The state is the United Kingdom, but what is the state of the UK?
The daily tabloid newspapers recently carried the story of how Charles Windsor has been covertly receiving top-secret Cabinet papers for decades. Following a Freedom of Information (FIO) battle, it has been revealed that Charles, along with his mother, Elizabeth Windsor, the Head of State for the UK, has been given a weekly insight into the heart and mind of the British Government. Seemingly, this practice has been going on since at least 1992. This means that Charles Windsor has had unrivalled access to the workings of the UK government for nearly a quarter of a century. Why is this so?
Apart from any other consideration, Prince Charles has a habit of intervening in public policy matters, particularly involving some of his favourite subjects (and I do not mean British citizens). These would include planning and rural affairs. One Westminster MP has said that, “There is no control over his lobbying. He is not only the most influential lobbyist, but the best informed. He is lobbying for his own interests, which are not always benign or sensible.”
It is only a few months since the publication of the so-called “Black Spider” memos. In these it was revealed that Charles Windsor had pressed the Blair Government to listen to and act on his counsel in such areas as provision for the Armed Forces and more help for the dairy industry, as well as his criticism of the design for a refurbishment of the Chelsea Barracks in London. Following his intervention, plans for the latter were shelved.
In response to all of this, the CEO of the Republic movement said that, “Charles has no legitimate need to see Cabinet papers. His political and private interests and the high degree of secrecy surrounding his lobbying means there is a real danger this information can be abused without any possibility of accountability.”
Response to this viewpoint echoed the usual line that “it has been part of his (Charles) constitutional role as heir to the (British) throne” and “established practice for many years.” In view of this, therefore, it needs to be further asked about the legitimacy of Prince William, the son of Charles Windsor, also receiving Cabinet information. In what state is British democracy?
The situation outlined in the above brings to mind a maxim of the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who insisted that “To be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great.” In the light of this perspective it would seem that Charles Windsor is on the way to becoming a legend in his own lifetime!
I will not take it for granted, but readers of this blog may have heard of the “northern powerhouse”. This is a scheme that aims “to set up the northern regions of England as an economic rival to the south-east of the country. It plans to do this by devolving powers over services such as health, transport, planning and economic regeneration.” But not, it appears, by devolving education.
Having been a secondary school teacher, I have a bias that says that education and accountability for it must lie at the heart of any successful plan for economic regeneration. The present British Government does not seem to share this viewpoint. This is not surprising as it doesn’t think skills are part of education anyway, not to mention the matter of accountability. Local accountability for education is rapidly diminishing as central government takes over such things as funding, curriculum issues and structural organisation, e.g., the role of the new regional schools commissioners.
The complex nature of the flux in the circumstances of central government involvement in all aspects of education in England can be seen in the case of a boarding school set up by the Durand Academy Trust in the south of England. Finding out how many pupils should be educated at the school’s West Sussex site proved an almost impossible task for one intrepid investigator.
The school claimed that its pupil numbers were a matter for Ofsted; Ofsted said it was a matter for the Department for Education; and the DfE said it was a matter for the school. Would this situation have come about if local oversight of schools were still in the hands of the Local Education Authority? I doubt it.
I do not claim that LEA’s have always done a brilliant job, but is the present system serving the educational needs of real children – in the cities, towns and villages of the “northern powerhouse”, West Sussex or elsewhere? What is the state of education in the British state? Is it any more democratic and accountable than giving Charles Windsor and his son unimpeded access to the British Government and its Cabinet papers?
It is appropriate to return to the wisdom of Hegel. He further wrote: “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present.” This can be applied to the tortured relationship of the UK with the rest of Europe and how quickly we can forget the lessons of history. In Britain, politicians are slaves to public opinion on Europe (no chance of greatness, then, with the present lot up at Westminster!). What does this say about the state of politics in Britain?
As the debate on whether the UK should remain within the European Community gathers momentum, it is quite obvious that a major shaper of public opinion is the press. With notable exceptions, the British press is anti-European and there are comparatively few at Westminster, as elsewhere, who are willing to challenge what one politician has labelled “the constant negativity in the press or even to question whether men who pay no taxes in Britain should have such power to dictate public opinion.” What is the state of the fourth estate in Britain?
It has been said that the first condition of democracy is for all citizens to be sceptical about what those in power do. The truth of this is all too evident in what is written in the above.
We are living in a world of constant change – social, economic, political, military and moral. This change does not happen in a vacuum, it is informed, even engineered by specific interests, objectives and outlooks. Behind each of these categories are human beings – politicians, priests, press barons, educators, generals and royals, and more. Not all of these are benign – witness the rise of terrorism and global conflict, moral relativism and climate change, social and economic inequalities and the concentration of wealth, and the dilution and diminishing of democracy.
To ask the question, “What state are we in?” is to believe that what has been written about in the above is not always inevitable or preordained, or to be adopted or adapted to.
To ask this is to relentlessly question and hold to account what we are all too often encouraged to uncritically accept. It is to unreservedly believe that circumstances and situations, possibilities and processes can be changed.
To ask this question is to favour the greater good and not the narrow interests of the few. What state are we in, and who benefits from it?
Robert S Culbard
22 December, 2015