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29 October 2015

George Osborne’s fear principle, the perils of the eleven-plus, and why technology is killing sport

Even if grammar schools could eliminate social bias from their recruitment – so that each social class was represented in proportion to its numbers in the general child population – all would not be well.

By Peter Wilby

Commentators suggest that the cuts in tax credits will do for George Osborne what the poll tax did for Margaret Thatcher, or what the abandonment of the 10p income-tax band did for Gordon Brown. Even Norman Tebbit has expressed doubts about the policy, which now faces defeat in the House of Lords. Yet I doubt it will do the Tories much damage, still less put Jeremy Corbyn in office. Osborne is the most skilful politician of his generation. It is said of some sportsmen that they can see scoring opportunities on the field of play that are invisible to ordinary mortals. Something similar can be said of the Chancellor. Who else could have got away with introducing an “austerity” policy in the depths of a recession – on the laughable grounds that Britain could end up like Greece – then abandoning it without anybody really registering and, finally, persuading the electorate in 2015 that it should vote for more “austerity”?

Expect Osborne quietly to modify the tax credit cuts in next month’s Autumn Statement. Because the details will be buried in Treasury small print and few people understand tax credits anyway, nobody will notice what Osborne does, just as nobody noticed that he had abandoned austerity in 2012. People will still be worse off but not quite as badly off as they expected to be. Most will conclude that they can live with a bit more austerity because it keeps the country safe from bankruptcy. The Chancellor has built a political career on the false premise that the country is perpetually on the edge of ruin. As any politician knows, fear works better than hope. Osborne is a master at
applying that principle.


Bad grammar

Arguments about selection at the age of 11 – revived by the government’s decision to allow the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge to open an “annexe” nine miles away in Sevenoaks – centre on whether grammar schools create social mobility. They plainly don’t. Even in their heyday, they recruited disproportionately from the middle classes and hardly at all from the semi-skilled or unskilled working classes.

In the 164 grammar schools that survive, mostly clustered in Tory-controlled areas such as Kent, Lincolnshire, Essex and Buckinghamshire (as well as suburban London), only 3 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals. All would be well, their defenders say, if there were more grammar schools and they made more efforts to recruit children from poor homes.

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All would not then be well. Even if grammar schools could eliminate social bias from their recruitment – so that each social class was represented in proportion to its numbers in the general child population – all would not be well. Selection by ability and/or aptitude into separate schools at 11 is wrong. Leave aside the impossibility of finding a reliable test of a child’s potential: selection leaves a majority with the pain of failure and, according to some research, failure depresses IQ. The middle classes once knew this. That was why they were the biggest supporters of abolishing grammar schools in the first place.


No steely determination

When there is trouble in the financial services industry, largely caused by the industry’s foolishness, ministers ride to the rescue, providing billions of pounds to bail out banks. When steel plants in Redcar, Scunthorpe, Motherwell and elsewhere are in dire straits because of vagaries in world markets beyond the industry’s control, ministers shrug their shoulders and say that nothing can be done. Will ministers therefore please stop banging on about manufacturing, northern powerhouses and a rebalanced British economy and admit that they couldn’t give a toss about anything beyond the City of London and Canary Wharf?


Time for a carrier change

The ban on large shops handing out free plastic bags must be among the least grumbled-about new laws in history. That is probably because people can still get as many as they want if they buy a goldfish, an axe or a leg of lamb, go to smaller shops, or exploit one of many other loopholes. Besides, 5p isn’t much to pay if you happen to own sufficient goldfish and axes. But here’s the puzzle. Surveys suggest that most people think that plastic bags are bad things and should be banned. So who were all those people who took more than 20 million supermarket bags home every day and chucked them around the countryside?


Trial by television

Technology, I fear, will be the death of top-level sport. International cricket matches are delayed by interminable references to the “third umpire”, who sits “upstairs”, peering into a TV screen. Even when he gives his verdict, still the decision is frequently disputed. Now a rugby union World Cup quarter-final is decided by a last-minute penalty awarded to Australia because the referee deemed a Scot was offside. Replays allegedly proved that he wasn’t. The referee, everyone says, should have been allowed to consult “the television match official”. Yet “the big screen” is already used to confirm the legality of most tries and incidences of “foul play”. As a result, rugby matches, which used to take little more than 90 minutes, now commonly last two hours. Again, the use of slow-motion replays from several different angles often fails to resolve anything conclusively and losing sides still cry, “We wuz robbed!”

The pressure to get decisions right grows continually because the financial stakes for everybody involved in sport are now so high. Sport has been subsumed into capitalism. Just as big companies employ armies of lawyers, so do big sports teams; for example, QCs defend rugby players (otherwise known in top sporting circles as “assets”) from charges of foul or dangerous play, made by a “citing commissioner” who studies TV replays. How long before tribunals are set up to allow lawyers to argue that, because of refereeing errors, a match result should be declared null and void?

This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister