Back to the Past?

I’m not sure which is more bizarre – Michael Gove trying to take A Levels back to 1951 or David Cameron introducing Harold Wilson’s 1974 European policy.

In 1951 when A Levels were introduced, just 13% of school pupils stayed on in education past fifteen. A Levels were set up to meet the needs of a small elite and enabled top universities to pick who would be admitted.

Universities are an important stakeholder in education – but they are not the end game. Surely Michael Gove cannot be serious in believing that what employers of the future need is for their future employees to have the ability to spend two years working towards a single set of deliverables? Even big projects don’t work like that anymore: project management techniques involve breaking the project down into manageable chunks and regularly checking on progress with each of them, aware of the interdependencies. If there is a blockage, you find a way round it or set a new direction rather than simply waiting for two years to discover that it was all a ghastly mistake. What a way to treat our young people, who don’t even have the benefit of professional careers guidance any more to help them make the best choices for their future.

Thank goodness Michael Gove has no responsibility for education in Wales. Here we have a much more balanced approach – a review by experts which involved broad consultation with all stakeholders. It is explicit that qualifications in Wales “must be taken in Wales in a strategic way and on the basis of what is best for our learners and our economy”. You can read it here (neu’r fersiwn Cymraeg yma).

In the 1970s it made sense to have a referendum on Europe. Joining the European Economic Community represented a significant change in the governance of Britain and it was right for Labour to promise a referendum so that the people could decide. It would make sense to hold a referendum on whether we join the Euro – because that would be a major change and we can all understand what yes or no would mean. But a referendum “on the European question”? The answer is surely more complicated than yes or no. The often barely concealed agenda has been that advocates of a referendum want out – but recognised that they are unlikely to win on that basis. So they have been happy to be “against” the latest deal agreed between Governments and for the consequences of a no vote to be unclear.

In trying to shore up his divided party and stave off the electoral threat from UKIP, David Cameron is offering a referendum on his own terms – one in which a No vote would result in Britain’s exit from the EU. Well at least that has rather more honesty – but is it a sensible promise?

One of the reasons I think the breakup of the UK would be a mistake is because the macroeconomic policies set by England are bound to have an impact on the inhabitants of the rest of these islands. By refusing to turn up to be part of those decisions, Scotland or Wales wouldn’t achieve “independence”; we would simply ensure our own impotence.

Those who wish to leave the European Union seem to understand that we would need to abide by its rules insofar as trade is concerned. So what is proposed is not that we withdraw from the European economy, but that we cease to have any influence. If that’s what the Tories really, really want, fine they can put it to the people in a General Election.

Except of course that isn’t what David Cameron is offering. He is setting a path that might lead us out of the EU but is explicit that he would be calling a referendum and trying to win a “Yes” vote. He is using the threat of withdrawal as a negotiating strategy: walking to the edge of the cliff as a means of browbeating the rest of Europe to give him what he wants.

I am reminded of the scene in Blazing Saddles, where faced with implacable opposition from an unruly mob, the Sherriff puts a gun to his own head and takes himself hostage. Why does David Cameron think this will work as a negotiating strategy? I’m sure most of his fellow Leaders would prefer to leave him to stew in his own juice. What then? Does he go ahead with the referendum anyway, trying to claim credit for the crumbs he is offered?

This is not a policy for the future wellbeing of the UK, but a mechanism to hold his party together through the next General Election and try to stave off the threat from UKIP. The policy is very bad for the UK. It is likely to have a significantly negative impact on investment – already a problem as private sector growth is the only hope for our economy in the face of the current Government’s misguided economic policies.

In 1923, Stanley Baldwin as Conservative Leader and Prime Minister called a General Election because he recognised that although there had been a General Election the previous year which his party had won, he felt that the Government’s policy needed to change from what they had offered at that election.

Contrast this with our current coalition, which is based on the Liberal Democrats walking away from the key policies on which they were elected – not just in education but also in economics – and apologising not for the betrayal but for making the promises that won them the votes that put them into government.

When we have a government so out of touch with the impact of its policies, so concerned with infighting that it is unable to negotiate internationally, it really is time for a General Election so we can elect a Government which has a positive vision for what needs to be done.

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