Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Dark Lord

Some people claim that this government hasn’t achieved anything. I couldn’t disagree more.

They have sold off our bullion reserves for a knock-down price, like some dodgy dealer in a pub car park, showing all the wisdom and discernment of one of those car-boot scavenging idiots on Bargain Hunt passing over the Georgian silver in favour of a second-hand plastic toy from a Happy Meal.

They have taken the tradition of British socialism – a body of ideas and principles honed and hardened by a century of blood, sweat and toil – put it through the mincer and served it up like a pack of two-for-the-price-of-one frozen chicken nuggets, its grey pulp mixed with the ground-up corpses of Thatcherite predecessors and fed back to us like sponge-brained cattle.

They have resorted to outright lies to persuade us into an unnecessary war engineered for profit (and not even our profit!) by a bullying Big Brother who had the barely-disguised cynicism to use the entirely unrelated, tragic slaying of thousands of its own innocent citizens as a cover story.

They have, in the name of our freedom, scrapped or eroded more of our rights and freedoms than any previous government (the right to privacy, the right to a lawyer of your own choosing, the right to communicate privately, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of movement without surveillance, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and even the right to citizenship) as if some dimwitted party drone, charged with the task of finding out where the they’d left their principles – because no one could remember what they looked like any more – had happened upon a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and mistaken it for a manifesto.

And, most recently, they’ve stoked the issue of MP’s expenses – seemingly unconcerned by the fact that they themselves come out of it looking like a bunch of money-grabbing cheats – in the hope that this sordid groping we have suffered at the hands of the moat owners and mortgage flippers would distract us from the infinitely more brutal, non-consensual rogering inflicted by the Lisbon Treaty.

Yes, they’ve achieved a hell of a lot. And – the biggest, most stunning achievement of all – they are still here. Like a character in a teen-exploitation horror movie, they’ve survived in spite of everything. Except that if this were indeed a horror movie, we’d all be howling in indignation, hurling our pizza slices and overpriced trainers at the screen in outrage at the fact that it was the irredeemably fucked up, inbred, cannibalistic psychopath – the one who makes you feel physically sick – who had emerged smugly victorious.

If ever there were a symbol of this descent into brainless, bankrupt, trough-feeding, paranoid hypocrisy – someone, seemingly, with a divine right to represent all it stands for – it is not the grinning, deluded Blair or the grimacing, desperate Brown. It is Lord Mandelson.

Take that climactic moment at the Labour Conference, in which he declared with a grin: ‘If I can come back, we can come back!’ Perhaps something is wrong with my hearing, but first time around I swear I heard this as: ‘If I can get away with it, we can get away with it!’

Now, Mandelson has parked his bullet-proof Bentley on the lawns of higher education. He has said that students need to be treated more as customers by universities, and that they need to think of themselves as such (they should, he says, be less passive, and be ‘pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience’). He has also proposed that ‘top universities’ – interpreted as a particular attack on Oxford and Cambridge – take into account background when assessing students for admission, to encourage students from poorer families. Of this, he has said: ‘Nobody should be disadvantaged or penalised on the basis of the families that they come from or the schools they attended, and the way in which a simple assessment based on A-level results might exclude them.’

On the face of it, both suggestions, with their implications of empowerment and striking a blow in the favour of the underdog, seem noble aims.

But what is really being said here? That university admissions policies – policies currently based on admitting individuals on the basis of merit – are in some way unfair? Apparently so. Why? Because schools are unfair. Some schools are plain bad, and do not serve their pupils well, which means exam results may not reflect ability. Mandelson’s answer? Make universities adjust. Make universities responsible.

No, Peter. Fix the fucking schools.

How stupid does he think we are? Even judged by crass commercial standards – the analogy so beloved by the Mandelson’s of this world – state education has been ham-fistedly managed, despite the often frustrated efforts of those who understand it best – the teachers. Jesus, at least in a McDonalds or a Starbucks the quality is actually consistent from place to place.

What is staggering here is that Lord M makes his pronouncement as if the government has had no responsibility, ever, for primary, secondary and further education, as if it has been someone else’s problem all this time, and they – not government – messed it up. Maybe someone did it when they weren’t looking. Maybe they think they can palm it off on some other poor, unsuspecting bastard, like blaming the dog for eating their homework. As we all know from our school days, successful blame-shifting depends upon a careful choice of scapegoat – the thickie of the class, or some dumb animal; essentially something that doesn’t have the brains to work out what’s going on, and ideally, lacks any means of verbal communication. So, naturally, they decide to pin it on some of the most highly-educated, capable and brilliant-minded human beings in the world. Smart move, Mandy. Yeah, those shit-for-brains lawyers, heart surgeons, computer scientists and quantum physicists are never going to see that one coming.

Quite how universities are supposed to judge ability if it isn’t to be by the usual, fairly reliable method of checking whether prospective students are any good or not, is not specified. Perhaps they are expected to use their previously untapped psychic abilities. Or perhaps they’re supposed to just fling open their doors and operate a kind of honour system. ‘Well, if you think you’re up to it, who are we to argue? Come on in!’

Personally, I think there are reasonable grounds for making admission to top universities harder, not easier. Certainly there’s evidence that, in spite of everything, the occasional blithering idiot has already slipped through the net (P. Mandelson, St Catherine's College, Oxford 1973-1976). Now, Lord Mandelmort has returned to take revenge on those wiser souls who educated him, yet from whom he apparently learnt so little.

Mandelson – Secretary for Business, let's remember, not education – does not, he says, intend to dictate admissions policy to universities. But then, he doesn’t really need to. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply loom in a doorway wearing a portentous smile and dropping dark hints. ‘Nice place you’ve got here. Shame if something happened to it...’

But what is the worst that could happen to it? Well, I think Mandelson makes that abundantly clear. To illustrate, let’s just ask ourselves about his other key point. Could universities benefit from being treated more like a McDonalds or a Starbucks? And does being ‘more like a customer’ make a student less passive?

A purchase by a customer may well involve a good deal of deliberation and choice beforehand, but once the financial transaction is complete, the customer’s role is almost entirely passive. That’s the point. It’s something you now own that you didn’t have to make, or a service relieving you of the need to do it yourself. It’s entirely about sitting back and giving someone else the responsibility – to the extent that if the supplier doesn’t deliver on the deal (the customer’s responsibility – payment – is already fulfilled), you can demand your money back. To make education more like this is to make the students role more passive, not less. It also suggests that education is something that students merely have given to them – that is done to them, or done for them, but not done by them – a kind of passive, Gradgrindian filling-up with facts in which the student plays no active part, and is expected to do no work, but for which the university is made wholly responsible. A potentially catastrophic misconception, which no amount of empty rhetoric about ‘choice’ – rhetoric which ceased to convince some time in the 1980s – can entirely cover up.

What can we do to fight this? As far as Mandelson goes, nothing. He isn’t elected – just appointed by a Prime Minister, who we didn’t choose either. However, real choices are looming. Electoral choices. Our choices.

Let me nail my colours to the mast. I don’t want to see this government defeated. I want to see it smashed, and everything it has touched disinfected. I want to see each of them tarred and feathered and flung from Beachy Head, and fended off with pointed sticks if they try to swim back. But this is beside the point. The real challenge facing us, whoever we choose to vote for in the forthcoming general election, is making those we elect answerable. To have a hope of achieving that, we need to be more active in our political interactions. We need to not sit back and just let government do the business to us. It’s not enough to be a customer. We can’t return the goods and get our money back. We cannot afford to be passive. That means every one of us, whenever we can, hassling our prospective MPs, making them aware of the issues that matter to us, and making them understand that for these reasons – and only for these reasons – will we vote for them. We need to shake them out of their stupor, shatter their sense of security, make them realise what their responsibilities are. In short, we need to educate them. Like all educatiuon – real education – that means work. But we have to believe it’s worth the effort. Because if we do finally give up, and give away responsibility for ourselves and our actions, we may never get it back.

PS: As I write, Mandelson is facing a fresh inquiry into accusations that he did 'improper' favours for his Russian billionaire friend, Oleg Deripaska. Whatever comes of it, I sincerely hope that he gets precisely what he deserves – no more, no less.

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