Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Shame Game: Why sorry is not the hardest word.

Why do the Royal Family still dress like this?  Is it because formal military dress is smarter than civilian clothing?  Is it because the Queen is the head of the armed forces?  Or is it just because they always have?  The fact is this clothing is extremely symbolic.  The Queen no longer wears uniform, though she once did.  The President of the United States is also the Commander in Chief of US forces but, with the toe-curling exception of George W. Bush, they would not dream of dressing up in a uniform.

Of course Trooping the Colour is a military event and the official celebration of the Queen’s Birthday which is the closest Britain gets to a National Day.  On the face of it therefore there is a good reason for the Royal Family to get kitted up in military finery.  However when the Queen stopped wearing uniform the rest of the family could have followed suit but they did not.

The reason for this can only be tradition.  But what is the tradition being maintained?  It is many decades since we as a nation have had a collective experience of military life.  Despite this the monarch and her family continue to emphasise the significance of Britain’s military legacy in a way that is removed from the living experience of the vast majority of the British people.

The word legacy is significant because the glory of Britain’s contemporary military engagements is very difficult to delineate.  Instead the instinctive reaction of monarch, politicians and the media is to hark back to the World Wars.  The reason for this is obvious: we were the good guys.

Despite this the Royal Family do not wear the uniforms of the Trenches or the D-Day Landings.  Instead like the parading troops they are decked out in splendid ceremonial epaulettes, gold frogging and bearskins all of which derive directly from the 19th century.  Were we the good guys then?

2015 marks 200 years since Waterloo.  Far removed from any living memory we have still celebrated a battle that removed the yoke of tyranny from Europe.  What we do not celebrate quite so noisily is that our imperial ambition and reach was immensely enabled by Bonaparte’s downfall.

It is a modish predilection to judge our ancestors by the mores and sensibilities of our time and assumption of our modern superiority and enlightenment blinds us to our own indifference to the significant social shortcomings of today.  That said with what honesty have we reflected on our history?  Have we reflected on it at all?

It is a world known cliché that the British are forever saying sorry.  Any native of this island knows full well that a British sorry can mean a hundred different things.  Only one of those meanings involves actually being sorry.  And how often are we actually sorry?  How often have we been sorry?  If love is an action not a word then so is contrition and how contrite have been our national actions?

Race is sometimes referred to as the great untreated cancer eating at the soul of America since the outcome of the Civil War papered over a schism the size of the Grand Canyon.  For the British class has always been our Achilles Heel and the source of our shame.  The Class System is just that, a system to ensure that all those within it know their place and, if at all possible, remain in their place.

The Class System is usually regarded as a peccadillo peculiar to the British and their conception of themselves as a people.  Foreigners cannot participate in or infiltrate the Class System ostensibly because, by virtue of their origin, they are classless.  However this conceals a truth about the British Class System which is that it does not regard foreigners as being outside it but beneath it.  Cecil Rhodes, who else, coined the aphorism: "To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life." What few born in Britain today will admit is that even now this is an instinctive belief.

The senior infantry regiment of the British Army is the Grenadier Guards which has had awarded to it 74 Battle Honours, distinctions which appear on the regiment’s quasi-sacred colours.  The first is for Tangier (1680) and the last before World War One is South Africa (1899-1901).  Without digressing into an involved history lesson it will be abundantly obvious that very many if not all of the intervening engagements were not motivated by a desire to free the oppressed and downtrodden.

It is a remarkable aspect of the British Empire that its passing prompted so little fuss at home.  As country after country proclaimed independence Britain largely just let them go.  Absence of fuss has always been a hallmark of ‘Britishness’: it is with good reason that Kipling’s If has for decades been a classroom staple.  But while we have gone on with our fancy dress rituals and afternoon tea huge swathes of the world have been torn apart as a legacy of our actions.

Few things are more unattractive and unconvincing than agonised self-flagellation but that is not the same thing as a good hard look in the mirror and a naming of the historic warts and carbuncles that disfigure the national body politic.  Articulating individual shame is a difficult and chastening experience but until it is done it will continue to fuel addictions and other toxic behaviours.  Candour about national shame is a vastly more complicated and nuanced business, as the Germans know too well, but until it takes place we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past with a mindset incapable of growth and maturity.

Would our heedless foray into Afghanistan have occurred if every school child learnt in intimate details the shambles of the First Anglo-Afghan War rather than our heroic stand against Hitler? Equally would the endlessly deferred Iraq Inquiry Report even have been necessary if we had expunged from the national instinct a desire to interfere in countries far beyond our borders?

Being British does not absolve us of recognising historic wrongdoings.  And saying I am sorry is not the same thing as saying I am ashamed; still less being ashamed.  Other countries have truth and reconciliation we have absent minded business as  usual.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Orange Is The New Black: Why prison never goes out of fashion.

As we have known for decades if it’s not happening on TV it is not happening at all and so it is that Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) has thrust the incarceration of women into the spotlight in a manner that no miscarriage of justice could ever hope to achieve.

When something you care about has been granted the oxygen of publicity it is churlish to complain and instead you seize your chance.  The fact is that prison confers negligible benefits on us as a society and in the case of women prisoners almost none at all.

I have written previously that a prison is one place that all children should see before they turn 18.  Not as a ghoulish day out as sometimes occurs in the US when wayward adolescents are shown death row tiers to put the frighteners on them but in order that everybody see for themselves what we do with wrongdoers.  In the same way that we can’t imagine what happens to all our rubbish until we visit the dump for the first time it is hard to conceive what prison is actually like until we see it with our own eyes.

Here are some things that prison is not like: the Ritz; a holiday camp; home.  Here are some things prison is like: spending almost all day and all night locked in your childhood bedroom usually with a mentally ill stranger; sleeping next to your toilet; eating the worst food you have ever eaten – for every meal; being the most bored you have ever been – all the time.

Michael Howard is credited with coining the meaningless slogan ‘prison works’ as long ago as 1993.  It is meaningless because, while it is true that detaining dangerous and recidivist criminals prevents them from killing and stealing, it is certainly not true if you believe that penal policy should meaningfully address the causes of offending.

Prison in the vast majority of cases is a dumping ground and as with rubbish when it is buried in the ground the process just makes people toxic.  Unless and until prisons are properly resourced so that they rehabilitate offenders will not be recycled they will just be caged at a cost to us higher than the fees at Eton.

Prison is particularly pointless and harmful for women, most of whom serve very short sentences that prevent any kind of rehabilitative or educational programmes being devised for them.  In many cases women are separated from their children, even newborn infants, storing up inevitable problems for the younger generation.  Very few women commit the kind of dangerous offences that mean they pose a genuine threat to life and limb and being such a tiny minority in the prison population policy invariably overlooks that their needs are different to those of men.

If OITNB has piqued your interest can I strongly recommend that you consider joining the Howard League for Penal Reform which has endeavoured for years to hold successive governments to account and to inform and instruct for improvement in penal policy.  They are particularly alive to the problems of incarcerating vulnerable women women.

Knowledge is the antidote to populism and nonsense.  A Conservative M.P. recently complained that it was not fair that women prisoners do not need to wear uniforms uniforms. Lest that sentiment strikes a chord with you ask yourself if it is fair on you when prisoners leave prison and return to crime.  For myself I don’t care what prisoners wear as long as prison is a useful and instructive experience.  Prison has been the fashion for far too long; it’s time for a change.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Seeing the sea: The places all children should see & be seen

Hillary Clinton is credited with bringing to mass attention the proverbial concept that it takes a village to raise a child.  Some people obtusely object to the notion on the basis that ascribing to it necessarily involves an abdication of parental responsibility to child rearing.  In fact a sensible analysis simply leads to the conclusion that we all in one way or another owe a responsibility to all children to ensure that they enter adulthood ready and informed to fulfil their potential.

Compulsory education has for decades amounted to a societal manifestation of that proverb.  But of course education extends far beyond reading, writing and arithmetic even if, dismayingly, far too many leave children leave full time education unequipped with even these the most basic tools for living a life fully lived.

It is by no means a novel comment or criticism to observe that much of what is taught in schools is of tangential utility in the day to day lives of most adults.  A classic refrain is the complaint that schools don’t teach completion of self-assessment tax returns and certainly recollection of a dread moment when I contemplated undertaking this task is enough to lead me to add my voice to that particular chorus.

PSHE (Personal Social Health & Economic Education) is the mechanism by which schools are expected, formally, to ensure that pupils leave schools with basic life skills that extend beyond the 12 Times Table and a passing knowledge of the plot of Romeo & Juliet.

The PSHE Association website sets out the statutory position thus:

The Government’s PSHE education review concluded in March 2013, stating that the subject would remain non-statutory and that no new programmes of study would be published. The DfE has however stated as part of its National Curriculum guidance that ‘All schools should make provision for personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), drawing on good practice’. This position was reinforced by the Government’s latest draft of the national curriculum framework, published on July 8th 2013.

By far the component of PSHE that draws the most comment and provokes the most controversy is the way in which it informs schools’ approach to sex education.  Many people decry the quality and content of sex education as taught in some schools and there is no doubt that the topic arouses strong passions.  Some parents feel that sex education should be entirely the province of the family and others feel that schools shy away from properly considering with children what consent means in the context of sexual relationships and the concomitant responsibility of boys and men to ensure that it has been given.

I feel however that a very worthwhile conversation should be had about what schools and society generally should be teaching outside the classroom.  Since the centenary of the start of WWI last year and running until 2019 the Government has made funds available for every secondary school in the country to send one teacher and two pupils on a trip to one of the WWI battlefields.

In some respects this is a laudable initiative but in others it is frustrating and tokenistic.  The assertion has been made that the two pupils in question will in some osmotic way convey the benefits of their experience to their classmates.  Obviously financial considerations have precluded the sending of all children to the places where many of their great-grandfathers made the ultimate sacrifice.  As it is the contract for the project has cost £5.3 million.  However griping about this scheme carries with it the implicit suggestion of disrespect to the Glorious Dead.  In truth though it is not hard to see why the government was enthusiastic about an exercise that conferred political capital at little political cost.

It would have taken a brave politician to suggest that rather than arrange an outing to the sites of what was supposed to be the war to end all wars that children might more usefully meet the living survivors of current conflicts.  Rather than seeing the brutal effects of war on screen children could see it in the flesh at Headley Court, the rehabilitation centre for wounded service personnel in Surrey.  War maims and it kills and children growing up with the intention of volunteering to serve their country should see for themselves the reality of that fact.

I have a list of places that I believe all children should visit or see before the age of 18 because they are places which will help children understand what adult life (and death is about).  I have previously written about why visiting a court ensures that justice is seen to be done and enables even those who have not performed jury service a chance to understand what the administration of justice means in real terms.  The vast majority of these places can be found near where most children are and consequently the expense of arranging the visits would be more than made up for in the value conferred by the experience.
In alphabetical order my suggested list of unmissable places for all children would include:

-       A church
-       A cinema
-       A council chamber

-       A court
-       A GUM clinic

-       A hospice

-       A mosque
-       A museum

-       A prison

-       A synagogue

-       A temple

-       A theatre

-       The sea
This is my own arbitrary selection of places and, in one case, a thing that should enable every child to understand the ‘village’ in which he or she is growing up and will one day be an adult member of.  I have included the sea because the thought that any child in this island nation could reach adulthood without having seen the sea is in a small way too shocking to contemplate and yet there must be many who do not.  The sea is our most accessible connection to the sublime and a reminder that all societies and the places within them are the construct of men and no education is complete without a realisation that life is not all man made.