Friday, September 28, 2007

Orwell lives: 'Rewrite British history to reflect other cultures'

Parts of British history need to be rewritten to emphasise the roles played by other races and religions like Muslims, a prominent race relations campaigner has said. Trevor Philips, the chairman of the new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights, said the history of Britain did not properly reflect the contribution of other cultures. Rewriting the country's history would demonstrate to Britons in the 21st century how other groups apart from Anglo Saxons shaped the nation.

He told a fringe meeting at the Labour conference: "We may need to revisit our national story - we want to rewrite that story to tell the whole story." The rewriting should start with the story of how the English fleet led by Sir Francis Drake fought off the Spanish Armada in 1588, he said. The important role played by the Muslim Turks, who delayed the sailing of the Spanish fleet so that the English ships were better prepared, had been airbrushed out of the story however. Mr Phillips said: "When we talk about the Armada, it was the Turks who saved us because they held up the Armada after a request from Elizabeth I. "Let's rewrite that, so we have an ideal that brings us together so that it can bind us together in stormy times ahead in the next century." [There is in fact no evidence that the Turks took any action to trouble Spain at the time concerned]

Mr Phillips, the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, declined to offer any other examples of parts of British history that should be rewritten. He also said that he supported a campaign by the musician Billy Bragg for a new written constitution to define what it means to be British in the 21st century. "We have to have an expression that is native and right for us," he said. "We have to have a more explicit set of understandings under which we can all live together."

Mr Phillips, who was educated at Queen's College Boys School in Guyana, also suggested that there should be a set celebration for when people were given British nationality. Nationality lessons were necessary because people were moving around the country more than ever before, providing less opportunities to integrate. Last year 6.5 million people moved house, he said. Earlier this week Mr Phillips said that economic migrants could be forced to make a bigger contribution to the cost of public services. Mr Phillips said that some migrants who stay in the UK only for a short time should pay more for the use of schools and hospitals.


Another response to Britain's dumbed-down high school examinations

A new alternative to the A level will enable universities and employers better to identify the brightest students by replacing the grade A with three different achievement bands. The Pre-U examination, being developed by Cambridge University amid concern over the suitability of A levels for preparing students for university, will award nine grades or bands, four more than the A to E grades offered by A levels. The Pre-U has already won backing from private schools such as Eton, Rugby and Winchester, which confirmed yesterday that they would introduce it from September next year.

But schools were told yesterday that many universities would not accept the qualification unless it was widely adopted in state schools as well. Michael Whitby, pro vice-chancellor of Warwick University, speaking on behalf of the Russell Group of 20 elite universities and 1994 Group of 19 universities, said that the Pre-U must not be allowed to entrench the considerable advantage that private schools already held over university admissions. "If the Pre-U were to be confined to an elite of private schools, then there would be issues for admission tutors in many universities," he told a conference of head teachers.

Professor Whitby suggested that private schools should work with local state schools, particularly disadvantaged ones, to help them to introduce the Pre-U. "If [the Pre-U] doesn't get spread [to state schools] then we will continue to focus on the A-level A grade and A*," he said. "It is therefore incumbent on CIE [Cambridge International Examinations] and on the Etons of this world to go the extra mile and the extra two miles to bring local state schools on board," he said.

Professor Whitby's comments reflect concerns of some head teachers, who have given warning that the schools system in England is at risk of drifting into "educational apartheid", with different examination systems for pupils in state and independent schools. Kevin Stannard, of CIE, which is developing the new qualification, agreed that the Pre-U could not be justified if it were only available in private schools, adding there was strong interest in it in the state sector.

The Pre-U will involve a return to final exams after two years of study, rather than the bite-sized modules of A levels, which can be endlessly retaken. The Pre-U diploma will be worth the equivalent of 4« A levels and will involve study of three subjects. Students will also have to complete an independent research report and a global perspectives project. Pupils will be able to substitute A-level subjects for two of their three Pre-U subject certificates. Alternatively, any of the 26 Pre-U subjects can be taken separately in much the same way as A Levels.

Pre-U candidates will be expected to put in 400 hours of learning for each subject, 10 per cent more than is expected of pupils for A levels. The extra study time is made possible because pupils will not have to prepare for AS exams half way through their sixth-form studies, as the PreU will be examined at the end of the course in June. Pupils will be awarded one of nine grades: D1 (Distinction 1), D2, D3, M1 (Merit 1), M2, M3, P1 (Pass 1), P2, P3.

Dr Stannard said he expected that only a small minority would gain the top D1 mark, which will be higher even than the new A* grade being introduced in 2010 for A-level candidates who score more than 90 per cent. Details of the new qualification were released yesterday as the Government confirmed that regulation of the exam system in England is to be put in the hands of an independent watchdog to counter criticism that GCSEs and A levels are getting easier. The new body will be split from the existing Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has announced.



Britain pointedly called on the United States yesterday to join other rich nations making binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as dozens of world leaders held a summit on the danger of catastrophic climate change. Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, told the meeting at United Nations headquarters that "the greatest challenge we have ever faced as human beings" required action from every developed nation. "That means all of us, including the largest economy in the world, the United States, taking on binding reduction targets," he said. "It is inconceivable that dangerous climate change can be avoided without this happening."

Mr Benn's decision to single out the US during a visit to New York will be regarded in Washington as particularly provocative. President Bush skipped most of the UN meeting yesterday and was planning to attend only a working dinner last night. He has called his own two-day meeting of 15 major economies in Washington later in the week. Although he has abandoned his previous scepticism about man-made climate change and promises to negotiate a "long-term global goal" for cutting emissions, Mr Bush still envisages countries entering framework agreements voluntarily.

"It's our philosophy that each nation has the sovereign capacity to decide for itself what its own portfolio of policies should be," said James Connaughton, the President's chief environmental adviser. The White House remains hostile to international measures such as a cap-and-trade system on emissions, which might increase electricity bills for ordinary Americans, with Mr Connaughton questioning whether a "woman on fixed income in Ohio should pay for carbon dioxide reductions in the oil sector".

European diplomatic sources are complaining privately that Mr Bush's agenda is too limited and threatens to undermine their attempt for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was never ratified by the US. Some say that they are already looking "beyond Bush" towards the 2008 presidential elections. Elizabeth Bast, spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, said: "The US must join the rest of the world in tackling climate change within the United Nations framework, instead of promoting purely voluntary measures that will not achieve necessary emissions reductions."

The UN has tried to smooth over the potential conflict with Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, accepting an invitation to attend the Washington meeting. Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, represented the Bush Administration in the main session of the UN summit. But Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Governor, upstaged her with his own appearance. "It is time we came together in a new international agreement that can be embraced by rich and poor nations alike," he said. "California is moving the United States beyond debate and doubt to action."

Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, claimed there was now "universal recognition" that the UN provided the right forum for negotiating global action. "The message is simple: we know enough to act; if we do not act now, the impact of climate change will be devastating."

Mr Benn said that a scheduled UN conference on climate change in Bali in December should start negotiations leading to an agreement by the end of 2009 on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires. "The ultimate objective of the UN convention on climate change requires at least a halving of global emissions by the middle of this century," he said. At a breakfast appearance before the summit, the Environment Secretary said that he welcomed the "evolving" thinking on global warming by the United States. But he stopped short of calling for binding emissions targets for China's growing economy. "China in the end will have to decide what they are going to contribute," he said.


GM: where the science doesn't count

Today's climate change activists pose as `defenders of science'. Yet not so long ago, they irrationally rejected the scientific truth about GM crops

Hold the front page: `There is no change in the government's policy towards GM crops', says Hilary Benn of Britain's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Benn's statement was a reaction to yesterday's scaremongering frontpage story in the UK Guardian. The Guardian headline said `The return of GM', and the report claimed that `ministers back moves to grow crops in UK'

It is hard to remember now, but in 2000 environmental campaigners were protesting all over the country, organising meetings and debates and breaking into premises, all to draw the public's attention to the dangers represented by. genetically modified organisms - crops, mainly. Lord Melchett, himself a former Labour cabinet minister turned Greenpeace activist, tore up GM crops. (My grandfather slaved away for his father at Imperial Chemicals Industries, dying young, as many did, because of the way the chemical fumes tended to accelerate your heart rate, leading to the `Tuesday death'. GM crops would help alleviate the need to use these kinds of chemicals.)

The GM debate was remarkable. In quite a short time, environmental campaigners brought to the surface intense public anxieties about the industrialisation of the food chain. Just before the debate about the introduction of GM foods, there had been another public health scare when one government scientist, Dr Robert Lacey, warned that by 1997 one third of Britain could be infected with the debilitating brain illness Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD), from eating beef contaminated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-inducing prions. As it turned out, you were about as likely to die of CJD as you were to be struck by lightning, and there is still no proven link with it and BSE - but public distrust of authority was at an all-time high.

There was no real argument against GM food. But people felt very disconnected from the authorities, having little faith in the public pronouncements that there was no risk. That alone was enough to make most people alarmed. Opportunistically, environmental campaigners realised that they could gain influence by stoking public fears. Activists like journalist Andy Rowell, language-school head Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Interest Network, the Open University academic Mae-Wan Ho, and the Guardian's George Monbiot stirred up a fantastic picture of rogue genes causing all kinds of extraordinary mutations as they passed through the food chain, or as they were carried on the wind from test-beds into `healthy' British meadows.

Of course, there was no scientific evidence whatsoever. The absence of even one example of a negative health impact from the introduction of GM crops in the US put some pressure on the greens. They latched on to examples that really did not demonstrate any danger. Some oil was contaminated, leading to deaths - but it turned out it was nothing to do with GM. And then the Rowett Research Institute's Dr Arpad Pusztai did some experiments on GM lectins in potatoes that seemed to show negative consequences in rats. The press and the environmentalists latched on to the case - except that it only showed that the introduction of poisonous lectins into potatoes was bad for rats. When Pusztai was sacked for overstating the implications of his tests, GM campaigners adopted his case as a cause c,lSbre, only slowly coming to the conclusion that they had indeed overstated the dangers highlighted in Dr Pusztai's tests.

Meanwhile, another hero of the anti-GM lobby, Mae-Wan Ho, who had been involved in biotechnology in the Seventies, was largely preoccupied with the philosophical meaning of genetics rather than hands-on bio-science, and was interested in resurrecting the ideas of the disgraced Soviet biologist Lysenko, and also Bergson's vitalist cult.

GM activists came under pressure from scientists. In a public debate between George Monbiot and biologist Steve Jones, Jones denounced Monbiot as a charlatan (they have since made up). Andy Rowell attacked the scientists for being the mouthpieces of big business. The peer review of Arpad Pusztai's work was denounced as a cover for a hidden agenda to force GM food on an unsuspecting public. Scientific verification was not to be trusted, said the activists, who invoked a higher bar, the `precautionary principle', which puts the onus of proof on those introducing technology that it could do no harm in the future.

Provoking the public's deepest uncertainties about the food chain proved a great success. Supermarkets withdrew GM food from their shelves and made it effectively unmarketable. In 2004, the New Labour government conceded that even the scientific experiments - the rapeseed fields that Melchett had torn down - should be stopped.

The activists, though, were not entirely happy that they had painted themselves into a corner of outright hostility to scientific method. They knew that if their irrational rejection of science and the modern world was made too explicit, people would find it difficult to go along with. On the other hand, the scientists were pretty bruised, too. They were desperate to win back some of the authority they had lost by being portrayed as tools of big business and proto-Frankensteins out to poison the public. Their subsequent pursuit of `public understanding' turned out to mean lots of committees, often full of green activists, seeking to influence the scientists' agenda.

On the issue of climate change, scientists and environmentalists found more to agree on. As the international diplomatic manoeuvres engendered a new science of climate change, there was more influence for those scientists who lent their research to heavy-duty warnings of global catastrophe. The environmentalists were thrilled to find that the one community that had been most resistant to their ideas were now providing the ammunition.

Once environmentalists had routinely attacked science, drawing on the caricatures of the scientific method found in the Frankfurt school of sociology. Now they were defenders of science against the supposedly `irrational' climate change deniers. The radical academic Bruno Latour, who had made a career arguing that science was nothing more than an ideological construct that reflected the interests of the powers-that-be, suddenly changed his mind over the issue of climate change. Protesters against the new runway at Heathrow summed up the activists' changed attitude to science. They marched with a banner that read: `We are armed only with peer-reviewed science.'

The new, more positive attitude to science on the part of the environmentalists, though, is the reason why the previous issue of GM is still unresolved. The pressure for a return to GM testing in Britain comes from the National Farmers Union, which is lobbying to be allowed to introduce the latest biotechnology. Whether a minister did or did not talk to the Guardian over the weekend about reintroducing GM, the government's explicit position is that there will be no return to GM testing.

Still the activists are alarmed. They have an intuitive understanding that they got away with a lot when they committed the UK to outright opposition to GM testing. The decision was an outrage against scientific experimentation. The activists' arguments back then were a lot more hostile to science than they are today. The Guardian suggests that the pro-GM lobbyists, too, think that the debate has moved on, and that GM crops can be defended on grounds that they might be a solution to the problems raised by global warming. But whatever the reason, Britain should be engaged in GM testing - not because it can help with the problems of global warming, but because it is the right thing to do.


NHS rationing rife, say doctors

Rationing of NHS treatments is becoming more widespread, a survey of GPs and hospital doctors suggests. Doctor magazine asked readers about rationing. Of 653 answering questions on consequences, 107 - 16% - said patients had died early as a result. More than half - 349 - said patients had suffered as a result. This compared with one in five in a similar survey conducted nine years ago. The government said decisions had to be made on which treatments to provide.

The magazine asked 12,000 of its readers a variety of questions with between 473 and 857 replying to each one. Doctors said more debate was urgently needed over what should and should not be rationed. They reported not being allowed to prescribe drug treatments including smoking cessation drugs and anti-obesity treatment. They also reported that local NHS trusts had been placing restrictions on fertility treatments, obesity surgery and a host of minor operations, including those for varicose veins.

The magazine said the findings of the latest poll showed rationing was becoming more widespread. A similar survey nine years ago showed that a much smaller proportion - one in five, compared to half - were aware of patients who had suffered due to rationing.

Rationing has become a sensitive subject in the NHS. Independent advisory body, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, makes recommendations on new, expensive treatments. But with limited budgets, local trusts are often forced to cut back on other treatments to keep pace with the recommendations. Many experts fear the situation will get worse with increasing demands on the health service made by the ageing population and expected advances in medicines.

Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's GPs committee, said: "There is not much honesty and openness about this. "The NHS could spend whatever you gave it, but it obviously works with a limited budget so we urgently need to have a debate about what can be provided. "Trusts are already being forced into this but the political parties are not talking about it."

And Dr Michael Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance, which represents NHS trusts, added: "Rationing is the great unspoken reality. "The only people who refuse to mention the 'r-word' are the media and the politicians, who continue to want to promise everything for everyone in order to win elections."

A Department of Health spokesman said it was not trying to avoid the issue. "The NHS has received an unprecedented funding boost in recent years but finance is not endless and hard decisions will always have to be made about which treatments to provide." But he added: "Doctors and nurses make these clinical decisions with patients - not managers or politicians."


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