Time was when one sort of understood politics. The Labour Party believed in spending money, universally high levels of welfare provision and the regulating power of a state bureaucracy. The Conservative Party, most of them with experience of managing real businesses, saw the danger of overspending; that any welfare system needed to make those in work better off than those on benefit; and particularly those with business experience knew that government regulation often does little to deal with real problems on the ground.
But now things are different. The Tories spend like Labour. Buoyed up by illusions of economic growth they fail to grasp the welfare nettle. And when it comes to meddling bureaucracy, they are masters. For many this lack of a distinct conservative agenda is disappointing. It may be a reason why, despite a staggeringly weak Labour party, David Cameron was elected on a smaller proportion of the vote than any other prime minister ever. Traditional conservatives find the Cameron dispiriting. The feeling is compounded because of the mismatch between what the Prime Minister says he wants and the actions he takes to achieve it. Over immigration, for instance, does David Cameron really want us to stay in the EU or does he want to reduce net immigration to his stated aim tens of thousands? One simply cannot have both.
On another flagship policy, does David Cameron really believe in the Big Society: empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism? Does he want a society in which individuals and communities are encouraged to work for the common good, or does he want to prevent this by tying us all up in red tape?
Of late we have had proposals to produce a registration and inspection regime for, among other activities, Sunday schools, now given the label Out-of-hours education. The aim is to reduce the risk that children and young people are exposed to harm and extremist views in out-of-school education settings. The government consultation document is very clear about some of the grave dangers that children face. One is surprised that one hasn’t heard of children coming to grief from dirty conditions, exposed gas pipes and, horror of horrors, no access to drinking water. No wonder that concerns…are being raised.
Oh, and by the way, the consultation document mentions that Peter Clarke’s review into Birmingham schools found evidence of “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action…to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos” in schools and that some individuals involved in the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ schools are involved in out-of-school settings. That comes last, of course. It’s almost an afterthought. The people of our isles are having sleepless nights about children tripping over gas pipes as they dash to relieve their thirst and this consultation has the temerity to mention an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos.
The Out-of-school education consultation mixes up two issues. It states that its concerns are for both harm and extremism, which is why gas pipes and failing to maintain basic records get mixed up with the aggressive Islamic ethos. Perhaps the first is a smokescreen? Or is it? Surely it is the last that is the real issue. Though variations on the word Islam occur only once – in the instance quoted – there are fourteen references to extremism. Dare we not come clean and admit that the proposal to regulate out-of-school education has one proper target only – Islamic extremism?
One can imagine what would happen were the legislation to become law. Dirty Scout huts would be condemned; drinking fountains would have to be provided for a generation of children who are too tender to swig from a cold tap in a toilet as we all used to do. Church halls all over the country, equipped with gas pipes who have never claimed a victim, would be deemed ‘unsafe’ and would close. Volunteers, giving generously of their precious time, would be diverted to ‘maintaining basic records’. Sunday Schools, Scout troops, Boys’ Brigade…all would be gone.
Fortunately, Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who believes that Ofsted should inspect Sunday schools in the same way as Islamist madrassas to ensure that supervision is applied in an even-handed way, seems to have over-reached himself on this occasion. Sunday schools may well survive – but only for the moment. The reckoning, however, is on the way. After his conversion from Section 28 supporter, David Cameron has become a born-again egalitarian. His government believes in a materialist perfectionism brought about by equality in every area of life. The fervent egalitarian is no friend of Christianity.