Saturday, 28 November 2009

Special interest groups

There are a lot of good things about living in a representative democracy such as we have in this country and there are some bad things. A good thing is that we actually get a chance every few years to change the government. In practice, this means choosing between Labour and Conservative of course. We do not directly make the laws, we elect representatives to do it on our behalf. These are our MPs. By and large, the system works pretty well. It works at least as well as any other method and better than most, although it has its drawbacks. One of these is that it is easy for minority groups to get trampled down.

Sometimes governments decide to be tough on some minority or other deliberately, because it will be popular with everybody else and the actions they take distract people from the failure of the government in other areas. Cracking down on asylum seekers or benefit cheats are an example of this. It can serve to make your government look tough and determined to look after the interests of the ordinary citizen. It can also grab the headlines and make the voters forget how you are screwing up the economy or launching illegal wars. Banning hunting or the keeping of certain breeds of dog were also measures of this sort. Almost always, before they act in this way, the government of the day finds out how the masses will view this attack on a small, special interest group. The idea is to gain votes, not lose them!

Some of these attacks on small groups are greeted with wide approval. The ban on hunting was very popular with people living in the cities. Often, the members of the special interest group under attack are baffled by the public reaction. They are so used to belonging to this group and identify so closely with its aims and purposes, that they are honestly surprised to hear that many people do not like what they are doing and think it should be stopped. However, governments are quite clever at this sort of thing. In many cases, whatever their motives, and these are often cynical and populist, the end results of their clamping down on some group or other do tend towards the common good. This is how many people, including I am guessing many people who read this Blog, felt about the law on fox hunting.

Which brings us neatly to home education and the Children, Schools and Families Bill. There are two important points to consider here. Firstly, the present administration is onto a winner with this. Examining teachers' fitness to do their job regularly is likely to play very well with the electorate. So are pledges to raise educational standards in general. So to are action on safeguarding concerns about children taught at home. Now I have made it fairly plain I think that I do not believe that this is really a valid point at all, but that does not matter in the slightest. Everybody else send their kids to school and there is bound to be a certain amount of suspicion attached to those who don't. If they are making sure that schools and teachers are up to scratch, then why not check out those parents who are teaching their kids at the same time? Sounds good to Joe Public. When you combine this with spurious safeguarding fears, it becomes a classic case of working up a fear about the safety of kiddies and old folk, always a winner with voters.

Just as those who went hunting foxes did not really see the public mood, so too home educators appear to be a little out of touch. This is in the nature of special interest groups in any case; they assume everybody understands and shares their concerns. The Badman review of elective home education was very big news for home educators, for instance, but 99% of the public had not even heard of it. The Queen's speech was anxiously awaited to see what she would have to say on the subject of home education, but the newspapers and television did not bother overmuch with that aspect; it didn't matter to most people. Most coverage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill made no mention at all of the new regulations regarding home education. It was of little interest.

I suppose that I am observing this developing situation with a certain amount of detachment and wish that home educating parents would be a little more accommodating to local authorities. I suspect that if the bill does get passed before June, parents are going to find a system imposed upon that that they will have had no part in shaping. Many local authorities are prepared to work with home educators towards a new regimen, but the feeling seems to be that if everybody flatly rejects change, then it simply will not happen. I find this unduly optimistic.


  1. On the one hand, we're in the bill as a vote winner and on the other, nobody knows we're there or cares anyway? It seems to me that those two suggestions don't really fit together.

  2. No, I do not think for a moment that home educators are included in the new bill because the government thinks this is a vote winner. I think they are there because of genuine fears about the quality of euducation being received by children educated at home. I said "sometimes governments decide to be tough on some minority deliberately"; I do not think that is the case here. I was using to such cases to illustrate the incomprehension felt by such groups when they found themselves the target of new legislation. I am putting home educators in the category of special interest groups bemused to find themselves being regulated and controlled and pointing out that as is often the case, they are out of touch with public opinion.

  3. I agree that there is currently very little interest - or support - from the general public on this. I also understand that if the bill is passed, many may wish to seek an accommodation with LAs as the least worst option for them and their children.

    However, in the meantime the bill is still in transit and I see no reason not to do the utmost to take it down. The lack of interest and support should be addressed directly; HEors should make their case more widely with letters to newspapers etc., lobbying MPs, arguing the case that a powerful motivator for HE is the inadequacy of the school system. In my experience this often resonates with parents; they may not consider HE as an option for themselves, but they are concerned about the state of the school system.

    Furthermore, given that that the proposed legislation has its roots in issues - if they ever existed at all - being blown-up out of all proportion, it seems reasonable to return the favour and highlight all the possible side-effects of this legislation: possible right of entry into the home for undesirables, paedophiles, etc., future extensions to cover pre-school children and the home environments of those in school.

    Every possible negative outcome is fair game for consideration and there is more than enough to concern the general public and turn this into a bigger issue, not isolated to a special interest group. For instance, our parliamentary petition was actually dominated by sympathetic non-HE signatories - and not simply relatives.

    The chances of success may not be great but there is nothing to lose. MPs that get uppity because of the suggestion that they might be supporting legislation that facilitates new opportunities for child molesters aren't likely to back HE anyway.

    In the final months leading up to a general election, Labour MPs have enough on their plates without having to worry about without risking the accusation that they might be supporters of Gestapo tactics that would allow paedophiles to have greater access to children - while ignoring the failures and abuse of the state school system.

  4. That last para should be:

    In the final months leading up to a general election, Labour MPs have enough on their plates to worry about without risking the accusation that they might be supporters of Gestapo tactics that would allow paedophiles to have greater access to children - while ignoring the failures and abuse of the state school system.

  5. Sad that after so many decades of people fighting to get fox hunting banned, you put it down to a political vote winner. It is an appalling activity causing prolonged suffering followed by an extremely cruel and painful death. Many people in the countryside and from all political parties have supported this view and will continue to fight to uphold it. Shame on you!

  6. Yes, well I'm afraid that it is still legal to shoot foxes. This is often a worse death than being killed quickly by a pack of hounds. If you have ever seen a fox stumbling around, starving to death with one leg blown off, you will know what I mean. I don't think that any fewer foxes are suffering cruel and painful deaths. Of course it was a vote winning stunt. It was playing to the metorpolitan gallery, a bit of class war.

  7. The Fox hunting issue wasn't quite such a polarised city vs countryside thing as many would have you believe. I can think of several farmers who were sorely tempted to put up a wall of lead to keep the hunters off their land. Of course, these were real working farmers rather than some of the wealthier managerial types that don't deal with the consequences.

    Any death through multiple "traumas" or impacts can be nasty, although I'd be happy to bring back fox hunting if we can extend it to include politicians. I can't say I'm a fan of horse riding; a few modern robotic gatling guns around parliament would be more like it and nobody would be hurt.

  8. I'm curious Anonymous, why are you not a fan of riding? I ask because we have a horse and though I don't ride as much as my wife and daughter, it has always struck me as the most innocuous hobby imaginable.

  9. I should clarify: I've absolutely nothing against riding or riders; quite the opposite, but my limited personal experience of it has been somewhat uncomfortable.

    I certainly wouldn't wish to discourage anyone!

  10. Yes, I can certainly relate to that! I only ride occasionally to oblige my wife; I have never really seen the attraction of the activity.

  11. You're getting there Simon. Teensy point - it's actually *government* that makes laws. MPs scrutinise them. And can reject or amend or accept them. Government ministers do not have to be MPs and frequently aren't. Consitutionally the monarch (of course in real life it's the PM) can appoint anyone they choose to this role.

    Re hunting. I suspect the hunting ban was also popular in parts of the countryside dominated by arable farming. Hunting has long been the bane of arable farmers' lives because of the tendency to trample winter crops. Some people in the countryside also, believe it or not, would subscribe to the view that it is the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. (No personal insult to hunt followers intended.)

  12. Well I hesitate to contradict you Suzig, but it is actually parliament that makes the laws, not "The Government". The government are the Executive, they run the country. The legislature, the law making body, is parliament. This consists of two chambers, one of whom is filled with MPs. I won't go into detail about the separation of powers and so on, but it is enough to know that the government alone can do nothing at all in the way of making laws without the co-operation of the legislature, which is to say parliament. Luckily, we do not live in a country where the executive can just make law without reference to the legislature!

    Some farmers certainly did get irritated by hunters on their land. The votes though were with the city dwellers. there are relatively few farmers and lots of people living in cities who ahve a rose tinted view of the countryside and imagine it to be like a painting by Constable.

  13. Your might take care to be more consistent in your attitude to comparisons.

    In your comment within you labouriously rubbish a comparison between slavery and possible home education regulations, yet here choose to compare the behaviour of home educators to that of people who consider the hunting down and tearing to pieces of foxes to be an enjoyable pastime.

    Some might consider this to be sloppy thinking.

  14. I was not rubbishing the comparison between slavery and home education regulations. I merely mentioned that a black friend had found the comparison odious and the use of the picture of a black slave tasteless. It's nothing at all to me; like most people here I am white! People can post any pictures they like that treat slavery in a light hearted and flippant fashion, I don't mind.

    Pointing out that passing laws to control fox hunting and introducing regulations which will affect home educators might both be approved of by the electorate does not of course mean that I regard hunters and home eductors in a similar light; only that they are both minority groups. I home educated my child, but have never hunted foxes!