Friday, May 24, 2013

Beware What You Tweet

Somehow, Sally Bercow managed to secure upwards of 56,000 followers on twitter.  Which made her inadvisable tweet about Lord McAlpine all the more - well, inadvisable.  Lord Tugendhat's ruling appeared today, and he ruled against Bercow and in favour of McAlpine, that the tweet was indeed defamatory.

There can't have been much doubt on the part of anyone who read it that Mrs. Bercow wasn't in fact simply stating a trend and asking a question about it.  "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*" asks us to believe something more; it was a would-be cunning way out of being accused of suggesting that McAlpine was a paedophile - the nature of the untrue twitter rumours based on a poorly sourced Newsnight film - by indulging in a bit of nudge-nudge wink-wink gossip.  As such, the ruling is to be welcomed.  If it dissuades Mrs. Bercow from tweeting in future it has probably served a further purpose too.  Her fame is mysterious, and despite frequent denials seems to be based upon the fact that she is John Bercow's wife.  The ruling itself says that Bercow "is well known to the public for a number of reasons. Amongst these is that she is the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons".  Indeed.  It goes on to say that she has appeared on famous television broadcasts, but doesn't stoop to noting that these, too, derive from her position as a famous spouse.  Given that, one can fairly assume that Mrs. Bercow's tweeting career was part of a relentless and successful campaign to ensure constant public coverage. It is good that she - and others - have been reminded of the limits to one's stream of consciousness utterances.

Meanwhile, it seems that the Bible got this one right some years ago, when the author of Ecclesiastes warned against cursing the king or cursing the rich "for a bird of the air will carry your voice" (10:20).  More recently, Robert Bolt's masterly play "A Man For All Seasons" has Cromwell remind the jury in the trial of Thomas More that "there are many different kinds of silence".  It seems we can now add to his list the virtuous silence of the one who doesn't tweet.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cameron's Losing Battle Against Tory Puritanism

With Tory cabinet ministers - led by the ubiquitous Mr. Gove - scrambling over each other to assure their party of their out and out Euro-scepticism, it is tempting to wonder what all the fuss over UKIP is about.  Apart from a matter of timing, it seems they are all united on a referendum approach.  But, of course, there is more to it than this.

UKIP is not just a repository for those who are anti-European.  Indeed, Europe is merely the hook on which to hang a whole panoply of other concerns, making UKIP essentially a protest party.  For disillusioned Conservatives in particular UKIP offers an unrepentant leader in Nigel Farage, who contrasts nicely with the rather more nuanced Mr. Cameron.  Tory members - both grassroots and a significant number of backbench MPs - are not happy in coalition, hate the thought of Tory moderation and dislike the grey shades that come with compromise.  In their black and white - or blue and red - world, there is much virtue in Tory puritanism and Mr. Cameron's great crime is that he fails to see that.

Mr. Cameron, of course, is trying to work in the real world.  His Toryism derives from his upbringing rather than any form of deep political conviction, and it was never honed through a party activism that might have brought some deeper, grittier understanding of the party he leads.  His Toryism is more instinctive, and thus more inclined to accommodate itself to the demands and pressures of the world outside the bubble of the Conservative Party.  That was what was behind his chaotic but worthy pursuit of 'modernism' and it still lies behind his desire not to take knee-jerk approaches to such complex issues as membership of the EU.  Mr. Cameron is, at heart, a Tory pragmatist of the type that used to dominate in the twentieth century heyday of the party.

The party he leads no longer resembles the triumphant machine of last century.  It is debateable as to how far this change is down to the legacy of the party's first truly ideological leader - Margaret Thatcher - and how much would have occurred in any case as a result of a growing sense of alienation in the modern world.  Whatever the cause, the Conservative Party today is a beast of puritanism, railing against the many iniquities of the world but not hugely capable of propounding broad-based solutions.  Like 16th century puritans, today's Tories take comfort in their purity and isolation and want nothing to do with the murky waters of compromise politics.  Even before the halfway mark of the Coalition, many Tory backbenchers had been restlessly pushing against the constraining walls of joint-party government.  They have managed to breach some of them now, even to the extent of proposing Bills that challenge their own government's legislative agenda.  But then, it is difficult at times to distinguish backbench Tories from a brand of opposition MP.

Europe - or rather, its forced removal - is the great prize.  Mr. Cameron has tried to feed that hungry appetite but has found its gaping maw remains open for more no matter how much he tries to satiate it.  He is facing the same problem as the last Tory premier, John Major.  Paul Goodman makes the comparison on Conservative Home, and puts the issue down to a failure of leadership on the part of both men.  But this is not the whole story.  It is not really possible for any outward-facing Tory leader to lead his party.  No-one who is not a died-in-the-wool euro denier has a hope of gaining the support of the Tory backbenchers, and yet when such men are put into leadership they fail to gain the country as a whole.

Europe, however, merely represents the high water mark of the Tory Party's desire to become an unadulterated and unrestrained party of the right.  They envy UKIP its easy positions and rather want them for itself.  There are many Tories now who would prefer purity to election.  Mr. Cameron is no longer simply struggling against the euro monster.  He is struggling against a much wider desire to retreat to a position of political comfort, a position which he tried to force the party to leave when he became leader.  It is possible that his failure was due in part to the incoherent nature of his modernisation project, which was too Blairite in nature and could have had more success if it had taken stronger account of the historic position of One Nation Toryism.  The big question is whether, if Mr. Cameron does in the end fail - and the signs are that he has - there is ever going to be another chance for the Tory Party to be a broad-based party of the centre-right, or whether it will simply take UKIP's mantle, and stay on the fringe.  When your likely successor is Michael Gove, it doesn't look like it.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Problem With Michael Gove

It's a great pity Michael Gove can't just become history rather than being able to prounounce upon it.  If he were one of those tedious old bores who keeps telling you how much better things were in the old days then one could safely nod sagely and expect to escape within about half an hour or so.  Sadly, Mr. Gove can't be escaped from very easily, and his unformed views on history teaching matter because he is the Education Secretary, the man who can dictate what we teachers do if he so chooses.  And it appears he does so choose.

Michael Gove has no expertise or experience in teaching, and as an English graduate he sports no more historical acumen than the interested amateur.  The interested history amateur is, of course, not to be sniffed at.  The great virtue of history is that it can and should be read, savoured and enjoyed by all.  Mr. Gove, unfortunately, believes that he has a mission to restore a form of history recitation to schools that used to be quite popular in the Victorian era.

Gove has decided, bizarrely, that primary schools - with their non-specialist teachers and very young children - are the best places to learn the intricacies of medieval history, and that secondary schools should confine their teaching to a dry and colourless list of philanthropists, politicians and inventors accompanied by appropriate dates.  He and his team - two special advisers whose main interest is the social media site twitter - sat themselves down recently, compiled a list of dates, events and people that they remembered from parlour games of the past, and proposed it as the new history curriculum for schools.  Their dire proposals have been universally lambasted by the history teaching profession and by such eminent historians as Sir Richard Evans.  But Mr. Gove knows better of course.  Now he has taken his campaign further by criticising a lesson resource he appears to have found on the internet, which involves using the Mr. Men to teach history.  I have never come across this idea, and know of no history teacher who would consider using it, but that hasn't stopped Mr. Gove from displaying it as an example of all that is bad with history teaching in secondary schools.  He may preach a fine line about rigorous teaching and good research, but he could never knowingly be accused of actually using such qualities himself.  His ludicrously ill-informed campaign against history in schools has been a classic study of opinionated preconceptions driving policy. 

It is interesting, incidentally, that Mr. Gove's speech today spent some time attacking the methods used by primary schools to teach history, yet these are the very places that he now wants to place some of our most complex and crucial history teaching.  It is also notable that most of his anecdotes are unlikely to be very clearly sourced, and it could prove well nigh impossible to find schools who really do teach in the way he describes.

Mr. Gove may be fast becoming the single best reason not to vote Conservative at the next election, if only in a desperate bid to save decent, interesting school history from his destructive clutches.  But I suspect his real reason for sounding like such a reactionary oaf is more to do with his desire to court both the right of his party in anticipation of a post-election leadership campaign, and to place himself as the man who can deal with UKIP.  If that means wrecking a bit of history teaching in schools, then so be it, but it is a tragedy that Gove's desire for populist approval in his party could lead to such serious undermining of school history curriculums.