Thursday 19 March 2009

Naming the Thing

Hilaire Belloc’s first piece of political writing was an essay on the origins of Liberalism: he said it began with William Cobbett and his rural radicalism, rather than with Richard Cobden and the free trade campaign. I think he was right.

I keep thinking about Cobbett as the various stories flow through every day of the outrageous salaries and bonuses, not just in banking, but at the top of the public and private sectors alike. I read yesterday that the top 123 executives at Transport for London all earn over £100,000 a year.

That doesn’t really compare to the staggering greed of Fred the Shred, or the secretive culture of Roger Jenkins, but it is bad enough.

William Cobbett had a word for this. He called this combination of useless, feather-bedded appointees, and the money system they colluded over, ‘The Thing’. We have The Thing just as much today, and its tentacles are becoming clearer. Just as it was in Cobbett’s day, The Thing feeds off the rest of us – we pay for these sinecures in the public sector, but we also pay through our dwindling pensions for the huge bonuses in the financial sector. They rightly belong to the customers.

We await a political force capable of first naming The Thing, and then taking it apart.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Knowledge that defines Britishness

A friend of mine does her 'Britishness' test today, to qualify to be a British citizen. One of the sample questions she has been provided with - apparently knowledge that no citizen should be without - is to define a quango.

It really is extraordinary, though perhaps not very surprising, that Whitehall Man believes knowing the meaning of government acronyms is one of those pieces information which defines Britishness - alongside knowledge of Shakespeare and all the panoply of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish culture.

I notice that this same narrowness of spirit is exactly the same in the privatised industries, proof - if you needed any more - that it doesn't matter if a business is public or private, it still shrinks the soul if it is too big.

The evidence: the decision by National Express to ban trainspotters from stations on the North East Main Line on the grounds that they are "a security risk". In fact, of course, they are quite the reverse: they know everything about railways, are inoffensive watchers and crime preventers, better than any security camera. But the bureaucratic mind believes they are untidy. I must remember to shun National Express in future.

Friday 6 March 2009

More schools, smaller schools. The rest is noise.

I can’t be in Harrogate this weekend, which is frustrating, because I wanted to listen to the education debate – though it may be that I will actually stay less frustrated in the end by not doing going.

The proposals on offer are all excellent and urgent. I especially agree with the idea that local authorities can commission parent and voluntary groups to start new schools. But, let’s face it: there isn’t much in there which addresses the main problem about education, the one that looms over all the others. There are not enough schools.

No amount of changing the curriculum, ending micro-management and measuring differently is going to deal with that. Nor is the pupil premium, important though that is.

There are 5,000 pupils in London at secondary school level which have no places, and many thousands more who are being bussed across London to places they would not dream of applying to. Ed Davey is doing really excellent work on this.

The problem is partly that there are not enough good schools, and the proposals will help tackle that. But often they are not good enough because they are too big and inhuman and are therefore miserably letting children down, especially at secondary level.

It is also to do with this fantasy about ‘catchment areas’, as if everyone lived in one. In practice, the catchment area of our local primary school is only about 200 yards around the school. Most people in my neighbourhood live outside any catchment area and are at the mercy of the local authority (Croydon, ugh!).

Education ought to be central to the Lib Dem cause. It isn’t going to really be so until we come up with proposals for a massive programme of new schools and of breaking up the existing ones into smaller, more human and more effective units.