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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

A week from today, on the 18th of September, Scotland will decide whether it wants to break away from the rest of the United Kingdom and become independent. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that the result of this referendum will have far reaching consequences for all of the countries in the Disunited Kingdom (as I prefer to call it), including for Wales.

Unlike Wales, which was conquered by England in the late 12th Century and was absorbed into England in the Act of Union of 1536, Scotland was never defeated by England. It was independent until 1707, when the Scottish Parliament voted to dissolve and to form a political union with its larger neighbour to the south, and for Westminster to become the Parliament for a new Great Britain.

Interestingly, despite this over 300-year union, Scotland has always retained a separate legal and educational system to England, although decisions about them have been made by the whole British Government in London. In 1999 Scotland and Wales were both given a limited amount of independence (devolution) from the Westminster Government, and for historical reasons the level of decision making afforded to the new Scottish Parliament was greater than that afforded to the new Welsh Assembly.

It may surprise some of my readers in e.g. the USA and Australia that the level of decision making which Scotland and Wales have is much less than the individual states do in the USA and Australia. Having lived in the United States for 9 years, and in 4 different states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine and Wisconsin), each of those states has the ability to raise their own taxes, make their own laws and control much of their affairs like health, education, roads. Far far more independence from Washington D.C, than Wales or Scotland have from London.

Over the last 15 years I think it is fair to say that most people living in Scotland and Wales feel that devolution has been a success. Here in Wales we now get a block-grant from London, but can decide on matters of health and education how that money is divided up. So, for example, in Wales medical prescriptions are free (which they are not in England), we are charged 5p for plastic bags in shops (to cut down on their usage), and university fees for students from Wales are £3,000 rather than the £9,000 which English students have to pay (the Welsh Government pay the difference as the universities in England and Wales mostly charge £9,000).

I am no expert on the level of devolved powers Scotland has, except that it is more than those Wales has, but in the eyes of some these levels of devolved powers have not been enough, and on the 18th the Scottish people will decide whether they wish to go several steps further and have full independence from the rest of the Disunited Kingdom. For most of the last several months the “no” campaign has had a comfortable lead in the opinion polls, but this last weekend the polls showed that the gap has narrowed considerably and one poll even showed the “yes” campaign to have a narrow lead. This led to most of the London newspapers having headline stories on Monday (8th) about the impending doom should Scotland vote to break away.

This is how the Daily Telegraph have reported the narrowing in the opinion poles.


The headline from Monday's Times newspaper

The headline from Monday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper



And, this is how The Times has covered it.


The headline from Monday's Telegraph newspaper.

The headline from Monday’s The Times newspaper.



This is how the Daily Mail covered the story. My apologies for posting a screen capture from this awful newspaper, which I find nothing better than a xenophobic hate-stirrer, but I thought I should include it as an example of how the more hysterical right-wing press are covering the story.



The headline from Monday's Daily Mail newspaper

The headline from Monday’s Daily Mail newspaper



It was also announced on Sunday (the 7th) by George Osborne, the Chancellor, that the Government would be laying out details of how Scotland will be given more independence from London should they vote “no” in the referendum. I think it is fair to say that the British (London) Government is in a bit of a panic, as the possibility of a “yes” vote now seems more likely than it did even just a few weeks ago. Just yesterday (Wednesday the 10th), the leaders of the three main “British” parties David Cameron, Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg all headed to Scotland in what some see as a last-ditched effort to “save the union”. The “three amigos”, as they have been dubbed, have stayed out of the debate thus far, and it may transpire that their going to Scotland will backfire on the “no” campaign and be perceived as English politicians meddling in Scottish affairs.



The headline from yesterday (Wednesday)'s Daily Mail

The headline from yesterday (Wednesday)’s Daily Mail



As a Welsh person who has always wanted Wales to be independent, I am watching what happens in Scotland with much interest. Realistically, I cannot see Wales even holding a referendum on full independence any time soon. Having been to Scotland several times I have certainly got the impression that they are far more confident about their ability to run their own affairs than Welsh people are. I have always put this down to the difference in mentality of a people who were never conquered by England compared to the Welsh, who were conquered.

But, whether Scotland votes “yes” or “no”, it is now clear that Scotland will have more independence from London than it currently has, and this can only mean that Wales will gain more independence too. Already, just in the last year, Wales has gained the right to create and vote on its own laws which fall within its devolved powers. How much longer before we can also raise our taxes, to allow us to raise more (or less) than the London Government does?

The outcome of the referendum next week will certainly be historic, and I await it with bated breath.

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Cardiff, where I live, is currently in a state of lock-down. I have never seen so many police or security barriers in my life. Even the student hall of residence near our house is now filled with police, and on Sunday I saw three coach loads of them arriving. Yesterday, on the way into work, the main shopping areas had dozens of police walking around. Apparently there will be nearly 10,000 police officers on duty this week, with some 8,000 having been brought in from outside of the area from other police forces.

The reason for all of this kerfuffle is that on Thursday and Friday of this week (the 4th and 5th) the Celtic Manor near Newport (some 15 miles from Cardiff) is hosting the NATO conference. In addition, Cardiff Castle will play host to a banquet for the leaders, and even Prince Charles is going to get his snout into the trough of free food.



Police outside the eastern end of Cardiff castle with a security barrier which runs all the way past the castle for several miles

Police outside the eastern end of Cardiff castle with a security barrier which runs all the way past the castle for several miles



Barak Obama will be visiting – and I believe this will be the first time an incumbent US President has visited Wales, but I may be wrong. It is also apparently the largest gathering of World leaders ever to take place in the Disunited Kingdom. Even my daughter’s school is affected. She goes to school in Barry, which is about 20-25 miles (30-40 km) from the Celtic Manor, but her school will be closed on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. There was even talk of closing the main artery road into and out of south Wales – the M4 – but I think that is no longer the case. Helicopters are constantly flying overhead, it’s like Splott on a typical Saturday night 😛



The Western Mail has set up a link to their stories about the NATO summit, which is here. Organisers of the summit are, of course, expecting anti-war protests. And given the current military action that the US and other countries are taking in northern Iraq, things could get rather tense in Wales over the next few days.

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Towards the end of last week it was revealed that in the Chilcot Inquiry (which is a public inquiry in the Disunited Kingdom into Britain’s role in the Iraq war) the full details of conversations between then Prime Minister Tony Blair and then US President George Bush about the war (including the build up to it) will be kept secret. I think this is nothing short of scandalous.



The story as reported in London's Daily Telegraph

The story as reported in London’s Daily Telegraph



Am I the only one who thinks this is wrong? Tony Blair and his US counterpart George W. Bush served as political leaders of their respective countries, offices into which they were voted by the public. Their salaries were paid for by the taxpayers, and they were public servants, as are all politicians. Edward Snowden’s recent revelations show that the US and DUK governments have been illegally snooping on their private citizens’ communications through the NSA and GCHQ respectively, and yet these public servants somehow have the right to privacy when we don’t? It stinks, that is all I can say.

I strongly believed back in 2001, and I still believe, that the US/DUK invasion of Iraq was illegal under international law. They did not have a UN mandate to invade, and yet both Bush and Blair went ahead and invaded anyway. They did this on the premise that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs), something which was subsequently shown to be not true. Somewhere in the build-up to this war lies were made, and I think it is our right to know who made those lies and when. Was it the CIA and British Intelligence who lied to Bush and Blair about the presence of WMDs? Or did Bush and Blair doctor the intelligence to justify their invasion? The Chilcot Inquiry should have been our way to find out, and yet I don’t see that we ever will with this pathetic decision to not reveal the full details of their conversations.

Let me repeat, Bush and Blair were both public servants. They were making decisions to send American and British soldiers into a war where thousands of them died. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis who also died as either collateral damage to the invasion, or in the fighting between Sunni and Shia muslims. Blair and Bush have no right to keep those conversations private, as they were public servants engaged in business which affected the publics of the two countries. I really don’t understand why Chilcot has bowed to the pressure from either the US or DUK governments to not reveal the full details of those conversations, but he should not have given in and the Inquiry is all the poorer for it.

Am I the only one who feels this withholding of all the conversations regarding the Iraq war between those two “leaders” in wrong?

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This last weekend my wife and I went to Liverpool, and amongst many of the things we saw there was the slavery museum. This is part of the Maritime museum, and gives a little of the history of the slave trade, from which Liverpool profited handsomely. The museum is found in the same building as the Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock area of Liverpool.



The sign on the outside of the Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock part of Liverpool

The sign on the outside of the Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock part of Liverpool



One of the other things we did was go on the “Magical Mystery Tour”, which takes you around many of the parts of the city associated with The Beatles, including their childhood homes.

One of the places the tour takes you is Penny Lane, a road which was immortalised in their 1967 song. This was the third time I have done this tour, and each time I have had a different guide. This guide said something I had not heard before – that Penny Lane was named after slave ship owner James Penny, who was a prominent anti-abolitionist and spoke in Parliament against the abolition of slavery. Here is my wife next to the Penny Lane sign.



Penny Lane, immortalised by The Beatles, is named after slave ship owner James Penny. Penny was a prominent anti-abolitionist who defended slavery to the British Parliament.

Penny Lane, immortalised by The Beatles, is named after slave ship owner James Penny. Penny was a prominent anti-abolitionist who defended slavery to the British Parliament.



The slavery museum is well worth visiting, although it is not an easy experience. My wife and I were there for well over an hour, and we could have easily been there for two hours. The museum is on the 3rd floor of the building, and in the lift on the way back to the ground floor the ten or so people with us were as silent as we were, I think we were all lost in thought about what we had seen.

With the movie “12 years a slave” winning the Best Director Oscar for Steve McQueen a few weeks ago, reminding ourselves of this awful practice is something many of us would prefer not to do. But, painful though it is to see such images of cruelty, it is important to be reminded so that it doesn’t continue. According to McQueen in his Oscar acceptance speech, there are still 20 million people in the World today living in slavery. If this is true then it is unacceptable and needs to be stopped.


A toleration of slavery is, in effect, a toleration of inhumanity – Granville Sharp 1769





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I don’t have the eloquence to do justice to the life of a person as great as Nelson Mandela (Madiba). So I thought I’d select just a few quotes, as well as some pictures to give an essence of a person whom I know will go down in history as one of the truly great human beings. South Africa and the World are better for his life, and we are the poorer now he’s gone.
At his treason trial in 1964:

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

 

At his inauguration as President in 1994:

We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

 

December 1995:

Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.

 

From “Long Walk to Freedom” (1995)

Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.

 

Again from “Long Walk to Freedom” (1995)

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart that its opposite.

The papers of the Disunited Kingdom on the morning after Nelson Mandela’s death.

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Nelson Mandela’s life in pictures (from The Guardian newspaper)
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Here is the video of Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison.

RIP Madiba. And thank you.

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In a few days’ time, on Friday the 22nd of November, it will be 50 years to the day since John F. (Fitzgerald) Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. People old enough say that they remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. Well, I know exactly where I was, I was in my mother’s womb about half way through my 40-week gestation 😛 She was at a school concert with my father in Salisbury where he was teaching at the time (with me as a free guest), my elder two sisters were in the house with a babysitter.

Kennedy was not the first US President to be assassinated in office. In fact, in total three US Presidents have been assassinated in office, the other most famous one being of course Abraham Lincoln, who was shot whilst at the theatre in April 1865 at the beginning of his second term of office. The other, less well known US President to be assassinated in office was the 20th President, James Garfield. He was shot in July 1881, less than four months into his term of office.



John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas with his wife Jackie moments before he was assassinated.

John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas with his wife Jackie moments before he was assassinated.



What has made Kennedy’s assassination one of the defining moments of the 20th Century? Is it because he was the youngest ever US President to be elected into office? Is it because his shooting is captured on film? Is it because there are still questions as to whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting him? Is it because of the speculation over his affair with Marilyn Monroe and supposed Mafia links? Whatever the reasons, it is sobering to think that the only one of his immediate family still alive today is his daughter Caroline, with Jackie Kennedy Onassis dying in 1994, and John F. Kennedy Jr. dying in 1999 at the age of 38 when the plane he was piloting crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

It is also interesting to speculate on how different the USA and the World might have been had Kennedy not been assassinated. Would the US have become as involved in Vietnam under Kennedy as the country did under Johnson? How would US/Soviet relations developed under Kennedy? What about US/Cuba relations? Would his younger brother Bobby ever have run for President had JFK not been assassinated? Presumably, had he not, Bobby too would not have been assassinated either.

There are, of course, countless books and documentaries about Kennedy’s assassination. I heard an interview on the radio recently with an academic who has written a book on the assassination 50 years on. One of the most fascinating things mentioned in that interview was how rushed the official enquiry into his assassination, the so-called “Warren Commission” was. It was started only seven days after his death, under the direction of President Johnson. He appointed Earl Warren, the head of the Supreme Court, to lead the investigation. Even though Warren apparently did not want to do it, Johnson gave him no choice in the matter.

The enquiry only lasted nine months, which meant that some potential evidence was either not gathered, or not looked into in any detail. There was a lot of disagreement amongst members of the Commission, with many members not being allowed to see important findings. Even his autopsy was apparently mis-handled. Jackie chose it to be conducted by the Navy, as her husband had served in the Navy. The Navy coroners had little to no experience of investigating gun-shot wounds; had the autopsy been done by the Army it may have been possible to learn a lot more about the circumstances of his death. Because of this, and other things, a lot of speculation still exists as to the true circumstances of Kennedy’s assassination, with many questioning both then and now the findings that Oswald acted alone.

A web search will quickly turn up actual footage of JFK’s assassination, so I thought I would show something different. Here instead is the footage of Walter Cronkite, US news anchor, announcing live on US TV first of all the breaking news that Kennedy has been shot, and later the news that he has died.





Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Or, where were your parents? Or, for my even younger readers, your grand parents?

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Last week it was announced that England would be making its GCSEs “more rigorous” (GCSEs are the public exams taken by students in Year 11, when they are 16). Thankfully for those of us in Wales, Education is one of those areas for which Wales has autonomy from England, so we here in Wales will not be following what I consider to be a great leap backwards. These changes have been covered extensively in the press, see for example this story here from The Guardian newspaper.

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is a privately educated Oxford graduate. He is, in my mind, one of the most repulsive and moronic of the current Government’s ministers, which is quite an achievement as he is up against some pretty stiff competition with the likes of Cameron, Clegg and Osborne. Gove seems to be obsessed with Victorian Education values, and his latest reforms to the Education system in England do nothing to dispel me of that perception.



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As far as I can tell, only details for reforms to the English and Maths curricula have so far been released. Now, I am no expert in the teaching of English, but I do find it illumanting to read that the reformed English curriculum will include more emphasis on Poetry of the Romantics and Victorian literature. Is Gove trying to take English school students back to the great dreamy days of the British Empire in the early to mid 1800s?

I may not be an expert in the teaching of English, but I do consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in the teaching of mathematics. I have taught mathematics from below GCSE level up to university graduate level. I love mathematics, in school it was my favourite subject, even more so that physics. But, I realise that a lot of people do not like mathematics, and do not like doing mathematics just for its own sake. They are not interested in learning how to solve quadratic equations unless they can see the relevance, and they are not interested in trigonometry unless they can see the relevance. I was interested, even without any relevance, but I realise that I am just strange.

Gove plans to take mathematics teaching back to how it was done in the 1960s and 1970s, with a lot more rote learning of formulae. Now, I have no idea who has been advising Gove on these changes, but I don’t think there are any mathematics teachers or lecturers I know of who think that learning formulae has any bearing whatsoever on whether one can actually do mathematics. It is just an exercise in rote learning and memorisation, whereas mathematics should be a subject of logical thought and reasoning and understanding. I have ended up remembering a lot of maths formulae just because I have used them hundreds of times, but being able to e.g. remember the formula for solving quadratic equations or the compound angle for sines is not testing a student’s maths ability, it is testing their memory. It would be better to spend several lessons teaching them where the formula comes from (by completing the “perfect square”), or teaching the students when being able to find the solutions to a quadratic equation are useful. But, there is nothing to be gained from expecting the students to remember it, it can be looked up on a phone these days in less than a few seconds.

It worries me a great deal if Gove and this Government think that mathematics and other scientific subjects are about memorising facts. When his reforms for the sciences come through, will he have students learning lists of the great physicists in British history, with their dates of birth and death? This is not what these subjects are about. That is how they used to be taught, but it is not the right way to teach them. Mathematics and the sciences should develop students’ abilities to think rationally and logically, to pose informed questions, to problem solve and to use the scientific method to ask questions, investigate those questions and come to sensible conclusions. If Gove thinks these subjects are about memorising facts and formulae, then England is going to fall even further behind its competitors. I’m just grateful to be Welsh.

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