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5 February 2015

Will Hutton’s ivory tower, Greeks bearing gifts – and the bet on Thatcher I never placed

Ancestral restraints and worrying political powers in this week's First Thoughts.

By Peter Wilby

I would not naturally sympathise with a Christian school, still less with a free school set up under Michael Gove. Yet I feel concern about what is happening to Durham Free School, opened in September 2013 but due to close at Easter after a bad report from the Ofsted inspectors. According to Ofsted, “standards are low and [pupil] progress” is inadequate”. Moreover, “some students hold discriminatory views of other people who have different faiths, values or beliefs”.

Ofsted recommended that the school be put in special measures, as it did at another Christian free school, Grindon Hall in Sunderland. But Durham Free must close because Nicky Morgan, Gove’s successor at the education department, has announced she will stop its funding. She can do this without consulting parents or other local people, without reference to parliament and without allowing a right of appeal.

Both Ofsted and Morgan may be right. That isn’t the point. Thanks to Gove’s “reforms”, a minister in London can instantly pull the plug on this school, and hundreds of other academies and free schools across the country, which now comprise the majority of secondary schools. Those are dictatorial powers that should concern us all.


Hutton not on the button

This column has observed in the past how the leftist radicalism common among Oxbridge academics stays outside the college gates. Here is another example. Every week, Will Hutton rails in his Observer column against inequality and low social mobility. In his latest broadside – extracted from his new book, How Good We Can Be – he argues that “inequality has become a challenge to us as moral beings” and that “societies where brute luck … determines … life chances … become gummed up and unstable”.

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In an accompanying interview, however, Hutton says we should admire British universities because they are “more or less open to everybody on merit”. Say that again? Young people from advantaged areas are three times more likely to go to university than those from disadvantaged areas. The odds against a state-school child on free school meals reaching Oxford or Cambridge are 2,000/1, compared with 20/1 for a child at a fee-paying school.

Hutton, though a journalist by trade, is now principal of Hertford College, Oxford.


Lukewarm Labour

At last, a European political party has won an election by rejecting the assumption – common to all established parties – that a mess created by rich people should be cleared up by penalising the poor and the public services on which they depend. But joy at Syriza’s victory in the Greek elections is not shared by Labour’s leadership.

A Labour official, the Financial Times reports, finds “no read across” between Greece and Britain. Ed Miliband says that “who the Greek people elect is a decision for them”, which, in politician-speak, means: “They must be out of their tiny minds.”

These responses speak volumes about the state of the Labour Party and, I fear, Miliband’s leadership. It is true that we should go easy on the euphoria. Europe is on a knife-edge. Parties such as Podemos in Spain, the Parti de Gauche in France and Die Linke in Germany can take heart. Given that the rule of bankers and corporations can be challenged through concerted international effort only, all sorts of things become possible if enough such parties attain at least a foothold in government. The dangers are that Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, leads Greece into bankruptcy, or makes so many compromises that the country continues on much the same track.

In every European country that has a rising party on the left, there is a right-wing and often neo-fascist equivalent. If one extreme fails, voters may try the other.

Yet Miliband and other mainstream party leaders should recognise that the Greek election result changes the political equation. Millions of low- and middle-income voters are fed up with politicians who worry only about what the International Monetary Fund and the money markets will tolerate. It is time for the international elite to start worrying about what the rest of us will tolerate.


Can he break it?

Tsipras is an engineer by training. Sadly, the record of engineers in politics is not good. Herbert Hoover, US president from 1929 to 1933, was a mining engineer who presided over the Wall Street crash, which wasn’t his fault, and the worst of the Great Depression, which arguably was. He supported the Efficiency Movement, which thought the solution to all government problems was to root out waste (heard that one before?); he also supported prohibition.

Boris Yeltsin was another engineer, whose degree paper was on the “construction of a mine shaft”. He presided over the rise of the Russian oligarchs. Most members of recent Chinese politburos, including the current president, Xi Jinping, and his predecessor, Hu Jintao, have been engineers.

Because most engineering projects require long-term planning – think of roads, bridges and dams – many engineers have rigid minds. Tsipras has broken the mould by winning the Greek election; we must hope that he goes on to break another mould.


A flutter on Maggie

In his article on political betting in last week’s NS, Matthew Engel recalled that early in 1990 he backed John Major at 10/1 to become PM. I can do better than that. In 1974, after Edward Heath lost two general elections in a year, I backed Margaret Thatcher at 50/1 to become Conservative leader.

Except I didn’t. I saw the bookmakers’ odds, thought about a small wager, but then also saw the ghosts of my Nonconformist ancestors who (though I didn’t know it at the time) included – according to my younger son, the family historian – Moses and Amos Wilby, brothers who lived in 19th-century Yorkshire. Still, I feel as proud of my missed opportunity as Engel does of his profitable foresight

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