In this week’s New Statesman: The intervention trap

Olivier Roy asks: "As France and Britain are lured into Africa, what is al-Qaeda planning?" PLUS: Bryan Appleyard on the entitlement of the super-rich.

Olivier Roy: The intervention trap

In our cover story this week Olivier Roy – head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence – writes in an exclusive essay on al-Qaeda in Africa. The French and British military action in Mali misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the ambitions of al-Qaeda. The complexities of al-Qaeda across Africa, and France’s multilayered reasons for intervening in the Malian conflict, leave few clear answers. He writes:

It is clear that we are still stuck in the kind of semantic and political confusion introduced by the Bush administration when it launched its “war on terror” after the 11 September 2001 attacks . . .

There is nothing new or distinctive about the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) or any of the other small bands of international jihadists operating in the Sahel. The groups linked to al-Qaeda are nomadic, almost by definition – they are not anchored in the societies in which they operate.

The composition of the group that attacked the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria is a case in point: its members were from several different countries and of various races, and also included converts . . .

It would be absurd for the French to think that they could evict al-Qaeda from the Maghreb by occupying territory: al-Qaeda would simply regroup a little further away. And if the aim is the destruction of these groups, that is also absurd. Given the small numbers of fighters involved (a few hundred) and given that al-Qaeda recruits internationally, it would be easy for them to take flight, to cross borders or to return to London or Toronto in jeans and without beards . . .

Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin said. In spite of the moralising, the ideological posturing, the junk geopolitical strategising (the west against Islamic terrorism) which has held politicians, journalists and the military captive for a decade, though it has been continually disproved by events, the old problems will return . . .

Bryan Appleyeard: The age of entitlement.

The new super-rich have no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society, says the award-winning journalist Bryan Appleyard in the NS Essay this week. In an impassioned piece on the “rising narcissism” and impunity of those who made their wealth in rogue finance, Appleyard argues that we have entered a new “age of entitlement”, where the super-rich live in a “mirror-lined” and “legally protected” bubble.

Perhaps it was ever thus: the rich have always been different. But that’s not true. Some­thing big, something moral, has changed . . .

“Shocking” is too soft a word to describe the crimes of the financial sector. They are almost thrilling in their creative abundance . . . loading the world economywith ever greater levels of risk and throwing millions of people out of work. And so on. All the time, they were enriching nobody but themselves. The banks and their buddies have been on a crime spree that would have glazed over the eyes of Al Capone . . .

I witnessed the cult’s apotheosis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 1990s – I sat in on a meeting at which sharky young businessmen more or less said they would trample on their grandmothers for the sake of the bottom line. Viciousness had been validated. That is the enduring view in the financial sector. “There is no incentive in the financial world,” a very prominent insider told me, “to be moral . . .”

The new entitled live in a mirror-lined bubble. Also a legally protected one. I was told of a hedge-fund boss so vile that investors withdrew their money but did not sue, because other hedge funds would then refuse to do business with them. On top of that, they are protected in Britain by libel laws and a tax system that, as John Lanchester [the author of Capital] points out, not only shields our own entitled from scrutiny but also encourages equally entitled foreigners to come here . . .

“You might as well say, ‘Bond villains, come and live here,’ ” he [Lanchester] says. “Our libel laws don’t help. There are a lot of zillionaires about whom we are going to read the truth uncensored only when they are dead. It’s an astonishing situation, when we have such a proliferation of incredibly rich criminals.”

Kathleen Jamie: The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom. With the vote timed for the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the battle that “secured [Scotland’s] independence and confirmed its national identity”, the poet Kathleen Jamie – who was invited to compose words to be inscribed on the new Bannockburn memorial – writes, in a Letter from Stirling:

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men . . .

It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”.

The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

PLUS:

 

Rafael Behr: The Tories are blinded by rage against the Lib Dems, while Labour’s cold fury is thawing

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr says the Conservatives are “fantasising about governing beyond 2015, without the shackles of coalition”, but notes that at the same time Labour’s post-election fury towards the Liberal Democrats is thawing. Read his piece in full on our website here.

Craig Raine: On Manet’s subtle sexuality

It would be impossible to paint ‘modern life’ without touching on the touchy subject of sex. Manet’s Olympia (1863) tried the direct address – the barely defiant ‘so what?’ of the courtesan, the sack artist, the cool professional – and ran into even more trouble.

Laurie Penny: Can Rihanna videos really turn a girl into a knicker-dropping strumpet?

The language of ‘sexualisation’ as employed by professional pearl-clutchers such as the Tory MP Claire Perry, implicitly assumes that sex is always something done to a woman rather than something we do… By this measure, a young girl merely has to leaf through a copy of Cosmo or stumble upon a Rihanna video on YouTube and wham, that’s it: sexualized. Ruined forever. Nothing to be done.

In the Critics:

  • Jonathan Derbyshire reviews The Scientists: a Family Romance by Marco Roth
  • Kate Mossman reviews A Prince Among the Stones: That Business With the Rolling Stones and Other Adventures by Prince Rupert Loewenstein
  • Alexandra Harris reviews Paul Kildea’s major new biography of Benjamin Britten
  • Novelist Toby Litt reviews Tracey Thorn’s memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen
  • Ryan Gilbey is not wholly convinced by Robert Zemeckis’s new film, Flight.
  • Rachel Cooke sings the praises of Jonathan Meades’s new documentary for BBC4, The Joy of Essex
  • Will Self's Real Meals column

And much more.

Read further in our “In the Critics this Week” blog here.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands and online available for purchase here.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”