Given Britain’s monumental budgetary problems, after a decade of political debate that could be summarised as “spending is caring” the fact that a decision to cut £13m from one scheme has dominated the news agenda for the past few days seems ridiculous.
The issue is one about the role of Government, and personal responsibility. The people who teach kids to reads are families and teachers. The people who have the vested interest in lots of people reading (very different to improving literacy) are publishers. So why is it that now Ed Miliband, The Guardian et al seem to think Government should be buying lots of books to give away?
Like many policies which seek to place the state in commanding roles, this is an issue guided by many who believe that responsibility for improving literacy can be abdicated by providing books for free. It’s the same belief that guided the insane policy of providing free laptops to deprived communities, believing all that was needed to bridge the digital divide was to hand out the necessary hardware.
You can’t make obese people lose weight by giving them footballs, you can’t give people the IT skills to use online services by giving them a laptop, and you can’t teach kids to read by giving them books.
Books have always been available for free - at libraries. The question is whether parents want to take their children to them. And correct me if I’m wrong, but the biggest selling childrens book franchise, well, ever was Harry Potter - and was never given away free. Indeed, every time a new Harry Potter book comes out there’s inevitably news stories about the young people lined up outside Waterstones for hours, to get their hands on the (more expensive) hardback edition as soon as possible.
So why has this become a big story? Because there’s no wider narrative about why it’s being cut. The Guardian, Ed Miliband et al have portrayed it as an attack on children/literacy/poverty/the Baby Jesus (ok maybe not the last one) and it’s gained enough traction to secure the PM’s intervention and probably a degree of U-Turn.
Simply, the coalition is failing to argue the case for reducing the size of the state and articulating the need for personal responsibility. BookTrust was self-funding until from 1992 (when it was set up) until 2004. There was no great outcry greeting Tony Blair in 1997 to fund it, so they left it alone for seven years. Publishers funded the scheme as a way of driving sales in later years. In other words, their marketing activity.
Cutting Government funding will not, as the hysterical Guardian implies, “make it harder for children to read” - it will however make it harder for parents to absolve themselves of any involvement in their childs engagement with reading, and for government to absolve itself of responsibility for falling literacy standards.
The coming year will see many, many more instances like this. If the Coalition doesn’t articulate a wider narrative about the size of the British state, and the fact we can’t afford the largesse of the past decade without massive tax increases, every time a relatively small decision is unpopular with a small but vocal section of society, U-turn will follow U-turn.
Two parties in Government, together reshaping the state was rightly seen by David Cameron and Nick Clegg as the opportunity to be radical and leave a lasting legacy of better public services, greater personal freedom and most importantly low Government debt.
That opportunity will be missed if the public do not believe it is necessary - a feeling only perpetuated by U-turns.
Seems The Sage of Twickenham’s problems today could have been forecast by a quick look at his Twitter account.
While the profile states his current Government position, Business Secretary, his background picture is still very much Shadow Chancellor and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
While it’s a shockingly bad example of the way politicians on all sides have a habit of seeing communications tools as bandwagons only to be jumped on at election time, it might just be that Vince didn’t expect to need a ‘Government’ profile for long!
Posted: December 21st, 2010
Categories: Campaign Issues
, nick pickles
, Vince Cable
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Whether you agree with drug decriminalisation or not, shutting down the debate before it even starts doesn’t help anyone.
The comments by Bob Ainsworth - a former Home Office Minister - are certainly a notable event, as probably the most senior politician to call for an end of the war on drugs and a radical change in policy.
The last government’s sacking of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) hijacked drugs policy as a political tool more brutally than any act before it.
The Lancet’s recent report once again highlighted the scientific basis of alcohol being more harmful than many illegal drugs, while official statistics show alcohol-related deaths now exceed 15,000. Little has been heard from politicians today on this topic, yet it is the biggest public health issue as far as drugs are concerned. Obesity is already becoming an equally significant issue, with far greater health consequences than many illegal drugs.
As the widespread response to Ainsworth’s comments has shown, it seems science has no place in ‘The War on Drugs’ and indeed any debate about the potential flaws in a prohibition-led approach is entirely unwanted.
Whatever your views on drug policy - within which we must include tobacco and alcohol - not having any discussion will not help address the real problems many face because of drug misuse and addiction. There was a time when alcohol was illegal, yet now it (along with tobacco) is such a part of the social fabric few would consider reintroducing that particular tenet of prohibition.
Bill Hicks’ always said how strange many politicians take drugs and don’t enjoy them, when everyone else seems to manage a good time, and that they must have simply had bad drugs. When drug policy is being debated, it’s one of those issues when it’s patently clear that the political classes are either out of touch with large numbers of the population, or are simply indulging in spectacular hypocrisy.
I’m a big fan of the West Wing and, as so often, President Bartlett had it right when he said: “I inherited the war on drugs from a President who inherited it from a President who inherited it from a President before that. I’m not a hundred percent sure who we’re fighting but I know we’re not winning. Ten years ago we spent five billion dollars fighting drugs and we did such a good job that last year we spent 16 billion.
“Sixty percent of federal prisoners are in jail on drug charges as opposed to two and a half percent that are there for violent crime. We imprison a higher percentage of our citizens than Russia did under Communism and South Africa did under apartheid. Somewhere between 50 and 85% of the prison population has a drug or alcohol abuse problem. We’ve tried ‘Just Say No’, I don’t think it’s going to work.”
It should be recognised that the overwhelming majority of the millions of people in the UK who use illegal drugs do so out of choice. The present prohibition, while denying the liberty of personal choice, only exacerbates the criminality, violence and chemical interference that cause the real social damage. Those suffering from addiction should be afforded the most thorough support to free themselves from their addiction.
We have a drugs policy barely fit for the 1920s, rooted in social prejudice and scientific ignorance. It’s time for a real debate on this, and I applaud Bob Ainsworth for having the nerve to say so publicly and hope many more in Westminster add their voice to the call for a debate, if not a change in the law.
Groundhog day - once again students are in Parliament lobbying MPs about fees.
In 2004, I was a student (and at the time didn’t plan on becoming President of the Students Union) and sat watching the debate on top-up fees happily agreeing with everyone who said being a graduate meant you would earn more. (At the time I still planned on being a lawyer!)
Now, I’m a self-employed taxpayer, with very different priorities (and definitely not in the high-paid lawyers job, but this is a good thing!). The only context fees were debated when I stood at the election was when during a debate on MP’s expenses, I highlighted the issue of breaking manifesto pledges as a wider part of the lack of trust in politics.
Post-election we’re in a very different world. Yes, the Lib Dem’s had a campaign pledge (and believe it or not until 2005 the Tories were still proposing abolishing fees) that they are now breaking. Well, all I can say is Tony Blair had an enormous majority, and the Lib Dems are in a Coalition. Blair had the ability to keep his promises, the Lib Dems don’t. I think there are a lot of taxpayers out there who will give Clegg et al credit for acting in the best interests of the country.
Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to see what Mr Blair had to say on breaking his own manifesto pledge (for the second time:
He told Newsnight: “The easiest thing to say is we will give you the whole system for free. But I would then have to find £1 billion in money from elsewhere that I would have to put into that. I couldn’t justify that.”
The greater irony is this quote: “The reason we brought in tuition fees was, after the report that was set up by the previous government, everyone agreed universities need more money, we need to expand the places, so the question is - how do we pay for it?”
Read the full transcript here.
Posted: December 9th, 2010
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