Sunday, September 28, 2008

Try to define Britishness and not sound banal

There was once a set of ideas and customs that were characteristically British but years of being ground down under the millstones of socialism and moral relativism have destroyed most of that. Just as one instance: British justice was once a source of pride. But now all Britain has is political police who ignore threats to life and limb but pursue forbidden political speech with great energy -- and who refuse to acknowledge any culpability for executing an innocent Brazilian because the deed was supervised by a prominent Lesbian (the aptly-named Cressida Dick). Who could be proud of that?

To update Dr Samuel Johnson, it appears that "Britishness" is now the last refuge of a politician who hasn't a clue in what country we live. New Labour is obsessed with promoting a shared sense of Britishness, claiming anything from an Olympic yachtsman to a chicken tikka masala as a safe symbol of "what unites us". The latest chapter of this sad attempt to write a new island story is a pamphlet A More United Britain by Liam Byrne, the Immigration Minister.

After a year consulting the public, Mr Byrne has come up with 27 ways to celebrate the British bank holiday proposed by Gordon Brown. One look at the list - Morris dancing, drinking in the pub, listening to a Queen's speech, looking at pictures of Winston Churchill, multicultural street parties, all to be done "cheaply" - might have many taking to the lifeboats for a day trip to France. Some have suggested Mr Brown could best bring everybody together on a Thursday, by calling a general election when they can unite to vote out the Government.

But could you do much better? I defy anybody to define Britishness today, without sounding as banal as Mr Byrne or as archaic as John Major rambling on about warm spinsters drinking beer while playing cricket on bicycles. It is not just new Labour's proposals that are vacuous. They reflect the way that any notion of "Britishness" is now empty of real meaning. National identities that count for something cannot be dreamt up by committees.

When the British had a strong sense of national identity, nobody had to ask what it meant. The "British way of life" was something whose shared meaning could be taken for granted. But any such sense of national superiority or self-confidence has long gone, along with the empire.

It is not only our new immigrant communities who fail to identify with Britain today. The obsessive search for Britishness through the Blair-Brown years shows that uncertainty about who we are and what we stand for goes right to the top. The more unsure they are of how or where we live now, the more politicans talk about our "shared values", although the only one they seem able to name is "tolerance" - ie, we accept everybody's values.

As one whose political loyalties have long been red, without the white and blue, I have no problems with the decline of the old conceited British nationalism. But what Mr Byrne and Mr Brown's banal celebration of both "Britishness" and "difference" reveals is that we have not found any universal values to replace it. I wouldn't want to drink to that on their "cheap" British bank holiday, even if the Prime Minister was paying.


Britain's anti-citizenship education

According to a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research, children who have citizenship lessons at school - introduced in 2002 to boost pupils' civic pride and sense of social responsibility -- display less trust in authority figures and institutions and end up with a more negative attitude towards society.

Why is anyone surprised at this? I could have told them this would be the outcome. Indeed, I did tell them this would be the outcome. Repeatedly. I wrote column after column warning that the model of citizenship being adopted, drawn up by the retired politics Professor Bernard Crick, was actually a model of anti-citizenship. In 2004, for example, I wrote in the Mail that
the citizenship teaching inspired by Sir Bernard amounted to politically correct indoctrination in which multiculturalism, `globalisation' and `a shrinking planet' were all buzz phrases; and in which, far from being taught about their obligations to Britain, pupils were encouraged to develop `their own ground rules'.

The doctrinaire thinking behind this hollowing out of citizenship was clear enough in the late nineties, when Sir Bernard first produced his advice on citizenship for Mr Blunkett who was then Education Secretary. Beneath its pious invocations of `responsibility' and `community involvement', it was all about enabling young people to get more out of society. Even more strikingly, it wanted teachers to promote `active citizenship', by equipping pupils with the political skills to change the laws. Duty to obey the law - the first obligation of citizenship - wasn't even mentioned.

Now we read in the Telegraph:
The study said that pupils in their final year of school only expressed `moderate levels of agreement with laws'.

Well, there's a surprise. Let's raise our glasses once again to Antonio Gramsci, whose posthumous triumph in turning Britain's values inside out has surely been more spectacular than he could ever have dreamed.


The revolting world of middle class prejudice

A new `protesters' handbook' is about as rebellious as the newspaper that published it: the Guardian.

In August, that well-known agitator for social progress, Prince Charles, was prattling incoherently about the `evils' of GM crops to a journalist from the UK Daily Telegraph. The BBC's news report on Charles' outburst was accompanied by stock footage of young protesters dressed in faux-science lab garb, awkwardly prancing around on fields where GM crops were being developed. Who would have guessed that being a supposed radical protester today would mean being on the same side as the mad and reactionary Charles Windsor?

Such is the peculiar state of what passes for radical politics, or what sociologists call `New Social Movements'. Increasingly, single-issue campaigns for the environment or against global corporations tend to win approval from the very elitists they claim to oppose. In recent years, these dreadlocked stilt-walkers have also joined forces with the fag end of the Labourist left to protest against the war in Iraq. Such developments apparently scotch rumours that `radicalism' is dead. Anyone who dares to question the political viability of all this protesting must be a black-hearted cynic, right.?

Indeed, to combat the pernicious influence of those who criticise today's supposedly radical protests - and to `shake you out of your apathy once and for all' - journalist and activist Bibi van der Zee has compiled Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor's Handbook. In each chapter, van der Zee outlines how to fundraise, how to demonstrate, how to lobby parliament and, with an eye on New Labour's Key Skills agenda, how to write a letter. Thanks for that.

And yet, the very manner of this handbook, even the fact that it exists, suggests that it is not very rebellious at all. In the 1980s, another type of protesters' manual - The Anarchist's Cookbook, which gave handy tips on how to use a catapult with ball-bearings on demonstrations, amongst other things - was only available under-the-counter at radical bookshops. By contrast, Rebel, Rebel is published and distributed by a national broadsheet newspaper, the Guardian, which columnist and Tory Party supporter Max Hastings has described as the newspaper of `the new establishment'.

Indeed, much of the ideological content of Rebel, Rebel echoes and champions the petty concerns of. well, the new establishment. Top of the agenda is concern about climate change and other `environmental issues', which are peppered throughout the handbook like an unwanted rash of measles. Perhaps van der Zee hasn't realised it yet, but with everyone from UK prime minister Gordon Brown to London mayor Boris Johnson to Tory millionaire Zac Goldsmith banging on about `environmental concerns', being green is not very rebellious. In fact, rarely has `rebellion' looked and sounded more like an unthinking, unblinking form of mindless conformity than when it comes to the green issue.

Van der Zee at least starts off at the right place. She cites John Locke's Social Contract theory and points out that protests and campaigns have long been central to the safeguarding and extension of our freedoms and rights. Van der Zee starts each chapter by quoting Hobbes, Locke, Marx and Engels, the Suffragettes and Martin Luther King to make a parallel between grand political visions of the past and the `how to' mechanics of organising a protest today. Yet where those illustrious radicals of yesteryear were motivated by a desire to liberate humanity from its constraints, Rebel, Rebel seeks to do precisely the opposite: to impose unnecessary limits and restraints on everyday human behaviour.

In the side-panels titled `Why I Fight', Joss Garman, an environmental activist, says he protests to stop people from flying abroad on holiday; Bernadette Vallely, founder of the Women's Environmental Network, wants to stop mums from using disposable nappies; Rebecca Lush Blum, an anti-road protester, wants to restrict people's mobility by car.

`Are you desperate to right a wrong?' asks the blurb on the back cover of Rebel, Rebel. And in almost every instance throughout the book, the `wrong' that apparently needs to be righted is the unthinking behaviour and poor choices of ill-informed plebs or those tacky `new money' types. So after Vallely was met by hoots of derision from time-stretched mothers who refused to give up disposable nappies - which, after all, were invented precisely to make mums' lives easier - she condescendingly writes, `They didn't seem to understand how privileged they are', as if she was talking about a bunch of spoilt five-year-olds.

Outwardly, the handbook purports to be concerned with combating global warming, but references to `these people' exposes, yet again, that green radicalism is frequently a transparent cover for banal and old-fashioned class snobbery. And the chatty, kids' TV presenter style of prose means that some very revealing, quite spiteful comments - such as `I started discussing politics recently with a London cabby (I know, I know - next time I'll remember to start chewing my own hand off first)' - manage to slip through.

Such barely concealed disdain for ordinary people leads inexorably to a form of campaigning where activists don't have to talk to Joe Schmo at all (and thus save themselves from getting gnarled hands in the process). Rebel, Rebel naturally salutes the direct action methods of Greenpeace and crusty rioters who find chainstore coffee shops so very offensive. Van der Zee makes a fanciful connection between these pantomime antics and Martin Luther King's civil rights campaigning in the 1960s. Yet where King took his argument to the white American working classes, to try to win them to his cause, today's direct activists prefer to shun democratic participation in favour of protesting `on behalf' of others: victims, the vulnerable, animals, the planet.

And where King campaigned for equal rights and better living standards for black Americans, today's `demands are NOT for more anything - more rights, more votes, more wages', says van der Zee. Instead `they are for something "different"'. In fact, after reading Rebel, Rebel, one becomes convinced that today's campaigners are freakishly demanding less and less of everything: less driving, less holidaying, fewer consumer goods. In essence, the desire to do `something different', as van der Zee describes it, is similar to that adolescent urge not to become one of the `rat race drones', which most of us grew out of in our late teens.

Rebel, Rebel has its work out cut out when it examines the former bˆte noire of middle-class liberals: trade unions. One chapter republishes a famous photo of a striking miner from 1984 squaring up to a policeman, yet the chapter's tone is one of relief that those days of class warfare and picket-line violence are long gone. Indeed, Rebel, Rebel is delighted that these old organisations are `relaxing the idea of trade-based unions and making them far more inclusive and adopting a new kind of internationalism that's not just about voting in a notion of solidarity but actually applying pressure in several places at once'.

In other words, trade unions are no longer sectional interest groups but rather morally altruistic outfits in tune with prevailing middle-class sensibilities. As van der Zee points out, sounding oddly like the old union-busting Tory minister Norman Tebbit, `the old stereotype of the "I'm All Right Jack" 1970s striker is slowly eroding' (er, slowly?). Elsewhere, Rebel, Rebel expresses delight that trade unions have devised `environmental representatives' in the workplace similar to traditional union reps. Of course, this particular chapter closes by advising readers to join unions, but only in the safe knowledge that they no longer aggressively fight for the material self-interest of their members.

If Rebel, Rebel is uneasy about trade unions, it is downright hostile to political parties. Van der Zee asks a question: `Is there really any point in forming your own political party?' After a brief history of the Labour Party's `betrayals', and the recent fiasco of the Socialist Worker's Party's RESPECT campaign, the answer to van der Zee's question is the same again and again: `Of course there's no point setting up a party!' It is true that the days of mass political parties are over, and it would be a waste of energy to mourn the demise of the Labour and Conservative parties as mass organisations. But what van der Zee really seems to object to is the idea of being partisan, of organisations being defined by their members' sectional interests, as the old mass parties once were.

In the sections on party politics, there is also a cynical and contemptuous undertone in relation to the mass of the people who, through the democratic process, hold parties to account. A book that champions middle-class individuals who hector busy mums about nappies, but which denounces political parties comes across as deeply anti-democratic. Indeed, protest is presented as a way of getting around and even controlling mass sentiment, rather than harnessing it and representing it.

Rebel, Rebel's preferred politician is Martin Bell, who in 1997 successfully defeated the Tatton Conservative MP Neil Hamilton. As both Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew themselves from the election in Tatton, Bell won by occupying the moral high-ground over the scandalised Tories. Van der Zee's message seems clear: one man-in-a-white-suit's subjective sense of `what is right' is preferable to old-style party politics and issues-based democratic engagement. The chapter on `Legal Action', which advises on how to get unelected lawyers and crusty judges to challenge government decision-making, further reveals the contempt of Rebel, Rebel for the democratic participation of the masses.

Little of this is new or surprising. Many of the issues in the handbook have been championed by the liberal intelligentsia and the new political elites for more than a decade. In particular, `saving the planet' and cancelling Third World debt are campaigns that have been supported by everyone from anarchists and radical lefties to Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Far from this handbook putting forward anything truly radical or rebellious, it is a bible of contemporary conformism and consensus. Why else would a national newspaper which in the past has expressed hostility to popular protest movements publish it?

And if there is so much common ground between political decision-makers and the contributors to Rebel, Rebel, it makes you wonder who exactly van der Zee is railing against.

Of course, the manual points the finger at global corporations and big business. Yet this sounds unconvincing, especially when you consider that many of today's global giants have rebranded themselves as green and ethical. Indeed, the rise of environmentalism has provided something of a boost to certain capitalist sectors, stimulating fresh demands for `ethical' consumer goods and enabling capitalists to restructure business practices and boost profitability in the process.

No, the main targets of the protesters lauded in Rebel, Rebel are those who are really seen as standing in the way of the middle-class, caring, ethical agenda: the unethical masses. Those who still shop at Tesco, fly abroad on holiday, drive 4x4s, and haven't got round to buying low-energy light-bulbs yet. Clearly, they don't understand how `privileged they are' and must be taught to rein in their unethical consumerism and follow the lead of more sussed individuals like van der Zee.

As the section in society that is most estranged from the production process, either as workers or as capitalist decision-makers, the middle classes have always found it difficult to relate to modern, mass society. Their response has usually been to adopt a detached bemusement at the two great competing classes, or to offer themselves up as society's `moral conscience' against both corrupt capitalists and materialist, oafish proles (but mostly against the proles).

Today, the middle-class activists' self-styled position as the `watchful ones amongst the slaves' - as one green-leaning author recently referred to himself - has been boosted as the traditional sources of elite authority and rule have diminished. Ethical activism has, slowly but surely, become a kind of amorphous, pervasive mechanism through which other people's behaviour can be morally judged as either `acceptable' or `unacceptable'. Far from offering progressive rebellion, the rebels of Rebel, Rebel seem really to be concerned with imposing and popularising these new behavioural standards across society at large.

In this context, protesting is recast as opposing those who do not conform to ethical standards of behaviour. Protesting against McDonald's, smashing up Starbucks or setting up camps near Heathrow airport are all designed to shame those who have bought the `wrong' type of burger or chosen the `wrong' type of holiday. The language of limits, which is dominant in this deeply cynical handbook, is really about placing limits on personal freedom via a new form of ethical and moral blackmail.

Rebel, Rebel is a handbook packed with the new establishment's prejudices and all of its petty, authoritarian concerns. Even by their own miserable standards, the middle classes have never sounded quite so revolting.


BBC2 still furiously biased

The Climate Wars is at the centre of a new TV global warming row after four contributors claimed it misrepresented them.The complaints surround the 14 September episode of the three-part, in-house programme, in which presenter Dr Iain Stewart interviewed key global warming sceptics, including Lord Monckton of Brenchley.

Lord Monckton has made a formal complaint to Ofcom and the BBC Trust that the programme-makers unfairly misrepresented him in a 90-minute interview. "In the two minutes it [BBC2] broadcast, it omitted all my scientific points, including my criticism of the defective 'hockey-stick' graph which the presenter had questioned me about," Monckton told Broadcast.

Canadian climate expert Dr Tim Ball and fellow contributor Dr Fred Singer also told Broadcast that they would complain to Ofcom and another scientist, Dr Roy Spencer, said he was considering complaining to both Ofcom and the BBC Trust.

The row follows the controversy that surrounded Channel 4's 2007 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle.

Ofcom said it had received four complaints from viewers about the 14 September episode of Climate Wars. The BBC said it stood by the programme.


Sleepy British paramedic service kills woman

The evening of May 25 last year had all the makings of a great night for Rebecca Wedd. She had turned 23 the day before and was on her way to a summer ball to celebrate finishing her final year at college. Instead, it ended in her death.

Ms Wedd was knocked down by a car near Coates on her way to the party at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. An ambulance was called but it took 42 minutes to arrive. By the time she reached an A&E department, almost 40 minutes later, "it was too late", her father said.

Peter Wedd, 53, from Cambridge, said that his daughter had been let down in the worst possible way. "I had always thought that Britain's ambulance services were the best in the world. Clearly, I was wrong. I could blame anybody for her death. Becky was clearly in a position she shouldn't have been. The car driver didn't see her. But the fact is . . . Great Western Ambulance Service did not do its job."

The service's target response time for life-threatening emergency calls is eight minutes. "They missed it by 34 minutes," Mr Wedd said. "It's appalling."

The Healthcare Commission investigated Great Western Ambulance Trust over Ms Wedd's death. It found that the trust had "learnt lessons" from the case and made improvements to its service.

Mr Wedd said: "People should be aware of how the ambulance service failed that night. Services . . . should sit up and say, `This is not going to happen here'."


Emergency NHS patients still waiting too long to see doctor, review says

Patients who need emergency medical care are facing unnecessary delays in seeing a doctor, despite government targets to speed up urgent treatment, a review says today. In the most comprehensive review yet of NHS emergency and urgent care, the Healthcare Commission found significant variations in how patients are treated across England, particularly on evenings and at weekends.

In some hospitals only 40 per cent of patients were seen by a doctor or nurse within an hour of arrival at the accident and emergency department, while others achieved 100 per cent. The proportion of children with a broken arm or leg who attended A&E and were given pain relief within one hour varied from 20 per cent in some hospitals to 100 per cent elsewhere.

The review, which measured the performance of local ambulance trusts, accident and emergency departments, out-of-hours GP and telephone services and walk-in centres, found that patients were often confused over where to seek help. Overall, emergency care services were "least well performing" or only "fair" in four out of ten areas, with some patients facing delays in transfers to hospital, which are not covered by existing targets.

A new national target is needed to measure how quickly patients receive care from the moment they call an ambulance to the point of admission to casualty departments, the commission suggests. This would provide a more accurate assessment of patients' experience than existing measures, which only cover ambulance response times or stipulate a maximum four-hour waiting time in A&E.

In some A&E departments, for 95 per cent of the time, ambulances are back on the road within 15 minutes of delivering a patient, but in other departments this figure is as low as 10 per cent. This could reflect delays because of a lack of staff or beds to admit a patient, the commission said.

Its review found on average, that services in rural areas performed better than those in urban areas, such as London.

In total, out of 152 primary care trust areas, a third were ranked "best performing" in urgent and emergency care; 41, or 27 per cent, were better performing; 33, or 22 per cent were fair-performing; and 28, or 18 per cent, were categorised as least well performing. Services in the North East performed best overall, with all of the region's trusts rated as "best" or "better performing".

Anna Walker, chief executive of the Healthcare Commission, said there had been improvements in performance on government targets, with 97.9 per cent of A&E patients being treated within the four-hour target in 2007-08, up from 91.2 per cent in 2003-04.

Mike Penning, Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, said the Government was "hitting self-imposed targets, but missing the point in providing care. Patient outcomes are being neglected."


Britain's endless diet of government intervention in food choice

Health authorities and food campaigners have pursued their pet projects by promoting scare stories about children's health.

Next week sees the start of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign to change the way children are fed. But while providing children with better meals and facilities at school is a worthy enough aim, lecturing the nation's parents about how they are setting up their kids for a (short) lifetime of ill-health is simply nauseating.

While campaigners call for more government intervention into our eating habits, it is surely time to call a halt. The last thing we need is a further expansion of schemes and initiatives.

We have been led to believe that we are facing a timebomb of ill-health that can only be defused by changing the way our children eat. That might be justified if children were dropping like flies from disease. In fact, the opposite is true. According to figures for England and Wales, in 1981 there were 30 deaths for every 100,000 children aged between one and 14 years. In 2006, that had more than halved to 14 deaths per 100,000. Death in childhood was rare and has become even rarer in the last 25 years or so.

Are children becoming sicker? Clearly, serious infectious disease is largely a thing of the past. Obesity may be increasing, but obesity is not a disease; at most, it is associated with a number of chronic conditions. The most obvious of these in relation to children is the apparent emergence of type-2 diabetes among children, something previously considered to be a condition of middle age. Yet research published in Diabetes Care in 2007 suggests that type-2 diabetes remains unusual in children under the age of 17. The researchers undertook a year-long survey of 2,665 consultant paediatricians in the UK and Ireland. During this period, 67 cases of type-2 diabetes were reported, all of them in the UK, suggesting an overall incidence of 5.3 cases per million children.

So, type-2 diabetes in children would seem to be, if not a one-in-a-million occurrence, not far off. Furthermore, while there is a strong association between being overweight and type-2 diabetes, the association with ethnic status is worrying. As the authors note: `The incidence rates for South Asians and blacks are an alarming 3.5 times and 11 times higher, respectively, than in whites.' This ethnic differential continues into adulthood. If the government were really serious about tackling type-2 diabetes, it would do better to devote a substantial research effort to understanding this differential rather than lecturing the whole population about our personal habits.

Nor is it the case that there is mass malnutrition among children. According to Family Food 2006, the average UK family is getting all the protein and energy required, plus plenty of vitamins and minerals. The average household now spends just 10 per cent of its income on food and non-alcoholic drinks. Food has never been so readily available and in such variety. Even where children do have rather limited tastes, we should chill out. While nutritionists may be sniffy about about children eating cheeseburger, chips and fish fingers all the time, such foods do actually provide a fair proportion of a child's nutritional needs. They may not be perfect, but such eating habits are highly unlikely to result in an epidemic of disease, either.

But there is a more fundamental principle at stake: it is not the government's business to interfere in our personal lives except in the most exceptional circumstances. Yet we are subject to endless health advice both from official sources and through the popular media, from shows like Honey, We're Killing the Kids to the much-praised but frankly hectoring series by Jamie Oliver on school meals. If that were not enough, that intervention is increasingly direct, with parents receiving letters home about their children's supposed weight problems and being given strict instructions about what to put in their lunchboxes.

It seems that the government, the health authorities and a variety of different campaigners see it as their job to overrule parents about how their children should eat. In reality, the vast majority of parents endeavour to get their children to eat well, but in the absence of eating well, they make pragmatic, personal decisions about how to ensure they eat something. Current levels of intervention are unlikely to help matters and are an insult to the decision-making abilities of parents.

If children's food is a top priority, then make school meals free, or at least cheap, at the point of delivery and give them the time and surroundings to eat them comfortably. That's not a health strategy, that's just common decency. If adults would not tolerate being forced to queue up for ages to receive mediocre food in a hall so crowded that there is often nowhere to sit, why should we assume our children should put up with it? And let those meals taste of something; salt in recent years has been treated in school canteens like it is a chemical weapon rather than a fundamental requirement of good cooking. It is noticeable that the new cookbook produced by the government to teach kids how to prepare their own meals avoids salt or sneaks it into recipes in stock. No wonder children are rejecting such bland offerings.

But before the first school bell of the day sounds, and after hometime, it would be far better if the government, the health authorities and the self-appointed guardians of our diets did what children up and down the country do at lunchtime: bugger off.


Data security? Unknown in Britain: "Files containing the personal records of thousands of serving and former RAF staff have been stolen, the Ministry of Defence confirmed last night. Three computer hard drives storing the information were taken last Wednesday in a raid on a high-security area at the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency at RAF Innsworth, Gloucester. The agency provides support for about 900,000 current and former RAF personnel. The loss of the data comes in the same week as a disk containing the names and addresses of almost 11,500 teachers went missing in the post. The Government has already come under scrutiny for its data protection procedures since the details of 25 million child benefit recipients were lost in transit by a courier almost a year ago. Earlier this month, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, ordered an inquiry into the loss of a computer hard drive containing the details of up to 5,000 employees of the justice system."

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