Thursday, 17 August 2017

What can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler?






Sorry about that picture - the stuff of nightmares indeed! This kind of follows on from yesterdays post about 'heroes'. One of the things I was saying in there was that we need to be careful about 'dehumanising' politicians either as 'heroes' or villains'. This post is about those people, and politicians in particular, who carefully construct a 'persona' in order to do just that for themselves.

Let's start with Adolf Hitler - a very well known and obvious example of this. What was seen on news reels and in speeches was not 'Adolph Hitler' the man at all - it was a very, very carefully constructed persona. A deliberate image designed specifically for effect, and something he spent many hours in the mirror practising. The jerky movements, the poses, the little moustache, the hair, the voice, the costumes - all were artificially constructed, and constructed for a purpose. It was intended to make him seem just that bit 'otherworldly', as if he wasn't quite the same as any other human being, and didn't come from quite the same world as ordinary people. It didn't matter that it was at times a little bit comical - whether he knew that and intended it or not I don't know, but the point was to mark himself out as being 'not of this earth'. Something new and different. Slightly alien. If that eccentricity of character made people chuckle a little under their breath it not only worked just the same, but actually allowed a route into their minds for him to be viewed with a kind of 'affection' rather than as a threat.

So where does Doctor Who come in? Well, that character has been built with the same effect in mind. Of course in his case he is actually an alien, but the point of his quirky costumes and occasionally slightly non-human behaviour is to remind us of that. It's a dramatic ruse, and a very effective one - we may see his frailties from time to time, and he may make us laugh with some of his eccentricity, but in seeing him as 'otherworldly' it's easy for us to accept by implication that he is just that little bit 'superhuman'. Of course, such a character has to come with flaws too, and the Doctor is no exception - he can be unthinking and callous, he can lack normal human empathy, and he is capable of doing what ordinary people wouldn't in order to serve the greater good. We accept that, because we know he is slightly 'superhuman' - we expect him to not always behave as others would, and that's all part of his charm.

There are many other fictional examples - television detectives very often play on the same kind of idea. Their almost inhuman reasoning and discovery powers are easier for us to 'believe' (in the sense of theatrical 'suspension of disbelief, of course) because they come as part of an almost inhuman complete package. Take Colombo as an example, or even Gregory House. Perhaps the best known detective to employ this is the Sherlock Holmes character - always constructed in that way as written, but even more so in the recent Sherlock TV series - he is human, but not quite. He has otherworldly 'powers' and methods to see what 'ordinary people' couldn't possibly imagine from the evidence that's presented. That allows us to ignore the normal emotional effects of the character 'flaws' that have been built in to enhance that 'otherworldliness' - we wouldn't normally be cheering on a self-centred, self-serving drug addict, but in a case like his it's part of his 'heroic charm'. It's a more subtle and believable approach to drama than the simple Super Hero in his flowing cape, mysterious mask and outside-worn underwear, but the effect is much the same on the way we are drawn to view the character. They seem somehow 'above and beyond' ordinary humanity, and that is quite deliberate. It's what makes them dramatic 'heroes' as opposed to simply being 'characters'.

That's all well and good in a fictional character, but when it comes to real people it becomes a something to be concerned about. The 'constructed persona' in politics can be very effective in manipulating people to support someone as if they were almost a 'superhero' - to believe that a person has a greater understanding and insight than us 'mere mortals'. The otherworldly, almost superhuman mystique constructed as a character around a politician can allow them to rise rapidly in a way that other politicians can't, and/or to do and say things that we would normally dismiss. Adolf Hitler was able to do what he did because he drew the adoration of supporters by appearing 'otherworldly' - a 'national superhero'. Any flaws people saw in him just became part of that persona, and anything he said that they wouldn't have agreed with before became acceptable precisely because he was unconsciously assumed to have a greater understanding and vision than an ordinary person possibly could. As much as we should dismiss him as a perpetrator of evil, we have to recognise his cleverness in constructing such a character for himself in the minds of so many of the German people. We have to recognise it, and we have to understand it, so that we can spot anyone else who is trying to do the same sort of thing in future.

Of course, the superhuman persona idea in politics is not at all new. It's something that rulers, especially hereditary rulers, have been doing for a very long time. To put it bluntly, being 'God's anointed' really isn't believable if it's obvious that God is willing to anoint just anyone - they have to be 'special', and rulers have used propaganda to attribute a wide variety of 'special' attributes to themselves. There are obvious contemporary examples, too - take a look at certain troublesome dictators in the Far East, and how they constantly have their people told that they can play a round of golf in less shots than there are holes, or that they don't use the toilet like other human beings have to. From the outside it seems so obvious - it seems so silly that anyone would ever accept that, but the fact is that they do. It's a little different on the inside of a world where all media is controlled, and used to repeat the same messages to people from the day they are born. Of course, hereditary rulers have that at their disposal, but those seeking power have to be a little more subtle in order to be believable. It's the same basic approach, but toned down just enough that people can accept them as being human even though they are somehow slightly more than human. A fine line to tread, and also an approach with risks - such people can fall out of favour with all but their most irrationally fervent supporters even more quickly than they get themselves into it when their careful construct starts to fall apart. Once you see through the smoke and mirrors, you will always know that they were smoke and mirrors from the start (and you'll probably find it hard to understand how you were ever taken in by it all).

Now I'm not talking here about simple 'spin' or 'media training' - those are an inevitable part of politics, because politics requires people to be popular enough to get elected. Those at the higher levels of politics will always need to enhance their image, soften their rough edges, and handle public appearances and media interview situations well. They will have media training, and may employ image consultants, and so on. Many at the lower levels of politics will inevitably have to think along similar lines in a way, although I suspect many have less training and image consultancy than many people think. There really isn't a secret factory turning out 'politicians' as slick creatures of image perfection! That's not what I'm talking about here - the kind of stuff done by the likes of Blair and Thatcher were simple enhancements to make the public like or accept them more as human beings, rather than almost entirely false constructs to make them seem 'otherworldly' or 'superhuman'. Whether you liked them or not, and whether the spin was a little over-slick or not, you always pretty much knew what Thatcher and Blair were really about. They were trying to present themselves in the best light rather than trying to hide their real selves behind a constructed persona. It was a slight modification to attract, rather than a complete construction to distract, and those are very different things.

So let's think about how you would construct such an otherworldly persona for political purposes. You need to be 'quirky' in the way you speak, the way you act and the way you look. You need to mark yourself out as 'different', and so by implication 'special'. You need to be putting things in ways that other people wouldn't think to put them. Being slightly amusing isn't a bad thing - if your 'oddity' is a slightly amusing kind of 'oddity', then it attracts people to you all the more. It disarms their normal cynical defences. It can even distract them from what you are really doing and saying, just because it's you who is saying it, you are saying it in a strange way, and they know that 'that's just the way you are'. You need to look 'different' - you need to wear clothes that are a little away from the run of the mill current fashions (old fashioned works well, but just plain odd or ill-matching is also effective). Perhaps some kind of wild and funny hairstyle, too - something that marks you out as someone who doesn't really need to care about appearance in the way that ordinary folk inevitably would. You don't want the slick tailored suit of a Tony Blair. Quite the opposite - you want to appear memorably not quite the same as anyone else would ever dream of looking, especially if they were wanting to present themselves as worthy of election to high public office.

Is this starting to ring any bells yet? Why do you think someone like Donald Trump keeps that ludicrous trademark hairstyle of his - he knows full well that it's completely ridiculous in fashion terms, and that it should really make him a laughing stock. He's now in political office, of course, but these kind of techniques can work in the cut-throat world of top business too - they might distract others from issues like multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures, and very wealthy backgrounds that haven't actually got much wealthier through great business success despite the endless claims of business genius. He looks strange. He speaks strange. He's really not quite like anybody else on the planet. It almost feels like he's 'not of this world'. For some it's quite easy to see through, in the sense that it's clear that he's really talking simplistic nonsense, but he isn't trying to speak to those people. The simplistic and almost child-like language is very deliberately aimed at a specific target audience, and for them the fact that he is saying what others won't in a way that others don't is almost magical, when it's combined with his slightly otherworldly image. For those who aren't quite in that target demographic, it can still be slightly appealing, or at least mostly inoffensive, because 'that's just him', and he's 'a little different'. It's very clever, and it's very devious - we certainly shouldn't ever underestimate those with such a carefully constructed persona.

And what about here in the UK? Are there any politicians that come to mind who seem harmlessly eccentric but somehow not quite like other people? Any who have appealed even to natural political opponents on some level because of their apparent 'goofiness' and affable but somewhat eccentric charm, perhaps? Any who seem to get their names mentioned in contexts and at levels that you would never normally imagine someone so apparently daft or odd to reach? Any who seem to be attracting passionate support as almost messiah-like figures because they just don't seem quite like any other 'normal' politician in the way they speak, look or act? Anyone who, when you think about it, might just be 'getting away with it' despite their apparent lack of the usual kind of competence that we'd expect from our politicians? Three names spring immediately to my mind: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Have a think about those characters. A really good think. Do they seem real to you, or are they deliberate constructions? Are their apparently otherworldly eccentricities allowing them to distract attention from what they are really all about as politicians? I'll leave you to decide that for yourselves.

I must say a word here about Jeremy Corbyn, since I've mentioned the messiah-like adoration, and that certainly appears to be an issue attributable to his hardcore support. We have to be careful to distinguish between those who construct a useful false persona, and those for whom a potentially false persona is constructed by others in order to spread his message. I certainly don't think that you can say that Jeremy Corbyn pretends to be something that he isn't in the same way, or has used those techniques of creating and impression of otherworldliness to get where he is. Indeed, where he is now is something of a surprise given where he has been for most of his political career - a perpetual backbench rebel with an undeniable talent for rabble-rousing in the political rally scenario.

He's never hidden himself in that way, but there do seem to have been some attempts to raise an otherworldly mystique about him since his election to the leadership of his party. For example, almost as soon as he was elected there were a string of social media posts about how he never claimed expenses while other MPS claimed hundreds of thousands. Whoever created these must have known that they weren't true - the figures came from IPSA, but didn't compare like with like. The other MP's figures were drawn from the total, including office and staff costs, second home allowances, and so on. His were his personal claims only, and it was never explained that he wasn't eligible for the same level as many other MPs because his constituency is in London, as stone's throw from parliament, and the smallest geographically in the country. Of course, an MP effectively runs a 'branch office' of parliament in their constituency, but all of the office costs (including the salaries of the support staff an MP needs to do their job) as described as 'expenses' it creates a false impression, and certainly there were those who sought to exploit that for the purposes of creating a saintly mystique around Jeremy Corbyn. That should be noted as something beyond normal political spin, and something to be wary about, but as far as I can see it didn't come directly from him, and it was certainly not the same issue that this post is discussing - it's not what he's built his political career upon (and it is something that careers have to be built on from day one - you can't invent a new persona that you haven't used all along and maintain the kind of public credibility that you need for it in order to be able to pull it off).

It happens that the names I have mentioned here have come from the Right Wing of politics, but we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that they are the only ones capable of doing it. Remember that not all dictators and rulers come from that side of the political spectrum, and it's entirely possible that some of the more famous leaders of communist countries, for example, have used similar ideas. Indeed, where I have been using 'otherworldly', you could also perhaps use the term 'larger than life', and all sides of politics have had such characters. It's not necessarily always easy to tell the genuinely slightly eccentric from the constructs, of course, especially when you are around in the world that they may be trying to manipulate with their persona. With hindsight, though, we could perhaps consider cases like Cyril Smith - how much of his apparently 'larger than life' persona was constructed to distract people from some of the activities that we didn't really learn about until after his death? Likewise we can consider the likes of Jimmy Savile, of course - another slightly 'otherworldly' character who manipulated many people into believing that he was something he was not, and who used it to distract attention away from what he really was. A slightly different manifestation from the political arena, of course, but the technique of deliberate persona construction is really pretty similar.

I should say here that not every use of an apparent bit of eccentricity is being used for quite such evil means as some of the examples above, though it may still be considered somewhat devious. I will cite an example of someone I knew not through or in politics (and had great respect for) who used it, to an extent, as a technique in meetings. He would go into meetings having determined what it was he wanted to achieve, or what subject he particularly wanted to avoid discussing. During the meeting, he would use the fact that he was genuinely, naturally affable but apparently slightly 'bumbling' in manner (despite actually being very bright and sharp) to just direct the discussions slightly. If he wanted to avoid a particular topic, he would pick on another unrelated point coming up before it and hammer away at it seemingly endlessly, even though it would seem irrelevant to everyone else, and he would seem to be misunderstanding some aspect of it slightly. To put it simply, he would irritate people so that they'd want to shut him up, and so that they'd avoid raising the other subject lest it 'set him off again' and they be stuck listening to him all day. It could be very frustrating for people, I'm sure, but was actually a master-class in meeting manipulation. A little underhand, perhaps, but never aimed at anything more getting things done in the way he wanted them done (and with hindsight he was very often correct). Not so much creating a false persona as it was emphasising slightly aspects of his natural character to gain momentary advantage over those who didn't quite spot what he was doing at the time.

We obviously mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who is slightly eccentric, or who sometimes uses their own eccentricity to gain a little advantage, is somehow an 'evil genius' or 'wannabe dictator'. There are those who go way beyond that kind of thing, though. Those who deliberately construct a persona to achieve their ends. Some of those achieve their ends that way before anybody has really realised exactly what they are up to.

I'll finish by answering the question I began with, 'what can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler'? We can learn to watch out for the apparently slightly otherwordly - those who seem not quite 'of this world' in some way, in case that is something they are putting forward quite deliberately as an artificially constructed persona. In fiction it's a very useful dramatic device. In the real world it is something altogether different. Such people are, by definition, not quite what they would have you believe, but they can become very popular very quickly, and they can appear to transcend normal politics to achieve personal ends through distraction and manipulation. And they can do it while many people aren't really looking. That makes them very, very dangerous.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A few of my political 'heroes'.



This is a bit of an odd post for me, which is why the title says 'heroes' rather than just heroes. I'm not normally given to 'hero worship' at all - I tend to see people as people, with all of their complications and mix of admirable and less admirable traits. That goes for the famous as much as for everyone else, and while I might find some points interesting or inspirational in some way I don't find that they erase the negative for me to the point where I see them as 'heroes' in the sense some people seem to use. That's just me - I've never gone in for that kind of adoration stuff, as many people seem to.

That said, there are people I think of in a sense as having been inspirational on the political stage in some way (as indeed there are musicians, actors, and so on, but this post isn't about them). None of them are 'heroes' to me in the sense of me putting them on any kind of pedestal, having their posters on my wall, or invoking their spirit as I try to do my bit politically. In fact, they are mostly pretty complicated characters, and some have made some pretty huge mistakes in their lives and careers. They certainly aren't all people I agree with politically by any means either - they might have done things I admire in ways I can appreciate, but that doesn't mean I fully agree even with those things let alone with their wider political views.

That's how I think things should be, though - I'm not one for blanket dismissal or vague dehumanisation of opposition politicians, and I do think we can disagree respectfully on politics with people we regard as friends, or as fine people who seem (to us) misguided in their views. I don't tend to do the 'bloody this' or 'bloody that' type of politics. There are opposition people I regard less highly, of course - people that I believe to be primarily self-interested, and/or that I don't believe to be genuinely standing up for what they believe to be right at all, for example. I have little time for that kind of political person, but I don't think that is restricted to any particular kind of political view.

Indeed, I don't think any particular kind of political view is immune from having such people among those parties who advocate their views either. It is a sad fact that 'power', of whatever kind and at whatever level, will always attract some who see it as a means to a personal end. There will always be the personally ambitious, the primarily selfish and the simply arrogant in politics - it's a fact of life that all of us involve ourselves in politics should be aware of and remind ourselves about from time to time. While we should all (in all parties) be calling out such people when we find them, I think it should be noted that it certainly isn't the case that 'all politicians are the same', or indeed that a majority (in any party) go into 'politics' with such motives in their minds. Some may be seduced later on, of course, but I think most people in politics (elected and otherwise) genuinely get involved because they believe they can make the world a better place in some way (though they don't all agree what way that is, obviously!), and most do stay like that throughout their lives and/or political careers. I don't think the low reputation that all 'politicians' have in some quarters is justified at all, though I think there are example for that reputation and worse is thoroughly deserved. All the more so because of the disrepute that their actions bring down on all of 'politics', and the damage they therefore do to democracy and to their country. I won't name names, though!

So onwards to some of my 'heroes', for want of a better term.

I really have to start at what was the beginning for my own politics, with David Steel (Baron Steel of Aikwood, as he is now officially known). I grew up watching the news through the period of the catastrophic end of the Callaghan government (hence, like many my age and older, I always know exactly where to find the candles in my house!), the subsequent Thatcher government, and the rise of a kind of 'radicalism' in British politics on both sides. The political news was dominated by what might be called 'ranters' of one kind or another, each utterly dismissing 'the other side' as something apparently akin to pure evil, and each seemingly determined on a course of 'no dialogue' and 'no quarter' (a kind of politics we are sadly seeing again in the UK today). On the one hand you had the likes of Thatcher and Tebbit, and on the other Foot and Scargill - perhaps the ultimate expression of this was the strike that was so destructive to the country, and to so many communities in my part of the world. I've mentioned that, and David Steel, in a previous post: Orgreave, Coal and Steel (David!).

Throughout that period there was always what seemed to me to be the quiet voice of reason, and that was the voice of David Steel. The very embodiment of 'when all around are losing their heads...', it seemed to me even at a very young age. That experience was, I must conclude looking back, a very important part of what forged my own political views. It seems to me now that there are some who forget just what an important voice he was in the history of our party and our Liberal movement, leading as he did throughout that difficult period, through the period of the 'Alliance', and right up until the foundation of the new party. Indeed, it saddens me rather that our more recent improvements in party membership card, with pictures of prominent Liberal and Lib Dem party figures, does not include the option of Lord Steel. Perhaps too many people see the past through the prism of the character assassination by satire that was perpetrated by 'Spitting Image' - I don't know, but I do think it's a shame.

That is not to say that he was, or is, any more perfect than anyone else, of course - he's a human being, he made mistakes, and he did and said things that I don't necessarily agree with (I don't necessarily agree with every word said by any politician or party - I fear that anyone who does isn't adequately thinking for themselves!). However, to lead a third party in that period in the dignified, sensible and pragmatic way that he did took, I think, great courage and fortitude - sometimes it's easy to forget that history remembers those who shout loudest and those who win big, but they certainly aren't the whole story, and those who contributed in other ways should perhaps get the recognition they deserve. At a time when the Liberal centre of politics is again getting heavily squeezed between 'radicals', we should remember those without whom we may not still be here at all as an independent political force, and David Steel is without doubt among the most important of those from that particular period. On a more personal note, he was certainly the single most important figure in the early formation of my own political views., and in my very humble opinion the greatest Prime Minister that Britain never had.

OK, so this must be the single most predictable 'political hero' selection someone in the UK could present, Winston Churchill. In my part of the UK, though, it's a pretty controversial choice - that goes to illustrate what I said about seeing people 'in the round', mistakes and misdeeds and all. In a sense, that's actually partly why I include him here - my opinion about him is not based what you might call 'the usual flag waving' stuff about being a great leader during a time of war. He probably was that, though even there I'd say he wasn't exactly perfect, and made many mistakes (including 'back of a fag packet' deals with Stalin to split Europe).

He was certainly a very complicated character in many ways. Slightly obsessed with his own sense of 'destiny', but at the same time prone to bouts of deep depression (and that's without mentioning his possibly excessive alcohol consumption). I guess you could say that he did what he did while fighting his own demons, and that in itself is an achievement. What he wasn't particularly prone to was party loyalty, of course - he was a fiercely independent thinker, and that is something I personally find admirable (though inevitable I disagree with many of the thoughts he had during his long career).

However you look at him, he will always be a towering figure in British politics. Probably one of the greatest, and certainly one of the most quotable, orators in history. Even with his undoubtedly arrogant sense of personal destiny, though, he was able to acknowledge at least some of his own failings and mistakes, and take personal responsibility for them - perhaps his time in the trenches is the best illustration of that. He also seemed to be able to look beyond the 'sweeping' and see and appreciate the important smaller details, something often missed by those who see themselves in grand terms. Though he got many things very wrong, in my opinion, particularly in the post-War era, he also got some things right (especially as a Liberal serving with Lloyd George - we Liberals shouldn't forget his contributions in that period). He is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in political history, and someone I freely confess that I find utterly fascinating.

This is one that might surprise a few people: former Plaid Cymru President and MP Gwynfor Evans. My regard for him as a political figure certainly isn't about supporting 'nationalism' at all - it's about personal determination to pursue what he saw as the right course, sometimes in the face of some pretty bitter opposition even from within his own supposed political allies. When others advocated something much more like a 'revolutionary' nationalist movement to improve the lot of Wales (and it did need improving in many ways, and still does), he chose the course of democracy. When others sometimes leaned towards a more radical (and sometimes more than merely 'radical') stance, he won and maintained the heart and soul of a 'nationalist' party as a force for change achieved primarily through the ballot box. Certainly not afraid to put himself on the line directly when necessary in particular campaigns (for example when it came to the issue of creating a Welsh language TV channel, something that was badly needed), he also made a huge contribution towards furthering his beliefs in a pragmatic and democratic manner.

There is no doubt that he had a great deal of political courage, and political courage directed fundamentally towards peaceful means. There were others in his party who were very much more inclined towards other means, and in some cases even towards other ends, but it is in no small part due to him that they failed to gain the upper hand. Personally I think that was a hugely important contribution to Wales - the other way would have gained a very different reaction from opponents and public alike, could have caused a spiral of reactionary radicalisation on both sides, and could have put Wales in a very different place today in terms of recognition and devolution. As much as I disagree with many of the things that he and his party (then and now) have said and stood for, and as much as there may still be some more 'negative' forces supporting that party in some places, the brand of 'nationalism' that we generally have in Wales is a peaceful, democratic and broadly pragmatic movement for ultimate civic secessionism - one that is also fully engaged in the democratic processes, and also in wanting to make Wales a better place for its people in the meantime (though we may fundamentally disagree about how best to do that). It could quite easily have been so very different, as it was elsewhere in the then UK.

And while we're in Wales, I next must come to Aneurin Bevan. Father of the NHS? Well, as a Liberal I would obviously have to say a firm 'no', and point out that the NHS was the brainchild of Beveridge. However, as much as he wasn't the father, he was certainly a darned good midwife, and that was a vitally important role that needed to be played. While Liberals might sometimes understandably feel somewhat aggrieved that the credit for our health service is so completely claimed by the Labour party, I don't think that that should mean that we fail to acknowledge the tremendous work that was done to being the idea to life, and much of that credit absolutely should be given to Nye Bevan.

It's not just about that for me, though, and nor is it about him being another great orator, although he was that too. It's the fact that he was clearly a man of deep and heartfelt principle, but was again capable of great pragmatism where it was necessary to achieve what he wanted to achieve. He famously 'stuffed their mouth with gold' while forming the NHS, when he could have tried to dig in his heels and take a 'principled stand' that would, I strongly suspect, ultimately have failed to produce the necessary results. There is also the issue of nuclear disarmament, on which he took a pragmatic stance that annoyed many of his own closest political allies. This is an example that I think we should all remind ourselves about when we think and operate in the political world - while we might seek perfection, we need to be able to recognise when a more practical approach might actually get better results in the end.

This is again a pretty predictable example of 'political hero', but it's one that I couldn't miss out. There's not really much to say about Nelson Mandela that hasn't already been written many times over by better writers than me, but this is about my personal view. For me it is about his ability to understand how things needed to be done for the future of his country. It's not so much about his principled stance against apartheid, though having that stance was of course the right thing to do. It is about, as many have recognised, him being able to not just forgive and move on himself but also about the way in which he so effectively brought such a troubled and divided country towards reconciliation.

It would be wrong to say that he was perfect, of course, and it would be wrong to say that everything he did was perfect or that the country is now perfect. there are many problems in South Africa, and at least some of those may perhaps be due to some (probably inevitable - nobody can predict the future entirely) failings of foresight in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the previous regime. Again, he wasn't a 'hero' to me in the sense that some may use the term. That's not the point, though - as with some others that I've mentioned, in the end he allowed his originally principled stance to be moderated by pragmatism and fully contained by peaceful and democratic process. Given the circumstances of that country during the period of his life and the consequent personal circumstances of his own life, I think that was a remarkable personal achievement.


So there you have it - a few of my personal political 'heroes', as much as I have such a thing. Though they are from different political backgrounds and parties, I guess you might have detected something of a theme - a common thread among them. I'd call it 'principled pragmatism', along with the independence of mind to stand up and be counted for what they believe even when the circumstances for their political beliefs are unfavourable at the time, or even when they face opposition from their own supposed allies. Often complicated characters, often people with whom I disagree on many things, and often with careers littered with what I might call 'mistakes', they could each in their own ways be described as both 'visionaries' and 'achievers' - that is something that I personally find inspirational in politics. Achieving is worth little if you have no vision behind whatever you are trying to achieve, in my opinion, and vision is worth little if you never do more than talk about it - it is that combination of things, even if it comes with some pretty big flaws, that makes a politician 'great' for me.

There are some others that I could have mentioned in similar terms, of course - Charles Kennedy and David Lloyd George would be the most obvious examples for me, as you might imagine. There are also some others who, despite whatever else they may have done or not done, have committed great acts of political courage that are worthy of note too. Here I must (perhaps unfortunately!) mention Neil Kinnock - whatever disagreements I have with what he has said and done over the years (and believe me I have many!), 'that' conference speech in Bournemouth in 1985 was perhaps the bravest political speech I have seen a leader give to his party in my lifetime (whether you agreed with him or not). I should also (as much as I would like not to!) mention David Cameron here - though his legacy is a political mess that threatens the whole future of the country, and history will, I suspect not judge him kindly (and rightly so), he did do something worthy of credit. It's something that ironically he may even have had, or have taken, too much credit for (taking credit that should really be primarily due to the Liberal Democrats, in fact), but I think credit should be given where it's due. Whatever his reasons, and whatever the aftermath, for a Conservative PM and party leader to publicly champion Same Sex Marriage in the way that he did during the coalition period was undoubtedly a brave move that was never likely to make him popular among large parts of his own party - that, I think, is something (though perhaps almost the only thing) that should be recognised and credited. There are many other examples of individual acts of political courage, as I'm sure there are many other examples of 'principled pragmatism' in politics - I'm not here to try to produce an extensive list, though.

One more thing you may have noted, as I have myself - the majority of these figures are straight white men. I can assure you that this is more a reflection of them being in the overwhelming majority for most of out political history than it is of any kind of bias in that kind of direction myself. Indeed it is a cause of great regret to me that history hasn't given us the same number of others to choose our 'heroes' and examples from, and I look forward to a time when the greater and increasing representation of others in our political system gives future generations just that. There are a one or two I could mention, but more importantly there are a number in more recent and current times who may prove themselves every bit the equal of their predecessors. Only time will tell, and history will be the judge. Those I have included are all, of course, past politicians that we can reflect upon with the benefit of hindsight (only one is still alive, and long may he remain so). I have great hopes that in future decades such a list will almost inevitably be considerably more balanced.

So there you have it. A few of my political 'heroes', or at least some of those politicians who have inspired me in some way. I don't know if that helps to explain anything about me, or if there are any conclusions to be drawn from a list like this. I will simply end kind of where I started - I'm no worshipper of 'heroes' generally, and I think such things are usually a pretty bad idea. We must never let out admiration for certain acts or attributes blind us to the totality of a person or their actions. That can apply to 'villains' too, of course, even if the balance of what they have done or what they have stood for is negative. People are people, and that includes politicians - complicated creatures who are capable of doing, and usually do, a blend of good things and bad things. As we go through life assessing those we agree with and those we disagree with, we shouldn't lose sight of that fact.




(photo attributions:
Steel: By DavidSteel1987.jpg: Rodhullandemu derivative work: PaweĊ‚MM (DavidSteel1987.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Churchill: By BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Evans: Geoff Charles [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bevan: By Geoff Charles - Aneurin Bevan and his wife Jenny Lee in Corwen, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38725619
Mandela: By South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9747318 )

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Chester Bennington. We need to talk about it.



This week brought the tragic news of yet another relatively young father taking his own life. This one was famous, and famous particularly for lyrical angst. This was something that some people dismissed as mere sales-related, unhappy-teen-attracting, pseudo-angry posturing, of course, as is often the case with 'angry music', or anything that tries to use a musical medium to say anything more meaningful than 'Oooo I love you baby'.

We need to talk about mental health. We need to talk about changing public attitudes, and we need to talk about healthcare policy issues, and we need to talk about it in relation to our selves and our own lives. Thankfully awareness of that has been improving in recent years, but there's a very long way to go. It's not just about talking about problems when they start to get serious, because that can be too late to make a real difference. It's about understanding that this is something that can and does happen to anyone, anywhere, and in any walk of life. It's about destroying the taboo - understanding that mental health is an issue for every person, every day, just as physical health is.

We have public campaigns relating to eating healthily, taking regular exercise, and so on. We've had many such campaigns about physical dangers like seat belts in cars, swimming in dangerous waters, and so on. Where are the big public campaigns about maintaining mental health, though? It's an improvement to be saying that we should be talking about mental illness when it's already happened, and there have been campaigns on that, but that's not quite the same thing - we're trying to make people understand that suffering from a mental illness is a normal thing, but we need to look at prevention more too. We need to think about that. We need to talk about it.

Obviously there are some circumstances that can make problems worse, or make them more likely, and we have to consider and try to address those too. Poverty, and an endless daily struggle to physically survive, is just one example. It's not the only one, but on that specific issue I was very interested to here some comments recently about the potential benefits of 'Universal Basic Income'. As a Liberal, my instinct is to be wary of such an apparently 'redistributive' approach, but as a pragmatist I'm certainly interested in evidence relating to such a benefit - if it does, as has been suggested, really make a significant difference to the mental well-being of those struggling most in society, then I think it's certainly an approach worth looking at. Indeed, we have a duty to look seriously at it, whatever our ideological instincts might suggest to us.

Perhaps I'm digressing a little, though - poverty probably wasn't the main direct issue for a hugely successful multi-millionaire rock star. What were the factors in this case? How much stemmed from early life, and how much was later? How much was 'nature' and how much 'nurture'? What kind of stresses were being put on him, and how was he helped to deal with them? I'm obviously not going to speculate on the answers to those kind of questions - I didn't know him personally, and it wouldn't be fair or right to wander off into such an uninformed discussion. We do know that the factors can be many and varied in different cases, though, and it's unlikely to be the direct result of one single isolated factor. We need to think about all of those possible factors and how they apply to people across the huge spectrum of human lives.

It's not just about individual, personal 'coping mechanisms' - we need to consider the way in which our lives are organised and run - the pressures and expectations being put on people in all kinds of ways. It seems to me that, more and more, life is becoming about expectations and even deliberately applied stresses, in the belief that we have to quantify everything about everyone and apply standards of 'success' and 'failure'. Everything seems to be about competition and 'winning at life' in some way - we do it to children in schools, for example, 'testing' them from a very young age and putting huge pressure on them to at least 'meet expectations' and 'reach standards'. It might be that the pressure is unintentional, but it's still there - it's on teachers to 'get results', and it's on parents to prove how wonderful their child is compared with others, and if we think that isn't transmitted to the minds of the children themselves we are living in a fantasy world.

We have to think about that kind of thing when we look at any kind of policy, and we have to be able to talk about it too - there are too many elephants in too many rooms when we talk about public policy. We need to remember that these 'numbers' are always human beings, with real lives, real minds, and real combinations of circumstances. Obviously we can't ever remove any kind of stress or pressure from everybody's minds, but we have to understand that the effect is cumulative in the individual. Doing a school test at a very young age, and being pushed to do well because it's a statistic that actually matters (if not to them directly, to those who are pushing them), may not seem like a huge thing in itself, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. The modern (western, particularly) world, with all of its pressures of expectation driven now by ready accessible and universally accessed multi-media in a way that has never existed before, is a place full of expectations of all kind, and full of fears of being a failure in some way or another (and mental illness is itself often still considered a 'failure', of course).

It's not just about sorting out our attitude to mental illness, but about sorting out our attitude to mental health in our daily lives, and in our public policy, and in the pressures and expectations we put on people who are apparently 'mentally healthy'. In policy terms, it's vital that we understand that it's not just about fixing the problems of treatment in the health service (though that is a huge issue, of course), but about trying to understand the impact of everything we do on the mental well-being of everyone who has to live with the results. It's not just about supporting people when something has gone wrong with their mental health, but about supporting people so that these problems aren't happening to so many of them. I don't pretend that's at all easy, of course, or that it is all under the direct influence of politicians, parties and governments. There are many people individually involved in many different ways in the complicated networks of human lives. That's why we need to talk about it.

So let's now talk about Chester Bennington, and about Linkin Park. I guess it's hard for some people to understand the context of just how huge, and how important, a band they have been. Although they are a name many probably know vaguely, and they have had some chart success of course, that doesn't really put it into context for a more 'mainstream' music audience. Their debut Hybrid Theory album is, without a shadow of doubt, among the most important and influential albums of all time, and one of the biggest selling albums worldwide of this century (estimated to be about 30 million copies, with their next album not being too far behind). That's a total up there with the likes of Abbey Road, Born in the USA and The Wall, but it was only released in 2000.

Of course, that's only part of the story - Hybrid Theory was a huge 'moment' in music and in time. It was at the start of the Nu Metal movement, and mixed different musical genres in a way that really caught the imagination of a generation of young fans. Ask any community of Heavy Metal (or related) fans about the album that was there 'gateway' into that kind of heavier music, and Hybrid Theory will be one of the most popular answers - probably the most popular of all, in fact. I'm a little (OK, a lot!) older myself, of course, but it was huge for me too - it was the time of MTV2, when there was suddenly a new generation of heavy music that was getting exposure, and it was a major part of what brought many older fans of heavier music back into discovering new music. It was genuinely something original and exciting, following on from the frankly dreary period of 'grunge' and 'brit pop' nostalgia-driven music that had all but drained the life out of the 'mainstream' rock and metal world in the 1990s. It's bigger even than that, though - it connected across genres too, and brought many fans of Hip-Hop to metal and vice versa. It wasn't isolated and alone in experimenting in that way, of course, coming after early works of bands like Korn, Papa Roach and Slipknot, but it was the one that hit the blend in just the right way at just the right time to become truly a global phenomenon.

I think it's fair to say that the band never quite recreated that moment of their debut (and arguably second) album. They modified their sound in ways that many didn't take to in the same way. They remained, however, one of the biggest bands on the live circuit, headlining major festival to huge crowds. I have seen them twice, in 2007 and 2014, both only partial sets at festivals (latter parts of sets after watching bands at other stages), and they were certainly a great live band to watch. In the usual way of these things, a heavier band very often doesn't quite get the public recognition of more easily accessible pop counterparts, but Linkin Park have been one of the biggest bands of the twenty first century in terms of sales and influence.

I don't pretend they are a particular favourite band of mine, obviously, hence only watching part of their sets when I've had the chance. Hybrid Theory is a fantastic album, but it's the only one I really like, and I find it a little 'of its time' in some ways now. It's not something I listen to often, although I am listening to it as I type, and it's one of those albums that I always enjoy listening to a little more than I expect to, even though I know it backwards. That doesn't diminish their importance as a band, obviously, or the success that they have rightly enjoyed over the last 2 decades.

That's a fairly long description of their importance, but it's impossible to over-emphasise, and Chester Bennington was very much at the centre of all that. So how does someone so successful come to choose to take their own life? It seems hard to understand - there's what might be called the usual collection of 'baggage' for a rock star, of course, but it seemed from the outside like he had his life in order more recently, and had everything going for him. Fame, success, money, a family - things that many people would envy. That's the point, though - it is hard to understand for anyone who hasn't experienced the kind of mental issues that convert stresses and expectations into something so negative. It's easy to say 'get over it', but it doesn't work like that. It's easy to say 'get help' and 'talk about it' too, but if that were so easy to do we'd have less tragic stories like this.

We need to understand that, which is itself not easy from the outside - it's hard to put yourself in the mental situation of someone else who isn't you, and who may not think quite like you. That's why it's so important to understand that those pressures work differently for different people, and the need to consider the pressures we put other people under at all stages in life, personally and in policy terms. What might seem a simply thing to you or me, might be a mental wall to climb for someone else - even if we walk in their shoes, we can't think in their minds. That, as we know, applies to 'famous' people as much as 'ordinary' people - this isn't the first such apparent suicide of someone who should be on top of the world, and sadly I'm sure it won't be the last. We also need to think about the pressures they are under, even if they are very different from our own (and, as an aside, we need to talk about the tabloids, too - those 'celebrity gossip' victims are human beings too).

One more thing I'd like to mention, in connection with mental health and the 'angst' in the music of bands like Linkin Park - the sometimes suggested link between angry and/or depressing music with anger and depression. It's a subject which I think is widely misunderstood, and some suggest that music and associated cultural lifestyles can lead to mental health issues. I think they are very wide of the mark there. There may well be some statistical link, but if anything it is the other way around - those who are suffering are drawn towards music and culture that speaks to them and reflects their suffering. Whether it be the darker aesthetic, or the musical and lyrical anger, of heavier forms of music, those things are very often a release for people - knowing that someone else has been where they are, and has felt like they felt, can be a huge thing for them. As well as Linkin Park being cited as a 'gateway' band into heavier music, they are also commonly cited as a band that have got people through some very hard times with their music and lyrics. Some like to suggest that darker, angrier music and culture can drive people into tragic situations - I know that it has saved many people from such situations. Sadly, it can't save everybody.

Finally, I think it would be wrong to talk about all this without remembering Chester Bennington and Linkin Park at their finest. This video was from the second and last performance I saw part of, and happens to be my favourite song from that Hybrid Theory album. Even if it's not your thing, do please take the time to watch and listen. The music matters a great deal to many people, and I think it's important to try to understand that (even if you don't particularly like it) to see this tragedy in its full context.


R.I.P. Chester Bennington

And if anybody is struggling, now or at any time, there are people out there who can help you:

Look after yourselves, and each other.

Monday, 17 July 2017

So...A Female Doctor. #DoctorWho13



There's been a huge explosion on social media since the reveal of the latest incarnation of Doctor Who yesterday. Much of that is a fuss about nothing, of course - ultimately, it's just a TV show. To many, though, the reality is that it's very much more than that. When something is that much of a fixture in the life of a lifelong fan, that emotional link matters to them. It matters to me, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. People care, and they have every right to care. Still, we should, I think, keep it all in some kind of perspective - the nastiness being flung in all direction is pointless nonsense.

Where do I stand on the introduction of a female actor in the role? Well, I'm certainly not with those celebrating it as some kind of revolutionary breakthrough - a moment in TV history to be seen as a landmark for equality. I don't buy that at all, in fact. In some ways, I think it's quite the opposite, though that is not my only objection. Oh, I know that will get me condemned on social media as a 'dinosaur' and a 'misogynist', and all of the other accusations that are being thrown around, including by supposedly liberal people, at anyone who dares to hold an alternative opinion for any reason (it's actually been one of the worst social media outpourings of insulting behaviour based on simplistic assumptions that I've ever seen coming from normally thoughtful 'liberal' people!). I've never been shy of standing up for what I believe, though, and I'm not about to start now, even if that wins me a torrent of entirely wrongly-aimed insults.

My first problem with this is that it looks and feels like a bit of a publicity stunt 'cop out' - an easy route to saying 'look - equality' without really having to think too hard. This is the kind of thing that seems to have been a trend for some years in various ways in a number of different artistic and dramatic fields - changing surface appearances rather than having to go to the trouble of breaking truly new artistic ground or having to go to the trouble of really inventive textual exploration of scripts and characters.

Take Jonathan Miller's 1980s production of the Mikado, for example. In that production, what was 'new' was really just a matter costumes and sets - largely a simple exercise in 'hey, let's set this thing set in Japan not really in Japan'. The Mikado (setting aside some of the accusations of 'racism', which I think are largely a misunderstanding of what it is all about, though there were clearly some lines in the original text that are unacceptable) actually has a fine script, with lots of space for interpretation (despite being stifled for three quarters of a century by the vice-like grip of the D'Oyly Carte company rules) - Gilbert knew how to produce characters, even in such a light and humorous work, that could exist on many levels, and could have many different interpretations and emphases drawn out by clever direction and acting within the confines of the existing text and setting. You could, for example, change the way that Nanki Poo is played to make him firmly the villain of the piece, without changing a single line - that would dramatically alter the relationships between characters, and reveal a whole new aspect to the work. There are many other such ideas that could be pursued to produce the same work in an entirely different light. They chose not to explore any of that, though, and instead make their 'artistic statement' with a bit of a cosmetic overhaul that really just ignored the basic premise of the work's setting for no apparent reason. That kind of thing doesn't really 'freshen up' a piece, in my opinion - it is merely change for the sake of change - a kind of 'faux artiness' that doesn't really contribute to shedding different or additional light, and doesn't draw anything new out of the plot and characters.

Don't even start me on the 'faux artiness' of Quentin Tarantino, by the way, and the use of silly devices like editing out of sequence and slow motion depictions of graphic violence to cover for the lack of basic plot, script or characterisation.

In the case of Doctor Who, there could have been so much done in terms of the existing, original premise of the work without resorting to this kind of obvious publicity stunt. The relationship of the Doctor with any given 'companion' is something that has unlimited scope. What we could have had was a truly strong new (or even 're-discovered' previous) female character - for example, one to whom the Doctor himself effectively became the 'companion' or 'assistant'. It's very easy to do without having to mess with the basic story and characters, and could certainly give plenty of opportunity to explore concepts like gender roles and stereotyping - bringing back Romana in a new 21st century form would be the most obvious way, of course. That would have been a really interesting new dynamic to create dramatically. Likewise on the villain side - the Master regenerating into 'Missy' was just an obvious attempt to push forward the idea that Timelords regenerate in that way, despite the fact that this never seems to have happened or been mentioned before (and Missy turning out to be the Rani would have been more interesting, too, and added extra characters to play with). It was a re-writing of the existing underlying characterisations specifically in order to create the circumstances for a female Doctor, not for any actual dramatic reason or gain within the context of the show. It all feels contrived to me, as if it is just an attempt to make a cheap statement rather than a genuine dramatic device for plot purposes.

And that is really the point - they have allowed a publicity stunt to make a point to guide the story and characters, rather than allowing the drama to take the lead in addressing the concepts that they wanted to address in a way that fitted within the pre-existing context. I don't think that's ever a good idea. The exact same point about equality could have been made more effectively by creating a new strong female character, rather than just inventing a contrived way to make an existing male character female for no dramatic purpose. It feels forced and contrived, and I don't think the cause of feminism is well served by saying 'OK - we'll let a woman do it' rather than creating a new strong female character with a different dramatic relationship with the existing characters.

In order for the drama to lead, I think you need to ask questions of what you are thinking of doing dramatically. 'Is it necessary or helpful?', for example. Is it actually of particular dramatic benefit to do what you are doing with the story. In this case, I don't believe it is. This is a science fiction series, not a soap opera. That's not meant to be insulting in any way towards the soap opera genre - quite the opposite. In that scenario, there is the scope to deal dramatically and at length with issues like sexuality, gender transition, equality, and many other important issues in modern society. They can be explored at length from multiple perspectives in story-lines that last for many years. Soap operas have done great work in dealing with a number of such issues with great sensitivity, and raising awareness of them in wider society. They have been hugely important, but, to be frank, if you want to make a soap opera or serious exploratory drama series, go and make those things - don't try to turn something else into something it isn't to satisfy that urge.

That leads me on to another issue - what I like to call 'the Cagney and Lacey effect' in long-running TV shows. Cagney and Lacey was, in its own time and in its own way, a truly ground-breaking TV show. A police action series that was firmly led by strong female characters, and dealt with equality and discrimination issues within that scenario extremely effectively (for its time - it was 'of its time' to a certain extent, of course, as everything is). The problem, though, was that as it went on it began to lose sight of its own purpose - what had been an effective dramatic device for dealing with those issues through a medium of the action series became more and more a soap opera about the lives of the characters, and as it went further and further into domestic issues it not only became considerably less good as a show to watch, but it also undid some of its own good work by gradually returning to bits of old stereotyping about domestic relationships between genders and so on. Where it has once been an effective vehicle for challenging ideas in a way that would naturally 'bring people along', it began to force ideas down their throats by gradually removing the original premise of the show (and the reason people began to watch it in the first place), and then even began to create a counter-productive counter-narrative to its own good early work on the issues of gender equality and stereotyping.

This drift from original purpose towards a form 'character development' directly at the expense of that purpose something we've begun to see in the NuWho era. True, the original 'monster a week' format allowed relatively little scope for character development, and there was space to shift the balance slightly. In the early days it did that, but then began at times to drift further down that road into explorations that weren't relevant, dramatically useful, or really working within the context of the original premise of the show. We began to see threads of love story and back story for the Doctor, which was OK in small doses as an aside to the main action, but seemed to creep ever more into the forefront to the point where it relegated the original purpose of the show into (sometimes a seemingly quite distant) second place. There is, I think, a serious danger of 'Cagney and Lacey' effect - the show losing sight of what it actually fundamentally is, and morphing into something else entirely. The essence of drama is conflict, but the real conflict in this case should generally be between the Doctor and his 'enemy' - it's becoming more and more between the Doctor and himself and his companions on a personal relationships level, and that is really a different show.

I could wax lyrical here on the last few series, and them being, in my opinion, mostly been below par, and often devoid of really good, inventive ideas. We've even lapsed into what seem to be purely 'magical' things (the point of scifi is to at least attempt some form of 'pseudo science', not to fall back on pure 'magical' impossibility - if you want magic, that's what the fantasy genre is usually all about), and them being defeated purely because 'love'. There have been some good scripts in terms of dialogue, but much of the plot invention and story-telling has been pretty dire. Peter Capaldi has been an OK doctor in some ways, but he could and should have been so much better - he's an excellent actor, and we had the new (for NuWho) 'device' of an 'older' doctor regeneration to explore. They didn't bother to explore it at all, really, and just made him the same jumpy around 'young' character as Tennant and Smith had been, but with added wrinkles (and occasional cheap gag lines on that basis).

And that is another thing that worries me about the idea of a female Doctor - we haven't explored the idea of an 'older' Doctor in any meaningful dramatic way during the time of the latest incarnation, so can we expect a female Doctor to be any different? Let's face it, in the 'Master meets Missy' scenario the scripts actually fell back on cheap nob gags - that might be 'new' for Doctor Who, but I'll make no apology for saying that I don't think it's the right direction for the series to be heading. In a dramatic sense, aside from the 'beyond the 4th wall' issues, is this just going to be an excuse for throwing in a bunch of one-liners about gender? I fear that it might be, and I don't see how that helps to advance the cause of equality.

And 'equality' is an important term here - gender is certainly not the only equality issue, but it is an issue that has required a pretty serious rewrite to the back story to allow for it to be dealt with in this unsatisfactory way, and for no particular dramatic purpose within the context of the whole ongoing story. There were other issues that could and should have been explored in a less disruptive and incoherent way, without need for the kind of ignoring of previous backstory that gender change required.

It all feels like a cosmetic change for publicity purposes rather than a genuine will for fresh dramatic exploration. There are so many things that could have been done in terms of the character of the doctor through this NuWho era, but they've not been done. Eccleston was a genuinely new kind of Doctor, but ever since they have been very much variations on a theme - that has limited the scope for character development, and got us to where we are. I just don't feel that simplistic gender change is a substitute for real in-depth consideration of dramatic relationships and character development.

And that is the basis of my issue with this casting - it's not because I think women aren't equal, or that only men can act in leading roles, or anything of that sort. It just feels like a really, really lazy option created by the desire to make a public statement without there being any real textual or dramatic reason for it. In other words, to use a rather provocative term, it feels 'token' - almost as if they haven't bothered to create a strong new female character, and have fallen back on an easy, contrived solution in the hope that one happens by default and everyone shuts up about all this equality business. I'm not suggesting that's how they see it themselves, of course, but it just feels like the desire to be provocative in society with a big headline now has overridden the desire to do the job properly with by creating strong female role-model characters (in Doctor Who and elsewhere).

Now of course those who say 'well it can be done within the story' are correct, certainly since they contrived to alter the story to make sure that it could be done a couple of years in advance. On the other hand, you could easily have a CGI Jar Jar Binks Doctor within the story, if you turn the Master into a rubbery big-eared alien thing first - that doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do, or has any dramatic benefit or justification. Indeed, the Doctor could easily have his 'life force' inserted into the circuits of the shooty dog thing, if Timelords were suddenly said to have special life force personality memory things that could be magically locked away in pocket watches or something (oh....wait.....!). The question should not be 'can it be done', but 'should it be done dramatically', and 'does it need to be done dramatically', and 'does it add potential value dramatically' - personally I'm not sure that my answer to any of those questions would be 'yes'.

Another example that's been cited by some on social media is that of the Ghostbusters remake using an all female lead cast, in the sense of 'those who don't like this probably hated that too because misogyny'. Well in a sense they are correct - I didn't like that either. I didn't like it because it was a classic film that didn't need to be remade, and I didn't like it because the remake was significantly less good than the original anyway. That was nothing to do with the women being in it. And that is perhaps the crux of the whole matter - what the creative world needs to be doing to truly advance equality (which is something they should be doing, like everyone else) is writing strong new characters, not simply rehashing old ones and using existing ones by making them female as if that somehow makes women 'equal'. It doesn't. It merely makes them 'fit to step into shoes vacated by men', and that really isn't the same thing at all. It's an easy artistic cop out to create a few headlines that I believe actually does almost nothing to advance the cause of real equality, and especially not to advance the cause of real equality within the industry itself (which is something that still desperately needs to be addressed).

Finally (almost), I'd like to make one thing very clear. I don't agree with this casting decision, as I'm sure you've worked out if you've got this far, and I don't think it's been done for the right reasons at all (although I certainly agree that it's probably been done with the best of intentions). That doesn't mean I'm going to 'go off on one', and proclaim that 'I'll never watch Doctor Who again', or whatever - I will give this new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance, as I have given every previous new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance (whatever my reservations about them, and whatever conclusion I have ultimately come to about them in the end). As I said in the first paragraph, it matters to me - it's been a fixture of my life from my earliest memories (Tom Baker era, in case you were wondering!), and I've been watching it avidly ever since (whenever it's been on, at least!). I'm not going to cut that out of my life just because I don't like the choice of new Doctor (hell, if I haven't abandoned it because of the wobbly walls, wobbly rubber creatures and sometimes equally wobbly plots of the late McCoy era, or the way Moffat has treated it more recently, the reality is that I'll probably put up with almost anything!). As much as I'm a lifelong 'Whovian', I can keep it all in some kind of perspective with reference to real life. I'm not falling out with anyone or making this is into  bigger issue than it actually is (nor am I being a 'butthurt' 'crybaby', 'snowflake' or whatever!) - I'm entitled to my opinion and reasoning, though, as they are entitled to theirs.

I have my own opinion, but that isn't to say that some of those condemning this decision aren't doing so on the basis of simple misogyny, sexism and lack of imagination or tolerance for anything 'new' or 'different' - I'm sure that is the case for some, even though it certainly isn't the case for myself and some others. I will make one last observation, though - a number of those celebrating this as hailing some kind of great new era of televisual equality, while attacking anyone who dares to disagree with their view as just being 'misogynist dinosaurs' or whatever, seem to then be quietly admitting that they don't actually watch Doctor Who, or like Doctor Who at all, and never really have, and are never likely to, and really don't know or care much about the whole thing beyond this apparent 'victory for feminism' anyway. Do they actually care about the artistic integrity, the long term internal plot line coherency, or the dramatic value of the show itself? I guess I'll just leave you to decide for yourself about that.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Elections and things


It's been a while since I've posted anything new here - I've been pretty tied up with the practicalities of elections and things over the past few months. After fighting an ultimately unsuccessful council election campaign (more of that in a moment), unexpectedly having a general election dropped on us was not exactly fun - even more so, since I hadn't anticipated also being a candidate at said election. Still, that's how things go - I'm just going to use this post as a general ramble of my thoughts about those elections, and where we now find ourselves.

In a strongly Labour region, being a Lib Dem activist and candidate isn't always the easiest of tasks, and there are no guarantees of success even if you work hard over a long period. That's fine by me, though - politics for me has never been about being the most popular or successful, as much as I'd like a bit of success to allow us to get on with doing the things that we think should be done in the way that we think they should be done. I guess on one level it might sound strange, but the 'popularity contest' of elections has never made me feel that I just ought to be saying what I think would be most popular. I think that you have to be true to yourself and what you believe to be right.

It's also never been about advancing myself personally, or joining the party that I think will give me the best chance of getting elected. Let's face it, as Tim Farron pointed out in a conference speech a while back, joining the Lib Dems was never going to be a smart career move! I'm quite comfortable with that - I'd rather lose standing up for what I believe in than win on the basis of something I don't believe.

For me it's all about running what you believe up the flagpole to see who salutes, so to speak. Of course, in putting your ideas forward you should present them in a way that persuades people, particularly broadly like-minded people, that they are good ideas - that should go without saying. That's about presentation, though, not simply about following the crowd and repeating whatever you think they want to hear in the hope of winning their votes. You'll never persuade everyone, and I don't think you should ever even try - the breadth of political opinion among the public means that you would inevitably be compromised to such an extent that the original core ideas would have disappeared completely. Democracy is about choices, and from the point of view of candidates and parties I think it's about offering distinct options for the electorate to choose between. That doesn't mean offering nothing but bland platitudes in the hope that nobody notices - you have to nail your colours firmly to the mast, and accept that some people (maybe sometimes many people, and maybe sometimes most people) won't like them.

You also have to accept that you aren't ever in full control of your own destiny as a candidate - ultimately, it's all in the hands of the voters. Hard work makes a difference, of course, but it doesn't isolate you from existing prevailing views, unexpected new situations, or national events and campaigns. You have to try your best to get your message across, but everyone else is likely to be doing the same (and in many cases they may well have greater and more friendly media coverage, greater resources, and so on). You can only do what you can do, and I think you have to be philosophical about things not working out as you'd hoped (as well as being honest with yourself, and learning the lessons of the things that you could have done better).

Without going into too much boring detail about local election issues here, I was standing in a large ward that I'd been trying to do my bit in for about three years with regular focus leaflets (the only such leaflets locally - there were no regular communications from councillors or other parties/activists), regular door knocking sessions and surveying, dealing with casework issues for people, and so on. There was no record of Lib Dem activity in the ward, and all of the Lib Dem seats on the council had been lost in 2012 so we had no sitting councillors to cite good news stories from.

In the recent past it had really been a barely contested ward in terms of activity on the ground, with about 6 candidates for the 3 seats. This time, though, local circumstances changed significantly - with de-selections of sitting councillors who stood again as independents, a retirement of another popular local candidate, the sitting party putting up new candidates, and a rise in activity from another party locally, and an independent who was fairly well known locally (and associated with a loose collection of an independent campaign across the council area), we ended up with 11 candidates for 3 seats. Not only that, but they were 11 candidates who were all out campaigning pretty hard during the election period. As a single candidate from a currently 'unfashionable' party on my own in a three seat ward up against three teams of three it was always going to be difficult, and I got swamped by bigger campaigns.

Having said that, of course, my own campaign wasn't perfect, and I'm not going to claim that it was - I'm not going to ignore lessons that need to be learned by myself and the local party (and we have many lessons to learn from other wards too, of course). Even so, while for some time in advance it was a target ward that looked reasonably hopeful, the circumstances at the time of the election (not just those I've mentioned, though they were complicated enough - there were other large local issues in the ward (particularly surrounding a major new development issue) that suddenly appeared to make the whole thing more complicated anyway) I think made it a whole different ball game. That's fine, though - again, you have to be philosophical about such things.

Overall, despite not having a good result personally, I do think of that election being something of a success locally, and not just for the party. We did win one seat back on the council in another ward (and very strongly so), giving us a voice in the chamber for the first time in 5 years. We had more candidates than last time around - we were hoping for a few more than we ultimately ended up with, but it still shows some improvement on local activity, and that is always a good thing.

In my own ward, the success was that it really felt like an election for the first time in any election since I've been living in the area. There were people out in the streets from various groups and parties knocking doors and delivering leaflets, and genuinely working the ground locally. OK, that swamped me out in the end, but that's fine - in a very real sense local democracy was the winner, even if I wasn't. That is how local politics should always be, of course, and it might seem strange to some that it isn't - the reality in some places, particularly in 'heartlands', is that local democracy on the ground is virtually dead. As an example, in a neighbouring 3 member ward, 3 candidates from the dominant party were elected entirely unopposed (and that wasn't the only such ward in the area). Here, though, we had a real local election campaign, and that is huge. If my own work over the previous years and during the campaign contributed in some small way to that happening, then I'm certainly satisfied with that as something of a personal success too.

So that was the local election - we ended up with a brand new group of 3 councillors from 2 different parties who actually had to work hard to get there. That's a great result for democracy, and hopefully for the future of the community - I genuinely wish them every success. We may have different ideological backgrounds, but at the local level I know they all variously share some of my concerns about the area and the way things have gone over recent years at council level. It's all about supporting the local area and the local community, and giving them the support that they deserve over the coming years, and I sincerely hope that by the time the next election comes around their record of outstanding service to the community has been one that is unassailable. That might sound a little odd, but real success for the community is more important to me than mere party politics. I'm certainly not going to start petty party politicking for the sake of it, or hoping that our new councillors fail so that I or other Lib Dems can get elected in future, or just because they won and I didn't. Of course, they know I'm still around, and they know I'll still be keeping my eyes and ears open and trying to do my bit, but I genuinely hope what I'm seeing and hearing is that the new councillors are doing a great job for us.

So then we come to the unexpected general election, being dropped on us at short notice in the middle of the local election campaign. That probably didn't help the local campaigns either, and that may have been part of the idea of doing it. Indeed, if I were a cynical person I might be tempted to point out that the party who called it were the one party with virtually unlimited financial resources to throw at a general election campaign when most others would just have spent a great deal of what they had on local election campaigns. Perhaps I am that cynical. Perhaps the Conservative Party are too. Not for me to judge, really - I'll leave that to others to consider, and to consider what the implications of that are for our democratic system as it stands.

The election was unexpected (I had privately thought that there might by one this year, but if it were going to happen I'd expected it to happen around October/November sort of time), and so were the circumstances that meant I became the candidate. A combination of unexpected issues, but I was proud to be the one flying the flag local for Liberal Democracy. Of course, while knowing that it is always in the hands of the electorate and that any candidate can win, my own expectations of inevitable victory were tempered with the certain knowledge of the scale of mountain to be climbed!

I've not been active in politics for that long, really - I joined the party in 2010, and hadn't previously been more than a 'normal' voter and occasional party supporter. I remember something of the public perception of politics and political parties from the outside, and some of the misunderstandings about what a big election means for parties and the people within them. In that context, I'm reasonably satisfied about the job that we did locally, though there is much more I would like to be able to do in future of course.

One of the regular social media comments during a campaign, and particularly a short 'snap' election campaign, as an example of that difference between perception and reality, is 'well nobody has been to knock on my door, so obviously they don't care about my vote'. For perfectly understandable reasons, many people don't grasp just how time consuming such activities are, and just how limited the resources of the political parties are for doing them. As well as not understanding the sheer scale of the task of covering an entire constituency, I suspect many think of 'party machines' as great big things, with troops of people ready to get out and about and talk to everyone - as anyone in a political party (particularly a smaller party in a 'heartland' area) knows, that really isn't the case. To put a little meat on those bones, I reckon that on average two people can knock about 50 doors in an hour (assuming that nobody is home at two thirds or more of addresses). In this constituency there are, I believe, well over 30,000 doors to knock - in this general election, getting around that would have meant knocking something like 5 or 6 thousand doors a week. Those two people would have been knocking solidly for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. OK, so having more than two people obviously helps, but that would mean having a team of people willing and able to give up their jobs and lives full time for the duration of the campaign. The reality is that there aren't enough people able to do that to allow any party, and especially any smaller party locally, to get to every door during an election campaign (which is why it's so important to knock doors between election campaigns, of course, something that not enough parties tend to do).

That's just one example of reality not matching common voter expectations, and that's before we even start to talk about money. Just sending one undressed leaflet to every house in a constituency via the single 'freepost' option (the postage is free, but not the printing) that every candidate gets during an election is likely to have a minimum cost approaching £1,000 - this stuff ain't cheap, and most parties have limited resources. This is especially true when a party isn't expected to come close to winning in a particular seat - it's important for every party to do what it can everywhere, and give people the democratic option of voting for them, but parties obviously need to target their resources to win the seats where they can win. This, as I am sure I have said before, is one of the big problems with our frankly stupid 'first past the post' electoral system.

That was a bit of a tangent there, but the relevance is that obviously I didn't knock every door during the campaign - it just wasn't possible. Everyone should have had a leaflet, but mostly I had to concentrate on running a social media campaign, and to that extent I felt the campaign went reasonably well locally considering local context of it being a 'heartland' seat for another party, and the wider context of what was going on nationally in an election where all apart from the 'big 2' parties were getting very heavily squeezed everywhere. I obviously have lessons to learn for the future about which bits of that seemed to work better or less well than others, and it all adds to the 'things to think about' column (which is a good thing). Again, it wasn't 'successful' for me, but I had a pretty good idea of how things stood, so again being philosophical about it all has to be the order of the day. I was proud to fly the flag and stand up for what I believe, and I'm happy to have been able to give local people the option of voting for the Liberal Democrats.

The only frustration for me, really, was in seeing second place go to a candidate who, as far as I could see, hadn't even set foot in the constituency or done any campaigning of any sort at all (leaflets, social media, etc., etc.). This was a purely 'national' vote, and a reminder that hard work locally (or lack of it) doesn't always equate to votes (or lack thereof). While other candidates were doing what they could in knocking doors, social media campaigning, and so on, and turning up to the 'Facebook live' hustings that was held, one candidate got thousands of votes and came second (not their traditional place) even though they did pretty much nothing at all, and didn't even bother to turn up to the count. It's not for me to judge how people choose to cast their votes, of course, but it should give people something to think about.

A word about that 'Facebook live' hustings. That was a new thing, obviously, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Not only did it give opportunity for people to see what the candidates had to say without having to turn out to where there were speaking (and it's often the same people who turn out to such hustings every time, and a number of them are actually 'activists' of some kind there to support their chosen candidate anyway), but the lack of audience in the room I think actually helped (they could, and did, ask questions live via facebook, in addition to those that had been chosen by the chair from previous facebook posts). It was very, very well chaired by a local journalist (one of those who didn't see it as her role to get directly involved in the debate, but to simply make sure every candidate got their fair turn to make their point - that's how it should be), and the lack of 'noises off' (often, as I said, provided by 'activists' who had their own pro/anti candidate agendas) allowed everyone the opportunity to give their answers and debate each others answers in a much more even and open way. Watching it back later, it seemed to me that it meant each candidate was able to put across their own distinctive points and vision without other people in the room 'leading' the audience as a whole or trying to 'big up' their candidate or 'shout down' their opponents. That, I think, is a better way for voters to be presented with the alternatives than the usual 'bearpit' atmosphere.

Overall, the campaign was an enjoyable and constructive one all round between the candidates (those who bothered to get involved, of course!). It seemed to me to be held in good spirit (and I should say here, to be fair, that all of the candidates were civil and even friendly towards each other on a personal level generally throughout the campaign), and I saw no signs of anything nasty or personal, which is as it should be. We can be passionate about our own beliefs and questioning of others without it becoming a bun fight or a vicious verbal assault against another person who happens to believe something different (even if those differences are pretty stark at times). I will also say, as with the local election, that I wish the successful candidate well in representing the constituency and our communities - as much as I disagree with him about some things, of course, I hope he will serve the people well. We'll disagree about the best way forward, no doubt, and we'll still be there to oppose electorally next time around, and I'm sure we'll be saying things between now and then too, but ultimately I don't believe that it's in any way right to hope that my community lives for years with poor representation just so that my party can do better in elections. That's not what politics should be about at all - it's about wanting to make things better for people, not about wanting to 'get one over on the other side' at all costs.

So to summarise the two election campaigns locally for me, both were unsuccessful in electoral terms of course, but both were successful in other ways, and give much  to think about for myself and the local party going forwards. Beyond that, in the grander scheme of national politics, the party has both reasons to be positive and lessons to learn, as always. I'm not going to go into details here of assessing everything that's happened and is happening in and around the Liberal Democrats in the inevitably somewhat fraught and frantic immediate election and post-election periods, but there are obviously thing I'm happy about and things I'm less happy about, and some things I think we need to be thinking about - I'll discuss those at the proper time and in the proper context, of course. The important thing for now is that we've stood proudly and flown our flag, and that we must and will continue to do so, even if we don't always win, and even though it isn't always easy (or hugely popular). That's what democracy is all about.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Grammars and Comprehensives



This is something I've been meaning to post about for a while, and rumours about budget allocations for new Grammar schools from the current Conservative government have reminded me about the issue. As usual, I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I do think we need to think carefully about what we are doing. Should we return to grammar schools, or not? Has the 'comprehensive experiment failed or succeeded? Are grammar schools an aid to social mobility, or quite the opposite?

The first thing I think is important to note is the difference between 'mixed ability schools' and 'mixed ability teaching' - I fully agree that the latter can be a problem in holding back more able children in a given subject, while leaving behind less able ones (while those in between are suffering under a teacher who is trying to balance the extremes within a class, which isn't really helping them much either). I don't think it is the most effective possible approach to teach a subject to a group with abilities in that subject that vary to such an extent that virtually nobody is really being taught at the right level. A mixed ability school is something completely different, though, and I would argue that you don't need to have separate schools in order to have appropriate levels of teaching in different subjects.

So what are the supposed advantages of grammar schools? Lack of 'mixed ability teaching' is the most obvious, but in some ways even that could be a bit of a red herring, depending on how children within the school are taught in different subjects - being great at maths doesn't make you great at history or English, so some form of 'setting' is required. Once you acknowledge the need for 'setting', the biggest advantage of grammar schools goes out of the window entirely. The other oft-quoted advantage is 'social mobility' - allowing kids from poorer backgrounds who are more academically inclined to get a better education, and to advance in life beyond the station of their birth. That, of course, comes with an obvious flip side - the disadvantage to those who don't get in, and have to go to a school already defined as 'lesser'. Even if those schools are theoretically 'comprehensive' rather than the old 'secondary modern', they have still had the most academic children 'creamed off the top', and that is not to their advantage.

So we have a system with no real advantages, blighted by disadvantages. Not getting in to the grammar school, whichever school you end up in, creates a 'social stigma' that can last a lifetime - as much as we like to say it isn't so, or that it shouldn't be so, having 'the right school' on your CV can be a positive advantage in later life (and 'the wrong school' a disadvantage). Beyond even that, though is the issue of social division - those who are in schools separated by 'academic ability' don't have the daily opportunity to associate and socialise with one another that they would if the were in the same school. The live in 'different worlds' from one another right from the start. Add that the the reality that entry is not just 'academic', but also very often dependent on 'class' and/or 'money' - peer pressure at an early age, and parents coaching children and/or paying for private tuition to get them through the 11+ (or whatever selection system is used), have a huge effect. That's not creating 'social mobility', but a kind of 'social separation' at an early age that is likely to introduce a mindset of 'us and them' that could last a lifetime. That, I would argue, is a very bad thing for society.

However, before we get carried away, we need to understand that comprehensive education hasn't been exactly perfect either. Aside from issues like 'mixed ability teaching' experiments, this single multi-ability school has often been operated under much the same kind of system of academic prejudice that the grammar and secondary modern system did. We changed the school, but often didn't really change the idea of 'academic snobbery' nearly enough. In my case, for example, I went to a 'streamed' comprehensive school - that system had many advantages over the grammar system in the way that it operated, but by 'streaming' kids according to whether they were 'Academic', 'Average' or 'Remedial' (their terms, not mine!) we still reinforced the same kind of thinking. We were still engaged in 'rating' children according to academic ability, as if that equated somehow to their 'worth' - the 'best' ones got the best education, but the 'lesser' ones were largely taught the same subjects but just at a lower level (with a a kind of assumption that they were 'never really going to get it'). It was assumed that being good at one thing meant being good at everything else academically too, and that's also a bit of an issue. I think we need to think about things a little differently.

We also have 'setting', as I've already mentioned, and that is a lot better as an idea because it allows for people having varying abilities. One problem, however, was that that was still done within those 'streams', I suspect at least partly because of the sheer complexity of timetabling. Another was still that issue of the 'lesser' children being largely taught the same academic subjects - since they usually weren't going into academic beyond school, I'm going to suggest that was sometimes really only useful as an exercise in giving them something to occupy their time in school, while enhancing the impression that they just 'weren't good enough', or were even 'too stupid'.

So how do we address this? Well, I'd say the first principle is to stop rating kids purely by academic ability in the first place. We shouldn't be primarily thinking about whether they are good at academic subjects, but thinking about what each child is best at. That may seem like a subtle and idealistic change, but I think it's an important one. We do here about ideas like 'technical schools' and 'vocational training', but we've not really made a clear commitment to that idea of 'equal worth, with different abilities' in the way we operate our school system. I think we can do that within the comprehensive education system, and I think we can use the 'streaming' idea in a different way. 

An important aspect of that is 'choice' - not just the 'parental choice' that we so often hear about, but also 'pupil choice' (an often neglected notion). It shouldn't just be about the school or education system judging a child's academic ability, but about making a choice between 'academic' and 'technical', or 'theory' and 'practicality', or 'intellectualism' or 'trade', or however you want to put it. That should be a choice in which schools, parents and children participate actively, based on desires and talent, and without any hint of the 'well you're a bit thick, so we'll teach you woodwork' prejudice that has so blighted our system. That, of course, needs us to really properly address how we deal with those who choose the less theoretical path, and what tools they need to leave school with in order to prosper in their future lives. It also needs us to think about a 'Careers Service' not being something that delivers a quick interview and a couple of leaflets just before the age when you can leave school comes - one that is integral within the school system from a much earlier point, and is able to understand individual needs (I hope it has moved beyond it now, and I suspect it probably has, but it certainly was the case at one time, in some places, that any girl who wasn't planning A levels was simply asked whether they wanted to become a hairdresser or a secretary - that was quite obviously completely inadequate!).

So let's deal with our three 'streams' in turn. First, the 'academic', or 'theoretical' stream - they are the easiest to deal with here in many way. In this day and age, we can reasonably assume that most of them will be looking towards continuing education and study beyond the age of sixteen, and even beyond the age of eighteen (given our current levels of university participation). We can probably broadly treat them in a fairly 'traditional' was educationally, teaching them academic subjects in a fairly theoretical and intellectual way, examining their academic work, and so on. I do think we can still improve on that, not just with continuing research into educational approaches, but by allowing more specialisation, and wider range of academic subjects for them to choose, and by introducing programs to attract more specialised teachers (for example, by employing PhD graduates to teach part time in a school while spending the rest of their time working as researchers in nearby universities or even private research facilities - part time teaching, part time research doesn't need to involve only university-level teaching). More on 'specialisation' in a moment.

Secondly, we have our 'practical' or 'trade' 'stream'. I'm sure there are better names out there, but the point is to not characterise people according to being 'not so clever', 'merely average', and so on, but in a positive way according to choice. Here's where we need a total rethink - we need to treat this group as something different, not merely a 'lesser' version of the 'academic' group, and a group with equal but different positive talents to be developed. That doesn't mean simply not teaching any of the traditional subjects, but thinking about the way we teach them in a different, much more practically applicable and relevant way.

Is there any point in teaching the finer points of Henry VIII wives in history, for example? Perhaps not, but the key skills of critical thinking and assessing evidence are really important for everyone (as I have noted in a previous blog post) - perhaps we could teach those in a more 'practical' way, giving them the tools they need to apply them, while removing the need for an academic exam about which women had their heads chopped off centuries ago. OK, that was a slightly simplistic case, but it's the point of 'boiling down' those subjects to make them relevant to practical skills for life rather than an exercise in heady intellectualism being coached mainly for the purpose of getting through irrelevant exams. Similarly, many tradesmen and other practical people could really use a practical grasp of business, taxation, and so on (and very probably before the 'academic' group need them, and that group will have the study habits to be able to learn them themselves more easily by the time that they do need them (though I'm not suggesting that they shouldn't have any business education, of course!)) - they probably don't need simultaneous linear equations in their maths lessons so much. It's not about teaching 'at the appropriate level', but 'the appropriate things in the appropriate way', and I'm not convinced that we've always been terrible good at doing that.

Really, though, their main efforts should be directed towards the practical skills that they could use to go into trades. We used to allow them to leave school earlier and become apprentices much more, of course, but why can't we actually turn them out with the trade skills ready for the workplace - as we turn out 'Newly Qualified teachers', why don't we turn out 16 year old 'newly qualified plumbers', for example, with all of the skills and knowledge necessary, ready to move on to a year of supervised and mentored work before becoming 'fully qualified'? Obviously we can't expect every school to teach every trade, but that again brings up that issue of 'specialisation' in schools.

So what do I mean by 'specialisation'?  Well it's not about only teaching certain subjects and not others, of course, but about each school developing its own 'centre of excellence' in certain subject areas for post-14 education, and offering the facilities and teaching expertise to deliver full education in particular trades and additional academic subjects within their particular area. This then goes to the heart of parental choice about which secondary school they should apply to get their children into - it's no longer about which is 'best' (or even 'in the best place to get the richer kids'!), but about what subject areas each school has specialised in.

For example, in a town with three comprehensive schools, there should be coordination so that each chooses a different specialist area for each of its 'streams'. School A may choose to specialise in Languages (so offering Dutch, Mandarin and Russian at 'GCSE' in addition  to the usual French and German, or whatever) and Physics (teaching different specialisms rather than one 'Physics' GCSE) academically, and in 'trades' it may choose 'Car Mechanics' and 'Plumbing' (developing full facilities for both for 14-16, or even 18 ages, while only teaching others at a more basic level to younger children). School B might choose History and Computing (offering a range of options within those at 14-18) along with Carpentry and Masonry. School C might choose 'The Arts' (Music, Art History, and so on) along with Hair and Beauty and Performance Arts as 'trade' options. I should obviously mention there the difficulties in more rural areas with less available school choices, but I think the same things can largely still apply - it would perhaps require examination of funding to ensure that there was the ability to provide a reasonable choice of options (so a more rural school may 'specialise' in more subject areas, but without going as far in the options it offers for each, but would still need to be able to provide appropriate facilities on the 'trades' side particularly).

Finally we come to the third group or 'stream' - what, in my day (I sound so old!) were often very badly referred to as 'remedial'. This is a group with a massively diverse set of different needs, and needs to be treated accordingly. How we name them is a matter for debate, although I guess we could take a lead from the former 'Special Olympics' and call it the 'Parastream' or something. Again we have to be very careful with assumptions about different abilities, difficulties and additional needs. I'm no expert, so I'm not about to define exactly how we should deal with them, apart from saying that we obviously have to recognise them as individuals and support them accordingly, rather than lump them together as all requiring the same. This is another area where 'specialisms' come into play between different schools, with different ones (as they often do now, of course) specialising in dealing with different particular kinds of need.

I have, perhaps, wandered a little from the discussion of grammar schools versus comprehensives as such, but I think it was an important road to go down. the important thing is that all three groups need to be integrated in all areas apart from the actual teaching if we are to have a society not divided by academic ability and/or issues of inherited wealth (and let's be clear here - that is what grammar schools all too often broadly divide us by, even if it isn't the case for every single child (which it certainly isn't)). For example, the ability to play football is really not academically related (although common characterisation of football players and fans may lead some to believe that to be the case!). At the basic level, school football games should be between teams based on football ability, not the 'posh school' or 'swot school' against whatever less than complimentary name may get applied to others. Academic ability should be entirely irrelevant to football between schools, but more than that it should be entirely irrelevant within schools too.

Beyond the school team we should, of course, be encouraging physical activity for all youngsters, and school sports lessons are a social experience that all academic abilities should be able to experience together and without barriers. Indeed, we should also be considering the third 'stream', and those in all streams with physical disabilities - there are 'Paralympic' sports that can also be enjoyed by able-bodied people, and we should be encouraging the development of these in schools as a shared social experience. Other social experiences are much the same, of course - whether you enjoy a school trip to a theme park (and no, I don't believe that all school trips need to be entirely 'educational' - socialisation is important for kids too, as indeed is 'fun'!) isn't actually dependent on whether you are going to be a professor of mathematics or a bricklayer in later life, and the more those different people share positive mutual social experiences at an early age the better it is for them and for society as a whole.

This kind of issue was dealt with quite well (though not by any means perfectly) by the school I went to, in fact, by using a system that has sadly now been removed from there. It was quite a simple idea - morning registration, form periods, school assemblies, school trips, sporting competitions, and so on, were all organised by non academic groupings ('forms'), while only teaching itself was by 'academic' groupings ('classes'). It's really not hard to do, and it does get kids to socialise positively on a daily basis 'across academic lines', so to speak, and in a way that simply isn't possible within a grammar school system.

Finally, I just want to touch in the issue of 'free schools', 'academies', and the like. This is something that I am really not in favour of, personally. Having said that, I don't doubt that some schools were being 'choked' by the previous systems of local authority control. There has to be a practical 'middle way' solution, though - something that allows local democratic control and coordination of all schools, but without becoming mired by prescriptive diktats over budgets and so on. It seems to me that the solution of providing some schools with an 'escape' rather than not addressing the issue properly is one that should never have even been considered as a solution - it is, again, divisive, promotes the idea of parental choice for 'better schools' over 'worse schools', and leads to perceived (if not actual, which they may be) funding deficits and disadvantages. I think that we can do better than the current mess of a two-speed approach, in the way we run our schools as well as in the way we allocate our children to them.