The old fetish

Chris Riddell 11 December 2011

Friday was the day the old fetish returned. The day Cameron delved into nostalgia. And the day he set Britain at odds not only with the other 26 EU member states, but rationality itself.

What we saw on Friday was a Prime Minister with his hands tied by dogmatic backbench MPs. But not to worry, it seems Cameron had unveiled his all powerful ‘veto’. The only problem with this is that it’s not a true veto of any sorts. Negotiations will still be ongoing, the remaining 26 EU states will still formulate an agreement and Britain will not be present to have any say in the talks.

This is catastrophic failure for Cameron who has severed any attempts to help salvage the Euro which is not only in the EU’s interest but vital in Britain’s interests. In the words of a Facebook update by my own brother:

Tory lol. Blame the economic problems on the Euro crisis, then veto the plan to save it knowing full well that the the EU will cut you out and essentially get rid of any say you have in determining the future of Europe, and by extension, Britain

Some may call it Bulldog spirit, I’d like to call it naively dogmatic.



That Old Chestnut

David Cameron has a nerve. Not only has he U-turned over his pledge in opposition to hold a referendum over the UK’s terms of membership of the European Union, but today he had the temerity to force Nicolas Sarkozy to back down and accept his presence at key Eurozone talks to try to deal with the Greek debt crisis on Wednesday.

Once again, only one year into the new government, a Conservative prime minister is becoming about as stable on Europe as Edwina Currie is on her feet. We all know deep down he is a staunch Euro-sceptic, so why doesn’t he have the guts to come out and be frank with the British people, and say that he would love us to turn our backs on our continental partners, but that he also loves us to lecture and patronise them on economic policy, despite the fact that UK growth is anaemic at best, and backwards at worst, thanks to his policies.

A referendum on EU membership now would of course be absurd, but having called for one in opposition, the PM should stick to his guns and create a disunited and discredited government, and do us all a favour by breaking up the coalition and triggering a general election. You can’t have your bun and eat it, and you can’t be half in, half out, of the EU – leaving the Eurozone (or more accurately, Germany) to do all the hard work and then turning up to talks this week to act as one of the key players while facing a referendum proposal at home from your own backbenchers is hypocritical and downright embarrassing for Britain.

It was Ed Miliband, incidentally, who called on Cameron to give up his trip Down Under and attend the meeting, therefore whether or not you agree that Cameron has a right to be there, it is clear that the Labour leader is ahead of the curve on this one, as he was on phone hacking and as he was at PMQs this week.

It might sound like a cheap shot from the comforts of opposition – and we all know Blair and Brown disagreed over the Euro – however it is clear that yet again the Tories are divided over Europe. Europhile or Europhobe, this is one of the few reliable constants of the European project.

The Euro Takes A Pounding

The single currency was once such a contentious issue; only a decade ago it seemed likely that the UK would be joining the Eurozone. What happened? Today, Jack Straw predicted that the Euro will indeed fail following the inevitable defaulting by Greece of its sovereign debt, leading to a return to those old holiday favourites like the Drachma. As the media keeps reminding us ominously, despite our not being part of the monetary union, a collapse of the Euro would have a devastating effect on our economy, because of the global nature of our trade regime and our over-reliance on our closest neighbours for exports. This begs the question that if we cannot escape the effects of these sorts of economic crises in a globalised world, is it not time to become more unified to prevent the two-track system we have at the moment, where richer nations are being forced to bail out those in trouble?

I am no economist, yet if I learned anything from my second-year Interwar Economy course (between lapses into and out of a coma), it is that the attempt to ‘force’ currencies of varying strengths to use the same interest rates as part of the Gold Standard was in hindsight a fairly disastrous decision, without some sort of accompanying political union where individual nations have the same tax-and-spending and trade regimes – like BULS members’ attitudes to musical theatre, it seems we can only be either completely pro or completely anti EU. Given that Labour is a progressive party, and that in today’s global economy an insular economic nationalism is unthinkable (we have no industry for that), is it not the time to at least ‘float’ the idea of some sort of European federal state, if we are to keep the post-war dream alive?

This idea may be too much for many people to swallow, and the media will never accept it, but do we really have any realistic alternative when we are competing with economies like China and India? We cannot afford to let the European ideal crumble on the back of this financial crisis.


Rambling all-purpose post-Guttenberg higher education rant

(it is a machine that copies)

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg´s gone at last. He´s lied denied and compromised his way through two tricky weeks of scrutiny at the hands of the media, his political opponents and even his own party the CDU. His situation reminds me of Andy Coulson´s in January, but was inherently more critical because he had been tipped as Merkel´s successor. As a campaigner for the SPD I am not an unbiased observer, but my feeling is that zu Guttenberg did not deserve a doctorate and does not deserve to remain an MP with such blatantly compromised judgement.

I hope this will be a lesson to those members of the older generation patronising enough to moan about how much easier it is these days to get good grades, or how the standard of higher education is dropping, or how this generation is lazy. Or to the traitors in our midst who decry the degrees taken by their contemporaries as worthless.

Because this kind of copying simply can´t happen anymore. Electronic submission through specific software is common practice in modern universities, and plagiarism is one of the gravest academic crimes we can be convicted of, worse than a lack of imagination, a lack of passion, or even unpunctuality. Degrees are tough and marks are harsh, and all of us have worked hard to get into and stay at the University of Birmingham.

This is why we have to keep campaigning for fairness and accessibility. Funding for all that want it, places for all that can meet reasonable requirements, and serious long term investment in all institutions of education.


Equality and education

First of all I’d like to apologise for not blogging much recently, I’ve been travelling a lot and trying to get all my essays and presentations done for Humboldt, which is taking twice as long because they’re all in German!

During the holidays I’ve been talking to people in Sweden and Germany about schooling. I find it a really easy political topic to engage young people on because it’s a common and recent experience and a lot of us are concerned by the state of flux the system is tumbling into.

New Labour introduced a lot of initiatives and revolutionised the school system in many ways. These changes were not always popular with parents and teachers but the central aim of each one was greater equality. The general coalition push for the re-introduction of grammar schools and the sponsoring of free schools does not have the same aim and will not produce positive results.

Germany has had a 4-tier system in place for several decades, in which 10-year-old children are separated into achievement-based groups and sent to either a Gymnasium, Realschule, Hauptschule or Forderschule. Those who try to sell such systems as meritocracies overlook the real input and output of pupils, and the uncomfortable statistics that show that selection hits the most vulnerable hardest.

The PISA Study (Programme for International Student Assessment) was first carried out by the OECD in 2000 and showed Germany to have a highly unequal and unfair system, with bright non-native speakers of German being relegated to the Forderschule, which is essentially a school for the mentally disabled rather than those of another nationality. As British studies have shown, bright students from poor families lose out in the current system to averagely gifted children from rich families, because the parents themselves are often more highly educated, better informed, and more driven.

In Sweden independent schools set up by groups of parents resorted to television advertising to drum up interest. This was very successful in a many areas, but produced the unfortunate result that state schools had to spend taxpayers’ money on running expensive advertising campaigns in order to be able to compete.

We don’t need to worry about the high achievers, but the children who fall through the cracks. Becoming resigned to a low social strata so early in life is damaging and leads to serious consequences later in life.


The Special Relationship

The BP oil spill was a massive PR disaster for Britain, not least in the hearts and minds of ordinary America.ns. The latest Wikileaks report that Mervyn King described the ConDems as economically “out of their depth” makes us look more like the embarrassing friend or silly little brother than a special partner.

But all is not lost. Tory europhobia likely chimes in quite nicely with a USA that routinely censures EU trade protectionism, and as we know from transatlantic politics the Tories can present themselves as having quite a lot in common with both parties, as they are right-wing but as a rule a lot more moderate and civilised than many Republicans, and by and large approve of Obama’s health reforms.

And what with La Roux storming the charts, Russel Brand marrying showbiz royalty and Vernon Kay, Cat Deeley; Len Goodman, Piers Morgan and maybe even Cheryl Cole presenting primetime shows we might be gradually getting to the stage where, as the guardian puts it, our accent is no longer just for aristocrats and villians.

So where do we stand now? Will the special relationship take us as far as Iran? How will it affect our relationship with Europe? And come 2012 will Palin and Cameron egg each other on to even bigger cuts?


Green and pleasant land

In my capacity as BULS’ tweeter in cheif I have started following Nick Griffin, and my suspicions about him have been confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. The BNP is “bewildered” by its responsibilities in Europe. Nick himself delights in causing trouble, but is singularly slippery on facts. He expects others to listen, but does not reply to others who comment or engage in any kind of conversation with anyone on twitter. Perhaps inevitable when 90% of the population hate his guts.

He also usefully reminded me that yesterday was Trafalgar Day, and started me thinking about patriotism in its many guises. Being in Germany I find it a very interesting topic, because I sometimes feel as though I am experiencing more than homesickness for my friends and family – an actual longing for England itself.

Where does this feeling come from? Why do I  leap to defend the weather or cuisine when I know it is better in other countries? Why do I seek to protect the concept of Britishness against jokes and slander? I’m poud of our liberties, I’m grateful for our relative economic security and safety from attack. I love the infrastructure and the accents, the music and the telly, the literature and the arts. But Germany’s not bad either. I could have been born here, and lived a very similar life. I wouldn’t be disappointed with Australia or Greece. As the late Linda Smith observed, most people who are proud of being British are taking credit for something they took  no part in forming. No one alive now was alive to invent Britain. Most patriots were born and live here, so to call themselves British is not an achievement.

Nick Griffin’s attacks on foreigners in Britain and Brussels seek to include people like me, who want to feel proud and superior, who can define themselves as British if nothing else, who get excited by history and intrigued by ancestry. But it’s too easy. Patriotism is a luxury we don’t need. Defending the things that Britain does well individually is brilliant. But this concept of there being something more, an essence that runs through all of us and through the place itself is crazy. We see it taken to extremes world-wide, with broad hysteria on immigration, globalisation and EU integration. With MSPs preaching independence at all costs, with the Tea Party movement’s covert xenophobia, with the PKK committing violence in the name of the as-yet-unrecognised Kurdistan, with neo-Nazis in Berlin.

The British media heaps scorn with alacrity on any politician appearing to be less than delighted about their homeland. In the case of Gisela Stuart I more than once had to talk round voters who were unwilling to “let the Germans in” by electing her. Clegg was vilified for his foreign wife and europhile credentials. We have an unhealthy obsession with this second-hand pride.

The human race is entitled to liberty, good health and financial stability. It is not entitled to patriotism.