Thinking For The Individual

Formerly known as 'Thinking For The People', this site offers some reflections on the state of British society and her people from the perspective of a libertarian Conservative with a passionate belief in the pillars of freedom and responsibility.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Battles of Tomorrow

Any visitors who might have crept upon this blog in the months since it became known as 'Thinking For The Individual' might have come to wonder whether the individual in mind was perhaps somewhat lazy and not quite the go-getting entrepreneurial individuals that people of my creed have in mind when they speak of individualism. All I can say is that since then I confess I have had to take a dose of my own medicine, and so I've spent the past months thinking of one individual in particular - me!

After weeks of patient and dogged preparation for GCSE exams, distracting me as they do from philosophical thought and political debate in their insistence that I understand every minute detail of eutrophication and the voltage and current on a series circuit and trigonometry and mitosis and settlement hierarchy and the French subjunctive, they've come and they've gone. But instead of a long and protracted essay on the state of British education (there have been about two or three of those since last June, so I'm covered on that one!), I have a short and simple thought. It's a thought heavily embedded in my mind more than many this week, with my education in the real world only just beginning now that academic instruction has had its chance and true experience of real life beckons. But it's a thought that is true for me as it is, as we move further into the twenty-first century and as the political map is still to be painted blue and red and whatever other colour it is destined to be, for the rest of our society.

The future begins now.

The coming week I'll be in London, living and working on an internship in the postcode where every affair of state is concluded. It's my turn to become one of the sniffling teenage boys sent by a school on work experience, and, in a flash of wisdom or a bow to my foolishness, I shall take my placement at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, 25 Victoria Street. My precocious instincts took charge over the good sense of all my friends who are working in places where they hope they'll have little chance to do any damage, where a spilt cup of coffee won't mean the difference between a Tory and a UKIP victory in Bromley & Chislehurst, and where, if they do leave a legacy of getting it wrong in the one week they there spend, it shouldn't matter for them in the slightest in their own glorious futures.

But so long as, when I make the journey back up north next weekend from my days on Victoria Street, I can be content that I've earned a great experience for myself, and come across the passionate and dedicated people I know work day in, day out at 25 Victoria Street, then my insistence that the future begins on this very day will be all the more true.

It's not merely I whose future starts now. As a society, eras come and eras go. We had the Thatcher years, then in 1990, when I was but an infant, a new man came to Number Ten, and then in 1997, another man came who works there to this day. But his time is running out, and even though the passage of history must never be simply a rewrite of the passage of statesmen and politicians, politics is changing too.

As Tony Blair insists on yet more legislation to combat crime, which has never in the history of human civilisation on these British Isles been so spread across society and so devastating to vast tracts of the country as it is today, and as Gordon Brown presides over an economy which is propped up by the tax returns of all the people, from the middle-class family in suburbia to the working man in the inner city, we can begin to see how the future battles between statesmen will be fought.

I know a young man of my age, a socialist by calling, so he says, though, I'm told, more through the words of his socialist mother and his socialist father. He lives a prosperous, happy lifestyle and lives in what in Yorkshire could easily be thought of as palatial wonder, with a swimming pool and a fencing gallery (hunting is too Tory, apparently, he much prefers to fence, if that's even the right verb). But his socialism persists, and his belief that the people must be saved from themselves by government and politicians is indefatigable.

When I deign to ask whether it is such a good thing to have an economy where Gordon Brown takes half the people's money for himself, and when I suggest the National Health Service is an institution designed to fail, and when I suggest that state education is in a rut (he is, incidentally, a private schoolboy, as am I, but I believe in them and he claims not to), he argues his soundbite. "You want to tear the government down from the inside," comes the eternal refrain.

As vulgar and sickly as I know I sound when, against this backdrop, I paint myself as the council estate boy done good, I can't help drawing the contrast. I can't help draw the contrast between I who believes in mankind, and he who believes in government. I can't help draw the contrast, for when I see how the petulant young whippersnappers like he and I debate and argue and politick the days by, I begin to wonder whether this is how the future might be.

I believe in mankind. I call myself a capitalist, a libertarian, or a Conservative, because it's easy. It takes no effort to give myself a label, for once I'm classed in a particular category, what's the need to ask me what I think of any issue of the day? My mind is then made up by which chair I sit in, which wall I'm stood against, which part of the room I take as my own.

But I am more than a label, as each and every one of us is. I believe in man, and I believe that man is a great creature, and a creature with as many co-operative, socialistic instincts as he has capitalistic, competitive instincts. And I believe that the best society in which man can thrive is the society which sets him free to thrive. That is why I believe in liberty and freedom, and why I find it so easy to call myself a capitalist, a libertarian and a Conservative. Man will make his money and make a name for himself if he is free so to do. Man will look after his neighbour and offer a helping hand to the friend in his community if he is free to do so. The greatest feats are only achieved when man is free.

But in Britain today we are not free. We have a very strange kind of freedom to call our own. We have political rights, and civil liberties that can only be dreamt of in some societies. We have freedom to waste money, freedom to do all we like with our bodies, freedom to hate our country and all it stands for. But all this is is a manifestation of the truer tyranny under which we are held.

We are plainly not free, because if we were we would be achieving. As a society, we would be a proud and happy, shining land if we were free. If we were free, we would give our neighbour a smile and a greeting, not a showcase of neighbours from hell on the television. If we were free, we would conduct ourselves with dignity and honour and respect, for these are the virtues of the self that can only come with freedom. We have a National Health Service, but we receive healthcare of a standard not befitting the fourth greatest economy in the world, and the vast majority of us have no responsibility for our own care, and none of the dignity and honour that responsibility brings upon man and the family. We have state education, but one in five leaves school 'functionally illiterate' and it is youths who are seen as the bane of society, incapable to carry the mantle of leadership in the coming decades, and the vast majority of us have no responsibility for our own education, and yet again none of the dignity and honour that responsibility brings upon man and the family.

The battles of tomorrow are going to be between me and my socialist friend. They won't be battles of Left and Right, or of radicals and moderates, or of managers and ideologues. They will be battles between people who believe either in mankind and people and families and communities, or who believe in the State and systems and politicians and government structures.

My future begins now, and the future of my society begins now too. And I know where I stand in the battles of tomorrow that my society will see when the future's golden sun rises beyond the dawn that comes now. In the battles of tomorrow, every man of us has to know where we stand. I certainly believe I do.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

One Saturday In Beeston, Leeds

It was a bright and clear Saturday morning. The golden sun looked down on two local Conservatives – one a seasoned campaigner in the area, the other most certainly not – as they posted leaflets through letter-boxes across the streets of the Cardinal estate in Beeston, an inner-city working-class area in the south of Leeds, typical of the old industrial heartlands of the northern cities.

The two activists, the elder having spent years working at the heart of the community and now standing for this very council seat, the younger out on this kind of campaigning for the first time, carried sacks of literature, designed to be on coffee tables in living rooms across the ward by the end of the day. Each house – by and large, small semi-detached council housing built after the war; ‘homes fit for heroes’, they called them before they’d been built – received a copy of ‘LS Life’, a glossy little brochure showing off what achievements the Conservatives had made in Leeds since joining forces with the Liberal Democrats and an offering of Green councillors in a coalition at the Town Hall to finally kick Labour out of power in the city, after God only knows how many years of the socialist red rose flying high in this county of the white rose. The slim pamphlet had been published in the city on the very day when David Cameron was elected leader of the party, whilst all the pomp and pageantry of the victory was enjoyed down in London, but fortunately it was not particularly dated (begging the question, perhaps, of what exactly the coalition has been doing in Leeds for the past four months). This was made even more fortunate by the rumour that this particular issue of the pamphlet – with ‘Issue 1’ ambitiously written at the very top of the front cover – was to be the last.

Alongside ‘LS Life’, a newsletter on Labour’s failure in the ward and throughout the city, setting out the Tory alternative, would await residents whenever they took their post from beside the front door that morning.

The year’s local election campaign was a week away from its official kick-off, but council politics was – as ever – far from the minds of the locals. And why should it matter? After all, politicians left the people of Beeston behind long ago. The political consensus in Westminster for generations by now has taken away the freedoms and the individual responsibility of everyone in areas like these. It’s now up to politicos and bureaucrats to make judgements for people, for families and for communities about their local school, about St. James’s Hospital (known as Jimmy’s) nearby, about how their streets are policed – about their whole lives.

This has given the people of Beeston a community where, according to the statisticians, only 58% of people of working age are actually in work, where almost half of citizens have no academic qualifications, and where – for those of us who prefer to look beyond the glib, black-and-white facts and figures – the misery and depression in the air says more than enough about how politics has failed the people.

In order to engage the people of communities just like Beeston in the council elections we face this year, and in the political challenges we face at the polls in every year ahead, we first have to acknowledge and act upon the moral imperative to strive for a better way of life in the broken estates of our country, regardless of the political merits or drawbacks. Educational standards are lower in these places. There is more crime. There is more unemployment. Drug addiction and dealing is rife. More broadly, we can see that there is no freedom in these areas for individuals and families to be responsible for their lot. There is more council housing, therefore fewer people have a stake in the place they live. And as the socialist politicians in these parts remain perpetually unchallenged, there is no real local leadership.

None of these are dogmatic, unsupported statements of my own belief. Everything I say is backed by the facts, but surely the facts are secondary to everything we see and hear from the real people who trudge on in a quiet despair through their existence (‘life’ is not the suitable word) in places like these.

The most important challenge for any party which seeks government is to present a programme for government. This doesn’t have to be a step-by-step plan for radical reform of the foundations of our society, as supporters of Cameron who look back on how Margaret Thatcher never did anything like this before the 1979 general election, yet still managed to oversee the boldest change in the political climate in this country since the Attlee government. But it most certainly should not be a series of empty catch-phrases, the odd promise we know we can’t keep, blended with the happy consequences of opposing an evermore discredited government. To be able to succeed in the inner cities of the north, we have to be able to say something to the people here that matters. We have to have an education policy that will give parents and teachers here freedom and responsibility, and that will raise the next generation of adults out of the poverty of aspiration, ambition and virtue that has ruined places like these. This means there must be no more politicking over great questions such as these. Up here, for example, people know from the national media that the Tories have been making a fuss about backing Labour’s school reforms, but we don’t actually know what Tory education policy is or is likely to be. We can’t be elected on the strength of how we behaved in opposition, but on how we pledge to behave in government. Candidates and activists must be able to state and explain what the Conservatives will do to make education better, not simply be able to describe (and sometimes defend) what we’ve done whenever Labour has put forward its bland legislation, dressed up as radical, but in truth as arrogant and futile as anything else they try to do. We have to have a policy for a reformed NHS which will give the British people world-class healthcare. We have to have something to say which matters, and ideas to offer which will work. We may all have ideas as to what will make our society better, whether it involves more government investment or more private enterprise, more trust in the individual or more power to local councils. But what matters is that we work out straight away what it is that we stand for, and how we can make life better for the working man in parts of the country like these.

It should be self-evident why this is so important. Candidates in local elections, just as much as David Cameron, George Osborne, David Davis and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet down in Westminster, need something to say. We need to be able to offer something to people, and to make promises that we will see through. In the northern cities especially, we can’t win just by knifing Labour and making plain its failures, which are manifold and clear to see to those of us who live here. All that will do is serve to remind us here that politicians are useless, have nothing good to offer, and even less to say. We must stand for something, and then activists and candidates up here can get out on the streets.

Now that we have something to say and something to offer, we can get on with real, energetic campaigning. Local politicians up here, as well as national politicians, need to come and speak to people, and remind these communities that they are concerned with them. The Conservative Party has to be an institution brimming with confident, upbeat and optimistic activists putting out this message, day in, day out. And if politicians here are worried about meeting people and speaking to the man on the street – as I sometimes fear may be the truth – the answer is clear: change your politicians!

Local issues must never be forgotten either. It seems odd that in a local election I am writing to remind activists and candidates about local issues, but too often they go forgotten. Or at the very least, they are treated with workaday disregard. Tories around the country need to be passionate about what they can do for their communities, especially in these poorest areas where there is little left to be passionate about. Politicians should not just be political leaders, but social leaders too, and this means standing up for what matters to local people. This does not mean that we have to promise that the local council will do more than small-government conservatives who believe in individual freedom and individual responsibility would like. It means, rather, that local leaders promise to be active in bringing their community together, being a force for good in whatever way they can. We didn’t get through the Blitz by making more and more laws, but by living and working together in strong communities, and that took a different kind of leadership to the typical statutory leadership that councils work by today. It is that kind of special leadership, hard to describe but easy to see, that is needed in the depressed communities of the cities and towns of the north, still in a state of decline, to bring them back up and let them thrive in this twenty-first century.

All of this requires a national commitment to poorer areas. The clear moral imperative to act is something that, thankfully, more and more Conservatives understand. It’s something Iain Duncan Smith understood when he went to Easterhouse. It’s something the Bow Group understood when they wrote ‘Go Zones’, a volume of ‘policies for the places politics forgot’. It’s something that is easy to talk about, but much harder to do, because it remains so tempting to focus all our efforts on those marginal seats which we need politically (admittedly more urgently than we need the inner cities). This is another, little-discussed problem with any A-List of the best and brightest candidates for election to Westminster: it gives the impression that only around a hundred marginal seats count, when we must fight with every fibre of our being in every corner of our whole country. The mind-set that we can’t win in Leeds Central, in Liverpool Riverside, in Newcastle East and Wallsend, or in Manchester Central is depressing and wrong. We can win wherever we put our minds to it, wherever we engage and excite the local people with promises to do great things for them which will make their lives so much greater, and make their societies so much stronger.

These are the lessons I have taken, and offer to you, from one Saturday morning in Beeston.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

How The Little Men In Government Must Grow

As the issue of peerages ‘sold’ to Labour donors in return for pre-election loans has been splashed all over the news for the past two weeks, and now that it is starting to muddy the waters across the whole political spectrum, I am tempted to ponder the histories of our great statesmen of yesteryear, for whom scandal and sleaze came as second nature, but who are still endowed with a golden reputation in the common consciousness of our society.

David Lloyd George was a man who, when he wasn’t cheating on his wife, used his prime ministerial patronage to sell honours, and in far more explicit a fashion than this government is accused of. Winston Churchill was a drinker and almost went bankrupt by being incompetent with his own finances. Lord Salisbury was unapologetic when it came to his blatant nepotism. Gladstone, meanwhile, regularly took prostitutes home to Downing Street.

The fact that statesmen such as these are admired today, whilst their modern-day alternatives are reviled for even the slightest association with that kind of sleaze and scandal, is enough to annoy any politician today. Whilst vice in politics back in the days of the great statesmen is today looked upon with nothing more than a wry smile, today it incurs the wrath of all, with no exceptions.

But most of today’s politicians will just leave it at annoyance. They will still go on making money wherever they can, forgetting their marriage vows with anyone who comes along, and getting involved in all kinds of repulsive behaviour most of us wouldn’t even know how to get into.

That politicians today are held to the highest of standards by the press and the public, no matter how hypocritical some of these standards are, should be enough to compel them to rise up to those standards and be truly good, decent and virtuous people in conducting the nation’s affairs.

The lesson to be taken from the way a Cabinet minister is castigated today for any whiff of corruption, whereas in the past he would have been left to enjoy all the sex, cash and bad behaviour he could ever want, is reason, if reason were needed, for the politicians of today to rise above the way politics in Britain have turned today, and stand up as bastions of integrity and respectability in a society which has lost its way.

That’s why the real reaction to the latest honours scandal should not be to tighten up the System to make wrong-doing impossible, but for our statesmen to tighten up their own hearts and minds so that they themselves would never do wrong. Integrity is something that those in a position of power must come to possess themselves. That is a far more profitable approach to the prevention of scandal than simply putting in place safeguards against those who clearly do not possess the slightest integrity.

So perhaps the best way for politicians today to rise into the realms of statesmanship is perhaps to take on a very difficult, but very worthwhile challenge: to be virtuous, to be upright, to be great men!

That’s how the little men at the top of our nation’s public life today will become great.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Here's A Chuckle For You...

A small piece in The Independent today moved me to write. Apparently, some clever man at some Californian university for clever people has made some clever study which has concluded that the the "whiny, sit-at-the-back-of-the-class kind" of child is more likely to become a typical conservative, whilst "boys and girls who are resilient, smooth and sure of themselves end up liberal".

I'm not quite sure where to start in having a good laugh at this. I could be typically self-effacing and agree that I'm one of those whiny kids who has become a Tory... but even that would be having too much of a laugh.

I could criticise even the simple terms of this study. "The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests," it says, yet we all know that all those people in our society who profess to be liberal aren't exactly non-conformists! "Liberal" has become a code-word for the intolerant elites who think people can't be trusted with their own money, that parents can't be trusted with their child's education, that patients can't be trusted with healthcare, and that only their cosy but disturbingly arrogant worldview is the right one.

And in fact, whilst I think about it, isn't this holier-than-thou attitude of this survey absolutely typical of that cosy yet arrogant worldview of these suave, cool "liberal" people, and their cosy yet arrogant assumptions?

Or I might just - being the typical Tory Boy I probably am, according to these people (although, unlike most liberals, I've never been particularly fazed by words and names) - scoff at the clever, clever people who made this report and get on with having a good life, with not even the slightest of thought to them.

The man behind the study is called Professor Jack Block. Thick as a block, more like!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Freedom and Responsibility: A conservative educational revolution

Education in Britain today is in a state of crisis. As a matter of fact, it’s not in a state of crisis - it is a crisis.

It’s a crisis which you don’t even have to be a student, a parent or a teacher to recognise and comprehend. It’s a crisis we are offered an insight into every August, when teenagers across the country open their envelopes and read off a short list of letters which will make or break their whole future, only for the media to proclaim that that list of letters, whether they’re ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’, is becoming more and more meaningless.

It’s a crisis which comes to a head sporadically, whenever some bureaucrat or politico makes a mistake – which, in the field of education, they seem to do with astonishing frequency! It’s a crisis we’ve seen already this year, when the woman with the whip hand over the minds of the youth of our country was accused of poor judgement in allowing sex offenders to take up jobs in schools. It’s a crisis we can begin to contemplate whenever we look at statistics which show that Maths teaching in Hungary and Slovenia is of a better standard than it is here in the United Kingdom. It’s a crisis we can observe when we discover that 82% of 11-year olds can’t spell ‘necessary’, or that a quarter fail with the word ‘castles’; when we discover that three million people have been educated so poorly in the most basic of areas that they would never even try to write a message to their friends and family at Christmastime; when we see that more than a quarter of Year 11 students in one state school at least three times a month (according to a survey taken on a school day - God only knows how many were absent when the survey was taken!).

However, it’s a crisis which runs so deep through our country that it can’t be measured simply by statistics, but by the experiences of those of us who play a role, however big or small, in it all. It’s a crisis which is so complex and so vast that it can’t be solved by simple policy gestures here, financial packages there, and handshakes and smiles for the cameras. It’s a crisis which has, in fact, gone on for decades, but has always been misdiagnosed, mistreated or, more often, completely ignored.

The problem with British education is that it is centred on the State. The government tells teachers what they can teach. The government tells headmasters how they can spend their money. The government tells parents where to send their children. The government takes away great freedom from teachers, parents and students, and this destroys the individual responsibility of all those people with a stake in the education of our citizenry.

This stands in stark contrast to those corners of our globe where education flourishes, such as Singapore, which stands head and shoulders above the pack whenever any new survey is released to set down in tabular form who teaches their students best. Whilst less than ten percent of British students at secondary school attend private schools which are, for the sake of argument, independent (although still bound and gagged by many strictures of State control), in Singapore the figure is virtually quadruple that. Parents take responsibility, as all schools charge them money, albeit amounts much lower than private education in Britain demands, for the education provided. The academic spirit of Singaporean schools is so different to that in Britain, with all the virtues of competition bred into the hearts and minds of their students. Education is at its best when it is set free to thrive, not when it is restricted by government. In Singapore and across the rest of the rapidly developing Far East, education is set free to thrive, and this has brought the diverse provision of education to their students, and the freedom and responsibility that parents and teachers must always possess so that they may excel. It’s no wonder that the Orient is becoming the brain of the world.

And it’s not just these distant lands which have taken the initiative by saying ‘No’ to the destruction and misery of State rule. Just as in the field of healthcare and social security, Britain remains the most centralised, State-run education system in the western world. The example of Sweden is one to consider, to prove that even our neighbours have it better than we do, never mind the people on the other side of town!

Sweden is one of only two countries across the world with a scheme of universal vouchers, where 75% of the average cost of tuition per pupil is given to parents to send their child to any school of their choice. This has led, in the jargon of the educational establishment, to a wider diversity of provision of education in the country, as any kind of school which fulfils simple, basic requirements according to a national body must be financed by the voucher, whether they are religious schools or institutions run by voluntary organisations. By 2004, twenty-two Swedish schools were run by an organisation called Kunskapsskolan, or ‘The Knowledge School’. Over the next five years, they intend to have grown to fifty schools, catering for 20,000 pupils. Their educational ethos is much different to the very formal to the Swedish State sector, which is more akin in its approach to traditional independent schools here in Britain. Their students wear no uniform, discipline and teaching methods are relaxed, encouraging an informal and friendly working environment. Individual learning is emphasised more than the formal, and often poorly-directed, nature of class-based tuition. Students are in charge of their own timetable and what they learn and how they learn, and this allows them to thrive, by encouraging a greater sense of personal responsibility (what conservative can criticise that?!). The leaders of the Kunskapsskolan have no qualms about being driven by the need to make a profit. Chief Executive Anders Hultin has said, “It is hard to see any conflict between the company and our parents as our profit comes from good results and satisfying parents and students. If we don't perform well, then we don't make any profit at all.” Herein lies a lesson for us all. It’s what Adam Smith was talking about when he declared that it is not through the benevolence of the butcher, the baker and the brewer that we expect our dinner, but through their regard to their own interests. Private schools keen to make a profit must satisfy their consumers, and in order to do that, they must provide a first-class education. There is no need for the stumbling apologism of so many conservatives about profit-making here. Capitalists who are happy to call themselves capitalists (as I am), as well as those who are not (like most right-wingers), should never be afraid to talk about the importance of making money, and how this drives business to provide a better service, and that benefits us all, from the humble worker to the almighty buyer.

The Swedish experience harks back to a long-gone era in Britain. Back in the Victorian years, education was thriving. Despite the tales Dickens told, by the end of the nineteenth century, virtually all youngsters had spent at least their primary years in formal education. This apparently revolutionary idea of ‘diversity of provision’ was the way they had always worked. Working men’s colleges, mechanics institutes, dame schools, ragged schools, grammar schools and Sunday schools were set free to thrive. Parents had the power to decide what education they wanted for their children. Victoria’s people had freedom and responsibility of a kind that Elizabeth’s can only dream and wonder about. And it is exactly that freedom and that responsibility that will let education flourish once again on our fair island.

The Swedish experience shows how parents and students can be given a choice over their education. The modern-day British experience and its ethos of ‘one-size-fits-all’ just doesn’t work! Every student is different, and can not be treated as simply part of a bigger and more important system. The needs of the student must always be paramount in education. The student should not be forced to fit into the system. And that is another charge against the British way.

Yet here in Britain, there are still pockets of resistance to the Statist monster. Private education still moves onwards and upwards, and refuses to baulk in the face of socialist anger and aggression. And it thrives!

Private education in Britain is not all silly hats and Latin mottos. Private schools are mini-communities, with thriving societies to cater for every taste and desire. Sport, drama, art and music is encouraged, and involvement in the rest of the school community is just as important for students as getting the grades in class. They are well led by dedicated, committed and talented people, for whom the school is what they live for. In private schools, students take responsibility for themselves and for the school community as a whole. On the academic side, co-operation and competition walk hand in hand, in harmony, not in conflict. The best student is the one who does his work to the best of his ability, but will always offer a helping hand to his friend, who might be struggling to grasp some abstract idea or who has just remembered to do his homework ten minutes before the lesson is due to begin (let’s face it - it happens to us all!). These communities are far more diverse than State schools too, with students coming from a wider range of backgrounds, whether socially, economically or ethnically. This is because the best private schools attract interest from far and wide, and because parents of limited means but limitless aspirations for their children are assisted to make their dreams come true, whilst the State system simply compels students into the school which serves their community and only their community, having already sought to segregate poorer families on the council estates they made long ago. There is close parental involvement in the private school, with parents regularly meeting with their child’s teachers to discuss their progress, as well as a thriving social element for them to enjoy. And this is entirely understandable - they want their money’s worth! This kind of consumerism in education is clearly no evil thing. It works in Sweden. It works in Singapore. And when it’s allowed to, it works here too! Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair think they can simply pick and choose the characteristics of the private school, such as the prefects or the house system, and then expect them to work in the State system. This is fantasy. The private school is not just a concrete noun. It’s a concept, and it thrives as it does because it is built on the virtues of freedom and responsibility. Teachers, parents and students are free to be responsible, precisely because greater freedom demands greater responsibility, and because we can only be responsible for ourselves if we are free.

State education in Britain forgets all this. State education snatches children from their parents at three or four, and spits them out of the machine at the other end, with nothing valuable to show for it - no skills for their working life, no wisdom, no virtue. The State is not a teacher and it is not a parent, and whenever we, the people, allow the State to think that it is better than us at educating our youth, our society is on a path to destruction.

The history of State education in Britain is a treatise on the theme of failure. It’s why Oxbridge admissions tutors, when forced to choose between State-educated and privately-educated students of similar abilities, tastes and wishes, they will take the State-educated student - not because they want to prop up the State system, but because they know the State-educated student has not nearly had the same opportunities and the same chances as the privately-educated student, and because the State-educated student has endured such a hopeless education and has still come out fighting. It’s why education here in Britain as an idea is labelled a ‘problem’, which politicians say they want to ‘get to grips with’. Quite simply, it’s why our country is no longer a nation of aspiration, ambition and virtue, but a wreck.

Yet there is hope. There is hope from the lessons of Singapore and Sweden and all over the world, where the very conservative virtues of freedom and responsibility are as much a part of education as the sound of chalk on blackboard. The task for Britain is to develop an educational philosophy which believes in freedom for schools: for teachers, for parents and for students, so that this very freedom encourages we, the people, to take responsibility for our education.

Our educational revolution is not one which can be achieved by simplistic policy gestures here or there - after all, we are not socialists! As Stuart Sexton, a political advisor on education in the Thatcher years has written, “Today, the Department for Education and Skills tells schools what to teach, how to teach, what ‘targets’ to achieve, what to spend, what not to spend, and so on.” The first task is to bring this to an end. Government must give schools independence in all these areas. The National Curriculum forces schools to teach exactly what the State wants, from the age of four to eighteen, and perhaps even in the future, in the nursery! This must end. It gives teachers no trust and respect, no freedom and responsibility, and treats them as nothing more than agents of the State, placed in schools simply to do the Secretary of State’s bidding. Government-imposed targets must go. State-imposed regulation on what headmasters can do with their own money must go. Independence for schools in all these areas and more is the vital first step.

Having achieved colossal reforms such as these in the way schools work, we must set about challenging the Statist provision of education. The best option for Britain is the introduction of a universal voucher, learning the lessons of similar schemes around the world. The voucher would be used at any school of the family’s choice, and is open to all pupils. No government authority would be allowed to oppose the use of the voucher at any school, so long as it satisfies simple, basic standards as in Sweden. Schools would be able to admit students based on any criteria they wish, including according to religion. Any education provider would be allowed to participate in and benefit from the scheme, from charities and trusts to profit-making companies. At present, the State spends around £5,000 per year on every secondary pupil (which is, incidentally, roughly the average private school fee). However, with bureaucracy, only £3,000 of that gets through to the school. If we were able to eliminate bureaucracy on a massive scale in education, I see no reason why the voucher could not be worth 100 percent of what the State already spends on education. This is the conservative way and it gives parents, teachers and students respect and trust to make their own decision, and to chart their own destiny.

These are only the first steps. Our driving ambition must be the desire to eventually breed a society which thrives on the ethos of personal responsibility for education. Schools must become thriving communities, not simply places of great learning. It will require the growth in the kind of social entrepreneurialism and shared responsibility of which David Cameron has stressed so often in recent weeks and months to develop a greater education in Britain. The flag of State control must be lowered from every school in our country, and in its place, we must raise the standard of freedom and responsibility.

Education must always be the most important pursuit for us all. Education is not simply about the school or the college. Education is life, and life is education. It has always been important to me and my family, and that is why we scrimp and save to ensure I am well-educated and afforded the best chances and opportunities in life, because my family and I believe in taking responsibility for our education. I have no qualms about admitting that I am the first member of my family to attend a private school, and I have no trouble with telling the world that the freedom and responsibility that has allowed me to succeed in education meant that last August, when I was given the result of my GCSE French exam, which I, like many others in my school, had taken a year early, I became the first member of my family with a formal academic qualification. Despite the crushing impositions placed upon those who provide me, just one student, with my education, the freedom we seek and the responsibility we believe in has already brought me success, and we must all work hard to ensure that all students across the country enjoy success in all they seek. But to do this requires us to build an educational outlook based on freedom and responsibility.

To reform education in Britain, and to breed this educational revolution, takes an almighty will and determination. To do what I propose we do is a great challenge. It takes balls! Margaret Thatcher couldn’t even stomach it in the 1980s. This was one fight that she and her intellectual mentor Keith Joseph couldn’t live up to when they contemplated reforms such as these back then. So let’s show the world how it’s done!

Some day soon, we’ll have no choice. Education in Britain will be in a helpless heap. And it will either fall to the Cameron generation to lead this educational revolution, bringing about a new dawn of freedom and responsibility, or it will be my generation. Because I can pledge, with my hand on my heart, that I will make it my life’s work to build a stronger society based on a bold philosophy of education, held high by those pillars of freedom and responsibility, and many more will join me!

We’ve got the ideas, we’ve got the will and determination, and we’ve got the desire to build a greater, stronger, prouder society. We can do this!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Time Will Tell

December 2005 will be remembered as the month when David Cameron was elected to the leadership of the Conservative Party by a significant margin. Like many other Conservative activists with a determined belief in the importance of bringing a Tory government back to power at the next election, and in the hope that he would be the best choice to achieve that goal, I placed my cross by the name of Cameron, and remain happy to have done so.

Outside the party, Mr Cameron has had a good few weeks so far. Opinion polls have placed him as the public's favourite choice for the premiership before he's even had to open his mouth on any significant policy area. But within the party, his plans for a centralised list to bring together the best candidates for the safest seats, not to mention his movement on environmental issues, as well as his recent manoeuvring to bring Liberal Democrats closer to the Conservative cause, and the overall general impression that our traditional conservative and libertarian principles are being ignored for the sake of electoral expediency, has stirred concern in some quarters.

It remains to be seen whether this concern is deserved or not. Time will tell.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

"Thinking For The Individual"

After a century of posts under the header of 'Thinking For The People', offering readers a wealth of views on the political and social issues of the day, not to mention a plan for real local democracy in Britain, a strategy to make trades unions the bastions of welfare reform in the twenty-first century, and a proposal that we privatise industry all over again, this blog shall henceforth be known, in true conservative spirit, as 'Thinking For The Individual'.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Take Away Responsibility, And Men Will Become Irresponsible

The fires of poverty and injustice are raging through the suburbs of France this week, and have now made their way to the centre of the city of Lyon, a place which was once the home of a brave resistance, fighting off the distant Nazi tyranny. The smouldering whiff of rebellion courses through the air of a nation founded on the principles of freedom, equality and brotherhood.

We in Britain would be deluding ourselves if we claimed we did not understand the kind of violence that is tormenting the most depressed parts of the French Republic. Since the turn of the century, we've had rioting, which superficially we have concluded was down to racial problems. In Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds, we have seen violence, all of which we decided stemmed from the issue of race. In Glodwick, two Asian youths quarrelled with two white youths, before a wave of violence tore the last remnants of community in Oldham to the ground. In Harehills, the arrested of an Asian man was the catalyst for a night of violence in Leeds.

Whilst we may not yet have seen violence on a scale that France has endured for the past two weeks, it is still despairingly easy to come to one simple conclusion: our society is in a crisis.

The most deprived communities of Britain, just like the most deprived communities of France, are in a perpetual state of depression. Joblessness, criminality and dependence breed a society of men and women with no hope in their lives, and nothing to live for. Fear is a constant. These communities, often council estates created by government, designed to be the perfect havens for the working men of our nation, are under the thumb of violent youths, drug-dealers and gun-toting maniacs. Nobody can trust one another. People become atomised, destroying any sense of community and responsibility for one's society. This all sums up the dark, shadowy depression that has crept into the poorest parts of both our nations, and which can only be solved through serious change to the structure of our societies.

In France, the rioters and their sympathisers and apologists complain about the high-handed and apparently institutionally racist authorities, ruled over by the tough Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. It is quite possible that they are right. Too often, authority has no respect for the people who must submit to it. This is just as true in our nation, where the police have become distant and something to be quietly feared, even by the law-abiding majority. As they race across the streets of estates in their cars, sirens ablaze, stopping often to tell good people they are doing something wrong, and avoiding the gang on the street corner which looks as though it should be avoided at all costs, it is easy to conclude that they must regain the trust and respect of the most impoverished communities. It is easy for authority to demand respect, but only wisdom can teach you that the two guiding rules of respect are that it must be earned, and it must be mutual.

Of course, in Britain, there is no suggestion that respect will ever be mutual. The poorest people of Britain are ruled over by a distant government which has no respect at all for their wishes or their concerns. When the State takes away responsibility from the individual, the individual will become irresponsible. By removing freedom over all manner of issues from the British people, it has taken away their responsibilities. And now, in the most depressed communities, the lack of responsibility people have for themselves, their families and their communities is exactly what is destroying the very fabric of society.

The State has taken away the freedom and the responsibility of some of the poorest people in the French banlieues, and now the cities are burning. It truly terrifies me to contemplate how near we may be to the same thing in the inner cities of Britain.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Opening Up The Conservative Party

Francis Maude writes on the Platform blog at conservativehome.com, asking how we can become a more open Conservative Party, and how we can ultimately craft ourselves into a stronger campaigning force. My comments on the blog are as follows:

"I think a reasonable starting point would be to find ways of establishing institutions which may not be under the diktat of the Conservative Party, but would have ties to us and would be designed to have influence within the party in return for them offering their time and money and campaigning leverage to the party. These institutions could be based on professions or different parts of the electorate, e.g. 'Conservative Mothers' Alliance' or 'Taxpayers for the Conservative Party' or 'Conservative Teachers'. That way, many distinct parts of the electorate can have influence within the party and can do more for our prospects around the country.

"The reason for this is clear: political affiliation is unfashionable and is unlikely to be made more popular just by changing our leader. However, many people throughout the country do want to have their voice heard and do want to have influence, if only for their own betterment, not just the betterment of their society. By encouraging people from all walks of life to become affiliated with campaign groups which seek to give them a better life, we may be able to attract the vast grassroots army that only the best campaigning organisations have at their disposal."

We're Still United!

"There is no party more united than the Conservatives."

In recent months, I have repeated that refrain again and again. Oftentimes, as leadership candidates have come close to open warfare, this bold statement has seemed fragile and brittle. But when you take a closer look at exactly what the two Davids have to offer we, the people, you will see that very rarely has this party has such a great opportunity to maintain a unified front, gathered around a common cause.

David Davis writes in his manifesto, sent out recently to all party members along with our ballot papers, that we need 'lower and simplified taxes'. David Cameron agrees with him.

Mr. Cameron says 'No to the euro and the constitution'. So does his opponent.

David Davis wants choice and competition in the public services. David Cameron does too.

David Cameron believes in the importance of strong families and in the institution of marriage. So does David Davis.

Mr. Davis talks of 'radically devolving power to individuals and communities'. David Cameron says we must 'transfer powers to local government'.

The Conservative Party has for so long believed in the guiding values of freedom and responsibility: the principle that we should all be free from the State, but that we must never forget that we have responsibilities to our communities, our families and ourselves. Of course, the two Davids may disagree over the odd aspect of policy here, or some minor presentational matter there. David Cameron thinks it's wrong to talk too much about policy. David Davis disagrees. David Davis talks about school vouchers, whilst David Cameron offers 'real foundation hospitals'. And let us never forget that both of them, like all Conservatives, have an unequivocal commitment to the betterment of all people in our society, rich and poor, not just in their pocket, but in their hearts and minds too.

David Cameron and David Davis are two men who, like all Conservatives, believe in building a greater society, not a lesser one: not a society where the government keeps the whip-hand over its people, but where the individual, the family and the community are all free to thrive and excel, and reap the rewards when they achieve.

The question we may ask is which one really means what they say. Or we may wonder which one can present their case best to the British public.

But one thing is for sure: the Conservative Party is fundamentally united. What stronger start to his tenure in office could the next leader of our party wish for?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Cameron vs. Davis

David Cameron and David Davis will go through to the final ballot of party activists in the Conservative leadership election, after today's second round vote brought this result:

David Cameron.......90
David Davis............57
Liam Fox................51



(EDIT: Forgive my inaccurate post which declared that David Davis had taken 90 votes from members of parliament. For those seeking to get an endorsement for one of the candidates out of me, they should not view the post as wishful thinking, just my failure to differentiate between two people with the same forename!!)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Exit Clarke

The first round of voting for the election of the next Conservative leader has been concluded, and the result is as follows:

David Davis............62
David Cameron.......56
Liam Fox................42
Kenneth Clarke.......38

This means Kenneth Clarke is out of the race. Four pledged Davis supporters deserted their man, as I suggested may happen in a comment on the Conservative Home blog several days ago. And both Liam Fox and David Cameron take a significant number of votes from those MPs who have not pledged their support to any candidate. But until Thursday, the politicking and manoeuvring will go on as the three remaining candidates each seek to cement their place amongst the final two.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Cameron Questions

In my mind, David Cameron is faced with two major stumbling blocks in the coming weeks, as he goes into Tuesday's first round of voting on the election of a new Conservative leader as the new favourite. His problem is that he appears to have no intention of countering either of them.

Is Cameron more Blairite than Blair?
It is often remarked about David Cameron that he is very much in favour of pursuing the kind of modernising agenda that Tony Blair took on when he became Leader of the Labour Party back in 1994. This perception has gone unchallenged in the past few months (perhaps because many activists have finally come to the conclusion that, after eight years of Labour government, they want some power far more than they want their principles). It comes through whenever the man talks about his big ideas, like his speech on social entrepreneurship recently, which came across to many as just another Blairite initiative. It comes through whenever he discusses what he really believes in, such as another speech soon after the election when he criticised the Left for talking too much about resources in the public services, saving his anger too for the Right for talking too much about changing the structures of the services, when what he felt was that what the public really want from politicians are answers to their problems. That's a fair position to take, but it did come across as offensive to many of us on the Right, and I don't imagine that Mr. Cameron has changed his mind recently. And finally, the perception of his Blairite credentials comes across with today's suggestion in the Times that a senior Cameron backer says his man might try to cut off up to 7% of the party's core economically liberal and socially conservative supporters in order to appeal to the liberal-leaning voters out there. To some, Cameron's Blairite credentials are a sign of great things for the Conservative Party. But it is a serious flaw to many in the party, and it is a question that must be addressed by the man if he wishes to lead the party.

Is Cameron part of the ambivalent metropolitan elite?
There is not much which is Conservative (with a small 'c' or a big 'C') about the trendy London elites which Mr. Cameron is frequently thought of as being a part of. His background is one of affluence, with his Eton and Oxbridge education, his Oxfordshire upbringing and his West London lifestyle today all bearing witness to this truth. The question is whether he is a part of the liberal elite frequently criticised by the Right for their destructive social libertarianism, and for what comes across as their lack of understanding for what life at the rough end of society is like. And it is this perception which has come across with Mr. Cameron's drug history being at the centre of media attention. The stereotype of the liberal, metropolitan elite is that they are unmoved by the conventional principles of morality and responsibility for onesself and one's society. They don't care much for the institutions of marriage and the family. They feel no problem about moral questions of the day, such as abortion or euthanasia. And they take a very liberal, very trendy attitude to crime and especially drugs. Whilst that kind of attitude may work in Notting Hill or North Kensington, it is damaging to those of us who live and work in the crime-ridden and quietly depressed inner cities of this country.

Those are the two greatest questions that have to be addressed before I, as an individual Conservative Party member who believes in the virtues of freedom and responsibility, who believes firmly in taking the State out of people's lives, but whose principles are firmly socially conservative, could ever vote for David Cameron to be the next leader of my party - the only political party in modern Britain which believes in the same things that I and millions of others believe in and know to be true.

That is his challenge over the coming weeks. I hope he will live up to it.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

And The Weeks Go By...

At the end of a fairly promising and optimistic Conservative Party conference, things have changed.

David Cameron is pressing ahead. There are still doubts from the right about what he really believes in, but it appears that activists don't think of principle as such an important issue as power. And they feel that Mr. Cameron is the man who will give them power. I still feel that Cameron is a victim of what commentators have called 'initiativitis' - the desire to solve profound social problems with a media-friendly quick-fix and a misdirected but attractive cash injection. His speech several months ago about how the left goes on about resources in public services and how the right bangs on about changing the structures was rather insulting to Conservatives like me who do not necessarily favour his Blairite managerialist attitude to public policy. And whilst his belief in social entrepreneurship is impressive, it must be made to sound like something more serious than he has made it sound so far.

Ken Clarke, meanwhile, is becoming a part of Conservative Party folklore. He is without a doubt a great man, with the power to inspire, but the leadership may be the wrong place for him.

David Davis is slipping. The huge momentum he had built up without saying anything over the last few months since the election is starting to ebb away now that he's opened his mouth.

Malcolm Rifkind is well-liked, and even admired. But few see him as a potential leader.

Liam Fox certainly has plenty of valuble things to say and, as far as I'm concerned, has been the only candidate to put forward a cohesive agenda on which the Conservative Party can run, with his pursuit of traditional conservative ideas based on patriotism, the family and building a stronger and more confident society. But he clearly needs to work on his ability to rouse and inspire. A friend of mine who attended the conference spoke of how his speech was overshadowed by that of William Hague. Liam Fox has impressed me, but I don't think he has done enough to convince me that the leadership is right for him.

David Davis still takes most support from members of parliament who have officially declared their voting intentions. Of course, these official declarers should not be taken with absolute certainty. I can well imagine that some who have promised support to Mr. Davis (or other candidates) are now questioning his ability and hoping that they might vote for somebody else, under the radar, without him noticing. It could be highly amusing to the impartial observer for some of the 65 MPs planning to vote for Davis to move away from him.

Assuming that the two Davids go through to the final round of voting, it will be interesting to see how it turns out. For activists, the safe choice is David Davis. He is the man who they can be sure of as far as his beliefs are concerned. But perhaps the thirst for power is coming back to us so much that we are ready and willing to shift our position to make the party more attractive to voters throughout the country - voters we've lost in the past, and even voters we've never won before.

What a difference a week makes!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Conservative Party Conference

The Conservative Party is gathering in Blackpool for the start of its annual conference.

Labour threw out an elderly gentleman for expressing his opinion. The Liberal Democrats faltered when an activist deigned to criticise them. What fun is in store for the party of the blue torch this year?