Sunday, January 29, 2006

Thinking about education

By many accounts - if not all - the government's education white paper is vague, meaningless, whimsical or just plain confusing. Several commentators have remarked that they are unsure what it actually means - which makes one wonder how Labour's left know what it is they are objecting to or the Conservative Party what it is they're supporting. Nevertheless.

Of course, the idea of selection by ability which the paper's proposals may - or may not - lead to is anathema to the left. That some schools could improve is unacceptable if others will not. Better, it seems, they all stay where they are than only some get better.

Selection already takes place, of course. If you are sufficiently well-off you can afford the premium rate houses that are situated within the catchment areas of good schools. If you are poor you cannot. Ambitious parents (and they are not all middle-class, by the way) fill schools with their off-spring making the school better by default. (More on that in a moment). Selection by ability might allow bright, poorer children access to schools that selection by wallet-size disqualifies them from.

Today's education system is, in some ways, a useful example of how political arrogance and central planning are, in the medium and long term, the worse things possible for a country.

The belief that politicians know what people need - university degrees, in this case - and that they, the government, can provide the system to supply them is not only being proved wrong (the British university degree is now becoming devalued at an extraordinary rate) but, to my mind, is most destructive of the people this misguided ambition was designed especially to help. Thousands of children are being shepherded into degree courses that they either don't need, won't pass or can't afford.

But one of the reasons the education system is not producing the hoped-for goods isn't to do with government mismanagement at all. Here's a question: what is the education system's most important resource? The teachers? The buildings? Books and equipment?

I think it's none of these. Given a level playing field throughout England - identically skilled teachers working in identically resourced buildings - you would still see a disparity of outcome and you would still see, over time, a high degree of parental selection taking place. Because the difference that makes a difference is the children themselves. When we speak of better or worse schools we actually mean better or worse pupils. Motivated, disciplined kids whose parents aspire on their behalf, read to them at bedtime, talk to them during the day and make sure they do their homework produce better pupils for the schools to work with. Fill Eaton with the illiterate, the disruptive, the anti-social and the violent and then watch that school become a failing one.

Poorly performing schools are partly the result of poorly performing pupils and the pupils are the result of poorly performing parents. Yet nobody addresses this issue at all. Why might that be?

Because, as with the Prime Minister's 'respect' agenda (which I wrote about here), Labour seem totally unwilling to address underlying causes. The behaviour that leads to yobbish and criminal activity in teenage years is first witnessed in 11 and 12 year old miscreants at school. What underlies the breakdown of civility, consideration and 'respect' on the streets is the same as which underlies the breakdown of civility, consideration and 'respect' in schools. The government behaves as if children spitting at teachers and children spitting at police officers are separate problems. One is labelled 'school discipline and the other is called 'criminal behaviour'. But they both come from the same source - a rights-based state-dependent culture which, year by year, becomes more confident - or cock-sure - and more untouchable.

Mr Blair could ameliorate many of the problems he's now tackling if he would just address the central problem of social breakdown. He would not create perfect country - one is not possible - but, in time, he could set in motion the attitudes and outlooks that ensure some order in society and, hence, the necessary framework for fulfilling lives. It is too late for him now. Tragically, it is also too late for many of our young people.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The British union: for and against

Are there any advantages to there being a united kingdom?

What does England and the English derive from its existence?

Ideological conversion or opportunism?

A Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate has jumped ship to David Cameron's Conservative Party. [Source: The Independent]

Adrian Graves, who stood at the 1997 and 2005 elections for Suffolk West, said his decision was a response to David Cameron modernising the Tories rather than the "catastrophe" in the Liberal Democrats after the resignation of the party's leader Charles Kennedy and home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten.

The Independent speculates that several actual MPs may defect to the Conservatives.

Of course, the Conservative Party is the only party of the main three that offers any sense of certainty about the future. The Liberal Democrats have suffered terrible set-backs with the resignation of their leader, Charles Kennedy, due to alcohol problems and then the resignation of the leadership contender Mark Oaten who seems to have engaged in extra-marital sex with a male prostitute.

The Labour government of Great Britain is in some disarray with important policy bills being challenged from within while the quality of British society is in decline on all fronts. New Labour's leader-in-waiting - who will replace Mr Blair towards the end of this term of office - may inherit a country so frustrated at Labour's years of failure that he stands every chance of losing the election.

In the meantime, the Conservative Party's honeymoon period is far from over with polls putting them ahead of Labour for the first time in years - not by much, but ahead nevertheless.

The immediate questions that arise as a result of this defection - and of others, should they occur - will include: are these people simply looking for a winner and regard the Tories as it? Has Conservative policy moved so much that Lib Dems now feel it is no longer conservative any more - so can happily associate with it?

To answer the second question we can listen to Mr Graves himself:

Mr Graves, who joined the Liberal Democrats in 1990, said he started to reconsider his position when he heard Mr Cameron's pronouncements on issues such as health and Europe. "I thought, 'hang on a minute, that is what I have been saying'. He has caught the imagination. I haven't changed. I have stayed exactly where I am. This is a seamless transition for me. I still passionately believe in the things I believed in years ago. It is David Cameron's modernised, compassionate Conservativism that has changed."

Mr Graves even believes some Labour MPs will move to the Conservatives.

All else aside, this is an astonishing about-turn in the Conservative Party's fortunes but future Lib Dem defections will be interesting, if they occur. As their ship sinks perhaps the economically socialist will abandon it in favour of Labour while the economically liberal choose the Conservatives. Whether Lib Dems have any social conservatives I do not know but I do wonder where they might go.

If the party really does fall apart might there be a new left-wing party, perhaps led by Sir Menzies Campbell? For conservatives that can only be good news. Such a party may well split the Labour vote giving the Conservative Party a clearer run to election victory. Then all we need hope for is a realignment with the New Lib Dems to the left, New Labour in the centre and a newly confident (but not 'new') Conservative Party where it belongs - on the right.

Politics could then become very interesting indeed...

Monday, January 23, 2006

Whose business?

Mark Oaten was a contender for the vacant position of leader of the British Liberal-Democratic Party. He pulled out of the contest last week stating that he did not have enough support to pursue his leadership bid. This weekend it has been suggested - and Mr Oaten has not denied - that he had a homosexual relationship with a young male prostitute. Mr Oaten is married with two daughters.

The lurid details can be found here [News of the World].

A question which arises from all this is where does Mr Oaten's obligation to explain to the public - and, if necessary, apologise for - his behaviour begin and where does it end? Where does what he's alleged to have done stop being private - which is where it starts - and start becoming public? To what extent should we be delving into and reporting the activities of his private life?

To compare: one of the objections to the government's attempts to ban smoking in pubs is that pubs are legal and smoking is legal. Therefore smoking in pubs - a cultural habit centuries old - should be legal. Banning a legal habit in a legal establishment seems a step too far.

One might apply similar reasoning to the Mark Oaten case. His activities, whatever else one might feel about them, are legal. To what extent is public outrage justifiable? Of course, one feels very sorry for Mr Oaten's wife and children who may suffer horribly at the hands of tabloids and other gossips and snipers but surely only their outrage is truly justifiable?

The problem with setting moral (for want of a better word) rules and standards - which, incidentally, I believe is essential for a properly functioning civil society - is that these rules and standards can encroach too much into the stuff of people's private lives. Conservatives generally do not support government interference in the day to day matters of family life. Further, these standards are set by people who, in the fullness of time, themselves may fall short of them - or similar ones. The resulting outcry then brings the standards themselves into disrepute.

One of the keys to morality is identifying where public and private spheres begin and end. In the public sphere government may involve itself in setting standards - as they already do. It is immoral to, for example, kill or steal or rape so we expect our government to punish, on our behalf, people who do these things.

But legal acts carried out with full consent are next to impossible to legislate for and the attempt should not be made. Humans, in all their imperfection, will do all sorts of things wrong but it is for them and their families to resolve the wrongdoing in their own way.

In a general sense, many of the exposes of celebrity wrongdoing - infidelity being the favourite - are presented not to outrage but to titillate. These goings on are, in the public sense, more harmful for being exposed since, over time, they create the impression that infidelity (or drug abuse or tax evasion or whatever the scandal of the moment is) is commonplace, ordinary and simply the subject of lighthearted entertainment. People reach maturity believing that, rather than fidelity, dishonesty in relationships and finances and elsewhere is the norm. The personal carnage, the individual tragedies and broken lives are impossible to convey in shock-horror tabloid stories.

If we are going to be morally outraged then aiming our fire at the misbehaviour of imperfect humans, while understandable, is to misdirect it. The damage to our society is not carried out by individuals but by those parts of the entertainment industry that thrive on it. There is no genuine public need-to-know when a politician/pop star/bloke down the street involves him/herself in some sordid affair. There may be public want-to-know but this is not the same thing. People who consume scandal sheets are complicit is the coarsening of society. Before professing outrage at others' behaviour they may wish to examine their own first.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Conservatives and selfishness

Selfishness, measured only as the pursuit of material wealth gives a distorted picture of the nation's well-being. In fact, the diminishing quality of life experienced by many people has no economic source at all but is due to the decline of English civil society.

One of the accusations commonly levelled at conservatives is that we are a party of greed, a party that pursues the interests of the better-off and cares little for the worse off. This gives rise to the myth that only 'rich people' vote for the Conservative Party and 'poor people' vote for the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats. Because being rich is associated with being greedy the rich - and, by association, conservatives - are considered to be selfish.

The narrow definition for ‘selfishness’ - namely, material greed - coupled with the to-be-expected fact that, with wildly differing motivations, talents and ambitions, wealth inequality – also known as ‘unfairness’ - actually exists provides the happy circumstances in which the liberal-left may ply their trade.

Yet 'selfishness' is simply the act of considering one's own needs, responding to one's own whims and pursuing one's own agenda without regard to the effect such action might have on others. There is no necessity that the definition be confined purely to the economic realm. I would suggest that there is a steady increase in the extent to which England is becoming a country that exhibits selfish - that is to say, insensitive and harmful - behaviour but that this burgeoning selfishness has relatively little to do with the pursuit of money or material gain.

Conservatives are concerned with a range of issues affecting society where the acquisition of wealth is only one of many. At least as important is the maintenance of peace and order and the avoidance of upheaval generally. The reason why the wealthier tend to prefer conservative administrations is simply because, as a result of conservatives’ tendency to interfere less in the workings of either the market or society - and hence the relative decrease in regulation and taxation - the wealthier members of society become and then remain wealthier.

Conservatives generally believe that, in many areas of life, people make better decisions than politicians. For this reason, conservatives would tend to interfere less in economic and social life than would socialists or their colleagues on the left.

That certain individuals prosper under conservative administrations is not actually because conservatives necessarily prefer the entrepreneurial or work consciously in their favour; it is entrepreneurs themselves who make the most of the conditions present during conservative administrations. By their efforts it is, ironically, those with pronounced entrepreneurial skills who exacerbate (if that’s the right word) wealth inequality by the success of those efforts. But it is not a situation sought by conservatives. It is one created by ordinary people.

In truth, conservatives believe there can be no equality of anything. Because we start out unequally endowed in all the human attributes - intelligence, diligence, confidence, experience, drive, passion, belief, values - our results are correspondingly diverse. But if one measures selfishness in such narrow terms – income inequality, mainly – one will always find it.

It is conservatives who realise though, that brute inequality is not, in itself, particularly important. If the poorest can afford small mansions to live in is it especially troublesome that the richer can afford large ones? These days, almost everybody is far wealthier than their own grandparents were at the same age and would expect this differential to increase over time.

Happiness - surely the attribute after which we all strive - comes from the fulfilment of a range of wants or needs; the relative strength and urgency of those needs changes over time. It is the experience of meaningful relationships, interesting work, sufficient wealth, good health, enjoyable spare-time pursuits, security, esteem, belonging, fun, excitement - and so on – that contribute in differing amounts to the general well-being of any particular individual. We strive for balance across the range and imbalances can occur in any one or more of these areas. Conservatives realise this and regard man's needs as being more than just economic; but they are branded as selfish for not focussing all their attentions on income differentials or 'relative' poverty.

Conservatives appreciate what man creates for himself - life, work, traditions, art, pass-times and so on. It is usually imperfect but it's his and conservatives would normally seek only to formalise some of the rules by which man lives rather than seek to tell him how to live. The liberal-left believe that the application of intelligence can cure all ills and so set themselves the task of doing just that. When the process comes up against reality it is reality that must give way since leftist ideology and the real-world are incompatible. It is in this antagonism between their ambitions and man's needs that many of our current woes were created.

Selfishness - the wanton disregard for others in the pursuit of one's own aims - increasingly pervades English life and it is steadily worsening. It is criminal behaviour – and, specifically, the low-level swaggering insolence and arrogance of a certain section of our communities – that gives us our starkest examples of self-regard and inconsideration for others. Vandalism, coarse language, litter - and worse - smeared across our streets, the disappearance of once-common courtesies and the readiness to move form disagreement to violence increasingly mark our civil life. No longer is selfishness' most obvious manifestation the rich landowner exploiting the powerless labourer. It now exists in the fabric of our society. In the parlance of New Labour, selfishness has been modernised.

The battle against poverty was, to a greater extent, won years ago. A mixture of free-market economics, social conscience and advancing technological advancement were the main weapons used. But the inconsiderate society persists and, indeed, seems to be strengthening. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is said to crave a legacy before he leaves Number 10. He will have a legacy but it will not be one he wished for. Too many English people exhibit callous disregard for their fellow citizens and the sum of human degradation is increasing. His government detached itself from the roots of civil society in 1997 and is, in turn, cutting us off from what previously held us firm.

Mr Blair's legacy might simply be that, so damaged has our culture become, so self-absorbed, disrespectful and plain selfish there might be too few people left in the end to remember how to be decent.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Gordon Brown and 'Britishness'

Gordon Brown wants us to celebrate Britishness. He wants us to have a 'British day' and to plant Union flags in our gardens - rather like the Americans do.

When we suddenly become patriotic Britons, what is it we will be patriotic about?

"We would welcome such a recognition and celebration of Britishness which itself is of an inclusive nature. It recognises the diversity of our communities in our country." - Sir Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain.

"We welcome the idea of a British Day if it gives people in Britain the opportunity to celebrate the positive aspects of our culture and the diversity and vibrancy of Britain today." - British Council

Patriotism is the sense of allegiance that one feels towards their country. It is an emotion and, as such, is difficult to peg to particular social movements, historical facts or current trends or fashions. In the same way that people love their spouses in private, unique ways so do they love their country.

Gordon Brown misunderstands patriotism in the same way Tony Blair misunderstands respect. [I posted here on the topic of Mr Blair's 'respect' agenda.] Mr Brown believes patriotism is a manufactured quantity, that if a politician decrees it then it can not only come into being as and when required but it can come into being in the form and shape preferred by he who summoned it. And so if patriotism is decreed to mean, for example, celebrating 'diversity' or praising the Empire then not celebrating diversity or being critical of the Empire could then mean you are not considered patriotic.

Of course, one might place a slightly more cynical slant to Mr Brown's call for British patriotism. He himself is Scottish and, as Scotland more and more takes on the trappings of an independent country we, the English, are becoming increasingly aware of how 'Britishness' is becoming a faded glory. Instead - Mr Brown might fear - we may in turn look towards our Englishness as the national identity, identifying ourselves, perhaps, in opposition to Scotland. This being so, Mr Brown suddenly finds himself being one of 'them' rather than one of 'us'. He would understandably want to ensure that he is part of the 'us' come the next election.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are using natural, human sentiments - respect and patriotism respectively - as means to ends - tools - when in fact these feelings are grown from within the person rather than manufactured from outside. These feelings contain both their own means and their own ends. And Mr Brown's call to 'British' patriotism may yet backfire. Many will regard this as a cynical ploy from a party not known for its appreciation of anything British. But more than this, it might just prompt sufficient debate to have the English wondering, 'Just who are we?'

Mr Brown may not like the answer to this question.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Tony Blair does not understand 'respect'

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has a fairly accurate sense of what is wrong on England's once peaceful and civilised streets. In his 'Respect Action Plan' - an attempt to combat these problems - he outlines the reality of 'modern' England:

Mr Blair says that the underlying theme of [the] "Respect action plan" will be tackling the "root causes of antisocial behaviour, which lie in families, in the classroom and in communities". He is dispatching 16 ministers to promote the Government's new plans to combat yobbery and low-level disorder.

"There are still intractable problems with the behaviour of some individuals and families, behaviour which can make life a misery for others. What lies at the heart of this behaviour is a lack of respect for values that almost everyone in this country shares.

Antisocial behaviour creates havoc for communities. We will take tough action so that the majority of law-abiding, decent people no longer have to tolerate the behaviour of the few individuals and families that think they do not have to respect others."

[Source: The Independent. ]

His measures certainly seem draconian. They appear to capture the frustration felt by many of us at the seemingly endless tales of terrible behaviour exhibited by increasingly arrogant - and, seemingly, untouchable - members of our youth:

A "National Parenting Academy" will be set up where professionals, such as social workers, clinical psychologists, community safety officers and youth justice workers, will have their skills honed. Communities will also be given powers to demand tougher action from police.

Regular "face the people" sessions will force police officers and council officials to reveal what they are doing to tackle yobbery. If they think problems are being ignored, residents will be able to make an official "community call to action".

Police will also get the power to evict the worst problem families from their homes for up to three months if they refuse to improve their behaviour. The proposal is based on police powers to shut down "crack dens".


His attempts to tackle the problems fail in three important respects:

He does not pursue enforcement of the laws we currently have. In fact, in the very same plan he states he will cut the length of prison terms for minor offences such as petty theft, burglary and vandalism in an effort to reduce the record prison population. Yet a meaningful punishment for first and minor offences may just be what is needed to dissuade some youngsters from going down the road to more damaging criminal behaviour. The alternatives to imprisonment - mainly the notorious ASBO (basically, an electronic tag enforcing a curfew) - is a weak punishment displayed almost as a badge of honour by some of those subject to one.

He does not, as he claims, actually tackle all the root causes. He leaves out those which the ideology of his Party refuses to even acknowledge exist. If he were truly determined to address all the sources of our discontent then he would surely recognise the damage caused to society by wide scale family breakdown, the prevalence of a system of welfare that removes from us the obligation to take care of ourselves and our families and an entertainment culture that is increasingly coarse, cynical and vacuous and which glamorises the kind of selfish and arrogant behaviours that we see on our streets.

Finally, his understanding of the very word, 'respect', seems quite suspect. 'Respect' could be defined as the consideration, appreciation and esteem felt or demonstrated by one person towards another person, persons or institution. Amongst its many manifestations would be some consideration for the well-being of that person. Mr Blair's agenda actually operates where that respect is non-existent. His measures are, in fact, simply punishment and punishment - while playing a vital role in maintaining order - will never inculcate in those who suffer it concern for another's well-being or a sense of esteem for another. Indeed, punishment's effectiveness resides in its recipient's concern for his own well-being rather than anybody else's and modification of behaviour comes about through fear of consequences rather than the development of esteem and consideration - respect - for others.

One might not doubt the Prime Minister's desire to confront - and defeat - the blight of yobbishness and criminality on our streets. For all sorts of reasons - not least of all naked self-interest - it is in his best interests to clean up English society and rid us of the scourge of foul, obnoxious and sometimes very violent behaviour displayed daily on our streets.

But his supreme difficulty lies in his wanting the cure while not being willing to suffer the medicine. Labour cannot be seen to be critical of any of the lifestyle choices known to produce much higher than average rates of delinquency, ill-health and educational failure because Labour fear being accused of blaming the 'vulnerable' for their own plight. Despite some of the tough measures he proposes against families who are regarded as disruptive of the peace Labour still does not want to appear in any way 'conservative' - especially at a time when the Left in the Party are becoming increasingly troublesome.

So, the horse has truly bolted and we're left trying to deal with the aftermath rather than the root cause of its escape. The Prime Minister will have to continue to go for effect, hoping that the mix of media coverage and, perhaps, some widely-publicised evictions or punishments will act as a deterrent on the rest.

However it works out, we can be sure of one thing. He will not in any way increase the level of respect for others in those targeted by these measures. And the underlying causes of the behaviour he wishes to alter will remain, unchallenged and, so far as the government is concerned, completely unacknowledged. Labour's increasingly radical pronouncements are, once again, the natural consequence of refusing to face up to the basic realities of life.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

"The facts of life do invariably turn out to be Tory"

I have been deliberating for a while now about writing a 'why I am a conservative' type post. It's a work in the making so, in the meantime, I will comment on the above quote. It was first uttered by Lady Thatcher and, although I know what she means, she's got things face-about.

In reality, conservatism first looks at the facts of life - society's reality - and more or less accepts and respects the basic arrangements of the people who comprise that society. One of conservatism's main aims is then to support such arrangements if possible and, where necessary, codify in law the generally accepted morality of the society in question.

Naturally then life turns out to be Tory - or conservative - since life is the Tory's first port of call when clarifying what he or she believes in.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Drug use and the failure of authority

According to yesterday's Guardian newspaper Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, is reported to have been swayed by a report that suggests the illegal narcotic, cannabis, be upgraded from a category 'C' offence to a category 'B' offence.

Having thus decided the drug is more dangerous than he first thought the Home Secretary wishes to dissuade its use by means of 'a major public education programme about the health and legality of cannabis'. Part of the justification for the need to educate people was that his predecessor, David Blunkett's, decision to downgrade its use to a Grade 'C' offence had caused the public confusion regarding the drug's legality. [Source]

To treat the criminal and dangerous use of drugs as a public health issue - curable by 'education' - demonstrates in Mr Clarke a serious misunderstanding of human nature. The assumption is that humans are rational creatures, wont to make the best decisions for themselves based on available information. The Home Secretary seems to believe then that if he updates the information available on cannabis people will respond accordingly. While there almost certainly is a potential usefulness of 'aversion therapy' in influencing behaviour reliance on that technique alone is a recipe for failure. The smoking, sexual disease and obesity statistics really ought to disabuse Mr Clarke of the libertarian fantasy of human rationality.

In truth, we tend to do what we believe will make us feel good in the instant and are adept at blocking out thoughts of a potentially uncomfortable future consequence. Younger people, less able to resist the pressure of their peers and/or the allure of being 'cool', are the least likely to respond to the play-it-safe messages of yet another bunch of old people yet are the ones most in need of an unequivocal stance on drug use. For many, any meaningful lessons derived from the Home Secretary's attempts to educate will naturally diminish with time - helped also perhaps by the ridicule and loss of status suffered at the hands of their contemporaries.

There are few effective ways of persuading people to not do something that they really want to do but which is regarded as an activity not conducive to civil order and well-being. And the more they want to do it the stronger the persuasion needs to be to prevent them from doing so. Ultimately, the only effective method is an emphatic condemnation of the behaviour - cannabis use in this case - supported by a consistently applied and widely understood sentencing policy.

By countering the real and perceived pleasures of cannabis use with a clearly stronger downside (that is, certain imprisonment) the state exercises the power borne of its legitimately acquired authority in defence of civil order. By emphatically asserting its belief in right and wrong and backing its assertions with appropriate action the state makes its attitude clear to both would-be users and the public at large. In doing so it fulfils one of the expectations - maintenance of order - by which it derived its authority in the first place.

The general refusal to exercise power in support of the civil way of life is a major failure in modern society. The evidence of the failure of authority to do what is expected of it is experienced nationwide from seditious rantings in Hyde Park to the spitting, swearing yobs that pollute English streets. We see clearly that those to whom we have conferred authority have chosen to pursue other agendas than the ones we expect of them.

Relegating dangerous and criminal behaviour to the status of a health 'issue' - a status confirmed by an educational approach to its 'cure' - does not, I suggest, confuse anybody over cannabis use. Actually, it sends out a clear - if incorrect - message that, like consuming too much fat or having sex without using a condom, the final judge of what is right or wrong is the individual's alone.

If the Homes Secretary wishes to save society - and drug users - from the miserable consequences of drug use and abuse then I would suggest he assert an unequivocal condemnatory attitude to drug use generally and start punishing transgressors in a consistent and meaningful manner in order (to paraphrase Voltaire) to encourage better behaviour in others. A few clear examples of his intolerance of drug use will, in the longer term, send a much clearer and meaningful message to potential users thus saving them and society from the habit's sometimes appalling consequences.

And in so supporting the standards of English civil life he will demonstrate that he is worthy of the authority conferred on him by the electorate.

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