We Will Never Surrender

Fabio Capello has delivered cryptic assurances to straight forward questions relating to his future as England manager. I noticed a bod from the FA – sorry, “Club England” as they seem to be branded at the moment – was hastily filling in blanks and putting forward his own opinion with all the urgency of a jumpy husband at a RELATE meeting. So begins, depressingly familiar as it all is, the tabloid-led blame game and leaked managerial suggestions in the diary columns.

We’ve been here too many times. To borrow a phrase from the coalition government, we can’t go on like this.

Many branches of the “Club England” tree – ugh, sorry, “Club England”, it’s like “Centrica” all over again – are need of urgent surgery. It is not enough to offer a few “frank” analyses of the Germany thrashing before moving on to the next round of qualifying games. With only two years between the Hungary friendly and Poland/Ukraine 2012, there is a loud ticking clock above the entire structure of English football.

In his excellent (and 5 year old) article “Football Fans are Idiots”, Sean Ingle outlined a blueprint which seems just as relevant today. Certain sections of the football fan base are gluttons for punishment, and as the England campaign from the Mexico friendly onwards showed, those Premiership players who demand respect in the Premiership sure don’t know how to earn that respect on the international stage. Wayne Rooney’s “emotional outburst” was very much his real feelings, doubtlessly shared by many of his team-mates.

But the mindset of the players internationally is only one part – and a small one – of the English disorder.

Capello must be allowed to stay on as manager until 2012. The merry-go-round has to stop. There are players who could find a place in a younger, more experimental England side leading up to 2012 (which, to be very radical, we concede as not an achievable winnable aim to calm down the England Flag brigade)

Names like Jack Wilkshire (currently being toughened up at the Reebock), Danny Welbeck (given time to mature at North End), Joe Hart (topping up his tan these past two weeks), Micah Richards, James Milner, Aaron Lennon….There are possibilities and probabilities, but under the constant and instant pressure of the “Three Lions” tabloid culture, slowly-slowly long term planning seems far harder to promote.

No need to look to the Americas; across the Atlantic there are the Dutch and Germans showing intelligence, quick-thinking and fluidity; and there are the French and Italians creaking along in slow-motion soap operas. Or /real/ operas, I suppose. England resemble the latter far more than the former: under Capello, it really shouldn’t be that way. From the “player index” mess through sex scandals and the own-goal assisted Japan ‘victory’ to the Emile “Turning circle of a whale” Heskey, it has not been England’s finest hours.

But changing players and formations, and ditching the hoofing up-and-under strategies, all involve the team at the stage of adults facing the limelight. Someone somewhere in “Club England” needs to spend months, if not years, at schools and junior levels finding out exactly what is wrong with football at grassroots level. Is it Government funding, school teachers, scouts preferring “traditional” types to “continental” skills in the young talent they recommend, the fact that England has only 2,000 registered football coaches, far behind almost every other country in UEFA.

There are too many questions about the lack of funding at lower league and Non-League level, the lack of support from the FA and Premiership clubs for smaller sides often in the same postal code as the larger, debt-ridden names. It would be brilliant for the men in charge, so easy, so easier to ditch Capello, give the under-performing England stars their limelights back again, ready for another overhyped throw at Poland/Ukraine. It would be lazy, too, and another lost opportunity.

Let us get out of our system the “goal that was”, the apologies and the tabloid rants. Let us stop this managerial witch-hunt. There are plenty of English sportsmen and women who are far more deserving of our praise – the cyclists, swimmers and indeed our cricketers (whose achievements on Sunday were completely overshadowed) – football should work from the bottom-up before it goes totally tits-up.

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Singing for England

If we’re honest, really honest, “God Save The Queen” is an insipid and tedious little piece of work isn’t it? The whole dirge is as stirring as a spoon made from nougat.

Now, I’m no right-on republican or “eat the rich” leftie; just someone who finds “God Save The Queen” to be lacking in the vim and vigour required in a national anthem. Okay, as a British anthem or in times of national crisis, it has its role. But specifically for England, and English national pride? Surely we can do better than asking English people to instruct God to send the Monarch of the day to visit the battle hotspots of the day?

John Leech, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, has secured a debate on the use of anthems at English sporting events. For the first time, “Jerusalem” will be used as the medal anthem for English athletes at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi; Leech thinks this is the right choice, and for as long as I can remember, I have thought the same…

Due to the way this country has managed to get along with its unwritten constitution, there is a curious set-up whereby a constitutional monarchy as all the characteristics of a federal republic, Scotland and Wales carrying on with their own devolved parliaments and accepted national anthems with England having neither. Little wonder people felt it necessary to deface the cross of St George with the word “ENGLAND”, we’re in danger of having a collective identity crisis.

“Jerusalem” has been my choice – and that of selective rugby and cricket event organisers for years – because it sings of and about England. There should be no shame or unease about singing an English anthem when cheering an English team. Make no mistake, as a liberal I find most nationalistic fervour tricky to support. I can sing – well chant – “God Save The Queen” with the best of them. I understand – much better than the knuckle draggers on the far right – that someone can be patriotic while not being prejudiced or pathetic.

Scholars of both national psyche and Christian teaching will doubtlessly unite in pointing out how “Jerusalem” is adopted from a theological poem, upon which hanging English chest-beating is inappropriate. I happen to think a few verses on bashing the Scots is not quite the best argument for keeping “God Save The Queen”.

Of course, my family heritage is not of England much at all, but Wales. I have yet to perfect the prouncuation of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” beyond accidentally insulting Pembrokeshire café owners, so until that is sorted, I will get behind the movement to give England an anthem its people deserve. On the eve of the football team’s latest tussle against the Germans, let’s get a suitable song belting out across the country. Anything is better for the spirit than “Two World Wars and One World Cup…”

Barbed-wire Budget

Given “Brown’s legacy”, the first coalition government Budget sure could have been much worse. I am very concerned about the housing benefit cuts, but for most of the Budget I was very pleased at the credible alternative to Labour’s “spend spend spend”

As I said yesterday the VAT increase is unfortunate. One perspective I would like to run with – however uncomfortable I am with the increase for the long-term – is the hope of economic stimulus between now and January 4th. Will the big-ticket items be purchased now in such volumes to keep consumer confidence high and High Streets moving? Will increasing concern about the rise affect Christmas sales?

Increasing Capital Gains Tax to 28% is another hit, although those who can afford to pay tax on their capital gains should remember the “holiday” they have enjoyed since Gordon Brown reduced the rate while he was Chancellor. As put far more professionally by the Millennium Elephant some time ago, the increase will put right a lot of the unintended consequences of Brown’s reduction. Paying more on earnings than the woman who cleans your office? Not fair.

The increase in personal allowance to just shy of £7,500 is one step towards the LibDem policy of £10,000 before the end of the Parliament. The country could not afford the £10,000 in one leap – you bet your last dime Gordon Brown would have made that leap and charged us for it – so the increase is a welcome move. It certainly helps the 800,000 who will not be in the income tax bracket at all. Who would have expected that under a Conservative government?

Taking the income increase as one of the stand-out achievements of Liberal Democrat influence, I hope this encourages a culture of saving the money which is not taken in tax. God knows I need to put some more money away. It’s encouraging to see that the Budget retains support for ISAs.

Contention comes in the benefit cuts. Child Tax Credits are to be withdrawn from couples whose income is deemed ‘too high’, perhaps to reconfigure the system towards those who need the benefit most. Remember that middle-income earners were never supposed to reap the reward of the Tax Credit policy; this could go some way to redress the balance in a fairer way. Freezing Child Benefit – effectively a cut – could be redressed by the increase of the child element of CTC. If this is the quid pro quo I would like further information on it.

Where the biggest issue of contention seems to currently lie is housing benefit. The new regime of “maximum limits” on claims is supposed to run down the massive total amount spent nationally. If Channel 4’s “Fact Check” is right, there could be some horrific unexpected consequences;

the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed today the new cap will apply nationally. Labour MPs warn of a housing crisis in London and the South East, where rents are higher. For example, in parts of Hackney, the maximum housing benefit is £1,000 a week for a four bedroom house. Losing £600 a week would mean families currently claiming housing benefit would have to move to cheaper parts of London

The consequences of this policy make the liberal hairs on my neck stand on end. I fully accept that the cost of housing benefits is excessive, and a maximum limit could well help deal with those who are genuinely messing with the system, those who are genuinely claiming more than they are entitled…But as we know from Council Tax, “one size fits all” just does not work across the nation. In some parts of the north of England, this policy change could be a terrible idea.

(And, lest I forget, the cider increase is reversed. Good touch)

In conclusion, then…

Is this a Budget of “teh evil Toriez” as some elements within Labour would have it? No. This is the best that could have been done with the sort of cards which would have made Victoria Coren panic. Labour are responsible for massive national debt, repayment of which will soon cost more than the English education budget. What else could the Coalition do but to decrease spending and increase taxes?

Labour need to advise exactly what they would have done with a country on the edge of a Greece-style meltdown. The Coalition have been as fair as the economics allow – higher personal allowance, fairer rules for CTC, decreased Corporation Tax…There’s a lot which could have happened which has not. This is the Conservatives talking with a Liberal accent. The Budget is tough. The times are tight. I would rather live in this age of responsibility than Labour’s time of plenty.

VAT Attack

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has ranted against former Labour Ministers Frank Field and John Hutton advising David Cameron on welfare reform and pensions respectively.

(Frank Field, you may recall, was asked to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare reform by Tony Blair. When he did just that, he was sacked.)

Prescott is, naturally, wrong. To use the term “collaborators” is typical paranoia from the old socialist, unable to accept that politics can mean cooperation and compromise. Forget Gordon Brown’s “Government of the Talents”; that was the past, this is now. It’s the age of “teh evil Toriez”.

What hurdles exist for the coalition rise a little higher with this week’s emergency budget. Despite both David Cameron and Nick Clegg saying during the election campaign that VAT would not need to rise as part of (their then separate) budget proposals, it appears increasingly likely that some kind of increase will be announced by George Osborne. This could cause the fissures of tension within the coalition to split open like a crack in a Scottish girl’s bedroom.

VAT is not the fairest tax in the land; it does not discriminate as it increases the cost of almost all goods and services. To increase VAT, as is likely, seems one good way of making a dent in Labour’s legacy, the record national debt approaching £900bn. With the age of “borrowing money to pay off the debt” now forcing its consequences on us all, money raised from cost cutting and tax rises must hit all taxpayers to be fair. I welcome the proposals to freeze Council Tax. Now all we need to do is ditch it completely.

This country could not afford to keep Labour in power. We could not afford to borrow money to repay debt forever. There is still the danger of the UK being tipped into a Greek-style economic disaster area; the coalition needs to do what it can to drag us back. Increasing Capital Gains Tax to 40% is one way to recoup lost revenue; those who benefit from their capital gains can afford to take the hit that lower paid people cannot through a VAT hike. There has to be fairness. I would prefer VAT not to increase – I said so at the launch of the coalition on this blog – however nobody can be in denial about the struggle ahead as income revenues fall, inflation rises, unemployment remains high.

I hope that the Budget speaks with a Liberal Democrat accent; the increase in income allowance and removal of child tax credits from those whose combined income is too high to justify the cost being two I would welcome. There has to be fairness in these tough times.

An increase in VAT would be a severe hit; the economy is in trouble, cuts need to be made, spending needs to be prioritised. I am unsure that VAT, which effects middle and low paid people disporpotionaly more than those on higher incomes, is the best tax to target at the moment.

Law and Disorder

Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly planning to introduce a ‘law and order levy’ on pubs which want to open after 11pm.

This is not something I would support. May is attempting to deal with a flawed licensing system with the wrong solution.

Labour’s changes to the licensing laws came as a welcome modernisation. Our out-dated “closing times” had to be done away with. Unlike the Daily Mail rent-a-reaction, I did not foresee rivers of booze and blood flowing down the High Streets of England. Coupled with the new powers given to Local Authorities to deal with troublesome pubs and clubs, Labour seemed to get things right on this.

Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm to introduce 24hr licenses – and remember, very few pubs or clubs actually do open 24hrs – Labour assumed an instant change to a continental drinking culture. Not so, of course, as there would have been the necessary introduction of ‘purchasing quotas’ and a statutory watered-down ale limit to facilitate that sort of change. Britain took to license liberalisation with (mostly) maturity and (some) over-enthusiasm. Hence May looking at this new ‘night-time tax”.

Pubs are struggling to stay open as it is. The smoking ban and cheap supermarket prices have eaten into the pub market share. Now add the change in social behaviour – is “going to the local boozer” such a part of every day life among the young or those on middle incomes? – to see why the publican does not always have a happy lot.

This “law and order levy” would be an unfair tax on publicans. Local authorities, in this time of economic constraint, would not shy from asking all pubs to put money into a “policing pot”. Cash-strapped independent or small holdings would go to the wall; “brand name” pubs would take the hit. Which is more likely to have reason to call out the cops – The Red Lion or a Scream pub on the edge of a student village?

Councils are able to order additional restrictions on licenses, and the extended opening hours policy is a genie not likely to fit back into its bottle. Together publicans, police and Councils should be able to continue working towards tackling what disorder exists without an additional financial burden on tax-payers (generally) or publicans (specifically).

Sky’s Own Goal

News that Sky Sports News is to be removed from Freeview should come as a bodyblow for, among others, fans of Jeff Stelling (in general), Dean Windass’ inability to describe what just happened on the pitch behind him, and Chris Kamara (in full).

This decision – financial, natch – leaves people, pubs and smaller clubs stuck with the inferior Final Score. Yes, Garth “Ribena Mascot Head” Crooks and his meandering sentences and forced metaphors. Remember how Kevin Keegan struggled commentating during the World Cup 1994? That’s what we are left with. Him and Gaby “I’m a sports presenter, me” Logan and Jake Humphries, the walking yet barely talking Top Gear presenter job application.

It’s enough to force viewers to the nearest stadium to watch a match. Which is exactly what I intend to do.

And now, of course, *that* Chris Kamara moment….

Oasis – Time Flies

And time certainly does fly, this compilation spanning the band’s entire career and my youth/teenage years/early middle age in one complete, 130+ minutes album. It’s like regression therapy for northerners.

In a fingerclick of time-travel, I’m back listening to Mark Goodyear running down the chart show in 1994, when “Some Might Stay” was at number one, and the world seemed to change a little bit. We’d all bought into “Wonderwall” and picked up “Live Forever” on the two or three cable music channels available at the time, but now the band were at number one, and back then, such things meant a lot. Now they let James Corden into the charts, fordaluvofgod.

A compilation like “Time Flies” is the soundtrack of all our years, all our friendships, and those milestones we use to measure the distance from childhood dreams to adult reality. The lads piss ups in provincial indie clubs, chanting “Wonderwall” inbetween its usual Charlatans/Stone Roses segue; we’ve all been there, and Oasis soundtracked every step of the way.

Theirs is not a career without problems, of course, in and out the recording studio. If we sidestep the headlines for now (as difficult a task as that is, and notably rare among the British bands today), the back-catalogue this compilation celebrates is the very definition of flawed genius. At their peak, Oasis – and at most points “Oasis” is euphemism for “Noel” – were the stellar songwriters and live act of their day; “Wonderwall”, “Roll With It”, “Shakermaker”, “D’You Know What I Mean”, “Masterplan”, “Champagne Supernova”…This is the soundtrack of Britain that the helped influence almost every other indie/rock band from the 90s onwards, and is the pension plan the Arctic Monkeys would die for.

Flawed points on the Oasis journey tie up with internal pressures, sibling (wibbling?) rivalry, and the shifting sands of taste among the British single buyer. “Go Let It Out”, “The Hindu Times” – how hard we try to lift these as high, to enjoy them as much, and yet time has not been kind. The struggle up hill by the time of “Importance of Being Idle” is the same result of artistic exhaustion that runs through the output from the Monty Python team to Ricky Gervais. All genius is exhausted, all careers grind to a puttered engine eventually.

“Time Flies” is not the first – I dare say it won’t be the last – compilation of Oasis singles (anyone buy the cigarette-packet special editions, or is my memory tricking me?). This is one of the most important compilations in the potted history of British music, the vanguard of northern souls which copied and was copied in equal measure. Liam’s voice grew weary, Noel’s lyrics more maudlin, the band ground out too much in the end; but through the window of nostalgia and memory everything this album awakens remains inexorably linked to our social, political and musical history.

university, challenged

I agree with Nick.

“I believe tuition fees are wrong, I believe they need to be abolished”

Unlike Labour, who over 13 years of misrule could not see the consequences of “spend, spend, spend”, Nick told Party Conference last year that the country may well not be able to afford the abolition of tuition fees; he maintained that they were a policy he could not abide and would, when circumstances were better, move to abolish.

In his first major speech as University Minister, David “I Had Two Brains Once” Willetts has sown the possibility of tuition fees having to rise, or at least remaining in place for English students. His blame falls on Labour;

Labour left a system on shaky financial foundations, without a viable long-term future

He went on to say;

“If fees were to go up, the government would have to lend people the money to pay for them – and that would push up public spending…It’s not just that students don’t want to pay higher fees: the Treasury can’t afford them”

Universities are not scraping the barrels quite yet; there are alternative revenue streams aside from the Government or tuition fees. As in all areas of spending over the next 12 months, 2 years, cost-cutting will have to be looked at from the very top to bottom. After 13 years of economic misrule, we all have to suffer the consequences.

The “T”‘s threatening the stability of the coalition – Trident, Tuition Fees, taxes – have all shaken the alliance since polling day. As I have always done, since their forced introduction, I will oppose university tuition fees. Their abolition for Scottish students in Scotland shows it can be done.

Tuition fees are inexcusable, a mortgage on education, a tax on learning. Students should not leave with the cost of a family car around their neck for the sake of their future careers. Reviewing what Universities spend, and how, is vital for the coalition.

But I will not support an increase in tuition fees. The consequences of the ill-thought out plan should not be putting more strain on students. Too many short-term errors were made by Labour – the arbitrary 50% aim for University admissions, for example, which now “ties in” future governments to the level else to look elitist. The aim of 50% has opened up the gates to too many students chasing too little places; little wonder smaller institutions are now feeling the financial strain. Little wonder the students loan service is close to imploding under the pressure.

Nothing related to spending commitments will be easy, with the tight constraints of the previous Government boxing in the aims of this one – “There is no money left!”. No matter the change in context, though, my convictions stay the same. I agree with Nick; tuition fees must, at some point, be abolished.

Lessons of Praise

OFSTED has raised concerns about the teaching of religious education in schools. In response – perhaps inevitably – the Church of England has expressed “concern”, the National Secular Society has suggested RE should become optional.

My memories of RE at school – comprehensive school, how out-of-date a phrase does that sound in this age of Academies – are faded muddles of textbook copying and asking the only Muslim child in the class to write our names in Urdu on the blackboard. The compulsory element of RE was ditched for the final two years, and on the whole we all downed the subject faster than the shared bottle of 20/20 in Gateway’s carpark.

As I get older, my attitude towards the teaching of religion in non-faith schools grows less certain. I used to be pretty ambivalent on the matter, coming to this point via total disagreement – “Parents chose a non-faith school for a reason!”, that sort of thing – to lukewarm support – “If it helps increase understanding between faiths in this difficult time”.

I am not surprised by OFSTED’s observation that teachers aren’t entirely sure what their lessons are supposed to create. My memories include heated discussions on morality and sexuality, far removed from the Year 7 days of copying out from a textbook the basic layout of an Anglican Church. I understand that RE has been diluted into something resembling a high school version of A-Level General Studies, an hour-long free for all where both teachers and pupils are perilously close to crossing into forming their own opinions on political and cultural topics of the day, and I suspect the Department for Education is still uneasy about that.

It is clear in my mind that unease about Islam and other faiths in young people comes from both front-room and class-room. If structured lessons can help explain the basic elements of all faiths, to root out the urban myths and misunderstandings, then in the long-term that could be very good for this and future generations. However, schools have had quite enough restructuring under the previous government, do teachers really need to become ‘citizenship’ lecturers on top of everything else?

The National Secular Society is quoted suggesting that, like the teaching of foreign languages, religious education should be optional. Let’s face the truth on this; pur national reputation for languages is dire. Since becoming an optional subject, the learning of French, German, and Spanish in High Schools has plummeted. The long-term consequences for our economic well being may yet to be fully realised; could the same be said for taking away religion from the timetable?

Could the rise of the English Defence League and such Facebook groups as “Our flag offends you but your benefits don’t!” be linked to a lack of multi-faith understanding at primary and high school levels?

The NSS is right, in my opinion, to cast doubt on the right of the State to decide if doctrine should form a part of the school timetable. The problem clearly is that nobody quite knows what to do with religion now, especially in a nation which will never be as Christian as it once was. As someone who believes in the separation of Church and State, I am nevertheless uncertain about how much children should be shielded from religious teaching within school hours. OFSTED have thrown the debate into the air.

I wonder if anything good (or Good) will come from their report…

Vox Pop

Upson?

Matthew Upson?

CARRICK?

(I understand Fabio phoned Sven’s one-time unknown quantity Theo Walcott while the player was at a golf course. Given his performance on Sunday, that does bring to mind the image of him running up to the tee with intent before swiping the ball into the crowd.)

I woke this morning at about half-5, due in part to some unusual dreams. Nothing violent or sexual or owt, though I could have done without close-up shots of me shaving in slow motion like some out-takes from an arty black-and-white Hungarian film. My morning showers always have Radio 4 in the background – yes, I wake up to Evan Davis – so this morning I had a bit of Farming Today, which introduced me to this hitherto unknown quango.

(Their slogan is hilarious, as it goes, I won’t ruin it for you….)

Why “Alliance”, though? Was there a split in the Salad & Greens Marketing Board? I only remember watercress as the standby science experiment introduced by bored or desperate primary school teachers, that they need a marketing board seems somewhat over ambitious. If there is any chance that someone can explain this to me, I am open to all information.

Bought a new laptop yesterday, and another wireless router. For the latter, a children’s television presenter served me with pound signs in her eyes (“Would you like to upgrade to the SuperSpensiveNoMoreReliable Package?” “…Bwuh?”)

I now await the “activation”. It all seems rather arbitrary. If my experience of office life is anything to go by, mind, I assume the headquarters of this particular ISP has one part-timer, a single in-tray, and a repressive clean desk policy.

The purchases (and drinking at Britain’s smallest pub, has made a dent in my finances (NO, I hear you shout, FOR THE FIRST TIME!). I will pledge, maybe even make moves towards enacting, as close to a detox month as I can…

….Trust me, I was a politician…..