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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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