Monday, June 17, 2013

Iran's Election Requires Positive US Response

When Iran last held an election – four years ago, as its constitution demands – protests greeted the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad which went on for days and even led to some expectation in the West that a long awaited “green revolution” might be at hand.  The U.S., under its relatively new and apparently liberal president, played a careful role, keeping public comments low-key in order not to further inflame a clearly delicate situation.  President Obama was clear that there was to be no US intervention, and he faced a predictable round of right-wing criticism for his temperance.

Yet there is a case for seeing Mr.Obama’s earlier restraint as a necessary factor in this year’s victory of a would-be reformer in Iran.   Using the voting booth – something western audiences could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Iran doesn’t possess – the Iranians have now given their presidency to Hassan Rouhani, a reform minded cleric.

Mr. Rouhani may seem an unlikely reformer, and there are those in Iran who certainly consider his new, reform mantle to be as yet untested.  Indeed, the clue to his political stance lies more in the pragmatism which he embraces than any ideological commitment to reform.  Nevertheless, this is as good as it can get for Iran, and Mr. Rouhani came to power on the strength of many of the voters who saw the 2009 election as a fraudulent steal.  With both of his pragmatist predecessors – Rafsanjani and Khatami – weighing in to support him, and the late withdrawal of the only openly reformist candidate, no-one can doubt where Mr. Rouhani has drawn the majority of his astonishing support.

The new president has given much cause for optimism, despite the predictably downbeat comments of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, hard-line leader of the region’s only nuclear power.  What his election now offers, however, is a real challenge to the policy makers of the West, and in particular to Mr. Obama.

The hostility to Iran has always been led by America, and in Mr. Ahmahdinejad they had a suitably clownish opponent, easily subject to caricature.  America’s attitude, however, has not been without its faults.  In a new and devastating critique of the West’s attitude towards Iran, Peter Oborne and David Morrison charge the United States in particular with an unwonted hypocrisy in its dealings with the Islamic state, which reach back to the CIA-sponsored coup of 1957. 

Oborne and Morrison’s book, “A Dangerous Delusion”, should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the alternative view of the threat that Iran poses towards the West.  The authors set out, passionately but in convincing detail, the case for Iran.  A power that has abided by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty despite the provocations and misrepresentations it has been subject to; an essentially peaceful nation which has – rarely for the region – never provoked a war since the end of the Second World War; an intelligent regional power which can justly feel threatened by the lead swinging of its nuclear neighbour, Israel.   They point out the baselessness of accusations of nuclear weaponry levelled against Iran, whilst countries who have failed to sign up to the NPT to which Iran is a signatory – Israel, India, Pakistan – have continued to receive substantial US investment.  In short, Iran is suffering from a caricature portrayal in the western media that is not born out by its actions.

Iran has entered a new era with the election of Mr. Rouhani.  The wrongs of the 2009 election have been righted, and that earlier American caution has paid dividends.  However, Iran can only engage practically with the West if there is a similar desire to engage in the West itself.   A couple of years ago, Barack Obama might have seemed just the sort of president needed to ensure that such engagement could happen.  His international liberalism has taken a few blows recently, but the Iranians have offered him a tremendous opportunity to re-shape the world polity in a positive and less dangerous direction.

With the civil war in Syria showing signs of leaking abroad, the need to have a flexible attitude towards Iran that is based on respect towards an ancient regional power rather than the neuroses of decades of hostile reaction, is as urgent as it has ever been.  But it doesn’t just require the pragmatic skills of President Rouhani.  It requires realism and a willingness to break out of the Washington box from Mr. Obama, and that is still far from assured.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Betraying the Bright

How often is it possible to bemoan the same problem and consistently avoid the obvious solution?  Plenty, it would appear, if the problem is how to support bright children in the state education system.

Ofsted have today reported that thousands of bright youngsters are failing to achieve their potential in secondary schools.  They have issued some shocking figures.  Take English.  Of the children who achieved Level 5 in English (the highest level) in their primary schools and went on to the standard non-selective secondary school, 62% failed to gain a grade A or A* in the subject at GCSE.  Even taking into account the natural decline in learning that some children experience in the secondary school years, that is a lamentable figure.

More than a quarter of previously high attaining pupils failed to gain a grade B or A in Maths or English.  The bright, eager primary school pupil with ability to nurture is being betrayed by what Ofsted have described as a “culture of low expectations” in secondary schools.

Of course, it is no easy job to encourage the bright students when you are teaching a class of thirty students whose abilities range right across the spectrum and who contain a fair share of the educationally discontented amongst them.  Blaming the schools and their teachers is all very well, but the demands we make by our present system are huge.

The problem of the mixed education system was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review ofBooks in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.

He was not the first critic.  In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued that:

Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers.  Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.

They correctly identified where the real victims of the comprehensive reform of state secondary education would lie, and while articulate middle class parents push their way into the catchments of the few remaining grammars, everyone else has to put up with the “culture of low expectations”. 

Oddly, for all his reforming zeal, Michael Gove has steered well clear of the grammar school debate.  Happy to push for elitism in the form of exams; presumably happy to maintain the elitism required for the university system to thrive (because yes, they select students based on academic ability), he has made no pronouncement whatsoever on grammar schools.  Free Schools and academies are hamstrung in one significant way – they cannot select on the basis of academic ability alone.

Perhaps Conservatives - more likely to be able to use the private selective school system, or ensure residence in a catchment area for a state selective school, or able to take advantage of the free school opportunity – don’t really have any motivation to push for a fully selective system on the state.  Maybe their opposition to state control of education stands in the way of advocating a directed system of educational elitism to aid the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged. 

If so, is it entirely outside the bounds of political credibility for the Labour Party to rediscover its commitment to social mobility, and advocate the return of a grammar school system?  In one bound, they could pull the rug from under the feet of the wimpy Conservatives who have avoided this toxic issue for so long.  They could, indeed, listen to Tony Judt’s closing plea not to accept the disastrous status quo:

Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Conservatism and the State

Peter Oborne is a must-read journalist and author.  His books on modern politics - "The Triumph of the Political Class" and "The Rise of Political Lying" - were compelling indictments of the modern polity from an erudite, informed and maverick observer, while his most recent book, "A Dangerous Delusion", bravely and honourably seeks to correct years of misinformation about the threat of a nuclear Iran.

But Oborne is first and foremost a conservative who understands conservatism better than most of its professional practitioners in parliament, and his recent Telegraph article is a masterly survey of what's right and what's wrong with the Cameron government.  Oborne understands the Conservative relationship with the state, when he writes:

"Conservatives understand that there is a great deal to be said for leaving things alone. They respect the wisdom of the past, the necessity to preserve inherited institutions, and the rule of law. 

This is the reason we Conservatives, contrary to popular opinion, value a strong state, so long as it is virtuous and not corrupt. We do not (as many believe) merely value a powerful state for purposes of national defence and to uphold law and order. All serious Conservative thinkers grasp that only the state can embody all those ideals which bind us together, and which count for so much more than mere self-interest."

In my recent attempt to call for a definition of One Nation, I suggested that what marks Conservatives apart from the New Right who now inhabit much of the party was a commitment to the role of the state.  What made One Nation Conservatives so enduring and effective was their understanding of how to use the state's mechanisms for the greater good, even when that meant using welfare and building mechanisms more effectively than rival socialists or liberals.  It is the commitment to what the state can do for society, but the wariness of its dangers, that should make conservatism such an unbeatable political brand, but until the party is led by people who really understand that, it will continue to flail around in shallow electoral waters.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

One Nation Conservatism

Further to the rather frustrated post below, I did blog a slightly more detailed response to Damian Green's Macmillan Lecture on the TRG's Egremont blog.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

One Nation Conservatism's Crisis

It's come to something when the best defence that can be mustered of One Nation Conservatism is that it encourages aspiration by stopping people living on benefits.  I'm not sure if that had been the limit of its inspiration it would ever have made the extraordinary impact it did from Disraeli to Heath, but that seems to have been the message from the TRG's Macmillan event on Tuesday evening.  There was a definite desire amongst some of the audience for a more forthright defence of One Nation than was available from MP Damian Green, and one of the most eloquent interventions reminded us of the still pitiable existence of a substantial group of marginalised people in poor areas of the country, prompting the question of what Conservatism has to offer them.

One Nation Conservatism was once a clarion call for action.  Now it seems to simper in the face of neo-liberalism.  When Ken Clarke finally goes, I do wonder if there will be anyone left still bothered to wave the flag for the Conservative party's best chance of redemption in the eyes of the electorate!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Another Doctor Needed

Not for the NHS, of course, but for the sci-fi perennial Dr Who.  As a not-quite-obsessive but nonetheless keen fan over the years (a good bulk of its 50 year run alas!) Matt Smith's announced departure has of course prompted excitement and anticipation.  A few musings on his successor on the other blog.

MPs We Deserve?

They've not got much of a reputation at the moment, these MPs we send to Westminster.  And the fact that the lobbying scandal has engulfed three Lords and only one Commons member in its current round doesn't seem to have helped the elected lot one jot.

Now the government, in its customarily ham-fisted way, has tried to use the scandal for the cynical purpose of a bit of anti-union legislation.  Ian Dunt, editor of, called this a "disreputable" move.  Rafael Behr was even more scathing in his rather lyrical tweet:

But perhaps most refreshingly came the reaction from Tory MP and certified maverick Douglas Carswell.  He questioned whether the lobbying scandal had really generated concerns about trade unionism, as well as asking whether or not it was the lobbyists or the lawmakers who required a bit more oversight.  Take a look at this series of his recent tweets, and then remind yourself that he's an MP:

Carswell - along with MEP chum Dan Hannan - is of course also behind moves to allow for recall of MPs, and indeed to have MPs face re-election when appointed ministers, as at least a method of distinguishing legislature and executive in our merrily fused system.  Author of a radical book titled "The End of Politics", as well as regular blogger and tweeter (in an interesting, ideas-oriented rather than dully formulaic way), Carswell is the sort of MP who just about restores your faith in the willingness of the elected public servant to actually - well, you know, serve the public interest.

Of course there are other often unsung heroes in Westminster.  And we shouldn't easily forget, either, that if we don't like what they do, we can exercise our hard won right to kick them out, or we could become involved.  Even stand, perhaps?  I know such an exercise doesn't always have the right result - Warley East in 1992 springs to mind - but it's a sight better than sitting back and bemoaning the calibre of our political class.  They're there because we choose for them to be there.  Douglas Carswell knows that.  So do quite a few others.  The more we hear from them - whether we agree or not - the healthier our democracy can be.  And, of course, since we get the Commons we deserve, we might feel a little bit better about ourselves too!