Before the last British general election, I expressed the hope that under David Cameron’s leadership, the Conservatives might become a centrist counterpart to New Labour. In retrospect, this was very naive, and the left-wing Cassandras were right: whereas Cameron’s coalition government has followed a generally progressive, Blairite foreign policy, its domestic policy has been aggressively Thatcherite; arguably more so than was Thatcher’s own. The dynamic at work within the Conservative Party appears to be the opposite to that within the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair in the 1980s and 1990s: instead of a moderate leader reining in the radicals, the radicals are pushing the leader away from the centre ground. In the words of the Daily Telegraph‘s Peter Oborne, the Conservative Party is ‘out of control’. Cameron appears to have wanted to temper his government’s economic Thatcherism with some socially and constitutionally liberal policies such as legalising gay marriage and House of Lords reform, but this is not being permitted him by his party; a party that did not even win the last election, but behaves as if it has a mandate to reshape the country according to its own image.
Indeed, what is striking about this contemporary Conservative Party is not merely its actual politics, but the arrogance and sense of entitlement that its politicians and supporters exhibit. My own experience in working with a Tory-dominated organisation, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), which I left at the start of this year, has confirmed me in this view. The HJS is a registered charity that describes itself as a ‘think-tank’, and is perhaps the loudest voice in Britain in favour of war with Iran, if necessary to prevent the country acquiring nuclear weapons. But over and above this, it acts as a network for members of the British elite, particularly Tories, in which – to put it tactfully – boundaries become somewhat blurred.
Aspiring Conservative Party politician Alan Mendoza is a director of at least six registered companies, including the Henry Jackson Society. He received £75,000 in remuneration in 2011 for his work as Executive Director of the HJS; it was an increase of 63.64% on the £45,833 he received for the job in 2010. Mendoza is not only the HJS’s Executive Director, but also one of its trustees, therefore a member of the body that determines his own remuneration. Meetings of the HJS’s board of trustees are quorate with only three of the eight members present, and Mendoza is the only trustee whose signature appears on the trustees’ report and accounts for 2011. The HJS is currently advertising for a personal assistant for Mendoza, with a salary of up to £30,000.
Mendoza is not the only HJS trustee to enjoy also a staff position in the organisation. Lady Caroline Dalmeny was appointed to the board of trustees in July 2010. She was formerly of Saatchi and Saatchi and the Conservative Central Office, and was political assistant for Michael Portillo when he was Secretary of State for Defence and for Lord Strathclyde, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. According to Tatler, ‘Auctioneer Lord Dalmeny’s wife hosts fabulous shooting weekends at their Scottish estate, Dalmeny House. She also once played a cameo part in a film, Scooterman, alongside Ed Stoppard, and has written about the joys of having a “manny” – she’s a mother of five children under 10, including triplets. Makes cracking roast beef.’
During 2011, Dalmeny’s husband, Lord Harry Dalmeny, UK deputy chairman of Sotheby’s, donated interest-free loans totalling £250,000 to the Henry Jackson Society. In 2012, Lady Dalmeny was appointed Associate Director of the HJS, therefore Mendoza’s immediate office subordinate. She has a BA (Hons) from UCL, and is in the process of completing a postgraduate degree at King’s College London. The HJS website describes her as ‘an expert in defence, military history and international relations, an activist for the rights of women in failed states [who] is currently focusing on Afghanistan, Pakistan, East Africa and US-UK relations.’ Her work has not yet appeared on the HJS website.
The HJS is a registered charity, and according to the Charity Commission’s guidelines, ‘a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party, or securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions either in this country or abroad.’ Nevertheless, when Mendoza was asked in July 2008 by the organisation ConservativeHome ‘to offer 100 word thoughts on how the Conservatives might make some ground on foreign policy’, he responded in his capacity as Executive Director of the HJS, asserting that with ‘Labour heading down the route of international irrelevance, Conservatives should have the courage to explore where to stand on’ various issues.
It is a moot point whether the Charity Commission will ensure that the HJS will abide by its guidelines. The Charity Commission’s new chair, William Shawcross, told the Civilsociety.co.uk website this month: ‘Most of the 160,000 registered charities don’t require regulation – they’re small and they get on with their work properly and independently and it’s only a few that do require to be looked at.’ Shawcross is politically somewhat to the right of Lord Voldemort, and on 19 October 2011 was appointed a member of the board of directors of none other than the Henry Jackson Society.
Shawcross agitated for a Conservative victory in the last general election, on the grounds that ‘New Labour has forced Britain to become a mere piece of the bland but increasingly oppressive Bambiland of the E.U., promoting such PC global issues as gay rights (except in Muslim lands) and man-made climate change’, and ‘Those who hate the rise of the British National Party should blame Labour, not the poor white voters whom Labour abandoned and whose lives have been changed forever by uncontrolled immigration. Last week, two London taxi drivers told me that they were going to vote BNP because it’s the only party that cares at all about them.’ Shawcross has described Guantanamo Bay as representing ‘model justice’ and as being ‘probably the best-run detention centre in the world and with more habeas corpus rights for detainees than anywhere else’, and has claimed that ‘Rupert Murdoch has been the bravest and most radical media owner in Britain in the last 40 years’, whose ‘real crime is to have challenged liberal conventions in the US and here.’
It was announced on 29 August 2012 that Shawcross was the government’s preferred candidate to head the Charity Commission, and he was elected to the role at a meeting of the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons on 5 September. At the meeting, his membership of the HJS featured prominently in the discussion. One of the participants, Labour MP Paul Flynn, had this to say: ‘A pre-appointment hearing to decide whether William Shawcross is sufficiently politically independent to do the job as head of the Charity Commission. Three of us thought he was not. Four Tories thought he was.’ The chair of the Public Administration Select Committee was Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, himself a member of the Political Council of the Henry Jackson Society, for which he has contributed analysis. Another Conservative member of the committee that elected Shawcross was Robert Halfon MP, who declared ‘that I was a founding patron of the Henry Jackson Society when it was first set up and I am fairly involved with the organisation.’ Halfon is also a member of the HJS’s Political Council. In the view of Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, Shawcross’s appointment was a ‘declaration of intent’ on the part of the government to deal with ‘Labour’s new fifth columnists’ in the ranks of the charities.
Flynn said during the meeting that ‘The Henry Jackson Society is a promoter of a particular view in this House, which is representing rightwing American opinion.’ Shawcross promised that, were he elected chair of the Charity Commission, ‘Obviously I would wish to resign all my memberships of the Henry Jackson Society and other charities with which I am involved.’ Since his election, the old HJS charity has been formally dissolved and a new HJS charity has been registered, of which Shawcross is no longer listed as a trustee. However, he was until recently still listed on various corporate databases as a member of the board of directors of the Henry Jackson Society registered company, whose membership is otherwise identical to the board of trustees of the registered charity.
Shawcross’s biography on the Charity Commission’s website makes no mention of his past involvement with the HJS. However, the website still lists him as the sole trustee of the charity ‘Response’, as does his personal website. Shawcross has a somewhat uneven record as regards respecting Charity Commission guidelines; he chaired Response for 23 years, but as the website Civilsociety.co.uk revealed this month, he ‘did not bother to file its annual update within the recommended good-practice deadline for four out of the last five years… the charity, Response, only filed its updates for 2011 and 2012 five days before Shawcross was announced as preferred candidate for the job [of Charity Commission chair], and the updates for 2010 and 2009 were submitted in June and May of this year.’
Still, no doubt all the rules are being obeyed to the letter.
Update: Since this article was published, Shawcross’s resignation from the board of directors of the HJS has been published as having occurred on 30 September 2012. This article has been modified accordingly.
Below: Alan Mendoza turns on the charm in a debate over Iran at the Cambridge Union Society.
In my recent post criticising the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system, I explained why the system is unfair, and why it effectively privileges voters for fringe parties over those voting for mainstream parties. I argued also that AV effectively gives them more votes. Defenders of AV such as Norm Geras and Alex Massie deny that this is true. However, the pro-AV camp appears to be making two, contradictory arguments in defence of the system: 1) that it does not give those voting for extremist parties more votes than moderates; and 2) that it does, but that this is a good thing.
Hence, The Independent newspaper defends AV on the grounds that
‘the curse of the first-past-the-post system – the argument that a vote for a smaller party is “wasted” – would be eliminated at a stroke, because the second preference votes of lower-placed candidates would be reallocated if the first count failed to produce a clear winner. The public will be able to vote for the person they want to represent them (as their first preference) without having to agonise about whether they are effectively disenfranchising themselves if they choose a candidate representing a smaller party.’
Under the present First-Past-The-Post system, each voter has one vote and a choice over how to cast it: either they can express their unhappiness with mainstream politics by voting for a fringe party, in the knowledge that the fringe candidate has no chance of winning, or they can vote for a mainstream candidate whom they may or may not actually like but who does have a chance of winning. Because they only have one vote, they cannot do both. Under AV, however, they can have their cake and eat it.
Thus, a BNP supporter wishing to express his disgust at what he feels is the failure of mainstream politicians to keep the hordes of job-stealing, council-house-queue-jumping foreigners out and the pesky, halal-munching, integration-avoiding Muslims downs, but who when push comes to shove would generally vote for the Tories since they’re at least a bit tougher on immigration than Labour, could now do both: he could cast his vote for the BNP candidate and thereby boost the BNP’s share of the vote nationally, in order to send out a clear message to the decadent, unpatriotic liberal elite running the country that the silent majority is angry with the way things are, AND could then have his vote transferred to the Tory candidate; a vote that will then count just as much as a first-preference Tory vote from an actual Tory supporter.
I call that having two votes instead of one. Someone voting with their first-preference vote for Labour or another mainstream party, by contrast, has done just one of those things. The Labour voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning; the BNP voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning AND boosted the votes of another, fringe party that has no chance of winning, but that will undoubtedly claim greater legitimacy and make political capital the more votes it gets. So AV would provide a definite incentive to vote for a fringe party while putting a mainstream party as your second choice, so as to make the most of your vote.
Responding to my last post, which used an example to show how supporters of the fringe party would receive an unfair advantage over the supporters of the mainstream party because the system redistributes their votes first, Norm has given a counter-example of what he suggests is an equally unfair result under the existing system:
‘In Lower Zogby by the Fen 35 people vote Tory first, 33 vote Labour first, and 32 vote LibDem first. But the Labour voters would prefer the LibDem to the Tory, and the LibDem voters would prefer the Labour candidate to the Tory. As is, with first-past-the-post, the preferences of 67 out of 100 people to have a candidate elected other than the Tory are nullified, where with AV Labour would win.’
Certainly, there are unfair aspects of the existing system, and unfair results possible under it. I’m not convinced that the example Norm cites is particularly unfair, since it involves, after all, the candidate who won the most votes winning. But if one concedes that it is unfair, then it is unfair in practice; in that particular instance, the LibDem and Labour candidates have split the left/liberal vote and allowed the Tory to win. In another instance, it might be an anti-Labour majority that is split between the Tories and the LibDems. The AV system, however, privileges the voters for fringe parties in principle, since if you are a fringe-party supporter, the system will always work in your favour – or at the very worst, will never work against you. The First-Past-The-Post system is fair in principle but unfair in practice; the AV system is unfair in principle.
Having said that, Norm’s example points to a genuine pragmatic argument for voting for AV, one that has been made by Timothy Garton Ash, Polly Toynbee and others: the fact that under the existing system, the liberal portion of the British electorate is split between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, bestowing a structural advantage on the Conservatives, and that the way to end disproportionate Conservative success at the polls is to abolish First Past the Post. This argument appears much weaker after last year’s general election: the Conservatives failed to win under First Past the Post, but were rescued by the Liberal Democrats; instead of joining with Labour to form a centre-left government representing Britain’s ‘natural liberal majority’, the LibDems gave the non-victorious Conservatives a parliamentary majority to implement a radical Thatcherite programme for which they had no popular mandate. AV would make more such Con-Dem coalitions likely.
My solution for the electoral split in the centre-left, is for the LibDems to experience electoral meltdown at the next general election and effectively to disappear as a significant party. Instead of which, AV would breathe life into the discredited and moribund LibDems, empowering future Nick Cleggs to play kingmaker between Labour and the Conservatives after future elections. AV would exacerbate the split in the centre-left, not make it go away.
Visit the ‘No to AV‘ campaign site.
University tuition fees are set to rise to up to £9,000 in the UK, while government spending on higher education will be cut by 40%. This will leave the UK with one of the world’s most expensive systems of public education for the student. It represents an attack on education, civilisation and meritocracy in the name of barbarism and philistinism. While they’re at it, they may as well just tip the contents of the Bodleian and Cambridge University Libraries onto big bonfires, which could reduce heating bills, then bulldoze the buildings to make way for shopping malls. That would no doubt save some money, and reduce the burden for the Big-Brother-watching taxpayer.
As a child studying at Holland Park Comprehensive School in London in the 1980s, I naively believed that hard work and talent should be rewarded, and that a university education would be my reward for studying hard. I was one of those who actually worked at school and did my homework. And it wasn’t always easy, with classes constantly being disrupted by loudmouthed morons who despised education, viewed school as oppression and teachers as the enemy. They dossed around for five years and left school with minimal or no qualifications, after having made the learning experience as difficult as possible for the rest of us. So difficult was it to work in such an environment, that I found I could study more in one hour of poorly attended optional after-school maths class – where there was no noise and disruption – than in three hours of regular classes.
Welcome to England: the European nation that most despises schools, universities, teachers and students, and that most celebrates stupidity and vulgarity. As encapsulated in the moron’s refrain to the student – ‘I’d rather have a degree from the university of life’. The subtext being that education corrupts and divorces students from the real world, and that there is a greater nobility in ignorance, prejudice and underachievement. The binge-drinking yobs and football hooligans are the ones with the real integrity, not the poncey students with their poncey books.
How, you may ask, did a nation that thinks like this produce some of the world’s greatest institutions of learning, including the world famous Cambridge and Oxford, but also excellent universities and colleges like Imperial College, York, the London School of Economics, Warwick and others ? In fact, it’s a question of two sides of the same coin. There was a traditional belief that university education should be the preserve of the privileged few, while the masses should have no access to it. Unjust as it was, this system did at least have the merit of producing treasures like Cambridge and Oxford. A more enlightened ruling class would have sought to preserve this treasure and maximise the chances of students from all social backgrounds of benefiting from it.
Instead, for the last twenty years or so, our politicians – both Labour and Conservative – seem to have been following an inverted form of Flaubert’s dictum, and to believe that the point of democracy is to lower the ruling class to the level of stupidity attained by the masses. So left-wingers despise good universities as ‘elitist’, and would like to drag down our good universities to the level of third-rate polytechnics. And right-wingers see the whole purpose of politics as reducing taxes for well-off people, so that all government money spent on anything – never mind something as pointless as education – is a waste. Far be it from such people to value education as an end in itself; at best, left-wingers view it as yet another front for their experiments at social engineering to benefit some variously defined ‘poor’, while right-wingers want it simply to churn out suitably-qualified drudges for the workforce.
Thinking of this kind led to the simultaneous expansion and dumbing down of higher education over the past two decades, and to the proliferation of Mickey Mouse courses and institutions, where third-rate students could take courses on East Enders Studies or Football Studies or whatever. Inevitably, this prioritising of quantity over quality has discredited higher education, and reinforced the popular stereotype of lazy students studying pointless courses, as immortalised by the Viz character Student Grant. That many students do conform to the stereotype does not mean that all of them do. Yet the trend on the part of governments has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Which brings me back to my own school experiences. Silly little nerdy me – I should have realised that it was we well-behaved, hard-working pupils who were the bad guys. Why should morons who have had the decency to treat their school years as one long holiday and orgy of teacher-harassment, truanting and smoking-outside-the-gate, have to contribute with their taxes to the university education of those who actually bothered to study ? What kind of message does that send out to our young people ?!
As one commenter put it: ‘In an ideal world all education would be free, but in a world of scrimp and pinch can you make families whose children will never graduate pay in taxes for the ones born to be life’s winners?’ This may sound like the argument of a Thatcherite ideologue, but was in fact made by Ms Progressive Politics herself, the Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee. It would not occur to her to ask why people without children should contribute in their taxes toward schools, or why people who are not disabled should contribute to the cost of disabled facilities, or why Islamic fundamentalists should contribute to the cost of fighting al-Qaeda terrorism; normally, one takes it as a given that you don’t just pay taxes for public services that you personally use, but are expected to contribute to the common pot for the general good. But for some reason, it is only where higher education is concerned that this disingenuous sophistry is employed. As if anyone seriously believes that higher education cuts are motivated by the desire to redistribute in favour of the poor, as opposed to reducing taxes for the rich. Come on, we’re not stupid.
The answer to Toynbee’s question is: yes, you bloody well can. Unless you really are content for the UK to become a nation of Sun-reading morons, you have to accept that we all benefit from a more educated society. We need people with degrees in science, maths and engineering; we also need people with liberal arts degrees. A degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University or in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford might or might not equip you ideally for the job market; but a society that has politicians, journalists and businessmen with such degrees is a more civilised society than one that has not. I would also challenge Toynbee’s complacent assumption that people from poorer backgrounds have no university ambitions, therefore no interest in paying taxes toward universities.
The government is attempting to construct a figleaf for this assault on students and universities with talk of some of the proceeds from increased tuition fees going to fund the education of students from poorer backgrounds, etc. Which rather disproves the other argument used to justify the assault: that graduates benefit from getting better-paid jobs. Of course, everyone knows that a bachelor’s degree is not exactly a ticket to untold wealth and unlimited employment opportunities, particularly in the current economic climate. But if it were true that even with high tuition fees a degree pays for itself, then why would students from poorer backgrounds need bursaries to pay these fees ?
In fact, these bursaries are simply a means by which families with children in higher education will have to contribute to the cost of other children in higher education, while rich families without such children get to enjoy a lighter tax burden. And they ignore the fact that students from better-off families whose parents refuse to help with their education are in practice just as poor as those from poorer backgrounds. But none of this window-dressing can obscure the fact that massively reducing state funding for higher education while massively raising tuition fees is in practice a redistribution of wealth at the expense of ordinary working-class and middle-class people who want to go to university and their families, in favour of rich people and corporations who will ultimately benefit from the tax cuts.
My solution to the funding crisis ? Cut expenditure on higher education if you have to; reduce the number of bad institutions and Mickey Mouse courses; reduce the number of places for mediocre students. But don’t penalise talent and achievement; don’t raise tuition fees for real students studying real courses at real universities.
I urge readers to demonstrate at Westminster against the assault on higher education on Wednesday, 10 November at 12 noon.
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