In this week’s New Statesman: The audacity of popes

PLUS: Vince Cable on the great stagnation of post-crisis Britain.

John Cornwell: Goodbye to all that

In our cover story this week, the author John Cornwell investigates the history of previous papacies and asks whether a new pope could lead the Catholic Church in a more progressive direction.

The conservative papacies of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, he argues, “denounced liberation theology” and “resulted in an increase in Roman centralisation”, which led to “the failure to deal with the clerical abuse scandal promptly”. He writes that, from the middle of the 19th century, the papacy “has obstinately resisted the advance of secularism and democracy”; he notes in particular the Vatican’s battle against contraception and the American Catholic hierarchy’s public condemnation of Barack Obama’s health-care reforms, which “insisted that Catholic institutions staffed by non-Catholics should contribute to national insurance schemes that might be used to purchase contraceptives”. He adds:

Over the 32 years of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger partnership, the progressive Vatican II reforms have been eroded at the top in Rome, disclosing a political perspective that is increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist...

In the debates between the New Atheism and religionists, it is widely recognised that the point at which religion consistently transforms from benign to maleficent is when it fails to adopt a pluralist approach to other faiths as well as to the secular domain . . .

The tendency of the two most recent popes to lecture and dictate, rather than be part of a living conversation with their peer group, must be seen as a lost opportunity in a world facing such great socio-economic crises.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Vince Cable: When the facts change, should I change my mind?

In an exclusive essay for the NS this week, the Business Secretary contradicts George Osborne’s economic strategy - arguing that the "balance of risks" may have changed - and calls for "greatly expanded" capital spending.

This bold intervention, published just two weeks ahead of the Budget, can be read in full here - while George Eaton's expert summary of Cable's key points can be found here.

 

The Politics Interview: Jim Murphy blasts “lazy Labour”

In an interview with Rafael Behr, the Shadow Defence Secretary attacks the Labour Party’s "lazy" culture and its "sense of entitlement to win".

Murphy warns against a spread of "militant apathy" and condemns some of the party for failing to engage properly with voters. Ukip's strong performance in the Eastleigh by-elections, he argues, serves as a warning. He says:

If you don't knock on people's doors between now and polling day, you deserve what you get. They'll say “Where were you when I was struggling, when my husband lost his job, when my hours were cut, when I needed you?” . . . It's not an Eastleigh problem, it's a wider problem. It's Lazy Labour.

In the most explicit statement yet from inside the shadow cabinet of Labour's vulnerability, Murphy warns against relying on a collapse in the Lib Dem vote to deliver a majority for the opposition:

For a lot of people, it's fun to kick the Liberals but if you want a big, One-Nation mandate, it's pretty fruitless to just do that. Winning 2010 Tory voters is much harder but much more important. We could scrape over the finishing line with Labour voters plus some ex-Liberals but, given the scale of the problems we'd have to deal with, we don't want to just scrape over the finishing line.

Read this interview in full here.

 

Carla Powell: Short cuts, strong men, quick fixes

“Italy would get on better without a government at all,” declares Carla Powell, who writes this week from Rome in the wake of the Italian elections, in which Silvio Berlusconi experienced a career revival (winning near 30 per cent of the vote) and the newcomer Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement grabbed 26 per cent.

Powell writes of Italian voters’ historic tendencies to “crave a strong figure” and “naively believe the promises politicians make” – a mould of politics that suits Berlusconi well. Yet even the celebrated Grillo is not immune from the lure of making promises without solutions. Powell writes:

If you go further back into Italy’s political history, you can easily find examples of other charismatic figures who promised salvation and in the end delivered little or nothing. Some people are comparing the new phenomenon of Italian politics, Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement, the so-called grillini, to Mussolini . . .

Grillo doesn’t stand for anything but only against everything. He wants to get rid of the existing political class that has failed and that appeals to the frustration all Italians feel as the country’s problems get worse. But unlike Mussolini or even Berlusconi, he offers no solutions, nor a willingness to take responsibility for resolving Italy’s problems. In other words, Grillo is an entirely negative phenomenon.

. . . Italy needs something and someone new. The elections failed to promote that and we face another period when the same old faces will be trying to build coalitions that cannot last, between parties that want to evade our problems rather than address them.

 

Rafael Behr: No wonder Tory ministers are off-message: not even Cameron knows what the message should be

In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr dissects the chaos in the Tory party in the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election as senior ministers defy Cameron's moderate image and lurch towards a Ukip-inspired agenda:

Fear and blame are vast resources at a time of economic crisis but it is a duty of mature, democratic politicians not to exploit them. That doesn’t stop the Conservatives from trying. In the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election, in which Ukip pushed the Tories into third place, ministers have been lashing out at familiar foes. Iain Duncan Smith found himself anguished afresh at the scourge of “benefit tourism”. Meanwhile, Theresa May and Chris Grayling remembered their horror at the European Convention on Human Rights and their determination one day to prise it out of British law.

A more profound problem with Tories chasing the Ukip vote is that it contradicts Cameron's new central idea, which is to present Britain as an open economy keen to compete in the "global race":

Tory MPs don’t anticipate the global race selling any better on the doorstep than “the big society”, which was the Conservative leader’s unwavering ambition before he wavered. Yet there is a deeper problem with the theme, which is that the Tory account of Britain’s economic plight, as set out before the 2010 election, was the opposite of global. It was insular and parochial. Cameron explained with lethal simplicity how Labour had spent all of the money – maxed out the credit card – and how only national belt-tightening could lead to recovery. He and George Osborne are now learning that international forces determine whether the UK economy grows or shrinks. Their problem is that a message crafted out of that insight sounds like a lame excuse for failure – the very charge that was levelled against Gordon Brown when he talked about a global crisis.

Read his column in full here.

 

In the Critics

  • A dazed and deeply confused Kate Mossman is forced to wait two hours for Justin Bieber to take the stage at the O2 (read here.)
  • Paul Morley relives the experience of listening to his first Sony Walkman on the London Underground in 1979.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Rufus Norris’s Broken and Robot & Frank, directed by Jake Schreier.
  • Historian Richard Overy reviews David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences.
  • Jon Day reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.

And much more... Read our full "In the Critics this week" blog here.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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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.”