Monthly Archives: March 2013

Lessons from the Library

There are few things we British love more than to see one of our elite institutions with egg on its face.

So of course news that an Oxford college is at the centre of a “Harlem Shake Scandal” has made national headlines. (Full disclosure: it’s of more than passing interest to me as it concerns my old college).

But I made some inquiries, and the story’s not quite as it at first seems.

To recap: A group of students took over the library at St Hilda’s and recorded their version of the now rather passé meme doing the rounds on YouTube.

So far, so vaguely humourous. But then it emerged that not only had participating students been disciplined, the young library assistant on duty that night had lost her job.

“Dismissed”, “fired” – however it was reported, the punishment sounded harsh. Especially as the students insisted that the woman, Calypso Nash, had nothing to do with the stunt.

Cue furious demands for her immediate reinstatement. An online petition was followed by a motion passed by the undergraduate body, the JCR. There was even an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament.

I found it hard to believe. And sure enough, there were some key details missing from the coverage – which the College did nothing to clarify while the story was gathering steam. “Declined to comment” was the line most newspapers used.

Ms Nash was not a “librarian” and she was not on the staff. She’s a post-graduate student who was employed on a casual basis as a library invigilator.

After the Harlem Shake incident she was told she wouldn’t be offered any more shifts. A bit harsh perhaps but not quite the same as being “fired” from a job, and, though nothing’s been heard from her, I’m told she has not appealed.

If the college had said that at the beginning it might have defused the protest. I gather they’re about to make a statement to that effect.  Horses and stable doors come to mind…

It still leaves questions about the overall handling of the incident. No students were harmed in the making of that 30 second video and I doubt any degrees will be failed as a result.

It was recorded late in the evening, and in a spirit of fun.  It even had an admirable political message: a banner demanding freedom for the jailed Russian women from the band Pussy Riot.

The students could have been told to do a morning’s filing, or picking up litter or carrying books back to shelves. Something for their community as a way of the college authorities saying gently, “don’t do that again.”  As for Ms Nash, if the rest of her work in the library is okay then of course she should be offered more shifts.

The college should learn to be a little less po-faced and a little more communicative with the media, not to mention with its own student body.

And MPs lodging Early Day Motions should perhaps check their facts.

 

Labour isn’t working (hard enough)

Whittington hospital cuts rallyRising youth unemployment, impending triple-dip recession, falling standards of living, the severely disabled stripped of dignity by disproportionate cuts to their allowances.  I could go on, for the list of this Tory-led government’s crimes is long.

Meanwhile, Labour is doing its very best to make sure I don’t vote for them.

Take our local council by-election, an excellent example of how not to campaign. Starting with the Labour candidate coming round to deliver, in person, campaign literature addressed to my husband.

Having made clear that I too would be voting and was interested in local issues, I thought she might at least have taken a note of my name.

She didn’t, and a week later another knock on the door heralded another Labour canvasser – with campaign literature addressed to my husband.

The canvasser looked wounded when I questioned Labour’s obsessive interest in communicating only with the man of the house. Off he scuttled without explanation – or a shred of interest in my vote.  I’ve heard nothing since.

Okay, my husband might (depending his mood) have expressed sympathy for Labour when canvassed in the past.  But the local Labour machine is ignoring something the most junior intern on an Obama campaign could tell you: turning out the base is important, but it’s attracting independent or floating voters that wins elections.

In other words, why wasn’t I wooed?

Next problem:  the message. The main one, front and centre in the first of those Labour letters to my husband, was disingenuous – at best.

The big issue locally is proposed cuts to beds and services at the nearby Whittington Hospital.Whittington Hospital Campaign

Or, as Labour puts it, the “Tory-led government’s threat to our hospital.”

It’s a charge they repeat in all their literature and interviews, never missing an opportunity to link “Tory-led” with what’s happening at the hospital.  A leading Labour councilor has even asked the health secretary to come to the borough to explain “how these cuts can be justified.”

But they’re not his cuts to explain.

The plans, which include selling off buildings, closing wards, cutting jobs and capping the number of births at the hospital, were made by the Whittington Hospital’s own, independent board. It needs to save £17 million in order to qualify for Foundation Trust status in a year’s time.

It’s true, the Tories are forcing all hospitals to become Foundations – which have greater autonomy than ordinary hospitals – by April 2014.  But who invented the Foundation concept in the first place?  Labour under Tony Blair.

One can argue about whether Foundation Trusts are a good or bad thing – and the Labour Party did, bitterly, when they introduced them in 2002.  But there is no arguing about the appallingly cack-handed way the Whittington Hospital devised and announced the cuts.

They made no effort to explain changes in health care delivery they believe will see far more people treated outside hospitals.  They didn’t discuss the benefits of getting rid of dilapidated old buildings, some of which haven’t been used for years.  Nobody in the community was consulted about any of it.

No wonder there’s been uproar and near universal condemnation.  And the local Labour party has jumped on the uproar bandwagon.

But a bandwagon is not a vision, especially when it’s not accompanied by any obvious alternative plan.  It’s a cheap gimmick that allows the party to side-step more complex problems.

This is mirrored nationally where Labour is having a “policy review.”  There’s nothing wrong with a bit of a think.  But the next election is only two years away. Surely by now the opposition party’s review should have moved beyond what the man leading the review calls “the first phase”?  The details of what Labour would do in government aren’t expected until late 2014.

They need to get a move on.

Labour was never expected to win the Eastleigh by-election last month (they came fourth). But given the unpopularity of the government, surely Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition should have picked up a bit of the protest vote?  But no, Labour’s share of the vote increased by a paltry 0.2 percent over 2010.

As Dan Hodges wrote about Eastleigh, Labour leader Ed Miliband has been concentrating on “earning the support and trust of his party.” Sure, its important for the party to feel better about itself.  But Hodges is right when he says the new-found spring in the steps of the faithful “isn’t translating into enthusiasm amongst the voters.”

And it won’t until Labour’s leadership gives its troops the ammunition with which to engage.  The Tories, with Lib Dems in tow, are wreaking havoc.  Labour must come out and fight.

That includes on my doorstep.

No more phony wars against easy targets like local hospital cuts – probably the only reduction in services around here for which the Conservatives alone can’t be blamed.

I asked the Labour Council candidate why there was no mention of the bedroom tax and other welfare cuts that’ll certainly affect residents of this borough, in her campaign.

“Ah,” she said, “watch this space.”

Two weeks later, I’m still watching.

 

Delusions of Empire

Honouring the Queen in the Turks and CaicosAll Empires like to think their colonial subjects love them.

Which is why the undying devotion of the Falkland Islanders is so satisfying for the British.

But it’s also dangerous. It helps us maintain the myth of benevolent motherland and grateful locals. And that in turn means we’ve convinced ourselves that Empire – and what now remains of it – is no bad thing.

For the Falkland Islanders, that may be true. Thirty years ago, they suffered Argentina’s sudden invasion and the trauma of the war that forced the invaders out.

The renewed (and remarkably bellicose) claims of sovereignty coming from Buenos Aires must be unnerving – hence the referendum underway right now. Islanders are being asked if they want to remain as a British Overseas Territory.

There’s no doubt at all that the overwhelming answer will be yes.

There’s no doubt either that many in Britain will view the result of this essentially anti-Argie vote as an affirmation of the UK’s good relations with the last scraps of Empire.

That would be a big mistake. There are 14 Overseas Territories (essentially colonies but with varying degrees of local autonomy). The Falklands is one of the smallest. And thanks largely to that constant Argentine threat, its rapport with Britain is unique.

In most of the others, the relationship is far more complex and uncomfortable.

We send them funds, grudgingly for the most part. But until recently, nobody in London was very interested in how they conducted their affairs. The attitude was that they should be grateful for British Citizenship and should get on with learning to look after themselves.

Except they didn’t. Take for example, the revelations of child sex abuse in tiny Pitcairn that affected almost every family and had been going on in some cases for 40 years.

Then there was the spectacular collapse of the Turks and Caicos Islands (see previous post). For years, residents of these Caribbean islands begged London to step in and do something, as government ministers allegedly sold off crown land to developer friends, renting private jets and building luxury homes with the proceeds.

It happened right under the nose of the British governor. Yet London said it had no evidence of wrongdoing and turned a blind eye.

Eventually (under pressure from Parliament and the global economic crash) the Foreign Office had to step in, sack the local officials and run the place directly. Initially pleased, the Islanders were soon accusing the new governor of ruling with a very heavy hand.

Then last November, after three years of direct rule from London, the Turks and Caicos Islanders were allowed to elect their own representatives again. Local government was restored. But rows with the Governor (who has a veto over all important decisions) have continued.

It’s a sign of a new, more paternalistic approach from a Tory government far less embarrassed by Empire than its Labour predecessor.

But the newly elected premier warned recently of “chaos” in the Islands if the relationship  doesn’t improve.

Meanwhile there’s trouble in the wealthy tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

Late last year, the Premier was arrested on suspicion of corruption and forced to resign. He denies the allegations and says he’s the victim of a witch-hunt – led by the British governor. The two men had been at loggerheads over economic policy.

In all the Caribbean territories (except for poor Montserrat, devastated by a volcano and totally dependent on British aid) there are sporadic calls for independence.

They won’t get very far – yet. The islands are too small and the benefits of UK citizenship too great.

But the affection for Britain is nowhere near as strong as we like to think.

Nor are the cultural links. In the Turks and Caicos they drive on the left as we do – but in cars that are all imported from the US.  Everyone’s steering wheel is on the wrong side.

Residents go for medical treatment in Florida. Many have dual US citizenship. The accents are American-tinged. The TV the kids watch, the music they listen to and the food they eat is all from North America.

There’s a picture of the Queen in the airport arrivals hall, and plaques marking her various jubilees. But there’s also a growing Haitian migrant population (now far outnumbering the native islanders). In truth, there’s little about the islands or their people that feels British at all.

But you don’t hear much about that in the UK.

We like news of flag waving by people who look and sound like us. More English than the English with undying loyalty to the Crown – the Falklands, in other words. (How else to explain the dozens of journalists now in the Islands to cover a referendum whose result was known long before the first vote was cast?)

We don’t want to be reminded that many of our remaining territories are inhabited by black or brown people, who resent being told what to do by white men sent from London. Just as they have for hundreds of years.