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6 February 1996

Schools Row

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 them.

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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