Monthly Archives: June 2014

Not a single track has been laid for High Speed 2 and yet George Osborne is already talking about “High Speed 3″, an extension of the project to link Manchester and Leeds. In a speech on Monday in Manchester, the chancellor spoke of his support for a “Northern powerhouse”: a conurbation to rival London, connected by transport links such as HS3, and governed by independent mayors. It is an excellent idea.

Although there will be a temptation to see Mr Osborne’s speech as simply another part of the HS2 debate, that would be simplistic. It represents the coming together of different conceptions of the future for British cities – and as ever political necessities.


 

One of the authors of this pair of books is a dyspeptic Scottish socialist prone to exaggeration. The other is Gordon Brown. He and Alasdair Gray have written works that argue for opposing sides in the debate on Scottish independence. The pro-union former prime minister and the secessionist novelist have different styles as well as arguments. Gray’s masterpiece Lanark (1981) won him comparisons with Dante and Joyce, whereas Brown’s prose is somewhat more straightforward. His new book begins: “I love my country. Simple as that.” 

Are we applying tougher criteria for what it means to be British? Data released on Tuesday by the British Social Attitudes Survey and NatCen suggest this is the case. It points to an increase in the number of people saying that others must speak English to be considered truly British. An article on the BSAS in the Times says that attitudes show a “hardening towards multiculturalism”. The BBC’s interpretation is similar. But before we decry the rise of little Englandism, let’s look closely at the data. This is particularly important given the ongoing, heated debate on “Britishness”.  

Earlier this month, I was chatting about immigration with a supporter of the United Kingdom Independence party. He wanted less of it. I was much more sanguine. In response, he said, in a nicer way than it seems in writing: “You just don’t get it, do you?”. He explained why he felt the way he did – his perception that immigrants were responsible for rising crime in his home city of Lincoln and his worry that immigrants would hinder him from getting a job – and suggested that it was only natural that I would feel differently, since I came from London and had a nice job.

I mention this conversation in light of data released on Tuesday by the annual British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by NatCen. In a chapter on immigration, Robert Ford and Anthony Heath disaggregate public opinion. The authors show the extent to which there is a stark divide between the average views of those with degrees, in professional jobs and/or live in London, and the rest of the country. “Elite” opinion is markedly different. This has important political implications.


 

David Cameron is “a sphinx without a riddle”, who “bumbles from one shambles to another with no sense of purpose”. Nick Clegg is “a goner”. Ed Llewellyn, the prime minister’s chief of staff, is “a classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant presiding over a shambolic court”. Tell us what you really think, Dominic.

In an interview with the Times, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s former special adviser provides piquant descriptions of people in and around No. 10, whom he says are blocking or slowing his ex-boss’s radical reforms to the English school system.

Mr Cummings is an intriguing character who wears his learning about as lightly as Cristiano Ronaldo wears Nike. But his views should be given a hearing and not only because he remains a vital influence on Mr Gove. Last year he published “Some Thoughts on Educational and Political Priorities”, a manifesto for what he calls an “Odyssean” education system. After a bumpy ride through cognitive science, complexity theory, genetics, mathematics and military strategy, and a detour into dystopian predictions, he arrives at something close to a conclusion: England’s schools must become much better if its children are to compete in the modern world. He says that this requires a savage attitude towards the structural bulwarks to reform.  

Not content with writing brilliantly about one wizard, JK Rowling has blogged about Alex Salmond. In a post on her website the Harry Potter author explains why she is donating £1m to the No campaign – and will be voting against Scottish independence.

I encourage anyone interested in the referendum on Scottish independence to read Ms Rowling. She expresses more clearly than most unionists the idea that patriotism is compatible with scepticism of independence. Ms Rowling may also help to explain why the Yes campaign is struggling to convince women. Hers is a proud, quiet and pragmatic defence of Scotland within the UK, one that will chime with many voters.  

So much for the death of the Tea Party. Last night House Majority leader Eric Cantor defied the predictions of data whizzes and old school pundits alike by losing his Republican primary to Donald Bart by 28,898 votes to 36,100. Mr Cantor, who few people would describe as a moderate, spent a lot of money in a political cycle where other Tea Party candidates have struggled to match the movement’s 2010 successes. The question analysts of US politics are asking this morning is: how did this happen?

Not being present yesterday evening in the heady summer heat of Virginia’s 7th congressional district, I can only speculate how Mr Bart might have pulled it off.

But here are three suggestions: 

With the honourable exception of the pupils who have to take their GCSEs in a climate of ill-informed hysteria, there is something for everyone in the Birmingham schools story. It is evidence of too much and too little central control. Religious schools are part of the problem and part of the solution. Responses by politicians tell us something (or nothing) about the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and Labour.

On Monday, Ofsted published details of its inspections of 21 schools in and around Birmingham. The schools inspector found five of the schools to be “inadequate”, its lowest of four possible overall ratings. Deploying various euphemisms about a lack of “safeguarding” and failures in “governance”, Ofsted alleges that it discovered evidence that pupils were being exposed to extreme Islamic views, or at the very least, that they were not being encouraged to be tolerant. In some cases it received evidence from teachers who said that incompetent school governors with radical views were playing increasingly influential roles in the running of the school. 

Meh, basically.

The table below shows the latest results from NatCen’s semi-regular polling of English attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed. Only about one in five say Scotland should be independent. I suspect this is more likely to reflect indifference more than a passionate belief in the union. Either way, the results don’t suggest that the coverage of the referendum has led to an increase in sympathy for the Nationalist cause among those living south of the border.

 

“Devolution will be and is the salvation of the UK”, Tony Blair said in 1999. Fifteen years later, as Scotland prepares to vote in the referendum on its independence, some might say devolution will be turn out to be Britain’s downfall. But that is not stopping politicians from giving the former prime minister’s gambit another try.

On Monday, the Conservatives became the third of the three main Westminster parties to publish proposals for powers that could be devolved to Scotland in the case of a No vote on September 18. In part this is belated realpolitik. Further devolution, rather than independence or the status quo, is not on the ballot paper. In hindsight, Prime Minister David Cameron may come to see that decision as myopic. It is an option that remains popular with Scottish voters, as politicians from both sides know.

The prime minister’s short-termism notwithstanding, the Conservative offer should be seen as part of a response to longer-term trends. Centrifugal forces are undermining British cohesion. Scotland is the most obvious manifestation of this trend but it is also apparent in Wales, Northern Ireland, and don’t forget, England.