Friday, 26 February 2010

The left will always have a selective open mind

Picture the scene. A Labour education minister smugly glides into a special press conference, knowing they're about to release something big. The room buzzes with a frustrated energy. Pens scratch nervously against their pads in anticipation. The minister produces his paper and with tender glee proceeds to revolutionise on the spot our whole perception of how our children should be educated.

We should take a few lessons from Buddha, he says. Teaching our children to meditate would give them the power of clear, focused thoughts and inner quiet. He adds that we should utilise what we know of psychology - letting children know why they feel the way they do gives them the opportunity to control it when needed. All this would help them become more confidant, responsible and creative adults.

Surely liberals, teachers and arts folks would go mental for this wouldn't they? It's a crying shame no party has ever considered it.

Except the thing is they have. Unfortunately it was proposed by Michael Gove, the Conservatives' education spokesman, meaning that the left have blindly torn it to pieces like the nest of vipers they are.

Now I admit to being no regular reader of the Independent. But I was shocked and appalled by the close-mindedness of the paper's columnists last week. I had always viewed the Independent as a 'progressive' paper (for better or worse), yet here were it's chief writers ridiculing what may be the most progressive proposals for our education system in half a century. And all because they came from the wrong party. Worse still, they proposed nothing more than business as usual.

The lesson from this is clear: if the Cameroons are serious about these radical policies then they should stick to them and implement them with vigour. However, if these spangly education and co-operative plans are a ploy to woo left-leaning voters and institutions then they are making a mistake.

Such a half-hearted commitment to what are essentially high-risk strategies would cause them to be implemented in a cackhanded way for people who never supported them in the first place. It would be a disaster.

The interesting thing is that the Conservatives are taking up policies that have traditionally been the preserve of 'libertarian socialists' of the far left. People like Noam Chomsky and the hoards of 'Black Block' marchers that gather in Trafalgar Square every May Day. For make no mistake - it is the statist Labourites and left 'liberals' that are the 'small-c' conservatives here.

It is not as though this is without precedent. There was an attempt in the 1830s to forge an alliance between 'paternalist' Tories and Radicals - two diametrically opposed factions - to protect the poor from what they saw as the wholesale exploitation by the newly-enfranchised bourgeois Liberals.

It was not a success primarily because the Whig government of the time - keen to keep power after so long out of office - implemented workplace regulation of their own. But the opportunity was there. In 1975, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell shared a platform for the 'no' vote in the referendum over the Common Market.

And while the Conservatives have been trying on Tony Benn's clothes, former Work & Pensions Secretary James Purnell revealed some of his own libertarian sympathies in The Times last week by criticising Labour's statism and calling on politicians to 'trust the people' - a longstanding Tory slogan.

One passage was particularly striking, in which Purnell could seriously have been reading from a Cameroon pamphlet: "People can be disempowered if society discriminates against them, if the market impoverishes them and if the State bullies them. The State can help them to be powerful in respect of all three. But we have other tools than the State."

'There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the State' - can you tell the difference?

He goes on to ape another well-established Tory attack: "Some of the critique of choice on the Left has been distrust of the people, dressed up as a fear of inequality. Saying we can’t have choice in schools because only the middle classes would use it betrays contempt for our voters."

Purnell's article ought to interest Conservatives because it highlights some of the common ground between 'libertarian socialists' like himself and free-market libertarians such as Dan Hannan. It identifies clearly our shared belief in liberty and peoples' right to organise themselves as they see fit.

Whether left or right, we should be working together in fighting against the statist 'small-c' conservatives such as those in the Cabinet and in papers like the Independent. Against those who would prefer to cling to the crumbling, failed system of their political friends than embrace the progressive policies of their enemies.

Tony Benn said not too long ago that issues unite people, whereas ideologies divide them. With the spectre of a hung parliament looming, we would do well to follow such advice.