Convicted: Max Clifford arrives at Southwark Crown Court ahead of his sentencing, 2 May. Photo: Getty
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Failing the teachers, misjudging Max Clifford and Thomas Piketty’s bestselling shelf-filler

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Ann Maguire, the teacher stabbed to death by a pupil at a Catholic secondary school in Leeds, was dedicated, devout, patient, caring and inspiring, “the mother of the school”, always striving for “excellence”. Those are just a few of the descriptions used by newspapers. And I do not question for one moment that Maguire deserved them.

That is not how newspapers and politicians, particularly those of a right-wing persuasion, normally write about state school teachers. More often, we are told that, enslaved to left-wing ideology, teachers instruct children in atheism and immorality, tolerate low standards and don’t work hard enough. We shall hear many suggestions about who or what was to “blame” for Maguire’s tragic death. (My answer would be the boy who used the knife but nobody wants to leave it at that.) Permissive liberal values, welfare benefits, violent video games, social media and the abolition of corporal punishment will, most likely, be among the alleged culprits.

Nobody will mention the routine denigration of teachers by politicians and the media. Yet that must bear some responsibility for the growing instances of both pupils and parents refusing to accept teachers’ authority and sometimes resorting to violence to make their point.

 

Double shock

Unearthing journalists’ faulty predictions and poor judgements is always enjoyable. To my delight, I once discovered that the Sun, in a fawning interview in 1973, described Gary Glitter (later imprisoned for sexual offences against children) as “the rock’n’roll daddy who makes little girls ask to see more of his hairy chest”. So before anybody else finds out, I will reveal that, during my editorship, the NS ran an article under the headline “Max Clifford is a nice chap shock”. We reported that Clifford, who has just been convicted of sexually abusing four girls, was a man of “private modesty . . . committed to public service” whose “personal life has been a paragon of virtue”. Since this was in 2000, we don’t even have the excuse that it was the 1970s.

 

Automatic for the people

Since I love travelling on trains, I should be delighted that the bill for the HS2 rail link sailed through its Commons second reading. But I keep hearing about driverless cars. Google’s prototype has driven 700,000 miles around California and several manufacturers envisage such vehicles being on the market by 2020. Audi has demonstrated a car that drops you off, parks itself and returns when summoned by an app.

People opt for rail because they can read, work, eat, make calls or gaze at scenery while travelling. Driverless cars will reduce those advantages and, I should think, particularly appeal to the expense-account executives at whom HS2 is mainly aimed. Has anybody in the government thought about this?

 

Undermining aristocrats

Visiting relatives in Derbyshire, my wife and I took a detour north of Sheffield to Wentworth Woodhouse, recently opened to the public. It is sometimes called “the Buckingham Palace of the north” but it would perhaps be better to call the Queen’s metropolitan pad the Wentworth Woodhouse of the south. Most of the house, covering 2.5 acres, was built by 18th-century Whigs. It eventually passed to the Fitzwilliams who made fortunes out of the Barnsley coal seam that their estates happened to straddle.

The guides speak venomously of Emanuel Shinwell’s role in the house’s decline. As Labour’s fuel and power minister in the late 1940s, he ordered open cast mining in the Wentworth gardens right up to the walls of the house, undermining its foundations. As the coal was of poor quality and the Fitzwilliams were considered relatively enlightened mine owners, Shinwell was (and is) accused of vandalism and class hatred.

I’m with Shinwell. He showed that he didn’t fear upsetting those who had previously been the nation’s unquestioned rulers. A bit of rough justice was necessary to break centuries-old habits of British deference. I wish Labour’s present leaders had a fraction of Shinwell’s spirit.

 

Greek to me

One effect of the internet is that, with sufficient hype, a book can become a bestseller before anyone has thought about whether they actually want to read it. I think this has happened to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. If you picked it up in a bookshop, you would soon realise that it’s a dense economics tome, with graphs, equations featuring Greek letters and 76 pages of notes. On the net, you just click. I fear that, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Piketty’s book will have many more buyers than readers. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.