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12 March 2017

Theresa May is selling her new grammar schools program under false pretences

The week in the media, from false promises on grammars and the French flirtation with fascism to a posh private police force.

By Peter Wilby

“Parents will be given the right to set up grammar schools,” proclaims the Daily Mail, Theresa May’s most faithful supporter. Really?

May’s new grammars will be part of the free schools programme that has so far delivered more than 400 schools, the majority of which are run by private academy chains and religious organisations. Even parents with high-level professional qualifications and management experience find setting up a school and getting government agreement on funding daunting.

Will impoverished parents struggling on tax credits, whose children will supposedly be the main beneficiaries of the new grammars, go through with it all? If they do, how can they be sure that their own children will be selected? This policy is being sold under false pretences.


Checks and balances

Not only did I fail to predict the Brexit vote, I embarrassingly forecast a 62-38 victory to the other side. (Ed: But you did predict a Tory majority in the 2015 election.) I learned my lesson. A few days before the US presidential election, a friend wagered me £10 that Hillary Clinton would win. I took him on and became the unhappiest winner of a bet in history.

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But I can be confident, can’t I, that the French will not, in a few weeks, elect Marine Le Pen as president? Surely, having experienced fascism at close quarters during the Second World War, they will not flirt with it again? The polls suggest that, whoever she faces in the second round, Le Pen will not get much above 40 per cent.

Now, after digesting two sets of recently published data – neither widely reported – my confidence hangs by a thread. A survey by the Chatham House think tank finds that more than 60 per cent of the French agree that all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped. Fewer than 20 per cent disagree. Another survey by Ipsos MORI finds that the French score higher than Britons and Americans on “nativist” sentiment. Nearly half think that immigrants take public services away from the indigenous population. Six in ten – far more than in Britain or America – think that terrorism should be stopped at all costs, even if it entails ignoring civil rights.

I have remained calm about Trump. His intentions are inconsistent and often unclear and the US has checks and balances to keep him under control. Le Pen has an explicitly anti-liberal and nationalist agenda and, though the Fifth Republic also has restraints on elective dictatorships, they are not as tested over time as America’s.


Rich contractors

If David Cameron’s pledge to devote 0.7 per cent of national income to overseas aid looks doomed, it is partly because much of the money ends up in the pockets of contractors. Prominent among them is Adam Smith International (ASI), which has helped to implement projects in more than 100 countries in Africa and Asia. It was fiercely criticised by an MPs’ committee, and four senior executives, who reportedly received more than £11m in share payouts, have just resigned.

Can ASI be related to the Adam Smith Institute, the free-market think tank (named after the economist) that shaped the privatisation policies of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s? It can. ASI grew out of the think tank in 1992 to capitalise on the “international trend towards economic liberalisation and marketisation”. Its founding directors included Eamonn Butler and Madsen Pirie, who started the think tank in 1977. One of the directors who have resigned, Peter Young, oversaw think-tank publications that advocated the contracting-out of local services such as refuse collection and replacing the welfare state with private insurance.

ASI is no longer connected to its parent body. Butler and Pirie resigned in 2006. But we can still enjoy the irony that a body dedicated to small government and tax cuts spawned a child that earns its lucrative living from taxpayers’ money.


Paying for protection

Pirie once said that the think tank’s role was to propose ideas that “people regard as being on the edge of lunacy”. One was the privatisation of the police. Now it is reported that a new company, My Local Bobby, will offer subscribers (initially in the wealthy London districts of Belgravia, Mayfair and Knightsbridge) access to a private police service. Its 20 bobbies will patrol the streets, answer calls for assistance, deploy powers of citizen’s arrest and bring private prosecutions. I wonder how this will work. “What are you up to, young man?” “Officer, I was about to burgle that house there.” “The householder is a lapsed subscriber. Go ahead.”


Signal failure

No doubt I should be thrilled at the government’s announcement that it will invest in “super-fast” 5G mobile phone coverage across the UK. I have more modest concerns, however. I cannot get a reliable mobile signal of any sort at home, in my local supermarket or at several other locations in Loughton, Essex. Loughton is inside the M25 and just a couple of miles from the borders of what, we are frequently told, is the world’s most exciting and dynamic city.


Out of the past

“What was it like to live in the 1960s?” my children asked me many years ago. I thought I might at last find an answer at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s brilliant “You Say You Want a Revolution?” exhibition, which I caught just before it closed. There it all was: Carnaby Street, psychedelic clubs, student insurrection in Paris, the Black Panthers, the Woodstock Festival, and much more. I recall buying a shirt from Carnaby Street and, at the London School of Economics – then a revolutionary hub – meeting a French student on a fraternal visit, coughing from tear gas on the Paris streets. Judging from the exhibition, however, I missed an awful lot of fun. That’s my answer: living in the 1960s was always feeling that you weren’t invited to the right parties.

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda