Not for the first time, Peter Hitchens has a bee in his bonnet. Today, his column begins with this stirring cry:
It is time David Davis left the Tory Party and urged others to follow. He is by far the most distinguished, experienced and principled conservative politician in the country.
Yet there is now no room for him in David Cameron’s teenage Shadow Cabinet of Etonians, nobodies and Etonian nobodies.
This glaring fact, set alongside the fawning support which the Leftist BBC and Leftist Guardian now give Mr Cameron, should tell us all we need to know about the Tories.
Don’t hold back, will you, Peter? Actually, the Hitch has two parallel but interlocking arguments, one about education and one about the big picture.
The educational issue has to do with grammar schools. The genial Mr Davis has written an article in praise of grammar schools, recounting how he, a bright working-class kid, was given a big leg up in life by a grammar school education. He then goes on to argue that England could do with more grammar schools. Following his resignation from the shadow cabinet over civil liberties, this is his second major shot across Rankin’ Dave Cameron’s bows.
Some historical background is necessary here, as well as setting aside a few standard leftist preconceptions. Chief among these is that the old grammar schools were bastions of privilege. This was true for a very long time, but it’s often forgotten what a revolutionary effect the 1944 Butler Act had. By setting grammar school entrance on a meritocratic basis, huge numbers of working-class kids were given opportunities they never otherwise would have had.
The post-1944 tripartite system had its difficulties, of course, mostly to do with resources. The secondary moderns, where the bulk of the school-age population were educated, were seriously neglected, while the promised technical schools didn’t materialise at all. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a horrendous system. And there’s something that’s often forgotten, and which perhaps explains why Mrs Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any Labour education secretary. That was that much of the drive towards comprehensivisation came from middle-class parents who were faced with the appalling vistas of both legions of working-class kids getting into grammars and less academically gifted middle-class kids being consigned to secondary moderns. Hence, the postcode lottery.
It would be fair to say that, just as the Butler scheme didn’t work out as planned, neither did the comprehensive scheme as it developed end up as the planners expected. You only have to read Crosland on the subject to know that. One outcome has been an enormous boost to a private sector that was on the brink of dying out forty years ago. But far more insidious has been the way that open selection has been replaced by underhand, secret selection. Pushy middle-class parents who know their way around the system are well able to get little Jimmy into that nice school that isn’t nearly as comprehensive as it’s claimed to be. If you have the money, you can pay the enormous premium required to move into the catchment area of a desirable school. (And it’s worth considering the impact this has had on the house price bubble.) Or alternatively, you can feign religiosity to get your children into a faith school. Is it really a surprise that Mr Tony Blair’s city academies, which were supposed to be all about helping working-class kids, are seeing the class profile of their pupils change very quickly? The middle class always find a way to profit from whatever the system is.
(And this catalogue of unforeseen consequences should perhaps inform our own debate about post-primary education, where the abolition of the official 11+ has led to the establishement of two unofficial 11+ exams, one Catholic and one Protestant. The Belfast Telegraph likes to ascribe this to the incompetence of education minister Caitríona Ruane, but that’s just missing the point. The point is that Caitríona’s reforms are based entirely on bright ideas coming out of the education department at Queens, rather than those of people at the chalkface.)
This is a subject close to the Hitch’s heart, and he’s devoted a whole chapter of his new book The Broken Compass to it. But what’s essential here is that the British political class, with its customary hypocrisy, is willing to countenance covert selection and indeed procure it for their own families – the Camerons and the Goves are parents at the same exclusive church school – as long as they publicly adhere to the egalitarian position. The outcome is that, while there’s a lot of talk about a failing education system, nobody seems to have any clear ideas about changing it. Messrs Cameron and Gove have made cryptic remarks about the Swedish system. This won’t work in Britain for reasons too tedious to go into, but essentially because Britain isn’t Sweden. The German system has a lot to commend it – in Germany the state schools are so good it really is just the thickest scions of the wealthy who go private – but it would take an awful lot of time and money to introduce, and it has the disadvantage of featuring lots of grammar schools. Grammar schools remain as ideologically treif for Rankin’ Dave as they are for any Labour politician.
Which brings me to the second theme. I often think about Peter Hitchens that he’s really in the wrong era to be doing much good. His polemics against the permissive society, for instance, would be perfectly relevant if this was 1963 and he was excoriating Roy Jenkins. His current Big Idea is that all proper conservatives (“proper” is a key part of the Hitchens lexicon) should be working towards the electoral defeat of Cameron’s Useless Tories, the better to replace them with some a genuinely conservative opposition. Trouble is, this might have been plausible in 1997, or even 2001, but it seems dreadfully out of sync at the moment. Never mind, though, the Hitch warms to his theme regardless:
If Mr Cameron becomes Prime Minister, we will be told that he has done so precisely because he is a liberal, and the remaining real conservatives in his party will be marginalised and crushed for a generation.
But a proper dramatic moment is needed, to drive home this fact to the voters. The time is just right for it. Tory MPs are currently in turmoil, many fiercely resenting the shameless injustice of Mr Cameron’s expenses purge. This has fallen heavily on MPs Mr Cameron doesn’t like or agree with – but has exempted Mr Cameron’s own closest allies, and let off Mr Cameron himself, despite the exposure of his greedy use of taxpayers’ money to buy himself a large country house which he could easily have paid for himself.
Which can’t be said often enough. Here we have a man worth thirty million quid, and he’s still bumming off the taxpayer. Meanwhile, he’s quite cynically been using the expenses scandal to rid himself not of the worst offenders – most of whom are in his shadow cabinet – but of those crusty old Tory MPs who he’s never liked and who’ve never liked him. It’s just another opportunity to remould the Tories into a party of metrosexual liberalism, albeit that these liberals don’t seem to have a problem taking the salute from Latvian SS veterans.
But I’m rambling here. Do go on, Peter:
The Tory front bench is a mixture of pitiful inexperience and fierce disagreement, a truth only concealed by the state of Labour’s Cabinet of None of the Talents. It is divided over the EU, over economic policy, over defence policy and over the central issue of liberty.
Now David Davis has also brought things to a head over what might be called David Cameron’s Clause Four issue – the need to rebuild the grammar schools…
This is the heart of his Unconservative programme. It is the Cameron pledge to govern as New Labour, which is what has got him the friendship of the BBC. Mr Davis was cynically destroyed in his Tory leadership campaign by London liberal PR men and journalists working in concert to promote the unknown, undistinguished David Cameron. He was left out in the cold when he staged his ill-advised but rather admirable one-man campaign for liberty a year ago.
And now we have Mr Davis sticking his neck out on this totemic issue. Good for him. I won’t hold my breath, though, waiting for him to resign with a big dramatic flourish. But it would be nice if the electorate were actually offered a choice of programmes, instead of content-free political marketing directed at the 300,000 swing voters. Unfortunately, the collapse of mass party membership, the increasing reliance on big donations and the mass media, and the consolidation of a largely identikit political class spanning party boundaries, are powerful forces driving a process which Mr Cameron seems hell-bent on accelerating. Whether the tide can actually be turned back… once again, I see Peter filling the role of King Cnut.
Rud eile: Peter also has a dig at John Bercow for his reluctance to wear the Speaker’s traditional wig, gown and tights. Nor does he spare Bercow’s predecessors, Speakers Boothroyd and Martin:
What these vandals do not seem to grasp is that they command respect not because of who they are but because of the office they hold. Stripped of wig, robes and bands, we see only the person. And we do not like what we see. If Mr Martin had worn the horsehair on his head, people might not have noticed so quickly that he resembled, in many significant ways, a horse’s backside.
I say, that’s a bit ripe for someone who’s always complaining about the coarsening of public debate.
Rud eile fós: Looks like Langley are up to their old tricks. Where the colour-coded putsch in Moldova didn’t work out, perhaps a more old-school coup in Honduras would be just the thing to boost office morale.