David Cameron’s shuffling of the government pack is being reported by the media in conventional terms. Who has lost, who has gained, are there enough women, has he satisfied the Tory right? All this is not without interest, of course, and I am sorry for example that Baroness Warsi and Ken Clarke have been sacrificed to the right wing bullies.
But there is a deeper level of politics at work at the heart of our dysfunctional democratic and political system. There are two aspects of this process. First, Cameron is signalling that the government’s major economic and other policies are not for turning; it is merely their presentation that is at fault. Since government in the UK is overweeningly powerful, and the Lib Dems have incarcerated themselves in the coalition, this incompetent cabinet can carry on regardless.
The re-shuffle also highlights a second aspect of a government’s undesirable power – the Prime Minister’s ability to appoint “mini dictators” to all the important departments of state.
Ever since Charter 88 broke into public consciousness more than 20 years ago, many of us have campaigned to end the huge and unchecked power of the executive through a citizen-led process leading to a written constitution. All that time members of the Labour party have reiterated the complacent mantra, “yes, yes, it’s not democratic and should change some time, but not now, it is a distraction from the real bread-and-butter issues that matter to our people”. Under New Labour, piecemeal reforms were instituted under the gloss of “modernisation” while major concerns about the government’s conduct were dismissed contemptuously by Alastair Campbell as mere “process”.
But let’s pause for a moment and consider how Cameron’s over-powerful ministers have behaved since 2010. Andrew Lansley came into power at health, broke his party’s pre-election pledge to refrain from massive top-down reform and immediately set about destroying the NHS with ideologically motivated changes. One dictator down this week, but too late: the toxic consequences of his actions are already damaging the NHS, probably irrevocably.
Michael Gove perhaps best exemplifies the qualities of a mini-dictator. More ideology-driven changes of course, the most obvious of which is the rushing through of a wasteful free school programme which is a major distraction from the real need to meet current and future demands for school places. This, like the academies programme, is a surreptitious attempt to restore grammar school education for middle class families that will deepen social segregation. Gove even took to himself additional powers, in the Academies Act, to take charge at local level.
But it is his desire to fiddle with the school curriculum that marks him out as an authentic foible-driven dictator. He plans to change the teaching of maths curriculum with proposals, for example, for primary-age children to learn their times tables up to 12 x 12 and read years written in Roman numerals. He wants school history lessons to portray Britain “as a beacon of liberty for others to emulate” and insists schools should “celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world”.
This popinjay’s old-fashioned whiggery and prejudice has its ridiculous side, but it is likely to prove damaging to our children’s education if his ideas ever come to pass. Andrew Pollard, one of the expert panel involved in advising Gove, has said that the highly detailed specifications for English, maths and science risked wrecking “breadth, balance and quality” in children’s school life. Maths specialists have detailed the damage that reintroducing rote learning could do and have urged him to allow children to develop genuine mathematical understanding. Leading historians have scorned his plans for history teaching that look more like the kind of propaganda the Tories once themselves scorned in the old Soviet Union.
Yet another sign of the degradation of our politics is in the Department for Education’s response to the criticism. Time was when it was said that the good old civil service acted as a counter balance to the enthusiasms of governments and ministers. Not since Thatcher and Blair got to work. A DfE spokesman said Gove’s plans would put England's maths curriculum “on a par with the best in the world”:
“It is high time rigour was restored – children must know their times tables up to 12 off by heart, know how to multiply and divide fractions, and have good mental arithmetic. A solid grounding in the basics means children can then move on to more complex maths concepts. The new curriculum will drive up standards for all children”
Michael Gove is still in place. Who knows, Labour party politicians may just learn that democratic reform and empirical decision-making are indivisible elements of government, and that to relegate proper process to a political second division is a disastrous error. Just maybe. The trouble is that “their people” will learn the lesson the hard way.