Is Britain a modern democracy or a Disney Theme Park?

The royal family is, frankly, a national embarrassment. Throughout the world Britain is most famous for this feudal monarchy. We are seen as a land of fairy tales, a fantasy Disney World of medieval pageantry.

We are internationally celebrated for one glorious spectacle after another – last year the royal wedding; this year the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Our Parliament cannot even start its business each year without a lavish state opening.

This is Britain in 2012 – a country which has lost an empire but found a new role as ‘Ye Olde England’ theme park.

None of this makes me proud to be British.

No wonder I am sometimes asked, when abroad, if Britain is a democracy. And the reality, of course, is that monarchy and democracy are incompatible.

We have a Head of State who was not elected but simply became Queen because she was the daughter of the previous monarch, George VI. A hereditary monarchy is an anachronism in a 21st century democracy.

And incidentally if the Queen had had a younger brother, he would have been crowned, not she. It is only in the last year that it has been decided that if the eldest child of Prince William and Kate is a girl she would succeed her father as monarch.

But the royal family remains resolutely anti-Catholic. No Roman Catholic can succeed to the throne.

The monarchy legitimises a class-stratified society based on the accident of birth. It encourages us to respect people not because of their achievements or their qualities as people, but simply because of their inherited titles.

And in recent weeks the deference and royal toadying has been excessively nauseating. It seems, for example, that the broadcasters, led by the BBC, see themselves as a free PR service for the royal family. The unctuous fawn-fest has been an insult to a free society. And the royalist trivia that has been covered must surely embarrass the genuine professionals working in those news organisations.

This adulation of the royal family by the broadcasters means that there is far less scrutiny of their activities than there should be.  And there will be even less in future as the Government has scandalously removed the royal family from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act – following lobbying by Prince Charles.

And the lobbying activities of the Prince – who is unpopular even amongst supporters of the royal family – are extensive. He is notorious for firing off letters and demanding meetings with Government Ministers, so that he can bend their ears about his pet causes and his personal interests. And it takes a very strong minded Minister to resist this princely lobbying. The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne readily acceded to the royal demands for a new ‘pay’ deal, giving them a percentage of the income from the Crown estates, which has greatly increased their annual income.

And, incidentally, in the Mother of Parliaments, MPs are not allowed to criticise members of the royal family. And the Queen and Prince Charles must be asked – in private and without our knowledge – for consent before Parliament can debate any legislation that affects their private interests.

Each year the PR department of the Monarchy publishes accounts full of massaged figures, purporting to show that the royal family costs us only a matter of pence each per year. The reality is that we have a very expensive monarchy which costs us at least £200 million a year. Prince Charles has a property empire valued at more than £700 million. The Royal Art Collection is valued at £10 billion. And how many palaces and stately homes do they have? Some are privately owned; others officially belong to the state but are for the use of the royals. Just think – Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham House, Balmoral Castle, Hollyrood House Palace. These are the ones that immediately occurred to me but I’ve probably forgotten a few!

I’d like to see Britain become a grown-up country. It’s time to “put away childish things”. And that includes getting rid of a self-serving unelected Head of State.

Time for a Republic.

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How Child-Beating Teachers Were STOPPed

Twenty five years ago today – on Tuesday 22nd July 1986 – the House of Commons voted to end child beating in schools. The victory for the abolitionist cause – by a single vote – came the evening before Prince Andrew’s marriage to Sarah Ferguson. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, an ardent ‘hanger and flogger’, ironically played her part in securing the abolitionist victory. She was entertaining Nancy Reagan at number 10, and did not vote.

But abolition had been inevitable since the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1982 that parental objections to their children being beaten must be respected. The Government proposed that parents should be able to opt their children out of school beatings, but teachers would be free to beat the children of those who didn’t object. The House of Lords threw out this daft proposal, and later amended a wide-ranging Education Bill to include a clause banning child beating.

When this came back to the Commons, 37 Tories, led by Robert Key, a sponsor of the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP), voted for abolition along with most Labour and Liberal MPs.

In 1979, when I became STOPP’s first full-time campaigner, the prospects for abolition seemed bleak. Margaret Thatcher had just become Prime Minister. Many of her MPs were looking for harsher punishments such as the return of the death penalty and judicial birching. It was not a good time to be advocating a liberal reform.

The teaching unions were universally in favour of teachers exercising their ‘in loco parentis’ role, arguing that teachers should have the same right as parents to beat children. The biggest teachers’ union, the NUT, was at the forefront of those wanting to retain child beating.  But they tried to persuade the public that it was rarely inflicted.

The truth was very different. 32 local authorities published beating statistics, showing that more than 80% of secondary schools were beating children, and that getting on for a quarter of a million beatings were being meted out annually. This worked out at one beating every 19 seconds throughout the school year. Far from being used as a ‘last resort’, beatings were often inflicted for the most trivial reasons.

Every year STOPP published a dossier of incidents. Here are just a few examples of the legalised brutality that was being meted out to children in the 1980s:

* A 9-year-old epileptic girl was publicly beaten by her headmaster for whispering in class.  As her classmates watched, she was struck three times across her knuckles with a three-foot long ruler.

* a 14-year-old boy killed himself with a shotgun because he feared being caned by his headmaster.

* A 15-year-old girl was caned seven times in one term for truancy.

* A 14-year-old boy came home from school after a caning with his blood-stained underpants sticking to his bottom

  • A few days after his father died, a 9-year-old boy was caned for going to his father’s grave during school hours.

* A headmaster was convicted of indecent assault on three girls, aged 5,8 & 9. The prosecution said he “made up feeble excuses for smacking the children on their bare bottoms”.

The last case – and many others brought to STOPP’s attention – illustrate the chilling reality that some teachers were sadists who got sexual gratification from beating the children entrusted to their care.

The abolition of child-beating in schools was one of the most important social reforms of the twentieth century.  A vile evil was expunged from our schools.

You can read a longer version of this article at http://blogminster.com/blogs/tomscott/

WHY ANDY MURRAY LOST

Andy Murray had been having a wonderful Wimbledon. He’d swatted away all his opponents including the very talented Richard Gasquet. He was playing great tennis and seemed full of confidence. And this was on the back of an impressive run of form including his best clay court season – in which he reached the semi-finals of the French – and  winning the pre-Wimbledon Queen’s title for the second time. That victory included a virtuoso display against Roddick which was arguably the best performance by anyone this year.

Andy Murray – three times a grand slam finalist and with 6 Masters titles – is the greatest British tennis player in living memory.  Far more talented than the last British tennis hero, Tim Henman, there seemed every prospect that Andy – in his third consecutive Wimbledon semi-final – could become the first British man to reach the final since Bunny Austin in 1938. And if he did that, all his fans were optimistic that he would hold aloft the Wimbledon trophy and record the first British win since Fred Perry 75 years ago in 1936.

Of course, Andy – the world number 4 – had a formidable opponent in Rafael Nadal, world number 1 and Wimbledon champion. But Rafa had been less than impressive in defeating Mardy Fish in the quarter finals.  As the players warmed up, the three times Wimbledon champion Boris Becker predicted a Murray win.

And for more than an hour Andy gave us every reason to be optimistic. In his first game he thundered down two aces and continued to serve well throughout the first set. Nadal was playing well, too, but serving at  5-6 he found himself 0-40 down. Three set points for Andy.  In their closely fought semi at the French Open, Nadal saved most of the 18 break points he faced. And he saved the first one here, too. But not the second. Andy had taken the first set 7-5. The perfect start!

And the excellence continued into the second set. Games went with serve at first. Andy took a 2-1 lead.  Then Nadal found himself 15-30 down. A quick rally and Andy had an easy forehand to make it 15-40 and give himself two break points. Had he broken Nadal’s serve here, there was every chance he would have taken the set. And in the last 6 years Andy has never surrendered a two set lead.

But Andy missed the easy forehand.  Not by much – perhaps an inch or two. But he’d missed a great chance. But never mind, the score was still 30-30. Concentrate, Andy, and you can still break his serve.

But it was clear that Andy was still thinking about that miss as he made another two errors to lose the game. 2-2.

So, OK, the game’s gone. But you’re playing well, Andy. Everyone has the occasional bad miss. Put it out of your head, and you can still win.

But Andy couldn’t. His form nosedived and he lost seven games in a row. So from a one set lead, and a 2-1 30-15 lead in the second, Andy found himself losing 7-5, 2-6, 0-2. And Nadal got another break in the third set to take it 6-2. Andy’s first serve percentage – an impressive 66% in the first set – was a poor 48% in the third.

As I tweeted: “Murray, playing brilliantly, misses easy shot which wd have given 2 break points.Can’t put it out of head & Nadal’s now taken 7 games in a row”.

Andy is renowned for his fightbacks, but not this time. He lost his first service game 0-40, and Nadal was quickly 2-0 ahead in set 4. It was only at that point – when the match was in effect lost – that Andy managed some resistance. The rest of the set was hard fought, but Nadal won in 4 sets.

Tennis is a game which is won in the mind. No matter how brilliant a player you are, you need mental toughness to achieve grand slam success.  It pains me to say this but this is not the first time Andy has shown mental fragility in important matches.  For example, on three occasions he has reached grand slam finals (once at the US; twice at the Australian). On each occasion he has played well below par, failing to win one of the 9 sets he’s played in these finals.

In these matches it seemed that nerves got the better of him. In Friday’s match the meltdown was different in that he started so well, but then dwelt on one bad miss to such an extent that it totally undermined him.

Does Andy realise there’s a problem? Not judging from his comments after the match. He said at one point that he’d just have to work harder to get better. But from all accounts no-one works harder than Andy. He is incredibly fit, fast and athletic.

But an even more worrying comment was that he felt Nadal was 10-15% better than him.  I think this provides the key to Andy’s loss.  Tennis is all about belief.  If you don’t believe you are as good – or better – than your opponent, then it is very difficult to win.

Andy has appeared to be much more confident recently.  I think he started this match believing he could win. So, although he must have been nervous, that did not undermine his game at first. Nadal is a great player, but Andy was a better one for the first hour or so. Then came that forehand miss. Why couldn’t Andy put it out of his head? Possibly because it undermined his belief that he had the game to beat Nadal. It sparked off his doubts, his feeling that Nadal was in reality 10 or 15% better. And then he was sunk.

I’m sure Andy will reflect on this match and discuss it with ‘Team Murray’.  If he realises that it’s all in the mind, and can get help to make himself mentally as tough as Nadal, then this brilliant player can go on to win the grand slams that his huge talent merits.

If not, he is unlikely to win Wimbledon or any other major.

Labour MP’s offensive tweet

I have been on the receiving end of an unpleasant experience on Twitter. A Labour MP sent me an offensive tweet which, in effect, insinuated that I was indifferent to the plight of women who are raped or sexually assaulted.

Yes even though she has now conceded that in making such an insinuation she may have been confusing me with someone else, Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East & a shadow Treasury Minister, has refused to withdraw the hurtful tweet, let alone apologise.

This is the email I sent her and her response:

Dear Kerry

I am appalled that you have still not withdrawn your offensive tweet which  stated:

“I’d feel happier if u were as interested in sticking up for women who are raped/ sexually assaulted + never see justice done.”

You made this comment, believing that I had “lobbied” you “persistently” on only two issues: anonymity for defendants and Julian Assange.

In the case of Assange, we had a tweet exchange on this for the first and only time yesterday. [ie Sunday 5th December.]

In the case of anonymity for defendants, I don’t recall tweeting at all about this, and you’ve now admitted that you were maybe confusing me with someone else, and have apologised for this mistake.

As I pointed out to you, we have exchanged tweets on a variety of topics over the last year or so.

That rather pulls the rug from under your assumption that I am somehow so obsessed with protecting men from charges of rape and sexual abuse that I must be indifferent to the plight of women.

Yet you still decline to withdraw a slur on my reputation made in a public forum.

I would remind you that this attack on me came in the context of a discussion which, until that point, had been conducted in a civil way.

One of the issues was whether Julian Assange was being charged with ‘rape’ in the way we understand the term.  You objected to a blog on LiberalConspiracy which contended that Assange had not actually raped either woman.

My final tweet to you before your offensive response was : “But if they weren’t alleging rape – or not in the way that we understand it – shouldn’t we be told?

A perfectly reasonably question surely. Maybe you found it difficult to answer my point. Certainly you made no attempt to do so, but simply responded with your unpleasant tweet.

I’m aware that this is the way politicians frequently conduct yourselves – especially in the House of Commons. Someone on the other side makes a good point and, instead of attempting to answer it, you indulge in a personal attack.

But Twitter is not the House of Commons, and I am not a politician, and I object to being treated in such a shabby way.

We hear a lot about the Labour Party having failed to listen to the electorate in recent years. Ed Miliband says there is now a blank sheet of paper, and the Party will be listening to people.   But in my experience you were unable to have a conversation with a member of the public on a matter you feel strongly about without resorting to insults.

This has frankly come as a huge disappointment to me.  Until now I have looked on you favourably as a competent politician who I agree with more often than I disagree. As recently as Saturday we exchanged friendly tweets on a non-political topic.

I’m not a member of the Labour Party – I’m too independent to be a member of any party – but I voted Labour at the last election, and have on most occasions in my life voted Labour at General Elections though in recent years I’ve tended to vote Green at European and local elections.

I have criticisms of Labour in recent years – particularly on civil liberty and defence issues.

I make these points just to make it clear that I’m someone on the liberal left who is hoping for a better and more radical Labour Party. I’m the sort of person whose vote you need if you are to get back into power again.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Tom Scott

Kerry McCarthy’s response: “I think in the circumstances the best solution is for neither of us to converse with each other on Twitter again”.  She then blocked me on Twitter.

Theatre in a shopping centre

Yesterday I went shopping. OK, it was mainly window shopping.  All I bought was a sandwich …and a theatre ticket. I was in the Elephant & Castle shopping centre, and one of the shops (Unit 215) has been turned into a theatre by the Royal Court Theatre. What a good idea.

‘The play was called ‘Spur Of The Moment’ by Anya Reiss, who was only 17 when she wrote it. She’s one of the writers nurtured by the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Programme.

And what a wonderful play she’s written. The 95 minutes (no interval) sped by in no time. It’s about a dysfunctional family – Mum, Dad and 13-year-old daughter (called Delilah) – and the effect a 21-year-old male lodger has on them. Add to the mix the lodger’s girlfriend, and Delilah’s three teenage friends. Anya Reiss has a great ear for dialogue; the play is witty and the story is well told. Its plot reminded me a little of Peter Shaffer’s ‘Five Finger Exercise’, but the ending’s a lot happier. There’s some terrific acting including a scintillating professional debut from Shannon Tarbet as Delilah.

Tickets were only £8 (£5 concessions). And if you couldn’t afford that, you were invited to ‘pay what you like’.

Yesterday was the last night at ‘Theatre Local’ as the shopping centre venue is called.  But I’ve a feeling this play is going to be revived often during the next few years which is why I haven’t told you too much about the plot.

What is Truth ?

‘Spin’ – a dangerous weapon in the hands of politicians and others who seek to manipulate our minds. That’s how they seek to convince us of their ‘truth’ which is often in fact a lie.

The camera may not lie, but photographic and video images can be manipulated so that a lie or a partial truth masquerades as reality.

The smoothest talker may well be the biggest liar. And just because someone speaks poor English or is comparatively inarticulate does not mean they are not speaking the truth.

An independent mind is essential to unravel the complexities of the modern world.

Some newspapers and TV ‘news’ channels are just purveyors of the propaganda of the rich, the powerful or the bigoted.

And even the best media outlets all too often focus on what makes the best ‘story’ – and remove their gaze from matters which are far more important but not so easy to illustrate.

Too many people are ripe for manipulation – a captive audience reading or watching not to find out the truth, but simply because they want to have their prejudices confirmed.

As we discuss the issues of the day with our friends and family, are we speaking the truth or just disseminating lies and half-truths ?

A visit to the National Theatre

Yesterday I made my first visit to the National Theatre since I returned to London last September. And what a wonderful experience it was !

‘The Habit of Art’ is a new play by Alan Bennett. I turned up an hour and a half before the show was due to begin. There were only a few seats left, but I managed to get one in the fourth row of the stalls for only £10. Apparently the first four rows at all three theatres in the National are sold at that price. I love being close to the action, so it was the ideal seat for me. Had I been just one row behind, it would have cost me £44 !

The play itself featured a rehearsal (at the National itself) of a play about WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. Extremely funny and very thought-provoking. A stellar cast included Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tour. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner, the National’s Director.

At the end the audience clapped enthusiastically. In New York there would have been a standing ovation. But London is more restrained.

The National Theatre, built in the 70s, is not an architectural masterpiece – unless you like concrete. But I love all three of the theatres it houses: the Lyttelton, where ‘The Habit of Art’ is playing; the Olivier with its vast open stage named after the great actor himself who was also the first director of the National Theatre (when it was still at the Old Vic) and the small flexible Cottesloe Theatre.

There’s always a great buzz at the National which nearly always has live music in the foyer, art exhibitions on the landings, the usual cafes, bars and restaurants and a great bookshop. We are so lucky in this country to have such a wonderful National theatre.

And the whole South Bank area was buzzing too. I had an hour to spare yesterday before the show so I strolled outside. There – as well as magnificent views of the River Thames, and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on the other river bank – there are bookshops, cafes, restaurants, the London Eye, street entertainers, human statues, a skateboard park (complete with lurid grafitti), the Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre.

I would have liked to return by boat from the Westminster pier just outside the National Theatre to Greenwich. But by the time the show ended, the last boat had left. There’s a more frequent service in the summer. So I look forward to that treat later this year.