There was an article in yesterday’s Times by former cabinet minister James Purnell in which he sets out his vision for what he calls the “empowerment” of the British people. Quite apart from the fact that, as The Guardian points out, his sudden embrace of empowerment and opposition to statism seems distinctly at odds with his opinions when he was a member of the government, what he’s proposing wouldn’t actually empower us at all.
For a start, one of his suggestions is that we abolish catchment areas for schools:
In schools, for example, are we happy to have replaced selection by ability with selection by mortgage? What power is there for parents who can’t afford to move close to a good school?
Real power would mean abolishing catchment areas and having pupils apply two or three years in advance. Oversubscribed schools could then expand, or new providers start up. Conversely, undersubscribed schools could be closed or taken over. Parents could be guaranteed one of their top choices.
The obvious answer to that is that is no, I’m not happy for selection by ability to be replaced with selection by mortgage. I’d prefer the system to take ability into account when matching children with appropriate schools. But if we’re not going to do that, then it seems to me that removing catchment areas would be a distinctly negative step.
This time last year, I was unemployed after being made redundant. I found another job, but that involved moving to a different part of the country. If I had to apply years in advance to get my daughter into a local school, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I can only conclude that James Purnell doesn’t believe that social and career mobility should apply to parents. Maybe I could have swallowed that, as I lived in a decent house in a reasonably nice area before I moved, but what of the young couple who having managed to get a foothold onto the housing ladder, now want to start a family? According to Purnell’s logic, they should choose where they want to live within the first few years of their firstborn’s life and then stay there until their youngest has finished 6th form. It’s hard to think of something which is less empowering than that.
Anyway, enough of education. Let’s think about the state. Here’s another pearl of Purnell wisdom:
Because we were pro-reform, new Labour was often seen as anti-State
Now, I’m not too sure how to break this to him, but I can assure Mr Purnell that new Labour has most definitely not been seen as anti-state. Given the massive expansion of the state under Tony Blair, such a claim is simply risible. ID cards, CCTV, RIPA, bans on hunting, smoking and peaceful protest – it’s hard to think of a new Labour initiative that hasn’t increased the state’s reach.
It seems, though, that although Purnell wants us to be empowered, he doesn’t think we can cope with it on our own. We need a reciprocal society, but
That won’t be achieved just by talking about it, as David Cameron does. It will be achieved through organisation — the founding skill of the Labour movement.
people need to be organised so that they can shape change, and resist the arbitrary market and the unaccountable State. Workers need to be organised so they can resist being bullied or undervalued. Communities need to be organised so that people can shape public services and resist antisocial behaviour.
I’m not quite sure how James Purnell thinks that writing newspaper columns is going to acheive more than “talking about it”, but his overall message is clear: We poor plebs can’t manage anything unless we’re organised. And who’s going to be doing the organising? Well, the Labour movement has the skills, apparently.
Purnell may possibly be blinkered enough to think that a Labour government isn’t going to want to be in control of anything organised by the Labour movement, but I rather doubt that many other people will share his rose-tinted optimism.
If it were just a case of a politican making fatuous comments, though, I wouldn’t care much about Purnell’s article. It would be just as easy to find statements from commentors on the right of the political spectrum that are equally unworkable or foolish. But elsewhere in the article, Purnell moves into territory that goes beyond laughable and into the genuinely scary. Namechecking American writer and activist Saul Alinsky, Purnell says that
Alinsky got this right when he said that power is not a means to an end — it is the end.
I’m not going to criticise Alinsky here, because I have no idea whether this quote has been taken out of context and Alinsky may well have meant something by it other than what it first appears to say (or, for that matter, if Alinsky actually said it like that, since Purnell doesn’t enclose it in speech marks). But Purnell is quoting it here without any context other than his own words, and therefore we have to assume that he means it to be taken as it seems. And, if so, then he is propounding a doctrine that isn’t merely wrong, it’s bordering on evil.
Power is not, never will be and never has been an end in itself for anyone other than those who seek to impose their power over others. Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il and the Burmese generals may well believe that power is an end in itself. But even Machiavelli wouldn’t go so far as to say that power is an end in itself – to him, it was a means to ensure that the prince could rule in peace. In a democratic society, power is a means to greater prosperity, health and happiness. It may well be that the underprivileged need some more power in order to attain those ends. But power for the sake of power alone is, in the end, not really power at all. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? James Purnell, it seems, would like us all to be able to answer that question from personal experience.