Alex Salmond after signing an agreement for a referendum on Scottish independence in October 2012. Photo: Getty
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Alex Salmond visits London, Alan’s friends – and was Orwell on the right or left?

Looking forward to the Scottish First Minister's NS lecture on 4 March, wondering what's gone wrong the BBC's arts programming, and remembering Stuart Hall.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing of late from metropolitan commentators about the threat Alex Salmond poses to the unity of these islands. It’s as if they have belatedly understood that soon they could be living in a permanently Eurosceptic, Tory-led, rump United Kingdom while Scotland forges a new identity as a pro-European social democracy on the Nordic model (“Oh, dear Scots, please don’t go!”).

While many of the London elites – media, business, political, economic – have been complacent about the reasons why so many Scots wish to break from or at the very least reconfigure the multinational British state, we at the New Statesman have not.

A few weeks before the 2011 Scottish election we published a leader warning Labour that it was facing the prospect of a defeat in Scotland that would have far-reaching consequences. A few days later, Ed Miliband, speaking to one of my colleagues, expressed bafflement that we should have published such a leading article. It turned out to be prescient; Labour was deservedly routed in Scotland. We were on the road to September’s independence referendum.

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On Tuesday 4 March, Alex Salmond will come to London at our invitation to make his case for independence. “I am looking for­ward to using this New Statesman lecture,” the First Minister said, “to outline how an independent Scotland will be both a progressive beacon and a powerful economic counterweight to the pull of London, which can help rebalance the social and economic structure across these islands which has seen the UK become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.”

It is this desire among Scots to create a more balanced economy and a less unequal society that makes it certain that even if a majority says no to independence, the SNP would still have won. The present constitutional settlement in the UK is unsustainable. The centre cannot hold. The desire of the Scots and Welsh for greater autonomy is growing and too many people in England feel disenfranchised and disaffected.

It’s not for nothing that last autumn a radical populist such as Russell Brand was able to dominate the political conversation, or that Nigel Farage is so ubiquitous. The anti-Westminster mood is hardening.

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Alex Salmond is above all a gradualist. He might not win independence this time around – I expect the vote to be close – but he knows that, if Great Britain is to remain a coherent nation state, then federalism is inevitable. He also knows that, even if they lose, the nationalists will come again and again. There is no turning back. The status quo is unacceptable to all except the most insular unionists.

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The Financial Times dismissed Alan Yen­tob’s 8 February BBC2 profile of Hanif Kureishi as an “hour of portentous complacency”. Yentob, who is 66, has been working at the BBC since 1968. He mystifyingly still occupies an elevated position as the corporation’s premier arts film-maker, as if in all that time no one of comparable talent has emerged to challenge his authority or replace him. (Why is it the male presenters who last so long at the BBC?)

Yentob has become a hagiographer. Worse still, the BBC allows him to make indulgent, uncritical programmes about his close friends – such as Kureishi and the architect Richard Rogers, husband of Ruth Rogers, chef-owner of the River Café restaurant in west London, a favourite haunt of the bearded arts supremo and his pals.

It gives me no pleasure to say that the only film in Yentob’s flagship Imagine series I’ve managed to watch to the end was last year’s offering on Machiavelli. But even this well-intentioned programme featured contributions from another of Yentob’s friends, the psychologist Adam Phillips, and ended with the BBC man back at Broadcasting House smugly comparing himself to a Machiavellian anti-hero, as if we hadn’t already seen enough of him in front of the camera. BBC Television – which brought us Monitor, Omnibus, Arena and The Late Show – was once celebrated for the distinction and ambition of its arts programmes. When did it begin to go wrong?

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I first encountered Stuart Hall’s writings when I studied A-level politics at my local sixth-form college in Essex. The lecturer was an enthusiast of the new cultural studies and he used to show us recordings of the TV programmes Hall made for the Open University. He also gave me Raymond Williams’s short book on Orwell to read. “Was Orwell on the right or left?” he asked.

Hall, who died on 10 February at the age of 82, was one of the most penetrating analysts of the emergence of the new right. Through his essays in Martin Jacques’s Marxism Today he reached a wider audience and popularised the term “Thatcherism”. A couple of summers ago I sent my then colleague Jonathan Derbyshire to interview Hall. “When I saw Thatcherism,” he told the NS, “I realised that it wasn’t just an economic programme, but that it had profound cultural roots. Thatcher and [Enoch] Powell were both what Hegel called ‘historical individuals’ – their very politics, their contradictions, instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play.”

For Hall, Thatcherism was a “hegemonic project”: she did not merely wish to liberalise the economy, she wanted to change the soul of the nation, and she did. We are still living with the aftershocks of the Thatcher counter-revolution, as events in Scotland remind us.

For details of Alex Salmond’s NS lecture, visit: newstatesman.com/events

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”