ONE WAY… OR ANOTHER?

Back in early April, Theresa May called for a ‘snap’ general election and today is voting day. It’s an interesting way of running what is a pretty important national event, being able to call for an election and set a date for within six weeks time. That’s my idea of stress! But then again, perhaps we should be grateful for these ‘snap’ elections, my partner who is American had two years of lead-up before the US presidential election finally came to a close.

I landed back in the UK for my Easter break not long after May’s announcement and the conversation quickly turned to politics, with my dad asking me for my thoughts on the drive back from the airport. I said that I was surprised, especially considering that May had declared a number of times during the first months of her leadership that there would be no general election. After all, it’s just shy of a year when we voted in the EU referendum. And only a year before that was the previous general election. You have to wonder if the general public is a bit ‘electioned out’.

My parents have always been relatively private about their voting intentions and have certainly not been particularly vocal about their political leanings. With the only exception being the 1997 general election where I know that both my parents voted for New Labour. At least for them back then, something had to change and that even included telling other people about their voting plans.

Fast forward twenty years and for this election, I feel a sense of energy that I haven’t felt for some time, perhaps since the first time I was able to cast a vote in 2001. I didn’t vote in the previous two general elections and although I cannot place my rationale for this squarely at the door of apathy, that certainly played a part. But I can’t help but wonder if this newfound energy (whether that’s in me or I am feeling the buzz within wider society) is the result of feeling that there is more of a choice this time around, compared to the past two elections where it felt like each political party was more of the same.  

So I had better get my vote in.

Oh, and I am voting Labour… just in case you might be interested.

POLICIES NOT INSULTS PLEASE

The general election had barely been announced before insults were being flung from one political party to another, and one which spectacularly backfired came from the current foreign secretary, Boris Johnson who described Jeremy Corbyn as a “mutton-headed old mugwump” referring to the latter’s views on national defence.

The word ‘mugwump’ sounds like a description of a Harry Potter creation and in actual fact it is, referring to members of a confederation of wizards, including characters like Albus Dumbledore. Although it’s pretty obvious that Boris didn’t intend to label Corbyn as a wizard, or to mean Corbyn was like a ‘boss’ if you take a Native American definition of the term, rather, Boris used the term to insult the leader of the opposition.

When the story broke, I felt myself groan, along with I am sure many others. If this was an example of how the 2017 general election was going to begin, I wondered what the rest of the campaigning was going to look like. 

Will we actually hear election pledges or just a bunch of playground insults?

There are certainly far worse pejorative terms that could be flung at politicians, but the mud-slinging is not only annoying but it also trivialises many elements of the democratic process, steering people away from looking further at policies proposed.

Soon after qualifying as a teacher and before I started my first job, I completed some work experience in London working at the Palace of Westminster. I was lucky to be based right within the belly of the House of Commons assisting an education outreach group. Although most of the work took place behind closed doors working with secretary’s for various MPs, I was granted some freedom to wander the corridors of Westminster with other recently qualified teachers. We also managed to view some debates from the public gallery of the House of Commons. I was, at the time, a complete politics geek so you can probably imagine my excitement of being in the thick of it all.

In the years since my work in London, my active political engagement and enthusiasm has waned. In all honesty, I lost interest in some of the comings and goings of British politics to the point that I didn’t even bother voting in the previous two general elections. I simply couldn’t recognise in those standing for election aspects that I could believe in. One only has to take a brief look at a news clip of a debate within the House of Commons itself, particularly when the house is full to see what I mean. I completely understand and endorse the need for debate but when that consists of shouting over one another along with offensive jeering and sneering along with the occasional xenophobic and sexist remark thrown in, it becomes more like a disturbing carnival sideshow than anything politically driven.

But then that’s the point, politics often operates like a carnival side-show. Those who can shout the loudest or say something controversial are generally going to be heard first. And of course, politicians don’t operate in a bubble, the media choose what to report and how.

But as a teacher, I wouldn’t tolerate this in the classroom or in the ‘average’ workplace, so why does it occur so freely within the political sphere?

In the past year or so I have tried to address my own lack of interest, particularly since the Brexit vote (in which I did vote) but Johnson’s recent ‘mugwump’ comments have reminded me of how frustrating and childish (British) politics/politicians can be*.

I want to hear clear policies and genuine intentions, not backbiting. But then if you can distract the press and the public by throwing stones and insults, it means that there is less focus on the policies themselves, as they may well be shit.

* Obviously, the British are not isolated in this, you only need to look across the Atlantic ocean.

BREXIT MEANS BREXIT, APPARENTLY

A little thing called Brexit was triggered today, as Brexit is both a verb and a noun, or more specifically article 50 was triggered. The Treaty of Lisbon, which contains the article itself came into force in 2009 allowing member states to apply to leave the European Union. And if you listen to some areas of the media, Britain will not be the first country to do this. It means two years of negotiations between the European Union and the UK to establish what they can both get out of the deal, with what it really coming down to who is going to pay out the most or least depending on how you look at it. But it was a nice photo opportunity for Teresa May to sign official papers in Downing Street as it was also to then have these delivered to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.

In some areas of the media, the result of the EU referendum has been likened to a divorce, resulting in the subsequent dividing up of assets between opposing parties. But, my view is that the relationship is more akin to frenemies. After all, we all know what that’s like… one minute you like one another and the next minute, you don’t. The difference in this instance is that the breakup isn’t usually permanent with frenemies, unlike this situation*. 

Successive British governments, although there have been exceptions, have not found the partnership with the EU easy; they’ve squabbled, they’ve become best buddies again, there have been periods of relative calm (particularly before the economic recession in 2008), only to eventually decide to call it a day in June 2016 in a globally televised vote. I voted in the referendum and found myself gobsmacked when the final result revealed that ‘Leave’ had won by nearly 52% and with a voter turnout of over 72%, this was higher than the previous two UK general elections (65.1% in 2010 and 66.1% in 2015).

It has taken some months for things to sink in, as I, like many, battled with a number of emotions following the result. I was in the Remain camp and felt that we were better together than apart, and I still do. I am not saying that everything about the EU itself is wonderful and it exists in some magical place full of rainbows and unicorns, the EU headquarters are only in Brussels for goodness sake. But silliness aside, the EU is bureaucratic, it is bloated and I also imagine that in some areas it is also expensive to operate. But for me at least, when I think of Europe and its creation, I think of it’s central aim when it was first established – to bring countries together after a period of chaos and war.

Now, where is that magical place full of rainbows and unicorns? Any ideas?

* In theory the UK, like other countries have done in the past, can ask to join (re-join) the European Union and there are various tests a country must pass before being able to do so.

THE FUTURE PLACE OF EDUCATION

Six years ago I taught in a school that was undergoing a steady transformation, not in an ideological or pedagogical sense, but rather in its physical appearance (although you could argue that in some symbolic ways the areas are linked). The original buildings dated from the 1960s and by 2010 they were in dire need of an update for a student population of over 2000 and by general modern education standards. Aside from the general tired feeling associated with most of the rooms; many had leaky roofs, windows that you couldn’t shut, broken furniture that never seemed to get replaced despite requests, and these were the rooms that weren’t overly that bad…

… because then there were the temporary classrooms/portacabins.

Whilst the rest of the school was receiving a deep clean and facelift, the portacabins were deemed ‘fit for purpose’ by the school’s management and so were not going to be disposed of until the main building work had been completed. And around a third of my teaching took place in these.

The portacabins were simply depressing. I hated having to teach in them and I am sure that the students picked up on this despite my forced smile to the contrary. During the winter wetter months, sidelining the fact that the steps leading up to the cabins would often freeze over and therefore be a health hazard in themselves, the rooms were bitterly cold. The heating units regularly broke, resulting in both myself, colleagues and students having to wear coats in lessons (a big no-no in terms of the school uniform policy), and in some cases, I would also teach wearing gloves (an even bigger no-no). Conversely, during the warmer months, the classrooms heated up like greenhouses even with the windows and doors wide open. And you can probably imagine what a sweltering room smells like with the added potency or should I say the pungency of a bunch of teenagers!

Unfortunately, the state of crappy classrooms is nothing new. My own experiences were almost a mirror image of those I describe above but took place 20 years earlier. So I read with interest and dismay last week in the British press about the state of many school buildings that are “crumbling into disrepair” whilst money is being diverted into other projects such as the free school program. Money that is being invested into shiny new buildings or to convert brownfield sites to accommodate students, whilst existing local authorities and schools struggle to plug those leaky roofs and move students out of temporary classrooms.

I know my own experiences are only anecdotal and a building does not necessarily make an education, but it can help. It can encourage students to feel positive about their learning if the environment has some semblance of being cared for and valued, and it can allow teachers to focus on actually teaching, instead of adjusting the thermostat or their coat every few minutes.

References

BREXIT AND ME (BRIDGES NOT WALLS)

Back in June 2016, I cast my vote via proxy for the EU referendum. I did my research and read the literature where I could for both sides from various media sources. But I knew deep down that I couldn’t see the merits of leaving the EU. Having only known the UK’s presence within the EU (and lived in Spain for two years), I truly couldn’t fathom why leaving could be seen as the better option; what with the freedom of movement, and the sharing of values and culture just for starters.

In what was a historic and bold move by the original six member states: France, West Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy the European Coal and Steel Community was established following The Paris Treaty, 1951. The original treaty was intended to bring together a fractured Europe, with many countries beaten and broken following the end of World War 2. And the emphasis was to prevent war, yes that which had plagued Europe in various guises for years previously (World War 1 anyone?). Although some critics believed that the union was simply a trade protection deal, the primary aim was to establish a union between countries; to develop lasting relationships with other countries, partnerships that would transcend borders, conflicts and bring people together. The union’s subsequent expansion resulted in the UK’s membership in 1973.

Due to the time difference as the results were filtering in, I was actually at work and stood around with some of my colleagues with our hope in our throats along with our students. Lessons effectively ground to a halt once the final result of LEAVE was announced.

“I didn’t think that would happen,” said one of my students whilst staring at the whiteboard where I was projecting the results live.

Neither did I.

I was in shock and like many, it took me some time to truly comprehend the result. As the dust began to settle, I was incredulous, ‘What the fuck just happened!?’

I count myself as British, but I also count myself as European. I was someone who was part of something bigger than the individual parts. But as a British (and European) citizen who left the UK in 2012 to pursue a life and career abroad, what ‘right’ did I have a say over an EU referendum and its more common and in my opinion, truly awful neologism – Brexit?

Well, I would say I do. I am financially, professionally and personally still invested in Britain. I still contribute to the British tax system, I was educated and trained there, and it is still where my family and the vast majority of my friends live and so their lives affect me too.

In the months following the vote according to the press, the country is divided, almost literally as well as ideologically. In summary, the older the voter the more likely they were to vote Leave, and Scotland was the only country to firmly vote Remain. Those who rejoiced at the result argue that we are free from the what was seen as a bloated bureaucracy that took more than it gave, and in contrast there are those who believe that we have taken not just a (tremendous) step backwards in terms of economic, political and social progress but also a jump into the unknown.

It saddens me to see not just my country divided, but also the ideology that was touted by both sides of the campaign. The Remain camp felt that ‘common-sense’ would prevail, the general public would recognise that the merits of staying in would far outweigh being out. And as for the Leavers, their focus was primarily on the costs of EU membership (and its subsequent effects on the British economy, I wonder if socially and culturally we will actually be much much worse off?) and immigration.

The immigration card was used to good, if not to an astonishing effect that played into the hands of the politics of fear and led to a subsequent moral panic played out across and within the press. Anyone not British and therefore either already living in Britain (with full citizenship or not) or was hoping to, would be seen as either a scrounger or milking the benefits system, or if they did have a legitimate job this was at the cost of not employing someone actually born and raised in Britain. This is despite the fact that some British citizens may not have the necessary qualifications or training (an issue in itself) for said job, or they may not have wanted the job in the first place. Some areas of the Leave camp emphasised solely the cases of immigration that have affected society negatively. It would be inaccurate and misleading to say that all immigration is good, and this is perhaps where the Remain camp faltered, in their inability to present an effective balance of the issue. But the Leavers focus on this was not only disappointing but also disgusting in its rhetoric, promoting what were xenophobic views. Certainly, the rise in reported racist attacks post-referendum illustrates this.

But of course, the vote in June and the waves it created are not isolated and could well have been one of the sticks that broke the camel’s back in terms of contributing to other world events. The news that the American presidential election was won by Donald Trump in November left many, including myself feeling the same way as I did in June, if not worse. Shock led to outrage and then despair (which to an extent, I am still experiencing whenever I look at the news). The now president’s views echo those of the Leave camp, though in a large part taking these aspects to a far more extreme and disturbing edge.

Since June and more recently, I have been forced to change my view of some aspects of the world; socially, politically and culturally. I never thought for a moment that the UK would vote to leave the European Union (naively, I did think that ‘common-sense’ would prevail), and nor did I believe that Trump would win the American presidential election (again, common-sense and all that…). The repercussions of which will be felt and will reverberate for years (decades) to come.

Note: this post was originally written early in the New Year before yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that Article 50 cannot be enacted until there is a vote by Parliament

 

FURTHER READING: