Listening to the delegates rant and rave at the teaching unions’ annual conferences last weekend, the overwhelming impression was of a group of people who have completely misunderstood the thinking behind Michael Gove’s education reforms. The general consensus was that he is intent on breaking up our state education system to pave the way for mass privatisation. Indeed, some of his critics went further and conjured up some dastardly plot involving Rupert Murdoch, Gove’s former employer. He is at best an unwitting puppet of an evil robber baron, at worst an active collaborator who will be personally enriched thanks to his role as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ (actual words of an NASUWT delegate).
It’s not just the teaching unions who take this view. Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn are convinced that academy conversion will leave state schools vulnerable to takeover by private education providers, while the Guardian’s Seamus Milne believes that a substantial number of academies are already being run by for-profit edubusinesses. ‘Divorced from local service support, both profit-making and non-profit companies are already running publicly funded chains of academies,’ he wrote earlier this year. In fact, every single one of England’s 1,500-plus academies is run by a charitable trust.
Even quite reasonable people on the left are prone to these misunderstandings. Peter Wilby, the former editor of the New Statesman, wrote a piece for the Guardian last Monday in which he asked, ‘What is the point of academies?’ After repeating the familiar saw about increasing ‘the opportunities for commercial involvement in state-funded education’, he added another explanation. ‘Once the majority of secondary schools are academies,’ he wrote, ‘a Tory minister can bring back grammar schools without regard to democratic niceties.’ (He neglected to explain how this minister could get round the 1998 School Standards and Frameworks Act, which explicitly forbids the creation of new grammars.)
At one stage, I thought the liberal left opponents of the coalition’s education policy were deliberately misrepresenting the motives of people like Gove and myself. They didn’t really think we were capitalist running dogs in thrall to ‘corporate and private interests’ (Milne). Deep down, they must know that our intentions are honourable — that we genuinely care about improving the quality of public education, particularly for children from deprived backgrounds — even if they think we’re very misguided.
But I now realise they really are that stupid. Actually, stupid isn’t quite the right word. It’s more a form of wilful blindness, a refusal to believe that anyone who isn’t of their tribe can be motivated by anything other than self-interest. They think they’re the only ones capable of acting morally. And it’s not just education policy, obviously. It’s health policy, welfare policy, fiscal policy — the whole gamut of contemporary political debate.
The self-righteousness of people on the left — their inability to empathise with those who don’t share their point of view — is infuriating, but it may contain the seeds of their own destruction. A fascinating book called The Righteous Mind has just been published, in which Jonathan Haidt argues that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former are capable of understanding their opponents, while the latter are not.
Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, has come up with six key ideas that underpin most systems of morality: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. According to Haidt, liberals are almost exclusively concerned with the first two — they are preoccupied with suffering and social justice — whereas conservatives are animated by all six.
This means that when thinking about politics, those on the right have an advantage since their worldview encompasses the first two categories. We can grasp the importance of protecting people from harm and liberating them from economic servitude, even if we don’t prioritise those principles. Liberals, by contrast, can’t really understand the moral significance of the next four categories. Appeals to things like freedom, honour, patriotism, chastity and law and order don’t make much sense to them. They assume it’s just so much hot air designed to conceal our real agenda, which is to perpetuate injustice.
I like Haidt’s theory a lot. Not only does it explain why the teaching unions have consistently misunderstood the motives of education reformers. It explains why they’re losing the argument.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.