Thoughts, reflections, observations and rants...

Monday, 8 February 2010

How far does 'parliamentary privilege' extend?

The whole saga concerning MPs expenses has taken a particularly interesting turn over the last few days. The Director of Public Prosecutions, a man with the curious name of Keir Starmer (I've only come across one other person with the name 'Keir' - his last name was Hardie and he created the Labour party. Anyway, I digress..), has announced that three Labour MPs and one Tory peer will be charged under the Theft Act for their dodgy expenses claims.

Over the weekend as leading politicians were saying that the issue can now finally be put to bed (presumably because justice is finally being seen to be done), a potential shitstorm began brewing after it was suggested that the Labour MPs may invoke something called 'parliamentary privilege' - this is part of the Bill of Rights which goes back to 1689 and followed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution (Protestant William and Mary replace Catholic James II in a bloodless coup blah blah blah...). It says "that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament." Fair enough - parliament had fought a war earlier in the century against the power of the monarchy. The Bill guaranteed the supremacy of parliament and was responsible for reforming absolutism a full century before the French tore themselves apart over the issue.

The law stuck. In 1999 a committee was set up in order to clarify several issues (nice to know our government reviews legislation regularly), one of which was the idea of "proceedings in parliament". The conclusion was that the law protected "members of both houses from being subjected to any penalty… in any court for what they have said in the course of the proceedings in Parliament."

Now, as far as I see it, whilst the word 'proceedings' is still a nebulous concept and_could_include expenses claims, the letter of the law still clearly says that MPs are protected 'for what they have said'. I agree - MPs should be able to speak their mind in the House of Commons without fear of being prosecuted for libel. However, the whole crisis of expenses in grounded not in what MPs have said, but rather in what they have_done - namely (allegedly) stolen from the British taxpayer in making fraudulent claims. Claiming expenses is an everyday 'proceeding' in the work of an MP. So, as I see it, the 1689 Act only protects MPs for any comments they make in relation to expenses, not for the act of theft I right? What is the fuss about? These guys should go down!

Some of my legal friends may wish to comment - there is a particularly useful article here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Some thoughts on Tory education policy

In the preamble, the Tories make their usual jibes against ‘big government’ and the need to redistribute power. However, when you get into the detail they seem to be contradicting themselves. They talk about ‘more unannounced inspections’, the publication of all DCSF data and an even bigger rolling out of the Academies program, which will admittedly reduce the role of local authorities, but still I don’t think Labour or the Tories have got the right idea on interference with education. On the radio the other day a teacher with thirty years experience made an analogy with the health secretary – you wouldn’t get Andy Burnham going into an NHS hospital and telling consultants how to do their job. However, because nearly all of us have been through the state system there seems to be a constant desire to ‘tinker’ because experience gives them some sort of right. This goes all the way back to the creation of the National Curriculum by the Thatcher government in 1988. Since then the paperwork has come thick and fast; there is a constant need to be showing that you can ‘do the job’ by producing paper evidence. When I did my PGCE I handed in two ring binders worth of material at the end which probably had more of influence on whether I passed or failed than the actual classroom observations of my teaching. If someone sees you teaching properly you should be allowed to get on with it.

Cameron talks about using the Swedish model – in Sweden there is a much greater emphasis on letting the teacher get on with the job. The actual act of transmitting knowledge has been sidelined to such an extent by ‘bureaucracy’ that it’s seriously driving down the morale of teachers. The first thing that either party could do – but neither is committed as yet – is getting rid of Key Stage 2 SATs in Year 6. This would end the ‘teaching to the test’ culture that exists in Year 6 and actually allow the teachers to teach in the final year of primary school.

In Sweden, too, teachers are paid more and are held in much higher esteem. I think its something quite specific to the UK in that teachers are not considered to be as important or worthy as GPs, solicitors etc…which is surprising considering the vital role they play (how many Oxbridge graduates are teachers? Admittedly possibly more during a recession but there’s not the same ‘made it!’ success culture with teaching as there is in medicine and law). I like Cameron’s idea of making teaching ‘brazenly elitist’ but I’m sceptical, as are many teachers, that the brightest graduates make the best teachers. I think I’ve got good subject knowledge but that forms about 5% of the repertoire of a good teacher – something that I’m still learning. He also says that graduates on ITT programs will need at least a 2:2 in his government. I would be surprised if any university in the country accepts a student with a Third. Also, why is he offering to pay off the debts of maths and science graduates? Well, I suppose it’s because they’re core subjects but there’s no mention of the humanities. 70% of pupils quit history at 14 – surely that’s a problem if we’re trying to get kids thinking about ‘Britishness’, Citizenship, prejudice etc…

I support what he says about making it easier for teachers to use reasonable force to restrain pupils. The unions are in agreement that the law is currently on the side of the pupil – there have been countless careers ruined due to the false claims made by pupils of their teachers to the extent that many will refuse to take trips out of school or intervene in fights.

Finally, talking about education within the ‘theme’ of a broken society is extremely offensive to all those people who do brilliant work in schools. Any teacher reading this will be filled with doom and gloom. If the Tories want to extend Labour’s Academies surely they must have something good to say about them. Furthermore, they also claim that ‘safe classrooms, talented and specialist teachers, access to the best curriculum and exams’ are ‘currently only available to the well-off’ – what a load of bollocks! Now I admit that in poorer areas you tend to get poorer schools. That’s probably because the best teachers aren’t tempted by living in rough areas, I don’t know. However, my school is a comprehensive, some of the kids aren’t well off, some are in children’s homes, and they get a fantastic education from what is a ‘good’ school – according to Ofsted.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Televised debates

The three main party leaders announced yesterday that before the general election (which most pundits believe will happen on May 6th 2010) three ninety minute TV debates will take place, with Sky the BBC and ITV each assuming hosting responsibilities. The academic Bill Jones, who works tirelessly in politics education, offers his comments here..

It is perhaps worth noting what this means for Prime Ministerial politics in the UK. Let's start with theory. The 'Prime Minister' was a role introduced in the 18th century to help the Monarch with his duties, i.e., Robert Walpole was appointed by George II because of the widening role of government. Indeed, even in the era of the 'fiscal military state' it was felt that a specialist full time role needed to be created.

During the democratic advances of the nineteenth century, the 'Prime Minister' (as he became known, only officially, in the 1880s - hitherto it had been a term of abuse and mocking. PMs had gone by the title 'First Lord of the Treasury', which is still emblazoned on the letterbox of Number 10) became primus inter pares or 'first among equals' as cabinet government developed. However, even as he assumed greater power and responsiblity in the 1900s, rising above his cabinet ministers and wielding the power to make or break a career, he was still merely the leader of the party with the most seats in the Commons. In theory that's all he or she is today...

However, in our media age things have taken on a slightly more Presidential edge. Presidents, as we know, are much more powerful than PMs because of their dual role as head of the government and the state. At a time when image had become more important and ideology less of a sticking point, our leaders have taken on this role with gusto. Thatcher made inroads in the later 1980s when her tenure became increasingly authoritarian (this 'taking power for granted' approach cost her dearly in November 1990). She behaved more like a Head of State than a lowly Prime Minister and earned the ill will of the sovereign, her party and the people as a result. New Labour's fascination with spin and image manipulation has seen Blair and Brown behave more like Presidents than Prime Ministers. Now, we are going to have 'Leader's Debates' in the run up to the election. What does this mean - effectively we are being asked to vote for individuals (like Americans voted for Obama or McCain in 2008). However, in reality we still vote for a local MP. Those less in tune with with how our democracy works may be fooled into thinking that they will vote for the face that most appeals to them on the television screen. The reality is that they will be voting for a candidate in their local area. Only if candidates of the same party are returned to Westminster in large numbers next year can any one of those three faces stand any chance of forming a government. That's how Westminster democracy has functioned for nearly 200 years.

Surely it would be more democratic for constituency MPs to engage and become more visible with local residents by holding many more town hall meetings rather than this 'sham democracy' that will appear on the TV screen. The broadcasters, surely, only approached the leaders with the idea because they were thinking about ratings and potential advertising revenue?

The implication that we are voting for an individual leader at election time has led to people suggesting that our politics is looking increasingly presidential despite that fact that we still elect all of our politicians on the basis of single member plurality. At the moment, theory does not match practice and whilst one could welcome these debates for putting the leaders on the spot and making them appear accountable, they are still rather misleading given the constitutional role of the PM.

Review of my year 2009

As predicted, this year has been much more 'straightforward' than the previous 5 or 6, mainly due to the fact that I have carried on doing the same job. There has been no new university course starting, or no new job to get to grips with - in short, no major life changes, albeit for moving house and that's something that I intend to avoid in the new year. At the very least this should free up some time to travel a bit longer (and further afield) in 2010. After all, once I start my Masters the option of spending my free time galavanting may be seriously impeded.

The early part of this year ran relatively smoothly; the snow caused a minor crisis - I've never had to dump my car before, but the 'snow days' proved to be welcome addition to the school calender; day on, day off, day on, day off...I could live with that. Around this time I went on the first of two trips to Stoke Rochford Hall in Lincolnshire, in this instance to have a full debrief from the Israel trip. It was good seeing friends, all of whom were wearing many more clothes than last time I saw them (English Januarys are colder than Israeli Augusts so no smutty comments please). I recently went back for a weekend working with fellow HET educators. The snow wasn't there but I still have to navigate my way down the A1 which after dark is nothing short of suicidal..

At easter I went to Poland for the first of three trips this year (although this was the only one which was not Holocaust related). Myself, Christian, James and Rachel went to the northern port town of Gdansk, famous for being the spot where the Germans attacked in September 1939, as well as being where the Solidarity trade union first opposed communist rule in Poland in a movement which soon extended to the whole of the eastern bloc. Although a charming place, with a nice coastline and several lovely neighboring resorts (Gydnia, Sopot...) it's not a place that I would hurry back to.

Following a trip to Essex to see PGCE friends I settled into the final term of my first full year at Crompton House. The highlight of the term was a trip the the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. This was following very shortly afterwards (about 12 hours) by a trip to Krakow for my LFA educator training. These have been covered in a previous post so we'll leave it there.

Not much needs to be said either about my trip to the Balkans during two weeks in summer as they have been written about elsewhere. As I said earlier I am keen about a bigger trip taking place next summer; current options on the table are Morocco (by far the easiest), India (by far the hardest) and Australia (somehwere inbetween as I can stay with family). EasyJet fly to Morocco, as well as Israel - I could fly to the latter and visit the places that I didn't have the opportunity to because of the rush to get back in order to move house and start a new job in 2008. The one plan I have made is to visit Stockholm between 13-17th February 2010 and my next LFA takes place in late March.

Foreign jaunts, along with the part time Masters (application still pending) provide the most exciting prospects for the new year. In the meantime I am enjoying living in Manchester (although for perhaps the first time in my life I would not completely rule out London) and the job is very_slowly getting easier.

Finally, here are the names of the bands that I have seen this year (or can/care to remember):

Bloc Party
The Ting Tings
Bob Dylan
Green Day
Florence and the Machine (x2)
White Lies
Modest Mouse
Glasvegas (awful)
Bombay Bicyle Club
The Answering Machine
Franz Ferdinand (surprisingly, perhaps the best gig I've been to this year, improved no end by meeting the band afterwards and realising that they were thoroughly nice chaps)
The Travelling Band
The Temper Trap
Secret Machines (the loudest band I've seen this year, but in many ways the best)

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The music industry holds its breath...Craig speaks..!

So as we skip nonchalantly to the end of the ‘Noughties’, maybe it’s about time that I did what the cool people are doing, as well as Q and NME, amongst others, and “publish” my preferred ten albums of the decade. So, in no particular order:

1. The Strokes – Is This It (2000)
2. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
3. Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2005)
4. Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)
5. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2005)
6. The Killers – Hot Fuss (2005)
7. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)
8. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid (2007)
9. Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)
10. Mogwai – Mr. Beast (2006)

I was listening to The Strokes’ first album on my way home from work today. ‘This Is It’ is one of those albums that hasn’t been on my Ipod for a long time, sits in a CD case on the shelf, and rarely makes it into CD player. However, when it does my love and respect for this album is renewed, every time. It’s easy to say that it sounds like all of the other ‘trendy indie’ that’s around at the moment, but the truth is, The Strokes reinvented the genre – at least in its current guise. It’s the earliest album on my list; released in the year 2000 when I, admittedly, was more interested in bands like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and The (reasonably more redeemable) Defrtones and System of a Down. At the height on ‘Nu-Metal’ it’s hard to remember what a refreshing sound The Strokes were producing.

Now there are thousands of bands who sound like The Strokes and, I think, music is much better in 2009 than it was in 2000. Part of this is also down to the Arctic Monkey’s debut. This is one of two albums that I say (and others will perhaps also say…) sums up the whole university experience for me. Between 2004 and 2007 it was ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ and ‘Hot Fuss’ by The Killers which were heard on pretty much every nightclub stereo in Manchester and elsewhere up and down the country. Now I realise that Mr. Brightside is an overplayed track, but that doesn’t get away from the fact that it is an awesome song. Furthermore, all of the other songs on the album, some of which I’ve seldom heard on anything other than my Ipod, are incredibly good.

“Funeral” by the Arcade Fire is perhaps one of the most mesmerising albums that I have ever heard. Radiohead produced an album that rivals OK Computer in its scope and ambition and “The Seldom Seen Kid” rightly wrested the Mercury Music Prize from the soon-to-be ‘has beens’ who would sooner rely on image than produce anything of real musical integrity.

Modest Mouse have slowly become my favourite band this year. I have been working my way through their back catalogue these past few months and will be seeing them live at the Manchester Ritz next month. They are one of four US bands in my selection of ten. One is Canadian and five are British. This goes against the argument of an American friend who claims that the 1990s were the decade of the British band, whilst the ‘Noughties’ have been the decade of US music. To some extent I agree with him, however considering the fact that ‘Hot Fuss’ cites New Order as a major influence, ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’ would not have appeared had it not been for a reasonably famous late 1970s Manchester band called Joy Division and ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’ follows in the best traditions of British indie music, the claim becomes hard to sustain. All are truly great albums, produced by American artists; however, in my opinion, ‘This Is It’ is the only true, great ‘American album’.

Bloc Party deserve a mention; whilst their subsequent albums have been rather disappointing, ‘Silent Alarm’ is a great post-punk album with a bouncy indie twist. ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’ is a brilliantly dark and disturbing album and Mr. Beast proves that you don’t have to sing over the tracks in order to make a truly great record.

I don’t think this list is too pretentious! All of the albums you’ll recognise, people play them a lot – but that’s because they’re good, really good.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Sun. Film. Masters degrees

I thought I’d start by weighing in on the ‘Jacqui Janes’ saga of last week. After all, I love nothing more than bashing The Sun. The background to this story is the death of Mrs. Janes’ son, Jamie, who was killed in Afghanistan recently. Since the Falklands War, Prime Ministers have followed the convention of writing individually to the families of the bereaved. This is understandable given the fact that we no longer seem to fight wars where inordinate numbers of troops are killed. Don’t get me wrong, a single death is one too many; however, during wars past when thousands have perished, it has been customary for impersonal telegrams delivered by the postman to convey the awful news. The MOD can today however contact individual families literally hours after a soldier has died, and this is usually done in the form of a chaplain and a military officer who visit the bereaved family in person. Letters from the PM follow soon afterwards.

Brown will have been sitting at his desk on many an evening these past few months writing letters to the families of the 230+ service personnel who have received news of the ultimate sacrifice. These letters are handwritten which can’t be easy for a man who is blind in one eye and, rumour has it, is slowly going blind in the other. Therefore, imagine my surprise (or lack of, they do stoop pretty low!) when The Sun used the memory of a dead soldier to exploit a bereaved mother in order to smear Gordon Brown. It must not be forgotten that the paper changed its allegiance to the Conservatives about a month ago. Imagine their glee when an understandably upset Mrs. Janes contacted them about the hastily scrawled letter. I can just see the exchange – “Well that’s awful about the poor soldier Mrs. Janes, but…erm…IMAGINE how we can use this to really nail Brown. May we publish your letter?’ Using a dead solider as a way to score cheap political points is indefensible, and that’s all I have to say on the matter.

I was saddened today to hear of the death of Edward Woodward. To many, including me, he is most famous for his portrayal of the high Anglican policeman sent to a remote Scottish island in the film ‘The Wicker Man’. Made in 1973, it has always set the standard for British horror films. With little or no use of blood and a building tension, the film seems to tap into our greatest fears about paganism, the occult and sheer helplessness. I’ve often watched the end of the film and wished, or hoped, that the Sgt. would be rescued by the authorities; I’ve thought similar thoughts when watching Steve McQueen vault barbed-wire fences but that’s by the by... All in all, it’s one of the best films this country has ever produced, helped along by a mesmerising performance by the late Woodward and shocking in terms of its imagery and power of suggestion. In fact, I may just go and watch it this week.

In terms of film, my subscription to Lovefilm is coming along nicely. Recently I’ve watch Amelie, Notes on s Scandal, The Shipping News, Hot Fuzz and Milk. Waiting on my desk is Katyn, a film about the Soviet slaughter of Polish troops in the eastern part of the country in 1940. This act of mass murder was covered up once the Poles and Russians became ‘allies’ after 1941 and has only recently, through testimony, been fully explained and accounted for (although the Russians have not necessarily been gushing in their apologies).

Whilst we’re on the subject of genocide and mass murder, my Masters application for Holocaust Studies has finally been sent to the University of Manchester. It’s all feeling very real now. I went into the University over half term to discuss the practicalities of studying for the course part time whilst still remaining in a full time job. The prospects look good; over two years I can expect to be in university no more than three hours a week and the tiny number of students on the course (there are currently five) means that seminars are planned to times that suit everyone. My application was sent electronically the other day. Now I need to wait to see whether I have been successful before I can apply to the various Jewish organisations (kindly researched by HET) for funding. The university should also be able to help there too. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Question Time

Dear David,

I support you in the BBC's decision to accept Nick Griffin on to Question Time. Only in a public forum where sensible debate is held can we hope to destroy the hate-filled claims of the BNP.

I support neither Labour nor the Conservatives. Yet I know that both parties have a range of talented parliamentarians who, through the subtlety of their argument, will be able to rip into the BNP's message more effectively than the bottles thrown by the UAF hope to achieve.

(In this case, Baroness Warsi and Jack Straw are good choices - however I would like to see Bob Marshall Andrews because he'd turn Griffin into mincemeat!)

The BNP now have European seats. They need to be dealt with head on - on our terms (sensible debate), rather than theirs (violence and protests - doesn't this feed their propaganda machine?). My passionate hope it that Griffin and his party are made to look like a bunch of fools on Question Time. And I think they will be. Their arguments rest on suspicion and lies, and this is no substitute for what is right and good.

If we defeat them honestly with WORDS Griffin et al can no longer claim that they are the victim of a Liberal Conspiracy - rather, he will be a victim of the TRUTH! Surely the party will then lose its raison d’etre.

At present I do not believe that the Unite Against Fascism gets to the shaky heart of the BNP's message. Yes, protests are effective but to what extent do they challenge the party's policies? This should be very easy to do on television.

Mug the BNP of their right to free speech and we may have no reason to distrust them. Allow them to speak, and in the words of JS Mill, 'truth will prevail'.

'I may not agree with what you have to say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it'

Craig Owen
Writing in relation to a request made by ‘Hope not Hate’

PS - I really do hope you send this guys