Thursday 9 September 2010

Why the left hates Blair

Someone in prospect magazine wonders why the left hates blair more than some of his conservative predecessors. My thoughts are roughly:

Blair’s achievements are enormous: the huge improvement in the NHS and the funding and performance of schools to name just two. His constitutional changes (though conceived before he became PM) were also very significant. So too with peace in NI.

I think the virulent opposition to Blair from the left – more instense than against conservative leaders – owes something to a sense of betrayal. From the day of his controversial court backed electoral victory, Bush was loathed on the left. For Blair to align himself so closely with Bush, after 9/11 but even before the Iraq war, was always going to alienate Blair from large sections of left opinion. Blair allowed no distance between himself and Bush, not even a shade that might have made independence of mind and policy seem credible.

On Iraq, where Blair constructed a casus belli from intelligence that was plainly insufficient, if not patently exaggerated, he was always going to destroy his image on the left. In arguments about justifying Iraq, Blair keeps on saying that after 9/11 he knew islamic fundamentalism had to be confronted, yet everyone knows now, as they did then, that Al Queda and the 9/11 bombers were not spawned in Iraq but elsewhere. So despite Blair’s insistence that Saddam’s regime posed a threat, we know that it didn’t really, not after 1991 and all the years of sanctions. Saddam was a murderous dictator, but the time to intervene to save his victims was long past (incidentally the West backed him while he was at his most brutal).

On top of Iraq, there is Blair’s rightward lurch in matters concerning law and order, and issues like Freedom of Information (which he now says makes government impossible).

Blair was an immense politician, and I believe did have a genuine progressive intent, at least in the beginning. But more clearly than any prime minister in recent times, he let power go to his head. He became a megalomaniac, even evangelical in his zeal. He seemed not to have a healthy sceptism towards power itself. The way he deployed his power, and how he altered the office of prime minister, are troubling.

For Blair there was no such thing as a cabinet. He was right and his person decision was a diktat. It is probably on balance a good thing that there was another powerful figure next door whose presence was the ultimate limit on how far Blair wanted to stretch his office.

Blair’s term exposed how little real counterweight exists in the British system for a PM with a large majority and who is in command of the senior figures in his own party. In the end, he is hated on the left as much for how he deployed power as he is for any single policy (aside from Iraq).

Friday 3 September 2010

Subjects I hated in School (Or did I)

I attended a terrible primary school : apart from the teacher in the infants’ class, the other three varied between hopelessly incompetent and simply deranged. All my teachers at primary school were middle aged women. Two of the four were so bad that they spent a good deal of their time either crying, pleading with the class, or exploding in fits of violence. It was a disaster for them and us, but that was how it was. Parents complained to the board of management – but the main voice there was the parish priest and he supported his teachers to the last. And anyway, even if he hadn’t there probably wasn’t much he could do. This was the late 70s, but even now it is almost impossible to have incompetence teachers removed. The only thing I would hope is that they are rare and that on average most children get decent, capable teachers.

It is secondary that I wanted to talk about, but primary has a huge bearing on how a child fares in secondary. Those who say primary is a crucial foundation are right. When I arrived in secondary I felt that I was far behind the other students. In everything from history, to maths, to Irish, they were years ahead of me.

At our school we did exams every Christmas and I recall that the message from my first set of exams was that I had a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully I developed an appetite for study and over the course of the junior cycle I made up the lost ground. But I was probably lucky. I could easily have become disheartened or found that I couldn’t bridge the gap, in which case I would have joined that quarter of the class or so who never returned for the senior cycle.

The truth is that I didn’t really hate any subjects, but my interest was usually a direct function of the effectiveness of the teacher. I was unlucky again in Irish, English, and French, finding myself with two of the schools weakest teachers. (I had the same one for French as English).

I dropped classical studies (my year was the first where this was offered in place of Latin) after first year, and also dropped Commerce, choosing instead to stick with woodwork and technical drawing. I excelled at all the technical subjects and in the end got very high results in subjects like drawing, maths, and the sciences. But my progress in the languages had stalled.

I had a moderate interest in Irish but the teacher hadn’t. His passion was Gaelic football and he spent large parts of the class talking to the footballers about results or forecasts (I had no interest in sport of any kind and used this time to scribble or write obscenities into the margins of my textbooks). English and French were even worse. The teacher had no command of the class – or her subject matter. I never really read any of the texts. In the end, for my intercert (now the called the junior cert) I scraped a C in English and French and a D in Irish.

I remember well the day the results came out. I walked into the principal’s office to see how it went. He was beaming. I had done very well overall. He said I had 8 honours, among them five As. I was ecstatic. I hadn’t expected to do half as well. Standing beside the principal was the Irish teacher, a dour look on his face, and as I took the slip with the results he said ungraciously, “obviously languages aren’t your strong point”.

It hit a nerve, for I can still feel the way his comment deflated my sense of joy in my achievement.

For the senior cycle I was again unfortunate with teachers. Apart from one year I had the same dreadful Irish teacher, and again the same teacher for English. Thankfully I had a much better French teacher. I made up ground in French, getting a B in the end. But I only scraped a C in English and Irish.

I know now that there was nothing at all wrong with my ability to learn languages. During my first year in college I took up evening classes in Irish. It became a passion and I read voraciously in Irish throughout college and spend several summers in the Gaeltacht. Years later I was to spend three years in France and made very good headway with the language. In English too I developed a taste for literature – and even writing.

My experience has taught me this much about education. One, the competence of the teacher is vital. A capable teacher can be inspiring and can draw students toward their subject. Two, students should never give up. Learning is indeed lifelong, and with a bit of dedication you can amaze yourself at how well you can learn even a subject you might not terribly like. Better still you might discover a way in to a subject that makes you realize you kind of like it after all. Three, never allow yourself to be categorised. I believe that the boxing of people into learner types is artificial. So and so is great at maths and so and so is great at language. True, different subjects require different skills and abilities, but after all, even at the end of the senior cycle the goal is not mastery or deep learning, but to get a very solid foundation, and that can be achieved by any student in any subject.