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    The only thing worse than a union boss on a luxury holiday is a union boss getting a discount on his luxury holiday thanks to a voucher offer.

    Londoners will know that this week sees a strike by workers on London Underground, over "modernisation" plans that involve redundancies and the closure of ticket offices.

    Responsibility for this strike, in the eyes of the Daily Mail, is not Boris Johnson's, nor the members of the RMT or TSSA unions which voted to strike. No, it's Bob Crow's. Big Bad Bob. He went on holiday last week, you know. Here's how the Mail spun it:

    Unlimited caviar! Sitting by a pool! Buying drinks from a bar! A hotel room with a balcony and a wardrobe! Karaoke! Another hotel! And he had the temerity to return home at the end! Has he no shame? No!

    And, even worse, it turns out that Bob got the idea to go on his holiday from the Daily Mail, meaning he was probably surrounded by Daily Mail readers, also enjoying "unlimited caviar":


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    There are a lot of different factors to consider before the school day can be extended – the type of activities on offer, how you're staffing them, whether more affluent parents should pay – but the education secretary hasn't been clear on any of the details.

    Last week, the world of education policy was momentarily agog, aghast and agother things when a former government adviser proposed radically ramping up the number of hours that kids spend in school.

    “From September 2016,” KPMG partner Paul Kirby suggested on his blog, “all state funded schools will, by law, provide 45 hours of education per week for 45 weeks of the year”. This, he argued, would simultaneously slash childcare costs and do wonders for the intellect of the nation’s youth. The plan was so good, he suggested humbly, it might win somebody the next two elections.

    The result was an almighty row, in which phrases like “Gradgrind” and “the death of childhood” abounded. What many of those attacking the plan seemed to miss, however, was that they might as well have been warning of the health hazards posed by unicorn dung. Both the brilliance of this plan, and the enormity of its downsides, are rendered entirely irrelevant by the fact it's just simply never going to happen. A radical increase in school hours would require a hefty increase in school funding. And, in case you haven’t noticed, public money is currently in rather short supply.

    All this is worth bearing in mind when considering Michael Gove’s latest wheeze. He's often spoken of the benefits of longer school hours and shorter school holidays, and hoped that his brave new free schools would deliver on both counts. Until now, though, he’s not attempted to impose them on the majority of England’s schools.

    On Monday, however, he made a rip-roaring speech in which, among other ideas, he suggested that he’d “like to see state schools offer a school day nine or ten hours long”. This, he argued, would create time for homework, music, sports and the like, and help close the gap between the private and state sectors.

    And, at risk of saying something nice about the education secretary, there are worse ideas. Making more time for extra-curricular activities is a laudable goal. So is creating quiet study periods for kids whose family lives may not allow it at home. Done properly, extended schools might even cut the ever more horrendous childcare costs faced by working parents.

    Read Gove’s speech carefully, though, and you’ll notice he hasn’t actually committed himself to any of this. Extended schools are something he’d like, not something he’s promised; longer school days are an ambition, not a policy.

    If Gove is, for once, taking baby steps instead of charging full steam ahead, then questions over funding are surely a big reason why. Longer school hours means spending more money keeping buildings heated, lit, air-conditioned and so on. More importantly, it's a lot of extra time in which schools need to be staffed, and those staff will expect to be paid for their trouble: while many teachers will go above and beyond their contracted hours to deliver extracurricular activities, you can’t rely on that good will when rolling a policy out nationwide.

    How much the resulting bill will come to would depend on a lot of different factors: the type of activities on offer, how you're staffing them, whether you'd get away with making more affluent parents pay for after school childcare, music lessons and so on. Attempts to create extended schools under the last Labour government, indeed, relied heavily on charging parents for such extras – yet a majority of schools still had to dig into their own funding, all the same. (This analysis from Policy Exchange has the details.) It's very difficult to see how longer school hours won't cost more than shorter ones.

    Gove, to be fair, has all but admitted as much. In his speech he said he was “determined to ensure schools have access to the resources necessary to provide a more enriching day”; a couple of hours later he told the BBC’s World at One that he was confident the plan would win the support of the Treasury.

    That, though, is a pretty hefty “if”. If this is a serious proposal, rather than an early piece of electioneering, there are, as best I can tell, three options. Either it needs new money. Or it requires cuts from elsewhere in the schools budget: in other words, it'll create losers, somewhere, and in all likelihood another almighty row.

    Or, just maybe, Gove is assuming he can make this happen through sheer force of personality. It wouldn't be the first time.


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    Mobile advertising has up to now relied upon massive campaigns with poor results. There is a belief you cannot intelligently advertise on mobile, but now more than ever, this is simply untrue.

    Last month eMarketer revealed it is expecting the global smartphone audience to surpass 1.75 billion in 2014. It also stated that 4.55 billion people are predicted to use a mobile phone in 2014, thanks to increased availability in the developing regions of Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.

    Tell these stats to an advertiser responsible for mobile advertising and watch their faces light up. A platform is now available that brings a potential audience of billions of users – more than Facebook and Twitter combined – and it’s growing. The opportunity to reach such massive audiences is gold dust to the advertising industry.

    They are looking to take advantage too. Gartner revealed that global mobile ad spending is forecast to reach $18.0 billion in 2014, up from the estimated $13.1 billion in 2013. It also expects the market to grow to $41.9 billion by 2017.

    It is undoubtedly a booming market. Yet there is a real problem.

    In the past five years, online advertising has become incredibly intelligent. We are now at the stage where ads can be served based on what consumers are sharing and talking about. Sharing has become something of a phenomenon and can come in all forms, whether it be a tweet, a shortened URL, even an email telling someone to look at a link. Advertisers are increasingly able to build profiles of people, based on their interests and what they are sharing across the Open Web, and serving relevant ads accordingly at to scale. Consumers have reacted well. They understand that they are going to be served ads online these days – it’s what makes the internet tick – so they may as well be useful.

    However, the same can’t be said for mobile devices. There is a distinct lack of “intelligent advertising” on this platform, and when you consider Gartner’s figures and projections, it is a costly miss. Without doubt, an archaic approach to advertising still exists. By that, I mean that advertisers have reverted to the “clusterbomb” approach of advertising – no analysis or resesarch of whether the user is interested in your brand and may be likely to click through, research and even invest, but rather putting out as many ads as possible in the hope that some people will bite. It’s an incredibly expensive way of getting your message out there. And if anything, it can be detrimental – consumers, who expect relevant marketing messages, are likely to be irritated by intrusive, non-relevant ads, especially as they are increasingly seeing marketing messages tailored to their interests. It reeks of the early days of online advertising, where you received ads for something you had no interest in whatsoever.

    Let me give you an example. Last year, I got pretty hooked on an app called Stick Tennis. A very simple game, but highly addictive. In between each set, I would be served an ad. On numerous occasions, I was served an ad for Wonga. I wouldn’t dream of using a service like Wonga. Not in a million years. Frustration aside, it did make me realise two things. Firstly, brands are frittering away significant and precious budgets on advertising that is going to provide a minimal return. Put bluntly, it’s a complete waste. Secondly, there seems to be a level of thought that you can’t replicate the level of targeting on mobile that you can on desktop. But that is simply not true.

    There are so many opportunities for advertisers and agencies alike to reach the huge number of mobile users, especially through apps. This is another economy which is continuing to grow and grow. Last year, APPNATION forecasted that revenue from apps is to continue to expand over the next four years and that, by 2017, the market will be worth over $150 billion – more than twice what it was worth in 2012. This naturally implies more apps being created and crucially, more consumer use.

    Apps can be a hugely powerful communications tool and can help marketers get to know their potential audiences even better. This then brings considerably more opportunity to serve them more targeted messages, which results in more click-throughs and, ultimately, more sales. For example, use of a football app may drop off between seasons – leading to missed advertising and marketing opportunities within the app.

    However, we are at the stage where brands can implement appropriate in-app tracking. This enables them to understand how users behave and therefore intelligently segment an audience, identify supported teams and so on. Relevant and bespoke news alerts and messages can then be driven through push notifications to engaged users. This, in turn, exposes them to mobile advertising while simultaneously providing a better user experience and hence more opportunities to up-sell. And, as consumers’ behaviour and reactions to mobile advertising can be tracked, it brings the opportunity to set up personalised ads in the future in order to re-engage them further down the line, thus keeping the cycle turning.

    This methodology can naturally be applied across every sector, not just football. The opportunity for advertisers to take advantage of mobile is therefore enormous, as the technology now exists to serve relevant ads at the right time and at scale, making the process of just blasting out ads and hoping for the best a thing of the past. Those that add this layer of intelligence to their mobile strategies now are going to be the ones that stop the slew of wastage and truly reap the benefits.

    Rupert Staines is European MD of RadiumOne


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    There are many systemic problems in the sector - too many lawyers, too many firms - and the financial upheaval of the past 5 years has done little to slow things down.

    As 2014 gets underway, it seems we are riding a wave of optimism brought about by positive economic data from the US and UK which has buoyed markets and persuaded the Federal Reserve to begin tapering its asset purchasing programme. The outlook appears bright for corporate deal activity too, with IPOs likely to continue the upward momentum of last year and M&A volumes expected to pick up significantly in 2014.

    However, the story for legal services in 2014 is likely to be very different. 2013 saw a major shake-up in the legal services industry given a stay of execution. But the legal services sector as it currently stands remains unsustainable. Looking ahead to 2014 and beyond, it is hard to see the status quo remaining. Commercial law is a $300bn global industry. No single firm has more than 1 per cent of the market and this has to change. The sector is still remarkably fragmented: there are simply too many firms (and too many lawyers) offering the same services without any clear differentiation. Consolidation is an imminent certainty and, furthermore, I expect to see consolidation on an unprecedented scale.

    The recent spate of good economic data shouldn't fool anyone one into thinking that the good times have returned for legal businesses. Law firms that still believe that recovering economic conditions, increased corporate activity and better markets will come to their rescue are deluding themselves. Reform is not predicated on an economic downturn, but on commercial imperatives. Over the past decade there has been a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the industry. The financial crisis has only served to accelerate this trend and bring into sharper focus the systemic problems within the sector.

    Analysing the changes that have taken place, the principal factor seems to be a shift in client expectations and requirements. Clients are more savvy and demanding – something which can be ascribed to a number of factors, including the consolidation of legal panels, a greater scrutiny on fees and the desire for global solutions (and corresponding global discounts). This trend is not going to recede and is rendering many firms’ business models obsolete. In addition, alternative business structures (ABS) and their one-stop shop offerings are taking business from the laps of other firms.

    The firms that will emerge victorious will be either truly global or extremely niche. In the case of the former, firms that can offer a comprehensive suite of services across all regions will be in a strong position; however, there are many firms that claim to be operating globally but are in fact thin on the ground in many regions and will eventually be found out. Firms will have to be creative in how they structure themselves and how they motivate and retain their key assets – the human capital generating fees. Successful law firms are run increasingly like any other major corporation and those wishing for a place in the top league will need to streamline their management structures and employ managing partners specialising in running business, rather than dispensing legal counsel.

    Magic Circle firms are evolving too, as they are increasingly partnering with bulge bracket investment banks and focusing on major transactional work. For the rest, the pace of mergers is set to accelerate. Firms will merge to gain greater geographic exposure, particularly in the emerging markets of Africa and Asia, while the walking wounded will merge simply to survive or use to reduce costs. While the former strategy could be legitimately seen as being part of a convincing growth story, the latter type – the cost-cutting merger – is indicative of failing firms clutching at straws and such deals are likely to be increasingly frequent in 2014 and beyond. However, all is not doom and gloom. For the law firms that survive the Darwinian struggle there will be rich pickings to be had. Who knows, it may be that by the end of 2014 some of the larger law firms will have finally secured at least a 1 per cent share of the market.


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    The Sherlock star, claiming to be “just an actor” and definitely not a crime-solving super genius, does some counting with Murray and the Count.

    Benedict Cumberbatch has appeared on Sesame Street, where he meets Sherlock's nemesis “Murray-arty” and counts some oranges and apples. It's adorable:


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    In mainstream culture, white, straight, middle-class women don’t get to speak about their experience without having it universalised and made meaningless in the process - but black women, poor women and queer women usually don’t get to speak about their experience at all.

    Hey girls, we're all the same, aren't we? At least, that's what they’d like us to think. We are living through an unprecedented time of narrative richness, when people from an enormous range of backgrounds, including women and people of colour, are finally beginning to share stories about their lives across boundaries of class and distance in numbers too big to ignore. But you wouldn't know it from the mainstream press, which still reserves a very few places for female creators, who are expected to represent all womenkind, then excoriated when they inevitably fail to do so.

    Take, for instance, the three-year storm of publicity around the HBO show Girls, which follows the lives of four young white girls living in Brooklyn. I am often asked if I relate to Girls. Well. I’m a white, middle class media professional in my mid-twenties living and dating in a major western metropolis. Of course I relate to Girls, and I think it’s smart and funny and fun, although there are still bits that don’t speak to me at all. What's more important is whether or not any piece of art to which some women relate – particularly women from a certain privileged demographic – can be considered definitive. 

    The vivisection of Girls, and of its creator, Lena Dunam, has become a cultural project involving hundreds of writers, critics, blogs and TV pundits worldwide. Alongside serious issues of race and representation, there have been articles obsessing over whether Dunham’s jawline was tightened in her photoshoot for Vogue. There have been interminable debates over the nudity in the show, and whether it’s necessary. There has been barely disguised rage that a woman who isn’t a standard Hollywood beauty is allowed to display her body in public, to place her less-than-perfect flesh at the centre of her show, to play a character who sleeps with good-looking men. 

    The popular blog Jezebel offered $10,000 for un-airbrushed images of the Vogue photoshoot, as if  having one's hips narrowed in post-production were hard evidence of betraying the sisterhood, of not being that perfect poster girl for global feminism who has, to the best of my knowledge, never existed, and who would need to be destroyed if she did. As Dunham told the Huffington Post in 2012: “The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd.” But the reactionary trend of taking any rich young white girl's story and making it a totem for young womanhood everywhere is bigger than Dunham, and it's a brutal beast to battle.

    Nobody is saying that Lena Dunham doesn’t deserve critique. Debate and discussion is part of the life of a piece of art, particularly when it comes to episodic television, which has replaced film as the dominant medium of collective storytelling. What is curious is that no male showrunner has ever been subject to quite this sort of intense personal scrutiny, this who-are-you-and-how-dare-you. No male showrunner has ever been asked to speak to a universal male experience in the same way, because “man” is still a synonym for “human being” in a way that “woman” is not.

    Men do not experience the personal being made universal. When men direct honest, funny television shows about young men living their lives, it’s not “television that defines the young male experience”, it’s just television. When men write  “confessional literature”, it’s just called “literature”. Male artists and writers produce deeply personal content all the time, but as Sarah Menkedick once wrote at Velamag, for them “it’s called ‘criticism’ or ‘putting yourself in the story’ or ‘voice-driven’ or ‘narrative’ or ‘travelogue’ or ‘history’ or ‘new journalism’ or simply a ‘literary journey’”.

    Forbidding any woman simply to be an artist, forbidding us from speaking about our experience without having it universalised and trivialised, is the sort of broad-brush benevolent sexism that undermines the real threat that a multitude of female voices might otherwise pose. It comes from a culture that puts up endless barriers to prevent women and girls expressing ourselves honestly in public and then treats us like fascinating freaks when we do. Is still so rare, so unbelievably, fist-clenchingly rare, to see young women depicted in the mainstream media with anything like accuracy, as human beings rather than pretty punctuations in somebody else’s story, that as soon as it happens we want it to be more than it is. So Girls is asked to speak for every young woman everywhere, and then torn apart when it inevitably fails to do so, because nobody can, because nobody ever could. And that’s the problem.

    In 2012 Kendra James, a black writer with a similar social and educational background to Dunham, wrote a heartfelt piece entitled simply “Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist,” in whish she asked “why are the only lives that can be mined for “universal experiences” the lives of white women? Why, indeed? In mainstream culture, white, straight, middle-class women don’t get to speak about their experience without having it universalised and made meaningless in the process - but black women, poor women and queer women usually don’t get to speak about their experience at all. (In 2013, only one black female director released a major film.). Essentialism is as racist and classist as it is sexist. It is always reactionary. The idea of girlhood as a universal story is a great way to stop individual women's stories being heard. And it’s treacherous territory to negotiate.

    Last week, I filed a blog about the politics of short hair. It was response to a viral piece by Tuthmosis of the anti-feminist site Return Of Kings, and was intended as something lighthearted, about how, in my experience cutting your hair short can change the way men treat you.  I wasn’t expecting it to go viral, and I was absolutely overwhelmed by the response - the piece got a lot of positive comments, but was also called out for largely overlooking the experiences of black women with regards to hair and beauty. 

    I didn’t set out to write the definitive article about what short hair means. But just because I didn’t mean to make my experience universal doesn’t mean that it didn’t read as such. It’s easy to forget that, as a white girl working for the mainstream press.

    The mainstream media  still tells a single story about what women are and what they do. The internet, by contrast, allows us to tell many stories. My own work and writing comes out of the blogosphere, out of livejournal and blogspot and status updates, and my first jobs in journalism were for small, independent publications. Sometimes I forget that writing for publications like the New Statesman and the Guardian comes with very different overtones -  the attitudes of the mainstream press are changing, especially online, but for a lot of people they still represent a culture whose idea of femininity is horribly monolithic. 

    The telling of many stories, the sharing of different experiences, is part of what’s creating a sea-change in our cultural understanding of gender and power. I see that happening everywhere. But sometimes just seeing isn’t enough.

    The politics of cultural representation are riven by rage for good reason. This is still a sexist, racist society, one that reserves a very limited number of places for female writers and artists – fewer still for women who are not white, straight and middle class – and then demands that they speak as women first and as human beings second. Those who by chance or privilege manage to attain those few, totemic positions become lightning rods for the understandable anger of those who were not chosen, who do not see big-budget dramas made about their lives, who are only called on, if at all, to describe what it is like to live as “other”. 

    Only white, straight, cis girls get to be Everygirl. That's just one more reason that the idea of Everygirl is bullshit. It hurts every real person trying to live her own story within the limits of imagination permitted to us.

    Feminism will have achieved something huge when one artist isn’t expected to stand in for every young woman everywhere. We will be on the cusp of something magical when women are actually permitted to be artists, to create fiction, to make mistakes, to grow up, to be flawed and human in public. If there’s one thing about the phenomenon of Girls that does speak to a universal female experience, it’s the spectacle of being crushed by impossibly high expectations.

    The really scary truth about the universal girl experience is that there isn’t one. The truth about young women that nobody wants to acknowledge is that we are all unique, and the number of stories that haven’t been told about our lives is vast, particularly if we are poor, or queer, or if we are not white. It is the telling of many diverse stories, rather than the search for the perfect archetype, that will really challenge the narrative of patriarchy, and want to see more women's stories told, not just online, but in mainstream, high-stakes media. I resolve in future to be a more useful part of that great retelling.

    To paraphrase Bakunin, there is no such thing as a perfect poster girl for feminism - and if there was, we'd probably have to destroy her. 


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

    1. Does Labour have the appetite to support the Casserole Club? (Daily Telegraph)

    A radical plan to reshape the state and hand power and money to local authorities is proving controversial in the shadow cabinet, writes Mary Riddell. 

    2. The long, withdrawing roar of trade unionism (Times)

    Once a power in the land the union movement still dominates the public sector, writes Daniel Finkelstein. But for how much longer?

    3. If robots divide us, they will conquer (Financial Times)

    The rise of intelligent technologies may cost us dear – unless we understand the dangers, says Martin Wolf.

    4. Labour and the unions: two cheers for democracy (Guardian)

    Mr Miliband's plan goes a long way in the right direction, but some of the details remain muddy, says a Guardian editorial.

    5. Get off the Speaker’s back. He deserves a much better press (Times)

    His work has done much to restore the status of the Commons, says Tim Montgomerie.

    6. Pakistan's future is tied to the Taliban (Guardian)

    With the impending withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the time has come to talk – despite the horrific wave of bombings, says Tariq Ali.

    7. Independence can revive Scotland (Financial Times)

    A Yes vote offers Scots the chance to emulate their Victorian forebears, writes Michael Fry.

    8. There are very good reasons a foetus cannot be a victim of crime (Guardian)

    Criminalising women who drink while pregnant would set a profoundly dangerous legal precedent, writes Zoe Williams. Support for the idea is driven by wild overestimates of foetal alcohol syndrome.

    9. Russia doesn’t seem to care that it has had to spend stupid money in order to host the Winter Olympics. Maybe it should (Independent)

    The Games are stunningly, ludicrously, absurdly expensive, writes Hamish McRae. To take a round figure they look like costing $50bn.

    10. Why the NHS is crossing the Rubicon (Daily Telegraph)

    The 'Francis effect’ following the scandal of bad treatment at Stafford Hospital is leading to more nurses, less box-ticking, and greater transparency, says Jeremy Hunt.


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    The Lib Dems says the top tax rate will be cut "over my dead body". But he said the same about the 50p rate in 2011.

    Danny Alexander's decision last week to attack Labour's "borrowing bombshell" (a conspicuous echo of Conservative rhetoric) and to outline coalition spending totals until 2020-21 went down predictably badly with the Lib Dem left. Just three days before his intervention, Vince Cable had emphasised that his party was not bound to George Osborne's post-2015 deficit reduction timetable: "There are different ways of finishing the job … not all require the pace and scale of cuts set out by the chancellor. And they could allow public spending to stabilise or grow in the next parliament, whilst still getting the debt burden down." But Alexander's willingness to join the Chancellor in a united front against Ed Balls appeared to confirmed the long-held suspicion that he has gone "native" at the Treasury (the joke runs that the Lib Dem man in the Treasury has become the Treasury man in the Lib Dems). 

    In response, Prateek Buch, the co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum (and a Staggers contributor), said: "Cuts on the scale planned by Osborne just cannot be delivered. So why should Lib Dems endorse the Chancellor’s straitjacket? It is beyond me why Danny would sign up to what appears to be joint Lib Dem/Tory spending plans going beyond the end of the next parliament, when no such figures have been agreed by his own party. It is unhelpful to pre-empt the party’s manifesto process in this way. Besides, the plans take no account of the need to invest, or what will happen to GDP. What happened to differentiating ourselves from the Tories?"

    Perhaps unsettled by this criticism, today finds Alexander seeking to put some clear yellow water between himself and his coalition partners. He tells the Daily Mirror that a cut in the 45p tax rate (which the Tories have repeatedly refused to rule out) will happen "over my dead body" and says of the claim that he has gone "native": "If that’s what people think about me, then they are wrong. I am Liberal Democrat – full stop, end of story." 

    But given past form, don't be surprised if Osborne ends up walking over Alexander's corpse on his way to deliver the Budget. In July 2011, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said of those calling for the abolition of the 50p tax rate: "The idea that we're going to somehow shift our focus to the wealthiest in the country at a time when everyone's under pressure is just in cloud cuckoo land". But eight months later, Osborne did just that (while failing to introduce the mansion tax that the Lib Dems demanded in return). While there is no sign that the Tories are considering another reduction in the top rate in this parliament (in what would be a pre-election gift to Labour), it would be unwise to take Alexander's word for it.

    Asked about the subject on the Today programme this morning, Boris Johnson quipped that "the last thing I want to see is a pointless sacrifice from the Liberal Democrats, let alone the dead body of Danny Alexander" before hinting that the next Conservative manifesto would, at the very least, not commit to keeping the 45p rate. He said: "I can't believe we're going to go into an election with a tax rate so high." Since it's the Mayor's brother, Jo Johnson (the head of the No. 10 policy board) who is responsible for the manifesto, he can be assumed to speak with some authority on this matter. Finally, asked whether Alexander could be thrown over board to allow a cut in the top rate, he intriguingly remarked: "stranger things have happened at sea". 


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    Teaching creationism is unquestionably harmful, but should we be trying to ban it? Jonny Scaramanga, a former pupil at an evangelical school, examines how we are failing to hold such institutions to account.

    Should teaching creationism in schools be banned? Professor Alice Roberts has argued that it should be, even in private schools. Her comments come as a shock to those British citizens who assume that creationists, like grizzly bears, are a species local to North America. In fact, two networks of evangelical schools – Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) and the Christian Schools Trust (CST) – teach Genesis’ account as a literal explanation of human origins. That’s around 100 UK schools before we even talk about Muslim and Jewish institutions. I attended an ACE school in the 1990s, and emerging successfully indoctrinated at the end of 1999. I am still recovering from the experience, but I’m not convinced banning them will help.

    ACE schools are “teacherless”. Students spend the majority of the week at desks facing the wall, with dividers preventing contact with their neighbours. In silence, they complete workbooks which integrate Bible lessons into each subject. During that time, the only contact with staff comes if a student raises a flag to indicate that they need help. By contrast, most CST schools use a more traditional classroom setup, but with a similarly strong biblical emphasis.

    ACE’s UK distributor, Christian Education Europe, does not disclose the locations of all its schools, but in 2009 claimed there were 59 in the UK. They list 29, but these are only the schools which choose to be listed. In 2008, it was reported that 2,000 British children were being educated this way.

    In my first week at the ACE school, the principal preached a sermon called “Birds of a Feather Must Flock Together”. This 45 minute rant can be summarised in one sentence: “Don’t be friends with non-Christians”. So began three years in which I learned to view ‘unbelievers’ with a mixture of fear and contempt.

    Creationism was central to this understanding. I was taught that evolution was a conspiracy; scientists knew they lacked evidence, but wouldn’t admit it because they hated God. Evolution was equated with atheism;“evolutionists” were fundamentally dishonest. Students in ACE are still taught this. These quotes come from the compulsory course which current students take instead of GCSE science.

    From year 11 biology:

    No branch of true science would make these kind of impossible claims without proof. Because evolutionists do not want to believe the only alternative—that the universe was created by God – they declare evolution is a fact and believe its impossible claims without any scientific proof!

    From year 10 science:

    A person who is not right with God must find reason, or justification, for not believing. So he readily accepts an indefensible theory like evolution – even if it will not hold water. That is his academic justification for unbelief.

    There was a second way creationism was used to fend off outsiders. The school claimed that creationism proved the Bible was the Word of God. Biblical authority thus established beyond question, I was forced to live by such Scriptures as Psalm 1:1, “Blessed is he that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly. . .” My only interaction with sinners was for evangelism.

    There is a natural human tendency to fear the strange. Attending a school exclusively with other evangelicals turned the rest of the world into strangers. My knowledge of outsiders came from propaganda cartoons depicting non-Christians as evil and stupid. When I left that school at 15, I expected my new classmates to try to corrupt me. I told them to accept Jesus or face hell, and they lived up to my expectations.

    Creationists teach that either every word of the Bible is completely true or none of it is. If you have doubts, that is the devil trying to deceive you. I knew if I doubted, I risked losing my faith, and then I would go to hell. This provides a powerful disincentive against thinking critically. In that sense, the education militates against real learning.

    The same literal understanding of the Bible taught me that gay people were sinners, women should obey their husbands, and parents had a moral imperative to spank disobedient children. Creationism was the keystone that held these beliefs in place. If that was questioned, the entire edifice might fall. Teaching creationism is unquestionably harmful, but there are other avenues to try before we ban it.

    If they are prohibited from teaching creationism, evangelical schools will not suddenly provide high quality instruction on natural selection. More likely, children would be withdrawn into fundamentalist homeschooling. Testimony from America is that this can be somewhatvariable.

    The scandal is that existing measures for quality assurance are not working. Ofsted inspections of ACE schools do not mention creationism at all, but frequently give generally glowing reports. Between 2007 and 2011, at least six Ofsted inspections of ACE schools were carried out by a Mr Stephen Dennett. At the same time, Dennett had a sideline as a freelance curriculum writer, and his name appears in the metadata of ACE curriculums as an author. He is also listed as a “consultant” to the board of the ACE-based International Certificate of Christian Education. I contacted Christian Education Europe, ACE’s UK distributors, asking them to comment on my concerns that Dennett’s Ofsted role had represented a conflict of interests, but to date they have not responded.

    Compared with ACE, the Christian Schools Trust (CST) looks relatively moderate. Unlike ACE’s rigidly standardised curriculum, each CST school has its own policy on creation and evolution. There are still indicators that pupils in such schools are being misled, though. Research published in 2009 declared “the great majority of the schools teach their science from a creationist viewpoint”. The same survey found just 10 per cent of teenage CST pupils accepted the theory of evolution.

    Dr Sylvia Baker, the academic who published this research, is a former teacher in a CST school. She insists the teaching of science is rigorous. “If you are seeking to imply that pupils in some CST schools are brainwashed into a simplistic ‘unscientific’ view of origins, you are sadly misinformed as excellent results in science subjects at GCSE have so often demonstrated,” she told me.

    Together with the Muslim Schools Association, the CST has its own inspectorate, the BSI. The inspectorate was set up by the schools to “respect their distinctive ethos”. Since this ethos is the most contentious aspect of the schools, this strikes me as a wholly unwarranted privilege.

    Organisations that ought to be holding these schools to account failing to protect the childrens’ interests. UK NARIC, the international qualifications comparison body, actually maintains that ACE-based qualifications are the equal of A-levels. The inspectorate ought to send a clear message to parents and staff at these schools that the current standard of instruction is unacceptable. We need scrutiny, not legislation.

     

     


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    In Aberdeen, outside a takeaway called The Gurkha Kitchen, I met a Bhutanese refugee called Landless. Landless was eager to talk.

    In Aberdeen, a takeaway called The Gurkha Kitchen sells plump dumplings, Haggis pakoras and greasy north-Indian foods that infiltrate the menus of Nepalese restaurants across the UK. 

    Outside The Gurkha Kitchen, I met a Bhutanese refugee. It was the first time I had met a refugee. Let’s call her Landless. Landless was eager to talk.

    Landless had flown into London only three months earlier. Before Aberdeen, her “home” was Nepal. Before Nepal, her “home” was Bhutan. Both Nepal and Bhutan didn’t want her, so she was homeless. With the help of the International Organisation for Migration, she moved to Scotland. Some of her friends were moved to America, thanks to the efforts of the IOM. Others to Australia. 

    Landless spoke lovely Nepali. Landless liked the churches in Aberdeen. She disliked Scottish weather. She tried replicating Bhutanese dishes in Aberdeen, but failed – the cheese didn’t taste right.

    Landless was among the 106,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees who had been ejected from Bhutan. Bhutan, nervous about the growing number of Nepali-speaking people within its borders, needed to silence the murmurs of dissent which had begun rippling among these Nepalis. Bhutanese lawmakers had seen what happened in the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim - a Nepali-speaking majority, it was widely believed, had joined hands with India to overturn the monarchy, thus making Sikkim the 22nd state of the Indian union - and definitely didn't want Bhutan going that way. The government, therefore, declared that all Nepali-speaking people in the country should produce citizenship documents from 1958 – 1959 wouldn't do, 1957 wouldn't do – to prove their status as legitimate Bhutanese.

    Landless claimed her family had documents from 1957.

    “Go back to Nepal,” Bhutan barked to Landless and thousands of others. “That’s where you’re from. You’re not Bhutanese but Nepalese."

    “Go back to Bhutan,” Nepal snapped. “That’s where your family has lived for generations. You aren’t Nepalese but Bhutanese.”

    Landless was one of the more than 100,000 people herded out of Bhutan like cattle.

    Finally, Nepal begrudgingly agreed to temporarily allow Landless and her brethren to inhabit refugee camps there. Bhutan, meanwhile, embraced a concept known as Gross National Happiness – something about measuring her people’s happiness as instead of their domestic product – while Landless and co. languished in shanties. Landless shared her bathroom with three dozen people.

    Landless lived in a state of statelessness in a refugee camp in Nepal for a decade and a half. Landless claimed her family still owned acres and acres of fertile land near Phuntsholing, one of Bhutan's border towns. Landless was lying. The land had been redistributed to the Bhutanese – the bona fide Bhutanese who were still living in the country. The land she had left behind wasn’t any longer her land.

    In Aberdeen, Landless was living in a council flat with running water. The tap even spewed hot water! And the flat had electricity all the time. Landless and her family had light all the time in Bhutan before darkness shrouded their world.

    Some of Landless's distant relatives were still in Bhutan. One was a doctor Bhutan would have good use for, so he was allowed to stay. Landless couldn't speak to him on the phone, though. Landless's cousin was nervous that the Bhutanese government wouldn't like it. 

    Landless saw pictures of the 2011 wedding of the king of the country that didn’t want her. The world gushed about the handsomeness of the couple. Bhutan continued talking about Gross National Happiness. The international media paid more attention to it – and the peck on the cheek the king gave his wife – than the displacement of all those refugees. Too much was happening in the Sudan, the Middle East and elsewhere.

    Now Bhutan has archery competitions and literary festivals - the most recent literary event took place last August. No one talks about the refugee situation. Everyone talks about the kings with reverence – the good looks of the current king, the fifth king who's popularly known as K5, and the selflessness of the last king, the fourth king who abdicated the throne in favor of his son (and who is responsible for one of the most heartless ethnic-cleansing experiments in the modern world).

    The monasteries are beautiful, the kings are good looking, and, oh, there's Gross National Happiness. Didn't the UN declare 20 March as the International Day of Happiness? Newspaper reports said the declaration came from Bhutan's inspiring concept of Gross National Happiness, didn’t they? That was endorsement enough. Life was good.

    What were Landless and the other 106,000 displaced former citizens anyway?

    Prajwal Parajuly writes about Nepali-speaking people – the Nepalis of India, Nepal and Bhutan – in Land Where I Flee, his first novel, available now in hardback from Quercus Books at £16.99


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    Should the government ignore your job? Your education? Your family? If you don’t vote, that’s exactly what they will do.

    Today is National Voter Registration Day. It’s made me think of Russell Brand. I’m not going to apply condescension to his prose – I think he’s articulate and eloquent actually. I’m not going to dismiss him off hand as somebody who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he does. I might have something to say about his attitude to women, but that’s for another article.

    You don’t need to have a politics degree to capture the mood of the nation, echoed in Russell’s sentiments– voting is pointless and even dangerous: it only encourages them.

    I actually agree with his overarching point - he wants to create a genuinely fair system. “To really make a difference, we must become different,” he says, and that’s exactly what I want to see. I do have one slight rebuke though – Russell, you’ve never voted, it’s careless to denounce something that you’ve never experienced.

    However, that aside, Russell and I have some things in common. I too have moments of weariness and exhaustion with the process, but never let myself be indifferent. I do “give a fuck about politics”. That means I value my vote.

    If you don’t vote, you won’t have your voice heard. The simple fact is the electoral roll underpins our democracy and our lives. If you don’t vote – will you resign? Will you quit your job? Will you just withdraw from society? Because you won’t have a say over employment, the economy, or any of the smaller or bigger polices that impact our lives on a daily basis – whether we like that they do  or not.

    Should the government ignore your job? Your education? Your family? If you don’t vote, that’s exactly what they will do. If you examine voter turnout, what you see is white, older males dominating the process and government polices reflect this. Or take the power of the ‘grey vote’ – it’s rare, if ever, you’ll see this demographic protesting. They often don’t need to.

    An Ipsos Mori poll showed that at the last election 76 per cent of over-65s were still voting. Their power at the ballot box is respected – because they use it. Voting means power and when you don’t vote, you give up this up.

    But it’s not just about challenging voter apathy. Let’s take a moment to empathise on the origin of this apathy. Let’s reflect on the leadership of this country. So uninspiring are they that less than half of 18 – 24 year olds in this country voted in 2010. How redundant is the political process that the next generation are not even bothering with it?

    People don’t vote because they think the system is broken. People don’t vote because they feel no affiliation with candidates. People don’t vote because they actually believe that no matter who sits in government, a mess is inevitable. But, if you don’t vote, you definitely won’t matter, and you’ll suffer the consequences of any mess regardless.

    Russell Brand proposed a revolution of the mind. I’m going to propose something even more radical – an actual revolution in how we engage with the political process. I want to ensure young adults are a force to be reckoned with; too powerful to ignore. 

    There’s no question that we can find fault with all of the political parties, but we are the ones who are ultimately responsible. The best way to counter this detachment is by getting involved. If you want to see yourself reflected in parliament elect people who can achieve this. Seriously look at the candidates in your constituency and work out who is most closely affiliated to your values.

    Don’t expect that every policy put forward will be palatable. That’s not realistic. You don’t enjoy every single aspect of your work or studies, but you persevere because overall it’s aligned with who you are, or what you intend to do. If it’s not, you change it.

    Russell spoke about wanting to effect “power change”. We already have the tools to do this; we’re just not using them. Voting polices have in the past been made off the backs of groups that don’t vote: the young, the poor, the minorities. It’s not fair, but if you don’t vote, the government doesn’t care - you just won’t matter.

    In 2010 students turned out to vote in record numbers. The sense that despite engaging enthusiastically with the process, clear commitments were so blatantly broken - tuition fees raised dramatically - undermined the faith of many in voting.

    Young citizens aren’t bored of democracy, they’re angry with its process. And I understand that: I’m angry too. But don’t allow a grudge to disempower you from playing a part in huge decisions that will affect you. Or feed that grudge and exercise your revenge at the ballot box. Register now and give yourself the choice.

    It’s true that I’m young, perhaps more idealistic than Russell Brand. I’ve not had the life experiences – Hollywood hasn’t called - yet. But I believe in the power of change. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have run for election to lead seven million students as president of NUS.

    For me, the hope and the absolute belief that each of us can affect our own realities, that we can thrive, and that we can change motivates me to engage with a government that let down the millions of students that I represent. It inspires me to work with Bite the Ballot to ensure students can register and be heard ahead of the 2015 general election .

    We do have the power to change things - through voting. We all matter, but if you don’t vote none of us will. And if that happens, we’ll all lose.


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    The party should radically devolve power and budgets to bridge the gap between "representative" and "responsible" government.

    Ed Miliband’s determination to end "machine politics" and reenergise representative party politics comes at a time when the UK’s established democratic system is showing signs of distress: from the movements for Scottish independence and the UK to leave the European Union, to UKIP’s steady rise and the electoral abstention of large swathes of working class and young voters. Political parties like Labour find it increasingly difficult to represent the people that elect them as well as govern responsibly in an era of increasing complexity.

    The late political scientist Peter Mair documented this dilemma as that of an acutely growing gap between "representative" and "responsible" government, predicting that it would be one of the principal sources of democratic malaise that confront western democracies. Traditional political parties were once more representative, giving them the legitimacy to govern responsibly on behalf of a given electoral constituency. However, structural changes and growing complexity – globalisation, European integration, the rise of technocracy – have moved parties on from their representative role, enhancing, or forcing them to enhance, their responsible governing role. This refers to the process of being prudent and consistent in government, as well as being accountable and conforming to external constraints and legacies.

    Mair’s key point is that demands for "responsiveness" and "responsibility" are increasingly at odds with one another, and parties’ capacity to reconcile this tension has been undermined by their "professionalisation" and resulting decline as representative organisations. Populists have been quick to capitalise on this, positioning themselves as the "tribunes of the people".

    So how do mainstream parties square this need for complex governing structures and the simultaneous demand for a sense of simplicity, belonging and engagement – the need for cold technocratic speak and emotive "popular" story telling? Two areas for improving representational politics in the UK should be explored and driven-forward.

    The first is the devolution of power and a more fiscally federal model for the UK – one of the most centralised states in the OECD.  The coalition’s City Deals are a start, but a Labour government can go much further in giving city-regions and local actors the tools and incentives to shape their affairs and tackle regional and sectoral imbalances in the UK economy. The recent Centre for Cities report highlighted the overwhelming dominance of London. Is it a coincidence that the cities of Belfast and Cardiff come first and second in a league table of successful city regions in the recession? Devolution deals with the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies appear to have incentivised dynamic collaboration between businesses, universities and devolved government. Scotland is also pushing for more movement in this direction (Edinburgh was second to London in creating private sector jobs), along with England’s core cities and key cities.  

    This territory is interesting when applied to the populist phenomenon – as well as countering some of the socio-economic drivers of populism, an agenda which gives voice and levers to local communities and cities also can have significant political and cultural benefits.

    The second area is a new politics of institutional creation and reform. The traditional political party is dying – literally. Politics thus needs to find new ways of opening up and engaging with people. This covers giving people greater say in choosing their democratic representatives, rebalancing the scale of career versus non-career politicians, and opening the door to more civilised and consensual politics. But it also goes much further: individualism, consumerism and immigration have all eroded solidaristic models of the past. As Matthew Taylor argues, the starting point must not be on applying emergency treatment to a broken model, but on "supporting a new set of institutions from the bottom-up to tap into the emergent individualism of Europe’s people, particularly the young…This individualism largely rejects hierarchical paternalism and mass solidarity in favour of a philosophy of self-help and social enterprise underpinned by fast forming and reforming networks of interest."

    This point is consolidated by Moisés Naím’s analysis on the increasingly hamstrung nature of top-down legislative power: he points out that in 30 of the 34 countries of the OECD, the head of state is opposed by a parliament controlled by the opposition.

    The rise of populism can be seen as a corrective if political parties see it as a signal to  bridge the gap between "representative" and "responsible" government.  Indeed an important question, which goes to the heart of this dilemma, is whether such reforms to strengthen the responsiveness of policymaking would actually lead to a healthier and better democracy.

    These questions are further complicated by the extremely low standing of elites and the bankruptcy of economic orthodoxy which prevailed over the last three decades. As Tim Bale writes, centre-left parties like Labour have the difficult task of finding a "penchant for populism" on the economy to gain a hearing and win elections. This needs to be balanced with the rebuilding of credibility and reputation for economic competence as well as a programme for governing responsibly. There also needs to be a concerted recognition of the non-economic or political drivers of populism: with politicians developing responses to popular concerns over culture, identity and community in an age of increasing insecurity.

    All in all rising levels of democratic stress and the changing nature of power structures look unlikely to be kind to parties and elite institutions that stand still. Ignoring the populist signal is a dangerous game. 

    Michael McTernan and Claudia Chwalisz lead the new Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project on ‘Understanding the Populist Signal’. The project will look at political renewal in populist times. The first event will be held in London on 6 February 


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    Ed Balls's 50p tax is nothing but theatrical politics - pay close attention to the Lifetime Allowance, the cap on pension funds, which has already been lowered and most likely will be again.

    “It’s still £98.13 no matter if you have just installed a self-retracting awning sir.”

    “But look, look at this picture – four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a recently extended kitchen and planning permission for a loft conversion.”

    “It is very nice – would you please take your estate agent's valuation out of my face - but it’s still £98.13 for the groceries, or should I call my Supervisor?”

    This is a familiar scene for me and my chosen check-out lady at my local supermarket in Wandsworth. She simply refuses to accept that my house, independently verified by an estate agent, is exchangeable for any amount of goods and services at her retail outlet. No matter how wealthy I tell her I am, she nearly always expects something that looks like ready cash. There is just no pleasing some people.

    The distinction between wealth and money should be obvious. Still, it doesn’t stop some people trying to mix the two things up. Ed Ball’s announcement that a Labour administration would reintroduce the 50p tax band has deflected us from the wealth/money problem in a rather pitiful attempt to launch some sort of class war between the haves and the have nots. You can understand the shadow chancellor’s motivation: it is a mathematical certainty that the have nots are always going to be in the majority. The haves wouldn’t be your natural voting group. Besides, they are probably too busy whooping it up in Davos to notice anything you say.

    The problem with this kind of theatrics is that although, in the short term, it will have the gallery punching the air in support – a recent YouGov poll shows that 61 per cent of people surveyed support the 50p income tax rate - the passage of time has a terrible way of reclassifying who is defined as wealthy and who is described as poor. For instance, this April a new and little understood change in pensions legislation will come into force, which is subtle but something of a time bomb if you think you aren’t with the haves. Something called a Lifetime Allowance (LTA) is being applied to everyone: the amount that you can have in a pension without penalty is being capped at £1,250,000 – if you have anything in a pension above this limit, when you retire, you will be taxed at up to 55 per cent on the excess.

    Now I am sure there are many of you sitting there thinking “Good – make the bankers pay” (it’s always bankers in some people’s minds), while you are also probably thinking that £1,250,000 as a pension fund is outside anything imaginable for most people. And it is – currently.

    Estimates I have seen show that about 30,000 people will be captured by it immediately, but that’s still only enough to fill Fulham Football Club’s ground to overflowing. Even with the current limit, about 360,000 people are expected to be captured by the time they retire.

    HMRC have a way of calculating what your pension pot equivalent is – they merely multiply your expected pension income by 20. So let’s imagine that you expect to have total pension rights which pay something close to the national average of about £15,000. Well, that would give you a current pension fund size of £300,000 according to HMRC. It’s a big number, but nowhere near the one and a quarter million mark. Now let’s also imagine that we actually start to see pension income rising in line with inflation over the next ten years (as the baby boomers retire). In that case your pension fund will be worth the equivalent of over £400,000. This doesn’t allow for the growth of the underlying investment, so that is a lower limit – it wouldn’t be difficult to show how that number quickly becomes more than £500,000 if you allow for any rise in the value of the underlying investments. If you are lucky enough to have a pension income greater than that and say approaching the present average income then your pension fund could easily look like £900,000, putting you within spitting distance of the current LTA.

    History tells us that things like the Lifetime Allowance start off in one place and end up in another – it has already come down from £1,800,000 to £1,250,000. I suspect that, as time progresses and the pensions problem moves from a distant rumble to a deafening roar, that the LTA number will fall to capture a lot more people than the capacity of Craven Cottage. In fact, one day, I doubt you’d be able to get them all in to the total capacity of the Premier League of a Saturday. In other words, a lot of people are about to be reclassified as Haves, and without knowing it, they will have become The New Wealthy Poor – those who have no money but are assessed to be wealthy and to add insult to injury may even have a large tax liability on retirement.

    Let’s face it, the money for our pension promises and the care of the elderly is going to have to come from somewhere (we can’t just dump it all on the next generation) and, as we have seen, general taxation and silly gimmicks like Balls's 50p higher tax rates do not transform our public finances no matter what the opinion polls show. The one area that is ripe for raiding is the private wealth of the general public (not just the wealthy elite) and the reduction of the Lifetime Allowance is just the opening salvo in a long and stealthy war to get at it.


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    The problem isn't just in Afghanistan. 30 per cent of woman suffer violence from an intimate partner, but globally laws do little to protect women at home.

    According to the World Health Organisation, 35 per cent of women worldwide will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. The vast majority of these incidents are perpetrated by an intimate partner: 30 per cent of women experience violence at the hands of their boyfriend or husband. Globally, 38 per cent of women who are murdered are killed by their partner. 


    Many women might be scared to walk down dark alleys late at night, but statistically the most dangerous place for a woman to be is in her own home. It isn’t just our perception of danger that hasn’t quite caught up with this reality, internationally laws are far more likely to protect a woman from rape or attack by a stranger than by their husbands.


    In Afghanistan, a new law will mean that men are able to attack their wives, daughters and sisters without fear of punishment. The new code means that family members are not allowed to testify against the accused. It’s a devastating step back for women’s rights in Afghanistan – and yet more evidence that for all the rhetoric that the removal of the Taliban would improve the lives of many women, the modest progress made by Afghan women in the past decade is at risk of reversal. 


    According to the UN, 87 per cent of women in the country have suffered sexual, psychological or physical violence. Female MPs have become targets for violence, and not just from militant groups – in July MP Noor Zia Atmar moved into a shelter to escape her abusive husband. Under Afghanistan’s new law, she will not be able to testify against him in court.


    But Afghanistan’s attitude towards domestic violence is not unusual. According to UN Women’s 2011 figures, while 125 countries outlaw domestic violence, 127 countries do not criminalise rape within marriage. 603 million women worldwide live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime, while more than 2.6 billion live in countries where marital rape is legal. Even in countries where marital rape is illegal, the barriers to women reporting and then successfully prosecuting their partner are high.


    The countries that still don’t count marital rape as a crime include some of the world’s most populous: China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia all lack laws specifically criminalising marital rape. Despite calls to increase the sentences imposed those found guilty of rape following the gang rape of a student in Delhi, which made international headlines in 2012, Indian lawmakers resisted criminalising marital rape in 2013.


    Criminalising domestic violence and marital rape is only one small step towards ensuring that women are safe in their own homes. But robust legislation does send out an important signal, that the all-too-prevalent belief that husbands have a right to discipline their wives, force them into sex, or treat them abusively, is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.


    It’s also about a change of perspective. It’s far easier to want to protect women from the unknown other - the stranger in a dark, abandoned street - than to acknowledge that the men most women have greater cause to fear is their husband, father or brother.


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    He crushed his opposition and has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart.

    Vladimir Putin arrives for a speech at the congress of Russia's ruling party in Moscow in 2011. Photo: Getty

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

    On 19 December, Maria Baronova met me on the steps of the Nikulinsky courthouse, a squat Soviet-era building lost in a construction zone somewhere in Moscow’s eternal sprawl. Against the once-white building and dull pewter sky, Baronova was the sole splash of color, her puffy magenta jacket open to the cold afternoon.

    It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on 6 May, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, “inciting mass riots,” Baronova was facing two years in jail.

    Today, however, it was rumored that, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the modern Russian constitution, Putin would free more than a thousand prisoners – including political prisoners, most famously two jailed members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot – and give some opposition defendants, such as Baronova, amnesty.

    Baronova hadn’t exactly dressed up for the occasion. A motley scarf was tangled around her neck and through her uncombed hair. She clutched a small bottle of Listerine, periodically tipping it back to gargle, then swallow. Last night, she had been at the company holiday party for Dozhd (“Rain”), the last independent Russian TV channel, where Baronova is now a science correspondent. It is the only work that she, a chemist and once a well-paid sales manager at a chemical-supplies company, could get after becoming a defendant in such a public, politicised trial.

    “I’m hungoooover,” she moaned to the bailiffs as we handed our bags and passports over for inspection inside the courthouse.

    The two bailiffs crooned sympathetically.

    “Nausea?”

    “Yucky taste in your mouth?”

    Baronova nodded miserably as the two men laughed almost lovingly and commiserated.

    As we walked up the stairs to the courtroom, Baronova showed me the text message she had sent to one of the bailiffs from the party at five in the morning, informing him that she was in an “inadequate” state and could he please call and wake her up lest she miss her own amnesty hearing? At ten that morning, he had dutifully obliged. “It’s not Stockholm syndrome,” she explained, “but you come here every day, and you really do get used to them.”

    We spent an hour waiting to get into the courtroom, maybe two. Baronova checked her Twitter for news from Putin’s press conference, now in its second hour: Had he said anything about amnesty yet? She signed a book brought over by a trilling woman in yellow who said she felt “only positive energy today! Only positive energy!”

    Baronova had a good lawyer, a sharp-witted, young attorney named Sergei Badamshin. But the same couldn’t be said of most of the opposition defendants: The woman with the positive energy, it turned out, was one of their attorneys. They bickered with each other and had bizarre theories of defence. (If a police officer exceeds his authority, for instance, then he ceases being a police officer.) Baronova had long ago decided that it wouldn’t be the prosecutor who would sink the protesters; it would be their own defence team. “When I realised that, that made me really depressed,” she told me. Around then, she started to have dark thoughts. She has a seven-year-old son, whom authorities were constantly threatening to take away from her. In October, Baronova was hospitalised with stress-induced gastric ulcers.

    Yet the two-year sentence Baronova was contemplating was actually on the light side. Some of the other protesters were facing up to eight years for charges of “using force against representatives of the state”. One young father was facing this sentence for throwing a lemon. It hit the Kevlar vest of a special forces officer who claimed that contact with the lemon had caused him “intolerable pain”. One defendant had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to indefinite confinement in a psychiatric institution. No cops had been charged with excessive use of force, of which there had been plenty involving objects far more menacing than lemons. In fact, some had been rewarded for their suffering with free apartments in the center of Moscow. The point was clear: Baronova and the others had been strung out as cautionary tales for the rest of the opposition.

    A wave of applause rose through the lobby as the prisoners were paraded into the courtroom and, in modern Russian legal tradition, locked into a giant metal cage. A Rottweiler lay on the floor, legs splayed, and panting loudly. The rest of us piled into the courtroom and listened to the barely audible proceedings.

    As Baronova waited to learn whether she had in fact received amnesty, Putin would free the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail as well as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose decade-long imprisonment had transformed him from the country’s chief robber baron to its most famous prisoner of conscience. But the news hadn’t made its way inside the courtroom yet, where many of the Bolotnaya protesters, who were no cause célèbre abroad, wouldn’t be so lucky. During the Bolotnaya rally, the cops had grabbed Denis Lutskevich, then a 20-year-old former marine, tearing off his shirt as he tried to get away. There is a famous picture of him from that day, shirtless in khaki shorts, his back a canvas of red welts. One of the cops claimed Lutskevich had tried to pull his helmet off, and for this, he was facing eight years in jail, plus an additional five for participating in mass riots.

    Now, because Putin had said he would not amnesty those who had hurt his troops, Lutskevich would stay in the cage.

    Sitting in the courtroom just in front of me, a tall brunette sat weeping quietly and looking at the prisoners. She was Stella Anton, Lutskevich’s mother. Every day, she came to the courthouse to see her only child. “I can usually keep it together,” she told me. “But I just imagined him also getting amnesty today and walking out of here, and it was like a wave hit me.”

    She wiped her face as if to calm herself and asked what I was writing about.

    "Russia ahead of the Olympics,” I said.

    She scoffed and mashed a tissue in one manicured hand. “Good,” she almost growled. “They should know what kind of country they’re going to.”

     

    On 5 December, 2011, I was working as a reporter in Moscow, when I heard there was going to be a protest demanding fair elections in Chistye Prudy, one of Moscow’s beautiful old boulevards. I wasn’t going to go: I had a story to file, it was raining, and I didn’t think more than a couple hundred glasnost-era activists would show up – that was as much of a protest as you could expect in Putin’s Russia.

    But some gut feeling told me I should go, just in case. When I got out of the metro, I was totally unprepared to see some 5,000 people, most of them young, packed into Chistye Prudy. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition leaders were delivering fiery speeches. People lined the sidewalks and clung to the boulevard’s wrought-iron fences, shouting, “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” It was one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever experienced. Muscovites cared about their political future more than anyone, including themselves, expected.

    After the economic collapse and chaos of the 1990s, Putin and the Russians had entered a tacit social compact: The government would provide stability and wealth, and the people would stay out of the government’s business. And, for the most part, well into the 2000s, everyone abided by it. Polls steadily indicated that some 80 per cent of Russians thought they could not influence the political process, nor did they seem to care to. The state meticulously cleared the underbrush of civil society, leaving Russians atomised and isolated from one another. Putin’s popularity, meanwhile, was stratospheric, and it was real. The television was his television, and everyone who didn’t like it congregated in the Internet ghetto and cracked jokes.

    But in 2008, Putin’s two terms as president ran out and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, replaced him. Medvedev talked about modernising the economy, fighting corruption, and easing up on the government’s routine harassment of small businesses. By 2009, when I’d moved back to Moscow (my family had emigrated to the United States in 1990), there was even a kind of renaissance in the liberal media ghetto. Russian journalists I met and became friends with were less afraid. New media outlets were popping up, both online and off, including Dozhd TV. Dark things were still happening: The horrific death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison after he uncovered a massive government corruption scheme, the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin, the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and many of his former colleagues. It was Russia, after all. But it felt like it was – slowly, gingerly – becoming a gentler, more modern country.

    And then on 24 September, 2011, at a convention of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party, Medvedev – looking very much like a man who’d spent the night crying – mounted the podium and nominated Vladimir Putin to run for president. I was in the press section up by the rafters, and I remember being almost as stunned as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies. As I wrote at the time, Kolesnikov had not seen it coming and, despite his job – he was virtually Putin’s hagiographer – it was clearly not welcome news. “This,” he said faintly, “is for keeps.”

    The Russian constitution had already been changed to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years, and people grasped immediately what Medvedev’s announcement meant. Looking down at the Twitter feed on my phone as the speechifying went on, I saw despair and bitterness beyond internet snark, beyond jokes. Instead, everyone was doing the math: How old would they be in 2024 when Putin would, theoretically, leave office? People my age had already spent their twenties with the man, and another twelve would put them well into middle age. Others realised they’d be pensioners. It was a strange way to measure mortality.

    But more than anything, it was insulting. “It said very clearly to everyone that the question of government in Russia is, at most, a question to be resolved between two people,” and, more likely, one, explained Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who had helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “I didn’t think it would be done so stupidly and so provocatively. They spit in people’s faces.”

    The protests came soon after that. On December 10, five days after the protest in Chistye Prudy, 50,000 came out to Bolotnaya Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin walls, most of them educated, middle-class urbanites. They wore white ribbons as a sign of protest and stood around chatting and stamping in the cold, like they were at a giant winter barbecue. Despite fears of police violence, not one shot was fired and no one was arrested. Satellite protests sprung up in dozens of cities.

    For days, the Kremlin was silent. When Putin finally spoke, he talked of listening to the dissatisfied but also accused them of shadowy foreign connections. He joked that he mistook the white ribbons for condoms. After that, on 24 December, about 100,000 people came out to the next protest in Moscow, and they flew blown-up condoms as balloons.

    One day during that chaotic winter, I called up Yuri Kotler, a fairly high-ranking United Russia member. I was writing a column for Foreign Policy, and I asked him how people in the Kremlin felt about the protests. He asked me if I had a pet. I replied that, yes, I had a cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and demanding something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

    That winter, people began forming all kinds of social and political groups, online and off. When the presidential election rolled around in March 2012, the opposition may not have run a candidate, but tens of thousands of people who had once thought politics to be a dirty business best left to others volunteered their weekends for the tedious work of election-monitoring. The Kremlin largely ignored the talking cat, but it did toss it a few scraps, loosening up the electoral system and reintroducing gubernatorial and mayoral elections. As several of us foreign correspondents fanned out across the country ahead of the elections, we discovered that Putin was not all that popular anymore. (“He must be the most passively supported leader in the world,” a colleague said, noting that there were no viable alternatives to Putin.) Despite getting nearly two-thirds of the vote nationally, Putin got only 47 per cent in Moscow.

    Tears in his eyes: Putin speaks at a rally at the Manezhnaya Square just outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: Getty

    On 6 May, 2012, the eve of his third inauguration, Putin went to dedicate a shrine that would pray for his health around the clock. In the meantime, some 70,000 protesters marched peacefully down to Bolotnaya again, Maria Baronova and Denis Lutskevich among them. The last time I had walked this route with protesters in February, I had tweeted, “Putin’s fucked, y’all,” and the same thought crossed my mind as I looked at all the happy faces around me.

    But this time, the police had all but cut off the entrance to Bolotnaya Square. Protesters tried to push through, and, in the resulting funnel, police truncheons sliced through the air, and helmeted special forces cops – “cosmonauts,” as they came to be called – stormed into the crowd in wedge formation, randomly, brutally plucking people from the crowd and dragging them off into paddy wagons. Bottles and flares flew; tear gas seeped through the air. I caught a chunk of cement to the leg, though some of my Russian journalist friends fared worse. Nearby, a smattering of plainclothes cops and cosmonauts stood calmly pointing their camcorders at the chaos. The state had come prepared.

    Putin’s fist came down hard after that. On 11 June, the homes of Navalny and other opposition leaders were searched. (That morning, Maria Baronova got a call from her terrified nanny, saying that detectives from the state’s Investigative Committee had climbed onto the apartment’s balcony and turned on an electric saw.) Then came the arrests. The CEO of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, which had played a key part in organising the protests, was summoned for questioning and was forced to temporarily flee the country in the spring of 2013. Non-loyal media outlets began to close, and others struggled, citing solvency issues that were not totally accidental. Two of Dozhd’s biggest advertisers, owned by the same oligarch, tore up their contracts with the channel within ten minutes of each other. By the time I left Moscow in September, there were still a few opposition rallies, but they felt timid and flat. The old Russian fear that had so miraculously vanished that winter came creeping back.

    This past December, I went back to Moscow to see what had become of the protest movement and the opposition leaders I had written about during those first heady days. Two Decembers later, Putin was firmly in charge, and Bolotnaya Square was empty. But the future was not quite as clear as it seemed: The opposition was in disarray, and Putin had won his battle against them. And yet, his position seemed even shakier than before.

     

    I met up with the “Kermlins” at a hole-in-the-wall Georgian restaurant hidden among the clubs and hipster hangouts that now occupy the red-brick carcass of the old Red October chocolate factory. When I’d first interviewed the duo back in December 2010, they had refused to tell me their real names or show me their faces, not even off the record. At that point, they were just beginning to generate excitement with their Twitter account @KermlinRussia, the handle of a Stephen Colbert–like entity called the “Persident of Ruissia,” who savagely mocked the government for its many lies, thefts, and absurdities. “The Russian state doesn’t have to beat you with a stick,” they tweeted once, adopting the tone of a benevolent ruler addressing his subjects. “We can fuck you up with a carrot, too.”

    The Kermlins had launched the handle in June 2010, after then-President Medvedev, who was infamous for his simpleton’s love of high-tech gadgets, traveled to the Silicon Valley offices of Twitter and set up an account, @KremlinRussia. By January, the Kermlins’ antic alternative had more than 50,000 followers, and Medvedev was forced to change his handle to @MedvedevRussia to avoid confusion. Over the next three years, the Kermlins’ fan base exploded to more than 700,000 followers. The Kermlins became celebrities among the outspoken ranks of “internet hamsters,” the denizens of the web ghetto who then became the core of the protests. Last spring, they finally unmasked themselves in a glamorous spread in Russian GQ.

    The Kermlins, whom I had privately got to know even before they’d outted themselves, are really a 29-year-old econ nerd named Arseny Bobrovsky and his partner, Katya Romanovskaya, a fiercely intelligent 38-year-old beauty with a black bob. Dispensing with their anonymity has cut two ways for them. Katya, who in her non-hamster life works in corporate PR, found it to be a boon. Now, when she calls a journalist to place a story, she is Katya Kermlin, and journalists trip over themselves to accommodate her.

    For Arseny, it has been a less happy journey. After the GQ story, it emerged that his boutique PR firm had worked for some rather unsavory government clients who had been trying to get the internet under control. Liberal hamster society piled on, expressing their dismay that their hero was tainted. Arseny was disappointed by their naïveté but let his company founder. Rehabilitated, he has become a well-regarded economics columnist for Russian Forbes. That doesn’t pay nearly enough, but, over dinner, Arseny expressed reluctance over finding a day job.

    “I have this hang-up that I’m so cool and a huge number of people read my columns,” he said shyly. “And I’m going to work as a media manager at some shitty company –”

    This article first appeared on newrepublic.com


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    British commentators have been dismissing Scandinavian culture and politics using selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. But from smart young people to art and happiness: the qualities of Nordic life are well established.

    Maybe it’s just sour grapes. I’ve been waiting years for a beautiful Scandinavian to whisk me off my feet and suggest we return to her homeland to live happily ever after, and it seems to have happened to Michael Booth by accident. And yet I couldn’t help feeling Booth’s lambasting of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway in his "grim truth" assessment of life in the Nordic countries was more than a little cynical.

    Booth was doing nothing more than indulging the time-honoured tradition of deflating something that’s been over-hyped – even if he did so via a smörgåsbord of selective statistics and un-contextualised observations. And he’s not alone. Those who believe our interest in Scandinavian ideals has gone too far have some potent new ammunition to play with: riots in Sweden, the downgrading of Finland’s education system and Norway’s excessive wealth wrought from its natural resources are all sticks with which we can beat those conceited Scandinavians, attempting to re-boot our own sense of moral worth in the process.

    Most Finns and Scandinavians would feel pretty uneasy if they knew how their countries were so idolised elsewhere. Which is a good thing. Booth isn’t the first to cite the Nordic unease with "displays of success, ambition and wealth" as a weakness and he won’t be the last. But it’s precisely those qualities – yes, qualities – which give the Nordic countries their egalitarian atmosphere, entrenched liberalism and distinct lack of a ruling class in politics, the media and elsewhere.

    History would suggest it isn’t a new thing. The Nordic countries were among the first in Europe to abolish the death penalty, give votes to women, legalise gay marriage and reach something like a consensus on green issues. Then there’s the inbuilt regard for foreigners. I was gobsmacked when I sat sweating in a Norwegian sauna a few years ago only for the wooden box to be overrun by a group of unruly teenagers on the equivalent of a stag weekend. When they’d done with the headlocks and towel-whips, they introduced themselves to me one by one, shaking me by the hand, welcoming me to their country, and offering me a potted history of the small town we were in.

    Sure, that’s another un-contextualised observation. But the difference is, in the UK we’re taught to assume certain styles of behaviour will be forthcoming only from certain sectors of society. In the Nordic countries – particularly in Norway and Finland where there’s no discernable class system and private education is virtually non-existent – what you see is what you get: a society in which everyone really is in it together. The so-called "Nordic Model" of high taxes, principled social welfare provision and high community spending may be under strain (despite the gloomy reports, Scandinavian countries still accept a higher per capita proportion of immigrants and refugees than the vast majority of their European counterparts, and according to the 2013 European Social Survey those immigrants feel more welcomed, too) but the fact that the Nordic Model remains in operation is inseparable from that sense of togetherness.

    Such "togetherness" might be indescribable, but it’s the indescribable qualities of the Nordic spirit that don’t show up on those statistics the Scandi-bashers love to cite. We talk of smart Nordic design as if it’s a commodity tied to wealth and status. But a striving for beauty is a central, instinctive and classless Nordic ideal induced by so many factors including hostile weather and a sometimes lonely exploration of what it is to be a human. It’s all over the place up there: from the emancipated typeface on railway station signage to the modernist domestic furniture and proliferation of bold architecture. These things aren’t about social signaling or financial security. They’re about making life fundamentally more sensible, and their residue is what we’d optimistically call civilization.

    Which in turn might explain why Scandinavians are among the happiest people on the planet. Social security and an emphasis on creativity (and major government support for the arts) make for the very opposite of the repression described by Booth. They actually create societies in which people are content because they have a voice and are willing to use it. True, many in Norway are uneasy with the country’s huge wealth, but that wealth has been consciously placed in the public domain by the Norwegian government – so everyone can benefit, yes, but also so everyone feels involved in the discussion. When I was in Stavanger in September, a spontaneous and open debate broke out in a café on the subject of oil wealth, corrupting capitalism and damage to the environment. Naturally, it was conducted in English for the benefit of the one non-Norwegian speaker in the room (me).

    And now the political dialogue has its ugly side. UKIP equivalents have found themselves with support in Norway and Finland, and only a fool would dismiss their rise as transitory. Sweden’s failure to integrate its large immigrant population is more connected to technical detail than cultural will, but it is a failure nonetheless. The debate appears more raw because these are countries in which authority is naturally questioned, democracy is cleaved-to and voter engagement and activism is unusually high. The Nordic people – in the case of Norway and Finland, a young people occupying young countries which have changed fast in the last decade – voice their opinions in plain terms; sometimes it’s ugly, never is it avoided.

    And rarely, in truth, does it embrace the ignorant and prejudiced. You can observe unsightly political posturing in the Nordic countries, you can even knock Finland for having dropped a few places in the worldwide educational leagues (though it still has the best schools in Europe according to the Pisa rankings). But recent political history does not a fair overview make. The Nordic countries are still the best examples of progressive societies in Europe, and it’s something you feel even more than you clock from statistics. I wouldn’t mind betting that progressiveness will overcome political fads, because it’s hard-wired into the way Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and even Icelanders carry themselves – in their natural modesty, their intense connection to the earth and their remarkable dance with capitalism which sees them touched by it but absolutely not defined by it. Spend some time in the Nordic countries and you may notice those things. You might also discover that Finns are more talkative, Norwegians less xenophobic and Swedes more emotionally open than their stereotypes would suggest ... and that there’s a little more to quality Danish TV than just The Killing.

    Andrew Mellor is editor of Nordic culture website Moose Report, moosereport.net 


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    The coalition made the Labour leader's point for him as it fielded an entirely male frontbench.

    Rarely have the Tories gifted Ed Miliband a better attack line than today. A few days after the deselection of Anne McIntosh MP and the removal of Sally Morgan as chair of Ofsted (prompting Harriet Harman to declare "it's like raining men in the Tory party"), the government made the error of fielding an entirely male frontbench at today's PMQs. After sardonically asking Cameron how his vow to "lead on women's equality" was "going in the Conservative Party", it did not take Miliband long to seize on this point.  

    "Mr Speaker, I do have to say a picture tells a thousand words," he quipped, and the camera panned to confirm his point. "I guess they didn’t let women into the Bullingdon Club either. He said a third of his ministers would be women, he’s nowhere near his target. In his cabinet, there are as many men who went to Eton or Westminster as there are women. Does he think it’s his fault that his party has a problem with women?"

    After that, it no longer mattered what Cameron said in his defence: the image of an all-male frontbench (with McIntosh, ironically, one of just two women visible behind Cameron) will play terribly for the Tories on the news tonight. Labour, by contrast, had ensured that it had more women (10) than men (9) on its frontbench. 

    In response, Cameron played the Thatcher card, boasting that it was his party that had the first (and only) female prime minister. But 24 years on from her resignation, this risks just reminding voters how little progress the Tories have made since (just 16 per cent of Conservative MPs are women compared to 31 per cent of Labour's). It also allowed Miliband to repeat his retort of choice whenever Cameron mentions a former Conservative PM: "unlike him, she was a Tory leader who won general elections". 

    After this, elevating the issue above mere tokenism, he came to his key point: "the reason representation matters is because it shapes the policies a government introduces". Miliband noted that the gender pay gap had increased for the first time in five years as a result of the minimum wage losing value, the rise of zero hour contracts and the childcare crisis. "He runs his government like an old boys network!", he concluded. 

    Throughout the exchange, Cameron gave the impression of wanting to talk about anything else: the Bellwin scheme to help flood-hit councils, the tube strike, Labour's Falkirk selection. But all attempts to change the subject were bound to fail as he stood beforethat remorselessly male frontbench.


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    Suggested tagline: “Be the goat you want to see in the world.”

    One of the most talked-about games right now isn't a big console franchise like Call of Duty, or even a smartphone free-to-play hit like Flappy Bird (although Flappy Bird is certainly getting attention beyond all reason considering how dumb a game it is). No, we're here today to talk about Goat Simulator, the game of being a goat:

    It's only an alpha version – that means a rough first draft, in computer games development terms – that was knocked together in three days by Swedish developer Coffee Stain Studios for the Global Game Jam. The glitchy video above, with a goat ramming into lamp posts and jumping off a tall tower, has become their biggest hit so far, thanks to reddit-love.

    The whole thing has left them somewhat baffled, because there's no gameplay mechanic here other than “hitting stuff”, but this is genuinely one of the most enticing games I've seen in ages. It's like Grand Theft Auto, without the annoying missions getting in the way. And you're a goat, crashing parties:

    The demand for a full release of what was only meant to be a tech demo has meant that the studio is considering what to do next, with Coffee Stain Studios PR head Armin Ibrisagic telling Vice that they're going to “see how it goats”. But we live in a world where the most mundane things can get their own simulator games – there's a thriving, if somewhat niche, market for things like Street Cleaner SimulatorGarbage Truck Simulator and Farming Simulator, after all:


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    Leading educationalists respond to last week's cover story on the private schools problem, Rafael Behr on the Tory puritans that are willing David Cameron to fail and George Eaton asks whether Labour will be able to defuse the Tories’ “borrowing bombshell” attack before the next election.

    7 February 2014 issue

    Education’s Berlin Wall: Anthony Seldon, Tony Little and Andrew Adonis on the private schools problem – and the silence from Labour

    Cameron the hostage: Rafael Behr on the Tory puritans willing their leader to fail

    PLUS

    George Eaton on the “borrowing bombshell” that could sink Labour at the next general election

    Peter Bazalgette talks to the NS about the Arts Council’s mission to “turn the specialist mainstream”

    Danny Dorling asks why the old are dying too young

    Mehdi Hasan on why the US pro-Israel lobby is losing its grip

    Rachel Cooke despairs of the Benefits Street feeding frenzy

    Peter Wilby asks: have newspapers failed us?

    Caroline Crampton on our rose-tinted love for all things Nordic

     

    The NS debate: Anthony Seldon, Tony Little and Andrew Adonis on the private schools problem

    In this week’s New Statesman, leading educationalists, including the headmasters of two major public schools, respond to “Education’s Berlin Wall”, last week’s wide-ranging essay by David Kynaston and George Kynaston, which considered the left’s reluctance to engage in the private schools debate.

    Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, and the former minister for schools Andrew Adonis are among those who offer their perspective on the “7 per cent problem” (so called because although private schools educate only 7 per cent of the population, their students take up almost half the places at Oxbridge and also dominate the present cabinet, the press, the BBC, the law, medicine and, increasingly, the arts and creative industries).

    Seldon on the left’s “myopia” and the need for public school academies

    Anthony Seldon accuses the left of “myopia” on the question of private schools and of perpetuating a myth that they are “full of rich children, sent by snobby parents who don’t want them to mix with those from ordinary backgrounds. Part of the left’s problem is its failure to understand the schools and their parents.”

    Seldon believes that “only a cross-party commission will be able to make the breakthrough that Britain so badly needs” and ensure excellent education for everyone. He argues that “all private schools should start named academies, and work with a proven academy provider or a successful state school to provide the necessary expertise. All state school pupils should have access to the breadth of educational experience and the preparation for careers that their counterparts at private schools enjoy. The left, sadly, has poured scorn on these ideas, preferring to cling to proposals that simply will not happen, such as the abolition of the private sector.”

    Tony Little: private schools have a moral duty to connect

    The headmaster of Eton cautions that “the best British independents are world-class. We would be foolish to undermine them. The question is how best to use what they have to offer.” He argues, however, that private schools have a moral duty to connect:

    For decades, independent schools have turned in on themselves, in part through a comfortable insularity, but largely as a consequence of the hostility they have received . . . Often, when attempts have been made to bring schools together, they have been ham-fisted, built on the assumption that there is one definitive model that can be readily transplanted. Mistrust and resentment have followed. In recent times, the drive to push independent schools to sponsor an academy as the route to preserving charitable status was misguided. Most independent schools readily acknowledge that they do not have the expertise to tackle the particular issues faced, for example, by an inner-city comprehensive and shy away from patronising intervention.

    Yet, if independent schools see themselves as part of our national provision, they must take the initiative and seek to be better connected, not as a reaction to political pressure, but as a moral imperative. Independent schools that are expansive create a richer culture for their own people as well as opportunities for others.

    The NS debate on private schools also includes views from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, and Laura McInerney, a former teacher in London and Fulbright scholar studying education policy. McInerney believes we could learn from India’s educational model which, despite the country’s caste system, requires all private schools to ensure that 25 per cent of their intake comes from the poorest children in a given area.

     

    LEADING ARTICLE: MICHAEL GOVE, THE BERLIN WALL IN EDUCATION, AND LABOUR’S SILENCE

    This week’s leading article notes that while the title of the NS Essay by David and George Kynaston was echoed by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, in a provocative speech accusing the Labour Party of “reinforcing . . . the Berlin Wall between state and private” education, Tristram Hunt, the recently appointed shadow education secretary, declined to take part in this week’s NS debate on the issues it raises, or to respond to the essay in any way.

    What does the Labour Party have to say about this Berlin Wall in education? What is it prepared to do to breach it? Why, as the Kynastons suggested in a New Statesman podcast last week, is it politicians of the right who are prepared to speak out on this issue while Labour, with the admirable exception of Andrew Adonis, remains silent?

    We invited Tristram Hunt, the recently appointed shadow education secretary, to reply to or comment on the Kynastons’ essay. He declined. Could it be that Mr Hunt, the son of a peer who was educated at an exclusive private school in London, feels compromised by his own background and education? If so, this is a dismal state of affairs and underlines the timidity and incoherence of Labour’s education policy.

    In response to the Gove speech in London, Mr Hunt issued a short statement reaffirming Labour’s support for having “trained teachers” in the classroom, as if credentialism were all that mattered. But what of the dominance of the private schools? What of the stranglehold that better-off families have over top state schools? The popularity of free schools among many parents? The educational failures of the most disadvantaged in society? The need to make the private schools justify their charitable status by partnering with or sponsoring state academies and opening up to the poorest? Difficult territory. Let us not go there.

    Mr Gove’s opponents – especially the teaching unions – wish to portray him as a zealot. At times, he is wilfully partisan and needlessly provocative – such as when, absurdly, he described the educational establishment as the “Blob”. He can be dogmatic, even smug. And he has alienated far too many teachers with his relentless quest for innovation. Yet one is in no doubt what he stands for and what he wants. He can be wrong-headed but he has the courage of his convictions. Could one say the same of the shadow education secretary?

     

    COVER STORY: THE TORY PURITANS WILLING DAVID CAMERON TO FAIL

    In this week’s cover story, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that the Prime Minister is caught in a trap of his own making, under pressure from party moderates and bullied by the Tory right. Tory party militants represent a particular threat to Cameron, Behr argues:

    On Cameron’s right flank are Tory MPs who give George Osborne’s austere budgets and stingy spending reviews only grudging approval. They see austerity as the launch pad for a more ambitious assault on the whole apparatus of British government inherited from the 20th century ...

    Downing Street hopes that recent rebellions represent a last spasm of indiscipline before MPs take fright at the prospect of Ed Miliband becoming prime minister and fall into line. While most of the parliamentary party is ready to unite in battle formation, there remains a kernel of safe-seated Tory extremists who see losing in 2015 as a staging post on the road to purification of party doctrines. Their next opportunity for organised disruption will come after the elections to the European Parliament this May. Ukip will perform well, possibly pushing the Tories into third place for the first time in a nationwide vote. No one doubts that this will provoke anxiety in Conservative ranks. The question is whether it will trigger prolonged panic.


    GEORGE EATON: THE POLITICS COLUMN

    In the Politics Column this week, the editor of The Staggers, George Eaton, asks whether Labour will be able to defuse the Tories’ “borrowing bombshell” attack before the next election.

    In 1992, it was the “tax bombshell” that sank Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s election hopes. The Conservatives believe that the “borrowing bombshell” will do the same to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in 2015. The shadow chancellor’s refusal to rule out running a deficit to fund higher capital investment has given the Tories the target they wanted. A Times front page warning “Labour’s spending spree to cost £25bn” and Danny Alexander’s subsequent claim that the party would “pile another £166bn of borrowing on to the debt mountain” were the opening shots in the long war that will now be waged on Labour’s economic credibility.

    Faced with this assault, the opposition’s instinct remains to change the subject: to its pledge to achieve a current budget surplus, to the living standards crisis, to George Osborne’s failure to meet his own deficit targets. Balls and his aides state both publicly and privately that no decision will be taken on whether to borrow to invest until closer to the election, when the state of the economy is clearer. But few in the party believe it will be possible for Labour to achieve its priorities – a mass housebuilding programme, universal childcare, the integration of health and social care – without doing so. As one shadow cabinet minister told me: “We all know that a Labour government would invest more.” The question, rather, is a tactical one: when and how does Labour make the case for “good borrowing”?

     

    PLUS

    Sophie McBain on Egypt’s longing for a strong leader after Mubarak

    Will Self pities the grunts who submit to British Military Fitness

    Laurie Penny asks why so often in abuse cases it’s the accuser who is put on trial

    Ian Steadman burrows into the history of sinkholes

    Tom Humberstone draws up the case against making rape jokes

    Michael Brooks on how one old dog could teach us new, cancer-fighting tricks

    Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares the latest Westminster gossip

    Nina Caplan on the mysteries of sherry


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    Unlike the education secretary, Tristram Hunt has nothing to say on the dominance of the private schools.

    As a former journalist, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has an instinct for a good headline. In a bold speech on 3 February at the London Academy of Excellence he accused the Labour Party of “reinforcing”, through its continuous defence of the status quo, “the Berlin Wall between state and private” education.

    Mr Gove said he wanted to make state schools so good that they would be indistinguishable from private schools. It is a utopian aspiration but at least he is prepared to discuss what Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, describes (starting on page 27) as the “entrenched position of private schools”.

    “Education’s Berlin Wall” was the headline we gave last week to the wide-ranging essay by David Kynaston and George Kynaston exploring the dominance of the private school minority in public life. Only 7 per cent of the population is educated at private, fee-paying institutions but their alumni dominate the cabinet, the press, the BBC, the law, medicine and, increasingly, the arts and creative industries. At present, as much as 50 per cent of Oxford and Cambridge graduates attended private schools; many of those from state schools who make it to Oxbridge went to selective grammars, of which 164 still remain in England.

    We know, too, that there is a correlation between poverty and educational failure and that the poorest in society are locked in to a cycle of underachievement and dependency.

    In a speech in 2012 Mr Gove said: “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”

    Just before Christmas, the former prime minister John Major said it was “truly shocking” the way that “the upper echelons of power … are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class”. It is indeed shocking – and humiliating.

    Yet what does the Labour Party have to say about this Berlin Wall in education? What is it prepared to do to breach it? Why, as the Kynastons suggested in a New Statesman podcast last week, is it politicians of the right who are prepared to speak out on this issue while Labour, with the admirable exception of Andrew Adonis (who writes on page 28), remains silent?

    We invited Tristram Hunt, the recently appointed shadow education secretary, to reply to or comment on the Kynastons’ essay. He declined. Could it be that Mr Hunt, the son of a peer who was educated at an exclusive private school in London, feels compromised by his own background and education? If so, this is a dismal state of affairs and underlines the timidity and incoherence of Labour’s education policy.

    In response to the Gove speech in London, Mr Hunt issued a short statement reaffirming Labour’s support for having “trained teachers” in the classroom, as if credentialism were all that mattered. But what of the dominance of the private schools? What of the stranglehold that better-off families have over top state schools? The popularity of free schools among many parents? The educational failures of the most disadvantaged in society? The need to make the private schools justify their charitable status by partnering with or sponsoring state academies and opening up to the poorest? Difficult territory. Let us not go there.

    Mr Gove’s opponents – especially the teaching unions – wish to portray him as a zealot. At times, he is wilfully partisan and needlessly provocative – such as when, absurdly, he described the educational establishment as the “Blob”. He can be dogmatic, even smug. And he has alienated far too many teachers with his relentless quest for innovation.

    Yet one is in no doubt what he stands for and what he wants. He can be wrong-headed but he has the courage of his convictions. Could one say the same of the shadow education secretary? 


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