For those of us who think this Government’s direction of travel on public services is the political equivalent of going for a midnight drive the wrong way down a dual carriageway with car lights turned off and eyes scrunched firmly shut, the prospect of David Cameron’s latest initiative presents an intellectual challenge, to say the least.
It seems the new plan emerging from the Conservatives is to privatise just about everything. Intriguingly, he does mean literally everything – except where, according to Cameron, it wouldn’t make sense (he cites just national security and the judiciary as the sacred turf to be kept out of private hands).
Remember that this comes from someone who, just days ago, said the Government had been gung-ho when planning to privatise large chunks of woodland, yet with this new plan he now seems to have said it’s all up for grabs. The grounds for deciding what constitutes ‘sense’ seem to be entirely his.
This doesn’t feel like steady ground on which to hurl our public services violently into the air. Beyond what Dave tells us, it seems there’s no clear basis for establishing what should best remain in public hands, let alone asking the public whether they are up for a revolution of this kind. Certainly there’s nothing so vulgar as whacking the idea in your manifesto and asking people to vote for it. Heaven forbid!
It’s hard to view Cameron’s intention as anything other than a dismantling of the welfare state as we know it, wrapped up in the cosy, ‘fear not’ language of localism (he skips over how having my local school run by a multi-national with a HQ in a different time-zone serves to increase accountability, but there you go).
Rising from the gut, the instinctive reaction from many who describe themselves as being a bit to the left of things is to condemn and oppose. And quite right too.
Never before has there been such an assault on our public institutions. They are correct to ask what this gross social experiment will actually mean, particularly for those that actually rely on the services that will be thrown into the free-market melting pot. Hurrah for those that swim, but what about those that don’t?
Beyond this, as the bile settles, there is a greater challenge for those who disagree with the Conservatives. It involves the acceptance of a grim reality, imagining a scenario in the not too distant future where Cameron gets his way; the presumption that public services are public is completely inverted so that private ownership of schools (and hospitals etc) is the norm.
What then? Opponents could stick to the barricades and man them to the end. The big worry for me is that, while flags are being waved and tubs being thumped, the corporates (and the creationists) move in and sweep up all the schools it likes the look of and those that don’t fit the bill are left to wither and die.
Perhaps a wiser course of action is to not only oppose, but also to conspire: what if, when these schools are placed on the open market, they were taken over by parent and teachers and run not as free schools, but still as part of a maintained sector. That, at least, is the suggestion made here.
Contentious stuff, no doubt, as it effectively means engaging with a much-despised Conservative plan for schools. However, if Cameron does get his way, those who believe in the values and principles of state education may have to face this unpalatable truth.
The result of Cameron’s plan, in effect, is big society by coercion, making a mockery of voluntary local action being the catalyst for change. Yet, when the state is forcibly removed from education, parents and teachers may have to fill the vacuum; unless, of course, we are happy to see the letters ‘PLC’ on our local school signs.