Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Measuring patriotism by flags

Will someone please tell Tory ministers that patriotism can never be measured by the number or size of union flags, and has nothing to do with monarchism (My flag`s bigger than yours: ministers parade their patriotism on TV, 20/03/21)? What patriotism most certainly has to do with is pursuing policies of justice and fairness which reveal genuine concern for all of the UK`s population, in all of its areas! Neglecting public health infrastructure to such an extent the country is totally unprepared to face a health crisis does not come under the heading "Patriotism", and neither does imposing austerity which hurts the disadvantaged the most? Caring for the British people, ensuring they are safe from disease, is clearly an essential role for a patriotic government, but so is pursuing policies which improve education provision for all. What is patriotic about underfunding state schools whilst giving financial advantages to private schools, or wasting taxpayers` money by enriching cronies or buying unnecessary weapons of mass destruction? Just like the flags, the number of weapons can never be a measurement of a government`s patriotism! The next time the likes of Johnson, Jenrick and Truss, with their pseudo-patriotic paraphernalia, are mocked on television or social media, could the Guardian please refrain from describing pictures of the queen and union flags as "patriotic backdrops" when they are clearly no such thing!

School and university reform

As John Gray wrote, Roberto Unger`s "proposals for a national project are mostly unworkable", but that does not necessarily include his ideas relating to education (How to remake Britain, 19 March). Unger is rightly critical of the national curriculum`s "intimate association with testing" and the value placed on "the memorisation of facts" (The system cannot hold, 19 March). Both resulted from Gove`s unnecessary assessment reforms in 2010, and can easily be remedied. The current debate about how our history has been manipulated, and how imperial amnesia has led to a distorted and misplaced view of Britain being somehow "exceptional", demands change. Many text books need rewriting,and many documents unearthing from their secrecy in Hanslope Park before the subject can justify a compulsory place in the curriculum up to year 11, but what better way is there of preparing pupils "to use information critically" than the study of historical evidence, using knowledge and understanding to evaluate and analyse its reliability and utility? Of course, fairness in education would be enhanced by the abolition of private education, which Unger recommends, but it would need a much greater commitment from Labour than currently exists. That does not mean the ridiculous financial incentives given to independent schooling, like charitable status, and fee exemption from VAT, should continue, nor the ability to bypass the highly regulated A-levels to gain university entrance qualifications. Private schools` exclusion, in the main, from inspection by the same regulator as state schools, Ofsted, is absurd! If ever the British people are to be released from "the bonds of belittlement", whether through a "national project" or the transformational policies of political parties, reforming education will be key! As Gavin Williamson says, the current university admissions system does put working class students at a disadvantage, but whether the introduction of post-qualification application will prove the answer is a moot point (Gavinn Williamson`s pitch to save his job,22/03/21). The phasing out of Pre-U exams, taken by many private school pupils to avoid highly regulated A-levels is to be welcomed but universities should now accept the so-called "privilege cap", which would limit the proportion of students accepted from private schools at the national figure of 7%. This would force universities into adopting contextual admissions policies, and make more room for pupils from the underfunded schools, from underprivileged families and from economically deprived areas, whose potential remains largely untapped. That would be "levelling up" in action rather than rhetoric! Oxbridge`s insistence on interviews hardly helps matters! Could there be a more effective deterrent to getting able pupils from working class backgrounds to apply to Oxbridge than the thought of an hour-long grilling by academics? It clearly put off Williamson`s "mates"! Test their ability after three years of their education, not after eighteen years of being disadvantaged! "Wholesale reform of universities" does not mean "tweaking the grading system", but levelling the field for admissions, and this Williamson almost certainly will not do!

Johnson the clown

I suspect most readers of "the long read" will already have depicted Johnson as a clown, but few with the justification of so much detailed evidence as provided by Edward Docx (The long read: In the court of the clown king, 18/03/21). A clown intent on "satire, subversion and mockery" does indeed "distract the audience", a point no doubt noted by many in the Tory party who supported his leadership bid. By ridiculing most human conventions, Johnson`s multitude of lies would be overlooked by an electorate seeing only an "honest politician" and not necessarily the policies which would simultaneously increase inequality and please party donors.Claiming anything other than a miniscule pay rise for NHS staff to be "unaffordable" whilst offering a £25bn bribe to businesses to invest to increase their own productivity, and posturing as the defender of underprivileged pupils whilst ensuring top universities are dominated by students from independent schools are two cases in point. So far, opinion polls would suggest the electorate`s attention to the obvious calamitous mishandling of the pandemic has been again "distracted" by Johnson, but if memory of circuses serves me well, clowns ended up at least being drenched with water, if not fired from cannons. This has to happen soon; there are too many "important issues" which need to be settled!

Has Johnson ever heard of Chernobyl?

History shows that very few, if any, of the old challenges were met "by turning to nukes and aircraft carriers" so it is highly unlikely any of the "new" ones will be either (The future of defence and foreign policy looks oddly old-fashioned, 17/03/21). Having a nuclear arms race in the Cold War not only revealed the stupidity of politicians, willing to waste billions on sufficient weapons to destroy the world many times over, it displayed their sheer ignorance prior to the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986. The radioactive contamination spreading thousands of miles away from Chernobyl actually focused minds sufficiently for US and Russian politicians to complete serious talks, culminating in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed in July 1991. By "raising the cap on our nuclear warheads" at the same time as "slashing the international aid budget" Johnson has revealed himself not only as "especially childish", but prone yet again to political posturing. Does anyone really believe the UK is so "exceptional" it can demand the respect of the world by adopting "oddly old-fashioned" 20th century policies which were idiotic then, and even more so, now? Can anyone, let alone a prime minister with such a distorted view of history, explain how the safety and moral standing of the country can possibly be increased by raising the number of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260?

Olusoga and our make-believe past

As David Olusoga rightly says, both royals and tabloids are "trapped in a fantasy version of Britain`s past" which is dominated by the concept of British exceptionalism (The royals are just like much of our press - trapped in a fantasy version of Britain`s past, 14.03.21). In a recent televised talk, the queen described the human traits of "self-discipline" and "good-natured resolve" as "national attributes", whilst the popular media`s fondness for our "glorious past" leads to the mistaken belief in Britain having to fight on "alone" in 1940. Whilst the French president recently announce the setting-up of a "memories and truth" commission to find out what really happened in their Algerian war, the British government, with its colonial amnesia, insists on refusing access for historians to the million-plus historical files locked away in Hanslope Park. The problem is that the truths revealed would almost certainly prove the non-existence of British exceptionalism, the myth responsible, in part, not only for Brexit, much of our institutionalised racism, our refusal to follow the WHO`s advice on testing last March, but the popularity of a prime minister who revels in it! Only when the truth about the UK`s colonial past is revealed, when the facts about our seizing and looting of colonies, whilst committing the most awful of atrocities, and our reliance on essential colonial aid to emerge successfully from world wars, are all openly admitted and taught, can the people and government of this country ever hope to have a non-distorted view of the future.

Labour and imposing definitions

Philip Collins is absolutely correct: "left to their own devices" the Tories will indeed define levelling up in the most minimal way possible", which is why Labour must "impose a definition" (The Public Square, 12 March). This is the way to "horrify the Tories" because their version of "levelling up" is merely political rhetoric, just like setting up a "northern powerhouse" or getting rid of "burning injustices". Similarly, providing a 21st century definition of "patriotism" would not go amiss, stressing how it entails the pursuit of justice and fairness for all of the UK`s population, in each one of its areas. "Managing the economy", also, must be re-defined, to escape Tories` control of the economic narrative. For too long, Labour has been forced to accept the Tory brand, with its outmoded view of tax payments from the rich, and its myths about "trickle-down" wealth. Even their latest "soon to be U-turned" decision to offer no more than 1% pay rise for NHS staff was explained by an "unaffordable cost" excuse. None of Starmer`s protests mentioned how economic multipliers ensured that increases in pay for public sector workers practically paid for themselves through increased tax returns. The sad fact is that election victories will continue to elude Labour as long as the Tories are in charge of the political and economic narratives; definitions have to be provided which reveal the shortcomings and incompetence of this duplicitous government Despite the fact that, as John Harris says, the Conservative party "spent much of the last century reinventing itself", it still remains a "two-nation" party (Despite all their failures, the Tories are still riding high,15/03/21) They might claim otherwise, such as when imposing austerity measures in the last decade, but there is no doubt that the disadvantaged suffered most, whilst the taxes on the rich were reduced substantially. If Tories are to be "dislodged", Labour has to focus more on debunking myths, and redefining what Harris calls "enduring Tory themes". Too often, the Tories are allowed to dictate the narratives by determining the criteria by which their actions are judged. How can law and order and patriotism be "enduring" when the government repeatedly fails to address violence against women, to acknowledge institutionalised racism, and, even after the warnings from Operation Cygnus, to prepare the country properly for a pandemic? Security is not simply about defence against a foreign attack. Patriotism involves having an education system which maximises the potential of children from all backgrounds, and a government investment scheme for all areas of the country. Managing the economy cannot include a reliance on myths like the Laffer curve and trickle-down economics. Labour has to provide its own answers, but election victory remains unlikely without a wholesale attack on Tory myths

Pushy Parents

No one with an iota of understanding of how state education runs would even contemplate final GCSE and A-level grades being determined after "negotiation between students and teachers", let alone make comments to that effect (England heads fear pushy parents will demand better grades, 12/03/21). Of course, teachers need to be "protected" from undue pressure, and, as Geoff Barton says, "strict quality assurance mechanisms" should have been put in place. A better system would have schools sending marked samples of a variety of their pupils` work, complete with a proposed grade, to assessors appointed by the examination boards who would be responsible for the final grade, with all costs paid by the government. (Apologies to the DfE and Ofqual for any joined-up thinking this might have entailed!)