Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Limbo Politics in Britain

The United Kingdom is in a political limbo. There are several reasons for this; Brexit, the weakness of Theresa May and the lack of credible alternatives.

When the United Kingdom voted narrowly in 2016 to leave the European Union, we knew there would be a period of uncertainty. Once Article 50 was triggered there would be a two year period for negotiations on the deal, and then the UK's membership would be finished.

However, since then negotiations have not progressed very much, and neither side has really been able to gain anything like an advantage. Part of the problem is the impression given that the UK government hasn't really worked out what it wants. Prime Minister Theresa May has repeated, many times, that 'Brexit means Brexit' and that 'no deal is better than a bad deal.'

This has meant there is a lot of uncertainty over the future, and what sort of deal will emerge, if any. But whatever we end up with, it will take many years for the full impact of Brexit to unravel, and so some decisions will be on hold for some time.  

The problem is, that the government's, and Mrs. May's, negotiating position is severely weakened by the result of the general election, which instead of the expected large Conservative majority, resulted in a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives cobbling together a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to be able to form a governing majority.

Mrs. May's position has been put in doubt by the result, and there is an appearance that at least one of her rivals, Boris Johnson, is manoeuvring himself into position and constantly undermining her by making comments related to Brexit.

Unfortunately for Mrs. May, her speech at the Conservative conference was somewhat hijacked by 'comedian' Simon Brodkin (which raised concerns about security) handing her a P45, which was followed by a series of coughing fits. While she handled these situations fairly deftly, it is the impression that is created that counts. Perception is everything, and these mishaps didn't create a air of confidence; not aided by letters falling off the board behind her as she spoke.

The message of her speech; energy prices, tuition fees which she wanted to get across are being buried by these events, and the news channels concentrate on the mishaps, rather than the positive message she tried to convey.

However, the Prime Minister does have a couple of things in her favour. Firstly, that none of those who would be considered rivals for her job; Boris Johnson, David Davis, Amber Rudd do not convince either. In fact, at least two of them would almost certainly be worse, and not enough is known about Amber Rudd to judge her abilities. Her very slim majority in Hastings does not help her cause if the position becomes vacant.

The second thing that favours her is the lack of alternatives from other parties. Jeremy Corbyn had a good election campaign, and the Labour Party bit into the Conservative vote enough to deny them a majority. There are various reasons for this; the paucity of the Tory campaign, the collapse of the Ukip vote and the failure of the Liberal Democrats to gain ground (despite ending up with four extra seats).

However, if Labour were unable to win against the worst Conservative campaign in living memory, and possibly any other for that matter, many question whether they can win next time. The party still has to show it can be trusted with the economy, even if you believe that to be an unfair perception, and it's still struggling to get that view countered.

The Conservatives, obviously, don't want to take that risk, and so will cling onto government (I'm reluctant to say power) for as long as possible, hoping that Labour's polling figures will fade over time.

Divisions within Labour still exist, although they put them aside, in the main, for the election campaign, and they may widen over time, especially as the election result, and various internal changes have strengthened Mr. Corbyn's grip on the party. He is entitled to do this, as he can claim that he did a lot better than expected, putting him in a position of strength.

Recent polling is still has the parties running very close, and so it appears the public does not really have that much confidence in either of them, but now we've returned to a two-party system, the alternatives, due in part to the electoral system, are very limited.

The Liberal Democrats failed to make any sort of breakthrough at the election. They gained four seats overall, but actually lost votes. Their leader at the time, Tim Farron, got embroiled in issues surrounding his personal beliefs, and eventually resigned because he couldn't reconcile those beliefs with being leader of the Liberal Democrats.

He has been succeeded by for Business Secretary Vince Cable, who is making all sorts of noises, but the Lab Democrats have a long way to go before they're a real voice again. They've tried to position themselves as the voice of the 48% that voted to remain in the European Union, but that has failed to gain ground.

Ukip's fall was the most spectacular, as their votes went to the Conservative and Labour parties, and they lost their single MP. They also lost their leader, Paul Nuttall, and have recently elected Henry Bolton to replace him. Ukip have tried to position themselves as the 'conscience of Brexit' and their future is dependent on how the negotiations go, and whether they start to regain some of their support.

So despite her weakened position, Mrs. May is safe for the time being. None of her potential rivals enthuses the electorate, the main opposition still does not persuade that they are ready for government. The economic future is very uncertain because negotiations with the EU have yet to progress sufficiently to see where the country will end up.

The DUP deal will enable the government to stay in place for at least two years, and by then a lot of things may have changed. New candidates for the top jobs in government will have emerged, some of whom may prove to have public appeal. Labour will continue to reshape itself, and could be in position to form a government if it wins the next election.

The UK in going to be in this limbo for some time, economically and politically, and there is no way of knowing which way things will go; only time will tell.


Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Wrong Mann

If there are two things I have in common with John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, it's that we're both Labour members, and we are both supporting Yvette Cooper's candidacy to be the next leader.

But where we differ significantly, is on the future of the leadership contest. Mr Mann has today called for the contest to be halted because of, what he called, 'hard-left' infiltrators.

The leadership rules were put in place by Ed Miliband in January 2014, and instead of the electoral college which had elected him. This college had been split into three, the Parliamentary Labour Party, Constituency Parties and Trade Unions and affiliates. As you can see from the breakdown here, it was the votes of the Trade Unions and affiliates section that decided it in Ed Miliband's favour.

This had caused a lot of controversy, and was considered unfair, so a new system of one member one vote (OMOV) was introduced. This meant that each member's vote was worth the same regardless of whether they were an MP, Lord, an ordinary member through a CLP, or were an affiliate member.

Additionally, those who signed up as 'supporters' would also be entitled to a vote in the leadership election, after paying a £3 fee. It is this that is causing problems for some members of the party.

Three of the candidates, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall, all gained the 35 nominations needed to be on the ballot before the cut-off date of June 15th. However, in order to try and ensure a proper debate, some MPs, who supported other candidates, 'lent' their names to Jeremy Corbyn, so there was a broader representation across the party.

It is these supporters that are now causing much angst to Mr Mann, amongst others, as it would appear that not all are committed to the Labour cause. There may be Tories signing up, encouraged by  Toby Young (whose application was rejected), in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, who they believe would lead the Labour party to a similar result to 1983. This is a pretty pathetic tactic, in my opinion, and perhaps indicative of a lack of confidence amongst some Conservatives that they've won the argument.

Then there are those who may be coming from other parties on the left, such as the Greens, or the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, which is largely made up of those who left the party following the invasion of Iraq, and the party's perceived shift to the right.

A lot of people joined Labour straight after our defeat, and many have joined since, some seemingly inspired by Mr Corbyn's candidacy, which they believe would take the Labour Party back to what they think it should be.

Whether these rumours are true, or at least exaggerated is difficult to tell, but the rules were set by Harriet Harman, and the acting leadership, so if true, they should take the blame. I have already written elsewhere my opinion of how the contest is being conducted, so I won't go over those again.

There was always a chance that something like that could happen, but there was such a simple way to avoid it. I have no particular issue with attempts to widen the debate, and bring in those who are Labour supporters, but for various reasons have not joined the party. But it was decided to have the closing date for signing up as August 12th, the day ballot papers start going out. A much more sensible option would have been to only those signing up on, or before the close of nominations to participate. Therefore, this problem has been brought upon the Labour party by its own leadership.

Democracy has often been an issue for leaders, because they can't always rely on the membership, citizens, etc to just go along with what they want. Under the Labour Party's system, it would appear that the 'outside' candidate (he's been an MP since 1983), Jeremy Corbyn, could not only win, but even do it on the first ballot.

The leadership are not keen on this outcome at all, and neither am I which is why I support Yvette Cooper, and I think a Jeremy Corbyn leadership would be a bad thing, but the rules are being followed, Mr Corbyn is making his case, and it seems to be speaking to a of of people.

So instead of trying to stop the contest, Mr Mann, and those who agree with him, should instead be making the case for their idea of how the Labour Party should go forward, and not rely on artificial methods to restrict the democratic choice of members and supporters.

As I said, earlier, and in my previous article, this is a mess of the Labour Party's own making, and not the fault of those who ordinary members who will be electing the leader.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Peace, democracy, tolerance and freedom?

The attacks carried out by terrorists and murderers this weekend in Tunisia, Kuwait and France are appalling and distressing for the families and friends of those killed and injured. Those who witnessed the attacks will also be suffering trauma, and I hope they can all recover over time.

In his response to the attacks, David Cameron has said:

"To our shock and grief we must add another word: resolve. Unshakable resolve. We will stand up for our way of life...We must be stronger at standing up for our values - of peace, democracy, tolerance, freedom. We must be more intolerant of intolerance - rejecting anyone whose views condone the Islamist extremist narrative and create the conditions for it to flourish...a full-spectrum response - a response at home and abroad; in the immediate aftermath and far into the future."

Mr Cameron is right that we should stand up for the values of 'peace' 'democracy' 'tolerance' 'freedom,' but I fear that just the opposite may in fact be the result.

I have written previously about the Data Communications Bill the government wanted to enact before the General Election, and they can be found here and here. The Bill has been given the sobriquet of 'the Snoopers' Charter' and would enable wholesale surveillance of British citizens' private communications, and was an extension of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (RIPA). The Conservatives included this in their 2015 manifesto and will look to bring it forward with even more urgency now. I fully expect Mr Cameron in his statement in the House today, or Theresa May in the very near future to  announce that this will will brought forward in the timetable.

In his recent report Sir David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said that the status quo under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) was 'undemocratic, unnecessary and - in the long run- intolerable.' Sir David also says that any new law should comply with international human rights standards and require judicial authorisation, a point picked up by both Yvette Cooper and David Davis in the recent House of Commons debate on the report.

Unfortunately Sir David also suggested that external communication 'bulk collection', to and from the UK, should be retained with 'additional safeguards' as required under RIPA, but overall his conclusion is that, "no operational case has yet been made for the Snoopers' Charter and questions the lawfulness, intrusiveness and cost of the proposals.'

The government has a duty to protect its citizens, and David Cameron has repeatedly said over the years that we should be proud of our values of tolerance. democracy and freedom of speech. However, chillingly, shortly after his General Election victory, he also said this:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.'

As terrible and terrifying as the events over the weekend have been, and it is expected some thirty British citizens have been victims of the Tunisian attack, they must not be used as an excuse to restrict those freedoms, and to mean that the government adopts mass surveillance as a way of life.

As he faces the House of Commons today, I hope Mr Cameron is questioned on what he means by a 'full spectrum response.' Does this mean that millions of innocent people, living ordinary peaceful lives in Britain will now become targets of our security services? Will we now be considering sending more of our overstretched and undermanned armed forces to take on ISIL, with the prospect of ground troops? These are dangerous words, and need to be clarified, and he needs to be challenged on what he means.

When he first became Prime Minister David Cameron spoke outside Downing Street and said, "Compared with a decade ago, this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for"

Yet, it is more than possible that within a decade of saying those words, we could be left with a country more intolerant, more divided in ways that we never thought we would see anymore, as the anti-terrorist legislation and rhetoric is ramped up, and we all become suspects, because that what mass surveillance will do. We will all be considered potential terrorists as our most private communications become available to the security services for monitoring. It would, indeed, be a country where obeying the law is not enough.

The government, and our leaders from the other parties. must not panic in light of the events this last weekend. Instead they must be even more determined to stand up for those 'values' they so often espouse, and tell those that do wish to undermine those 'values,' that we will not be cowed, and that the people who live in these islands will continue to do so without fear, and in freedom.

Monday, 9 September 2013

That vote, and why we should stay out of Syria!

For the second time in a decade, the government of Britain seems intent in taking the country into a war nobody, outside  of our political leadership wants. In 2003 it was Iraq, and the regime of Saddam Hussein, this time it's Syria and Bashar Al-Assad.

Both cries for war were, and are, based on evidence about which there is much doubt. The so-called 'dodgy dossier' that helped convince so many that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, has since been exposed as having been largely plagiarised from a number of unattributed sources, and then 'sexed up,' to use Andrew Gilligan's famous phrase, to strengthen its conclusions.

The then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the American President, George W. Bush, both seemed to be convinced that a military intervention to remove Saddam Hussein was justified but were unable to get a United Nations resolution, despite a detailed presentation by then US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But many states did not find the US case convincing, and at the very least wanted UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, to complete their task and report fully to the security council. The only permanent members of the security council who had no doubts were the United States and Britain. France believed that Saddam had a weapons programme but felt intervention would be the 'worst possible solution,' according to then Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin. France's position was not one of never going into Iraq, but wanted the inspectors top complete their work and took a 'wait and see' approach.

The Chinese took a position that  was close to France's whilst the Russians, though reluctant to enable intervention, the then President Vladimir Putin, indicated that if Iraq continued in its failure to co-operate with the inspectors, then support for a US-led intervention was possible. There was one country on the security council at the time, from the elected members, that believed Iraq was meeting all its obligations, and indeed supported the lifting of sanctions, and that was Syria which had been led by the current president since 2000.

So as 2013 unfolds, once again war looms in the middle-east, in a situation which divides the permanent members of the security council. Britain and the United States are once again allied, this time with the French, whilst the Russians and Chinese are implacably opposed, as geopolitics takes centre stage.

In March 2011, as an extension of the 'Arab Spring,' a series of demonstrations against the Ba'athist regime of Syria, ruled since 2000 by Bashar Al-Assad, who succeeded his father. These demonstrations were largely peaceful until the army attempted to quell them, and they have since escalated into a full-scale civil war.

For over a year the anti-government rebels fought as a series of disparate groups each with their own agendas, but last November seemingly got together to form a single grouping Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, led by Ahmad Jarba, who reputedly has close ties with Saudi Arabia.

Making up the fighting force for the rebels are large elements of the army who defected in 2011, and operate under the title of the Free Syrian Army. However, attached to the rebel cause is a group known as Jabhat Al-Nasra, which has very close ties to Al-Qaeda, merging with the Iraqi branch in April this year. Al-Qaeda did not operate in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, which is perhaps something to ponder?

Jabhat Al-Nasra have been responsible for a series of suicide bombings on government targets, and last December were declared a terrorist organisation by the United States, yet remain part of the opposition which Foreign Secretary William Hague was not ruling out arming as recently as July, confident they wouldn't fall into 'extremist hands.'

To complicate matters even further, Hezbollah, an Iranian funded Lebanese terrorist organisation, is supporting the Assad regime, and has participated in numerous suicide attacks, mainly on American and Israeli targets over the years.

So in effect what we have in Syria is two opposing groups with close links to active terrorist organisations, who have killing each other and over 100,000 civilians for two years, yet now the American, British and French governments have concluded that things have reached a point where a 'limited' military intervention is required against the Assad government.

The immediate trigger for this, though the forming of the official opposition group is a more medium term incentive, is an alleged chemical weapons attack on 21st August on a rebel held area of Damascus. Weapons inspectors have recently been there, and are expected to release their findings shortly, although their remit was to find evidence of chemical (WMD) weapon usage, not to apportion blame.

The leaders of the three main countries; United States, Britain and France, seeking to use military force are convinced that it was the Syrian regime that used these weapons, and according to President Barack Obama, crosses a 'red line,' he set a year previously.

The 'casus belli' is that this contravenes the UN's Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons, and calls for the destruction of facilities and stockpiles. Syria is not a signatory to the convention, and so acting without an explicit UN resolution must be of doubtful legality.

The United Nations' Security Council, however is at an impasse, as of the five permanent members possessing vetoes, Russia is dead against any military intervention, and the best that could be expected from China is an abstention, but without Russia, no resolution can pass. This is almost a return to the days of the Cold War, when it was fought by proxy.

With little prospect of a UN sanctioned intervention, the Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to get authorisation from the House of Commons, and so recalled it from the summer recess on August 29th,  to take military action, or at least that was the original intention, but Labour Party leader Ed Miliband's decision to table his own amendment, and reluctance to write a 'blank cheque' for intervention, forced Mr Cameron to change his motion to one focussing on the humanitarian aspect, but left open the prospect of military intervention if the government felt it was required:

"Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on savings lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons"

Now it must be noted that the final paragraph reads:

Notes that this motion relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.

But overall the motion does not seem to rule out action without a UN resolution:

Believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action

despite the many warm words seemingly in that direction.

During the debate, and following, there has been much dispute about two things, whether or not Ed Miliband said he would support David Cameron in taking action, and as to whether the Labour amendment was sufficiently different to justify its tabling, and dividing the House.

On the first point, this becomes a matter of interpretation, as the meetings between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband were on privy council terms, and the reality is that Mr Miliband's response was sufficiently ambiguous enough that multiple interpretations were possible. It suited Mr Cameron to see it as supportive, and Mr Miliband to allow room for a different approach.

But the real point is, are there any key differences between the two motions? Malcolm Rifkind didn't think so, and neither did a number of Conservatives, but there are a few which are, in my opinion, decisive.

Firstly, although Ed Miliband accepts on a balance of probability that the regime was responsible for the August 21st attack, he wants to see,

the production of compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of these weapons

and that the United nations votes on it following the inspectors report, and

There being a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action to protect the Syrian people on humanitarian grounds;

and also

That the Prime Minister reports further to the House on the achievement of these conditions so that the House can vote on UK participation in such action. 

So the key differences are that the regime is not blamed without clear proof, that the inspectors must report, and that the United nations must vote sanctioning 'limited' military action.

As we are well aware, both motions were defeated, and since then the accusations of politicking have been thrown at Mr Miliband, yet the large vote by the coalition partners against the Labour amendment would seem to allow such accusations against both sides, especially as the Labour amendment was, supposedly, so similar to the coalition motion.

Mr Miliband has also been accused of 'giving succour' to the Syrian President, Mr Assad, and siding with the Russians. However, I have yet to see him making the same accusations against the splendid Sarah Wollaston, former minister Crispin Blunt and former leadership contender David Davis who also voted against action.

After the desperately close vote, just thirteen, which defeated the government motion, Mr Miliband proposed a point of order asking:

There having been no motion passed by this House tonight, will the Prime Minister confirm to the House that, given the will of the House that has been expressed tonight, he will not use the royal prerogative to order the UK to be part of military action before there has been another vote in the House of Commons?

To which Mr Cameron replied:

I can give that assurance. Let me say that the House has not voted for either motion tonight. I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion,the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly.

Here are the speeches of David Cameron and Ed Miliband so you can make up your own minds on their arguments.

I, along with the majority of the British population, do not believe intervention in Syria would be right or wise, and ironically it is now Mr Cameron who has completely ruled out military action, whereas the Labour amendment, and Mr Miliband's point of order, always left the door open.

Since the vote in the House of Commons, President Obama has announced that Congress would be asked to vote on military action, and President Hollande of France followed suite, although without a vote to follow. The vote in Congress is expected tomorrow the 10th September, and although the Congressional leadership is on board, there are many dissenting voices amongst representatives and senators, which could mean the vote is a close one.

Chemical weapons are an abhorrence, and we've seen their effects over the past century, from World War I mustard gas attacks, the use of Zyklon B in the gas chambers, napalm use during the Vietnam war by the Americans, the use of nerve gas on Kurdish villages by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and allegations of other uses throughout the Middle-East especially.

So why is it imperative to act now, when we didn't in 1988 especially? In 1988, the west was supporting Iraq during what was, arguably, the first gulf war, and so turning a blind eye was deemed politik. But, of course, times change too, and President Obama and David Cameron have deemed such use unacceptable, and against international law, which I don't think many of us would disagree with.

But, in Syria, we have a situation where there aren't any 'good guys,' where accusations of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, and the possible use of chemical weapons, have been made against both sides, as well as the involvement, again on both sides, of recognised terrorist organisations, means this is a no win situation. Indeed, many have asked, why it is that it is the west who should intervene, and not the Arab League, or other regional organisations, in what is essentially a local dispute?

The movements of Russian and American ships, the presence of American ally Israel, and the various geopolitical line-ups, lead me to believe that this is a civil war that should be allowed to play itself out. There have been many questions asked as to why Assad's troops would use such weapons, when the war is going in their favour? However, a cursory study would show that over the centuries logical actions, especially during wars, aren't necessarily the way things unfold.

In many ways, the vote has done David Cameron a favour, as it has enabled him to be the voice of humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians, and the 100,000s of refugees the war has created, a role he has pursued with gusto, perhaps freed, in his mind, from having to take part in any military action, action that has not, and cannot be defined. 'Limited' has no real meaning in a military context, because once you're involved, you can't 'hit and run,' you stay until you win, or as the United States discovered in Vietnam, lose.

So, hopefully, throughout this article, I have shown why we, the British though really I mean everyone, should steer well clear of involvement in the Syrian conflict. The Labour Party have learned the lessons of Iraq, under a leader who was against it, yet the Americans apparently haven't, and their leader raised his voice against when a member of the Illinois state senate. The Americans say they have clear evidence the regime used chemical weapons, but despite promises, have yet to produce it. There are many arguments of falsification, but I believe there are sufficient reasons to stay out of Syria, outside of humanitarian assistance, without getting involved in those.

Secretary of State John Kerry today said,  'the risk of acting is greater than the risk of not acting,'  but there are occasions when it is better to do nothing, and rush headlong into a war where there will be no winners, and I believe this is one of them.

Finally, and really as an aside, this repercussions for the future could be quite stark. If it develops sensibly, the debate over the ending of the veto could begin, and systems put in place to ensure the United Nations does not become an irrelevance.

However, worryingly, David Cameron did say at the G20 on 6th September that, "Relying on the UN to act over Syria would be tantamount to 'contracting out foreign policy and morality' to a Russian veto," and perhaps the same fate as the League of Nations awaits it unless reform is forthcoming, otherwise we're in for a series of counter-vetoes as each side struggles to maintain an advantage.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

More questions than answers...........

To many Thursday's County Council election results were a 'game changer,' as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), seemed to come from virtually nowhere to win 147 councillors a gain of 136 on the same elections in 2009.

These gains were mainly at the expense of the Conservatives who were down 335 seats, although they remain the largest party in County Councils by some margin, having more than twice as many as the Labour Party.

These elections featured another poor performance by the Liberal Democrats, who lost around a quarter of their councillors. The Conservatives also lost about 25%, but they started from a much higher base, and so were always likely to suffer considerable losses.

The coalition partners then for the first time since forming the government in 2010 both suffered substantial losses, but is this just mid-term blues, or a taste of things to come?

Perhaps if the Labour Party had many more gains we could have read more into the results, but despite a gaining a very good 291 councillors, all that has happened is that Labour are back to where they were in 2009.

There were typical to and fros on Friday as both Conservative and Labour spokespeople each claimed the other had done terribly, trading figures back and forth, and really just generating more heat than light.

As a Labour Party supporter, I was pleased with the results on Thursday, especially as we made gains in areas where the party of often has difficulty making headway, such as the Sussex coastal area, the midlands and the west country. In the long run this may turn out to be more significant than whether or not Labour performed as well as they should have.

However, the real story of the 2013 County Council elections was the performance of UKIP, and whether  it heralds a sea-change in British politics (or perhaps more accurately English as UKIP's presence elsewhere is muted), or a protest vote against all the main parties, with whom the public have become increasingly disillusioned.

But UKIP have a number of problems to overcome before they could be said to have made a real impact on the political scene. True they have had candidates elected to the European Parliament for some time, but have never made much progress, until now, on the domestic scene, and still have got nowhere near having an MP elected.

In 2009's elections for the European Parliament, UKIP came second in the national vote, and many pundits are expecting that next year, they could well come out on top. But, until they have an MP elected under the UKIP banner, being taken seriously will be a problem for them.

There have been many rumours over the last year or so that a number of Conservative MP's might defect to UKIP, the principle issue being David Cameron's unwillingness to call a referendum on membership of the European Union. For Mr Cameron this is a delicate issue, as he too has problems with the EU, how it is administered and how much it costs. However, he is in the end, as is the Chancellor George Osborne, in favour of continued membership provided he can get the concessions he wants. Unfortunately for him, a substantial proportion of his own membership in including those MP's, want out altogether.

But, although a defection would cause the Prime Minister some embarrassment, losing a minor backbencher or two isn't an issue, until UKIP start to get members of Parliament elected under its own banner, advocating a UKIP manifesto.

On the face of it UKIP do present the greatest threat to the Conservative Party, but they can also affect the other main parties. Although Labour did not actually lose any councillors to UKIP on Thursday, inevitably some Labour supporters, for a number of reasons chose to vote for them, and almost certainly it cost Labour wins.

The UKIP performance also, probably, skews the performance of the Conservative party, as it is its supporters who switched here in the main, and without UKIP, the Tories losses would have been many fewer.

I think it would be dangerous to write off the UKIP performance as a mere protest vote, because politics has changed substantially over the last few years. The expenses scandal and the financial crisis has lowered people's opinion of politicians more than ever, and it's hard for leaders to make an impact. trust has gone, and UKIP leader's, Nigel Farage, bluff, bloke down the pub strategy is currently paying dividends.

As the elections drew closer, UKIP's candidates came under greater scrutiny, although not yet their policies, and demonstrated that they too have been caught out by their success, and have yet to put in place a proper candidate programme. Although as the other parties will vouch, that is no guarantee that the odd embarrassment won't slip through.

The General Election is two years away, and a lot will happen between now and then which could have a significant impact. The performance of the economy will be key, and the answers that each of the parties comes up with to deal with those issues.

Will the coalition hold together as they increasingly diverge in their approach? Will the Labour Party be able to come up with policies and rhetoric that enables the public to trust them again? Will the Conservative reaction to the UKIP threat be to lurch to the right, to allay that? Will the Liberal Democrats look to position themselves where they can benefit whichever of Conservative or Labour is the biggest party in 2015? Will UKIP make the breakthrough into Parliament they desire, and need, and become a new force in politics?

There is one other issue that may yet have an effect, and that's the referendum on Scottish independence due in 2014, only eight months before the General Election. A yes vote would create problems, as independence itself would not become a fact until around March 2016.

Would Scotland still send MP's to the House, only to have them leave once independence became a fact? If they did, and there were enough Labour MP's (Conservatives currently being weaker in Scotland than elsewhere in Great Britain) to either make them the biggest party, or even give them a big majority?

Alternatively, the Conservatives could move from being the biggest party to becoming a majority one, having once again been in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Would they dump their junior partners, and form a new government on their own?

Anyway, having strayed off the point a bit here, what does the County Council elections of 2013 tell us about the British political scene?

Not much in the end, the main parties both did pretty much as expected, UKIP did better than expected, but now they have entered the mainstream they will come under greater scrutiny. But with two years to go until a General Election, and European Elections and a Scottish independence referendum in between, there are a lot more questions than answers at the moment, so making predictions is a fool's game.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Pub Quiz Curriculum, whose facts, whose dates?

This post is cross-posted on the Labour Teachers' site.

Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education came in office promising to shake up the teaching establishment.  From the moment he took office, he has implemented a programme of whirlwind change, as the academies programme was accelerated, and he introduced 'free schools.' But he also had a burning ambition to do something about the curriculum, and history in particular seems to have been a target.

As a history teacher myself, I was naturally interested when the new curriculum proposals were published. However, I also felt it was important to get Mr. Gove's view, so I wrote to him as I felt it would be important to understand his thinking as he attempted to change history teaching.

I received a reply from Mr. Henry De Zoete a special adviser to the Secretary of State, for which I am grateful, even if he might not agree with my analysis of the new curriculum as proposed. He opened up explaining that the new curriculum would, 'ensure that pupils are taught about Britain's place in the world - and how its past influenced its present.' Now this sounds reasonable, I think it's important to clarify that I'm not against change, but it needs to be the right kind of change.

In fact, despite the the rhetoric coming from the Department for Education, and its supporters in the media about the radicalism of Mr. Gove's reforms, they aren't new even for the Conservatives. In 1992 the then Secretary of State, John Patten, also wanted to radically reform education by severely reducing the role of local education authorities, examining bodies were to be merged, the Secretary of State would have wide powers of intervention, and complained that they had been 'education without grammar and spelling.'

This all sounds remarkably familiar to nearly three years ago when Mr. Gove walked into the, newly renamed, Department for Education, determined to return education back to its 'glory days.' Although as David Cannadine argues, this is a time that only exists in the minds of those who didn't experience it.

But it is in the changes proposed to the curriculum that I see substantial echoes, with more Shakespeare for 14-year-olds in English, and for our purposes as history teachers, studies of the British Empire and more facts and dates.

At the start of Mr. De Zoete's reply he says they would be seeking to, '(Teach) the subject chronologically - rather than as a series of disjointed topics - will mean pupils understand how key events and people link to and follow one another.'

As a starting point there's not a problem here, it would be easier for pupils to pick up themes and links if topics are covered in a more linear fashion. However, history is more than a list of dates , it is also about acquiring skills for analysing events, causes and consequences.

The skills to properly engage with history at that level need to already be in place, they can't suddenly be picked up adequately at that stage, without a firm grounding in analysis, source work, and constructing an argument as examples.

Learning history in school is as much about skills as content, and although the preamble rightly outlines these in the aims; continuity and change, cause and consequence, analysing trends, differences and similarities, because the lessons would have to maintain a breakneck speed, the time for real investigation will not be there.

This is why the second sentence of the section does worry me greatly, 'As well as increased rigour, there will be far less focus on the teaching of abstract concepts and processes in history.' This means that by the end of key stage three, those who have decided to continue with history to GCSE level, will be severely lacking the analytical skills required to succeed at that level.
Nobody has a problem with rigour, in if it would be all encompassing and consistent, but in a classroom it can mean, ' instruction that requires students to construct meaning for themselves, impose structure on information, integrate individual skills into processes, operate within but at the outer edge of their abilities, and apply what they learn in more than one context and to unpredictable situations.'

However, because there will be less emphasis on historical skills teaching, the ability to make the judgements Robyn Jackson talks about in How to Plan Rigorous Instruction will be lacking.
Naturally the historical community is split, with the likes of Niall Ferguson, Simon Sebag-Montefiore and David Starkey in favour, and Richard Evans, Steve Mastin and Peter Mandler taking an opposite view.

In an article in the Guardian on 15th February Professor Ferguson claims that the current history teaching leaves young people's knowledge in a 'parlous state.' He bases his claims on his own experience, in which he seems to have only ever met history teachers who think the same as he does, and an points to an essay by Matthew Hunter, a history teacher, in Standpoint magazine.

Matthew Hunter is, of course, entitled to his view, but I feel his point about the Napoleon portrait says more about him than the curriculum or the topic.. There are at least two ways he could of done this, the first being the way he did, though not deliberately, in which the pupils formed a view based on the picture, which he then followed by giving the pupils some context, which would have taught them that you can't always infer from a source like this without some background knowledge.Getting angry with the pupils when they are only doing what he has asked them to do, is not going to encourage them to be confident in putting forward their opinions.

On the other hand, he could have taught them some background first, so that when they came to look at the portrait, they would have a context in which to put it, providing they were also aware that David was Napoleon's official portraitist, and therefore the picture may well have been painted with an agenda of its own. This is what makes history teaching so wonderful, as pupils become aware of the many questions, answers and ways of investigating and understanding. I am not using this to criticise Matthew particularly, but really to demonstrate that there are different approaches which can be employed.

Professor Ferguson's other main gripe seems to be that current curriculum is too 'politically correct,' and that the new proposals are still a model of that because of the inclusion of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano, 'hardly escapees from our island story,' so has difficulty understanding why many historians, and teachers like myself, are unhappy with the new proposals. It's as though he thinks offering us a sop is enough to keep us happy. The argument has always gone much deeper than who is in there, it's about a politician deciding who is relevant and not historians.

On the other side of the argument is Professor David Cannadine who like Ferguson lectures at an American university, in this case Princeton and opposed to Harvard.Cannadine decided to undertake a research project into teaching in schools in order to get first hand knowledge,the results of which were published in 2011 under the title The Right Kind of History: Teaching the past in twentieth century England.

Cannadine concludes that the vision of a 'golden-age' of history teaching, and wasn't taught to anything but a small elite, and wasn't a mainstream subject until after the Second World War. He believes the real issue isn't the curriculum or the subjects it covers, but that there's too much to teach, and not enough time to teach it in.

Indeed, Steve Mastin, head of history at a Cambridge school, points out that the trend has been towards teachers having more freedom, which Mr. Gove has insisted they need, hence academies and 'free schools' have more discretion when it comes to following the curriculum.

Ferguson also says he has taken an interest, and written 'popular history' books, so what we have here is two professors who both have some first hand knowledge, if not experience, and reaching different conclusions, which in many ways is what history is all about. Do the research, analyse the evidence, and reach a conclusion, using the evidence to back it up. Who is right is for the reader to decide, not for the teacher to direct.

At the foot of this blog is a debate between David Starkey and Richard Evans, both well-known historians (though I suspect Starkey is better known to any non-historians who read this because of his programmes on British monarchs), who take diametrically opposite views on history and how it should be taught.

Evans argues that the proposed new curriculum is overly prescriptive, a conclusion which both Ferguson and Mastin agree with, and as advisers had advised Mr. Gove against. If the pupils are only being taught a narrow curriculum designed to promote 'Britishness' will they also be allowed to question the validity? Is Oliver Cromwell a hero or a villain?

As historians, and teachers, we like to believe that the purpose of studying history is to cast light on events, and to help the readers to understand the chain of events that led to a particular outcome. But the problem with this narrow, parochial, 'great men' view of British history, is that it will present it as a series of myths, designed to promote an Anglo-centric view, in which our influence has been mostly positive.

As set, the curriculum would be 'an island story' in which pupils miss out on the wonders of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Egypt. They get Rome but that is it, it's a 'depressingly  narrow history syllabus,' as David Priestland, an Oxford history lecturer said recently. The nearest the pupils will get to world history is 'new world colonisation,' conflict with Spain (the Armada basically), Clive of India, the American and French Revolutions. It is only really in their contact with, and effect on Britain that would be taught. As Mandler asks, if Clive is a hero, who is he a hero to?

One of the reasons the pupils will not be able to question these events could is the sheer scale of the proposed new curriculum which means that teachers just will not have the time to properly examine the positive and negative effects. This is a curriculum written by those who do not understand that in many schools, pupils get an hour a week on history, and in some the subject is split with geography, spending half a term studying it at a time.

There are also many issues with the Key stage one and two curriculums, not least of which is that teachers who are not specialists, will be expected to try and get their pupils to understand difficult concepts such as democracy, nation (and nationalism) and civilisation, when it is possible they may not understand themselves.

For instance, the rivalry between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt are currently taught at year 7, so during the first year of secondary education for most pupils. At this stage, the pupils can begin to really understand that events have multiple causes and consequences, short, medium and long term.

A crowded year 6 curriculum would not enable the different aspects to be covered adequately, and would be difficult for subject specialists to get across, let alone a primary teacher who might have an hour a week, or less, to explain something that they only understand vaguely themselves.

This is demonstrated starkly, as I said earlier, as the new curriculum would deal with less of the abstract, yet at Year 7, the pupils will be expected to try and understand 'The Enlightenment' in England, so they get Locke and Smith, but not Rousseau or Diderot. If you're going to ask children to understand that period, they might as well get a sweep of ideas.

Richard Evans said in the Sunday Politics debate with David Starkey that the problem is, 'it just teaches a chronicle, it doesn't teach the kind of historical skills you need to analyse the past, to make up your mind, shoving facts down schoolchildren's throats without giving them a chance to debate and make up their own minds.'

David Starkey on the other hand agrees with Niall Ferguson and  believes that there is 'profound ignorance' about historical events, and that the skills debate gets it the 'wrong way round' as you can't debate without knowledge. Of course, Dr Starkey isn't totally wrong in that argument, but teachers need to be given the space to teach both skills and knowledge.

Now very few doubt the Holocaust was other than truly terrible, but there have been other cases of genocides, Rwanda being an important recent example. In the 12th century Richard I also persecuted Jews, and indeed that is when the word holocausti was first used in relation, so persecution of the Jews isn't unique in itself.

This takes us back to the issue of prescription, which even Ferguson concedes having advised Gove against making that error, and the job of a teacher (if not a politician) is to get the pupils to understand that history often has two sides to an argument.

In the new curriculum it is proposed to teach the Holocaust as a 'unique evil.'  David Starkey asks Evans whether it should be taught as a 'moral fact' which is exactly the problem I've been outlining, is it the job of teachers to decide on the pupil's behalf what is and isn't 'moral.'. The biggest problem with Starkey's argument though is he believes the curriculum should change because it has a 'left-wing skew' brought in by a Labour government.

Now this could have been a valid argument, if he had been prepared to acknowledge the wrongness of the conservative bias in the proposed new curriculum. The two principle political figures that year 7's are supposed to learn about are John Locke, one of the founding fathers of liberalism (in its classic sense) and conservatism, and Adam Smith the author of The Wealth of Nations, a classic liberal text and there is no space to balance these views later on,with a study of Marx, for instance, who also had a profound effect on thinking.

One of the odder aspects of the new proposals, is that the Boer War is brought in, not necessarily a bad thing, but the rise of China is removed. This seems a bizarre and incomprehensible decision as China is one of the new economic powers, and may well one day be the most important trading nation in the world, let alone the east. Ignoring a coming nation, or to be truthful, reinvigorated one for a short war that means little unless they are to study South Africa at GCSE seems very short-sighted.

So in seeking to return to what he believes is a 'golden age,' Michael Gove is also reviving subjects that schools stopped spending a lot of time on when I was there. Where are is the influence of the Mogul or Ottoman Empires? Where is the growth of the European Union? It is only Britain's relations with the Commonwealth, Europe and the world that are the focus of this curriculum. Anyone would think looking at this, that not only is the growing influence of China missing, but that Japan hasn't grown to be an economic superpower in the last fifty years. Yet there is space to learn about the election of Margaret Thatcher.

So what we have being presented to us is an overly prescriptive, as historians of all views agree, Anglo-centric, didactic curriculum, in which not only will the pupils have little space for questioning and analysis, they will be actively discouraged from doing so.

Change and renewal is not the issue, but it must be the right change. As Richard Evans and Steven Mastin remind us, Michael Gove eventually ignored all the advice he was getting, even from supporters like Ferguson, and practically wrote the curriculum based on a misunderstood version of history teaching from a time before he was even born.

So, I believe it would be better to go back to the drawing board, properly debate this with all sides, and come back with something that gives pupils a sound knowledge and the analytical skills required to do well not only in exams, but in the world beyond school and pub quizzes.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Show me the Mani.....

            An Undivided Past: History Beyond our Differences by David Cannadine
            Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books), London, 2013   

David Cannadine's 'The Undivided Past' is a tour de force attacking the simplification of arguments over the millennia into Manichean 'us versus them' debates. Perhaps ironically in attempting to makes this argument accessible to all, he also simplifies it but then all great books leave us wanting to know more, and encourage us to go and look for ourselves. To quote a series of well-known adverts on television, 'it does what it says on the tin,' as it explores its themes, but concludes that in fact our past is undivided, and we are more united than many would have us believe.

Cannadine's sees his task as to prove to us that this simple black and white view is not only incorrect, but in fact never has been. Indeed he seems to quite lose patience with those who read into actions or words what they want to, without looking at the subtleties within, or even the words and actions of those that are being quoted.

A good example is occurs in the chapter on 'Civilisation' when Cannadine explains how the American neoconservative and New Labour, specifically, used Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilisations to justify their views that led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but ignore the man's statements that he did not support the actions.

In the introduction he even has a dig at his own, academic, community:

Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities rather than for similarities and affinities,but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked.

This seems an odd claim, as it is counter to what we would teach in school, in which students are encouraged to look for and identify themes of difference, but also of similarity as we seek to help them understand that history is not a simple exercise, but one that needs careful contemplation and an urge to understand the motivations and actions of others.

What Cannadine is really doing here is demonstrating how Manichean thinking has permeated the intellectual world, and that he believes this is a simplistic approach which runs counter to the evidence of the ages.

At the beginning of the book Cannadine uses quotes from the last two American Presidents before Obama, when he shows how George W. Bush said that as he grew up the view was that it was 'us versus them,' even though you weren't certain who 'they were.'

He contrasts this with his predecessor Bill Clinton who said conversely that although the world was often ruled by the belief that our differences were more important than our 'common humanity,' he actually believed, 'our common humanity is more important than our interesting and inevitable differences.'

It is apparent very early that it is Clinton's view that Cannadine has most sympathy with opening with:

This book sets out to explore and investigate the most resonant forms of human solidarity as they have been invented and created, established and sustained, questioned and denied, fissured and broken across the centuries and around the world, and as they have defined the lives, engaged the emotions, and influenced the fates of countless millions of individuals.

Cannadine does this by exploring what he considers to be the six 'most compelling and commonplace forms of such identities,' which are religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. The scope of each argument is really quite astounding as he delves into the human condition over the millennia.

He demonstrates that Newton's third law applies to human interaction as well as the world of physics, 'every collective solidarity simultaneously creates an actual or potential antagonist out of the group or groups it excludes.'

In exploring his six themes, Cannadine draws upon scholarship from many sources but particular works play more prominent roles. Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History being often quoted because they encompass so much of what he want s to say, and argue against.

But it is important to note that each chapter sweeps across time in a connected and clear way, as Cannadine looks at the arguments which demonstrates those Manichean themes, and yet shows us how wrong it is to see these arguments so simply, and that they are really excuses to explain our prejudices.

In the chapter on 'Gender,' as an example, he does indeed point out how women have been excluded from much of civil society by men over time, and how many writers such as Germaine Greer sought, at least in her early writings, to emphasise the differences in which women were fighting against men, in a Manichean, us versus them, struggle, whilst he counters that with Betty Freidan who saw it in more inclusive enterprise in which men and women fought together in a joint enterprise.

In looking at this debate across the centuries, Cannadine argues it would be simple to see it as an age old battle by women against the beliefs that women were incapable of being equal due to strength, intellect etc. yet in  The Republic Plato writes that a woman's destiny was not decided by her biology, but by the cultural impositions of men, and that women should be included fully in political social and cultural life and that it was very possible they could become philosopher rulers.

This is the general trait of each chapter, as Cannadine exposes the paucity of, as Cannadine believes, the Manichean thinkers, and demonstrates time and again that there have always existed, and been prominent those who have sought to argue that our differences are indeed merely 'skin deep,' and that what unites across these great themes is greater than what divides us.  

Cannadine's view is basically an optimistic one, in which he, like Clinton, sees that whilst we accept there are differences, it is the similarities that overall show that they 'embody and express a broader sense of humanity that goes beyond our dis-similarities.' In his conclusion he quotes William H. McNeill's biography of Toynbee:

Humanity entire possesses a commonality which historians may hope to understand just as firmly as they can comprehend what unites any lesser group. Instead of enhancing intelligible world history might be expected to diminish the lethality of group encounters by cultivating a sense of individual identification with the triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a whole.

What makes this book great, Hugh Brogan suggested it might become Cannadine's masterpiece, is that it lays it all out in an easy to read and fast-paced style that doesn't seek to speak only to those who make the study of history, and the consequences of ignoring it, their lives, but to all who are motivated by understanding more about what makes the world what it is, the good and the bad.

Perhaps the most appropriate way to finish this review is to quote Maya Angelou's 'I shall not be moved' which Cannadine did right at the beginning of the book:

I note the obvious differences
Between each sort and type,
But we are more alike, my friends,
Than we are unalike.

Professor Sir David Cannadine is currently at Princeton University, having previously been at the University of London from 1998-2003 working at the Institute of Historical Research.