27 June 2012


The American investigative journalist Greg Palast was on fine form last night launching his new book, Vulture's Picnic,  at an event at the University of London Union – he's a showman, and with a supporting cast of Warren Ellis, Laurie Penny, Nick Dearden and Anna Chen, he put on a great performance, full of stunning allegations and revelations – not the least of which was that it costs him $400,000 a year in donations to keep his investigative operation on the road.

I'm about 95 per cent with Palast overall: he's brilliant on the role of hedge-funds and giant corporations in subverting democracy, and his take on how the debt crisis has made tensions between established banks and hedge funds (speculating on the banks' failure) the major fault-line in politics is breathtaking. I'm not convinced that he's right about the Chicago School origins of the euro, but more on that later.

I'll always respect the man for the scoop that did more than anything else to expose New Labour's craven attitude to big business in the Observer in summer 1998. Funny how the same old names crop up. (I did a piece elaborating on it in the next issue of Red Pepperwhich is here, and, though hardly of the same import, still has some resonance, I think.)

21 June 2012


Michael Gove’s leaked plans for secondary education – if indeed they are actual plans rather than ideas towards a consultation document – have caused a minor storm, with Labour denouncing them as a means of creating a “two-tier” education system.

But it’s right to ask what’s gone wrong with British school education. As a university lecturer over the past 15 years, I’ve taught hundreds of students who are products of the British school system. Many have been brilliant; some have not. The best are hard-working, intellectually sophisticated, good writers and arguers. The worst, well, read what follows. It’s anecdotal rather than research-based, but:
  • Too many students who have excellent GCSE and A-level grades can’t write clear grammatical English or sustain an argument in writing. This is hardly new: I remember tutors moaning about standards of writing 30 years ago, and the complaint was a staple among critics of “progressive education” (remember that?) in the 1960s and early 1970s. Something is wrong about the way schools teach writing, and it has been wrong, perhaps in many different ways, for rather a long time. I think that old-fashioned grammar teaching with spelling tests and so on is part of the solution. But I would say that, because it worked for me. Then again, if I’m honest about my schooldays, I was also encouraged to take an over-scholastic and over-cautious approach to expressing opinion. (“You can’t say that the monarchy is a waste of money!” my politics teacher scrawled at the bottom of an essay in 1977, next to a 40 per cent mark, my worst in my A-level year.) And it didn’t work for everyone who went to school in the 1960s and 1970s, partly because of daft educational theories that meant it wasn't done – my sisters, who went to a different primary school, were not taught to spell but encouraged to express themselves any old way they chose – but also because it requires attention to individual pupils that was never possible when it was tried with 40-plus kids in a class (remember that too?). The problem is that no one has come up with anything better. Gove needs to do a lot more thinking here, and it can't be solved by going back to CSEs and O-levels: the inability to write coherently is all too common among the students that are supposedly the best, the A-level grade As.

  • As the internet has become a mass phenomenon, the teaching of careful reading and discrimination between reliable and unreliable sources has been catastrophically eroded at schools. Too many first-year university students haven’t got a clue about plagiarism – they copy and paste as a matter of course and act wounded when they’re found out and told off (or worse) – and too many use the most dubious websites as sources for essays. This makes a case for testing at school and university primarily by exam, but also for a much more rigorous approach to evidence in everyday school teaching. Then again, every teacher knows that Google is the weapon of first resort for us all today, and we can’t turn the clock back, or even wish to. Once more, this requires much more thought from Gove: the problem is endemic. The A-level grade As do it as much as anyone else when they think they can get away with it.

  • Most students’ grasp of the most elementary history is dire. Few students appear to have done basic British political history, and economic history is almost unknown. Again, the argument about what’s wrong with history teaching is nothing new, and part of the problem is that you simply can’t cover everything in school. I remember doing a very traditional history syllabus in my school years: start with the Stone Age in the first year of junior school, then the Romans, then the Dark Ages and 1066 – and at secondary school Medieval Britain, the Tudors and (bizarrely) 20th-century world history for O-level, then at A-level the Tudors again, the English Civil War as it was then known, the industrial revolution, 20th-century British political history, Stalin and Hitler. It was a lot better than doing Hitler and the Tudors repeatedly (with a little bit of phoney work on sources), and I had fantastic teachers, but there were massive omissions: to mention the most obvious to me now, Greece and Rome, ancient China, the rise of Islam, the story of European imperialism, 18th-century British politics, America and Germany in the 19th century, Latin America, the grisly end to the second world war. University filled in some of the gaps, but not all (though school and university taught me how to read). History was taken out of the compulsory part of the national curriculum some years ago:  I can’t see how Gove can sort it unless he drops his plans to abandon the national curriculum, makes history compulsory again and sets out a bold syllabus. (If he did, I'd be all in favour, as long as he included Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson as well as the awful Niall Ferguson – and I'd add geography too.) This is not an issue only for weaker students: some of the best of them struggle with the fundamentals. Magna Carta, I'm afraid, did die in vain.

  • Technical skills are not a problem. The bog-standard ICT syllabus is useless, but the idea that everyone should learn programming is plain daft, and maths teaching isn't bad. Every undergraduate can use Word and Google and Facebook and Twitter, and most know how to add up with the aid of a computer. Quite a few are au fait with elementary programming, too. Not a high priority.

  • The most important school failure is the cult of grades. Too many students arrive at university after years of being taught to the test. They expect spoon-feeding because that is what they have always had as the charges of teachers whose bosses (heads and – to a lesser extent in recent years – LEA big-wigs) are interested only in their schools’ place in the league tables. The assumption that it’s all about getting a good mark – which will of course help to get a good job – is now almost universal: any university tutor will tell you that the most persistent gripe from students is that they didn’t get a 2.1 for a substandard piece of work and would like to resubmit because without an overall 2.1 their degree will be worthless. The marketisation of higher education – with students being treated primarily as consumers and universities interested only in their ranking in the annual National Student Survey – is already undermining standards, sometimes comically but mostly by subjecting lecturers to the challenges of whingers who didn’t get the 2.1 they wanted and think it wasn’t their fault. A year of not-very-good finalists who complain can now wreck an academic career. Gove cannot do what he wants unless he reverses the transformation of higher education into a mechanism for satisfying "consumers" – which is precisely what his government has institutionalised, following New Labour.
What’s missing from anyone’s education policy right now is a sense that learning is worth it for its own sake. The idiotic philistine instrumentalism that has driven UK education policy for the past 30 years has done immense damage and will do more if it is not reversed.

20 June 2012


The Tory peer Guy Black (Baron Black of Brentwood, to give him his proper moniker) has come up with a proposal for a tougher regime for self-regulation of the press in his role as executive director of the Telegraph group and chair of the Press Standards Board of Finance.

His big idea is that publications and blogs that don’t sign up to a revamped Press Complaints Commission code of practice should be punished in various ways: by being struck off the Press Association subscription list, denied mainstream advertising and disallowed the right to issue press cards.

This is precisely what the media in Britain don’t need. Non-participation in the PCC is a right – exercised by some awful rotters (Richard Desmond’s Express titles) but also by some of the good guys (Private Eye, Tribune) – and the idea that blogs should be brought under its jurisdiction is laughable.

As for giving the PCC or some successor organisation a part in determining who gets a press card or who can take ads or PA feed, well, give me a break. If we’re going to preserve self-regulation of the media against the proponents of more stringent statutory controls, we’re going to have to do a lot better than this.

19 June 2012


Plenty of other people have pointed out that the Blarite think-tank-cum-pressure-group Progress hardly deserves to be compared with the Militant Tendency: it isn't a party within the Labour Party, which Militant was, and there are no grounds for proscribing it. Yes, it has an ideological agenda, yes it is bankrolled by a millionaire -- but then so was Tribune for much of its early life (in fact, there were at least three millionaires who kept it going).

What no one has said so far is that, for all its cash, Progress has been singularly useless at setting the political agenda. It's certainly a networking opportunity for the Labour right -- but in more than 15 years of existence it has produced almost nothing worth reading. Tribune and the Fabian Society might be going through hard times right now, but both have an intellectual confidence that puts Progress to shame, as indeed do Compass, the Labour soft-left think-tank-cum-pressure-group, and Policy Network, a European right-wing social democrat think-tank-cum-pressure-group. "Feeble group attacked by feeble union boss" isn't front-page stuff, but it's the truth.

And finally, I know it's off on a tangent, but I'm reminded of an old adage from the 1980s that was commonplace among anarchists, communists and the Labour soft left. "Rule number one: no bans or proscriptions! Rule number two: no Trots!"

17 June 2012


Like a lot of politics addicts, I’ve wasted a lot of time in recent weeks (well, months) watching the proceedings of the Leveson inquiry into the relationship between politicians and the media. And I mean wasted: hardly anything has emerged from the hours and hours of questions and answers that wasn’t already in the public sphere. Even the noteworthy moments – Rupert Murdoch’s casual statement in public for the first time that he dictates the political line of the Sun, John Major’s denial that Kelvin MacKenzie’s “bucket of shit” Black Wednesday story is true, Gordon Brown’s evasions about the activities of his spin doctors – have added little to the sum of knowledge.

Part of the problem is poor research. The inquiry has stuck to the bleeding obvious throughout, allowing key figures to perform well rehearsed set pieces. Major got away without a single question about his use of the libel law against the New Statesman; Brown and Tony Blair weren't asked to say anything about their roles in the takeover of the Statesman by Geoffrey Robinson in 1996; Brown was not questioned about his meeting with Murdoch after the Labour conference in 2007 (which the Sun had marked with a week of front pages demanding a referendum on Europe); Murdoch escaped any interrogation on his acquisition of sport broadcasting rights. And so on ad nauseam ...

To make matters much worse, there is a real danger that the whole show will come to an end – eventually – with a recommendation of statutory regulation of the press that goes well beyond limiting the share of the media one company can control. I can’t read Leveson’s mind, but we need more state interference in journalism as much as we need a dose of the clap.

15 June 2012


Paul Anderson, review of P O E M 2012, Queen Elizabeth Hall

There were 7,000 people at the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall on 11 June 1965, the high point of the 1960s alternative poetry scene in Britain, which featured – among others -- Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alexander Trocchi. Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue. Around one-tenth of that number turned out last night for P O E M 2012 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a line-up rather less star-laden, but the show demonstrated – in the end - that the spirit of 1965 still has some life in it.

What connects the two events is the poet and impresario Michael Horovitz, now in his late seventies: his contacts book was responsible for both. Horovitz, whose anthology Children of Albion, published in 1969, inspired a generation of writers and performers, fell over at the start of last night’s gig, and the first half of it was downbeat and flat, the highlight the Scottish performance poet Elvis McGonagall’s blisteringly funny demolition of David Cameron. The Liverpool veteran Brain Patten was good too, but he delivered four elegies in a row for lost comrades, which didn’t cheer anyone up. Otherwise, there was too much under-rehearsed low-energy whimsy that might just work in a pub but failed in a big auditorium.

After the interval, it got a lot better. Francesca Beard, John Hegley, Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Gwyneth Herbert delivered the goods with pzazz, and Steven Berkoff brought the house down with an extraordinary (if over-long) rant on the Queen’s jubilee. Horovitz hadn’t gathered everyone worth seeing on the performance poetry circuit by any reckoning – I’ve seen a lot better at Apples and Snakes and, particularly, Farrago – but his mojo and his contacts book are still just about working.


I've had enough of the internet free-for-all. From now, the Gauche comments policy is:
Comments are welcome, but I'm the editor, and I decide what is published. No comments will be published unless I think them worth publishing. Comments submitted anonymously or pseudonymously will be deleted unless I know the author's identity. Anything I consider racist, fatuous, boring, unoriginal, cretinous, abusive, cynical, otiose, weakly argued or irrelevant will not be published. In other words, this blog is edited for comments just like an old-fashioned newspaper letters page. If you want your comments published, they have to be succinct, well argued, grammatical and relevant. And they compete for publication with other comments. If you don't like it, you can go elsewhere.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 June 2012

I’m giving up university lecturing after 12 years and going properly freelance again – possibly a stupid act in the middle of a recession, but I’ve had enough of the mind-numbing tedium that has come to pervade academic life, of which more anon – so I’ve spent the past couple of weeks putting together an online archive of what I’ve written over the past 30 years in the hope that it might help get me a few commissions. (It’s at pandersonjournalist.blogspot.co.uk.)

Most of the articles have been stored away in a filing cabinet for years – and I’ve just re-read them for the first time in ages while correcting the scans before posting them. They are from a variety of left-wing periodicals but particularly Tribune (where I was reviews editor 1986-91 and editor 1991-93, and have written this column since 1998) and the New Statesman (where I was deputy editor 1993-96).

Anyway, it’s odd being confronted afresh with what you wrote a long time ago. There are, of course, the embarrassingly wrong predictions – but, as I’ve written before, they are so seared in the memory that they don’t exactly come as a shock when you unearth them from the pile of yellowing cuttings, however much they still make you squirm. You get much more of a surprise from the articles you’d forgotten or half-forgotten, both good and bad.

Many of these are of course about issues that were once burning but have long ceased even to smoulder: the big row over US nuclear arms in Europe after the INF treaty of 1987, the expulsion of Trotskyists from the Labour Party in 1990-91, the export of live animals from UK ports in 1995 (and so I could go on). I wonder what we worry about today that will look irredeemably quaint in 20 years’ time?


One thing I’m not tempted by after this exercise is political nostalgia for the 1980s, which my old pieces remind me were a mean, dispiriting decade for anyone on the democratic left in Britain. Not so the eight authors who reminisce about their experience of life in the Communist Party of Great Britain in its era of terminal decline in a new book, After the Party: Reflections on life since the CPGB, edited by Andy Croft and published by Lawrence and Wishart.

I was never in the Communist Party but knew a lot of people who were (Including a couple of the book’s contributors) and remember it well from the late 1970s for its poisonous internal feuding and its impotence. By then, it was torn between pro-Soviet “Tankies” based around the Morning Star and modernising “Eurocommunists” around Marxism Today, and its influence – never great even at its height in the 1940s – had been reduced to holding positions in a few unions and pressure groups. The acrimonious internal battle ended with the Euros routing the Tankies, who kept the Star and created the Communist Party of Britain. The whole farce came to an ignominious end when, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Euros turned the CPGB into a new organisation, Democratic Left, that hardly anyone joined (though much later I got very involved in its organ New Times.)

All in all, a pretty grim time, you’d think – but for the most part Croft and his contributors, all from the last cohort of CPGB members who joined during its death throes, now in their fifties and sixties, look back with some fondness and sense of loss. Well, I suppose there were some decent people in the CPGB, and Marxism Today had its moments, but reading this book gave me a rather sad picture of people desperately asserting that they hadn’t wasted a large part of their lives.


A much more upbeat read is the investigative journalist Greg Palast’s latest book, Vultures’ Picnic (Constable), a rip-roaring account of the crimes and misdemeanours of big oil corporations and their friends in high finance and government. It’s written in a first-person style that owes something to cheap crime thrillers and something to Hunter S Thompson, and is a breath of fresh air: I read it in a single sitting. Palast is doing a launch event in London next Thursday (26 June, 7pm at The Venue, ULU, Malet Street) that promises to be a great deal of fun.

6 June 2012


I've now posted 600 old pieces on my archive site,  pandersonjournalist.blogspot.co.uk, which is proof (a) that I need some work pronto and (b) that I can churn it out. Still scanning 1990, but it's nearly done. I'm going backwards, so come 1989, I've got a decision to make about publicising some really embarrassing predictions ...