Category Archives: Comment is Free

The Archimedes principle

Compare and contrast:

1. Wart meets Archimedes (The Sword in the Stone):

Merlyn took off his pointed hat when he came into this chamber, because it was too high for the roof, and immediately there was a scamper in one of the dark corners and a flap of soft wings, and a tawny owl sitting on the black skull—cap which protected the top of his head.

‘Oh, what a lovely owl!’ cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so that there was only the smallest slit to peep through – as you are in the habit of doing when told to shut your eyes at hide—and—seek – and said in a doubtful voice:

‘There is no owl.’

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

‘It is only a boy,’ said Merlyn.

‘There is no boy,’ said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

2. Rafael Behr (a.k.a. “Contributor Namy”) in today’s Guardian:

The heckles in the House of Commons can be as revealing as the speeches. When the prime minister was taking questions about her Brexit plans on Monday, Anna Soubry, Conservative MP for Broxtowe, asked about the no-deal scenario – whether the UK would “jump off the cliff”. At which point a male voice, dripping with derision, chimed in: “There is no cliff!”

Behr’s article is worth the trip, for illuminating us on the desiderata of the Tory head-bangers:

Interrogate the Brexit no-dealers on detail and they concede that their plan hinges on a doctrine of pain for gain. They advocate the abandonment of tariffs, inviting the world’s exporters to flood Britain with their wares. Thus would a beacon of free trade be lit on Albion’s shores, inspiring others to repent of their protectionist tendencies. This might bring cheap produce to supermarket shelves (consumer gain) but sabotage UK farmers, who would be undercut by an influx of American and Antipodean meat (producer pain).

Manufacturers would suffer too, but that is an intended consequence of opening the doors to invigorating winds of competition. The whole point is to sweep away inefficiency and blow down zombie businesses while fanning the flames of innovation. In this model, the UK economy is a vast pre-Thatcher coalfield that refuses to accept its obsolescence and must be made to confront it by force. If the timid will not jump into the future, they must be pushed.

Sadly that would take down the Irish economy with that of the UK. In the small matter of €1.3 billion of Irish exports to the UK each month, a fair chunk is essential chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

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Filed under Comment is Free, Conservative Party policy., EU referendum, Europe, fiction, films, Guardian, politics, Tories.

Hillary and Trump beneath the Upas tree

The prolificly-mischievous George Steevens perpetrated one of his literary hoaxes, allegedly translated from the diary of a Dr Foersch, a (fictitious) Dutch surgeon, in Java. He invented  the upas-tree:

Erasmus Darwin, physician and scholar, a figure of some standing in botanical science and the author of several botanical works including The Loves of the Plants (1789), was another of Steevens’s victims. The London Magazine for December 1783 (pp. 511–17) carried Steevens’s description of the upas tree of Java which could kill all life within a distance of 15 to 18 miles, his source being an entirely fictitious Dutch traveller. Darwin was taken in and admitted the upas tree into his Loves of the Plants, from which Coleridge derived information…

That from the Dictionary of National Biography.

Once invented, the upas-tree had a life of its own, and became a metaphor for deadly power and influence. Southey had it, perhaps as the first, as the punch-line of Thalaba the Destroyer:

Enough the Island crimes had cried to Heaven,
The measure of their guilt was full,
The hour of wrath was come.
The poison burst the bowl,
It fell upon the earth.
The Sorceress shrieked and caught Mohareb’s robe
And called the whirlwind and away!
For lo! from that accursed venom springs,
The Upas Tree of Death.

Byron reckoned that Thalaba the Destroyer was one of Southey’sunsaleables, but that didn’t get in the way of borrowing the Southey reference in Childe Harold, Canto the Fourth (verse CXXVI):

Our life is a false nature — ’tis not in
The harmony of things, — this hard decree,
This uneradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew —
Disease, death, bondage, all the woes we see —
And worse, the woes we see not — which throb through
The immedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new.

Our modern Upas

… is the toxic media.

  • We have it in the tabloid press (the British version might seem uniquely venomous, but — sadly — not).
  • We have in the shrill populist excess that is Fox News.
  • We have it, in excelsis, in the vowel evacuations of the shock-jocks.
  • Above all, it is the proliferation of web-sites and social media even further beyond the pale than Breitbart.

In this dispensation, anything short of vitriol is soft-soap.

How many times in recent weeks have we encountered hand-wringing despair such as this from Paul Waugh:

No one is pretending that either Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are perfect or all-wise, far from it. As the two candidates with the most negative poll ratings in history, the voters seem to be choosing which is their least worst option, via the least worst form of government. Here’s just one example: Trump’s repeated lies are well documented (a Newsweek reporter last night tweeted 100 of his worst ones, from business to politics to even fibbing about his golf score). And yet he polls ahead of Clinton for honesty. For many voters, their loathing of Hillary outweighs their distaste for Trump.

Today’s edition of The Guardian was a fine effort, with several articles of enduring worth. For now, I’ll stick with the First Leader:

… the only alternative to Mrs Clinton is Donald Trump. It needs to be said again, at this fateful moment, that Mr Trump is not a fit and proper person for the presidency. He is an irascible egomaniac. He is uninterested in the world. He has fought a campaign of abuse and nastiness, riddled with racism and misogyny. He offers slogans, not a programme. He propagates lies, ignorance and prejudice. He brings no sensibility to the contest except boundless self-admiration. He panders to everything that is worst in human nature and spurns all that is best.

Fear and Loathing revisited

Beyond the valid charges made by The Guardian, Trump is a prime example of a media creation, a thing spawned by his own monomania. Hillary Clinton is a lawyer and a politician.

And therein lies the difference.

Clinton still works within accepted patterns, professional disciplines, of behaviour. When use of a private email is a crime, we are all guilty. Every one — especially a successful, practising political operator — has their “private channels”.

Trump, though, is a fraud, a bully, a liar.

He is poison.

But he survives this far by anti-toxin imbibed from long sojourn under the Breitbart/Fox upas tree.

So I am reminded of the fable Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin generated from the upas tree:

Deep in the desert’s misery,
far in the fury of the sand,
there stands the awesome Upas Tree
lone watchman of a lifeless land.

The wilderness, a world of thirst,
in wrath engendered it and filled
its every root, every accursed
grey leafstalk with a sap that killed.

The king sends a slave to collect the poison:

He brought the deadly gum; with it
he brought some leaves, a withered bough,
while rivulets of icy sweat
ran slowly down his livid brow.

And, mission accomplished, the slave expires.

The king now uses the poison:

The king, he soaked his arrows true
in poison, and beyond the plains
dispatched those messengers and slew
his neighbors in their own domains.

If Trump beats the odds, he too is capable of such savagery.

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Musings on Cecils (both deceased)

The lottery of life

The lion is lost and gone for ever.

RhodesUnprompted, I assume he was named in honour of the equally-late Cecil John Rhodes.

A long while ago I did prompt myself to hunt down the original of:

I think it was X who said that to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life.

Inevitably, in different variants “X” is Winston Churchill (the usual mouth of last resort) or Rudyard Kipling. Go to a dictionary of quotations and the version that often appears names Cecil Rhodes, usually addressing “a young friend”.

Clearly, from the infrequency of early occurrences, the expression only became a clichéd commonplace quite recently, and — sure enough — the earliest version I could locate was  quite commonly aforesaid Cecil Rhodes. After poking around I became convinced the source for all this was page 64 of Peter Ustinov’s 1977 memoir, Dear Me. There Rhodes (indeed, it is he) is responding to a nervous young officer, about to go off and Assistant-Divisional-Superintend a benighted corner of the British Empire (also deceased).

There was old Dunne …

… young Dunne,
And young Dunne’s youngest son.
Young Dunne will be a Dunne
When old Dunne is done.

My mother could rattle that off on many a barely-reliant occasion. The only “explanation” I’ve found for that appears as always good for kids (or drunk college crowds) if you do the hand gestures to go with the chorusThe best I can do is to adapt John Donne to the sad death of Cecil-the-younger:

Every lion’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind

Before I move on, allow me to acknowledge the many truths that Simon Jenkins included in his essay, yesterday, for The Guardian, not least:

I am appalled at the idea of killing any animals for pleasure. But animals get killed. I eat meat sometimes, and my garden is afflicted with vermin I would readily slaughter. But in Botswana I was mostly left wondering what would Britain’s reaction be if hundreds of well-heeled Africans arrived to abuse us for not protecting “the world’s” red squirrels and songbirds. We would think it most rude.

That piece opens with a nice inversion:

A dentist from Wisconsin goes hunting in Zimbabwe and bags its most famous lion, Cecil. In response, Cecil’s friends have gone hunting in Minnesota in the hope of bagging its most infamous dentist, Walter Palmer. Welcome to the world of charismatic mega-species, their predators and protectors. One thing only is for sure, the predators are winning.

Jenkins’s “solution”, so called sustainable ranching, is a sensible approach — but I’m sure I came across that one years ago in The Economist. Just because it may not be an original concept, doesn’t render it less sensible, of course.

Selective breeding

Perhaps we should take Sir Simon’s prescription a stage further?

Evolving a big cat, whose skin came pre-fitted with Velcro or zippers — like a sofa, would make it possible for the creature to lend its outer cover yet allow more to engage in the earthly delights:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

Odd that the “dig” at Elinor Glyn (née Sutherland) has prevailed longer than any of her original torrid-verging-on-the-tepid writings. Anyone with an idle few seconds can sample her wares, for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg, and what prompted that little ditty. Try Chapter 11 of Three Weeks:

The next day was Sunday, and even through the silk blinds they could hear the rain drip in monotonous fashion. Of what use to wake? Sleep is blissful and calm when the loved one is near.

Thus it was late when Paul at last opened his eyes. He found himself alone, and heard his lady’s voice singing softly from the sitting-room beyond, and through the open door he could perceive her stretched on the tiger, already dressed, reclining among the silk pillows, her guitar held in her hands.

“Hasten, hasten, lazy one. Thy breakfast awaits thee,” she called, and Paul bounded up without further delay…

The light of all the love in the world seemed to flood the lady’s face. She bent over and kissed him, and smoothed his cheek with her velvet cheek, she moved so that his curly lashes might touch her bare neck, and at last she slipped from under him, and laid his head gently down upon the pillows.

Then a madness of tender caressing seized her. She purred as a tiger might have done, while she undulated like a snake. She touched him with her finger-tips, she kissed his throat, his wrists, the palms of his hands, his eyelids, his hair. Strange, subtle kisses, unlike the kisses of women. And often, between her purrings, she murmured love-words in some strange fierce language of her own, brushing his ears and his eyes with her lips the while.

Might Cecil have such an after-life? Anyway, sic transit Gloria Monday, Elinor Glyn and Glenda Slagg.

And, of course, a genetically-adapted sesquipedalian (“foot-and-a-half”) pachyderm would solve the problem of just the four umbrella-stands to the standard elephant.

Umbrella stand

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Filed under Comment is Free, Economist, Guardian, reading, Simon Jenkins

Three times pays for all

Wasn’t that a Gandalf utterance? It’s so long since Malcolm offered The Hobbit to Year Seven pupils, he’s forgotten. In passing he insists he had to have a bad dose of ‘flu, and skip pages to get through The Lord of the Rings. Still let’s pass on …

Today’s gem belongs to Hugh Muir, officer commanding the Guardian diary column:

Finally, a day of tributes for Sir Alex Ferguson who will stand down as Man Utd manager at the end of the season. And what an upbeat day they had in the redder part of Liverpool. “First Thatcher dies, then Ferguson retires,” a wag noted, much retweeted. “Somewhere there is a Scouser with a lamp – and one wish left.”

Use it well, my friend.

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The rule of Humbuggery

I had no idea of the enormous and unquestionably helpful part that humbug plays in the social life of great peoples dwelling in a state of democratic freedom.

That’s yer eck-shul Churchill, that is. De reel fing. Pukka!

And the greatest exponent of Humbuggery is, as always, the All-powerful State.

A Malcolmian aside

Here’s one worth the asking: when did the United Kingdom abolish feudalism?

Well, not even yet. There are bods wandering the world, still puffing out chests and conning the natives they are of some importance, because they are allowed to flourish a baronial title.

But, on another level, after 9th June 2000, with the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act. As Clause 1 of the Act has it:

The feudal system of land tenure, that is to say the entire system whereby land is held by a vassal on perpetual tenure from a superior is, on the appointed day, abolished. 

Humbug 101

Here’s a simple example, to become  a British citizen one must demonstrate capabilities in English, for example:

take and pass an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course in English with citizenship to demonstrate your knowledge of language and life in the UK, before you apply for naturalisation as a British citizen.

Mr Spock would furrow his Vulcan brow and mutter, “Illogical, Captain”. Surely that should be the qualification for English citizenship. For British citizenship it ought to be a degree of fluency in Welsh (or at a pinch Cornish). For Scottish citizenship, the Guid Scots Tongue or Gàidhlig. And then there’s Ian Adamson and his Ullans.

Advanced study

Once upon  a time we had a Freedom of Information Act. The laudable aim was the citizen should have a right to know what the public authorities, operating in her/his name, knew and were up to.

Officialdom and bureaucracy loathed it.

So Humbuggery set about by-passing it by any means, fair or foul.

An obvious means was to classify anything that wasn’t screwed down as “commercial confidentiality”. This could vary from government Department to Department, largely depending on whether or not the responsible Minister wanted to keep a job. That one was traipsed out, recently and notoriously, in the cover-up over the West Coast Main Line:

The independent report into the fiasco of the franchise for the West Coast Main Line, which runs through the West Midlands, was altered by the Department for Transport (DfT) before it was published, MPs were told.

There had been “redactions” by the department to “remove the identities” of certain civil servants involved in the flawed franchise bidding process, said businessman Sam Laidlaw, the author of the report…

Mr Laidlaw told the committee he presented his report to the DfT on November 28, the department published it on December 6, and there had been redactions to his report made by the department which were “a matter for the department”.

Asked about the changes made, Mr Laidlaw said they were done “to protect the commercial confidentiality of bidders” and “to remove the identity of certain individuals”.

“Redactions”

Now there‘s an interesting term.

As far as Malcolm can recall it is a respectable academic expression meaning no more, no less than “editing”, particularly in the sense of cleaning up meaning and expression for a final published version. As the OED has it:

1.
a. The action of bringing or putting into a definite form; (now) spec. the working or drafting of source material into a distinct, esp. written, form. Usu. with into, (occas.) to.
b. The action or process of revising or editing text, esp. in preparation for publication; (also) an act of editorial revision.
c. A new version of a text; a new edition; spec. an abridged version.
2. The action of driving back; resistance, reaction. Obs. rare.

redactThat, of course, is the Oxford English Dictionary: the term “redaction” implies assisting the reader’s comprehension. In British officialese, of course, the term means precisely the opposite.

At least in Tristram Shandy ,the blank pages and other devices convey some meaning. Compare and contrast the BBC’s Pollard Report (as right). For a prime example of Humbuggery consider this from the first paragraph [1] of that BBC document:

The BBC sought advice from external counsel to identify text that should be redacted in accordance with the legal grounds for redaction. The proposed redactions were considered by members of the Executive Board before being reviewed and approved by a sub-committee of the BBC Trust to ensure the Trust was satisfied that these were in line with the expectations of transparency previously set out. Then, individuals who participated in the Review were provided with an opportunity to read the material in redacted form and make representations concerning the redactions that had been applied. Those representations were then considered, with advice again taken from external counsel, before a final package of proposed redactions was reviewed by members of the Executive Board and approved by the same sub-committee of the BBC Trust.

At a quick check, that’s six separate layers of bureaucratic scrutiny and Humbuggery, before anything could be made public.

Secret courts bill

No, let’s no go there — yet.

Let’s start instead in 1166, at the Assize of Clarendon. Whether or not Goveian history embraces this seminal event, it certainly featured in Malcolm’s schooling. [On the TCD History course, it reappeared, courtesy of Stubbs’s Charters.] The significance was that it, in effect, “nationalised” the law of the land; and it led to trial on evidence, before juries, rather than the mumbo-jumbo of trials by ordeal or battle. It was, of course, something of a power-grab — not just taking authority from the baronial courts, but also from the Church’s “kingdom within a kingdom”. King Henry II was destroying an existing arrangement; but also reaching back for an older one: the juries of the Saxon tunmoots.

The Assize of Clarendon was the first of many small advances to creating the Rule of Law that we have known and loved.

The processes of recent years — getting rid of the flummeries of Latin expression and the like, but, above all, the idea of human rights — have made the law more accessible. In a world ruled by Humbuggery all that has to be put into reverse.

Yesterday the Commons retreated on so much of historical procedures. In four votes, LibDem MPs — in grotesque rejection of anything that could be “liberal” or “democratic” — were whipped to support the Tory Humbuggers. Outside Westminster the average LibDem activists must be weeping into their skinny lattes:

Its’s not been the easiest 24 hours to be a Liberal Democrat. It was very hard to watch the majority of our MPs vote to remove the right to a fair trial in civil cases where national security is deemed to be a factor.  Just seven MPs voted in favour of amendments advised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The fact that the JCHR had a different view from the Government should surely have raised a huge red flag. An even bigger signal that our MPs were on the wrong course was the fact that Labour were voting in favour of the JCHR amendments. The Bill as it stood was too illiberal for the Party who thought it was ok to lock people up for 3 months without charge.

I spent a bit of yesterday talking to some MPs. I appreciated the time they spent discussing with me but despaired at the way they had swallowed some of the lines they had been given on the Bill. I was asked what my response would be to the “we’re paying money to terrorists and can’t prove our innocence” line. Well, my instinctive counter to that was to say:

If I’m suing you cos you tortured me and you put up a defence that I can’t see, how am I supposed to let the Judge know that you are talking hogwash?

I have been told today that a Very Clever Person thinks that’s a good summary of what this Bill means, and why the shredder is the only place for it. There is no amendment that can make it acceptable.

Thank you for that, Caron Lindsay at LibDemVoice: it’s warming to know your party had a shred of decency left. As she goes on:

At one point, our Dr Julian Huppert asked a very important question of Ken Clarke  about whether the Bill covered civil habeas corpus – whether people could be locked up without being told the reason why. Clarke didn’t  know and he laughed about the fact that he had to get it checked out.

We really have reached the pits. The shivering spine recalls it was Hendrik Verwoerd, the primary architect of apartheid, who responded to British government criticism by saying he would give up his restrictive legislation in exchange for the British tolerated Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. That Act was designed to give maximum, even unbridled power to the Ulster Unionist ascendancy. It permitted closing pubs and clubs at a whim, banning meetings and gatherings, closing roads, occupying premises, destroying any building without any sure compensation, enforcing oaths of allegiance (the Lady in Malcolm’s Life had to take one), prohibiting inquests, outlawing “false reports or make false statements by word of mouth or in writing, or in any newspaper, periodical, book, circular, or other printed publication” (the judge of such “falseness” being the persons complained about). All to be enforced by ” if a male, to be once privately whipped”. If all that wasn’t enough,

any act if done without lawful authority or without lawful authority or excuse is an offence against the regulations, the burden of proving that the act was done with lawful authority or with lawful authority or excuse shall rest on the person alleged to be guilty of the offence.

Humbuggery hasn’t gone that far, yet …

Except this new bill allows any — any — trial which could cause political embarrassment to be held behind closed doors, unreported, with all involved (except the arraigned) declared Persil-clean and hoovered by the security services.

As the Guardian editorial has it:

The justice and security bill was cooked up in rage and embarrassment after a run of cases revealed, or threatened to reveal, UK collusion in torture and wrongdoing. There was Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who British judges ruled ended up being tortured in a Moroccan jail with the connivance of British intelligence, and then a string of others whom ministers preferred to pay off and shut up before the facts could emerge. Rather than asking what corruption of culture had embroiled a once-decent state in such indecent things, the government’s instinctive response was to ask the judges to hear the arguments in secret. When the supreme court said no in ringing terms – Lord Hope warning secrecy “cut across absolutely fundamental principles, such as the right to be confronted by one’s accusers and the right to know the reasons for the outcome” – ministers again refused to stop and rethink, but instead resolved to rewrite the law.

Legacy
That editorial refers back to a Liberty pamphlet, written by Jesse Norman (now a Tory MP) which celebrates Churchill’s stand for human rights, and is prefaced by a quotation from his Fulton, Missouri, speech:

We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

Oddly enough, Mr Norman does not seem to have found himself able to vote, or express a view in Monday’s debate on the Secret Courts bill.

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Who owns Pythagoras?

Or photosynthesis? Or 9 x 7 = 63?

Daft, isn’t it?

Then we hit upon this, from Stephanie McCurry, in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

It has become increasingly difficult to say anything new about the American Civil War or even just to tell a different tale … [with] … a marketplace with seemingly inexhaustible demand for another version of the familiar story and the understandable desire of experts to shape public history.

As a well-bred Belfast girl, Professor McCurry will know all about the problem of who owns history. And that ‘history’ is not just a recital of Great Dead White Men.

The lustre of lucre

Note, though, she also brings in the commercial aspect: the gurus who have cornered the media market in their particular expertise. Tudors without Starkey? Unthinkable! The last word on Hitler? Well, Kershaw must be into the quarter-finals!

A couple of weeks on from the Old Vic production, Malcolm’s mental sound-track goes on full volume:

From Ohio, Mister Thorn
Calls me up from night till morn:
Mister Thorn once cornered corn and that ain’t hay!
But I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my fashion —
Yes, I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my way!

Read between Cole Porter’s lines, and Lois would do anything for her Great White Men.

More hay

So, this afternoon, there was Malcolm at the old-reliable London Pride in the Famous Royal Oak (well, it’s famed within a quarter-mile of Muswell Hill’s St James’s Lane). He has Professor McCurry flitting about his consciousness when he reaches the Comment & Debate page of the Guardian, and another contender for Ms Lane’s transient affections:

Harvardian Ferguson
Says I’m really quite très bonne:
If that’s the Harvard ton, and he’s really on … Okay!

… well, mainly on his own status and importance. As here:

It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

Only someone living in a dreaming Oxonian spire could be unaware of how badly this has turned out, despite the best efforts of thousands of hard-working teachers. I know because I have watched three of my children go through the English system, because I have regularly visited schools and talked to history teachers, and because (unlike Evans and Priestland, authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) I have written and presented popular history. 

The new national curriculum is not flawless, to be sure. It runs counter to the advice I gave Gove by being much too prescriptive. The 34 topics to be covered by pupils between the ages of seven and 14 already read a bit like chapter titles and, if there is one thing I hope we avoid, it is an official history textbook (even if it’s written by Simon Schama).

Nothing like putting the boot (alongside a personal puff) in, Niall!

The rest of the piece has at least three other conditional clauses (if … if … If), four rhetorical questions, and rather more subjective first person singulars than is truly tasteful.

Yet, Ferguson has a point

It isn’t that history doesn’t sell. As Prof Steph (see above) opened that TES review:

Last December, thousands of Americans filed into cinemas to watch Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. While Congress was stuck in its usual deadlock, a disgusted public was momentarily delivered by the large-screen image of a heroic figure and a heroic America. As the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed and slavery abolished, people cried. They applauded.

Meanwhile, as both main UK channels (and many others) exploit shamelessly, costume drama and a bit of pseudo-history writ small (Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife) put bums on family sofas. Rescuing ‘Richard III’ (perhaps) from under the Nissans and Fords of the Leicester car-park played a PR blinder.

So a kind of “history” excites, enthuses, entertains. What is ‘taught’ in school fails miserably by comparison.

But what should it be? Let’s try and decode Ferguson:

If you want to understand what’s really wrong with history in English schools, read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay in the latest issue of Standpoint. As Hunter rightly says, it’s not just the defective content of the old national curriculum that is the problem. It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

and (this is the on-line version, [not all of which made it into print]):

Among other things, the national curriculum explicitly aims to ensure that all pupils “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires”; that they “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”; and that they “understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims”.

[At key stage 1, children will be introduced to “basic concepts” such as nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace. At key stage 2, they will study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome.] As for “the essential chronology of Britain’s history”, to which Evans and Priestland object so strongly, it is a model of political correctness: not only Mary Seacole makes the cut, but also Olaudah Equiano – hardly escapees from Our Island Story.

What is missing there is: who owns history?

For those “basic concepts” are intensely and inescapably partial and ideological. Try a couple of thought experiments:

  • Reconcile Cromwellian England into an approved primary-school perception of monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace.
  • And how does the average eight- or ten-year-old meaningfully study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome? In the Goveian world-scheme, were Greece and Rome essentially slave-societies, or is the slavery thing a mere incidental to the cultural glories?

Docking churchWhat sticks in Malcolm’s craw is, about the only time Roman slavery cropped up at Wells County Primary School, it involved Pope Gregory I and his Non Angli, sed angeli. Which may feature as every-window-tells-a-story in St Mary, Docking, as elsewhere, but as far as a critical observer can determine is as verifiable as Star Trek.  And, no, it’s not in Bede.

Two remaining issues

They’re in Ferguson, and implicit in the more cerebral McCurry:

  • What is the authentic ‘scheme’ (which is what — in any sense of the word — a syllabus amounts to) for that overview of English and European history? Is it Anglocentric or Eurocentric? At the age of fifteen Malcolm switched from GCE “English and European history” to Irish Leaving Certificate “History”; and it was a painful re-appraisal, indeed.
  • What is Ferguson’s gold standard of ‘historical knowledge’? Can he kindly provide, as a solid example, one single, absolute, indisputable, uncoloured ‘fact’? For, were he to do so, a whole phalanx of equally-eminent ‘historians’ would happily exhibit how that ‘fact’ could be, and has been ‘spun’. As Malcolm’s pert Young Piece never fails to repeat, a historical ‘fact’ is one which has been cited by a quantum (say, four) of historians. And a ‘historian’ is … precisely how qualified?

End piece

Consider, then, how Stephanie McCurry, in her shrewd Ulster way, presents ‘values’  rather than certainties, a basis of ‘interpretation’ rather than Ferguson’s ‘facts’, humanely and self-effacingly, warning but with a populist touch, and so concludes her extended review:

Civil War history is a growth industry. For authors, the opportunities are great, but so are the temptations — to repetition, over-reaching and jockeying for market share. There are valuable new interpretations emerging from the field, including a focus on the Civil War as a humanitarian crisis, and there are important voices cautioning against an embrace of war stories as the romanticisation of war itself. But in the fever of sesquicentennial commemoration nothing sells quite like President Lincoln and the war for emancipation. It makes the fantasy of Django Unchained to make the public focus even for a minute on the other America, the one that for so long had no problem with holding people as slaves.

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Filed under Comment is Free, education, Guardian, History, Ian Kershaw, Michael Gove, Niall Ferguson, Norfolk, Times Literary Supplement

“Welfare tax”?

Go to the BBC video of yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions.

Enjoy Miliband winding up Cameron on the Bedroom Tax.

Remember: in Cameron’s world, it’s not a “tax”, it’s a “benefit”. That was his effort, responding to Miliband’s first question. What is the “benefit” of losing £25 a week? That was enough to shock Malcolm — and got to Steve Bell as well:

Steve Bell 7.2.2013

Indeed the crude brutishness of Cameron’s manner made Malcolm miscue. So back to the BBC video.

The crucial moment comes about 7 minutes and 15 seconds in. Cameron is waxing loud and lyrical about Miliband’s policy deficiencies (though why Labour needs to be lumbered with detailed policy commitments this far out from a fixed election date is another matter).

Malcolm believed he heard Cameron say:

What this Government is doing is building more houses and controlling welfare bills. But, frankly, the question is one he has to answer, too. If he opposes the welfare tax, if he opposes restrictions on increased welfare, if he opposes reform of disability benefit, if he opposes each and every welfare change we make, how on earth is he going to get control of public spending.

What the Hansard reporter heard (or was persuaded was said) is subtly different:

The Prime Minister: What this Government are doing is building more houses and controlling welfare bills. Frankly, the question is one that the right hon. Gentleman has to answer, too. If he opposes the welfare cap, if he opposes restrictions on increased welfare, if he opposes reform of disability benefits and if he opposes each and every welfare change we make, how on earth is he going to get control of public spending?

Fair enough: on about the third hearing, Malcolm concedes Hansard is probably right, and Malcolm’s hearing is adrift. Still, the message lingers.

What is fiendishly wrong here is that people in social housing are being punished for disability, or for wanting to stay in long-established homes. They are also being caned because:

  • wages are criminally low, and are being driven even lower by deliberate government policies;
  • rents in the private sector are too high, and still rising.

Let’s take those in turn, and refer to two items in this current issue of Private Eye:

1. Giz a job

SURF, Scotland’s independent regeneration group, which aims to improve health and wellbeing in deprived areas, received 400 applications in response to an advert for a part-time admin job. Chief Executive Andy Milne also received an email from the folk at Liga UK, who were keen to let him know that they were a “government-funded training provider who help young people gety into the workplace”.

Liga helpfully suggested that Milne consider converting the paid job into an “apprenticeship” placement. After all, it suggested, “If you do take on an apprentice for this role, you only need to pay them £100-£270 per week.” Liga UK also offered a further inducement of the £1,500 placement fee from the government.

What Ligaq failed to mention was that if SURF agreed to shove the poor recruit out of the promised job, Liga could also claim an apprenticeship placement “success” and pick up its own fee. Milne asked Liga why on earth the government would want it to displace a real job with an apprenticeship. He is still waiting for an answer.

By no coincidence, just a week ago Channel 4’s FactCheck Blog ran the rule over:

… the latest stats on apprenticeships in England today, which show that more than half a million people began a placement in 2011/12.

That is costing the government (i.e. the tax-payer) around £1.4 billion — yes, billion — in 2011-12. Moreover, nearly a fifth of these placements run for six months or less. Such turn-over must be money in the bank for the likes of Liga. Moreover, as FactCheck adds:

… a few months spent learning how to stack shelves and a three-and-a-half year stint at Rolls-Royce both count as the same.

2. Gimme Shelter 

Welfare reforms brought in by the coalition were already bringing down rents, said a confident David Cameron in January last year. “What we have seen so far, as housing benefit has been reformed and reduced, is that rent levels have come down, so we have stopped ripping off the taxpayer.”

But have they come down? It seemed unlikely at the time, although it reflected a widespread belief in government that the local housing allowance (the form of housing benefit paid to private renters) was somehow causing rent inflation.

A year on, and with more housing benefit cuts due in April, rents are stubbornly refusing to go anywhere but up. A report from Shelter based on the government’s Valuation Office Agency figures says rents have risen 2.8 percent in the past year. That’s faster than the 1.7 percent rise in house prices and comes at a time when wages are at a standstill.

Several areas saw double-digit rises, including an eye-watering 10.8 percent in one local authority with which Cameron should be fa,iliad: West Oxfordshire, home to his Witney constituency.

This Shelter survey, The Rent Trap, is on-line. It covers only English local authority areas (as, indeed, does the Tory party’s world-view).

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Filed under Comment is Free, Conservative family values, David Cameron, economy, Ed Miliband, House-prices, Private Eye, Scotland, social class, Steve Bell, Tories.