Friday, 10 December 2010

Lord Palmerston is on fire

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The curious thing about being at the centre of a work storm (1345 words today) is how the world recedes. It is not that I purposely cut myself off from The News. I still listen to Today, and have a look at the dear old Indy, and see snatches of the BBC bulletins. I have a quick roam across the newspapers online, and get a sense of the political blogs. But it is a little like the flickering figures illuminated by the fire on Plato's cave wall: everything seems to lack form or reality.

I hear a headline, or read a snatch of opinion, and then my mind immediately veers away to what I am to write that day. My friend The Man of Letters likes to make a little joke about how he is working even when he is shopping for food or gazing out of the window (especially when gazing out of the window, in my case). It is quite true. Even when engaged in the most mundane of tasks, I find my mind filled with antic visions. One word on the news can send me off on a whole new train of thought, not about the world but about the book.

This is why this week, a perfect firestorm of politics on both sides of the Atlantic, has passed me by. Events, dear boy, events, went on in a blur of white noise.

One of the reasons that this particular book requires so much concentration is that it is about notions of beauty, something I thought would be interesting but relatively straightforward, and have discovered instead is perfectly filled with complexity and paradox. I adore wrestling with paradox, it is one of my favourite things in the whole world, but it doesn't half take it out of a person. Today's paradox circled around the strange contradiction of beauty being both desired and admired, and yet capable of igniting a most inexplicable rage. At the end of my 1345 words, I looked up to find actual physical rage going on in the streets.

There are many arguments to be had about the government's plans for student fees. It is a complicated stew of the moral, practical, fiscal and political. It should be debated and discussed; if people want to march on the streets, they should do that, in the great and honourable tradition of public protest. But here is what you do not do, if you want me to take you seriously: you do not go around burning the statue of Palmerston and daubing Winston Churchill with graffiti. You do not scream 'Tory scum' at the Duchess of Cornwall, who was just trying to go and see a show. You do not read history at Cambridge, and then swing gleefully from the Cenotaph, which commemorates the war dead, and claim afterwards that you did not know that it was the Cenotaph. (What kind of history are they teaching, up in East Anglia?)

Oddly, it was the burning of Pam that made me properly cross. I know that there was the gunboat diplomacy and all, some of it dodgy as hell, but he was one of the great statesmen of the 19th century. You can't just go around setting fire to men who said things like this:

'I hold that the real policy of England is to be the champion of justice and right, pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and whenever she thinks that wrong has been done.'

Liberal interventionism now has a bad name, because of the Iraq adventure, but I still think it has an honourable pedigree. Palmerston was a great supporter of both the Italian and Hungarian revolutions, and always took the side of constitutional government against hereditary autocracy (one of the reasons he made the Queen so grumpy). He was an odd mixture of radical and reactionary: he was strongly in favour of abolishing slavery, but resisted efforts to widen the franchise after 1832; he introduced legislation to allow for divorce, and was staunchly for Catholic emancipation, but was willing to suspend trial by jury to deal with the Fenian rebels. He was, in some ways, all the good and bad of the Victorian era in one man.

He also made one of my favourite political jokes ever:

'The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.'

So, please do not do this:

Palmerston by Ray Tang at Rex Features 10th Dec

I am not going to relitigate the arguments over fees now. You know what you think. My instinctive feeling, in rather basic terms, is that it is unfair to ask a postwoman to subsidise the university education of the daughter of a banker, which is what happens with no fees.

I offer three facts:

Graduates earning £30,000 will repay £68 a month.

Graduates earning under £21,000 will repay nothing.

Undergraduates from families who earn under the median wage will get an annual grant of over £3,000.

While protestors scream insults at the Prince of Wales, the IMF unemotionally reports:

'..the Government's proposals are more progressive than the current system or that proposed by Lord Browne.'

(The best progressive case for fees is put here, in The Guardian.)

Like a clucking old lady, I want to say to everyone: calm down and have a nice cup of tea. And no more burning of Lord Palmerston.

Today's pictures are all about the sky. The snow continues to melt, rather drably, but the cloud formation rushed in to the aesthetic gap:

10th Dec 1-1

10th Dec 2

10th Dec 3

10th Dec 5

10th Dec 6

The trees have gone from white sculptures to stark and bare:

10th Dec 4

10th Dec 8-1

The view to the south:

10th Dec 7

10th Dec 9

10th Dec 10

Trees with roof and winter sunshine:

10th Dec 11

A stern view of the limes lined up like soldiers:

10th Dec 12

And the more whimsical young horse chestnuts:

10th Dec 14

For a special Friday treat, there are SNOW DOGS IN ACTION:

10th Dec 15

10th Dec 16

(Look at that action. She's like a Grand National winner.)

10th Dec 18

10th Dec 19

(Observe the look of serious determination.)

On a stiller note:

10th Dec 20

10th Dec 21

And then we walked home through the slush:

10th Dec 22

Happy Friday.


  1. Beautiful photo's - my snow is now all drippy and dirty and as far as I am concerned, beautiful sentiments.

    I am so very cross at what is happening and how much mis informed anger there is. At the very least because very very few will be expected to pay £9,000 per year, yet you would believe that is the standard fee for all future students. I am with Sam Gyimah.

    It is easy to become inflamed when you feel hard done by - much harder to apply critical thinking and understand the real long term facts.

  2. It is so easy to criticise so difficult to offer an alternative. Always loved Palmerston because of his chutzpah, one had the feeling he lived life by the seat of his pants. Charming, clever, resourceful and hard headed!
    Love the snow dogs, loathe slush

  3. BYT - yes, it is the misinformed fury that makes me cross, too. I think: of course oppose something with which you radically disagree, but know the facts. It's not so much to ask.

    Tattie Weasle - so glad I am not the only lover of Palmerston out there. Chutzpah is the perfect word. (Am I right in thinking you are new to the comments section? In which case, WELCOME.) Oh, and so glad you love the snow dogs.

  4. I spent some of yesterday afternoon locked into a building near Whitehall thanks to "public order issues" but all the students I saw on my way there and when I finally got out were not of the statue burning variety.

    There are a number of things that make me cross about fees. They wouldn't be needed if the govt hadn't decided to slash the funding available to universities savagely particularly for the Humanities and social sciences. I also know full well that the privileged types whoose parents paid for the best private schools and who waltz into high paying jobs in the professions and the City will pay these fees for them just like they paid out when grants were abolished so the most privileged are likely not to have any debt at all. So not so progressive after all. I also expect that the truly elite institutions will charge the full whack to keep the tutorial system in place thereby further restricting access which is bad enough as it is. 

    I can highly recommend two things. The first is a brilliant critique of Lord Browne's report by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books . The second is a letter from a science professor at Brandeis to the head of SUNY Where they have closed their Humanities Depts. Plus the petition for the Humanities which is here 

    Apologies for ranting I will now go and contemplate snow and dog and snowy dog photos to calm down.

  5. Most probably the people who burnt the statue did not know what Palmerston stood for. They would have thought him part of the establishment! Student protests seem to start alright but then get suddenly out of hand all over the world. In Sri Lanka too the protests are frequent but dealt with very heavy handedly by the authorities. Not the case in UK of course.

    Btw I like that quote! Thanks - I am learning something new everyday!

  6. Students at the taxpayer-funded Univ. of Texas still pay about 15,000 USD per year (twice that if you're not a Texas resident), or did when I was going there, which is not so bad considering that the University of California at Berkeley was 28K in 1996 when I applied to go there (when my father went there in 1959, it was 68 dollars a semester). The states keep cutting the funding to the universities, too, with certain predictable factions arguing for complete privatization, and so tuition rises yearly. Of course you can get a scholarship, but it's not necessarily easy.

    What confuses me is that the funding-cutting legislators, too, find it unreasonable for a postman to pay for a banker's child's education, but I find it so unreasonable when they say it, and so eminently sane and fair when you say it. (Part of their objection is often due to the secular quality of the publicly funded education, to which... there is no reply that hasn't already been said). Now I shall have to consider in depth why you are right and they are wrong, though you are both saying the same thing. Possibly it has to do with the spirit in which it is said. Possibly it's because what they would like most is to remove public education of all kinds from the landscape, down to the smallest nursery schools.

  7. Betty M - really interesting points, and I do agree rather about the intrinsic cuts. Never apologise for ranting on this blog; it must be done.

    Mystica - so glad you like the quote. It never fails to make me laugh.

    Ellie - always so fascinating to get yr point of view from across the pond. I think yr point about the spirit in which an argument is made is probably true; also wider agenda, world-view etc. I shall go away and ponder.

  8. Proposals sounds just like the system we have here in Australia. Our antipodean world didn't come to an end when this was introduced 20 plus years ago and certainly hasn't resulted in declines in enrolments (quite the opposite in fact.

  9. Not that it appears to have done much for my grammar in the previous post!!

  10. Glad you did a post about this subject - I knew I wouldn't really agree with what you wrote, and I don't think I do, but I wanted you to write something all the same. Thank you. It's funny that the burning of the Lord Palmerston makes you sad for our country, when I feel just as miserable for us thinking of the potential division this legislation could cause. I just hope the cost doesn't put undergrads off just studying for the hell of it. We need some people to read politics and business and all that, but others to spend the entire time mainlining tea and cigs (or whatever else), reading poetry in bed all afternoon. You can't put a price on that.

  11. I think though many are cross about the fees the anger, the fury, came from the kettling of the students.

    Today I returned to work to find many moving and eloquent accounts from colleagues stuck inside the kettle, who were told conflicting stories of when and how they would get out, were charged at on horseback, were hit with batons...

    Tales of panic attacks, and freezing cold, tales of fear and panic and general helplessness, and how those feelings then turned to anger and fury.

    The whole situation saddens me. And the thing I find worst is that we are finding a generation who are now more politically disengaged than ever.

    It makes me sad, but then some are so bright, and so clear and so focussed and so positive. And that gives me back my hope.

  12. Hollowlegs - interesting perspective, thank you. There is some evidence to show that fees actually increase participation among poorer students, although I have not looked into it in depth.

    Alice - what a very polite dissent, thank you. The Palmerston thing made me sad because it was emblematic of a destructive, pointless scream of fury rather than the serious debate which I think we should all have. Also, I hate random mess. Like a clucking old lady, I kept thinking: who is going to have to clean all this up? I very much like your poetry in the afternoon point.

    Siobhan - I agree about the kettling. I suppose someone must have worked out it is a vital strategy, but it does seem crude and nasty. I think in every young generation there are those who are engaged and disengaged; actually, I have great hopes for the current cadre of young. I think their idea of political action is shifting from party politics to discrete issues, and that can be very powerful. Just as long as no more of them pee on the statue of Churchill. :)


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