Roger Helmer: A special type of stupid

Roger Helmer MEP for the East Midlands region asked on his twitter feed today:

Why is it OK for a surgeon to perform a sex-change operation, but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to “turn” a consenting homosexual?

At first the question seems stupid – what’s the connection between homosexuality and gender reassignment? Isn’t this blatant homophobia? As David Allen Green has put it, has Helmer not confused “the distinct issues of gender identity and sexual preference”?

Then you read it again.

It’s still stupid.

For a longer discussion on the issue read Heresy Corner, I’m going to keep this brief. Gender reassignment is, as it is well known, the process of altering the sexual characteristics of an individual. That means a therapeutic measure of hormone replacement, replacement of organs, and other secondary sexual characteristics that aren’t reproductive organs (such as facial hair or breasts). As far as is physically possible an individual reflects the gender they have been reassinged to – nowhere in the surgery is there any attempt to mentally reassign a person, to make him/her feel like a man/woman (perhaps because there is no such feeling at all).

The notion that Helmer is comparing this with is the attempt to change, not a set of physical characteristics, but the complex psychosexual structure of an individual, which is far trickier in many ways to reassign, some would say impossible.

I’m of this latter opinion; you can’t try and “turn” a consenting homosexual, you can only try and make a person forget he or she is homosexual, or do things contrary to his or her sexuality (like be attracted to, or enjoy sexual practices with, a person from the opposite sex). And it ought not to be available by national health services like gender reassignment is. However if you want a homophobe to rub you with salts and tell you that you’re really attracted to people of the opposite sex, and that homosexuality is a myth or a lie one tells themselves, then what people get up to in their spare time is up to them – like with homeopathy it will be incumbent upon sane people to promote the truth of such ridiculous practices.,

Once again therefore, Helmer is way off the mark.We can add this to the list of other gaffes and witless opinions such as:

1,2,3,4 everybody…

The working men’s club and the age of austerity

Dr Ruth Cherrington works in the department of translation and comparative studies at Warwick University where her research focus is identity and representation in multicultural society. A few years ago she was the subject of much interest for research she had carried out on the rise and decline of working men’s clubs.

Image courtesy of the wesbite for Bishop’s Stortford and Thorley – A history [

The subject for Cherrington has personal significance; she grew up near a working men’s club which she described as being her second living room. Since then she has noticed the gap which the demise of those institutions have created in society.

As homage to this dying institution she set up the club historians website in May of 2008 which provides a detailed history of the club, and gives people the opportunity to share photographs and memories of their times.

Cherrington reminds us in her history that the clubs came to prominence in the nineteenth century as a means to fill a gap; there wasn’t a lot for people to do other than work. Options to go to the pub, watch music and other leisure activities were usually very expensive, rather somewhere was needed that people could call their own, and not simply lined the pockets of landlords.

Cherrington is open about the problems posed by the working men’s club. The name itself suggests there may be problems of exclusion. Throughout the twentieth century the club was seen as somewhere largely dominated by white males, which suggested a strict exclusivity.

That there had been limited or no female membership in the nineteenth century had not been a point of contention; women enjoyed limited rights as it was and people’s attitudes in the men’s clubs – as can be imagined – were not perturbed by this.

Even by the middle to late twentieth century when women enjoyed more political rights the clubs were still very slow to adapt to a changing societal picture, and even though it was not unheard of to have female members, the exclusiveness was certainly a barrier that needed to be reconsidered.

The same must also be said about multicultural society. The national executive insisted that they could and would not tell individual clubs what to do or who to admit as members, but after the 1970s when anti-discriminatory laws were introduced, and society as a whole changed vastly, so too did the face of the clubs.

One of the more attractive elements of the club had been the so-called “club scene” and the “free-and-easy” nights, which were open microphone sessions for budding musicians and entertainment acts to try their luck among a listening, but generally not an easy audience. It has been said that the audiences of the free-and-easy’s did not suffer fools gladly.

Another overlooked part of the club, which Cherrington is very keen to point out, is the community activity and charity attachment. Cherrington makes note of the notion that charity begins at home, a sentiment embedded into Victorian values, which working men’s clubs utilised and reappropriated as charity beginning in our clubs – in what Cherrington calls acts of “mutual self-help”.

Examples of which can be seen by looking at work achieved by the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU). An example of their work was to set up convalescence homes, some time before the creation of the welfare state, which afforded men who may have been recovering from surgery or couldn’t afford to go on holiday, to stay for a week or two by the seaside funded through their subscription.

The clubs were once the hub of local charities who donated good sums of money for special schooling or operations for children where they were not available on the NHS. Cherrington recalls there always being someone passing by in the clubs requesting money for a local charity, alongside someone else selling bingo tickets.

What is worrying about the wide demise of the club is the question of what it will be replaced with, and never has that been a more relevant question. The severe package of cuts has hit community activity rather hard, local sporting centres are either being drowned by expensive private gyms or costs are increasing to keep the centres open at all. Modestly priced places for families to congregate and socialise with friends are all but gone and institutions that bring whole communities together are slow to gain traction – which, I imagine, has a lot to do with how time consuming it is, and how little time people have.

Cherrington sees the closure of Coventry working men’s club – the oldest one of its kind – as a symbol of a dying institution with nothing in its place. She praises charities such as Age Concern and Help the Aged, but notes that with an ageing population these organisations are pushed to bursting point, and are unable to resource for all who need its services. The problem of elderly social mobility, amid the demise of clubs and bingo halls, reduces many elderly people to experience their twilight years secluded and without the social purpose they once enjoyed.

Furthermore, little is available to reconcile the young and the old. In comparison to many countries, there is a noticeable conflict between youth and their elders that really wasn’t apparent in communities brought together by institutions such as the working men’s clubs. The absence of community cohesion is fairly recent and few inspirational ideas have emerged from think tanks and government departments on how to restore it – particularly between the generations.

I’m sure many would have you believe institutions such as the clubs are redundant in today’s society, and closures are not a product of community cohesion in decline, but of people finding different ways in which to entertain themselves. But I’d dismiss that. However my concern about the way in which many of the cuts have been organised, and our rapid descending into mass joblessness and increasing poverty, is that something like the club will be a necessity and not something to fill the hours with at night and at the weekend – and yet such institutions will be absent.

Many commentators and critics are starting to get the impression that what was meant by “cutting waste in public spending to reduce the deficit” was actually a means to, as the saying goes, “starve the beast” that is to say reduce the budget through cuts and breaks which subsequently weakens the role of the state and the social welfare programmes it funds, thereby appearing to strengthen the argument that cuts are necessary and private institutions do things better.

The club, for all its problems concerning who became members and who it excluded, promoted an ideal of “mutual self help” where in society such help had not yet been institutionally founded. We may return to a state where mutual self help is the only alternative – and despite its altruistic good, should not be relied upon since the function of the state, for any decent person, should be to ensure the inalienable right of citizens to welfare.

The return of the club should only be to restore communities and families, the element of the club which preceded the welfare state should be guaranteed by the state alone – since this is its primary function – and this current government is almost certainly trying to creep away from serving its primary function.

Academies will not bring a new culture of independence to schools

The founding rule for academies from day one was that they would enjoy “Greater freedom and independence”.

Academies will no longer be a way of saving failing schools unlike in the Blair days, but for schools keen to show their excellence.

In addition to the “system-wide reductions in bureaucracy”, as it was put by Michael Gove, echoed by many others in the Con Lib coalition, the Academies Bill will ensure schools enjoy:

  • freedom from local authority control
  • the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff
  • freedom from following the National Curriculum
  • greater control of their budget
  • greater opportunities for formal collaboration with other public and private organisations
  • freedom to change the length of terms and school days
  • freedom to spend the money the local authority currently spends on their behalf.

That word again: freedom.

But we’re still unsure by the word freedom, as we are with independence. Forgive my peculiar desire for word play, but is this freedom to or freedom from?

There is a difference; freedom to involves carrying out the above from the school setting itself, creating what the kids are learning, being very creative, turning a blind eye to others because this is the me revolution, and I’m demonstrating the reason why I’m running this joint. Freedom from, however, simply designates a loss, and demands the filling of that loss.

This latter example, I imagine, is the type freedom employed when we look at the new Academies.

My educated guess is that many business-minded people who know a thing or two about the education system (or, indeed more likely, know how to employ – perhaps through unpaid internships – people who know about the education system; recent graduates for example) will be rubbing their hands together devising plans on how to capitalise in on that initial feeling of abandonment school leaders and headteachers will feel on the advent of their schools being granted academy status.

Consultancy is a business model that will thrive even in times of economic hardship and budget squeezes. Cambridge Education, for example, is an educational consultancy that a local authority can outsource the running of a school to, like which can be seen – in a way that  has dubiousness written all over it – in this insightful article written by Respublica researcher Sandra Gruesco.

But something even more strategic than consultancy is emerging in the business world; that of so-called intelligent services. In brief, this is a type of service that an organisation can buy into or become a member of as a way of gathering information necessary for the success of the service they provide.

It’s not consultancy, since this will often require one to one activity with an individual offering advice and expertise. Rather, the intelligent service provides best practice examples, stores them up on a database in the form of an article, for example, and makes the database public for a fee.

Such a service was once provided by the local authority, and is currently a service offered by trade unions in addition to legal advice. But a void has been allowed for enterprise to fill that gap, creating the potential for curriculum to be varied and part of the market place; competition perhaps for Avail – who run the Consultancy for Schools programme as delivered for the Department for Education (DfE) by a unique team of education and programme management experts.

Academies themselves are not without their own network organisations. United Learning Trust is one example of an Academy Trust Network, and is largest single sponsor of academies in the UK with 17 academies currently open.

A person who I spoke to recently – an assistant head for an Academy school within the ULT network – spoke not about the dawn of a new culture for schools, reinventing the wheel and loving it, but rather the assurance of the school that information will still be available to them from the network.

This kind of attitude might explain away Gove’s recent embarrassment when it was revealed the disparity between schools that wanted to become Academies and those who simply “expressed an interest” – which you would have to do in order to receive information about what Academy status would mean for the school you work in.

Schools are naturally places that want to feel aligned to something; be that other schools through the state or within networks. This is the preferred method; academies will only gain popular appeal if other schools in the local area are doing it, because schools won’t bring on their own abandonment themselves.

The culture of freedom in creating curriculum would be far more impressive, were it not for the fact that this will not happen. What critics may have once called top-down curriculum creation from the state will simply move houses to these largely unaccountable trusts, charities, or worse, impatient consultants or idealistic entrepreneurs.

For all his talk, Gove’s moves will not create a new culture of freedom and independence. It will move the dependence elsewhere, and those places could potentially be unaccountable pits set up solely for profit creation – now given new legitimacy by the abandoning state. But hey, that’s the big society.

Big society and Thatcher revised

Big society is characterised only by what it is not; that being “top-down, top-heavy, controlling” government.

There are plans to give people more say in how local money is spent, but guarantee that you will be listened to will probably be as likely as it is now.

You can get a group of people to lobby this or that and you have every bit of chance to be heard; big society might just be a name to this, but the option to gather a group of people to either demand spending on a school, to stop the closure of a post office, or oppose the building of nuclear generator outside your house exists today.

Is it possible that what was meant to be a rejection of Thatcher’s famous comment that there is no society is a return by other means; since big society is empty and vacuous and is predicated in the negative (that is, by what it is not and not what it is) perhaps there is no such thing as big society.

David Cameron insists that big society will be something like the following:

a broad agenda of decentralising power, expanding the voluntary sector and encouraging people to take more responsibility for their lives and neighbourhood.

I’ll say it’s broad: state cut back, working for free and “responsibility” – a word used as if created anew. But it has been uttered before of course.

Margaret Thatcher, in that speech, which big society is supposedly a rejection of, said:

There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Exactly the same; a game of guesses and fingers crossed that better off people will help the lesser off under the guise of self-responsibility; in other words Victorian philanthropy.

Opposing cuts: the need for strategy

Sunny Hundal today talks about the need for a strategic approach to opposing the cuts agenda, one that isn’t simply preaching to the converted, or the left talking among themselves.

I rather agree. So I put forward my own suggestions.

First of all we have to ask whether the cuts programme is fair and necessary. Answers to both I feel are no, and are backed up by fantastic polemics laid out by compass and Nick Isles on, among other things, the real nature of “capital flight”.

Second of all we must ask is opposition to the way in which the cuts programme has been meted out a solely left wing issue. The answer of which is: no of course not; this isn’t merely political tennis, these are issues affecting the lives of people who perhaps have no interest in political factions.

Third: should we allow the “usual suspects” of the left wing, trade union activists and leftist fringe parties for example, to voice their opinion, and to help appeal to a popular audience by engaging in a left narrative? Definitely, though if we are to make it a popular narrative, not simply a left wing one, appealing those people assumed in my second point, it cannot be too dogmatic, which is why I both share Sunny’s concern about certain trade union plans, but hope also that trade unions will work to counter the cuts agenda.

Fourth and last: Can we expect to build a movement that has one commonality – that of an anti-cuts agenda? Not necessarily, and this is neither doomy nor impossible, but a movement cannot be predicated on what it is not alone, it has to assert ideas into how it will produce, not simply counteract. This will be tricky (and always has been for the left since the peasants revolt, to the Spanish civil War through to opposition over the Iraq war) without having a narrative and will require some thinking.

Providing that the movement is not too evangelicising to begin with, it will not simply preach to the converted, it will ask questions as to why the agenda for cuts has been carried out so disproportionately for working and struggling middle class families. It will be a popular movement, but it will have a left wing backbone too, and though this latter point should not be forgotten, it ought to be remembered throughout how off-putting it can be if the politics sounds too preachy.

Andrew Lansley, the milk rapparee

The Milk snatching is back.

Mehdi Hasan has it like this:

But earlier this morning, Downing Street beat a hasty retreat from the suggestion in a letter from a junior health minister that a UK-wide scheme offering free milk for under-fives could be scrapped as part of the coalition’s ongoing and draconian drive to make immediate spending cuts.

But the catchphrase for Lansley will be harder due to the fact Lansley hardly rhymes with anything.

So I have gone with the following: Andrew Lansley, the milk rapparee – that’s a keeper that is!


  1. A freebooting soldier of 17th-century Ireland.
  2. A bandit or robber.

[Irish Gaelic rapaire, variant of ropaire, cutpurse, from ropaid, he stabs.]

Some historians see the rapparees as an Irish version of the “social bandit” described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm—who is an outlaw but not regarded as a criminal by his own community.