5 things about this week (26 August 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 26, 2018

Embed from Getty Images

The SDP has a bad rep. The moment any potential Labour split is mentioned, someone pipes up “Ah but SDP”, as if the fate of Jenkins, Owen, Williams and the other one is a slam-dunk argument against putting principles before party.

There are two reasons put forward. First, the SDP is blamed by the left for splitting the anti-Thatcher vote. Yet there is pretty compelling polling data the Conservatives would actually have done better, not worse, if their only viable rival had been Michael Foot’s Labour party.

Secondly, the SDP more or less ceased to exist within a decade of its formation. That surely self-categorises it as an utter failure? Yet within two years of its formation, Labour had elected a soft-left leader, Neil Kinnock, resolved to lead his party from the mainstream.

Eleven years later, Labour elected John Smith, on the right of Labour (and as a result a trade union sympathist, at a time when the unions were a bulwark against left-wing militancy).

And 13 years after the SDP’s birth, it saw its ultimate social democratic victory, when Tony Blair was overwhelmingly elected Labour leader.

True, its leaders never again tasted power. But their political tradition triumphed. Might Kinnock, Smith and Blair have happened anyway, absent the SDP? We’ll never know. What we do know is that, though they lost the battle, they absolutely bossed the war.

**

I guess I count myself a pretty semi-detached Lib Dem right now. Partly that’s just circumstance (work and family preclude active involvement). But it’s also my party’s obsessive crusade against Brexit.

In theory, I’m with them; I agree it’s a rubbish decision to Leave, one which will make this country poorer in more ways than just financial. But that was the result in a referendum of which the Lib Dems were wholly supportive. There is no good outcome to Brexit, but there are less worse ones — including Theresa May’s Chequers proposal — and they should be given more of a hearing than my party is willing to.

However, one of the merits of being a member of a political party is that there’s nearly always someone else who, starting from the same philosophy, agrees with you. Cue Andrew Duff, a former Lib Dem MEP, who’s published a sensible and realistic commentary, Brexit: Beyond the transition:

When Theresa May fleshes out her concept of a ‘third model’ of a new partnership, the EU leaders should respond constructively. While they will continue to insist on the principled indivisibility of the four freedoms, they should also be searching for pragmatic solutions, within the framework of Union law, that will limit the collateral damage of Brexit to the EU economy and salvage the international reputation of the EU. Unless the chiefs succeed in building a long-term sustainable relationship with the UK, the EU will suffer the consequences for many years of having a resentful, nationalistic and litigious neighbour on its doorstep. A good settlement for the British, on the other hand, outlined in the Political Declaration, could establish a precedent for new-style partnerships with all the EU’s neighbours. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland may well want to upgrade their own relations with the EU in emulation of the UK.

He is also (rightly) dismissive of the push for a new ‘People’s Vote’:

… a panicky referendum in present circumstances promises to be catastrophic. Opinion polls suggest that a majority is forming against a hard Brexit, but that a rerun of a referendum on ‘Leave’ versus ‘Remain’ would be just as close as the first: certainly the assumption that Remain would win handsomely is an arrogant one not supported by the facts.

(Rather surprisingly, all this has me warming to the thought of a Michael Gove premiership. Were he, not Theresa May, in charge, I strongly suspect he’d be pushing (in true Nixon-goes-to-China style) for an EEA-plus kinda membership for the UK; and as the original Vote Leave voice he would command a respect not accorded Mrs May, who (like Jeremy Corbyn) did her expedient best to absent herself from the referendum campaign. He also has more media-smarts in understanding how to sell a policy to the public — witness his latest canny intervention from the previously anonymous Defra on banning puppy farming.)

**

Do I really have to write about Jamie Oliver and ‘cultural appropriation’? His new ‘jerk’ chicken triggered Labour MP Dawn Butler into tweeting, “Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop”.

Most people (at any rate beyond the Twitter echo chamber) will dismiss the label of ‘cultural appropriation’ — that it is wrong to borrow in any way from others’ cultures without their permission — as wanky over-intellectualising. The easy, appeasing response (as with political correctness) is simply to say there needs to be greater mutual respect: so do not ridicule or make fun of others’ beliefs, cultures or traditions.

But as Kenan Malik notes:

There are certainly many cases of the racist use of cultural forms, from minstrelsy onwards. Much art, though, is necessarily disrespectful, even contemptuous, of cultures and traditions. …

The very term ‘cultural appropriation’ is inappropriate. Cultures work not through appropriation but through messy interaction. Writers and artists, indeed all human beings, necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one (or several), and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

Cultural interaction is necessarily messy because the world is messy. Some of that messiness is good: the complexity and diversity of the world. Some of it is damaging: the racial, sexual and economic inequalities that disfigure our world.

Such damaging messiness will not be cleaned up by limiting cultural interaction, or by confining it within a particular etiquette. In reframing political and economic issues as cultural ones, or as issues of identity, campaigns against cultural appropriation obscure the roots of racism, and make it harder to challenge it.

In fact, his essay says everthing I think needs saying about cultural appropriation so head over there now and read it.

**

There are two ways of reading this week’s news about Donald Trump, with his former lawyer Michael Cohen accusing the president of joining in what prosecutors might see as a conspiracy to violate elections laws.

The first is that this really does mark the beginning of the end: he faces serious accusations now on so many fronts that impeachment proceedings are inevitable (if the Democrats take back control of congress in November’s midterms).

The second is that Trump’s presidency has always, and will always, confound all precedent and logic. He has a lock on his base that precludes any challenge from within; so for as long as the Republicans outnumber Democrats he is safe.

No-one knows which way it will swing. I’m conditioned to assuming the worse; that there’s nothing he can do, no matter how gross, which will lose him power. Yet tyrants appear all-powerful until suddenly they’re not.

**

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything.” So preached Sam Seaborn in The West Wing (and let’s pause a moment to reflect how great it would be to live once again in times which don’t make that show’s set-up seem so dated).

But of course it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I was struck by this article looking at pupils’ educational performance across a variety of advanced countries using OECD’s PISA data set:

The results for the UK are particularly striking. They show that for here, educational performance is very much driven by social factors. So while tweaking educational policy may help or hinder at the margin, it is social policy that really has the power to secure large gains in educational attainment. …

Only a tiny fraction of the variation is due to school-related factors – such as the number of computers per student, the number of staff per student, the size of the school, or school policies about communication with parents – or even government funding. It’s clear that it’s the social stuff that matters.

Now, I happen to think school matters more than the authors allow — else we wouldn’t see such variation between schools with similar proportions of disadvantaged pupils — but it’s still a useful corrective to the blandishment that all ills could be sorted if we could only sort out our schools.

**

PS: I’m still working 9-day fortnights in an effort to make sure I still see as much as possible of my boys following my two months’ shared parental leave.

Is it worth it? Well, this happened this Friday… So I think you’re safe in assuming the answer’s yes.

Ari's first steps!

A post shared by Stephen (@stephentall) on

Enjoy reading this? Please like and share: