Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Section 28, Nick Clegg, the state, and education

Thinking about Nick Clegg’s recent remarks has got me thinking again about Section 28.

For centuries, education has been a bit of a battleground. Long ago, the Jesuits, recognising just how powerful a tool education could be, apparently said “Give dme a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Hence the question of who educates children, and how they do it, has always had the potential for great controversy. The Dutch even had a schools war.

Over the years, parents have often been in disagreement with teachers about what their children are being taught, teachers have often been in disagreement with school authorities, and school authorities (who, in past centuries, were often religious bodies) have been in disagreement with parents. Naturally, two of these groups have often formed an alliance the third.

Which brings us to Section 28, one of the most emotive educational battlegrounds in recent British history. The problem arose in the 1980s because several people were concerned that some teachers and school authorities were involved in teaching children that homosexual behaviour was normal and harmless - a proposition that many parents did not wish their children to be taught. The state, in the form of central government, felt that such parents had a legitimate grievance, and stepped in by passing legislation.

That legislation said:
A local authority shall not -
(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
What this actually meant was a matter of some debate. The government issued a statement which said “Section 28 does not affect the activities of school governors, nor of teachers. It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality,” which came as a bit of a surprise to some, who hoped that it would affect the activities of school governors and teachers.

So - what is a libertarian to make of section 28? It seems to me that there are five questions to be asked.

1) Libertarians believe that central government should not curb the freedom local government, unless local government is using its freedom to infringe the freedom of individuals. Did this legislation do so? It seems to me that central government was definitely curbing the freedom of local government. But was it merely stopping local government from doing something that local government should not have been doing?

2) Libertarians believe that central government should not curb the freedom of schools and teachers. Did this legislation do so? It seems to me that the answer is “probably not.”

3) Libertarians believe that central and local government should not take and use tax-payers’ money except for the defence of individuals and their property. Is the promotion of homosexuality a legitimate use of tax-payers money? Here, much depends on how one defines “promotion of homosexuality”, but I think that the answer is “No - the promotion of homosexuality is not the business of government.”

4) Libertarians believe that the education of children is basically a matter for their parents, rather than for state. Was Section 28 merely supporting the right of parents? The answer to that might be “yes.” Parents were never likely to be asked by local authorities (or local authority schools) what they wanted. (And what if parents wanted different things?) But since the government declared that Section 28 did not affect the activities of school governors or teachers, it did not actually affect the balance of power between schools and parents.

5) Libertarians believe that laws, particularly prohibitions, should only be passed when necessary - so was this legislation really necessary? The answer is that while it was not necessary, it was, broadly right in that it was designed to prevent a branch of the state from using its powers (with regard to the education of children, and to the spending of taxpayers’ money) in a way that libertarians would consider improper.

In other words, Section 28 did not actually say “You shall not teach that homosexual behaviour is normal and harmless.” But even if it had, it would have given schools (and teachers) three options. They could either teach that it was abnormal and / or harmful. Or they could teach that it existed, but make no value judgement. Or they could simply not mention homosexual behaviour in the course of lessons. (The latter was the course of action taken by the schools that I attended in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, nothing much was said about the rights and wrongs of any forms of sexual behaviour, even in English classes.) Which means that Section 28 gave schools and teachers far more freedom than Nick Clegg’s proposals to make it mandatory for maintained schools to teach that homosexual behaviour is normal and harmless.

I’m left wondering what all the fuss with regard to Section 28 was about. It was, it seems to me, neither what its friends hoped nor its enemies feared. It was, from a libertarian point of view, hardly a terrible piece of legislation. But it did nothing to take power over education away from the state and hand it back to parents, and it did nothing to stop tax-payers’ money being spent on questionable projects.

And as such, it must be viewed as a waste of time - a mere symbol for culture warriors to get worked up about.

Monday, 18 January 2010

UKIP and burkas: it's minarets all over again

Many bloggers have already covered the fact that UKIP are enthusiastic about banning burkas. Lord Pearson said it first, and my hope that Nigel Farage would disassociate himself from this idiocy were quickly dashed. As someone who has been sympathetic to UKIP, I am particularly disappointed.

But let us look at the reasons Mr. Farage gives.
"I can't go into a bank with a motorcycle helmet on. I can't wear a balaclava going round the District and Circle line."
Possibly - but you can wear a motorcycle helmet or a balaclava in public should you so desire. These items of clothing are not banned.
"And the real worry - and it isn't just about what people wear - the real worry is that we are heading towards a situation where many of our cities are ghettoised and there is even talk about Sharia law becoming part of British culture."
If people want to live with people of their own culture, then why shouldn't they? That may lead to difficulties, but it is not a problem per se. As for Sharia law, people may talk about it becoming part of British culture, but talk is cheap. The important thing is to make sure that it does not become part of British law. But I can't see how banning burkas will help.
A "different" culture was "being forced on parts of Britain and nobody wants that", added Mr Farage . . . .
Who is he talking about? Muslims? New Labour? In as much as I am culturally different from my neighbours (and I must be, because by taste in music is rather different from theirs), I can appreciate such sentiments. But having to put up with things in other cultures which we don't particularly like is part of maturity.
"There is nothing extreme or radical or ridiculous about this, but we can't go on living in a divided society," he told The Politics Show.
I'm afraid that I must respectfully disagree, Mr. Farage. I think that it is extreme, radical, and ridiculous.

Mr. Ed Balls says that no sensible party would back a ban on face veils. Well, if anyone had told me a week ago that within 7 days, I would be strongly agreeing with Mr. Balls and strongly disagreeing with Mr. Farage on a political issue, I would never have believed it. But it has come to pass.

There is, however, the big issue here. Mr Farage, again:
"What we are saying is, this is a symbol. It's a symbol of something that is used to oppress women. It is a symbol of an increasingly divided Britain."
Ahh, we are back to Swiss minarets: perfectly harmless to anyone, and yet worthy of a ban, because they are a symbol. And if the Swiss feel so strongly as to vote in a referendum to ban symbols, then UKIP may believe that the British feel likewise, and that there are votes in banning burkas.

This fear of symbols, and desire to ban them, is interesting. Swastikas are banned in Germany; indeed, a few years ago, some German politicians called for the banning of swastikas throughout the EU. There was also the de facto banning in Northern Ireland of the flying of the Irish tricolour.

Peculiar, isn't it?. People have this incredible desire to ban symbols of whatever it is that currently happens to be the "threat to civilisation as we know it". For Northern Irish unionists, that happened to be Irish Republicanism; for Germans it is Nazism; for many in modern Europe, it is militant Islam. But does banning symbols actually do any good? I've yet to see any evidence that it had any positive effect in either Northern Ireland or Germany.

UKIP seem to think that just because burkas are symbols of things that they fear, they should be banned. This view, it seems to me, is totally irrational. Sadly, UKIP isn't alone in this irrational view. Indeed, if the Germans, the Swiss, and the Northern Irish can be taken as representative, irrationality seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

On being offended (2)

I like this quote from Kevin DeYoung:
The weakest offense-taker can now bully multitudes of intelligent men and women through the emotional manipulation that goes with chronic offendedness.
Seems like a fair comment on our times.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Nick Clegg, faith schools, and bullying

According to the Telegraph, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has said that faith schools should be required to have anti-homophobic bullying policies in place. “If they're suffering higher rates of homophobic bullying and violence then we need to put serious pressure on them. It needs
to be a requirement.”

So what are we to make of this? Well, let us note first of all that Mr. Clegg uses the word “if.” He is not sure about whether faith schools are suffering higher rates of homophobic bullying and violence. Are they? According to a report compiled by Stonewall in 2007, 75% of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils attending faith schools claim to have experienced homophobic bullying, as opposed to 65% of LGB pupils generally. So perhaps they are. But who is to know? To claim to have been the victim of bullying is not the same thing as to have actually been bullied.

But Mr. Clegg’s suggested remedy leaves me somewhat concerned, for the following reasons.

1. He seems to believe that faith schools should be lumped together and singled out for serious pressure, despite the fact that 75% is not that much higher than 65%. Yet Mr. Clegg’s words would suggest to the casual observer that he thinks that faith schools have a significant problem that other schools do not have. Even if one accepts the findings of the Stonewall report at face value, it is probable that some faith schools do not have a significant bullying problem, and that some non-faith schools do. This business of lumping all faith schools together is a bit like the way some people say “If members of a certain ethnic group are considerably more likely to be involved in crime, then we need to target that ethnic group.” And I think that Mr. Clegg would not like that.

In passing, I might add that his approach reminds one of the approach of the government to home education. A review of 74 local authorities found that while 0.2% of children in the UK population were known to social services, the figure was 0.4% among those who were educated at home. The government’s response to these statistics has been to propose draconian and intrusive regulations for home educators.

2. The idea that the way to address the problem is to insist that schools have “anti-homophobic bullying policies” in place is depressing. Everyone has to have a policy in place for every eventuality. If a school has good leadership and good discipline, there is no need to have a policy in place, because bullying will be appropriately dealt with.

3. As a libertarian, I do not believe that it is the job of central government to insist that individual schools have any policies at all in place. This is simply not a central government function. (No doubt Mr. Clegg will be absolutely horrified by my saying this.)

4. And why this big concern about homophobic bullying? Why not simply be concerned about bullying per se? And of course the answer is because some people are obsessed with hate crime. As Tom Paine, over at The Last Ditch, says:
Why is the Left so obsessed with “hate speech” and “hate crime?” If I am injured, I want justice, whether my attacker was motivated by hate or merely indifferent to my plight. If my goods are stolen, I don’t care if the thief was driven by envy, hatred or greed. I just want my stuff back and the thief out of circulation.
If I am being bullied, does it really matter whether I am being bullied because of my expressed sexual preferences, or because the bully finds my voice irritating, or he doesn’t like the fact that I have different tastes in music from him, or whatever? Or course not. The problem is not homophobia - it is bullying.

Yes, I know that Mr. Clegg is a politician, and when he is being interviewed by Attitude magazine, he will be playing to the gallery and making a pitch for the LGBT vote. But I still find his words rather disappointing.

Edit: I also note that that Mr Clegg has apparently said that faith schools should be legally obliged to teach that homosexuality is "normal and harmless."

Liberal Democrats? That is about as illiberal as it gets. "Stalin Democrats" would be a more accurate name. I'm sorry, but they have just joined the BNP and Labour in the "parties that I would not even consider voting for" category.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Faith schools and libertarianism

Cristina Odone, (who has, at various times been editor of the Catholic Herald and deputy editor of the New Statesman), has a piece in the Telegraph entitled “Why does Labour hate faith schools?

Now, I don’t know if Labour really do hate faith schools. Nor do I know if Miss Odone is correct in her assertion that Ed Balls “so loathes the notion of religious-based education that he prefers to tolerate Britain's increasing social inequality.” But I do know that faith schools don’t go down well with some people.

The British Humanist Association is fairly representative of those who are opposed to faith schools. What do they want?
“An end to the proliferation of maintained faith schools; discrimination in admissions and employment in faith schools outlawed; a comprehensive curriculum across all subjects, including beliefs and values education, sex and relationships education, and citizenship education to be taught objectively in all schools.

Ultimately, all faith schools should be absorbed back into the secular schools sector, becoming inclusive community schools. We campaign against ‘faith schools’, and for an inclusive, secular schools system, where children and young people of all different backgrounds and beliefs can learn from and with each other. ”
I am most amused to read that they want to see all faith schools absorbed back into the secular schools sector. Back? The implication is that faith schools were once in the secular schools sector, and that in the good old days, all British schools were secular. This, of course, is not quite so. At one time, in fact, almost all British schools were, in some sense, Christian schools - and the trend has been for their Christian character to be eroded over the decades.

The hope that all subjects, should “be taught objectively in all schools,” is laudable, though somewhat naive. After all, who is to define what constitutes objectivity?

One also wonders if they really mean that “all faith schools should be absorbed back into the secular schools sector.” Does that mean that faith schools will be banned, and only secular schools will be permitted?

And their call for a comprehensive curriculum across all subject implies that they accept the received political wisdom that it is the job of the state to decide what is taught in schools. The implication is that it is the state that shall decide how children are educated, rather than parents. There may be some humanists who are libertarians, but they don’t seem to wield much influence in the BHA.

So, what do libertarians think about faith schools? Well, actually the LPUK manifesto doesn’t mention faith schools or religion. That is quite deliberate. We support a voucher system, similar to the one that was introduced in Sweden in the 1992, giving parents a free choice of what kind of school they send their children to. That is because we believe that it is parents, rather than the government, that should decide how children should be educated.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

My journey to Libertarianism: 8

In which a young bear gentleman from Darkest Peru hears hopeful sounds

By 2006, I had become convinced that, politically speaking, the country had gone wrong under New Labour. Seriously wrong. The obvious people to put it right, of course, were Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, and I had watched the 2005 Conservative leadership election with some interest. I had not been impressed with the Conservative Party for years, but I felt that under the right leader, they might become worthy of support, and David Davis looked promising. Alas, David Cameron was elected. I was a bit puzzled. I didn’t know why people had voted for him, since I couldn’t figure out what he actually stood for. And to be honest, I’m still struggling.

So I looked elsewhere. Having become a convinced eurosceptic a few years earlier, I started looking at UKIP a little more closely. Over the years, I had generally been sympathetic to UKIP; what they said generally seemed to be OK, but I also heard dark hints that there was something wrong with them.

In the course of my reading (on the internet), I discovered reference to the Five Freedoms that they sought:

1. Freedom from the European Union
2. Freedom from crime
3. Freedom from overcrowding
4. Freedom from bureaucratic politicians (including our own)
5. Freedom from political correctness

This looked very promising. I already knew that they stood for Freedom from the EU. I was getting increasingly convinced that politicians were a menace, and that our lot were passing too many laws, so freedom from bureaucratic politicians sounded good, too. But the one that really excited me was freedom from political correctness. Some people might laugh at political correctness, or regard it as an annoyance. I was convinced that the current vogue for political correctness posed a real danger to basic freedoms, particularly freedom of speech.

The other two were a little less convincing. All political parties tell us that they support freedom from crime, so that hardly needed to be said. And as for freedom from overcrowding, the mind boggles. That could mean a lot of things. In fact, it was a reference to immigration. And let’s just say that if you come from Darkest Peru, and have arrived in Britain as a stowaway, it sounds rather unfriendly.

So, even though I never seriously considered joining, I started taking more interest in UKIP. And the significance of this? Well, UKIP was beginning to brand itself as a libertarian party, and I started hearing the 'l word' being used in positive ways. In other words, UKIP was merely a stepping stone, but it was a stepping stone that was taking me in the direction of libertarianism.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

My journey to Libertarianism: 7

(In which a young bear gentleman from darkest Peru realises that he is not the only one who is giving the politicians a very hard stare.)

By 2005, I was feeling distinctly negative about the state of the nation. But I seemed to rather alone. There were, of course plenty of people who were unhappy, but the things that were upsetting them were not quite the same as the things that were upsetting me. I found it distinctly frustrating when I read of public opinion surveys which asked questions like “Which of the following is the issue that most concerns you?” And one was offered a choice of unemployment, inflation, the Iraq war, the threat of terrorism, education, immigration, or environmental issues / global warming. Because none of those matters was at the heart of my discontent. Clearly I was an unusual case.

And then in June 2005, I chanced to hear a programme on BBC Radio 4. It was presented by Simon Jenkins, the first of a series of three, entitled “Mad as Hell.” I would encourage you to listen to all three, or at least read the transcripts.

In the introduction, he said
“I've a file on my shelf labelled simply 'mad as hell'. . . . To give you some flavour of the file, it currently has letters protesting the new swimming pools order which requires every pool, including private ones, to be surrounded by a locked railing, a metre high. I kid you not. Another is from a grocer protesting at the need for all his staff to wear a different pair of rubber gloves for each loaf of bread sold, as if they were delivering babies. Another is from a vicar told his medieval church floor is sloping at more than the regulation angle and must be concreted over.”
My ears pricked up. I could identify with this. He then went on to speak about William Cobbett.
“Cobbett's most abiding hatred was of government, especially Tory government. This was small wonder since Tories were in power for the 30 years of his maturity. They twice drove him to exile and jailed him for sedition. Government, to him, was a pestilence. It curbed liberty and ruined the economy with paper money. When the House of Commons went up in flames in 1834, he cheered and listed all the rotten statutes it had passed.”
This sounded good to me, though in my case it would have been
“especially New Labour government.” And Mr. Jenkins seemed to see my point: “Whenever I go on a rural ride - or even an urban one - I wonder how apoplectic today's government would render Cobbett. His Britain was liberty hall in comparison.”

And he went on
“Some listeners may remember back in 1979 - a full quarter of a century ago - we voted, or some of us did, for Margaret Thatcher. Her programme at that election was to 'roll back the frontier of the state'. She proposed less government, less meddling interference, less red tape. She promised it. People voted for it. Yet the state today is just as big as it was in 1979, indeed by some measures bigger. And its intrusiveness - its bureaucracy and regulatory zeal - is greater beyond compare.”
And there was this wonderful gem:
“I once interviewed Thatcher shortly before her fall in 1990. I asked about the paradox of her yearning for more control and the Tory tradition of laissez faire. She exploded. Never call me laissez faire, she said, dreadful French word. "There are always things to be done!" she shouted. "There is always more to do!" ”
And there were more fascinating nuggets. This is from the second programme in the series:
“At the recent election the Tory leader, Michael Howard, pledged priority to cleaner hospitals, school discipline, more police on the beat and lower local taxes. A German friend of mine was amazed. ‘What've they got to do with him?’ he asked.”
And this, on ‘target culture’:
“We know the result of such targetry. It distorts medical priorities. It encourages academic verbosity. It has police cars crashing by measuring only 999 response times. Why should any public servant do otherwise than what government wants, when that is what government pays for? . . . Targets are the reduction to absurdity of the centralist state. . . . Targets make the bureaucrat king because they leave no room either for inspirational leadership or for local choice. They are one-size fits all government. Parliament does not oversee them. They simply emerge from someone's head. I once asked who fixed targets, such as that cannabis use be halved in five years or truancy reduced by 20 per cent. The answer was that "someone" unknown just made them up. Throughout history central power has meant arbitrary power. The target is government by whimsy.”
And then there was Mr. Jenkins’ comment on the BBC's Today
“It is often accused of left-wing bias. I have never agreed with that. But then its bias is far more powerful, towards interventionism as opposed to devolution. It may anti-the government but it is fiercely pro-government. And in this it is no different from most of the media, indeed most of Britain's political community. Day after day its interviewers intone the same mantra. ‘What are you doing, secretary of state, about the crime rate, hospital waiting list, traffic jams, trains, schools, litter, hooligans? Something must be done. Come on minister, what are you doing?’

In response I have never heard a minister dare to say that anything is none of his business. He dare not say it's the business of the private sector or local government or some quango chairman. The major premise of political debate is that more must always be spent and be done. When a dog bites a child, the Home Office must look into dog licences. When salmonella is found in an egg, all eggs are suspect. If a man falls into a pond, all ponds must be fenced.”
Simon Jenkins did not argue in the programmes for libertarianism. The word ‘libertarian’ was actually used in the first programme, though only in passing. (He argued for localism - which does happen to be a component of most libertarian thought.) But he had encouraged me to believe that often it is better if the state chooses to do nothing about certain problems - because the government’s cure often turns out to be worse than the disease. Like Cobbett, I was coming to believe that government was the problem.

(Part 6 of my journey is here, and if you click on the label below, you'll find previous parts as well.)