‘Issue politics’? This is issue-avoidance politics

From Ruth Kelly's school choice to the footage of Saddam's hanging: why do we discuss everything but 'the thing' itself?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

What can we look forward to in the political scene in Britain in 2007? Forget ‘issue politics’, this looks set to be another year of issue-avoidance politics. Another year where public debate focuses on politicians’ personalities and private habits rather than their public beliefs and actions, and where posturing fills the gap left by the decline of rigorous debate. That is why spiked’s motto for the coming 12 months is, simply, ‘Get to the point’.

To take an example, we could urgently do with a decent debate on education. What do we have instead? A tabloid-led public obsession with whether former education secretary Ruth Kelly was right to send her son to a £15,000-a-year private school. She claims she took this action because her son has ‘substantial learning difficulties’ (reportedly dyslexia) and therefore needs special attention. But because this is the same Ms Kelly who said at the Labour Party conference in September 2005 that ‘we cannot rest until all children have the same chance in life, with success based on hard work and merit rather than wealth or family background’, her critics have accused her of being a ‘HYPOCRITE’, in the words of the shrill Evening Standard.

In place of a proper public discussion of what education is for – something the government doesn’t seem to know – we have a clash of talking heads and rent-a-gobs on whether one minister made the right school choice. This at a time when the government is gearing up to launch yet another ‘education revolution’ (and there is no clearer sign that the authorities don’t know what to do with our schools and colleges than the fact that they ‘revolutionise’ them about once a year). If you look beyond the Kelly-obsessed front pages you’ll see that the government is planning to scrap SATS exams for 11- and 14-year-olds, and replace them with a vague and confusing system of ‘single-level’ tests for students to take individually when they are ready, and which will measure not only their knowledge of academic subjects but also their vocational know-how, how they meet personal challenges and their involvement in voluntary work. Lurking behind the obsession with Kelly’s choices for her child is the rather more shocking fact that the government seems no longer to have any idea of a general standard of excellence for children to reach, or how to test whether they are reaching it.

Worse, the hysterical focus on Kelly’s claims about needing to fork out big money for her son because he has special needs has blurred the broader debate about the state of special needs teaching. Since New Labour came to power in 1997, 120 schools for children with special educational needs have closed (1). The government has pursued a policy of allowing such schools to shut down and incorporating special needs pupils into state schools and comps; in 2001 it passed the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, which established that ‘special educational needs will be met by mainstream schools’ (2). This has sold short both special needs and mainstream schoolkids. When teachers try to juggle communicating with special needs children and teaching a classroom of 30 other kids, both groups tend to lose out.

A scathing report on the government’s ‘inclusion policy’ published last year claimed that some special needs children are being put ‘in a situation that’s totally inappropriate for them’; one teacher said it is more like trying to run a ‘nursing home’ than be a proper teacher (3). Even Baroness Warnock, who first proposed in the late 1970s that special needs children should be included in mainstream education, now admits that the policy has been a failure (4). And yet commentators seem concerned only with Kelly’s private decisions about private schooling for her special-needs son, with some lining up to have a pop and others offering their support. The issue of education – both mainstream and special needs – gets sent to the back of the class in this game of Judge-The-Minister.

Of course, Kelly and her colleagues must shoulder a large portion of the blame for the public obsession with their private lives. It is true, as David Aaronovitch points out in The Times, that the attacks on Kelly are being made by a motley crue: by hacks at the Mail on Sunday and pinched, embittered and disillusioned Labour members of the Socialist Campaign Group who don’t like the fact that a fellow party member goes in for private education. (Although, as Aaronovitch points out, they were less outspoken when one of their own – Dianne Abbott – was revealed to be sending her son to a top private school in 2003.) (5) And yet, New Labour did much to foster the idea that politicians’ private lives and decisions are fair game. The Blairites came to power in 1997 on a ticket of attacking the Tories for being wily and corrupt, and promising that their government would be ‘whiter than white’, made up of ‘pretty straight kind of guys’. They made personality into the measure of political worth, so it isn’t surprising that the media are often more concerned with the personal than the political.

Across the political landscape, ‘the issue’ is being avoided. For example, we could also do with a heated debate about Iraq, and what the lessons are for British foreign policy and Western interventionism. Instead we have Blair, taking his cue from the media and other political leaders, pontificating about the ‘manner’ of Saddam’s execution and how it was ‘completely wrong’ (6). So in place of a debate about the invasion and occupation of Iraq – about Iraq itself – the PM reacts to the reaction to the mobile-phone video footage of a staged execution of a has-been leader that resulted from a media showtrial after the war had ended. Here, Blair is not only avoiding the issue; he is also attempting to resolve himself of responsibility for the issue. The shocking images of Shias shouting sectarian slogans at their former Sunni ruler has allowed Blair and others in the West to say, ‘See? Iraq is full of lynch mobs. It isn’t our fault it’s a bloody mess.’

We might also have a debate about what values our society holds dear and wishes to impart to the next generation; after all, a survey at the end of 2006 found that people feel little affiliation with ‘British society’ these days. What do we have instead? Empty slogans from PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown about a new ‘style’ of politics, and his ‘patriotic vision’ for governing the country in a way that involves ‘responsible, active citizens’ more (7). What does any of that mean? Roughly translated, it seems to mean: ‘I don’t know how to rejuvenate British politics, but I know something must be done.’ All those who thought Brown would ditch the Blairite sloganeering in favour of a real and earthy politics will be in for a surprise this year.

It’s time to put the point back into politics, and address rather than avoid the issue. This is not a call for ‘ishoo politics’, for making a single issue – whether it’s education or Iraq or Britishness – into the overriding Big Ishoo of 2007. Rather it’s a call to cut to the chase in every debate, and pin down the problem and come up with some solutions. How can education be improved to maximise the potential of all children? How can we ensure a mistake like the invasion of Iraq is never made again? What values are important in the twenty-first century, and why? Next time you hear politicians and commentators avoiding these questions in favour of posturing or personality-bashing, tell them to get to the point.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Q&A: special education needs, Guardian, 8 January 2007

(2) Q&A: special education needs, Guardian, 8 January 2007

(3) Teachers struggling with special needs provision, report finds, Guardian, 16 May 2006

(4) Q&A: special education needs, Guardian, 8 January 2007

(5) That’s quite enough Dyslexogate, thank you, The Times, 9 January 2007

(6) Blair critical of hanging scenes, BBC News, 7 January 2007

(7) New ‘style’ of politics needed, ePolitix, 7 January 2007

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Topics Politics


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