Monthly Archives: September 2009

One long tragedy

I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve agreed with anything Alastair Campbell has said. But when he said that a Gordon Brown premiership would be “one long tragedy” he was quite right.

A tragedy for the man himself. For years he waited as second in command watching a man who was less intelligent, less learned, technically weaker on the mechanics of government, a man who did not understand figures and was by his own admission not a details man, filling the role which Gordon thought was rightfully his. And then when the prize of the highest office finally fell into his lap he found that he had no aptitude for it whatsoever. For Gordon hates the PR side of politics. He can’t do froth, or comfy-sofa interviews. He doesn’t emote, he can’t relax in public and he simply does not know where to start when it comes to projecting the image of a rounded human being, all essential skills of the modern Prime Minister. From “bottling” the General Election that never was in October 2007 to losing his cool with Sky TV’s Adam Boulton today, the last 2 years have seen the wheels well and truly come off. One might say of him, just like that other tragic Scottish leader, Macbeth, “beware of what you wish for, because you might one day get it”.

However it’s also a tragedy for the country as well. We need a change of government and we need it now. The time between now and next May or June will be wasted time as a lame duck PM desperately tries to come up with the magic formula that will somehow convince the voters that he and his crew should be given yet another term. Time which could be better used implementing policies designed to reduce the country’s budget deficit. But Gordon Brown sees David Cameron as another Tony Blair, another frothy frontman, another fraud and he believes, I think, that the British public must sooner or later come round to his way of thinking.

Brown will never understand why Blair won 3 elections in a row but the fact is Blair had the skill of appreciating what the country wanted and posing as the man best placed to deliver it – even if on so many occasions he failed in the delivery part of the deal. Cameron, a clever Oxford educated public schoolboy just like Tony Blair, knows instinctively what is now required and that is why he is likely to win the next election, whenever it comes. The task for Cameron will be to deliver and not to disappoint, which is why he and his team have put a “delivery unit” in place to ensure that a Conservative first term is not wasted.

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Open Primaries

It has now been announced that the next Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Esher & Walton will be chosen at an Open Primary to be held at Sandown racecourse on 21st November 2009. All registered electors in the Esher & Walton constituency, whether Conservatives or not, will be able to register to attend and to cast their vote.

This system is common in America – that is how the main parties there choose their Presidential candidates. It was introduced by David Cameron as means of ensuring Conservative candidates have as wide an appeal as possible, rather than being chosen by the party members alone. Party members can still choose the final shortlist and reject candidates they do not like. The final choice however is left to the interested voters of the constituency as a whole.

In Britain, the vast majority of our Parliamentary constituencies are “safe” – in other words the party currently holding them is unlikely to lose unless there is an absolute meltdown in their vote, or they are on the wrong side of a burning local issue. It means that voters who do not support the party in control feel disenfranchised at election time. They cannot see how their vote will count given their opponents’ massive support.

 

Open primaries give such voters some ownership of the candidate which they otherwise would not have. In Esher & Walton it means that those who may not be Conservative supporters can at least have some input in who is going to be the Conservative candidate. Experience in other seats tends to suggest that supporters of other parties do not as a whole attend these primaries in order, cynically, to vote for the lease attractive Conservative candidate in the hope that this will make the seat less safe come election time.

So far I have kept out of the public debate over the succession to Ian Taylor. I took the view that Ian was entitled to have some time to explain his decision before others scrambled for the succession. The local papers began to speculate about possible candidates immediately and other blogs, such as that run by the Thames Ditton & Weston Green Residents’s Association have a running thread on the issue.

When the vacancy is advertised I will apply to be considered, and at that time I will post on this blog the reasons why I think I could make a good MP for this constituency. In the meantime, anyone who is interested can check my Councillor web pages for a little more information about my background and my priorities: http://www.elmbridge.gov.uk/cwcouncillor/JamesBrowne/default.htm

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Cuts

“The next General Election will be a choice between Labour investment and Tory cuts.”

How many times have we heard this from Government ministers over the past few years? It has become a sort of mantra, to be trotted out on every occasion in the hope that if you say it often enough, people will start believing it. Unfortunately for Labour in recent months the public have clearly come to accept that cuts are going to be necessary if the current level of public debt is to be brought down. But our Prime Minister is like an oil tanker – it’s very difficult to deflect him from his chosen course. And so at every opportunity he carried on painting David Cameron as “Mr Ten Per Cent” – the amount he, Brown, claimed Cameron would cut from “investment”, as Brown calls spending, if he won the next election.

Yesterday Brown finally admitted that any government would have to make cuts, and cuts in the region of 10%. He is now desperately trying to present this as a prudent economic policy whilst in fact it is a colossal u-turn. He must not be allowed to get away with it.

Given therefore that the next election is now going to be about who we want to manage the necessary cutbacks, does Brown really think the public are fool enough to trust him when he was only two days ago criticising the Conservatives for proposing the same policy he has now copied?

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Cobham Heritage Day

Tomorrow (Saturday 12th) is Cobham Heritage Day. It starts at 11am and finishes around 4 with the annual Duck Race. It’s the town’s main event of the year and I will be on the riverbank stopping children chasing the ducks. A big team of volunteers has put a lot of work into it and they all deserve our thanks.

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The new term

Last Thursday, my elder daughter began her first week as a child of statutory school age. My younger daughter starts nursery at the same school today. It’s a major milestone which our little girls seem to be taking in their stride. However it has set me thinking once again about why I went into politics in the first place.

It was education. More precisely, the state of our public education system. When I was growing up the comprehensive experiment was in full swing and my father was warned by a friend of his in the teaching profesison to get me out quick if he possibly could. My father was not a wealthy man. He had a small and quite successful private solicitor’s practice in a Northern town but by no means was he made of money. But he took his friend’s advice and I spent the next 13 years in private schools. My Mum and Dad had to scrimp and save. We did not go on glamorous holidays as a family – Sandilands, Norfolk (before it became fashionable), Skegness. I was 8 before I was taken abroad, on a cheap package trip to the Costa del Sol. We had no colour telly until the early 1980s and neither of my parents spent much on clothes or cars. They viewed my education as their priority and I am very grateful for that.

Because the comprehensive experiment was a total and unmitigated failure. In 1975 only 25% of the intake at my old Oxford college had been educated privately. Over 50% came from grammar schools. By 2005 however the picture had changed. Some 56% now came from independant schools. Those schools, for the entire period from 1975 to 2005, consistently educated something in the region of 7% of the nation’s children. My old college has always sought to attract the best and has positively reached out to the comprehensive sector. It is just that the state schools no longer produce the best. Of course, those grammar schools that remain are still first class institutions. It is the comprehensives which have now failed two generations of British schoolchildren. Failures which once made can never be put right because the time lost in a failed school simply cannot be regained.

Of course the grammar school system was not without its failings, the most pernicious being the fact that, once you had failed the 11 plus it was virtually impossible to get back into the grammar school stream. Not all children can be at their best at the age of 11 – my own academic peak was reached in my early twenties – and the lack of flexibility would have condemned many bright children to a career of underachievement. Further, some comprehensives have instituted streaming which can neuter some of the worst aspects of mixed ability teaching. However, for so long as schools are obliged to accept the children allocated to them by the local education authority, and for so long as headmasters are prevented from instilling proper discipline, a cohort of children who do not want to be at school will always disrupt the lives of those who want to achieve, even if they are not sitting in the same classroom.

In another post I will discuss my political heroes but here I will list my two main political villains – Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams, the two Education Secretaries under Harold Wilson who promoted the comprehensive experiment. Margaret Thatcher did nothing to stop the tide in 1970-74, but at least she now regrets not appreciating the ramifications of what was happening. The Labour ministers however were true believers and classic exponents of the historic Labour / Socialist fault of swallowing a theory whole and then imposing it without ever considering the relationship between the theory and the truths of human nature. Comprehensivisation appealed to their obsession with egalitarianism and therefore was good and had to be imposed from above. No matter it had not been tried elsewhere. No matter that it involved taking a gamble on the futures of a generation. It was Progress and therefore good.

Forty years on and a new Conservative governement will have to try to sort out the mess. There is nothing more expressive of the “broken society” spoken of by David Cameon than our broken state education system. The Conservative answer involves permitting parents and local businesses to set up new schools free of LEA control. Unlike comprehensives, this system has been in place in Sweden for some 15 years and has worked – the new schools have also driven up the standards in the existing ones. Personally I would like the next Conservative government to take the next step and allow all these schools to select their pupils by whatever means they consider appropriate. That is not on the horizon as yet, but the proposed policy is still a good one all the same.

It is a scandal that here in Surrey, one of the wealthiest counties in England, there is a shortage of school places for the children living here. Most of the local schools are facing overcrowding and many parents are up in arms becasue they are being forced to send their children to schools that are miles away because the local one is full.

If I can play any part, however small, in improving the educational prospects of those children whose parents cannot afford private education or who cannot or do not want to move to the catchment area of a good school, I will have achieved something of which I could genuinely be proud.

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Spare any paraffin, guv?

My favourite TV programme of the last few years has been Life on Mars, and its successor Ashes to Ashes. In Life on Mars we were whisked back to the 1970s together with a modern-day copper who, in the present day, is lying in a coma in hospital.

Back we went to the world of my childhood, where the music was great but the clothes were dire – browns, oranges, tank tops, army surplus sweaters, kipper ties and flares. A world in which concrete buildings were still seen as the way forward, where the phones didn’t work, everyone was on strike, women were birds, there was a brand of canned beer called “Long Life”  and just about everyone smoked. And there were power cuts. They were the best – at least they were if like me you were 6. Off went the lights, out came the candles and paraffin lamps and my Dad would begin his nightly rant about the “bloody chancellor” (Healey, usually) and the incompetent Labour government.

Well folks, looks like we could be heading back there thanks to the present incompetent Labour government. It seems that energy production figures are such that, come 2017, there will be a shortage of energy equivalent to that needed to power Nottingham for 1 whole day. The Government have apparently conceded that some form of power cut will happen. More proof, if any more were needed, that this shower are not fit to run a whelk stall. Roll on May 2010 and the chance to throw them out.

I gave our old paraffin lamps to my mother-in-law when we cleared out my Mum’s house. Perhaps I should ask for them back!

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