Tag Archives: Ardingly

In defence of Parliament

26 Oct

What most folk would like to do to parliamentary democracy

David Cameron stands up to the dispatch box.  He starts to speak.

“This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause chaos. What on earth did he mean?”

The Tory benches jeer.

“W-what would cause chaos,” Gordon Brown says, “is if a Conservative government were elected and cause public spending cuts…”

He is drowned out by Labour cheers.

“So there we have it,” Mr Cameron smiles, “the first admission that he thinks he is going to lose.”

HEEEEEEEEEAR!!!

The noise when you are watching Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is terrific. I once watched it from the House of Commons, and I can tell you, it is much louder in the Chamber. It is a noise which comes from the guts of 200-odd mainly privately-educated grown men. It is staggering. It reminds me of the times in Ardingly when a dining room-full of schoolboys would tacitly decide to sing Happy Birthday for no apparent reason other than to panic the junior member of staff on duty. As he or she marched up to find the ringleader, the singing would mysteriously stop. Relieved, he or she would walk away. A nod would be exchanged. You would catch someone’s glance, a glimmer of mischief in each eye. The singing would start over again.

The same juvenile impulse is at play in the Commons. It is juvenile. And yet, that urge to jeer, collectively, as one, gives such a rush. It makes you break away from any Latinate sophistication you once had, and makes you feel truly Anglo-Saxon: as if you are part of some wode-daubed tribe, or a blind-drunk football crowd, or a mud-soaked army about to whop the French. “HEEEEEEEAR!!!” What else can you do if Gordon Brown says he has saved the world? What other alternative is there when Betty Boothroyd tells a Lib Dem to “spit it out”?

PMQs is childish; it is witty; it is riotous fun; it is a fantastically bizarre thing to have as a national institution. That is why I love it.

Others disagree. Tabloid historian Dominic Sandbrook questions whether PMQs is fit-for-purpose in this great documentary marking 50 years of PMQs. The current Speaker, John Bercow, thinks the public hates the noisy futility of it all. I suspect the indifferent British public does get irritated by it. As they are hit by gas bills, petty crime and sluggish growth, they see their politicians behaving like a bunch of school kids. They must think: one, it is a waste of time, and two, it makes politics a question of personalities, not of policies. Both these criticisms are misplaced.

Is it a waste of time? Tony Blair spent the night before and morning preparing for PMQs at 12.00. Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings are great chunks of time to be taken up by a Prime Minister. The PM could be building relations with the French President or fine-tuning education policy. Instead, he takes time out of his job for what is essentially half an hour’s mud-slinging. Moreover, if one is a skilled politician, it is easy to give non-answers to non-questions. Just learn some facts, fit in some gags, prescript your responses: job done. As Blair himself admits, it is “a myth that it’s a great way of holding the prime minister to account. […] In truth, the whole thing is a giant joust.”

Giant joust or not, there is still a function to it. First, it ensures the leader of our country is on top of unemployment figures, health policy and so forth, rather than jetting off chatting to foreign dignitaries. It is important the PM is responsive to what is happening in this country. Second, parliamentary criticism puts pressure on the prime minister to act. Think of the News of the World scandal this year. Knowing Miliband and the rest of the Commons would savage the prime minister if he did nothing, David Cameron was pressured to launch an inquiry and urge Murdoch to drop the BSkyB bid. Far better it is for the executive to be held account by the legislature, rather than be outside of it, as all American Presidents are. Obama is held to account only by the unelected media, not elected politicians. PMQs restores that link between leader and parliament by commanding the PM to be there at least once a week.

What of the idea that it thrusts personality centre-stage? It makes virtues of stagecraft, egotism and dogmatism, and vices of modesty and uncertainty, does it not? That may be true, but that’s politics. As much as we would prefer a wise leader to one that only appears wise, politics will always favour the latter. It has always been that way. Disraeli, Lloyd George, Wilson, Blair: actors, the lot of them. What is Parliament but a theatre? And the greatest show of all is PMQs.

The root of the dissatisfaction, I fear, is merely the modern age’s contempt for politicians. Removing PMQs would not make us respect our politicians any more. They would still be making a mess of the economy, launching illegal wars and avoiding the real problems of our society, as they always have done. Removing PMQs would just make politics more boring, like Germany’s. Everyone would say Ja or Nein, and not jeer or heckle, but just disagree politely, and – what is worse – politicians would be just as awful. Far better for us to have the theatre. Far better for us to have PMQs.

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The Left has worked itself into an apoplectic fury against free schools, but why the silence on private schools?

21 Oct

In recent weeks, it seems I can’t get away from my old school, Ardingly.  Reading an article in the Sunday Times, I find a description of Ardingly as a private school which is “less well-known but equally grim”.  Half-way through a book on the Victorians, I find a passage on the founder Nathaniel Woodard.  The author describes Ardingly as a “third-class Woodard school”, to which parents send their boys so that “these boys might better themselves in later life that they could aspire to send their own sons to grander Woodard establishments, such as Lancing”.  Bloody Lancing.  That’s not all – Ardingly was to be aimed at parents who were “not, strictly, respectable”: for instance, the keepers of “second-rate retail shops, publicans, gin-palace keepers”… (Woodard’s own words)

I can’t say I saw all this in those Ardingly brochures.

But this got me thinking.  How similar were the ambitions of the founders of the greatest private schools in the land, Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s, et al. to the ambitions of the founders of free schools now?  There was certainly no profit motive at the root of their ambitions.  They were guided by an instinct, in some cases snobbish, in some cases pompous, but always altruistic.  The instinct was to improve the child.  The first step was to make them virtuous – polite, public-spirited, honourable, self-confident – altogether more “Christian” gentlemen, in their eyes.  In so doing, the boy could improve their income and social status.

The Tories’ free schools scheme taps into a similar instinct.  The scheme is simple in its design: it makes it easier for individuals and organisations to set up their own school.  They may be parents unhappy with state schools in the area, teachers, charities, religious or voluntary groups.  The same altruistic motivation is at heart.

There are some differences in ambition.  For one, snobbery plays no role in their ambitions.  Unlike Victorian private schools, free schools are open to anyone, not just children of the rich.  Girls may be admitted of course.  But apart from these things, the instinct is essentially the same.  No profit motive is at play, since profit-making enterprises are banned.  A glance down the list of the 24 new free schools reveals an instinct to make the child more virtuous.  Some schools aim to make the child more “Christian” as before; many more offer to make the child more “Sikh”, more “Jewish”, more “Hindu”.  Others, supported by charities, offer to turn inner-city youths into honourable adults.  All aim to make children excel.

The creation of schools with noble ambitions seems to me a good thing.  Yet there is an increasing host of individuals, mostly on the Left, who are convinced that free schools are a Very Bad Thing.  I can understand the objection against religious schools.  I can understand the objection against stripping cash from local schools to finance free schools.  (It would be nice if no school budget were being cut.)  But these are different objections from the challenge that free schools in themselves are bad.

Labour finds itself in this curious position.  The party has no truck against religious schools.  The party opposes slashed school budgets.  But the party also opposes the concept of free schools.  This is not because they believe free schools will be bad schools; bizarrely it is the reverse.  They oppose free schools because they fear free schools will be good.  This is no exaggeration.  Ed Balls has struck out against a “two-tier education system” in which some schools are allowed to do better than others.  In this “social apartheid”, please note, the free schools are the good schools.

In the midst of this confused dottiness, there is a silence over one particular issue.  Labour rails against the privatisation of the NHS – in spite of the fact that it is a continuation of the health reforms conducted under Thatcher, Major and Blair.  Labour rails against the privatisation of universities – despite that it was the party to usher in tuition fees in the first place.  Labour even rails against free schools as the “privatisation of education”.  This misses out one key thing: education is already private.  Where are the angry mobs shouting about that?  Where are the effigies of Nathaniel Woodard?

Don’t mistake me – I don’t want flaming torches to descend upon Ardingly.  My point is merely this: we already have a two-tier system.  It works as follows: the rich pay for their kids to go to the best schools; the rest either get bursaries, or are stuck with the state system.  The private schools have more money, so can afford smaller classes, larger grounds, better teachers.  The best teachers would prefer to work in the private schools, because these schools can kick the bad kids out, and y’know, they don’t have to deal with all the misery and dysfunction that comes with poor kids.  Thus social inequality is entrenched!

I don’t suggest this is a fair system.  But it’s the system we have, and no-one much likes to talk about it.  To some extent, social inequality will never diminish until every private school shuts.  No-one is prepared to do that.  The only way we can change things is to improve state education.  If we leave things as they are, poor kids will always be poor, rich kids will always be rich.  Having people who propose to create good schools for us – this is an opportunity that cannot be missed.