Outside In

Home » 2012

Yearly Archives: 2012

The Olympic Legacy

‘The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth.’

So said the Red Tory in this article back in 2009 entitled the Rise of the Red Tories, calling for an organic communitarianism to rise from the ashes of the broken settlement bequeathed us by the political left and right. Some ridiculed him as a romantic (neo-) medievalist, others as merely providing the sweet-smelling rhetorical roses to adorn the foul-smelling austerity assault planned by the Same Old Tories. To others, however, the language appealed, with varying levels of success, to something more primal, something instinctively appealing because innately known – dusting off long neglected notions of how we kind of knew a good society to be, or how we knew it should ideally be, or how we would ideally wish it to be.

It should be said from the outset that to speak of the good society does not require a particular party allegiance: it is no possession of the political right, even if we can admit it is properly conservative, which means it also finds articulation within the best traditions of the political left. And when Red Tory’s jousting partner, Blue Labour, entered the scene, we saw precisely why: diminished were the antagonistic accounts implicit in asocial atomism and back were traditional notions of commonality in ideal, mission, identity and purpose.

Which brings us to the Olympics. Many words have been written about Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, many of them congratulatory, and rightly so. Boyle’s opener caught the essence of this feeling, this emotional response to the vexed and vexing political questions of our times. It touched on something most basic, something felt, yet something fundamentally social, uniquely ‘us’, and incredibly affirming. Hitchens’ words on the triumphalism of the cultural revolutionaries might have weight, particularly during the latter phases of the programme, but the point was the story encompassed all and in this manner was incredibly honest, precisely by including those bits which some of us might not like quite so much – though I’d be surprised if Hitchens did not find something in the Tolkien-esque openings to stir his soul.

The allusion to literary accounts of our unique national ideal throughout the ceremony was appropriate, for this is where the Olympics proved so wholesome, so Merry England. It unapologetically celebrated the quirky and mundane, showing the decency and serenity of the England we recognise and simultaneously aspire to, as diverse groups of people stood in awe and wonder at diverse groups of people – those of all classes cheered and admired those of all classes, both what they had achieved and the sacrifices they made in achieving it, whatever it might be and however distant to our own everyday lives it might be. For most, the social background of the Olympians was incidental, part of the heroic story they had to tell but certainly not an impediment to the reception of it. The sacrifice and achievement, the commitment to the very thing in itself, be it making a horse dance, jumping into a sandpit or doing flips on a carpet – each of them, received in a reverent attitude of respect and pride by all.

In other words, each contribution was valued in itself, for what it was. The ugly class antagonism of left-wing ‘radicals’ was as absent amidst the throng of the cheering crowd as was the sneer of condescending classes higher up the social ladder. This truly was Bevan’s platform, or perhaps podium, big enough for all to stand on.

It was this spirit of commonality, of sharedness, that was the defining aspect of the Olympics. We have heard lots, in the weeks that have passed, about the legacy of the Games, which for the Lilliputians will mean political point-scoring about how many hours of PE children receive each week or whether our children receive enough competition at a young age.

Yet if the Olympic spirit everyone agrees we must seek to preserve was anything, it was the demonstration of how we as a society can once more learn to love ourselves for what we are in all our splendid difference and variety. We can look and admire the products of both Eton and the East End. And celebrate the virtue, specifically the virtues, that were and are the distinctive products of both.

Football and Misogyny

A couple of weeks back there was a Twitter storm surrounding the tweets of one Leon Knight, marginally successful football player who came up through the ranks at Chelsea F.C., who decided to publicly verbally assault Jamie O’Hara and his wife Danielle O’Hara (née Lloyd) about her alleged colourful past. Knight went into great detail in listing the sexual encounters Danielle Lloyd had had before she met Jamie O’Hara and in the process demonstrated himself to be a misogynist of the most vulgar variety. To Knight, Danielle O’Hara was tainted goods, she had been ‘used’ by other men, and for that reason she was game for exposure as unclean and unworthy. Simultaneously, Jamie O’Hara was game for ridicule and exposure, for having been ‘hoe trapped’ in marrying a woman who had been the ‘bike’ of other men in the world of professional football.

Unfortunately, Leon Knight has merely become the particularly crass poster boy for a culture that is endemic in football. The words he uses and the attitude he displays are not peculiar to him, even if he happens to be the one who caught the public eye with his particularly cold-hearted pursuit of a happily married couple. He is simply the latest to give public voice to a reality embedded in football changing rooms the length and breadth of the country – misogyny rules, and a particularly aggressive variety at that.

Often this is given the whiff of justification through shoulder-shrugging explanations of the reality young men in these positions often face. For proponents of this approach, young women often throw themselves into such situations willingly and then regret what happens afterwards. This was the general thrust of Stan Collymore’s position in The Verdict – this regret, the implication seemed to be, was at the root of a false cry of rape. That the responsibility might be equally that of the male is a foreign concept – if she was asking for it, or at the very least willing, then whatever the context or circumstance the responsibility is solely hers.

Now it must be acknowledged, uncomfortable as it is, that this logic might not be solely one way. As Louis Saha recently claimed, the position of women in the eyes of footballers appears to coincide with the assumption, sometimes even the reality, that certain women seek the company of footballers solely for their fame and fortune. For this reason, in the eyes of some the woman becomes fair game for that which the footballer assumes she is trying to do to him – if she would use him for her own selfish ends, then he can certainly use her for his. That some might pursue this approach is a matter for debate – that it poisons the way in which women more generally are viewed is beyond doubt. This has a corrosive effect on stable relationships, since the paranoia of the footballer merely increases and re-affirms itself each time an encounter comes to an end. The spiral leads to an ingrained misogyny, if not aimed at all women then certainly at the majority who move in the kind of circles which footballers most readily come across, an attitude summed up in Leon Knight’s appalling phrase ‘beat and delete’. It is this which leads some to think women deserve what they get – and show little compunction nor regret in giving them precisely what they get.

Such an attitude was most clearly on display in the recent case with Ched Evans. The lady willingly consented to have sex with Evans’s team-mate Clayton McDonald, they claimed, and then consented to a complete stranger brought into the room (who had been called solely for the purpose), it was suggested, whilst a bunch of lecherous goons attempted to film the encounter through the bedroom window. The jury decided against Ched Evans, much to the chagrin of he and his many supporters. That a young nineteen year old lady, alone and almost unconscious with drink, could be in any sort of condition to give consent, or that they as a group of men should even treat her in such an undignified way whatever the circumstance, did not cross the minds of those who immediately attacked the lady as ‘money-grabbing little tramp’ following the verdict.

Yet what occurred in that hotel room is hardly uncommon. Indeed, it is pretty much the norm, something that modern technology has made a good deal easier to document and share. One need hardly produce here the extensive list of sordid stories that have leaked just over the last few years, stories ranging from sexual assault, to underage sex, to leaked sordid videos, to prostitution, to public sex, to (familial) adultery and betrayal. A Google search will furnish you with dozens of examples – these were simply the unlucky ones that attracted wider public knowledge. Anybody who has spent more than five minutes in football will have a plethora of other stories to tell, enough to fill the gossip columns for years. From the inside, such events eventually become unremarkable, so common are they.

Yet this merely fuels the very thing that causes the unhappiness. If an endless series of meaningless encounters lead footballers into a spiral of paranoia, instability and lack of confidence (as Louis Saha claims), then constantly pursuing the same path is unlikely to solve things. As Alex Ferguson once said in an interview, when reflecting on the growing maturity of Wayne Rooney, he likes it when his players settle down – it makes a man of them. Or in his own words, ‘Seriously though, marriage helps footballers, I’ve always thought that. I’m an advocate of that. It helps players settle down, I really think that. You know where are they are and it’s good for the stability of a footballer.”

If this is true, then all too often clubs really are failing in their duty of care in refusing to counter the kind of culture which agitates against such a view. When a sixteen year old walks through the door, he is expected to indulge in and endorse the culture described above as a central part of being one of the lads – it is an initiation ceremony as much as a necessary means of social protection. It helps increase social standing and reaffirms masculinity, something being forever silently weighed in the testosterone drenched confines of the dressing room. In this atmosphere, I knew one lad who remained a virgin until he was 17 – the taunting he received was merciless, and the lengths others went to reverse this state of being was simply perverse. When combined with the constant Leon Knight-esque weighing up of any lady who proved more than a short-term encounter, the attitude toward women more generally soon showed itself to be noxious and yet all too often irresistible

Of course, there is an extent to which none of this is surprising. It has probably always happened and probably always will, wherever a collection of highly athletic and socially adored young individuals get together in groups. Indeed, if the scurrilous tales emanating from the Olympic village have any truth to them then clearly this is not a culture confined to football. Yet this culture, in my admittedly limited experience, is never countered from within the confines that serve as its ultimate protection and allow it to flourish. Such behaviour is seen as a way of earning one’s stripes, and it is not at all uncommon for the stories (and any documentary evidence) to fling back and forth between management and playing staff. Indeed, clubs will sometimes go yet further – being careful what I say, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have heard of jilted ladies walking pregnant into a training ground whilst a young star has the ‘problem sorted’ by the club and agent. You think the Manchester United ‘piece of meat’ party was a one-off – not a bit of it. Alex Ferguson may have put his foot down, but similar things happen and have happened at clubs up and down the country.

Corrosive as it is, the myth has been allowed to prosper that this is what being a real man is all about, a myth increasingly finding its voice within wider society and popular culture. Yet this is also where it leads – to a place where women really are pieces of meat, where some come to think that being treated like a piece of meat is a worthwhile gamble, and others think treating people like a piece of meat is not only acceptable but thoroughly justified.

At which point, people might say ‘well, what is the answer?’ To which my response can only be, unhelpfully, ‘I don’t know.’ All I know is the culture is destructive, both to the people engaged in it and the wider society that houses the repercussions of it. And that in a culture where many of our greatest role models tend to be footballers, it is lamentable that football culture should embody to such an extreme degree one of the ugliest aspects of human prejudice.

*Disclaimer: I have not been in nor experienced the world of professional football for ten years. My commentary is based on the experiences I had then, combined with the stories I hear now. Things might well have changed, either for better or worse.

Gove’s traditionalism and Catholic education

For those unable to purchase the Catholic Herald, this article of mine appeared in today’s edition;

Whilst the increasingly fractious education debate has been simmering for a couple of years now, there has been a significant rise in temperature of late with the revelation that Michael Gove intends to abolish the GCSE in favour of a return to O-levels and CSEs. Cue bouts of frenzied reaction and overreaction: what Michael Gove is doing, and why he is doing it, has given an opportunity for all sides to dust off their best caricatures and head for the moral high ground.

Sifting through the numerous myths, peddled by both sides, is no simple task. Even the issue which has generated such frantic debate is far from clear cut. Questions abound on the details of the policy, the potential consequences of any such move, the planned responses to those consequences, and whether all this will be politically viable anyway. As is the nature of policy-by-leak, there is not much we can say for certain; those who respond with the air of authority are fumbling around in the dark.

Yet one thing can be said with reasonable confidence: Michael Gove intends his legacy as Education Secretary to be the re-emphasis on academic excellence in our schools. Or to borrow the words of Matthew Arnold, quoted by Gove in his speech on the elements of a liberal education, education shall be about about introducing ‘young minds to the best that had been thought and written.’

Perhaps predictably, this has been labelled as educational ‘traditionalism’, usually used pejoratively and standing alone as both condemnation and dismissal.  Yet it provokes important questions for the Catholic community about how we educate our young. If this is the direction the tide is beginning to flow, Catholic schools and those concerned with them must consider the question: is Gove’s educational ‘traditionalism’ compatible with a Catholic understanding of education?

Leaving the issue of pedagogy aside, the  focus on development of the intellect sits comfortably within a framework of Catholic education. Nuance is needed, since the intellectual virtues extend beyond mere possession of knowledge, though knowledge can be seen as an end itself, as Newman argued, when seen as invariably pointing toward the acts and works of the Creator. As such, training the intellect has long been held as central to Catholic education since it deepens discernment and helps us make proper use of the gifts bestowed upon us by God. As Ronald Knox said, ‘God wouldn’t have given us an intellect, if he didn’t want us to think straight.’

Accordingly, the traditionalist approach offers opportunities to access aspects of formation long neglected by many of our schools. There is currently little opportunity for children to study the Doctors of the church, or the mystics, or the apologists. Theology and philosophy find themselves pushed to the outside of a crowded timetable, their relative absence from the qualifications curricula rendering them indulgences few teachers, weary of exam results and the league tables constructed from them, are bold enough to address in any sustained manner.

Reviving the notion of knowledge acquired for a greater purpose than the adornment of a CV might help rehabilitate, even if only in theory, those core aspects of Catholic intellectual formation currently deemed superfluous. In short, introducing our young to the riches of our shared intellectual heritage would help, not hinder, the delivery of an authentic Catholic education. It would also help us more effectively furnish them with the confidence and capacity to boldly live out the faith in an increasingly hostile environment.

For these reasons, the initial response to whether or not Gove’s new traditionalism can be welcomed must be a tentative: ‘yes’.

There are other considerations which have to be taken into account, however. Catholic education is nestled within a framework that does not contradict Gove’s traditionalism, but certainly outgrows it. Catholic education, after all, emphasises holistic development over narrower pursuits of intellectual aggrandisment. It is better summed up by the word ‘formation’ rather than education. Refining the intellect may be a noble pursuit, but it is one noble pursuit among others.

It is this holistic account of education which lead some Bishops, most notably Bishop Michael Campbell and his predecessor Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue, to use the word ‘evangelisation’ when contemplating the fundamental nature and purpose of our schools. This reveals an approach to schooling which extends beyond knowledge and into the realms of our relationship with God, a goal which is both personal and communal. Catholic education has an unapologetically communal nature, seeking to develop organic communities of faith that, to use Lord David Alton’s words in a recent speech on the subject, infuses the school with an ‘all-pervading presence of God; with His signature writ large on the school’s values and objectives.

This means concern for the development of the individual as part of the living community is entirely legitimate. We strive to develop intelligence, but we also care deeply about what kind of person walks out of the gates at the age of sixteen. ‘Citizenship’ was the political attempt to artificially embed this into the school curriculum, a wrongheaded approach which largely aggravated the very problems it was intended to solve. Catholic education, however, has this instinct embedded within its core vision of formation: the school, in theory, is an organic body focused ultimately on God, rather than merely the building in which knowledge is imparted to a line of atomised vessels.

This links into the notion of service and the ways in which our schools offer themselves to their communities. Many Catholic schools serve communities with diverse educational priorities and needs – responsiveness to these needs ought to be praised, not traduced. If Catholic schools have a duty to cultivate the whole spectrum of talents, then its ethos and organisation must reflect this duty. Whilst the utopian wing of the traditionalist spectrum might decry this as ‘dumbing down’, Catholic schools can pursue such outcomes secure in the knowledge that the Catholic vision is set within a wider framework of faith and wisdom which compliments, not contradicts, intellectual development.

Gove’s vision of a liberal education does not necessarily conflict with this, since the wider development of character is seen as the benign consequence of the development of intellect. The educational traditionalism which gains ground under his name, however, often does. So whilst any renewed emphasis on academic excellence can be welcomed by Catholic schools, we must nonetheless be bold enough to appeal simultaneously to a broader vision of what a specifically Catholic education entails.

Of course, such deliberations might prove immaterial whilst the very existence of Catholic schools remains under threat. Some maintain Equality legislation will expand and do for Catholic schools what it did for Catholic adoption agencies. Others believe an increasingly re-energised laity will demand from their schools what they can neither genetically nor legislatively deliver and choose to abandon the project as a result.

In that sense, the debates thrown up during Gove’s short time in office might prove most useful as a catalyst for reflection on what we think Catholic education ought to look like and how it should be delivered. The time might not be so far away when we have the blank canvas upon which to enact it.

The Long March

A couple of years into Coalition government and all is not well.

The warmth with which the Tories were greeted by some in the Catholic community, as a haven from the constant attacks endured under years of Labour rule, has proven just a touch optimistic. In particular, the hope that there might even be a space for *whisper it* social conservatism has turned out to be a cruel illusion peddled by a class of politicians who always believed much the same as those on the benches opposite and who have proved every bit as legislation-happy in order to demand the rest of us conform to it.

What has become obvious is that this chafing phenomenon, lazily termed ‘leftist’ by normally astute commentators, is very much in the ascendancy in the Tory Party and beyond – semantic sorcery which for years convinced people the attacks would only, could only, come from one direction on the political compass, a betrayal which has left a whole lot of people feeling politically homeless.

There remains, nonetheless, a broad coalition of dissent. Call them what you will – social conservatives, postliberals, normal –  a whole array of worldviews continue to plough on, occasionally planting a defiant flag into the mainstream, refusing to bend the knee to the socio-cultural hegemony.

What is lacking amidst all this diverse dissent, however, is any sort of organised response.

This is important, for this increasingly noisy air of dissent will not go away. If anything, it is beginning to become more and more prominent. Occasionally, this is a sign of defeat – like the lobster’s scream as it is thrown into the cooking pot. Partly, though, it is a show of resilience, a small sign that the real world beyond the socio-cultural oligarchy is rather more anarchic than the monotone ‘radicalism’ of the political zeitgeist.

Unfortunately, however, such resilience all too often exists only at the margins of the public forum, usually because that is the only space it has reconciled itself to owning. Knowing itself to articulate the views of a great many, it has been negligent in its duty to defend the views of this great many, lazily assuming or naively believing that numbers will win out and the Silent People will roar each and every occasion on which they are prodded.  As such, it approaches the game and consents to playing by the rules of those who already dominate – and who are implacably opposed to their involvement.

For my own church this is the kind of attitude that has left us unable to find homes for orphans, which will soon hinder our freedom to educate the young, and which has turned once-vibrant notions of the Common Good into an emaciated PDF file full of trite truism and feel-good clichés (yet which remains strangely silent on the Osbornian liberalism which is attacking the family every bit as effectively as the Harmanite variety ever did).

Inaction, naivety, lack of courage – too often, these are defining features of the cultural recusants, the very reason why they remain on the outside looking in rather than inhabiting their rightful place as protector of the mainstream.

And there is a paradox in this – groups that instinctively eulogise and adore social and civic institutions are yet useless at generating, preserving or influencing institutions themselves. The political landscape is currently determined by an extreme minority often with extremist views – the majority upon whom they parasitically prosper have proven useless at doing the same. Maybe, just maybe, the broad and well organised coalition against the abolition of marriage by the Tory Party marks the beginning of a new politics in this regard.

But it must only be the start. For these groups speak a language that most people understand and sympathise with, even if their courage weakens in the face of the often vicious, sometimes legislative, attacks to which they are subject. As such, there is a moral duty to shape the public space and the institutions which reside there.  And those who undertake the task must be unapologetic in doing so. They must actively agitate and re-narrate the public space, delighting in being despised by the power interests who reside there. They must not only walk into the Lion’s Den, but must also be willing to shout loudly and kick over the ornaments when they get in there.

And if the institutions cannot be taken, then new institutions must be created and nourished to challenge and replace them.

For this Roman Catholic, this means continuing to stand within the traditions that are legitimately part of our heritage and yet within which we are actively despised, insulted, mocked and dismissed. It is to refuse to be meekly banished by an unrepresentative crust of misanthropes and extremists who would deny us entry because we refuse to be exactly like them (and less like everyone else). It is to remain an agitating cog in the very machine that has been most actively involved in our harassment.

It is, in short, to be a small part of a long march through the institutions.

The rising tide…

I have written extensively about Catholic education on this blog, and for those who have somewhere between little and no interest in the topic, I can only apologise that I am about to do the same again. Whilst I intend, in future, to write about what a specifically ‘Catholic’ education looks like, I thought I’d throw down a few more comments about the cultural and political vice which Catholic schools, both now and increasingly in the future, continue to find themselves in.

Firstly, and most predictably, Catholic schools shall come under increasing pressure to conform to metroliberal mores, particularly with regards to a) the teaching of sexual ethics; b) the eschewal of the presumption of objective truth in teaching. The latter is a pedagogic matter very much inherent to current teaching culture and practice, whilst the former is primarily political and has reared its head rather prominently of late. Whilst Michael Gove appeared, in his response to the latest bout of attacks, to give Catholic schools some breathing space by stipulating that the Equality Act did not apply to the school curriculum, what he actually did was identify the next obstacle for activists and campaigners to seek to overcome. When that goal is achieved, Catholic schools will have little place else to go – appeals to ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ will fall flat on those who have assumed unto themselves the status of moral infallibility and who have pronounced, ex cathedra, that no deviations from their dogma shall be permitted. In the meantime, the slow drumbeat of opposition will further weaken the any hopes of countering the narrative – heads of unions trotting out myth and outright slander, politicians doing much the same, and even the (suspected/alleged) use of OFSTED inspections to further promote the ‘progressive’ judgment.

This will be the battle that makes the headlines. And this is the battle that would be the most comfortable to lose.

For in reality, it would not prove all that difficult a transition for many Catholic schools to make. Indeed, it would hardly be controversial to say that this is where many Catholic schools are already at anyway, such that bending the knee to this new master would only be a matter of doing it publicly rather than in private. In short, this would be the easier step – it would provide very little body shock to the Catholic schools system.

By contrast, there is emerging an alternative pressure from pretty much the opposite direction, one rarely talked of amidst caricatures of decline but also one with the potential (or so it seems to me) to be rather more potent. This is the increasing presence and prominence of a re-enervated laity, and indeed of a newly energised clergy, particularly among the younger generations. Whereas older generations, where they cared, might have avoided conflict by merely gritting their teeth or (which is not at all uncommon) abandoning Catholic schools altogether, there seems to be blossoming a generation with more of a stomach for the fight. They want their Catholic institutions to be, well, Catholic, and they’re willing to challenge those whose stewardship has lead to a weakening of this sense of identity and, indeed, mission.  In short, should the new ‘creative minority’ of younger Catholics prove more demanding of their schools then this would apply a new pressure on the Bishops, and indeed the schools themselves, that would prove far more uncomfortable than the slogans thrown about by the ‘progressive’ brigade.

The reason for this is that the demands of the Catholics would prove, in many cases, more alien than the demands of the ‘progressives’, meaning that those demands would also be more difficult to assuage, particularly from within the current legislative framework within which Catholic schools operate. Many Catholic schools have simply outgrown their supply lines, such that they have effectively become non-distinct save for the occasional mention of ‘gospel values’ in the Mission Statement and a few superficial dainties to keep the governors on board (where, of course, the governors care). Further, whilst the Equality Act has made recruitment more of a sticky issue than it previously had been, nonetheless many schools have essentially jettisoned the consideration of faith in the employment process (except, perhaps, in R.E.) and plump primarily for teachers who promise an exam results boon. As such, the staff body of many Catholic schools is very rarely majority Catholic, let alone actively Catholic, and often contain voices that outwardly undermine any claim to the label ‘Catholic’, thus presenting obvious problems for instigating, developing, cultivating or promoting an authentically Catholic ethos.

Indeed, it has been suggested at various points that the biggest problem facing Catholic schools is not the diminishing number of Catholic children, nor the diminishing number of Catholic families, but rather the issue of Catholic staff. This is not all down to individual schools. The Bishops have rarely taken anything near an active enough interest in the formation of Catholic teachers, just as they have not taken anywhere near enough active interest in the development of the school curriculum nor, indeed, the creation and provision of suitable qualifications, particularly in Key Stage 4 and 5 (something that could easily be rectified).

Whilst there is an element of horses and stable doors about this, the sum effect is that the emergence of an energetic and demanding laity and/or clerical class, which is basically where the church is heading, will cause the greater body shock for Catholic schools. Trapped between these two poles, one demanding what schools can neither genetically nor legislatively deliver, the other demanding that which would be rather easy to deliver though not whilst remaining ‘Catholic’ and/or whilst taking public funding, one suspects they will simply buckle – and dioceses will have to rethink the way it helps parents bring their children up in the Catholic faith. It would not be too alarmist to say that, in a setting in which the battle for Catholic education has been definitively lost, the models from which the Bishops could learn most are those networks that both educated and catechised the faithful through the recusancy era of our forefathers in faith (more of potential ‘solutions’ in a later post).

As such, that the continuing existence of specifically Catholic schools remains in jeopardy is beyond question. Don’t be surprised, however, if, contrary to popular caricature, the final blow is delivered from within rather than without.

The Flag of Heritage

Flying a flag is a political act. It means something, even if we cannot always explain quite what it is or why it is important. It is more blood and guts than bloodless theorems, and it can imbue a place with an identity and dignity woven from the diverse and sometimes imperceptible threads of a shared heritage.

So, what does it say that flying above the buildings of some our greatest historical treasures is the banal logo of a government agency?

Now at this point, I might as well lay my cards on the table: contrary to received wisdom, I do not believe the flag of St. George requires detoxification. Nor do I believe that it is indelibly linked with an attitude of mind violently opposed to the tenets of contemporary society. Indeed for a great many, the flag is no more offensive or sinister than are jeans and trainers because thugs often wear them. To my mind, those who traduce the flag are often those whose principal experience of its flying is filtered through the sensationalised glare of a controversy obsessed media. In short, those who would make synonymous the flag and violent (often racialised) expressions of political activity are wide of the mark.

Yet it also worth rejecting the common slogan appearing from the opposite direction, that lazily claims the left is unpatriotic (usually whilst quoting some part of Orwell that the interlocutor never actually read), by pointing to the rather inconvenient fact that a great many on the left are not. After all, one is rather more likely to see the flag of St. George draped from the bedroom window of a council-house in a Labour stronghold than from the quads of an Oxford college or the sash windows of a thatched Cotswolds cottage.

And this is important, for it is here one most clearly glimpses the cleave in attitudes toward the flag of England. What the flag requires is not detoxification. What the flag requires is social and cultural extension. That it could for so long be maligned as a symbol of vulgarity and boorishness could only occur because it was for too long absent from association with the lived experience and valued institutions of those who would so willingly jump to such lazy conclusions (and who have often had a disproportionate role in public discourse with which to do it). There has been an element of social capture of the flag of St. George, unwarrantably narrowing its capacity to bestow identity and embody unity; quite simply, more people need to be able to share in it.

As such, we need once again to weave together the principal symbol of our national identity with those things that cut across social and class boundaries and point toward a history and identity in which we all share.

The English Heritage flag cleanses some of our most important sites of any emotional ties, erecting a sterile symbol of state bureaucracy more suited to road traffic signs and office stationery than marking the landscape of our shared history. Where an expression of our communal identity and possession ought to be, there is the logo of a government agency.

We ought to dismay at this riding roughshod over our collective heritage. We ought to reclaim our heritage for the flag of England, and have our heritage shared and secured for all by flying under this same flag. We ought, quite simply, to put the flag of England back into English Heritage.

Dear Christine Blower…

Dear Christine Blower,

I was very disappointed to read your letter to the Guardian, dated Sunday 29th April. Your decision to sign the letter in your capacity of General Secretary of the NUT is of particular concern.

To begin, the legislative basis upon which you base your objection to the actions of certain Roman Catholic schools lacks serious credibility. Indeed, that you should need to resort to the claim that Roman Catholic schools had breached ‘the spirit of the Equality Act’ really ought to have been enough to give you serious pause for thought. In short, no law has been broken. Further, no school is, by law, required to conform to the ‘spirit’ of the Equality Act, as opposed to its precise legislative demands, not least because that very notion is itself transient and shifting. That you should choose, therefore, to link the decision of some Roman Catholic schools to inform their students of the C4M petition with incidents of homophobic bullying is little more than unfounded slur intended to enforce conformity through semantic (emotional) blackmail; those NUT members who work within Roman Catholic schools, and who can recognise your intervention for the prejudice-riven ignorance that it is, have every right to be concerned.

Put simply, Roman Catholic schools are very often beacons of equality and diversity – it is in our DNA – and to suggest we neglect to teach human rights or an understanding of one another is deeply offensive. There are, naturally, areas of disagreement, though do not please assume that you have a monopoly on either ethics or morals, or that your own interjections carry with them the quality of moral infallibility – one can disagree with your political, social and moral pronouncements without thereby being cast off as either reactionary or unpleasant. Indeed, the intentions and tone of your letter does little to suggest that your own worldview is one of inclusivity and tolerance.

Clearly, you have chosen to present your personal views as synonymous with your professional role, no doubt with the intention of adding authority to your pronouncements. This is inappropriate. You may well, of course, think the settled law of the land is homophobic or fuels homophobia. You may, indeed, think that marriage as legally, culturally, socially and historically understood is homophobic and fuels homophobia. You may also, clearly, believe that anyone who wishes to preserve the existing legal situation, by espousing the perfectly mainstream view that marriage is between one man and one woman, is homophobic or fuelling homophobia, or indeed polygamyphobic and fuelling polygamyphobia. All that is fine, and should you wish to pursue these views further then you do of course have every right to do so. What you absolutely do not have the right to do is to use your position as head of a national union to add any sort of professional imprimatur to these views, especially when the attack (for that is what this is) falls on the heads of so many of your members, whose hard work and membership fees are vital for the continuing success of your union.

Should you wish to complain about the role of Roman Catholic schools in informing their students about the C4M petition, which contradicts absolutely no law, then please do so in your capacity as Christine Blower. To do so in the name of the union you lead is a gross distortion of your role as union leader, and a gross abandonment of those whom you are morally obliged to represent.

As things stand, I see no reason why Roman Catholic members of the NUT, nor indeed those who work in and are committed to Roman Catholic education, nor indeed anyone else of all faiths or none who happen to find the current law on marriage perfectly sufficient, should continue to support any union, the General Secretary of which can cease to represent them and their interests, and indeed should seek to attack them directly on the basis of little more than slur and ignorance.

As such, I shall be reconsidering my membership of your union. Should I choose to stay, it shall be due to my unending admiration for the hard work and commitment of those in the lower tiers of the NUT hierarchy, rather than for any support or loyalty for those currently sitting at the top.

Michael Merrick