Monday, May 28, 2012


I am going back to Greece tomorrow and the only downer is being so far away from Rugby League land. Mind you, I have stocked up for weeks on live action over just three days. Swinton had an agonising last minute defeat against the league leaders Halifax in a thriller on Friday night and then it was the Magic weekend. Three games played on Saturday and another four on Sunday; every Super League team in action, one after the other at Manchester City's stadium.

It was one of those occasions that Rugby League manages so well. For all the sport's administrative failings it is never afraid to try new ideas. It had the lot; a festival atmosphere, helped by glorious Manchester sunshine, some great running rugby, a Wigan/Saints punch up and a stunning Hull derby, won by Rovers in the final minute, which left me filled with nostalgia for place.

And then there were the fans - noisy, often pissed, without any segregation or trouble and loads of families together. My prize went to the Hull KR hen night party all dressed in specially printed tee-shirts, bright red frilly tutus and not a lot else (apart from the bride who had a white veil as well). That was going to be one hell of a night on the town.

Events like this show how the game has progressed, but it couldn't have happened without some major changes for the better in recent years. Rugby League's move to becoming a summer sport was obviously critical, this wasn't something for a January weekend at Odsal. Then there are the new stadia and the incredible development in pitches so that seven games could be played in two days with very little wear to an excellent surface just after the football season has finished. I remember the seventies and eighties when you would have been lucky to find a single blade of grass left.

It was a great way to prepare for my departure to a Greek summer of sun, crisis and village gossip. If only they played Rugby League.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Small ads


Policies for resolving the Eurozone crisis that do not kill people.

Ups and downs

It isn't often that a shadow minister gets involved in Rugby League, but Andy Burnham, shadow Health Secretary and MP for Leigh, has called for the scrapping of the franchise system and the return of automatic promotion and relegation between the top two divisions.

There is a lot that Rugby League gets right, just read David Conn here, and after a high quality Monday night contest between Leeds and St Helens and with the prospect of two days at Manchester City's stadium watching seven Super League games this weekend, it seems churlish to suggest that the game is becoming uncompetitive. Yet this sense was compounded by seeing the first game in the State of Origin series from Australia and knowing that there was no chance of any British side matching that level of speed and intensity.

There are problems at both the top and the bottom. I love the play off system for the title, but qualification for the strongest clubs is hardly a struggle with the top eight teams involved. That is more than half the league; only six sides miss out.  Down at the bottom there is nothing to play for at all and there have been some scrappy low quality games between the strugglers.

For teams in the Championship the chance of a license comes round every three years and their playing strength matters a lot less than the organisation of the club off the pitch. Hardly surprising then that the attendances at recent Championship Grand Finals have dropped.

I think some credit has to be given to the Rugby Football League, they are dealing with real problems. There are clubs that would find it very hard to sustain a full-time, top division side. They don't have the stadia, finances or support. But then they are the ones that are less likely to win promotion, whilst the possibility of going up is a great incentive to improve and pull in financial backers and sponsorship. More important is the gulf between the semi-professional and the full-time game. This would be less of a worry if there was greater depth in playing strength in this country. It is slowly improving as the Super League academies begin to produce quality players, but we are not there yet. To go up and stay up doesn't mean the signing of a few new players, it means a wholesale team transplant.

Much too is made of the yo-yo syndrome, of promoted teams going straight down again. This would be more convincing if it actually happened. Only two promoted sides have been relegated the next season and of the current fourteen Super League sides, six are there because they won promotion. This points to promotion being more of a success than it is given credit for. And it isn't as if the new process of objective criteria and full scrutiny before awarding a franchise has been wholly successful. After all, in its first year of operation it gave us Celtic Crusaders who went bust twice, had a bunch of Australian players deported because they did not have the correct visas, relocated 130 miles to the north and then finally voluntarily relegated themselves two divisions amidst a welter of recriminations.

So yes, there have to be criteria for a club to go up, but perhaps we should go back to selecting the candidates for both promotion and relegation on the old fashioned basis of merit, primarily demonstrated by performances on the pitch.

Burnham has launched a petition, you can read and sign it here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No access

This article saddened me.
A report out this week warns of a possible collapse in the numbers of mature students (those aged 21 or over when they start their course), who now make up nearly a third of the student body.

Compiled by the National Union of Students and the university thinktank Million+, which represents the views of universities with a high proportion of non-traditional students, the report, Never Too Late to Learn, urges the government to ensure that further and higher education funding changes do not deter mature student applications. 
Of course we should treat anything with the word "possible" in it as purely speculative, but the change in funding for Access courses does worry me.

For those of you who are unaware, Access courses were set up specifically for mature students without formal qualifications to provide an alternative entry route into university instead of A levels. They are, on the whole, brilliant. These days I can always spot the students who have done Access and not just by age, simply by the quality of their work. It is a far better preparation for undergraduate study than A level - and it shows.

I suppose I am biased. I was involved from the early years of Access and spent fifteen years coordinating and developing courses in both urban and rural settings, as well as being the external moderator for a number of other programmes. It was enormous fun and I am still in contact with many of the students who passed through. There was always something exciting about watching people develop and change, gaining confidence and skills as the year progressed. And some of the end of term piss-ups were legendary.

Yet there was always something odd going on. Although they were life changing and, especially in times of high unemployment, exactly what people needed to break the cycle of alternating between poor jobs and benefit, we continually had to battle authority. The main problem concerned people on benefit who were allowed to study and keep their benefits as long as they were part-time, available for work and studying under twenty-one hours. Then there was a change of attitude as benefits were hedged with a growing number of conditionalities and the pressure started to go on. Some offices interpreted the hours as including private study time and we had to argue with them. Then there was the new 'actively seeking work' test, which led to students being forced off their Access course (that lead to university) to do meaningless Restart sessions (that led nowhere). Over and over again I had to talk to staff in the benefits office to keep students on board. Some were difficult, most were sympathetic, but they too were coming under pressure.

Then came the great moment of hope. I was at a conference shortly before the 1997 general election. The then Labour spokesperson on further education made it clear that when Labour was elected it would abolish the "counter productive" ( I think she also called it stupid, but can't quite be sure) twenty-one hour rule that limited people studying when they were on benefit. I was impressed.

Labour duly won. And yes they changed the rule. They tightened it up and made it more restrictive. Claimants were now limited to sixteen hours of study. It was one of my early moments of disillusion.

It is something that I could never understand. We took people with little or no qualifications off the dole, got them into university and did it cheaply. And still we had to struggle with authority to to do something as worthwhile and so much in the national interest.

I lost touch eventually; by then I was working University Adult Education, where the hopes engendered by a Labour victory soon evaporated as well. And once again, funding changes have lead to the gradual demise of many fine departments as well as to my own premature retirement.

Trying to make sense of it all leaves me perplexed, though I think two attitudes that are very hard to shift are crucial. The first is that there is a range of prejudices about precisely who we should expect to be a student. Age plays a role. I have given up being irritated when higher education is being spoken of as being important for 'our young people'. Then again, so does class. For all the rhetoric about the inclusion of people from 'less well-off backgrounds', there is little incentive to make the profound institutional and cultural changes that are needed to make wider participation a reality.

But the most important one is that, despite all the grand proclamations we hear about change and novelty, there is a deep suspicion of unorthodoxy ingrained in our institutions. If it is different, it can't be as good. I mean people still talk of A levels as the 'gold standard'. An odd metaphor, though perhaps an apt one, as we abandoned it in 1931 because of the damage it was doing to the economy. The irony is lost on them.

And that is the problem. Adult education in general has always been the exception, the embarrassing relative who won't be quiet and just fit in with everyone else. Popular and populist, it is both voluntary and successful. And it really lets the side down by being innovative and creative. At its best it is the antithesis of orthodoxy and that will not do. That will not do at all.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Academic life

Dissidents at work here. Famous thinkers on the modern university.

The gem is Karl Marx's annual appraisal.

Thank god I have my pension.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Conflict unresolved

Nothing concentrates the mind as wonderfully as panic. According to this report even Mervyn King now admits that the Eurozone problem is not merely the fault of indigent and corrupt Mediterranean types, but is systemic. 
"What is so depressing about it is that this is a rerun of the debates in 2007/08 – these are not liquidity problems, they are solvency problems," King said. "Imbalances between countries in the euro area have created creditors and debtors and at some point the credit losses will need to be recognised and absorbed and shared around," he said.
"Until that is done, there will not be a resolution. That is why just kicking the can down the road is not an answer ..."
 Meanwhile, in Timothy Garton Ash's words, "Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble still preaches the gospel of Ordoliberalism as if it were revealed truth".  Berlin is still in denial.

The drama continues, but at the expense of people's lives and livelihoods. Whilst the Greek elections seem to offer a democratic challenge, real power lies elsewhere and could be used to punish Greece for its choice. And offering a stark choice, based on either rational self-interest or blackmail depending on where you stand, may be counter productive. As Keep Talking Greece comments:
If the EU keeps on putting in front of Greeks the dilemma ”Euro or Drachma” I am afraid at the end Greeks will vote for “Dignity”….
And then what?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Arts news

From the Guardian (nearly):
The discrete pastel shades and the almost childlike representational style of these watercolours depict the gentle, flowery side of that well-known dog lover and artist Adolph Hitler.
Coming next; Pol Pot's bedtime stories for children, Joseph Stalin's early recordings of Gregorian plainsong, and lifestyle coach and agony uncle Tomás de Torquemada discusses his editorship of the magazine True Confessions.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

All in it together

Once again the spotlight is on Greece.  Some of the coverage is excellent - up to a point. That point is when they stop at the Greek borders and forget this is a pan-European problem.

Let's face it. There is a lot wrong with the Greek state. Anyone who has had any dealings with their fabled bureaucracy will know the intense irritation, the queues, the inefficient systems and the general default level of unhelpfulness. They will also appreciate the kindness and frustration of the other Greeks who help you deal with it. It needs reform. The Greek people want it. There are also a number of, often severe, problems with the Greek domestic economy. But if this was solely a Greek crisis we would not be talking about Spain, Ireland, Portugal or Italy.

Commentators also point with some bafflement at the apparent contradiction of Greek public opinion wishing to stay in the Euro whilst rejecting the bailout terms. There is no contradiction here if you support the European Union yet think that the economic policies are, at best, counter-productive or, at worst, downright crazy. Why should there only be one model of political economy required for Euro membership - in perpetuity? Seen this way, the election results are perfectly coherent. They acknowledge the importance of Europe to Greece, they express support for the reform of the state, but they also display horror at a policy that is sucking demand out of the economy at an alarming rate, closing viable small businesses and collapsing living standards. Greece needs reform, but then so does the EU, especially when it comes to their ideological certainties about the macroeconomic policy of the Eurozone. It is that policy that is being rejected everywhere, not the European Union itself.

And not only is this crisis affecting all of Europe, so the economic policy being followed is not made domestically. It is decided elsewhere and being imposed on many other countries with the same political and economic results. It is a uniform pan-European policy.

The mainstream parties of the right and left are the ones responsible for implementation, so can anyone be in the slightest bit surprised that their support has collapsed? Do they really think that people will 'return to their senses' after their protest vote and fall in line behind austerity? If so, they don't get it. I cannot remember a time when politicians have been as remote from the lives of their electors and as cocooned against the world they claim to represent. This complacency has not yet been shaken, protected as it is by phalanxes of platitudes, but I hope that there are a few nervous glances being turned towards the world outside their double glazing and wrought iron gates.

By way of illustration, there is a good piece by Andrea Teti in Open Democracy about the Italian regional elections.
... the greatest surprise of all has been the performance of the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S) led by figurehead Beppe Grillo, a political satirist and stand-up comedian. Polling at just above 5% a month before the elections, voters propelled it to a 15% national average, electing its first mayors, and even overtaking Berlusconi’s PDL in important heartland cities like Verona.

... The message that seems to emanate from all these polls is a resounding mistrust in and repudiation of ruling politicians, their methods, and their policies – austerity first and foremost. Traditional parties should beware the costs of ignoring it.
And before we disparage those who call for the reform of EMU as extremists, it is worth considering his conclusion.
The disappearance of the ‘old left’ over the past two decades has been the subject of extensive debates. The disappearance of traditional liberalism and of a moderately progressive agenda – one of the hallmarks of post-World War II European politics – has been less frequently noted.
This is a pan-EU crisis, a perfect storm consisting of domestic weaknesses, the fallout from the credit crunch and the flaws in European Monetary Union. Domestic change can achieve little unless both the banking sector and EMU are reformed as well. And that requires an intellectual shift, one that is being articulated by these 'far left' groups espousing the political economy of - er, Harold Macmillan.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


From an excellent chronological account of the disastrous management of the Greek debt crisis in the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Papandreou says that when he asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for gentler conditions in 2010, she replied that the aid program had to hurt. "We want to make sure nobody else will want this," Ms. Merkel told him.

Apocalypse now

In response to the political impasse in Greece, Angela Merkel has issued a statement saying that unless Greece sticks to the terms of its 'bail out' darkness will fall across the earth, famine will stalk the land and vicious creatures, half-human and half-wolf, will roam the streets baying for blood. Mothers will eat their own babies, the ground will open and swallow whole cities whilst the Euro will be no more. A leading member of the Bundestag also warns that the tooth fairy will no longer visit Greek children.

In the meantime, Paul Mason talks some sense:
So we are back to the same problem that has dogged Greece. It cannot stay in the Euro without abiding by the rules. And the rules, as currently designed, will force the economy into a downward spiral and destroy social cohesion. Unless the EU/IMF take some kind of initiative that allows some form of viable coalition to emerge to implement some kind of "Plan B" you will sooner-or-later have a debtor-led default on your hands and most likely a prolonged social conflict.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


They were hardly a surprise, but no wonder the powers that be preferred unelected technocrats. That pesky electorate just can't be trusted. And we have the Irish referendum still to come.

Paul Krugman, amongst many others, gets it.
The French are revolting. The Greeks, too.
And it’s about time. Both countries held elections Sunday that were in effect referendums on the current European economic strategy, and in both countries voters turned two thumbs down. 
Angela Merkel is more resistant to it.

Jeffrey Sachs gets something else.
French and Greek voters have rejected Europe’s current macroeconomic framework.  The headlines cry that voters demand growth rather than austerity.  Yet growth is not a policy but an outcome.  A vote rejecting the incumbents does not define the policy alternatives.
And this is where Aditya Chakrabortty's complaint about the disengagement of academics from policy comes in. And I would add another. Even where there is engagement, with some notable exceptions, much of the writing is incomprehensible to non-specialists. Absence combined with poor communication has created a double vacuum, one that is exploited by crude populism, xenophobia or a terrible uncertainty. Bad times can lead to bad choices - and just under 7% of Greek voters made the worst one possible. Golden Dawn are often referred to as neo-Nazis. There is nothing neo about them at all.

Maria Margaronis sums it up well:
The message of Sunday's election in Greece is clear: the Greeks have said no to more of the cuts and austerity measures that have devastated the country, pushing unemployment above 20%, shattering the healthcare system, tearing families apart and leading some to suicide. It was above all a vote of rage against the two major parties, Pasok and New Democracy, which between them ran the economy into the ground, signed up to a disastrous austerity programme in exchange for dead-end bailouts from the EU and IMF, and then allowed the blows to fall on the most vulnerable.

The medium, though, is more confused and troubling. 
Is austerity now dead? Or will the new French boy be tempted into a compromise by the German head girl? Can the Euro survive? Each episode promises to be a cliffhanger. And just how high is that cliff?

It seems that the time is approaching when the contradictions inherent in a flawed monetary union and the wrong-headed policy adopted to deal with the resultant problems will have to be faced and resolved. An interesting few months are in store.

Yet in the midst of all the discussion of macroeconomic policy following the election of Hollande, which I welcome, something momentous has been missed. The internationalism of the anti-totalitarian left has been abandoned to the accompaniment of silence. Amongst Hollande's election pledges is an early withdrawal from Afghanistan. The people of Greece may now have a moment of hope, for Afghans there is only the prospect of another long, dark night of suffering.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Lost property

Scientific understanding - lost
Grip on reality - lost
Integrity - lost
Moral compass - lost
Credibility - lost
Marbles - lost
Mind - lost

If found, please return to the Heartland Institute.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

On the one hand ...

... there is this from Costas Douzinas:
But the tectonic plates of society and politics are shifting. The many thousands who filled Syntagma and other squares last year were a leaderless movement without party or common ideology. Seasoned trade unionists and militants acted alongside first-time dissidents and protesters to change politics. They now have the chance to supplement their version of direct democracy and social solidarity with parliamentary representation. The election on Sunday could see not only the collapse of the political elite but also a redrawing of the political map, with the left replacing Pasok.

Post-civil war Greece exiled, imprisoned and persecuted the left, confining its parties to symbolic and ineffective opposition. This period is now coming to an end. A new hegemonic bloc combining the defence of life, democracy and independence is bringing together people who historically found themselves on opposing sides.
But on the other, here is Kostis Karpozilos:
These tendencies reveal deep transformations of Greek society, including the shift of the public agenda to the conservative Right. In contrast with what many believe, Greece is not facing the prospect of imminent social revolution from the left. To the contrary, we have seen a constant and often subtle shift toward conservative solutions. A few weeks ago the coalition government announced a plan for camps where thousands of undocumented immigrants would be confined; this measure appeared as the sole solution to a controversial social issue, and was met with widespread applause. The two ruling parties, PASOK and New Democracy, constantly target the social state, or what is left of it, and demonize central values of the post-junta democracy. They both attack the “extreme” Left, calling it “dangerous” and threatening to the stability of the state, in rhetoric that echoes a time when political activity was criminalized.

The recent strengthening of the fragmented Greek Left appears more fragile in this light. Even though it is anticipated that the various radical left parties will exceed 20 percent of the popular vote, their temporary success cannot disguise their inherent vulnerability: the lack of a persuasive alternative program. They have been unable to transform their anti-austerity slogans into a coherent plan for the “day after.”
Wishful thinking?  Undue pessimism? Or just the contradictions and uncertainties thrown up by the politics of austerity?

News from the sewer

It was back in 2007 that I attended a conference in Hull addressed by Johan Galtung and wrote a highly critical (and over long) post on his dreadful talk. I thought the line he was trotting out was the usual apologist and relativist tosh, elaborated without thought or intellectual rigour.

It wasn't obscene though. This is.

Read for yourself, I can't bear to post extracts, it comes from a Norwegian magazine, The Humanist.

The editor's comments say it all.
Since Galtung now is using thinly disguised Nazi propaganda as the source material, it is perhaps not surprising that he also defends The Protocols of the Elders of Zion ... In the previous issue of the Humanist John Faerseth accused Johan Galtung to play with fire. With this article, Galtung has become the arsonist.
Galtung is one of the founders of the discipline of peace research. If this is where it leads us, it has gone badly wrong.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May Day special

Stephen King has a rant about tax and the rich in the USA.
I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing “Disco Inferno” than pay one more cent in taxes ...
And, taking on the cult of the admiration of wealth, he doesn't seem to like them much either:
...most rich people are as boring as old, dead dog shit.
 (Dead dog shit? Never come across any that was alive myself, never mind, I get the drift).

Aside from restating the social democratic case, the best part of the piece is his implication that the construction of economic theories on the basis of the pathologies and delusions of the dysfunctional rich might not be that wise.