Monday, March 05, 2007


Oxford's attempts to rid itself of its reputation for giving preference to the "old school tie" have been dented by new figures showing it admitted almost twice as many Old Etonians last year as in 2001 . The number of pupils from Eton and other leading independent schools such as Westminster, St Paul's and Winchester have surged despite efforts by the university to boost its state-school intake. While the overall proportion of state-school pupils has edged up slightly at Oxbridge, elite private institutions have notched up the greatest gains. The main losers have been less prestigious independent schools.

The figures suggest Gordon Brown's outburst seven years ago against the "privileges" represented by Oxford has been counterproductive. The chancellor claimed it was an "absolute scandal" that Oxford had rejected Laura Spence, a talented Tyne-side comprehensive pupil. He said the university was "reminiscent of an old-boy network".

While the elite schools insist their success is down to their teaching, Labour critics say Oxbridge has not done enough to encourage state-school pupils. Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons education select committee, blamed the universities for failing to broaden their intake. "Oxford and Cambridge shouldn't be seen as finishing schools for Eton and Westminster," he said.

The new data, released under the Freedom of Information Act, give a snapshot comparison between 2001 and 2006. Both universities reduced their independent sector intake by only 177 in that period. The top-performing schools have achieved spectacular gains. In 2006, 70 pupils from Eton were offered places by Oxford, compared with 38 in 2001. At Westminster school 52 pupils received offers from Oxford, up by 14 from 2001. There has also been an increase at Cambridge, although it is less marked. North London Collegiate school won 20 places there in 2006, compared with 17 in 2001; St Paul's school won 23, compared with 21.

The top school for Oxbridge last year was Westminster, where 60% of the upper sixth won offers from Oxford or Cambridge. Stephen Spurr, the head-master at Westminster, believes Oxbridge is not biased but is searching for the brightest applicants to maintain its position in the world rankings.

Tony Little, Eton's head master, said he told pupils that a place at Oxford or Cambridge had to be earned. "There is no golden road. The clever dilettante doesn't wash for Oxford now, if it ever did. We go far beyond the syllabus required for exams."

Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, denied the university was failing to give due credit to state school applicants. "The best independent schools are stretching their most able pupils," he said. "There are ways in which state-school pupils are not as well guided as applicants from independent schools. State schools have had to deal with a shortage of qualified maths and physics teachers. They have also been dropping languages."


Red Ken's green tyranny

A 50-Year Plan of petty rules: the London mayor's climate change proposals show you can justify anything in the name of 'saving the planet'

The `climate change manifesto' is one of the few bold political statements on the public landscape today. London mayor Ken Livingstone has now added to the genre with his `climate change action plan', a grandiose piece of political pomposity that future generations will find it hard to beat.

The climate change manifesto goes something like this (delete where necessary): a politician/writer/environmentalist decides on a target for how much he/she thinks a particular city/country/continent needs to cut its carbon emissions. Then they consider various options, and put together their favoured portfolio for how this figure can be reached. Once published, their report is all but chiselled in tablets of holy rock. They have done the figures, and the figures add up: now we must all obey.

Livingstone's target is a 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2025. Around half of this will be achieved by telling Londoners how to live, and around half by telling UK and European governments which laws to pass. There will be a `major marketing campaign' to inform Londoners of the changes they can make to cut their emissions, from turning off appliances to installing renewable energy sources in their homes. A pilot Green Homes `concierge service' will carry out energy audits of people's homes, and help them manage the transition to greener ways of living.

Livingstone sees no barriers to his effort to get Londoners to reduce their collective carbon footprint. He tells us which method of transport to use, steering us away from the private motor car and plane, by `promoting alternatives to the car' and `educating Londoners and advocating alternatives to air travel'.

He tells us which model of car to drive: `a gas-guzzling 4x4 vehicle' should be `no more sociably acceptable' than to `dump rubbish in the street', and so these drivers will pay 25 pounds congestion charge, while low pollution cars drive free. He even tells us how to drive: `The mayor will promote ecodriving (for example, smoother acceleration/braking and proper vehicle maintenance) by all car, freight, taxi and public transport drivers.' Pity the poor employees at the mayor's own Greater London Authority, who will get an extra programme `promoting staff energy-savings behaviour at home and at work by running ongoing staff campaigns'.

In order for Livingstone's target to be met, he also requires `a small number of key national regulatory and policy changes' from UK and EU governments. He elaborates: `Action will be necessary at a national and European level to save the further 13.4million tonnes needed each year to constrain London's total carbon dioxide emissions to 600 million tonnes between now and 2025.'

Government must apparently introduce a `comprehensive system of carbon pricing', and bring through `regulatory change to incentivise widespread rollout of decentralised energy [solar panels and wind turbines on houses]'. Meanwhile, EU and international authorities have responsibilities, including the `earliest possible inclusion of aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) and levying duty on aviation fuel'.

In the name of tackling the climate emergency, it seems that anything can be justified. `London must...', we read; `it is imperative that we do find ways to meet these targets'; `action will be necessary'. The normal mechanisms of politics - proposals, debates, arguments - are apparently suspended. Once an individual can pose as the mouthpiece for the needs of the planet, there is no limit to their authority. Indeed, that individual's authority even stretches way into the future: Livingstone's plan goes 45 years hence. By 2050, he tells us, the majority of London's energy will be supplied by his favoured decentralised energy systems. By 2050? Livingstone is coming up for re-election in two years.

Now, it may be the case that London should bring through a change in its energy economy. The capital has done so simply and effectively before, with the 1956 Clean Air Act, which set up `smokeless' zones and persuaded Londoners and industry to shift from coal to smokeless forms of energy. Within 10 years, emissions fell by 74 per cent.

But any change in energy use should be the outcome of measured public debate about the different practical options - and one proviso should be minimal disruption to Londoners' lives and lifestyle choices. By contrast, Livingstone's plan for tackling climate change is a high-impact plan, with targeted fallout on everything from bus-drivers' acceleration to EU emissions legislation.

This is what happens when environmental management becomes a political and moral programme rather than a pragmatic response to a particular problem. The aim becomes to have a bigger and more far-reaching impact on people's lives, to design measures that we notice. After all, if Livingstone's action plan didn't affect us that much, it wouldn't be such a radical political statement, would it?

Livingstone's report reveals the true colours of the climate change manifesto. We see how the justification of environmental emergency gives a local mayor carte blanche to lord it over not just the capital, but Europe as a whole. Small wonder that one Livingstone aide described climate change as `the defining issue' that lay at the heart of his political programme. Perhaps we should use that election in two years' time to show Livingstone that political authority does have its limits after all.


Elitism and government housing

Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates: An Intimate History titillates the Guardian-reading class’s fascination with a poor and excluded ‘underclass’.

Estates: An Intimate History is marked all over with the stamp of authenticity. The ‘intimate’ in the title means she grew up in a large council estate in Birmingham called ‘The Wood’, and that today she lives on an estate in East London. This fact has impressed her editor, Granta‘s Ian Jack, and her many reviewers rather too much, and maybe Hanley, too. Millions of people grew up in estates, and it is not a revelation that they can write. I did not grow up on a council estate, but in redbrick terraces in Halifax, and like Hanley I too co-bought a house on an ex-council estate (thank you, Mrs Thatcher), but it never occurred to me that this granted me any special insight.

Still, Estates is well written, full of anecdote to make the argument that growing up in council estates visits a terrible stigma on millions of people. But is it true? Hanley’s argument echoes the many debates on the supposed ‘underclass’, a stratum of society that was doomed to failure by birth – birth in council estates in this variation. Happily, there is no evidence to support the idea that there is a permanent underclass. In 1992, Nick Buck of the Economic and Social Science Council found that there simply was no evidence to support such a proposal (1). Statistics on long-term unemployment show that those out of work for more than a year are only 20 per cent of the total and falling. All the evidence is that there is a churn of people in and out of poverty, with the economic cycle rather than personal fecklessness being the main aggregate determinant.

But if people are not fated to repeat the errors of their parents, social science researchers are fated to repeat those of their predecessors. In 2004, the Social Exclusion Unit report Breaking the Cycle imagined it had discovered ‘an intergenerational cycle of deprivation’, ‘transmission’ and ‘inheritance’ of disadvantage (2). A little over a decade earlier, the American social commentator Charles Murray tickled middle-class anxieties with his The Emerging British Underclass (3). Murray overplayed his hand, though, with his follow-up book The Bell Curve, which asserted that intelligence (or IQ, intelligence quotient, to be precise) was genetically inherited, and that IQ determined social class. Here, Murray made the argument too explicit, and embarrassed his target audience of the ‘cognitive elite’ by insisting that black people were around 15 per cent less clever than white people (4).

Before Murray, British Conservative minister Keith Joseph gave a speech at Edgbaston in 1974 bemoaning the cycle of deprivation that led the malingering unemployable ‘problem families’ to pass on their habits to their children (5). But then, we had heard all of this before back in the 1880s in the debate about the ‘residuum’ - a graceless metaphor for the undeserving poor that pictured them as the shit that stuck to the bottom of the sceptic tank (6). The real meaning of the Social Exclusion/Underclass/Residuum debates was that it was the middle classes who felt disturbingly alienated from society, but projected that feeling on to an underclass that was largely of their own imagination.

Hanley, though, does not talk directly of the underclass, but of people who live on ‘estates’, a word that means for her ‘council estates’. Hanley is aware of the pitfalls: ‘depictions of working-class life are often either hopelessly sentimental or offensively vilifying’, she writes. Still, the mass housing becomes, in her shorthand, a dismissal of the masses within, ‘endless tragic boxes with people in them’. She checks herself – ‘I’m ashamed to reduce people like this, for I know that every one of them has a story far more fascinating than the flat face of their house would ever reveal’ – but still she presses on. Hanley’s descriptions tell us about her, about her alienation from her subjects, as much as they do about her subjects. ‘Having a child before you know what to do with it; sidling up to people like me and asking them if you’ll buy ten Lambert and Butler; passing round a two-litre bottle of sparkling perry’ (8) – well, surely most of us have done at least two out of three, one time or another.

Hanley cites John Carey’s insightful book The Intellectuals and the Masses. There, Carey shows how intellectuals masked their loathing of the common herd by attacking their mass consumer goods (tinned food was a particular horror, as was ribbon development) instead of attacking them directly. But Hanley does not hear the echo of that middle-class snobbery in her own descriptions of ‘pretend house boxes’, or in the disbelieving cry ‘could a residents’ association even exist here?’. It is a common mistake people make discussing houses to confuse social prejudice with aesthetic judgment. People are often repulsed by the idea that houses are boxes, failing to notice the obvious that boxes are a very good shape, and that beautiful Georgian terraces are boxes, just like LCC estates.

When Hanley writes ‘concrete is a harsh and unfriendly-looking material’ it seems obvious, like the David Mamet character who says ‘everyone likes money, that’s why it is called money’. Hanley has not noticed that the association of concrete and harshness has been inculcated in us by its uses, rather than arising out of its intrinsic character.

As a description of the development of social housing policy, Hanley’s blind spots are revealing. She takes on face value the good intent of the early reformers and their ‘nineteenth-century crusade to house the poor in clean and comfortable surroundings’. Yet the vicious prejudices against the residuum that underlay their desire to break up the slums have been well documented for more than a quarter of a century, thanks to historians Gareth Stedman Jones (Outcast London, 1971), HJ Dyos (Exploring the Urban Past, 1982) and most recently Jerry White (London in the Nineteenth Century). When the poor were decanted from their north St Pancras slum into the new Somerstown estate, their clothes and furniture were burnt in a public ceremony, with local dignitaries looking on as they were bundled into a fumigating wagon decorated with giant papier maché fleas, bedbugs and rats.

Hanley thinks that Ebenezer Howard, author of The Garden Cities of Tomorrow, something of a model for town planners, was a ‘cross between Karl Marx and William Morris’. In fact Howard got his ideas from Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward, and reformer Octavia Hill – people Morris angrily denounced as ‘workhouse socialists’ and ‘five per cent philanthropists’ whose concern for the poor still ‘takes it for granted that the workers must be in the main paupers’ (7).

Hanley’s soft spot for the Victorian reformers carries over into the town-planning pioneers at Port Sunlight, Letchworth, the London County Council’s pioneering interwar estates and even Nye Bevan’s stint as housing minister in the first Labour government. Hanley entertains the illusion that we failed to take the better road to a wholly nationalised rented sector – believing that if only the government had carried through a plan to do just that ‘the riots at Notting Hill in 1958 would never have happened’. But the state sector was just as capable of using race to divide tenants, as it did in Tower Hamlets, fostering a generation of hate.

But this elevation of the early origins of council housing only serves as a counterpoint to heap scorn on the later engines of council house growth – that is, Tory Harold Macmillan, housing minister in the 1950s, and Labour’s Richard Crossman, who took over in the 1960s. Hanley faults these two for mass-producing cheap estates, like the one she grew up on, while careful Nye took his time to get it right. But she is as unfair to Macmillan and Crossman as she is naive about Bevan and Letchworth.

We can agree with Hanley when she says ‘but of course it’s not socialism: it’s a kind of ghettoisation’. But then it was daft to think that access to a consumer good, even a big one like a house or flat, would alter the social relationship that distinguished the upper class from the working class. What Macmillan and Crossman did do, which their successors have signally failed to do, was to build enough houses, not just to replace the old housing stock, but also to increase the number of homes overall. Hanley has a point when she says that they made them cheap, and that created problems in construction, including in system-building that was sabotaged by corner-cutting contractors. Hanley retells the story of the four people killed when the East Ham tower block Ronan Point collapsed in 1968. But she only reproduces the prejudices of the time: ‘[T]he problem with buildings is that, like anything man-made, they are subject to our desire to experiment.’ This is the kind of reaction against modernism that has taken us 30 years to get over – or not, in Hanley’s case.

Hanley likes social housing in principle, just not the fact of it. So when it comes to Thatcher’s sell-off of council houses in the 1980s, Hanley, having rehearsed all the prejudices against council housing, suddenly leaps to their defence. Indeed, she blames the council tenants themselves for having a detrimental impact on social housing policy: ‘In taking so enthusiastically to the idea of buying their homes from the council, over a million British households participated in the dismantling of mass public housing in Britain.’ But for all the reasons that she herself outlined, their experiences told them that they could hardly make a worse job of managing their property than the council did. In fact, the transformation in housing tenure since the 1960s only goes to show that there is nothing permanent or even enduring about the division of society into estate-dwellers and respectable society. Today, thanks mainly to cheap mortgages, a massive 73 per cent of people live in homes they own (8).

Hanley’s exclusive fixation on social housing misses out the real housing problem – which is that too few, overall, are being built. Today’s fear of change has created a real social problem, which is that we are building so few houses each year that we are not even managing to replace the dilapidated stock, let alone meet the additional demand that comes from population growth and family change. Among the excuses that the authorities have made up for not building more is a fear of social division if new building does not meet precise goals of social mixing – a fear that Hanley adds to with this book.

One suspects that Hanley’s attitudes to council housing are more closely related to her recent experience of having bought a flat on an East London council estate than her upbringing. There she was involved in a referendum to have the management of the estate pass from the council to a Registered Social Landlord. Despite her social housing ideals, Hanley seems to have rejected the left’s Campaign to Defend Council Housing and instead quite enjoyed the resident activism of the government’s Housing Choice agenda.

Looking back, Hanley wants to have good social housing that does not become a signifier for class discrimination. But it is class division that makes housing into a symbol of social worth. She mocks the pretensions of those whose homes nearby council estates were masked by high hedges and trees. But Hanley had her own version of the snob’s Leylandii barrier: ‘I started getting the Guardian on weekdays and the Observer on Sundays…the newsagent had to get them in especially. It felt as if everything was opening up to me: the richness of culture, the power of language, the usefulness of politics and, most importantly, the possibility of deep and lasting friendships rather than bully-acquaintances.’

Clearly, there are more subtle ways of signifying social hierarchy than estates.



From the earliest days Christianity has been opposed to slavery. In his Letter to the Galatians, St Paul wrote: "As many of you that have been baptised in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. We were all one in Jesus Christ." Undoubtedly Christians have compromised with slavery - as with other social evils - in the course of history, but the orthodox Christian doctrine is one of liberty and equality.

The Christian belief was the inspiration in William Wilberforce's long campaign to end the slave trade. His Bill received the Royal Assent on March 25, 1807, 200 years ago. That was the most important of all the great reforms of the 19th century; essentially it was a Christian reform, inspired by the Protestant conversion of Wilberforce himself. March 25 was the old New Year's Day; it is also the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

We live in an age when modernists regard religion with something approaching panic. It is like the Devil's attitude to Holy Water. There was a comic example of Christianophobia in The Sunday Times yesterday. Michael Portillo, who used himself to be seen in Brompton Oratory, was hyperventilating at the idea of David Cameron going to church. "I worry," he wrote, "because men of power who take instruction from unseen forces are essentially fanatics . . . I would be more reassured to hear that the Tory leader goes to church because that is what it takes to get a child into the best of state schools, not because he is a believer."

Perhaps this neurotic response to Mr Cameron's habit of going to church reflects Mr Portillo's recognition that religion is again becoming an important influence on society. Many of the current news stories show that religion is back in public consciousness; for those who feel uneasy about religion, that is unwelcome.

Islam is, of course, the alarming religious issue that will not go away. In the 20th century the world failed to adjust to two major belief systems, nationalism and Marxism. Now we face a similar global challenge from Islam, which opposes Judaism in Israel, Hinduism in India, Buddhism in South East Asia, Christianity in Europe and America and modernism in the whole advanced world. We certainly cannot say that all religious influences are benign; al-Qaeda is a religious cult, but a perverted one.

Religion turned William Wilberforce into a Protestant saint, but Wahhabism has turned Osama bin Laden into a devil.

The rise of militant Islam in the 21st century is, however, part of a much broader phenomenon. In the United States there has been the extraordinary resurgence of fundamentalist Protestantism, sufficiently strong to win two presidential elections for the Republican Party. In Britain, an inflow of Catholics from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, has revitalised the Roman Catholic Church, which now has the largest Christian congregation in the country. The worldwide Church of England has been divided by a battle of moral convictions. All of these religious movements challenge modernism, that popular mix of materialism, scientism and political correctness that had seemed to be carrying all before it.

The modernist attack on religion was based on the victory of science, and particularly of neo-Darwinism. Yet science was open to the same challenge as religion; it could explain only half the world. The scientists, or some of them, sneered at religion for being unable to explain the developments of nature. Yet science itself was unable to produce a science-based morality for society. Marxism attempted to create a scientific social order that ended in monstrous and bloodthirsty tyranny. Social Darwinism either meant eugenics and the slaughter of babies who were not thought fit to survive, or it meant nothing. The Social Darwinism of George Bernard Shaw, or indeed that of Adolf Hitler, has been rejected by mankind.

The world needs religion to address the moral issues. In the advanced societies it is these moral issues that now mock us. Europe and North America are hugely wealthy regions, but they are morally impoverished. Broken families, drugs, booze, youth gangs, crime, neglect of children and the old, the sheer boredom of shopaholicism, terrorism, the inner-city slums, materialism itself, are all the marks of a global society in decline. Societies can be judged by their care for children. Social education must start in the family and must have a moral basis. Children need to be taught to distinguish between right and wrong. A recent report by Unicef showed Britain as 21st out of 21 advanced countries in the welfare of children; our national failure is a shame and a disgrace.

In 19th century England, the revival of Christianity provided the basis for a century of social reform. The religious revival spread across all the Christian churches; in the Church of England there was the Evangelical movement as well as the High Church movement. The Roman Catholic Church attracted thousands of new converts. The Methodists and other Nonconformists devoted themselves to the welfare of the poor and the working class. The Salvation Army took its trumpets into the pubs and slums and offered a new hope.

The 19th century was an age of social reform based on religious revival and the Christian faith. The 20th century was an age of religious decline and of accelerating decline in social cohesion as well as in faith. "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/ When wealth accumulates and men decay."

These are lines from Oliver Goldsmith's moving poem, The Deserted Village in the 18th century. If they seem to apply to our modern societies, religion is not the problem; it is the only possible remedy.


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