Teaching economics teaches young people who to blame for their problems

No wonder Michael Gove wants to stop doing it.

While young people in Europe rise up in the wake of economic crises, in Britain they seem to have swallowed the rhetoric that someone else is to blame. They have no stake in the systems that govern them and Michael Gove wants to keep it that way.

You've heard about The Economic Crisis, right? How could you not, everyone's worrying about it. Open a newspaper, turn on the television, tune in to the radio or zone in on social media, and there they are, worrying. The Economic Crisis is always lurking nearby, threatening to breathe fire on us at a moment's notice. Governments have boldly tried and failed to slay it, losing limbs and public confidence along the way.

Our current government ministers set themselves up as bold knights guarding the people, keeping them at arms length from operations lest they get their own ideas and jeopardise the mission to calm everything down. They tell us The Economic Crisis was spawned by previous, incompetent knights and fed by the lazy and feckless, and we believe them. But the new crop of knights is better and bolder, they tell us.

And Gove the Barbarian is one of the boldest. He will smash down everything that gets in his way. He will use his might to protect the delicate workings of the State from the course and lowly masses. Teaching them too much about how it works is at best a distraction from the important business of moulding the compliant workforce that the government's economic plan requires, and at worst - well, I suspect he shudders to think.

So, in spite of vigorous lobbying behind the scenes, he has taken economics out of the citizenship curriculum and replaced it with personal finance. In itself, personal finance is a very welcome addition to the National Curriculum: I wish I had left school with some understanding of banks and budgeting. But, for Mr Gove, that's as far as it goes. He wants people to be responsible with their own money (after all, personal debt is no help to the economic situation), but he doesn't want to let people anywhere near the economy itself. Keep the plebs in the dark about politics, a little knowledge will only lead to trouble.

How irritating it must be, then, that trained teachers have their own ideas about teaching. He’s giving schools more freedom because he wants to free up the market, not because he trusts teachers. (I doubt he wants to ‘let a thousand William Tyndales bloom’, as Fred Jarvis pondered in the Independent.) It's time someone stamped out such subversive tendencies. It's time someone whipped schools into glorious mirrors of business that turn out neat, fragmented packages of knowledge and manners with ruthless efficiency. Little packages that expect nothing from the State; little packages that are eager for the System to gobble them up and fart them into the only bedroom of the last remaining council house. And Gove the Barbarian is the man for the job. 

But what happens if the slaying fails? Or if our knightly overlords lose their remaining credibility? So far, this government has only proved that politics can be pretty hopeless against such beasts as The Economic Crisis, which will likely turn on the people with vigour in the end. The failed attempts of politicians are simply evidence that mainstream politics does not hold the answers. So, people will look elsewhere to protect their own interests, as we have seen with the rise of the far right in Greece and rioting on the streets of Spain. Britain, so far, has got off lightly; we are kept in our place effectively. But for how long? And when our politicians lose their grip completely, do we really want an uprising of people who have been kept alien from political life?

So, put the economy back on the curriculum, Mr Gove. Fulfil your promise to ensure citizenship 'is even better taught' in schools. Prepare our young people properly for economic and democratic life. Otherwise, it will be each for themselves when the fire gets too hot, and your government's precious economic plan will be toast.

Michael Grimes is Online Communications Manager for the Citizenship Foundation.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.