Monday, 11 March 2013

Just another Monday…

Good afternoon all. Apologies for the late appearance of my daily dispatch from the educational front line.

The big news of the day is the government limiting student loan increases to 1%, well under the rate of inflation. This means of course that universities will have less money with which to buy equipment, maintain their estates and staff classrooms. Students will also have less money on which to live, which will hurt local economies, particularly in communities heavily dependent on students. It's just another part of the Tories' war on the most vulnerable: it's tax cuts for the rich and funding cuts for the very poor.

This is of course economic madness. Give the very rich more money and they'll invest it, or hide it. Give people with not much a little more and they'll spend it: students can't save, they spend their money on kebabs, clothes, ecstasy tablets and occasionally books, benefiting the local economy. But the government got its sums massively wrong when they decided to lend students £9000 per year rather than £3000 (hugely overestimating repayment rates), so charging students more is actually going to cost taxpayers more! This is a damaging and reactionary attempt to ameliorate the damage.

And of course we're still going to spend £25bn on new nuclear weapons. Household essentials!

As for the rest of the day - bit of teaching, a good deal of apocalyptic rumour-mongering (not from me) about our department, and preparation for tomorrow's class on J. G. Farrell's very good novel Troubles. Published in 1970, it depicts the dying days of Ireland's Protestant Ascendancy in the run-up to the Civil War through the allegorical medium of a decaying hotel populated by marooned – and utterly bonkers – toffs under social and political siege from the lower classes, Catholics and 'Shinners' (Sinn Féin activists) whom we rarely see. It's all focalised through the perspective of the Major: English, kindly but utterly bewildered by the Ascendancy and its enemies: he represents the despairing English, imperialists with little comprehension or interest in Ireland. As William Gladstone put it, Ireland's tragedy is that 'the Irish never forget and the English never remember' (though of course it's not in the past to be remembered: the Irish on both sides of the border live with the consequences of imperialism daily).

The other fuss today is the Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce sentencing: he prevailed upon her to take his speeding points, then they lied about it for ten years after Pryce determined to bring down her unfaithful husband when he deserted her. They both got 8 months' prison for perverting the course of justice. The core of the affair, I guess, is hubris: both parties were ambitious, driven people for whom the law is a minor inconvenience compared to the great deeds they thought they were doing. Since politics became a profession, it's attracted strange people and made them worse: it's rare to find a well-adjusted person given that the higher echelons of political life demands obedience, permanent surveillance, moral perfection and no space for spontaneity, privacy and family life.

These people have the same problems as you and I, to which is added a rather dangerous sense of being on a mission, a lust for power (in many cases). For some, this leads to risk-taking: didgy deals, influence peddling, or baroque sexual activities. Some – like Huhne – develop a Messiah complex. Others are more straightforwardly greedy, selfish or corrupt. Others are place-seekers and some are in it just to do good, but find themselves bound and gagged by tactical consideration, party machinations or simply the need to 'get on' in a system designed to produce enough warm bodies to win votes without fuelling the cynical and destructive pages of newspapers with stories of 'splits', 'gaffes' and the like, not independent thinkers.

Huhne reminds me of Al Capone in one very narrow sense: a man with few personal charms who nonetheless behaved as though only his interests mattered is brought down by a tiny crime from his distant past, rather than some grand crime. That's the thing with Visionaries: they never worry about the little things which will come back to bite you. I don't think the other parties should be celebrating this story: their ranks all contain the arrogant, the weak and the pushy and the stories will keep on coming.

Should Huhne and Pryce have gone to jail? Lots of the commentary now is couched in terms of 'what a tragedy' or 'what a waste of public resources'. Well, lots of people go to prison for lesser crimes without it being called a tragedy - because they're neither rich nor famous. It is true, however, that the prisons are over-full and the sentences aren't likely to affect their future behaviour very much. The only reason I can see for a prison sentence in this case is the deterrent effect: it shows the rest of us that the rich and powerful aren't exempt. Except, of course, they are: Huhne and Pryce are the morsels tossed to the crowd while the meat continues to be consumed by others. Take the BAe corruption case from a few years ago: the government intervened because it would damage ongoing arms deals between the UK and Saudi Arabia. BAe, owned and then subsidised by the British government, bribed Saudi royals millions (perhaps billions) to buy BAe weapons. When it looked like the game was up, the Saudis complained to Blair and the trial was cancelled. That's the point at which I lost any residual faith in British justice. It's always been corrupt and arbitrary, but here we had a government openly acting on the principle that the law didn't apply to the rich and the powerful.

More recently, of course, we had HSBC, the bank which was so happy to work for drug cartels and terrorists that it actually widened the cash desks in Mexico to accept bigger bundles of blood-stained money. Did anyone go to prison? Of course not. HSBC paid a 'settlement' which means nothing more than a fee to carry on regardless. Meanwhile, street drug dealers get banged up for long, long sentences.

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