WAR: What is it good for?

One hundred years ago, Britain and its Empire entered the most catastrophic and devastating conflict the world had yet seen. Why? Because it was thought that fighting was the only way of defending the world against Germany. It was also thought that the fighting would be over by Christmas, with Britons returning home in time to see the New Year in with their loved ones, secure in the knowledge that there would be lasting peace in their time. Which at the time was all well and good.

The Great War, 1914-1918, was described as ‘the war to end all wars’. Men risked their lives – and many paid with their lives – to keep our nation safe. Around nine hundred thousand Britons died in battle so we wouldn’t have to. And let’s not forget the women – the nation would have fallen flat if not for the war effort of the women who weren’t allowed to fight. The only trouble is…it didn’t do that much good for the nation. In fact, it could well have made global politics far worse, even a hundred years afterwards.

Britain and France had some fun during the war, carving up the map and making plans for the empires they hoped to defeat. The Sykes-Picot Pact of 1916 formalised the dissolution of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires into those of Britain and France. But what they didn’t bank on was that the age of empire was almost over. It wasn’t long before such regions wanted self-determination, and countries were created with borders decided by the imperial powers rather than along national boundaries. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert in that (because in actual fact I know very little) but I’d say we did a fair bit to influence the problems that remain in the Middle East.

And it gets worse. At the end of the Second World War (which was probably caused by the First, but that’s another story) it was decided that the Jews needed a homeland, to make up for the atrocities suffered in the Holocaust. But that meant displacing people who lived in what could be perceived as the traditional homeland of the Jews. Conflicts have been going on between Israel and its neighbours ever since.

The thing about learning history is that you start seeing patterns between the past and the present. Anyone who looked hard enough a hundred years ago could see a war brewing, a global conflict that could be sparked off by the slightest conflict in the Balkans. Now we’re in the middle of two conflicts that could quite easily pull the rest of the world in. A hundred years later, we don’t seem to have learned many lessons.

I learned a frightening statistic today from the British Legion. 88% of British soldiers who joined the British army in the First World War made it back home. Yes, some of them were mentally disturbed or injured, but they were alive. So in my vague maths, that makes about 7.5 million people altogether who risked their lives for peace, only for the world to still be in nervous conflict so much later.

Tonight at 10pm the lights will go out across Britain, as people remember the declaration of war. People will light candles to remember the families that did exactly that a hundred years ago. If you see a candle in somebody’s window, have a think about the reason for it. Some battles need fighting. But the one question we have to ask is – at what cost?


British ‘Pride’ and British ‘Values’

There’s a title with a couple of words that get bandied about by everyone. At the moment, specifically the government. But pride and values are tricky things to pin down. Let’s examine them, shall we?

I think I’ve got the pride bit figured out. National pride is all about being part of a country and feeling happy about it. There’s an element of honour involved, I guess. British pride is turning out in force at street parties for the Queen’s Jubilee, or getting involved in the London Olympics in any way we can. English pride is continuing to think we can do something in the World Cup and immediately planning for the next big tournament (this time France 2016) as soon as we make an undignified exit. Apparently Welsh pride involves bullying your English colleagues about rugby as often as you can. Brazilian pride (if it still exists after this week) is that brilliant new tradition of being so honoured to host the World Cup and having a stadium full of your own fans that you shout the second verse of the national anthem even though FIFA won’t play the music for it. As soon as any big sporting event comes along, suddenly national pride is nothing to worry about. In fact, it’s more celebrated than ever.

I’m writing this during the 2014 World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina. Now, some of the Argentina fans have given everything to get to this game. In the build-up, there were reports of people driving solidly for a week to get to Rio for the game, and hadn’t thought twice about it because if Argentina win, it’ll be worth it. That’s national pride. It’s the fans being proud of where they come from and being proud to be represented by their teams. Which is not nationalism or an attempt to talk about the values the two nations have. Pride and values might collide at some point – take the controversy over Russia’s holding of the Winter Olympics. But national pride and nationalism are not the same thing.

When you’re a history student, nationalism is a big topic. Many wars have been started over nationalism, and now it seems like we’re going to try and hold off a war by using nationalistic tactics… That’s when we get onto the ‘values’ bit. David Cameron has recently spoken of teaching ‘British Values’ in our schools…whatever they are.

To try and figure out what British values are, I Googled them and found a BBC article that quotes His Weaselness, Michael Gove.* And this is what he decided British values are – and I quote – ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’.** Hang on. Stop me if I’m wrong, but as far as I’m concerned those values aren’t intrinsically British. We’re a democracy with a legal system and a respect for individual liberty. Just like many other developed nations. And the bit about tolerating different faiths and beliefs…we have a long way to go ourselves on that one, without trying to claim it as our own value.

If you carry on reading the article, you get to a couple of quotes from Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. His stance is, firstly, that pledging to teach British values is daft because there are barely enough classroom hours in a day already. But more importantly, he talks about the difficulty in defining values. Who gets to decide what British values are, and who gets the final say?

Personally, I think a debate on British values would be very interesting. But I don’t think it would clear many things up. Our democracy and legal system are things we’ve inherited from ancient Greece and Rome. Yes, we could claim an attachment to the idea of liberty by going back to Lockeian philosophy – but so can the Americans. Their entire constitution is based pretty much on Lockeian principles. And as for tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs…well, we’re about five hundred years on from the Reformation and still a Catholic is legally forbidden from running the country.

The government can make snap decisions to combat the so-called Islamist takeover in schools, but it’s not going to be as simple as that. Until they work it out, I’ll stick to being British*** by drinking lots of tea, displaying my English Lion in my car throughout sporting events and enjoying my roast beef.

* Who I still don’t like.
** BBC Article: ‘Promoting British values in schools’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27777421
*** Yes, my Welsh friends. I suppose I do mean English. But that’s another debate. One that I’ll probably discuss before the Scottish referendum.

‘Stupid’ Things to Do When You’re Famous

We don’t seem to do headlines about good, sensible things celebrities do any more. It’s all about the crazy things people say and do, for whatever reason.

Let’s have a couple of examples from the football world first. Yesterday Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, headbutted one of his opponent’s players mid-game. If a player had done this he’d probably have been sent off. Newcastle United themselves decided it was such a ridiculous thing for a manager to do that they fined him £100k. Things like this always seem to go on in the heat of the moment in sport, and examples can be found every season. Last year’s big one was Luis Suarez biting Branislav Ivanovic – the Liverpool player might have been banned for several games, but judging by his performance this season it’s not had a long-term detrimental effect on him.

Also this week, a bit more controversially, Nicolas Anelka has been banned and fined for making the ‘quenelle’ gesture as a goal-scoring celebration. I must admit, I’d never heard of the gesture until the start of this furore. Nor had I heard of his mate, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who the gesture was said to be in support of. Anelka has now been suspended by both his club and the FA, and Dieudonne is banned from visiting the UK over security fears. The trouble with this supposed act of stupidity was that it seems pretty well thought out in terms of being a political protest. Dieudonne was under pressure from French authorities to stop performing his more controversial work, which could be seen as anti-Semitic, and the quenelle is a bit of a trademark of his (although he sees it as anti-establishment). Indeed, the FA investigation specified that Anelka hadn’t been found guilty of being anti-Semitic, just guilty of doing something that could provoke issues.

Now, nobody can exactly know what was going through Anelka’s head at the time, but here’s my guess. The game in question (West Brom v West Ham) was shown live on Sky Sports, which meant there was a good chance it was being shown in France. Anelka decided that if he scored he would make the gesture as an act of loyalty to his mate, who was going through a hard time with the French authorities, and maybe even get the message across to English fans that it wasn’t a racist gesture. He thought through his actions, but not the potential consequences, which have been pretty extreme for all concerned. Zoopla, the Jewish-owned property company who sponsor the Albion, will be pulling out of the sponsorship deal at the end of the season as a result of the saga. The anti-racism movement has also suffered a knockback over the length of time it took to decide whether Anelka was being racist or not. But I suppose it could have gone the other way. Britain could have accepted Anelka’s side of the story – that the quenelle isn’t anti-Semitic at all – and asked people to be less touchy about it. It’s one of those things that you can’t be certain of until after the event.

It’s not only sports stars that are prone to moments of stupidity. All sorts of things are questioned in today’s celebrity culture, such as Miley Cyrus’ transformation from Disney child star to VMA twerker. And if we move out of the sphere of celebrity and into that of business and politics, we find even more to talk about. Who could forget Godfrey Bloom’s comments that women who don’t clean behind their fridges are all sluts, or Katie Hopkins’ insistence that she hates it when parents name their children after a place, even though she has a daughter called India.

But sounding and looking stupid in the public eye isn’t always that bad for the characters involved. As I’ve already mentioned, Luis Suarez has been one of the greats of the Premier League this season. He might be a repulsive human being, but you’d have him in your team any day of the week. His misconducts have become by-the-by in terms of his job.

It’s not even as simple as that. Sometimes the stupid stuff people say and do pays off in a pretty big way. Let’s have a look at my examples:

  • If the FA had found Nicolas Anelka innocent of provoking racial hatred and so on, the quenelle might by now have a different reputation, or not thought of so much as anti-Semitic. I admit it was unlikely, but it’s possible.
  • Miley Cyrus might be one of the most controversial names in terms of character and age-appropriation, but people are still buying her music – her two UK No 1s have come since her twerking episode.
  • Every time a UKIP politician makes a stupid comment – like Bloom’s slut remark or David Silvester blaming the recent flooding on gay marriage legislation – UKIP gets the chance to condemn any members who think radically, and Farage gets to stand on his soapbox and describe his policies. He’s now said the party’s manifesto for the last general election was rubbish, but because he didn’t write it he can get away with it.
  • I don’t like Katie Hopkins, but she’s doing pretty well out of it. She writes a newspaper column and gets fees for appearing on television or giving magazine interviews. Plus her outspoken interviews get millions of hits on Youtube.

Controversy and stupidity seem to be the avenues to attention today. And in a world dominated by the media we have people’s stupid actions flung in our faces. There will be more on the media in my next instalment, but for now, let’s just remember how idiotic we feel when we realise we’ve been stupid. If celebrities’ ‘stupid’ actions were unplanned they wouldn’t have the best opinions of themselves. If they thought their actions through…well, we’ll never know, will we?


Education, Education, Bureaucracy? Part 2: Strikes

Let’s get the disclaimer out the way again. I am in no way opposed to the idea of striking. I respect the right of British workers to go on strike, including teachers and lecturers. I just wish it wasn’t necessary.

At the moment, I’ve not been affected too much by strikes. Yes, I’ve had lectures and seminars cancelled this academic year, but either they’ve been rescheduled or reading has been sent out to me, so that I miss as little as possible. Not everyone’s been so lucky – I know people whose choice of essays for assessed work has been limited because of striking lecturers failing to give them information. But personally, I’m okay. Even the strike that took place while I was still in sixth form didn’t cause me any problems – I was in the middle of plenty of A level coursework and appreciated the day off to get some more of it done.

The problem we’re now facing is this. I am supposed to have a maximum of 8 hours a week contact time this semester. That’s not a lot. Two hours per module. If the UCU continues to escalate action, contact hours will increasingly be cancelled. There are only so many slots in which to rearrange things and get something close to value for my £9k a year (although that’s another rant entirely).

But that’s not the worst of it. I was given a leaflet during the last strike, which tried to explain a few of the issues to me. It said that if the concerns the union has aren’t listened to, then further and increased action will be taken, including a refusal to mark students’ work. Today, news has broken that such refusal to mark work will start on April 28th if a deal isn’t reached before then. Just in time for summer exams and coursework submissions… Great.

The university strikes seem to be all about hypocrisy in pay. And if we’re being honest, they have a point. Vice-chancellors are reportedly earning well above £200 000 a year, after a 5% pay rise, and encouraging lecturers and other employees to be happy they still have jobs and salaries in this economic climate. But you go out and find me a vice-chancellor willing to halve their pay to give other employees a pay rise. Seriously, try it. It won’t happen. Once people start earning vast sums of money, they’re going to be reluctant to give it back. So we have to ignore them for now – arguing with those on obscene pay checks will get us nowhere.

Where else might we get the money from, then? Well, my leaflet from the UCU said universities are currently making a profit, but ploughing the money back into new buildings instead of giving employees a pay rise. What I’d like to know is this. My tuition fees are costing the government £9000 per year. This is triple what someone a year ahead of me will eventually pay back. Bitterness of the increase aside, surely there’s enough profit in our fees increase to give employees a little bit extra… I understand there are other things that need to be paid for. My university is in the middle of extending its residences capacity, to keep the guarantee of accommodation to every first year realistic. Refurbishing the students’ union is also on the agenda. Trouble is, there will always be other things that need paying for. I don’t know a great deal about economics or the cost of running a university, but I bet you could ring-fence 10% of the profit made, to increase wages.

The thing that bugs me the most about this situation is that everyone uses the same reason for their argument, no matter which side they’re on – safeguarding education. Arguments for the obscene amount of money paid to higher-up lecturers and researchers go something like ‘we need to offer that kind of money to people to get them to come and work for us, because they’re good enough to turn us down if we don’t pay them enough’. The striking lecturers’ arguments go something like ‘we don’t have a problem with you students, and we’re trying to get better deals for university employees that will benefit students’. But if strikes continue, and work – including exams – doesn’t get marked, it’s education in general that will lose out.

Lecturers want to get the students on side. I’m happy to be on their side for now. I’m just not prepared to sacrifice my degree for a bit of moral high ground.

Education, Education, Bureaucracy? Part 1: Gove the Weasel

Let’s get the disclaimer out the way – I don’t like Michael Gove. Have a list of reasons why.

1. He wouldn’t give money to derelict schools in Sandwell (not far from where I grew up) that were in urgent need of rebuilding.

2. He’s got an unchangeable idea about how external exams should work and keeps resubmitting it to Parliament with little tweaks every time politicians and teachers’ unions say it won’t work.

3. The aforementioned unchangeable idea involves one end-of-two-years exam, and as little coursework as possible…which will prepare people brilliantly for higher education, seeing as my university course is half coursework and half exam.

4. He went to a private secondary school and was later a student at Oxford, and is therefore in charge of an education system he hasn’t been part of. And thinks he has all the answers to its problems.

5. His view of a ‘good education’ ignores vocational subjects, shown by his EBacc system that recognises maths, English, history/geography, science and a language. It’s almost as if people shouldn’t pursue their interests in a school environment.

6. When he was asked to officially open the new Performing Arts Centre at my old school, he turned up for ten minutes, made a speech (which was memorable enough for me to forget its entire content, except that a phone went off in the middle of it) and left, having got the school to call him a taxi so he didn’t have to sit through the opening concert. Great interest taken in the ability of actual human beings…

Okay, enough ranting. Let’s get to yesterday’s policy announcement. Gove the Weasel (as he’s affectionately known in my family) has decided he wants to see state schools at the same level of private schools. Now, for once, I can sort of see this as a good thing. I went to private school right through my school years, and loved it. But the Weasel isn’t prioritising kids’ happiness, as far as I can see. And there are a lot of questions to be asked of his new idea.

Gove wants schools to be able to stay open later, to give more time for extra-curricular activities, or maybe give children time to do their homework. Now, while this might be nice, I’m sure everyone would like to know how he intends to fund the extra staffing needed. Or the extra facilities needed. I suppose you could call the extra opening hours an alternative to flexible working hours that mean parents can pick up children early. But surely this will cause problems too. If schools kept their pupils for an extra couple of hours a day, parents who have chosen to work evenings to get round the childcare problem might never see their kids. And if staying late after school was optional, how many people would stick around?

What really annoyed me, though, was the implication that children should be doing even more external tests in order to check where we are with the rest of the world. Aside from the fact that this puts loads of pressure on the children taking the tests, it’s also counter-productive. The beauty of the global economy and free market is that each country has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to industry. Surely we should treat our education systems in the same way – preparing children for the particular economy and community that they will enter on leaving school, and not trying to homogenise across the world.

There is, of course, a simple solution to wanting state and private schools to be on an even footing: Abolish private schools, have everything run by the state and ask parents who can afford it to contribute to the running of the system. Pool resources and make sure all schools and all pupils are treated equally. Get the education system sorted, make sure it works for everyone (and not making vocational subjects sound inferior when they’re the ones that produce skills we lack in) and stop messing with it every couple of years. Or even better, let’s stop having the system dictated by the state and put all schools in the hands of teaching unions. You know, the people who all these changes directly affect and have the knowledge of whether they’ll be feasible or not.

I can dream, right?

Humanitarian Intervention: Is It Humane?

Being a history student, it’s my job to start off by putting what I’m about to say in context. A hundred years ago, the world was divided into various empires, ruled by European powers such as Britain and France. Partly because of two world wars, many colonies earned themselves independence. Even though we let our colonies become independent, we still pointed them in the direction of our way of ruling – liberal democracy. And when they messed it up, other democratic nations like America stepped in to try and clear up – often with disastrous consequences. (Interestingly, the Italians were very slow to take action during the Libyan conflict of two years ago, because Libya was once an Italian colony and they were worried about how it would look if the colonial power went back with an army.)

Last night Parliament voted on whether to intervene militarily in the Libyan crisis. The vote returned a result, by a slim margin, of ‘no, we shouldn’t’. David Cameron recalled Parliament early in order to have this vote, even though the United Nations reporters haven’t yet announced who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. This leads to a couple of questions – should we intervene at all, and why is there such a rush to gauge the people’s feelings? And if one were to be feeling thoughtful, one might ask whether it’s any of our business what goes on in Syria, or even whether democracy’s the best way of running a country… We’ll stick with the first two to start with.

Why are we rushing into a vote on Syria?

My guess is quite simply because it’s on the American agenda. President Obama is very pro-intervention, and has had conversations with David Cameron about it. Another guess might be that Cameron doesn’t want to be accused of not caring. The Syrian crisis has gone on now for so long that not to act could be perceived as ignoring the situation or not wanting to help.

Should we intervene at this point?

Now? No. Not yet. International law dictates that action can only be taken once the United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution allowing it. This is one of the most commonly cited aspects of the Iraq War that highlights its illegality – we acted unilaterally, in other words there was no resolution to confirm we were doing an internationally approved thing.

More to the point, we still don’t really know what’s going on in Syria. The UN sent in reporters to find out who used the chemical weapons. Our assumption is that President Assad has used chemical weapons on his people…but what if we intervene and it turns out to be the other way round? Only by waiting for the UN report can we start to get an idea of who is responsible. If the rebels are responsible for the use of chemical weapons, not many would condemn Assad for a show of strength against them.

But what happens when the UN publishes its findings? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the reporters have proof of Assad’s guilt. What do we do then? Do we have the right to tell Assad how to run his country? And will our help be genuinely helpful?

You could, at this point, look at the situation as a colonial issue. ‘We helped shape these countries, we feel a bit responsible for the mess they’re now in so we should help them out.’ I imagine most politicians in the former colonies wouldn’t see it like that, though. The image of a colonial power returning to kick a country into line is a worrying one. How many countries we intervene in need our support afterwards? British and American forces spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan helping to rebuild. Countries end up relying on these great powers, and it’s not such a far stretch from that to an informal empire.

I suppose my main point of exploration is whether humanitarian intervention achieves what it sets out to do. Personally, I think it does more harm than good. Take the Iraq War, for example. The American-appointed Iraqi government is still in political turmoil, and civilians are still dying. An aide to President Bush, when asked to report back on the situation years after the invasion, said simply, ‘It’s Hell, Mr President’. While the invasion intended regime change and humanitarian assistance, it most certainly was not humane.

Furthermore, if more and more powers decide intervention is necessary, more and more powers will retaliate. A contributing factor to the lack of action in Syria so far is the nature of her allies – Russia and China. North Korea probably wouldn’t say no to a partnership either. On the one hand you’d have Britain, America and France on the side of the rebels, and on the other hand Russia, China and North Korea on the side of Assad. Eventually you get a war being fought between the East and the West on Syrian ground, killing far more civilians than Assad himself ever did. And that’s certainly not humane.

According to my International Relations module last year, the jargon’s changing. These days we shouldn’t be talking about ‘humanitarian intervention’. ‘Responsibility to protect’ has been deemed a more suitable term, because it suggests less of a self-interest and places an emphasis on protecting the innocent. Yes, okay, I’ll concede that we have a responsibility to protect the innocent. The trouble is, nobody seems to consider the possible consequences of such protection.

I’m relieved beyond measure that Parliament has voted against intervention just yet. I await the UN’s findings this weekend, and even if Assad’s found guilty, I won’t be convinced we should intervene. After all, so often we seem to make things worse.

Feminism: a dirty word?

Two posts in two days isn’t going to be the norm here, but I’ve seen and heard a few things today that have annoyed me enough to put this down into words.

I am a feminist, and perfectly happy to say it. But the definition of feminism has been distorted over the years. Dictionary.com gives a definition of ‘feminist’:

(as an adjective): advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.
(as a noun): an advocate of such rights
These days the term ‘feminist’ is often distorted, with the perception of a feminist being someone who not only wants to advocate women’s rights, but also wants to vilify men. This, in my opinion, was exemplified in a radio debate I heard this morning:
Today, a group of feminists was due to gather at a Tesco store to protest about the lack of modesty packaging on lads’ magazines. A ‘feminist’ rang in to discuss it, and the host of the show asked to clear up the feminist argument, for his own sake – he doesn’t want to offend women. He made the comment that women say they don’t want to be treated like sex objects, but then go out scantily clad and made up and could easily be perceived as sex objects. The feminist immediately accused him of blaming the woman for any attention she attracts – it’s her fault for dressing as she does.
Now, I’m all for the defence of a woman’s rights, but I think that’s going a bit too far. So, before I start arguing strategically, here are a couple of messages.
TO ALL MEN: Women have the right to go out clubbing without being ogled and groped. They are not all out to get themselves a quick shag. Furthermore, women have the right to go about their daily lives without attracting sexual attention, especially because of parts of their anatomy over which they have no control of the size. No woman tells a man that she does not like attention while at the same time asking for it.
TO ALL WOMEN: Not every man is out to get himself a quick shag. It is unfair to accuse men of being anti-feminist just because they ask impertinent questions, and it is unfair to assume that men are blaming women for wanting attention. It is acceptable, surely, for a man to observe a woman without being aggressive or overly personal.
Okay, that’s the rants out the way. Now I’m going to be a bit more restrained.
Back in the spring I had a Politics lecture about feminism. At the beginning the lecturer asked for a show of hands of who would consider themselves to be feminist. And out of about two hundred people, guess how many put their hands up?
And then, he asked for a show of hands as to how many people would say they advocate gender equality, and most people put their hands up. That’s why I worry about the way feminism is viewed. People are ignorant of the term’s real meaning. A lot of women don’t want to be labelled as feminist because they’re afraid of being put in the same category as the bra-burning radicals of yesteryear.
Let’s go back to the radio programme from this morning. After the ‘feminist’ had spoken, a man called in to give his views. He said that he’s all for women being high earners and high achievers and being generally successful, but doesn’t see why magazines should put modesty covers on them – at the end of the day, the women in question enter into such industries willingly and earn good money from them. He also pointed out that there are men such as the Chippendales in the same industry, and women don’t have a problem with that.
At the end of the day, I think women are at liberty to be part of whatever industry they want to be, and if they choose to pose in lads’ mags, it’s up to them. I might not approve and I might wish the industry didn’t exist, but it does, and the women in it aren’t answerable to me. Yes, I get annoyed at men who give women unwanted sexual attention, but it’s a bit unfair to immediately snap at them. It’s definitely unfair to accuse them automatically of blaming the woman.
Feminism shouldn’t be a dirty word. Instead, it should be clearly and distinctly separated from sexism, and we should focus on achieving genuine feminist goals.