Policy

Angelic healing, the Hamiltons, and why parliament may only have five years left to re-invent itself

A week is a long time in politics, and a week in the annual silly season of July-August is not only long, but also frequently bizarre. While the Hamiltons are busy fundraising for UKIP in possibly even less salubrious company than their own, a UKIP prospective parliamentary candidate has quit in Somerset on the grounds that the party has been overrun by the occult. In other news, a UKIP councillor branded a peaceful Islamic procession a ‘call to war’, and a council hopeful, in the ‘Description’ box, where she was supposed to write ‘UKIP’, wrote ‘Blonde, curly hair, gray eyes‘.

I do sympathise with the PPC driven out by occultists. I‘ve never personally suffered that fate, but it is certainly a tough call to fight a seat at a General Election, and candidates finding their support evaporate are in a wretched position. The ‘blonde, curly hair’ was probably either just a mistake (and who is free from those?), and may yet garner more votes than otherwise.

What is really disturbing about all these things is that they probably will not matter to UKIP’s showing at the next election. People mock them, laugh at them, call them nutters, or ‘kippers’, but they will continue to gain votes for as long as MPs do nothing to restore faith in politics.

The rise of UKIP is not simply a rise in reactionary, poorly-informed, anti-Europeanism. Britain has always had its pockets of xenophobia, ready to be ignited by any threat to our interests, or even to our pride. We can take comfort that UKIP’s strong showing at the polls this year went hand in hand with a collapse in support for the BNP. UKIP is also not the only protest party to have garnered votes. The Greens did extremely well, and independents have been gaining ground in council elections.

The real problem is not with UKIP or UKIP voters, but that the public has despaired of MPs. We are now well-used to MPs coming at the bottom of the annual polls in trustworthiness, where nurses come top, doctors come second, and MPs, estate agents and used car salesmen at the other end, with typically around a quarter of people trusting them.

This has comedic value, of course, and no comedian short of a joke can go wrong making one at the expense of politicians.

And yet, and yet.

It is one thing for us to have a robust, disrespectful view of our elected representatives. It is another to think so poorly of them that we are prepared to dismiss everything we are told as lies, assume the worst of all their motives, imagine that they are all in the pay of multinational corporations or foreign governments, and rise in fury when there is even a hint of them being paid the same as nursery school head teachers.

A reasonable amount of disrespect is, I think, absolutely necessary if we are to hold them to account. Complete dismissal, however, does not strengthen us as voters, it leaves us liable to the charms of anyone with a pleasing manner and an opportunistic personality.

I don’t seriously think that Nigel Farage is a particularly reprehensible individual. He is cavalier with facts, and very willing to pull the wool over the eyes of the unwary, as we saw in the Farage-Clegg debates where he described a made-up figure as ‘our estimate’, and when his subsequent interview on LBC  revealed some things about his attitudes that he evidently preferred to keep hidden. Farage though — to briefly bow to Godwin’s Law — is no Hitler in the making, and he never will be.

What’s more, UKIP’s poll ratings are now contracting, and it’s unlikely that they will win seats at the next General Election, though they may retain more deposits than in the past, and their attritional effect is almost certain to give David Cameron and Grant Shapps some sleepless nights on the way.

Fast forward five years, though. If nothing is done, if we have five more years of expenses scandals — which, notwithstanding pledges, have not gone away —, MPs in court over sexual harassment or perverting the course of justice, U-turns on manifesto pledges, cat-calling in Prime Ministers Question time and questions about cash for honours and cash for access, then the corrosive work of one-guilty=all-guilty media reporting will have taken us close to the point of no return. No party can claim to be innocent of all these things, least of all UKIP. Quite possibly it will not be UKIP in 2020 which is rounding up the disaffected votes. It could be anyone, or anything.

What is the first duty of an MP? To serve their constituents? To fulfill their election promises? To turn up and vote? Surely the very first duty of an MP is to preserve and promote confidence in democracy itself. Nobody should burn the platform on which they stand.

To win back public confidence, MPs must change their own behaviour. No matter how much shenanigans people enjoy watching on TV soap operas or reading about in the tabloids, they expect something different from their MPs. We need to end the public school style bullying in the chamber of the House of Commons. Party whips need to be much, much tougher on MPs caught redirecting their expenses in non-legitimate directions (aka fiddling). Ministers need to quit fast when their departments fail, as they did in the old days, not leave civil servants to take the blame.

MPs are not the only ones who need to take a look at themselves. The vast majority of MPs were never implicated in the expenses scandal, and yet ask any person in the street and you will hear the words ‘they’re all at it’. This is a direct result of the way news is reported. Newspapers have long argued that freedom of the press is essential in a democracy, and they are right. But where freedom is in danger of destroying that democracy, the time has come for newspapers to express restraint. It is not the reporting of the news which is at fault — if something has happened, it should be reported. Rather, it is the barely veiled insults, character assassinations, insinuations and inferences which are used to leave readers to ‘draw their own conclusions’.

We, the voters, also need to take a look at ourselves. We get the government we deserve. We expect political parties to do the work of campaigning and informing us at election time, but we treat them with contempt when they do, and complain that it isn’t election time if they disturb us at other times of year. We are happy to Like, Post and Share on Facebook and retweet accusations and evidence which we haven’t even taken the slightest effort to verify.

This is not about blame. Voter apathy, media complicity and politician complacency will kill our democracy just as effectively as democracies were destroyed in the mid-twentieth century, without even the necessity of insurrection.

In the words of TS Eliot, ‘this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper’.

 

What are British values? Are they any good?

From this autumn, schools will be required to promote British values. It is the most popular and widely canvassed result of the Trojan Horse Schools enquiry, which found, perhaps, little evidence of the originally alleged conspiracy, but a lot of evidence — at least according to the report — that things were going wrong.

But what actually are British values? Complaining about the weather and not getting in the way? Or stiff upper lip and a devotion to international treaties? Who defines what is British, and how does that get to be challenged?

The Guardian, bless its heart, has put together a quiz to test yourself on this. I have to say that I got ‘so British that it hurts’, despite saying that I voted for Nick Clegg and would welcome immigrants. Not that I feel that passing a Guardian quiz makes me an authority on the matter, but, after all, as I’m British, I wouldn’t claim to be any authority even if I had a degree in authoritarianism from the Vatican. I would probably just mutter and say ‘read a book on authority once… didn’t make much of it… who’s for a drink?’

However, for my day job I am (and have for several years) been involved in creating Values statements for brands and for organisations, so I suppose I ought to have a bit of a go.

The most interesting thing you learn if you delve into the world of corporate values (to begin there) is that almost all companies that have an official set of corporate values claim in some way that it is their values which make them unique. However, according to some fairly robust research, about two thirds of all the companies in the world with official Values Statements share a sub-set of the same ten. Integrity, team work, and so on, are what set them apart from their competitors, who also have integrity and team work, and may well take a pride in what they produce aspire to be the leaders in their industry.

I do try to get organisations to look a bit further. We once (before I figured out how to do it, thanks to help from a bright young thing who had come to us from KPMG, where they know about all kinds of things) downloaded a list of 250 value-words. It didn’t help. The problem about looking at a list of values words (integrity, honesty, hard work, and so on) is that it’s easy to espouse qualities we admire, but don’t actually possess, rather like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day listening to Andie MacDowell’s list of what she looked for in a man. The result is rather like candy-floss: sugar-coated sugar.

If that doesn’t quite persuade you, then let me suggest that it’s rather like a rock guitarist listening to a symphony orchestra. You may admire the discipline, timing and tone of the orchestra, but that doesn’t mean you could actually play in one.

What we finally figured out is that values are what you or your organisation would die in a ditch over. They are more about the things you would never do than the things you always do. So, probably the easiest way to work out what your values are is to pick five things you absolutely hate, and get extremely annoyed if you ever find anyone in your organisation doing or suggesting. Then take the opposite of those.

It’s phrases that annoy us like “that’s not my job”, “nobody will notice”, “good enough is good enough”, or the unconscious “you don’t matter” revealed by letting a door close in someone’s face, or failing to thank them for holding it open for you, that tell us what it is we really care about.

Things that annoy the British include Americans boasting about our accomplishments as if their own (as seen in post 1990 war films), people not queuing properly, someone taking the last biscuit, people who complain too much or not at all, people who are too cunning or too earnest, and people who are fanatical about anything (though, strangely, not people who are fanatical about everything, whom we treat as harmless eccentrics).

Unfortunately, if we reverse those we don’t get a particularly glittering set of values: modesty, queuing, self-rationing, moderate complaining, bumbling on and indifference.  To be fair, they do seem eerily familiar, but do Michael Gove and the government really want those promoted in schools?

Old fashioned British values are more commonly said to be fair play and common sense. It’s questionable whether those could be said to be particularly British values, though. Show me a nation which believes in cheating and being daft (and simply being accused by us of cheating and being daft is not an acceptable answer).  Even then, fair play seems to be quite a flexible concept, as evidenced by bodyline bowling, phone hacking and our fondness for vote-by-phone popularity contests on the TV. Others might say ‘hard work’, but our national love of money-for-nothing via the Lottery hardly speaks for that one.

If I had to put my finger on what defines Britishness, I would probably have to reach for something like ‘affable eccentricity’, coupled with ‘refined awkwardness’. John Cleese, in almost any role, one might say. We are Vicar of Dibley more than we are James Bond, and Rik Mayall in the Young Ones much more than as Captain Flashheart.

So, will we be promoting quirkiness and bad timing from the autumn?

I rather think, and hope, not. The concepts that I hope we will be promoting will be fairness, self-sacrifice, service, kindness, honesty, looking out for each other and standing up for what’s right even when it’s unpopular. These are values, indeed, to be proud of. But they are not particularly British, neither in the sense that we have any prior say on them, nor even that we are particularly good at them. Humanists might say — with some reason — that these are humanistic values. We might even say that they are democratic and liberal values. I, as a Christian, might also want to point backwards in time, some two thousand years, to someone who not only espoused them but, I would argue, uniquely demonstrated them.

Right wing scare story, or threat to our way of life?

Ofsted chief Wilshaw takes charge of Trojan Horse | BBC  According to an anonymous, leaked letter which may or may not turn out to be a hoax, there was a plan in Birmingham to oust governors from schools, and replace them with pro-Islamic governors. Ofsted’s chief Sir Michael Wilshaw is taking personal charge of investigations into the claims, according to the BBC, and the Department for Education has ordered its own review, as has Birmingham City Council. There have been reports of gender segregation, undermining of staff, and unfair treatment of non-Muslim pupils.

At the moment, everything that is known about this situation is either conjectural, or based on unsubstantiated claims and leaked documents.

In other words, there may have been a conspiracy or there may not have been, and, even if there were, it may well have had no actual impact on the way things are run.

I was a governor in two Birmingham schools for a total of six years, from 2000 to 2006. I don’t claim any special knowledge of this matter, but I share this information just as a little bit of background.

For those who have never been governors, there are a variety of types who sit on the governing body. There are staff representatives, parent representatives, and representatives appointed by the Local Authority, through one mechanism or another. Governing bodies meet several times per year, governors can serve a term of three years, which can be followed by another term, and must then stand down, and the governors have no executive authority in the school. They exist as a ‘critical friend’, supporting and at times challenging the school’s executive leadership. They tend to play an advisory role in the appointment of new staff, and a rather more substantial role in the appointment of a new head.

Now, here is the question: leaving aside the facts of the matter, to what extent should the make-up of governors and the overall ethos of a school reflect the community in which it is based? Parts of Birmingham are predominantly Muslim. Drive down the Alum Rock Road through Saltley towards Nechells, and you might imagine you were in a rather chillier version of the sub-continent.

Provided that they teach the national curriculum, should schools in predominantly Muslim areas be allowed to reflect a mainly Islamic ethos?

We can agree from the outset that the undermining of staff and unfair treatment of non-Muslim pupils — if such things do actually occur — are always unacceptable. At the same time, one would be hard-pressed to find a school where no teacher has felt undermined, and where no parent has believed that their child is being unfairly treated.

What about gender segregation? Given that parents are often desperate to get their children into single-sex schools, and that education policy permits the existence of such schools, is this really an issue?

 

All this is naturally fodder for the right wing press. Muslims conspiring to take over good British schools is a tag-line which must set a particular kind of journalist (and a particular kind of politician) drooling.

But what if it turns out that this is, at least partly, true? And what if the outcome is that people who wanted to take over ordinary schools discover they can’t, and found ‘Free’ schools anyway? This is exactly what Michael Gove’s policy on Free Schools is for. It allows Muslims to run Islamic schools, secularists to run secularist schools, and people who believe we should all eat more spinach to run schools with a soundly pro-Popeye catering policy.

Gove is the bête noir of the government as far as many Liberal Democrats are concerned, but the system he has created explicitly allows for the kind of result which is being described as the ‘Trojan Horse’.

Is he right? If not, why not?

For left-wingers, this sets up a dilemma of Kobayashi Maru proportions. On the one hand, free schools enable long-disparaged cultural groups to maintain their own identity in the face of the onslaught of militant Anglo-Saxonism. On the other hand, we seem to be handing over the keys of the kingdom to religious extremists.

For right-wingers, the horns of the dilemma are just as sharp: on the one hand, we are setting up a system where the free-market allows people to make libertarian decisions, and rewards those entrepreneurial enough to set up their own education micro-system. On the other hand, all of the fears of the xenophobes seem about to be realised in one go.

But what of centrists? Those of us who believe in a compassionate but liberal society, where the distinct needs of individuals and minority communities are met, but where the overall shape of society as a whole is also important, face a dilemma here as well.

We can certainly agree that anything being accomplished underhand — should it turn out that that was at all the case — is bad. However, the underhandedness, if it exists, merely clouds the issue. In the case of Govian Free Schools, should we support a distinctively Islamic ethos, or should we require everyone to conform to something which is culturally British, in a slightly apologetic post-Anglican sort of a way?

Those of us from a more social democrat background might say ‘we must support minority communities — mainstream society already makes it hard enough to maintain a cherished cultural identity’. But Liberals might then immediately respond that we are not talking about a generic cultural identity, such as Armenian or Nepalese. Islam is a powerful world cultural force, and, where Islam has come to the fore in a nation’s politics, the results have seldom been of the kind welcomed by democracies. Pragmatists might also argue that we ghettoise children by educating them in such a way, although other pragmatists might argue that if we do not allow for such schools, then they will form anyway as weekend and evening schools, where there is no supervision of the curriculum and no accountability to Ofsted.

I don’t have an answer to these questions. At least, I have an answer that satisfies me, but I doubt it will satisfy anyone else. On the one hand, I do see Free Schools as an opportunity for divisiveness. Britain has been falling behind some other nations in international league tables, but I don’t see the Free Schools solving that problem, and I don’t see that allowing people who have a non-mainstream view to supervise education has any genuine advantages. I am quite happy for existing faith schools to continue — they have learned over decades and in some cases centuries to be good players in the educational system, as a rule. Those that have not, or begin to stray from good citizenship, do need to be reviewed.

I am altogether less sanguine about encouraging parents to create education in their own image. I think it’s fair to say that no-one has ever definitively proven what a brilliant education looks like, except in that it allows inspirational teachers to get on with the business of teaching without too much interference, and allows teachers who are struggling to improve their skills without it having too much impact on the students.

That said, my instincts are integrative: wherever possible, children need to be exposed to a wide variety of cultural stimuli. Children from a cultural background which is particularly coherent need this more than others: they can gain strength from a solid community behind them, but they need to learn what other communities are like, lest they be disadvantaged by it in adult life.

 

What of the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’? It is often said that there is no smoke without fire, but anyone who has ever used a smoke machine can point out that this is no longer true. Sometimes there is a very little fire, and a very large amount of smoke. My sense, though, is that, should the allegations prove to be at all founded, it would behove journalists and politicians of all stamps to be careful. Certainly, supporters of Free Schools should consider whether the Free Schools themselves have not been created to legalise what is now merely an allegation. Equally, those who oppose them should ask themselves: if we create no outlet for a community to be represented in the schools that its children attend, are we not essentially forcing concerned parents to go down such a potentially underhand route?

The answer is not clear — but we can certainly do without the obvious headlines. From an outbreak of fear, no-one benefits.

So America isn’t a democracy. Is Britain?

America an oligarchy, not a democracy, claim academics | Princeton. A new study by two academics claims what many people already believe: that the USA is not a democracy but an oligarchy, where rich and powerful elites have a 45% chance of getting what they want politically, as against 18% for other groups. This may seem an obvious conclusion — indeed, 18% might seem optimistic. However, it is based on extensive testing, and thus provides an evidence base for what many people have suspected for some time.

I’m not American, and, really, it is not my place to criticise, but what about the United Kingdom? Americans see our House of Commons and House of Lords as a stereotypical compromise between aristocracy and some form of polity. Of course, the Lords are no longer, for the most part, hereditary, but politically appointed. Nonetheless, although this makes Britain rather less like an episode of Downton Abbey, it does not fundamentally change the balance of things.

The terms democracy and oligarchy are first linked for us by Aristotle. He defined six kinds of government, of which three are in principle ‘good’, and three are bad. Monarchy is where a single ruler rules for the benefit of all, aristocracy is where the noble rule for the benefit of all, and polity is where the citizens rule for the benefit of all. The debased forms are tyranny, where a ruler rules for their own benefit, oligarchy where a few rule for their own benefit, and democracy, where the common people rule for their own benefit — in each case at the cost of the benefit of others.

Our notion of democracy is essentially that of Aristotle’s polity. We have extended the notion of citizen to include all adults with UK nationality, excluding only incarcerated criminals and peers of the realm from the right to elect MPs, MEPs, councillors and now police commissioners.

To what extent does voting give people power in Britain? To what extent do vested interests win out?

A cursory examination would suggest that our voting system is broken, but perhaps not so badly as it might seem. Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a truly proportional voting system, and were — one might say — rather too easily led into supporting a voting system which was as complex as a truly proportional system, but was not really any more proportional than the current system. Nonetheless, despite the huge geographical biases which mean that around 40 seats, depending on how you count, control who gets to be the next government, power in Britain does change hands relatively frequently. More importantly, the threat of losing a general election forces parties to stick closer to the middle ground.

Is our system as democratic as other modern democracies? Certainly not by comparison with the Dutch, Germans or even French, where each vote has far more power to sway the outcome of the election. Nonetheless, no party can lay claim to ‘owning’ government.

But what of the other aspects of democracy? Some would argue that representative democracy is merely another name for temporary oligarchy. We elect a few powerful individuals, who are themselves beholden to even more powerful individuals, so that final decisions on the fate of the nation are made by perhaps twenty people. On the other hand, if everyone got to vote on everything, we would rarely get anything done, and we would be in danger of institutionalising the fickleness of a mob.

Underpinning any kind of democracy are four or five things, without which no amount of voting creates a government which we would see are democratic.

These are:

  • Independent and objective judiciary
  • Instruments of the freedom of speech (traditionally a free press)
  • Educated citizens who are able to participate in major decisions
  • A professional and impartial civil service
  • An active political sphere (traditionally through political parties)

We might argue that the backbone of British democracy is not parliament but the courts. Indeed, when things go wrong at an election, it is to the courts we turn. Likewise, no legislation is meaningful until it has been tested in the courts.

The question as to whether the press really is free has come under a great deal of scrutiny recently. The Leveson Inquiry, and the appearances in front of House of Commons select committees of Rupert Murdoch and others have raised the question: if the press is owned by just three or four magnates, is it really free at all? If national newspapers were all that there was, we might have to conclude that our free press was more imaginary than real. However, radio, regulated television, and increasingly the internet should soothe our troubled minds. True, the internet is more used for pictures of cute kittens and people’s children than anything else, and most of the ‘facts’ available are, in fact, fakes, hoaxes, misunderstandings or selective citation. Nonetheless, more than ever before, the ordinary citizen can express themselves to a wide audience with only the least amount of interference from any outside body.

Educated citizens is more troubling. It was Tony Blair’s ambition that 50% of the population should go to university. However, even among those who have been, understanding of the great issues of the day is more the exception than the rule. A nation of whom 70% believed that Nigel Farage won the debates with Nick Clegg — despite working from ‘facts’ which subsequently proved to be unsupported by any reputable studies — is not a great advertisement for the benefits of our education system.

Sir Ken Robinson argues that education has always been constructed in purely economic terms. We used to educate the masses to the level of factory workers because that was what the economy required. Now that we are moving to a knowledge economy, we educate people for that. His underlying thesis is that this is not what progressive education should be about. Robinson emphasises developing creativity, which I endorse. However, developing citizenship, not merely in a module entitled ‘citizenship’, should surely be a key outcome in a society which wishes to be democratic.

Civil servants come in for a great deal of criticism — perhaps more so in the post Yes Minister generation — but the system generally functions well. We may at times baulk at the enormous salaries that civil servants appear to command, but that is perhaps partly because the private sector tends to keep very quiet about the enormous salaries that company directors command. We could look at rejigging the whole of society to reduce the disparity between low and high earnings, but, while it exists, excluding civil servants from such things is merely a mechanism to lure people our of the civil service and into the private sector when they reach a certain level — something which is already happening, and should cause us concern.

Politics may be much more professional now than it was one hundred years ago, but the civil service provides a backbone of effective execution which could never take place through politicians and their appointees alone. By and large — though with many biases and institutional priorities which may be at odds with the will of the people — the civil service does its job.

Which brings us to political parties. By comparison with the rest of the democratic world (if that we have accepted that the USA is an oligarchy), Britain has few parties, and they are perhaps far too powerful. Where proportional voting is the rule, which is almost everywhere else, there are more parties, alliances tend to be more fluid, and coalition is a recognised and highly effective form of government. Our system trains politicians to become as tribal as possible: other parties are the hated enemy, only ‘we’ are right and good. This was evident in some of David Cameron’s frantic back-pedalling at the start of the coalition, and in the unease, and, indeed, distaste of many Liberal Democrats.

It is hard to form coalitions when parties are so large. To form a coalition with the Conservatives means that Liberal Democrats are in with a party of Euro-sceptics and Euro-phobes. Euroscepticism may be a good balance, but Euro-phobia is surely something which progressive politicians detest. On the other hand, to go in with Labour means going in with a party whose views range from centrist social democracy to neo-Marxist statism. Again, it is hard for Liberal Democrats to want to work with the entire Labour spectrum. However, Someone + Liberal Democrats is not the only possible, or even logical combination. Tribalism prevents a Labour-Conservative coalition, and, while the parties are as big as they are, such a combination would seem nigh-on impossible.

The hidden term in this — which leads us dangerously close to American-style oligarchy — is that it is getting ever more expensive to fight elections and run parties. Membership based organisations simply cannot generate the £20-30 million necessary to fight a general election, without extensive fundraising in addition to membership subscriptions. Fundraising inevitably raises questions of favouritism. We look down on — and so should we — any notion of cash for peerages and cash for questions in the house, but, at the same time, it is evident that major donors to political parties have a level of access to senior politicians denied to ordinary people.

The other worrying trend is the sharp fall in membership of all parties since the 2010 General Election. This has begun to reverse for the Liberal Democrats, which saw a rise in membership in 2013, but no party can claim to be the movement it was even ten years ago. The fewer the members, the greater the power of large donors.

The first task of government these days seems to be accepted as running the economy, to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s famous dictum. Polls suggest this is what voters most want the government to do. However, in my view, reinvigorating democracy ought to be the fundamental obligation of every government. We are not at the stage yet — but we can see it beginning to form on the horizon — when the costs of campaigning are so great, and the interest of ordinary voters is so small, that Britain, too, begins to resemble not a democracy, or even an aristocracy, but a plutocracy.

 

Back to Top