Friday, 27 August 1993


New Statesman & Society, leader, 27 August 1993

Once again, the question of state fund­ing for denominational schools has hit the headlines. The immediate rea­son this time is the government's an­nouncement last week that it would not grant voluntary-aided status to a private Muslim school in Brent, north London.

Baroness Blatch, the Minister of State for Education, said that the Islamia primary school, founded ten years ago by Yusuf Islam, formerly the pop singer Cat Stevens, did not qualify for state funding because there were already more than enough state primary school places in Brent. Muslims re­sponded by denouncing the government for pursuing a blatantly discriminatory pol­icy. If state funding is all right for 2,100 Roman Catholic, 2,000 Anglican, 21 Jewish and four Methodist schools, they argue, why shouldn't Muslim schools get it too?

As just about every quality newspaper has remarked in a leader, the Muslims seem to have a strong case. The government's excuse for refusing state funding is feeble even by its own execrable standards: the Islamia school is heavily over-subscribed, with a 1,000-name waiting list even though it charges more than £1,000 a year fees, and a majority of its 180 pupils live outside Brent. It is, by all accounts, including that of John Patten, the Education Secretary, who visited it earlier in the year, professionally run and regularly inspected, following the National Curriculum to the letter.

More important than the specific case of the Islamia  school, the way that Muslim schools are treated differently from those of other denominations is patently unfair. According to the most reliable estimates, there are in the United Kingdom today 1.8 million adult members of the established Anglican church, 1.9 million Roman Catholics, 1.2 million Presbyterians, 400,000 Methodists and 900,000 members of other Protestant de­nominations. Between 1975 and 1990, total membership of Christian churches declined by 15 per cent. The only Christian churches that have grown are evangelical and charis­matic ones.

During the same period, Islam became a firmly rooted part of British life, as did other religions rare here until the wave of immigra­tion from the Indian sub-continent in the 1960s and 1970s. There are now more than one million adult Muslims in the United Kingdom, 300,000 Hindus and 300,000 Sikhs. It is not inconceivable that, within 25 years, Muslims will outnumber Anglicans in the UK.

But if there is a clear case for treating Mus­lim schools no differently from Anglican, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Methodist schools, that does not necessarily mean that state funding should be extended. It would be just as fair to withdraw it from existing de­nominational schools and to make state edu­cation wholly secular – and there are sound arguments for doing just that.

The most important is based on the simple liberal principle that religious beliefs are es­sentially private, personal matters. The state should ensure that people are not persecuted for their religious beliefs (or indeed for the lack of them) and should intervene to stop religious practices that break the law. But that should be the end of its involvement. Just as it should do nothing to suppress religious belief, it should do nothing to encourage it. Yet, by funding denominational schools, that is precisely what the state is doing.

It is doing it, moreover, in a way that flies in the face of the assumption, universally applied to other spheres of life, that children do not have the experience to make respon­sible decisions, even about personal matters. Sex is barred until the age of 16, voting until 18 – but denominational schools operate on the basis that there is nothing wrong with a person's choice of religion being heavily in­fluenced, if not determined by, teachers before he or she has reached the age of ten.

Broadening the scope of denominational education would also increase racial segre­gation in society as a whole, which in turn would exacerbate racial tensions. As the Commission for Racial Equality used to put it (it has subsequently changed its line): "Sep­arate schools are in conflict with the pluralist principles of 'education for all', as not pro­viding pupils with a common education ex­perience, as absolving schools from the need to adapt to a multi-cultural society and as leading to community polarisation and isola­tion along racial lines."

Unfortunately, such opinions are rarely voiced these days in British politics. Politi­cians of all parties realise that, even though religious observance in Britain has declined inexorably in the past century, there are votes to be had in religion.

For the Conservatives, with little support among ethnic minority Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, defence of the status quo against calls for the extension of the denominational schools system is a convenient means of pla­ying the race card to white voters, of a piece with being "tough" on "bogus asylum-seekers". For Labour, which once argued for the abolition of denominational schools (against the wishes of members in its north­-western and Scottish Catholic heartlands), promising to extend the system appears at­tractively fair to liberal opinion and goes down very well in key marginal seats in the Midlands and Yorkshire.

Ultimately, however, the problem is not just one of political opportunism. The whole question of state funding for denominational schools arises, in the end, because of the privileges granted Anglicanism as the official religion of the British state. As with so much that is wrong with British life, the only true solution will come when a government dares to give our creaking constitution a radical overhaul.

Friday, 20 August 1993


New Statesman & Society, leader, 20 August 1993

Gordon Brown's speech this week, as he launched the Labour Party con­ference economic policy document, was the clearest indication yet that Labour has decided that its top political priority is to shed its image as a "tax and spend" party.

"Labour is not against wealth, nor will we seek to penalise it," said Brown. "Not only do we not tax for its own sake, we only tax if it increases the opportunities for individuals or for the community as a whole.
"On spending, we recognise that public ser­vices exist for one purpose – to enhance people's opportunities and prosperity. Wher­ever spending has become divorced from this purpose, it is wasteful and inefficient and we should cut it or eliminate it."

Brown's speech was short on detail and, typically, very careful. He did not promise that a Labour government would not put up taxes; he did not even say that Labour would not increase direct taxes. As far as public spending commitments are concerned, "there are none": Labour will not decide how much it wants to spend on what until the Commission on Social Justice, the non-party body set up by John Smith last year, has published its conclusions and the party has reviewed them.

Nevertheless, two things are pretty clear. First, Labour will not be fighting the next general election on anything like last year's shadow budget, with its promises of increases in pensions and child benefits paid for by the abolition of the ceiling on National Insurance contributions and a 50p top rate of tax on earnings above £30,000 a year.

If Labour does go for tax increases, they will generally not be income tax increases; to the extent that they are, they will apply only to the very rich. And, insofar as the tax and welfare systems are used for redistribution, it will be justified less in terms of achieving greater equality of outcomes than of encouraging greater equality of opportunity.

Second, Labour will not be fighting the next election on anything like the platform for Keynesian reflation advanced by Bryan Gould, Peter Main and others on the soft left of the party. For Brown and the Labour leadership, public spending is not a good thing that encourages the growth of demand in the economy: it has to be kept firmly under control and cut where possible.

If Brown's speech left any room for doubt on this point, there is none in the document that it launched. Its familiar analysis of the failure of Britain to invest in industry and training and equally familiar proposals for "supply-side" measures to rectify this failure are accompanied by a straightforward rejec­tion of the idea that Keynesian demand man­agement is the key to turning round the British economy: "Now that we live in an increasingly global economy, care must be taken to ensure that an injection of resources does not simply lead to more imports – and therefore more output in competitor countries – but increases in out­put and jobs here.

"The key stimulus to investment is, of course, the prospect of growing demand. To pretend that supply-side measures alone are sufficient to secure the level of investment that Britain needs is to neglect this basic fact. But to pretend that the management of de­mand alone can sustain high levels of em­ployment over the long term is to misunderstand the current predicament of the British economy, which has an ever worsen­ing deficit despite the longest recession since the war. Without creating extra capacity, ex­panding demand will in due course bring an even worse balance of payments and increas­ing inflation."

Needless to say, the Labour left is less than pleased at what it sees as Brown's kow-tow­ing to the Tories on tax and macroeconomic policy – and they could turn out to be right.

But much of Brown's "new approach" makes sense. On tax, it would be madness for Labour to risk losing another election by promising increased taxes on middle incomes. Even if the possibility is discounted that, by the time of the next election, economic recovery might just have given the Tories enough room to cut income tax, there are plenty of ways of raising indirect taxes, if needs be, without making the tax system more regressive.

More importantly, on macroeconomics, Brown is quite right to dismiss the possibility that plucky little Britain could go it alone with some version of the one-nation Keynesianism that underpinned the Alternative Economic Strategy of the early 1980s. The globalisation and increased mobility of capital really do make it impossible for a medium-sized na­tion-state, even one without a massive bal­ance of payments deficit, significantly to boost demand without dire consequences. The last time it was tried, in France in the early eighties, it failed ignominiously – and there is every reason to believe that Britain in the late nineties would fare even worse.
The problem is that, as things stand, this leaves Labour with nothing more than its supply-side measures to distinguish itself from the government, and training and tax breaks for investment do not add up to an election-winning macroeconomic policy package, however often the mantra is re­peated and however important the skills base and the tax regime are for attracting capital and jobs to Britain.

Just about the only way out is for Labour to go beyond the limits of the nation-state and to look to the European Community as the agent of an alternative macroeconomics that goes beyond the supply-side. Yet the EC merits only the briefest of mentions in Labour's Economic Approach, and then only as a possible forum for co-operation among nation-states. Brown still has his work cut out if he is to offer a convincing alternative.