Monday, January 15, 2007

Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others. -- Groucho.

In the Olden Days private schools were all about Latin, British history, army training corps, boxing, rugby and polishing the prefects' boots. The boy's schools were almost as bad. The object was to turn out people who would know how to lord it over the muggles -- sorry, the fuzzy-wuzzies and the oiks. It was felt to be a good thing that people who were going to spend the rest of their lives being called 'Sir,' 'My Lord', or 'Your Royal Highness' knew what it felt like to wipe the fag-master's bottom. When this was the case, it was fairly hard to stomach people saying that they were Socialists and then coming into some money and sending their offspring to private school. If you belong to a political party which opposes inherited privilege, hierarchies and the class system, then it is a bit rich (in every sense) to send your child to an institution that's dedicated to promoting them. But that kind of private school hasn't existed for decades. It's more common for middle-class parents to 'go private' because the independent sector is more progressive than what Tony calls bog-standard comprehensives.

In the slightly less Olden Days, there were Socialists who thought that education and health should be state monopolies: you shouldn't be allowed to pay school fees even if you wanted to. There have always be Socialists with this Stalinist streak: if the state pays for schools and hospitals, then it follows that the state should control those schools and hospitals, to the extent of deciding how many minutes of netball Dibley Village J.M.I should play on Tuesday afternoons. The Prime Minister's default reaction to an Oribble Murder is to invent a law saying that from now on all state schools must devote at least one hour a week to Not Murdering People Studies. (He made 'Citizenship' compulsory, although since no-one knows what 'Citizenship' means, this probably hasn't made much difference.) There is some case for saying that if you as education minister use schools as an instrument of state propaganda, then you ought not to use the salary you draw from the education ministry to send your own child to a private school where the rules you made don't apply. And it certainly looks bad to say 'no-one should be allowed to send their children to a fee-paying school' and then to send your children to a fee-paying school. But, since the Blairite coup, has anyone in his party remotely suggested that Eton should be turned into a comprehensive?

So: it's hard to be very interested in the fact that a 'Labour' education minister -- let alone a former 'Labour' education minister -- chose to buy their child a place at a private school. It's almost exactly as important as the former minister for rural affairs choosing to buy his child a pony. It certainly shows that cabinet ministers are very rich. We might even wonder how well they understand what it is like to be a hardworkingfamily if they can afford to pay in school fees more than some people -- a newly qualified teacher, for example -- earn in a year. But I've never been quite clear what a cabinet minister is allowed to spend his money on. Not holidays, not expensive houses and certainly not a second Jaguar. We are happy for the man who ruins our trains to be paid several trillion pounds a year, but we want our elected representatives to earn three shillings and wear hair shirts.

What was much more interesting was the terms in which the debate was cast. Every pundit and every editor seemed to think that the question was 'Is it ever right to put the interests of your children above your principles'. Or, as some of them said: 'She is a mother first and a politician second.'

Now, a 'principle' means 'what you think is right'. If I say that looking at pornography is against my principles because I am a feminist, which I don't, then I mean that in my opinion, it is wrong to look at pornography. It's a bit of a non sequitur to say 'Should I put aside my principles when I am feeling very horny?' A principle is what I ought to do, as opposed to what I feel like doing at a particular moment. It's beside the point to ask 'Should I put aside my anti-smacking principles if my child is very naughty,' or 'Should I put aside my pacifist principles in the event of war'. If you are prepared to put them aside, then they weren't principles.

Perhaps the people who are saying 'Oh, she was quite right to put aside her principles....' are endorsing the ever-reliable Daily Mail who summed up the case with the single word: 'Hypocrite'. Perhaps they are saying 'She may have said that she didn't approve of private schools. But she didn't mean it. It wasn't a real principle, it was just something she pretended to believe in.' Are we are so used to our politicians lying to us that it no longer merits even the mildest condemnation?

The alternative, however, is rather more scary. The people who has said that 'she was quite right to put aside her principles...' may have meant that a person can have a genuine and sincere principle but act against it when matters of family are at stake. In which case 'It is right to put the interests of your children above your principles,' means 'It is okay to do something that you sincerely believe is wrong when your children are involved'; 'It is right to do what you believe is wrong'; 'It is right to do wrong'; 'It is good to behave wickedly.' This is either completely immoral or actually meaningless; either way, if it's what people now believe then it's hard to see how we can ever again have a political debate about anything at all.

Or maybe what they were trying to say is that most people have a number of different principles; that they rate them in order of importance; and that in difficult cases they apply the most important ones first. My principles might be:

1: Obey the law,
2: Safeguard your children's physical health,
3: Let your children make their own choices,
4: Make your children as materially happy as you can afford,
5: Don't glorify war and violence.

On this basis, I would let my child have the very violent Playstation game he wants (free choice and material happiness trumps opposition to war toys) but not the cigarettes (health trumps freedom of choice) and certainly not the marijuana (obeying the law trumps everything). A family of hippies might very well put things in a different order, and regard toy guns as beyond the pale but have no particular problem with smoking dope.

But this doesn't really help, because what is being proposed is that 'Do what is in the best interests of my child,' trumps everything, including, crucially, 'Do what is in the best interests of everyone else's children.' If we accept this, then morality simply doesn't apply to family life and I can do whatever I like to protect my cubs. This is particularly sticky when something which will help my child will hinder yours. The advantages I get from a private school (smaller classes, more goes on the computer, a seat in the House of Lords) or a private hospital (shorter waiting lists, not having to share a room) only exist because not everyone can afford to go there.

I think that 'Is it right to put the interests of your children above your principles,' boils down to 'Does 'The interests of society' trump 'The interests of my child' in the hierarchy of values', to which I reply 'Of course it does', or, if you prefer, 'It's a silly question: in the long term, the interests of all children and the interests of your children amount to the same thing.'

If I have my child vaccinated, then there is a small risk that the vaccination will make him seriously ill. If I focus only on the welfare of my child then the ideal state of affairs is for everyone apart from me to have their child vaccinated. My child therefore avoids the small risk that the jab itself will make him sick, while also avoiding the danger of actually catching the disease because everyone else took the risk, got immunized and there is very little chance of an epidemic. The catch is that if everyone thinks like that no-one gets the jab and everyone dies of small pox. But the idea that we should all take the risk so we will all have the protection is, by Daily Mail standards, dangerously Socialist -- which may be why it likes to spread scare stories about the dangers of the MMR vaccine.

Is life is a competition in which the object is to get advantages for your family and take them away from everyone else's? Or are there principles which should be applied to the whole of society because they benefit the whole of society in the long term -- even if they do not benefit a privileged minority in the short term? The first approach is certainly the natural one; the second approach is the artificial one; the better way that some politicians used to think that it was worth trying to build. Have we really become so cynical about politics that we accept that nature-is-red-in-tooth-and-claw and have forgotten that anyone ever believed that there was an alternative?


Eric Spratling said...

This post has nothing to do with the execution of a genocidal dictator, aka the Worst Crime Humanity Has Ever Committed; it therefore confuses me.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ho ho.

Garry G said...

This whole thing just struck me as a complete non-story. I really don't care where she sends her kid as long as she does her job well.

Unknown said...

(Andrew, I don't know if this is something you're already working on, but I would love to see you get a print gig and a bigger audience. I am always pimping out your blog to my friends and wouldn't mind being able to direct people to someplace where they could both read your work and put some coin in your pocket.)

A former education minister? In America we barely comment on where a current President sends his or her children to school, unless the President is a Democrat and we are scoring political points off his choice of public school as a symbol of his self-righteousness (Carter) or private school as indicative of his hypocrisy (Clinton). Is this one of those issues that everyone is really talking about, or is it one of the tabloid-manufactured kerfluffles? (Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course.)

SK said...

It was a flash in the news cycle: everyone was talking about it for two days during which nothing else interesting happened, and then it quietened down. It wan't tabloid-manufactured, but if it hadn't been a 'slow news day' it probably wouldn't have happened.

And there probably wouldn't have even been that if she had been a former defence minister: that she was an education minister gave it that extra frisson of pseudo-irony that the papers love.

One might also mention that nobody in America thinks that it's remotely wrong to send your children to the best school you can afford, so there's no possible accusation of hypocrisy (Clintons' response was presumably 'yes and so?'). Whereas Labour ministers are popularly supposed (presumably by people who have been asleep since before 1994) to be fundamentally against private education.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that on Monday, the story was only in the "Daily Mirror", but by the end of the week it was in the grown up papers, and the main topic of discussion on "Question Time" and "Any Questions". (TV and radio panel discussion programmes, respectively.)The "Mirror" may still see itself as an Old Labour paper but more likely, it just enjoys the national blood sport of foring ministers to resign.

Ruth Kelly was minister for education and skills until 2006, but she's still in the government as minister for "communities". And it doesn't help that she's a catholic, a lay member of Opus Dei, but won't tell the Daily Mirror where the Holy Grail is hidden. (I made that up.)

Phil Masters said...

Well, one could say that a (former) minister for education who sends her offspring to non-state schools (for whatever reason) is implicitly admitting that she didn't do her job. If she had, the state schools should have been good enough.