Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Christmas Carol

We went to our favourite taverna for a meal last night. We were the only customers. It has had virtually no trade since opening for Christmas. It is rarely busy at this time of year, but there are usually knots of people in there either eating a meal or gathering with a beer or a little wine to watch football on the TV. This year - nothing, nobody. Welcome to austerity Greece.

Greece has a threefold crisis. Caught in the systemic failures of the banking and credit crisis, exacerbated by the malfunctioning of its political system and constrained by the structural weaknesses of the architecture of European monetary union, political leaders can find only one answer - cuts.

Others have noted the irony that a crisis precipitated by neo-liberal economics has resulted in its replacement by, er, neo-liberal economics. It seems crazy, like the general in Tolstoy's War and Peace who insists that the disastrous results of his strategy is solely down to the failure to implement it properly and so continues with it. However, there has been a change. Neo-liberalism is a set of assumptions about political economy. As Adam Smith would have recognised, its implementation rests on more than economics, policy is shaped by an underlying moral narrative. For a long time this was an orgiastic celebration of wealth and conspicuous consumption, underpinned by amoral 'greed is good' assumptions occasionally justified by a misreading, in my view, of The Wealth of Nations. Now, we have another moral narrative; Scrooge is back in charge.

Never underestimate the mean and miserable streak in British political life. Dickens's satire was not based on fantasy, but on an exaggeration of existing attitudes. Those quintessential Victorian virtues of thrift and parsimony, masquerading as self-help, persist to this day, reinterpreted as a response to the credit crunch. And austerity as a doctrine is not confined to the right. It has its attractions for the left too. The Methodist heritage, with its embrace of temperance and moral rectitude, is strong and is now being restated in Maurice Glasman's Blue Labour, a response to Philip Blond's incoherent Red Toryism.

Glasman advocates "a deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity." That is just what is needed to energise the left, a dose of Victorian sanctimony. And it is proving influential. Depressing.*

Scrooge was haunted by a different possibility, not hedonistic greed, but another traditionally English notion of Christmas. This too was rooted in a moral tradition; one of enjoyment of life, warmth, hospitality and, above all, generosity. Asceticism and suffering were eschewed in favour of hearty pleasures shared by all. This is the moral narrative that the left needs to build an alternative political economy on, rather than more preaching about obligations and respect, faith and family. It is hugely attractive.

How I would like to see the Christmas ghosts lurking in the corridors of the IMF and rattling their chains round the comfortable beds of Merkel, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, unsettling their sleep and changing their self-satisfied approach to the crisis. Instead, I can feel an omnipresent, chill spectral wind as it seeps through a taverna in Greece, pointing to the damage caused to well-run, viable businesses and livelihoods by the artificial and joyless withdrawal of demand from the economy in the name of a supposedly redemptive austerity.

*For more reasonable reflections on Blue Labour see here and here and for an account of why this is a natural moral opponent to turbo-capitalism see here. And it is worth noting that a welcome revival of interest in mutualism in the Labour tradition is underway, though Glasman is no Colin Ward.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


A new year and a new look. Much of the same old content though so don't get too excited.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Technology - old ...

... and new.

From olive trees to the Kindle; a condensed history of civilisation in Christmas presents.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

In praise of multiculturalism

There is a very good article by Nick Cohen in Standpoint about the hounding of a great Muslim Indian artist by Hindu nationalists. Read it all.

He raised doubts for me though when he wrote this:
At the heart of multicultural theory lies a trap. Of all the reasons to be wary of unelected religious leaders asking the state to suspend freedom of speech to spare their tender feelings, not the smallest is that selective censorship leaves liberals with no argument against sectarians from the dominant denomination or ethnic group. In India, multiculturalism has led to the majority — or rather demagogues claiming to represent the majority — to behave as if it were a persecuted minority.
Multiculturalism has become one of the targets for parts of the anti-totalitarian left, as well as some long-standing enemies on the right. Alarmed by the rise of jihadi terrorism and sectarian violence both have been speaking loosely of the perils of multicultural policies and argued instead for that old trope of 'integration'. This always makes me anxious and then I came across this splendid piece from Anushka Asthana, a personal account of the experience of growing up in an Anglo/Indian family, defending multicultural principles to the core.
I was listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when security minister Pauline Neville Jones came on to talk about government efforts to tackle home-grown extremism. "We do think that the previous policy... of multiculturalism, which on the whole emphasised the differences between people, was a mistaken route," she said. The presenter, Justin Webb, carried on with the conversation: no flinch; no surprise; no questions; not even a pause for breath. "For god's sake," I screeched.

Because when did we, as a society, agree that the great multicultural experiment had failed? Where is the proof that policies that specifically celebrate different identities and cultures across our nation fuel extremism in a tiny minority?

It is a great question and one that she answers well. I would go further, I would argue that the critics of multiculturalism are making two categorical errors. They are confusing diversity with relativism and cultural practice with far right ethnic and religious nationalism.

I think that we need to unpack precisely what we are talking about here. Firstly, we have always lived in multi-cultural societies. How else could Disraeli have written of Britain being two nations in the 19th Century? North and south, urban, suburban and rural, rich and poor - above all rich and poor - each have their own distinctive cultures and often separate lives and tastes. So what we really mean when we talk of multiculturalism today is something a bit different. We mean race. Opposition to multiculturalism can sometimes be soft racism.

Secondly, the argument that the whole idea of multiculturalism and related official policy has got it wrong, leading to isolated communities, vastly overrates the impact of policy or even 'theory'. OK governments do not always help; faith schools seem a neat way to create segregated schooling for example and there has been some egregious grovelling to certain nasty self-appointed 'leaders'. However, what produced distinct ethnic areas was not government policy. It was both the internal pressures of choice and cohesion and, much more importantly, the external ones of exclusion, poverty and racism. Multiculturalism is about removing the racism, thus allowing for inclusion without abandoning or devaluing other cultures. It is far weaker as a device for examining economic disadvantage, yet it is, at heart, a path to integration, opening up choices and opportunities.

So the trap Nick Cohen talks about is not a trap at the heart of multicultural theory, but two traps hidden in the liberal rejection of it. One lures the unsuspecting into alliances with soft racism, despite the best of intentions. The other is a cover for a massive failure of judgement, patronising the objects of your pity, thus allowing thoroughly nasty and unrepresentative types to win an uncritical audience by claiming to speak for them.

So why did that misjudgement take place? One reason could be that multiculturalism was not seen, as it should be, as being intrinsically connected to human rights. Diversity is welcome, misogyny is not. Diversity, equality and justice link arms and march together and so if there is one area of convergence in multi-cultural Britain it is towards universal standards of human rights, something that is lost on cultural relativists.

The idiosyncratic French philosopher Henri Bergson saw progress as the narrowing of the division between 'us' and 'them'. He was writing at a time when the view that all will be made right as long as certain groups are exterminated was being widely propagated. Now the politics of extermination are with us again. There are groups willing to define others as those to be eliminated for some imagined slight, ethnic impurity or religious unbelief. They are dangerous and need confronting. And this is where confusion has crept in. The very existence of this politics is seen as the result of one of the most effective means of countering it.

Multiculturalism succeeds because it is not about separation, it is about acceptance; inclusion rather than exclusion; seeing 'them' as 'us'. The demand to integrate is not really inclusive, it is a rejection; be like 'us' and you might become one of 'us', stay as you are and you remain 'them' - a thoroughly unwelcome 'them'. Multiculturalism, in contrast, offers diversity. Yet that diversity does not mean the toleration of injustice, it demands a respect for human rights. And this is what is meant by multicultural tolerance, not accepting the unacceptable or romanticising cruelty, but enjoying diversity and respecting difference.

It is easy to misuse the idea of multiculturalism, but there is nothing new about that. Just because authoritarian neo-fascists are fond of using the word 'freedom' and highly undemocratic regimes are prone to referring to themselves as 'democracies' does not negate freedom and democracy as ideas. Similarly with multiculturalism, its exploitation by the unscrupulous should not mean its abandonment.

Globalisation has tempted us with differing visions of homogeneity; a global market, a common culture or the idea of a revived universal humanism, for example. So it is good to be reminded of the value of a cultural and linguistic diversity that does not reject the benefits of modernity, but enhances it with a variety of patterns of living. In particular, Asthana's conclusion is spot on. We do not face a choice between multiculturalism and integration, the two are complementary, one facilitating the other. We should celebrate it rather than sagely nod our heads and discuss how it has failed.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Crappy Christmas

All you need to know about the Catalan caganer - 'the defecator' (politely) - here.

Thanks to John

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The British obsession with weather strikes again (though it is wonderful not to be there - thought I would throw that one in again).
... Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, told MPs the government needs to consider whether Britain is experiencing a "step change" in its weather which would justify continental-style winter equipment to keep roads and airports open.
Don't bother, just read this and hunker down for a couple of weeks in front of the fire. And if he still feels the need to pretend that the government is in charge of everything, read this and squirm.

Winter wonderland

Monday, December 20, 2010

Made it

And the weather is mild, in the mid teens by day, slipping down to nine or ten at night. Today a sea mist has lingered in the bay, the light is soft and dusk saw light clouds illuminated by the pink of the setting sun. There is always colour at this time of year. The leaves may be off the deciduous trees, but the oranges have ripened and stand out against the dark green leaves all around the village. They are everywhere and squashed citrus cover the road. The olive trees have a silvery look now their fruit has been picked. Tomorrow is forecast to be warmer, we may have sun.

There is no news, so why am I posting this? To piss off people in Britain, why else?

Friday, December 17, 2010

I'm dreaming of a ...

Today wasn't the best day to choose to fly to Greece via Zurich. Never mind, I will try again on Sunday. More pictures of the dramatic weather in Europe here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thechno enthusiasm

I like books. I like their feel, durability and above all their resilience to clumsiness, irritation, scribbled pencil notes and the like. I really like those special ones, the ones with a dedication written by a friend, or even by the author, on the fly leaf. They are more than books; they are possessions. But if anything was to tempt me into getting a Kindle, it is this piece from an eighty-something writer and academic. Ruth Klüger concludes her defence beautifully.
The medium is the message? No (sic) at all. The real thing is the alphabet, the written word. That is what we mean when we say "book". In this sense we can indeed predict a long and glorious future for the book in its many shapes and metamorphoses.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Revolting students

It is deeply pleasurable watching Lib Dems squirm as they get hammered on Higher Education funding. All those solemn pledges not to do what you end up doing has put paid to their squeaky clean image. Though the happiest viewer must be David Cameron. Once again Clegg & Co. get the flak rather than the Tories, whose policy it actually is. Whatever, looking at a floundering Lib Dem MP getting slaughtered by a seventeen-year-old on Channel 4 news was maliciously delightful.

OK they have a point about the reporting being a distortion of the proposals. Peter Wilby defends them from the left here, though False Economy challenges the statistics on equity in this interesting post. However, this MP looked unbearably smug when he remembered the bit about part-time students and them now having access to loans on the same basis as full-timers, so not having to pay up-front fees. He almost grinned when he talked of how people with low incomes had been deterred from taking up part-time study by up-front fees and that they were now rectifying the situation.

That was the moment I exploded. The newscaster and the articulate seventeen-year old were flummoxed. They didn't have a clue about part-time learning. Neither did the MP. I do. It was my job for fourteen years. There is currently a national scheme, introduced in 1997, now rolled out through local authorities, that ensures that low income students' fees are paid in full - a grant not a loan. Low income students on part-time degrees now pay no fees. Under these proposals they will have to pay back a loan for much higher fees. This is one area where it is unequivocally clear that the poorest are the losers.

Treating part-time students the same as full-time is long overdue and is welcome. Part-time students should not have had to pay fees up front when it was abolished for full-timers. But the current fee regime is NOT a deterrent to low income students who paid no fees at all. As for short courses, with low fees and generous fee remission schemes, which were mainly funded from teaching grant, it is hard to see how they can survive. Even in the rhetorical battle, ignorance of part-time learning is as widespread as ever.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Anxiety or hope?

The amazing thing is that ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state is not a favor to the Palestinians, it is the most urgent strategic necessity for Israel.
Two worrying pieces from Gershon Baskin here and here, worth reading in sequence. Baskin is one of the most determined of Israeli peace makers, an advocate of a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict and joint CEO of IPCRI one of the voices of sanity in the Middle East.


Let's see if this version stays available.

Hat tip to Julie

Monday, December 06, 2010


One of the talking head business experts on local TV news commented about how middle class people are now using bargain stores. You know what he called it? "Aspirational Thrift".

I despair.


I wish I had heard this live. It is enough to get me listening to the Today programme again.

Thanks to millions of people

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Snow business

This is where to get stuck.

A couple and five staff spent eight days trapped inside one of Britain's highest pubs because of heavy snow.

The Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge, near Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire, was cut off since Friday last week, as 20ft (6.1m) of snow drifted against the pub.

When I got my old job at Hull University, nearly fifteen years ago, it was to run an adult education outreach project in the North York Moors with the catchy title, Towards a University of the Moors. I got to know this pub well. It is a brilliant place with fantastic walks all round it. Go there when the weather gets a bit better. The most important part of the report?

The beer did not run out and there was plenty of food at the inn, which stands 1,325ft (404m) above sea level.

There are many, many worse places, some infested with celebrities. Get me out of here? Eventually, but don't hurry.

Friday, December 03, 2010

News from the North

Last night I finished watching a set of DVDs of the TV drama Our Friends in the North. I had missed the series when it was on TV. I didn't think it was that good, especially towards the end where it slipped the bounds of reality and got itself in a political tangle. Loosely based around the Poulson scandal and corruption in the Metropolitan police in the 1970s, it was at its best when it confronted the conflict and compromises between idealism and self-interest, though I felt it didn't get more than skin deep. But it was about my youth and I liked the nostalgia.

It seemed more relevant when I heard the news today that the former Labour MP, David Chaytor, had changed his plea to guilty for false accounting in relation to his Parliamentary expenses claims. He is someone with whom I had worked in adult education and was a friend. For a long time he was a rebel from the left of the party, consigning himself to the back benches for crimes such as voting against cuts to lone parent benefit. I remember well his hard work and ambition to get elected, but also his idealism and decency. And yet it has come to this. A career that will be remembered only for scandal.

I really don't understand it. We all seek our own benefit, even in the most altruistic of professions, yet this is different. People in public life are more likely to become targets of other people's political agendas, their disgrace neatly deflecting the threat that might be directed elsewhere. But the action remains, now clearly defined as criminal, as does the responsibility for it. It is an old cliché that every political career ends in failure, though not in tragedy. And this is a tragedy; human weakness, the temptations of power and an idealism that dreams of a better world compromised by a touch of avarice. It is all there and yet I can't help feeling that petty, squalid betrayals end in court, whilst more serious ones win you high office.


England is supposed to be mild, wet and miserable.

I hate the cold