Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Whose National Health Service is it?

In A. Spence, Guest Feature on April 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm

And who should run it on our behalf? Some thoughts by ALAN SPENCE

“The transcendental authority of England is its people”. A people’s Health Service demands new beginnings. In the light of bitter opposition to Tory plans for the NHS, isn’t it time to look at a co-operative model as an alternative?

Those who work within the NHS should be able to manage GP surgeries, hospitals, research and educational units – indeed all areas of the health and care system within an employee-managed network based on co-operation.

Co-operation, of course, already exists in the operating theatre, where a team works with dedicated co-ordination as part of a normal work process. And it’s to be found in other areas of the NHS.

But the trouble begins when its members step outside this co-ordinating framework to become, respectively, members of the ruling, middle or working class.

Surgeons rule their team of doctors as did boyars of old Russia. At various stages of expertise, doctors are dependent on the goodwill of the “Mister” and seek a favourable nod from the next consultant in order to improve skills and gain a higher rate of pay and position for those in his/her team. As for non-medics, they take their chances with their own managers. But here wages and conditions are more directly obtained via union/ NHS negotiations.

Nor does the power of the “Mister” end with determining the fate of junior doctors. It stretches far wider – to “chummy” relations with members of the boards of governers, Carlton Club meetings, stately homes and ties through marriage, or public school. Such factors help to determine the way that the NHS proceeds on its pastoral care of the needy in our society.

This unique structure came about as a result of Nye Bevan’s necessary compromise, made to win support for getting a universal and all embracing health system as a going concern.

If it is thought that the mighty changes introduced into healing the sick by Nye Bevan trimmed their power, let them think again. It elevated them to a new and commanding height in the British economy, culture and society.

Put a leading surgeon in charge of a reform within the NHS and the outcome is geared to shifting the chairs around to provide a more comfortable position for a capitalist government to claim that changes that worsen middle and working people’s welfare are changes for the better.

Following the victory of Bevan’s view that a National Health system paid from taxation was superior to health provision from private insurance companies came the Guilleband Report of 1956. This had been set up by an alarmed Conservative government, certain that the NHS was ruinously expensive and a threat to financial stability. It decided that a Commission would confirm this threat, and allow them to disband this collectivist, heretical body before it did more damage to capitalistic individualism.

Conservative disappointment was huge when it reported that contrary to media scare stories, the NHS was not a strain on resources – and, indeed items previously dropped from the free provision introduced in 1948 (free prescriptions, dental and ophthalmic services) could be re-introduced without straining resources.

Guilleband’s other discovery was that the NHS’s percentage of the GDP was hardly different from that in pre-war Britain – some three per cent.

The reason? Before the war, those working on low wages could obtain sick and other benefits from National Insurance. But wives and children were excluded, as were employees on higher salaries. As a result, a galaxy of private insurance companies gained weekly payments to cover the cost of sickness, death, etc., with many GPs running a collecting system to pay for the treatment of wives and children.

Shortly after the NHS and other social benefits were launched, most health insurance companies dried up. Only a few survived, catering mainly for the rich. The majority of citizens followed the consensus that there was no point in paying twice for something that was provided for out of general taxation.

And the ragged assembly of government asylums, local authority maternity, fever, cottage and voluntary hospitals were brought together along with GPs’ surgeries (held in shops, spare rooms or wherever). They were assembled into a more logical structure to meet the needs of the population. The NHS began to become a landmark institution, respected for its coverage of all – including visitors from abroad who needed medical attention whilst they were here. It was particularly respected for its GP coverage and for arranging for hospital check-ups or admittance, which collectively covered the whole of the country – even isolated islands and hamlets.


But there was still an inherent dogma amongst Treasury officials and their political heads that only a ruling class drawn from an aristocracy or well-heeled business professionals had the know-how to run the country. But somehow this aberration had slipped in.

It was true that many industries had been nationalised by the 1945 Labour Government. But these were commercial bodies, clapped out after the war and without investment in new technology. These needed Government cash to fatten them up to become competitive again. Conservative opposition was at the time largely cosmetic, designed to keep the class struggle burning in the breasts of their local activists.

Whilst the workforce in the newly nationalised industries may have had ideas that it allowed them to share control of management, the 1945 Government soon scotched that notion, and the existing management carried on almost as before.

Meanwhile, with every family in contact with their local GPs, the NHS became as integral to people’s lives as the local grocers’ shop. One supplied food, the other health – the difference being that one required payment for goods whilst the other came free.


Changes in organisation, and the steady, if slow, improvement in hospital provision and employees’ working conditions, with shorter hours, better pay, holidays, pensions. etc., added to the moral uplift of serving the sick and needy.

The medics’ Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” began to pervade the entire fabric of NHS service. An exceptional example of this was the response by junior doctors in the mid-1960s to like-minded Canadian colleagues locked in struggle in the province of Saskatchewan. Local GPs were boycotting attempts by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government in the province to bring in a health care system similar to the UK’s NHS. Doctors from Britain moved into the province and helped to ensure that the new system wasn’t stillborn. The CCF government won, and now Canada’s health care system is much closer to ours than that in the USA.

By the 1960s/’70s, “Butskellism” had produced a balance in Parliament and elsewhere which allowed consensus management to emerge within the NHS. It found its best expression in the joint teams formed to work with NHS Estates on the design and building of new hospitals, making up for the loss caused by Treasury niggardliness. More facilities for training doctors, nurses and other staff were also provided.

However, by this time it was clear that the NHS was falling behind Europe. Not in the coverage of all its population, in which

Britain had a clear lead, but in the provision of health infrastructure and facilities – modern hospitals, convalescent homes and other after-acute-care treatment.

The Treasury and Exchequer’s response to criticism was to point to Government spending which was on a par with other countries – implying that our problem was one of staff productivity.


The philosophy of consensus and its practice of mutual working within the NHS broke down as a result of Barbara Castle’s attempt when Health Minister in the mid-1970s to introduce a new programme to bring less privileged areas of the Health Service up to a higher standard via a Resources Working Party. This meant taking out of the system the bed spaces used by consultants for their private patients.

Even in times of need, consultants had kept beds empty to meet anticipated private patient demand. In 1975 rank and file staff revolted and refused to service these beds at the new Charing Cross Hospital at Hammersmith. Barbara Castle recognised the cause of the problem, and used it to support getting pay beds out of the system.

Temporarily the strikers won, but the outraged private sector phalanx who were using NHS facilities for treating cash paying patients, or those from BUPA and other insurance companies, mobilised to defeat Castle. Callaghan, who had replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister, capitulated to the consultants. They could now place private patients wherever in NHS hospitals. And Barbara Castle was sacked.


Carlton Club type debates involving privatising consultants, Thatcher-minded politicians and BUPA prepared the ground for Thatcher’s campaign to Americanise Britain’s National Health Service – ignoring advice from Norman Fowler (her longest serving Health Secretary) to leave well alone. The system was working, and covered the entire population.

Thatcher followed simple grocer shop economics. She saw every pound not in her father’s till but spent by local authorities and governments on public welfare as an infringement of the principle that just as her father paid for all living expenses and welfare benefits out of the labour and enterprise of running his shop, so should every customer pay for their welfare out of their wages. This soon became lifted to a code of conduct which attributed all deficiencies in society to money spent on social welfare. If this expenditure ceased then all would be well with Britain – and soon with the world, when we joined the Thatcher/Reagan axis.

This was elevated to become a core strategy for privatising the NHS. It took the form of introducing managers from commercial companies, to break the “chummy” culture and end the improved consensus-working of NHS staff. This would be replaced by units of managers on fixed term contracts and quantitative goals to meet.

Financially, there was a need to increase the NHS budget because of technical improvements and a growing population with an increasing life expectancy. And as people aged, their demands on hospital beds increased. Thatcher’s answer was to transfer the problem to local authorities under the rubric of “Care in the Community”, without providing or ring fencing the necessary money.

Then a whole barrage of financial instruments were introduced into hospital budgeting to cover claims that hospitals were inefficiently run or too costly to manage. During the 1990s Inland Revenue valuers were instructed to add an additional six per cent to the rateable value of NHS buildings. They also had to assess land at market valuations based on maximum values.

Adding the Private Finance Initiative to all the Thatcher-style financial juggling, and then factoring in the costs of the paperwork for running an internal market between each section of the NHS, and the result were about £20 billion – almost a fifth of the annual cost of the NHS.


New Labour carried on with this process of privatising the NHS from its election in 1997 to its defeat by Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010. Now they, through the Health and Social Care Bill, which is now completing its passage through Parliament, are the final stages of breaking up the integrated health system into fragments suitable for capitalist concerns to acquire and operate as profit making enterprises.

Among the policies being put forward in the Bill is that of letting loose the “bug” of greed amongst GPs in former partnership arrangements., who will now find themselves part of business enterprises with the salaries of individual doctors in a particular surgery now going as a lump sum to a “principle” who will allocate as he/she sees fit to junior doctors, and then pocket the remainder.

Within this new “profit” environment GPs (who will be transferred from small practices into large consortiums) will have the strain of competing amongst themselves for position, as well as competing against other consortia fighting for patients to meet “bottom line” situations controlled by entrepreneurial managers and CEOs.


The new structure will be going into place within the first phase of closing down Primary Care Trusts. A third of the NHS budget will be handed over to the new commissions which will control GPs, and this is scheduled to be completed by mid 2012. Preparations will be undertaken to have all GPs in their allotted consortiums by April 2013. Thus the neighbourhood GP service – the bedrock which collectively links patients with the common benefits of a unified National Health Service – comes to an end.


To rescue the NHS from the privateers, we will have to pick up on the programme attempted by Aneurin Bevan and which Barbara Castle also took on board – ie, to end private beds in NHS hospitals, provide neighbourhood health centres (modelled on that launched in Peckham), and create a new Resources Working Party to provide a levelling up of all NHS facilities, thus transforming an “only go when you are sick” approach into a “keep healthy and cure sickness” service.

Thus, there should be:

  • No financial juggling, such as Public Sector Dividend, or six per cent valuation upgrade
  • No valuing of land at market rent levels but at permitted planning use
  • No “engineering” of pensions to place a false burden on NHS books
  • No private beds within the NHS – and no facilities for private practice by NHS staff.

There should be provision for:

  • Recovery hospitals for patients discharged from acute or specialist hospitals but not yet fit for home nursing.
  • Convalescent homes for patients requiring recuperative treatment.
  • Neighbourhood nursing homes for long-term sickness.
  • Care housing and homes, and day centres as appropriate to needs.
  • The transfer to the National Debt of all Private Finance Initiative costs.

A review of the Peckham Experiment and its philosophy.

“Peckhams” have in-house facilities, such as swimming pool, gymnasium, sports facilities and wellbeing – as neighbourhood community centres which link people as neighbours, families, children, etc.


Implementing all these suggestions requires a sea-change in English politics, which would embrace its patient population in its entirety.

Patients should elect a neighbourhood forum to provide patient intervention teams, to ensure that their neighbourhood GPs continue to provide street or village coverage. Forums from neighbourhoods should be elected to ensure that Primary Care Trusts continue and co-ordinate NHS facilities within their area. Where these have been disbanded, these neighbourhood forums should establish “shadow trusts”, to intervene to ensure the continuation of area health provision.

Crucial to the success of patients organised in such forums will be the support of NHS staff. These should move from being subservient employees of CEOs engaged in the privatisation of the service at the diktat of a Conservative Prime Minister to the establishment of a directly democratic structure in which each employee has an equal say and vote – a co-operative form of employee self-management.


To bring about such changes we also need to gain the sanction of England’s people.

In 1948 93.1 per cent of the population registered as patients under the NHS. As the transcendental authority of England is its people (above a Parliament of divided political parties), a referendum should be held in each Parliamentary constituency to gain the approval of such a programme. This should then be put to a free vote in Parliament.

Thus voters, as patients, as neighbours and as people, could express their verdict.



two short pieces

In A.Graham, R.Richardson on April 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm


RUTH RICHARDSON looks at who’s making big money out of those privatisation deals

The departure of Emma Harrison, the Prime Minister’s former “family tsar”, amidst allegations of fraud, focused attention on the huge contracts being handed out to companies carrying out public works.

Emma Harrison’s firm A4E was responsible for implementing the now infamous “welfare-to-work” programme. The company headed by Emma and James Harrison earned around £11 million last year wholly from the provision of public services.


The mindset that private profit-making firms perform better than the public sector in many areas is one that both New Labour and Conservative governments have adopted in recent years. Last year Oliver Letwin told a think tank that the public sector needed “fear and discipline” instilled into it.

Meanwhile, an article in the Observer last month focused on who were the big earners in five areas of public provision; welfare being one of them. Other areas were prisons, health, schools and higher education.


The UK has a greater proportion of prisoners in private hands than anywhere else in the world. It will be no surprise to Clarion readers to learn that the firm G4S (formerly Group 4) leads the way, with its CEO, Nick Buckles, earning £1.4 million in 2010. Twelve prisons have been transferred to private hands in recent years, and a further nine are out to tender.


The creeping privatisation of the health services has been the subject of a number of articles in the Clarion. The Observer article highlighted the transfer of Hinchinbrooke Hospital to a company called Circle Healthcare in February, making it the first private firm to deliver a full range of NHS hospital services. The deal was worth one billion pounds, and the company’s CEO, John Griffiths-Jones, took home £2.62 million in 2010.


In education, private firms routinely provide many services such as supply teachers, ICT, grounds maintenance and “enrichment courses”, often in music or the arts, where teachers lack the necessary expertise. Breckland Free School, opening in September, will be run by IES – a Swedish company. Parents are quickly realising that managing free schools needs a measure of professional input, and a number of companies are ready to jump aboard. One such company, Wey Education, is quoted as saying that it saw an opportunity created by “the deconstruction of the education function within local authorities”. Pearsons, publishers of the Financial Times also provides educational services including the exam board Edexel. Pearsons’ CEO, Marjorie Scardino, was paid a salary of £969,000 in 2010, plus a bonus of £1.6 million.


In higher education, provision through the private sector is perceived as a very real threat. At present there are two private universities in the UK. One of them, BPP University College gained almost £2 million in Government loans. BPP is owned by an American company, Apollo Inc., and its CEO, Carl Lygo takes home a modest salary of £500,000. Meanwhile, our public universities have suffered an eighty per cent cut to teaching grants and have to look increasingly to the private sector for funding. Some academics fear that this may compromise their independence to run the courses they choose.


At the beginning of March, the Guardian led with a worrying story that there were secret plans to privatise the police force. Already private security companies are taking on many duties once performed by the police. We await developments.

Of course Tory ideology says that private is good whilst public is bad. Is that because of principle or is it because it provides rich pickings for the “haves”, including the Government’s cronies? With private firms, of course, the bottom line is always profit. And never mind the quality. After all, where’s the profit in public service service provision?



When the Olympic Games were revived, towards the end of the 19th Century, the founders had a vision. The Olympics were to demonstrate that peace and fellowship could grow through sporting contests embracing athletes from across the globe.

So where did we go wrong? Why has nationalism, and big business, become embedded so deeply in the very soul of the movement?

It may well have started with the Berlin Olympics in the 1930s – which was staged as a showpiece for Nazi ideology. In 1948, in a war-battered London, the Games put on a very different face. They were labelled “the Austerity Olympics”. Once again, the original ideals of the movement was forced to the fore. Britain won few medals on that occasion – but that wasn’t the point. Those who flocked to the sporting events, or followed the occasion through newsreels, newspapers or the wireless, enjoyed every minute of it.

Now the Olympics are back in Britain again. We’re all being exhorted to support “TeamGB”. After all, it’s our patriotic duty. Sponsorships from inappropriate business corporations multiply – and the whole event will take place in conditions of top security. Demonstrations are to be banned, and precautions include talk of a possible missile intercepter.

A site in East London was chosen, on the grounds that it was an area of urban decay – and, it was claimed, the games would bring regeneration and prosperity to all. Never mind the fact that there was already a community there. The community fought back – but housing and local amenities that were seen as irrelevant were swept aside, to make way for the glitzy Olympics infrastructure.  425 tenants of a local housing co-op found their homes being compulsorarily purchased, and they were dispersed into alternative accomodation across London.

Just to share out the pickings, contracts and sponsorships have been dealt out to many who surely must have friends in high places. Otherwise why would the contract for printing tickets go to a company in the deep south of the USA? Don’t we have printshops of our own?

Other dubious sponsorships include those given to BP and Dow Chemicals. Dow Chemicals bought the firm Union Carbide in 2001 – the company responsible for a toxic gas leak at its plant in Bhopal, India, which led to massive contamination and the death of thousands. Whilst no-one is suggesting that Dow, the present company, was directly responsible, it still has a responsibility. As Amnesty International says “when Dow bought Union Carbide, it bought liability for the Bhopal disaster.”

Gimmicks such as the decision to have the Olympic torch carried across the country by a motley team drawn from across the country won’t save these tarnished games. Big business and politics have taken over, all neatly packaged in the Union Jack.

EDITORIAL COMMENT: NHS – the fightback continues!

In Editorial on April 12, 2012 at 11:13 am

On March 20th 2012, the House of Commons delivered the death blow to the National Health Service as we’ve known it since 1948.

This, of course, isn’t the end of the campaign. It mustn’t be. But as the Service is fragmented, and the private sector moves in as “willing providers”, resistance will no doubt become more localised. Unions will continue to fight for pay and conditions of their members – and hopefully for the welfare of the patients that their members care for.

And, perhaps, we need to ask ourselves why? Why, after such an unprecedented campaign of sustained opposition, both from those who work within the NHS and the general public, did the ConDem government insist on pushing ahead with a piece of legislation that they knew was so unpopular. Why did they even refuse to listen to the health professionals themselves? After all, Cameron has performed U-turns on other issues – as he did on his Bill to sell off the forests. So why not on the NHS? Why wasn’t he prepared to bow to the will of the people?

Probably, on this issue, he felt that there was too much at stake. When it came to the crunch, his government had much more riding on it. And he had the vested interests of the private “healthcare” industry breathing down his neck. Despite all the blather, it was in their interests that the legislation has been forced through.


And, of course, we’ve faced decades of creeping privatisation already – ever since the bleak Thatcher years in fact. It’s to the shame of the “New Labour” government under Blair that little or nothing was done to reverse the damage to the fabric of the NHS caused by the Thatcher years. Indeed, to give one example, the encouragement of PFI only served to make matters worse.

To its credit, the Labour leadership did campaign against the Health Bill, and voted against it in Parliament (the Lib Dems, of course to their eternal shame, voted in favour, and no doubt will be held to account for their actions). Labour has also pledged to repeal the Act when it returns to power. It is up to us, all of us, to hold them to this pledge. It’s all too easy for weasel words to emerge from those we elect a few years down the line, to the effect that “it’s now too late”. Or “we now have to work with what we’ve got”. When Nye Bevan fought to create National Health Service for all, “free at the point of need” he faced battles. But he built something special – and we want it back.


For us, we will, no doubt, be turning our attention to the fate of healthcare in Gloucestershire. It is difficult to predict at this stage where we’ll be when the new legislation comes into effect. There may be battles to save local health centres, or even hospitals. What will be the fate of small community hospitals such as Lydney or the Dilke, for example? And what of those who work within the NHS locally? What does the future hold for them? Will they continue to be employed directly by the NHS, or will they find themselves working for a private healthcare company, with all that this implies?

In practice, the new legislation is so full of ambiguities that it is difficult to foresee what will happen further down the road. The “worst case scenario” is that the NHS will become merely a supervisory body overseeing a ragbag collection of privately owned healthcare bodies who will (in their own different ways) be given the responsibility of looking after our health on the ground – while perhaps remaining as provider of odd services that the private sector can’t cream off. It’s a daunting thought.

Meanwhile, we still haven’t been given the opportunity to see the secret “Risk Register” on the impact of the legislation. Until we do, we’re entitled to envisage the worst.

For all these reasons, of course, it’s why the fight MUST go on.

The Budget:


It was Ed Milliband who said it all in his budget speech on March 21. In order to lower the tax rate levied on the super rich from 50 to 45 per cent, those on the lower rungs of the ladder are to be squeezed even more than they are now.

Well, the money has to come from somewhere doesn’t it? And if the super rich are going in for tax avoidance on a massive scale, why not lower their tax rate? After all, if they’re not paying up, does it matter?

Well of course it matters. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has now revealed that he’s not only a Thatcherite at heart but one in practice as well.


Many pensioners will be particularly affected by Osborne’s budget. Some 4.1 million of them will be worse off. And new pensioners will lose out even more. As Dot Gibson, general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention, said of the budget proposals, “it’s a classic case of smoke and mirrors… In reality there will be no extra money to raise Britain’s scandalously low state pension – just a different way of packaging the payment.”

“The Chancellor’s pledge to cut welfare payments by £10 billion over the next few years will also worry millions of pensioners who may think that their bus passes and winter fuel allowances might be under threat, and the long awaited social care White Paper is being delayed without any explanation, while around a million older people are struggling with a broken care system. The money is being given away in tax breaks for the richest in society…..Pensioners will feel bruised by his budget.”

But of course it’s been the Chancellor’s “gift aid” to the wealthy that really hit the headlines the day after the budget. It was that, that really revealed the true face of Cameron’s Toryism.

MODERN TIMES: the Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on April 12, 2012 at 11:08 am

Preparing for the “Sicko” society?

I don’t know how many folk out there actually watch the adverts on TV. Maybe they prefer just to blank them out, treat them as rather annoying moving wallpaper, or go off to make a cup of tea during the commercial breaks.

But those who have been paying attention may well have noticed the sudden increase in the number of adverts for private health insurance. I’m aware that for some time we’ve had to put up with those smugly cosy plugs for BUPA, but now a range of insurance companies are getting in on the act.

After the National Health Service came into being, back in 1948, private health insurance seemed to sink without trace. After all, we all paid national insurance as a matter of course, so why pay twice for our health treatment? So is this sudden resurrection of private health insurance a sign of the times? Getting ready for when the Health and Social Care legislation comes into effect? It’s a chilling thought, isn’t it?

Those who’ve watched Michael Moore’s film Sicko will have seen what happens in the USA where folk rely on private insurance to see them through bouts of ill health and sickness. Me, I’m one of the NHS generation of dinosaurs – and I’ve no intention of surrendering to the blandishments of the private health care industry.

branching out:

Since Group 4 merged with Securicor it has attempted to re-brand itself. It now calls itself G4S, and in recent years it has been busy bidding for any Government contracts that come its way – including Ofsted, for goodness sake.

But one contract that it gained didn’t work out quite so well. It was some time ago that it was signed on to provide the security at Halifax Airport, Nova Scotia, Canada.

As readers may have noticed, this Dinosaur is partial to the odd visit to Canada – and Nova Scotia in particular. On one such visit we flew in – only to discover that Group 4 were now in charge of airport security. It was like stepping into a Marx Brothers’ comedy film.

The security guards were all dressed in what looked like ill fitting Ruritanian uniforms, and they charged around in a state of disorganised chaos. Queues at the checkout lengthened, with passengers reduced to a state of bemused uncertainty. There was no panic, but, hey, this was Canada, after all..

The next time we flew in to Halifax, the Group 4 guards had vanished, and it was all back to normal.

The nature of capitalism – in Canada

Whilst we’re talking Canadian, I came across one news item about a stand-off between the US company Caterpillar and its workforce at the company’s plant in London, Ontario.

Caterpillar makes those giant earth moving machines, as well as a range of mining and construction machinery. They’re big, in more ways than one. In 2010, It took over the local firm EMD, and moved into Ontario.

At the time, Canada’s Tory Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, praised the takeover as an example of how his government was attracting foreign investment into the country. But now Caterpillar has sacked the entire workforce at its Canadian plant – after they refused to take a 50 per cent pay cut. Yes, 50 per cent – I kid you not! Not only that, but workers would lose their pension rights.

On New Year’s day, the workers were locked out, and then in February the company announced that it was closing the factory and moving to a non-union plant back in the USA.

The union involved. is the Canadian Auto Workers Union. Its members put up a brave fight to save their jobs and the factory – but faced with unacceptable demands from a predatory company, their jobs have gone, and the whole local economy will suffer as a result.

Incidentally, on an ironic note, it was in London, Ontario, that the Tolpuddle Martyrs chose to settle after they returned from their long years doing penal servitude in Australia. And they are remembered by the town that they chose to settle in. There is a monument there to their memory, as well as a co-op housing development and a trade union complex in the town, both named after them. Despite the machinations of US asset stripping companies like Caterpillar, this is the true face of trade unionism in Canada.


The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

In C.Spiby, Reviews on April 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm

{a review by C. Spiby for The Clarion}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.