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23 October 2014

The boon of election debates, remembering the Brighton bomb, and a school inspector’s power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

By Peter Wilby

The 2010 TV election debates turned out to be rather like leylandii: they killed off everything around them. The old-fashioned morning press conferences almost vanished. Instead, the parties designed their strategies around the weekly debates, which changed the texture and rhythm of the campaign to an extent nobody had anticipated. The defining moment was Nick Clegg’s “victory” in the first debate, which ultimately led to an 850,000 rise on the Lib Dems’ 2005 vote (though they won fewer seats). The only other memorable event was Gordon Brown’s encounter with the Rochdale grandmother Gillian Duffy.

Following the broadcasters’ proposal that next year Nigel Farage should be included in one debate, Clegg excluded from another and the Greens still left out in the cold, it seems possible that, with litigation threatened from all quarters, what happened in 2010 will not be repeated. If so, it would be a pity. The debates should continue while other forms of electioneering, including party political broadcasts and leaders’ walkabouts, wither away. Nothing is perfect but 90-minute debates, free from filmed sequences, computer graphics, spontaneous audience intervention and other irritating media tricks, seem to be a relatively good way to decide an election. They are cheap, leaving politicians without need for either big donations or taxpayer subsidies. Perhaps similar debates, between candidates in each constituency, could go out on the web.

Aid prescription

As large numbers of Britons, moving serenely towards early deaths from excessive food and alcohol, panic over the ebola virus, you couldn’t have a better argument for overseas aid. Like nearly all diseases, ebola spreads in countries with poor public infrastructure: insufficient doctors, nurses and public health workers; inadequate sewage systems; absence of running water; unreliable electricity supplies; low literacy levels that make it hard to convey vital health information. Only by developing better public resources can this virus and others be stopped at source, ensuring hypochondriac westerners can continue undisturbed with their sugar-saturated diets. Aneurin Bevan, architect of the NHS, said that when a bedpan was dropped in Tredegar, it should resound in Westminster. The same could now be said of a bedpan dropped in Monrovia.

I doubt that Farage, the most prominent advocate of abolishing overseas aid, will be impressed. He seems to believe the answer to everything is to keep foreigners out. Ebola, he will think, strengthens his argument for a return to the 1950s when migrants came only by boat and hardly anybody ever got on planes.

Wages of sin

It is hardly surprising that NHS staff went on strike. Since 2010, nurses’ and midwives’ pay has gone up 5 per cent while the service’s top managers have enjoyed rises of almost 14 per cent. Meanwhile, boardroom pay in the biggest UK companies is up 21 per cent in a year while average earnings continue to fall. Nobody is any longer surprised by such figures, which pass almost without comment. Why are they not at the centre of political debate and why does no politician seem to know what to do about them?

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Blissfully unaware

The 30th anniversary of the Tory party conference bomb in Brighton reminds me that, before mobile phones and the internet, it was possible to go for long periods unaware of even the most dramatic news. The bomb went off at 2.54am. That morning, I overslept and dashed straight to the station with the morning’s Guardian, printed too early to carry the news. I then worked for the Sunday Times in a small office hidden down a corridor where other hacks rarely ventured.

Up against a features deadline, I worked alone and single-mindedly, ignoring phone calls, until I left for a lunch appointment. I spotted an evening paper billboard about a Brighton bomb as I entered the restaurant and greeted my fellow luncher with: “Ha! Somebody’s put a bomb under the Tories!” Only then, nearly 12 hours after the event, did I learn the full, grisly story.

At least this was an improvement on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the Munich Olympic massacre, of which, being on holiday, I remained ignorant for two, three and five days respectively.

An inspector’s call

I thought the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, was going too far in June when he proposed that heads should have the power to fine parents who didn’t read to their children. However, Nigel Gann, a former head teacher who now runs an educational consultancy, recalled at a conference I attended the other day that Matthew Arnold had gone further. He told a six-year-old girl that, if she didn’t quickly learn to read, he would put her parents in prison. Startled and frightened, she asked her father if a poet had such powers. After some hesitation, he said he didn’t think so but that, since Arnold’s day job was schools inspector, perhaps he could.

Arnold’s threat worked: the child (who grew up to become Lina Waterfield, the Observer’s correspondent in Italy, and recalled this episode in her autobiography) was reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales within weeks. But please don’t tell the power-crazed Wilshaw.

Dangerous mind

Sally Tomlinson, who has been an education professor at three universities, received an email last month inviting her to the 15 October launch of a campaign, supported by all the mainstream party leaders, to have more people visiting primary-school classrooms to “make the connection” with “the world of work”. The email demanded an immediate reply and a postal address to allow security checks prior to formal printed invitations. Tomlinson duly replied, giving her Cotswolds address. No invitation followed. Are professors of education now regarded as security risks?