Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The class of 2010 – yours for just £29,310 a year

“COMMONER? I bet she’s not half as common as the bird my son’s marrying.”
That overheard comment is the funniest I’ve met yet on a certain up-coming event. And it could almost go down as the definitive comment on this curious year.
2010, the year of class. The year the toffs took over the country again.
The state-funded grammar school, and more than that the comprehensive school, were supposed to end class in this country.
It doesn’t seem so long since the question, “Is the British class system dead?” seemed one worth considering. Maybe not one to ponder long or hard, but at least a question worth giving a little thought.
Forty years ago, when one grammar-school boy (Ted Heath) displaced another (Harold Wilson) as prime minister, we might have assumed that by 2010 the class system would be history.
Yet here we are, with the poshest (and richest) PM since Alec Douglas-Home in 1963-64 and an only slightly less posh (and possibly richer) deputy.
And about to "celebrate" what has preposterously been dubbed the “people’s wedding”.
Which people are marrying? Not your people or my people, that’s for sure.
This week’s announcement of the date and venue did sadly end the hope that the commoner bride would get a proper commoner’s wedding. A 15-minute ceremony at Slough Register Office followed by a bit of a do at the rugby club.
It would probably have been a good do, too, since the bride’s parents run a party planning business.
More fun, I dare say, than a televised national event squandering millions of the cash “the people” don’t have.
And it would surely have been more within Carole and Michael Middleton’s budget.
Not that they will be expected to foot the bill for the abbey extravaganza. That, indirectly, will be up to you and me.
And not that they are exactly hard up. The national paper that told this week [this column appeared in the Evening Star on Friday, November 26] of their “modest, middle-class background” has a generous definition of “modest”.
I do know some fairly modest families who stretch themselves financially to put their children into private education. I have never understood why they bother, especially as we are lucky enough to have some excellent comprehensives round here.
But I don’t think anyone I know spends £29,310 a year on school fees.
That’s the current base price – before things like uniform, books, music lessons and pocket-money are considered – of sending a child to Marlborough College.
Party Pieces must do a brisk trade.
But if class is your thing, Marlborough is obviously the place to send your daughters (Carole and Michael sent two).
Apart from Kate and Pippa Middleton, other former pupils include:
• Samantha Cameron, prime minister’s wife
• Frances Osborne, chancellor’s wife
• Sally Bercow, wife of the House of Commons speaker
• Antonia Robinson, royal wedding-dress designer
• Emily Sheffield, sister of Samantha Cameron and deputy editor of posh mag Vogue
• oh, and someone called Princess Eugenie.
Not bad for a school that didn’t even let girls in until 1968. It obviously instils a self-confidence in its pupils that can stand up to the attentions of a prince or an ambitious Etonian.
The Middletons may not have old aristocracy in their family tree. But they do have money.
Which may not buy love or happiness – but it can buy you a posh schooling and posh friends.
It can buy power. And that, ultimately, is what “class” is all about.


THERE was much to applaud in the White Paper for education unveiled by Michael Gove this week.
Compulsory foreign-language teaching up to age 16. About time. Our inability to speak other languages has always been shameful, and has been getting steadily worse.
Anonymity for teachers being investigated for “inappropriate behaviour” – about time too. One malicious false accusation should not be allowed to wreck a person’s reputation and career.
How good it will be to have “experts” brought in to review the curriculum depends on who the experts are. Teachers, I suppose, don’t count as experts themselves…
School league tables will be “shaken up”. OK, but scrapping them altogether would have been better.
Targets introduced for primary schools. Oh dear. As if the whole of education wasn’t already overrun with tick-boxes.
Former troops offered sponsorship to train as teachers. You what? I’m all in favour of teachers having some experience of life outside the classroom, but why military experience in particular?
The effect on class discipline might, I suppose, be interesting.
Anything good in the coalition’s policy, though, was overshadowed by the revelation, on the same day, of Ofsted’s overall conclusion about our schools.
And that is that the so-called academies – those quasi-independent schools the government is putting all its weight behind – aren’t better on average than other state schools.
They’re worse.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Why BT musn't get away with their new town plans

BT wants to build 2,000 homes, a health centre, a hotel, a park, a community centre, shops, a café, a pub and two new schools on their land at Martlesham Heath. In other words, a town.
The campaign group No Adastral New Town has done a good job of raising local awareness. I hope they are equally successful when it comes to persuading Suffolk Coastal planners and councillors, and the inevitable public inquiry, not to let BT’s dream become our nightmare.
BT’s purpose, of course, is simply to make money. NANT’s purpose is to prevent them spoiling a bit of still-rural Suffolk for those of us who already live here.
I certainly don’t want the extra bustle, and the extra traffic, that would be caused by having a new town dumped in my back yard.
But my objection isn’t mere nimbyism. And it’s not just about keeping Suffolk special – though of course that’s part of it.
I object in principle to the whole policy of concreting over the countryside.
Of obliterating fields, woods and farmland with yet more soulless new buildings and pollutant roads.
Under the headline “We are murdering our countryside”, the outstanding journalist Trevor Philpott wrote: “After the war we thought our planners would save our countryside. But the bulldozers move over the farmland as relentlessly as ever. The new ‘estates’ spread, like a rash, over the meadows…”
If that was true in July 1954, when that Picture Post article appeared, how much truer is it now after 56 years more pillage?
In 1954 there was at least an excuse.
There was a need still for new homes to replace old ones flattened by Hitler’s bombs.
There was still a need, too, for people to be moved out of decaying Victorian slums and into better housing. Post-war council housing, on the whole, did a pretty good job of that.
But somewhere along the way politicians (and, of course, builders) got addicted to the idea that it is always necessary to keep building more and more houses.
According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, about 21 square miles of English countryside is lost every year to concrete and asphalt.
Since 1954 England’s population has risen by 19 per cent. The loss of land to development has been much greater than that.
Those who want to cash in talk, as they always will, about the “need” for new homes. But what need?
A few questions need to be answered urgently while we still have enough farmland to feed ourselves.
Why must be build new homes when in every town and city so many perfectly serviceable older ones stand empty?
Why must we build new towns instead of making the old ones liveable again?
And – most relevant of all to Suffolk – why do we go on letting wealthy folk from other parts buy up our best houses as “second homes” when there are local people needing first homes?
In 1940, the year of the Blitz, architect Ralph Tubbs designed an exhibition, Living In Cities, to consider what post-war Britain should look like.
In a fascinating accompanying brochure, he wrote: “The advocates of garden cities do not face up to the problems of introducing fresh air and sunshine, trees and open space into the decayed towns of today.
“Dissatisfied with the existing chaos of cities, they start new centres, which are neither town nor country, but little patches of suburbia. They leave the existing cities to rot.”
Tubbs wanted cities to live, not rot. He wanted the countryside to live too.
He was a visionary (who incidentally despised the kind of sham architecture that Prince Charles now champions). It’s a tragedy his vision continues to be ignored.


GEORGE W BUSH says “waterboarding” wasn’t torture. So it’s OK, then, to keep pushing people to the very edge of drowning.
It was legal, says GW, “because a lawyer said it was legal”.
But then, when you’re president of the United States you can probably find a lawyer to tell you anything you want to hear. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what someone under torture will tell you.
Not the truth. Not anything useful. Just exactly what they think you want to hear.
Which is why torture – legal or not, humane or not – is fundamentally useless.
And that is one reason I disbelieve GW’s claim that waterboarding saved British lives by preventing attacks on London.
The other reason I disbelieve it is GW’s own record with the truth.
As I have pointed out over the years to a variety of small children, if you keep telling lies people eventually stop believing what you say.
There’s a story Bush should read, about a boy and a wolf.
But does it matter now if he’s still telling porkies?
He’s yesterday’s man. Finished. No point in knocking him down again, surely?
The point isn’t about Bush himself. He’s no longer important.
What is important is to nail the lie. To stop him infecting future generations with the pernicious idea that torture can ever be justified.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Day Labour abandoned its aims for the big Tory lie

ONE day someone will get round to writing a history of the modern Labour Party that isn’t just re-hashing the tedious details of Blair-Brown infighting. When they do, the date Tuesday, October 4, 1994 will loom large in it.
That was the day Tony Blair gave his first speech as leader to the party conference.
Most of it, frankly, was waffle, though it received the predictable massive ovation.
He even claimed, incredible though it seems looking back, to be a socialist. Though he did insist that “his” socialism “is not the socialism of Marx or state control”.
(Neither is mine, Tony, but unlike yours it’s distinguishable from messianic Toryism.)
The nugget of meaning – I’m tempted to call it the gobbet of phlegm – came four minutes from the end.
That’s when he said: “It is time we had a clear, up-to-date statement of the objects and objectives of our party.”
Which was the first real inkling he gave that he was set on abandoning the perfectly clear objectives which had defined the party since 1918.
Until Blair ditched it, the party’s aim was laid out in Clause Four of its constitution: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
That is socialism. That is what Labour, under Blair, gave up. A coherent ideology. Any ideology.
As it happens, the ideology of those now in power (Clegg as well as Cameron) could be summed up as the opposite of poor abandoned Clause Four:
• To DENY the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry;
• To PREVENT its equitable distribution;
• To ERADICATE any remaining vestiges of common ownership;
• To GIVE UP popular administration and control of anything.
It’s a nightmare. But it does have the virtue of consistent thinking behind it.
At its heart is the idea that private ownership is in every way superior to public ownership. A view quite understandable from those (like Cameron, Clegg and most of their pals) who own quite a lot.
Not so good in practice for all the rest of us. The workers by hand or by brain.
A fortnight ago I reported with incredulity the view of Gordon Brown that “only the private sector is efficient”.
This brought a robust response from one of this column’s more intelligent readers.
For fairly obvious reasons he wishes to remain anonymous. I can tell you only that he is Ipswich-based, works for a prominent local company, and that I agree with every word he says:
“As someone who has worked in the private sector for his entire adult life, I can assure you that the constant assertion of private sector efficiency is a complete myth.
“The idea that people or businesses fail if they are inefficient is complete hogwash. Every single company I have worked for, or contracted into, has been massively inefficient and wasteful.
“Incompetence is routinely rewarded and any suspicion of innovation or creativity stifled at birth.
“Most private companies are extremely risk-averse. Even supposedly high-tech companies (the area in which I earn my bread and butter) tend to be held back by managers who would rather be assured some new technique or technology is ‘proven’ before they consider an investment.
“The difference is that the vast profits to be made from the minority of ideas and products that succeed mask the hideous waste that’s going on behind the gloss and headlines.
“When you consider the level of service that much of the public sector continue to deliver, despite shrinking investment, it baffles me that politicians continue to get away with this lie.”

We’ll end up in the Browne stuff

THE headlines so far have mostly been about the high cost of education hanging over future students. And that is certainly bad enough.
But there are worse things lurking in the detail of Lord Browne’s review of university funding.
I predict trouble ahead if the government tries to implement it – as it surely will, because it fits Tory thinking so well.
At heart, Browne aims to end the notion of higher education as a public service and reduce it to the level of the free market.
Universities will cease to get government support and rely instead purely on fees.
Which courses are available will depend ultimately on “consumer choice”. In other words, on the unrealistic expectations and desires of 18-year-olds.
Not that I have anything against 18-year-olds. But anyone in need of education needs better guidance than comes from a profit-driven market.
And that’s before you even consider society’s need for scientists, engineers, doctors and the rest.