Archive for March, 2011

We don’t need to talk about Winston

30 March 2011

I discovered recently that my great-grandfather Richard Berwick Hope played on his school cricket team with the great sportsman C.B. Fry.  He (Hope) also turns out to have been a contemporary of Winston Churchill at Sandhurst (he features on the list at the back of this book on Churchill).

These things got me thinking about what my ancestor might have thought as he saw these two contemporaries of his become world-famous figures, particularly Churchill since Hope lived through the Second World War and even into Churchill’s peacetime period as prime minister.  Part of me wonders what he made of his class-mate’s rise to Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty (again) and Prime Minister.

These idle thoughts butted up against a general feeling I’ve had for a while that Churchill’s image as national hero really needs more grounding in real life. There seems to be a sense that because Churchill did or said something it must be right.  This is rubbish.  He did and said a lot of things, many of which were stupid and many more of which were reflections of his time rather than some innate truth.

This is not to say that he should not be regarded as a national hero – I think he should, it is hard to imagine that any of the alternative prime ministers in 1940 would have been so firm and inspirational.  He was the person that the nation needed in 1940… but he is not the person the nation needs now. He was inspirational at his nation’s hour of great need, but is he really someone to be recalled whenever it suits?

Two examples occur to me of the use of Churchill’s name in political arguments.  One by Baroness Warsi and one by the BNP.

Sayeeda Warsi recently quoted Churchill to support her argument against the Alternative Vote system:

Let me tell you what’s wrong with AV. ‘It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal’ voting system. It means that elections ‘will be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.’ Conference, not my words – the words of Winston Churchill eighty years ago.

She also used the Churchill quotations in an article for the Sun today, to back up her line that AV will assist the BNP.  I’m sure it is heartening for Conservatives and Sun readers to hear that Churchill felt this way about AV, but (even aside from the misleading point about extremism) it really is not helpful.

It might do them some good to remember that this is the same Churchill who told the nation that a Labour government would need a “Gestapo” to implement their policies.  It was also Churchill who returned the nation to the Gold Standard in the 1920s, helping to bring on the General Strike. I wonder whether Baroness Warsi thinks that her Cabinet colleagues and the nation as a whole should follow his lead back to the Gold Standard.

Churchill also refused to speak to Lady Astor when she was elected because: “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she bursts into my bedroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge.”  One can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the appearance of a woman of Pakistani descent in a Tory Cabinet!

Even more despicable in the tub-thumping Churchill-worship was Nick Griffin when he appeared on Newsnight and used Churchill to back up his point of view. He claimed that Churchill would have been a BNP member, to which various people made valid arguments about the fight that Churchill put up in the name of democracy.

In some ways, Griffin was correct, though: Churchill would have agreed with some of the BNP’s policies, such as on non-white immigration to the UK. This is not because their position is inherently right and British, but because Churchill was a man of the nineteenth century with a Victorian sense of racial superiority.  His views were out of date by the time of his death, and are even more so now.  Churchill was also an imperialist, while the BNP think that we should not be involved in wars overseas. Judged by today’s standards, Churchill was indeed very right wing. That is why we shouldn’t take as gospel the words of the ageing wartime prime minister… because he was a man of his time. That is part of what gave him his rhetorical ability, but it makes him a bad role model in many other ways.

We should respect Churchill, but accept his faults. His leadership in the Second World War was imperfect but it was important – if not vital – to the survival of a democratic Britain and of the Western Front against Nazism. His record on domestic matters is less impressive and his views were those of a man of his time.  This should not mean that we hark back to those views as inviolable ‘British’ views, or that he was right (or wrong) about everything, or that we dismiss him out of hand. Churchill was important, but he must be understood in context not put on a pedestal and worshipped.

Please, stop quoting him as if he was some great infallible arbiter of political debates… he was not.

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Tahrir Square, London?

3 March 2011

Like most people with a computer and in interest in events beyond the end of my road, I’ve been following the uprisings, protests and nascent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.  A lot of interesting things have been said about the protests there, notably in two excellent Plant Money podcasts (the word excellent should always precede the words Planet Money podcast) on the economic power of the Egyptian military and its reluctance to shoot on its customers (the people) and on the differences between the diverse Egyptian economy and the rentier state of Libya.

Slightly less informative, but at least vaguely thought-provoking, is a piece by Laurie Penny under the title ‘Is it crass to compare the protests in London, Cairo and Wisconsin?’, with the equally stunning subtitle ‘The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance.’

In a way, she is right. There is inequality, there is a feeling that the government is not doing the will of the people.  Also, there has been no clear leader of the protests in either country – there’s no 2011 Scargill (certainly not Aaron Porter).  Actually, some of these points come from another piece:

It would, of course, be absurd to compare the oppression suffered by Egyptians to the grievances against which [these anti-government protestors here] direct their wrath, but the dynamics of both movements can be compared relative to their own societies.

The most striking similarity is both are leaderless movements, and that makes it very difficult for conventional politicians to understand or deal with them. Individual figures in both movements have been sources of inspiration, but in neither case has that individual taken upon himself to become the spokesman for the group or the individual empowered to speak for it or to act as its negotiator.

Oh, I should probably mention that this was from a piece entitled ‘Twins: Tahrir Square and the Tea Party’ on an opinions page of USA Today.

I’m not saying this to equate the UK student/anti-cuts protests to the tea party per se.  They are protesting for wildly different things.  The point is that they are similar and those US protestors (no less than in Wisconsin, where the protest is more like the student sit-ins in the UK) probably feel solidarity with those in Egypt.

The reason that they are similar is that they are modern protests. They have used the internet, they have no specific leaders, they have broadly by-passed traditional political party structures – the Republicans are riskily trying to incorporate the energy of the tea party movement but the movement is not strictly Republican in itself, the UK protesters are from a range of groups that include many in the Labour camp but it is not akin to the Labour party (indeed there would be protests at the levels of cuts Labour would have had to make too).

The are also similar in some respects because of their place within the current economic crisis, as Laurie Penny notes – the difficulty of getting work, and of getting by, are behind all three, albeit with vastly differing specific circumstances, grievances and responses in the US, the UK and Egypt.

But they are not the same, because of these specific circumstances.  In Egypt, there has been a repressive regime that stole elections when it deigned to hold them.  It was a brutal regime, as another blogger has expressed far more vehemently than I have. Whatever you think of the UK ‘police state’, control orders (which are used on 5 or 6 people), and the Coalition Government (which was formed entirely in line with our constitution, if very quickly by international standards), these are not the same as the pressures, the corruption and the ‘state of emergency’ that have kept Egyptian protest bottled up for decades and led it to explode this year.

Solidarity does not mean that two (or three) movements are the same. People should take heart from the efforts of Egyptian protestors and be humbled by it as an example of largely-peaceful protest on a vast scale.  We do not know what will come of their efforts yet, the military are still in charge and will not want significant change.  As to the UK, we will have protests again, probably within weeks outside some town hall in London or elsewhere.  Their argument is not less valid because it is not the same as those in Tahrir Square, but it is not the same.

Willetts’ horse and cart

2 March 2011

I have commented before about the way in which the Coalition’s changes to the funding of higher education are being brought about. Aside from arguments over the value of a degree, who should pay and the ‘marketisation’ of higher education, the cart-before-the-horse style adopted by David Willetts and co in making their reforms beggars belief.

In December, they passed an amendment that increased the fees universities could charge for degrees to between £6,000 and £9,000.  They declared that only under ‘exceptional circumstances’ could the higher rate be charged and that higher fees would come with responsibilities to widen access and offer reductions and partial waivers to those from lower-income backgrounds.  All well and good… in theory. Except that universities have been left in the dark while trying to price up their degrees, as hundreds of Oxbridge acamedics have written to the minister this week. It’s nice to hear someone making this point so publicly.

More and more universities are planning to charge the full £9000, indeed it seems unlikely that any insitution will charge significantly less. Certainly the Russell Group and 1994 Group institutions (i.e the pre-1992 universities) will not; the interesting thing may be what the more financially savvy and socially-diverse newer universities do.

The reasoning behind the rushing through of the tuition fee hike was to enable each university to set their fees before producing their prospectus for the potential 2012 intake (i.e. the current AS-level students).  This seems reasonable, but is the wrong way around: the regulations about what charging the higher fee levels will entail should come before universities are required to make the decision over their fees so that they know what the repercussions of charging higher fees will be.  Even assuming that they will all (or almost all) plump for the top level, the implications of that choice surely need to be part of how universities plan for the future – for their investment in courses and in scholarships/bursaries.

It should be that these decisions are made by institutions that know what restrictions they face, rather than regulations being designed knowing how many and which universities are charging what level of fees. Since part of the point is to bring market forces into higher education, and given that clarity and knowledge of conditions in the setting of prices are keys to an effective market, this seems utterly ludicrous. (This is far from the only flaw in the market-for-HE policy direction, but a fairly obvious one)

Last week, David Willetts went one step further and declared that the reason that the higher education white paper that had been due this month is to be delayed because the universities should decide their fee levels first (to see how “price-setting works this spring”).  It is now government policy to put the university cart before the horse!

Maybe BIS are being much more wily and cynical than one would expect of a government department.  By holding back the decision and information on what the ‘exceptional circumstances’ allowing a £9000 degree will be, they have lured the universities into a commitment to undertaking anything that the department (and government or parliament more broadly) decides that that level of fees will entail.  Any university charging over £7500 might be required to build a statue of Vince Cable, or to adopt a village in Africa, or something.  More likely they will be forced to take more ethnic-minority students and people from low-income backgrounds.  From that point of view they may well be shuffling their way obtusely towards the kind of goal that Simon Hughes will be arguing (both in public and in private) for – greater inclusion.

So maybe there will be a plus side to this charade, but at the moment we do not know.