Right and wrong

A few years ago the US TV producer and self-confessed “right-wing nut job” Joel Surnow tried to create a satirical show to counter the influence of the liberal-minded likes of Jon Stewart. It was a miserable flop, raising the interesting question of why the political right seems to be incapable of sharp or incisive comedy.

You could say that the best political comedy has no alignment, and attacks political stupidity in whatever guise. That seems worth asserting as a principle, though in practice satire seems to proceed from a broadly liberal attitude to others and our institutions (this might be because the mainstream of our culture is itself broadly liberal). It’s also true that there are funny and successful satirists who sit openly on the left: Mark Steel comes to mind. I can’t think of any right wing equivalent.

Part of the reason may be that being right wing entails embracing and defending a number of sacred cows, which we could loosely call The Establishment. We need to be loose because any definition of The Establishment is mutable: Thatcher and her friends were arguably quite anti-Establishment, except that they only served a different version of the Establishment, emphasising power whether that was rooted in new money or the old order, rather than having any particular respect for tradition.

“Being right wing” could mean many things: it could mean being economically libertarian, with a near-religious faith in the power of markets to order our affairs; it could mean a conviction that government needs to be as small as possible, and that most societal functions are best managed by private enterprise. Actually being right wing usually entails at least these two beliefs, but it needn’t require any allegiance to the national flag, to military adventurism, to a suspicion of the foreign, to support for a punitive and frequently lethal criminal justice system, to the belief that scientists who argue for the seriousness of climate change are participating in a liberal conspiracy, and so on.

It doesn’t require these allegiances, but it usually has them, and it’s hard not to conclude that this says something about the cast of a right wing mind, a cast of mind which precludes successful satire.

When I was at Cambridge University in the late 70s and early 80s there was a movement to give a better intellectual framework to conservatism. In a way it was a framework that wanted to resist “isms” – or at least it rejected idealism and argued for the pragmatism of the proven. Its leading figure was the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Its spear carriers were Shirley Letwin (mother of Oliver) and Roger Scruton. In a world still dominated by the Cold War some of this seemed worth saying, and indeed you could argue that this outlook should transcend the old battle lines of left and right. The problem was that in the hands of Scruton in particular it quickly descended into an apology for the same old vested interests that have usually characterised a right wing outlook.

Scruton married into wealth and turned his mind to the justification of his new lifestyle. Now he’s just written a piece for the BBC news magazine suggesting that education can’t be left to education professionals. I’m not going to attempt to deal with his primary argument (it’s not worth that much effort) but I did want to pick up on a few points he made along the way, which raise the question of whether to be a conservative you have to be wilfully blinkered about what’s in front of you, and suggest why conservatives (with a small or large “c”) seem to be especially incapable of thinking intelligently about education.

This narrowness is visible in small parts of the Scruton argument. At one point he suggests that attacking private schools by removing their charitable status, far from advancing an egalitarian agenda, will only force the wealthy to create a new educational apartheid through home schooling. But it’s strange that an economic libertarian should want to protect the preservation of a market-distorting privilege. It seems simply sensible to end the abuse of the favourable tax treatment that goes with charitable status for organisations that have no charitable function. It seems the defence of privilege is more important to Scruton than the removal of known abuses.

In talking of an egalitarian ideal, he also mistakes his enemy. He says that people like him from poor backgrounds could never have progressed to the elite heights of a Cambridge education without the ladder upwards offered by grammar schools, and accuses educational reformists of wanting to kick away that ladder.

I know what he means, because my parents had little money, and I too went from grammar school to Cambridge, in the days when doing so incurred no lifetime debt, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity, but Scruton’s argument is tosh. It rests on the demonstrably false assumption that no comprehensive school has been able to achieve any kind of excellence for its academic children (many have not, but many have). It rests on the assumption that grammar schools generally support social mobility, a point rubbished recently by the head of school standards in England and Wales, Sir Michael Wilshaw (hardly a left wing figure). By and large, where they still exist grammar schools simply represent a cheaper alternative to private schools for the middle classes, who have been happily paying for private coaching to ensure their offspring jump successfully through the hoops of the selective system to secure their places.

In any case, the real anti-grammar school argument is neither egalitarian nor particularly idealistic. Egalitarianism implies a monolithic model of what a good education should look like (which everyone should then get an equal shot at), but the problem is exactly with the narrow single model of excellence. An academic education is great for those whose minds work that way, and I’d want to ensure that it was always available for those minds, at whatever point in their personal development it made sense to them. But socially, economically, practically, we need multiple models of success, designed to nurture different types of capability.

These needs are put succinctly in a recent RSA blog, setting the international context for educational best practice. On the eve of launching a new report on the future of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education Amelia Peterson highlights the myopia and selective evidence that underpin Michael Gove’s ideas about the future of the classroom. Click here for the blog.

None of this should be a party political point: Labour’s track record with education is only marginally less depressing than Gove’s. Scruton wants to say that education professionals have not delivered the education system we need and deserve, but it seems truer to observe the baleful influence of ignorant politicians (and indeed parents) is responsible for pushing education in precisely the wrong direction. 

This isn’t idealistic, because the system at the moment is stupid, wasteful, and not fit for purpose. Gove and Scruton would probably agree, but their idea of what might be better is so impoverished, so trapped in a non-existent past, that it’s hard to know where to begin when debunking it.

I’d like to believe in the possibility of an intelligent conservatism, would like to be able to find that respect for people whose views differed so much from my own, but recycling old misconceptions as if they were neglected truths won’t cut it. Where they exist conservatism’s intellectual frameworks seem more like smokescreens for a kind of moral failure, and a pragmatic one too. Finding yourself not-conservative need not imply any belief about the ownership of the means of production, or any other of the left’s alternative sacred cows: it means looking at the world we have with good will, not being satisfied with institutionalised ill-will, and intervening where we can to make things better.

We live in an age of unprecedented rapid change, driven by new technologies with the power to transform almost every aspect of our lives. While it’s understandable that some might seek refuge from the storm by clinging to what once seemed tenable, conservatism is not up to the challenges of dealing with that change. This is all too clear from the current mess of our education system, and the grim determination of our political leaders to make it worse.



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