Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The New Statesman and Hegemony

As I've said on this blog before, I'm not sure about Scottish independence, and many of my reasons for it are based on post-colonial revenge. That said, every time a No supporter puts pen to paper I can understand why the Yes vote increases.

I subscribe to the New Statesman, the weekly magazine of the metropolitan left. I once had a cheap student subscription which I ended early because it was so massively boring, but now it's a lively and thoughtful read (when it manages to steer clear of religion).

So I was a bit shocked to read its editor's essay this week, 'Is This The End of Great Britain?'. The simple and pedantic answer, of course, is 'no': 'Great Britain' is the major island of the archipelago, named to differentiate it from Brittany which of course has a population which speaks a language closely related to Welsh.

Cowley's piece shocked me, however, because it's far more imperialist and reactionary than the current government. The Tories and Lib Dems acceded – grudgingly – to a referendum because they recognised that legitimacy needs to be conferred by democratic means. The SNP have won several elections, which indicates that the question of Scottish statehood needed to be put to the people. Yes or No, the state that exists on Friday will have had its legitimacy asserted through the ballot box.

This isn't good enough for Mr Cowley. He speaks for a 'we' that seems to mean an English ruling class that possesses the rest of the country. Here's his conclusion:
For now, as we enter the last days of the referendum campaign – perhaps the last days of Great Britain – those of us who do not have a vote, who loathe neoliberalism but who feel culturally British and believe in the multinational ideal of the United Kingdom, for all its flaws and incongruities, can only watch and hope that pragmatism will hold sway so that Scotland is not lost as Ireland was before it.
The English have of course asserted multicultural values as long as those other values are muted under a blanket of supposed Englishness. But what really annoyed me was this casual use of 'lost', as though first Ireland and then Scotland (as usual Wales is invisible) are simply holiday homes for the English, rightful possessions that they accidentally let slip. Things are lost by their owners or keepers, and I really don't think countries come under this category. Cowley assumes that British domination of Ireland was somehow natural, and that Irish independence wasn't a matter of the Irish asserting themselves, but of the English 'losing' that country, and that Scotland might be carelessly 'lost' in the same way.

He goes on:
 If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture, shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed. 
Language? Welsh was for long periods banned in its own country. Scots Gaelic was marginalised, Irish suppressed: none of these languages have recovered. Culture? Again, the cultural expressions of the Celtic nations are marginalised, silenced or diluted. Shared sacrifice? You have to be pretty damned selective to exclude the multiple occasions on which the English murdered each other in a series of civil wars, let alone the Irish campaigns, Glyndŵr, the Clearances, the Troubles and many, many more conflicts. No nation in the British Isles is innocent of spilling the blood of others across the world but they've spilled each others' on enough occasions to render Cowley's fantasy of a family under the paternal hand of an English father ludicrous.

Democratic states exist for the convenience of their citizens, and their legitimacy needs to be tested now and then. Cowley's 'we' is a permanent ruling class which reveals a worryingly anti-democratic undercurrent to his apparently progressive internationalism.

The limits of Cowley's political imagination are delimited by his portentous closing phrase:
…the British state will have been broken and we will be plunged into a constitutional crisis with devastating consequences for David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Really? Whatever the result of the referendum, there will be consequences – good and bad – for the 60 million people who live on these islands. What a shame that Jason Cowley's idea of 'devastation' extends only to the careers of the current leaders of two political parties.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Och Aye? Scottish independence in politicians' novels

Today's text is Scotch on the Rocks, a 1971 novel by Douglas Hurd (later Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary) and Andrew Osmond, with whom he collaborated on a number of formulaic thrillers.


It's about Scottish independence, in the same way that Jaws is about a fishing trip. Here's the blurb from the back cover:
Civil War in Scotland. What if an extremist Scottish army had access to unlimited arms and money?
If Scottish Nationalists held the balance of power at Westminster?
Would the British government lose control?
Would the fighting stop at the border?
In it, a resurgent SNP with dangerous socialist leanings is accompanied by the Scottish Liberation Army and a load of violent Irish Catholic Celtic-supporting gangs, which British security services try to infiltrate. The enemies are clear: Scots Nats, Catholics, socialists, academics, students and Gaelic speakers. What's at risk is 'Britain', which is clearly the English establishment. (Lots of the plot is lifted for Helen Liddell's later Scottish Labour thriller, Elite).

The Tories agree a form of devolution but the hardliners kidnap the Secretary of State for Scotland but he unfortunately drowns, so the deal's off. Then it turns out that French Communists and Cuba are involved! War breaks out, including a mutiny by Scottish members of the British Army. The big reveal is that the hard-liner on the British side is secretly the leader of the Scottish Liberation Army!

I wonder if Douglas Hurd regrets the name he gave to this doughty defender of Britishness who in fact betrays his country and nearly leads the Scottish people to freedom?
Cameron
It looks like they're going to win, but luckily a principled SLA leader thinks again and gives the British a letter from the French Communists which reveals that the secret plan all along was to turn Scotland into a Communist dictatorship! The British win the civil war as right-thinking nationalists turn against the SLA. Its leadership flees to Moscow (except for Cameron who kills himself) and Scotland gets a limited form of independence.

The picture drawn of the Scots is very, very old-fashioned. Fiery, principled, dependable in some ways - it's the 19th-century Walter Scott view with a dash of outside agitation (which is also a familiar trope in novels about working-class politics). The Cold War element is interesting: this is the period in which it was revealed that the real traitors to Britain were Philby, Maclean, Burgess et al: aristocratic, public school and Oxbridge rather than grass-roots socialists.

Scotch on the Rocks is the third of a loose trilogy in which Hurd and Osmond examined threats to the stability of the UK, their prime political concern. Send Her Victorious has racist businessmen apparently murdering the King to prevent armed intervention in Rhodesia, while The Smile on the Face of the Tiger has China causing a nuclear stand-off by taking Hong Kong.

Is Scotch on the Rocks any good? Er…

For Hart, the tough MI5 hero,
'Wogs start at the Tweed' 
while Tory politicians believe that people join the SNP out of
'boredom'. 
Who's left in the wreckage of Glasgow?
'only Pensioners and Pakistanis'
But we can trust the Conservative Party:
a good deal less capable of unscrupulous tactics than outsiders supposed 
The dialogue is utterly painful - at the level of 'hoots mon' or Groundskeeper Willie.
'aboot biddy time'
'Don't get narky with me, mate'

'We got a bird there to take a butcher's in the files…the fellow's a pansy'.

All Scots say 'och'. Men are men, women are women, aristocrats are largely honourable and homosexuals are pansies. Patriots sing 'Land of Hope and Glory'. An Englishman's word is his bond (as one character actually says). Some utter cad blows up a statue of the Queen outside the Bank of Scotland and murders three pigeons. Mackie, 'school-teacher, ex-Labour MP, City Councillor, spokesman of the shipyards, SNP candidate for Glasgow Central' will be 'the Pied Piper of the Left, leading the abandoned armies of social democracy into the Nationalist fold' (he got that bit right anyway!). You can tell he's a bad'un because he's having sex with a Gaelic woman, Seonaid (actually Seonaid because it's such an exotic name) who is literally out of his class:
the product…of centuries of careful breeding, nurtured on wholesome food and moorland air, untouched by drugs, drink, housework or any man's hand but his own…John Mackie was not the first champion of the working class to prefer upper class girls, a taste justified by the principle that until you could beat them it was all right to join them. It was the challenge that appealed…Suke Dunmayne had been irresistible: tall enough to look down her nose at him, Catholic, a virgin, and daughter of the richest laird in Scotland. An icy Highland peak, to be climbed because she was there. 
Where to start? The horror of inter-class sexual relations? The painfully obvious symbolism, explained in the crudest, most reductive terms? The presentation of women as territory, and as physical manifestations of their patriarchal signification? The fear that people of different classes might make political alliances? Or the assumption that all ideology is a veneer on the surface of cruder impulses? Or the novel's climactic depiction of the British state clearing the Highlands of the die-hard rebels without a single hint that the original Highland Clearances might just have been a tad reprehensible and not an ideal reference to make while writing a happy ending? But then again, Hurd's imagined reader is certainly not Scottish.

Even the cover is offensive: a Ginger terrorist in a paramilitary tam-o'shanter glaring malevolently out at the defenceless reader.

Scotch on the Rocks had a curious afterlife. It was filmed by the BBC in 1973 and shown in 5 episodes at peak time in the run-up to the 1974 election, one for which the SNP had high hopes, having ridden high in the polls. The viewers loved it but the SNP went ballistic (metaphorically speaking) and the BBC, its Unionist duty done, promised never to show it again, though the tapes apparently still exist. I wouldn't put it past them to show it on the eve of the referendum this week. Sadly, no trace of it exists online, so I can't show it to you.

There are few 'tartan terrorist' novels, but I'll only mention one more: Michael Sinclair's The Dollar Covenant in which independent Scotland goes financially bust. It's not notable for its literary qualities (it has none) but because the British press are currently hyping the Queen's supposed intervention in the independence debate. Shea was in fact Michael Shea…the Queen's press secretary, and he sought and got her approval before publication

Friday, 12 September 2014

Elvis 1, Kate Bush 0?

In the course of my post about seeing Kate Bush a few days ago, I made a disparaging comment about Elvis Presley (why is there no Middle-Earth tribute act, obviously called Elvish?). This incurred the humorous wrath of a friend and eminent historian with a lot of time on his hands. It's so good that I feel obligated to post his defence of Elvis (with added links and video) and Kate Bush-naysaying for the entertainment of my readers. It's made me revise my Elvis-denialism. He's completely wrong about Kate though and deserves to be horse-whipped through the streets until his quiff droops.

It is not very often that I disagree with views expressed by the Plashing Vole but on this occasion I'm afraid I have to take up the pen in defence of Elvis Presley. In your review of Kate Bush (more on this later) you claim the Elvis's Vegas years were notable because he was 'washed-up creatively and physically"' It seems to me that you have swallowed the mythology of the NME and the rhetoric of punk far too easily. In fact, the years 1970-77 witnessed Elvis at his creative peak. In these years his recorded output was eclectic and experimental, covering blues, gospel, slave spirituals, civil rights protest songs, rockabilly, counter-cultural anthems, jazz, folk, country and pop. All this backed the best backing band on the planet (the great James Burton on guitar! Sweet Inspirations on vocals!). Unlike Kate Bush his voice showed no weakness through to as late as the final concerts in 1977 (check out the 70s Masters Box Set and especially his version of Dylan's Don't Think Twice Its Alright).


Moreover, this period was not just 'Vegas'. Elvis was touring constantly in these years criss-crossing America from East to West and North to South (see Elvis on Tour DVD, which by the way has a great version of American Trilogy). 





The physical decline also comes later than you suggest. Check out That's The Way It Is (1970 Vegas concert film) and Elvis looks great. 



He's declining slightly by the 1973 Hawaii concert but still looks good. I could write more but I will point you in the direction of Careless Lovethe second volume of Peter Gulranick's magisterial biography of Elvis for a revisionist account of the 70s years. 

And now dear Kate. I've been a casual fan of Kate Bush since I heard Wuthering Heights in car journey from Leigh to North Wales in 1978. 



I loved the early albums and dipped in and out of her career ever since. I was tempted to take in one of the shows but had my suspicions re set list etc. Once I saw what was on offer I'm glad I kept my money. 

[At this point our esteemed correspondent loses touch with reality. Ed].

Kate has not released a decent album for near on thirty years yet remains critic proof. 

[Nurse! The screens! Ed.]

She then performs a concert without five of her best songs: Wuthering Heights, Wow, Man With The Child In His Eyes, Army Dreamers and Babooshka (and nothing from the first four albums). 









[No disagreement here: they are amazing songs but the current performance isn't a greatest hits set]

From what I can see the 'fans' were treated to obscure album tracks, a puppet show and some amateur dramatics. But whatever she did the critics would love it. But I suppose if you charge that much for a ticket and generate demand through absence then this is the outcome. I'm not being a cynic here but there's no way she can keep that set list if she wants to continue to tour. The 'greatest hits' set on the pyramid stage at Glasto beckons! I have some friends who went and all said it was sublime. But it reminded me of people who visit Australia and say its wonderful… because they paid that much and travelled so far they have to believe its great. 

[At this point the sedatives kicked in and our correspondent embarked on a detailed and highly amusing comparison of Sydney and Wigan over which I shall draw a veil for fear of annoying the inhabitants of both teeming metropolis. Ed.]

I think if I would have been in the audience for Kate I would have pissed people off by intermittently shouting 'do a good one'! I've adopted this strategy at over 60 Van Morrison gigs over the years (you can hear me on a few bootlegs!).

[Funnily enough, the colleague with whom I saw Kate Bush also went to Portishead with me a few years back, on a free ticket. He hurled the foulest abuse at the band for the entire set. Next day I asked him why he'd been so horrid. 'Was I?' he said. 'I loved it. They were great!'. The fault was the venue's for serving Guinness in 2-pint containers. I cast no aspersions on my correspondent's myriad defects. Ed. ]. 

I was going to start writing one of 3 book reviews that are pending but this has been much more fun.

[Yes. Yes it has been]. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Scotland the Brave?

Literally none of you have begged me for enlightenment about the Scottish Independence Referendum. In the face of this overwhelming public demand, here's my two cents in a random and confusing fashion.

Obviously not being Scottish I neither have a vote nor quite such a pressing interest, but my views are shaped by my deeply-held socialist views, by my Irish background and by my post-colonial and post-Enlightenment ideology. All this pulls me both ways.

It's like this: I think that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been one of the most pernicious states on the planet. Pick up any globe from before about 1945 and you'll see a massive area of the globe under British domination. Despite the propaganda of Empire Loyalists, it was a ruthless killing machine designed to extract commodities, labour and obeisance from Wales, Scotland and Ireland to the South Sandwich Isles and everywhere in between. Civilisations were crushed, economies wrecked, development stalled, languages made extinct, borders artificially imposed – much of the current world's problems were caused by the foundation and dismantling of the Empire.

So a small part of me wants to see the final disarmament of a state that's never come to terms with its crimes against humanity. Sundered, the English, Welsh and Scots won't be able to exert this kind of dominion, or even influence, ever again. I also think it's a good opportunity for the constituent nations of the UK to rediscover some of what it lost in the process, including the Celtic languages. It's weird: I find myself for once agreeing with that repulsive old racist Nick Griffin of the British Nationalist Party:


I might be a cricket-loving, Marmite-slurpiing, real ale-drinking fully paid-up member of the bourgeoisie, but I'm definitely a Marxist Fenian at heart. Nick uses the term like it's a bad thing! As for why 'British Nationalists' aren't working hard: they're too fixated on racial purity to make an argument about a union which is at least in part successfully multi-cultural.

One of the arguments against Scottish independence that does weigh heavily on me is the old socialist rallying cry of solidarity between the workers in all nations: that what binds the proletariat together around the world is stronger than the bonds between classes in any particular state or nation. Certainly I don't see the Scottish establishment having much love or concern for the unemployed of Glasgow: Salmond's disgracefully close to the likes of Murdoch and Trump who want independence because bite-size countries are easier to digest. On the other hand, it's hard to promote socialism in all countries when the Labour party isn't at all interested in socialism in any country, and in a global economy which depends on slavery (yes it does: where do you think the minerals in your iPhone come from, and who puts them together? How much was the person who made your clothes or fished for your dinner paid?).

The idea of a small, nimble, green and egalitarian state really appeals: the radical independence campaign paints a seductive image of a Republican, small-scale country at ease with itself – a McScandinavia if you will, though it's an image which requires us to discount the tensions underlying social conditions in many of those nations. I also think it rather overlooks the tensions within Scotland: there's the conservative (not Conservative) Catholic working-class, the ultra-loyalist Protestant working-class (will Rangers fans become a revanchist, Union-flag waving bunch or transfer allegiance to independent Scotland?), and the much posher Protestant elite, let alone the cultures of the Highlands and Islands and the multicultural communities of the big cities. If the social and political elites get their feet under the table, supported by the banking and oil industries, Scotland might be a much less comfortable place for the poor and minorities.

I don't think states are or should be permanent (and in my syndicalist fantasies, the state is reduced as altruistic people aid each other and lose the need for oppressive structures of control – this is what makes me an optimist and not a Tory). The UK is fairly recent: the last big change was Irish independence in 1922. It's an instructive model which hasn't been explored enough in the current debate. Ireland fought a short and bloody war in 1916, followed by a vicious Civil War in 1922, the social and political consequences of which are still being felt. Nevertheless, independence was negotiated with the British. A currency agreement was struck: the Irish punt was pegged to the UK pound until 1979, yet nobody claimed that Ireland wasn't properly independent or in charge of its own economy. The Free State gradually became the Republic without further tensions with the UK other than over the Six Counties. When TV came, people in the East and near the North picked up BBC programming and now everybody receives it. If Ireland could succeed after its bloody imperial entanglements, Scotland definitely can.

The obvious rejoinder to the Irish model proclaimed by Salmond when he thought the Celtic Tiger was real (which should call into question his judgement) is that Ireland was a poverty-stricken, repressive, misogynist, priest-ridden and massively corrupt rotten state for much of the twentieth-century, only to become a greedy, credit-junkie, sexually-corrupt cowboy state which helped crash the global economy in the 21st. All true of course: but in a sense, so what? The economic argument is in a sense beside the point of independence. If you think that a nation is more than its economy, you should vote yes even if it means getting poorer.

I like small states (but big government). They do run the risk of becoming crony oligarchies, but they do make for more responsive governments and I suspect more peaceful ones. In Scotland's case, I'd vote yes partly on moral principles: I'm a long-term supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Scotland will expel the British nuclear fleet. On the other hand, I do agree that larger blocs are more influential and when we're facing environmental and economic collapse, we should be working together.

What will happen to the rest of the UK? For purely selfish reasons, I'm hoping Scotland votes no. I don't want Wales and nationalist Northern Ireland, the British working-classes and Northern England to be trapped in an abusive relationship with the Tory and UKIP-voting bigots of the south. UK politics will be dragged to the right: goodbye to the Human Rights Act, farewell to EU membership, what remains of worker protection and to environmental politics. Hello to a dystopia of golf course fascism, ever-reducing wages, isolationism and reactionary culture.

I would think that Welsh nationalism would become ascendant, even if an independent Scotland didn't thrive, because England would be so utterly dominant and so rightwing: I can't see the feeble milk-sop Labour party we have now holding back the tide of leftwing Plaid nationalism or the Old Labour strands of Welsh socialism – the valleys might decide that they can build socialism in one small country. I have no idea what would happen to NI. Its unionist population is so invested in the British monarchy, but its core cultural and religious identity is Scottish - it's hard for me to work out how these tensions would play out there. The English and Northern Irish have little in common and little understanding of each other. Perhaps Northern Ireland would vote for union with Scotland? Or maybe a successful independent Scotland would persuade Northern Irish unionists that life in a Federal Republic of Ireland would be bearable after all.

So ultimately my heart says yes, my head says maybe for the Scots. The rest of us have a lot to fear, I think: though the unionist establishment will be wounded, the combined forces of the landed elites, the financial oligarchs and the reactionary right will bear down on the rump UK's progressive forces more heavily than ever.

My utopia would be a world socialist state with responsive local units elected by proportional representation, fully representative of nationalisation of core activities, a steady-state green economy and industrial sector, strong trades unions, ingrained respect for all cultures, languages and ethnicities and largely disarmed. No dependency on oil, or on the vile countries which produce it. State-funded healthcare, childcare and education. Total political transparency, and no more monarch, lobbyists, state religions or Lords. With a moon colony for Mr Farage. Unless the UK is feeling really vindictive. It could lobby the EU nations to refuse Scotland entry to the EU. Then Nigel would feel compelled to emigrate to Scotland to live in a European-free paradise. Sorry Scotland!

I don't know if an independent Scotland would be a richer, poorer, nicer or nastier place. If your imagined nation is based on shared culture then I don't think these things even matter so much. But at least its people get a chance – for the very first time – to decide the shape of their state. Their ancestors didn't vote for Union, after all.

So vote for me. Or wake up one day in a Vole Re-education Camp.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Don't read this. It's mainly boasting.

Afternoon all. The sun's shining and I've had an unusually wonderful few days, so I thought I'd indulge in a little light gloating.

It all started on Thursday. My colleague and I headed off to London (eventually) to present a paper at the Politics of Doctor Who conference organised by the indefatigable Prof Danny Nicol at the University of Westminster. Our hotel was in Walthamstow, East 17, which reminded me of my younger sisters' taste in 90s music. After that, a night drinking fine Samuel Smith ales on Shaftesbury Avenue, then off to the conference in the morning. I was stunned by the international nature of the event - lots of speakers from US, Australia and Germany – and by their eminence: lawyers and others with strings of books to their names and all cheerfully proud of our Who knowledge. It was really multi-disciplinary too. The Germans from Chemnitz Technical University drew parallels between Who stories and the NSA, social scientists did content analysis work (months of painstaking event logging), lawyers examined questions such as whether the Doctor is a war criminal and whether the assistants can sue him for distress and injury (yes he is and yes they can, but he can also sue the TARDIS for negligently taking them to dangerous places, as it's sentient). One paper looked at parallels between Doctor Who and HG Wells, while others examined the fluid gender politics of the various series. My paper used Foucault's theories of power relations to examine the dystopian mirror universes of Doctor Who 'Inferno' and Star Trek 'Mirror, mirror' (ensuring that I beat the other nerds hands down) to suggest that the idealised prime universes (near-future Britain and the Federation) might actually be more subtly oppressive than the abjected evil mirror universes, and that the British and American shows have a rather different politics. Who is pragmatic, flexible and believes in muddling through, while Trek deals in moral absolutes even if it means avoiding resolution in the end. It was enormous fun, and I think people liked what we said, especially when we introduced them to the Beard of Evil. I blogged a summary a few days ago.

I guess what held us together was the shared understanding that popular culture is important from a supply and a demand perspective. Popular drama matters because they're platforms for the expression of aesthetic, ideological and cultural perspectives and reach people in ways that formal non-fictional genres don't. From the reception side, I think that anything millions of people consume – and the very complex and multiple ways in which they consume them and incorporate them into their lives – is by definition important. That's why I happily promote media studies in the teeth of snobbish opposition. If you want to know what the majority of a society cares about, you don't examine the avant-garde: you examine the soap operas, news broadcasts and prime-time TV shows.

So that was massively enjoyable and interesting. How could we top that? Well, by going to Hammersmith's gorgeous deco Apollo to see Kate Bush perform, her first live shows since 1979 when I was four (and hadn't heard of her). I've only known her music very well for a few years, but couldn't miss these shows. In our lifetimes, I guess they're the equivalent of Elvis's Vegas years, except that Bush isn't washed-up creatively and physically. I wasn't disappointed. Her voice is strong, dark and rich. The high notes are still there, but they've lost the piercing quality that may have put off people in songs like 'Wuthering Heights' all those years ago. The show is split into two - The Ninth Wave which is the second side (that dates me) of Hounds of Love, and 'And Endless Sky of Honey' from Aerial, a much later album. I love both LPs very much, but preferred the staging of 'The Ninth Wave' - slightly less sentimentality about her son, and a darker tone (and no puppets). Whatever the differences, this was more than a gig, more than a list of songs: it was art. The staging was inventive and mesmerising, always daring if not always successful.

The crowd I could have done without. A standing ovation every time they recognised a song starting, and obsessive cheering and applauding Bush's son came close to sycophancy. As her chat between songs was completely drowned out every time, I wondered if everyone was too fixated on being part of the event that they'd forgotten who was actually the creative one. Credit to everyone for accepting Bush's request not to film or photograph the show though: I didn't see a single glowing screen.

Though I had a few reservations about individual artistic decisions, the event was important because it so confidently raised the artistic bar. Bush takes risks because she believes her music, acting and dance form a coherent mode of expression which deserves respect, and she's right. It'll be hard to go back to see bands which just run through a set-list and hope they land a lucrative advert. The tickets were hugely expensive, but you could see that every penny had gone into planning, designing, building, rehearsing, lighting, choreography and thinking. Other bands have staged spectacular events – such as U2's supposedly subversive Zoo TV and Popmart tours, which simply demonstrated that they'd grown too big for their tax-avoiding globe-trotting boots, and that their grasp of irony was superficial at best. Bush's worked because she's more intelligent and more sophisticated than anyone else in her field.

How to top presenting on Doctor Who and seeing Kate Bush on the same day? Spending the rest of the weekend in good company. A trip to Tate Modern, an afternoon catching up with more distant friends, one of the best meals of my life in a dilapidated, deserted Indian social club, and finally a trip to the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow. After that, it was back to work, where the first job was to give the encomium at a graduation ceremony to Olympic athlete Denise Lewis, to whom we awarded an honorary doctorate. I'd seen her in action before at the UK School Games: she's down-to-earth, funny and kind, as well as inspirational to our students. She even laughed at my reference to her second place in Strictly Come Dancing, which was generous of her.

Today I've been meeting the new Graduate Teaching Assistants, a new training post for the next generation of academics: I'll be mentoring them. I'm slightly scared: they're all very very clever and much more advanced than I was at their age. I shall have to crush their optimism and energy before they turn their powers against me. Otherwise, I have visions of Logan's Run, and I don't mean the naked Jenny Agutter scene.

Tomorrow it's back to more graduation ceremonies, back in the gown and hat. This time it's for my own students, so I'll be applauding (mostly fondly) as some familiar and some inexplicably unfamiliar) faces appear on stage. If I'm feeling really satirical I'll bring along all the uncollected essays from their years here. I've done it before…

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Daily White Male Reaches for the Stars

You may remember from some months ago, outrage about the way the Daily Mail covered the appearance of two eminent scientists on Newsnight:
Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.
So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night pre-senter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.
Obviously only people indoctrinated by those Commie Feminists at the Guardian care about diversity. Thus he deliberately searched the astronomy and astrophysics worlds until he found 'two women' – we'll just have to live with the 'giggling', just as the Mail's (white, male) editor has to cope with constantly being referred to as 'simpering' whenever he flaunts his luscious curves on the comment pages. And what women he found: a giggling TV presenter and a foreigner.

Or as we know them, Dr Maggie Aderin Pocock, research fellow at UCL's Department of Science and Technology Studies, inventor, managing director of Science Innovation Ltd and James Webb Telescope instrument designer, and Dr Hiranya Peiris,  
Reader in Astronomy in the Astrophysics Group in the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at UCL. I am also the coordinator of the CosmicDawn project, funded by theEuropean Research Council under the FP7 Ideas programme.

Prior to becoming a Lecturer in Cosmology at UCL in 2009, I was an STFC Advanced Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy,University of Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellow at King's College Cambridge. Previously, I was a Hubble Fellowin the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at theUniversity of Chicago. I did my postgraduate research at theDepartment of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University.
Clearly these two were just plucked from a list for their looks, and not at all for their incredible knowledge of the subject.

And talking of incredible knowledge, what about this 'white, male' bit? I looked up the authors of the research they talked about. It took literally seconds. Turns out that this international BICEP2 partnership consisted of men and women of almost every ethnic grouping. The Mail journalist simply assumed that clever science can only have been the product of 'white, male' minds.

So I complained to the Press Complaints Commission, and on Friday, 2 days before it was replaced by IPSO, I got a reply. Guess how apologetic the Mail is feeling!
The newspaper explained that its columnist’s focus on gender and ethnicity was designed to be nothing more than a “cheeky reference” to the BBC’s alleged political correctness. In the columnist’s view, the selection of Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Hiranya Peiris to comment on the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation) study was another such example of this institutional approach.
I see. So you can print untruths as long as they're 'cheeky'. And obviously a professional journalist lacks both the skills and the motivation to quickly Google the scientists' names to see if they are actually fully qualified to comment on a subject, in pursuit of his job.

The resulting outrage did push the Mail to publish a partial retraction of the factual errors it hadn't bothered to check before publication
The newspaper took a number of measures to address the situation: the managing editor wrote to both Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris; a letter criticising the columnist’s argument was published the following day; its columnist later explicitly noted both scientists expertise, and competence to comment on the study; and, a correction was published promptly in the newspaper Corrections & clarifications column which acknowledged that the BICEP2 study was “conducted by a diverse team of astronomers from around the world”, and which “apologis[ed] for any suggestion to the contrary”. The latter measure was sufficient to meet the newspaper’s obligation under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code, to correct significantly misleading information.
but isn't really sorry:
The columnist’s suggestion that Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris were specifically selected for the Newsnight programme because of “political correctness” was clearly presented as his own comment and conjecture which, under Clause 1 (iii) and the principle of freedom of expression, he was entitled to share with readers. There was, therefore, no breach of the Code in publishing that suggestion. However, the subsequent correction of the factual inaccuracy regarding the BICEP2 team and the acknowledgment of both experts’ expertise will have allowed readers to assess the suggestion in a new light.
Who needs evidence when conjecture will do? On the main point of my complaint, they've got away scot-free:
Under Clause 12 (Discrimination) (ii) of the Code, “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”.  
I suggested that coverage of a scientific discovery did not require discussion of the scientists' (or scientific commentators') sexes or ethnicities. The Press Complaints Commission said:
While the terms of Clause 12 (ii) do not cover irrelevant references to gender, the Commission would need to have received a complaint from a member, or members of the BICEP2 team, or Dr Aderin-Pocock or Dr Peiris in order to consider the complaint about [word omitted: race or colour?] under this Clause. In the absence of any such complaints, the Commission could not comment further. 
So according to the PCC, you can lie and fantasise to your heart's content as long as the specific individuals are too depressed, worn-out or distant to personally complain about your disgusting behaviour. The rest of us just have to let them get on with it. In essence, the Daily Mail's defence is that their reportage is just 'banter'.

Can IPSO be any worse?

Monday, 1 September 2014

They sickens you

Apropos of nothing, here's a 1992 Steve Bell cartoon which I have long loved (click to enlarge).



He drew it for the Guardian two days after the 1992 election in which John Major (John Major!) won a majority with far fewer MPs but the largest popular vote in British electoral history. Gramsci must have been turning in his grave… The cartoon exactly captures the shocked numbness I felt after the result. The poll tax was the worst imposition on the public since the Peasant's Revolt, and caused a widespread insurrection, and yet the bloody Labour Party couldn't scrape a victory against the party that instituted it.

The image references a Russian socialist cartoon from 1900, and an American version from 1911, after which it became a favourite on the left:



I remember the '92 election horribly clearly. I spent the Easter holiday in Rheims, on a desperate attempt to learn enough spoken French to scrape through the A-level. The sojourn consisted of horribly embarrassing exchanges with a family who had little interest in helping a withdrawn and incompetent visitor. It didn't help, either, that the le pére of the house was a gendarme who would wave his gun about muttering about les negres every time a black person's face appeared on the television which lived on the dining table. Two weeks of this, interspersed with classes in town in which my fellow learners muttered darkly about the prospects of a Labour victory (the apocalypse, apparently). Couldn't talk to the French because the non-racists were too busy laughing – and rightly so – at my shamefully bad French, couldn't talk to the British lot because they were vile Tory scum. 

I thought differently, having been accused of being a 'bloody Guardian reader' by my headmaster. I wasn't, but rapidly became one. I also joined the youth wing of Militant too, mostly for the annoyance factor. Getting the papers delivered to school guaranteed a weekly row which I quietly enjoyed. Not that it made much difference: several sixth-formers drove around the nearest council estate when the election result became clear, waving banknotes out of the window at the poor. Occasionally I Google people with whom I was at school, in the hope that they're dead, or in prison. One appeared on Newsnight recently talking about charity work, which must have required a massive personality transplant. Could be worse: my older colleagues with Oxbridge degrees know pretty much all the current political establishment. Ugh. 

I was just depressed. As a teenage Trot I knew that Kinnochio was a disastrous capitalist running-dog, but it was pretty obvious that we were in for many more years of corruption, poverty, misery and war. And I was right: 1992 was the first year I noticed the emergence of one T. Blair as shadow home secretary, already attacking people like Goebbels for not being tough enough on lawnorder… So it went. Having decided that a population which voted for Major must actually want economic deprivation, nuclear holocaust, the Daily Mail and all the other awful things of that period, the Labour Party decided to double down on the Tory model. Goodbye civil liberties, goodbye the public good, goodbye cohesive communities looking out for each other, goodbye diplomacy, goodbye civic society… Hello lobbying, wars, league tables, personal enrichment, corporate mega-greed, ATOS and pervasive surveillance. 

People occasionally ask me things like 'when did you get so gloomy'?, and the answer is 1992, when I started reading newspapers and paying attention. Anyway, I'm not cynical. Cynics stop caring. I'm depressed about everything that's happening because I do still care. 

There was one good thing about that trip to France. Sneaking into a bar underage (as if they cared) I saw my first music video. It was dark brown and angry and insistent – and a whole new world opened up.



Apologies for being so grumpy today. I've actually had a lovely time, working on my Foucault-Doctor Who-Trek paper with my co-writer, who managed not to tear my work up in disgust. Quite a result!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Phasers on Stunned

I appear to have broken one of my friends, a colleague and a co-writer!

I've been pretty quiet this week because I've been working really hard on a conference paper (and hopefully journal article). The conference is on The Politics and Law of Doctor Who: its energetic progenitor Danny Nicol has even set up a blog well in advance to kick ideas around outside the closed circle of academia, which is the kind of thing that makes me happy.

I've been thinking for ages that I should put my interest in popular culture and science fiction to good (academic) use rather than treating it as a private pleasure. The geeks have seemingly inherited the earth, looking through cinema and TV listings, so it's not as if SF is a guilty pleasure any more (the extended version of this rant is very similar to the defence of Media and Cultural Studies I will deliver at the drop of a hat).

So anyway, this conference seemed like an ideal opportunity. I toddled off to my esteemed colleague who works extensively in pop culture (particularly serial killers, pornography, 'underground' fiction, comics and so on) because I knew he'd love to have a go at this. Cue months of wading through the oceans of material he found: production notes, spin-off novels and comics, scripts, the lot. Eventually, we picked one Who seven-part adventure ('Inferno')* and a single Trek episode, 'Mirror, Mirror'.** They're both about dangerous searches for energy sources, both feature mirror universes and both appeared on TV in Britain at exactly the same time: 'Mirror, Mirror' aired in the same week as the last episode of 'Inferno'. Who could resist?





'Mirror, Mirror' is famous as the origin of the science fiction trope Beard of Evil, because Spock in the Evil universe has a goatee so you can tell them apart:


In actual fact, Beardy Spock isn't evil, he just behaves cruelly because that's the logical thing to do in a cruel universe. It does mean that Evil Kirk gets to utter the immortal line 'Has the Galaxy gone crazy? Where's your beard?'.

By an amazing coincidence, 'Inferno' also uses facial hair and features to differentiate mirrored characters. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (uptight but decent old stick) has a military moustache. His evil counterpart Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart has no moustache but does have a scar and an eyepatch.

Nasty


Nice
So that's the aesthetics sorted out. What we're interested in is how these popular SF TV shows constructed their 'ideal' politics by representing an 'evil' mirror.*** Bearing in mind that they were made in the late 60s and early 70s, it's interesting that they don't choose Communism. Instead, 'Mirror, Mirror' depicts a piratical world of violent oppression by an Empire, while 'Inferno' chooses a fascist regime, albeit one with Orwellian Stalinist overtones mixed in with a general Nazi atmosphere. So what we think is that both shows avoid criticism of the political cultures which generated them by presenting horrific regimes which some viewers may find resemble states against which they actually fought. 

All seems quite simple. And then I decided that Foucault would be useful here, and I went back to Discipline and Punish, adding 'Technologies of the Self' to the mix. That led me to Kant and the Federation's slightly confused invocation of the categorical imperative, and before long I'd generated 100 pages of notes which seemed to suggest that the Empire (which applies an Agoniser to incompetent crew members) and the Republic (which practises summary execution) are far less oppressive than Who's normal Britain and the Federation, because the Empire doesn't give a damn what you think as long as you do what you're told (and makes you carry around an Agoniser that superior officers use on you when you're not performing up to scratch), whereas the Federation has ways (philosophical 'technologies') to make you love it. It doesn't need to torture you because you've internalised its values and spend your time worrying about whether you've lived up to them in your daily life (hence the importance of the Captain's Log): you govern yourself and become a subject by examining yourself for signs of deviation. The conclusion is that the Doctor's preferred England deserves to survive because it has room for sexiness and intellectual flexibility, whereas the fascist Republic gets blown up because the mad scientist and his party friends are too rigid to admit they need help (and sex). Star Trek's Empire will probably fall or be reformed for the same reasons, with a little help from Not Actually Evil Spock once the 'good' Kirk points out the logic of not committing genocide while giving him a device allowing him to murder his way to the top of the Empire. The Federation, I feel, is a little smug in the way that hegemonic American culture tends to be: I like Doctor Who's rather English assumption that bumbling along without having to be absolutely right all the time is probably the best way to go. Foucault disagrees: he thinks that 'tolerant liberal' states are just subtler at turning individuals into tools of state continuation. 

My colleague thinks this is a slightly fascistic argument, but I'm sticking to the line that it's radically poststructuralist. I've just sent him a largely incoherent and obsessive cowpat of this argument and he's got to a) hack a 20 minute presentation out of it and b) cross out all the bits he thinks are bollocks. The good outcome of all this is that he can't do it tomorrow so I have a day off. The down side is that I've just remembered that rather than go for a long bike ride, I'm going to a funeral instead. 

But when anyone asks me what I do, I can quite truthfully say that students' massive debts pay me to work out what French poststructuralist philosophy has to say about 1970s Saturday evening TV. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it. 

* That's a link to the Tardis Data Core because I love the fact that there's a whole Wikipedia just for Doctor Who. No lives have been wasted doing that at all.  
** And that's a link to the Star Trek equivalent of Wikipedia, Memory Alpha. It's a hell of a lot bigger than the Data Core too (and one day will outstrip Wikipedia because frankly a lot of knowledgeable men care a lot more about SF shows than they do about the rest of our achievements as a species. 
***'Inferno' also has some rubbish monsters called Primords but they make absolutely no narrative sense at all, so we've decided to ignore them. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses

The tech industry is the future. It pumps out shiny, sleek machines on which we can do futuristic things. The fact that most of these things are extensions of work into what was previously leisure time and space, or enrich the tech industry, or involve handing over vast amounts of lucrative personal data to tech companies, advertisers and shady security agencies is by the by. 



The tech industry works hard to make its own operations look like the future. They don't have offices, they have 'campuses'. On these campuses, work is made to look like play. White-toothed youngsters zoom past on Segways from 'breakout space' to the company basketball court, pausing only to grab 'free' comestibles. They really love big brother. And why shouldn't they? These men (yes, and they're almost all white too) move (in corporate buses and private jets) from the grubby public realm to the primary colours of private, corporate space, free from litter, loafers, the poor, traffic jams, protest marches and anything else that smacks of inefficiency. It's a Hayekian paradise. Better than that: they earn a fortune too.



So we might all be forgiven for not giving a single solitary damn for the problems of these fresh-faced overlords. And yet while they are the chino-wearing shock troops of a eugenicist master-race, they're also a new proletariat in a game that's as old as the hills, as some recent news disclosed. We all know that the tech industry markets itself as making fortunes from 'innovation', while actually making billions from tax evasion – Apple has $111 billion stashed offshore because it doesn't want to pay its taxes – it has learned a lot of lessons from the nastiest of the 'old' industries: MacDonalds, Standard Oil, the mining companies and their ilk. You might make this behaviour by calling it tax 'avoidance', but Apple and its friends are now lobbying the US government for a tax holiday so they can bring it all onshore without having to contribute to the public realm which makes all its activities possible.



Imagine you're a young tech worker. You have flexible typing fingers, you're good with code and you never spill Pepsi down your polo shirt. You've been a code monkey at Google for a couple of years and you fancy a change. Your friends in finance are always telling you about the cold calls you get from recruitment agencies, yet your phone never rings, and your applications to Apple are never answered. Why the hell not?



Why not indeed? Court proceedings reveal exactly why not. Just as the bankers ganged up on the poor to apportion blame for the crash, all those cuddly, cool companies have organised a little cartel to ensure that you and your greedy friends don't increase wages by flitting between jobs. Free markets are for megacorps, not paupers however good they are at Objective C.

The DOJ alleges that Senior executives at each company negotiated to have their employees added to 'no call' lists maintained by human resources personnel or in company hiring manuals. The alleged agreements were not limited by geography, job function, product group, or time period. The alleged bilateral agreements were between: (1) Apple and Google, (2) Apple and Adobe, (3) Apple and Pixar, (4) Google and Intel, (5) Google and Intuit, and (6) Lucasfilm and Pixar.
The civil class action further alleges that agreements also existed to (1) "provide notification when making an offer to another [company]'s employee (without the knowledge or consent of the employee)" and (2) "agreements that, when offering a position to another company's employee, neither company would counteroffer above the initial offer."
There we have it: once you're in a job, you stay there, be proud of the logo t-shirts and little backpacks, or you leave the industry amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth (yours). Otherwise you might damage the dividends.



But…surely not Apple? They're so cool! They're not like nasty Mr Arkwright down at t'mill? Oh dear. Saint Steve was up to his neck in this plot against his own workers, as revealed by the only hero of Silicon Valley, sad little Palm's Edward Colligan. He wrote to Jobs about this cosy little conspiracy after an unpleasant (i)phone call:
Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other's employees, regardless of the individual's desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal.
 'OK', said Steve. 'You're right. We're way out of line here, and my Buddhist morality won't allow me to carry on this way'.

Only joking.
"Mr. Jobs also suggested that if Palm did not agree to such an arrangement, Palm could face lawsuits alleging infringement of Apple's many patents. This is not satisfactory to Apple," Jobs wrote. "I'm sure you realize the asymmetry in the financial resources of our respective companies when you say: 'We will both just end up paying a lot of lawyers a lot of money.'"
That's right. The guru of everything cool left the equivalent of a horse's head in a rival's bed, threatening to sue it out of existence if it didn't collude in a conspiracy to restrict their employees' earnings and mobility. That's Steve – and all his mates. Behind the optimistic techno-babble of bright new futures lurks the social, ideological and economic attitudes of the 1920s Virginian coal barons.

This isn't the 22nd century, let alone the 21st. It's the 19th. And it's why we need trades unions. (Also: Dave Eggers' The Circle is a very interesting novel on the way the tech industry experiments on notions of the self and individuality, using its own employees).

This is how companies treat their literate, highly-skilled and articulate workers in the world's most developed (sort-of) country: just imagine how they're treating those who toil in the assembly factories away from our prying eyes.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Vole Returns!

You have all signally failed to improve this benighted country in my absence. Though you did get rid of Baroness Warsi and a government minister who insisted that he just couldn't live on his £125,000 salary + expenses. Good work, all! To be fair, I have a little respect for Warsi now: she was elevated as a kind of Judas Goat to persuade ethnic minority voters that Tories aren't racists any more, but she turned out to have opinions too, clearly not what the hierarchy wanted from a Northern Muslim woman. Anyway, having slightly damaged her party, let's hope she carries on doing that but otherwise withdraws from public life.

What did I do on my holidays, I hear you ask? I read a lot of newspapers and books, including Williams's sleeper hit Stoner, about a failed academic. It's a wonderful book but desolatingly sad. Academics reading it are committing a form of self-harm, I couldn't help feeling. I also read a book on Foucault and TJ Bass's The Godwhale, which was rather good. I also took a lot of photographs. See the whole lot via that link or click on these to enlarge them.

Otherwise, I went swimming in the Atlantic near Killorglin in Co. Kerry, Ireland:


where my lithe body attracted a crowd of salivating photographers:


Though they may have been wearing beer goggles rather than swimming ones:


I was stung by jellyfish at Rossbeigh, so moved to another wonderful beach, Dooks for the rest of the holiday. The weather was wonderful: here's the sun setting over Killorglin town


The main event of the year is Puck Fair: a wild goat goes up on a stand to preside over 3 days of carousing, merry-making, horse-trading (literally), music and dancing. I love it, especially wandering around with a camera in-between daytime scoops. I particularly love the dodgems:


and the mini-car ride which I enjoyed very much:


and fairground neon


but after a day or two I was looking slightly haggard, though still dapper:



Though after a stroll through the horse-fair I got back on my horse and felt a new man:


before shopping around for some stupid pocket-size dogs:



I even found the time to get myself some new togs:


and a feed of buns:


before setting off purposefully to the Mr Puck competition


Though the crowd of people chanting 'get 'em off' at me was slightly disconcerting


and not everyone was impressed by my rendition of Voulez-vous



Ingrates. King Puck was a magnificent specimen this year. 


So much so that he even inspired some lookalikes:


And then came the rain. Being County Kerry, I was never without (and sometimes simultaneously using) a waterproof and sunglasses:


And the band (Fanfare Piston, a French engineering students' brass outfit) played on:



and in-between the showers there was dancing:



Although there was a sinister side to the festivities:


One of the lovely things about Puck is that all buskers are invited to play - no permits, auditions or (as you can see) minimum ages or height tests: I made a fortune.


The sweet strains of the melodeon made a pleasant accompaniment to the gentle shower of small change and vomit from the funfair:


While outside the bustling metropolis that is Killorglin, bucolia awaited:




Until it was time for me to fly* sadly home, fatter but not necessarily wiser.


*Metaphorically. I actually got the train and ferry. 

How was your summer?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Escaping to the country

I'm off on my holidays this evening.

I know.


I'm not a natural holidayer. I don't have the relaxed and sunny demeanour of even M. Hulot here:



I'm more of a sunburned, sweaty, itchy grump. However, I'll be off on the west coast of Ireland, swimming like an obese brick in the Atlantic, and reading. Lots and lots of reading. The Guardian, Irish Times and Examiner most days, plus a few books. The only 'work' one I'm taking is Simon During's Foucault and Literature, but I'm also taking last year's surprise (and posthumous) hit, John Williams' Stoner. Also some Anthony Trollope, Jack Womack, another biography of John Lilburne, Stefan Collini's What Are Universities For? and a couple of other things whose names I forget. Plus a load of Doctor Who and Star Trek journal articles for the thing I'm writing with my colleague, but they're on an iPad so I can safely ignore them.

The last things I had to do today were read a nearly-completed PhD dissertation by a Bulgarian visiting scholar and buy a house. The first was an enormous pleasure: his central assertion is that remix culture is a local version of art and literary practice since the post-Romantic period. It's a thrilling and provocative thesis: it needs work, but it was an enormous pleasure to read even if he is shocked to discover that I've basically corrected some prepositions and scrawled MORE HAUNTOLOGY over it.

And yes, I bought a house today. I didn't want to on multiple grounds (ideology, laziness, cash, being trapped in The Dark Place) but I'm a) sick of landlords and b) unemployable elsewhere. As long as I don't succumb, like Thomas Docherty, to Academic Bitchy Resting Face, I should cling on to this job for long enough to pay it off. And at least doing it all in one day means I can go on holiday, switch off every electronic device and panic on deserted beaches and up lonely mountains where nobody can here me.

So, for a couple of weeks, farewell. If you're a regular reader, try to break the habit. It's not good for you. If you're the local newspaper: try to find something else to fill your pages lads. Football's starting soon!

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Rah Rah Rah, We're Going To Smash The Oiks!

Last week the delightful Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian reviewed the government's plans for funding Higher Education. I won't bore you with the technical details, but essentially they were going to fund expansion (largely through private providers of the kind currently suspended for immigration fraud and low standards) by selling off future student loan payments to banks.

The only problems were that 1) so many students weren't paying back their loans that the whole loans-for-fees system isn't saving the government any money and b) even with a massive discount, banks weren't biting. The whole idea is ridiculous: flogging off a major income stream for a pittance, even on their own terms. I wrote to my MP Paul Uppal, the HE minister's private parliamentary secretary, asking him if he could explain how it would all work. He replied with a very courteous letter essentially saying 'er…no, but I'll write again if we think of anything or if the sale doesn't go ahead.

The sale isn't going ahead. Vince Cable, who as Secretary of State for Business obviously oversees HE funding and policy, has declared that the sale is off, leaving a £12bn hole in the projected budget. My hunch is that they'll close it by ending the expansion of student numbers.

So this is the background to Chakrabortty's declaration that the sector is itself in disarray, with market-friendly managers and senior academics wrecking proud institutions like King's College London.
pushed into a marketplace, the managers of higher education don't really know how to act. So they ape each other, pass off what they are doing to what's left of the staff as the new wisdom – and pay themselves vast sums for wrecking one of the few sectors in which Britain leads the world. The result in all its strategic confusion and grasping anxiety is the university version of The Thick of Itfrom bean to cup, those HE bosses fuck up.
Not that I have a single critical word to say about the enlightened leaders of my own dear Hegemon. I don't want to end up like Thomas Docherty, suspended by the University of Warwick for 'sighing' and  'irony'. Apparently academic bitchy resting face is now a disciplinary issue.

But fear not. The true madness has just descended on us. The deposed minister for HE, David Willetts, has been privately advocating a work of staggering genius. Discovered by Newsnight's Christopher Cook and presumably a government attempt to float the idea, Willetts wants to dump student debt on individual universities.

The idea's simple. You borrow from the government. That debt is then sold to the student's university on graduation. That's the debt that they couldn't sell to the banks, you remember. Then the student owes her debt to her alma mater.

A few problems arise. Firstly, are either the government or university finance offices capable of even managing the process? I can't even get my finance department to pay a visiting speaker £30 in travel expenses, so I have my doubts that it will successfully negotiate the (enforced?) purchase of discounted financial instruments.

Secondly, loading universities with their students debts is guaranteed to lead to fewer courses populated by richer students. Imagine the recruitment department looking at a forty-year old single mother from a minority community applying to study social work or education. Women earn less. They have career breaks, often to have children. School teachers, nurses, social workers and other useful people earn very little compared to the bankers who even steal from the government which bailed them out. The average company CEO, it turns out, is still male, 54 and an Oxbridge graduate (and therefore very likely to be white, too).

Any sane university trapped in the logic of depending on student loan repayments would turn away the poor, the old, the ethnic, the female and the altruistic. It would shut down the courses which lead to socially useful jobs, because they pay less. It would also shut down the expensive courses, like the sciences.

And then we turn to geography. Imagine being a university serving a community of poor, often BME people. The local employers pay the minimum wage or are public sector employees. Unemployment is high. Would you provide courses enabling the poor locals to better themselves? Of course not: because we all know that unemployment and low pay aren't a function of individual fecklessness or bad luck. They're a deliberate strategy designed to provide a pool of desperate workers (keeping wage inflation down) and to increase shareholder and executive pay at the expense of the workforce.

Willetts claims that loading universities with their students' debts will make the institution work harder to make those graduates more employable. This is economic illiteracy or – worse – deliberately deceptive. It implies that employability is solely a matter of personal qualities and education is a private good, when it remains inescapably true that there are (and have been since 2008) more unemployed people than there are jobs, and until the financial recovery becomes an economic recovery, this will continue to be the case. So it doesn't matter if you have 'appropriate' qualifications bursting from every orifice, or your university has showered you with skills, courses and internships, many graduates won't get a job.

Cook points out that six 'top' universities are keen on the whole idea. Of course they are. Getting a degree from the Russell Group, particularly Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and a couple of others, is like winning a Golden Ticket (though Willy Wonka's distribution of tickets is much, much fairer than elite university entrance, which is largely predicated on parental wealth and private education: as an aside, Piketty's Capital points out that the average parental income for Harvard undergraduates is $450,000 p.a. – feel the egalité). So these 'top' universities, drawing their intake from the global elite, can be pretty sure that most of their students (of course some will dedicate their lives to low-paying, altruistic work) will be earning massive salaries simply because of the name on their degree certification, let alone the social capital acquired along the way. They won't even have to shut down the Medieval Icelandic courses, because institutional prestige will smooth those graduates' paths.

Those VCs are rubbing their hands together with glee, because there's another little bonus coming their way. They can point to their students' economic successes as proof that they have little risk attached to income, and raise their fees massively, thus excluding more of the Great Unwashed. If you're going to become a derivatives broker, £50,000 debt is chicken-feed, a quarter of the price of your latest Lamborghini. So is £100,000. So let's party!

Meanwhile, in the rust-belt, poor old Poly will have progressively shut down sculpture, art, and music, then media and film, then languages (if any still existed), then English. Before long, history, politics and sociology will go. Pretty soon only nursing, law and business will exist outside the sciences. At some point the finance director will point out that sciences are expensive and the students aren't getting well-paying jobs. Then the league tables will point out that legal and business jobs depend on contacts and prestige degrees, while the nurses have stopped paying back their loans. Before long the whole place will quietly shut down with barely a whimper of regret from anyone in authority. A (perhaps the) major source of pride, regeneration, cash and enlightenment in the region will be gone and nothing will bring it back.

This will not be an accident. This is the plan. As I've said over and over again since I started this blog many years ago, successive government long-ago decided that they work for the financial elite. Rather than looking at the industrial situation in 1960 or whenever and work out how 60 million people will earn a living, they decided to concentrate on shareholder profits. This meant crushing wages, reducing labour protection, reducing social security and engineering an economy based on low-paid, low-employment, low-skilled services. This necessarily requires a smaller, meaner state because while most of us can't and wouldn't avoid our taxes, corporations can and do. The grotesque sight of Russian oligarchs paying the Tories £160,000 for a game of tennis with Boris Johnson illustrates this strategy perfectly. Why pay millions in taxes, governments say to these people, when you can pay the Party a few hundred thousand?

Higher and Further education are key to this strategy. They don't want, or at the very least don't care about widening participation. They don't think the poor deserve or are capable of succeeding at HE, and they define success solely as personal financial gain (except for their own kids, who will be privately funded to study wonderful courses I'd love to take such as Medieval Icelandic, safe in the knowledge that they'll never be exposed to the cold winds of the job centre). My students, and their kids, can sod off to an Amazon warehouse and be grateful.

Other, better analyses of this crackpot scheme are here, here and probably all over the net.

Which takes me to the title of this post, derived from the chant of Footlights College when they meet Scumbag College in University Challenge.



It was funny then. Now it's policy.

Lucky there's an election in 10 months eh readers?