John Harris

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‘Fair fishing’ manifesto calls for greater quota share for smaller boats

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Alliance of environmentalists and fishermen advocates granting small boats priority access to cod, hake and monkfish

Hundreds of small British fishing businesses are facing financial ruin, according to campaigners who are calling for radical reform of European fishing rules. They say their case revolves around one key statistic: that although small fishing boats account for 77% of the UK’s fishing fleet and 65% of full-time employment in the industry, they are allowed access to only 4% of the fishing quota.

The result of this apparent imbalance, says a new alliance of environmental activists and fishermen, is that the viability of boats under 10 metres long – and thereby classed by the EU as “inshore” operators – is increasingly under threat. Big fishing interests not only dominate the industry, but are also threatening fish stocks. This, they say, threatens the existence of fishing communities that go back centuries.

In Hastings on the south coast, a fleet of 29 small fishing boats still operates from the beach known as the Stade, mainly catching cod, plaice and sole. The town’s fishing industry is part of the south-east region, in which 339 small boats have access to a defined pool representing about 30% of the regional quota, while nine larger vessels control 70%.

Local fishermen say that until 2006, they were effectively left to fish as they saw fit, but the introduction of a European register of buyers and sellers in 2006 marked the arrival of a much more stringent regime.

Paul Joy, a local fisherman and co-chair of Nutfa (the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association), spoke to the Guardian for a film made as part of the Anywhere But Westminster series. In January, he says, he was monitored by a police helicopter while at sea, before his catch of cod was weighed and found to be slightly above his catch limit. Having already been fined £7,500 for exceeding his limit, he is waiting to hear whether he will be prosecuted.

“If we were drug smugglers we’d understand it,” he told the Guardian. “But we’re just fishermen trying to earn a living, and with the quotas as they are, we can’t.”

At the height of the cod season, in early winter, each boat’s catch limit has been set at about 1.4kg a day, which represents less than a half a fish. “What we’re allowed to catch doesn’t even pay for the fuel to go out there and catch it,” said Joy.

“We’ve lost five or six weeks this summer because of the weather,” said local fisherman John Griffin, 52. “You can’t run a business like this. It’d be nice to tick over – but for the last few years, we’ve been on a deficit. Eventually, something’s got to give.”

“We’ve got enough car parks and amusement arcades in Hastings,” he said. “This fishery’s been here for thousands of years and generations of people. To lose it would be crazy.”

This year sees a sweeping review of the EU’s common fisheries policy (CFP), already the focus of campaigning by groups and individuals including Friends of the Earth, the WWF and the cook and Guardian writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Now, the small fishing interests represented by Nutfa have united with Greenpeace to produce a Manifesto for Fair Fisheries, published today. It advocates granting “priority access” to such fish as cod, hake and monkfish to small fishermen, and allocating the quota “in a way which rewards sustainable fishing methods and protects coastal communities”.

Campaigners say the share of the quota given to small boats should be about 20%, but acknowledge the impossibility of such a change. The UK government has proposed reallocating unused quota, amounting to about 3% of the total, to small boats but the UK Association of Fish Producer Organisations – dominated by large-scale fishing interests – has applied for a judicial review.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was working with Nutfa on improving the way the quota is managed for smaller fishermen. Defra said the proposed reforms of the common fisheries policy would help small operators, because they should allow member states to take over management of their own quota, which would enable some of the interests of the smaller fleet to be prioritised.

The European commission said it was also looking to the interests of smaller fleets, for instance by helping them gain access to more of the funds for improving vessels: the bigger a country’s small fleet, the more financial assistance that member state would be allocated. A spokeswoman added: “The commission has also proposed that fishermen should be able to trade quotas between themselves so that the quotas can be used efficiently and flexibly. In such a system, the smaller vessels could be protected by having a part of the quota set aside for them.”

The CFP reforms were passed by member state ministers in June, but they must pass the European parliament too, and many MEPs of various countries have links with the big, industrialised fishing industries, so there are fears that the proposals may face a mauling. The fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, has urged members of the public to make their views known, as public pressure has proved key to the passage of proposals to ban the wasteful practice of throwing edible fish back into the sea, dead.

But thanks to compromises made to get the reform accepted, a full ban on discards of cod, haddock, plaice and sole will not be in place until 2018. Some of the fishermen represented by Nutfa claim they are mystified as to what they will then be intended to do with fish that are caught beyond their quota.

Fiona Harvey
John Harris

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Who gets a fair share of Britain’s fishing quota? Not the small boats – video

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Anywhere but Westminster: As the EU reviews its common fisheries policy, John Harris goes to Hastings to find out how fishing quotas are crippling the local fishing industry

John Harris
John Domokos
Laurence Topham

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Is the coalition government in danger of collapse?

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Many thought a successful Olympics would give the government a much-needed bounce. Instead, our leaders seem on the brink of war. Will the pact hold until 2015?

Despite all that rain, the story of this strange, unpredictable, up-and-down summer has now been established: it is all about the Olympics, and millions of people’s delight in how well they are going. In an age as fragmented and individualistic as ours, to talk about the country as if it was a single human being – “a nation rejoices”, and all that – can easily seem misplaced, and to go on about sporting successes as if they make any difference to our grim economic predicament is plain silly. Nonetheless, Ennis, Farah, Murray, Wiggins and the rest are certainly cheering us up, and the organisational triumph has provided a counterpoint – if only temporarily – to the sense that Britain is declining, at speed.

But what is going on with the government? In the lead-up to the Games, a lot of people held fast to the assumption that if everything went according to plan, the coalition would reap the benefits. But look what has happened.

The fact that the prime minister has been in the crowd when aspiring British medal-winners have lost out has sparked talk of the “curse of Cameron“. The one Tory politician who has done well out of the Games is Boris Johnson, credited with a magic touch the PM cannot match, and talked up not just as the next Conservative leader, but a shining saviour. The exit from politics of Louise Mensch means a byelection the Tories are 99% certain to lose. As the Lib Dems’ fate seems to grow grimmer by the day as they cling on to the coalition, but apparently run of out of reasons for doing so, beyond the imperative to avoid an election, lest they be completely wiped out.

Electoral reform, a cause wired in to the party’s soul, was killed last year in the referendum whose often nasty tone marked the end of the idea that Nick Clegg and David Cameron were blissfully happy partners, tied together in a shared political project. Never mind, went the line dispensed by the party leadership: the prospect of a democratic(ish) House of Lords would seal the idea that, despite their political pain, the Lib Dems were pulling Britain in a progressive direction. But that dream died on 10 July, the night that 91 Conservative MPs voted against Clegg’s changes to the upper house – which led in turn to Cameron U-turning on his plan to somehow keep the plans alive, and serving notice at the height of Britain’s Olympic raptures that the plans were dead and buried.

Now, there comes proof that if the country seems amazingly united, the face the coalition is presenting to the world is one of division and disagreement. On Monday, Clegg accused his political partners of bad faith and said that the Lib Dems would be getting their own back. “Part of our contract has now been broken,” he said, and announced that his party would oppose the Tory plans to reform constituency boundaries – which, by some estimates, would have brought the Conservatives as many as 20 MPs (and lost the Lib Dems at least a quarter of theirs). The Guardian’s report of his press conference said he looked “subdued and depressed“, which was true, but not unexpected: as anyone who tunes into Prime Minister’s Questions will know, Clegg has been looking subdued and depressed for months.

Yesterday, Cameron said he would press on with his plans for redrawing Britain’s electoral map. “I think everyone should come forward and vote for that proposal because it is a very sensible proposal and it will be put forward,” he said. Quite what will happen if the Tories put it on the parliamentary timetable and the Lib Dems want no part of it remains unclear.

Meanwhile, the dysfunctional rumblings within the coalition go on. Having claimed that “the worship of youth is subsiding”, Vince Cable is being talked up as a replacement for Clegg. In Tory ranks, there are mutterings – off-the-record for the moment, and perhaps more about tactical positioning than serious proposals – about explicitly challenging the Lib Dems to support the boundary changes, and going for divorce and minority Conservative government if they do not. Some Tory voices want a new coalition agreement, focusing on such areas as education reform, welfare, and tax cuts for low earners; others want out, and fast.

Everything seems to be in a mess: what, you wonder, could tie the two coalition parties (and their warring internal factions) together, so as to see out the next three years? To use a sporting comparison, the government currently resembles a relay race in which the runners are not only sprinting in different directions, but repeatedly tripping each other up.

“The coalition is for five years and it will still do five years,” a very senior Lib Dem tells me, though he warns of more noise to come, chiefly from the Tory side. “The Tories have much the biggest problem: a group of people who will vote against anything, and will continue to do so – on Europe, on some parts of economic policy, on constitutional reform.”

“There will be continuing voices who are basically anti-coalition,” he goes on, mentioning a Tory backbencher called Peter Bone, who was recently heard making the case for a minority Tory government, issuing a tantalising rallying call to Tory activists: “Without being shackled to the Liberal Democrats we could introduce real Conservative policies relevant to the nation.”

But the fact that the Tories are best served by staying put, this source says, is underlined by the opinion polls. “If there’s an election, they’re hardly going to romp home. And even if they managed to carry on as a minority government, we’d obviously have an influence on that in terms of votes in the Commons.” In short, he reckons, the Tory leadership are as glued into the coalition as the Lib Dems are, and until the “last realistic moment” – which, he says, “could be two weeks before the next election, or six weeks” – everyone will have to hang in there.

Fixating on Clegg’s predicament – and, indeed, simply looking at his face – it is easy to think most of the coalition’s pain is felt on the Lib Dem side. But on Monday, as it became clear that the boundary reorganisation was dead, the influential Tory activist and commentator Tim Montgomerie said what had happened was the “single worst political event to hit the Tories since 1992 and black Wednesday”. Without it, he pointed out, the Tories would need an extra three percentage points on their national lead at the next election – which, he said, “is not a small amount. It’s not much less than we gained from the whole 2005 to 2010 effort.”

One Tory cabinet minister and Cameron ally sounds a note of similar alarm. “The truth is that what’s happened has been quite bad for the Conservatives,” he says, and cites two big reasons: not just the uncertain fate of the boundary review, but the fact that large numbers of Conservatives have been visibly defending an unelected chamber and “gilded earls” – “not a good look,” he says.

He also has a pop at those noisy Conservatives who amount to the Tory equivalent of “Trotyskist impossibilists”, making trouble for the coalition, and Cameron in particular. Sooner or later, he implies, it might be time for Tory modernisers like him to start “remaking some of the arguments we made in opposition” and putting jump-leads on the kind of touchy-feely Toryism that reached its peak in around 2007 – which cuts to the heart of what a mixed-up business coalition is. That would ease the pain of the Lib Dems, but annoy the Tory right no end. Whatever happens, though, he thinks the coalition will prevail. “It’ll probably get more difficult towards the end,” he says, “but it’ll still be here.”

Nick Boles is another high-ranking comrade of Cameron, the MP for Grantham, the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher – and the author of a short book titled Which Way’s Up?, published in 2010. It ruffled Tory feathers by making the case for an electoral pact with the Lib Dems – and, if a Tory-Lib Dem alliance was returned to power, the continuation of the coalition beyond the next election. “I don’t think that idea ever got anywhere, really,” he says, with a dry laugh. “Mainly because Clegg ruled it out pretty emphatically at the time.” But looking at the two parties’ current predicament, he reckons that recent events have drawn them nearer, rather than blowing them apart.

“Emotionally, things are a bit raw,” he says. “But in terms of self-interest, the two parties are bound together far more than they were the day before yesterday. The Liberal Democrats aren’t going to have anything to show on constitutional reform, which is one of their biggest priorities – and we’re not going to have a boundary change, which would have reduced the lead we need to form a majority government.

“If House Of Lords reform had gone through, you could have imagined the Lib Dems saying, ‘Well, we’ve got a major achievement – now we’re going to leave the coalition and start profiling ourselves as an independent party.’ And if we’d got the boundary review, we could have said, ‘Now, we’re not so worried about a quick election, because we’ve got more chance of winning it.’ But neither of those things are true, and we’re thrown together more.”

He believes there is a good chance that the partnership will have to be resumed after the next election. “Right now, given the changed map, that’s probably the most likely option for remaining in government as Conservatives,” he says. “Which is depressing, because I want us to govern alone.”

A strangely similar set of opinions is dispensed by the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, Simon Hughes, charged with the responsibility of maintaining a separate Lib Dem identity while making the case for coalition, and keeping his activists’ morale up – a difficult trick.

“The options for the next three years are a Tory minority government or coalition with us,” he says. “What we’re there to do is to make sure that as we try to get out of the difficult economic situation, we absolutely concentrate on jobs, training, skills and bringing down unemployment – and that we do more state intervention to deliver that. We have to end the scandal of bonuses, and abuses of public sector pay … and thirdly, we have to be seen to be the people who, on a whole range of things, are fighting for a fairer Britain.” He mentions building more houses and opposing more welfare cuts – the latter, surely, the kind of suggestion guaranteed to make hard-core Tory blood boil.

How could the Lib Dems do that when a large swath of the Conservative party is baying for the leadership to take pretty much the opposite course?

“The leadership of the Tories knows there is no alternative to the coalition for the rest of this parliament,” says Hughes. “So there’s a chance we could do quite a lot of it – because it’s appealing to the public. The public are willing to have austerity, but they want some balance, things that show that we’re closing the gap between rich and poor. The Tories at the top understand that.”

Looking ahead to 2015, he sees the chance of the Lib Dems once again in coalition with one of the two bigger parties as a prospect to keep his party’s spirits up. “All the research suggests that there is as good a chance of us holding the balance of power again,” he says, echoing Nick Boles’ prediction of another Tory-Lib Dem coalition in three years’ time. “And the opportunity of being able to choose who our partner would be is phenomenally encouraging for the troops.”

But not, perhaps, the rest of us. Five more years of marital blow-ups, mutual accusations of betrayal, furious backbenchers, and “subdued and depressed” leaders – with continuing austerity, and not even a homegrown spectacular like the Olympics to cheer us up. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

John Harris

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Credit crunch: elusive ghosts of the financial feast lurk in the shadows

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

It is half a decade this week since the ‘world changed’, in Adam Applegarth’s famous phrase. But what has happened to the architects of economic meltdown? And has anything really changed for them?

When Adam Applegarth was forced out of a sinking Northern Rock in December 2007, it was amid the kind of numbers that tend to dance in front of your eyes. In the five years running up to the bank’s spectacular crash he had been paid around £10m. During the 18 months immediately before he cashed in shares worth £2.6m. On leaving he secured a golden goodbye to be paid in monthly instalments, totalling £760,000. His pension, payable when he turns 55, is worth £304,000 a year.

The year after his exit he was glimpsed in a very familiar setting, once again turning out for the second XI of his beloved Sunderland Cricket Club. “This summer,” said one of his old associates, “he will be putting his feet up. He is playing an awful lot of cricket, enjoying his motors and travelling.”

In the autumn of 2009 Applegarth became a senior adviser to the American private equity firm Apollo Management, advising a new arm, the European Principal Fund, on the buying-up of distressed debt – perhaps a field of expertise. Three years on he remains in the job and shielded behind a communications firewall administered by a New York PR firm called Rubenstein Associates, whose other clients include Walt Disney, the Las Vegas Comedy Festival, and the American Kennel Club.

When I contacted them, I was handed over to a breathlessly efficient operative called Melissa, who said I should send over my questions. With a view to at least trying to get his attention, I kept them non-confrontational, and short: What does Mr Applegarth’s role at Apollo involve? Could he explain how the depth of banks’ problems in 2007 first revealed itself to him? And how has his life been since? Twenty-four hours later she called back: “Put us down for a decline to comment,” she said.

So, on to another lead. In September 2010 it was reported that Applegarth had joined his son Greg in setting up a company called Beechwood Property Management, in which he held 55 of the 100 shares. Their documents list both men’s occupation as “consultant”. Their registered office is on the 11th floor of a gleaming Newcastle office block called Cale Cross House, but when I called the in-house security guard he had never heard of them. In fact, this is merely the address of their accountants – who passed on a message, with no result.

There is no entry for Beechwood Property Management in the phone directory, nor has it a website. On the face of it, it is a ghost outfit, whose existence is only noticeable to those hard-bitten people who pore over records held at Companies House.

Such is the great cloud of silence that now surrounds people who were once among the loudest voices in the financial services industry.

The reclusive lifestyle of former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Fred Goodwin barely needs mentioning. Steve Crawshaw, who turned Bradford and Bingley from a staid building society into a specialist in self-certified mortgages and left the company weeks before it had to be nationalised, has apparently retired to the Yorkshire countryside: his only publicly-recorded activity these days is as the chair of the advisory board of the School of Management at Bradford University, who forwarded him my list of questions, but I heard nothing back.

Even the few who still have heavyweight business roles keep schtum: there may be a beautiful poetry in the fact that the former HBOS chief executive Andy Hornby is now the boss of Coral bookmakers, but getting him to talk is a non-starter. “As the article does not relate to his current role at Coral he wishes to respectfully decline your request,” said his spokesman.

At the height of a financialised age, it was the done thing to refer to these people as “Masters Of The Universe”. Five years on, picking through the subsequent career histories of those who sparked first the credit crunch and then the crash, the suggestion of omnipotence sounds absurd. Most of the people at the centre of the events of 2007-8 tend to suggest a much less titanic stereotype: the faded rock star, often still trying to keep their hand in, well aware that the hits have dried up, the old tricks have long since turned embarrassing, and their time has passed.

Meanwhile, a very awkward question sits in the public mind: will there ever be any convincing payback?

In the US, only a tiny handful of former bankers have been criminally indicted on charges relating to the crash: most notably, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, two former Bear Stearns employees – and one-time sub-prime specialists – who were acquitted of fraud and conspiracy in November 2009. In February this year a civil case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission was settled on the basis of a $1.05m payout from the two, which the judge in charge termed “chump change”.

The only big figure sent to jail for his part in two decades of crazed speculation and irresponsibility has been Bernie Madoff. By contrast, the people who bundled up the bad debt in arcane financial instruments that pushed the world to the brink of ruin are still out there: hugely diminished – but free, and hardly penniless.

Even those who steered Lehman Brothers into catastrophe and thus started the decisive crash of 2008 seem to have got away with it. In May this year an internal memo from the SEC leaked to Reuters said that after its investigation into the bank it had been “determined that charges will likely not be recommended”.

Which brings us to 780 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, the location of an almost comically dull office block that looks like a giant house brick.

Inside is the HQ of Matrix Advisors. Its founder is a byword for the events of 2007-8: Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehmans, until its cataclysmic demise. Back then, he was the pumped-up corporate icon once known as “the Gorilla”, the man who summed up his business style with the boast that he wanted to reach into the bodies of Lehmans’ competitors, “rip out their hearts and eat it in front of them before they die”.

These days he apparently flits between New York and his homes in Florida and Sun Valley, Idaho – on bog-standard commercial flights, according to witnesses – looking after a tiny outfit which provides “strategic advice to client management teams and senior employees … across all aspects of business”. One source close to Fuld has said that the workforce extends to “a young guy from Lehman and two secretaries”. When I called their office, I therefore had the tantalising sense that the figure most indelibly associated with the crash might only be a few yards from the person parrying my questions. Her name was Carla Schiavo: she suggested I send over a few lines of inquiry.

What, I asked, does Mr Fuld’s work at Matrix Advisors involve? What are his views on the aftermath of the credit crunch and how banks and regulators have responded? What did the financial services industry need to do to recover its esteem? Eventually, Schiavo pointed me in the direction of Fuld’s lawyer, a former president of the New York Bar Association named Patricia Hynes – who, predictably enough, did not deign to reply to either phone calls or emails.

Two months ago Fuld was seen at an ice hockey game between the New Jersey Rangers and the New York Devils. An eyewitness reported on the scene for the Wall Street news and gossip site Dealbreaker: “He was with two goons who were clearly his bodyguards, one sitting next to him in a tan jacket and the other one standing behind him in black. Fuld was wearing a suit … I guess to try and look like he actually has a job he was coming from before the game.”

Documents filed with US regulators two years ago said Fuld’s work at his new venture stretched to around 60 hours a week. Such hard graft may be a necessity: proof, as with the sale of his Park Avenue apartment three years ago (for $25.87m) that he may not be enjoying quite the life of unending luxury that some would imagine, and setting money aside for future litigation, which has so far been met from the coffers of Lehmans’ insurers. There is also an abiding sense of twitchiness. When a reporter doorstepped him three years ago, he blurted out: “You don’t have a gun. That’s good.”

For others who were intimately involved in the crash, there is a similar sense of shrunken lives, and mouths sealed shut. Kathleen Corbet was the president of the hugely important ratings agency Standard & Poors, but quit in August 2007 just as it started to become clear that the safe-as-houses triple-A ratings given to mortgage-backed securities had turned out to be illusory. She is now in charge of Cross Ridge Capital, a small private equity firm based in New Canaan, Connecticut – and did not respond to messages asking for her take on what happened in 2007 onwards, and what has transpired since.

Neither did Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who pumped up AIG to the point that the American group became the biggest insurance company in the world – only to watch it plunge towards bankruptcy and become 80% nationalised by the US government.

He resigned two years before the start of the crash, in 2005, in the midst of the accounting scandal that began the firm’s nosedive – but the fact that he avoided direct involvement in the crash presumably accounts for the fact that in controlled circumstances, he can speak with a belligerence that might suggest the events of 2007-8 never happened.

“We now have huge government, which is not the creator of opportunity – it’s the private sector that creates opportunity, so our basic values are under attack,” he recently said, warning against the prospect of “regulating ourselves out of business”. By way of putting his money where his mouth is, Greenberg is suing the US state for $25bn, alleging that AIG’s board was “coerced” into turning over control of the company to the federal government.

Such a high-profile action contrasts with the post-crash story of his old AIG colleague Joseph Cassano – the man who sold credit default swaps in London to keep the money coming in, and thereby pushed the company towards such ruin that it needed £182bn of US taxpayers’ money to keep it alive. Back then, Cassano lived in an opulent townhouse behind Harrod’s. He has since moved back to Westport, on Long Island Sound, where he is apparently unemployed, and uncontactable.

But if there is one man who remains the best embodiment of all the delusion and absurdity that led to the crash, it is 74-year-old Angelo Mozilo, the son of a Bronx butcher, a man so tanned that his skin looks like an orange dipped in toffee. Until July 2008 he was the chairman and chief executive of Countrywide Financial, the USA’s biggest provider of sub-prime mortgages. Between 2001 and 2006 he took home something in the region of $470m.

The company crashed from August 2007 onwards, finally being bought out by the Bank Of America. In a civil case that ended in October 2010 Mozilo settled with the SEC to pay $22.5m to cover allegations of fraud and insider trading, with a further $45m going to his company’s former shareholders to cover “ill-gotten gains”, to be taken from BoA and Countrywide’s insurers.

The SEC’s director of enforcement said this: “Mozilo’s record penalty is the fitting outcome for a corporate executive who deliberately disregarded his duties to investors by concealing what he saw from inside the executive suite – a looming disaster in which Countrywide was buckling under the weight of increasingly risky mortgage underwriting, mounting defaults and delinquencies, and a deteriorating business model.” At the same time, Mozilo was cashing in shares to the tune of $285m.

Last year a criminal investigation into Mozilo’s activities was shelved. But the intrigue swirling around him will not go away: four years after stories about his firm’s dealings with American lawmakers first appeared in the media, a Congressional Committee has alleged that Mozilo ran a “Friends of Angelo” unit to grant influential members of congress preferential loans, and thereby subdue any drive to rein in his very risky kind of business.

The impact of what Mozilo and his company did cannot be overstated: it was Countrywide that led the drive to drown the international financial system in bad debt, while he was paying himself spectacular amounts of money. In Wall Street, the City and beyond, the result of what he and his colleagues were doing was a deathly panic, and the end of the boom years; in the real world, millions of people had their homes repossessed or lost their jobs and now we labour under the austerity cuts that still grip the Western economies like a vice.

In May this year a piece in the LA Times reported that Mozilo and his wife Phyllis had sold their home in Thousand Oaks, 29 miles west of near LA, for $2.9m. It described a “Georgian Colonial-style two-storey” property, sitting above the second fairway at the Sherwood Country Club, complete with “a cherry-finished library-office, five bedrooms, six bathrooms and an oversized four-car garage”, along with “an infinity pool, spa, lawn and a built-in barbecue”.

Reading it, you wondered if perhaps, in their own way, the Mozilos were feeling the pinch. And then came the last sentence, and the sickly scent of the high life, uninterrupted: “They hold other southern California properties in trust, in Riverside and Santa Barbara counties.”

John Harris

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Ennis, Farah, Murray: here ends the state school myth | John Harris

Monday, August 6th, 2012

This weekend should silence all the talk that only the independent sector can produce top-class athletes

Last Thursday, the venerable Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to issue his early verdict on the Olympics. The influence of his Chinese wife was perhaps evident, as was his education at the fee-paying Geelong grammar school in south-eastern Australia. “No wonder China leading in medals while US and UK mainly teach competitive sport a bad thing,” he said. “How many champions state school background?”

Since then, he has seemingly been too preoccupied to say anything about the gold medals won by such British athletes as Andy Murray, Bradley Wiggins, Helen Glover, Victoria Pendleton, Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah, so it falls to me to make the point: they are all champions from a state school background.

Sporting successes and failures are always cast as stories that supposedly speak deep truths about the national condition, and if you’re the host country, the tangle of socio-political subtexts – imaginary or real – around races and games will be huge. The first week of the Olympics has produced a perfect example: a great mountain of nonsense talked about state schools and sport – pretty much all of it from the mouths of the privately-educated.

Yet Murdoch is hardly alone. Just before the Murdoch tweet, Colin Moynihan – a former Tory minister, alumnus of Monmouth school and chair of the British Olympic Association – cited the fact that 50% of Britain’s gold-medal winners at the Beijing Olympics were from private schools as “one of the worst statistics in British sport”. No matter that those numbers were skewed by the fact that the British team won only one gold in track and field: the Tory backbencher Charlotte Leslie soon weighed in, suggesting that if private schools were doing better at sport, it might have something to do with “culture”.

Our old Etonian prime minister has spouted similar opinions in the recent past, highlighting the self-same stupid prejudice: the idea that thanks to the influence of the leftie teaching establishment, kids at comprehensive schools are more likely to be found singing Blowin’ in the Wind and growing mung bean plants than experiencing the character-building wonders of proper sport.

As someone who was scarred by a twice-weekly ritual in which I was forced to develop a sporting side of my character that did not actually exist (cigarettes and guitars were my salvation), celebrating the contribution to sport of state schools – or, to be more specific, comprehensives – feels rather weird. But the point needs making: the idea that they are run by sports-phobic softies is up there with all the guff talked about immigration, health and safety and the rest. Yes, there are some real issues at play here, not least the awful imbalance between often paltry facilities at state schools and the money lavished on grounds and equipment in the independent sector (access to which for the great unwashed is something successive governments have done nothing about). But this weekend’s rapturous scenes should blow apart any suggestion that comprehensive schools and top-class sport are mutually exclusive.

Still, the myth has been bubbling away for at least 25 years. In 1987, the Thatcher government went as far as commissioning an inquiry into the issue, which reported no evidence of “any philosophy that is against competition”, and so it has remained, with a pronounced increase in sporting participation towards the end of the last decade. Thanks to the cuts, the Department for Education’s School Sports Survey was axed in late 2010, but we know this much: the total number of British pupils taking part in competitive sport at their school was 78% for the years 2009-10, up from 58% in 2006-07, and the average secondary school now offers participation in around 25 sporting disciplines. Four years ago, a typical piece in the Daily Mail bemoaned the fact that 438 state schools no longer had annual sports days – not mentioning that they represented just 2% of the total.

On close inspection, most of what we’ve heard in the last week dissolves into cant. Strange, isn’t it, that the same voices that peddle these myths had so little to say about the last Tory government’s sale of around 10,000 school playing fields? Peculiar, too, that Michael Gove is regularly heard claiming that “we need to revive competitive sport in our schools”, yet among his first acts as education secretary was the axing of the £160m budget for school sports partnerships, which enabled schools to share resources and their students to access expert sports tuition (Labour research suggests that thanks to cuts, there has been a 60% drop in time dedicated to organising school sport).

The interview archives bulge with evidence of comprehensives doing right by their sporting high-flyers. Last month Jessica Ennis said of her time at King Ecgbert school, Sheffield: “We had great support from a great PE department and teachers … What was brilliant … was that I was able to go away and compete and I still managed to get all my schoolwork done. The teachers being understanding did play a big role in that.”

On Saturday, among the first post-race tributes uttered by Mo Farah was one to his PE teacher at Feltham community college, who has recalled working with his protege as follows: “He had something special. I told him that if he stuck at running, he could one day compete for Britain.” Sebastian Coe went to a comprehensive school too. Note also that Sir Steve Redgrave was educated at a Secondary Modern in still-selective Buckinghamshire, where he was introduced to rowing by an English teacher. His school, he has said, “saw something in me that I didn’t”, which sounds like the very definition of encouraging sporting talent.

If those of us who were state educated are going to have to put up with stereotypes being thrown around, one counterblast springs to mind: as proven by everyone from Farah and Ennis, through Andy Murray and on to our uniformly state-educated professional footballers, might it be the case that a state education fosters grit, fire and aspiration that the independent sector can get nowhere near?

Moreover, when it comes to the wonders that only the comprehensive pupils can do for their sport, consider this: would all those people be descending on Halfords to buy racing bikes if Bradley Wiggins had been to Harrow, rather than St Augustine’s, Kilburn? I think not. So, say it loud: comprehensives are the proven schools of champions, something that amounts to a whole Olympic legacy in itself.

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John Harris

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