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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Fluffing Your Lines

Sometimes one hears a slogan proliferate, the chief promulgators of which firmly believe is so definitive that it will garner universal support for their cause. Mere mention of this truth, they conclude, already wins them the argument. Sharing this wisdom, they reason, makes the moral high ground theirs. Enunciating such insights, they believe, vanquishes all possible dissent.

But sometimes it backfires. Sometimes, such strategies do little more than show just how completely out of step these same people are with the very society it is they are trying to convince. Sometimes the obvious and incontestable moral truth contained within these memes are neither all that obvious nor all that incontestable.

This is all too evident with one of the most common slogans/memes/brainfarts being flung around the internet at the moment, being some variation or other on the theme that Michael Gove, focus of worship for the #cultofGove and general meedya pin up boy, wants to take us back to the 1950s with his education reforms.

Only, there’s a problem.

You see, saying that Gove wants a return to the educational milieu of the past as an argument against his reforms is unlikely to have much purchase amongst an increasingly nostalgic populace convinced, perhaps correctly, that educational standards were indeed higher in the past and that we probably ought to try and get back to them.

Inconvenient that.

And it for this reason that Gove himself encourages this exact line, indeed actively cultivates it, and will lose no sleep whatever in being painted out to be very thing that a great many people wish him to be.

And would you? He’s keeping his customers happy, after all, and this kind of line is the icing on the cake. The #cultofGove, built as it is on uncontested myths adopted by a commentariat that have abandoned any pretence to critical analysis, has had spectacular success not in convincing people that Gove is successful, but rather in convincing people that all his reforms are followed with the sole intention of raising standards. For Gove, if that myth is best cultivated by allowing himself to be linked with an era that, in the mind of the population at large and the commentariat in particular, is associated with more rigorous and disciplined education (which is undeniably what parents want), then you can bet he’ll jolly well do it.

I happen to fundamentally disagree with some of Gove’s reforms, and doubt both his perspicacity and the honesty of his stated intentions, whilst being supportive of certain others (I’m a much bigger fan of Michael Wilshaw). On this, I am by no means unique, neither as a teacher, nor a parent, nor a member of the general public – after all, if one is concerned by educational standards, one should be able to applaud and support any idea intended to improve the education provision we give our young. This means assessing an idea, being open to it, rejecting the duds and supporting the good ideas (a critical perspective also rarely employed by the the #cultofGove).

Yet the ‘Back to the 50s’ line doesn’t do this. It presumes as normative that which is increasingly rejected, it presumes as beyond the pale that which is increasingly normative, and in the process it sets up a great big dividing line between teachers and the public on the issue of what is best for their children. And you can be sure that the public in general, like Gove, like Wilshaw, are not concerned by any criticism that Gove is harking back to the 50s – indeed, working within the caricatured frameworks only re-enforced by slogans like these, a great many of them would positively welcome it. And if it means challenging some of the ‘progressive’ (I hate that word, but it will have to do) nonsense swilling around our education system, then so would a great many teachers, too.

For which reason, the next time you’re tempted to retweet some devastatingly original Photoshop mock-up of Michael Gove resembling a Victorian-era school master caning young boys for incorrect declension of a Latin verb, just remember: such silliness is merely fodder and sustenance for the ever expanding #cultofGove


Building a Movement


One by me, originally posted over at LabourUncut, arguing that Labour needs to become less a party and more a movement – and to do so they’ll have to start opening doors long slammed shut.
The Labour party is changing. Or rather, the landscape in which it sits is changing and the party is trying to keep pace. The last election brought with it some hard truths, while post-election analysis has offered little solace. The party had become too detached from ordinary people, increasingly rejected by that very constituency it always claimed to naturally represent. The Labour party had been abandoned by the people, just as those very same people claimed that it was the Labour Party who had abandoned them.
Clearly something had to change.
Nonetheless, there were and are still many within the Labour Party who screech themselves hoarse at the merest questioning of contemporary party dogma, the core creeds of an activist left not especially representative of the views of many in the tradition they claim as their own.
Yet the “new politics”, if it was ever anything, was a general and as yet undeveloped realisation that the old status-quo was bust. Difficult questions had to be asked. Difficult answers had to be countenanced. The party was too exclusionary, too ideologically narrow, and too doctrinally puritan. One nation Labour, whilst not devoid of internal contradiction, was partly a reaction to precisely this – the recognition that Labour has once more to become the party of the people.
Yet if change is happening, if politics really is on the cusp of a post-liberal settlement as many insist, then the common existence of liberalism across the political spectrum means that it is also on the cusp of post-party politics, since the post-liberal response also finds expression across the political spectrum.
Paradoxically, if Labour is to rediscover the ability to reach out across the social spectrum, it needs to grasp the post-party mantle. It needs to see itself once more as a movement, not a party, meaning it needs to once again build a social and cultural coalition agitating for change. It needs, in short, to throw open its doors and cease barring entry to those it once welcomed with open arms.
It is for this reason that Labour ought to be seeing “red Tories” as fair game, those who are (as a rule of thumb) economically to the left and socially to the right, much like many of those missing voters we have lately heard so much about . As I have written previously, Phillip Blond, the self-styled red Tory, can and did play an important role in reinvigorating the left. It was Blond’s work, and the frenzied responses to it, that kicked off a moment of self-realisation in the Labour party, the recognition that many of the most radical and cherished ideas of the Labour movement had fallen into neglect and misuse – Maurice Glasman appeared, reminding the party of the importance of grassroots activism and community organising, Tessa Jowell popped up to reaffirm the central importance of mutualism and the co-operative movement, Jon Cruddas began talking about the socially conservative case against globalised capitalism and the economic settlement of Thatcher.
There were many debates, on asset ownership and wealth capture, on moralising markets and empowering the worker against market and state, on the asset-stripping of the poorest and the oligarchical nature of “free-market” thinking – all conversations generated by a radical pro-society narrative that outflanked Labour on the left even whilst being, like many of the best Labour traditions, fundamentally conservative in nature.
And it is from precisely here that Blond has since denounced Cameron and the destructive social and economic liberalism he has so enthusiastically embraced, in so doing re-asserting his red credentials.
In other words, exposure to alternative voices has enriched the Labour debate, forcing it to question its assumptions and re-evaluate its established orthodoxies. The diversity of thought and contribution got Labour thinking again, hearing new voices and confronting the manner in which its socio-political narrowness had isolated those voices that could legitimately claim to be part of the Labour heritage.
This renewal continues today, albeit tentative, with the post-liberal ground being a new political landscape that the left has already made a march upon. In this respect red Tories, who necessarily identify more with a vision than with a party, look very similar to blue Labour, indeed at times appear inseparable, two sides of a coin that stand closer together on many issues than either does with the progressive activist core of their own political parties.
Perhaps, then, to build that movement Labour needs to see in the midst of a general apathy the seeds of renewal, the ground upon which the movement can rebuild to better reflect not those who have hung about, but those who have long given up, seeing nothing in Labour to represent them or their concerns.
Perhaps Labour needs to extend the hand of welcome further abroad, to stop seeing enemies where there are potential allies, to offer a home to those who find something within the red Tory/blue Labour axis to articulate their concerns and outline their vision of the good life.
Perhaps, controversial as some would find it, Labour should even consider extending that hand of welcome to the (increasingly) red Tory himself.

Marriage and Schools

‘Clegg’s office got into trouble earlier in the month for calling opponents of gay marriage “bigots” and then recalling both the press release and the charge. Here’s the thing: they are bigots. In the end, the only reason to deny a gay couple the right to marry is a belief that their relationship is in some way inferior to a heterosexual one. That’s bigotry. I have no doubt that the opponents of same-sex marriages will be seen, in fairly short historical order, in the same light as those who opposed mixed-race marriages.’
That coming from Richard Reeves, politics’ forgotten man seeking to convince people he still has something mildly interesting to say by accusing all who disagree with him of being bigoted. The wall of noise you can currently hear is a massive irony klaxon going off in the background.
It is a useful contribution though, in so much as it gives insight into the peculiar attitudes of that zealous tribe who brook no opposition to the ‘gay marriage’ cause.  For them, the issue is black and white and permits no discussion. They do not seek to understand the viewpoints of their opponents, any more than they seek to explain the logic of their own. Reeves can show remarkable ignorance of the substantive objections to ‘gay marriage’, whilst simultaneously presenting his own view as self-evident, precisely because in his mind there are no substantive objections to ‘gay marriage’, and his own view really is self-evident. So the (über-)liberal-in-chief pronounces ex cathedra. So the irony klaxon drones on.
The debate, then, is less dialogue and more an exercise in the wielding of power. Employing words like ‘bigot’ is about shutting down discourse, not facilitating it. It is proclaiming ‘this is what we decree, there is no negotiation, you better fall into line’. Whilst we might speculate as to why anyone might wish to avoid the scrutiny of debate, nonetheless words like ‘bigot’ are calculated to generate conformity through fear of denunciation. A conformity demanded primarily by the political class which pursue it, from Ed ‘No Catholics Allowed’ Miliband, to Nick ‘you’re all bigots (but don’t quote me on that)’ Clegg, to the Gospel of Dave.
All of which is revealing, since one of the principal objections to ‘gay marriage’ is the corrosive effect on liberty and the way in which those who find themselves on the wrong side of the new decree could find themselves harassed in society. The international experience seems to suggest this at least predictable if not, one must admit, strictly inevitable outcome; senior legal advice seems to think this is the likely outcome; could we be on the verge, then, of a new and updated (‘modernised’, natch) version of the Test Acts?
Which brings us to schools. The way in which any change in law could affect the liberty of faith schools to teach the sexual ethics of their own faith tradition has been consistently and convincingly made.  Yet what the debate has often missed is the more insidious effect, the censoriousness that comes not directly from the state but from the climate its rhetoric and legislation creates . After all, even if all faith schools were to close there will still be people of faith working within and working through the education sector.  If we, with the political classes and their acolytes, decide that orthodox views on sexual ethics are beyond the pale, that they are ‘bigoted’ and the proponents of such thinking are necessarily ‘bigots’, then what space is there left in the education sector, for teachers but also students, with orthodox views?
Or expressed differently, what does this mean for Joanne who, asked to write an essay in her Religious Studies exam on the nature of marriage, expresses the view that marriage is the monogamous union of one man and one woman? Or for Ruth, who explains that marriage is sacramental and can only ever possibly be between a man and woman, that ‘gay marriage’ is not even possible? Or for Aisha, arguing that one fundamental purpose of marriage is procreation, something that cannot naturally be achieved between two people of the same sex?
Will these children have the confidence in their freedom to make such a case? Or will they, knowing that such views have already been declared anathema, change the nature of their responses, to meekly accept conformity of thought, even if only temporarily, through fear that the merits of any ‘bigoted’ answer will not be given the kind of recognition that would lead to a good grade?
Indeed, when marriage is officially genderless and opposition to gay marriage is officially bigoted, would expressing any alternative view within the classroom or the exam hall not necessarily raise eyebrows? After all, if part of the social charter of schools includes the duty to counter ignorance and prejudice, then what school could in good conscience stand aside and refuse to intervene if they heard expressed views that are to be considered ‘bigoted’? One can feel certain that it would not take long before support and guidance would be offered to help the child think through such views. In other places, intervention might be rather less patient.
Which brings us back to institutions – would schools have to keep an incident log of hate speech to include ‘homophobia’, that word now unapologetically defined as any opposition whatsoever, on any grounds, to homosexual relations or intercourse? Will children who express even mildly dissenting opinion be called to account for their intolerance? Bullying on account of sexuality is abhorrent and ought to be stamped out without fear or favour – will reasoned objection be similarly challenged, since it is by definition ‘bigoted’ and we can all agree that bigotry is not something we wish to leave unchallenged in our schools?
At root, this is an erosion of freedom, not because the sentiment itself is necessarily an assault on freedom, but because the legislative edifice upon which it is constructed cannot help but be so. Which is precisely why, for many, the issue is zero-sum, and any dissent must be challenged. Yet if we, as a society, decide that all alternatives to political decree on sexual ethics are de facto ‘bigoted’, then we can feign no surprise when the logic of that intolerance turns in on itself. The corrosion of freedom, then, is not just religious, but intellectual and academic, spreading upwards and outward from the individual to the institution. This is the lesson we teach our children: this the educational milieu we bequeath them.
Perhaps, then, we ought to thank Richard Reeves. His intervention demonstrates the claws in the liberal settlement – and the corrosion of intellectual and religious freedom which ensues.
NB: It has been asked why, if the impact on schools and learning is so great, there has been relatively reaction from the education sector. The answer is: I have no idea. Though union hierarchy suffers from ‘progressive capture’ every bit as much as professional, activist politics has. See my letter to Christine Blower, head of the NUT, here.