Michael Gove’s exam fetish, Hong Kong mystery and Tim Yeo’s Nobu lunch

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Apart from changing eight grades denoted by letters (A*-G) to eight grades denoted by numbers (strangely reversed so that 8 is highest, 1 lowest), the point of Michael Gove’s new GCSEs is to abolish coursework assessment and restore end-of-course, three-hour written exams to their former glory. Popular opinion, presumably shared by Gove, is that this will make exam results fairer and more reliable.

Popular opinion is wrong. Because conventional exams are taken on a single day and are limited to a small number of items, they are a poor measure of any individual’s performance. Different items taken on a different day are likely to produce a different result. Researchers estimate that one child in three gets the wrong grade. Assessment throughout the course, covering a wider range over a longer period, has a better chance of giving an accurate picture.

It’s true that coursework assessment also has shortcomings because thousands of teachers in different schools award the marks. But it is now called “controlled assess ment”, and exam boards are more rigorous about how teachers carry out testing and marking. Besides, old-fashioned exams are also marked by numerous different hands and the role of subjective judgement will rise with the introduction, at Gove’s command, of more extended-essay questions.

It is precisely because there is no single reliable method of assessment that Gove’s predecessors opted for a mixture: coursework, projects, old-style exams and (albeit rarely) multiple-choice tests. Not for the first time, Gove prefers rigidity and dogma to flexibility and pragmatism. That, I suppose, is why he is so popular with Tory backbenchers.

Fear itself

Talking some years ago about Britain’s difficulties with tracking illegal immigrants, an American Democrat, who held high positions under Bill Clinton, expressed lofty incredulity that “your government doesn’t know how many people are in your country”. I express ed incredulity that the land of the free – which itself doesn’t know whether its illegal immigrants total 11 million or 20 million – should expect governments to have a precise headcount. But the US political class, so sharply divided on everything else, is almost united on the need for federal agencies to collect unlimited data. Despite outrage among civil liberties groups at the snooping revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, Demo crats and Republicans alike have no misgivings about the surveillance state.

I suspect this insouciance is attributable to the American electoral system. Since vital elections occur every two years, politicians live in fear of terrorist attacks for which they may be blamed. Any suggestion that they denied security agencies the means to apprehend suspects would lose them far more votes than any concerns about loss of civil liberties.

Hong Kong phooey

Hong Kong is not an obvious haven for asylum-seekers. So why did Snowden choose it? I called a barrister friend in Hong Kong who drew my attention to its 1998 extradition agreement with the US. It lists 36 offences for which “fugitive offenders” may be surrendered but, as my friend points out, there is no mention of national security or espionage. In his opinion, “Hong Kong is the worst place in the world to flee to if you’ve committed a criminal offence,” but Snowden hasn’t committed one as defined by the agreement. “He’s certainly safer here than he would be in England,” m’learned friend (who is British born and bred) added. And if the US were tempted to use its tried and trusted technique of extraordinary rendition to get its man, Beijing might have a thing or two to say about it. What a strange world we live in, when a man is safer in what, after all, is now part of communist China than he would be in London.

Humble pie

What is most alarming about MPs and peers who allegedly express willingness to accept money from lobbyists is that so many of our legislators appear to be stupid. The latest example, Tim Yeo, the chairman of the Commons energy and climate change committee, was approached by undercover reporters purporting to represent a solar energy company. Such stings are not exactly unprecedented. Did it not occur to Yeo to check their cre dentials before joining them for lunch at Nobu in Mayfair, London? Was there perhaps a company website? Or a record at Com panies House? Could Yeo not have made inquiries among friends and contacts in the energy world?

Politicians are notoriously eager for free lunches but I don’t think I have ever accepted a meal without first researching the person who’s buying it. If MPs are too gullible to protect their own interests, how can they be expected, in this wicked world, to protect ours?

Give them an inch

Speaking to the Colchester branch of the Fabian Society, I remarked that, as a journalist, I wasn’t much good at making policies. An audience member disagreed. He was so impressed with Guardian columnists, he said, that he could think of at least six who should be on the opposition front bench. Would the country be better run, I later wondered, if government alternated between competing teams of Guardian and Telegraph commentators? Discuss.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution