Thursday, 26 June 2014

Britain becomes an outpost of the new Chinese empire

Some events appear at the time in all their historical significance: D-Day, Hiroshima, 9/11 spring to mind. Others reveal their importance only with the perspective of passing time.
What will stand out when the history of early 21st century Britain comes to be written a few decades from now? I suspect last week may be seen – even if only symbolically – as a major turning-point.
There was a time, starting in the 18th century with the opium trade, when imperial Britain exploited China and the Chinese mercilessly. It went on well into the 20th century.
My grandfather’s naval posting to Shanghai between the world wars was part of the final flourish of that imperial relationship between the rich, confident West and the poor, exotic Orient.
Now – if you can bear the mix of metaphors – the worm has turned and the boot is on the other foot.
The three-day visit to Britain by Chinese premier Le Keqiang had the unmistakable look of an imperial progress. An emperor visiting his newest, farthest-flung dominions.
Out came the red carpet. Out came the local royalty to kow-tow.
Out came Messrs Cameron and Osborne, rubbing their hands, bowing their heads and fawning like Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.
And what exactly was all this servile diplomacy about?
Like Britain two centuries ago, forcing opium on the Chinese, China is now preparing to take a big stake in Britain’s future infrastructure and power-generation.
Presumably in the expectation of future profit.
Profit you might reasonably have thought should have been Britain’s – and might have been if we had a government that wasn’t ideologically allergic to state enterprise. Its own state enterprise, anyway.
So here we have a nation in thrall to the idea of private enterprise giving away control of its key assets to a foreign government. A far-distant Communist government, at that.
Strange but true. And still not the whole story.
Let’s leave aside the question – still highly controversial – of whether nuclear power-stations are a good thing at all.
Even if you class yourself as “pro-nuclear”, it must still make you a little uneasy, surely, to have them built on our shores by Chinese expertise and Chinese money.
For long enough, Britain has exported waste of all kinds, especially the toxic variety, to poorer parts of the world. On the principle, presumably, that “their lives don’t matter as much as ours”.
Do I detect a similar attitude to us in the Chinese?
Or are they now looking on us as they have looked on much of Africa for decades – and much as we looked on that continent for so long?
As a struggling people ready to be helped/exploited (strike out whichever doesn’t apply).
So maybe this is how June 2014 will stake its claim to historic landmark status. As the month when Britain became part of the Chinese empire.
It’s the sort of thing that can go unnoticed as it happens.
A news story last week put an old Bob Dylan song in my head. A very old Dylan song, in fact: Only a Pawn In Their Game.
In particular the lines which go: “And the poor white remains / on the caboose of the train / but it ain’t him to blame / he’s only a pawn in their game”.
You’ve probably guessed what the story was, even if you didn’t happen to hear it. As news stories go, it’s not the newest.
A select committee of MPs reported – or noticed, or remembered – that white working-class pupils, particularly boys, leave school less qualified than equally poor black and Asian pupils.
This immediately, and inevitably, caused a couple of leaps to different but equally predictable conclusions.
Depending where you heard it, it was presented as evidence either that
a)      the system gives black and Asian pupils preferential treatment; or
b)      there’s a “cultural” difference involved.
Both views contain a subtle (or not so subtle) element of racism.
The first can, I think, be dismissed as nonsense. The second is obviously true, up to a point. But it comes freighted with a couple of stereotypes:
a)      “Asians set a high value on education.” In my experience, this is generally true, but probably not in all cases;
b)      “the white working class are a feckless bunch.” A widely-held view that is a particularly toxic mix of racial and class prejudice.
There is, however, a totally different inference that can be drawn from the MPs’ observations.
I haven’t heard anybody in any of the media mention it any time this subject has come up. Yet it seems to me to the most glaringly obvious conclusion of all.
It is this.
In this country, intelligent, motivated black and Asian families are more likely to be poor than equally intelligent, motivated white families.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Wild world v the mobile phone

Once upon a time, not so long ago, if you heard a person talking to themselves in the street you assumed they were mentally disturbed or deficient. Now you assume they’re talking to someone somewhere else.
That someone may be sitting in a restaurant or bar ignoring the person they’re actually with. But that’s OK, because that person too is present in body only.
Their mind is on the friend far away who they are texting, or Facebooking, or Skyping, or Snapchatting with.
All those invisible waves, all those conversations, all that mostly pointless information filling the air between us all. It’s pretty weird when you stop to think about it.
As a society we’ve become addicted to our mobile phones and estranged from the world that’s really around us.
Which is a pity, because there’s a lot of stuff to see if we keep our eyes open to it.
Like birds, those wonderful, fascinating, beautiful creatures that live lives so different from ours while largely sharing our space.
Look about you, especially at this time of year, and there’s a David Attenborough-style wildlife documentary permanently going on around us.
I had a great illustration of this the other day as I was crossing the green near my home.
A few yards ahead of me a young woman was walking into town, eyes glued to her phone.
Suddenly she recoiled in shock, uttering a cry that may have been: “What the…?”
She hadn’t noticed the blackbird that flew fast and panicking close by her. But she couldn’t fail to react to the sparrowhawk pursuing it.
It was so intent on its prey that it only avoided flying straight into her face by doing the hawk equivalent of a handbrake turn.
Some wild things just never seem to notice all the amazing human life that goes on around them all the time.


England reach the World Cup semi-final only to lose a desperately close match 1-0 to the host nation.
They then lose the third-place play-off too, 2-0 to highly-fancied Argentina. Unlucky, lads.
Not a prediction, but genuine events of the weekend just passed.
The lads in question are the England hockey team.
Meanwhile, in the footy, England won their seventh World Cup match in a row. The women’s 3-0 win in Belarus means they are all but certain to finish top of their qualifying group and go into next year’s finals in Canada among the favourites.
If you missed those achievements by our national sides, you can perhaps be forgiven on a weekend of so much sporting excitement.
There was the first cricket Test of the summer, with England struggling to take full advantage of Joe Root’s imperious double century at Lord’s.
There was the second Test in New Zealand, where England’s rugby union side were soundly thrashed by the All Blacks – 28-27. (And where a streaker was variously described by BBC radio co-commentators as “well-endowed” and “he or she”, either frustrating or tickling your imagination, depending on your imagination.)
There was England’s Justin Rose trailing in the wake of Germany’s Martin Kaymer in a vain bid to retain his US Open golf title.
There was England’s (or Kenya’s, if you happen to be Kenyan) Chris Froome unsuccessfully defending his Critérium du Dauphiné cycling title – with much more than one eye on the next title he has to defend, the Tour de France.
And Scotland’s Andy Murray, who also has a rather more significant defence coming up, failing to keep even one hand on the trophy at Queens Club.
No shame to you, with all that going on, if you happened to take your eye off the hockey ball.
In case you missed the final too, England’s conquerors Holland were whupped 6-1 by Australia.
With all this important sport to keep track of, small wonder if more trivial matters such as the increasing domination of the global economy by a small cabal of multi-national companies slip out of the global news agenda.


“It’s a very traditional British landscape image,” the artist says. “A classical British landscape, rolling hills and little stone houses.
 “The surveillance base is just another element in the landscape.”
The Constable-inspired image, shot in North Yorkshire, is the work of photographer Trevor Paglen. It will be unveiled on Thursday at Gloucester Road station in London, home of the Art on the Underground project. The 60-metre long print goes the full length of the District Line platform.
It is part of a series of photos the American Paglen has taken of surveillance installations from Nevada to Afghanistan. The “blank spots on the map”.
“I think mass surveillance is a bad idea,” Paglen says. “When people understand that they are constantly monitored they are more conformist… and that kind of mass conformity is incompatible with democracy.”
He’s right. Check him out at

Friday, 13 June 2014

Muslim schools aren't the only ones in bad faith

In the town I grew up near, what school you went to depended on a number of things.
My parents weren’t rich, so that was one option closed off. Not that they’d have sent me to a would-be posh school anyway.
We weren’t Catholics, so that was another avenue closed.
I wasn’t a girl, so there’s another.
But I was quite bright, so I ended up at the old-fashioned, self-satisfied boys’ grammar school.
Luckily for me, all that old divisiveness was on the way out. So I was able to switch in the sixth form to the new comprehensive that had previously been a secondary modern.
Not all comprehensives were, or are, as good. The change between systems was not always well managed – partly because the heads of the new schools were often old grammar heads who weren’t committed to the new idea. Or who simply weren’t up to the new job.
But the idea itself was right.
The more you mix with people of different backgrounds, different views and different abilities, the more tolerant and understanding you’re likely to be. And the more variety of opportunity you, and they, will have.
Which is why faith schools are such a bad idea.
Instead of opening doors, which is what education should do, they close them.
As has been so forcefully remarked on in the case of Birmingham’s Muslim schools, they breed intolerance. Lack of understanding. Very bad science. Potential sectarian (and perhaps racist) violence.
With the enthusiastic urging of first Tony Blair and latterly Michael Gove, faith schools have sprung up like mushrooms in the night.
There are now more than 7,000 of them in the UK. Of those 6,751 are funded by the state, but free from what Gove likes to call “unsympathetic meddling”.
Free, in other words, to perpetrate and perpetuate all those bad things I just listed.
Free also to brainwash innocent young minds with mad, bad, dangerous twaddle like Creationism.
Of course, most faith schools aren’t that extreme. But there are believed to be more than 60 schools teaching Creationism as if it was fact, not magic.
That’s five times as many as there are Muslim schools.
According to the most recent available figures (2012), there are 42 Jewish schools, 12 Muslim, three Sikh, one Hindu – which leaves about 6,942 Christian ones.
They shouldn’t get state support. It’s debatable whether they should get state permission to exist.
Meanwhile, deep in Berkshire, there is a shadowy school, open only to a select few, which brainwashes pupils in a cult of world domination.
Though not a faith school, like them it teaches its pupils that they are superior to other people.
Though it doesn’t count as state-funded, its official status as a charity means it benefits from massive tax breaks. Even though most of its pupils’ parents are very rich already.
As British as roast beef, it is directly responsible for many of our most intractable-seeming problems.
Its old boys (they are all boys) have infiltrated every area of business, science, religion, the media, the military and government. One of them is the prime minister.
It is called Eton.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A regular sort of guy

I can think of only one person who would use the phrase “a regular sort of guy” without any intended irony.
In fact I remember him saying it about himself, and not just once.
That person is, of course, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, former prime minister of this realm.
And like so much of the rubbish that has passed his lips before, during and since his term of office, I'm sure he believed it.
It's a symptom of what has been called his “messiah complex” – I said it, so it must be true!
Neither of those phrases (regular or messiah) is exactly original in respect to Blair.
But apparently they're good enough for the author Robert Harris. A man who was once a friend of Blair's and who, it's probably safe to say, isn't now.
I found Harris’s what-if-the-Nazis-had-won novel Fatherland thoroughly gripping when I read it, many moons ago.
And if I can’t really comment on his more recent bestseller The Ghost, that’s at least partly because I didn’t fancy a book about Blair. Or someone curiously like him – a deposed PM accused of war crimes.
Harris has now told Total Politics magazine that Blair seemed a regular sort of guy when they first met in the 1990s, but that becoming PM had changed him.
“Who knew he would become a great friend of George Bush and would want to keep bombing people?” he asked.
Who indeed?
Moving on to his life post-Downing Street, Harris accuses his old mucker of being “passionately interested in making money” and living “this strange life with the billionaire super-rich on yachts and private jets”.
It’s all to do with what Harris identifies as the former leader’s narcissism.
Which makes it all the more bizarre that Harris says it was “a tragedy” for Britain and the Labour Party that Blair quit national politics after being forced out of No 10 in 2007.
The truly sad thing is that he was ever in politics at all.
With possibly only another year to run, is the government running out of steam?
Casting an eye over what, electorate willing, may be their last Queen’s Speech I could find only one Bill to get really angry about.
That was the coyly named Infrastructure Bill. Which is the one that will give free rein to companies engaging in shale gas mining. Or fracking, as it’s better known.
Once again the Tories have listened only to moneyed interests and ignored the impartial advice of experts.
People such as Professor David Smythe of Glasgow University, who offered detailed evidence of how fracking could seriously contaminate water sources.
And that, of course, is only one of the potential dangers.
Would you want big, mostly foreign-owned, mining companies fracking under your home?
If the Infrastructure Bill becomes law – and it’s hard to see who’ll stop it – they won’t need your permission.
We’re on the verge of the biggest party in football – arguably in all of world sport. And I nearly forgot to mention it.
I was going to fill this space with an interesting anecdote about birds and mobile phones. (That’ll have to wait until next week. Bet you can’t wait.)
Can it be that I’m getting old? Tired, not of life certainly, but of football.
Of course, England have precious little chance of going far into the tournament, but that’s never killed my enthusiasm before.
Yes, the on-going shenanigans over the choice of Qatar to host in 2022 have cast a sorry shadow over everything to do with Fifa, the game’s governing body.
Yes, there are real worries over Brazil’s fitness to stage the contest its teams have graced more than any others over the years. The stadiums may not all be ready, the transport chaotic, the natives justifiably restless at the expense of money that might have been put to better use.
Yes, the best players may be too shattered to play well, if not actually injured.
And yes, international football may be of a lower standard than the club game, where players aren’t virtual strangers to each other.
But heck, this is the World Cup.
I should be excited, itching for it, like any self-respecting football nut.
My interest will probably perk up once the action kicks off on Thursday. Probably.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Another loser anthem, wo-oh

I’ll admit it here: I’m not really one for standing up and belting out the national anthem.
Partly because the whole idea of “nation” makes me a tad uneasy. “My country, right or wrong” must have a claim to being the most stupid slogan anyone ever tried to live their lives by.
Partly because even if I believed in God, I’d have trouble seeing why He should do any special favours for the Queen.
And, let’s face it, our national tune is a particularly spiritless dirge.
Give me the uplift of France’s glorious Marseillaise every time.  Mind you, there’s a line in there about “watering our furrows with an impure blood” which could make a fellow a little queasy in these supposedly more enlightened times.
Even Deutschland Uber Alles has a jauntier tune than our dreary number, but let’s not go there…
If it’s entirely necessary to have a national song, what could be more apt (or a better tune) than Jerusalem? I’m fairly certain “those feet” never did in fact touch England’s pleasant pastures, but the “dark satanic mills” can always raise a grim, knowing smile.
If they had a proper song like that to sing, maybe England manager Roy Hodgson wouldn’t have to tell his players to lift up their hearts and voices when it was played. Maybe.
Hodgson has a point when he compares the traditionally lacklustre, gum-chewing demeanour of English players at anthem time to the hand-on-heart enthusiasm of so many opponents.
But do we really want our boys to be (or behave like) unreconstructed nationalists?
I’m not convinced it would make them better players. The point, surely, is the team, not the dear old Queen?
And is there really any reason to believe more in the clutching of a national shirt than the kissing of a club badge? And that, as we know, often seems to accompany the desire to seek better-paid employment under a different emblem.
But sure, Roy, if it makes you happy. Let the boys sing out.
As he says: “I think we’re great until the second verse comes along because we don’t really know that...”
That’ll be the one about scattering her enemies, confounding their politics and frustrating their knavish tricks.
Some of those pesky foreigners certainly know some knavish tricks, don’t they? Diving, shirt-pulling, name-calling, ref-baiting – antics no self-respecting Englishman would ever get up to, what?
But politics? That’s where the stuff in verse six come in, obviously.
You know the one. That’s the one with the lines:
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush”.
No doubt there are a few patriotic Englishman who would sing that bit just now with proper verve.


I know (because I used to work there) that the Sunday Times is housed in a big building – but surely even there “millions of secret documents” must make an inconveniently big pile.
And who is going to plough through them all to determine that they really do prove what is claimed? That Fifa’s decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was taken under the influence of money.
Whoever would have imagined such a thing?
That money might have played a part in awarding the world’s most glamorous sporting tournament to a country where hardly anybody actually plays the game. Largely because it’s too blooming hot.
A country whose national team has never qualified for a World Cup finals and whose league champions, Lekhwiya, might just give Lowestoft Town a decent game.
A country barely twice the size of Norwich.
Whose second-largest “city” is three quarters the size of King’s Lynn.
Whose total official population outnumbers only four-to-one the number of visiting fans a World Cup can expect to draw.
Which, at the time of the vote in 2010, had not one stadium good enough or big enough to host the event.
And which, however hard it might try, couldn’t possibly have the eight host cities normally considered the minimum for the tournament. Let alone enough naturally-occurring grass to cover enough pitches.
But a country which, strangely, is very, very rich indeed.
And now they suggest that money might have changed hands, and that that might have influenced the decision?
Whether Fifa itself is the right authority to probe this amazing allegation must be open to some doubt.
But there is a silver lining (and not just to certain unspecified persons’ pockets).
The normal timescale for the awarding of World Cups (or Olympics) to host countries is seven years ahead of the event.
Which means there’s still a year for one of the daftest decisions in sporting history to be overturned and a better one arrived at.
Not just switching the tournament from summer to “winter” but moving it to somewhere with a real football tradition – real teams, real stadiums and real fans.