Saturday, 24 October 2009

Nick Griffin on the BBC

What is interesting about the appearance of the leader of the fascist British National Party (BNP), Nick Griffin on the BBC political programme 'Question Time' on Thursday, is how it has actually made politics headline news. The particular episode of the programme attracted 8 million viewers, three times the normal level and for the first time exceding the popular entertainment show on BBC1 on Saturday nights, 'Strictly Come Dancing'. If you missed the programme a lot of it is available online (for the moment) at: Http://

Everyone seems upset about the event. The BBC said it went ahead with featuring Griffin because it feared that if they did not feature the BNP on the programme they would be sued. At present, though its policies on the race of members has been condemned as illegal, the BNP is a legitimate political party in the UK and it has two MEPs in the European Parliament. The BBC thus seems to have acted out of fear. You could also argue that any party that attracts sufficient votes to get two MEPs is sufficiently significant that it could be ignored and if it had been then the BBC could not have featured other small parties such as the Green Party.

Others fear that featuring Griffin gave free publicity to his racist views. Peter Hain, MP, a strong campainger against apartheid condemned the decision to let Griffin appear. Ministers are concerned it has given publicity to the BNP's views. Listening to BBC radio it was clear that of those who rang in, more supported the BNP's views than those who opposed them. Griffin and his supporters were far from happy about the event despite getting the widest coverage the party has received. The questions on 'Question Time' come from the audience and the BBC over the thirty years the programme has been running has always tried to get a balance of gender, ages, ethnicity and political perspective from audience members no matter what part of the country the programme is coming from (it moves from town to town each week). In my view the real left has always been under-represented, but I respect the BBC's efforts. Griffin complains the BBC put together a 'lynch mob' that only had questions directed at him and in a negative way. Clearly, very arrogantly, he had expected to go on the programme and be able to expound his racist views with minimal challenge. I think because the BNP feels its views are 'common sense' they think the bulk of white British people will accept them without challenge, whereas in fact the majority of us are abhorred by them.

Griffin whines that only a couple of questions were not directed at him. Again, he shows terrible naivety. Members of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties appear weekly and people like Jack Straw (currently Justice Secretary) have been on the programme numerous times; there has been loads of opportunity to question them on this programme and in other places. This was the first occasion anyone from a neo-Nazi party has appeared on a British political programme, no wonder people are going be fascinated. Even if he or one of his colleagues appears again in the future, I imagine they will never have such a fascination for the audience as he did on this first occasion. In addition, of course, Griffin sees his policies almost as bland, common sense and seems oblivious (wilfully or not) to the fact that they provoke a harsh reaction from people across British society. Griffin does not consider blacks or Asian British people as British, he gives them no designation, but say he sees them as foreigners, would he expect any different response to his views if he was speaking to a French audience or an American one? Griffin's horizons are so narrow that he does not realise the implications of the arena he is wanting to step into.

Griffin claims that the particular episode of 'Question Time' was 'not a genuine Question Time' and that it was distorted to discredit him. He is angry that it was held in London (though he would have known this in advance) saying the city was 'no longer British'; he feels that London is 'not my country any more' which seems a bizarre statement. He says it should have been held in Burnley, Stoke or Thurrock, places 'where there are still significant numbers of English and British people and they haven't been ethnically cleansed from their own country'. It is clear Griffin lives in some fantasy world. Ethnic minorities make up only 17% of the UK population, the large majority of Britons are still white and the bulk of the audience, even in London which Griffin sees as some strange country, rather than housing 10 million (71.2% of whom are white) of Britain's 65 million people. Does this suggest that Griffin envisages a UK like South Africa was under apartheid with different 'tribal' groups assigned to 'homelands'? Or does he, even more sinisterly, envisage tufing millions of Britons, at least 7 million of whom are white, out of their homes in London to 'bring it back into' the UK. Now we are moving into the realm of ghettos and deportation so characteristic of Nazis.

It is clear that the programme was a shock to Griffin who clearly believed if he could get his message across he would be welcomed with open arms. The BNP claim that since the programme they have gained 3000 new members. That is not surprising, fortunately the BNP does not get much coverage so simply appearing is going to stir people who support his views to join him, I am sure the same would happen if a member of the Green Party or the Scottish Nationalist Party appeared.

Griffin is going to whine because that is what he does. Everything about the politics of the BNP is based on a distorted view of people and of the UK and then whining about it. What was more worrying was Conservative Baroness Warsi also on the programme telling Justice Secretary, Jack Straw that the mainstream parties need to be 'more honest' about immigration policy to see off the spread of the BNP. Personally I feel that the current government already distorts the news about immigration in favour of the racists and the policies of the Border Agency have helped to whip up racism. However, it does show that any future Conservative government is liable to be tempted to adopt even more racist policies and poor Peter Hain is likely to find himself living in a country increasingly like the South Africa that his family fled.

The danger, shown by Warsi's comment is that the Conservatives, who many are assuming will form the next government, are the ones most in fear of the increase of the BNP (and probably even more so of the less-racist nationalist party UKIP which has 17 MEPs) and so will begin introducing mild racist legislation as a way to draw support away from the BNP.  Of course, there have always been racists in the Conservative Party but they had tended to be kept under control by moderates within the party and by those who actually believe in multi-cultural Britain (which the BNP denies is reality).  However, in the context in which the BNP might be appearing to win support from the Conservatives it will allow the extremists within the Conservative Party to press for discriminatory policy.  Whilst that will not bring on the dystopia the BNP want, it will lead to tens of thousands of individual tragedies and will stoke up racist attacks and discriminatory behaviour rather than defuse it.

Anyone of my generation (I am now 42) can probably remember the 'no platform' dispute of the 1980s. This was the argument at colleges, polytechnics and universities over whether people expressing racist views should be allowed to speak at campuses. The argument from groups like the Socialist Workers' Student Societies (SWSS) was that to allow such people to speak was to give them 'the oxygen of publicity' which would attract support to their cause. Others such as the Labour clubs, argued that in a democracy you had to let everyone speak however vile their views, because otherwise you were imposing censorship something you were fighting against fascists to prevent happening. Policies ebbed and flowed with various speakers barred or allowed to speak. I always favoured letting these people speak so that everyone could at least see what their views really entailed rather than making judgements on assumptions and rumours. In addition, it meant those who opposed them had to have policies that addressed the kind of concerns that such speakers raised. If left-wingers and moderate right-wingers do not face challenges then they get complacent and do not work out or articulate policy (part of the problem with the Conservative Party at present).

Extremists are often their own worst enemies, particularly as so much of their policies tend to be one dimensional and simply complaining about how they feel things are rather than offering any positive alternative. Griffin was caught out when asked about his previous denial of the Holocaust and his persisting dispute over the number of people killed by Nazi Germany and its allies. He admitted he did not know why he thought about it the way he had before (outright denial) which for a politician seemed very weak. To natural BNP supporters even if they were not already in the party, no matter how weak Griffin's performance had been they would have seen it as wonderful and now are complaining that effectively he was not able simply to make a party political speech based on his distorted assumptions of history and of Britain today. However, to more wavering viewers, I can expect that at least some have seen that Griffin is simply full of hatred founded on a perception which bears relevance to the actual UK we live in.

Naturally the focus is on his policies on ethnic minorities, but no-one I have heard has asked him, assuming the BNP came to power, it would treat the Irish population of the UK. He keeps on mentioning the British and the English forgetting that one of the four components of the UK, Northern Ireland, actually has English and British (Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales; the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) minority. Would people from Northern Ireland be barred from coming to the mainland? Would they be barred from jobs in Britain? That is just one element in the many holes in Griffin's nasty set of policies.

I am happy for any BNP member to appear on political programmes because they cannot but help show how mentally weak they are and that all they do is based on policies of complaint and destruction of British society and its economy. They have to learn that their previously privileged position of being able to stand above the political scene and simply snipe is over and that they will face hostility when they speak in public arenas. These are not closed BNP meetings where Griffin and his cronies are speaking among friends, these are places where an audience exposed to virulent, hateful policies are more than likely to respond equally as forcefully, just as we saw on Thursday. Grow up Nick Griffin, you are in real politics now, do not expect the easy ride you have had up until last Thursday to last any longer.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

'Rain, Steam & Speed': A Steampunk Anthem?

For some reason, I guess it is because of the steampunk novella I am currently writing (I am on the third part so hope to be able to post it at the start of November) I had the phrase 'steam is the burn' in my mind and realised it came from a song that I had not heard in many years, 'Rain, Steam & Speed' (1989) by The Men They Couldn't Hang. I played it once as a student DJ and had a cassette recording of it, but guess I have not listened to it in about 15 years. I went looking for it on the internet and found one YouTube video of it: It is a song which celebrates/commemorates the work that went into building railways in 19th century Britain. To some extent The Men They Couldn't Hang are what you would expect from a folk rock group aware of labour and radical history; such issues permeate the bulk of their songs. To some extent I imagine they were probably channelled into stereotypical looks by video makers, especially in the 1980s as when they appear in 'navvie' clothing in the video.

In some ways The Men They Couldn't Hang seem to stem from the legacy of that 1970s combination between folk music that was very popular at that time, an interest in 'everyday history', i.e. history of ordinary people rather than monarchs and politicians which began to be taught in schools at that time and political, especially labour, radicalism. Folk music has not disappeared, there is a weekly programme on Radio 2, annual awards and a number of festivals, but it seems to impinge less on the mainstream than it did in the 1970s and it is very rare that you hear anything even folk-influenced in the charts; Seth Lakeman being the notable exception. Certainly in our apolitical times none of it has any political flavour even to the extent of praising the efforts of workers let alone making any more political-orientated suggestions. Workers are not lauded in contemporary pop music, only those who make money through performing and the use of that money to lead a hedonistic lifestyle is the only 'acceptable' path shown. Alright, have aspirations, but do not forget the bulk of us will never come close to that lifestyle, but that does not make us worthless; take pride in the ordinary things you do. I suddenly seem to be turning into an advocate for folk music which was not my intention at all!

Anyway, back to The Men They Couldn't Hang. I saw them perform at a university in the late 1980s probably when they were at their peak of success. Like most acoustic bands they are great to see live because atmosphere is important for that kind of music and I suppose it would be a step a way from what their songs talk about if they were on a huge stage with numerous special effects. They started releasing records in 1984 and they covered the whole range of labour movement history from their first single, 'The Green Fields of France' (1984) about a First World War veteran. 'Ironmasters' (1984) linking historic and current working conditions; 'Ghosts of Cable Street' (1985) pretty self-explanatory; 'Shirt of Blue' (1985) about the 1984-5 Miners' Strike; 'The Colours' (1987) about a mutineer in the Napoleonic Wars and 'The Crest' (1987) about a stretcher bearer in the Second World War. By 1990 they were supporting David Bowie on tour, though I do wonder how Bowie's fans received them. 'Rain, Steam and Speed' was released as a single off their 'Silvertown' (1989) album, but by 1990's 'The Domino Club' album they had left behind folk for more conventional rock. It is interesting that this was the time when The Manic Street Preachers, though formed in 1986, were coming to much greater public attention with the release of their first album, 'Generation Terrorists' in 1992 and whilst touching on some similar themes to The Men They Couldn't Hang did it using a rock/pop approach. The Men They Couldn't Hang split in 1991 but reformed in 1996 and played their 25th anniversary gig earlier this month. The lyrics you can find online generally come from this latter period of recording.

The title 'Rain, Steam & Speed' comes from a painting by J.M.W. Turner, 'Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway' first exhibited in 1844. It is also the name of a 1999 album by the New Zealand band, the Mutton Birds. I know there is much discussion about what steampunk encompasses and the modern manifestation of the genre was very young when this track was produced, but to me, it seems a suitably steampunk anthem in both celebrating steampower but also recognising the human cost of its application. Like some other songs by the band it also draws parallels between historical developments and current ones.

I guess the denizens of The Smoking Lounge steampunk site will not be happy with me linking a song from a politically-interested group (though as you will see below, this song itself makes no blatant political points) and the steampunk genre. I suppose that is partly because many of them are located in the USA where politics is an even dirtier word than it is even in the UK. In addition, a lot of steampunk involves the writers, artists and commentators naturally projecting themselves into the roles of people of the Victorian elite, such as nobles, scientists and military officers, I do this myself. The thing is, with that comes an attachment to the Victorian-style hierarachy which in the UK is pretty much as it was 150 years ago. Thus, politics, especially labour politics seems to jar with elements of this take on the genre. In reflecting on this I think I have come to understand Michael Moorcock's complaint that what is being written now is 'steam opera' rather than 'steampunk'. I have no problem with that and will happily portray myself as a steam opera writer, but this does not mean that those who adopt a more '-punk' approach should be disparaged. The Smoking Lounge denizens seem to be very exercised by any connection, even in passing, from politics to their genre; I guess this stems from a fear that such an association will endanger them with censure from those who loathe any reference from politics and instead they want what they produce to continue to appear 'harmless', especially to the US public.

Despite extensive searches I have been unable to find a full set of lyrics for 'Rain, Steam & Speed', though you can find quite a few others by The Men They Couldn't Hang. Consequently, I have to apologise as these lyrics are derived from me listening to the track and writing them down and as with many songs, I could not work out everything that was being sung. I have put the bits I have guessed at in [ and ] and if you know what the real words are please email me so I can put the correct ones in.

Rain, Steam & Speed

'One man drills a powder hole, the colour of a bruise.
One man blows a bugle and another lights a fuse.
Blow, pick and shovel it; carry earth away.
Brains and brawn with hammers [strong], blasting through the glade.

Rain is the cold; steam is the burn;
Speed is the way the World turns;
Speed is the way the World turns round.

Draughtsmen and surveyors work at pegging out the shaft.
Ten of us to breathe the dust; ten to do the graft.
Underneath the Pennine waste, the bodies lie in rags;
Forty miles of steel and [soil] follow in their tracks.


Some men build a monument; some men build a tomb.
Some men move the World around to give them breathing room.
And some men carve a statue of Isambard Brunel;
Some men carve a tunnel into Hell.


Drill the hole; pack it tight; [sound the horn];
Blow the rock; swing the pick;
Spade and hand will carry it.

Soon they'll build a tunnel under England through to France.
Will it make the tide run quicker? Will the [port] trade advance?
Underneath the ocean there's land of chalk and sand,
But coming up through the virgin rock will be a human hand.'

Chorus x 4

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Daniel Merriweather: New Blues

This posting is well over due. I meant to write it about two months ago but it got lost in all the other stuff I have been doing especially the creative writing. I hope to be able to post a steampunk (or as Michael Moorcock prefers, a 'steam opera') novella next month. In the meantime, as noted in recent postings I have been listening to a lot more mainstream pop music and critiquing some of it as I have been going. Perhaps it is my age, but some of it seems very silly. There is strong music around and possibly as a reaction to rap music in rock seems to be having a revival. Muse, Green Day, The Kings of Leon, The Lost Prophets all seem to have become mainstream even though some of their songs are challengingly about sex and politics. The 1980s revival is patchy but provides a bit of variety to another slew of talent show winners and losers, especially solo female artists, though even Alexandra Burke seems to have adopted a rockier approach to dance music and it has given her a No. 1, with something a bit better than another Whitney Houstonesque power song.

Anyway, my focus in this posting is none of these, but a man who is very difficult to categorise. Wikipedia lists him as performing 'r&b and acid jazz' which is a rather eclectic mix. Of course, r&b, these days bears very little similarity to 'rhythmn and blues' of say the 1960s and is really more about rap music with less rap. There is a clear identification between r&b and black American culture so it has become a catch-all. The references to getting rich and having lots of sex, to some extent can be related back to such sentiments in soul music of old, though sheared of any real heart and certainly any real tension or trauma. In addition, the female perspective is generally missing from r&b in a way it was not from many soul songs.

I think this is what really struck me when I came across 'Red' by Daniel Merriweather. To British listeners his name makes him sound like a folk singer from Somerset and with Seth Lakeman with pop/folk crossover with 'Lady of the Sea' in the past year and Mumford & Sons more recently, you could be forgiven for thinking Merriweather was another, that is until you hear him sing. His career is interesting, he is in fact Australian, born in Melbourne in 1982. His music has been eclectic, encompassing r&b (he supported Kanye West on tour) and some rap on his records (not by him), yet he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2008. He has done a lot of work with producer Mark Ronson who in himself is difficult to categorise musically but whose greatest hit in the UK has probably been Amy Whitehouse's cover of 'Valerie'. Merriweather sung on Ronson's version of 'Stop Me If You've Heard This Before' (originally by The Smiths) which is an incredibly camp song, though even there Merriweather provides the heartache in his singing especially in the line 'I love you only slightly less than I used to'.

'Red' really showed off Merriweather's talents and added another element to his musical persona. As with many white male singers with a rich voice, I assumed he was black before I saw the video. In fact he is a rather baby-faced (though also scarred) man who looks like a rockabilly, the clothes he wears makes you think he just stepped out of a pick-up truck somewhere in Kentucky. He does look like he is on the verge of tears at time, but the emotion he conveys in his singing comes over as authentic. 'Red' is almost a song about torture, seemingly about a man whose female partner is suffering depression or some kind of mental breakdown and he is at his wit's end trying to work out how to deal with this and also how to help her recover. It is not a theme for an r&b scantily-clad women dancing round the pool video, and naturally the video is dark, simple but powerful. Merriweather shows his vocal range and really packs power into his singing. You really feel he is working for his pay in a way that Tinchy Strider, for example, as yet, has never done. 'Red' got into the top 10 in the UK charts, despite being very different to a lot of other tracks around at the time and I think will endure as a song.

In seeking my own categorisation for Merriweather's song, I came back to The Rolling Stones, not the bloated stadia-filling performers of now, but them pre-1973. A lot of early Rolling Stones is original rhythmn and blues covers of US performers with a style that you could believe you were hearing them performing live in a bar. In line with issues of the 1960s a number of the songs they released in 1966 are about mental health, especially '19th Nervous Breakdown' (1966), 'Mother's Little Helper' (about tranquilisers - 1966), 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?' (1966) and, of course, 'Paint It Black' (1966). Other melancholic tracks include 'Heart of Stone' (1964) and 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' (1969). They have more positive songs, and that soul-influenced references to sex, as in 'Let's Spend the Night Together' (1967). By the 1970s they had moved away from the introspective material (I suppose you can even put 'Get Off of My Cloud' (1965) in there even though it is a forceful tune) to make more explicitly rocky and positive songs.

I feel what runs through both 'Red' and this Rolling Stones material is a blues baseline. After all, blues is about unhappiness and the burdens of life. It is music that is about resilience despite all those challenges. Rhythmn and blues moves it on, gives it a more popular musical setting, more accessible to the average listener, but it does not tear away the blues sentiment in the way that contemporary r&b seems to have done entirely (though even then occasionally as with 'I'll Be Missing You' (1997) by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans it does remember you can have a heart and that song stays just the right side of being schmaltzy). I doubt Merriweather and 'Red' will spark off blues flowing into current popular music, but it is nice to have heard a strong performer and hear a song which is about something more than how many women the singer can sleep with or how big his car is.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Block Warden Arrives

None of this is original research, it is something which I read in 'The Guardian' newspaper, but seems to mesh with the developments I have been reading about from different sources ever since Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and particularly since 2001. As we all know, the terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists against the USA in September 2001, unlike previous such attacks, allowed the government of George W. Bush to adopt a policy they termed the 'War on Terror'. Elements of this included supposed justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and of Iraq by US-led alliances and the introduction of authoritarian domestic legislation in the USA and many of its allied states which have severely reduced the civil liberties of citizens of those countries as well as foreigners. Consequently in the 2000s we have seen a ramping up in the use of torture and detainment without charge or trial particularly by the USA and the UK, notably in collaboration with Pakistan. I have written before about how house arrest and 28 days' detention without charge, which in the past would have been totally unacceptable in the UK have become to be seen as the norm, and in fact, by some, as mild measures. Fortunately, the change in government in the USA and the work of the independent judiciary reviewing such steps in the UK has begun rolling back such policies, at least a little.

What is interesting is another element that has come to light in the UK about steps to target those people who are seen as being 'at risk' of becoming extremists, notably males with origins in South Asia. These are seen as the easy representation of Islamist terrorism and such attitudes have helped fuel racist groups and attitudes in the UK. Back in October 2006 and again in November 2008, university lecturers were encouraged to monitor Muslim students and report to the security services if they saw behaviour that was felt to indicate these students were becoming extremist: and Unsurprisingly, given that universities pride themselves on their autonomy and welcoming people from across the world, notably from countries where they face oppression, they were not happy to be told to adopt this spying role:

Parallel to these high profile developments in universities it seems less apparent has been the development of such monitoring at community level. The 'Prevent Violent Extremism' programme, termed 'Prevent' launched in 2006, has received £140 million (€152 million; US$228 million) has aimed at targeting these 'at risk' Muslims, and using language borrowed from the Communist Chinese dictatorship, 'deprogrammed'. As with the university lecturers, the government has set out to recruit community group leaders and workers to being their surveillance force. Those who have expressed a reluctance to do the government's spying have been terrified that they will lose their jobs or face threats from the police and security services themselves. It is becoming apparent that some college teachers are collaborating with the authorities in reporting 'suspects'. However, others are being pressured such as a mental health project in the Midlands and various youth projects across the country. The project is run by the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism and its head, Charles Farr and local leaders of the scheme, are former intelligence officers. The youngest suspect was aged 9 and he was sent for deprogramming.

'Deprogramming' is a term, which in English, is usually associated with helping people who have been rescued from cults to allow them to have a more normal perspective on society and people around them. It is a common way of translating what used to be termed 're-education' in China under Chairman Mao, punishing those, usually with imprisonment and hard labour, who were seen to hold views different from the state or came from a social class that was deemed to be a threat to the state. 'Re-education camps', which still exist in China, most of us would see as being identical to concentration camps (as opposed to extermination camps) of the Nazi German design. 'Deprogramming' is probably a correct term to use, but if this is being imposed on a 9-year old, one has to see it as being very severe. In the UK children do not even have criminal responsibility until the age of 10, one of the lowest ages in the world. So, can a 9-year old even be an 'extremist'? I was speaking to a 7-year old recently who was talking about chopping up girls and eating them, should he simply see a child psychologist or is he a genuine threat to the security of the country? If a child espouses fundamental Christian views and wants people struck down for stealing or coveting their neighbour's wife is he a potential terrorist? If he espouses the Five Pillars of Islam it seems he is much more likely to be seen as one.

Of course, a lot of this, trying to predict future crime, sounds very like something out of a science fiction novel or movie, in particular 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (1948) in which dissidents are tortured and terrified into accepting without question, the totalitarian regime they are living under. The science fiction nature of this scary policy continues when you read quotations from Ed Husain, head of the Quilliam Foundation (which has received £700,000 from the Prevent fund), believes it is morally right to stop people committing terrorist offences before they occur. This is naturally the role of security services. However, there is a difference between stopping some conspirators who are sitting around assembling bomb making equipment and stopping someone, a child even, who perhaps might some many years into the future think about carrying out terrorist activity. No-one has used the term 'thought police' (from thinkpol in 'Nineteen Eight-Four') in the popular media for many years, but it is effectively what we are now moving towards. Other science fiction that we seem to be basing policing policies on includes 'Minority Report' (novel 1956; movie 2002) in which people with psychic powers are used by the police to predict crimes before they happen and in 'A Philosophical Investigation' (1992) by Philip Kerr in which scientists try to predict which men are going to commit violent crime by studying the lay out of their brains.

The key issue is that the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' has gone. The principle of 'innocent until plans/commits a crime' has gone. In its place is 'innocent until someone believes that sometime in the future you may commit a crime'. There seems to be no monitoring of the quality of the assumptions about these 'potential' extremists, not even some pseudo-scientific explanation that people with a particular physiology or in specific circumstances are far more certain to commit a crime in the future. It is just a case of someone reporting someone else. As someone who has worked in different parts of the civil service, I know people are being reported on a daily basis. Every mail sack arriving at every job centre or tax office, every working day, has letters reporting people in it. The bulk of these are simply the disgruntled taking it out on the people they do not like the look of, or simply just a random person so they can make themselves appear more important.

Most of the public forgets that the authorities generally have a good idea on what people to target based on a mix of their own experience and own prejudices, generally they do not need help from the public. What involving the public is about, is developing an air of paranoia which helps foster compliance among them, so they do not complain when they have to undress, have their luggage opened in their absence or are searched repeatedly at an airport or when public transport is closed or the road blocks are put up. Paranoia in the UK tends to fade quicker than it does in the USA. I think because the British have faced far more real threats in their recent history than the Americans ever have. We have develop an awareness of genuine and falsified threat and have a natural scepticism which seems less common among Americans, but perhaps, more common among, say, the French, Germans, Spanish and Italians.

Simply thinking about a crime let alone having some vague resentment towards the government, should not be a crime, otherwise they will have to ban all crime novels and series and prevent anyone complaining about the service they receive from the government. Of course, that might be on the cards. What Prevent has helped do, is divide the very communities that policies following the Bradford and Oldham riots of 2001 were supposed to be assisting. It is pressurising more and more public servants in an insidious way to spy for the state.

The Prevent approach also blinkers people. The assumption that young Asian males from particular districts (Prevent currently only works with 82 councils; rising to 94 next year) are the only threat leads lots of 'blind spots' neglecting other threats and terrorism from different groups like the far right and Irish terror groups. That is if you believe, as the government seems to, that extremism leading to terrorism is so pervasive in our society. In the UK, partly due to public apathy, extremist views have never been popular. Even in states like Libya, Syria or Saudi Arabia, Islamist extremists are a small minority.

Of course, security services like to be well funded, so if to get more cash they have to adopt an approach of trying to be pre-emptive and in someone's view stop scores of young people coming terrorists, they are going to go with it, even if they have little faith in the approach. The UK government has got so wrapped up in the Bush myths that it cannot see straight. If terrorism is so widespread why did the UK never face a war over Ireland with the large Irish (869,000 of the UK population were born in Ireland; 6 million have Irish ancestry compared to 1.6 million Muslims) population here? Why was there not extreme left-wing terrorism in the UK in the 1970s when there was in Italy and West Germany? Why was there no neo-Nazi terrorism in the late 1970s? I suppose they would argue that somehow South Asian and/or Muslim young people have different 'mental wiring' to Irish or other white people, but that is not based on any scientific fact at all or the fact that many Muslim states, though facing incidents as the UK has faced, have also not had massive terrorist activity in the way the Prevent method envisages it coming.

I titled this section 'The Block Warden Arrives'. This refers to the role in Germany during the Nazi period (1933-45) though similar positions were used in the Portuguese Colonial War (1961-74) and in Argentina (1976-83). A block warden is a representative of the dominant party/state regime who in Germany oversaw around 40-60 houses and not only spreads propaganda in favour of the regime but monitors that his/her neighbours are complying with the regime's wishes, not simply passively but in an active way. Anyone, in the individual's judgement, who is not complying or without insufficient vigour or that the block warden simply dislikes, is arrested by the secret police and imprisoned/tortured/killed. The example from Argentina which brought the term 'the disappeared' to the world, is probably the model most likely to be adopted in the UK. Most simply people would disappear usually for long-term imprisonment or execution without their families ever knowing what happened to them.

What we are seeing in the UK at present with people reporting Asian neighbours plus the government trying to compel community workers to spy for them is a back door introduction of the block warden approach. Once in a while they may catch someone who is a real threat, but recent evidence shows that even the security services with their high tech equipment have arrested innocent people. Such powers are quickly abused especially by small-minded people who see their personal quirks as issues of national security, so people will be put under suspicion, not because they have any genuine terrorist sympathies but because some neighbour simply dislikes them or they parked in 'their' slot or their children were noisy or something. Such an approach actually wastes the time of the police and security services and creates so much 'traffic' of denunciation and counter-denunciation that it provides good cover for genuine criminals and even terrorists, though of course, their numbers are in fact tiny.

It is clear that more and more British people, often those very individuals who have been working hard to keep their communities in a fit state, are being compelled to work for what is increasingly a state machine aiming to police people's thinking. These people are often reluctant but history has always shown us there are always the 'little Hitlers' who relish such roles and you can imagine the bullyboys of the English Defence League queuing up to become these monitors in their neighbourhoods. I have noted before how local authorities have been abusing anti-terrorist laws to carry out their own agendas often in punishing people for violating (or for being suspected, however wrongly, of trying to violate) local regulations. The Prevent approach is simply giving them yet more abilities for them and even simple members of the public with which to beat the people they do not like in their neighbourhood.

Want A Pop Hit? Just Talk All Over a '90s Track

Currently my life seems to alternate between, at one end of the spectrum, getting het up about government policies and at the other getting het up about things in popular culture, which, in contrast to government policy, is ephemeral and does people little harm. I suppose being unemployed and having the bizarre feeling that I am reliving the 1980s again makes it very difficult to pin down to one perspective or another. Last week I was very ill so my thoughts did not extend far beyond whether I could stop myself coughing and which DVD I was going to watch next and as I got better, strange questions, such as 'why are there two radio transmission/receiving rooms in the castle in 'Where Eagles Dare'?' and 'if the Allied unit had already killed both radio operators and put their equipment out of order, how can the colonel call up General Kesselring's base in Italy?' and realising that I had probably never seen the 13th episode of 'Spaced' before. Now, I have resurfaced from my illness no doubt caught travelling by train and underground to Yorkshire and back, my brain is a bit more broadly active, though many of the questions that are taxing me remain pretty trivial.

Anyone who is thirty or older has become familiar with pop songs reusing tunes and lyrics that we have known from before. We have had remakes for many decades, but more recently, I guess since the start of the 1990s, maybe a little longer, we have had 'sampling' in which a pop singer or more usually simply a producer takes a snip or sometimes much more from another song and uses it for a bed for a new track. I think the first one I can remember is probably the sampling for 'Under Pressure' by Queen and David Bowie from 1981, used on 'Ice, Ice Baby' in 1989/90 by Vanilla Ice. I do not know which previous hit has been used most in this way, but hearing elements of 'Cars' from 1979 written and recorded by Gary Numan, must be somewhere in the lead as most reused song at present, certainly on tracks played in the UK. I have no problem with people remaking old songs and, in fact, as the Live Lounge covers on Radio 1 show, getting leading acts to cover something can bring a whole new element to the song. I do not have much problem with sampling, as there is a finite set of musical combinations that work and some very successful tunes or basslines can work well as a 'hook' into a song, especially as they young music buying public has no recollection of hits their parents were listening to.

I do draw the line at two tracks currently in the UK charts which to me simply seem to be two artists talking with a pop hit playing in the background. I know rap music is very much about someone talking, but generally you have at least some interaction with the music in the background even if it is to keep the rapper company as he extols his wonderous attributes. The two songs which offend me at present are 'You're Not Alone' by Tynchy Strider and 'Dirtee Cash' by Dizzee Rascal. The originals of these songs, 'You're Not Alone' by Olive (reached No. 1 in UK in 1997; if you like the tune rather than the rapping, can I suggest you also check out 'Set Me Free' by N-Trance (1995) and 'Let Me Be Your Fantasy' by Baby D from 1994) and 'Dirty Cash (Money Talks)' by The Adventures of Stevie V.' (reached No. 2 in the UK in 1990) were very catchy pop/dance hits. The female voices on each really hook into you. The story the lyrics tell are straightforward and really are outlined by the titles. I wonder with unemployment returning maybe there is a degree of nostalgia for the music of the 1990s when these songs which really soar in terms of vocals and force of the tune took you away for three minutes from the recession you were facing.

Both Strider and Rascal have been very successful and whilst you might not like their songs, there is more originality in 'Never Leave You' and even 'Holiday' (let us leave 'Bonkers' aside) than these two artists simply talking over these 1990s songs. In Strider's case it seems he has simply retained the original song, with Rascal he has got a female vocalist to re-record the female section. However, what you end up with is something like a guy in a pub trying to rap at best tangentially to a song playing in the background. At times it is like they are giving a commentary on the lyrics, like a naff DJ at a pub disco, saying something, 'yes, baby, come and light my fire!' over the background of The Doors (or anyone else in fact) singing 'Light My Fire'. Neither Rascal or Strider drive these songs, they are at best commentators if not simply passengers wittering on about what the original vocals are saying. The original lyrics are hardly earth-shattering, but are sentiments that listeners can get into: not being alone now you have found a real partner for life and how money is like a drug. Neither of the rappers develop or add to these themes. However, as a result of their droning on over the top of both the vocals and the music, the original song is spoilt and you get nothing new from Rascal or Strider. I suppose given their success, these were easy tracks to make quickly and did not need much creative input, just a bit of impromptu rapping.

I hope the recording artists involved in the original are getting some cash out of this. Stevie V(incent) apparently teaches music technology at a college in Bedford. He was a producer at 'The Adventures' was really his only venture as a recording artist, but as the recent samples have shown the tracks on there have really endured and I recommend checking out the whole album. Unlike the producers of the Rascal and Strider tracks, Stevie V, went and got original songs and recorded original tunes and vocals to make very engaging dance music. These days I guess some producers think 'why bother?' and simply scrabble around in their box of old CDs to find something from the past that they can hack around and reuse. In the case of the two current tracks, it seems they have not really even bothered to hack around.

Musically the 1990s is not looked back upon with much interest. I suppose because whilst cross-over hits were regular there was a sense with rave culture and dance culture that the music interesting young people was once again running down separate channels in a way it had not done certainly in the 1980s and probably not since mainstream media featured pop music as a norm in the late 1960s. However, there were mainstream hits that brought a little of the rave to those who never got to one. As a result you have entrancing, sometimes hypnotic vocals and very catchy beats that avoid the repetition of true rave music. This is why they can still fill floors today. I suppose Rascal and Strider are trying to tap into these things from when they were children and catch some of the glamour of these earlier hits. I suggest they work a little harder and create some of their own. I just hope that as the poor performance of 'Sex on Fire' by Jamie Archer on the talent show 'The X Factor' bolstered sales of the original by the Kings of Leon, that Strider and Rascal might prompt people to hunt out and buy 'You're Not Alone' by Olive and 'Dirty Cash (Money Talks)' as they are superior tracks to these current karaoke-performance rip-offs.

P.P. 15/03/2010: This trend does not seem to be dying.  This week I saw 'I Want To Be With You Tonight' by a white UK rapper called Professor Green (name apparently inspired by a character in the board game 'Cluedo' except he seems to have mixed Professor Plum and Reverend Green) sampling 'Need You Tonight' (1987/8) by INXS.  Again it is a dorky guy wittering across a classic pop song, looking no less nerdy than Dappy.  I saw a video of Plan B initially thinking there was yet another in this category, messing up some pop song while looking like the kind of man you see hanging Stratford tube station (he in fact comes from Forest Gate), singing 'She Said'.  However, then he burst into some top notch soul singing that really marks him out from some of these other dorks.  Professor Green pay more attention to Plan B and not these cheapskate idiots who think muttering across some well now riff makes a good song.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Conservative Policies - Thatcherite Bigotry & Pain Return

I know I have complained that the Conservative Party who have this conference this week have been lacking in policies, but this is because I feel that no party which see themselves as the heirs presumptive to control of the British state should be able to simply slip into place without offering something to the electorate. This is a charge that David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives has face for many months now. To some degree the continued assumption that he will win the next election has meant Cameron has felt little need to outline any policies. Partly this is because on the key issue facing the UK at present, the recession, the Conservative line since about 1974 is that no government can do anything about economic downturns and it will do more damage than good if it tries. Though few people seem to have picked up on it, the Conservative emphasis on cut-backs is really no different from the deflationary policy of the 1930s adotped by the UK when faced with the Great Depression and contrasts sharply with the post-Keynesian, stimulus approach of Obama and Brown.

Given that Gordon Brown seemed to rally flagging Labour supporters last week at the Labour Party conference, Cameron seems to feel under some pressure to come out with policies. However, as I suggested recently these are in the flavour of what the Johnson administration has been attempting in London: the mix of frightening Thatcherite-authoritarian policies and simply headline grabbing policies that mean very little in substance. Given that I do not read 'The Sun' newspaper (I do not want to give any more cash to Rupert Murdoch and no longer travel on London Underground where I would pick up a range of right-wing newspapers to monitor for free), I was glad Polly Toynbee repeated the list of 10 pledges that Cameron outlined in 'The Sun' last Friday. Now the covers are coming off we can see why Cameron has been quite quiet on his policies, which if the bulk of the population pay attention to, will make them worse off. These pledges are Bushite with a British flavour. Fortunately he has not made a pact with the fundamentalist Christians (to some extent Blair exhausted that avenue in his years in office), though he does seem to be seeking 'moral' behaviour through economic policies, but certainly he is clearly addressing the super-wealthy that George W. Bush portrayed as his core constituency.

The broadcast media have picked up on the policies aimed at those people on benefits. Of course, this group has been hammered constantly since the 1980s. Yet, all parties seem to think that there are millions of lazy people dodging work and simply claiming from the state. The view that these people notably on incapacity benefit (about 2.6 million people) but also single parents, are not trying hard enough to find work. Given that unemployment is at 2.4 million people, many of whom were in work until recently, does Cameron really believe that UK companies have the capacity to take on, say, 1 million more workers. For the past twenty years anyone signing on for benefit has had to go through rigorous checks and periodic reviews. People who have had tax credits overpaid are often compelled to pay them back. The Labour governments have kept on tightening the regulation and monitoring of people on benefits in the way Cameron says he wants to; of course to his partisans, Labour is still not strict enough. Cameron seems to assume, like many right-wingers, that the whole civil service and local government is filled with people who simply bung money and housing at the people right-wingers dislike, feckless single mothers and immigrants. Of course, most local councillors and many civil servants are conservative (many are Conservative) and are very hostile to just the groups that the Conservatives want to target.

What so many people forget is that the bulk of people on benefits want to work. We live in a highly consumerist society and you are not seen to exist if you are not consuming. Consumption can only really come when you have a regular, good income. Consequently most people want to work. Work also provides a social network and if Cameron actually spoke to some single mothers and some people on incapacity benefit they would find that isolation and loss of dignity are additional painful factors for people in those conditions, work can help resolve such situations. There are lazy people in the UK but from other countries and Britain's history I would reckon these number around 60,000 people of working age in the UK at present. The bulk of the others on benefits would rather not be.

Of course, like so many governments, the Conservatives simply focus on the supply side of the labour market without looking at all at intervening in the demand side, i.e. the employers. I worked in a job centre in the mid-1990s when unemployment was much lower than now and saw how the disability officers struggled to place even a handful of disabled people in employment. Employers turned up their noses at such people and still do despite all the legislation. I had an employer in recent years moaning on about how terrible it was when people 'concealed' their disabilities. I have an 'unseen disability' diabetes and used never to mention it to anyone in any job. Even working for a liberal employer which worked with a lot of disabled people as consumers I found my managers made no efforts to address disabilities in our workplace and I was criticised for literally hours (I had to share a car with my boss one day) about how my disability had impinged on a meeting when my blood sugar went low because the meeting dragged on so long. Eventually I spoke out and found there were other concealed people with conditions among the workforce who had been suffering. This was at a supposedly liberal employer with quite an involvement with disabled people so imagine what it is like trying to get work with the average hard-nosed company especially in this period of economic difficulties.

The same applies to single parents. Of course, the default assumption is that these are all teenaged mothers. In the 2001 census it showed that of the 11.7 million children in the UK 22.7% lived in lone parent familes, around 10% lived in step families and 45,000 children were in care or other communal establishments; of the lone parent families 91% are headed by a mother. This means 65% of children in the UK live with their two natural parents and in fact 75% live in two-parent families. The latest figures I can find for teenaged mothers is that they had 41,700 in 1998, this compares to 2.65 million children in lone parent families three years later. It is clear that teenaged mothers do not make up the majority of single parents. Of course, by definition and teenaged mother soon ages into a non-teenaged mother. However, my point stands that a lot of single parents are older women left alone due to separation, divorce and death. As seen from the step family figures, probably half will not remain in this state forever. In addition, new family models such as two single mothers living together is becoming more common. Will that be counted as a step family in the future or two lone parents?

As the recent case with the two female police officers banned from taking care of each other's children shows, the laws at present seem to weigh against lone parents working to provide a more developed family structure for their children, and, vitally for Cameron's policies, attempting to create structures that allow the women to work. Child care is costly for even middle class parents let alone working class ones. Family structures are fragmented because people have been compelled and are facing even more pressure at present, to move to find work in other areas. Yet, the alternative of informal child care arrangements between friends is being ruled out. I can see that this may be a back handed policy to try to encourage contraception, but that will happen only long term and does not deal with the current issues of raising children. Mothers last week were told that their children will be less healthy and less intelligent if they work full-time but Cameron wants them all to go out to work. Presumably this is because it is felt the lower classes are getting too uppity and keeping them overweight and ill-educated will stop them challenging their superiors! Of course, this contradiction between supporting families in the shapes they come in today and yet getting more women into work has been one that plagued Blair as much as it will Cameron.

No government in the past thirty years has really attempted to address it, instead they put pressure on the parents to solve it for themselves. What they fail to realise too, is that it is not simply about lone parents, but two-parent families too. If you see a school or a childminder's at collection time, you will see that fathers as well as mothers come and collect. This is because with two working parents you are not better off than with a working lone parent. You could have four parents per child and if they all worked, as Cameron wants them too, then they would still need someone to sort out the child care. Having two parents does not make the child care issue go away as some assume. Since the late 1960s it has been basically impossible for a two-parent family to survive financially without both parents working. Yet, the lazy assumption of politicians is somehow is that Daddy goes to work and Mummy raises the children and this falls down when there is only Mummy. However, for forty years it has been falling down even when both parents are around, but Cameron's mind, like that of many politicians, is stuck in 1957.

This is much the same thinking behind Cameron's plan to 'reward marriage'. There are already tax breaks for married couples anyway. Marriage in itself is neither good or bad, it is simply a legal state. What is 'good' or 'bad', even moral/immoral is the behaviour of the people in that relationship and how they treat each other. Men taking responsibility is declining and more could be gained in education on what it really means to be a man, not in the macho sense which is all that seems to be emphasised these days, but in a sense of being a human capable of being in partnership with others. We certainly need education in what it means to be a father as many men seem to have no clue. In addition, with the Thatcherite consensus feminism seems to have become a dirty word and with the rush to return to Jane Austen behaviour combined weirdly with the widespread sexualisation of society, women are being clobbered from both sides and men feel themselves freed from any responsibility either because they are like some late 18th century gentleman or they are something resembling a Los Angeles pimp handling his 'ho's (whores). This is no basis for any marriage. A marriage in name only is no marriage and does not deserve reward. Will Cameron reward civil partnerships? It could be argued that they reduce promiscuity among gay men and decrease bullying in lesbian relationships, so surely they should be rewarded? Of course, you can have a 'bad' civil partnership as much as you can have a bad marriage, but somehow to Cameron stability comes with marriage, and, no doubt because of his 1957 perception of the world, that leads to economic stability and that, he believes, reduces expensive dependence on the benefit system.

The key problem with so much about benefit 'reform' it simply believes that if you hammer lone parents and the disabled with so many financial penalties they will be compelled to get the work that they are believed to be shirking. You need to compel employers to be fairer in their recruitment and stop being prejudiced against disabled people and working mothers. We also need a lot more free, state-provided childcare. This is the only way you will get most lone parents into work. By pressing child carers to become pre-school teachers and by legislating against informal child care arrangements you are exacerbating the problem. Of course, in the Thatcherite-Blarite-Cameronite mindset, none of this is the concern of the state and people must sort out their own lives. People can be as moral as you like, marry before they have children, not divorce and have the father stay around, but they cannot buck the pattern established by employers and the cost of living in the UK.

I will now turn to the other elements of Cameron's pledges. I think the same morality angle is behind the policy to increase magistrates' sentencing powers from 6 months to 1 year as magistrates' courts are seen as the point at which the low level crime which exercises voters the most is dealt with. The point about people using knives to kill should expect a prison sentence seems fine too. I would add to that, that people who use cars to kill should also expect a prison sentence, but naturally that would upset too many of Cameron's speeding, 4x4 drivers for him to accept it. The key issue is where all these prisoners will go. Labour has failed to build more prisons, no-one wants them in their district and yet the public want more prisons. They do not want crematoria or wind farms either but we need them all. Cameron will find it even tougher to force through the building of more prisons because he will be more sensitive to the opinion of rural voters in the areas where such prisons will be built. I anticipate that magistrates, as a result, will be compelled effectively to use house arrest and more electronic tagging, either that or we will have to have the prison hulks of the past or form criminal ghettos in certain cities ('Escape from Moss Side' anyone?).

One is to reduce the number of MPs by 10%, which Toynbee sees as gerrymandering as the reductions will not come in large, low populated rural constituencies where the Conservatives are strong but in areas that back Labour. This seems to be a step to avoid the repeat of the 1997 landslide. I am sure that by the mid-2010s Labour will bitterly regret that Blair abandoned any steps towards proportional representation. Ironically the landslide of 1997 might prove to have been one of the most damaging things to happen to Labour's long-term future. Of course, Conservatives have adopted such tactics before notably the regime of Dame Shirley Porter on Westminster Council in the late 1980s. Given that she fled to Israel and was compelled to pay a £12 million 'surcharge', i.e. fine for her part in that scandal (reduced from the original £27 million originally imposed), I believe she should have had the 'dame' title stripped from her. She claimed she had only £300,000 in assets, but was clearly a multi-millionaire. Kit Malthouse, one of Boris Johnson's deputy mayors who has taken political control of the Metropolitan Police, only joined Westminster Council in 1998. However, it is not difficult to argue that such attitudes that rewarded a leading Conservative who had adopted a policy now clearly seen by the House of Lords as having been gerrymandering, persist in the Conservative Party. Someone should track down where Westminster Conservative councillors from that era have gone now, I would bet some are advising Cameron whether directly or indirectly.

It is not surprising given that contempt of the electorate that Cameron wants to replace the Human Rights Act. Of course, this is seen by the right-wing as a law which only favours criminals and terrorists but in fact protects the average Conservative voter as it does everyone else. This is the false assumption of so much Conservative policy that if you are doing things correctly or morally then you have nothing to fear, so there is no need for legislation to protect you. As the murder by police of Ian Tomlinson a passerby of the G20 protest and of Jean Charles de Menezes shows, you can be anyone and yet be caught up by and killed by the state machine, however law abiding you might be. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is over 65 years old and yet the UK Human Rights Act is only 11 years old. The reason why Bush had prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay rather than on US soil is because the establishment of the republic that became the USA had a Bill of Rights which the regime's policy was violating. Anti-terrorist legislation has been used in the UK to put people against which no evidence has been brought, under house arrest. Scrapping the Human Rights Act will simply make such approaches easier and strip away a lot of defence we have against and increasingly authoritarian UK state.

Economically Cameron's pledges are aimed at benefiting his 'core constituency' of the very wealthy. The Thatcher years locked all parties but particularly the Conservatives into always being seen to cut taxation or rather find it from no direct sources which usually dent consumption further. Cameron will cut corporation tax from 28p to 25p in the £ which will clearly benefit companies who are back awarding their leading lights millions of pounds in bonuses. What such a cut needs to be accompanied by is a compulsion on the percentage of profits that need to be reinvested in the company and a restriction on how much profit can be sent overseas, but of course the Conservatives would never limit their greedy friends in that way. He wants to raise the inheritance tax threshold on money and property left from £325,000 to £1 million. Even at £325,000 only 6% of the population pays inheritance tax. Apparently the rise will, however, cut tax receipts by £1 billion in favour of the very richest people in the UK.

Despite this £1 billion windfall, Cameron wants to reduce the budget deficit currently at £175 billion. Of course, believing in a Keynesian approach I see nothing wrong with that, but it seems to be anathema to all political parties who now seek to reduce it. I would certainly argue that without that deficit unemployment would already be over 3 million and the burden on the UK of that greater slowdown in the economy, i.e. lower tax returns and consumption would mean we would be in a worse state. A limit on bankers' bonuses and a windfall tax on utilities could do a lot too, but seems to have been ruled out by those who have the real power in the UK. Cameron will have to introduce cuts across public spending and in this we leap right back into the 1980s. Thatcher cut the civil service staff by one third in the 1980s and it has never returned to those levels. Part of the problems for schools, social workers and hospitals stems from the cuts imposed in the 1980s especially in terms of hospital cleaners, and we are reaping the results even twenty years later. Cameron says he will not cut back the National Health Service, but as it seems apparent he will not cut back on defence (the Trident nuclear weapons programme currently costs £76 billion with which you could punch a huge hole in the deficit) and in fact promises the so-called Military Covenant (which sounds terribly Cromwellian) and arguing soldiers should be properly equipped to do their jobs. I accept the latter point about proper equipment and this is one point that Labour should be very embarrassed upon. However, the UK should not still be involved in Afghanistan 8 years on and Iraq 6 years on in wars that were started on false bases and mainly for US profit. Cameron will not reduce military involvement in these countries and by saying he will equip them better is indicating the defence budget will rise, suggesting that he will need to make cuts elsewhere to pay for this as well as reduce the deficit. If the Armed Forces expand they will absorb more of the unemployed, but of course, single mothers and the disabled are precisely the type of people they do not want to employ. This show that there is so little linkage between one policy and another, so much policy from all parties is handled in a vacuum.

Cuts will come somewhere and if not ameliorated by tax rises which have been ruled out nor in health and defence will have to come in other areas. It is unlikely he will squeeze the Revenue & Customs or the Borders Agency in which so much faith to 'protect full up Britain' is being place. As has been shown recently social welfare, the poor cousin of health care needs more funding. Yet, Cameron will freeze council tax for 2 years. This is returning to the Thatcher approach of the poll tax, in believing that local people would favour low tax charging Conservative councils over high-spending Labour ones. It always forgot that in any town the majority of the electorate actually benefits from high council spending. In addition, this will have to be balanced against high profile cases such as the killing of Baby P and the shortage of social workers. Council spending has been pared down and pared down to a situation in which many cannot afford the upkeep of leisure facilities and have had to reduce refuse collection to an unhealthy frequency. Yet the mantra that somewhere there is massive 'waste' is still chanted. Cameron will apparently find this waste and cut it as if the Labour governments never even thought of this. Ironically cutting back on social welfare and local authority activity cuts into the kind of employment disabled people and single mothers are very likely to go into, certainly if they want something better for their futures (rather than the futures of the wealthy) than working in a call centre.

This brings me back to my point recently about 'adult' movies and call centres being the only places locally with work that does not need you to have followed a lengthy path of specific qualifications. Women performing naked in front of webcams is rocketing, generating £1.1 billion in 2008 (up from £730 million in 2006) with companies saying they have 40-150 UK women signing up each month; the largest has 27,000 women on its books. So is this the kind of moral Britain that Cameron is driving for, especially in targeting single mothers?

So, overall, when pressed for policies, Cameron has really simply returned to Thatcherism with all its benefits for a small elite in British society and new sticks to beat the marginalised, those seen as the 'undeserving' so much harder. Despite his lip service to morality, in fact, by simply squeezing the supply side of the labour market he will make it harder, with more children left 'home alone' and more women pushed into dubious work. Cutbacks will lead to the deaths of more children and elderly people. Those unfortunate not to get work let alone work paying a wage you can live on, will again be demonised and as in the 1980s will breed a generation of young people resentful of the society which seems to mark them from birth as useless. There is a basic lack of understanding of how the UK economy and society works because too many politicians care only about wooing the super-rich (not even the middle class) and have assumptions about society that were outdated fifty years ago. I know it is hackneyed now, but in 2009 it seems as relevant as it did at the time: “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old.”

P.P. In fact remembering those words from 1983 sent me to dig out the whole quotation from Neil Kinnock and it seems eerily appropriate even 26 years later:

"I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can't pay. I warn you that you will be cold – when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work – when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies. I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light. I warn you that you will be quiet – when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you that you will have defence of a sort – with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding. I warn you that you will be home-bound – when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up. I warn you that you will borrow less – when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income."

Some of this will be my epitaph.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Pavement/Road; Road/Pavement?

When I was a boy back in the 1970s it was clear that the only people allowed to ride a bicycle on the pavement was the postman and even he was not permitted to pedal the bicycle, he had to stand on one pedal and freewheel. Back then you were not allowed to cycle on the road until you had passed your cycling proficiency test which was usually taken around the age of 8-10 years old. So there was a period when you had outgrown the pull-along tricycle of a toddler and were on a 'proper' bicycle and yet could only ride in the park or ironically in car parks. I remember being 10 and having cycled along the canal path to the neighbouring town with some friends. We decided to cycle back through a housing estate, but not having passed my cycling proficiency test yet (I think I did it the following Autumn when I returned to school) I was apprehensive about cycling on the road and so while my more daredevil friends cycled down what were in fact very quiet roads leading simply to housing, I cycled on the pavement. We had barely entered the estate when a man probably in his 30s called us to him and questioned me at length about why I was cycling on the pavement and when I explained about the cycling proficiency test he told us we had to leave the estate and go back along the canal and that I should not think about coming to that town until I had passed my test. Highly embarrassed, we complied with what he said.

The criticism of cyclists daring to cycle on the pavement could even extend to crossing less than a metre of pavement. My parents' house like many in their street stands a metre or so above the level of the road, which for some historic reason is 'sunken' for quite a lot of its length. To access the house, you drive up a ramp about as long as single car, across the pavement and on to their driveway, which again, is about the length of a single car. Of course most people who park their cars in garages or porches or driveways next to their house have to cross the pavement when leaving and entering. Pedestrians can get upset about waiting for the car to get clear but generally make no complaint. For bicycles doing the same, certainly when I was a teenager, it was deemed to be sufficient to shout at the cyclist.

A few years after the above incident when I was a teenager with my cycling proficiency under my belt. I left the garage, got on my bicycle, cycled along the stretch of drive and crossed less than a metre of pavement on to the ramp intending to go on to the road. However, because I cycled across those centimetres of pavement a middle-aged couple a short distance away bellowed at me for cycling on the pavement. They expected me to get off and push my bicycle over that short stretch, in fact less than the length of the bicycle itself. I did not run them down or even cycle near them but they were indignant that I had dared cycle across that small piece of pavement. These days they would probably be terrified that a teenager would knife them, I suppose. My elderly next door neighbour was marginally more tolerant, but sitting in my bedroom (at the front of the house) my reading on summer days would be disrupted by him shouting that he was going to summon the police as pre-teenage children cycled past him on the pavement. While I feel young people should be challenged on their behaviour the target of the criticism seems poorly decided upon.

Even as recent as the mid-1990s I was staying in a town and read in a local newspaper that a man had been fined £25 for cycling across a market place in the evening when the market was closed. I went passed that market on a number of occasions and aside from a few official buildings in the centre there were very few structures there when the market was closed and it was empty of people, a cyclist could proceed without hitting anyone or anything, yet that was not the point, he had broken the law and was fined for it. Of course, the man could have wheeled his bicycle across the market place; going by the road meant going through a four-lane one way system that cars hared around. He must have crossed the market in a matter of seconds and there was no-one there, except I presume the police officer who arrested him (there were no on-the-spot fines in those days). Subsequently on a couple of occasions I rode around the market place at night time almost as a dare for someone to come and arrest me. I have cycled a great deal in my life and wherever I have gone I have taken safety of myself and other road users as the prime concern.

These days things are very different and it seems the dividing line between vehicles on the road and those on the pavements has become muddied. I was almost mowed down by a cyclist, a fully grown man, hurtling down the pavement outside a row of shops this morning, seemingly challenging people to get out the way. Conversely on two occasions I have been driving in a queue of cars tailing elderly people on four-wheeled electric vehicles as they make their way slowly along the road. On the other hand in Milton Keynes in the early 2000s I remember there was uproar from the council (who had the oddest attitudes of any council I have lived under and that is saying something) about 'speeding' electric buggies in the shopping centre. These vehicles can reach a top speed of almost 13kph (8mph), twice the speed most people walk at and apparently the honest shoppers of Milton Keynes felt intimidated by them. These buggies are driven by elderly and disabled people, to me it only seems just that they should have a little power over these indignitaries who power around at dangerous speeds in their 4x4s (especially in Milton Keynes where most main roads have a speed limit of 70mph, the highest of any urban roads in Europe). Speed limits and fines were being introduced for electric buggies when car drivers were hurtling about.

I can understand the challenge for people on bicycles and on electric buggies. With the speeds many people are doing even on residential roads (my road is 30mph, but cars often do 50mph+ with impunity) you can understand why cyclists stay on the pavements. Most car drivers do not understand cyclists' signals and certainly do not understand that on a multi-laned road or at a roundabout, a cyclist should be in the right-hand lane to turn right. Cyclists are hooted and even pushed off by car drivers who resent their presence. Twice on my bicycle I have had people get out of cars and come to attack me because they felt I had got in their way. There is a whole liberal middle class vs. bigoted lower middle/working class thing going on here too. In the old days workers cycled to work but now they tend to drive or take public transport and cycling is seen as simply something that woolly-headed liberals who let in immigrants do. A lot of the abuse you get shouted from cars comes from this, that 'real' men do not cycle it is left to the 'poofs' (i.e. effeminate men) or the 'dykes' (lesbians, particularly butch ones). In these car drivers' views 'proper' people need the biggest car they can afford, to be obese and to drink and drive. Contrast this to neighbouring countries, for example in France where the average truck driver is out with the cycling club on a Sunday and cheers along cyclists he passes, giving them lots of space and warning them of his approach. In London, in contrast, lorry drivers are by far the single largest group of cyclist killers.

Some of the cyclists who have been killed over the past few years include Emma Foa, aged 56, crushed by a lorry, the driver Michael Thorn, aged 54, of Headley Down, Surrey was fined £300 and allowed to keep his licence. Just this month Chrystelle Brown, aged 26, a fitness instructor and cyclist was killed in Whitechapel right near where a motorist attacked me, she was dragged for 100 metres by the vehicle. This August, Harry Wilmers aged 25, was killed on his bicycle in South Manchester. In 2006 18 cyclists were killed in London by motor vehicles. You do not have to search far to find cases of cyclists pushed off and beaten up by people and of fatalities not just in London but smaller towns too. A drink driver, David Mark Chandler, aged 41, from Arthington Lane, Otley, who killed a cyclist in Pool, Yorkshire had 50% more alcohol in his blood stream at the time he killed Stephen Granger, aged 50, in December 2007. Chandler perverted the course of justice by concealing the evidence of his involvement. He was sentenced to 4.5 years for killing Granger, but in February 2009 this was cut to 3.5 years and his driving ban reduced from 10 years to 5 years! He had drunk at least 6 pints of beer before driving into Granger and did not stop and even look for the body. If he had shot or stabbed or punched Granger to death he would be in prison for at least 14 years if not longer. Cars, vans and lorries are the weapons that you can use with hardly any come back. The killing of cyclists ironically takes the healthiest people who are doing least damage to the environment and lets off those who are most dangerous and damaging. How can we promote healthy lifestyles and reduce the impact of carbon dioxide emissions if we allow cyclists to be killed in such numbers and barely punish the killers? Researching this I found that people get fined for cycling across Smithfield Market in London despite there being a clear thorougfare and the roads around being hazardous.

It is no surprise then that cyclists ride on the pavement. The reason why electric buggy riders go on the road. This is because the pavement is so cluttered. Navigating around the wheelie bins, the cars parked up on the kerb, the bumps left by the cable television and other installations and mothers pushing vast pushchairs, it is very difficult to proceed in a buggy as unlike on a bicycle you cannot get off and wheel it along. In addition, with cyclists not on the road you have them on the pavement to rival with the buggies. I admire elderly and disabled people who take their buggies on the road, they take their lives into their hands and I salute them for their courage. As yet I have not heard of electric buggy riders being mown down by lorries or cars, I suppose because unlike with the cyclists, the drivers can envisage their granny in a buggy and so hang back. I like the fact they slow up the traffic in residential areas, as too many people drive too fast through them (another wall has been demolished close to my house by a car tearing into it at speed). It reminds me of 'The Straight Story' (1999), a movie based on a true story about an elderly man driving a garden tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin in the USA to visit his brother. The tractor cannot exceed more than a few miles per hour and naturally he builds up a trail of cars behind him as many buggy riders do around my way.

So, we have bicycles you would have once only found on the road now being forced to be ridden on the paverment and electric buggies you would expect on the pavement out in the road. I will set aside the occasions when I have had people driving up the pavement as a short cut as happened to me when walking along the Mile End Road in East London one day and right by a primary school at that. I simply stood in front of the car, but the driver dodged round me on the pavement and continued where he insisted on going, road or no road. More common is pedestrians walking in the road. I do not mean in rural areas, I mean in urban areas where there is a perfectly good (if cluttered) pavement. No-one seems to be able to tell me whether this is a cultural thing as the people who I see walking down the road are either Korean or Afro-Caribbean and are generally women. Are there some countries where it is hazardous to walk on the pavement? Is it that women are not supposed to? I do not know and would be grateful if someone would tell me. In my neighbourhood, despite the fast driving cars, many women would rather walk along the side of the road down street after street than ever go on the pavement. I am surprised not more of them are hit by these dangerous drivers who seem incapable of avoiding inanimate objects such as lamp posts, walls and railings.

I suppose overall the rules for new vehicles such as the ever larger and more sophisticated electric buggies are ill-defined and in general most people whether drivers, cyclists or pedestrians are ignorant of the Highway Code. Signalling seems to be something that has died out no matter what vehicle you are on or in (the 7-year old from my house, today commented that a woman cyclist was making signals in the 'old fashioned way' that I do). The other thing is the constant bane of any activity on the roads and that is the bulk of road users think they are the only thing that is important and everyone else should get out their way or suffer the consequences; they believe signs and speed limits do not apply to them because they are particularly 'experienced' or 'skilled'. Using roads is not a solitary activity. The moment you go on a road or even just step on to a pavement you become part of a complex machine in which real people are involved, people who can easily be injured or killed. If more road users saw their journeys in that way and reacted accordingly, with tolerance, patience and attention to detail (or as on a road safety award my brother once received 'Care, Courtesy and Consideration') then the news of tragic deaths we read about and witness would not be on hundreds of websites and impacting on scores of people across the UK.

P.P. Having written this posting, I turned to read 'The Guardian'. As regular readers know, that arse of a columnist, Simon Hoggart infuriates me constantly with his stupidity and gives me fuel for this blog. As I have commented before Hoggart seems determined to do all he can to increase pollution and damage the environment, particularly though his idiotic opposition to wind turbines. This week he has turned again on cyclists who seem to be perceived as a legitimate target for liberal (though I would hardly categorise Hoggart as this) and right-wing writers. He spends two paragraph attacking cyclists using a cycle path. He complains one cyclist in Brighton shouted 'cycle path!' at him which he equates with 'psychopath' and he lumps all cyclists together with those who he argues are always 'aiming for - then just missing - old people, mothers with pushchairs, toddlers ...' as if cyclists actually drive around trying to hit people. He observes these who are a minority do not actually hit any pedestrians, unlike car drivers who killed 13 child pedestrians in London alone in 2008; 8 in 2007.

In total in the UK 572 pedestrians (down 11% on 2007) were killed in 2008, the only good news is that the figure is declining, with a decline of 19,000 deaths on the road over what would have been expected 15 years ago. Cyclist injuries rose 1% 2007-8, though deaths were down at 115; child deaths on the road (this includes children who are passengers in cars) rose from 121 in 2007 to 124 in 2008. Effectively fewer car and lorry drivers are killing each other, they are still killing other more vulnerable people. I suppose I should be grateful because the UK has the lowest number of accidents in the EU, alongside Sweden. However, having cycled in continental Europe this surprises me as I have had far fewer 'incidents' in which I have been hit on a bicycle and certainly none of the physical violence I have faced in the UK.

Hoggart should get off the cyclists' case. There are far more dangerous people out there than people cycling legally in Brighton. However, he is constantly indignant at anyone who wants to move away from dirty fuel consumption to a cleaner, more sustainable approach. Maybe he is financially backed by an oil company because I can see no rational explanation for his attitude, particularly when writing in 'The Guardian' which has vehemently supported the 10:10 campaign on climate change recent weeks.

P.P. 09/10/2009: I guess that it is because I am not driving so much now I have become unemployed, clearly there is a new trend in driving cars that I had underestimated. While I had witnessed someone driving a car on the pavement once in the 6.5 years I lived in London, today both on foot and while in a car myself I have seen three motorists driving for between 10-50 metres down a pavement. Generally they have one pair of wheels still on the road, but in all three cases more than three-quarters of the width of the car was on the pavement. The slowest was doing 20mph, the fastest something over 40mph (actually violating the speed limit for the 'road' they were driving down, anyway). When did such behaviour become acceptable? Is this the impact of motor-racing console games or car-based criminal games like 'Grand Theft Auto'? It is hazardous enough being a pedestrian in the UK but now it seems that car drivers are not even going to let you keep to the pavement. I suppose this is the ultimate manifestation of the common expectation among drivers that everyone else should simply disappear.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Economic Model of UK Universities: Unsustainable?

If you live in one of most medium or large towns in the UK you will be aware of the return of university students to your neighbourhood. As I have noted previously, in the view of your average bigot, they are now often seen as only a little better than immigrants. People blame students for a whole host of problems, many of which are either the fault of landlords or other people. There are noisy students as there are noisy teenagers and middle-aged people, but if my district is anything to go by, noisy students make up less than one-in-thirty households and much of the noise seems to be generated now that they are compelled to go outside to smoke. Students are seen as a legitimate target for the disgruntled in a way that blaming immigrants is not. However, hearing about the recommendations from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry, the key employers' association in the UK) about fees for students; reports about how overloaded both the visa and the student loan system has been in dealing with students this year; reports about universities having to exceed the cap on UK student numbers ending up housing some new students in hotels and the news that many UK universities are having to lay off hundreds of staff suggests that there is a major crisis.

Since the 1990s we have seen a massive expansion in student numbers in line with the objective of having 50% of 18-year olds go to university. Though it was falling back in recent years, more older people were also going to university a trend which is reviving now people look for other options in the time of recession. In general most universities now have four times as many students as they did in the mid-1980s and in some towns as many as 1 in 10 people is a student; in Ormskirk, Lancashire, it is now in fact 1 in 2 during term time, though many of these commute from Liverpool. In fact despite students often being seen as 'other' and 'outsiders' on average universities are taking around a quarter and a third of their British students from the local area as it becomes increasingly difficult to afford to live away from home.

Ethically I feel it is vital that anyone with the ability and the desire to go to university has the opportunity to do so. I have no desire, as some commentators have advocated, that we return to an elitist system in which only 6% of 18-year olds attend university as was the case when I went in the late 1980s. We cannot turn back the clock anyway as these days a degree is entrance level requirement and many employers look for an MA or MSc from their prospective employers. This does not simply go for UK employers but globally so if British young people want to work here or abroad we cannot suddenly deny them the chance of getting a degree or we will find that the trend which has long been going on of well-qualified EU people especially from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia will fill jobs in the UK. I am happy for them to do so if they are better, I am not anti-immigration, but I would at least like British young people to stand a chance in the competiton both here and overseas.

Those who want to return to the old days when universities were more categorised and polytechnics were clearly something else, forget that, in fact, it is often now the new universities, the former polytechnics, which are doing economically the best; the University of Southampton made a loss of £20 million this year whereas Edge Hill University (only became a university in 2005) has been turning a profit of £6.5 million each year. This is probably not surprising. Whilst new universities have sought to expand their curriculum they are still more likely to offer the vocationally-focused courses that attract the mass of people attending higher education, especially since the intake widened so much and which appeals to corporate sponsors, many of whom, even in the public sector, seem to remain ambivalent about employing graduates. Of course as London Metropolitan University shows not all new universities are thriving, but also note that University of Exeter shed over 300 staff and closed its chemistry department and another pre-1992 university in my region, the University of Southampton, has been making redundancies this year.

I think a rich culture needs a wide range of subjects taught, studied and researched and so am no advocate of Margaret Thatcher's principle of seeing humanities and social science subjects as 'a luxury' wanting everyone simply to be taught business or science. However, there is a clear demand for more vocational subjects which the older universities are not necessarily so good at. Above all, the economic model we have ended up with at the end of the 2000s is not sustainable. Students began having to pay fees in 1998 and at the time many went round asking what extra they were going to get for their money. What they did not realise was that universities needed that additional income simply to cover what they were already doing, not even to increase it.

Even with student numbers increasing, it has not stopped various institutions having to cut back. I have mentioned Exeter stopping chemistry and when I was in Milton Keynes the nearby University of Luton closed its entire Humanities Faculty in 2001 and I am sure there are many other cases I have not come across. As the redundancies make clear even with the current fee level of £3000 per year universities are not earning enough to keep on the staff they once employed. The CBI said that fees must rise to £5000 per year. This will be harsh on students, but, in fact, on simple economic grounds it is probably the minimum they need just to keep going as they are let alone expand or improve what they offer. The problems with visas which have meant around 20% of international students have been unable to take up the places they have been given at UK universities will bite hard on the universities as each international student (i.e. from outside the EU) pays fees three times the level of a UK student.

So, you say, 'alright, we raise student fees to £5000 per year', but that might be fine for the universities but in fact could backfire sharply by reducing student numbers. Back in 2001 students generally finished university with debts of £12,000, now the figure is around £25,000. Student loans are at a good rate and with the fall in the cost of living some former students even have negative interest (the sum they owe declines even if they make no repayment). However, very few students can sustain themselves on just the official student loans and incur large debts with banks and even harsher lenders. Partly this is because food is expensive in the UK and landlords/ladies charge high rents and rip students off for thousands of pounds; new trendy private student accommodation is appearing in many towns with even higher rents and fixed contracts worse than what is already in the private sector.

The debt hampers graduates right through their lives and actually discourages them from taking further qualifications or retraining later. In addition, it has helped make university a place for women rather than men. Since 2001 the number of women at university has exceeded the number of men and now the ratio is about 6 women for 4 men, with variations between subjects. Men are more debt averse and can often find low paid full-time work more immediately than women, but of course by not going to university they are ruling themselves from ever improving themselves from that kind of work.

Since 2002 the number of people from working class backgrounds going to university has not increased. The rise in student numbers since then has been among the middle class, so even with the bursaries available for people from low income families, the widening of university intake has frozen. When people argue for the return to an elitist system they seem oblivious to the fact that in large part it is still here, the elite is the first born of middle class families with their younger siblings and working class friends left out.

So what do we have? A system which is straining between being torn in two directions. Universities cannot continue with the insufficient income they are currently receiving but to raise fees further to bring in enough cash will mean discouraging many people who need a degree and further distort the intake to middle class women, the eldest daughters of families. Some might say that is not a bad thing but it is certainly not a situation of opportunity for all who are capable of taking it. We seem to be reaching the limit of what universities can charge and with increased restrictions on students coming into the country they are increasingly limited from making up this shortfall by bringing in a few hundred more Chinese or Indian students.

I believe the current economic model for universities in unsustainable and the solutions on offer, change nothing or raise fees will not allow universities to grow. What will happen? My prediction is that we will see more closures, not necessarily of whole universities (though if that was the case my bet would be on London Metropolitan going first) but of departments and faculties as we have been seeing through the 2000s on a small scale. Universities will narrow down their curriculum to courses in which they have particular strengths or which attract premium fees (for that read business masters courses). We will see a specialisation of universities. Not necessarily a bad thing but it will chafe against the fact that increasingly students only go to their local university, so you may end up with regional clusters of specialised students.

Another likelihood are mergers. This has been happening for many years. The University of Southampton which I used to drive past quite regularly bought up Winchester School of Art as far back as 1996. The University of Exeter has an outpost in Falmouth; the University of Luton became the University of Bedfordshire with campuses at the two towns in the county: Luton and Bedford; the University of Hull is also at Scarborough. Typically they have taken over a local college. However, I can envisage the merger of whole universities, perhaps on the model of the University of the Creative Arts (not to be confused with University of the Arts London which merged six colleges in central and south London) which merged five colleges as far apart as Canterbury in Kent and Farnham in Hampshire, which are 148km (92 miles) from each other (Epsom in Surrey and Maidstone and Rochester in Kent are the other locations).

Perhaps Exeter and Plymouth will become University South West or some such. Perhaps it will become like the Reading and Leeds festival with universities at either end of the country merging because they have the same specialisms. What will the British government do when rather than setting up campuses in the Middle East, Malaysia or China now a British university is bought out by a French or German or American or a Chinese institution. What do they do when a religious organisation wants to take over one and replace a liberal approach with a more narrow one like religious universities in continental Europe and the USA? We have seen the difficulty with schools and the curriculum, notably on creationism, when church-focused individuals become involved in sponsoring them.

It seems likely that in the next five years we will see a decline in the number of people going to university simply because of the economic burden of doing so. The 'golden age' of mass higher education will not come to an end but may be less mass than it has been in the 2000s. I think also the number of universities in the UK will be smaller by 2015 than they are now whether through mergers and even closures. Is the UK workforce any better qualified than before the expansion of higher education? I would say yes. I would also say that many people from across the world have benefited and that is no bad thing whether you hope for development in African states or the emergence of democracy in China and the Gulf States. However, the high flying, quick expanding economy of higher education is fragile and was weak even before the expansion took off. Solutions are few and the ones introduced so far are really only makeshift and also have had deep consequences for those who would be/have been students, the outcome of which we may not see for decades. A serious rethink of the whole sector is needed but as with so much in Britain we will limp along with no major change watching as bits fall off and thousands of bitter experiences for individuals occur.

P.P. 09/12/2010: With all the current debate around the rise in university fees and the impact on student numbers and university finance I was interested to read what the university union UCU said to the BBC about the universities which would most likely close down.  The UCU feels that a third of universities are at risk:  Interestingly, one of those they highlight is Edge Hill University which I had commented on here.  As you look down the list you see, that, in fact the bulk of the ones they see at risk are post-1992 universities, even though many of these have worked on a very commercially focused basis right from the start.  The BBC noted an off-the-record quote from a government minister saying that 'basket case' universities would go.  It is interesting that two things I have commented on, the snobbery against certain institutions and the financial pressures of the higher education sector are combining. 

I noted back in February 2009 how so many commentators felt that universities offering vocational qualifications or that did not have a history stretching back at least 50 years needed to be suppressed or at least flagged as being inadequate:  It is apparent that such people, including members of the current government, hope that the financial pressures on newer universities will do the job of 'weeding' them out.  This is a mistaken view, as anyone who ever goes to Southampton will know.  One of the universities there has been in existence since the 1950s, but financially it has been in debt and laying off staff constantly for the past two years.  Down the road, the newer university, it appears, is doing a lot better.  Having an established university does not mean it has a good economic model, in fact unlike those who battled in the 1990s to be recognised as proper universities, many of these older ones seem terribly complacent.

Of course, any reduction in universities will further drive down the opportunities for ordinary people to get on and reduce the skills and knowledge levels of the UK as a whole.  However, even when the UK is facing such challenges too many influential people seem unable to understand that the country might be better off losing some of those institutions teaching Classics and Music, rather than trying to use the situation to drive out of business those who run Engineering and Social Work courses.