The Duncan Borrowman forecast: Clegg – visibility poor with patches of fog, 6, rising slowly. Huhne – visibility good but high pressure band on the way, 8, falling slowly.

An unforgivingly heavy piece for Saturday morning while all sensible people are still in bed trying to summon the will to live. Jock Coats has recently been floating the idea of de-nationalising education. This is all the fault of Herbert Spencer (of course!). Spencer attacked the Liberal Daddy Mill for conceding that education should ever be a matter of state intervention. Spencer’s argument is that a true liberal would never concede, of all things, state control over the formation of one’s world view and economic skills. I think this is an interesting notion and intend to do some Clegg-style thinking out loud, with the caveat that I am hunched in front of a computer in the semi-darkness clutching a cup of tea and wrapped in a blanket rather than facing the nation in a suit, and so the fall-out is less likely to be problematic.

First, taken in context it is a far less extreme position than it might appear. Spencer was writing in the 1880s at the dawn of compulsory universal education, when it was by no means a given that it would be a success. The fact that it has been a way of life in this country for five or six generations should not preclude our considering the possibility that it is no longer as useful as it once was. This is where being by training a medievalist provides valuable perspective (in fact, good gracious, I don’t know how you all cope). When most politicised people say “historically”, what they mean is “back to 1850”, which can lead to a certain proscription of outlook, and is the fundamental reason why we’re finding the whole left-right meme so hard to escape.

The liberal argument in favour of state education is that it provides the essential tools for people to function economically and culturally in wider society; thus by constraining the freedom of children, in the form of a joint trusteeship between parents and the states, you open the way to true liberty in adult life. Jettisoning this argument is nigh-on unthinkable (try it, your mind skitters away from it). It has gained an awful lot of weight in the century and a quarter since Spencer was writing, for the simple reason that there are now few wellsprings for said common economic and cultural background in this country apart from education.

Spencer wrote at a time when British society was coherently samey – pretty much white and English-speaking, heavily jingoistic, monarchical and religious, with a relatively controlled media and still basically locked into a set of master-servant relationships that only war would destroy. This coherence provided a basis for a single working society. All that now is gone; education (and popular culture) is what is left. Education supposedly provides the same skillset to all and the same cultural backdrop to all (if nothing else because you need a communal bike shed to discuss popular culture behind). In the context of British society as it exists today, it is an indispensible tool in the fight for genuine equality of opportunity.

The operative words are “as it exists today”. The more I extrapolate results of this denationalising idea, the more interesting I find it. If I were to appoint Jock the Minister for Education in the People’s Republic of Mortimer, he would instantly give away all his powers, like any good liberal. Local groups would then organise themselves to provide time-efficient education for their children. At first, this would probably create a swing to faith schooling simply because those groups have the historical organising capacity, but it wouldn’t take long for the new “market” to adjust itself.

In the longer term, the lack of pre-existing societal coherence, combined with the fact that education groups would generally coalesce around a shared set of ideals, religious or otherwise, would mean increased specialisation. This specialisation would be guided by demographic make-up of an area, the type of economic prospect available in the area and so forth. Specialisation would result in increasing entrenchment of regional differences, with individuals being ever less able to operate economically and culturally in regions other than their home region, because they had not had the right mix of education. In time, this would lead to less movement of people, more restricted intermarriage and perhaps even things like the re-emergence of regional dialect.

This is probably freaking you out a bit so here is a fluffy bunny picture:


Don’t worry, it almost certainly won’t happen in your lifetime

The great advantage of medieval history is that studying it leaves you with absolutely no pre-conceived notions about the way society should work, and even modern historians know that the nation state is a meme like any other. What once was will be again, and all things pass. Regional states were the norm for the fourteen-hundred odd years between the arrival of the Celts and the unification of England under Alfred. The twelve-hundred odd years that have passed since are currently still in the minority, and it’s only in the last quarter or so of that time that the barriers to economic and cultural cohesion have properly come down. The fact that these early medieval regional states were more frequently at war is indicative of scarce resources and prestige-based warrior-kingship. There is nothing innately unstable or unworkable about the break-up of Great Britain into regions.

And as liberals, democrats and localists, really it is the logical culmination of what we want, isn’t it? It certainly seems to be the logical outcome of Spencer’s extremis liberal position on education.

Having read all this again, I realise that I have invented something like anarcho-syndicalism with a cultural rather than economic focus. Well done, Mortimer, an hour and a half well spent there. Up the Judaean People’s Front!