Friday, 20 June 2014

Don’t blame the players. Don’t blame the manager. Blame the Premier League.

I’m not angry. I’m not disappointed, I’m certainly not surprised. To say I was surprised would be to admit that I thought England would get very far in this World Cup. Although I was expecting a quarter-final appearance at least. It looks like we won’t even get out of the group stage.

So, who’s to blame? There has to be someone to blame. There always is. Every tournament we get bundled out of there’s always a fall guy. The player who ballooned his penalty over the bar? Take your pick over the years. The guy who got himself sent off and let the team down. Let his country down.

What about the coach with all that passion, who wore his heart on his sleeve, one of us, but was found out to be tactically na├»ve? Or the foreign coach who didn’t show enough passion? The cold and detached one. There’s always the wally with the brolly for a laugh.

This time around it has to be Wayne Rooney, surely? Expect he finally got his first World Cup goal so he’s absolved of blame. The defence were weak, but Gary Cahill played well. We should have picked Ashley Cole over Leighton Baines. Baines was horribly exposed down the left against Italy. Let’s blame him.

Steven Gerrard: he slipped at the crucial moment against Chelsea and threw away Liverpool’s chance for glory. Last night he was at fault for both goals. Rejoice! The nation has its fall guy. Our scapegoat. We’re world champions at having a scapegoat.

Except he’s not the one to blame. Nor are the other players. Nor the coach. None of them are.
The glitzy, over-hyped, beast that is the Premier League. That’s what we should be blaming. Not the product itself. And I’m not talking about blaming the foreign players.

On its own it’s a dazzling and intoxicating competition. It attracts supporters from every corner of the globe. The football is high tempo, end to end stuff.

What we rarely ask is whether the quality’s any good. Not whether the games are entertaining, we know they are. Last season was one of the best and most exciting in recent memory.

Matches are played at 100 miles an hour. And therein lies the problem. There’s no time to breathe. Players rarely have time on the ball to look up and think three or four passes ahead. They’re immediately closed down and harried. And they expect this which is why they get rid of it almost instantly.

If you want to see why time and time again England fail miserably at the major tournaments, take a look at the Premier League. England’s style of football mirrors that which takes place week in week out at the likes of St Mary’s to St James’ Park.

Watching England is like being at a Premier League match involving two mediocre sides. It’s frenetic. It’s breathless. It’s scrappy. The defending is non-existent. Players excel at getting stuck in. Not keeping hold of the ball and patiently working it from one end to the other.

The same frailties are exposed in every World Cup and in every European Championship.

England cannot pass the ball. They look uncomfortable in possession. It’s rare to see more than four passes strung together before one goes astray. Against teams that excel at possession football they wear themselves out trying to get hold of the ball, running around like headless chickens.

England’s game is not a patient one. The players lack the technical ability to stroke the ball around for several minutes at a time without panicking that they haven’t scored.

They know possession football isn’t their game so they’re reduced to speculative long range shots. It’s their default setting when things aren’t going their way. There’s little subtlety in their play. England always looked rushed.

Watching them is wholly predictable. These guys can do it the Premier League where everyone else is playing the same sort of game. Against international opposition they come unstuck. England have some very good players, a couple would even come under the world class banner.

After an encouraging performance against Italy (which they still lost) there was some hope that they could pull off the high-tempo stuff and get their passing game going. Last night they couldn’t do either. So they reverted to type.

England’s defence is so porous because defending isn’t a crucial component of winning a Premier League match. None of the teams can defend so the mentality of sides is if we concede a goal we’ll just go racing up the pitch and score two. It doesn’t work like than at a World Cup.

The solution to England’s shortcomings won’t be found in the Premier League. The latter is merely the end product of a culture which values blood and guts and getting stuck in over being technically sound.

It’ll start at the very beginning with the academies. Children taught not to be afraid of keeping hold of the ball. Taught that it’s okay if it takes time to reach the opponents goal, rather than feeling rushed after three passes and hoofing the ball into the penalty area.

All these years we’ve eulogised our Premier League. And we’ve been right to. It really is the best league in the world. If you want to be entertained. Not if you want it to produce a successful England team.

That bit has to be done away from the cameras. It’s a lot less glamorous and it’ll cost a lot less than Man City’s squad.

But if we ever want to see England challenging (let alone winning) for a trophy again this is what needs to be done. Because the suits who run the Premier League won’t be offering the England team a helping hand any time soon.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Friday 20th June 2014.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Ofsted: the latest useful idiots in the battle against cultural relativism

Won’t somebody please think of the children? Because if recent evidence is anything to go by, it won’t be Ofsted.

Their handling of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair has reduced them to a laughing stock. Five of the 21 Birmingham schools at the centre of it had recently been rated good or outstanding, only to be put into special measures months later.

In the run up to Ofsted’s report this week the media had been preoccupied with the Michael Gove-Theresa May spat. After publication, attention turned to the Schools’ Inspectorate and its woefully inadequate system for inspection.

In March, the think tank Policy Exchange branded the judgement of inspectors so unreliable that ‘you would be better off flipping a coin.’

The shocking findings in Birmingham have somewhat diluted the criticisms Ofsted should be facing. They now acknowledge things must change.

And then you open up this morning’s Times (£), and a story that Ofsted has ordered its inspectors not to criticise segregation amongst boys and girls in Muslim schools. It states that segregation does not amount to discrimination but is line with Islamic requirements. Girls having to wear the hijab do so as part of their identity. Music and art may be restricted, the paper says.

Quoting Ofsted advice when inspecting Muslim schools, The Times reports that:

“Boys and girls may well be taught or seated separately according to the specific context, particularly during collective acts of worship. This should not be taken as a sign of inequality between genders.”

“Girls will cover their head with the ‘hijab’ or scarf. On occasions this is not a requirement of the school but at the pupil’s own request. Inspectors should be mindful to not misinterpret this as a sign of repression but instead to understand that Muslim females see this as a part of their identity and a commitment to their beliefs within Islam.”

The Times adds that learning music may occur in a religious context:

“Inspectors may find evidence of music being taught through religious worship sessions: the tajweed (recitation of the Koran), the singing of Arabic songs (nasheed), the playing of the duff (drums) and the call to prayer (adhan). Pupils are taught these from an early age.”

The findings from Trojan Horse focused entirely on non-faith based schools, but ones with predominantly Muslim pupils. Cue a wave of comment pieces attacking faith schools on the grounds that the narrow faith-based ideology being practiced at certain secular schools in Birmingham is what’s currently legitimised at actual faith schools.

There is something profoundly depressing and disturbing in equal measure at the contents of today’s Times piece. Rather than challenging values and beliefs that are anathema to British society, Ofsted are now complicit in them.

The usual derision was heaped upon the government when it announced that schools would now be forced to teach British values. Whilst it may not be obvious to say what these values are, it’s certainly a lot more obvious to identity what they’re not: the very things Ofsted instructs its inspectors to turn a blind eye to.

According to its warped mindset, it is not the responsibility of the body charged with overseeing our schools to pick up on instances of misogyny. So who’s looking out for the girls told from a very young age that it’s their duty to cover up? Who’s helping to counteract the damaging assertion that girls as young as five be forced to view themselves as sexual objects?

You’d think they’d get protection from this sort of nonsense at school. Instead they’re coming to school to have this reaffirmed.

None of this is remotely surprising in a Muslim school. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is exactly the type of behaviour condemned by the Trojan Horse findings.

Until last week, I’d always been rather reluctant to support the abolition of faith schools, partly on the grounds that so many get such excellent results, but also partly because they give parents an additional option when their nearest comp isn’t good enough. And I went to a Jewish school so would feel rather hypocritical disowning the education I was privileged to have received.

But, today’s story is the final straw. It’s inevitable that dividing children according to religion will create divisions, intended or not. Whether this is more of an issue in Muslim schools is very hard to know. Why should we be shocked when a faith school tells its pupils that its set of values trumps all others?

The encroaching influence of hardliners can only be a bad thing for our children. And yes, these are our children we’re talking about. Muslim children are as British as any other children, and yet people like Ofsted are happy for them to be at the mercy of distinctly non-British values.

When we think of gender segregation we think of standard practice in Islamist states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. This sort of behaviour should not be tolerated in British schools. And yet this is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in a faith school.

Children go to school to be enlightened. To learn to think for themselves and to learn about other cultures. To mix with children from diverse backgrounds. Faith schools or the newly created faith-based free schools are taking us backwards.

Ofsted may think it’s not doing any harm with its non-judgemental approach. It is doing the very opposite.

It is failing to protect our most vulnerable: our children. Cultural relativism is misguided at best, and pernicious at worst. Not for the first time in recent months, those at the top have let down those who most need our help.

This comment piece was first published on Speaker's Chair on Thursday 12th June 2014

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ukip voters reject modernity. That’s all politicians need to understand about them.

What David Cameron would do to ward off those pesky Ukip types. Encroaching on his turf, threatening to deny him the majority he craves. Now they’ve got Labour scrambling around in a frenzy, wondering how best to counteract this motley crew.

Everything was okay when it was just the Tories being wounded. But these irritants continue to sprout, eating into Labour’s core support in both local and European elections; picking up votes from protesters of the status-quo, when surely they should be the beneficiaries of any protest vote, being the party of opposition and all that.
Taking a hard line or a harder line on immigration is seen as one response. Spouting platitudes about voters feeling angry at the political class, using the latest elections to send a message, is another response. Calling for the EU to reform and give us some powers back is yet another.

Politicians could spend every day until the general election fretting about Ukip (and they probably will), commissioning dozens of focus groups, whilst striving to find that elusive common touch that Nigel Farage seems blessed with.
They should stop right now. Because it won’t make any difference.

Labour and the Conservatives can sound as tough and as concerned and as angry about immigration as the average Ukip councillor but it won’t work.
They will never be able to find a line as hard on immigration as Ukip. Nor should they want to, although that won’t stop some from trying. Do they plan to match the demands of what half of all Ukip voters want: that immigrants and their children, including those who were born here, be encouraged to leave Britain?

The answer to Ukip continually fails to understand why people vote Ukip in the first place.

No need for any more polls, the groundwork’s already been done. Yes, Ukipppers loathe the EU, but it’s certainly not why they vote Ukip. Yes, they want the mother of all crackdowns on immigration. It’s the issue that gets them hot and bothered more than any other, but even this doesn’t explain why Ukippers feel the way they do.
They are a section of the population bitter about modern Britain. They don’t much like how our (or ‘their’) country has turned out. They’re the kind of people you’d hear regularly talk about things ‘going to the dogs.’ They are nostalgic for a different decade. They feel uncomfortable about the Britain they live in. And it’s not just because of immigrants.

Still the best piece of research done on Ukip supporters and Ukip ‘considerers’ comes from Lord Ashcroft’s weighty poll of some 20,000 of the above.
His summary tells you all anyone needs to know. Here are the key (and lengthy) passages that require most attention:

“The single biggest misconception about the UKIP phenomenon is that it is all about policies: that potential UKIP voters are dissatisfied with another party’s policy in a particular area (usually Europe or immigration), prefer UKIP’s policy instead, and would return to their original party if only its original policy changed.

“In fact, in the mix of things that attract voters to UKIP, policies are secondary. It is much more to do with outlook.

“Certainly, those who are attracted to UKIP are more preoccupied than most with immigration, and will occasionally complain about Britain’s contribution to the EU or the international aid budget. But these are often part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.

“All of these examples, real and imagined, were mentioned in focus groups by UKIP voters and considerers to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.

“UKIP, for those who are attracted to it, may be the party that wants to leave the EU or toughen immigration policy but its primary attraction is that it will “say things that need to be said but others are scared to say.” Analysis of our poll found the biggest predictor of whether a voter will consider UKIP is that they agree the party is “on the side of people like me.

“These voters think Britain is changing for the worse. They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better. UKIP, with its single unifying theory of what is wrong and how to put it right, has obvious attractions for them.”
Essentially, what you have are a list of grievances (if you can call them that) that are impossible to legislate on. Many of them are myths based on scare stories found in the right wing press. They sound like the kind of thing you’d overhear down your local boozer. Not a coincidence then Farage chooses the pub as his default HQ.  

Most crucially, as Lord Ashcroft notes, it’s not policies that draw people to Ukip, but outlook. The party says things other wouldn’t dare. Or wouldn’t waste time saying.
It has skilfully tapped into people’s most minor and trivial complaints and made them into something bigger than they really are. They specialise in the mundane because they don’t have a manifesto for government. And don’t pretend to have one. Their voters know they’re not voting for a future government but for a party which will let them vent their spleen. And then proclaim to understand where they’re coming from.  

It’s no surprise where they draw the bulk of their support from. Never mind Mondeo Man or Worcester Woman. Meet Grumpy Old Man. Almost three-quarters of Ukip supporters are over the age of 70. Just 15% are under 40. Most are men. The Sun/Express/Mail are their newspapers of choice.
Immigrants are their scapegoats, but if it wasn’t immigrants it’d be someone or something else.

Quite amusingly, over the weekend, The Times reported that Ukip voters were most reluctant to try foreign foods. A survey had also found them:

“Less likely to follow fashion, to list books as their interests or to be curious about other cultures.”
When you read the findings from Lord Ashcroft’s poll, none of this should come as a surprise.

An academic study into Ukip found:

This “left behind” group could once rely on their numerical strength to ensure a voice in the two biggest parties, but the growth of the highly-educated middle class led both Labour and the Tories to “regard winning support from middle class swing voters as more important.”
In other words, politicians aren’t really interested in people like them. Or to put it another way, the People’s Army aren’t really interested in people like us.

Life has moved on, society has diversified. For Ukip’s supporters it’s all happened far too quickly. They want to jump off the nearest exit and head back to a time they understood. For the rest of us, we’ve never known any different.

Politicians may claim they know why people vote Ukip, but if they’re being totally honest with themselves, they’d also acknowledge that most of their concerns are impossible to allay. How do you satisfy a group of people who reject much of modernity? The answer is you can’t.  
This was first published by Speaker's Chair on Thursday 5th June 2014