Gay rights and Euro rights

Two news items surprised me today.

The first was to learn that the Irish, traditionally Catholic with a large “C” and conservative with a small “C”, have voted in favour of legalising marriage between people of the same sex.  I have to say I struggle with this.  The BBC have been full of it and we have had the inevitable pictures of two men kissing and holding hands.  Perhaps it is my age and a lifetime of witnessing weddings in the traditional Prayer Book style but marriage means a man and a woman and, I think, a strong protection for the resulting children.  I do not like the in-your-face style of the LGBT (whatever that stands for) lobby.  They know there are people who have strong views and who find this very difficult to stomach but they insists on flaunting something that is essentially private.

The second issue was equally baffling for me.  I gather that a senior Conservative MP is threatening to resign his Cabinet seat to be able to oppose the scrapping of the European human rights laws.  What is the matter with the man – or woman?   We are perfectly capable of framing  our own charter of rights although I hope it will be minimalist, not heavily politically correct and framed to balance rights with responsibilities.   The current Euro legislation has been used by too many people who should be kicked out of the country to remain in it, funded by our generous benefit system and having their human rights defence and appeals funded by our legal aid system.

It’s a funny old world and not as gay – in my sense of the word – as it used to be.

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The battle for young minds

Nicky Morgan

Nicky Morgan

Headlines this week speak of further legislation to reform and improve state education.  Apparently, Nicky Morgan (who replaced Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education) is introducing laws to allow her to send in hit squads to failing schools; to give coasting schools notice to improve or face similar treatment to failing ones and to create another 500 semi-independent free schools created by charities and parents’ groups.  It seems she is continuing the Gove formula which is a blessing.  Education has always been the domain of a variety of interest groups and this will mean a further re-positioning among those groupings.

If you go back far enough, most of primary education was provided by and largely funded by the Anglican and Roman churches.  Although the funding has largely dried up, an awful lot of primary schools continue to have a religious and, mainly Christian, connection.  I think this is a wholly good influence.  These schools seem to have an ethos that is exemplified by the appearance of their reception areas.  Religious schools will proudly display a crucifix or cross or a statue or picture of the Virgin Mary for children to pass as they enter and leave.  Pure state schools are more likely to exhibit a health & safety notice or a bland statement about equalities.  Sadly neither denominational nor non-denominational schools will display our national flag outside or a picture of our monarch inside but that seems to be a reflection of the British mentality that shuns national pride.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with the growth in Moslem schools providing their teaching reflects British values including democracy, rule under the law, women’s equality, British sovereignty and our unique sense of fair play.

Local government has also had a major role in children’s education and, for years, had responsibility for funding schools, for the allocation of children to schools, for much of the detailed management and for planning school places through new build, extension and closure.  Over the years, as in so many other areas, the power of local councils has been chipped away.  First of all a national funding formula was introduced to the extent that schools are now funded directly by central government.  Ofsted took away much of the quality control that local government used to exercise and, with academies and free schools blossoming, local government has less and less control over the quality of state education although it continues to be blamed for many of its failures!

There is one area where some local strategic overview has to be exercised and it is in planning for school places.  With population growth and demographic shift around the country, some areas face a perilous shortfall of school places while others have an embarrassment of supply.  I can’t see Westminster making a good job of planning for this and believe local councils have an important continuing role here but am unclear how much of a priority they will give to it when there is so much pressure on social care provision which remains the largest budgetary item for unitary and county councils.

As someone who believes firmly in local government, do I regret the passing of control over state schools away from local councils?   My response is both Yes and No.  I think most public services are best run locally and I think it is wrong to allow professional providers too much control in their own area.  By this I refer to what Michael Gove called “The Blob” in the form of the teacher unions.  They have consistently placed the wishes of their members above the needs of their pupils and have perpetuated out-of-date and so-called progressive teaching methods that do not work.  I fear local government failed to grapple adequately with this phenomenon and found itself caught in the eternal triangle of central government, teacher unions and local government.

The growth of academies and free schools, started by Blair and continued by the coalition and now by the Conservative government, seems to be working.  Why?  I think it has created an element of a market with choice and diversity growing in what was a pretty mono-cultural institution and has stimulated competition that the teacher unions always anathematised.  However, I think there is a bigger issue still with which to grapple.  Why are public and independent schools so much better in terms of their output, whether measured by university places, exam results or the visible quality of the young adults that emerge from them?  I don’t think it is only money and the gap between state school funding and the cost of day provision in the independent sector has narrowed considerably.  Rather like the NHS, simply throwing more and more money into the system does not guarantee a proportionate increase in quality.

I think there is another hugely important factor in all of this.  It is parental support for education.  When parents will beggar themselves to buy a house in the catchment area of a good state school or by paying fees for an independent school or a for a tutor to top up inadequate state teaching, their children will always have an advantage over families where education is seen as irrelevant at best or something to be endured or avoided as far as possible at worst.  A home where there are books or, nowadays, a kindle and a PC or tablet and parents who want to see their children thrive educationally has to be the single most important element in providing any child with good prospects for their own life.  Lefties will argue that academies and free schools will favour the middle classes and will disadvantage the poorer and more disadvantaged in society.  I think there is an element of truth in this but levelling down cannot be the answer.  How do we level up?  How do we motivate parents for whom school was a fearful and unproductive experience to try for something better for their children?  Particularly when culture in their estate will be to mock “swots” and to extol dropping out, drugs and violence as the only answer to living in a sink estate?

For many people, their lifestyle is a matter of choice.  If they prioritise booze, baccy and the bookies over books, learning and self-improvement, it is exceptionally difficult to break that cycle.  I don’t think making public services appear “free” helps.  I think this is fearfully true for state education, the NHS, legal aid and other subsidised public services.  I have always believed an education voucher system would transform state education over time.  If parents knew their teenager’s year at school had a cost of some £7,000 pa, demonstrated by a voucher that they could spend at any school of their choice, I think this would shake up the schools market and the complacency that grips coasting state schools.

I think Keith Joseph might have seen the potential value of a school voucher system but Margaret Thatcher was never persuaded and subsequent Conservative governments have never had the courage to introduce one.  Grant-maintained schools,  academies and free schools might be seen as half-way houses towards a more market-based system and Blair saw their value quite clearly but Conservatives have always feared the accusation of “privatisation” that has become a bogey-man for some electors and too many Conservatives!

I am afraid Nicky Morgan is still tinkering at the edges of a system that has failed countless generations of British children, particularly those in disadvantaged areas.  Labour would simply level down.  I hope one day a future British Prime Minister might have the courage to introduce a full-fledged school voucher system. I think it is the only way to drive up educational standards for all.  Perhaps Boris might see the light?

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English votes for English laws

Cameron & SturgeonCameron has the Scottish woman making her demands already but he will have his own members demanding a bit of fair treatment for England before long. At the same time, the anti-austerity brigade have been exhibiting their yobbish behaviour outside Downing Street. There was a delightful tweet – was it from IDS? – that said they had protected important public buildings by signing them JOB CENTRE!  Enough to frighten the yobs away!

There is also some grumbling about our voting system with UKIP feeling hard done by for scoring 4 million votes but getting only one MP. Tough! The last thing this country needs is a weak government based on a coalition, particularly if it is a coalition of economically illiterate lefties like Labour, Plaid Cmry, the SNP and the loony Greens.

We need to keep the first-past-the-post system but we do need to look at our constitution in national, regional and local terms.  This is not going to be easy for a variety of reasons. The first one is the relative size of our constituent nations. England has 40 million voters; Scotland has 4.1 million; Wales has 2.3 million and Northern Ireland 1.2 million.  To put this in context, the Scottish woman wants Cameron to condition the EU referendum to be approved by each country. So, a majority of the 40 million English voters could vote to quit and be blocked by 7 million Scottish, Welsh and Irish voters. It is not even proportional!

The problems multiply, however, even before we think about the House of Lords!  At the moment, Scotland has its own parliament with 128 MSPs elected on a proportional system that was meant to create permanent coalition government but has patently failed!  In Wales, there is a Welsh Assembly with 60 members. The UK Parliament has 650 members, of whom 533 represent English constituencies; 59 are Scottish constituencies; 40 are Welsh and 18 are Northern Ireland.

If I lived in Scotland and wanted to contact my member of parliament, I am not clear who I would choose?  Would I go to the MP or the MSP?  I am increasingly unclear why we need two separate tiers of politicians if we are seeking a federal system that works for the whole of the UK. I suspect anything that reduced the number of career politicians in the country would be welcomed by most voters so my question is simple. Why not shut down the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and create a federal House of Commons where the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English members meet together for one or two days per week to debate national issues and to make national laws?   The Scottish MPs could then meet in Edinburgh for the rest of the week to deal with purely Scottish matters as could the Welsh, in Cardiff and the Irish, at Storemont.  It sounds easy but England remains the problem because of its scale.  Would there be an English First Minister?  Would he be the same person as the UK Prime Minister? Would there be an English education secretary as well as a national one? It goes on and on but mainly depends on the degree to which responsibilities can be accurately divided between the UK and individual countries.  You can see the tensions!

Despite the difficulties, I think it is worth a try but there is a second tier that I think needs reform and it is not the House of Lords. People are sick of remote and, many feel, unaccountable politicians. The most efficient and accessible bit of UK government is local government and it is time it regained some of the power and respect it used to enjoy.  There is a golden opportunity – probably once in a century – to reform the whole structure of government in the UK and to give it some credibility.

I met John Swinney (SNP Deputy Leader) a while ago and he said how, with 32 unitary councils in Scotland, they could call the leaders together and have a conversation with them.  Part of England is cursed with two tier government and a multiplicity of small district councils.  I am very clear that English local government could be much more effective with a smaller number of strategic authorities.  Scotland and Wales have unitary local government that seems to work.  There are two ways to achieve it in England.

The first is to hold a long drawn-out review that will pitch councils against one another and embroil MPs in local turf wars.  Knowing our propensity for compromise, the outcome will probably be a mishmash as bad as the present one.  The problem is compounded when you realise that the two tier areas (county and district councils) are mainly in the Conservative heartlands and, in many constituencies, the MPs’ supply of activists, willing to knock on doors at election times, is drawn from their councillors.  Converting two-tier areas to unitaries, particularly to larger, more strategic unitary county councils would wipe out quite a lot of the MPs’ shock troops!

Which leads to the second and, I think, more palatable alternative.  It is the Manchester model of creating large, strategic super councils with powers over transport, strategic planning, economic development and health and the funding that goes with them.  It seems to be George Osborne’s solution as well, given his recent announcement.  It would leave metropolitan areas like Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Tyneside – and many others – to form cooperative structures along the lines of the Manchester model, pooling some of their sovereignty through a combined authority with representatives from the constituent councils to make decisions.  The media have begun to understand the model and have started to refer to “city regions” but it certainly need not stop at cities.  Counties should have the opportunity to do the same and this is where we could undo some of the mischief of the two-tier system.  Cambridgeshire would be ready for it and is already some way towards the model.  Sadly Oxfordshire would not be there because the county, city and district councils spend too much time squabbling with one another to realise the huge power of cooperative working.  Perhaps one day they will see but it may be 20 years after Cambridgeshire.

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Local election results

In Oxfordshire, results are pretty predictable.

CameronD3In Witney, David Cameron secured an easy victory with 35,201 votes (60%) followed by Duncan Enright (Labour) with 10,046 votes (17%).  Third place went to UKIP with 5,352 votes (9%), pushing the Liberals into fourth place with 3,953 votes (7%).  While this result was entirely predictable, his position as PM was less sure and the look of relief on his face today is well worth seeing.

BlackwoodN4In Oxford West & Abingdon, Nicola Blackwood (Conservative) boosted her wafer thin 2010 majority of just 176 with 26,153 votes (47%).  Second was the Liberal, Layla Moran, with 16,571 votes (29%) and this was once one of the strongest Liberal organisations in the country.  I can’t tell you what a joy it is to see them crushed here in Oxfordshire.

SmithA1In Oxford East, Andrew Smith (Labour) held his seat with 25,356 votes (50%).  Melanie McGee (Conservative) came a very creditable second with 10,076 votes (20%).  She is a Cherwell Councillor and Chairman of Cherwell Council.  I suspect she will find herself with a safer seat at the next election.  The Green candidate, Ann Duncan took third place with 5,890 votes (12%) and the Liberals were pushed firmly into fourth place with 5,453 votes (11%).

howellj1In Henley, John Howell was easily re-elected for the Conservatives with 32,292 votes (58%).   John was an Oxfordshire County Councillor and a very talented member of my County Cabinet before he went for the Henley seat after Boris was elected London Mayor.  Second was Sam Juthani (Labour) with 6,917 votes (13%). Pushed very thoroughly into third place was the Liberal, Sue Green, with 6,205 votes (11%).

VaizeyE1In Wantage, Ed Vaizey was returned for the Conservatives with 31,092 (53%).  Second was Stephen Webb (Labour) with 9,343 votes (16%), pushing the Liberal’s Alex Meredith into third place with 7,611 votes (13%).  Ed was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Communications & the Creative Industries in the last government, a post that he has clearly enjoyed enormously. Watch this space to see if he retains the job in Cameron’s new government.

Prentis_VIn Banbury, Victoria Prentis slipped easily into Tony Baldry’s seat with 30,749 votes (53%).  Second was Sean Woodcock (Labour) with 12,354 votes (21%). UKIP’s Dickie Bird secured third place with 8,050 votes (14%) and pushing the Liberal, John Howson, into fourth place with 3,440 votes (6%).  Mrs Prentis has spent her working life as a Treasury lawyer and lives in a manor house in the leafy village of Somerton.  She needs to swap her tweeds for jeans and trainers to get to know the good burgers of Banbury & Bicester and may face a tougher contest in 2020 if the boundary changes are as expected.

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Balls left with the washing up

Two Conservative women have made election history today.

Andrea Jenkyns

Andrea Jenkyns

Andrea Jenkyns has just won the Morley & Outwood seat by defeating Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor and close associate of Ed Miliband.  She scored 18,776 votes (39%), beating Ed Balls into second place with 18,354 seats (38%).   Balls is married to Yvette Cooper, both of whom served in the Labour government and, latterly, shadow cabinet.  I met both of them when I was Oxfordshire Leader and South East Regional Chairman.  I met Ed Balls in his own constituency.  He is clearly very intelligent and, I thought, a decent and approachable bloke.  He was too clever for a lot of the Labour Party and probably not sufficiently clubbable.

Yvette Cooper
Yvette Cooper

 The amusing irony is that his wife, Yvette Cooper, is a likely candidate to succeed Miliband when he goes.  She is also highly intelligent and very personable. I am almost certainly the only person to have given her lunch in the Carlton Club which she reciprocated by taking me to The Gay Hussar in Soho, few Conservatives will have lunched there!  I will watch her career with interest and I think having Ed at home to do the washing up will make it easier for her to go for the Labour leadership.  She would make a better job than Miliband.

Kelly Tolhurst

Kelly Tolhurst

Kelly Tolhurst has kicked out the treacherous Mark Reckless in Rochester and Strood, scoring 23,142 votes (44%).  UKIP defector, Reckless, came second with 16,009 votes (30%), followed by Naushabah Khan (Labour) with 10,396 votes (20%), pushing the Green candidate, Clive Gregory, on 1,516 votes (3%).  Reckless had been a Conservative MP and quit the Commons to stand in the resulting by-election as a UKIP candidate which he won.  However, his record with the Conservatives was never good and it seems the electorate have had a chance to assess him and made their decision accordingly.

I wish Andrea and Kelly the best of luck as they start their parliamentary careers.  They have got themselves into the political history books by reason of the opponent they have defeated.  I hope their next entry is on the basis of their own political achievements in parliament.

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A joyful awakening

BALLOTThe provisional results of the general election certainly make for a joyful awakening or they would have done if I had slept last night!  They have confounded the pollsters who managed to get it consistently wrong until 2:00 am this morning.  They have also confounded the BBC who, I thought, had an increasing leaning towards Miliband as the election neared.  I say nothing about Channel 4 News because you expect Jon Snow to exhibit his left wing credentials at every opportunity.

As the day progresses, it seems we are going to lose one, two or even three party leaders!

CleggN1Clegg has hinted at it during his election result and it seems inevitable that he will pay the price of doing the right thing for the country after the 2010 election.  He leads a decimated Liberal Party that has lost most of its big beasts – Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, Danny Alexander, David Laws and Steve Webb to mention only a few!  How many Liberals will end up in the Commons is not entirely clear but it seems likely they would likely fit into two taxis.

FarageN1Farage is in trouble in Thanet East, having declared that he will quit as UKIP leader if he does not take the parliamentary seat. Counting goes on as I write but it does not sound good for Farage.  If he does lose and he quits as UKIP leader, that sounds like the end of UKIP because Farage is UKIP and I see no sign of anyone else in his motley collection of followers who could replace his cheeky style with a fag in the mouth and a beer in his hand.

MilibandE3Miliband is already facing calls from his own party to go and I am not surprised.  He has lost wholesale in Scotland, including the Scottish Labour Party leader and Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary.  It sounds as if his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, may also be out!  Miliband has totally failed to win in England and it is clear that his agenda of high spending, high taxes and high borrowing while punishing enterprise and hard work and promoting a dependency culture again has not found favour in England.  You would think that Labour should have learned how to win elections from Blair’s time in power but they continue to hate just about everything he stood for with the same intensity that they hate Thatcherism. I will watch with great interest the bloodbath in the Labour Party as it unfolds.

Sturgeon & MiliThe Scottish position is fascinating.  Are the Scots really as left wing as you would believe from the Sturgeon agenda?  Pro-high taxes, high spending and high borrowing?  Or are the canny Scots  expecting the unsuspecting English to provide the high taxes and to guarantee the high borrowing to enable the Scots to continue their high spending in their own country?  Nicola Sturgeon is not going to have little Ed in her top pocket and will struggle to impose her socialism on a United Kingdom that has comprehensively rejected it except in her own part of it.  I hope we can put her back in her box and rationalise what Scotland gets out of the Union against what it puts into it.  We should never have gold-plated the Barnett formula but that is history.  That leaves us with devolving tax-raising powers to Scotland but ensuring England does not end up paying for it.  We need English votes for English laws as soon as possible and I hope that can include devolution to local government in England.  That reform may involve the rationalisation of local government with fewer, strategic, single-tier councils and I think that would be a price worth paying.

KRM & DC2So, well done, DC! You did it.  It seems you will probably have  a wafer thin majority but, nevertheless, a majority and, hopefully, your team of MPs will be sensible enough to support the whip through the parliament. You have a race to sort out the mess that is a federal Europe and to secure the necessary reforms that will return power to sovereign member states. You have a pressing race to sort out our constitution and to secure English votes for English laws – Boris has got it right here.  You have to balance a socialist-leaning Scotland and Wales with an England that has a much more rational approach to wealth creation and enterprise and you need to continue to wind down the dependent client state and to grow a nation that has ambition and supports enterprise.  Quite a challenge!

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Modern mores

wild child










I took an old friend to the shops the other day to buy some new shoes (he is 76).    We decided to grab a bite at a snack bar    I noticed he was watching a teenager sitting next to him.   The teenager had spiked hair in all different colours – green,   red, orange and blue. My friend kept staring at her.  The teenager kept looking and would find him staring every time.   When the teenager had had enough, she sarcastically asked: “What’s the matter old man, never done anything wild in your life?” Knowing my friend, I quickly swallowed my food so that I would not choke on his response;    I knew he would have a good one!  In classic style he responded without batting an eyelid …. “Got stoned once and had sex with a parrot. I was just wondering if you might be my kid.”

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