Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Tweet Inspired Diversion on Iain Macleod

In one of those politically neeky moments that do occasionally come about, even for the most suave and sophisticated members of the lesser suburbian intelligentsia, I was struck by a tweet from Times columnist and Conservative Home founder Tim Montgomerie.  Montgomerie had asked who originated the line "liberals may dream their dreams, socialists may scheme their schemes, but we have work to do."  Since it would be well known to Mr. Montgomerie  - a man one suspects of being thoroughly immersed in Conservative folklore - that the line was famously uttered by Iain Macleod in 1960, I assumed he was inferring that Macleod had stolen the line from someone else.  In the replies to his tweet, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson - who referenced the Macleod speech in a blog post just recently - did indeed imply that his famous predecessor might have 'borrowed' the line.  Could it be?  Could one of the Tory Party's greatest orators have done a Joe Biden and nicked a terrific line for his soaring oratory?

Determined to avoid the pile of marking in front of me, I started on an internet search of Iain Macleod's great speech.  There were plenty of references to it, but nothing to suggest it was anything other than original.  However, in the course of my all too brief career as a political researcher - amounting to little over 5 minutes - I did find a couple of curious facts about the late, great Iain Macleod nonetheless.  Macleod is, of course, one of the One Nation Tory breed's greatest modern heroes, and the party fighter who, in a stirring article in his own magazine, "The Spectator", famously denounced the infamous 'magic circle' of aristocratic influence that saw the selection of Alec Douglas Home as Tory leader in preference to the more socially liberal R. A. Butler in 1963.  Yet it turns out that Macleod had himself voted for Home as leader in a Cabinet vote undertaken by Lord Dilhorne (I am indebted here to an extract from the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).  Macleod believed that Home would refuse the leadership, and voted for him in an effort  to stop a bandwagon for Butler or Hailsham, intending then to come forward as the compromise candidate for the leadership himself.  Such machiavellian motives are at least ascribed to him by another Spectator editor, Nigel Lawson.

Even more entertainingly, it was actually Macleod who posthumously gifted Margaret Thatcher - often seen as the antithesis of his own brand of Tory politics - with the soubriquet "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher", since the decision to cut free school milk from primary schools had been one of the details of a forthcoming budget left by him at the the time of his untimely death after just a month as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in July 1970.

A chance tweet has thus uncovered, for me at any rate, a machiavellian politician par excellence and Margaret Thatcher's unwitting nemesis beyond the grave.  Such are the joys of political neekery.  And I'm still going to use Macleod's sentimental lines about his schooldays at the leavers' assembly.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Another Quango Head Proves His Worth

Chris Smith wasn't a very impressive minister back in the early days of Blairite government where he served in the middle ranks.  But he didn't commit any huge sins either, and is likeable enough, so the reward was to head a quango.  He has no environmental qualifications that I'm aware of, so naturally he became the chairman of the Environment Agency.  As it happens, since he can presumably draw on expert advice, what appears to have been needed at the top of the Environment Agency was a first class politician who could identify problems, sort through competing solutions and impose them.  A first class politician would also be able to communicate his agency's work effectively, and when things go pear-shaped - as they tend to when dealing with an environment that stubbornly refuses to engage in predictable or controllable behaviour - he should be able to go into damage limitation mode speedily and effectively.  Chris Smith has no environmental qualifications, but he doesn't seem to be much of a politician either, if his disastrous tour of the Somerset Levels yesterday is anything to go by.  His progress had a shifty, furtive air about it and he tried to avoid real people as much as possible - unsurprisingly as they had a few choice comments for him.

Chris Smith's performance brings the quality of quango heads to the fore again.  Smith is one of a long line of ex-Labour politicos (or diary secretaries, in Sally Morgan's case) rewarded with jobs seemingly beyond their ken.   Well rewarded jobs too, the sort that Baroness Morgan clearly thinks should be for life.  Many of them are well below the public wire, but organisations like the Environment Agency and Ofsted clearly do actually have an impact, and it is well beyond time that a proper, open application process was adopted for the appointment of their heads.  If Morgan's self-interested outcry and Smith's terrible performance bring about a change in the calibre of quango heads, then their otherwise very mediocre careers will not have been in vain.

The Secret of Good Schools?

Michael Gove thinks in headlines but then fails to do any necessary research for the actual story.  His latest headline was that state schools should become more like private schools, but without the money obviously.  Which pretty well makes the transformation impossible.  The things that Gove was lauding as good for schools - extra sports, Combined Cadet Forces, outside speakers, societies - area also precisely the area that his department and government has cut back on in school budgets.  Does he even look at his own budgeting arrangements? 

Nonetheless, because he is after all the Education Secretary, the Today programme ran a short discussion this morning between two heads - a prep school headteacher and a state school (Academy) headteacher, although the Academy head is nothing as lowly as a mere headmaster, he is an Executive Director.  The explosion of school titles is often in directly inverse proportion to the explosion in a school's results, although Mr Day, the Executive Director in question, appeared to be running a pretty good school up in Northumberland.  Unfortunately, the Today programme debate offered little illumination on the issue of how state schools could learn from the private sector, since both participants were understandably only able to comment on their own schools.  Which sounded like good ones.

There are in fact two key factors which often make the difference between the private and state sectors, the second of which is emulated in the top state schools for the most part.  The first factor is simple to identify but difficult to obtain.  Money.  Top private schools spend more than twice per pupil than state ones, and have wealthy foundations to fund capital projects to boot.  This means smaller classes (and even bad teachers do better with smaller classes) and fantastic facilities.  It also means paying staff higher wages in the very top schools, and giving them smaller timetables - no wonder everyone wants to work in them.

The second factor is less quantifiable, but more important.  Parents.  Most good schools achieve great things and  motivate their students because they have the support of a significant body of positive parents.  Education may be formally done in school, but the motivation for it and attitude towards it comes entirely from the home.  My own school is a good example.  Parents throng the parents' evenings and meetings, because this is what they regard as important in that complex, messy, unteachable process of bringing up their children.  The school benefits, and it keeps teachers on their toes.  We pat ourselves on the back when we return from school trips because the students have all been so impressive and everyone we meet has seen fit to mention how exemplary they all are.  But this isn't really much to do with us, and everything to do with their parents.  We just try and maintain the home ethos in school.  Positive parenting is also the secret behind the success of those Free Schools that are doing so well - the West London Free School springs to mind.  Money helps, but nothing engenders a good school more than the support of parents. 


Sunday, February 02, 2014

Cameron's Quandary and Tory Rebels

The papers have devoted some space today - at least in their non-celebrity pages - to last week's rebellion by Tory MPs, in which David Cameron was saved largely by Labour and Lib Dem votes.  That his backbenchers are more ferociously euro-sceptic than he is comes as no surprise - it's right up there with "public don't like bankers" on the revelatory scale - but the question is being raised as to whether Cameron has fundamentally lost control of his parliamentary party.  Or, indeed, whether he ever had it.

David Cameron was elected as Tory leader by a membership who were impressed with his ability to give a speech without notes, who realised that the party needed a fresh face and who had been uninspired by the main right-wing standard bearer David Davis.  They assumed Cameron was a basic right-winger, and accepted his modernising efforts in opposition through gritted teeth.  The problem has always been that Cameron himself has no deep roots in the Conservative Party (apolitical as a student, he came up through the ranks of the party's researchers to which he seems to have gained membership through social connections rather than political reputation) and thus no heft to wield against his more grassroots-connected colleagues.  Cameron understood the need for the party to "modernise" (i.e to moderate its overall outlook) and brought them into government.  His party members, and the MPs who most closely resemble them, never accepted the idea of diluting Conservative - or more accurately Thatcherite - positions, and certainly never came to terms with the idea of sharing power with the Lib Dems.  To compound matters for Cameron, a large segment of his 2010 intake were newcomers who gained political maturity under Thatcher.  That Europe, and all matters connected with Europe, has become alightning rod for wider discontent over what is seen as anaemic Tory leadership, is a fact of Tory parliamentary life.

There is another issue which bedevils Cameron's leadership.  The widespread public revulsion over the pre-2010 expenses scandals convinced many MPs that what electors wanted were more independent minded MPs who didn't simply follow party lines and feed at the parliamentary trough.  Except that, as ever, what electors want is contradictory.  Independence is good, but electors vote for united parties not divided ones.  This is the point made eloquently by John Rentoul in today's "Independent on Sunday".  He also quotes the findings of the guru of political rebellions - Nottingham University's Philip Cowley - that MPs have been getting more rebellious for years, and that Cameron used the tactic of abstention to reduce the public impact of his MPs' predictable disquiet over Europe-related bills.  Cowley maintains a regular assessment of parliamentary rebellions on his blog "Revolts", and the piece on the Raab Rebellion is here.

Cameron's Quandary is going to be that of any modern Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, and as ever in a democracy it in fact comes down to us, the electorate.  We want our MPs to show independence and to question the dictates of government.  But we are also less enamoured of them pursuing more personal hobby-horses (and Europe is certainly that for many Tories) at the expense of effective government.  That's our right as voters; it is the job of our representatives to interpret it as best they know how.


Sally Morgan's Politics

The chairman of Ofsted isn't happy about not being asked to do a second term in office, and she's been making that very clear across the media for the last few days.  Sally Morgan, the chairman in question, is a Labour baroness who owes her political prominence to the fact that she was for many years a close aide to Tony Blair - indeed, she is an old friend who became his No. 10 gatekeeper entirely because she was was an old friend.  Look up Sally Morgan's independent political or educational achievements and they are not quite so considerable. The reality with this present storm in  a teacup is that it is loyal Blairite Sally Morgan who has been making the most political capital out of her position, not the government.

Morgan's main claim is that she is being asked to step down because she's not a Tory, and that the present Conservative-Lib Dem coalition wants to put more Tories in top quango positions.  Which it probably does want to do, because after all it is a political government with a political agenda.  Previous Labour governments were not exactly leaping over themselves to appoint Tories to top quangos; by the time they finally left office the vast, and largely unknown and unaccountable, quangocracy was awash with dead-beat Labour supporters.  Morgan, indeed - a political person, as her present complainings make very clear - was appointed by the Coalition, presumably as a nod to the sort of political even-handedness that governments try for at the beginning of their terms.

Michael Gove has praised Sally Morgan's "fantastic" contribution to Ofsted, which we'll take on trust as to be honest I doubt whether ordinary punters, or the more directly affected teachers, could tell you what has been so fantastic about Morgan's time in office.  Most Ofsted waves are made by its chief inspector - currently Michael Wilshaw, who whatever his flaws has a distinctive record as a practising educator - so Baroness Morgan's contribution has been far more under the wire.  But the bottom line is that she has not been so darned good that there is an unanswerable case for keeping her on.  She was a political apparatchik appointed to a political job, and she's served out her term.  All her present fuss suggests is that she is yet another member of the unelected political class who doesn't want to hand over the perks of easily obtained office.