taste. In short, they are a classic example of 'broken Britain' - just as insidious and potentially damaging as the benefit cheats and the like. Indeed, because of the 'power' - either real or perceived - that they wield via their professional life or as 'movers and shakers' on TV, in the news and the pages of celebrity culture magazines like 'Hello' people such as this mould the life style of the nation and so wield a disproportionate influence. Rather like a recipe - if these are the ingredients we put in at the top, we shouldn't be too surprised at the messy cake that pops out at the bottom!

I am not naive. This sort of thing has of course, always, 'gone on'. The doings of the celebrities, the stars, those in government or royalty have probably always been less than virtuous. The difference is, of course, that as each successive government insists on more 'accountability' and 'transparency', as the media and the internet expose more 'secrets', the life styles of those in the public eye become visible to ordinary people. And, people being people, see the celebrities doing it, and think (quite rightly) 'I'll have some of that.'  It is, in a perverse, negative way, what the coalition government, in its infinite wisdom, is calling 'nudge' politics - that is changing the behaviour of people by 'nudging' them. Showing them displays of healthy food will encourage them to take it up - it's a proven psychiatric/quasi scientific method of moulding behaviour. Our  Secretary of State for Culture, the RH Jeremy Hunt (the member for SW Surrey) is keen on this (he, too, is part of the Oxfordshire Set and breaks bread at the same Sunday table) - and so too is RH Michael Gove,the member for Surrey Heath and Minister of Education. Oh, and for good measure, we must not forget the RH Grant Shapps, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, and member for Welwyn Hatfield - he's also into 'nudging.' Well, my feeling is that all this nudging by those in power is simply nudging more and more people into being a bit more 'broken' and less of a 'society'. If its good enough for the toffs then its good enough for me, I say! If blow up dolls, underhand deals, scurrilous newspapers, 'grossly irresponsible behaviour', blokish comments and the like are what the Oxfordshire Set 'do', and are good enough for the gentry of Surrey and Welwyn and Oxfordshire's leafy lanes then it's certainly good enough for me - and I'm sure its good enough for the residents of the council estates of Nottingham and the inner city streets of Bradford and the scousers of Liverpool. The only difference is that in Oxfordshire its called the 'Oxfordshire Set' but in Bradford our PM and the Sun  call it 'broken Britain'!

But, what I find really worrying is that our Prime Minister thinks it is reasonable to mix with these people – Gilbert and Sullivan would make much of that.  David Cameron not only looks a fool and a buffoon – straight out of the Savoy operas – he looks a shameless fool and buffoon - and a fundamental part of the broken Britain. When  he and the government talk of 'broken Britain' then a phrase which has something to do with glass houses and throwing stones springs to mind!   

27 January, 2011

Winter Reading!

The Green, Ruddington December 2010
The cold winter has meant more time spent indoors, dark nights and opportunities to get down to some serious reading. I enjoy reading novels of various kinds but tend to keep them for the beach or the garden. So from the autumn onwards I've managed to get through a number of more serious works!
Whilst writing what I will laughingly call my 'memoirs' last year I was reminded of the many wonderful books that I had read in the past, at college and whilst doing my M.Ed and I had a yearning to read some of them again. With the political, economic and social climate being what it is I was delighted to revisit authors who had a different take on life than the Tory party and this dreadful coalition government. It was good to remind myself that despite what the awful Michael Gove says there are other educational options. It was especially rewarding to rediscover Keynes as a realistic and preferable alternative to the Bullingdon club's recipe for government and financial management!
So, what I have I been reading? I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Skidelsky's 'Keynes - the return of the master'. It's satisfying to see that in the latest comments from the CBI and the world's leading financiers in Davos the pendulum is beginning to swing back to Keynesian economics after the brief and unpleasant flirtation with the free market and deregulaltion unloosed 30 years ago by Thatcher and Reagan and continued by various governments since. I also enjoyed enormously Ha-Joon Chang's '23 things they don't tell you about capitalism' - this really should be required reading for any would be economics student and Chancellor of the Exchequer ( perhaps it is!). On the political front Noam Chomsky's 'Hegemony or Survival' is a harrowing and perhaps worrying critique of American foreign policy. Written seven or eight years ago (and recently updated) it has been proved so true in the light of the Wikileaks revelations. I dug into my past by again reading 'The Rise of the Meritcocracy' by Michael Young - again half a century or so after its publication it has proved so correct in its vision of what would happen if we continue to use academic or business excellence as the defining criteria of a meritocracy. Only this week I read that A* are being increasingly used by universities to accept students so an increasing number of people - those without A* - are being cast aside as 'failures'. At the same time I read that the unrest in various Arab countries at the moment is largely fuelled by disenchanted educated young people for who there is little or no work. It is perhaps portent of things to come in this country. From Thatcher onwards we cast aside those with few academic qualifications and the honourable jobs were no longer there for them as 'tradesmen' - but in Thatcher and Blair's world they didn't count. But now we are in danger of excluding the talented, those who have ticked all the educational boxes, but are not quite at the very pinnacle of A* -  it is, I believe, creating a ticking time bomb. On the same theme I've just finished - again - the subversive, controversial, difficult but thought provoking 'Deschooling Society' by the voice of dissent, Ivan Illich. As I read it I found, as an ex teacher, much to disagree with but also much to think about and as I turned each page the words of Pink Floyd's 'Another brick in the wall - we don't need no education' rang in my ears. And finally two biographies: the very readable, but I felt shallow, life story of a politician for whom I have huge respect - Shirley Williams - 'Climbing the Bookshelves'. Williams was one of the very few outstanding education secretaries and she really could have done better with her memoirs. But at the other extreme was the magnificent biography of Michael Foot by Kenneth Morgan. A wonderful book about a wonderful man. Foot was head and shoulders above others of his generation - and wouldn't he savage the politicians of today with his wit, his passion, his skills of oratory, his political knowledge and most important his belief in humanity, compassion and  democracy.  Sadly, no politician of today - of any party - is in his intellectual, political or humanitarian league.

26 January, 2011

One of the joys - and sometimes I think that there are very few!- of getting older is that by definition you know so much more! After all you've been on the planet a long time, seen lots and heard lots - which of course must make you so much wiser!!!!! And the older I get the more I feel that I have something  to say, something to pontificate about. And, of course, by definition, as I am also very wise, so I must be right! My wife has a technical term for it - she says it's called being a grumpy old man or a sad old man! Can't think what she means.

But, whatever, I can bang on about a myriad of things - the government, education, young people, the dumbed down society of the 21st century, the celebrity culture, football, the nature of mankind - you name it and I've got a view on it!

However, that, I hope will only form a small part of this blog. As I have grown older I've also, I hope, learned to appreciate people with whom I've come into contact, places I've visited, things that I have been lucky enough to experience and do in my life time. Hopefully these things will form  most of what follows.

I'll start with one of those. Partly by chance the other day I came across the blog of Vicky Linde. I taught Vicky many years ago when she was about 10 and haven't seen or heard of her since. What a joy to read her blog - the things that she aspired to, the things that she was doing, her work, her concerns, her pleasures. It was a timely reminder that in a world full of shallow comment and perhaps rather dubious people there are still many, many young people who have something meaningful to say and they say it in an inspiring and thoughtful way. Thank you Vicky - you've inspired me to set up my own blog!
Will I ever get to grips with this technology? Looks easy, but I can't do it!!!! Will I ever say anything meaningful? It seemed that I had  a lot to write about when I was thinking about this but now can't think of a thing!