Liberal blogger David Boyle and I are the same age. We have worked together on Liberal Democrat policy. But, according to David, we are on the opposite sides of a great divide across the heart of what he calls the “radical centre”. But I don’t think we are.
David is a much more successful blogger and general activist than me, and has got as far as founding a think tank – Radix. He is an old Liberal, where I was a founder member of the SDP in 1981. But I thought we were converging – and I had regarded myself closer to the old Liberals these days than the SDP.
That was before I read David’s article in the most recent Liberator about Lib Dem tribes. That was followed by this article published by Radix, after a fringe meeting at Bournemouth, which I did not attend. On both counts it was clear that I was still a social democrat in his eyes, and he a Liberal, and that, furthermore, there was no more important division in what he calls the radical centre, and which I prefer to refer to as “liberalism”.
David set a test to show which side you are on. What is your attitude to the fining of parents who take their children out of school for holidays in term-time? He is against; I am for (though I am actually against automatic fining, which is what he posed to the Radix fringe). To him we should assume that parents know what is best for their children, and not the experts. What is needed in politics is to break the power of the experts, in his view, and empower people to make their own decisions.
I don’t really disagree with that sentiment, but I do believe in state intervention in a number of cases, and compulsory schooling is one of them. The question of school holidays is not an abstract proposition in my case. I have been a primary school governor for 18 years or so, and chair of governors for ten (at two different schools). This issue is a hardy perennial. The teachers insist that term-time holidays disrupt both formal education, and also the cohesion of the school community, and I have been on their side. We haven’t gone as far as fining people (or if we have that is only because regulations have become more restricted – and it is the local authority, not the schools which impose them). Instead there has been a sort moral war of attrition. I think the presence of fines is there to set the moral moral tone, and to give schools a weapon in this moral war. I’m much more hesitant about actually using them – hence my reservations about making the fines automatic. But withdrawing the fines could set in motion a disruptive free for all.
At the heart of this is an age-old battle between freedom and solidarity. Flourishing societies need both. My worry is that in modern Britain, and not least the poorer urban communities that my schools serve (alongside more prosperous ones), the elements of solidarity are breaking down. A lot of people are struggling, and worse, not really coping. The modern state would rather hide these people away. I am a deeply-believing liberal, but I recognise that liberal language can be used to camouflage hard questions. Why not say that the struggling individuals and families are free to solve their own problems, and that we shouldn’t burden others with them?
State schools are one of the most powerful forces for solidarity that we have. They can, and should, be a lifeline to struggling families, and make them feel part of a wider society. Schools also provide a a good place from which to make the sort of state interventions needed to give disadvantaged families help to cope with the stresses of society. They should also, in subtle ways at least, open the eyes of others to some of the difficulties faced by their neighbours. A well-run, socially mixed state school one of the wonders of the British state system; it would not happen without compulsory schooling, and it is undermined by an excessive emphasis on parental choice – which often leads to de facto segregation. Parental freedom on school holidays chips away at that solidarity.
So I worry that vocal Liberals are a middle-class pressure group who want to push their own families forward without regard to what is going on around them. But, of course, I know that is not fair.
I think I have a better question to divide the radical centre: do you believe that a universal basic income should an important part of the state system? I suspect that some Liberals and social democrats alike would say yes. It empowers poorer people by giving them cash to spend as they choose, and it offers a way replace a costly and divisive welfare system with universal entitlements. Others (like me) say no – it is just an attempt to hide away the needy with no-questions-asked cash so that the rest of don’t have to bother with them.
In fact I think the real choice is between grand designs to be rolled out nationwide, like UBI, and community interventions with a human face, carried out on a localised scale and based on a sense of human solidarity. I don’t know if that is Liberalism or not, but I’m sure that is what David is looking for, to judge by his railings against empty corporations (though he has said some favourable things about UBI). There is an important line to be drawn, but I think he is drawing it in the wrong place.
I strikes me that my defence of school holiday fines doesn’t contradict David’s distinction between Liberals and social democrats. Social democrats are more inclined to appeal to solidarity. But social democrats also tend to like standards set nationally, and are suspicious of localised solutions. That’s where I part company. And I do that is the most important thing about trying to develop answers to the crisis in modern government.