Across the opinion pages: the Master, technical schools, open spaces and prisoners

Nik Darlington 2.15pm

The Times (£) has a brilliant range of comment pieces published today, worth venturing behind the paywall to read. Opinion genuinely is one of the newspaper’s USPs, along with its beautiful and accessible multi-platform digital interface.

Tuesdays typically mean Rachel Sylvester’s unmissable column, and today she plays on a favourite theme, ‘the Master’. Often enough she has commented how Conservative party modernisers afford Tony Blair deified status, his autobiography a fixture of Tory bedside tables and playbook for the contemporary political scene. This week, however, it’s all about how everyone’s wrongly reading the Blairite tea leaves, including Ed Miliband.

The truth is that Mr Blair was authentically of the centre in a way that neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband is. He was an entryist who had taken control of his party, whereas the current Tory and Labour leaders are both, in background and beliefs, far more of their tribes. The success of new Labour was based on turning this reality into a political strategy that was pursued with ruthless efficiency and consistency. Everything that Mr Blair did and said - to begin with at least - was dedicated to demonstrating that he was more at home on the middle ground than in the Labour comfort zone…

Mr Blair took office promising new Labour would be the “servants of the people”. He lost power when the perception took hold that he wanted to be a Master of the Universe and his MPs turned on him. Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband have yet shown whether they are the servants of the people or their parties.

Rough reading for both leaders, who feel the weight of the former prime minister on their shoulders in more ways than one. And a reminder, yesterday, of Mr Blair’s uncommon talents.

Meanwhile, Lord Baker, an honorary life member of the TRG, writes about “a new wave of university technical colleges”. The Government is nearly doubling the number of these colleges, which supported by universities provide technical training to pupils between 14 and 19-years-old. Britain’s school leavers need more technical nous to compete in a challenging global marketplace.

We had a few technical schools at the end of the war but these were killed off by English snobbery. Everyone wanted to go the grammar school on the hill, not the one in the town with dirty jobs and oily rags. Germany didn’t make the same mistake: they adopted and still have the 1944 English education system and it is one of the reasons why Angela Merkel is ruling the roost. These colleges are our chance to rectify that mistake.

Under the Labour government Lord Baker, a former Education Secretary himself, convinced Andrew Adonis to trial two of these UTCs. Their expansion was supported by the Conservative party at the last general election, a pledge that has been wholeheartedly fulfilled by the coalition government.

The outgoing Director-General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, eulogises on the centenary of Octavia Hill’s death. With a theme that I also used in an article earlier this year for the Richmond Magazine, Dame Fiona writes that the protection of open green spaces is a battle still being waged, and one still very much worth waging.

When [Octavia Hill] died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members. We now have four million. While she would no doubt be impressed, she would not be surprised, and she would certainly not be complacent. She believed, as we do, that beauty, nature and heritage are fundamental to the human condition. She spoke of everlasting delight. If she were here now, she would describe the past hundred years of the Trust and what we stand for as one of enduring relevance; a cause which we must never cease to pursue.

Finally, the experienced barrister and chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, writes that Britain should give in to the European Court’s ruling to award the vote to prisoners.

Far from being harmless, giving prisoners the unqualified right to vote has positive values. How better to promote peaceful coexistence in society than to remove any sense in prisoners of second-class citizenship. It is precisely what the Government is preaching in its recent legislation on sentencing reform - namely, greater efforts to make the rehabilitation of prisoners more vigorous in penal institutions.

The right of every citizen to vote is acknowledged to be a constitutional right. It is in truth not a human right but it certainly is a civil liberty guaranteed by Article 3 of Protocol No 1 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom, which the UK ratified as long ago as 1952.

Egremont has long been favourable to the Government’s principled and correct stance on penal reform, and last year we published an excellent article by the Howard League’s Sophie Willett. The ‘bang them up and lock away the key’ school of justice is outmoded and discredited; Britain’s prisons are at bursting point. That much is true.

However, the right to vote is not God-given, as Sir Louis agrees. Nor should it be beholden on any sovereign government to afford certain constitutional rights to individuals who transgress this country’s laws and bring harm to fellow citizens.

Reform the nature of a criminal’s penance, certainly; but that penance must still be served.

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Rap music plays a big part, but there is a lot else wrong with our Two Societies

Nik Darlington 10.50am

In the aftermath of this summer’s rioting, my Egremont colleague Sahar Rezazadeh wrote that music inspired gang culture has infected our streets.

The riots were a product of gang culture and nothing else. A gang culture that is inspired, encouraged and glorified by music, especially American rap music.

The rioting and looting that swept English cities had many causes and influences, though rap music and the gang culture it celebrates is undoubtedly one of them.

This is the argument given this morning in The Times (£) by Libby Purves, in an article that also offered a qualified defence of the historian David Starkey, whose ill-chosen but apt comments on Newsnight caused a brief media storm.

David Starkey was certainly an idiot to mention Enoch Powell, even though he was pointing out that Powell was wrong in his predictions, since it wasn’t black-on-white violence.

But when he said that in gang culture “white chavs have become black”, he was trying to sum up, in a pithy telly-debate way, something that everybody with ears knows perfectly well.

Listen to them on the bus, for heaven’s sake, or on the after-school trains in leafy suburbs. White kids who want to seem tough and cool do talk in Jamaican-Bronx patois, trying to sound black. A role model in this inauthentic imitation is the 53-year-old BBC disc jockey and all-white bishop’s son Tim Westwood.

…Also, in his defence, the reason Dr Starkey used the offensive word “chav” was that his fellow guest [Owen Jones] was plugging a book under that title. A clear nod towards him acknowledged that the word was the other man’s, not his.

…His comments on Newsnight were clumsy, the ensuing fracas with the other two (equally unqualified) speakers mishandled. But it would be a pity if his detractors, in their stumbling panic to announce their own non-racism, closed down all discussion of the animating lawless rhetoric of top rappers. We should not be forced to turn a blind eye, or respect gangsta material as a valid “culture”.

…Ideally, Dr Starkey should have come armed with quotations. It would have been a treat to hear him learnedly quote Gangstarr: “I make the moves, I’m never faking/ Cause the loot is for the taking.” Or B.I.G.: “I ben robbin muthaf*****s since the slave ships… I’m robbin’ bitches too, I wouldn’t give a f*** if you’re pregnant/ Give me the baby rings and the ‘I love Mom’ pendant.” Perhaps a line or two from Outsidaz: “Zee rob white guys with nice lives… I need trick money, quick money, get me real rich money… anything I wanna do, I goes and does it.”

…You reckon none of that has anything to do with the riots? That the rap culture had no influence on the twittish lad in Nottingham jailed for posting online “kill a million Fedz, riot til we own cities”? Of course gangsta rap isn’t the only reason for the riots. But it gave a language and a bravado to the hangers-on. Cultural historians should be willing to consider that, rather than pecking Dr Starkey to death like a shedful of panicking hens.

Or, to continue the bird analogy, doing like the the ostrich does and sticking your head in the sand at troubling but honest analysis. All of society - whatever that means anymore - has contributed to these developments via unrestrained economic and cultural liberalism.

Danny Kruger, a former adviser to David Cameron, put it brilliantly in an instant opinion piece for the FT (£).

London has an underclass (a hateful word to the people in it, but no worse, and more accurate, than “the poor”). To generalise brutally, they are un-nurtured, brought up in a microculture of neglect, arbitrary and erratic discipline, and love without its concomitant need for boundaries and good behaviour.

Meanwhile the wider culture - that is us - has abandoned virtue and adopted the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism. We have substituted welfare payments for relationships, rights for love, and the sterile processes of the public sector for the warm morality of living communities.

We can afford no longer to remain indifferent to the culture of gangs and rap music than we can to the twisted relationship between society and state. Or should that be societies and state? It is the condition of our Two Societies, and solutions to their problems, that Egremont will be focusing on in the coming days in a special series of features. I encourage you to watch this space.

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