When people talk of war, the first image conjured is often of a battlefield thousands of miles away, greeted by the steady rainfall of bombs. But there are other more subtle wars taking place each day, which can be brutal in their effects upon any given individual. One of these, which has become particularly vicious in this time of global economic discontent, is the war on empathy. The war on empathy, waged by politicians who lack the imagination or the sensitivity to think of compassionate solutions to the world’s problems, dictates that every time that society suffers as a whole, a smaller and defenceless group must be identified by political rhetoric or policy as the culprit. The war on empathy dictates, for example, that the lack of jobs is not attributable to the financial crash or the automation of many occupations, but is instead the fault of immigrants coming to our shores and stealing them. The war on empathy is waged by soldiers who lack any emotional connection with people whose monthly wages have fallen far behind inflation and the cost of living. It is waged by soldiers who look contemptuously upon those who have not attained their own levels of affluence or social status, and accordingly punish them for it. The war on empathy commits acts of structural violence against its targets, and it is the most dangerous bombless war that you will ever see.
Archive for Politics
I read with interest Michael Gove’s article in the Daily Mail, where he defended the changes that his Government has made to the UK’s history curriculum. He writes that these changes “have been welcomed by top academics as a way to give all children a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.” Mr. Gove is particularly concerned by what he sees as left-wing revisionism about World War I, which by many has “been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”
It is understandable that Mr. Gove, at a time when public trust in institutions is crumbling, would want to mount a vigorous defence of those in positions of power. After all, he might argue, it is all too easy to snipe at those in charge. Gove contends further that “our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country…There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance.”
I hope, in time, that this open debate extends to a thorough discussion of the British Empire in the curriculum. I wish that I had learned more about, for example, the Scramble for Africa during my GCSEs, yet despite the crucial role of imperialism in shaping our modern world it was largely absent from our syllabus. At school we had a good look at the Indian Mutiny, and the end of slavery, and that was about it. It always seemed odd to me how I could have gone through my adolescence without studying a period so pivotal in this country’s fortunes: particularly since the Scramble occurred in the thirty year period immediately prior to the World War I (and provided the Allies with many of the resources it would need to fight it).
Mr. Gove is rightly concerned that certain narratives may find themselves erased from the versions of history that we see in schools, and welcomes the fact that “the numbers of young people showing an appetite for learning about the past, and a curiosity about our nation’s story, is growing once more. ” Of course, there are elements of that past which many people may find an uncomfortable read. As the Guardian noted in April 2012,
“Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded…Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.”
The article continues:
“Among the documents are a handful which show that many of the most sensitive papers from Britain’s late colonial era were not hidden away, but simply destroyed. These papers give the instructions for systematic destruction issued in 1961 after Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies, directed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”, that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers”, that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government”.
Regrettably, this country’s Government has erased some inconvenient truths from history. Boris Johnson, as concerned as his colleague Mr. Gove that the tale of World War One is being cynically rewritten, wrote in the Telegraph that “one of the reasons I am a Conservative is that, in the end, I just can’t stand the intellectual dishonesty of the Left. In my late teens I found I had come to hate the way Lefties always seemed to be trying to cover up embarrassing facts about human nature, or to refuse to express simple truths – and I disliked the pious way in which they took offence, and tried to shoosh you into silence, if you blurted such a truth.”
Mr. Johnson continues:
“We all want to think of the Germans as they are today – a wonderful, peaceful, democratic country…The Germans are as they are today because they have been frank with themselves, and because over the past 60 years they have been agonisingly thorough in acknowledging the horror of what they did.” (My italics)
I hope, in that vein, that Britain begins to interrogate its imperial past with the same rigour that Mr. Gove and Mr. Johnson have demanded of World War One’s historians. If we are indeed to look back into the past with a fearless spirit of inquiry, then our gaze should rest there too.
I have been thinking a lot about privilege recently. Privilege, I think, is not inherently a problem. The problem comes only when people who have no experience of a particular prejudice – racism, classism, sexism, and so on – act in a way which belittles the predicaments of those who are directly affected by it. These acts are often unconscious, but that doesn’t make their effects any less dangerous. I wrote the piece below in response to the fact that Parliament has only just had its first debate on the disproportionate deaths of black and ethnic minority people in custody, despite this topic being the subject of tireless campaigns for years. I suspect that the exercise of privilege, be it conscious or subconscious, is a primary reason why it has taken so long for this debate to come before our country’s politicians.
“The First Law of Privilege”
They make you ashamed of your rage.
They call you the angry black man,
The hysterical woman,
The paranoid Jew.
They make you stand in fire,
Then complain when you yell about the heat.
“What are you playing the race card for?” –
But I have never known a membership card
That has closed so many doors.
They cause or prolong your pain,
Then tell you how it should be expressed;
If you don’t do so politely,
Then your case will be dismissed –
They talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you,
Talk over you –
Then get surprised when you shout.
They don’t think:
“We ignored them,
So they had to scream it out.”
For this is what The First Law of Privilege dictates:
That what to you is daily strife
Is, to them, mere debate.
Today was a day of contrasts. I began it by considering the words of Godfrey Bloom, a Member of the European Parliament for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who stated his displeasure that so much foreign aid was going to “bongo bongo land”. I continued my day by going to watch A Season In The Congo at The Young Vic, a superb production led by the dignity and magnificence of Chiwetel Ejiotor in the lead role. (The play, should you wish to see it, is the story of Congo’s independence; and of the horrifying death of Patrice Lumumba, that nation’s first Prime Minister, at the hands of Joseph Mobutu’s troops. ) And here I am now. It’s later than I would like, and so this post may be somewhat less coherent than I would wish. But, whilst these contrasts remain fresh, I feel that a few things must be noted.
The first thing is that I think that Godfrey Bloom’s comments, for which he subsequently expressed regret, are spectacularly racist. To dismiss Africa, a continent of over fifty nations, as “bongo bongo land”, is to conjure an image of several million generic dark-skinned beggars anxiously squeezing at the benevolent British teat. It implies an image of countless people, somewhere over there, unaccountably waiting for colonial charity. That image is both wrong and offensive (of which more later).
The second thing is that UKIP’s statement on Mr. Bloom’s comments is perhaps more revealing than the original comments themselves. Steve Crowther, the party’s chairman, stated that “it doesn’t sound like anyone banging drums. It sounds like a shorthand way of saying places around the world which are in receipt of foreign aid. It’s not in itself the right word and it could seem disparaging to people who come from foreign countries and that‘s why I’ve asked him not to do it again”.
Mr. Crowther’s words read as a reluctant, tactical retraction, and not as a heartfelt apology. They read as a partial apologia for the type of attitudes that endorsed Britain’s imperial adventures from a conveniently remote distance. Mr. Crowther – like his colleague Mr. Bloom – still seems happy to cast African countries as some sort of unwitting dependant, and in doing so blithely brushes over the oppressions to which these countries were once so brutally subjected.
Reflecting upon A Season In The Congo, I think that this is why I took issue with Mr. Bloom’s words. After all, it’s not as if Congo and other African countries begged to be tied to the master’s yoke. And if those countries did end up receiving aid from Britain and other colonial powers, that’s only because their economies were so shattered by enslavement and slaughter that they ended up needing loans – not mere no-strings handouts, as UKIP would have us believe – so that they could ostensibly sustain themselves as viable trading partners (or, more accurately, as supine pastures for exploitation). In fact, there’s an argument that whatever financial aid Britain provides to these countries, it can never truly be enough to compensate for the horror wrought on these lands in the name of civilisation. All the money in the world cannot wholly replace the generations that were lost to bloodletting and bondage.
So, if we can, let’s depart from this narrative of passive African dependency: because it is as false as it is offensive. And let’s continue to ask ourselves why the UK’s leading political parties are willing to let UKIP, a party playing so fast and loose with historical facts, dictate the terms of our increasingly poisonous immigration debate.
Now here’s something that I found surprising. After the Home Office’s vans had dragged the topic of immigration into a yet more unsavoury place, we were informed by The Sunday Times that Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Party’s chief election strategist, did not approve of their deployment. To quote the article,
“[Lynton Crosby] has suggested that the Home Office’s scheme for “go home” vans targeting illegal immigrants is flawed and has backfired…In a private meeting he indicated that the vans were playing into the hands of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, by focusing the debate on the “tactics not the issue”.” [My italics.]
Hmmm. I would believe this, but for the fact that Mr. Crosby has previously been instrumental in focusing the immigration debate on the “tactics not the issue”. Mr. Crosby helped to guide John Howard to four victories in Australia’s general election, and it is the win in 2001 that is most instructive here. Then, during a campaign where immigration was a key concern among voters, Mr. Crosby, in the words of The Independent, “was linked to claims…that asylum seekers had thrown children overboard to drown in order to secure safe passage into the country.” These claims were subsequently found to be false, by which time Mr. Crosby’s party had won the election.
On the one hand, we could step away from this supposition, and say that Mr. Crosby has been unfairly tarred with stigmatising foreign visitors to his party’s shores. On the other hand, we could also note that Mr. Crosby’s tenures as a party’s chief electoral strategist do seem to coincide with that party’s alarmingly sharp spikes in anti-immigration words and deeds. Given that he is a man renowned for his strategic brilliance and tight control of messaging, it seems very unlikely that the Home Office’s series of controversial tweets and the presence of immigration control vans on the streets emerged without his knowledge or consent.
Here’s what I think: and I could be wrong, but here goes. I think that these tweets and these vans (to say nothing of the UK Border Agency’s requests for people’s papers) were all part of Mr. Crosby’s intention to test the water, to see whether there was a public appetite for severe anti-immigration policies. I say this because of the relatively low expenditure that was put into this exercise. All that it cost the Conservative party was a few tweets, and a few vans on the street.
If we look at the UK Home Office’s twitter account, the number of “suspected #immigrationoffenders [my italics]” being arrested was hardly dramatic; just 139 nationwide on 1st August 2013. This doesn’t look like a widespread crackdown: if illegal immigration really is the epidemic that the rhetoric suggests, then this figure would presumably be higher. No: instead, this felt like an experiment, conducted well in advance of the election, to see just how far this wedge could be driven into one of our society’s carefully-developed wounds.
On that analysis, those tweets and accompanying photos of those vans weren’t directed at Twitter. Instead, they were projected beyond London, where Mr. Crosby assisted Boris Johnson to two electoral victories as the city’s mayor, to a less diverse population far less comfortable with all this multicultural stuff. The resounding negativity with which these actions have been received have forced the Conservative Party to take a slightly milder tack on immigration. Moreover, their failure – for now? – has led Mr. Crosby to distance himself from them. After all, it’s either that, or accepting the gleeful charge from Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, that the vans were “an astonishingly stupid idea”. Mr. Crosby must now retreat and to calibrate his message more carefully for the heartland: to outflank UKIP whilst keeping the right number of centrist voters in his camp.
Now, some might argue that they see nothing wrong with the Conservative Party’s tweets, vans and spot checks. To them, I would reply that the mere lack of the correct documents does not justify public humiliation: and, moreover, if we’re going to target suspected offenders in this fashion, then why not do the same for those who are suspected to have evaded tax? Why single out immigrants? Some might also say that we should move on: that we should accept Mr. Crosby’s version of events, that it was not he who approved these actions but rather the Minister of Immigration Mark Harper, who was being somewhat overzealous in the prosecution of his duties.
Hey: maybe I should relax. But in truth, there’s nothing about this episode that gives me any cause for comfort; or which suggests that, in the months approaching the 2015 general election, we won’t see the resurfacing of such unpleasant narratives.
Lately I have been thinking that maybe manners are overrated.
Yesterday, on Twitter, I was having a vigorous yet polite online debate with someone about the right of same-sex couples to adopt. My opponent was unsure about the wisdom of letting gay people raise children, and wanted to see research that children would not be adversely affected by the experience. I was in the process of patiently deploying my arguments when, all of a sudden, someone else who had become furious at my opponent suddenly interjected.
“Fuck off”, he tweeted.
After a short and angry exchange, their conversation ended, and we returned to ours.
Here’s the thing. I was raised to believe that he who loses his temper loses the argument. But every now and then I’m not so sure. As I continued the debate, it rapidly became clear that my opponent wasn’t as interested as I’d hoped in the empirical data that I was offering him. There was ample and recent research, after all, that gay people can raise kids just as well as straight ones. What my opponent seemed to be doing, in the face of the facts, was expressing his discomfort at the rapid pace of social change. Yes, same-sex marriage was absolutely fine; but same-sex adoption just seemed a bit much, a bit too soon.
In my gut I felt rage at the implication that my sexual orientation, of itself, made me less fitting a parent than someone else. Nevertheless, I chose to argue my case with remorseless logic. However, I am not sure what I achieved. I don’t think that I came remotely close to changing his mind. And I fear that my relatively placid tone may have made him feel that this was merely an energetic disagreement, an abstract matter for elegant after-dinner debating contests. I may, in my own way, have enabled an enduring and casual prejudice.
In the hours that followed, I long wondered whether “Fuck off” is sometimes the most eloquent response. Fury can be a tool for progress. It may not score intellectual points, but it may have a greater value in certain cases: it lets people know in the most visceral way of the daily oppressions and disadvantages that people suffer.
This is why, though I can’t bring myself to embrace the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel, I can see its power; and, moreover, its value. Temperamentally, I don’t really do boycotts. My instinct is always to engage in conversation, to drive relentlessly towards consensus. After all, at least these sides are interested in meaningful conversation: as opposed to, say, the bloodbath in Syria, or the situation brewing nastily in Bahrain. The problem with my approach, though, is that it presupposes a desire for social progress, as opposed to what increasingly looks like the eternal delaying tactic of vigorous, polite and elegant after-dinner debates.
By contrast, the academic boycott of Israel represents a “Fuck off”. It represents a refusal to deal in any intellectual way with a state that refuses to address adequately the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. I believe that the longer this refusal continues, the more that the gangrene of anti-Semitism will continue to fester in the wound, taking that land further from a peaceful long-term solution. I have also believed for much of my life that constant engagement in debate is the best way to address this problem. But I look at the urgency with which BDS is being received, at the speed with which it is shaping the public conversation, and increasingly I am not so sure.
So: Syria. I first started following the story of the Syrian revolution, which began as a peaceful uprising, early last year. I started by reading the Twitter accounts of @edwardedark, @wissamtarif (who later received significant criticism, and so whom I set aside), and a few others. Through them, I learned of protests brutally suppressed by the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad; through them, I learned of unrest that evolved into the ugliest of armed conflicts, with the stories of cruelty that emerged often overwhelming. As it stands, the death toll has now exceeded an official total of 60,000, and with the variety of armed actors now operating within the country’s borders that doesn’t look set to stop climbing anytime soon.
So here we are a few months later. I’m now relying mostly on @jenanmoussa, @edwardedark, and @NMSyria for my updates on what’s happening there. And I think I have learned a lesson. As someone with a background in (and a passion for) communications, I had always assumed that raising awareness of a social issue was the primary path to its solution. But now I’m not so sure. For the best part of a year I have been forwarding links about Syria, and during that time I have seen many people switch off from this conflict. Including, at times, myself.
One YouTube video will stay with me: a boy, looking blankly at the camera, with his jaw blown clean away. The damage looked beyond reconstruction. Watching it at the time I was fine. Later that night, though, it hit me. I was brushing my teeth, and as I looked in the mirror I remembered that boy’s image. Before I knew it, I was in tears. I feel foolish to relate it now, but in my mind I found myself apologising to the boy for a world in which such a vicious fate could befall him. Instead of being spurred to action by the tales of new atrocities from Syria, maybe endless stream of horror has actually had a numbing effect. The slaughter itself has served to perpetuate the slaughter.
I wonder why this is. I suspect it is because, thousands of miles away with no direct recourse to a remedy, the easiest available option is to switch off. Extreme violence carries a taboo all of its own, which is perhaps why the media will readily display a starving child on our TV screens but will not so often show bodies torn apart by explosions. Maybe it’s one thing to see a human being suffering on TV, but it’s quite another to see a person reduced by weaponry to a form that is no longer recognisably human.
I wonder if this is the lie behind why so many of us must switch off: that those 60,000 Syrians dead didn’t die peacefully with their eyes shut but, instead, in paralysing fear, or in unimaginable agony. I don’t think that many people are looking away out of apathy. I think they are looking away out of a sense of helplessness, and perhaps a sense of their own good fortune, that they were not born into such a struggle at such a time. Many of my family fled from Uganda when Idi Amin was gearing up towards his worst, and perhaps I have inherited some of their desire for the quiet life, their gratefulness for a calmer climate abroad. Looking out of my window, into a suburban garden that could not be a more peaceful scene, I am readily reminded that my own connection with what is happening in Syria may only ever be an exercise in sympathy.
Sympathy is probably no use to anyone, but perhaps it is a start. In the end, I think I have written this only to commemorate the unending procession of the dead, as every day I read of a new batch of casualties, always in double figures and very often in triple figures, in Aleppo, Damascus, Houla, Hama or Homs. If attention is as much as I feel that I can pay right now, then I must at least pay that.
Dr. Denis Mukwege, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a truly great human being. From all accounts that I have so far read and heard of him, he is tireless, inspirational and selfless. And that is what is so worryingly familiar about his narrative. The very real danger, unless entirely clear steps are taken, is that he will end up as yet another Great African Martyr.
Two days ago, Dr. Mukwege survived an attempt on his life. A group of armed men burst into his home, held his two young daughters and their friend at gunpoint, and killed a man who worked for him. It is fair to conclude that he was targeted because of his extraordinary work.
For the last decade and a half Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues have treated around 30,000 women for violent sexual injuries sustained during his country’s brutal internal conflict. The founder of the world-renowned but poorly-funded Panzi hospital has also travelled the globe as an advocate for women’s rights, and it is due to his outspoken nature that someone now seeks his life. To take but one example, please read his short and powerful address to the United Nations on September 25 this year, where he eschewed easy platitudes and instead spoke of the unacceptable state of affairs in the modern DRC:
“This has been going on for 16 years! 16 years of errancy; 16 years of torture; 16 years or mutilation; 16 years of the destruction of women, the only vital Congolese resources; 16 years of destruction of an entire society.” (My italics.)
The rest of the piece can be seen at this link. Yet, as can be seen above, whilst many salivate over the material wealth deep within the DRC’s soil, Dr. Mukwege correctly recognises that a country’s true wealth will always be its people. Such a vision is compelling and rare, and must be nurtured as far as possible.
The fact that Dr. Mukwege narrowly escaped with life should throw all of his exceptional efforts into into the sharpest focus. Few people are renowned for their medical skills, their campaigning and their compassion. Dr. Mukwege is renowned for all three. There are two simple steps that the international community, whom he criticised elsewhere in his UN speech for their “fear and lack of courage”, must now take to protect him and his unique gifts. First, they can provide him and his family with appropriate security for as many years as he needs it. Secondly, they can provide him and colleagues with unrestricted funding, or “core support”, for their hospital in Bukavu for the next few years. It is only with this certainty of both safety and financial resources that his essential work can continue unabated.
The Great African Martyr is a shadow that hangs over much of the continent’s recent history. So many of its most-loved sons and daughters were brutally murdered before they had a chance to complete their humanitarian deeds, for which Africa today is undoubtedly far poorer. The most resonant memory to my mind is that of Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was bludgeoned to death by Idi Amin and his henchmen in the Seventies. But there are so many others. People who struggled on against the odds whilst the world looked on anxiously, but ultimately from a comfortable distance: and whom, when they each met a demise of unutterable cruelty, the world then mourned and for the most part gently forgot.
This cannot happen to Dr. Mukwege. He cannot be someone whom we wistfully remember at dinner parties and conferences for years to come. His rightful place is not as some premature photo on a dusty mantelpiece. No. We have had too many Great African Martyrs, and he will not be another. The women who he has helped and will carry on helping need him far too much for that: Africa needs him far too much for that. So I propose that the legacy of this attempted assassination should be that he lives until old age, happy and healthy, with the money and the safety that he needs to fulfil his mission. All in favour, please say “Aye”.
Wow. Well, well, well. A truly euphoric day spent in the Olympic Park, on the last day of the Games’ athletics programme. And now, the next morning, I’m sitting with my laptop propped on my duvet, trying to write before the pleasure of the previous twenty-four hours inevitably fades. It feels like the final day of one of the best vacations I have ever taken.
These two weeks have been an impossible high that will soon subside. And that’s fine. No feeling of ecstasy can truly endure. After all, even the greatest love affairs can’t maintain their initial breathlessness. There are those first two weeks of almost every golden relationship when you can’t keep your eyes or your hands away from the other person. However, after that glorious fortnight, your senses need to return to the world around you, much as you may still be loved-up. Hey, there are bills to pay and jobs to do.
But, like all great loves, the memory of this moment must endure. Yesterday, I saw a version of Britain that I rarely see in the media. And it was thrilling. I saw volunteers, regularly working 14-15 hour days, powered by little more than pride in this city and their country and the warmth of their new community of peers. I saw architecture as inspiring as anything I have seen in and around New York’s Central Park. I saw people united in their love of competitors who actually seemed to become more humble the more that they achieved.
I also saw an Olympic Park that too few people were able to experience. I had friends frantically contacting me at the last minute, asking me to help them sell wildly overpriced tickets that they had bought in haste. I heard of local children who had worked on this project for three years prior to the arrival of the Games, but who were not granted the chance to step into the Park to see the extraordinary culmination of their efforts.
I saw fervent commerce: a monolithic McDonalds in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, a steady diet on whose fast food would be one sure way to deny admission as an athlete. By contrast, I heard of Leyton market-traders sold expensive licences on the promise of Olympic business that never emerged.
All this, both good and bad, was the legacy of the Games. The story of a truly astonishing spectacle made by countless hands; and the story of those who were swept aside as it was created.
Last night I watched Mo Farah win the men’s 5,000 metres final on a screen the size of a shopping mall, surrounded by thousands of similarly elated Brits. For only the second time in my life – the first being the election of President Barack Obama, given the symbolism of that occasion – I was moved by a public spectacle to tears of joy. That joy is fleeting, even though it still simmers in me as I write now. It has lasted long enough, though, to remind me that there is a Britain out there which celebrates the good achievements of people regardless of where their parents came from; that there is a Britain out there, far from the sneering mouths of many, which lauds its often-lambasted youth for their wonderful work ethic. It is a reminder that I needed, as it is a Britain that I do not see nearly enough of in public discourse. For now, the memory of Mo will have to do.
On Saturday I went back to my university for the retirement lunch of one of my tutors, Professor Mark Freedland. In a 40-year career at St. John’s College, Oxford, Professor Freedland not only earned a reputation as one of the world’s leading academics in the field of labour law, but also found time to teach and mentor many students from a great diversity of backgrounds. Several of the college’s alumni had driven hundreds of miles to be there, some had flown in from farther afield, and all of us in that hall were overflowing with praise and thanks.
It’s difficult with words to do justice – pun reluctantly intended – to the positive impact that Professor Freedland has had on the lives of countless people, the overwhelming majority of whom he will never meet. At the same time, his manner was a constant lesson in how to convey authority: calmly, quietly, with dignity. He is also one of the few people I have met who speaks in prose: before he begins each sentence, you can see him pause briefly to select the ideal words and the perfect order that they will invariably take, like Quincy Jones pondering the final tracklisting for Thriller.
Professor Freedland, it is probably clear by now, is someone for whom I have the greatest respect, and so when he rose to speak I paid close attention to his remarks. Having kindly thanked us for attending, he reflected humorously on his time as a tutor, and then closed by briefly expressing a wish that the state might, at some point in the future, rethink its decision to raise tuition fees for university students.
For some reason, Professor Freedland’s polite suggestion affected me far more than any passionate polemic that I have thus far heard against the tripling of tuition fees. I think this is because, until now, I have felt a sense of futility about public protest: a sense that, once a policy is implemented (or, perhaps more accurately, imposed), it is irreversible. That once rail is privatised, there is no going back: that once healthcare is privatised, there is no going back: that once higher education is no longer subsidised, there is no going back.
But this is wrong: and Professor Freedland was right. This policy is not irreversible. That is what U-turns are for. To raise tuition fees for higher education so dramatically is to make an explicit statement about the type of society that you would like to see. A society where people, for the mere want of money, are unable to reach their academic potential. Many people will contend that it is better that the state does not subsidise Mickey Mouse courses for students: in which case, we should fund more and better courses, with more and better supervision of those courses.
This all sounds very simple. And I think it is, really. Anyone with children, or anyone – be they sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle – who has ever assumed any responsibility for children, will know the desire to do anything to give them the best possible platform for success in life. Education is one such platform. And for all the talk of there being little or no money for such a subsidy, it does seem that the state has been reassuringly good, even in this time of recession, at finding huge sums of money for prestigious events.
This is just a thought, just as Professor Freedland’s comments on this issue were just an afterthought. I thank him profusely for his last lesson: for reminding me of my idealism that an excellent university education should be affordable to all, and one day will be again. And if you’re ever walking through Oxford one afternoon, and you’d like to say hi to Professor Freedland, you should look out for him very carefully. He’s grey-haired, grey-suited and bespectacled; but there are quite a few of those guys about. To make absolutely sure it’s him, simply strike up a casual conversation, and if he doesn’t pause to punctuate his speech with an “umm” or an “aaah” then you’ve got your man. If you don’t do that, then you’ll miss him, as the university’s students most surely will.