Sunday, January 22, 2012

Scottish independence referendum revisited

Last week's article by Katy Gordon on Liberal Democrat Voice this week makes one fear that leading Lib Dems north of the border are still falling into Alex Salmond's trap of branding us with the 'Unionist' parties.

We now run the risk of being portrayed, with some justification, as a home rule party that insists home rule isn't an option in the referendum and as supporting votes for 16-year-olds but opposing it for the referendum. Those will be tricky positions to to explain to the electorate.

I have mentioned recently the very wise advice given by Dan Falchikov on this subject that the party would do well to heed. I note that my former Watford colleague Andy Canning, himself a formidable campaigner, is arguing in similar vein in the responses to Katy Gordon's article. He comments, with regard to the 2011 Holyrood election:

...the active hostility to the SNP led the Lib Dem leadership to totally misunderstand the feelings of the electorate and we were punished by a wholesale switch of the Lib Dem vote to the SNP lock, stock and barrel.

It seems to me that Lib Dems north of the border have such visceral loathing of Alex Salmond that many of them have lost their reason regarding how to fight back against him. But the new Scottish party leader Willie Rennie is an old pro when it comes to electoral strategy. Let's hope he will lead the party back towards rationality.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is lack of funding really the only possible explanation for a school's weakness?

We only get newspapers at the weekend and have just reverted back to the Guardian and Observer after an unhappy dalliance with the Independent (too boring and worthy, often still unread by Monday).

To my delight it appears that Polly Toynbee's column has disappeared from the Saturday paper, with the slot now occupied by Jonathan Freedland, who at least has other things to say besides calling for higher public spending.

But the spirit of Toynbeeism is present in a letter from Dr Selina Todd, an Oxford admissions tutor. Her main point, with which I agree, is that comprehensive education gives students an 'excellent foundation for university' so it is wrong to think of students succeeding 'in spite' of going to comprehensive schools.

So far so good, but Dr Todd then concludes:

Any weaknesses with comprehensive schools are due to the lamentable lack of government investment in them.

Hang on a minute here. Even the late Labour government's worst enemies would concede that it spent a lot of money on schools in the days when boom and bust had still been abolished. There hasn't been time for the effects of austerity (whether one considers it painful but necessary or ideologically driven) to filter through. So if comprehensive schools have been failing because of lack of funding, then there really is no hope. Whatever party is in power, they are unlikely to preside over a further massive increase in school funding so if one accepts Dr Todd's argument then struggling schools will never succeed.

It does seem crudely reductionist to suggest that the only possible explanation for the failure of a school is lack of government investment. Surely schools are complex organisations whose success or lack of it could have a number of explanations (and certainly level of funding is an important one). Do the performance of headteachers, governing bodies, the nature of the intake, the quality of the staff, whether the school has an ethos of aspiration for its students etc. have no impact at all on a school's performance?

One would hope that in the 'imaginative lessons' students take part in at comprehensive schools they learn that explanations for social phenomena are often complex and not easily reducible to a monocausal explanation. One hopes that recognising this won't disadvantage them when their application is read by an Oxford admissions tutor.

Salmond has the right to have the referendum he wants

The week's news has been dominated by the spat between Alex Salmond and variously David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Michael Moore over the Scottish referendum.

Despite very sensible advice from Dan Falchikov that

A period of silence from Moore, Cameron and Osborne on the constitutional question would be welcome - and might buy the Scottish party some breathing space to remove itself from the unionist hook it has impaled itself on

according to yesterday's Guardian Nick Clegg had still not managed to let things lie.

Whatevever the legal niceties, the SNP won a mandate for a referendum last year, are pretty much entitled to hold it on their own terms, and a spirit of begrudery and obstruction from Westminster will make independence more likely.

Whichever way, it seems to me that the status quo is not sustainable, with Scotland simply administering the proceeds of taxes set by Wesminster and therefore not having to confront the economic choices that tend to define the differences between political parties. It also means that Scottish politics becomes defined not by genuine ideological choices but by legislation governing the sale of alcohol and the like.

Since 1999 government from Holyrood has basically been in the hands of three different parties all espousing varieties of centre-left social democracy. Although that it the part of the political landscape that I inhabit too (alghough I would stress Liberalism not social democracy) I can't help thinking that for Scottish politics to come of age it requires Holyrood having real control over tax and public spending decisions, not being a supplicant to Westminster.

The Liberal Democrats north and south of the border would be better accepting Salmond's mandate, avoid being painted into the Unionist corner and instead get on with campaigning for devo max.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

England, not Westminster is the 'mother of parliaments'

The Eurosceptic Conservative MP Bill Cash has written a biography of the Victorian radical statesman John Bright, of whom he is a distant relative.

Although there is no obligation on authors to write about subjects whom they find politically sympathetic, this might seem a bit of an odd match. Yet Bright's resistance to social and welfare legislation would no doubt stand him in good stead with some modern Conservatives. And he did end up as a Liberal Unionist party (after the 1886 split over home rule) which was in an electoral alliance with the Tories.

George Eaton's review in the New Statesman makes a point that is a familiar bee in my own bonnet - namely the way politicians and others so often refer to Westminster as the 'mother of parliaments'. In fact this is a misquote of a famous phrase of Bright's that described England as the mother of parliaments. (See this Guardian editorial on the point'). In other words England gave birth to parliaments. Whether this is a historically accurate observation is open to question. Bright used the phrase rhetorically to promote extension of the franchise.

I would like to be say that I knew this as a result of voluminous reading of Bright's speeches. In fact it's because I remember Norman St John Stevas ticking off Shirley Williams  for her misquoting of Bright on an edition of Question Time in the early 1980s. For some reason it has stuck with me.

Journal of Liberal History No. 73

The latest issue of the Journal of Liberal History includes my review of Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain, 1815-1914 by William C. Lubenow. (The content is only available by subscription online).

This seems a good moment for one of my regular plugs for the Journal, this edition of which includes a review by Michael Meadowcroft and articles including 'The King of Showland The unusual career of the entertainment entrepreneur and Liberal MP for Walsall, 1922-24, Pat Collins.' by Graham Lippiatt and 'The Lloyd George land taxes' by Roy Douglas.

Subscription details here.