A low dishonest year


On Monday 14 November 2016 Alan Bennett jotted a brief note in his diary. There is ‘a nauseating picture,’ he wrote, ‘on the front of the Guardian of Trump and Farage together’. He added: ‘with “nauseating” in this case not just a word. It does genuinely make one feel sick.’

All over the world many millions of other people felt sick too, and felt not only disgusted and nauseous but also fearful and despairing.

in the famous words of W H Auden in 1939, people felt lost in ‘a low dishonest decade’, where ‘waves of anger and fear/ circulate over the bright/ and darkened lands of the earth,/ obsessing our private lives.’

Auden referred to the ‘unmentionable odour of death’ offending and obsessing the lives of millions. A similar odour is around at the end of 2016, this low dishonest year.

In order not to forget the worries and weariness with which 2016 ends, but also in order to help nurture hope and determination to keep on keeping on ( to show ‘an affirming flame’, in Auden’s phrase), here at the end of 2016 are links to a handful of reflections and proposals:

British Values, Brexit and Trump a meditation for today, December 2016

Making our states fair again post-election reflections, November 2016

Grief, anger and re-engagement post-referendum thoughts and action, July 2016

And to help remember some of the background context here are some further pieces:

A multi-storied nation religion and belief in modern Britain, July 2016

Islamophobia, still a challenge for us all ‘what Muslims really think’, May 2016

Learning to live together British values and Prevent, February 2016

British identity and British values muddles, mixtures and ways ahead, autumn 2015


Alan Bennett’s diary for 2016 is published in the London Review of Books, 5 January 2017, at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n01/alan-bennett/diary





Teachers, your countries need you

History, nation and world war, 2014-18

In the last four years of his life the Swiss artist Eugène Burnand (1850–1921) created 104 portraits of people who had taken part, or were still taking part, in the first world war. The portraits depicted an immense diversity in terms of ethnicity, race, geographical origin, age, physical appearance, military rank and religious tradition. They vividly recorded that the war was indeed a world war, not just confined to Europe.

When published in a book in 1922 each portrait was accompanied by a short meditation by Burnand’s nephew, a military historian. The portraits and meditations are all now available at http://www.eugene-burnand.com/ and there are English translations of the original French. Amongst other things, they are an unusual and fascinating resource for teachers of history and citizenship in schools.

The portraits are introduced in an article at http://www.insted.co.uk/teachers-needed.pdf. Entitled ‘Teachers, your countries need you’, and sub-titled ‘History, Nation and World War, 2014-18’, the article begins by recalling key points about the first world war made by Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh in a House of Lords debate in December 2013. It continues with notes on some of the controversies about history teaching which have arisen in relation to a provocative article in the Daily Mail in January 2014 by Michael Gove. It concludes by introducing two new educational resources – a project based at the Institute of Education, London, and the website featuring the work of Eugène Burnand.

‘The Truth about Immigration’


‘The Truth about Immigration’ was a documentary broadcast by the BBC on Tuesday 7 January. It was presented by the BBC’s political editor and had been trailed in advance both widely and deeply. Viewers were promised it would be full of new clarity and insight, based on new and powerful facts and figures. Further, it would be imbued with unusual honesty from politicians and senior civil servants, and – even – from the BBC itself.

In the event the programme was a shoddy and shameful shambles. Visually, technically, conceptually, ethically, politically and emotionally, it was the very worst kind of tabloid TV, an hour of bias against understanding, totally unworthy to be described as public service broadcasting.

There is a critical review of the programme at http://leftcentral.org.uk/2014/01/15/truth-immigration-and-the-bbc/#more-3896. The review lists the programme’s flaws and faults, and closes by suggesting some broad principles for responsible journalism about immigration and related topics. The principles are relevant for all media, but particularly for public service broadcasting. They include a reference to a fine and sensitive documentary that the BBC broadcast on the day following ‘The Truth about Immigration’. Entitled ‘The Hidden World of Britain’s Immigrants’, and presented by Fergal Keane, it reflected compassion, humanity and respect, but was not merely soft-hearted.

Miliband, Mail and antisemitism

Referring to the Daily Mail’s recent attack on the Miliband family a headteacher says that ‘if the Mail speaks for Britain, it is not a Britain I want to be part of.’ He continues: ‘It sets a very bad example to young people to belittle someone who is dead. I think it is nasty, it lacks taste and decency, and I worry about antisemitism. Everything that I value and try to get across to young people here, this seems to cut across. It is antithetical to everything I try to teach our pupils. The constant trashing of people for the sake of selling newspapers is demeaning and destructive of trust.’

A Church of England bishop criticises the Mail for being a dangerous influence to public life. ‘Its article about the Miliband family was not just a matter of taste, but a matter of the corruption of civic life and the public discourse … The Mail knows exactly what it is doing. I believe it is both corrupt and dangerous.’

It is now widely recognised that the Daily Mail’s recent attack on the Miliband family was an outbreak of anti-Jewish racism. ‘Mrs Cohen,’ says a headline, ‘the Mail is talking about you, too.’ ‘What does it mean,’ asks another, ‘to call a Jewish person “un-British”? ‘Antisemitism doesn’t always come doing a Hitler salute,’ observes a third, commenting that ‘hatred of Jews is often more coded than explicit’, and that the Daily Mail’s attack ‘pressed all the same old buttons’. Ed Miliband, says a fourth headline, interpreting the Mail’s message, is ‘a Jew not quite English enough’. A senior rabbi asks: ‘What is really going on at the Daily Mail? … Their attack on Ralph Miliband is so preposterous that there must be a hidden motive behind it. But what? … Why is the Mail claiming he was so evil?’

There is a short discussion by Robin Richardson of these allegations and comments, and of the persistence and changing dynamics of antisemitism at the present time, at http://leftcentral.org.uk/2013/10/10/miliband-the-mail-and-antisemitism-some-points-arising/ .

‘Challenge the culture. Stop it. Now.’

‘Challenge the Home Office,’ said the Guardian in a robust editorial on 10 August, ‘challenge the culture, stop it, now.’ The references were to politicians deploring the elevation of Doreen Lawrence to the House of Lords, and talking openly and unashamedly about the Global South as bongo bongo land; to the Go Home billboards touring parts of London, a component in the government programme to make Britain, in the government’s own official phrase, ‘a hostile environment’ for immigrants; and to the government’s casual disdain for the Equality Act 2010, which requires public authorities to ‘foster good relations’ and therefore to engage in ‘tackling prejudice’ and ‘promoting understanding’. The debate over migration, said the Guardian, ‘has gone off the rails. Politicians are so scared of challenging voters’ prejudices they are stoking them instead. This should be Nick Clegg’s moment. Challenge the Home Office, challenge the culture, stop it, now.’

The editorial acknowledged there are individual Tory and Lib Dem MPs who make no secret of the fact that they are deeply uneasy about the way the government has been operating, and noted that Labour has condemned the billboards exercise as a publicity stunt aimed at potential Ukip voters. But much damage, it said, has been done. ‘Racist expressions have been legitimised by their use by elected politicians and, worse, the government itself. Social cohesion is repeatedly challenged by the knowing use of debasing and divisive language, a politics where voters are encouraged to imagine all benefits claimants are scroungers and every migrant as potentially illegal. For some Conservatives, and in some quarters of the media, this is what success looks like. Everybody is talking their language, there are ministers in touch with ordinary voters’ prejudices, elected politicians [are] not afraid to use the racist language of the 19th hole.’

The relevance and implications for the world of education are well reviewed in a recent article by Gus John (http://www.gusjohn.com/2013/08/go-home-or-face-arrest-promoting-community-cohesion-in-post-racial-britain/). ‘It is critical,’ he writes, ‘that as many of us as possible send a message to David Cameron, Theresa May, Eric Pickles and the rest of this government that the xenophobic society they are projecting and the nation of snoopers they want us to become is NOT the society in which we want to live or want our children to live. And we won’t ‘Go home…’, because for far too many of us, going ‘home’ means going to Manchester, or Leicester, or Brent, Bristol or Bradford.’

One immediate way of showing opposition to current trends, Gus John points out, is to sign the petition organised by the Black Feminists collective in association with the Refugee and Migrant Forum in East London (RAMFEL) at http://www.change.org/petitions/tell-theresa-may-and-ukhomeoffice-to-stop-public-targeting-of-immigrants-2?utm_campaign=twitter_link_action_box&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=share_petition.

The reality behind the rhetoric

‘We hold,’ say the Tories and Lib Dems with their actions, though not with their exact words unless behind closed doors, ‘this truth to be self-evident, that human beings are born unequal.’

They continue – again with deeds rather than with explicit policy discourse – along lines such as the following: ‘It is urgent that we should return the education system to the essential role which it always played in the past, which is to prepare children and their parents for inequality, and to accept and appreciate inequality. Those who deserve to prosper will do so, if we simply set them free from state intervention and control. Those who do not deserve to prosper, due to their lack of intelligence, energy or aspirations, will be treated with compassion, in so far as resources permit. But basically we say to them, tough, that’s life. In these various ways we are making the world safe for capitalism in its neoliberal variety. Everyone will benefit, of course, even if some do not yet realise this.’

This Tory and Lib Dem view of education is clearly shot through with falsehood and hypocrisy. But Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, namely the Labour Party, seems to broadly agree with it, or anyway to have nothing useful or inspiring to say against it.

It is in this context that the Socialist Education Association has launched its 32-page pamphlet entitled Gove’s School Revolution Scrutinised, sub-titled The Reality behind the Rhetoric: essays on the current crisis. There are seven brief essays altogether. The pamphlet is reviewed by Robin Richardson at http://leftcentral.org.uk/2013/07/20/what-revolution-and-why-and-where-heading-review-of-goves-school-revolution-scrutinised-book-review/#more-3587.

Oh dear, dear Brum

‘Dear Birmingham,’ writes Karamat Iqbal, ‘thank you for being my home for the past forty plus years. Thank you also for welcoming my father and others in our family and community during the fifties. You as a city welcomed them, us, because you needed their labour and they came willingly because they needed jobs. As we have learnt, it has benefited the city in many ways. It has certainly benefited our community, both here and back in Pakistan. I grew up in a brick house, the first in our village, thanks to the money earned in Birmingham.’

Iqbal’s new book is an extended thank-you letter, almost an extended love letter. It is not, however, just one long outpouring of gratitude and affection. The city which he holds dear can be disappointing and deplorable, a hell-hole as well as a haven, a place of negligence and neglect as well as a nest, woeful as well as wonderful. Iqbal loves his fellow citizens of all backgrounds. But also he wants change, and wants it radically, deeply, urgently. He wants and seeks justice and equality, and wants them for all communities in Birmingham – not only the newer communities which have settled there in the last sixty years but also those whose forebears settled in the city rather earlier.

He interweaves the story of his own family with that of Pakistani Birmingham since the 1950s to the present day. He salutes the early pioneers, recalls crude street racism, draws attention to continuing negligence and neglect, and sets out principles, proposals and action points for the future. His book is reviewed at http://leftcentral.org.uk/2013/06/27/justice-and-equality-in-a-great-city-book-review-dear-birmingham-by-karamat-iqbal/#more-3535.