In this week’s New Statesman

The public schools debate, David Runciman on British democracy and a new poem by Rowan Williams.

31 JANUARY 2014 ISSUE

Cover story: Why is the British left absent from the public schools debate?
 
David Runciman: Why British democracy is not in danger.
 
Rafael Behr on Ed Miliband’s bid to steal the Treasury’s power.
 
Echoes of Nagasaki: A new poem by Rowan Williams.
 
PLUS
 
Frances Wilson on the forgotten women behind great male authors.
 
Michael Rosen asks: What makes us human?
 
John Pilger awards his Oscars for celebrity self-promotion.
 
“Sensing Spaces”: Amanda Levete immerses herself in the Royal Academy’s new architecture exhibition.
 
The NS TV critic Rachel Cooke on BBC soundtracks.

 

COVER STORY: WHY IS THE BRITISH LEFT ABSENT FROM THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS DEBATE?

In this week’s cover story, the historian David Kynaston and his son George Kynaston, a teacher, ask why the British left has struggled to articulate its opposition to public schools since the 1940s:

Even in Michael Foot’s “suicide note” manifesto of 1983, Labour did not promise anything beyond ending their charitable status; and it is startling to scour Tony Benn’s diaries through the 1970s and 1980s and find so little about the issue.

“Why,” ask the Kynastons, “is the British left as a whole, and not just the Labour Party, so uncomfortable with the matter?” They suggest there are two reasons:

The first is the understandable concern that to concentrate on private schools, with their superior academic achievements (even if gained on a severely sloping pitch), is implicitly to denigrate state schools . . . The second explanation also has an invidious element, not least because many left-of-centre people, especially among the metropolitan intelligentsia, went to private schools and/or have sent their children to private schools – and consequently have felt inhibited talking about them.

Those educated at private schools continue to dominate public life to an alarming degree, the authors note:

PM an Old Etonian? Check. Mayor of London? Check. A of C? Check.

Deputy PM, Chancellor, Chief Whip all privately educated? Check.

Over a third of MPs, over half of doctors and leading chief executives, over two-thirds of judges, barristers and leading journalists? Check. Top sportsmen, top musicians, top actors? Check.

The left today must not view the private school question as “insoluble, nor too dangerous to touch”:

There is a moment to be seized. The loosening up of the state system through academies and free schools has blown away the old plea of the private schools to be left alone in splendid, independent isolation.

THE NS ESSAY: DAVID RUNCIMAN ON THE STATE OF OUR DEMOCRACY

In this week’s NS Essay, the political theorist David Runciman argues that although a series of scandals has rocked British democracy, this does not threaten its foundations. Runciman concedes that public trust in institutions such as banks, parliament and the police has been badly undermined and arose because of “a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites”. However, he argues that there are important differences between Britain today and the Britain of 40 years ago, “when a coup was not outside the realms of political possibility”:

Britain today is a very different country from what it was in the 1970s. It is more comfortable and much more tolerant of different personal lifestyles, even as it is less tolerant of extreme political views . . . There is extensive historical evidence that once they pass beyond a certain level of material prosperity democratic societies are very unlikely to experiment with alternative forms of government.

Runciman cautions:

Scandals are not the same as full-blown political crises, although it is often tempting to confuse the two. Crises can sometimes transform politics. Scandals rarely do . . . The present state of British democracy is a reflection of how far removed we are now from those looming fears of imminent collapse. This time the danger is different. We face the risk of getting stuck where we are.

RAFAEL BEHR: THE POLITICS COLUMN

In his column this week, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that Ed Miliband doesn’t want to sack Ed Balls – he just wants to steal the Treasury’s power. The shadow chancellor’s job, he writes,

. . . gives Balls a licence to meddle in every nook of Labour’s agenda. Viewed from the leader’s office, this looks like empire-building. Enough Labour people see Balls as an encumbrance to sustain a constant level of chatter about his prospects of being sacked. It is a theme loved by Tories who like to imagine his relationship with the Labour leader as a B-list sequel to the blockbuster Blair-Brown schism.

But Behr believes Miliband, though capable of removing Balls, will choose to keep him in place for the time being because it is the most politically expedient option:

No one who has closely observed the way Miliband operates doubts his capacity to be ruthless. Shadow cabinet ministers speculate that he would get rid of Balls without hesitation if he believed it was a condition of getting over the threshold of No 10. For the time being, the calculation must be that sacrificing the party’s most experienced political economist would signal panic and allow the Tories to boast that Labour’s capitulation to the Osborne plan was complete. Even shadow ministers who don’t much like
Balls say his contributions are usually the most insightful in shadow cabinet meetings.

MICHAEL ROSEN: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

Michael Rosen is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. The children’s novelist and poet believes it is the historian in all of us that is the essential feature of our humanity:

To live with this paradox of history, being on the one hand “gone” yet at the same time being “with us at all times”, is what it is to be human. History is all that’s not there any more and yet we are nothing without it. Animals don’t do history the way we do it. Even if some of them remember stuff, they can’t talk about it. This gives us the pain of loss and the pleasure of memory.

 

PLUS

George Eaton on why Labour’s commitment to a 50p tax rate is here to stay.

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire on Douglas Carswell’s Batman heroics and Ken Clarke the invisible man.

Burhan Al-Chalabi argues that the Americans must apologise for the war in Iraq.

As the Sochi games open, Michael Prodger reviews an exhibition on Russian art, sport and politics at the Olympics Museum.

Michael Brooks on a mathematical pile-up at the language barrier.

Richard Mabey reviews the latest book by Germaine Greer, tree-hugger.

Georgia Catt meets Ruhan Jia, the woman Beijing is backing to become China’s first global pop sensation.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.