Monday 18 May 2009

The emerging great revolt

It is getting stranger, this expenses business, and even rather frightening – and, heavens, I’m only self-employed. I have to charge myself expenses. But I have been thinking about one aspect in the past few days, and it's this.

There is no doubt that the public is very engaged in the expenses story. I keep on overhearing conversations about it on public transport. But the mood seems to be dovetailing with a powerful shift which I’ve been detecting increasingly over the last few months of defiance and revolt against New Labour.

Only today there was the threat by one Steiner School to close down rather than implement the government’s technocratic early years curriculum. "I'm not prepared to struggle on month after month hoping a petty bureaucrat will say this school can continue as it is,” said the head of one of them in the Times Educational Supplement. “I'm not going to kowtow and have children on computers.”

Add this to the list. The police authorities that have rejected government targets. The primary school heads refusing to implement Sats. Something is stirring, and it is important and exciting.

I also think it began with Nick Clegg’s brave and inspirational statement during the leadership election in 2007 that he would refuse to carry an ID card. That was the catalyst it seems to me, but how will this mood dovetail with the public rage at politicians? That’s harder to call, much less predictable and a little nerve-wracking. A bit of populism is urgently needed, but it can be unpredictable, after all.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Time to break up the banks

Judging by the Today programme this morning, we may be moving into a different phase of the financial crisis. The opportunities for serious reform of the system may slowly be slipping away, and I’m frustrated that the party is still peddling what seems to me to be the wrong position on the banks.

Yes, we are calling for a UK version of the Glass-Steagall Act, separating investment banking from high street banking. That seems to be a bare minimum.

But the basic proposal is that we should use the government’s partial ownership of the banks to force them to lend more locally. We urgently need to face up to the fact that this hasn’t worked, won’t work and actually can’t work.

The UK banks are now so consolidated, and so focussed on the speculative economy, that they can no longer provide the kind of local lending infrastructure that we so desperately need – and which the USA has and which northern Europe has too. There is no local lending expertise; decisions are done according to formula, so in a recession, of course all their IT systems block the loans and tighten up overdraft conditions. They are not designed for that any more.

So for goodness sake, before we go any further, let’s take a distinctive Lib Dem position: break up the big banks, force them to disgorge the building societies they swallows, split them up regionally to rebuild our local lending infrastructure.

That is the way we can rebuild a real local enterprise culture – so we don’t have to rely on the next bubble just to fling us back into the delusion that we are wealthy.

Monday 4 May 2009

Child abuse by the authorities

I don’t really know why, but I find I’ve been haunted all weekend by the story of the mother who hit her child on the arm with a hairbrush because he wouldn’t get dressed for school. Maybe it was a bank holiday awareness of the difficulties of bringing up children; maybe it was just wondering whether I had the nerve to write this. Who knows.

But I do have the nerve, so I’ll say it: this seems to me to be a story that accelerates the fear that all parents share, it seems to me, of the emerging atmosphere of witch-hunt created by the child abuse industry. Of the government-sponsored demand for perfect middle-class child-rearing in the approved New Labour style.

None of this suggests that I want to encourage hitting children – quite the reverse. Or that it doesn’t matter – of course it does. Just that loving parents make mistakes, and sometimes spectacular ones, and that sane authorities need to distinguish between these and child abuse.

But no, the mother who snapped has finally been given a 12-month community order. They have taken her child away (he’s eight) and say he may be allowed to come home once the sentence is over (by which time he'll be nine). Nor is she allowed to discuss it with him on their two-hour weekly permitted meetings.

It seems to me quite extraordinary, brutal even, that this ever came to court. There has been no suggestion that the child is in danger, or that the mother (who has just had a breast removed) is a danger to children. Yet these same authorities seem quite capable of allowing real tragedies to happen like Baby P and the horrific rape by Baby P’s grandfather.

If you doubt that there is a new tyranny emerging here, think of these two things:

1. The poor child, taken away from an apparently loving home with no immediate prospect of coming home, at the age of eight. Despite all the rhetoric of ‘what’s best for the child’, children must apparently expect punishment by the child abuse lobby for their own involvement in parental mistakes.

2. My own nervousness about writing this at all. I am not at all sure that, by voicing this kind of concern, I will not myself become a target and a figure of suspicion.

Those seem to me to be prima facie evidence that we have stumbled into a new tyranny. Worse, it is one that is punishing children and undermining our ability to tackle the real child abuse which undoubtedly exists.