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Friday, 24 March 2017

Keeping calm and carrying on

Remember these people:

Aysha Frade, a school administrator with a Spanish mother and a Cypriot father, on her way to pick up her children from school.

Kurt Cochran, an American from West Bountiful in Utah, on a tour of Europe with his wife Melissa to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

Leslie Rhodes, aged 75, who died of his injuries late on Thursday night.

Keith Palmer, a police officer with 15 years’ experience, a member of the Metropolitan police parliamentary and diplomatic protection command.

Four victims of a callous murderer whose name need not concern us.  (Although now that we know that he was born in Kent as Adrian Ajao, I look forward to the apologies from all the racist bigots who claimed that the attack was in some way related to immigration.)

How unlucky his victims were to be at Westminster on Wednesday afternoon -- three of them walking across Westminster Bridge, the fourth doing his job at the entrance to the houses of parliament.

And as we mourn all victims of politically-motivated killings, let us also remember Lee Rigby, the off-duty soldier who was murdered in 2013, and Jo Cox, the MP who was killed last June and whose husband Brendan has been a role model ever since as we struggle to find the right words in response to such cruelty.

After the Westminster attacks on Wednesday, he said: 'The person who did this wants us to be fearful and divided. Let's show them that we are neither.'

In Paris 16 months ago, 130 people died when gunmen opened fire in a series of coordinated attacks. In Brussels, exactly a year ago, 32 people were killed. In Nice, last July, 86 died when a lorry ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Promenade des Anglais. And in Berlin last December, 12 died in a similar attack on a Christmas market.

So we may be forgiven for thinking that London got off lightly. We knew the city was not immune, we knew that the security services believed an attack was 'highly likely'. It was a question of when, not if.

Why did London get off lightly? It is tempting to say that we were lucky, but luck was only part of it. The attacker was armed with only knives. No gun -- because it's not easy to get hold of guns in a country with strict laws about the ownership of firearms.

He couldn't get into the Palace of Westminster because it is extremely well-fortified. Those hideous black security barriers are there for a reason. If he could have, I'm sure he would have loved to kill some MPs. PC Palmer was in his way, and gave his life to defend them.

Let us not forget: in 1979, the senior Conservative MP Airey Neave was murdered when Irish republican bombers placed an explosive device beneath his car while it was in the House of Commons underground car park.

In 1984, they blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton and nearly wiped out Margaret Thatcher's entire Cabinet. In 1991, they tried to kill John Major's Cabinet by firing mortars at 10 Downing Street.

So yes, we were lucky on Wednesday that it was 'only' a man in a rented car with a couple of knives. But we also owe an immense debt to the police and security services who have learnt well from the mistakes of the past. We are all immeasurably safer today than we were during the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 80s.

It would be the height of folly to claim that a coordinated series of attacks on the scale of the 7/7 bombings in 2005 could not be mounted again. But it is worth noting that for more than a decade, there has been nothing comparable. (In 2007, two car bombs were discovered and disabled before they could be detonated, and the following day, there was an attempted attack at Glasgow airport.)

Londoners like to claim that the spirit of Blitz lives on in the capital. The truth is that in all the major cities of Europe that have been attacked, life goes on. Which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Twenty-four hours after the Westminster attack, I walked through the heart of London's West End -- and with the exception of a helicopter whirring noisily overhead and a couple of heavily-armed police officers on patrol in Leicester Square, it was as if nothing at all had happened.  

Over the coming days, we will learn more about the man who was responsible for the attack and perhaps begin to understand more about the best way to minimise the risk of more such attacks in the future. For the police and the security services, the task is never-ending -- to find, identify and monitor those who seek to do us harm. As the IRA said after they failed to kill Margaret Thatcher in 1984: 'Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.'


The task for the rest of us is crystal clear: we keep calm and carry on. Because that's the exact opposite of what the killers want us to do.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Why the pundits may soon owe you an apology

I think it may soon be time to offer an apology on behalf of the International Consortium of Commentators and Columnists, aka The Punditocracy.

Over the past nine months, you may have gained the impression that the Western world, made up of the so-called liberal democracies, was being engulfed by an unstoppable populist tide of xenophobia, bigotry and nativism. First came the Brexit vote in the UK last June, then the Trump victory in the US in November. In Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany, populist, Islamophobic parties all seemed to be inexorably gaining support.

I know that one election result proves nothing, but the Dutch election this week ought at least to lead to a re-examining of what the media studies folk would call the ‘dominant narrative’. Perhaps the tide of populism and nativism is not so unstoppable after all.

Let’s look at some numbers from recent history. First the EU referendum: UK voters were split almost down the middle last June, 52% to 48%. Despite what Mrs May and her Cabinet colleagues would have you believe, Brexit is not ‘the will of the people’, but the will of just 35% of registered voters, given that only 72% of them bothered to vote.

Second, the US presidential election. Donald Trump’s victory did not represent a violent swing to nativism; after all, he won three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and most Americans do not support his uniquely toxic brand of bigotry, ignorance and extreme narcissism. 

Third, the presidential election in Austria, where last December, Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party beat Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant, post-Nazi Freedom Party. By 54% to 46%, Austrians decided not to return their country to the darkest days of its recent history.

And now, the Netherlands, where the only Dutch politician anyone outside the country has heard of, the viscerally Islamophobic Geert Wilders, won just 13% of the national vote, barely ahead of the centrist D66 party on 12% and the Greens on 9%.

As it happens, support for Wilders was almost exactly equal to UKIP’s support in the 2015 UK general election, and far below what UKIP achieved in the European parliament elections of 2014, when it won 27% of the vote, more than either the Tories or Labour. (UKIP’s current poll rating is hovering around 10%.)

So why has the ‘dominant narrative’ given you a different impression? Because, in a nutshell, we journalists love nothing more than a dramatic story – and ‘Beware, the Fascists are on the march’, or variations on the theme, is certainly dramatic enough to spin into a thousand words on a dull Thursday morning.

I do not suggest for one moment that we should not have reported the rise in support for populist politicians feeding off – and often encouraging – fear of immigrants and of the effect of globalisation on the jobs market.

But I do suggest that politicians are not alone in succumbing to the temptation to feed off fear. Journalists know just as well as politicians that you get a lot more attention shouting ‘The barbarians are at the gates’ than by gently murmuring that, by and large, and all things considered, we’re probably going to be OK.

(Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte may well owe his election triumph at least in part to the way in which he so successfully exploited tensions with Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial president, Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan, by banning two Turkish ministers from addressing rallies in the Netherlands. What better way to fend off the threat from Geert Wilders than by showing how tough he could be against the Turks?)

So perhaps BBC news producers might be encouraged to resist the temptation to call on Nigel Farage every other day, simply because they know he’s likely to say something provocative and get their programme quoted in the news bulletins. Their US colleagues used to feel the same way about the ‘joke candidate’ Donald Trump – and look where it got them.  Interview-bookers, please note: Mr Farage may have turned into a posh-boy version of George Galloway, but as an ex-party leader, he now represents no one other than his own reflection in the mirror.

If the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron wins the French presidential election in June, the ‘dominant narrative’ may finally be put back in its box.  And if the German anti-immigrant, anti-EU AfD party does badly in September — its current opinion poll ratings are in single figures – the box’s lid can finally be nailed down.

And then, perhaps, we’ll read more stories from places like St Louis, Missouri, where local Muslims collected tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the repair of gravestones after an attack on a Jewish cemetery, and Victoria, Texas, where a rabbi handed over the keys to his synagogue to local Muslims after an arson attack on their mosque. Real stories from the real world, instead of overblown nationalist rhetoric from cynical populists.

Of course, liberal democracies face major challenges. But we need to beware of scaring ourselves into a sense of despair. And we journalists need to be especially careful not to get carried away by our love of the dramatic and the controversial, which are always so much more exciting than boring old complexity and nuance.

Me? I cling to the hope that we’re living through nothing more than a spasm of history. One day, perhaps sooner than we think, Donald Trump will no longer be the US president. And one day, probably much later than we think, Britain will have worked out a sustainable new relationship with its European neighbours.


So we should fasten our life jackets, refuse to panic, and do everything we can to keep the ship afloat as we ride out the storm. Eventually, the seas will calm, and the winds will abate. Let’s meet again on dry land.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Is Theresa May turning into Donald Trump?




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Did you go to a grammar school? And if you did, did you get a good education?

If the answer to both those questions is Yes, you may very well have welcomed the government's pledge in the budget this week to make extra money available for new schools that will be allowed to choose their pupils according to academic ability.

So here's another question: Do you believe that encouraging the establishment of more grammar schools gives parents more choice about where to send their children to school? If your answer is Yes again, I fear you are sadly mistaken.

Because the whole point of selective schools is that it is not the parents who do the choosing. It's the schools. And that -- as those of you with long memories will recall -- is why grammar schools were abolished: too many parents were left angry and disappointed when their 11-year-old children were labelled 'failures' and shunted off to secondary modern schools.

It also explains, as Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian, why even Margaret Thatcher, as education secretary in 1970, knew better than to halt the move away from selective schools. Tory voters did not like the idea of going back to a system in which their children risked being written off as 11-plus failures.

In a speech last September, Theresa May said: 'For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have.' That comes close to being an 'alternative fact' of Trumpist proportions. (Trump believes he won the biggest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan, and that Barack Obama bugged his phones, but that's not true either.)

Good schools that offer children good life chances do not exist only in leafy suburbs or where parents are able to pay for the privilege of a private education. Good schools exist wherever good, motivated teachers are given the resources they need to educate, encourage and inspire the children who come through their doors every morning. And there is no evidence whatsoever to back Mrs May's belief that selective schools offer bright children better chances in later life. It is dogma, pure and simple.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that providing government money to encourage more selective schools is an extravagant misuse of scarce resources. What possible sense can it make to allocate £320 million for the establishment of 110 new free schools, some of which will be selective, and only £216 million for the 20,000 existing state schools? (Declaration of interest: both my children were educated at a state comprehensive school.)

The budgets of mainstream schools are still being cut, year after year. According to a survey of 1,000 school staff in England published in January, 80% said their school either had made cutbacks or was planning to, a third said their schools were not replacing teachers who leave, and 14% said that teachers at their schools were being made redundant.

That is the current reality in the state system: fewer teachers, fewer support staff, fewer books, and morale at rock bottom. Little wonder that this week the head teachers of more than a thousand schools have sent out letters to parents and MPs warning that their budgets are at breaking point.

In last year's budget, the then chancellor George Osborne -- the one who is now being paid £650,000 a year to work one day a week at the asset manager Black Rock -- announced that all schools would be forced to turn themselves into independently-run academies by 2020. Less than two months later, the idea was scrapped in the face of near-universal opposition.

Now, his successor, Philip Hammond, is in hot water over his proposal to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed. So I have the perfect solution for him: scrap the NI increase, and fill the hole in the accounts by also scrapping the free school cash allocation.

That way, white van man will be happy and his children will have a better chance of getting a better education.  Win-win -- maybe I should drop a note to the chancellor.