Author Archives: Laurence Boyce

Opinion: Losing faith in the Lib Dems

There must be few things more insane that we do as a nation, than to segregate our children’s education along the lines of which one or other of the ancient and now defunct religious mythologies are subscribed to by their parents. Simply writing it out in full has me reaching for the revolver. And if ever you wanted to hear an argument against faith schooling in just two words, they would have to be “Northern Ireland” – and so right on cue, following Saturday’s debate at Harrogate, we were given a chilling reminder of the havoc wreaked by generations of religious apartheid in that province, with its thirteen miles of “peace walls” still dividing the warring communities of Belfast.

But evidently this is a state of affairs insufficiently insane for Liberal Democrats who rejected sensible proposals to phase out faith schooling in England, instead opting narrowly for Tim Farron’s hopeless compromise of requiring schools to prove their inclusiveness over a five year period, whatever that means. James Graham has written an excellent piece (with lively discussion) about everything that is wrong with Tim’s amendment, describing it as being, “little more than a state-commissioned fig leaf scheme.” Certainly its full subtleties were lost on the BBC, who declared simply that, “Lib Dems back state faith schools.” Needless to say, that is not the headline I was looking for.

Under the Farron scheme, while we avoid the unspeakable evils of selection by ability or aptitude, faith-based selection for existing schools would remain intact. Yet if any form of selection were to be permitted, this must surely rank as the most absurd. As if parents didn’t suffer enough angst over the prospective quality and location of their child’s school, they also have to contend with questions of theology which are as ludicrous as they are obstructive. Under present Lib Dem policy, there would be no end to the spectacle of pushy parents with an eye on the local faith school, attending church for the first time in their lives and pretending to worship God alongside the regular churchgoers who have just been pretending for a bit longer.

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Opinion: Fitna

What is the matter with Chris Huhne? On the great freedom-of-speech versus right-to-offend argument, he has always struck just about the right note – for instance, on Holocaust denial and the Danish Cartoons. But now his judgement appears to have deserted him when last week he backed the decision of the British government to exclude a Dutch politician for the unforgivable crime of saying something nasty about Islam. Coming on the twentieth anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the timing could hardly be worse.

There’s really nothing quite like a religious question to upend our political and moral intuitions and reduce any sort of reasoned argument to rubble. So it was that Chris declared Fitna to be “definitely inciting people to violence,” on the Today programme. Definitely inciting people to violence? It is true that the 17 minute film does contain endless incitements to violence. The trouble is that all the incitement is coming from the mouths of Muslim clerics. It is also true that these images are interleaved with some fairly offensive written statements. But they are mostly quotations from the Koran. Could it be that Chris got a bit confused?

Jo Swinson fared a little better on Any Questions by distancing herself from Chris and acknowledging that Fitna did not in her view incite violence. But then she drifted off into some fairly banal platitude. “Any text can be twisted,” she said. “If you want to pick and choose, you can actually create something horrific out of any text that you like.” Any text, Jo? I’d love to see a version of Fitna based on the Liberal Democrat constitution. You could juxtapose a statement about freeing people from poverty, ignorance and conformity, with some beard and sandals imagery maybe. Enough to incite anyone to violence, I’m sure you’d agree. Could it just be that some texts are in fact nastier than others?

It’s a common objection of course – that the offending quotations have been “taken out of context.” But what I’d like to know is precisely what context would make all the misogyny, homophobia, and violence contained in our various sacred texts acceptable? If we wish to read either the Bible or the Koran “in context,” then it might first help to understand who wrote them – to wit, primitive men who would be completely outshone in knowledge and understanding by a modern twelve-year-old with access to Wikipedia. No, the people who are truly taking the holy books out of context are called Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. who claim that these writings are the “word of God” – whether it be that they believe this literally or in some ambiguous manner.

I don’t think I much care for Geert Wilders. His political hero is Margaret Thatcher – that is rarely a good sign. His perfectly reasonable desire to move freely between nations is undermined to some extent by his own anti-immigration politics. He should know that you can’t defeat an ideology by erecting physical barriers and pulling up the drawbridge. Calling for the Koran to be banned is totally daft. It would be quite impossible, even assuming such a thing were desirable which it isn’t. But I do share one thing in common with Wilders, namely that I am not prepared to read the Koran and pretend that it means the exact opposite of what it says, for the sake of some political expediency.

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The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 10)

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which appeared on the blog during 2008. The third most popular opinion article was by our resident secularist Laurence Boyce, and appeared on LDV on 14th January…

Et tu, James?

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Opinion: God bless America

Last year, there was a slightly embarrassing moment in the race to become Republican nominee for the White House. In answer to the question “do you believe in evolution?”, at least three of the candidates indicated that they did not. Senator John McCain, it must be said, passed the test with flying colours. The question was in fact directed at him and, after a short pause to weigh up his options, he plumped for a straight “yes” – though he then rather spoiled things by saying, “I also believe when I hike the Grand Canyon and see a sunset that the hand of God is there also.” Doubtless with this addendum, he sought to retrieve a few of the votes he had so recklessly thrown away a moment before.

But just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water from which we first emerged over 300 million years ago, along comes the delightful Sarah Palin who appears to be some sort of creationist, or so it is being widely reported in the media. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise I suppose; polling regularly reveals over half of Americans to be creationists. But even so, the question has to be asked: how is it that views which are considered crazy amongst intelligent Europeans have come to seem almost normal in the context of American political discourse, particularly that of the right-wing?

I have a somewhat convoluted and highly speculative theory about all of this which borrows heavily from a very important book – perhaps even the most significant book published so far this century. But despite its relevance to political thought, I have yet to see it mentioned in any of the book lists that political types are often asked to draw up as essential reading matter. It wasn’t listed among the favourite books of Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg, nor indeed among those of our leading Lib Dem bloggers (here and here). The book in question is The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.

Pinker’s book concerns a question that is as old as the hills, and yet in many ways remains central to one’s entire outlook, be it political, philosophical, or moral. The question is: which is the greater determinant of human behaviour – nature or nurture? Yes, that old chestnut! Are we principally fashioned by our genetic inheritance, or are we instead shaped by the environment in which we find ourselves situated? Do we start out in life with a “blank slate” so to speak, or is the slate already covered with writing before we even begin?

The answer, of course, is that there is plenty to be said in support of both of these positions but, once the argument begins, it is astonishing how rapidly tempers flare. For some reason, this stuff is dynamite. Opposing viewpoints are often characterised as being on one extreme or the other. So people like Pinker are “genetic determinists” who believe that our genes control every aspect of our lives, and every decision we make; while Pinker’s opponents are the “out-and-out blank-slaters” who think that every child is born with equal potential, and how we turn out as adults is entirely due to social conditioning. In reality, virtually nobody holds these positions today.

But leaving these caricatures to one side, Pinker’s thesis is that we have, for far too long, erred towards the blank slate end of the philosophical spectrum. I have to say that in general I agree. While I have yet to meet the mythical out-and-out blank-slater, I would nevertheless like to suggest that we are genetically determined to a far greater extent than many people would appear to be comfortable with. The principal opponents of this viewpoint are some on the political left, and the Marxist or feminist academics with whom Pinker seems to have been battling for most of his adult life.

So why all the discomfort?

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Opinion: Magna culpa

The next person to mention in my presence: Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, or the “insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms,” is surely going to regret it. I have never been more heartily sick and tired of the whole “civil liberties” industry following last week’s events where, after an admittedly unwelcome measure was passed in the House of Commons, a Conservative frontbencher with whom we have virtually nothing in common went off on some vain flight of fancy, and it was somehow deemed inappropriate for Liberal Democrats to oppose him.

Starting from a position of puzzlement over the extent to which civil liberties seem to dominate political discourse, I have now come to see the whole charade as an excuse on the part of self-indulgent and out-of-touch politicians for not talking about the issues that really matter to the electorate. To the ordinary man and woman in the street, freedom is paramount – but it is a freedom which has nothing whatsoever to do with detention without charge, ID cards, CCTV, or any of the other oppressive instruments of the big-brother police state (which doesn’t exist by the way).

The sense in which many people find their freedoms curtailed on an everyday basis is that they are obliged to work long hours each day, maybe with a difficult or cynical employer. That higher food and fuel bills are starting to hurt their ability to hold body and soul together. That they increasingly find themselves facing impossible decisions balancing work, life, and family. What they are less concerned about, I would suggest, is the prospect of being arrested and imprisoned for 42 days without charge, especially if they have done nothing wrong. In fact if they saw a policeman on their patch at all, they might be pleasantly surprised.

But no, to a certain breed of dull-witted politician, Magna Carta is what it’s all about. The level of unthinking inertia is such that they forget – as they drone on about “hard-won freedoms” and “slippery slopes” – that today’s technological era hardly bears comparison with anything that happened in the previous century, never mind in another age altogether. And they don’t come much more unimaginative than the member for Haltemprice and Howden who has now embarked at considerable public expense upon a political stunt that, when the dust has settled, will prove precisely nothing.

Of all the lazy and incoherent things that have been said regarding the forthcoming contest, the most absurd is this notion that we may declare the by-election to be fought over the sole issue of 42 days detention without charge.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 135 Comments

Opinion: The great embryo debate

Now that the dust of Crewe and Nantwich has settled, it might be worth revisiting some of the parliamentary divisions of last week. The figures for the abortion debate have already been picked over a little, and a few eyebrows have been raised at the voting patterns of various Liberal Democrat MPs. However, while it is only natural that abortion should grab all the attention, there is not too much cause for concern in those figures. I am avowedly pro-choice, but there is necessarily something arbitrary about the cut-off point for abortion, otherwise it would not be measured in multiples of a fortnight for a start. It is greatly to be welcomed that the status quo was maintained, but equally a reduction to 22 weeks would not have heralded the end of women’s rights as we know it.

So it is the debates and divisions of Monday 19 May pertaining to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on which I now wish to focus the attention for a moment. Broadly speaking, the day’s events split into two parts: measures to do with hybrid embryo research (with three divisions), and then measures concerned with saviour siblings (with three divisions). So as not to cast the net too widely, let us concentrate only upon the first half of the debate and its subsequent divisions which it will be useful to characterise as follows (technically, MPs were voting against opposition amendments rather than in favour of these measures):

  • Vote A – to permit the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos
  • Vote B – to permit the creation of true hybrid embryos
  • Vote C – to permit the creation of genetically modified hybrid embryos

The debate
Many emotive and specious arguments were made in opposition to these new genetic techniques, and a surprising number of them were to be found in the speech delivered by Sir Gerald Kaufman. The most popular of the afternoon was the assertion that there is no guarantee that embryo research will produce any medical cures in the foreseeable future. Well, that’s true I suppose! In this regard, Sir Gerald compared scientists to Shakespeare’s King Lear when he exclaimed, “I will do such things – what they are yet, I know not.”

The analogy was meant unkindly, but is in fact a near perfect description of how the frontier of science progresses – an accidental discovery here, a chance meeting at a scientific conference there and, many blind alleys later, a delicate thread of knowledge and understanding emerges. It should go without saying that if we had the whole project mapped out now, then we would have all the answers now. What they are yet, we know not indeed; and may not yet know for some time to come.

Bill Cash doesn’t get any better either. His chief concern appeared to be that treatments arising out of embryo research might be subject to commercial exploitation and would therefore not be universally available to all regardless of need – bless his little conservative heart! Though why his argument could not equally well apply to all manner of human enterprise was not clear. Cash also rambled on a great deal about the “avowed eugenicists” in our midst, causing visible embarrassment on his own benches. In fact no fewer than three Conservatives intervened against him in a bid to limit the damage.

Young David Burrowes went on at tedious length about how alternatives such as umbilical cord blood were proving so much more effective at providing remedies than embryo research – forgetting maybe that it is the role of Parliament to provide a regulatory framework for the granting of research licences, not to adjudicate on the most promising lines of inquiry based upon a layman’s grasp of the subject. As with so many of his comrades, one could not help feeling that Burrowes’s argument drew far more inspiration from Christian theology than from hard scientific evidence.

The star of the show was our very own Evan Harris. Displaying a complete mastery of both the scientific and legal technicalities of the Bill, Harris swatted away interventions with consummate ease. In a wide-ranging speech, he dealt with the numerous canards raised during the course of the debate. In particular, he dismissed the idea that we should abandon embryo research due to a paucity of cures as, “the worst argument that I have heard from opponents of the research,” pointing out that embryonic stem-cell research is all of five years old in the UK, while adult stem-cell trials have been ongoing for at least fifty years worldwide.

The results
Well that’s just a rough survey of the debate, inevitably skating over many contributions. But how did the results turn out? All of the above measures were carried easily – in each case with a majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs in favour of the gentle path of human progress, whilst a majority of Conservative MPs voted in line with their bizarre theological objections which stood up to scrutiny not at all during the course of a three hour debate. So pats on the back all round, and three cheers for Evan! Well . . . not quite so fast. The unhappy truth is that a closer inspection of the voting figures leaves much to be desired from a Liberal Democrat point of view.

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An audience with Nick Clegg

“Good evening Mr Haw!” I said cheerily as I wandered past the assorted tents and placards still disfiguring the east side of Parliament Square; but the legendary peace campaigner studiously ignored my outstretched hand. I thought this just a touch rude, but reasoned afterwards that he must have taken me for a member of the ruling classes. An easy mistake to make – I was, after all, most finely tailored from head to toe for the latest in a series of blogger interviews, most kindly organised by the Millennium Elephant, this time with the leader of the Liberal Democrats himself, Nick Clegg! Here’s all I remember of the evening:

Jo Christie-Smith asked Nick about our much-heralded “narrative” and, on a related theme, Helen Duffett questioned Nick regarding our media profile, or rather lack of it. To reinforce the point, Helen produced a pair of “media goggles” with a red lens on one side, and blue on the other – the point being that the media tend to view politics in terms of a straight divide between Labour and Conservative, thus marginalising the Liberal Democrats. Nick acknowledged the problem and assured us that we have people on the case in Cowley Street, but I was heartened to learn that he is not obsessing over the media. Nick says he doesn’t even read the newspapers every day, and tends to think that their influence is on the wane.

Somewhere along the line, Nick and I got into a mild disagreement over David Cameron. I quite like Cameron, seeing the deeply reactionary forces on his backbenches as being more of the problem as far as the Conservatives are concerned. But Nick is not remotely impressed with Cameron, whom he regards as superficial and deeply conservative, notwithstanding some obvious movement towards a place of sanity which has taken place under his watch. I will naturally bow to Nick’s better judgement, but a brief survey of some voting figures from last week serve to highlight the point I was trying to make:

The evening before we saw Nick, David Howarth and Evan Harris were busy seeing off the oppressive, defunct, and frankly embarrassing crime of “blasphemy” in the House of Commons. The division was never in doubt; nevertheless 57 MPs voted in a desperate attempt to retain blasphemy legislation in the 21st century – virtually all of them Conservatives. So while both Cameron and Clegg were among the Ayes that evening, it would appear that at least a quarter of the Conservative parliamentary party are completely mad! In short, there is a rich seam to be mined here, if only Liberal Democrats could be persuaded to openly embrace a more radical secular agenda. But I digress!

Paul Walter wanted to know whether, what with Labour steadily losing confidence by the hour, there might be any scope for applying pressure on electoral reform for Westminster. Nick was adamant that he has no intention of flirting with Labour on this, or indeed any other issue. But Jo wanted to know why we are so bad at fighting PR elections (echoing a point made recently by Jonathan Calder). The sad truth is that proportional representation in Scotland, Wales, or London has not thus far led to a dramatic change in Liberal Democrats fortunes. The reasons may be various, but some aspects of the recent mayoral elections might give us pause for thought:

For example, Helen may want to get away from the red and blue “media goggles,” but how are we to prevent the media from asking the obvious (and entirely legitimate) question as to where one is intending to cast one’s second preference vote? Brian Paddick resisted this up to a point, but was unable to avoid letting out a few hints along the way, before eventually “declaring” for the Left List after the close of poll (the less said about that the better).

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Opinion: Ditch PR in favour of weighted votes

One Liberal Democrat policy area I can never get out of bed for is proportional representation. Don’t get me wrong; there is so much at fault with our present constitution – starting with the simple observation that we don’t really have one as such, through the farcical arrangements pertaining in the Commons and the Lords, and never forgetting the fact that, bizarrely, we still appear to be subjects of a Monarch ordained of God, named Betty Windsor.

However, though our democracy may be somewhat imperfect, it remains a democracy nonetheless; and the notion that we are labouring under some colossal electoral …

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Opinion: Et tu, James?

Recently, James Graham has called me a bigot on Lib Dem Voice. (gasp!) As James is a blogger whom I admire and respect – blogger of the year no less – I have been stung into writing a riposte to this scurrilous charge. It was in the context of yet another debate on religion and the problem of Islam, that James essentially accused me of tarring all religious believers with the same brush. According to the big man, “religions are ultimately what you make of them.” When pressed as to whether Marxism, say, is also ultimately what you make of it, James replied, “I would have thought that is self-evident.” Excuse me?

Let us get one thing straight: Marxism is not simply what you might choose to make of it. While the task of nailing down the principles of Marxism might not be entirely trivial, we can nevertheless be clear in the main about what Marxism does and does not entail. For instance, it is surely uncontroversial to assert that Marxism comprises a belief in the common ownership of property and the means of production (a terrible idea by the way). Now I suppose there is nothing to stop somebody from saying, “I’m a Marxist, though I don’t believe in the common ownership of property and the means of production.” But on the whole, I prefer the simpler, “I’m not a Marxist.” It’s brief and to the point, and has the compelling advantage of not stretching the meaning of words beyond the bounds of reason.

Likewise, we can be clear about what religious belief entails, and what its consequences might be. And yet whenever I assert that the claims of religion are false, I know that I am bound to be met with the stunning insight that there is no homogenous object called “religion,” that religion comprises many different strands and styles of belief (no shit Sherlock!), and that I am therefore making a sweeping, and indeed bigoted, generalisation. I am not. Having been raised a Catholic, and having observed religion in its many forms, I think I know roughly what the deal is, and it is this: That there exists a supernatural deity who exerts a causal influence upon the natural world though scripture, prophets, prayer, and miracles. He wishes us to praise him, obey him, and love him unceasingly. Essentially, this life is a test. If we get it right, then he will reward us in Heaven. Otherwise… you know what to expect.

This, I submit, is a reasonable definition of monotheistic religion which pretty much covers the faiths that are causing all the trouble at the present moment. Too broad a definition to be useful maybe? Not at all. Already we see some disturbing elements: Why, for instance, does God require constant praise and worship, more reminiscent of Stalin than of a “loving father”? Then there is the obvious scope for abuse when one is claiming to be in possession of a divine and unalterable revelation. Finally, there is the belief in an afterlife – the killer doctrine that, whichever way you cut it, has the effect of utterly diminishing the value of life on earth. And yet for some reason we continue to allow these simple tenets of faith, now largely debunked by science and philosophy, to impose their terrible burden upon humanity.

Why is it so hard for us to speak plainly about the absurdity of religious belief? Why is Nick Clegg already brown-nosing faith groups when he is barely out of the traps? Why is it quite beyond any of our politicians to draw a connection between belief in the “afterlife” and the practice of suicide bombing? Why, when the terrorists are patiently articulating their theology on homemade videos, do we search desperately for the “root causes” in order to exonerate the role of faith? Why are we constantly being assured that “Islam is a religion of peace,” when a cursory inspection of the Koran tells a completely different story? Why do we stay silent when millions of women worldwide suffer under the yoke of clerical oppression? Why are we still fiddling while the Middle East burns?

Posted in Op-eds | 170 Comments

Opinion: Genetic advantage

Following on from my previous article having a go at Nick Clegg over DNA databases, it is now time to turn to Christopher Huhne and some disappointing remarks concerning GM crops. He says, “Ministers should not give any go-ahead for commercial planting until they can state confidently that GM varieties would not contaminate non-GM foods and that they are safe.” Oh dear. You would have thought that after several years’ worth of GM food trials yielding precious little by way of cause for concern, the onus might at last be upon the …

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Opinion: It’s in our DNA

Some days it’s great to be a Liberal Democrat. Tuesday, October 30 was just such a day – the day when one person alone was conspicuous by his absence from a state banquet hosted in the sumptuous surroundings of the Buckingham Palace ballroom. Yes, the only politician to take such a principled stand, eschewed the fillet of sole with salmon mousse, noisettes of venison with stuffed tomatoes and braised lettuce, and raspberry shortbread tartlet, all washed down with Puligny-Montrachet, Pichon Lalande, and Bollinger Grande Année 1996 – such was the determination of our …

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Opinion: God help us

“In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal … inspiration best comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ … the example of his life, the purpose of his death and the hope that comes from his resurrection brings that special dimension to leadership and to life itself.” Isn’t it reassuring to know that the commander in chief of the British Army is more than just a few of rounds short of a full ammunition belt?

For those were the reported comments of General Sir Richard Dannatt, who managed to take time off from fighting two wars, in order to address a recent conference for evangelical Christians in Swanwick, Derbyshire. To my ears, it would have been scarcely less bizarre had he been extolling the virtues of the goddess Aphrodite, discussing his private conversations with Elvis, or perhaps suggesting that every soldier be equipped with a voodoo doll of Osama bin Laden as a key weapon in the war against terror. And yet, with one notable exception, the General’s remarks produced barely a murmur in the press; while our politicians, fearful as ever of losing the God vote, maintained a strict radio silence – such is the absurd degree of respect we routinely afford those who would order their lives (and indeed everyone else’s given half a chance) around the delusions of one or other of the ancient mythologies.

But what makes this latest public display of deranged thinking at once astonishing and deeply disturbing, is Sir Richard’s explicit invocation of a metaphysics of life after death. Failing to explain to our brave soldiers that this life is but a trivial prelude to the eternal life to come, would in his words amount to a “betrayal.” Has he forgotten so soon the apocalyptic events (if you pardon the expression) which brought on our disastrous misadventures in the Middle East? When the 9/11 hijackers ploughed into the World Trade Center in 2001, they did so with a huge grin on their faces. For they believed with chilling certainty that they were merely seconds away from entering a paradise flowing with milk and honey, scented wine and delicious fruits, and never forgetting of course the seventy-two dark-eyed rechargeable virgins (or whatever it is that devout Muslims actually believe). So it was that 16 acres of Lower Manhattan were duly demolished in the name of the “religion of peace.”

Yet now we learn that Sir Richard himself holds beliefs which, though arising from Christian culture, are qualitatively no different to those held by the 19 gentlemen who managed six years ago to upend our world in such spectacular fashion. So, whilst it seems most unlikely that the General will soon be perpetrating a terrorist atrocity of his own, do we really think that he is a fit person to be commanding the British Army?

Posted in Op-eds | 189 Comments

Opinion: An inappropriate truth

Notwithstanding the somewhat tenuous connection between peace and the weather, I was more than happy to see Al Gore scoop this year’s Nobel prize for his tireless efforts to raise awareness of the threat posed by global warming to the future of life on Earth. But, in my view, his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth is totally unsuitable for viewing in schools, and it puzzles me that anyone ever thought otherwise. It’s got nothing to do with last week’s court ruling. While it is certainly unfortunate if the film contains “nine scientific errors,” they are unlikely to register strongly in the minds of children. Most people, while accepting the judge’s clarifications, will see them as essentially nit-picking. No, the problem with An Inconvenient Truth in the context of schooling, is that it is so clearly and overtly political in character.

The first of many side-swipes at the Bush administration comes seven minutes into the film. Then, after about half an hour, we are treated to a reprise of the farcical 2000 presidential election. We see Gore making his final concession speech – “While I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision, I accept it.” The clear implication is that he was robbed. Further on, we see clips of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, indulging in a spot of climate change denial. Republican Senator James Inhofe suggests that the threat of global warming might be, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” These guys are the baddies, make no mistake about it. The Philip Cooney affair – where scientific research papers were doctored by a White House official connected to the oil industry – is covered in some detail, again placing the administration in a very poor light.

Posted in Op-eds | 24 Comments

Opinion: The nasty party

Last week’s unveiling of a nine foot bronze statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square was a nice way to round off the British summer (such as it was) – a happy occasion to unite black and white, left and right, in honour of the man who emerged with the utmost humility after 27 years imprisonment, to lead South Africa out of the shocking injustice that was the Apartheid era.

Fulsome tributes were paid by Lord Attenborough, Wendy Woods, and the Mayor of London. “The most inspiring and greatest leader of our generation,” said the Prime Minister, “and one of the most courageous and best-loved men of all time.” And everyone cheered and clapped their hands raw. Well, everyone except for Donal Blaney.

In a tired and predictable throwback to Conservative attitudes of the 1980s, Blaney decided that this was a fitting moment to remind us all of a darker side to Mandela. “One must not forget,” he intoned, “that he raised funds for the ANC’s armed wing, arranged paramilitary training, and led an armed struggle against Apartheid. He was no Gandhi.”

This sudden conversion to pacifism will undoubtedly come as a shock to many who are more familiar with Blaney as the last man in Britain who still thinks that the Iraq invasion was a good idea. In a reference to the practice of “necklacing”, a gruesome method of retribution which tragically spread through the townships during the late ’80s, Blaney proposed that, “instead of laying a garland at the feet of Mr Mandela’s statue or about his neck, maybe someone should be placing a rubber tire there instead.” A bit politically incorrect is young Donal – not to mention cynical, ungracious, and crass.

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Opinion: Taking Liberties

Try as hard as I might, I can never manage to get myself worked up over the whole civil liberties agenda. So, following Sir Ming’s recommendation, I took myself off to a viewing of Taking Liberties at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse.

Naturally I approached the cinema with great caution, checking that no-one was on my tail, and paid cash to ensure that I could not be traced in any way. What I settled down to watch turned out to comprise two quite distinct narratives rolled into one – an indictment of our disastrous misadventures in the Middle East, mixed into a bubbling cauldron of pure libertarian paranoia.

Posted in News and Op-eds | Tagged | 87 Comments

Opinion: Cardinal error

The exquisite arrogance and ignorance of our religious leaders was once again on full display last week in the form of His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, Keith O’Brien.

In a deeply political intervention, which Lynne Featherstone described succinctly as “diabolical,” the Cardinal made an outspoken attack on what he termed the “evil trade” and “unspeakable crime” of abortion. “In Scotland we kill the equivalent of a classroom full of school children every day,” he said, later likening this to “two Dunblane massacres a day.”

The Cardinal is no stranger to political controversy incidentally. Six …

Posted in News and Op-eds | 69 Comments

Opinion: It’s only a boat

A tragedy of epic proportions has been unfolding before our eyes. A national treasure has been lost – a glorious piece of our maritime history – the ““Concorde of the waves” no less. A majestic ship, which for years ruled the South China Sea, as she conveyed to the nation that most essential of commodities – a nice cup of tea. But at the risk of becoming the most reviled person in the country, I have to say that I was not in the least bit upset to learn on Monday morning that the Cutty Sark had been burnt to a cinder.

Ironically, the old vessel was undergoing a “restoration” effort worth some £25 million, which seems like rather a lot of money to spend on a ship which was last sold for a mere £3,750 in 1922. Of the £25 million, £13 million came from the Heritage Lottery Fund or HLF. Since 1994, the HLF has awarded over £3.6 billion to more than 22,500 projects across Britain. Well I suppose that nobody is forcing anyone to buy a lottery ticket, but even so I thought it might be worth checking out a few items of expenditure.

Transport projects in general are well favoured by the HLF. More than £58 million has been awarded for over 70 old boats of various descriptions, including the Cutty Sark. More millions have gone on a variety of trams, trolley buses, and trains. But when I say trains, I mean more Thomas the Tank Engine rather than anything which is likely to convey you to a useful destination. Historic buildings have also been well endowed. For instance, £447,500 was awarded to conserve the Harrogate Turkish Baths – the perfect setting to unwind after a tense day at conference, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Posted in Op-eds | 3 Comments

Opinion: Ming must go

Menzies CampbellThere is a well known political maxim (or at least there ought to be) which states that, “the party faithful are the last people who should be consulted upon their choice of leader” – the point being that it is to crucial swing voters that the leader must appeal, not to committed party members. Of course the membership may attempt this calculation themselves, but the result often comes out a little skewed. So it was that the Conservatives made a whole series of amusing blunders and misjudgements regarding the leadership, largely on account of an internal obsession over Europe, before finally settling on the undeniable charms of the boy Cameron.

And so it was that Sir Menzies Campbell was duly elected last year, polling an initial 45% of the vote on a turnout of 72% (a worryingly low figure incidentally which suggests to me that at least a quarter of the membership might be dead). What followed has been a frankly embarrassing succession of glib and hollow performances, wholly lacking in flair, imagination, or lightness of touch. The unvarying sombre and humourless intonation, perfectly suited no doubt to his former role of commenting upon unfolding catastrophe in the Middle East, now simply fails to inspire. In short, he has become an electoral liability.

Without doubt, the biggest single disappointment has been at Prime Minister’s Questions. Ever since he rose in January 2006 to enquire why one in five schools are without a permanent head teacher, Sir Ming’s performances have been irredeemably lame. He should silence the house when he rises to speak; instead the members typically groan and snigger, and not without reason. While Cameron hits the target on a regular basis, Ming routinely causes the Prime Minister no difficulty whatsoever. Even John Prescott is a more effective performer in his own inimitable way.

Take last week’s effort, on the day before the elections. “The President made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques, and the Tories voted it through.” Was that supposed to be the killer blow intended to deliver the goods last Thursday? Leaving to one side the questionable relevance of Iraq to a nation with rubbish collection uppermost on its mind, the delivery was weak and unconvincing, and it wasn’t even framed as a question – just a regurgitated line from the Harrogate conference speech. Blair swatted him away easily as he does every time.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 50 Comments

Opinion: First they came for the Nazis 

“The death knell of freedom of speech in this fair country . . . goodbye freedom of expression, hello thought-crime . . . a small hop, skip and a gulag away from an authoritarian state.” Just a few of the whirling absurdities uttered in response to the latest EU draft proposal on combating racism and xenophobia, in what was a wonderful week for libertarian paranoia on the Blogosphere. 

And there was plenty more. “The phrase ‘first they came’ springs to mind,” said a normally sensible Iain Dale. Well it might indeed spring to mind, but just how relevant …

Posted in News | Tagged | 8 Comments

Book review: The Great City Academy Fraud

Book coverA dismal tale of betrayal and failure in our education system has been penned by Francis Beckett in recent times. In The Great City Academy Fraud, Beckett exposes the con which lies at the heart of what is nothing more than the Conservative’s old City Technology Colleges scheme, rehashed and reheated by New Labour. The present facts are these: that that a sponsor willing to put up £2 million may effectively control and run a City Academy, towards which the taxpayer will have paid a vastly greater sum, not to mention running costs and salaries in perpetuity.

In fact Beckett shows that even the £2 million is not all that it appears, frequently comprising “payment in kind” – pretend money in the form of consultancy services and the like – as the government has been forced to water down its funding requirements in a desperate bid to attract new sponsors. And yet for the sake of this moth-eaten contribution from the private sector, unenthusiastic parents and local authorities are encumbered with a school which need form no part of a local education strategy, and which is entirely exempt from the body of education law built up since 1944.

While Academies were supposed to replace failing schools, Beckett reports how they have all too often disrupted the life of well loved schools against local wishes, with the aid of bullying tactics which emanate straight from the top. Of course parents may object to a proposed Academy, and sometimes they even get their way, but they are then made to feel as though they have deprived their patch of millions in education investment, which in a sense they have. The deal is that they can either have the school which the government and sponsor wish to impose on them, or they can go to hell.

Posted in Op-eds | 8 Comments

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