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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Britain’s age of ideological clashes (Financial Times)

    The boom allowed politicians to duck the central question of who gets what, writes Janan Ganesh. 

    2. The autumn statement was another omnishambles. Labour must show some backbone (Guardian)

    George Osborne has monumentally misread the nation, says Polly Toynbee. Any attempt by Ed Miliband to shadow his plan would be fatal.

    3. If we truly value democratic politics, then we must say MPs deserve their pay rise (Independent)

    I can understand some of the disillusionment, but too much of it is baseless, writes Steve Richards. 

    4. The west is losing faith in its future (Financial Times)

    Living standards are even under pressure in countries that have done relatively well, writes Gideon Rachman. 

    5. Let's admit it: Britain is now a developing country (Guardian)

    We have iPads and broadband – but also oversubscribed foodbanks, writes Aditya Chakrabortty. Our economy is no longer zooming along unchallenged in the fast lane, but a clapped-out motor.

    6. The only thing that might save the government is that the opposition is so poor (Independent)

    Duncan Smith disclosed that his 2017 target for the full introduction of Universal Credit is set to be missed - but Labour aren't quick enough to criticise, writes John Rentoul. 

    7. Lean State (Times)

    Spending on public services is falling because expenditure on interest and welfare is too high, says a Times editorial. Osborne must reinvent the state.

    8. Protecting Britain's future growth by keeping foreign predators at bay (Daily Mail)

    By now, one might have hoped, Britain’s attitude towards overseas takeovers might have changed, writes Alex Brummer. 

    9. Whitehall must not hide its wasted millions (Times)

    The shambles over Universal Credit highlights a lack of accountability throughout the Civil Service, says Rachel Sylvester.

    10. Voters are yet to be convinced that MPs are worth the money (Daily Telegraph)

    An 11% rise was always going to create a storm – but the timing could hardly be worse, says Philip Johnston. 


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    Just as Gordon Brown was outplayed by Cameron during the expenses scandal, so the PM risks suffering the same fate now.

    After focusing for months on the "cost-of-living crisis" and the dramatic fall in real wages, Ed Miliband is more aware than most of how damaging the spectacle of MPs receiving an 11% pay rise (taking their annual salary to £74,000) could be. In an attempt to resolve the issue, ahead of the expected announcement by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) on Thursday, Miliband has now called for cross-party talks to be held.

    A Labour spokesman said:

    If the package of proposals being set out by Ipsa is as reported it cannot go ahead when people are going through the biggest cost-of-living crisis for a generation.

    Therefore we are asking the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for a cross-party approach that recognises the current economic circumstances where workers in the public and private sectors are going through such difficult times.

    A Labour source told me that the hope was that a united front by the three main parties against the pay rise might persuade IPSA, which was awarded control over MPs' pay and conditions following the expenses scandal, to think again.

    But Miliband's offer has been quickly rebuffed by Cameron, with a Downing Street spokesman commenting: "There is no need for cross-party talks on this issue because we have already made clear that there shouldn’t be pay rises at a time of public sector pay restraint." (The Mail also reports on irritation that"the Labour gambit came as Mr Cameron was boarding a plane to fly to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.") 

    Asked yesterday whether Cameron would accept the rise (Miliband and Clegg have both unambiguously stated that they will not), No. 10 similarly said: "Any proposal that they make will be reviewed in mid-2015, so it doesn’t arise. The Prime Minister’s longstanding position is that the cost of politics should go down, not up. He doesn’t think that MPs’ pay should go up while public sector pay is being restrained."

    This raises the possibility that the rise could take place after 2015 if the 1% cap on public sector pay increases (a real-terms cut) is lifted, although given the government's vow to maintain austerity until at least 2018-19 this seems unlikely. Rather, it appears that Cameron is simply determined to kick the issue into the post-election long grass. But given the inevitable outrage when IPSA recommends an 11% rise on Thursday, it is questionable how long he will be able to maintain this ambiguity. Just as Cameron outmanoeuvred a flat-flooted Gordon Brown during the expenses scandal, so he is now in danger of suffering the same fate at the hands of Miliband.

    With Tory MPs more likely to believe that they should be paid more (according to a private poll carried out by YouGov), more likely to have given up lucrative careers elsewhere (although many, of course, maintain second jobs) and privately resentful of Cameron's personal wealth ("it's alright for him", is a common refrain), the PM's hand is notably weaker than Miliband's. Conservative MP Charles Walker spoke for a significant number yesterday when he said: "I've been working since I left university for 25 years and I have never turned a pay rise down and I don't intend to start turning any future pay rises down." 

    But if Cameron wants to avoid handing Labour a golden opportunity to portray him as "out-of-touch", he will need to override this opposition and say what he has so far not: I will not accept the rise and I encourage others to do the same. 

    Meanwhile, Labour MP John Mann has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for parliament to instruct IPSA to limit the increase to 1% in line with the rest of the public sector. Here's the full text: 

    That this House notes the decision in the Spending Review announced to Parliament on 26 June 2013 to restrict public sector pay increases to 1 per cent; endorses the view that what is good enough for the workers is good enough for the politicians; and instructs the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to enforce public sector pay policy in its decisions over hon. Members' pay.

    Given how many MPs privately believe that they should be paid more (69% according to that poll by YouGov, with an average salary of £86,250 recommended), it will be worth watching to see how many nevertheless sign Mann's motion. 


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    Caroline Wright tells the story of a fellow gynaecologist, “Dr D”, an Afghan health professional who has experienced death threats and attacks on her family in Afghanistan.

    When I was asked if I wanted to be involved in a short film about women’s rights in Afghanistan for Amnesty, I absolutely leapt at the chance. Although the prospect of being filmed was slightly daunting - I have absolutely no TV or film experience - Amnesty’s campaign is something I could immediately relate to, both as a doctor and as a woman.

    I have never met Doctor D, the Afghan gynaecologist whose tale I told, but I know by her story that we have a lot in common.

    I know that we are both passionate about a woman’s right to access healthcare. In the UK we’re incredibly fortunate. Everybody is able to access high-quality healthcare, something we often take for granted. As women we’re able to make choices about our health, about contraception and pregnancy. If we’re expecting a baby, we know that in the vast majority of cases we, and our unborn babies, will make it safely through labour and delivery. In much of the developing world, this is often not the case. Through my work I’ve travelled to teach medical skills in Asia and Africa and have been stunned by the challenges faced by those trying to provide healthcare to women. Where care is needed most, it always seems to be least available. Sadly I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan, but Doctor D’s story tells me that healthcare is not just absent in many cases in Afghanistan, it is actively prevented by threats and violence. I admire Doctor D’s passion for steadfastly continuing with her much-needed work despite the personal horrors she’s had to face.

    Doctor D and myself have much in common. Like me she went to medical school, she worked hard, she passed her exams. She took on a life role that gives you an extraordinary gift. You have the skills and knowledge to stop pain and relieve suffering, to help and to heal. Placed in the position we both are, I understand why it’s not possible for her to turn her back despite the dangers. Whatever the cost, we have a duty to help. The cost for me might be long hours, endless exams, missed birthdays and weddings and never having a lunch break! But I’ve never had to face threats, attacks on my family or paralysing fear. The costs for me are so laughable in comparison and make me realise how fortunate I am to do the job that I love and not be targeted in any way for it.

    In the course of Doctor D’s work she’s looked into the eyes of a girl who has been raped and seen nothing but bleakness and fear. When I worked as a forensic physician my role was similarly to treat women and girls who had been raped. Like myself, Doctor D has sought to help them, to encourage them to stay positive, to let them know that with time the pain would fade and they would eventually start to feel normal again. So we’ve taken on very similar roles, yet in many ways Doctor D and myself are worlds apart: I’ve received praise for my work, she’s had death threats.

    I know that Doctor D is someone who has a strong work ethic. My own mother was a working mum, bringing up myself and my three sisters as well as doing a full-time job. I’ve always known that life is not handed to you on a plate. Doctor D inspires me as strong woman balancing work and family in the toughest of circumstances. When we hear so many negative stories about Afghanistan she’s a beacon of light, a positive role model for women across the world and a fantastic source of inspiration for her own children. I know she loves her children and family dearly and when I read her words I felt some of the pain she must have felt when her son was injured and her brother killed. Yet she goes on. I deeply admire her strength and her courage.

    I don’t know why some of us are fortunate enough to be born into a life where we’re safe and free, while others are given a different, far harder path. From telling this story I know that Doctor D has seen and felt many of the same things as myself. And as a doctor, as a woman, but most fundamentally as a fellow human being, I know there’s something that I can do to help to bring change. There’s something we all can do.

    Dr Caroline Wright is a gynaecologist at the Epsom General Hospital in Surrey

    • To support women’s rights in Afghanistan - including the provision of shelters for women and girls raped in Afghanistan - see this page
    • Amnesty is also running a “contact your MP” campaign on women’s rights in Afghanistan. See this page for more details

     


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    Shadow justice secretary tells the New Statesman that MPs "should say in the most courteous and polite way, 'on this occasion we reject your advice.'"

    Ahead of the expected announcement by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) on Thursday that MPs' pay should rise by 11% (taking their salary to £74,000), Labour politicians have been understandably keen to distance themselves from the proposal, with several, including Ed Miliband, stating that they will not accept the increase. 

    In an interview with me for the next issue of the NS, Sadiq Khan echoed this stance, telling me:

    I’d be against that [a pay increase]. I turned down and refused a pay rise in 2009. There’s one argument that says professionals doing comparable work to MPs get a lot more and so MPs should be paid the same as them. My response is to say those professions aren’t legislators, they aren't part of the executive. We are going to have to take tough decisions in 2015 given our financial inheritance from the Conservatives; the idea that we can accept an 11% increase in our salary when we’re asking those in the public sector and others to be disciplined I think beggars belief. And I think IPSA and others should recongise that.

    Listen, there are many MPs who took a huge pay drop, like myself, to become a member of parliament because we think it’s a really noble profession and you can do some really important things as long as you recognise that. But an 11% pay rise is ridiculous.

    But the shadow justice secretary then went further and suggested that, rather than merely refusing to accept the increase, parliament should tell IPSA, which was awarded control over MPs' pay and conditions following the expenses scandal, "we reject your advice". He said: 

    I think we should tell IPSA that, on this occasion, we reject their advice. I don’t want to be in charge of my own pay increase, I think it’s good having an independent body in charge of that, but I think we should say in the most courteous and polite way, 'on this occasion we reject your advice'.

    While Khan's position is both morally right and politically astute, others will ask what kind of independent body IPSA is if MPs can pick and choose which of its recommendations they accept. 

    P.S. Look out for more from the interview on Wednesday. 


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    While the Home Office launches a special “fast-track” service for foreign business leaders wanting to come to the UK, asylum seekers and persecuted activists are treated with contempt.

    Ira Putilova is free, for now. After days of relentless public pressure, the LGBT activist, who will face persecution if she returns to Russia, was released from Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Her friends posted a picture of her, smiling and tired on the train, to the Facebook group that had been set up in her defence. At the time of writing, it is not yet known whether she will be arrested and deported again. Ira was luckier than most: her worthy case got national attention, support from celebrities and demonstrations that drew hundreds. That, in all likelihood, is what forced a little charity out of an administration that seems determined to prove it has the appropriate contempt for foreigners, no matter the human cost.

    The coalition’s tabloid-facing "tougher stance" on immigration is causing tragedy upon cold-blooded tragedy. On 28 November, despite national outcry, Nigerian asylum seeker Ifa Muazu was deported "home" - where he says he will be murdered by members of Boko Haram - on a private jet. This very public decision was taken despite the fact that Muazu was on hunger strike, starved to the point of death in protest at the inhuman treatment he received in Britain. Muazu would be facing death in Nigeria right now if the country hadn’t refused his plane permission to land.

    Muazu, like many others - like my grandparents, and maybe yours too - came to Britain for "a better life". He was met with the kind of orchestrated cruelty that shrugged at his certain violent death. It was a dark day indeed for this country when the word "asylum seeker" started to mean "a person who is a drain on the state", rather than "a person in need of help". But however much money those fleeing persecution and poverty elsewhere are supposedly costing us, there is somehow always the cash available to make sadistic gestures. The private jet that was hired to deport the now fatally ill Muazu "home" almost certainly cost the public purse many times what it would to allowed him leave to remain. That’s without factoring in the bill for holding him in detention for months - today, Muazu remains desperately ill in the medical wing of the Harmondsworth immigration centre in west London.

    The fast-tracking of asylum cases is a statement of intent: please do not send us your tired, your poor, or your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. If you do, we’ll send them back in a private jet. This government wants us to admire its big, tough, "muscular" stance on immigration. That’s why, earlier in the year, it paid for billboards advising foreign nationals to "GO HOME" to be driven around some of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country - appropriating the language of far-right thugs in service of a darkening national mood of racial intolerance.

    Thanks to Chris Grayling's recent changes to legal aid services, foreign nationals who have been in the country for less than a year - including victims of rape, torture and political persecution - will no longer be able to access legal help to fight for their right to remain. But the Tories don’t want every single immigrant to go home. In fact, just weeks before she signed off on the deportation of a dying man in the dead of night, Theresa May launched a special "fast-track" service for "foreign business leaders". Borders have always meant a great deal less to the global super-rich, but Britain has just made that policy official. Our borders are more open than ever to people who have or make money - but asylum seekers and persecuted activists are shipped home to suffer and die at public expense.

     


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    Georg Kaiser’s Expressionist morality tale at the National Theatre.

    Written in 1912 and first performed in Germany in 1917, From Morning to Midnight by Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) was the best work of the German Expressionist movement, but is rarely staged in Britain. Borrowing its seven-act Stationendrama structure from medieval mystery plays and August Strindberg’s Road to Damascus, Kaiser’s thirtieth play follows a Cashier who is alerted to the power of the money around him by a glamorous Italian woman who wants to buy a painting, embezzles 60,000 Marks and ditches his family for the city, trying and failing to buy a meaningful experience in sport, sex and religion.

    Fiercely anti-Naturalistic, From Morning to Midnight epitomised the Expressionist style, popular in Germany around the First World War, stripping all circumstantial detail and character psychology to focus on the individual’s search for enlightenment, with exclamatory dialogue that outlined the New Man’s vision. As such, it presents a considerable challenge for translators and directors, and its lead actor, not last because the Cashier’s defeat always feels inevitable, but Melly Still’s realisation of a new version by Dennis Kelly at the National Theatre meets it by focusing on the imaginative staging possibilities and dark wit that the script offers.

    After the war, Expressionist artists and dramatists worked with directors to create new types of theatre and film, exploring the political and aesthetic limits of German public taste. Notoriously, cinemas refused to show Karl-Heinz Martin’s film of From Morning to Midnight, made in 1920, claiming that its use of two-dimensional sets and its representation of the Cashier’s mounting frustration with ever-thicker rings around his eyes made it too abstract and alienating for a mass audience. Throughout the Weimar period – Kaiser was one of its most popular playwrights – theatre directors incorporated fragments of film and sets made by Expressionist artists, and Still’s production engages with this spirit of cross-fertilisation.

    With the action occurring on a single day, a clock at the back of the stage runs throughout, as does one in Martin’s film. Kaiser’s seven-act structure, which parodies the stations of the cross in Christian morality plays, is made equally explicit, with short, stark titles for each projected onto the action. The performance opens with ‘The Machine’, setting out Still’s intention to counter Kaiser’s pessimism with humour: as the Cashier, confined in his cubicle, Adam Godley’s silent, mechanistic actions recall Chaplin in Modern Times, and it immediately becomes obvious that From Morning to Midnight will contain more levity than most Expressionist dramas, which sometimes became ridiculous in their sheer seriousness.

    Although the Cashier does not speak until the end of the first scene, it is very much his play. Few other actors besides Godley get the opportunity to do anything more than push the action forward, with the brief exception of Gina Bellman as the Italian woman who incites the Cashier and the Salvation Army woman who stirs his conscience. Mostly, Godley copes admirably with the responsibility of carrying the narrative, but occasionally falls into the kind of over-acting associated with silent film, which was partly a function of the lack of sound, but fashionable in the theatre of the time, particularly Expressionism, and imported from it.

    Kelly pares down Kaiser’s declamatory monologues, which feel far less than fevered than those in J M Ritchie’s 1971 translation for Calder Publications, recently reissued by Oneworld Classics but it is not these that Godley overplays so much as the Cashier’s moments of realisation that his desires will not be fulfilled – particularly when he learns that the Italian woman has a son.

    However, Kelly provides several opportunities for the Cashier to undercut such exaggeration with sardonic asides, and Godley delivers them with the necessary subtlety. The two handle Kaiser’s monologues intelligently, with the long Epiphany of scene three becoming ecstatic, exciting and absurd in equal measure: the Cashier’s Nietzschean aspirations, and his inability to see that individual transcendence in an unchanged society is impossible, carry more irony in our post-revolutionary times than when From Morning to Midnight was first performed, just before the Spartacist uprising and the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, led by future Expressionist playwright Ernst Toller.

    Godley achieves a thrilling pitch of intensity in the play’s strongest scene, in which the Cashier ramps up the prize money at a six-day cycle, unconcerned for the safety of riders or spectators as he struggles to generate a satisfying spectacle. This is where the actor and translator are most successful in portraying his misconceived dreams, and their crushing by conservative hands: elsewhere, Kelly’s dialogue is sometimes too expository. The Cashier does not need to say, for example, that “I’m going to find the one experience that means something – I have broken free!” but even this flaw is made intentionally amusing at points, not least when the Cashier ceases to hide his boredom with his bourgeois family, who simply ask: “Why don’t you do things the way you normally do them?”

    The most impressive aspect is Soutra Gilmour’s stage design, which shares the radicalism of the sets for Martin’s film. The loud, dazzling short circuits that terminate the Cashier’s fantasies in several scenes are most striking, although the bank transforming into a hotel between scenes one and two and the façade of the Cashier’s home becoming the train that takes him to B(erlin) also make brilliantly creative use of the jumps between Kaiser’s scenes. Most notable in a production that succeeds in nearly all of its commendable risks, however, is what we don’t see: the money that drives and destroys the Cashier. Its invisibility lends even more resonance to the pithy signature phrase that Godley utters to the audience, which contrasts with Kaiser’s wordiness but perfectly fits into this thoroughly German play despite being so typically British: “Is this it?”

    From Morning to Midnight is at the National Theatre until 26 January 2014.


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    As we mourn Mandela's death we should not forget and acknowledge the role that communists played in befriending and influencing this great man.

    On the day of Nelson Mandela’s death the South African Communist Party chose to reveal a fact that it had long denied: that he was a party member. Indeed, at the time of his arrest he was on the Central Committee. The statement read: "At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party's Central Committee... After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days."

    Commenting on this revelation, the New York Times columnist, and former Johannesburg and Moscow correspondent, Bill Keller was sanguine: “Mandela’s brief membership in the South African Communist Party, and his long-term alliance with more devout Communists, say less about his ideology than about his pragmatism.”  Quite how Keller deduces that Mandela’s membership was “brief” is far from clear. The Communist Party statement does not indicate whether he remained a member to his death (although the carefully phrased statement suggest not) and if he resigned from the party why he did so and when this took place.

    Mandela himself had repeatedly denied any membership of the party. During his speech from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia trial in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 24 April 1964 Mandela was categorical: “I turn now to my own position. I have denied that I am a communist, and I think that in the circumstances I am obliged to state exactly what my political beliefs are. I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot.”

    It can be argued that Mandela and his co-defendants were fighting for their lives and would grasp any straw that might lighten their sentence. After all, they were facing allegations that they had committed a series of extremely serious offences including acts of sabotage, public violence, and bombings. In the end the judge sentenced the accused to life imprisonment, rather than having them hanged.

    What is more difficult to understand is why, after the ANC and Communist Party were unbanned in 1990 and Mandela was freed, the matter was not cleared up. All it would have taken was a simple statement from either organisation. Instead it required painstaking work by the journalist and academic Stephen Ellis to uncover Mandela’s links with the Party. After a lengthy trawl through the archives he published his conclusions in 2011.

    So what should one make of Mandela’s allegiance to the Communist Party? It is certainly more than just a quirk of history.  One only has to consider some of the ANC’s current positions to see the Party’s imprint on its thinking.  Reading the ANC’s most important current blueprint, Strategy and Tactics, adopted in 2007 we see its analysis of the nature of South African society. This refers to the country as “Colonialism of a Special Type, with both the coloniser and the colonised located in a common territory and with a large European settler population.” This formulation is lifted, almost word for word, from the programme of the South African Communist Party adopted in 1962.

    Of course South Africa is hardly an orthodox Communist state. Its gleaming shopping centres and the organisation of its factories and mines owe more to the United States than the USSR.  Instead one should turn to another facet of South African life to see the real impact of the Mandela’s comrades from the 1940s. The Constitution of 1996 introduced by the ANC is built on a commitment to the non-racial ideal. Yet it could have been very different. There have been times when the ANC flirted with an African Nationalism that would not have looked out of place in Zimbabwe.

    Mandela himself acknowledged the Party’s role in weaning him from views not very dissimilar from those of Robert Mugabe. Mandela was initially adamantly opposed to any links between the ANC and the Communists for precisely this reason, as his speech from the dock in 1964 made this clear.

    “I joined the ANC in 1944, and in my younger days I held the view that the policy of admitting communists to the ANC, and the close co-operation which existed at times on specific issues between the ANC and the Communist Party, would lead to a watering down of the concept of African Nationalism. At that stage I was a member of the African National Congress Youth League, and was one of a group which moved for the expulsion of communists from the ANC.”

    This transformation was a slow process which began soon after Mandela arrive in Johannesburg in 1941. Mandela was taken in by a law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman. Mandel's friend, Walter Sisulu had introduced him to the firm and one of the partners, Lazar Sidelsky agreed to take him on as a clerk while he studied to become a lawyer.  Sidelsky was not a Communist, but others on the staff were.

    In 1943 Mandela enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. He was the only black African in the law faculty, and it could have been a lonely existence. But he soon made friends with a multiracial group of young men and women, including Joe Slovo, Ruth First, George Bizos, Ismail Meer, J N Singh and Bram Fisher.  All were active on the left. Gradually Mandela’s attitude mellowed. As Mandela put it at his trial: “for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society.”

    It was the intervention of Communists and others on the tiny South African left that transformed not only Mandela, but also the stance of the ANC as a whole.

    Without their intervention who can be certain that the ANC would have adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955, with its opening declaration: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white?" We cannot know, but as we mourn Mandela's death we should not forget and acknowledge the role that communists played in befriending and influencing this great man.


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    "We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world - you can make his life’s work your own."

    To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of state and government, past and present; distinguished guests - it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any other. To the people of South Africa - people of every race and walk of life - the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.

    It is hard to eulogize any man - to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person - their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.

    Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe - Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement - a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed, and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would - like Lincoln - hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations - a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power.

    Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

    It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection - because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried - that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood - a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.

    Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. Certainly he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”

    But like other early giants of the ANC - the Sisulus and Tambos - Madiba disciplined his anger; and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said at his 1964 trial. “I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

    Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.

    Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiseled into laws and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of conditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that, “prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy; true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.

    Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa- Ubuntu - that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small - introducing his jailors as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS - that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

    For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe - Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate his heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask: how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?

    It is a question I ask myself - as a man and as a President. We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took the sacrifice of countless people - known and unknown - to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done. The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.

    We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

    The questions we face today - how to promote equality and justice; to uphold freedom and human rights; to end conflict and sectarian war - do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child in Qunu. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows us that is true. South Africa shows us we can change. We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.

    We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world - you can make his life’s work your own. Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities - to others, and to myself - and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength - for his largeness of spirit - somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach - think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

    It matters not how strait the gate,

    How charged with punishments the scroll,

    I am the master of my fate:

    I am the captain of my soul.

    What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa.

     


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    Let's talk sensibly about this problem: here are two ways we could demystify the debate about how much we pay our elected representatives.

    I know, I know, we're all sick to the back teeth of comment pieces arguing that MPs have their faces in the trough/aren't really paid that well when you really look at the numbers, actually [delete according to taste and income]. But we have the same arguments every time this topic comes up, and I’m not sure our inability to talk sensibly about these things is conducive to good government. So here’s a couple of ideas on how we can drain this swamp before we all go mad and start bashing our heads against things.

    There are two reasons why the debate about MPs’ pay is so clouded. One involves genuine challenge that Members of Parliament face, and which the general public don’t always appreciate; the other involves the political class having its head up its own backside. Helpfully, Jack Straw has spelt them both out for us in a single quote.

    "What I'm concerned about," he said over the weekend, "is to ensure that the pay is sufficient to attract people from modest backgrounds who have not inherited a house, who don't have family or personal income, but who are going to make a career out of politics."

    Now Straw is standing down at the next election, so doesn't stand to benefit from the pay rise currently on the cards for 2015: this isn't naked self-interest at work.

    Nonetheless, that quote is built on a pretty dubious assumption: that people from "modest backgrounds" won't be satisfied with an income of only £66,000. Pay of that sort puts you in something like the top 2 per cent of earners: the idea that someone on a “modest” income would find it off-putting is just barking.

    The reason ideas like this persist is because MPs don't really compare themselves with “modest” people: they compare themselves with doctors and bankers and newspaper editors. Moving in that kind of world, it’s very easy to lose sight of what a normal income is.

    So – let's make sure they can't. IPSA’s recommendation is that, after this latest rise goes through, salaries should be indexed to average incomes for the next five years. Let's make this permanent.

    If MPs’ salaries are, and are known to be, 2.8 times the average income, then it gets a lot harder for politicians to cling to the notion that they're embarrassingly low. At the same time, though, it gets harder for the public to complain about future rises. If MPs' pay has gone up, it's because average pay had gone up too. More to the point, if average pay drops, so would MPs'. Politicians would thus have an extra motivation to ensure that incomes were growing. We're all in this together.

    The other odd thing in that Straw quote is the bit about inheriting property. This isn't quite as silly as it sounds: regional MPs do have two sets of housing costs to contend with, which most of us don’t. If we want people who aren’t rich Londoners to go into politics, which I assume we do, then this is a problem it’s worth solving.

    But with a bit of effort we could fix this one too. The Prime Minister gets a nice central London home as part of the job. Why shouldn't the rest of the Commons? You wouldn’t need 600 Downing Streets, just a few hundred flats within a few miles of Westminster. (My friend Jim, from whom I’ve shamelessly nicked this idea, suggests we don’t even need that: just convert a couple of hotels into a mass dorm room.)

    MPs who want to live elsewhere would be quite welcome to do so – they’d just have to pay for it themselves. All this would involve a one-off cost, but it’d put an end to accommodation expenses scandals over night.

    And if the population of the Commons complain that the new government housing doesn't offer them enough space? That they want a family life? That they can't possibly hope to afford a place for the kids, when they’re paid a mere three times the national average income . . .

    . . . then at that point, maybe they'll finally notice the housing crisis and get serious about fixing the bloody thing.

    All this is what is known in the corporate world as "alignment of interest".

     


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    The shadow chancellor enjoyed a better day in the House as he pinned down Danny Alexander on living standards.

    After his much-panned response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement, Ed Balls enjoyed a better outing at today's Treasury questions. Noting that Osborne had claimed that living standards were rising (based on the flawed "real household disposable income measure"), but that the IFS had subsequently said that they were falling, he asked Danny Alexander (who stood in for the absent Osborne): "who's right?" After quipping that it was a "pleasure" to see the shadow chancellor in his place and mockingly condemning the "unattributable briefing" against him from the Labour benches, Alexander could only reply that "the whole reason why millions of Britons are under financial pressure is because Labour’s economic mess cost every household in this country £3,000". But while voters might have accepted this line in 2010, they are less likely to do so after three years of stagnation. 

    Balls then noted that Osborne was away in Brussels, where "the government is taking legal action to stop a cap on bank bonuses", and asked: "are the Liberal Democrats really right behind the Conservatives on this one too?" Alexander replied by joking that the shadow chancellor had "appointed a new special adviser on hand gestures - Greg Dyke" (a reference to Dyke's cut-throat gesture), adding: "at least that's the gesture his colleagues are making every time they hear him in the House." One was left with the impression that Alexander was more interested in cracking pre-prepared gags than in responding to Balls's questions. 

    The shadow chancellor undoubtedly has his critics in Labour. Some MPs believe that he remains too defensive over the record of the last Labour government and too preoccupied with proving that he was right about austerity. Others, on the Blue Labour wing of the party, argue that he is insufficiently committed to Miliband's reformist agenda (one told me that he was a "conventional Brownite" who "doesn't really buy responsible capitalism"). But after his strong performance today and his defiant interview (stating in response to briefing: "I couldn't give a toss") on Sky, the odds on him being replaced as shadow chancellor will lengthen again. As Miliband recognises, there is no one else with the rare combination of political cunning and economic aptitude required to do the job. 


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    The race to develop lunar landers that can prospect for valuable minerals, mine them, and send them back to Earth, is proceeding along, slowly but surely.

    The MX-1 lander has just been unveiled by Moon Express, a private space company. It's not an amazing piece of technology, not when compared to something like Nasa's $2.5bn Curiosity rover currently on Mars, but it does represent an early contender in what will become a decades-long race to mine the Moon for profit.

    Private space companies have started to appear around the world, but particularly in the US, as the price and technology barriers for space travel fall and governments turn away from nationalised space policies. Some companies, like Virgin Galactic, are planning on giving tourists an expensive thrill, while others, like SpaceX, see a gap in the market for cargo services. This month, SpaceX put a commercial satellite into orbit for the first time, and last year it made history as the first company contracted to send a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.

    The US government in particular, through Nasa, is starting to encourage private space companies to bid for contracts, creating an industry that is a bit like defence - one large state-funded agency that collaborates with private companies on projects and which outsources certain parts of its research and development. This is where Moon Express comes in. Here's how it describes its new probe:

    The main MX-1 rocket engine is a dual mode bi-propellant system that also uses kerosene as an after burner to give the spacecraft the punch to break out of Earth orbit, accelerate to faster than a bullet, travel a million miles to beyond the Moon, and come back to break to zero velocity using its outboard thrusters as it touches the lunar surface. The spacecraft is designed to ride to Earth orbit on low cost secondary payload opportunities aboard commercial launchers like the SpaceX Falcon 9 that are radically reducing the cost of access to space.

    About the size of a large coffee table, the MX-1 is a completely self-contained single stage spacecraft that can reach the surface of the Moon from a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) commonly used to place communications satellites above the Earth. It is also designed to be a flexible spacecraft platform that can support a number of applications including serving as a flexible, agile upper stage for existing launch systems enabling Earth orbit cubesat deployment, satellite servicing, and "space tug" applications such as cleaning up space debris.

    This first version of the MX-1 is designed to do one specific thing - land on the move, drive around a bit, and send back some high-definition video footage. Those are the criteria that, once fulfilled, will win the $20m Google Lunar X Prize. The prize, sponsored by Google but offered by the X Prize Foundation, is the latest in a number of space-related challenges inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize of 1919. That's the one Charles Lindbergh won by completing the first non-stop flight between New York City and Paris. The aim of these prizes is to give small private companies something to aim for beyond just the record of being first.

    There is quite the incentive to get to the Moon, though. We use a lot of what are known as "rare Earth minerals" - with wonderful names like cerium, neodymium, and dysprosium - in electronics, but they're a finite resource. They're very common throughout the Earth's crust, but the name comes from the fact that they rarely appear in concentrations high enough to make mining economical. This has made the mining of such minerals a geopolitical issue, with politicians in the US and Europe threatened by China's control of most of the world's mines.

    The Moon, it's thought, formed out of molten rock ejected from the early Earth's crust, and as such should have plenty of rare Earth minerals lying around waiting to be prospected and mined. Helium-3, an isotope essential for operating nuclear fusion reactors, is also theorised to be abundant on the Moon. Newt Gingrich had this in mind when he proposed building a Moon base as part of his failed campaign to become the Republican candidate for president in 2012.

    That's if we can find it, of course, and the current UN treaty that governs the Moon - the 1966 Outer Space Treaty - effectively treats it like international waters. Private companies can explore and mine it all they want. We're many decades away from seeing established mining colonies on the Moon (and even then, expect them to be completely robotic), but keep an eye on companies like Moon Express, as they'll be the first ones up there.


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    A short lesson in the art of mistranslating names into Chinese.

    The stuffed toy wolf called Lufsig sold by Ikea was simply intended as a children’s toy – but since two protesters threw the toy at Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, it has become a protest symbol. Not only is Leung nicknamed the wolf, because of his perceived cunning, but as the South China Morning Post politely explains, its Chinese translation is a homonym for “an obscene three-word phrase in Cantonese associated with the female genitalia”.

    “I was amazed by the serendipity of it all. It seemed like Lufsig was meant to be used as a tool of protest against Leung,” Yuen Chan, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese University in Hong Kong wrote in the Huffington Post. Ikea has now run out of stock for Lufsig – although when I checked eBay this lunchtime you could still buy him for around $20 online. The cuddly wolf also has over 45,000 likes on his newly created Facebook page.

    It’s rare for Western brands' mistranslations to work out so neatly. When Coca-Cola was first launched in China the brand name first read as “Kekoukela” which means “bite the wax tadpole”, or “female horse stuffed with wax” . Eventually it settled on koukou kole, which translates as “happiness in the mouth”.  KFC also made a mistake translating “finger-licking good” into Chinese – it briefly carried the slogan “eat your fingers off”. And the “come alive with thePepsi Generation” was interpreted by some to mean “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. Mercedes Benz inititially launched in China as "Bensi" until someone pointed out this meant "rush to die". It's now Benchi, which means to rush as though you are flying.

    Mistranslations rarely work out so well for a brand as it has for Ikea’s Lufsig, although Leung will not be pleased.
     


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    More bad news for Duncan Smith as the National Audit Office says there are "considerable weaknesses" in the department's financial controls over the programme.

    Conveniently for Iain Duncan Smith, this year's DWP accounts were not published to coincide with his appearance at the work and pensions select committee yesterday; some may say it's now clear why.

    In the accounts, which have now been released, the National Audit Office states that Universal Credit has "not achieved value for money", noting that the DWP has written off £40.1m of assets developed for the programme "as it will never use them" and that "it also now expects to write down £91.0 million of the remaining assets to nil value by March 2018, due to the considerable reduction in their expected useful life." The head of the NAO comments: "While this is the appropriate accounting treatment, it should not detract from the underlying issue that the Department has spent £91.0 million on assets that will only support a limited service for 5 years, with clear consequences for public value." In addition, it notes that there were "considerable weaknesses" in the department’s financial controls over Universal Credit and that the "size and complexity" of the programme "stretched the Department’s capacity and capability". 

    Here's the statement Margaret Hodge, the head of the public accounts committee, has issued on the "truly shocking" figures. 

    In 2012-13, the Department for Work and Pensions had to write-off £40.1m for assets that were developed for the implementation of the universal credit system but which they will now never use. They now tell us they will also have to write-off another £91m of assets over the next five years.

    Whilst these figures are truly shocking, I do not think we have heard the end of this matter and would not be surprised if further write-offs emerge over the coming period. It is deeply depressing that DWP has chosen to pour more money into the existing IT system in what seems like a short-term fix, rather than showing the confidence and foresight to come up with a solution that will truly stand the test of time.

    Even for those people who transfer to the new benefit, the online system is currently not able to deal with issues like frequent changes of circumstances, claims if a couple splits up, or conditionality.

    In more bad news for IDS, the report also shows that the amount of money lost to fraud and error in the benefits system has risen from £3.2bn (2% of the total budget) last year to £3.5bn (2.1%). Of this total, £700m (0.4%) was lost due to official error, £1.6bn (0.9%) to claimant error and £1.2bn (0.7%) to fraud. 

    Incidentally, it's worth noting that the latter figure is lower than the amount lost last year due to benefit underpayments: £1.4bn (0.9%). But don't expect the DWP to publicise that in its briefings. 


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    Of course I'm delighted, says Stella Duffy, but it is painful that it has come too late for those many thousands of gay couples denied this equality in the past.

    I will be able to marry my partner after 29 March 2014.

    I will have been with my partner for almost 23 and a half years by then.

    It will be too late for me to have either of my parents at my wedding.

    It will be too late for me to have my nephew at our wedding.

    It will be too late for my wife to have her only sibling, her sister, at our wedding.

    I will be 51 before the law will allow me to marry.

    It will be too late for me, or my wife, to be a ‘blushing bride’. We will be, we are, middle aged women.

    It will be too late for the dozens of friends and family, who were alive when we first wanted to marry, 23 years ago, who supported us in our love, and who are now gone.

     

    Of course I’m delighted to be able to marry Shelley.

    Of course I’m grateful to all those who have worked so hard for SIMPLE EQUALITY IN LAW.

    But yes, it is painful that it has come too late for those many thousands of gay couples denied this equality in the past.

    Do remember, straight couples in your 70s, as you celebrate your golden wedding anniversaries, all those gay couples in their 70s who have been together just as long, and deserve the same celebratory joy, who will never live long enough to celebrate their own golden wedding anniversary.

    It is tremendously sad it has come too late for those where one partner has died in the years of the very slow progress to law.

    It is sad that it took so damn long to see the heartbreakingly simple truth, that my getting married affects no-one but my wife and I, other than spreading around a little of the pleasure we can all feel when we see two people who love each other dearly. My marriage makes no difference to you, just as yours makes no difference to me. My marriage makes, of course, a huge difference to me, to my wife, and to those who love us. Our having to wait 23 years means that many who love us will not be able to celebrate with us.

     

    We will get married, we’ll do something special and lovely, I’m sure.

    We’ll raise a glass to all those who fought to make us a little bit more equal.

    And we’ll also raise a glass to those we have lost in the long long time it has taken for this piece of equality under the law to arrive.

    (I do rather like that this news has come on the day when, 13 years ago, Shelley and I first gave each other wedding rings, long before any possibility of Civil Partnership, let alone marriage.)

    Stella Duffy is a writer and theatre director, who tweets as @stellduffy. This post originally appeared on stelladuffy.wordpress.com and is cross-posted here with permission


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Make no mistake: Iain Duncan Smith wants the end of social security (Guardian)

    Don't let the bluster, incompetence and misinformation obscure the Quiet Man's true, Tory purpose: destroying the welfare safety net, says Zoe Williams. 

    2. Now Labour could become the party of marriage and the family (Daily Telegraph)

    Voters want leaders who can promise good care for their children and elderly relatives, writes Mary Riddell. 

    3. Don’t wallow in victimhood. Rise above it (Times)

    Figures such as Sharansky and Mandela understood that saying ‘it’s tough being me’ is self-destructive, writes Daniel Finkelstein. 

    4. Asset managers could blow us all up (Financial Times)

    When funding conditions turn, relying on cheap dollars to finance local assets can be lethal, says Martin Wolf. 

    5. The Mandela coverage and the banality of goodness (Guardian)

    To discuss Mandela alongside Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Jesus is barking mad, writes Simon Jenkins. I bet he's laughing his head off right now.

    6. Taxes will rise if we reject the nanny state (Times)

    We may resent encouragements to stop smoking and improve our health but we all benefit in the end, says Alice Thomson. 

    7. Netanyahu’s refusal to attend Mandela’s memorial service speaks of Israel’s growing isolationism (Independent)

    The Israeli prime minister's apparent devotion to penny-pinching represents a startling change of heart, says Matthew Norman. 

    8. Why must our governments be so incompetent at IT? (Times)

    If supermarkets and airlines can do it, so should civil servants, says Ross Clark. 

    9. Despite the economic misery of the last five years, Europe remains a success story (Independent)

    Now the target is human capital – clever, talented and rich people, writes Hamish McRae. 

    10. As society ages, care leave is the new frontline (Guardian)

    About 5 million people have given up work partly or entirely to look after others, writes Jackie Ashley. They need a bit of help and legal protection.


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    42 schools have opened in areas with "no forecast need" and only 19% of secondary places are in areas of "high or severe" need.

    The Department for Education is hailing today's National Audit Office report on free schools as proof that, contrary to what Labour claims, the schools are providing places where they are needed. The study found that 70 per cent of the 114,000 places from open or approved schools are in districts "forecasting some need", with 87 per cent of primary places in those with "high or severe need". 

    But what the department doesn't mention is that in many of the areas with the greatest need, the schools are still failing to help. Only 19 per cent of secondary places are in areas of "high or severe" need and 42 schools, costing £241m, have opened in districts "with no forecast need". In addition, the department has received no applications to open primary schools in half of districts with high or severe forecast need by 2015-16. 

    In response, a DfE spokesperson has said: "As the NAO highlights in its report, most of our free schools are open in areas facing a need for school places. However, the programme is not our primary response to the shortage of school places. We are spending £5bn on new school places up to 2015, in addition to the money spent on free schools. This is more than double the amount spent by the last government over an equivalent four-year period." 

    But it remains doubtful whether this is enough to address the crisis. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, the chair of the Local Government Association, has warned, almost half of English schools districts will have more primary pupils than places within two years and "the process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies." 

    Further evidence that the schools are not meeting demand is supplied by the finding that a quarter of free schools places remain unfilled, with only 30 per cent achieving their planned admission number and 38 per cent falling short by at least one-fifth. But given the dim view most parents take of the institutions, that may not be surprising. A recent but underreported YouGov poll showed that just 27% of the public support the schools, with 47% opposed.


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    Teacher-student affairs have captured the minds of many writers, among them David Mamet, Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Christopher Isherwood, J M Coetzee, Zoë Heller, and Susan Choi. What is the fascination?

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

    Earlier this year, Colin McGinn, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami with a reputation for erudition and arrogance, resigned in disgrace. Accused of having an inappropriate relationship with one of his twentysomething grad students, he became the latest poster child for the hoary professor who makes advances on his young charges. A few voices – including the deliberately provocative but independent writer Katie Roiphe, and a colleague of McGinn’s who claimed he didn’t even like the guy –  came to his defense. According to McGinn’s defenders, e-mails and text messages exchanged between professor and student showed that the relationship (never consummated) had been affectionate and mutual until shortly before the end.

    In other words, McGinn and his student were operating in a gray area – gray areas being anathema to college disciplinary committees, self-righteous commentators, and (naturally) parents everywhere. But they’re the very stuff of fiction. Because the dynamic of power and desire is so difficult to parse, teacher-student affairs have captured the minds of writers, among them David Mamet (Oleanna), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Philip Roth (The Dying Animal), Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man), J M Coetzee (Disgrace), Zoë Heller (Notes on a Scandal), and Susan Choi (My Education). The prospect of Robert Stone, winner of a National Book Award and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, adding his name to this list is appealing. What fearless take will the author of such muscularly bleak novels as Dog Soldiers and Damascus Gate, now a sage at 76, offer on our modern response to the intellectual/erotic dichotomy of the teacher and the prize student?

    And yet Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a puzzling, dispiriting book. The relationship between student Maud Stack and English professor Steven Brookman is peripheral much of the time. The germination of the affair, which Brookman is attempting to end as the book starts, is never fully sketched. Instead, Maud’s and Brookman’s scenes are interspersed with passages from the perspectives of Maud’s counselor, her glamorous roommate, her aging father, a homicide police detective, and even Maud’s roommate’s Bible-thumping ex-husband. Halfway through, Maud dies, an event that is more dreary than devastating. (I give nothing away here, since it’s obvious from the first pages that she is the titular girl.) The rest of the novel concerns the investigation into her death, her father’s attempts to lay her to rest in a Catholic church that is ambivalent about accepting her remains, and the fate of Brookman, a compromised man who, despite some mental handwringing and a couple uncomfortable conversations with his wife, isn’t troubled enough by all that’s happened to be deeply interesting.

    The character who does engender interest is, unlikely enough, Maud’s father, an alcoholic widower whiling away his last days in Queens. Eddie Stack once worked as a policeman but now spends his time trying to resist having a drink. He suffers from severe emphysema as well as the recognition that the women on whom he once turned a philandering eye now see him as a man who needs help getting up the stairs. He has largely failed the two women he cared most about: Maud and her late mother. In interviews, Stone has described his own affliction with emphysema, a humbling and debilitating disease, and the sections devoted to Eddie stand out. This broken man, determined to do something right after all he has done wrong, hobbles through the book gradually ennobled through his successive humiliations.

    Death of the Black-Haired Girl is, at heart, a campus novel. That campus resembles Yale, at which Stone taught creative writing for a number of years. (In 1998, a Yale senior was stabbed to death and her thesis advisor fell under suspicion, an event that perhaps helped to inspire Stone’s tale.) As an alum, I can say that his descriptions of town-gown relations are incisively accurate. In a single paragraph, for example, he offers a history of physical access to the college from colonial years to the 1960s, when the college inaugurated a “Throwing Open of the Gates,” buoyed by the free spirit of the times. “What ensued, drug-wise, crime-wise and in terms of bitterness between the college and the town, was brief but ugly. The opening forth was followed by the locking up, down and sideways . . . and now there were three or four doors for everything – even clerks’ offices were secured, and elderly dons retired because they spent half their working days trying to distinguish in a dour economy of light which of the cards or keys on their chains opened their outermost office door, which the second, which the third and so on.”

    Unfortunately, Stone doesn’t confine Death of the Black-Haired Girl to campus. His book is also, sporadically, a thriller, a meditation on aging, and a social novel. A key plot point is the publication of a school newspaper column in which Maud attacks abortion demonstrators. It’s regarded by everyone who knows her as dangerous, but the quoted excerpts are more silly than incendiary. Maud, observing that some babies are born hideously deformed, writes that they “are made in the image and likeness of the Great Imaginary Paperweight in the Vast Eternal Blue. It’s true that the Great Paperweight is also the Great Abortionist – a freeze-chilling twenty percent of the sparkly tykes he generates abort – but he don’t like some girl doin’ it.” The abortion controversy is old news that stays news, but the Catholic-tinted lens through which Maud’s ostensible transgressions are presented is dated. Though the book is set in the present day, I frequently had to remind myself that it didn’t take place decades ago.

    That’s not only because of its political and religious overtones, but also because of the relationship between Maud and Brookman. Despite other characters’ assertions that she’s brilliant and possesses a power over men that leaves even the “alpha boys” on campus swooning at her feet, Maud comes off as damaged, habitually drunk, and occasionally deluded, a girl so lost that it’s difficult to absorb her absence as a loss. Whatever the nature of their relationship once was, by the time the book opens, the power between Maud and Brookman only flows one way. There can be none of the ambiguity of Oleanna or, perhaps, former philosophy professor McGinn’s case. Given Maud’s volatility, Brookman’s urge to extricate himself seems natural.

    Reading Death of the Black-Haired Girl, I found it impossible not to think of James Salter’s latest novel, All That Is, about a World War II vet who becomes a book editor and takes up with a succession of women. Salter, one of the great prose stylists of the English language,  has always been a nostalgia artist, but, at age 88, he is obsessed with evoking  a time when men and women understood their respective places. In one scene, two men drinking at a private club discuss the women’s movement. Though presumably Salter means us to understand that they are speaking as men of their time, he leaves the impression that they’re speaking as some of the men of ours:

    “They’re going to let them be members here, what’s your position on that? Probably not the good-looking ones, just the ones you avoid at parties. We’re in the middle of the woman thing. They want equality, in work, marriage, everywhere. They don’t want to be desired unless they feel like it.”

    “Outrageous.”

    “The thing is, they want a life like ours. We both can’t have a life like ours.”

    To really break open Death of a Black-Haired Girl, Stone would have had to give Maud a more confident and intelligent voice than that of the girl who writes hysterical diatribes in the school newspaper. Perhaps a lot has changed on campus, but those dons fumbling with their keys still don’t seem prepared to confront, on truly equal terms, the women who streamed into their classrooms during the great Throwing Open of the Gates.

    Sarah L Courteau is a writer living in the South Bronx. Her work has appeared in The Oxford American, the Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. Follow @slcourteau.

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

     


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    With one in six of the workforce having claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance in the last two years, job insecurity is hindering attempts to reduce poverty.

    It’s important that in-work poverty is now firmly on the agenda. Research by the New Policy Institute for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that, for the first time, more working families are in poverty than people in workless and retired families combined (52 per cent compared to 48 per cent).

    But we must not lose sight of the fact that those in poverty, whether in work or out of work, are often the same people churning from low-paid, insecure and part-time employment to unemployment, and back again.

    The reality is that the churn in and out of work, due to the economic climate, has never been larger and that people are constantly moving in and out of employment. It would be careless to talk about two distinct groups of people – those who work and those who do not. That would be easy. In reality, the situation is far more complicated. Between April 2011 and April 2013, 4.8 million different adults claimed Jobseeker's Allowance: one in six of the workforce, two-fifths of whom had never previously claimed.

    There is good news, though. The number of workless households is at its lowest level since 1996, when the data series started. Only a small minority of these workless households are ones where no adult has ever worked (8 per cent, or 1.5 per cent of all households). And the proportion of households who experience worklessness in a given year has generally been falling since 1996, from around 21 per cent (with 1 per cent never having worked). There was a rise in 2009 as the recession began, but now it is decreasing.

    This fall cannot be attributed solely to an increase in employment, as it also reflects changing household formation. There has been a large increase in the number of young adults living with their parents. Households where no adult has ever worked are likely to contain much younger people. More than half of those in never-worked households are under 25, compared to only 13 per cent in currently workless households. Almost half (48 per cent) living in households where no one has ever worked are students.

    As George Osborne said in the Autumn Statement, the labour market appears to be improving at last. Unemployment and underemployment have stopped rising and workless households have decreased. This good news masks the fact that when people do get into work, they are more likely to be paid below the Living Wage (as five million people are) and millions are trapped between poorly paid, insecure jobs and unemployment.

    But the insecurity faced by people trying to get into and stay in work still remains a huge problem and is hindering attempts to reduce poverty. That insecurity means millions of people are stuck in a cycle – churning between work and the dole. It would be better if government policy and announcements reflected that.

    Aleks Collingwood is Programme Manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation


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    Women make up 52 per cent of Scotland’s population, and are more likely to be undecided about independence than their male counterparts, yet the public debate about Scotland's future is mostly taking place between white middle-aged men.

    “Whenever my female friends talk about the independence referendum, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is always ‘well, my dad says. . .’ They’re letting the men in their lives dictate their opinions on it and I don’t think they even realise that they’re doing it,” says Saffron Dickson, the 16-year-old independence campaigner speaking at the Glasgow launch of Women for Independence. “We’ve just been whispering about equality for so long but now it’s time for women to stand up and have their voices heard.”

    Born out of a sense of frustration that the independence debate was being dominated by men, Women for Independence has sought to provide a “safe space” for women to do exactly that. Last week’s Glasgow launch of Women for Independence felt somewhat different to other public events hosted by the Yes Scotland and Better Together camps so far. “Listening exercise toolkits” were handed out on arrival, nobody was singled out as “unionist” or “nationalist” during the discussions and for once, nobody was shouting at each other from opposite sides of the room. It was strictly women only.

    “All of us were a bit fed up that whenever independence was being discussed on programmes like Newsnight, it was invariably middle-aged white men talking through a party political viewpoint. It was all very polarised and very much about a Punch and Judy exchange. There didn’t seem to be any real, illuminating discussion, and it certainly wasn’t addressing women’s questions or concerns,” says Caroline Leckie, one of the founders of the organisation. Those sceptical of Leckie’s viewpoint need only try to count the number of high-profile female figures across the debate. The public conversation has so far been carried by Alex Salmond, Alastair Darling, Michael Moore, Blair Jenkins and Blair McDougall. The obvious exception to this is of course Nicola Sturgeon, and yes, the leaders of the pro-union Labour Party and the Conservative Party in Scotland are women. However, it would be dubious to class Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson as top-level ambassadors for the Better Together campaign, given that they rarely discuss independence in a non-partisan capacity.

    In fact, a certain weariness about the constant partisan point-scoring and posturing, which has to an extent characterised the public independence debate so far, pervades the Glasgow launch event. One audience member, a former SNP politician, expressed the view that women in general find this element of politics, and particularly the independence debate, off-putting. “I was really good at shouting down opponents when I was in politics but then I thought to myself . . . what a stupid, counter-productive way to get things done at work,” she says.

    This led Natalie McGarry, co-founder of Women for Independence and chair of the panel, to speculate that women have a fear of being “shouted down” when they express their concerns and opinions about independence. “I’ve been to Yes meetings across Scotland, and every time, it’s the men who ask the questions. Every time. That’s not to say that women aren’t interested – they usually tend to come up to us at the end to ask questions. I think it’s because some of them worry that they’ll be dismissed or shouted down if they ask them publicly.” Considering the misogynistic vitriol that feminist campaigners like Laura Bates and Caroline Criado-Perez are subjected to, it isn’t hard to believe that being a woman and expressing an opinion is a little akin to sticking your head above the parapet. Eddi Reader, another panellist at the event, learned this the hard way when she received a torrent of abuse on Twitter after her appearance on an episode of BBC Question Time where independence was discussed, with one troll even threatening to cut her tongue out.

    Common assumptions about the natural cautiousness of women may or may not be true, but the fact remains that they are more likely to be undecided about independence than their male counterparts. With all to play for before the referendum in September next year, both sides are eager to engage with female voters still to make up their minds, with the SNP’s white paper proposals for an ambitious, Nordic-style system of childcare to bring more women into the workforce of an independent Scotland being the most recent example of this. Regardless of whether women welcome this is a progressive step or view it as an SNP electoral bribe, one thing is clear from the Women for Independence launch – women are far from disinterested in the independence question, and they will not be silenced come 2014.

     


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    Despite the clear political will for the UK to become an Islamic finance hub, there are steep political challenges ahead.

    At the ninth annual World Islamic Economic Forum in London on 29 October, David Cameron announced that he wants to see London standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dubai and Kuala Lumpur as one of the great global centres of Islamic finance. In saying this, he declared that he intends Britain to become the first non-Muslim state to issue sukuk – Islamic bonds that are structured in such a way as they do not infringe upon Sharia law.

    While the issue size is expected to be relatively modest – approximately £200m in the first instance – the announcement should rightfully be seen as a symbol of the square mile’s desire to capture a large share of the growing Islamic finance market. Few would dispute the wisdom of this move, for the growth of Islamic finance since the first sukuk was issued in Malaysia in 2000 has been very impressive.

    The global Islamic economy, which includes the Islamic finance industry, is estimated to have a total value of $8 trillion. Sukuk have been used since their inception as a means for corporates and states to raise alternative financing. In light of the global crisis and liquidity squeeze, Islamic finance has grown exponentially. On this basis, it would be strange in a sense for London and other global financial centres not to try to gain some market share and we should expect announcements similar to that of Cameron’s from spokespeople in New York, Frankfurt, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore.

    The growth of Islamic finance is attributable to many different factors, but that growth would not have been possible without the development of the contemporary financing techniques or structures that underpin the industry. For this, sukuks today can be seen as a union between religious principles and modern financing techniques. One can understand the appeal of sukuk, particularly in light of the banking crisis that has gripped the Western world and beyond since 2008, for in some senses it can be seen as a more tangible investment than a conventional bond, because the sukuk owner has a stake in the underlying asset rather than a share of debt. So while a conventional bond holder essentially receives interest on a loan, the sukuk holder receives a share of profit derived from the commercial ventures of the business, rather than on interest (interest is strictly forbidden under Sharia law).

    However, despite the clear political will for the UK to become an Islamic finance hub, there are undoubtedly challenges lying ahead. An obvious area of weakness is a lack of indigenous expertise in terms of awareness of the range of financial products on offer and the various structures that can be implemented to make finance initiatives Sharia-compliant. Although there are Islamic finance practices operating out of London, there is still a dearth of expertise. Furthermore, regulation standardising practices and giving confidence to borrowers will be required to grow the industry. However, these are not immutable, nor insurmountable, obstacles.

    As uncertainty persists in certain parts of the global economy, it has created an opportunity for Islamic finance to continue to flourish and expand into new economies. The UK has put down a marker in aiming to be the first western nation to issue sukuk and such a move is to be welcomed by the markets and legal and financial services. If some of the challenges are removed then watch this space, for it would be a brave individual who discounts the possibility of further growth in this intriguing market. There are currently 50 sukuk listings on the London Stock Exchange – expect many more to come.


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