Hugh David says the Lib Dems have lost the plot on church schools The Liberal Democrats have been catching my eye for a while now. Whether it be on huge issues such as the economy or questions of the morality of politicians, they appear to be talking sense. The so-uncharismatic-that-heis-compelling Vince Cable, their Treasury spokesman, demonstrates a calm but profound understanding of what has gone wrong in our banking system, and proportionate ideas for putting it right. And their diminutive front bencher, Sarah Teather, recently impressed by revealing that although she could perfectly legitimately claim the current House of Commons “second home allowance” despite having an inner London constituency, she doesn’t because it would be defrauding the taxpayer.
If only the same standards informed Tony McNulty, the Labour Minister claiming £60,000 to spend the odd night at his parents’ place in his constituency despite having his real home 10 miles away. Or the Home Secretary, who is within the rules of the Commons trough in claiming that a rented back bedroom at her sister’s house in London is her main home so that she can receive a full range of allowances for the constituency base where she lives with her husband and children.
But then, just when I find myself thinking it doesn’t matter if my vote is “wasted” by opting for an in-touch but, under the present first-past-thepost system, unelectable third party, along the Lib Dems come and damn church schools. In contrast to the plain common sense of Mr Cable and Ms Teather, the party’s spring conference has voted for a policy that would end the right of new church schools to select children on the basis of religion. And so, effectively, although they are not quite saying it, to end the right to set up new church schools. For why would you bother raising the 15 per cent of capital costs that churches and religious groups have to contribute (a sum too often forgotten when this issue is debated) if you can then have no control whatsoever on the religious background of the pupils you admit? Quite how this policy would work in practice is mind-boggling. In theory, presumably, the Catholic community would stump up hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to set up a new voluntary-aided school, with a curriculum and facilities (chapel etc) that reflects our faith tradition, and then we wouldn’t be able to show any preference for children from Catholic families. So the children who did come would have no use for the curriculum, and the ones who could benefit from it would be excluded. It is madness – precisely the sort of madness, I can’t help thinking, that third parties espouse because they know they will never muster sufficient votes to have to put it into practice.
Time to re-think my voting intentions? Well, yes, but then another conflict comes into play. I have long deplored the notion that, as Catholics, we should be single-issue electors. This isn’t just aired in the United States.
In Scotland, for example, the late and none-too-subtle Cardinal Thomas Winning used to bang on about how no self-respecting Catholic could ever vote for a parliamentary candidate or party that would countenance abortion. It was effectively a formula for disenfranchisement. South of the border, the more nuanced mind of the late Cardinal Basil Hume approached the issue from a different angle. To be pro-life when casting your vote, he said, was to put your cross next to candidates and parties that supported decent hospitals, schools, unemployment benefits, housing etc. Pro-life doesn’t begin and end at abortion.
So if we are not to be single-issue voters on abortion, can we be singleissue voters on church schools? It would depend, I suppose, on whether there are other viable options.
Again, as the likes of Cardinal Winning never seemed to grasp, there is little to be gained in the way of influence by opting out of voting altogether. But Labour can hardly be counted as the friend of church schools. As this column has been charting over the months, Ed Balls, the education secretary, has a dogmatic antipathy to us and is not to be relied upon.
The Conservatives, by contrast, seem much more pragmatic. They pay more than lip service to the right of freedom of religious expression (which, of course, includes the right to educate your children in your faith), and sound genuine when they highlight the successes both academically and socially of church schools in preparing the next generation of citizens.
But then I find myself wondering what a Shadow Cabinet made up of a hefty proportion of old Etonians really knows about the schools 95 per cent of the population attend. And when I see the Tories getting so worked up as they are this week about inheritance tax arrangements – which impact on a tiny minority of the population – I conclude that they haven’t clue about the real life of most families who, unlike the Camerons and Osbornes of this world, don’t receive windfalls from parents.
So where does it leave me next time I enter a polling station? At sea – and hoping against hope that one day we in Britain might develop the sort of Christian Democrat tradition found in continental Europe.
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