Free Scots: The Great University Fee Non-Debate

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The SNP rolled back student tuition fees legislation in 2008 by passing The Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland). This established the right for Scottish-born citizens, or legal residents within Scotland, to receive a free higher education at any of the Scottish Universities. However the policy prevents those born in other parts of the UK from enjoying similar privileges at Scottish institutions, whilst, thanks to EU interstate policy, allowing students from other EU countries to benefit from financially unfettered access. In the light of increases in tuition fees expected at most of the English, Northern Irish and Welsh Universities in 2012, questions are beginning to be asked as to whether the Scottish policy is fair and tenable.

 

On the 28th February 2008 the Scottish Parliament, led by the SNP for the first time, flexed its new-found muscle and abolished the Education (Graduate Endowment and Student Support) Act 2001 (Scotland), that had been implemented by the initial Labour/Lib Dem coalition in the Parliament’s inaugural term. The 2001 Act had been a response to the Cubie Committee’s report on higher education funding in Scotland, that suggested a fee repayment model post-graduation, rather than the up-front fee delivery and loan system required by the 1998 UK-wide Teaching and Higher Education Act, introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government (but originally recommended by The 1997 Dearing Report, commissioned by John Major’s Conservative government). By passing the Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill (Scotland), the SNP were further emphasising a growing schism between Scottish Parliament legislation and Westminister-initiated UK policy.

The vote to pass the abolition legislation was a tight one, with the SNP and its allies pipping a Conservative and Labour coalition, by 67 votes to 61. It mirrored an equally tight vote to ward off an inquiry into the issues of tuition fees abolition, which was won by the SNP 65 votes to 63. Critics of the policy, such as then Labour shadow minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, Rhona Brankin claimed that there was no conclusive evidence that scrapping the charge would increase access to University places, particularly for those from the poorest communities within Scotland. Furthermore, there were early warnings that such a policy could only have serious financial repercussions for Scotland in the long-term.

Recently an article by Scott MacNab in The Scotsman, detailed “a looming £263million financial timebom”’ in the Scottish economy, if the SNP didn’t urgently review their policy on tuition fees. These gloomy projections were based on the idea that a funding gap would naturally emerge between Scottish and English academic institutions as a result of the massive increase in UK tuitions, outside of Scotland. Until recently the SNP has claimed that free-access to higher education for Scottish citizens is a central tenet of their manifesto and a crucial electoral pledge. Questions over funding have been partly addressed this year, with new policy in June, enabling Scottish institutions to charge English, Northern Irish and Welsh students increased fees (in line with UK-wide tuition increases), being broadly supported by Universities Scotland, the lobby group set-up to defend the interests of Scotland’s higher education institutions.

Intriguingly the SNP’s actions in Scotland have not led to increased pressure for the repeal of student tuition fees in other parts of the United Kingdom, aside from within the already active NUS and other student bodies. Rather than a debate about the legitimacy of charging tuition fees, what has instead occurred is increased criticism of Scotland’s two-tier approach. This criticism has now become focused upon the issue of English, Northern Irish and Welsh students being forced to pay fees, that not even a Greek or Portuguese student has to pay, seeking to emphasise the absurd hypocrisy of the Scottish Parliament’s position. As pointed out in a recent NS Leader, Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers (a law-firm representing Callum Hurley and Katy Moore, two students who have brought about this action), believes that Scottish Ministers have “misinterpreted the law” and “the Scottish fees system contravened the European Convention on Human Rights and could be in breach of Britain’s Equality Act”. Disturbingly (or not as the NS is after all a Labour rag) the NS Leader doesn’t highlight the fact that this lawsuit being brought against the Scottish Parliament is merely an adjunct to a legal action that Shiner, Hurley and Moore have been pressuring the coalition government with. In effect Shiner has drafted a similar Judicial Review against the UK government, and in particular Vince Cable, back in February, arguing that the increase in tuition fees contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 14, as well as failing to promote equality under the Race Relations, Sex Discrimination and Disability Discrimination Acts. Thus, the Scottish Parliament is being served with an almost identical legal action, not necessarily as a result of their two-tier approach to fees application, but rather as a result of having introduced the same fees policy as the rest of the UK, toward non-Scottish citizens. The NS’s scandalised pronouncement that “It is absurd that EU students receive a free University education in Scotland while UK students pay full fees”, seems a little less scandalous when one of the central linchpins of their argument is duly contextualised.

Away from these legal distractions and shenanigans there is actually a more pertinent  and pressing discussion to be had. Is it possible to fund “world-class” academic institutions, in the highly competitive global environment of the 21st Century, from central government coffers? Also, is the Scottish approach to funding, one that can be justified considering the trend toward increasing global mobility amongst relatively affluent national populations?

It has taken a long time for many European nations to even consider the notion that Higher Education, at University level, needs to be paid for by the student utilising the service. This is in part down to the fact that with often prohibitively high levels of taxation, it would be seen as a particularly hard sell to an electorate. There has also been a culture within many European nations, post-World War II, to see the expansion of University education as a direct correlative to an enlightened and socially mobile society. The trend, therefore, has been toward viewing a University education as not just a desirable asset in the jobs market, but as a prerequisite of good, solid career and personal development (with all the meritorious benefits that faith in such a system may bestow).

The rapid expansion of Universities in the United Kingdom has led to the situation where there is now over a hundred such institutions throughout the country. Some of these institutions will undoubtedly provide specialist courses only provided by a handful of Universities, however the vast majority of these institutions replicate the core subject areas of the Arts, Humanities and Sciences, with varying levels in teaching standards and facilities. Going back to the pre-1998 model of University funding is it genuinely credible that central government would have been able to fund such a vast array of institutions, whilst competing with the very best universities around the world and ensuring that year-on-year increases in student numbers were catered for?

A considerable concern was expressed in the Dearing Report with regard to the continued provision of a quality educational experience in circumstances that saw a rapid expansion in student numbers, a 45% increase in public funding requirements for higher education costs (not related to the already dwindling grants and bursaries scheme) and no significant ‘positive’ effect being felt in terms of GDP, as a result of higher educational standards. The decision by the Labour government to follow the suggestions of the Dearing Report and implement an initial £1,000 tuition fee, combined with a larger low-interest government loan, helped to relieve central government of some of the burden of spending, but only deferred much more important decisions indefinitely.

With approximately 115 Universities in the UK by 2009, the academic year 2009/10 saw 2,493,420 (2,087,615 domestic, 125,050 EU) students involved in some course of study at higher education institutions in the UK. These figures meant that over half of UK citizens aged 17 to 30 were in University education in 2009/10. Despite considerable budget cuts, lay-offs, staff restructuring and other cost-cutting measures approximately 20% of universities were running an annual deficit. The new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government came to believe that there was an urgent need for Universities to have more flexible means of acquiring funding. The decision to dramatically cut Higher Education funding by central government (slashing £450 million from annual university budgets), was balanced off with the possibility for institutions to charge up to £9,000 per year, for a degree from the 2012/13 academic year. Since the government announcement of a tuition fee increase in November 2010, there has been notable unrest and continued demonstrations from students and activists, although this hasn’t deterred some academic institutions from charging the maximum available fee. For some this appeared to be a Conservative government barricading off the hallowed halls of academia to a those incapable of finding the finances to afford a University education.

Paying for a University education is nothing new if you happen to live in the United States, where the average domestic tuition fee is approximately £4,000 per annum (many of the most prestigious institutions charge much greater sums, with a four-year degree at Harvard totalling $50,000). Tuition fees are also charged in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany (with, funnily enough, a few regional exceptions), Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (amongst others). If you look at the countries where the greatest tuition fees are charged (the US and now the UK) you should see a significant number of academic institutions in these countries ranking high on the annual QS World Rankings (bearing in mind that tradition, the international spread of the English language and prestige also play a significant role). Within the top 100 Universities in the world 32 are based in the US and 19 within the UK, meaning that fee-charging institutions make up around 50% of the best academic institutions in the world (remembering that Scotland’s Universities no longer contribute to this tally). Of countries that do not charge tuition fees, only China (5, including 3 former HK institutions), Denmark (2), France (2), Finland (1), Norway (1) and Russia (1) appear on the list. It should be noted that both Norway and China charge considerably higher rates of annual taxation than the UK, whilst countries such as Belgium charge comparatively low annual tuition fees (totalling around 500 euro in most cases). Tuition fees would appear to have the benefit of not only unburdening the central government of the need to fund continual academic expansion, ideally freeing up money to be focused on things like healthcare, but they also seem to help institutions compete globally in terms of research and innovation.

If you have private businesses that are willing to pay astronomical wages to get the best designers, technicians, specialists, theorists and practitioners working within their organisation, how on earth can a state-funded academic institution compete? If Universities cannot compete in terms of wages, then what they can attempt to deliver are the more relaxed and ‘liberal’ conditions in which certain types of research are more likely to thrive. The kind of infrastructure that is required needs high levels of funding, something that is frequently overlooked when focusing too intently on the cost accrued by a student.

How else is a University to find necessary funding than by introducing a fee for the services it provides to the clients that utilise them? Here the Scottish funding model actually offers a possible alternative solution, but one that goes against are current concerns, within Europe, for an equality of access that is international, rather than national. If the nation-state were to take care of the educational opportunities of its own citizens, by offering a free, or heavily subsidised University education, then all other nationalities wishing to utilise these services would have to front a fee cost, that they wouldn’t otherwise contribute in the form of taxation. This sounds quite similar to how things operated post-grant, but pre-fee, back in the UK of 1997. What this system relies upon too heavily is that there is enough money in central coffers to handle educating 50%, or more, of the national population (between the ages of 17 to 30) at any one time, so that in the event of a lack of ‘International’ student funds the Universities do not run a shortfall.

Perhaps a more coherent policy approach would be to dramatically restructure the UK Universities. Is there really a need for 115 academic institutions? Clearly the fact that 20% of them are running an annual deficit, even with the injection of fees, suggests not. Would it not be more beneficial to curb the financial failings within the higher education system itself, by closing institutions that are running deficits, or by merging successful institutions with failing neighbours, where possible? Yes, there are arguments to be made about the unique regional role that certain academic institutions provide, but how many of these institutions are running a deficit?

The partly difficult nationalist position that the Scottish Parliament may appear to have taken, vis-a-vis University access, certainly can be read as going against much of the EU’s ethos about free movement and parity of access amongst member states. However, a more careful reading than that put forward by the belligerently Labourite NS would have noted that the issue here isn’t really that Scotland is penalising the English, Northern Irish and Welsh, but that in fact the Scottish Parliament is being hindered in implementing a broader fee-charging system for foreign nationals, by ill-fitting EU legislation. The SNP have actually proposed that if Shiner’s legal action is successful, then they will have little option left than to question the validity of the EU’s policy on ‘discrimination between states’.

One possible solution here would be to review the EU legislation, making the necessary amendments so that ‘discrimination’ was not viewed as originating from the actions of the state to which a person was moving in the EU, but rather as part of a comparative analysis of conditions between member states. In such a case, Scotland may continue to provide a free education for its own nationals and any EU nationals who come from countries in which they would also be provided with a ‘free’ (i.e. state-funded through taxation) education. However, as would be the case with many of the nations within the EU, Scotland would be able to levy a comparable fee for education within Scotland’s Universities, to those students coming from an EU member state that does charge student tuition fees. This system seems to take into account the fact that discrimination must be based upon depriving someone of the ability to do something that they would have otherwise been able to do within their own nation, not something that they would have been unable to do. Of course, there is still the issue to be resolved as to how England, Northern Ireland and Wales relate to this proposal, seeing as Scotland has used the loop-hole of non-EU status so effectively in its current policy. I’d like to think that this issue may well be resolved by the end of this Scottish Parliament, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

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Tabanda, Association Swelina & Kinetic Sculptures

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Whilst visiting the Trojmiasto earlier in the week I stumbled upon a tiny, perfect facet of Sopot’s Open Culture Spa events programme. Throughout July, August and September Sopot, like a few other Polish cities, has put together a cultural schedule to celebrate Poland’s tenure in the European Union Presidency. However, the resort city sandwiched between the industrial and commercial hubs of Gdynia and Gdansk has gone a little further with its remit and has utilised the power of social networking sites and other internet media to put together a massive outpouring of creative endeavour in the fields of music, design, technology, literature, cinema, ecology, fine art and performance.

Foremost amongst the contributions to this eclectic and wide-ranging project is a piece of installation art designed by the Tabanda design team of Malgosia Malinowska, Filip Ludka and Tomek Kempa, under the auspices of the Swelina collective of architects, artists and designers. The Swelina collective takes its name from a small estuary between Sopot and Gdynia, at which a stream flows out into the Baltic. At the far end of Aleja Franciszka Mamuszki there is a small paved area that allows for easy views of the stream as it flows down toward the sea. Here Tabanda have set about constructing a series of ‘Kinetic Sculptures’, with the express purpose of converting the energy generated from the stream’s languid flow into a distempered melody of tinkling glass, cracking wood and chiming metal.

The unusual water propellers, bottle racks, metallic pistons and various weights, pulleys and levers, make it look as if the waterway has been taken over by a band of ingenious engineer elves. Adding to the sheer magical spell the installation casts is the constantly varied ‘natural’ rhythms of the ‘music’ it generates. One large riverboat-like water-wheel turns a series of wooden rods around, under a line of suspended glass bottles, whilst intermittently knocking over a wooden clapper-joint, that moves as if simulating the painful leg exertions of a long-distance cyclist.

Tabanda claim to have developed this installation as a result of wishing to fill the valley, in which the Swelina lies, with sounds. They achieve this aim easily and with a real sense of enthusiastic experimentation. Furthermore the installation serves as a large-scale calling card for their own innovative interior designs, that focus on harnessing sustainable energy processes in their manufacture and function, whilst sacrificing nothing in aesthetic and ergonomic excellence.

I found the whole experience of Swelina’s newly musical valley gently delightful and couldn’t help but marvel at some of the intricate mechanisms Malinowska, Ludka and Kempa had created to produce the simplest of effects. The true beauty of the whole project is the way in which it draws a direct, and powerfully obvious, connection between the ‘wasted’/’unharnessed’ energy of the silent stream and the new nexus of motion and music that they have placed upon it. Thus natural energy is converted into usable energy, if only for the purposes of an amusing and diversionary spectacle. If it can be done for this little bit of frivolity, then surely if more attention was paid to such wasted natural energy sources so much more could be achieved.

Below are some links to three short films depicting parts of the installation:-


Sopot – Open Resort Culture/Association Swelina Kinetic Sculptures Film 1.1
Sopot – Open Resort Culture/Association Swelina Kinetic Sculptures Film 1.2
Sopot – Open Resort Culture/Association Swelina Kinetic Sculptures Film 1.3

Whose LOLing now?

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As a 17-year-old Suffolk teenager is slapped with a 12-month internet ban, 120 hours’ community service, a 12-month youth rehabilitation order, a 7pm curfew and absolutely no Domino’s pizza (probably), for what amounts to some poor-taste pratting about on Facebook, I ask whether the British government has learnt anything from the last 10 days?

At the start of this week David Cameron addressed a news conference from a youth centre in his parliamentary constituency of Witney. The idea of Cameron declaring a ‘war upon gangs’ from this quaint little West Oxfordshire market-town,  a location, socially and politically, a million miles away from most of the sites of civil unrest, shouldn’t really have got past the ‘suggestion’ phase of whatever inner-circle brainstorming session the Conservative Prime Minister and his coterie of advisors were engaged in over the weekend. The fact that it clearly seemed like such a good idea to Cameron and his cronies gives us a little bit of an insight into just how detached our chief policymaker is from the affairs of his nation. Granted Cameron was standing in front of a graffiti-daubed wall that proclaimed a single word ‘Base’ (a perfect match, perhaps,  for Cameron’s gung-ho call to arms) alongside a cartoon ‘hoodie’ (again probably meant to evoke the cuddly ‘hoodie’ hugger of old), but surely it would have leant a bit more ballast to his bombast if he’d taken his press conference onto the streets of Tottenham, the provisional ground-zero of the rioting. Instead the routinely patronised ‘general public’ are presented with what could be more cynically interpreted as an expression of that easy idleness that has formed the waspish sting of so many attacks on the riots, the rioting and the ‘underclass’ of rioters. Why bother traipsing off to London town, the Midlands, or the dreary North, when you can far more easily squeeze yourself into a press conference next door to your constituency surgery?

During the press conference Cameron talked up his long-held desire ‘to mend our broken society’, talking of a ‘social fightback’ to coincide with the ‘security fightback’. He made a point of highlighting the necessity to confront ‘the moral collapse’ of British society, as well as pulling the discussion of the underlying causes of the violence away from ideas it was linked with poverty and deprivation, choosing instead to focus on the terms ‘behaviour’ and ‘responsibility’. In perhaps the most irritating and empty piece of rhetoric, Cameron talked up a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility that left:

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.

The simplicity of this listing technique, as if Cameron had just reached into his back pocket and pulled out the shopping list, begged for some sense of issues that had been grappled with over the last few days of analysis and reflection. Instead Cameron gave the glib assurance that he wouldn’t be ‘found wanting’ when it came to confronting unspecified ‘issues’ with the determined voice of his people.

Despite the best part of a week to contemplate what exactly had got so many young people’s knickers in a twist, the best that Cameron could do was tell the public that he would definitely do ‘stuff’ and he’d wage war on gangs to do it. It appeared that upon the etch-a-sketch (come on it was actually an I-Pad,  you know) William Hague, Theresa May and himself had been constructing their analysis, they’d realised that these ‘youths’ were organising themselves using the most sophisticated, cutting edge and ‘clandestine’ of new technologies, like the BBM.

After his press statement on the riots, Cameron did visit Tottenham, but under a partial media-blackout. Cameron was happy to have the cameras rolling alongside him whilst he visited leisure centres, sat down with police and emergency services and turned up at a fire station. However, the cameras were not allowed to follow him into the homes of the 50, or so, families he visited, who’d been victims of the violence in the area. Now this could be Cameron simply being respectful to members of the public, as we know how his caring Conservatives always try to avoid unhelpful and reductive generalisations that may be perceived as  disrespectful and unhelpful by large sections of the population (sorry, it’s mean, but I couldn’t resist). On the other hand it could just be a certain reluctance on his part to advertise to the nation his inability to even come close to placating the anger of people who may have more pressing things on their mind other than a ‘war on gangs’.

Regardless of all this, the ‘social fightback’ began in earnest today however, with the first convictions of teenagers who had been implicated, via their Facebook profiles, in inciting the ‘gang’ violence and rioting that had taken hold of Birmingham, London and Manchester.  One of these ringleaders, who received the punishments listed above, was able to potentially provoke looting and pillaging from that hotspot of social unrest more commonly known as Suffolk. According to the Bury St. Edmonds magistrates court that passed sentence on the 17-year-old, he had posted messages on Facebook that stated “It’s about time we stood up for ourselves for once. So come on rioters – get some. LOL.”. Now am I alone in thinking that this may not necessarily be quite the organisational genius David Cameron’s ‘war’ suggests it should be? Wasting the magistrates courts time with prosecution of a dumb sentence or three, seems almost as foolish as the comments themselves. The fact that the prosecution made reference to the boy having over 400 friends on Facebook, some of whom replied to the message just to call him an idiot, only further compounds the ludicrous show of pantomime paternalism from a government that wants people to start being ‘responsible’. The boys defence pours further scorn on the pursuance of this government policy, when he claimed rather plaintively “I meant it as a joke which is why I wrote LOL at the end.”.

There we have it then, not only has David Cameron routinely underestimated the scale of the violence, the alienation and disenchantment of certain urban populations, the general tenor of public outrage and the aspects of the violence which have struck the strongest chords with citizens of the communities most affected (it’s not like that in Witney, though), but it also seems his government is so out of touch with the youth of Britain that it can’t even discern a joke when it reads one. Even a joke with the prerequisite acronym signposting of ‘LOL’.

The fact that today barrister, and former anti-terror adviser, Lord Carlile has been speaking out against the way in which Cameron’s government have appeared to ‘lead’ the law courts toward tougher, harsher sentences for those involved in the riots, can only make Cameron’s response to the riots look as kneejerk and nonsensical as Bush’s rail-roading of civil liberties for his ‘war on terror’. The major difference here being that whereas Bush, however foolishly, was declaring a ‘war’ upon enemies of America, it would appear that Cameron may have embarked upon a ‘war’ against his own people. Without the sense of a considered and reasoned analysis of the riots, any such ‘war’, whether genuinely directed toward ‘gangs’ (however they may be defined) or not, can only end with further unrest and a repeat of this po-faced farce.

Poland’s Regional Rail Strike

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Information sourced from:- The News.pl , Dziennik Baltycki, The European Industrial Relations Observatory, The Warsaw Business Journal and The Polish News Bulletin

Today employees of Poland’s regional railway service Przewozy Regionalne (PR), the country’s largest rail operator, have gone on a 24-hour strike, as of midnight. The strike is as a result of a stalemate being reached between the Federation of Rail Workers’ Unions – spear-headed by the combative stance of Vice-President Dariusz Browarek – and PR senior management.

The main dispute appears to be over pay, with Browarek’s union demanding a 280zl increase in monthly salaries for PR rail workers, effective by the first quarter of 2012. Government promises have been thus far limited to a 120zl pay rise (to be phased in by the end of the calendar year), followed by a further 160zl increase toward the end of 2012. Much of this Union action over salaries is as a result of the 7% wage increases negotiated by the Teachers’ trade unions in 2010 (due to start next month). Public sector workers in other areas, such as mining, border controls, the fire services and the rail industries, regard the lack of a similar pay bump to be unacceptable and have been threatening industrial action throughout 2011.

The Federation of RailWorkers’ Unions has also expressed concern at government policy which threatens unprofitable railway companies, such as PR, with forced bankruptcy and liquidation. In the last two financial years (2009, 2010), PR has reported rapidly decreasing losses (290mill zl in 2009, 170mill zl in 2010), but still expects to report between 30-40mill zl losses for 2011, dependent on the final price of increased salary costs.

PR operates low-cost, regional rail services that connect the various voivodships (or counties) of Poland. As a result of their commitment to low costs, combined with the infrastructural chaos of much of the Polish rail network and a schedule that sees between 2,500 and 2,700 trains in operation daily, PR has found itself in an increasingly difficult financial predicament. This has in turn ignited further fears of job cuts and service mergers amongst the Union rank and file.

As reported by the PNB, local union leaders have also sought increased investment in infrastructure and a reorganisation of the way in which the umbrella organisation PKP S.A. is organised. With a general sense that Maria Wasiak, the CEO that only recently replaced the unpopular former incumbent Andrzej Wach, will not provide the kind of determined and innovative leadership the beleaguered Polish Rail Network requires.

Gagged & Bound

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A little over a week after riots began throughout England’s major cities and it seems that David Cameron’s ‘great solution’ has been to make an awkward volte-face on the UK government’s policy toward the internet.

 

Having already seen fit to lay the blame for the latest social unrest squarely upon the actions and response (or lack of it) of the Metropolitan police, David Cameron’s other ‘post-riots’ pronouncements have been thin on the ground, with the exception of a mooted clampdown on the ease with which individuals can utilise ‘social media’ to spread potentially inflammatory information at times of civil unrest. As reported in this week’s Sunday Telegraph, Cameron condemned the ‘slow moral collapse’ that has been allowed to occur in Britain, over the past few decades claiming his government can fix a ‘broken’ British society’s myriad flaws, by using nothing more than the diagnostic of empty rhetoric, thus:

“children without fathers; schools without discipline; reward without effort; crime without punishment; rights without responsibilities; communities without control… Some of the worst aspects of human nature have been tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally demoralised.”

In amongst the awkward alliteration (yup), Cameron appears to be accepting that government has played a significant role in ensuring the collapse of ‘morality’, however it seems that his own government cannot possibly take any of the blame for such a generational decay. Despite the seeming willingness to engage with the complex social issues that might have created the conditions for the riots, thus far Cameron’s government appear content to publicly admonish and chastise police forces (nothing like a little demoralisation), whilst emphasising the need to address the manipulation of human rights and health & safety legislation, that he claims has “undermined personal responsibility” and “eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense”.

Most significantly Cameron has followed a line that was so effectively trailered in the BBC’s rolling news coverage of the riots themselves. During the first major nights of violence (Sunday 7th and Monday 8th of August) the news media, like the emergency services, appeared to be a disbelieving rabbit observing the headlights of an articulated lorry roaring headlong toward them. Unable to do anything other than watch and comment, it took the news media at least a day to piece together some kind of narrative for the chaotic events unfolding. Amongst the most effective and noticeable of these early narrative rough drafts, was the sudden interest in Blackberry Messenger devices (or BBM’s as they ‘knowingly’ became referred to) and the involvement of social media platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook, as if any self-respecting rioter would use Bebo or MySpace for their provocations) in co-ordinating the spread of civil unrest and violence. The BBC turned to their consumer affairs expert to fetishise what is in effect a glorified pager, spending five minute segments informing us how the BBM had become the communication mode of choice for the clandestine (yes they did indeed use this word, frequently) activities of a highly tech savvy modern hoodlum, or gangster. Newscaster’s then began to discuss Twitter and Facebook, as if: a) they’d never used either in their lives (you work in the media so I’m guessing you’ve had some experience of at least one of them), and b) as if these social networks were the modern day equivalent of Verloc’s pornographic bookshop.

By the middle of last week, as much of the violence was waning and the police were beginning to regain control of city centres, the news media had begun to polish their original narrative line. Although the violence was unlikely to have been co-ordinated en masse, there was a sense that ‘new communications technology’ had played a significant role in enabling rioters and looters to spread violence beyond their immediate communities and in a far more organised manner than police and government had been used to dealing with. Emergency legislation had allowed police and law courts to prosecute individuals who had been using social media as a means of inciting violence. The public status of networks such as Facebook and Twitter appeared not to be taken into consideration when the first rumblings of discontent started coming from Downing Street.

Nobody in government has appeared to acknowledge that the fact that ‘privacy’ is not the priority of social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, makes them unlikely sources of truly ‘clandestine’ activity (unless you’re a publicity hungry, xenophobic mass murderer). In fact their emphasis on very public ‘social interaction’ would seem to position them as a potential tool for criminal detection (pretty much how they were being utilised anyway during the riots). The demonic potential of that blackest of sorceries, so dangerous it needs its own inexplicable acronym, the BBM, certainly would appear to be a more obviously private form of communication, with RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry Messenger, guarding their customers right to anonymity. However, does the government honestly believe that a ‘criminal’ mind will not unearth some other ‘clandestine’ mode of communication if the state is seen to clampdown on the communication freedoms presented by this particular technology?

What has become evermore fascinating, over the last week, is the emphasis that the Cameron government, in its few carefully tended public pronouncements, has placed on ‘social interaction’ and ‘communication’ as the dangerously anarchic element in otherwise ‘mindless’ violence. Back in June of this year the Financial Times reported how Cameron had, in effect, publicly ridiculed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “attempts to “civilise” the web”. For Cameron the web was a technology to be embraced for its potential to innovate and create new enterprises, something that its unique ‘freedoms’ made possible. Cameron had felt that Sarkozy’s desire to control what could be consumed on the web was “totally wrong” and suggested that perhaps the French Premier should focus on encouraging start-ups and content providers.

On the surface this seems to be a very modern defence of the ‘freedoms’ of the internet, which makes the post-riot policy focus seem all the more reactionary and knee-jerk. However is Cameron really standing up for the ‘freedoms’ offered by the internet in his casual criticisms of Sarkozy’s civilising/censorship plans? A focus on the latter part of Cameron’s address to the Founders Forum innovation and e-entrepreneurship group, suggests that rather than denouncing Sarkozy’s idea for censorship of the internet, he is instead advancing the notion that government should be focused less on restricting the flow of information at its reception point, but rather concentrating on controlling the inception point. Censoring information that has already been produced only serves the purpose of illustrating to the user the limits of their freedom, whereas if you can ensure the ‘qualities’ of those producing content and services, then your need for censorship is nullified.

When considering the way in which Cameron’s government has focused on the role played by information technology, and in particular social media platforms and devices, in the violence of the last week, one should maybe be wary of the idea that this is a sudden reversal of Cameron’s policy. By demonising the ‘technology’ Cameron is side-stepping the thorny issue of further denigrating the ‘youthful’ masses that have mobbed up against authority figures over the past week. His government is floating the idea that there needs to be limits to the liberties of the internet. Furthermore they are going out of their way to definitively establish a relationship between these ‘virtual liberties’ and the ‘moral collapse’ that has been so rapidly diagnosed within British society, after decades of apparent neglect.

Yes, there needs to be some caution taken with regards to the notion that Cameron is looking to switch off the internet at times of crisis, akin to both Iranian and Chinese social control tactics. However the policy currently being suggested by government seems almost entirely unworkable. How does a police force and a legal system define what is and what isn’t acceptable content on the web? By implementing such measures, with their infinite possibility for manipulation, are they not merely creating an unbendable rod for their own backs. After all what were the origins of Cockney Rhyming Slang, if not a covert means of communication between those who didn’t want their conversation monitored. Will this not merely be the solution for any future illicit organisation on the web? So will this proposed legislation merely create a future circumstance where these measures will be perceived as inadequate and tougher controls will come to be viewed as necessity? As the recent BBC drama The Hour, by the writer Abi Morgan, has been at pains to point out, Britain is a country with the facade of freedom of speech, but with the deeper reality of actively mistrusting such freedoms. Unlike the United States, Britain’s constitutional laws framing freedom of speech extend only as far as parliament (how very convenient).

In light of the incoherent and inarticulate rage of last week’s violence is it wise for a government to pull the invisible gag around individuals’ mouths ever tighter? Much has been made by both media, government and police, of the ‘mindlessness’ of this violence upon the very communities that are struggling to make ends meet in modern Britain. On the one hand a ‘political’ agenda was being sought, so as to show how a certain politics leads inexorably to chaos and anarchy (the classic British defence), whilst on the other the perpetrators of the violence were being infantilised and, possibly rightly, condemned for the callous and brazen avarice of their looting and pillaging. Too many commentators seemed desperate to find the easy answer for the ‘anarchy’, yet a few, such as Peter Wilby in The New Statesman, or Mary Riddell in the Daily Telegraph, more cogently argued that the sheer ‘inexplicableness’ of the events surely indicated a convoluted and complex nexus of causes.

To finish I’d like to draw your attention to the 2008 documentary series, The Ascent of Money, in which Prof. Niall Ferguson examines the Anglo-Saxon obsession with property as a form of investment. Looking at Detroit and Roosevelt’s advocacy of property ownership through Savings and Loans schemes, Ferguson hit on a simple ‘truth’ that could so easily run alongside the current situation in Britain. Ferguson suggested that when a government promotes a certain idea of a society, that places property ownership at the heart of participating as a valued member of that society, then, unless it also creates the conditions in which all of society, if they choose to, can attain to this idea, it can only create an evermore damaging sense of alienation in the ‘have nots’.

For Ferguson that ‘alienation’ from the possibility of property-ownership was precisely what the economic situation in America during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s created, particularly amongst the urban black populations of American cities, who were effectively priced out of mortgage opportunities and insurance coverage. When societal ‘alienation’ is widespread and all-pervasive within certain communities then eventually violence is going to become a compelling and attractive possibility. Ferguson’s assessment of the Detroit riots is that not only were they about race, but they were about the denial of the societal ideal to large sections of the city.

His test for this hypothesis was to see against what, or whom, was the violence directed. Was the violence directed against the police? Well it was in those areas where the police were involved in trying to control the riots, but on the whole violence directed at the police was surprisingly low. Was the violence directed against institutions of governance? Again most of the violence was restricted to community areas, or adjoining areas of affluence and commerce, without necessarily being directed at municipal buildings and offices (all the more surprising considering the ‘radicalised’ tenor of the times). Was the violence directed against fellow citizens, or specific individuals? In the 5 days of rioting, when large parts of the city were effectively razed to the ground, only 43 people lost their lives (granted this is still an obscene number, but it doesn’t indicate a co-ordinated programme of assault against other human beings). In Ferguson’s assessment the violence of the Detroit riots was most obviously and overwhelmingly directed against property, be it private residences, or shops and businesses. Thus, he suggests, that the target of the violence reflects that which the rioters feel most strongly alienated from within the society. In our own complacently consumerist society, perhaps being a ‘have not’ is reflected in the gap between ‘consumerist’ aspirations and the economic reality. In which case the potential for alienation is directly linked to your capacity to fund the ‘idealised’ consumer lifestyle. Is it any wonder then that our high streets and private homes, just like in Detroit, bore the brunt of the recent violence? After all these are those things our politicians have promised us can be attained, with ever increasing ease, but which now seem further away than ever before.

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