Friday, 31 May 2013

Conflating community and state

Libertarians and other people on the right are often accused of not caring about people, of adopting a laissez-faire attitude which protects privilege and confines others to the bottom of the income scale. In this school of thought the welfare of individuals within society is the responsibility of the state. The state ensures the wellbeing of citizens by providing. The degree to which the state provides varies by left-winger, but may include benefits in kind (healthcare, education, housing, childcare), benefits in cash (unemployment, disability, tax credits, pensions), and may extend to regulation of markets (minimum wage, job guarantees, state ownership of industry).

In contrast, libertarians do not believe in a large state providing all of these things for people. Libertarians believe in a small state providing the framework which allows people to do for themselves. Libertarians believe that a large state is inefficient, ineffective, and has perverse dynamic effects. Large states which intervene in the market reduce competition, innovation and growth. Large states which provide so much for their citizens help to make people lazy and irresponsible: a sense of entitlement with no sense of responsibility. Large state bureaucracies are inefficient and unwieldy, wasting tax payer’s money. Instead, the state should focus on providing a legal framework which promotes competition over monopolies, and social policies which allow people to engage in the market (e.g. many libertarians are passionate educationalists).

Disagreement over the role of the state leads to all kinds of accusations. These are particularly fierce in a society accustomed to handing over responsibility to the state. The left wing discourse suggests that anyone who does not think the state should do all of these things does not care about poverty or people, and only cares about privilege and maintaining the status quo.

That just isn’t true.
The point is that as a society – as a community – we are responsible for each other. We have a duty of care to our fellow citizens and human beings. We have a duty of care to our family, our neighbours and our wider community. In making the state responsible for so many things we have forgotten this duty. We expect a distant other to look after us and the needier members of society. We expect a distant other to pay the tax to foot the bill. We abdicate all responsibility and sense of power ourselves.

The state becomes regarded as an actor or a person itself. We forget that the state is just a collective expression of us all. The state is not above or outside of the community. The state is an expression of our national community.

The point is that we are responsible for each other. That is the principled stance. Depending on the need, the solution will be most effective at a different level. Sometimes that means the state is the most efficient way to provide. But sometimes it is the family, community, local government, or voluntary or charitable organisations. These methods of provision are not inferior or less principled. They too are an expression of our collective responsibility to one-another.

The problem is that we have now gotten so used to not being responsible for ourselves, our families, our neighbours, or our wider community. How do we restore a sense of responsibility and civic duty? Instead of thinking about what you should be entitled to, think about what you can do for yourself and for others. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Equal marriage

For me, and many like me (I suspect anyone under the age of 35 who is not evangelically religious) equal marriage is just a none issue.

Equal marriage is the 'shrug your shoulders and say "yeh, why didn't it happen years ago?"' policy.

Equal marriage is the 'we already call civil partnerships weddings, and their results husbands/wives, so what's the big deal?' policy.

Equal marriage is the 'actually, we're mostly not religious so you don't get to tell us what to do any more' policy.

The whole opposition movement is just baffling to me.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

My experience of the state education system

I am passionate about delivering high quality education to all. Lots of people are. But many (most?) of these people speak from a position of relative privilege. They attended fee paying schools, grammar schools, or high performing state schools. (or even just decent state schools)

I didn't.

My primary school was OFSTED inspected when I was in year 6, and placed in special measures. My first secondary school was closed half way through my GCSEs due to poor performance. A neighbouring school was expanded to take us all in. The result was that only 25% of my school year reached the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and Maths (four years later, 26% achieved the same). Many of my peer group achieved no GCSEs at all. No qualifications at all. Some could only be described as, at the age of 16, functionally illiterate.

Such a failure of education has given me strong views on the subject. Sure, I can't assume that everywhere faces the same problems as my schools. Yes, it is important to take a macro view of education and analyse various case studies and factors. But it is also important to root your theory in the real world. A real world experience.

So in my real world experience, what were the problems?

Children running riot (on a couple of memorable occasions, literally). Teachers totally out of control. Poor quality teaching. Low expectations and low achievement. Lateness, truancy, and a general lack of discipline.

The attitude amongst staff in the school was that all of this was to be expected. Look at the community it served: the children were clearly no hopers. To be fair, it is a difficult community. The usual problems of unemployment, welfare dependency, substance (alcohol, drugs) abuse, absent parents (more then average numbers in prison). The classic sink estate.

However, the attitude amongst staff was inexcusable. Those children had real potential. Yes, they were bit of a tough crowd, but that doesn't excuse giving up on them before even trying.

The problem, ultimately? Poor leadership.

The head teacher and his team created a culture of low aspiration. They accepted sub-standard teachers. They did not demand more and better from staff or pupils, and they did not create a disciplined and supportive environment in which staff and pupils could succeed.

Labour's answer?

The same as always: spend lots of money. They rebuilt the school whilst keeping the same management and teaching team. A few years later OFSTED put the school in to special measures and closed it.

The school reopened as an academy in 2011 with an ambitious team taking a no-nonsense, no-excuses, aspiration approach.

In 2012 56% of students achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths.

When people talk about Michael Gove and I say he is an hero of mine, they look at me like I am mad. But I know - I am certain - that the free schools program and expansion of academies is absolutely what schools like my former one need. These policies tell educators that they can no longer blame poor performance on a tough crowd: they must aim high and they must innovate. Furthermore, the reforms equip leaders and teachers with the tools to do so.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

If you think women should be equal, you should be a feminist.

This statement is frequently made and often accepted at face value.

I have a bit of a problem with it.

For one thing, I don't like being told what I should be. But putting aside that semi-childish impulse, there are further reasons to take issue with this statement.

Firstly, it assumes that feminism 'owns' the female equality discourse. That the only way to describe a belief in female equality is 'feminism'. I don't believe that is so. I think you can believe in gender equality without being a feminist.

For me, in labeling yourself a feminist, you're saying that gender equality is the most important struggle. Gender is the biggest barrier. Your gender is your most primary identity.

Now, lots of feminists will tell you that their belief in gender equality sits with their belief in equality by race, class, religion, or whatever other distinction you want to apply to human beings. They believe in equality, in all its forms.

I'm sure that is true for many feminists, but then why call yourself a feminist? Why not an 'equalist', or some other label? The impression you are giving is that gender is primary over all those other issues. I don't believe it is.

The identity part of this is important too. In identifying yourself as a feminist, you're saying something about your own identity. That on a personal level, in your personal interactions on a day-to-day basis, your gender is primary. For some feminists, maybe it is. Maybe they feel that on a day-to-day basis, their gender affects what they do, how people respond to them, and what opportunities they have. I don't.

The next big problem I have with feminism is something many people seem to see as a good thing. Its breadth.

You can believe in equality for all and be a feminist.
You can also be a racist and/or homophobic, and a feminist. 
You can believe any woman who has sex with a man is selling out, and be a feminist.
You can be a socialist and a feminist.
You can be conservative and a feminist.
You can believe women should have strong maternity rights, equal pay and equal position in the workplace, and be a feminist.
You can believe women really ought to stay at home with the kids, and be a feminist. 
You can be a lover of fashion and Cosmopolitan magazine, and be a feminist.
You can believe that bras are part of gendered control, and be a feminist.

It seems to me that you can be pretty much anything and be a feminist. Labeling yourself a feminist says nothing about your beliefs. It does not tell me your definition of what a woman is or what a woman should/shouldn't do. It does not tell me your view of equality (as good as men? better than men? free to do what you choose?). Nor does it tell me your view on gendered power structures.

To me, it is pretty useless.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Health inequality and personal responsibility

A discussion on Radio 4's Today program earlier in the week really caught my attention. I've been thinking about it on and off ever since.

The discussion surrounded public health inequalities. It was being considered in the context of the recent devolution of responsibility for public health to local authorities. A specific issue mentioned was heart disease, and the factors leading to heart disease. The contention is that heart disease is, broadly speaking, a lifestyle illness. That is to say that lifestyle factors such as poor diet, not taking enough exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol all make heart disease - a long with a host of other diseases - more common.

All of these things - poor diet, not taking enough exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol - correlate with having a lower income.

So why do poorer people take less care of themselves?

Do they simply not have enough money to make healthy choices?
Are healthy choices inaccessible for other reasons (eg no shops selling healthy foods)?
Are they not educated enough to know what is healthy?

I don't find these arguments convincing. Money can be an issue, but budgeting makes healthy eating much cheaper than takeaways. What's more, if money was the key issue surely smoking and drinking alcohol (non-essentials!) would disappear? This is an issue of prioritising spending.

I accept there may be a few small communities where the only food sold is from the local chippy (or similar), but I don't think there can be many of them. As we keep hearing, Tesco (or her competitors) is everywhere. And Tesco sells healthy options.

While there may be some confusion about the finer details of a healthy diet, I think we've all got the key messages: smoking, alcohol, high fat/sugar/processed foods = bad. Everyone knows what we mean by '5 a day'. Everyone knows regular exercise is good for you.

The reasons above call for intervention. The state should intervene to ensure people have a minimum income (which will magically make people more responsible with their choices).

Now, to Conservatives like me - liberal Tories - this just does not sit right at all. Especially when accompanied by quotes like this:

"And if people’s jobs are less stable, they may be forced to change their diet, or drink and smoke more." [emphasis added] - Dr Perviz Asaria, quoted here on heart disease.

Which to me, is just plain ridiculous.

These paternalistic attitudes are dis-empowering and strip people of personal responsibility. This is not helping people. The reason poorer people eat poorer diets, exercise less, smoke more and drink more alcohol is because they choose to do so. People are, or should be, responsible for their own choices. Taking out personal responsibility in this way is making healthy choices even less likely to be made.

On its own, this may seem overly simplistic. I accept that various factors (income, education, culture) may make it harder to make healthy choices. What I do not accept is that any of these things make healthy choices impossible, or unhealthy choices inevitable or forced.

If we are to tackle public health issues like this we must move responsibility downwards to the individual. Devolution of public health to local authorities is a welcome step. Not least because it means the variety of approaches will allow us to evaluate more and less successful methods.

I think it is time to consider the ways in which the NHS, as free and without judgement, is possibly contributing to these lifestyle illnesses. Does the sense of security created by the NHS make people less concerned about taking care of their own health, and preventing illness? Does medication to treat the early ill-effects of lifestyle disease lead to complacency from the individual? How can we introduce enough personal responsibility in to healthcare provision to mitigate these effects, without leaving people to suffer?

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Thatcher's grandchildren

There's this stereotype of Tories. They're all a bit posh. From the south of England. They have rich, or at least middle class, mummies and daddies. They like shooting things (animals). And destroying the lives of things (people: mostly poor and disabled, but anyone vulnerable). They are Privileged.

I'd like to say I'm the exception. The minority within the Tory party that is Normal. But I'm not.

I mean, I am Normal, but I'm not a minority. It is very noticeable within Conservative Future that though there are some posh boys and girls, there are also an awful lot of regular people. People who aren't born to it, but nevertheless are very much persuaded by Conservative ideology.

I'm from the north of England. An ex-mining town actually. The kind of place where Thatcher is a synonym for 'everything that is, and ever will be, wrong with the world'. I'm not rich. I'm from a single parent family, and while my mum does well now, there was very little money I was young. I definitely don't like shooting things. Tory confession: I'm a vegetarian. Please don't out me when I next attend a Countryside Alliance event. Even more shocking, I have my own disability (Crohn's disease).

I won't claim to be a 'Working Class Tory'. I'm one of those not really working class (education excludes me), but not quite middle class (no money) people (the BBC reckons I'm an 'emergent service worker'). But I do belong to a generation of young Conservatives who are, in a sense, Thatcher's grandchildren.

Thatcher's grandchildren love the free market. We simply adore the concept of a small state. Cut spending, cut taxes: Osborne should stick to Plan A. If he'd done Plan A properly we'd be doing much better. In the things we do think the state should provide (healthcare, education), we favour bringing in the market and the power of competition. Michael Gove; my hero.

Deeply skeptical about unions (they represent a niche interest, not the public good), many of us think Boris has the right idea. Actually, Thatcher's grandchildren love pretty much everything Boris says/does.

Like most Tories, we tend not to like Europe either (except for holidays and Camembert). The EU represents another layer of government, and Thatchers grandchildren share her horror of THAT.

However, Thatcher's grandchildren do part company from the great Lady somewhat. Perhaps it was inherent to her, or perhaps it was just the time she was in. But social conservatism? No. This next generation of Conservatives don't go in for that. We are liberal conservatives. All those things that get the oldies into a bit of a tizz (equal marriage?) are perfectly acceptable to us. Non-issues. 'Why-didn't-we-do-it-years-ago' issues. I believe in a small state, and that includes the state keeping out of people's private lives.

We are strong patriots and supporters of the armed forces, but since we missed the Cold War ordeal, we're a bit more relaxed about all of that.

I was born in 1989. I cannot claim to remember a female Prime Minister. So for us, for me, what is Thatcher's legacy?

In real terms: privatised industry, The City, weakened unions. Britain on the world stage, not a broken post-colonial failure. I'm sure you've read lots of these articles on economy, international relations, etc etc in this last week. These are important, of course they are. But let's be honest: it is all I've ever known. For me, that stuff is all really cool, but it didn't bring me in to politics.

The ideas are so much more powerful. The ideas are inspiring.

The idea that you can work hard and get on. That if you are determined, you can overcome. That you are responsible for your destiny. 

Of course, anyone can say those things set on their own. But Mrs Thatcher brought them down to earth. She demonstrated what determination can achieve in her own battles. She set aspiration in the context of limited state, lower taxes and an (unfinished) attempt to break dependency culture.

On Wednesday I will be going to pay my respects to Mrs Thatcher, but let it be known: her legacy lives not just in that lot in government now, but in the next generation of Conservatives too.