Time for a tea party?

There’s much talk currently, heightened by the victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, of big government. The state’s share of  UK GDP is now 52%, the result of public investment, bail-outs and stimulus packages. Demographic changes are pushing up welfare and pensions. Along with taxation quangos multiply, as does regulation… 

How to respond? The Economist backs its prejudice in favour of a smaller state, and suggests it could be achieved by a 10% cut in public sector pay, and cuts in public sector pensions… We’ve had task forces looking at better regulation, and war is promised on quangos.

But there’s something else much deeper, much more visceral out there, by comparison with which the Economist’s relatively pragmatic approach is feeble. Take the Tea Party movement in the USA. According to its website it espouses a mission ‘to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets’.

I’ll give this my own interpretation. Fiscal responsibility: yes to current entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid, agricultural subsidies, no to extending health care and stimulus packages … Constitutionally limited government: no to anything that boosts the Federal budget, and yes to protectionist measures. Free markets: a throwback to pre-globalisation days, when America exported and didn’t import…

Is this where our own new Right is headed ? In the UK that instinct to devolve power can’t have the same focus, in the absence of states, constitution, founding fathers, tea parties. We’ve no Main Street pitching in against Wall Street and stimulus packages.  But limiting government is the mood of the moment,  devolving power to parents and classroom teachers, disillusionment with Westminster politicians and arguments for reform, referenda and local empowerment, more reliance on patient pressure and less on top-down targets for keeping the NHS in order.

There’s also a more marked producerist focus: producers are sanctified as adding value to the economy, as opposed to unproductive elites, in our time notably bankers, on the one hand, and the likes of the unemployed and benefit claimants on the other.  It doesn’t show itself here with the same virulence as the USA – but is it where we’re headed?

As for free markets, we could be more radical: act (with the USA and Europe) against all those cheap goods we love to buy from China, and reduce the massive levels of Chinese investment and indebtedness to sovereign wealth funds. Leave industry to take care of climate change (it probably won’t bother).  Exit the EU, hunker down, and soldier on alone, with all sorts of specifically negotiated deals and treaties which the rest of the world would be only too happy to enter into with us.

We had the MPs’ expenses scandal, America has had the health care debate – crystallising anti-opinion, making the process of government more difficult. America has just had its Scott Brown moment. What awaits us, I wonder?

Tory education policy: we have reason to be worried

If one takes the Tories’ education policy to its logical conclusion, as one must, The Spectator (13 January, one Dennis Sewell), makes a useful read. We have reason to be worried.

The ‘bloated educational establishment’ is characterised as the Blob, previously a 1950s film and a term applied to the 1980s US educational system by Reagan’s education secretary. Comprising our own UK Blob are Whitehall diktats, Every Child Matters, safeguarding guidelines, the National College of School Leadership, the NUT, all lumped together indiscriminately.

We then switch to the ‘bitter’ dispute over how much emphasis is giving to imparting knowledge and how much to developing pupil competencies.  Take History:  a class these days may have little idea whether Charles II comes before or after the Roundheads.

Michael Gove is praised for wanting to deepen knowledge and to strip out the ‘fatuous enunciation of high-sounding but empty goals’ from the National Curriculum.

Back to the Blob … now attacked for supporting a social purpose for schools which provides unquestioning support for equality, diversity and, chucked in for good measure, anthropogenic global warming.

Some things to agree with here (too many initiatives, overly prescriptive curriculum, over-emphasis on skills as opposed to knowledge). But it’s not just content but the structure itself that’s being attacked, the idea being that a new structure will somehow of itself transform content.

Once the Blob is punctured, what will we get instead? 

–          Schools independent of the government and local council funding ‘on which it gorges itself’

–          Schools run on the Swedish model, by not-for-profit and community groups,  funded by a capitation fee

–          Power moved away from bureaucrats and the quangocracy to parents and ordinary class teachers (something viscerally anti-authority here)

–          Schools buying into services, such as playing fields, swimming pools …

In sum, a characterisation which is pretty nasty in its language (there’s a lot of that in the Spectator – why do they hate so much?), has some truth at the heart of it, but (ruinously) an obsession with supposed institutional failure, leading to unquestioning support for that dotty fuzzy-headed Swedish model who shows up in every document these days.

What strikes me is how utterly inadequate the solution is to the problem. Schools, teachers, pupils, parents need structure, certainty and ordinary common sense. They don’t want schools closing and starting up, interest groups given free rein, uncertainty over services, no possibility of institutions to which you can show loyalty or with traditions in which you can take pride. If they do, I’d like to meet them.

There’s another saner solution we don’t hear about, from dirigiste Labour or dotty Govean Tories, is one that involves thinning out the bureaucracy, cutting back on directives, devolving power, but keeping the same core structure. Reforming local government to ensure that it doesn’t dictate to schools but does provide services and support where they’re needed, and link up with social services and the community in a coherent fashion. This I admit is a seriously boring solution. It needs radical thinking, shaking out old ideas of which I’m tired as much as Govean right, a clear strategy and long view, great determination – and a sense of realism.

To achieve what they want there will of course need to be a huge amount of central direction (always hard to stop once you’ve started, but let’s assume they do in time back off), ultimately replaced by a wonderful, self-regulating system – the like of which has never been seen in this or any land.

And never will be. Just what do they imagine the end product of their policy will be – other than anarchy?

Professor Nutt’s new council

Returning to the subject of an earlier blog from last November… There must be more to Professor Nutt (sacked last November as head of the government’s Drug Advisory Council) than meets the eye, or finds its way on to radio or page.  He had in his recent spat with Alan Johnson the support of Colin Blakemore, one-time head of the Science Research Council.  How, I ask myself, can two such eminent men be so wide of the mark?  

Professor Nutt has now launched his new independent advisory panel on drugs. His interview on Five Live on Friday (15th January) evening showed how curiously out of touch with reality he is. In response to a call from someone running a unit for mental health patients, every one of whom had a link with previous cannabis use, he simply denied there was any scientific proof. The explanation seems to lie in different definitions of what harm entails. Alcohol causes more deaths than cannabis and LSD and ecstasy no doubt. But most of us don’t use death as the main criterion. We use impairment of mental faculties, anxiety, distress, inability to live an ordinary family or working life. There is also a wide spectrum of impairment, from minor difficulties to psychosis. The lack on the one hand of any awareness (he never speaks of it) of mental impairment together with the absence of any subtlety in his analysis is what is so worrying. 

Reversibility is another criterion I’d like to see discussed. Drying out at the Priory is one thing, tough as hell I’m sure, but alcoholism is an addiction and can be reversed if the will is there. For cannabis, whether or not it is addictive is not the issue. Rather it’s the connection with mental illness, which is so often irreversible.   

The irony for Prof Nutt is that his only supporter among the few who phoned in on Friday night was a regular user of cannabis these last twenty years. He hadn’t suffered, he said, apart from some impact on his sleep patterns… 

What this shows up is the danger of talking of ‘the science’ as explanation and justification of all things. So much depends on the criteria you use, what you include and exclude. Nutt excludes or downgrades a wide range of impacts in his analysis. He over-emphasises one impact, that of death, and is happy it seems to allow the press to pick up the misleading message it presents.  Nutt would of course dispute that he’s manipulating evidence, but that to my mind, and that of many others, is what he’s doing.

Blakemore, pre-eminent as a neuro-scientist, Nutt with pretensions to similar eminence, it seems to me have an overly mechanistic approach to the brain and to the mind,  and don’t have the understanding of the nature, subtleties and extremes of mental illness. It just can’t be calibrated or indeed dismissed as they would wish.

I’m not writing here with any great sense of certainty. But Nutt’s arguments fail to tie in with the experience of so many of us, and I’m trying to understand why that might be.

Obama’s America: The Price of Freedom (Schama)

Commentary, Chris Collier, 12 Jan10 

Simon Schama makes a point of beginning his programme in Korea, not Vietnam, and with another post-war president, Harry Truman. But Truman took over at the end of a victorious war, where no-one back home doubted the rights and wrongs. Not so Afghanistan.

Truman then found himself facing a new foe, a predictable foe, in Russia, and the Berlin Blocade and the Cold War ensued. But few predicted his second foe, Korea, backed by Communist China. Just what unknowns, beyond Afghanistan, that we don’t know, in Rumsfeld-speak, might lie in wait for Obama?

Truman chose containment not aggression (Macarthur, who he sacked, would have risked all) in the Korean War, pushing forward the frontiers of freedom as far as they would reasonably go, given the millions-strong Communist forces on the other side of the 38th parallel, but going no further. Yet 37,000 Americans still died in Korea before the 1953 armistice. This is the war from which Schama wants Obama to draw lessons, not the ignominy of Vietnam.

Can, as Schama argues, Obama bring back that mixture of idealism and realism that Harry Truman showed, can he bring clarity and coherence where Bush and his cabinet had been mired down by puzzle and confusion as their war turned against them, bring to bear the lessons and legacy of Korea, not the mistakes of Vietnam and Iraq? Can he also restore confidence and trust in America, something that in 1945 the free world took for granted, but post Iraq especially, no more?  

Freedom, as Truman said, is not free. It has to be fought for. But it is also indivisible. Schama remarked on all the burgers and nuggets and cappuccinos on sale on the streets of Seoul, and we all of us saw the bright lights and the sameness now evident in Seoul and so many world cities – but we also sensed there what Schama sensed, that there was a buzz, something positive, a sense of freedom in action. Freedom indivisible. Other peoples may not want to enjoy quite the Westernised freedom of Seoul, but they also want no truck with tyranny.

No wonder Obama took so long before deciding on a troop surge in Afghanistan.  Who knows what could flow for Obama and America from failure?

Something new in the classroom

There’s endless talk of change in teaching, in learning, in the curriculum.. But there’s the beginnings of something else out there, which just might have a significant impact if it became embedded. Judge for yourself if there’s the remotest chance… 

Tonbridge School (others plan to follow) has introduced meditation classes, focusing on mindfulness, with perceived benefits in terms of concentration skills and combating anxiety. Living in the moment, avoiding past regrets and future worries, is a hard lesson to explain philosophically to a 15-year-old but if you learn to slow down through meditating then it does begin to relate to actual experience. 

Above all, slowing down is about silence. Not the shouted silence that gives the teacher control, but the inner silence where you’re in control.  You cannot continue to shout and demand and insist and posture while engaging in silence. 

Thinking of Old Tonbridgeans. The cricketer, Colin Cowdrey, was one, and his languid demeanour suggests that maybe meditation comes naturally to the school. Alasteir Crowley famous as a mountaineer, occultist and sexual revolutionary suggests the opposite. EM Forster, another old boy, had it spot on – ‘only connect’. 

There’s an important distinction to be made. It’s less meditation, that being a technique, and more mindfulness that’s really being pioneered here. Mindfulness is about being aware of yourself in the moment, no before or after, being receptive, not aggressive, carrying no baggage in, and no baggage out.  

Mindfulness gives perspective, takes emotion out of the moment, and that means taking out aggression, fear, anxiety, hatred, all those emotions that feed on themselves. What’s left intact is a sense of the world as it is, where’s there’s no negative charge, no knots, no warped views or false perspectives. 

Schoolboys will no doubt be just like the rest of us. We come out of the mindful moment and we’re back, racing like rats, shouting, over-emoting, switching in one endlessly unmindful moment after another from one obsession to the next. But once we know mindfulness we can build on it, and that’s hopefully what the boys at Tonbridge, and other schools that try it out, will find. It’s not about undermining ambition or a sense of mission, or negating a desire to achieve for yourself or improve the world. But it does give you a place to return to at any moment, a sense of when you’re out of control, and how to deal with it, and an awareness of how to avoid following others, to stay out of the fray, when they lose control. 

Kids these days are taught so much about the environment, and most come out of school believing in its preservation. They’re taught citizenship as well, but many show little regard for it outside school. Both though get shunted aside as we make our way in the world. Will mindfulness be the same? Probably yes. But it’s worth a try, and if it only takes a small percentage of the strain and stress out of life then it’s worth it – helping a few to real understanding, and allowing that understanding to benefit others by example, seeding in a small way a better future.


In a previous blog I mentioned Roger Deakin’s Wildwood…

He makes habitable the Tudor farmhouse he buys by keeping out the wind and rain but still allowing at least partial free passage for the animal and insect life who had been its previous owners. He sleeps in a caravan to listen to the rooks, he’s part of the moth-makers circle as they cluster round the bright lights that draw the moths in, he recounts the stories of willow-men and the basket-and bat-makers who work the willow.

His is a wonderful but all too little known counter-balance to all the damage we do to our world, to our climate, to our landscape. I wonder at times whether we could impose a back-to-nature requirement on all road-builders, all architects and town-planners, anyone who would spread bricks and especially concrete over the landscape without a thought for future generations who will be left with it when lifestyles and domiciles and transport have moved on. Where once we felled trees in Britain at least we now have open pasture and hedges and copses which hide and nurture their own wildlife. Where we put down concrete nothing can grow, save after decades in the slow-wearing interstices where weeds find a scraggy home.

It would be good to have a long-term damage assessment built into every new project, with a minimum threshold in terms of decay or decomposition, to remind ourselves of the duty we owe not just our children, but to many generations hence.

It seems that the Environment Agency haven’t a clue when it comes to considerations of this kind. Deakin quotes their indifference to the withy (willow) growing tradition in the Somerset Levels. Floods brought poisoned water which ruined the crop one year, and no-one from the agency visited, and now it seems they have plans to flood the withy beds permanently. When I’ve heard stories about the agency in other flood situations I’ve always put it down to shortages of staff, or local misunderstandings, but it seems that it goes deeper, to an institutional level.

On a lighter note, Deakin notes that cricket bat willow only grows really well in England, to the frustration of Australians who must import English willow wherewith to thrash, they hope, the Poms.  Louis MacNeice writes of the drunkenness of things being various. Here we have the singular, the co-incidence of place and time to play which led to a game where the spring of willow and the resilience of cork and leather make for a game perfectly matched to human strength and capabilities. A more stolid bat would propel the ball much less far, and vibrate the hand, a softer bat and the ball would die before it left the square. Without willow where would we be, without the game that’s an antidote to all the frenetic activity which characterises most popular sports. With maybe the exception of snooker, but that’s about paralysis rather than relaxation of mind. But I digress.

20:20 cricket is another game altogether, although it still requires the magic of the willow wand, which however brandished remains something it seems modern materials can’t replicate. Long may it remain so.

The naming of names

Everything has to have a name. Or does it? My favourite no-name is Innominate Tarn in the Lake District. There’s also its close relation, Innominate Crag, and I gather even an Innominate Crack up on Simonside in the Cheviots.

Roger Deakin in Wildwood mentions two moths which also have had partial success in resisting our urge to name everything, the uncertain and the anomalous, yes, both names, and both members of the Noctuidae.

Moving from moths to movies, there is of course not the moth but the man with no name, Mr Eastwood.  

What is it, not to have a name? Tarn, moths, cowboy, they all have identities. But no past, and no future. That’s the idea anyway.

And then there’s Juliet:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

She loves the person, not the name. Not Montague.

Well, don’t we have to name everything? Any experience, whether a person, an object, a thought or emotion, even a state of mind, has to have a name if we’re to recall it. But that way we bring all sorts of other associations into play.

That’s why I like Innominate Tarn: no associations. Uncertain and anomalous moths: they come from nowhere and fly back into the night. And Juliet: no name, no past, and sadly for her, no future.

I will, if I may, coin a name: innomination, the act of not naming. Something we can only do by not doing. Something to engage in when the hurly-burly gets too much for us.