Friday, January 26, 2007


Despite Mr Stuart's exhortations, I can't quite muster myself to get indignant about the Catholic church and its idiotic insistence it be allowed to discriminate against gay couples wanting to adopt. An organisation so well known for sodomising young boys should really know when to keep its mouth shut, and whilst it's true that the Church-run adoption agencies have a good track record of placing 'difficult' children in loving homes, such a service ought not to be beyond the wit of the public authorities charged with such duties.

I say ought not to be, but several recent news stories make me seriously question the competence of our public institutions. The Home Office seems a bye-word for incompetence and bungling these days; the NHS has had more money pumped into it than ever before, and yet teeters on the edge of collapse; our soldiers are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight in some of the worst conditions and against the most persistent of enemies they've faced in decades, and yet the organisation behind the army provides them with boots that melt in the desert heat, rifles that jam as soon as they see sand. And when they finally return home, it is to accommodation even students would baulk at living in.

We no longer have a Ministry of Agriculture. This government is on record as having said it no longer sees the nation's farms as a strategic resource - we can get everything from overseas cheaper. But at the same time it harps on about food miles destroying the environment, and imposes impossible and conflicting health and safety and environmental restrictions on the domestic market whilst letting any old shit come through the ports. Conspiracy theorists might see it as a sneaky attempt to destroy farmers - the old enemy of the left - by underhand means. I've worked alongside civil servants in a government agency at time of crisis (the foot and mouth outbreak) and all I can say is that they're not clever enough to come up with such a strategy.

There's an argument that says we shouldn't be subsidising our farmers any more; farm subsidies are the biggest barrier to third world trade, after all. But they exist now, and in a form that makes the average tax-return look like a six year old's story about his pet tortoise. It is virtually impossible for a farmer to comply with all the contradictory requirements heaped upon him these days, thanks to the complexity of the system adopted by our government. And two years in a row, the agency charged with sorting out this mess and making the actual payments to farmers has been late. And not by a week or two, either. Farmers in England had to wait months for the money that was supposed to compensate for them not being allowed to farm in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. And what caused this delay? Could it be (heaven forbid) the incompetence of Ministers of State?

So in ten years of Labour administration, what has our government actually achieved? Well, Gordon Brown did hand over the setting of interest rates to the Bank of England, I'll give him that much. It's probably just as well, and most likely the only thing that's kept our economy from crashing under the burden of taxation heaped on it ever since.

Oh, and they banned fox-hunting. Except the last time I was north, I attended what looked very like a meeting of hounds and riders in preparation for hunting foxes. Hmmm.

The Assets Recovery Agency, there's a good idea. Let's get those organised criminals and take all their money away. Never mind the little things like due process. What? You mean we have to abide by the laws of the land? Bah!

Since 2003 when it was set up, the ARA has managed to recover £8 million from criminals. Whoopee. It cost £60 million to set up.

One of Tony Blair's most famous mantras was 'Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime.' It's a catchy, if slightly meaningless phrase, and its most obvious effect was surely going to be that more criminals would be spending longer periods locked up in prison. So would it not have been a good idea to build a few more prisons? But you can't do that. Prison denies the criminal his human rights, and reeks of right-wing authoritarianism. So let's dither, pretend that we're both being tough on criminals and at the same time understanding them, and hope that we won't actually have to lock so many people up as all the experts are saying we'll have to.

And if a pederast gets a suspended sentence because, well, it was only few photographs of naked children he was looking at, it's not as if he actually did anything, and besides, there's no room in the prisons for him, what with all those drug addicts and violent burglars in there already?

Actually, I almost feel sorry for Mr Williams of Blaenau Ffestiniog, all over the national news as the kiddy fiddler who was set free. Almost, but not quite. I was astonished to find that his wife had stuck by him, but I'll be even more astonished if his house isn't set alight, or he suffers an unaccountable, bone-breaking fall whilst out walking in the park. After all, remember this is the country that almost lynched a paediatrician because The Sun newspaper started a campaign of hatred against paedophiles. Sure, I'm a paedophile, I'm going to have a little brass plaque outside my door saying so?

Our education system's not exactly firing on all cylinders right now, either, thanks to a cynical manipulation of the curriculum. League tables, admittedly one of John Major's worst ideas, but taken up with renewed vigour by the Labour government, seemed to show steady improvement over the past ten years, in stark contradiction to the message coming from universities who have been laying on remedial maths classes for physics students, and basic English classes for everyone. It seems that the vast improvement in our schools is down to the raft of new subjects - Media Studies, Psychology and the like - now available for GCSE pupils. Never mind that they can't read or write or add up; that's not important. You don't get marked down in your Pyschology paper if you can't spell Cognotive Bihaviour Threapy. If you include a decent pass in Maths and English in the league tables, suddenly all those schools that were producing geniuses every year are way down at the bottom. We have more children leaving school functionally illiterate and unable to do even basic maths than at any time in the last thirty years. There's something to be proud about.

Perhaps it's a sign of my advancing years, but I look back at the time when I was in short trousers and the people in charge then seemed to be much more competent. They had an idea of how they wanted to improve society, they drew up a plan, and then they implemented it. Nowadays, in the age of spin, our leaders spend a great deal of time announcing that they are going to do things, change things, improve things, but very little time actually working on the details. And because it's so much easier to say things than do them, our limelight-hugging politicians say an awful lot, and don't hang about either. No sooner have their civil servants scurried away to begin implementing one directive than another pops up sending them scuttling in the other direction.

In a few months time, President Blair will fall on his sword (or ride off into the lecture-circuit sunset with his old pal, Bill the Cat) and we will be subjected to the terror of a Gordon Brown led administration. I can only hope that the Labour party will implode under the bickering and infighting that this transition of power will inevitably lead to, and a swift general election will ensue. Sadly, the opposition doesn't inspire me greatly, just singing the same song in a slightly posher accent. This country needs a swift kick up the backside, but I can't see anyone out there who's going to deliver.

Maybe I should emigrate to New Zealand.


Blogger Chaser said...

I'm sorry, but anything that goes on this long has to qualify as a proper rant. There's no "ette" about it.

I guess as fat Catholic I should be working on dying double-fast. At least I'm not a politician. But I do study politics. Hmmm.

January 26, 2007 4:01 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

I can't really win, can I Lisa?

January 27, 2007 12:13 pm  
Blogger Chaser said...

Nope. Either fortunately or unfortunately, I'm an insensitive fat Catholic so I don't take offense easily, though.

I keep thinking about your statement about poor-quality education, since I am on the frontline of it as a university prof, and there's a problem that is only partly political, at least as I am watching it in the US. There are strong cultural problems as well, and some of these are related directly (at least I think) to democratic empowerment more than anything else--not politicians, not bureaucracies--but a problem of democracy and pluralism. Every student has to succeed here or its somebody's fault, and that somebody is not the parent or the student. Because we have become so relentlessly (and superficially) egalitarian, every child is supposed to be equally qualified to succeed, and this has led us down the wrong path of lowering standards rather than enabling students to meet standards.

Even our theories of education have evolved to pander to the "every child is special and precious in his own special and precious way." So as an instructor, I've been subjected to repeated workshops whose leader says "why do you oppress students by lecturing? Why do you presume you know more than they? They are natural learners...if you get over yourself, they will blossom on their own. And whatever they come up with is unique and important." When you have a construct like that, there's no way to say somebody "Look, this work is not good enough. Go back and re-do it. " And it's all done under the veneer of protecting student's self-esteem, when it's feels to me like it's more about feeding the parents' self-indulgent notion that the fruit of their loins is gifted, bound for greatness--and then when the fruit winds up's the fault of the public institutions.

This is turning into a rant, too. Sorry.

January 28, 2007 1:19 pm  
Blogger Trace said...

Mmmm New Zealand would be lovely.

January 30, 2007 7:20 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

You'll get there some day, Trace. And it's well worth the effort.

Lisa, feel free to rant on my blog any time. The declining (or changing, if you're trying not to be controversial) standards of education are a great bugbear of mine, and it's interesting (if depressing) to hear that the same thing is happening in the US as well. I can understand the desire to protect children from physical and mental adversity both, but without challenge how can you grow? And if you are never allowed to fail, then what impetus is there to try and succeed?

January 31, 2007 9:36 am  

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