Thursday, 25 October 2007

When will they learn?

Journalists love to make things simple. They have usually have not got much time to get a point across to their viewers or readers, so nice straightforward ideas appeal. Which is probably why they like to talk about the leadership election in terms of left and right. The problem with useing this as a way to describe the race is that it is not just a simplification but a complete misrepresentation.

Take these comments from the supposedly 'left' wing candidate, Chris Huhne: “I have always been in the private sector and I started a business and built it up. I understand all the difficulties self-employed business people have, because I have been there and done that.”

A Liberal Democrat party under his leadership, he said, would stress the importance of “cutting red tape and keeping the tax burden on people striving for success as low as possible”.

Hardly Bennite is it?

I am not trying to suggest that there is no difference between Chris and Nick because there is. What I would say about them is that there is no ideological gulf between them. This is no Healey vs Benn or even Brown vs McDonnell contest. Rather what seperates Cleggites and Huhnies is more like the difference between Blairites and Brownities (though with less personal animosity). They disagree less on policy and far more on style and emphasis.

Liberal Democrats are not tottally united but neither are we irrevocably divided, in the way that talking about left and right implies.

Hat tip: Lib dems for Chris

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

In Defence of Oxbridge (part I)

Oxford and Cambridge are no British ENA
I have just started a degree at Oxford University and so it feels appropriate to blog a bit about the institution where I now live and learn. Don't worry, these posts are not going to be about JCRs, unions and fellowships but instead about the political questions raised by the existence of 'elite' universities. In another, post I will look at the often discussed issue of the small number of state school pupils being admitted to Oxbridge but for now I would like to examine the other side of the universities. We hear a lot about people trying to get in but very little about what people do after they leave. This is surprising when you consider how much influence these graduates wield. Since 1920 all bar three prime ministers have been Oxbridge educated. So are a huge number of CEOs, civic leaders and senior civil servants.

All this brings to mind the École nationale d'administration in France; which has educated seven of the last nine prime ministers, two of the last four presidents and the vast bulk of ‘category A’ civil servants. The ENA is one of the most criticised institutions in France. It is seen as the creator of a clique of graduates who monopolise positions of power within the French state. Having a ruling class, largely educated in one place has produced a situation where the people who govern France share the same set of basic assumptions about what government does, which has in turn produced a stifling corporatist consensus. It is only with the rise of Nicholas Sarkozy and a government largely devoid of’ Enarques’ for real change to come about. So it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been serious discussion of the ENA being closed. This is something, I would whole heartedly endorse.

Which begs the question if the ENA then why not Oxbridge? Put simply the answer that is that Oxford and Cambridge are very different institutions operating in a very different context and as a result have a far more benign influence. They are larger, more academic and do not hold the ENAs monopoly over access to the civil service. As a consequence they do not produce the kind of governmental group think and systematic discrimination that the ENA does.

At any time there are around thirty-five thousand students studying at Oxford and Cambridge, by contrast only a hundred people graduate from the ENA every year. In this case size matters. The ENAs size means that it is entirely possible for a student to know everyone in their year in a way that is totally impossible at Oxford or Cambridge. So, while there are undoubtedly cliques of Oxford graduates, the universities graduates cannot form a single clique a la the Enarques. The size of the universities also means there is far more diversity within them since they are made up of numerous colleges and faculties each with a different culture and worldview.

The kind of education that the Oxbridge universities provide is also very different from what students at the ENA receive. While Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the Middle Ages to educate monks, the ENA came in to being in 1945 to train civil servants. The impact of this is that students at Oxford get an academic education that is meant to equip them to grapple with intellectual questions. The ENA, by contrast, is much more vocationally orientated aiming to tell its students how to make the trains run on time. It is telling that the ENA does not describe itself as a University but as a school of administration. What this means in practice is that when Oxbridge graduates end up running a government department they will not approach it the way that there Alma Matter taught them to but in a way that is as individual as they are.

It needs to be born in mind that while it is possible to ascribe to ENA a particular political outlook, a sort of soft corporatism, it is impossible to do so for Oxbridge graduates. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Tony Benn all went to Oxford and can hardly be described as sharing a single world view.

Finally, we need to bear in mind that there is a big difference in what life is actually like for graduates of the different institutions. ENA alumni enjoy a quasi-legal monopoly over ‘category A’ placements in the civil service. While many civil service fast streamers are Oxbridge graduates, it would not be unusual to find people from other universities in the program as well. Naturally around 75% of ENA graduates go into the French civil service. The situation at Oxford and Cambridge is very different with graduates going into a vast range of different professions and do not monopolising any single one.

Oxford and Cambridge make a positive contribution to public life in a way that sadly the ENA simply doesn’t. Oxbridge has a long history and with luck will survive long into the future. The ENA has a much shorter history that should not be allowed to get any longer.

Monday, 22 October 2007

My Dreadful Confession

While I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I did nothing interesting enough to be scandalous

Both Nick and Chris are in a spot of bother over dum things they did as teenagers. In Chris’ case it was (probably) writing an article arguing for tolerance of hard drugs and (probably not) taking said drugs. This is the case that is attracting more attention, which is perhaps surprising because the skeleton that has fallen out of Nick’s closet is far more unusual. To quote BBC news, “As a 16-year-old exchange student in Munich, he was given community service after setting fire to a rare collection of cacti in a "drunken prank". In addition to his community service, he narrowly avoided being expelled from Westminster. The presumptive future Lib Dem leader says that: “I did some damage to some plants. I am not proud of it. I think we all have blemishes in our past."

Not me. I am ashamed to admit that but I have been such a goody two shoes throughout my life that there is nothing scandalous in my past I can think of. It is early days, I am only in my fourth week of University. But given that I don’t drink, smoke, take drugs, break the law in any serious way and that my love life has never been terribly exciting, this is a state of affairs I can’t see changing.

Let this be a warning to you all. If politicians are hounded for silly mistakes they made a long time ago then no good will come of it. If people with blemished pasts are put off going into politics then the people left will be a lot like me: dull, puritanical and self-righteous. So, If you don’t want to wake up one morning and discover that I have my finger on the nuclear trigger lay off Nick, Chris, Dave, George, Boris and the rest.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

'The Better you get to know him....'

In todays Observer, Jasper Gerard writes a lengthy interview/endorsment of Nick Clegg. He describes him as the messiah who is 'holding the only map out of the vast wilderness.' This again goes to show that Clegg is a formidable individual who deserves to be prime minister.

The problem that comes up again is the fear that Clegg will be percieved as 'too like a Tory.' Gerard tries to argue against this point by saying: 'The better you know Clegg, the odder it seems to dismiss him as a Cameron manque.' This is very true, I know that Clegg is no Tory and I suspect that a Tory as familiar with his record as most Lib Dem activists are, would be horrified by the idea that this internationalist, champion of social justice is one of them. The problem is that Joe Voter will not get to know Clegg as well as Gerard does. They will not know about his grandparents, his commitment to progressive politics and interest in liberal history. All most will know of him is his face and the odd sound bite and on the basis of that, they may well conclude that he is awfully like Cameron.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Normal service is resumed

Dear Readers,

Sorry for the near month long break in blogging. I've been settling in at Uni and have not had a computer of my own. I am planning to start posting reguarly again.

I have a post planned on the link of (or lack of) between Oxbridge admissions and social justice. I imagine that the leadership election will provide plenty of material and there is plenty of other stuff going on.

Please keep reading.


Friday, 19 October 2007

The power of perception

The downfall of Ming Campbell shows the power of unfair perceptions. The party would be wise to avoid repeating the mistake of picking the candidate we all know is good but who is vulnerable to these unfair perceptions.

Life is unfair or at least it is if your name is Menzies Campbell. He is a man of real talent, conviction and decency. One of the few of todays politicians who deserves to be called a statesman. He would have made a great prime minister. This is not, however, how most people will remember him. Instead the image that is likely to stay in the public imagination is of a doddering old man pointing down a toilet.

The brutal divide between reality and the media generated perception is a wholly awful, fact of political life that we can do nothing about. We cannot repeat the mistake we made the last time, we elected a leader and overlook this.

I have a great admiration for Nick Clegg. He is smart (dummies don't speak five languages), elequont, able to devise good ideas, handsome (apparently) and truely liberal. But I won't be voting for him.

I do have some criticisms of Nick. He made a mistake by not challenging Ming for the leadership of the party and it is to Chris' credit that he had the guts to do so. I also think his support for the replacement of trident was a mistake. Not only was it bad policy but it also hurt us politically because it gave the SNP a wedge issue to use against us. And for all his qualities, Nick is not really a party man, he has in the past shown irritation with activists and he is perhaps less comfortable with the parties traditions than his rival. Huhne is someone who can attend the conference Glee club without looking out of place. I imagine that Nick would rather die than spend hours listening to hundreds of inebriated lib dem activists singing painfully unfunny songs about delivering leaflets (this is a view I share). A leader who activists see as one of their own will find it easier to motivate them and to win back their trust.

This is, however, all small fry. It does not matter hugely. If these were the only problems with his candidacy, I would be backing him. The great obstacle he faces is not down to any mistakes he has made or any personal flaws, in fact quite the opposite. His problem is that ever since he stood for leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron has been doing what is in effect a bad Nick Clegg impression. 'Dave' knew that he needed to appear modern, humane, progressive and above all liberal. His way of doing this was to rhetoric that sounds remarkably like Nick's. The way that they deliver speeches is very similar, making liberal use of Blairite pauses. There is also a certain similarity in their appearance. Nick has also been labelled by the press as a right winger. It is almost certain that he will be percieved as being very close to the Tories.

This perception of Nick as a 'Blue Dem' is of course as far from the truth as the view of Ming as a senile old man in a wheelchair. That will not stop it take taking hold and it will not stop it damaging us.

Anybody imagining that this is not a perception that will stick needs to bare in mind that pretty much the first question Clegg was asked at the press conference after launching his leadership bid was 'aren't you really a Tory?' At a time we are facing a situation of 'differentiate or die' having a leader the press believe is actually a Tory is to say the least a risk.

Fortunately there is another equally talented potential leader in the running. Chris Huhne is one of the are most able MPs. He presents an intelligent case for liberalism, localism and environmentalism with clarity and conviction. His first run for leader broke the tabboo about advocating environmental taxation that had existed since the fuel protests and was an important step in the greening of British politics. His experience in the buisness and the media give him a grounding in the real world and the skills to take on Labour and the Tories.

I am happy to lend him my support. If you would like to do the same please visit

Support from strange places

Writing in the Spectator, the conservative (and that's an understatement) economist Irving Stelzer provides one of the most succint and powerful defence of inheritance tax.

An inheritance tax is not a death duty. The slogan ‘No taxation without respiration’ is too clever by half. Even a Chancellor of the Exchequer as powerful as the previous occupant of the office could not get a corpse to sign a cheque. It is a tax paid by the recipient of this income, the inheritor, the lucky winner in the sperm lottery.

Great Stuff

P.S: Hat tip to Iain Sharpe.