My heart soared when I first heard the phrase ‘progressive alliance’ in this election campaign. Not the reaction you’d expect, perhaps, but any attempt to persuade people to vote tactically on the eve of a general election is doomed to failure. A complete waste of time. I should know because I tried to get a similar venture off the ground three years ago.
Mine was a conservative version, obviously. In 2014 I was worried that the split on the right would enable Ed Miliband to become our next prime minister. So I launched a Unite the Right campaign and set about trying to persuade supporters of Ukip and the Tories to vote for which-ever candidate in their constituency was best placed to defeat the Labour candidate. Our slogan was ‘Country Before Party’. (To read more, click here.)
According to a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published today, the Department for Education is spending “well over the odds” on free schools and wasting money it should be spending on refurbishing and maintaining existing schools.
Let’s break that claim down into two parts.
First, is it true that free schools are an expensive way of creating new places? The PAC says we need an additional 420,000 places in England’s schools between now and 2020, so it is important that the Department for Education does not waste its capital budget. Luckily, it’s not. According to a National Audit Office report published in February, the construction costs of a newly built free school are 29% lower per square metre than the schools rebuilt under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. (To read more, click here.)
On the Today programme this morning I debated Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee which has just issued a damning report on free schools.
The report is wrong in almost every particular. It says the free schools programme offers ‘poor value for money’, but earlier this year the National Audit Office pointed out that free schools cost a third less than new schools built under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme.
The report says many free schools are in ‘inadequate premises’ and ‘the learning environment’ is ‘less effective’. In fact, 29pc of those inspected by Ofsted so far have been ranked ‘Outstanding’ compared to 21pc of all schools, and their exam results are top of the class. In the free school sixth forms that posted results last year, for instance, 27.8pc of pupils got A/A/B or better, compared to a national average of 19.9pc.
The PAC report says free schools aren’t creating new places where they’re needed most and questions the Department for Education’s ‘grip’. But over 80pc of the free schools opened or approved to open since 2014 have been in areas where there’s a demographic need for new places. Some do create a small number of surplus places, but without that parents wouldn’t have any choice about where to send their children. As the National Audit Office report said, ‘Some spare capacity is needed to allow parents to exercise choice.’ (To read more, click here.)
The people I feel most sorry for in the wake of Theresa May’s shock announcement are not moderate Labour MPs, nor even the pollsters, who really will be in trouble if they get another election wrong. No, it’s the bankers’ wives of west London. If the EU is going to be the No.1 issue in the campaign, and the Tories are standing on a pro-Brexit platform, how will the poor dears vote?
On the one hand, they were very, very angry about the outcome of the EU referendum and, even today, they’re not above buttonholing leavers at cocktail parties and giving them the hairdryer treatment. They regard David Cameron as criminally negligent —‘How could he let this happen?’ — and Theresa May as a ‘turncoat’. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I’ve ‘betrayed’ my children, although it’s hard for them to sustain the tone of moral indignation when, in the next breath, they talk about the ‘terrible uncertainty’ now afflicting their live-in housekeeper Agnieszka Kowalski. (To read more, click here.)
Against my better judgment, I agreed to go to Center Parcs for an Easter weekend break. We chose the one in Sherwood Forest, not because of any sentimental attachment to Robin Hood, but because it was the most inexpensive. Even then, it was hardly cheap: £804 for three nights and that didn’t include breakfast.
First, the good news. I was sceptical about the website’s promise of free Wi-Fi, imaging it would be similar to the ‘free Wi-Fi’ on Virgin Trains, but it actually worked. The connection speed was impressive, as good as my set-up at home, and it didn’t matter where you were in the resort, as far as I could tell. My guess is they’ve stuffed routers into every nook and cranny. That was a shrewd investment since it’s a good way of keeping grumpy old dads like me happy. I was able to watch the Brighton vs QPR game using the Sky Go app on my iPad, and that left me well-disposed towards Center Parcs, prepared to forgive any number of sins. (To read more, click here.)
You can listen again to my half-hour programme for Radio 4 about last year's populist revolts in Britain and America, asking whether they were predicted by my father 60 years ago in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, here. I ask how meritocratic Britain and America are and whether some of the problems we're currently contending with, such as widespread anger among indigenous, working class voters and out-of-touch, highly educated elites, are inextricably bound up with meritocracy. In particular, I look at whether meritocracy inevitably leads to a genetically-based caste system, as my father believed. In the course of the programme I interview a number of eminent thinkers and social scientists including Michael Sandel, Robert Plomin, Rebecca Allen, Charles Murray and Peter Saunders. I've also written a piece for the BBC's website discussing some of the problems with meritocracy that you can read here.
I’ve just made a programme for Radio 4 about the populist revolts that swept Britain and America last year. Were they predicted in a book written by my father, Michael Young, almost 60 years ago? I’m thinking of The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that imagines a 21st-century Britain governed by a highly educated technocratic elite. Eventually, the intellectual and moral hubris of these Masters of the Universe is too much for ordinary people and they’re overthrown in a bloody revolution in 2034.
It often surprises people to learn that my father’s critique of meritocracy was underpinned by his belief that human differences are rooted in genetics, a view many on the left associate with neo-liberal economics and the libertarian right. How could the man who wrote the 1945 Labour manifesto and played an important part in creating the welfare state be a hereditarian? Surely the creed of socialism depends on believing that all men are born with the same innate capacities, and the reason some succeed and others fail is because of environmental differences? (To read more, click here.)
I can barely contain my excitement. The Easter break is nearly upon us and I will soon be heading off to an exotic locale where I can cast off my work-soiled garments and rediscover earthly pleasures. I will spend my time eating, drinking and singing, sure in the knowledge that no one will judge me because I’ll be surrounded by members of my elite metropolitan tribe. I’m talking, of course, about Pride Park, home of Derby County FC, where I’ll be travelling to an away game on Friday with 1,000 fellow QPR fans.
This fixture clashes with a private party being thrown for my friend Barry Isaacson, once the most powerful British executive in Hollywood. Not so long ago I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. But as I’ve got older, hanging out with the beautiful people has lost much of its appeal, while watching QPR draw 0-0 against another Championship side on a rainy weekday evening has become strangely irresistible. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that even if Boris Johnson invited me to a dinner party to celebrate the triggering of Article 50 with the rest of the Vote Leave team, and Dan Hannan promised to re-enact the St Crispin’s Day speech he gave on the night of the referendum, I would have to decline if it clashed with a QPR game. (To read more, click here.)
In America, an argument has broken out among journalists, writers and intellectuals in the aftermath of the presidential election about whether Trump’s white working-class voters were decent, upright citizens let down by the supercilious liberal establishment or whether they were, in Hilary Clinton’s words, a racist, sexist, homophobic basket of deplorables.
The curious thing about this debate is that the defenders of Trump’s supporters are, for the most part, left–wingers, like the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who spent five years chronicling a depressed blue-collar community in Louisiana, while those who disparage them as ‘in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles’ are conservatives. That last quote was from a piece in the National Review by Kevin D. Williamson. (To read more, click here.)
One of the most important debates in Britain’s history took place in Westminster earlier this week. The issue was absolutely critical to our future and will affect not just the current inhabitants of these islands, but future generations too. I’m talking, of course, about the discussion in Westminster Hall on Tuesday night about how best to dispose of dog waste. Should we place it in little black plastic bags or use the ‘stick and flick’ method, i.e. find a stick and flick it into the undergrowth?
At this point, I would love to update readers about the fate of Leo, the Young family’s Hungarian vizsla, but I can’t for two reasons. The first is that my children have forbidden it. They heard about my ramblings from their friends at school and, for the first time ever, actually read my column. They were predictably horrified — ‘Why do you hate him so much, Dad?’ — and it took me the best part of an hour to persuade them that a formal complaint to Ipso wasn’t the best way to go. The deal we struck is that I’d never write about Leo again (I hope they don’t think I’m breaking the agreement by writing about not writing about him). The second reason is that a civil case involving Leo and an Ocado delivery man is currently wending its way through the courts and I have been advised by my solicitor that it would be prudent not to write about him until it’s been resolved. (To read more, click here.)