Archive | June, 2016

The Murder of Jo Cox and the disgraceful culpability of David Cameron and the gutter press in creating an enabling political context.

18 Jun

Let’s be clear: the murderer of Jo Cox was the man who shot and stabbed her. But the murder occurred in a context in which verbal and written incivility among certain politicians, parties and media outlets has become main-streamed. British Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly accused the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, of being a “terrorist symapthiser”. On one memorable occasion in the House of Commons, Cameron was given repeated opportunities to apologise for his comments. He refused – because he is a Prime Minister who regards his job as the equivalent of a sixth form debate – a debate with no consequences. Cameron has form on this: he reveled in accusing Labour’s London mayoral candidate of sharing a platform with an Islamic State supporter, and spent one Prime Minister’s Questions concentrating on the alleged anti-Semitism of the Labour Party.

These were thoroughly disgraceful displays. And entirely cynical. Cameron does not truly believe that Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser. Indeed, if he did, he would be duty bound to inform the police. Instead, for Cameron it was all part of the theatre of politics – an opportunity to score a few cheap points. Over decades, British politicians – from all of the main parties – have engaged in personal attacks – denigrating the character of individuals whose politics they disagree with. Establishment figures regularly laugh off these debates by describing them as ‘the rough and tumble of politics’. They are no such thing. Attacking the character of people you disagree with is … the phrase ‘character assassination’ comes to mind.

The gutter press is front and centre of the coarsening of British political debate. Britain’s gutter press is licenced to occupy the gutter – a position confirmed by the shelving of the Leveson Report that looked at how Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper had bugged the phone of the mother of a murdered child. For many years, the British press has been lampooning politicians it does not like – figures on the political left (including Jeremy Corbyn, Gerry Adams, Ken Livingstone) have been the most regular targets. These media character assassination are often deeply gendered: Clare Short, Margaret Beckett, Nicola Sturgeon, Kate Hoey, Cherie Blair and many others have suffered attacks that simply would not be launched on men.

While the political Establishment and gutter press are engaged in the theatrical mourning of Jo Cox, they are absolving themselves of the blame of creating the context in which citizens think it is OK to murder, intimidate and abuse politicians. It is doubtless comforting (and expedient) for many politicians and journalists to see this murder as a one-off – the act of a ‘mad’ ‘loner’. But all violence occurs in a political context. This context has been created by the gutter press and politicians like David Cameron.

Many politicians are not particularly likeable. Many hold views that are abhorrent. But they deserve the same workplace protections as everyone else. Moreover, we – as citizens – deserve political debates that are honest and serious. I have been struck by the number of times that Jeremy Corbyn has called for debates to be ‘civil’, ‘dignified’ and ‘comradely’. It is a pity that many of his fellow politicians aren’t big enough to take a leaf out of that book.

David Cameron and his ilk do not bear direct responsibility for this murder, but the chain of implication includes a political context that Cameron encourages. Shame.

The myth of the neoliberal university

13 Jun

We have heard a lot about the neoliberal university of late, especially in the UK where universities are increasingly pressured to compete with one another for students, to attract funding, and to ‘productize’ their outputs. Yet, the more I experience life in UK universities the more I wonder if they are truly neoliberal. They are so incredibly bureaucratic and stuffed with a fast-growing layer of managers that they cannot be considered truly neoliberal.

Certainly universities give the impression of being market-orientated. Indeed, quite a few vice chancellors and other senior ‘managers’ seem convinced that the only strategy is one of growth of all things at all times: student numbers, income … and debt. It was reported this week that University College London is £1.2bn in debt in the midst of a growth strategy. £1.2bn! Such a figure would be fine if we were talking about a private corporation, but we are talking about a complex public sector organisation whose main role (one would think) is the education of students and advances in research. In most universities it goes without saying that vice chancellors and their ‘senior management team’ are academics by training and usually have minimal business experience. Yet, somehow, a good portion of vice chancellors have convinced themselves that they are equipped with the skills to launch bonds and take out incredibly complex long-term loans. This isn’t neoliberalism, or indeed good old-fashioned business, it is maxing out credit card.

One of the striking features of UK universities in recent years has been the growth of managers: teaching and learning managers, business managers, impact managers. I was at meeting on teaching recently in which I counted seven people with the term ‘manager’ in their job title. Needless to say none of them had ever helped me deliver a lecture, put together a reading list, or help a student with a problem. The number of managers in UK universities is about to grow again as the government rolls out its ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ – yet another administrative behemoth camouflaged by the language of new public management.

The sheer number of managers and other bureaucrats means that UK universities cannot be considered truly neoliberal. If neoliberalism is about being market-orientated, lowering costs, and transfering public sector functions to the private sector then the maintenance of superfluous bureaucracy does not fit the term neoliberalism.

Why I am still abstaining from the EU referendum

7 Jun

THIS IS A RE-POSTING OF A BLOG FROM 4 MARCH 2016. IT SEEMS MORE RELEVANT NOW. I HAVE NOT CHANGED MY MIND, EVEN THOUGH THE OPINION POLLS ARE CLOSER THAN WHEN I WROTE THIS. THE REFERENDUM IS STILL A HUGE AND UNNECESSARY DISTRACTION FROM POVERTY, INEQUALITY, AND THE DISMANTLING OF STATE RESPONSIBILITY FOR EDUCATION, HEALTH AND WELFARE. I AM SIMPLY NOT GOING TO PLAY THE GAME THAT POLITICAL ELITES WANT ME TO PLAY. THE SENSIBLE CHOICE IS TO IGNORE THIS RICH, WHITE, MALE ELITE.

On most days, the main news story in the UK involves a rich middle-aged white man saying that the sky will fall on our heads if we leave OR remain in the European Union. The outcome is always catastrophic. It is never a case of ‘If you leave/remain in the EU there will be mild consequences’.

What is driving me to abstain from this whole referendum campaign is that the staging of this argument suits those in power. It suits them to divert our attention onto the EU issue while they continue with an anti-people agenda of privatising the National Health Service, taking benefits from the poorest in society, de-regulating the City of London, and dismantling universities. Every second of airtime given to this issue is a second that does not scrutinise a government of millionaires presiding over increasing homelessness, less care for the mentally ill, fewer police officers on the streets, and shoddy treatment of doctors.

So I am not playing the game. And this is a game. The issue of whether the UK remains in the EU is essentially an internal Conservative Party issue that the Prime Minister has decided to turn into a campaigning issue. It is an issue of choice. It is an unnecessary indulgence for a man who will leave office in three years and resume being what he is: a multi-millionaire elitist. It was entirely his choice to turn this into a major political issue. And to give him and his coterie attention on this issue is to play into his hands. Obviously, the media are playing into his hands. They love this issue. It is a simple binary choice. It pits supposed allies against each other. It touches on weather-vane issues beloved by the right-wing gutter press such as immigration, welfare, and ‘foreigners’.

If I were to vote (and I will not) I would vote to remain in the EU. My confidence in the European project was severely shaken by the patently undemocratic treatment meted out to Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal by the European Commission and the European Central Bank (but really by the German government). This foisting of bankers’ debt on populations was a crime against decency and democracy. This issue aside, the European project has generally been a good thing. The central message – that cooperation between states is better than unilateralism and nationalism – is an important one. After all, nationalism cost tens of millions of European (and other) lives in the twentieth century. The EU has been an important tool in blunting that on continental Europe.

What we are seeing with this UK referendum campaign is essentially theatre. The UK will vote to remain in the EU. If there is any doubt about this, take a look at what happened during the referendum on Scottish independence. The extent to which the people of Scotland were bludgeoned on a daily basis by London-based corporations, media and political parties was something that had to be seen to be believed. The corporations, media and political parties united to form a massive steamroller that bullied and threatened people about the ‘benefits’ of remaining in the UK. Cynically, the remaining in the UK campaign called itself ‘Project Fear’ – it was predicated on the notion that it would win if it scared people about tax, cost of living, pensions, and security. And it worked. Prime Minister Cameron and his rich white boy allies know this. Project Fear II will prevail and the UK will remain in the EU. And safe in that knowledge, I am going to concentrate on issues that matter – not on a sham referendum campaign.