Saturday, May 19, 2007

School choice and the grammar school debate

I finally got my opinion of the schools debate clear in my own head last night on 18 Doughty Street.

Firstly, what are our objectives? I think the right-wing has to be focussed more on school choice than on grammars per se. In a free education system where parents can choose the education of their children some might choose grammar schools, others would prefer well run, streamed schools. Many children with different requirements or in areas with different challenges might choose entirely different models of education. The idea that one solution, imposed from the centre, can be the right way to run something like education which is so complex and varied and requires so much intangible information to truly understand the correct approach in any given case seems fundamentally weak.

Second, how do we get there? Do we take a radical position on education reform and hope that either it proves popular and is enacted or it slips under the radar in the general electoral melee and is enacted anyway or do we try something moderate?

A radical position would involve offering close to complete school choice right away with the ability of parents to top-up their voucher and allowing voucher schools to select based on ability. The advantages of a radical position are that we can move faster and make more of a difference more quickly. Also, it may well be that people are sufficiently frustrated with education results that they'll embrace radical change.

A more moderate approach would involve a steady reduction of state control in the education market. It might start with academy style greater freedoms for state schools. It might then make it easier for civil society to open its own schools through a heavily restricted voucher, as exists in Sweden. After that you will have a broad base of parents many of whom would like to spend a little extra on their children and it would clearly be possible as their school is largely independent. The logic for allowing them to top-up with some fees becomes strong. Finally, the arguments against allowing selection based on ability would be weakened when it became clear that it wasn't such a monolithic decision thanks to huge variety in the education market.

The advantages of a moderate approach are that a steady ratcheting of school freedoms might be less likely to provoke a political response and be reversed. It also probably plays better with an electorate distrustful of radicalism.

The final question is what Willetts was actually offering in his speech. Was his central message an abandonment of grammar schools? This has certainly been the focus in the media but didn't seem to be the main content of Willetts' speech. After all, Cameron had already ruled out a return to grammar schools in the immediate future. Willetts didn't even spend a lot of time discussing grammar schools.

Burning our money made a very sensible case that the focus of this speech was on decontaminating the case for school choice. If Willetts can get the Hefferites sufficiently wound up then whatever education policy the Tories finally settle on will be treated as moderate. Perhaps they'll only go as far as academies. Nothing particularly wrong with academies but I think even a moderate approach to building school choice should be more ambitious. Hopefully, they're clearing the way for something more ambitious. That is a very credible approach to introducing school choice.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Brass Eye

Probably the best satire ever. Truly, inspiringly brilliant.

18 Doughty Street

I'll be on 18 Doughty Street from 9 till 11 pm. No topic and no idea who the rest of the panel are but I'll try to be entertaining.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fred Thompson rocks

I got sent this a few days ago but I'm not sure the UK blogosphere has seen it yet. Bloody brilliant. Fred Thompson isn't a candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination yet but could join the race. He criticised Michael Moore for going to Cuba and defending Castro's dictatorship. Moore missed the point and responded by challenging Thompson to a healthcare debate and accusing him of breaking the law by smoking Cuban cigars. This was Thompson's response, cigar in hand:

Moore's counter is so utterly joyless. It confirms the brilliance of Thompson's little video:

"Why would a potential presidential candidate provide photographic evidence of himself committing a felony?" the director told us last night before he showed his film to the 9/11 workers he'd brought to Cuba. "Someone should tell him that 'Law & Order' isn't just a TV show, it's real life. I hope the federal government will take the proper and necessary actions against him for violating the law."

A Very Good Idea

Peter Cuthbertson hits on a very good idea over at the ConservativeHome Platform. I read Frank Field MP's report on Monday and wrote it up for the TaxPayers' Alliance blog. Peter is absolutely right that Field is not only very angry at Brown (one reason he might take the job if offered it) but also has solutions in mind for the welfare system that conservatives should be very sympathetic to.

I also think this might highlight the best side of project Cameron. I worry that the Cameron revolution is becoming a thoughtless, reflexive centrism. However, Cameronism at its best is a much needed opening of the Conservative Party's mind.

At first, in co-operation with Iain Duncan Smith, who came into his own after losing the leadership, Cameron encouraged the party to think again about how we help British society and the family. David Davis was thinking some very interesting thoughts about civic renewal. The party stopped opposing Labour measures that were an improvement over the status quo just because in an ideal world we could do better.

Appointing Frank Field would be a return to Cameronism at its best. Accepting that he is doing some excellent thinking about welfare reform from the Labour benches. Tell the public, with complete justification, that Brown isn't willing to tackle welfare reform seriously and a serious thinker about reform should only be at home in the Conservative Party. Even if Field says no it would still say something very positive about how open Cameron is to good ideas.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Liberal Democrats

Gracchi has it half right. It isn't just an alliance with Labour that could prove a disaster for the Liberal Democrats. Joining either coalition could be the Lib Dems undoing. Join the Conservatives and all their left-wing supporters abandon them. Labour shout "vote yellow, go blue" at any Liberal Democrat who pokes his head above the parapet between now and the end of time. Join a Labour coalition and you've propped up an unpopular government. More than that. People will just wonder what the point of the Lib Dems is. Why not just vote Labour in the first place?

The other parties complicate British politics. However, the same complications exist in all the Western countries. Even in the States the possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy has to be considered. He might seriously affect the balance of votes in a coming election. Whether the Republicans or Democrats suffer the most is unclear although I've seen early polling suggesting the Republicans might lose more support. However, a lot can change between now and election day.

In a first past the post electoral system there is always something tragic about the minor parties. The Lib Dems can attract a relatively large portion of the vote but proximity to genuine power is toxic to their chances. A Bloomberg presidential run, even with the vast finance he could bring to bear, would make no contribution to getting the kind of policies he supports put into practice.

The Republican Candidates for President

This introduction to the top twenty prospective Republican candidates for President (via Andrew Sullivan) is very funny. It also highlights just how weak their field is.

A couple of extracts:



Pro: Coveted; influential; beloved by business community; understood by allies and enemies alike.

Con: Unlikely to support biodiesel-fuel development in the Midwest, potentially hurting chances in Iowa primary; slick.



Pro: Serves as a positive role model for ethnic brownbacks all over the country.

Con: Such an ethnicity does not technically exist; lacks the pen-gripping power of Kansas Senate predecessor Bob Dole.

Monday, May 14, 2007

In the Line of Fire Again...

If there is one developing country in the world Britons should really be keeping an eye on it is Pakistan. Thanks to old colonial links and the large British Pakistani community that nation's problems can have serious affects on British society. Pakistan is also crucial to the success of our mission in Afghanistan. Simon Tisdall takes a look at what is going on in that troubled country for Comment is Free. His article is a little muddled but his analysis is interesting. I think the important question is not "when will Musharraf leave", the issue Tisdall focusses upon, but "how will Musharraf leave".

Musharraf, is in serious trouble. Protests in an isolated rural area would be easy to dismiss. Riots in Karachi can imply a genuine threat to the regime. Talk of revolution is still a little premature. Hopefully, whenever change comes it will not entail too much violence. Violent political change is never fun. A bloody resolution to this crisis would be particularly unfortunate as it would increase the credibility of hardliners both in the miltary and the opposition.

Some kind of transition is needed that will convince the military its position and the person of its leaders are not threatened. Violence may encourage them to crack down in order to protect themselves from the mob. At the same time it needs to be shown that relatively secular and moderate opposition can be successful. That would undermine Islamist attempts to pose as the only effective opposition to military or corrupt rule. Once the opposition takes over it then needs to prove able to govern. It needs to prove the "apr├Ęs-moi le deluge" predictions by the military that the country will fall apart without their stewardship wrong.

Central to progress in Pakistan will be involving the wider populace in Pakistani democracy and ending the semi-feudal landlord dominance. This is easier said than done but the institutions of democracy will not last if the population is not properly invested in them.

TPA Blogging

My blogging is becoming somewhat dispersed. Today I blogged twice for the TPA. First, on the new government plans to allow entirely vocational education for age fourteen. A good idea although Labour's drive to push non-academic students into university might ruin it. Second, on Frank Field's study for Reform. It's a searing assault on Gordon Brown's New Deal. The story is a familiar one: too much central control makes a mess of the golden opportunity offered by a growing economy and goodwill towards a new government. Youth unemployment is, despite a decade of economic growth, higher than it was in 1997. Quite a failure. Field's recommendations are interesting.

Voting is open...

Voting for ConservativeHome's Blog Awards is open here. This blog is shortlisted for Best Young Conservative Blog. Vote early, vote often :)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Tranzi Watch: Mary Riddell

Consider Tranzi Watch a new occasional feature. My spotlight on the most egregious Tranziism of the moment. Today, Mary Riddell's piece about Gordon Brown's written constitution. Before I get going it should be noted that a constitution of the sort she's describing is more likely than one that Tom Paine would like. This should be enough to make anyone have second thoughts about the idea of a written constitution. I'll respond to the worst of it.

Firstly, this idiocy: "In fact, the lecture was a search for a set of values that would forge some bond between the potential jihadist and the Surrey golfer and lure people back to politics." How has that worked out?

It wasn't anything of the sort. It was an attempt to smooth over English frustration at having salt rubbed in the wound, by the appointment of a Scottish Prime Minister, of the democratic inequity Labour created with devolution. His articulation of values and national identity was lame and ignored with good reason.

"Insiders say that in the first weeks, or even days, of his premiership, he is likely to announce a national consultation leading to a British bill of rights. The result will not be the rights-lite version touted by David Cameron as an alternative to the Human Rights Act. This will be HRA-plus, in which Britons get extra safeguards on race relations and equality and the bill is more tightly ring-fenced against interference from any future government. Jury trial, a more extensive right to education and to free healthcare (and, I hope, much-neglected children's rights) might all be included."

This is the really dismal bit.

Extra safeguards on race relations? We have already made huge sacrifices in freedom of expression. She doesn't describe what these new safeguards will be. Constitutionally mandated positive discrimination, an even looser definition of what infringes race relations legislation perhaps? This is the Tranzi urge to do all they can to emphasise group rights (whether class, race, gender or sexuality) at the expense of people engaging with the state and the law as individuals.

She doesn't define what she means in calling for a constitutional safeguard for equality. The idea of taking what should clearly be a policy objective, at best, and turning it into a constitutional matter is absurd. Inequality is far too slippery, complicated and changing a phenomenon to be suitable for constitutional treatment. Is modern inequality, largely led by increased returns to education in the market, really a bad thing and the same as feudal inequality? It is a Tranzi hallmark to try and remove this kind of decision from democratic bodies and make it a part of their ever growing litany of 'rights'.

A right to free healthcare? As a person who can (and does) afford private health coverage why on Earth should I have a right to not pay?

With spiralling healthcare costs throughout the developed world does this sound durable? Particularly given how important lifestyle choices are becoming to healthcare costs incentives to healthy behaviour might become important.

Finally, the article's subtitle "his real target may be the monarchy". Almost a comically bad idea. Destroying freedom of speech in the name of fighting racists is one thing. Destroying Britain's flexible and durable constitutional code in the name of fighting the monarchy is an idea rather harder to sell. British people love the monarchy and dislike Gordon Brown. If Brown tries to take on the Queen and David Cameron his approval gap is likely to widen considerably.

"It's the Trading Gap shuffle..."

The hook is reasonable but otherwise I'm a little sceptical about ConservativeHome's Gordon Brown music video. It makes me want to shout "Get a Haircut" a little too often. Conservatives with long hair always alarm me. Also, isn't the video a little melodramatic for a humorous web clip?

Can I request an animated version of the Macavity poem?

Qutb and Marx

Dalrymple's articles are always brilliant and his new comparison of Qutb and Marx is no exception. In a rather stunning coup Gracchi actually manages to add significant value to Dalrymple's essay. All I can do is recommend that you read both articles. Take away both an interesting insight into Qutb's work and a new understanding of the reasons behind Islamism's similarities to Marxism.