A mixed education system is the best way to speed up Britain’s lagging social mobility

Andrew Thorpe-Apps

Sir John Major recently spoke out against our country’s “truly shocking” lack of social mobility and the consequent dominance, in politics and other fields, of a narrow section of society.

The term ‘social mobility’ is an unfortunate one, couched as it is in class terms. In reality, it is economic mobility and the ability to progress in one’s career that most concern us in 21st century Britain.

A great deal of attention was given to Sir John’s intervention, not least because many viewed it as an attack on David Cameron and the ‘Notting Hill Set’. Some on the Left have even praised the former Tory Prime Minister as a kind of class warrior. For those on the right of the Conservative Party, branding him as a class antagonist provides a convenient way of concealing Britain’s social mobility problem. Whilst Sir John’s beginnings were indeed humble, it is wrong to think he is calling for some idealist notion of equality.

Absolute social and economic equality are achievable only under authoritarian leadership. The reason for this is simple: equality is not a natural state of affairs; it must be artificially constructed through the workings of the state. Further, under such a system, there could be no social mobility as any individual disparity would represent a threat to state control. Whilst greater economic equality is a laudable aim, it should not be conflated with the means by which to achieve it.

Due to this preoccupation with egalitarianism, the Left are inherently opposed to social mobility. Labour’s attempt to close Britain’s grammar schools was a clear example of this. On the other hand, the Conservatives are the natural party of individual economic and social improvement, chartered under the banner of ‘equality of opportunity’. Yet a truly meritocratic society cannot be achieved when people’s life chances are largely determined at birth.

The issue is not that the majority of the Cabinet were privately educated; it is that individuals from less privileged backgrounds did not have an opportunity to even stand for election.

Sir John is right to raise the issue of ‘intergenerational mobility’, as economists like to call it. It is one of the greatest challenges facing this country’s politicians. Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the world, with statistics consistently showing it to be less socially mobile than other developed nations. A 2005 LSE study found that, whilst the gap in opportunities between rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in the US it is at least static, while in Britain it is getting wider.

Furthermore, social mobility is not a purely moral imperative. Britain is suffering an economic loss by not ensuring that the best and brightest are rising to the top. How many potential inventors and entrepreneurs have been lost simply because they did not have the financial means or social networks to flourish?    

Although family, social networks and attitudes will always play a role in determining an individual’s success, there are measures which governments can undertake to ensure that individual ability becomes more of a driving factor.

The greatest reason why Britain’s social mobility is in decline is because the better off have benefitted disproportionately from increased educational opportunity. Whilst the proportion of people from the poorest fifth of the population obtaining a degree has increased from 6 per cent to 9 per cent since the early 1980s, the graduation rates for the richest fifth have risen from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.

Education is the key to social mobility, and grammar schools are a beacon beside the lumbering behemoth that is comprehensive education. Michael Gove has made progress in shaking up the education system. Yet Gove runs the risk of fragmenting education in a way that could prove counterproductive to social mobility. Free schools, though perfectly laudable, are generally set up by middle class parents in the suburbs. 

Gove would do well to look at Germany. Here, secondary education includes five types of school. The school a pupil attends will depend on their academic attainment, but particular focus is also given to the type of vocational training which will best fit each child’s skills. Whilst in Britain there remains a preoccupation with academic success, in Germany it is recognised that academic and vocational education are equally valuable. It is no coincidence that Germany has been enjoying the kind of export-driven economic success that Britain can only dream of. Germany also performs far better in the social mobility stakes. By adapting the education system to account for the varied skills of its children, Germany provides greater opportunity to those from poorer backgrounds.   

A mixed education system, with strong independent and grammar schools, and comprehensive and free schools which channel the talents of their students, will help Britain to reverse its social mobility shame.

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It’s not unpatriotic to point out the NHS’ failings; it’s a moral duty

Ryan Gray

A year on from London 2012, I wonder if director Danny Boyle is feeling a bit silly after his Olympic opening ceremony heaped praise on the NHS. I love our healthcare system and wouldn’t argue we remove it. But surely after recent revelations we can finally accept that the NHS is not perfect?

The argument that if you criticise the NHS, you must want it eradicated is absurd, but for too long this rhetoric has dominated the healthcare debate in Britain. Attacks on the likes of Julie Bailey, who helped expose the Mid Staffordshire atrocities and paved the way to recent investigations, is horrifying. She should be praised for her bravery, not have her mother’s gave desecrated.

There are many reasons for the recent failures in the NHS. For example, the fact that little of its huge budget was spent on front-live services, but on exhorbitant wages instead.

For too long, fanatics have claimed the NHS is the envy of the world, but the reality is not even close.

In 2000, Britain’s healthcare system was ranked by the World Health Organisation as 15th in Europe and 18th in the world - figures which are unlikely to improve in their next publication with over a dozen NHS trusts failing. In 2005, a Citizens Advice Burea report stated that ‘lessons are not learned, much needed changes are not put in place’, which pretty much sums up the problem today.

Worshippers may ignore Liverpool Pathway, where food and water was denied to patients, but the world will not and nor should we. We need to look at what we can borrow from countries like France and Germany. Free healthcare in Britain will not survive until the end of this decade let alone live to celebrate a hundred years if changes are not made. The brutal truth is that it is a 20th Century institution in a 21st Century world.

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Macmillan Lecture 2013: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On Reforming’

 MACMILLAN LECTURE 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On Reforming 

By Rt Hon Damian Green MP

The previous occasion I delivered the Macmillan Lecture was in 2005, just after a disastrous election result for the Conservative Party which saw us make little progress even though Tony Blair’s Government was visibly crumbling.

“Why aren’t we thinking what they’re thinking” was the rather gloomy title, prompted by the thought that the lack of progress made it much more difficult to obtain an overall majority in the subsequent election—a sadly prescient point. One thought I was keen to make then is equally true in the very different world of today; that if the Conservative Party does not like modern Britain it is unlikely that modern Britain will warm to the Conservative Party.

Of course there is much that needs to be changed, and much that is changing because of this Government. As I say in the title of this lecture, we must carry on reforming.  But we should not let the long recovery from recession, or individual horrible incidents such as the Woolwich killing, leave us gloomy or grumpy as a country. It is less than twelve months since the world admired the best Olympics of the modern age. They admired not just our national organisational skills but the character, warmth and openness of the British people. We should not just keep calm, we should cheer up.

I should move from the national to the party.  The same injunction applies.  

Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to fulfil the duty of all who deliver this lecture to quote Harold Macmillan; “It is the duty of Her Majesty’s Government neither to flap nor to falter.” Admirable advice which is both timeless and timely.  For centre-right politicians there are significant reasons to be both calm and cheerful , the most notable of which is the public’s reaction to the financial crisis and subsequent recession. It was the fond hope of those on the left, perhaps particularly those who grew up at the feet of Marxist philosophers, that this would be seen as a crisis of capitalism. The people would throw off the shackles of false consciousness and realise that free markets had failed, and that state spending, borrowing and control was the route out of recession.

Fortunately the British people have more sense than that, and tend to prefer the analysis that state spending and borrowing was precisely the route into recession. There is no spin in this analysis. Successive poll findings have shown  that even when Labour is enjoying a significant lead the Conservative team is markedly ahead on managing the economy. This is true even over the past few weeks, where calmness has not been the prevailing emotion.

The most recent Ipsos Mori poll showed a 14 percent lead for David Cameron on managing the economy. Truly, if it still is the economy, stupid, that sets the political tone we are winning the most important argument.  British Keynesianism failed in the 1970s, and enough people know that to ensure that its modern enthusiasts have little credibility. The world has not gone left since the crisis. Where right wing Governments have been ejected, as in France, the left-wing alternative is already in trouble. The economic facts of life are still Tory.

So keep calm. But also carry on reforming, and more particularly carry on reforming in a Tory way. There is gathering strength to the argument that the reforms we are seeing to, for example, immigration, welfare and education address exactly the issues that people want Government to concentrate on.

These key reforms have three significant features. The first is that they are as important to the success of the Government as the central economic policy. The second is that all of them are dependent on Conservative ideas and energy to drive them through. The third is that they are precisely on the Common Ground originally identified by Keith Joseph as the proper target for successful Government, rather than the centre ground.

So as well as winning the central economic argument we are reforming in the areas where the country needs changing, and we are doing so in a Conservative direction. This message cannot be sent too often or too loudly, particularly to traditional Conservative supporters. They want lower immigration, an end to abuse of the welfare state, and higher standards in schools. Conservative Ministers, drawing on Conservative principles and our Manifesto promises, are delivering this.  

On immigration, the latest figures show that net migration is down by more than a third since June 2010, and is now at its lowest level for a decade. At the same time as seeing this dramatic decline in overall numbers, which is the main requirement, we have continued to support economic growth by welcoming the brightest and best to the UK. Higher numbers of skilled worker visas were issued over the last year, as were university student visas. So we have lower immigration, and more selective immigration: both good Conservative policies.

On welfare, we have introduced the biggest welfare to work programme the UK has ever seen to get people back to work.  We also believe it must always pay to work – which is why we have capped benefits so that no one can get more on benefits than the average person earns in work. We want to help people escape poverty, not trap them in it. This reform is squarely in the tradition of  which Harold Macmillan would have approved.

The same is true with our education policy. We are making sure that every parent has the choice of a good local state school for their child, teachers have the powers they need to keep discipline in the classroom and the exam system is rigorous, respected and on a par with the world’s best.

We have a programme to improve the quality of teaching, including scholarships to attract the best graduates, higher literacy and numeracy requirements for trainee teachers and a network of ‘Teaching Schools’ across the country.  79 Free Schools and more than 2,000 new Academies have been delivered already. Many of them are in areas where most people have not been able, up to now, to gain access to an excellent education for their children. We are restoring discipline to the classroom with new search powers for teachers, an end to the ‘no-touch’ rule, and higher fines for truancy.

All of these essential reforms have been delivered by Conservatives working in a Coalition Government.

Which brings me to a theme which is particularly important for the Tory Reform Group, and all moderate Conservatives.  There may be areas of policy where we agree with Liberal Democrats, but we are not the same.  We believe in change and modernisation , and we recognise that what modernisation means changes over time, but we are first of all Conservatives. We have principles which are not shared even by the most orange of the Orange Bookers. We also do not regard ourselves in any way morally deficient compared to Liberal Democrats.

I get on very well with many of my LibDem Ministerial colleagues, but I am entitled to challenge their thesis that this Government can only be kept compassionate by their presence. There is a long and honourable tradition of decent Conservatives who want to help those who need help, and Macmillan himself was of course a prime example at all stages of his political career.

Macmillan  was alive to the difference. As he put it; “As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.”  We do have practical differences, as I discovered on a regular basis when I was Immigration Minister.

There are similar debates about key issues such as childcare. All of these debates can be, and are, resolved within Government, as they would be whether it was a Coalition or a one-party administration. But they illustrate that the moderate Conservative tradition is a vital part of any Conservative mix, and is distinctive from the instincts and habits that the LibDems bring to politics.

This distinction is key for those who worry that in the Coalition the tail is wagging the dog. We are reforming and we are reforming in a Conservative direction. Every Conservative policy is about promoting opportunity and social mobility.  We know that  making Britain succeed globally and allowing people to achieve their aspirations are the two keys to a successful society. Economic growth and individual growth need to go hand in hand. This is the basis for economic and social policy under this Government and I cannot understand why any Conservative, whichever tradition they adhere to, would object in principle to this approach.

There will always be disagreements about tactics and day-to-day priorities but these must not be allowed to divide the right, when the only beneficiaries will be the left. All  of us who campaigned so hard and so successfully to preserve a first-past-the-post electoral system must accept the consequences. Under first-past-the post a serious party that aspires to Government has to be a broad coalition.  This in turn requires a degree of self-discipline and capacity to compromise. If we Conservatives forget that, our opponents will be the beneficiaries.

This means that the tone of the discourse between Conservatives is important. If we sound as though we dislike each other, others will draw the obvious conclusion. I love Twitter, but its general tone should not be a guide to how Conservatives address each other. Disagreement on an issue, however emotive, does not mean treachery, or not being a proper Conservative. Politics is a team game, and mutual loyalty is vital for a successful team.

The biggest and longest-running cause of Conservative discord is Europe. Every Conservative should have a high regard for the lessons of history, and the party’s history on this issue since the 1990s is terrible. The effect of this has been, ironically and yet predictably, that Britain’s fate in Europe has been in the hands of those who have no sympathy at all for the Eurosceptic viewpoint. Surely we are all able to learn this lesson of history and not repeat it.

I am not just lecturing others. We must all learn lessons. For years pro-Europeans opposed the idea of a referendum. But the strategy of negotiating a new settlement, and then putting that to British people, is clearly the right one for current times. Most British people want it to happen. So much has changed since the 1975 vote that it is time to put the argument again. I hope and expect that the outcome of this process will be to renegotiate, reform, and revalidate Britain’s place in Europe. The Prime Minister has made clear that this plan will be central to Conservative policy up to and beyond the next election. It is time for the whole party to get behind it. And it is possible for those who hold the whole range of views on Europe to do so.

For those of us sympathetic to the European argument this is an opportunity to make our case, and the Prime Minister’s case, that a properly reformed EU will be hugely to Britain’s advantage. For too long only a few lonely voices in the Conservative Party have made the case that we are better off in. Those of us who hold that view cannot wait for the few weeks before a Referendum to argue our corner.  There is a hard-headed Conservative case for Britain’s membership of the EU, for all its imperfections, and it needs to be heard.

The core of the argument is economic. All sectors of industry agree that we are better off in. Let’s start with manufacturing. Five out of every six cars made in this country are exported, and 700,000 jobs depend on the industry.  How many of those firms would invest long-term in Britain outside the EU? No wonder Ford’s European Chief Executive, Stephen Oddell, has said that “Leaving a trading partner where 50% of your exports go… would be devastating for the UK economy.”  

Then there is the City, often seen as the part of the economy most hampered by EU rules. Goldman Sachs are unlikely to be sentimental about the economic effects of leaving, and they have concluded that departure would be a loss/loss scenario, in which the loss would be greater for the UK than the EU.  In particular they argue that “The UK’s ability to conduct business in financial services across the European Union is likely to be severely compromised by a departure from the EU.”

Then there is the argument that we should concentrate on the fast-growing economies in Asia and South America rather than sclerotic old Europe.  I have never understood how you make it easier to export to China by making it more difficult to export to Germany, and indeed the German example is surely one to follow. Last year Germany exported $804bn worth of goods to Europe, and another $519bn to the rest of the world. They are complementary markets, not alternatives.

Finally there is the argument that our businesses have to obey all these petty rules that hinder them. Does anyone imagine that the rules would be less onerous, or indeed less of a hindrance to British business, if they were made without any input from Britain? Since Britain will need to trade with Europe, we would be putting an added burden on our business, not removing one. And we would have to pay a large fee for access to the Single Market, as Norway does. The idea that we can remove all the irritations, but retain all the benefits, is not worthy even of the saloon bar.

Of course there is need for reform, not just for Britain’s sake but for Europe’s. We need a Transatlantic Free Trade deal. We need a single market in a number of new areas, including digital services. Above all, we need a reform deal which will deliver benefits to every country in the EU, so that others will be as keen as we are on reform.  This will show how beneficial it can be when Britain plays a leading role in Europe.

This European reform will be consistent with all the other hard-headed, unsentimental, pragmatic, Conservative reforms which the Government has embarked on. It will fit in with a wider modernising agenda which is nothing to do with party image and everything to do with making Britain (and Europe) fit to compete in the modern world. All these reforms, taken together, will change Britain for the better. So the job of all Conservatives at this point is neither to flap nor falter, but to get on with the job of persuading people that Conservative principles in action give all British people the chance to succeed. We should be proud of our record so far, and we know there is much more to come. We have an important job to do. We should devote all our energy and time to doing it. 

Set Europe aside, Mr Cameron, and reinvigorate a genuinely One Nation outlook at home

Giles Marshall 10.49am

I’m not sure "Fresh Start" is quite the right name for a group of Tory MPs busy re-hashing what is by now a pretty hackneyed message. The group is publishing a report calling for the repatriation of significant powers from the EU to Britain.

So the same call that has been made by Tory MPs since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech – a fresh start indeed.

Yet, of course, the group’s report is newsworthy because David Cameron is himself entering the European maelstrom, with a speech due on Friday that advance spin suggests will be redefining the British relationship with Europe and calling for a referendum on the terms of our membership. Mr Cameron is going to complete the work that Sir John Major began with Maastricht it seems, though Sir John himself had rather assumed that the Maastricht agreement was an end in itself.

The problem for Mr Cameron is that of the few policy positions he does hold, a vague Euro-scepticism is among them. This is a Prime Minister viewed with deep suspicion by the majority right-wing of his parliamentary party, and he undoubtedly sees a new Euro-scepticism as just the sort of thing to appease them with.

He should beware. There is no beast so determinedly single-minded as the Euro-sceptic Tory MP, and they will not be appeased by some vague ideas about renegotiation. Nor shall they be too happy about what must seem a far distant prospect of a referendum on Europe under a majority Tory administration, especially given its current unlikelihood.

Hatred of the EU has become part of the DNA of many Tory MPs, to the extent that any rational debate about it is virtually impossible.

Take the Obama administration. After successful reciprocal visits between President Obama and Mr Cameron, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a transatlantic relationship built on the strongest of foundations. Back to the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher.

Well, in the sense that Reagan consistently belied his own rhetoric by following a US interest that typically denied Britain her own, I suppose it is. For all the bonhomie of Cameron and Obama, the administration has not been slow in making it very clearly known that it regards these European manouevres as unwise and potentially disastrous. A Britain isolated from Europe will not be able to rely on any special relationship with the United States. Her realpolitik views a single European unit as the most useful form of European ally. Any country standing outside of that – including Britain – will be marginalised.

American attitudes are nothing compared to those of powerful European countries such as Germany. Gunther Krichbaum, a key CDU ally of Chancellor Merkel, warned of economic disaster for Britain if she stood outside the single market. Just as British Tory euro-sceptics are vigorous in their call for ‘renegotiation’, so most European players are equally determined that Britain cannot keep treating the EU as a la carte.

Mr Cameron is more Euro-sceptic than Sir John Major. Yet he also appears to be a less effective diplomat. Andrew Rawnsley, in a thoughtful piece for the Observer on Sunday, recalled Major’s tenacious and canny diplomacy (“a gentleman”, according to one of his European adversaries, Ruud Lubbers), which yielded the opt-outs of the Maastricht Treaty.  But, as Rawnsley reminds us, such opt-outs benefited Major not a bit, as he watched his 1992 election triumph dissolve into the ashes of a disastrous party war.

David Cameron is not, as I’ve noted before, a leader with deep roots in the Conservative party. It is something that isolates him, and it would be foolhardy of him to think that he can ride the Euro-sceptic bandwagon. Europe wins few votes amongst the British electorate, but a perception that Britain is an isolated, marginal figure in world affairs does resonate, and in appeasing certain MPs, Mr Cameron is heading in that direction.

He should leave Europe alone, and appropriately enough on the day of the launch of a new book about Tory modernisation, look to reinvigorating a domestic One Nation policy. Therein lies our real chance of reversing decades of Tory electoral decline.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

A little solution to the EU’s big Nobel Peace Prize balls-up

Richard Ellis 10.29am

I can’t stand the French. Their accent irritates me. As does their arrogance, their dishonesty, their laziness and their ingratitude.

The idea that their cooking is better than ours is nonsensical (how would you rather start your day - a full English breakfast or a croissant?).

And the suggestion that they have a nobler sense of chivalry is a joke (no Englishman worthy of the name has even seen those pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge; the French published them).

I don’t care much for the Germans either, though deep down I imagine that our Teutonic cousins would be almost as civilised as us if they didn’t share a land border with France.

Nevertheless, even I can acknowledge that the people of France and Germany have demonstrated a remarkable greatness of spirit in the years since 1945. Three bloody wars in seventy years left deep scars and painful resentments.

During the mid-1960s, my father spent a few months living in Paris. One evening he had plans to meet some friends in a bar and invited a (French) colleague. He explained that there would be some French people there but also some Dutch and probably a German. Once apprised of the guest list the colleague lost interest: “I would rather stick my hand in a bucket of s**t than shake hands with a German.” And that was some while after the end of the Second World War.

The statesmen and peoples of France and Germany have put these antipathies behind them and forged a deep alliance. That is both a remarkable transformation and a tremendous achievement - and it played a major (though not an exclusive) role in securing peace for Europe. If anyone has earned a Nobel Peace Prize it is the French and the Germans.

The European Union certainly has not. The EU was not even around when the Franco-German rapprochement took place. Nor, with its north and south at diplomatic loggerheads, is the EU a matchless example of how to run a peaceful body politic.

It is too late for the prize to be re-awarded but perhaps a compromise could be reached. Brussels could offer to hold the prize on behalf of the French and the Germans. In fact, now I think of it, that would be even better than giving it to the French and Germans outright. After all, a joint award would bring questions of who should have actual possession of the medal and when.

The French would be bound to hold onto the medal for longer than their turn, which would irk the Germans, who would certainly retaliate - and that could leave us all right back at square one.

Richard Ellis is a solicitor and former parliamentary researcher

Procrastination, prevarication & paralysis: an idiot’s guide to the Eurozone crisis

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 9.46am

I always thought that the EU had secured the winning hand.

In success, it could boast that its social democratic model, inching towards fiscal and ultimately political union, had created a permanent and enlightened route to general prosperity. In failure, the globalised proportions of its wreckage would ensure that only its supranational intervention could offer succour.

Yet the EU’s problem is that its chief creditor, Germany, has been thinking like a nation, rather than a supranational overseer. It is not that Germany is not willing to play paymaster to a transparently political project. Rather, Germany resents the fact that beneath the surface, economically the EU project resembles a cheese grater.

ClubMed, eager to ignore the holes, yearns for closer political unity because of the accompanying German credit card.

The Germans, not wanting to subsidise the European periphery forever, has suggested mandatory terms and conditions and requested appropriate collateral in return for pooling proportions of debt, privatisation, teutonic budgetary discipline, and flexible employment laws. ClubMed baulks at the small print.

The tension between German realism and Mediterranean myopia is painfully apparent. Angela Merkel has said that under no circumstances would she consider Eurobonds. Italy’s ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, retorts that if Germany continues to prevent the ECB from printing money she should quit the euro. Italy’s current leader, Mario Monti, tells the German chancellor that “six decades of integration are at stake”.

In the past, at least, political obfuscation of economic realities was intelligible while the the direction of the EU’s hopes was centripetal. However, with the EU’s economically strongest member now in direct confrontation with the rest, the outcome of the crisis is far from predictable.

The impending Spanish bank bailout ought to be as conventional as a banking crisis can be, following a relatively simple process. Nonetheless, foreign investors are shunning the prospect - not just because they believe the books are cooked but because how they might be cooked is no longer discernible. An efficient and free market should not be run on fiddled facts but it routinely is. Cynicism does not ruin markets on its own. Rather confusion over the target and form of that cynicism, as with the current EU chaos, appears to. It certainly paralyses credit flows, meaning that Spain is now required to spend $600,000 to insure merely $10 million of debt.

The president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, has identified the systemic weaknesses and trends and said it cannot continue, recently describing the Eurozone as “unsustainable”.

Exasperation is noticeable even in the EU’s own reports. Its top brass has informed the new French president, Francois Hollande, that the economic assumptions behind his budget plans are “optimistic”, measures to hit budget targets “not sufficiently specified”, and France’s record on meeting past targets has been “mixed”.

In this febrile climate, the technical solutions suggested in answer to the European crisis - from a ‘Grexit’ to Eurozone deposit schemes - seem to me to be superfluous. At this pretty pass the repair of the EU body seems more dependent on the cogency and cohesiveness of its soul than any mere physical tinkering.

Across the opinion pages: the Master, technical schools, open spaces and prisoners

Nik Darlington 2.15pm

The Times (£) has a brilliant range of comment pieces published today, worth venturing behind the paywall to read. Opinion genuinely is one of the newspaper’s USPs, along with its beautiful and accessible multi-platform digital interface.

Tuesdays typically mean Rachel Sylvester’s unmissable column, and today she plays on a favourite theme, ‘the Master’. Often enough she has commented how Conservative party modernisers afford Tony Blair deified status, his autobiography a fixture of Tory bedside tables and playbook for the contemporary political scene. This week, however, it’s all about how everyone’s wrongly reading the Blairite tea leaves, including Ed Miliband.

The truth is that Mr Blair was authentically of the centre in a way that neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband is. He was an entryist who had taken control of his party, whereas the current Tory and Labour leaders are both, in background and beliefs, far more of their tribes. The success of new Labour was based on turning this reality into a political strategy that was pursued with ruthless efficiency and consistency. Everything that Mr Blair did and said - to begin with at least - was dedicated to demonstrating that he was more at home on the middle ground than in the Labour comfort zone…

Mr Blair took office promising new Labour would be the “servants of the people”. He lost power when the perception took hold that he wanted to be a Master of the Universe and his MPs turned on him. Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband have yet shown whether they are the servants of the people or their parties.

Rough reading for both leaders, who feel the weight of the former prime minister on their shoulders in more ways than one. And a reminder, yesterday, of Mr Blair’s uncommon talents.

Meanwhile, Lord Baker, an honorary life member of the TRG, writes about “a new wave of university technical colleges”. The Government is nearly doubling the number of these colleges, which supported by universities provide technical training to pupils between 14 and 19-years-old. Britain’s school leavers need more technical nous to compete in a challenging global marketplace.

We had a few technical schools at the end of the war but these were killed off by English snobbery. Everyone wanted to go the grammar school on the hill, not the one in the town with dirty jobs and oily rags. Germany didn’t make the same mistake: they adopted and still have the 1944 English education system and it is one of the reasons why Angela Merkel is ruling the roost. These colleges are our chance to rectify that mistake.

Under the Labour government Lord Baker, a former Education Secretary himself, convinced Andrew Adonis to trial two of these UTCs. Their expansion was supported by the Conservative party at the last general election, a pledge that has been wholeheartedly fulfilled by the coalition government.

The outgoing Director-General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, eulogises on the centenary of Octavia Hill’s death. With a theme that I also used in an article earlier this year for the Richmond Magazine, Dame Fiona writes that the protection of open green spaces is a battle still being waged, and one still very much worth waging.

When [Octavia Hill] died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members. We now have four million. While she would no doubt be impressed, she would not be surprised, and she would certainly not be complacent. She believed, as we do, that beauty, nature and heritage are fundamental to the human condition. She spoke of everlasting delight. If she were here now, she would describe the past hundred years of the Trust and what we stand for as one of enduring relevance; a cause which we must never cease to pursue.

Finally, the experienced barrister and chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, writes that Britain should give in to the European Court’s ruling to award the vote to prisoners.

Far from being harmless, giving prisoners the unqualified right to vote has positive values. How better to promote peaceful coexistence in society than to remove any sense in prisoners of second-class citizenship. It is precisely what the Government is preaching in its recent legislation on sentencing reform - namely, greater efforts to make the rehabilitation of prisoners more vigorous in penal institutions.

The right of every citizen to vote is acknowledged to be a constitutional right. It is in truth not a human right but it certainly is a civil liberty guaranteed by Article 3 of Protocol No 1 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom, which the UK ratified as long ago as 1952.

Egremont has long been favourable to the Government’s principled and correct stance on penal reform, and last year we published an excellent article by the Howard League’s Sophie Willett. The ‘bang them up and lock away the key’ school of justice is outmoded and discredited; Britain’s prisons are at bursting point. That much is true.

However, the right to vote is not God-given, as Sir Louis agrees. Nor should it be beholden on any sovereign government to afford certain constitutional rights to individuals who transgress this country’s laws and bring harm to fellow citizens.

Reform the nature of a criminal’s penance, certainly; but that penance must still be served.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Does a vigneron in Rousillon shed a tear for the Greeks?

Nik Darlington 9.42am

Suppose that North-Eastern England, the region tending to be most heavily dependent on internal transfer payments, went bust, à la Grèce. Would the rest of England feel happy, or even obliged, to bail the region out? Of course it would.

Even if Scotland went belly up, despite all the rumblings of independence, the rest of the UK would come to its aid - as it did, for instance, to bail out Scotland’s biggest financial institutions (and the North-East’s, come to think of it).

But does a vigneron in Rousillon shed much of a tear for the Greeks? Or more to the point, a bank manager in Berlin? Or a station master in Stockholm?

The emotional flaw at the centre of the European Union is that however many years of postwar ‘good Europeanism’ there have been, Europe’s citizens (has that term ever felt less secure?) still feel the tug of the historic, the local and the familiar, more than the modern, the continental and the abstract.

A Greek default and eurozone exit makes dreadful economic sense, unless, perhaps, you’re Greek. Yet Europe’s emotions are directing the popular response, and, in the case of those northern Europeans with apparently unimpeachable morals, even the economic response too.

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