Christopher Silver reflects on Tory plans to re-introduce grammar schools in England
The political obsessions of a country are often highly revealing. At moments of crisis, such matters become all the more potent. Home truths are all the more palatable when uncertainty is king.
A country’s key political controversies are so deeply intertwined with institutional cultures and the sense of national identity that they can never be properly concluded. This is why we look on with bewilderment at America’s fixation with guns or the French making a mountain of their secularism, as evidence of our own more rational ways. Clearly such debates have become about far more than the issues themselves.
Debating these matters, these foundational controversies, becomes a fundamental part of perpetuating the nation. As a result, resolving them would require nothing short of the dissolution of the nation itself.
But in Britain the great problematic tradition – the psychological trauma that dare not speak its name – is class.
The rhetoric of Theresa May’s early days in office is simply reverting to type. All parties have a “no matter where you were born” narrative. All parties have struggled to make where you were born any less of a factor in determining where you will end up. Class remains the filter through which all other matters of import must pass through.
Selective testing in education doesn’t work and yet it is likely to be re-introduced across England. To consider the reality, or to look at international comparisons (such as non-testing and world-beating Finland) is that most terrible of sins at a time of national insecurity – to blaspheme against a home truth. The current reassertion of British political culture creates a will for selective testing to work, because it fits with a national narrative about class based aspiration, whatever the evidence and whatever the experts say.
This arcane policy move is a reminder that Brexit is a great reactionary wave that has finally broken the dam that allowed cosmopolitan Britain to feel at ease. In time, the re-emergence of the grammar school may well be seen as part of a widespread cultural desire for structure unleashed by Eurosceptic politics.
If Brexit cannot bring back the nation state of the 1950s, other signifiers of the era will have to suffice. As reports last month noted: our native weights and measures may be restored to their rightful place. The possible return of the blue passport was also deemed newsworthy. Perhaps uniformed park attendants and capital punishment will be next on the list.
The promise of One Nation Conservatism is Britain’s foundation myth. It tells us that nothing will change but everything will improve. That one of the world’s most unequal societies will be transubstantiated into a meritocracy by an act of faith in Britain and its traditional structures.
While a crisis can present progressive opportunities, its tendency to feed the urge to revert to type is far stronger. The implosion of the British party political system has left Theresa May with a remarkably solid grip on power. Rather than managing a crisis, she is able to present herself as embarking upon a new project.
If Thatcher’s aim was to reverse Britain’s decline (in the decade that created Trump the aim was to make Britain great again) May’s will be to re-impose old habits on a society that her predecessor did so much to uproot. Having restored power to capital in the 1980s, the Tories must now ensure that it can be handed down to a new generation.
All of this makes perfect political sense. It reflects the economic realities of a society that is seeing wealth concentrated once again in the hands of an ever smaller elite and in increasingly exclusive geographic zones. Middle England wants its exclusivity to be protected as a kind of birth right. It demands to be able to pass on its privileges through the education system. It wants to avoid, at all costs, proximity to those less well off in a society straining under enormous inequality.
CARRIERS OF PRIVILEGE
The class system in Britain has never been torn down by revolt or reform. It survived the industrial revolution and continues to perpetuate itself thanks to an ability to successfully adapt to the challenges of modernity. Even at the height of social democratic Britain the old carriers of privilege were retained.
The story of Brexit is already being sold as a working class revolt against the establishment. In a referendum there is no single demographic that makes or breaks a campaign, but middle England was pivotal in creating a Brexit vote.
Its cultural dominance – long reflected in the press and in widely held assumptions about individualism, property and the role of the state – was the key factor that made Brexit possible. The referendum was a contest created by the right, for the right. The supremacy of right wing values in Britain will continue to frame how its consequences are managed.
These factors are so significant that what might have been mere historic baggage is now gathering under a potent new form of English nationalism.
The ideological drivers of the Brexit project seek an economic renaissance based on old assumptions about Britain’s weight in the world. With their nostalgic imperialist perspectives, they imagine forging a path to national re-birth that will ultimately only lead to far greater exposure to the rough winds of globalisation.
An unfettered and unchallenged right-wing ideology is steering us towards the unhinged notion that a buccaneering entrepreneurial spirit will return this island to a mercantile heyday. Unsurprisingly, the crucial question of where the natural resources and dirt cheap labour that fuelled the last era of Great British power will come from is never referenced.
We should be in little doubt that there is an elite intent on using Brexit to re-impose its own values and recapture its old historic status, to re-order things in its own image. As a class for itself, unlike the broken working class and its precariat successor, it recognises that the backdrop of global flux that we have inhabited since 2008 is fat with radical opportunity.
Despite the fact that the Labour Party may effectively wave through this new round of radicalism from above, thanks to its own death spiral, the great flaw in the post-Brexit project remains internal.
The homogenous nation of grammar school successes and well-ordered social mobility was premised on a level of stability in people’s working lives that was destroyed by the economic revolution of the 1980s. In its place there are a multitude of identities and competing voices. Some of them, as in Scotland, are highly organised to push against the post-Brexit prospectus. Others may be less prepared, but have more raw anger and a great sense of disenfranchisement to draw upon.
The problem that the Conservative government cannot acknowledge is that its own destructive record has already severed most of the ties that bind Britain together.
We saw it explicitly for the first time in the last election, but for decades now it has built power on a shaky foundation – upon a form of English nationalism that excludes a host of undesirables which often overalp – from the Scot, to the scrounger, to the foreigner. As a result, it is breaking the union at a pace that the SNP could only dream of.
There are too many versions of Britain, too many competing narratives, to be accommodated within the boundaries of an old-fashioned, backwards facing, unitary state. Behind the radical nostalgia of May’s new conservatism is a terrible emptiness – a knowledge that a country that shares so little in common must constantly compete for its own survival.
That said, perhaps the most remarkable fact about modern Britain is the level of social cohesion that remains, despite all of the divisions that mark the social landscape. Today, it is hard to walk around a London visibly broken by wealth and remember that everyday those who have their lives crushed by it, still acquiesce in order to keep the thing running.
But to talk about class in modern Britain is to talk about a deep psychological trauma in a wounded country. It is to talk about the factor that, sooner or later, will lead to the end of Britain as it becomes transformed, yet again, into a place that few people recognise.