Grayling's Folly is falling down

The real reason to oppose the New College of the Humanities.

The New College of the Humanities should not be opposed because it is private or atheistic. There is nothing inherently wrong with a private institution willing to pay its own way, such as the University of Buckingham. And having noted atheists involved, such as A C Grayling or Richard Dawkins, is not by itself any discredit, even if being associated with this misguided project may discredit them as rational or progressive thinkers.

The New College of the Humanities should be opposed because it is simply a sham.

Careful attention reveals it to be just a branding exercise with purchased celebrity endorsements and a PR-driven website. The College has no degree-giving powers, nor any influence over any syllabus for any of the offered degrees. The degrees that its students will study for are normal University of London degrees, which external students can undertake at a fraction of the proposed £18,000. The College will seek access to University of London facilities, which it will presumably have to pay for at a commercial rate.

So what will the student get for their £18,000? It will hardly be "face time" with the celebrity "professoriate". Almost all of them are attached to foreign universities and have numerous other responsibilities and appointments. Indeed, in respect of the two listed law academics, neither of them are authorities in any of the seven core subjects of a standard law degree. The students will, it seems, have a course on science literacy, though such students would probably be better off going to their local "Skeptics in the Pub" branch and paying a couple of quid each month.

The humanities really deserve better than this.

The New College of the Humanities is an affront to the sort of rational thinking and evidence based approach that is associated with the humanities at their best. The distinction between appearance and reality is a staple of academic philosophy, and so it is disappointing that the eminent academic philosophers associated with this project thought they could get away with what is, in my view, a highly misleading PR exercise.

If there is to be some brave new initiative to protect and cherish the teaching of the humanities in this country then it should not be a glorified crammer for rich students in Bloomsbury with a slick and misleading website.

Thankfully, the initiative is now coming apart under scrutiny. For example, contrary to the college's Twitter account, it appears that it was not "founded by 14 of the world's top academics" and nor will it "provide gifted students with an outstanding education".

Indeed, each of these propositions seems to be false. The 14 named academics have not "founded" anything: they have just lent their names to someone else's initiative; the students will not be in any meaningful way "gifted" but those who (irrationally) choose to pay at least double the fees they would pay elsewhere to study for the same degree with exactly the same syllabus, but with the glamour of an absentee "professoriate"; and there is nothing about the proposed education which really makes it "stand out" at all.

Yesterday, I described the New College of the Humanities as "Grayling's Folly". Already it would appear that Grayling's Folly is falling down.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.