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18 March 2016

Academies offer a Tory lesson in power, a right royal snitch – and my vegetable love

On the Queen's views, Tory school reforms and the rising homeless population.

By Peter Wilby

Ever since the Thatcher era, when most major cities, including London, were run by left-wing Labour councils, the Tories have pursued a jihad against local government, gradually stripping it of powers and functions. Now the Tories propose to remove all schools from local government control and turn them into academies, originally intended by Labour as a way of rebranding the more troubled inner-city schools. The educational benefits are opaque. No study has shown convincingly that academy status makes a significant difference to the quality of children’s education, nor has anyone coherently explained why it should do so.

Schools will be not be “liberated” as ministers would have you believe but handed over to private chains, some of which may eventually be allowed to make profits. The chains are mostly staffed not by entrepreneurs, but by bureaucrats who used to work in council education offices. The difference is that the bureaucrats get far higher salaries and are accountable to central, not local, politicians.

Tory policy on academies is nothing to do with education. It is a Whitehall power grab, continuing the centralisation of public institutions that Margaret Thatcher began in the 1980s.


Outing the Queen

Why should anyone be at all surprised that the Queen favours Brexit? She will be 90 in a few weeks and her social circle is drawn largely from upper-class landowners. That is precisely the demographic – unconcerned by the needs of trade and industry – that most dislikes the EU, even though many landowners receive its subsidies. More-over, the Queen has devoted her life to the Commonwealth, which, thanks to numerous visits (she has been to Canada 24 times during her reign, to France only six times), she knows far better than anywhere in Europe. She is probably the last person in the kingdom who thinks that, if we got out of the EU, the Commonwealth’s once central position in Britain’s foreign and economic policies could be restored.

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Nor is it surprising that she sometimes expresses her views in private to privy councillors. What is surprising is that somebody, presumably a Brexit supporter, flouted convention and leaked her remarks to the Sun. As most Brexit supporters are ardent monarchists, it is hard to believe this. But there is one pro-Brexit figure who is also a lifelong republican. Step forward Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun. The truth behind this curious affair, I suspect, is that Michael Gove, the pro-Brexit Justice Secretary, confided in his former employer Murdoch about the Queen’s remarks – the two apparently dined together a week before the Sun story appeared – and that Murdoch tipped off the Sun’s editor, Tony Gallagher.

The episode shows the desperation of the Brexit campaigners and particularly their press allies. The Outs haven’t managed to gain a clear and consistent lead in the opinion polls for 35 years and, although some surveys now suggest the two sides are neck-and-neck, precedent suggests that, as the real poll approaches, voters become more likely to opt for the status quo. The Outs need all the help they can get.


Iceland and us

The Daily Mail, which prides itself on accurately reading the mood of Middle England, is particularly desperate. It has devoted several pages to pro-Brexit propaganda every day since the referendum date was set. Its coverage is best illustrated by its recent report, splashed over a double-page spread, that if we leave the EU (which accounts for 23.7 per cent of world GDP), we can rely on extra investment from Norway (0.32 per cent of world GDP and falling) and extra trade with Iceland (0.01 per cent). Rejoice, rejoice!


Tropical punishment

Gove isn’t the first person to be pilloried for repeating the Queen’s private remarks. One previous offender was my old friend and former New Statesman columnist Paul Routledge, the labour editor of the Times when the Queen visited that paper in the early 1980s. A miners’ strike was going on at the time and Routledge revealed to press colleagues Her Majesty’s opinion that it was “all down to one man”, taken to be a reference to the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill. The Times later sent Routledge to Singapore, though the extent to which this was intended as a punishment is disputed. But David Cameron may find the precedent useful and, to save him the trouble of looking up potential vacancies, I can tell him that the present governor of the Caribbean island of Anguilla, one of our few remaining colonies, is nearing the end of her term.


Red roses

To the excellent exhibition of late-19th- and early-20th-century paintings of gardens at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly in London. Much as I appreciated the water-lilies, chrysanthemums and so on painted by Monet, Renoir and others, my eye was caught by the work of Camille Pissarro. He preferred vegetable gardens and was dismissively known in some quarters as “the painter of cabbages”.

I, too, like gazing at cabbages as well as carrots, beans, onions and other vegetables. The fascination is, I think, attributable to my childhood, throughout which I lived, with my parents, in my grandparents’ house. My grandfather insisted on growing almost nothing but vegetables and fruit in the extensive garden. If there were another war, he explained, it would stand us in good stead.

Though I hated the profusion of vegetables as a child – they didn’t leave enough room to play cricket – I still struggle to suppress a sense that flowers are a suburban ­affectation. At least my grandfather allowed roses. He was no socialist, still less a feminist, but I like to think the words of the early-20th-century American labour leader and feminist Rose Schneiderman echoed somewhere in his head: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” 

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue