8 Progressive Moves of the Coalition Government

I’m not exactly a fan of the last government, but given that I indulge in a lot of Tory-bashing and yet complain about excessive partisanship in British and American politics, I felt this list would be a testing and productive experiment to engage in. It is easy enough to pay lip service to the concept of rising above tribal politics but that depends on being able to evaluate the positions of your opponents on their merits. And in my own case, where I have less common ground with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats than even many in my own party, it can be more difficult.

1.The introduction of same-sex marriage. Few people would have expected it to be a Conservative-led government to be the one to introduce same-sex marriage: indeed David Cameron took a big political risk in forcing the policy past the opposition of the majority of his own backbenchers. But now the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is a practice that has been buried in the history books. It is heartening to see the fight for equal marriage being won even in the more conservative parts of the Western world.

2. Referendum on electoral reform. It is already half-forgotten about, and those who do remember are largely constitutional reformers bitter about it being turned into a vote on Nick Clegg. But after a century of debate coming to nothing- despite New Labour’s supposed commitment to replacing First Past The Post- the people got their first chance in British history to decide how to elect their representatives.

3. The pupil premium. The case for providing extra funding that ‘follows’ state school pupils from disadvantaged background is overwhelming. There is so much evidence that shows such children are more likely to need and benefit from various forms of extra support that schools simply cannot provide without additional resources. I do believe the last government cared about improving educational opportunities for children. It was this vigourous enthusiasm that led to them floating daft ideas like evening classes for pupils on free school meals. (This struck me as punishing children with extra work just for being poor!) Sadly the government chose to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, which has rendered sixth form education nonviable for thousands of those very same students.

4. Universal Free School Meals for under 7s. There were so many obvious benefits to this policy that I outlined in this article at the time.

5. Rationalisation of Stamp Duty. The Chancellor has certainly made his mark on the tax system. One of the few improvements he made was the recent transformation of Stamp Duty that has been needed ever since house prices went crazy in the early 2000s. As well as quietly raising rates on expensive houses acquired by non-UK residents, Osborne did away with the ‘block’ rates. Previously someone buying a £249,999 house would pay 1% duty on the entire value, while a £250,000 house would attract a 3% tax also on the entire value. I am glad to see the back of this absurd structure in favour of income-tax style phased bands. It would be even better to go further and scrap Stamp Duty altogether on the primary residence in favour of imposing Capital Gains Tax. Would that not represent a move from taxing home ownership to taxing unearned rises in house values?

6. Meeting International Development budget target of 0.7% of GDP. It might not be popular, but the desperate poverty that exists in the world doesn’t go away because the nation’s finances need repairing. Our obligation as one of the richest countries in the world to help is not a luxury spending item we can discard, so I applaud the principled position to protect the Department for International Development’s budget from spending cuts.

7. Accepting Parliament’s opposition to intervention in Syria. Although the Prime Minister did not actually have to seek Parliament’s consent for his proposed military actions, he made constitutional history by doing so. It is to his credit that he did so and to Ed Miliband’s credit that he decided to join the opposition to war, thus defeating the government.

8. Cabinet appointments made for the long term. Gone are the days of the Cabinet musical chairs that Blair used to maintain a vice-like grip on his government. Where previously a minister could not be certain of remaining in post for much longer that 6 months, Cameron seemed to prefer stability and allowing ministers time to see their own policies to fruition. Most key people remained in position for four years of the Coalition, while the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary all remained for the full term.

Advertisements

To Translate or Not to Translate?

The news that state subsidised translation services are being withdrawn for passport and driving license applicants has been largely ignored. Despite the significant implications of the move, the media have no doubt failed to pay attention because it was announced by Nick Clegg. He probably sought to gain the ‘credit’ for a popular policy in a bid to toughen the Liberal Democrats’ stance on immigration. The Deputy Prime Minister said:

Obtaining a passport and drivers’ licence is a privilege and ‘rite of passage’ in this country.

It is only right that someone gaining such rights should be able to speak English to an appropriate standard and I certainly don’t think everyone else should pay for them to use an interpreter or translation service if they can’t.

Withdrawing translation services has become something of a trend in recent years. They are a soft target for spending cuts, as they are both expensive and unpopular. It is completely fair to expect that those seeking the public services provided by our society should undertake to learn our language. What is not fair is to cut the translation services that a number of first generation immigrants depend on, and to cut the free English language classes that could give them independence. Statistics show that, if a migrant or asylum seeker does not already speak English upon entering the UK, they are likely to be poor and therefore unable to afford language classes. And yes, there are questions to be asked about an immigration policy that has created hundreds of thousands of British residents who can’t speak English. But creating policy that puts these people between a rock and a hard place won’t actually solve the problem. Moreover, some politicians have suggested compulsory language classes for all immigrants. That is a total waste of time and money given that many immigrants do speak English to a high standard.

Maybe our leaders should learn from the example set by Newham Council. The east London borough, according to the last Census, has a population that is just 16.7% White British. It is a centre for first generation migrants, and accordingly translation services were a huge expense. Newham directed the translation budget towards language classes, and it is expected to reap these benefits:

  • Better community cohesion. How can people relate to each other if they have no culture or language in common? Breaking down linguistic barriers is helping to end the virtual ghettoisation suffered by non-English speakers.
  • Safety for migrants. Non-English speakers are hugely vulnerable. We’re all familiar with horrific cases in which people have been unable to escape abuse or exploitation because they are unable to seek help.
  • Long-term savings. It is the equivalent of teaching somebody to fish rather than giving them a fish whenever they need one. Government bodies can save millions in the long term, as it is cheaper to provide someone, say, 100 hours of language classes than 15 hours of interpreter’s services for every year of their lives.

This represents a constructive approach that benefits all parties, rather than the draconian (and ultimately ineffective) approach adopted by central government in a futile attempt to enhance the each party’s ‘tough’ credentials.

Tories Turn Away From a Green Future

The Conservative Party has promised to deny subsidy for onshore windfarms not already granted planning permission. This policy would come into effect in the unlikely event that the Conservatives win next year’s election outright. Moreover, future planning applications for wind turbines will be under the sole discretion of local authorities, rather than central government under “nationally significant infrastructure” rules. Given that virtually all power stations built in the UK have direct or implicit subsidy, and can often be inflicted on local councils against their will, this marks a strongly anti-renewables bias in energy policy.

There is zero prospect that Tory-dominated councils in the “Shires”, which make up most of Britain’s landmass, will approve.any major windfarm under the proposed system. Much though the ‘greener’ councils might be keen to support renewable projects, it’s hard to see hundreds of turbines being built in Islington or Brighton and Hove. Consequently, there will be very little further increase in wind energy beyond the previously planned projects that will carry Britain to its statutory 2020 renewable energy target.

It’s clear that the Conservatives, as their Lib Dem collaborators have alleged, are pandering to the right-wing “provincial” nimbies who have migrated to UKIP. Lib Dem and Labour silence on the urgent need for more renewable energy now and into the future shows that once more, the political class is failing to act in the long-term interests of the country. It’s hard to blame them entirely, though, representative democracy is such that, if voters are more concerned about the “unspoiled” view from the outskirts of their village than their country’s energy security and the world’s collective interest, then their MP will probably feel the need to represent that view.

But the country expects leadership as well as representation from its government. Take the case of the budget deficit: David Cameron talks of the importance of perusing brutal and unpopular spending cuts for the “benefit” of future generations by keeping the National Debt to a minimum. The political Establishment easily mustered the “courage” to inform the public that existing levels of government spending were unsustainable. Why can’t they do the same with our current, ecologically unsound lifestyle and, for that matter, tax rates that are far below levels that correspond with the provision of a functioning NHS?

The Conservatives contradict their stated aims of “strong leadership” and “prudence” by undermining the development of renewable energy projects. It would be disappointing, but few of us expect our political leaders to shape public opinion. Democracy demands that voters have choice, but that’s not what leaders who fixate on opinion polls and focus groups offer us.

About Danny Alexander’s Dead Body

When press stories circulated a few days ago that many Liberal Democrats had become worried about Danny Alexander going “Treasury native”, it made the Chief Secretary to the Treasury panic. Alexander has been the Lib Dems’ voice in the Treasury, and the Chancellor’s number two, since the third week of the Coalition Government. After colluding in four blood-soaked (metaphorically!) Budgets, it finally occured to the Lib Dems that Alexander is just a little too ready and willing to wield the axe on public services. Certainly, there is very little evidence of the caring liberalism that brought us the state pension and public libraries in the harsh spending policy of this Government.

Aware of the risk of falling out with his party, Alexander tried to reassert his progressive credentials. He rushed out an undertaking that Conservative demands to cut the top rate of Income Tax again- this time from 45p to 40p- would only pass “over [his] dead body”. He knows full well that this is a non-pledge: the Conservatives will not risk unpopularity by giving further tax breaks to their rich friends in the run-up to the 2015 election. By the time the election has taken place, and in the unlikely event that the Lib Dems enter a second coalition with the Conservatives, Alexander will have another Cabinet post- few junior and mid-tier Cabinet ministers keep the same post for more than one term.

It also shows where Alexander’s priorities lie. I favour redistributive taxation, but high taxes on the rich have to be a means unto an end. The Labour movement learned that to its cost a generation ago. What’s the point of defending the 45p tax band when you’re allowing spending cuts that make young people homeless or deny the disabled benefit? To be fair, Alexander would be preventing a £1.5 billion tax cut, but it’s not as if the Conservatives wouldn’t impose a tax cut elsewhere, perhaps in Inheritance Tax.

I don’t know if the Lib Dem grassroots share my analysis, so I’d advise the party that Alexander’s show of independence is unconvincing. If he fought the Lib Dems’ corner on spending cuts more strongly, then he’d be able to claim that he’s not the Treasury poodle that most of us think he is.

Young People, Parliament and a Better Politics

This is a report that I have prepared for the ShoutOutUK newspaper.

This year’s Young People’s Question Time, hosted by the Hansard Society, was a well-attended and informative meeting. About 200 young folk- ranging from primary school pupils to twenty-something professionals- braved a lengthy queue and the brisk November weather to view the clash of ideas in Portcullis House, situated directly opposite the Palace of Westminster.

This year’s panel consisted of Natascha Engel MP (Labour, North East Derbyshire; Nadhim Zahawi MP (Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon); Julian Huppert MP (Lib Dem, Cambridge); and Professor Baroness Young (Crossbench). It was chaired by the talented Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murphy. Thanks to an eclectic range of questions from the audience, there was a quickly-paced but constructive style of debate between the panel, which was respectful of fellow members and the audience.

The first question asked the panel how the acute lack of female role models in politics should be addressed.

Perhaps inevitably, it was not long before the following question was asked: “Do you think that lowering the voting age to 16 is a good way forward?” But before the politician had their say, Guru-Murthy asked for a show of hands from the 16-18 year olds in the audience (most of the people there!) on the issue. Surprisingly, about half of the group was opposed to giving themselves the vote- whereas all the panel with the exception of Nadhim Zahawi were in favour of the policy. Why would these young, politically engaged folk reject the franchise that the political class, as represented in the room, wants them to have?

Maybe Natascha Engel put her finger on it when she received applause for her claim that votes at 16 should be accompanied by a major expansion of political education in schools- much as ShoutOutUK has been calling for in its Pol4Schools campaign. It seems that Engel didn’t realise the scale of the task: upon mentioning Citizenship studies, she expressed surprise when told that it was no longer a mandatory part of the National Curriculum: “We need to change that for a start.”

From there discussion moved to the broader issue of political engagement. Professor Young earned murmurs of approval when she declared “There’s a very good reason why I’m not in a party. None of them matches all of my views… We’ve made a real mess of [Britain’s] political culture”. If the representatives of the three-party system felt attacked, they didn’t show it. Julian Huppert proceeded to blame partisanship for poor political engagement. Voters were turned off, he said, by a politics of point-scoring over substance.

“When you turn the camera off, most MPs can talk to each other sensibly. [Politicians] need to talk about values more.”

 To his credit, Mr Huppert did not try to place the Liberal Democrats above the partisan squabbling that he talked of! His point was backed by Nadhim Zahawi, who highlighted the benefits of cross party co-operation in parliamentary Select Committees. Zahawi suggested that these increasingly influential institutions should be given greater prominence in the media and political debate, as they represented the constructive side of politics. Alas, one suspects that such an increase in media attention would encourage the spread of hyper partisanship, but the principle was- rightly- widely supported in the room.

Then, talk moved at a tangent towards education and democracy in schools. On this matter, Natascha Engel and Julian Huppert spoke with one voice (figuratively). The latter talked of the “huge problem” of “education being done to” students, whilst both argued that school councils, though all too often “tokenistic”, have a role to play in enhancing student-school relations. But sadly, the clock was ticking and so the panel moved onto the penultimate topic, that of cycling, which is particularly topical given the recent spate of fatal cycling accidents in London.

On this, the panel were unanimous: “I can see anything but segregated cycle lanes working”. “We need proper segregation… and a 20 mph speed limit”. Engel revealed that she was only just taking up cycling once more having been knocked off of her bike by a vehicle two years previously, and pointed out that people would be reluctant to take up cycling until it was much, much safer. All three panel members also cited European cities (such as Berlin and Copenhagen) as examples that Britain should follow.

Finally, a few minutes were spent discussing one audience member’s question regarding the rights of prisoners. Perhaps the early departure of Mr Zahawi was responsible for the left-wing tilt in the answers. Baroness Young stressed the important of rehabilitation and that, of the prisons that she had visited, none had seemed like a hotel. She was supported by Julian Huppert, who added that there were “far too many” prisoners with mental health issues or were on the autistic spectrum. On the topic of luxuries in prison, he recounted a visit to a prison in which he had asked about claims that prisoners have Sky access. The prison official apparently informed Mr Huppert that prisoners do have sky access: they simply had to look up out of the window!

And to the disappointment of the audience, Young People’s Question Time had come to an end in what seemed like all too short a time. As these young citizens filtered out of the room, they talked excitedly of the issues that had been debated, how eager they were to find out more about them and how inspired they were by the constructive discussion between politicians with such diverse views. If political participation needs enhancing, then this is what will do it.

Paxman, Nick Clegg and Hypocrisy

When Russell Brand called for a “socialist revolution”, I was rather annoyed. The celebrity, who does not enjoy an entirely spotless reputation, has little about his lifestyle and actions that strikes me as socialist. I won’t go into painstaking detail, but your typical socialist (particularly not the revolutionary socialist he claims to be) is not a misogynistic multimillionaire. Socialist millionaires spend a lot of time using their money fairly and feeling faintly guilty. Nevertheless, it was Brand’s open admission that he is a non-voter that was most controversial.

Jeremy Paxman, the famously bold presenter of the BBC’s Newsnight programme, attacked Brand, saying

“If you can’t be arsed to vote, why should we be arsed to listen to your political point of view?”

A very good, if strongly worded, point. One should always vote in any election, for public apathy always kills democracy off very gradually but effectively. But unfortunately, Paxman was speaking from a glasshouse, as he later conceded to the Radio Times magazine:

The whole greenbench pantomime in Westminster looks a remote and self important echo chamber. But it is all we have. By the time the polls had closed [in 2010] and it was too late to take part, I was feeling really uncomfortable: the person who chooses not to vote – cannot even be bothered to write ‘none of the above’ on a ballot paper – disqualifies himself from passing any comment at all.

Paxman regrets having not voted in the last general election, saying that although he found the major parties’ offers “unappetising” (which I can understand: 2010 was a hard year in politics), that was no excuse for neglecting his moral obligation to vote. Frankly, I knew it all along: with that new beard of his, he would be a non-voter, wouldn’t he?

Anyhow, who would be the first to criticise this act of brazen hypocrisy? Step forward… Nick Clegg. The Deputy Prime Minister used his weekly programme on LBC radio to berate Paxman, adding the unique argument that his £1,000,000 salary exists only because of the political proccess. Clegg’s willingness to condemn the scariest journalist in politics might have been encouraged by Paxman’s claim that the Lib Dems’ tuition fee pledge was “the biggest lie in recent political history” or by Clegg’s eagerness to distract the media from his claiming of energy bills on Parliamentary expenses whilst the rest of us endure huge price rises.

Unfortunately, it is the apathy of the disheartened ‘radicals’ and the “unappetised” sceptical voters that allows the likes of Mr Clegg to feel able to attack others for misusing democratic privileges. So remember: if you don’t vote, it’s only you who will be paying the energy bill for the Deputy Prime Minister’s second home.

Where I Agree With Nick… And Where I Don’t

Credit where credit is due. The Liberal Democrats have secured a significant policy change that represents a step towards a political aim that is very important to me. Yesterday, it was announced that every school pupil in Years R-2 (ages 5 to 7 inclusive) will be entitled to entitled to free school meals as of next September. The plan, which will cost £700 million a year (less than 1% of the Eduction budget) and will save families over £400 a year per child, is widely considered to have been accepted by the Tories in exchange for their Married Couples Allowance, a discount in Income Tax which penalises singles, young people and unmarried partners.

The policy has been welcomed by the teaching profession and trade unions, both of which cite studies showing improved wellbeing of and attainment by pupils in areas where universal free school meals were trialled. Pupils in infant school (the Years Reception, 1 and 2 which the change affects) are on average two months more academically developed than the national average. Furthermore, inequality of attainment was reduced, but still not to acceptable levels.

Unsurprisingly, right wingers are bitterly opposed to universal free school meals on fairly predictable grounds. What I wasn’t expecting is disapproval from elements of the left- and I mean the actual centre-left, not the likes of Liam Byrne and the Progress tendency- who have attacked it as a subsidy for the middle class. I’d have thought that anything that would end the enduring stigma around Free School Meals for the poor, reduce education inequality and raise standards for all would be welcomed by any socialist. Some still need to realise that the Welfare State, the hallmark of a civilised society, is not politically sustainable if based primarily on means testing rather than a combination of universality and contributions where appropriate.

In any case, I do have an important criticism of Nick Clegg’s key Conference gift. As with the plastic bag charge and the school uniform supplier advice (notice the emphasis on schoolchildren and their parents’ wallets?), it doesn’t go far enough. As usual, the Coalition is prioritising the very young whist leaving them high and dry when they get older. Setting aside the contradiction of investing more in primary education whilst messing up the HE and employment systems they need it for, there’s the simple issue that pupils will still be charged for their meals over the 10 remaining years of their compulsory education.

I realise that 11 year-olds or- whisper it- teenagers aren’t as photogenic or voter friendly as Reception pupils, but they are just as much in need of nutritious meals at school as anyone else. I’m completely at a loss as to why universality is applied to such an arbitrarily defined age group. A cynic might say that the policy is designed to maximise popularity and minimumise cost… I’d like to think better of our political leaders.

Losers, Lefties and Liberals at Conference

Britain is now well into Party Conference season, with the Liberal Democrats now midway through their annual gathering in Glasgow. The desperation of the party leadership is becoming increasingly transparent as, 600 days away from election day, they are derided by the majority of voters as being ‘ yellow Tories’ and by the rest for being a barrier to the Tory leadership and their so-called “tough decisions”. Therefore, Clegg and Co. have been busily working on ‘distinct policies’ that they can claim credit for implementing.

So this weekend we were treated by the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the news that supermarket plastic bags will soon be subject to a 5p charge and schools will be issued with advice not to use expensive exclusive uniform suppliers. Who said that Lib Dem Conference was boring? To be fair, the inflated cost of school uniforms and the environmental impact of billions of disposable plastic bags are issues that need addressing, however trivial they might seem to many. Setting aside comments like “Nick Clegg is twiddling his thumbs whilst his country burns”, my only complaint is that even when the Lib Dems are trying to be distinctive, their policies are feeble.

The solution to the environmental and ecological tragedy of our national addiction to plastic bags is not to impose a token charge on them. After all, what’s 50p on £80 worth of shopping? It’s going to change very few people’s behaviour. No, the solution is a total and outright ban. As on the Continent, that would encourage the use of cloth and canvass bags and save everybody money in a few shopping trips. If they want to end cosy deals between schools and uniform suppliers, they should do something somewhat stronger than advise them against it.

Fortunately for the journalists staying up at Glasgow, there were bigger questions being discussed, both publicly and behind closed doors. The most significant matter is how the Lib Dems would act if they hold the balance of power in a second hung parliament. What I find interesting about this is that the Lib Dem grassroots are becoming much less hostile to their Conservative peers just as the leadership of the party is not-so-subtlely reaching out to Labour. It feels like the political universe has been turned on its head when grassroots Lib Dems endorse nuclear power- utterly unthinkable since the party’s creation- whilst it is left to the party’s President to call for a Living Wage.

But don’t mistake this change for the Liberal Democrat leadership suddenly finding its heart. The process can be attributed to two factors:

1. The Left is weakened at grassroots level as members continue to resign in protest at their participation in Coalition.

2. The party has realised that they’ve no future if they spend 10 years in coalition with the Tories. They must reclaim the centre, and can only do so if they are seen as leaning towards the Tories.

The Labour Party should under no circumstances consider a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There is no point in governing if by doing so we are rehabilitating the image of this band of two-faced opportunists who will corrode British politics with their stunning ability to betray their supporters with breathtaking moral superiority. The Lib Dems, for the sake of power, have stabbed the young, the disabled, students, workers, environmentalists, and fair minded people who trusted them to uphold progressive values in the back. The Lib Dems can choose further collaboration with the Tories, or they can spend a few election cycles renewing their ideology and leaders. But holding back the true Left is off limits.

The NHS: Many Happy Returns

Today the British public- those of us who’ve noticed- celebrate the 65th anniversary of the launch of the National Health Service. The jewel in the crown of the welfare state and a source of intense national pride, the NHS is the symbol of the socialist idealism that rebuilt Britain as the nation strived to realise its vision of a New Jerusalem in a peaceful and harmonious Europe. Though that idealism was washed away over the following quarter of a century, the welfare state was eroded and the collectivist spirit is just a distant memory, the NHS remains in place.

It has experienced its fair share of problems and crises, some of them self-inflicted. There was myopic underinvestment by the Treasury in the service during the 90s that led to snaking waiting lists. The scandal of Mid Staffordshire is burned into the national consciousness. And with the gradual fragmentation of the service into a loose federation of semi-marketised trusts, consortia and groups, there have been times where patients have lost out due to internal politics. However, most of us would agree that it’s the greatest healthcare system in the world.

In the US in particular, there is tremendous scaremongering about our system of “socialised medicine”. All the claims I’ve heard are entirely false. When you take a minute to reflect on the sheer brilliance of what we’ve achieved, you’d see why. We’ve the only system in the world where money simply isn’t a worry for the patient. No waving of insurance cards, no bills, no phonecalls to an HMO, no claim forms… Not even the Nordic countries can say that.  The sole object is the restoration of the patient to full health, and that mentality can only be achieved when healthcare is an entitlement, not a commodity. In the US, patients have been known to be forced to choose which of their detached fingers should be restored. The dumping of vulnerable and uninsured patients by commercial hospitals on the street outside compassionate-minded rivals is not unknown, if fairly rare.

Unfortunately, successive Conservative and New Labour governments have allowed elements of capitalism to creep into the NHS. Cleaning, catering and administration has been outsourced, with a massive fall in standards as a result. The introduction of commissioning groups and GP consortia by the Coalition this April have the potential to see private operators administer entire services. Whilst the NHS remains free at the point of use (90% of the public want it to remain so) we don’t know what implications this could have. That’s why we have to remain vocal about the costs of marketisation, and hold the Labour Party to its promise to reverse the Coalition’s reforms if it is elected in 2015. We’re celebrating 65 years of a wonderful institution today, but should remember we’ll have to fight hard if we want to keep it over the next 65.

Gove Plots Sale of Our Schools

If there was any doubt that our u-turn prone Education Secretary had covert plans to use the roll out of academies and free schools to privatise the last wholly state-owned public service- the schools system- they were quashed yesterday evening with the leaking of explosive Department for Education document. It is understood that Gove wants to turbocharge his academies and free schools programme by allowing banks, hedge funds and specialist consortia to buy out council-run schools and run them as purely commercial entities. Furthermore, privatised schools will be able to secure loans against school buildings, and they will be able to sell ‘ surplus’ land on the edges of their sites to developers. And if that doesn’t sound like a recipe for a capitalist free for all, I don’t know what does.

Needless to say, teaching unions have condemned the secret plans. Strangely, the line has been adopted that commercial operators would be likely to cut corners and deliver a lower quality education. I cannot imagine where they got that idea from(!) The Swedish free schools system, upon which the policies are modeled, was subject to intensive asset stripping by for-profit groups, to the point that one operator has collapsed as Southern Cross (a care home operator which sold its buildings, rented them back, and buckled when increases were higher than expected) did in the UK. Inevitably, playgrounds will be chipped away at when there is little economic benefit to school owners (and the term ‘school owners’ is a very peculiar one to type) to maintain large empty fields. My metaphor is that if you are given £50, then there is little reason not to deposit it in the bank (or building society or credit union). And yet that is what Gove imagines will not happen.

Not only would physical education suffer (I’m still too badly hurt by my experiences of PE to be very concerned by that threat) but expensive, resource-heavy subjects such as the Sciences and Music will be cut back. And as the predictable union-busting, pennypinching and efficiency drives occur, the teaching profession will slowly deteriorate together with student attainment rates. The Government’s ability to correct the situation within the system is limited as it has surrendered most of its controls over schools when academy status is awarded.
Eduction is the key to a thriving society and economy. Despite inhospitable conditions, this country enjoys a large, talented community of teachers and other education professionals. On the whole, we’ve good school buildings. There are problems, particularly with the poor schooling environments in the inner cities, the effect of tiny catchment areas and religious segregation, and above all ridiculous rules which prevent schools properly tackling bad behaviour. But these are not unsolvable, by any means. What would be unsolvable is the problem of a deregulated, privatised and fragmented system of edubusinesses which are allowed to deteriorate and be asset-stripped.

Thank goodness this policy is merely under consideration. But beware it might just reach the statute books, unless the Liberal Democrats stick to their current position on free schools and academies. We’re relying on Nick Clegg.