Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Murderous dictators: cool, huh?

Why does the Left still worship Fidel Castro and all his appalling fellow communists? Daniel Finkelstein comments below on Harriet Harman -- who is Deputy Leader of Britain's Labour Party, the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the Cabinet. When recently asked in an interview: "Fidel Castro - authoritarian dictator or hero of the Left?" Harman answered unhesitatingly - "hero of the Left".

I had a strange idea yesterday. I had the idea of inviting Harriet Harman home for dinner. This isn't a thought that occurs to me often, but I suddenly felt it might be fun. I'd invite my Dad too. And then, when we'd given Harriet a nice meal (what do you think she likes to eat?), my father could tell her his story.

He could tell her how the Soviets and the Nazis closed in on his home town of Lvov in September 1939 and how the town council chose the Soviets to surrender to. Then he might tell her how the fathers of his friends were taken to the woods at Katyn and shot by the communists.

He might recount the story of his father's arrest as an antisocial element, of Adolf Finkelstein's repeated interrogations leading to a trial in his absence and a jail sentence of 15 years' hard labour. Then Dad could tell the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party about his own experience as a child, exiled to a remote Siberian village. And how he and his mother and his father never saw their home again. And, when he'd finished, he could let Harriet speak. And she could explain to Dad why she thinks that Fidel Castro is a hero.

Its been almost 60 years since my grandfather's arrest and 50 years since the Soviets invaded Hungary. The Prague Spring has come and gone, the Gdansk shipyard strike is history, the Berlin Wall has fallen. We've read Robert Conquest tell of Stalin's murderous deeds and Jung Chang tell of Mao's. We've watched films about the Stasi and recoiled in disgust at the opulent lives of the Ceausescus. We know that Alger Hiss was guilty and that there was, after all, a communist conspiracy in America. We've read Solzhenitsyn and Sharansky. We know.

Yet still the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the Leader of the House of Commons, a member of the Cabinet, is in love with Fidel. When asked, earlier this week, in an interview: "Fidel Castro - authoritarian dictator or hero of the Left?" she answered unhesitatingly - "hero of the Left". Which brings me to this question - Why? Why does she think that? Why would she say that?

Let's eliminate from our inquiries the idea that Fidel was somehow better than the rest of them, better than Honecker and so forth. Those cigars, those battle fatigues, that beard. Kinda cool, no? No. Death sentences for those who want to flee, prison sentences for dissidents, gags for the press, jail for homosexuals, ruinous central planning for the economy, his support for a nuclear first strike against America, his opposition to any kind of reform, his four-hour long speeches, his personality cult. Fidel Castro was just like the rest of them.

So if we want to understand Ms Harman's response, it is not enough just to think about Cuba. We have to understand why parts of the Left, people who think of themselves as impeccably liberal, still think of communism as an heroic doctrine and communists as basically well meaning and a bit "alternative". It's a pervasive attitude that goes well beyond politicians. Go to Tate Modern and you will find an exhibition of Soviet art - workers joyfully producing tractors or some such. In the bookshop you can buy a book of posters from the cultural revolution. Hitler memorabilia is not on sale. They wouldn't dream of having a room full of artfully designed Juden Raus! posters.

I struggle a little to understand the distinction being made here, but I think it is this. It's not that the liberals are unaware that millions died under Mao and under Stalin. It's just that they think it was different. Hitler had a killing machine; under Mao ("the greatest man of the 20th century", according to Tony Benn) and Stalin many people just up and died.

I've heard this argument made before. When I wrote that my mother had seen Anne Frank arrive in Belsen, I had an e-mail from a Nazi claiming that I was wrong to describe the little girl as having been killed by the Nazis. She had, he said, died of typhoid. I responded that if you imprison an innocent person in terrible conditions or starve them, or both, and they die, you have murdered them. The same goes for the communists.

There is another reason why people prefer communists to fascists. It is that the latter believe we are entirely the product of our genes, while the former regard us as entirely the product of our environment. Somehow genetic determinism is regarded with greater distaste than environmental determinism. I am not entirely sure why. In any case, scientific evidence now shows that both views are wrong. Even if they weren't, neither justifies the killings carried out in their name.

Which leaves me with one final reason for the Left's attitude to communism - that anyone who defies the United States is somehow seen as a valiant progressive, whatever their crimes. I am sure that Castro's resistance to the US is a major reason for Harriet Harman's admiration. From time to time, Left thinkers make an effort to reconcile liberals and America. From Tony Crosland in the Fifties to Jonathan Freedland's admirable and convincing book Bring Home the Revolution, the efforts have failed. Almost anyone - a homophobic, misogynist Islamist cleric for example - is given some credit if the US is their punchbag.

A few months ago the Tory candidate Nigel Hastilow had to resign for saying that Enoch Powell may have had a point. And it was right that he went. Calling Fidel Castro a hero is worse.


Europe mandates wasteful fuel use by cars

So much for energy-saving!

Motorists will be hit by up to 160 British pounds more in fuel costs because of a "ludicrous" European directive forcing them to drive with their lights on all day. Campaigners say the new rules will make the roads more dangerous for motorcyclists and will lead to more deaths. Britain opposed the measure but was unable to block it because a majority of other EU nations were in favour.

Transport Minister Jim Fitzpatrick admitted this week that the rules, which will come into force in 2011 and relate to new cars, would lead to annual fuel consumption rising by 5 per cent. According to AA figures, for the average family-sized car, driving the average 8,770 miles a year, this would increase fuel costs by 68 pounds a year at today's prices. That is based on a car doing 31 miles per gallon. But some models do only 13mpg, meaning the increase could be as much as 160 a year. Heavy goods vehicles would see costs shoot up by 260 a year, based on the average 8.1mpg rate.

Campaigners say the ruling, which will be in force from Lapland in the north to Cyprus in the south, will harm the environment by wasting fuel. Britain opposed the directive but was unable to prevent European transport ministers approving it, because transport measures do not require unanimous backing by EU member states. Daytime-running lights were made compulsory in Scandinavian countries in the late 1970s - which is why Swedish-built Volvos always have their lights on. In 2006, Austria, Croatia and the Czech Republic became the first countries outside northern Europe to follow suit. Daytime lights are now used in 14 states. A study by Dutch researchers found they could save 5,500 deaths and 155,000 injuries across Europe.

Greg Knight, Tory MP for East Yorkshire, said: "This idea was being pushed by Scandinavian countries and it's absolutely ludicrous that it should be imposed in a blanket fashion across Europe. "The UK does not suffer from the short hours of daylight as in northern Europe, and places like Spain certainly don't. All the green groups are worried about the environment - surely this will make it worse. "There are also fears it will harm road safety."

The proposal was opposed by Stephen Ladyman, who was transport minister during earlier discussions on it in Europe. Last night Mr Ladyman, who is now a backbencher, said: "This directive will kill a lot of motorcyclists. They use daytime lights to make them easier to see, but if cars are using them as well, motorbikes will just blur into the background. "This is only being brought in because Germany and Austria don't want to have proper speed limits on autobahns, so they think this will be a good road safety measure."

It had been feared that all cars would be covered by the rules, meaning that those not fitted with daytime running lamps would have had to drive around with dipped headlights. But European ministers backed off from this proposal. Edmund King, president of the AA, said: "Daytime-running lights offer a significant safety advantage, particularly for pedestrians trying to spot moving cars through a line of parked vehicles. "However, motorcyclists are very worried that other motorists will no longer be able to pick them out from other traffic.

"The extra carbon dioxide emissions from all cars having to turn on their headlights during the day was a major concern when daytime-running lights were first suggested in Europe. "However, that threat has been diminished by restricting the measure to new cars only, many of which have energy-saving LED lights for driving in daylight."


Britain: Political interference is damaging children's education

This was the Government that promised its priority would be education, education, education. Instead, as a slew of extraordinary reports are making clear, it will be remembered by schools as the Government that could not leave well alone. The biggest inquiry into primary education for 40 years concluded yesterday that Labour's tight, centralised control of England's primary schools has had a devastating impact on children's education. Micromanagement, meddling and a succession of ministerial edicts have killed the spontaneity in the nation's classrooms. Teachers have been stripped of their powers of discretion. And the net result of a decade of new Labour "reform" has almost certainly been a decline in the quality of education that the young receive. It would have been better, concludes the Cambridge University-based Primary Review - an ongoing inquiry into primary education in England - if the Government had done nothing at all.

The four reports published today follow 18 earlier reports that have painted a devastating picture of government interference in primary schools and laid bare ministers' obsession with testing and desire to dictate the minutiae of classroom practice. They say government influence in the classroom has increased since 1997 to such an extent that English primary schools are now subject to a "state theory of learning" in which teachers are not only told what to teach but how they should teach it. The quality of primary education has declined in the past 20 years because of the "narrowing of the curriculum and the intensity of test preparation", the research warned. The result is that educational standards may actually have fallen in recent years as teachers become experts in coaching children for tests.

The latest report follows yet more government announcements that have called on schools to squeeze even more into their curriculum. Schools will now be expected to provide five hours of cultural activities a week as well as five hours of sport, including after-school clubs. Yet the lesson emerging from the Primary Review is that schools need less, not more, interference.

The reports conclude that government control of primary classrooms began in 1988 under the Conservatives with the introduction of the national curriculum but has strongly increased since Labour came into power in 1997. One study, by Dominic Wyse, from Cambridge University, and Elaine McCreery and Harry Torrance at Manchester Metropolitan University, concluded: "Government control of the curriculum and its assessment strongly increased during the period from 1988 to 2007, especially after 1997. "The evidence on the impact of the various initiatives on standards of pupil attainment is at best equivocal and at worst negative. While test scores have risen since the mid-1990s, that has been achieved at the expense of children's entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum and by the diversion of considerable teaching time to test preparation."

The quality of interaction between pupils and teachers has been particularly "negatively influenced" by Labour's national strategies, introduced from 1998 onwards, which tell teachers exactly how to teach literacy and numeracy in primary schools, the study found. Teachers are no longer thinking on their feet, adapting lessons to particular needs. Instead, the school day is choreographed from Whitehall.

The introduction of high-stakes testing - which sees primary schools ranked in national league tables according to the performance of their 11-year-old pupils in English, maths and science tests - has also led to a narrowing of the curriculum as schools focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other subjects. Even primary science - which had been one of the success stories of the post-1988 national curriculum - has been in "marginal decline" since 1997 because of the excessive focus on literacy and numeracy.

The focus on the tests in English, maths and science taken by pupils aged 7 and 11 is "driving teaching in exactly the opposite direction to that which research indicates will improve learning". Instead of using a variety of teaching methods such as working with small groups of pupils, primary school lessons now constitute little more than whole class sessions where children are drilled for the tests.

Results for the national SATs (standard assessment tests), taken by 1.2 million primary pupils every summer, improved rapidly between 1995 and 2000 but then "largely levelled off". That was probably because "teachers were initially unprepared for national testing, learnt very quickly how to coach for the tests, hence results improved, but any benefit to be squeezed from the system by such coaching has long since been exhausted", the study found.

A second study for the Primary Review by Maria Balarin and Hugh Lauder, from Bath University, reinforced the depressing findings. "Since the arrival of New Labour, central control in key areas of educational action has been strengthened," it concluded. "The Government has strengthened its hand through what may be called the "state theory of learning"." This reflected a belief by the Government that a combination of "the repeated high stakes testing of pupils", a national curriculum and "mandated" teaching methods in English and maths would raise standards.

Clearly, the approach hasn't worked, and the calls for a total rethink of government education policy are now coming thick and fast. David Laws, the Liberal Democrat children's spokesman, said yesterday: "The Government's attempts to micromanage schools are clearly deeply damaging. Ministers must stop their constant meddling in the curriculum and cease dictating to schools how they should educate our children."

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The latest Primary Review reports demonstrate the damaging effects of high stakes testing, inspection and historic underfunding on primary schools. "An absence of trust in teachers is fuelled by not one, but two ferocious accountability systems. I urge the Government now to review its whole method of evaluating schools."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families dismissed the research as "recycled, partial or out of date". "We do not accept these claims," she said. "We are currently engaged in a review of the primary curriculum, as set out in the Children's Plan, which will build on a decade of success in raising standards - success that has been validated on numerous occasions by independent experts. The Government does not accept our children are over-tested."

The national curriculum was introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1988. It was intended to ensure that certain important topics were studied by all pupils. However, it quickly grew to fill the entire teaching time of state schools. National curriculum tests were also introduced to hold schools accountable for pupils' progress. But these tests did not come to dominate the work of schools until after Labour came to power in 1997. Labour set challenging targets for improving results, particularly in English and maths, and introduced literacy and numeracy strategies in 1998. In 2006 ministers announced schools would be required to teach reading using government-approved methods.


A tribute to modern British education

More than a quarter of adults in Britain struggle to add up prices in their heads when shopping and a fifth do not know that 8 is the square root of 64, according to a survey of the nation’s mental arithmetic skills. Research by KPMG, the accountancy firm, indicates that 47 per cent of adults wish they had learnt more maths at school. Women are much less confident - or possibly more honest – than men: 34 per cent say they have trouble working out sums in their heads, against 18 per cent of men. More than half of mothers (51 per cent) struggle to help their children with their maths homework, against 39 per cent of fathers. One in five adults aged 25 to 34 feel that greater ability in maths would have helped them to go further in their careers.

The YouGov survey of 2,006 adults aged 18-plus found that difficulties with maths spread across social classes and ages, though to differing degrees. Three per cent of adults in the ABC1 social classes and 4 per cent of those in the C2DE classes struggle with mental arithmetic in shops most of the time. However, only 25 per cent of the top social groups feel uncomfortable in shops some or most of the time, against one third of the lower social groups (32 per cent). Those aged 55 and over are the most confident (77 per cent) [Products of a time when education was much less lax], against 64 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds, who are the least confident.

Adults in Scotland are the most confident, with 77 per cent claiming to be confident or very confident at mental arithmetic, against 69 per cent in London, the least confident region. The survey included an on-the-spot question: what is the square root of 64? One in five (21 per cent) either did not know or got the answer wrong. Responses ranged from 2 right up to 4,096.

The survey was commissioned by the Every Child Counts campaign, launched by the Government and charities last year to help to overcome innumeracy in children. Pupils aged 7 who have the greatest difficulties in mathematics will get extra one-to-one help from specialist teachers for 12 weeks. The scheme aims to reach 30,000 a year in 2010-11, when it goes national.

John Griffith-Jones, chairman of the Every Child a Chance charity, said the secret to combating adult innumeracy was to lay solid mathematical foundations among the young. He said: “Adult innumeracy is one of the greatest scourges facing the country. The survey shows how essential it is that the business community gets involved in tackling the problem. Through the Every Child Counts programme we aim to find a long-term solution, spearheading resources of specially trained teachers to help the seven-year-olds who have the greatest difficulties.”


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