6 February 1996
The furore during the past fortnight over Labour shadow health secretary
Harriet Harman's decision to send her 11-year old son to a selective grant-maintained
grammar school, raises some interesting questions about politics in the
nineties, writes Claire Foster.
Both the Tories and Labour's own old left have described Harman variously
as a hypocrite and a traitor. Why? Because her personal actions as a parent
are at odds with the much quoted David Blunkett Labour Party policy statement
on education: 'Watch my lips. No selection, either by examination or interview
under a Labour government.'
Oh dear. Harriet's little Joseph was selected by interview and exam.
It may be tempting to enjoy the embarrassment of seeing slick Blairite politicians
come unstuck. But actually the accusation of hypocrisy levelled by the Tory
front bench confuses public policy with individual action. Let's untangle
It is entirely sensible that any parent would send their child to the best
school possible. So what if this school is not the type Labour wants to
promote? It says nothing about one's commitment to a different policy. If
you were to want a hip replacement and BUPA could do it next week, but an
NHS hospital would only have a place in nine month's time, you would sensibly
use your firm's insurance to have the operation privately. To hold out in
agony on principle would be ludicrous. Using BUPA would not imply you were
fully committed to privatising healthcare. Most people are opposed to the
privatisation of public utilities as policy, but as individuals they still
drink water rather than die of thirst, use gas, electricity and so on.
A Sunday Times editorial (28 January 1996) argued that '"Do as I say"
is a dangerous precept in politics when those giving the instructions do
the opposite'. But that reduces the matter of public policy to the private
world of individual decisions about how to live one's life. Politics is
not about any one politician's predilections. It is about shaping society
and how it is organised in general, concerned with the common not the particular
case. What is dangerous is when politics can be used to police individuals'
lives or when it is trivialised in a way which reduces a discussion about
policy to a debate about which school your children should go to. In this
media and parliamentary circus, what is missed is a serious discussion about
what the public policies of both parties advocate.
Claire Foster writes on the education debate in Living Marxism, April 1996
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