Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Henley's last Liberal MP

My apologies to Stephen Kearney and the team, but I haven't made it to Henley. I feel bad about it, but both events and prior commitments meant I never quite got there.

So I will keep my fingers crossed for a Lib Dem victory tomorrow. Stephen clearly has an interesting background, having been head of an international development charity and lived on a houseboat.

However, he will have to go some to cut as colourful a character as Henley's last Liberal MP, Phillip Morrell, who represented South Oxfordshire between 1906 and 1910. He and his wife Lady Ottoline had a notoriously 'open' marriage - he fathered illegitimate children, while Bertrand Russell was merely the best-known of her lovers. They befriended and encouraged various writers and artists from TS Eliot to Virginia Woolf and their home at Garsington Manor was a kind of unofficial refuge for artistic conscientious objectors during the first world war.

Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow is reputedly a thinly-veiled portrayal of the Morrell menage.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Renaissance Birmingham

The recent Liberal Democrat local government conference provided an opportunity to visit Birmingham's Council House, one of the great municipal buildings in Britain.

Built in the 1870s in the classical style it resembles nothing more than an Italian renaissance palace. A Victorian extension to the building houses the city's museum and art gallery, which contains one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in Britain.

It should remind us that despite the image of Victorian industrial Britain as being all Hard Times, Coketown and Grangrind, it was not all facts and philistinism. The point is best made by the inscription on the entrance to the art gallery, which includes the words 'By the gains of industry we promote art'. Perhaps it is also an illustration of how economic and social liberalism have often gone hand in hand.

For Liberals with an interest in party history the conference itself at the Birmingham ICC also had an air of homecoming about it. The venue stands on the site of Bingley Hall, where the National Liberal Federation, the party's first democratic representative body, was founded in 1877.

Peterloo memorial

Recent travels took me to Manchester where I saw the new and recently installed plaque to commemmorate the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which 15 protestors were killed when the cavalry charged a peaceful demonstration demanding reform of Parliamentary representation.

The demonstration took place at St Peter's Field in Manchester and in a reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier the term 'Peterloo' was coined.

Following a spirited local campaign, the new red plaque was installed last year, replacing a previous blue plaque that managed to sanitise the incident by making no reference to the fact that people were killed.

In the longer term the campaigners want to see a proper monument erected to the event.

One result of the Peterloo Massacre was the foundation of the Manchester Guardian newspaper. However, it was to be another 13 years before the Whig government passed the Great Reform Act.

It is not entirely clear to me why, despite Manchester's radical history, there has been a reluctance to have a proper memorial to Peterloo. Possibly it was seen as a stain on the city's reputation rather than something to be commemmorated.

The plaque is on the side of Manchester's Radisson Hotel, formerly the Free Trade Hall, which, as the name suggests, also has its place in British radical history.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Labour's cynical rhetoric over schools

'Schools get ultimatum: improve or face closure' is the screaming headline in today’s Observer. This outburst of tough talking is simply Ed Balls ‘dog whistling’ at right of centre voters, and using teachers who have to work in difficult schools as sacrificial lambs. The Education secretary’s comment that

With all the support on offer for parents and schools, no child is on a pre-determined path to low results - whatever their background and wherever they go to school

is empty rhetoric. The experience of my own local area is that the schools that get the worst results are those with the most challenging pupils – those who for social and/or intellectual reasons are unlikely to get five good GCSEs. There are schools in this part of Hertfordshire that have first-rate facilities, charismatic headteachers and highly-motivated staff, yet which still struggle to attract bright pupils with academically aspirational parents.

The challenge is how to ensure that schools achieve a balanced intake. This is more easily said than done. Some of those on the left (including Liberal Democrats) are critical of parental choice. Yet for the state to allocate school places regardless of family preference is paternalist social engineering of a kind that liberals should surely not support – although a depressing number seem to do so.

To be fair to the government (although I don’t see why I should be), I can imagine circumstances where the ‘brand image’ of a particular school has become so damaged that renaming, rebuilding, relocating and relaunching under new management might be a way of attracting children from a wider range of backgrounds and abilities.

There are no easy answers, and it is a subject about which all political parties need to do more thinking. But Nick Clegg is on the right track with the pupil premium policy. It has to be better than macho rhetoric that will do little to improve schools, but will further demoralise teachers who have to cope with some of the country’s most difficult children.