Could this man be the saviour of conservatism? The Hitch thinks so…


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.


  1. Darren said,

    June 28, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    9/10 readers of this blog think you wrote this piece just so that you could post that accompanying pic.

    7/10 readers of this blog thank you for posting that accompanying pic.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 28, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    If he didn’t want to appear on this blog, he shouldn’t have posed for the pic. As our most principled conservative politician, you’d think he’d know better.

  3. ejh said,

    June 28, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Well, bollocks to the grammar schools: in fact the biggest ever educational leg-up for the working-classes was comprehensivation. The class profile of grammar schools was, even in the Fifties and Sixties, overwhelmingly middle-class: the occasional Alan Bennet here and there doesn’t means this isn’t true.

    When people compare the Oxbridge intake of grammar schools and comprehensives, unfavourably to the latter, they forget (or rather, do not care) that they are not remotely comparing like with like. (They also forget that a lot of the most successful grammars actually went independent when comprehensivisation began, which skews the statistics enormously.)

  4. June 29, 2009 at 1:40 am

    Forget, please, “conservatism.” It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    “[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Recovering Republican

    PS – And “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” Rush Limbaugh never made a bigger ass of himself than at CPAC where he told that blasphemous “joke” about himself and God.

  5. Phil said,

    June 29, 2009 at 7:14 am

    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.

    Blair was asked about this by a Select Committee on education, a few years back, and said (a) pushy middle-class parents will game any system you put in front of them, and hey, good for them, why the hell not?; and (b) if this does happen to academies it will show that the system’s working, i.e. the old sink school has been rescued and is now a des. ed. res. Not sure what happens to the displaced kids, mind you.

  6. Guano said,

    June 29, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Technical schools pre-1960s. There were some, but not everywhere. I lived in a County Borough that had some but there was a nearby County that didn’t. Possibly it helped that there was a presence in the County Borough of an engineering industry that wanted staff like draughtsmen.

    Academies. The logic behind Academies is very unclear and, at times, contradictory but part of the argument has been, indeed, that they will attract more middle-class children, this will force up standards and everyone will win. The problem with this is that there aren’t really any significant advantages of an Academy over a community secondary school for a middle-class family: the differences are the fact that it is called something different, that the buildings are new, that it is managed by a private company and not the LEA and that Lord Adonis is there and won’t let them fail (though of couse Lord Adonis is not there any more). For many middle-class families the problem of community secondary schools is that the whole community is there, and being an Academy doesn’t change that. So, from what I’ve seen, middle-class families (in London, at least) continue to sent their children to private schools. Furthermore the idea that more middle-class children forces up the standards overall has yet to be show, and it is far from clear what the “value-added” is of the presence of a “sponsor”. There are a lot of issues with secondary education and how to improve it, but calling a school an Academy doesn’t address them.

  7. ejh said,

    June 29, 2009 at 11:43 am

    The thing is, this

    they will attract more middle-class children, this will force up standards

    is true enough, but this

    everyone will win

    is not, because everyone won’t actually get in: in fact there’ll be a concerted effort to make sure that Everyone doesn’t get in. And if Everyone does get in, the middle-class will go presumably elsewhere.

    If they’re allowed.

  8. Guano said,

    June 29, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    In London the lack of secondary school places, and the failure of school building to keep pace with the growth of the population, mean that even supposedly “failing” schools have three or four times as many pupils applying as there are places. Getting middle-class children into the state sector of education means not only building schools to keep ace with population growth but also to accomodate children potentially changing back to the state sector. It isn’t happening. As a strategy for improving schools it is unrealistic.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 29, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I went to a grammar school as it happens, but most of the kids at it were from farming backgrounds. Not exactly the London Oratory.

    Actually I think there’s far too much concentration on tinkering about with the structures, and not enough on the human element. The national curriculum is far too broad and far too narrow at the same time. The targets culture incentivises teaching to the test. Literacy is fine, but the Tony Blair Literacy Hour is ridiculously schematic. And so on.

    The basic thing you need is good teaching. Pushy parents can do a lot, but an inspiring teacher can make a difference to the kid even if the parents don’t give a stuff. And, though this may call down anathemata from the Socialist Teachers Alliance, a fairly rigorous inspection regime can do a lot more to assure quality than targets and league tables. There’s no target that a bureaucrat can’t finesse.

    The main thing I would ask of the educational structures is that they don’t actively prevent schools from doing their job. And that means that teachers should spend more time teaching than filling out forms for Ed Balls – which of course is what they went into the job to do.

  10. Ferenka Fred said,

    June 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Could you expand on what Queen’s Education Dept have been up to?

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 29, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    It is there that you’ll find the source of most of Caitriona’s ideas about post-primary education. Which is a story in itself, because Caitriona’s proposed reforms have actually been quite modest, but that hasn’t stopped parents and teachers going apeshit. Just goes to show how hard it is to reform anything with so many vested interests involved.

  12. ejh said,

    June 30, 2009 at 7:07 am

    I think what mostly bugs me about discussion of education policy is that it is absolutely dominated by the question of what happens to the top 5%-10%: apart from the fact that that discussion is normally marked by extreme class paranoia (and substantial ignorance about what happens in comprehensive schools) you’d think the rest of the school population didn’t exist. Yet it’s the middle sector that really benefitted most from comprehensivisation – enormously so, comparing its performance pre and post-grammar. The parents of the top slice really don’t give a damn about these people.

    There’s a debate to be had as to whether the top slice do better in grammars in comprehensives – I don’t think they do and nor do I understand why they would – but as I say, the whole discussion is absolutely dominated by this vast outpouring of class paranoia when people who expect to be at the front of the queue think they might not be at the front of the queue.

  13. Cian said,

    June 30, 2009 at 10:18 am

    We spend a lot e of money on the top 20%, and largely ignore the rest. This manifests either in the way that exams are structured s.t. only certain grades count (A-C GCSEs), or that education is modelled around the needs of the more academic (in stark contrast to the German system which has different policies for different segments of need), or the frankly bonkers way in which targets have been used to direct resources to schools that probably don’t need them (what makes a school “good”. Often the fact that it has pushy middle class parents, many of whom pay for extra tuition). So I agree with Justin about that up to a point, but on the other hand mixed ability teaching is not particularly effective. Whether you stream within a school, or between schools, this does tend to lead to better and more focused teaching. I favour comprehensives for the simple reason that prevents grammar schools from creaming off all the resources, which is what will happen in the UK due to our cultural expectations (see for example the yearly complaints about the A-level gold standard), and makes it harder to ignore the remaining 80% of students.

    The reason grammar schools were “good” was because they got all the money. Secondary Moderns were largely underresourced and ignored. Comprehensives are underfunded, and still (tacitly) expected to focus on high achievers. Also its more expensive to teach poorer students, while middle class students receive all kinds of external help. If comprehensives serve homogenous social populations, then the poor will basically get fucked including those who previously had an out with grammar schools (both my parents, for example). The solution is to either enforce mixed social mixes in comps, or give more resources for poorer pupils (something the Economist has been pushing for years, bizarrely).

    Oh, and I totally agree about inspections. However, targets give the illusion of more information and unfortunately Labour have been addicted to data, regardless of quality.

  14. ejh said,

    June 30, 2009 at 10:48 am

    on the other hand mixed ability teaching is not particularly effective

    I agree with that (unless you have sufficiently few in a class that you can get individual attention when you want it) but it’s funny how many people think that streaming doesn’t take place in comprehensives. It certainly did in mine and I’ve no reason to think this was unusual – am I wrong?

  15. Guano said,

    June 30, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    You’re not wrong, EJH.

  16. Cian said,

    June 30, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    It depends upon the school/era/ideology. It would be pretty unusual now, but then we don’t really have comprehensives in a lot of areas either… As me da’ said, at least grammar schools gave poor kids a chance of a decent education…

  17. Matthew said,

    June 30, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Presumably secondary moderns – which take about 70% or more of pupils in most of these systems, past and present – suffer from any criiticism of comprehensives, down to the (probably overstated) ‘house price effect’.

  18. skidmarx said,

    July 1, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    16. But surely the difference between grammars and comprehensives is that there is a possibility of changing streams in the latter, or indeed of being in different streams for different subjects.
    It seems somewhat inevitable that the top slice of pupils will be easiest to teach in a system that assumes progress at their rate, and doesn’t have so much provision for understanding while other pupils don’t “get it” as fast. It seems less inevitable that the best teachers should always be teaching the top slice, but far more likely where comprehensive teaching is abandoned.

  19. Cian said,

    July 1, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Yeah, but if your comprehensive is a sink school then you still won’t get decent teaching in the top stream. Not all comps are socially segregated, and not all schools for poor kids are bad (or the inverse for that matter). What happened in an awful lot of areas is that selection by exam (which favoured wealthier kids, incidentally, something that tends to get left out of the debate) was replaced by selection by post code. Or various types of parental choice that basically favoured the middle classes. To some degree this is probably unavoidable unless one creates huge schools (not great), or has bussing. Middle class students are easier/cheaper to teach. But a lot could be done, its just that nobody much is interested in this.

    Its perfectly possible to have a comprehensive system that is socially fair, educationally effective, etc, etc. Its just that we don’t and that what happened in a lot of areas with comprehensives was that an unfair system was replaced with an unfairer one.

  20. ejh said,

    July 2, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Or various types of parental choice that basically favoured the middle classes.

    Hence the “honestly, I’m a Catholic” racket which forms a circular relationship with the “religious schools are better” racket.

  21. David Hillman said,

    July 4, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    I think the top 5 or 10 % will do well in any decent school – Grammar or Comprehensive. My schoolstarted of as single sex Grammar (with boarders, gowns etc) then fused with the local girls’ Grammar and finally became comprehensive, being joined by the Secondary Modern. I’ve always found academic success easy (Oxford, O.U. etc). Nevertheless i only just passed the 11 plus, being working class (not enough room to explicate this here). I don’t know if I would have succeeded in a secondary Modrn – it was a dead end for most of my freinds and family with no chance to take any exams. Grammar schools are not the way to give more chance to working class kids.

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