I know nothing

Ross McKibbin has a choleric article in this week’s London Review of Books, complaining about the right deviation that is the current Government.

Most of it is unremarkable stuff – government too friendly with business, right-wing government, Cameron even worse, etc. The only part that really made me sit up is this section, defending those noble strivers after truth, the Local Education Authorities:

Parents are not the best judges of their children’s education any more than they are the best judges of their children’s health – something most parents know perfectly well. The pressure for ‘parent power’ doesn’t come from them.

No? Then where are the parents marching down Whitehall behind banners reading ‘Tell me what to do’ and ‘decide my children’s future for me’? How many local education authorities have been besieged by worried parents, entirely unable to take a decision for themselves, and demanding the return of bureaucratic and unaccountable governance? Perhaps parents are too dim even to do that.

But there’s more than that. Apparently, Local Education Authorities were virtually Athenian in their democratic spirit, and truly socialist in their approach, owned by the citizenry as a whole, for the greater good:

As citizens, we approach the state not as supplicants but as people who claim a right because we are citizens. We do not, however, approach schools run by faiths, or businessmen, or universities, or crackpots, as citizens. We approach them as people seeking favours. And that gives the ‘providers’ social authority incompatible with a democratic state.

This is arrant nonsense. With an LEA you fill in a form and get told where to go – in the case of a relative of mine, to a school five miles away from where his sister was in school. In what way is this anything other than supplication? If the LEA required you to sacrifice a chicken over your form, you’d have to do it – in what way is this possession of a right? And if you want to change the system, or rework the admissions process – you just need to change the political control of the council. Good luck with that in Bucks, Kent, Tower Hamlets, etc. Democracy in action!

There is a case against choice, but it’s based in the ability of the middle classes to game the system, and the consequent outcomes for the poorest, rather than the general apathy and stupidity of parents or the shining brilliance of LEAs. McKibbin’s argument for benign bureaucracy is the same as every argument for benign dictatorship from Plato’s Republic onwards – you lot don’t know what’s good for you, so you should let people like me tell you, and be grateful for it, peasant.

Elsewhere in the article, McKibbin bemoans the divorce of the populace from the political elite. He attributes it to the absence of choice between Tories and Labour, though to me it seems far more likely that it’s whole notion of collectivised politics giving way in the face of an onslaught of issue groups, campaining organisations, and individualism. And the first casualty of this particular war: the gentleman in Whitehall telling us all what was good for us.

The Sans Day Carol

One of my favourite carols, although it’s not well known, is the Sans Day Carol, from the village of Sans Day or St. Day, between Redruth and Truro in Cornwall. An-Daras.com has the song in Cornish (‘Ma Greun War An Kelynn), with literal translation. The traditional English version is here.

Rex tremendae majestatis

Fred Clark, the slacktivist, has an excellent post on the monarchical tendencies of the Bush administration.

A poster in the comments, called Scott, remarks:

If enough of your “fellow citizens” are OK with King George the Fourth (The Third being the one we originally rebelled against), then hasn’t society decided, and isn’t that ‘accountability’?

How can I put this? Er…


The citizens of a republic cannot be allowed to vote themselves out of political power on a permanent basis, and cannot be allowed to alienate their basic rights, no matter what the circumstances.

The dictatorships of Sulla, Caesar and others in Rome were achieved by Senatorial decrees ‘that the Consuls should take any action necessary for the salvation of the Republic’; similarly, the Reichstag decrees were Hitler’s path to sole rule. We are a long way from that today, but the wedge principle applies.

This is because the citizens are not the state. The State, Commonwealth, Rzeczpospolita, whatever is not just the assembly of interests of its current members, it is a trust held by all the current citizens on behalf of all the citizens present and future. Not Hobbesian per se, but something similar about sharing individual sovereignty:

Frontispiece of Hobbes's Leviathan

In the same way that the trustees of a university can’t buy themselves BMWs on their trust’s tag, we can’t be so irresponsible as to surrender the responsibility for government to any king, no matter how good.

(Image from UNESCO server Dadalos)