Alastair Campbell’s latest brainchild: politics in primary school
The former spin doctor wants to get children arguing
Alastair Campbell wants politics — sorry, “big issues” or “arguing” — taught in primary schools. Speaking at the Hay Festival in Wales this week, Labour’s former press secretary suggested that the practice should become part of the “everyday debate” in children’s school experience. Ever the spinner, he is eliding a perfectly good idea with a very bad one.
If we interpret “arguing” as a patronising variation on debating, then that is excellent intellectual and social training — and plenty of children would benefit from earlier exposure to it. I certainly took more useful skills from my three years in the Manchester Debate Union than from my undergraduate degree.
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Debate is, necessarily, a value-neutral discipline. The whole art is to be able to make a persuasive case for either side of a proposition. It thus equips one to interrogate both others’ positions and one’s own. In contrast, one doesn’t need an especially conspiratorial cast of mind to know what Campbellite “Pol Ed” would end up looking like.
Who would decide which “big issues” get covered, and how? How could teachers maintain an open, inquisitive atmosphere where young people could form their own opinions? How many would actually attempt to?
And who would provide the course materials? The recent row over sexual education revealed that schools are being supplied by an opaque network of private companies which, when parents become concerned and ask to review the contents, just plead commercial privilege. Would that be the model for supplying teaching aids on sensitive political topics? Or would Campbell champion a centrally-decreed Big Issues curriculum?
After all, it would pose awkward questions about the wisdom of the whole enterprise if different schools were teaching their pupils different things. Some might even, God forbid, teach the wrong things.
Setting aside all that, Campbell’s enthusiasm for the idea of a highly engaged youth is more than a little weird. During our recent clash on the BBC’s Politics Live, for example, he said one of the big upsides of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence was seeing teenagers debating in the streets.
For a man who makes such a show of hating what Brexit has done to British politics, Campbell seems extraordinarily blasé about what the independence debate has done to Scotland’s — especially since “constitutionally-fixated voters give incompetent nationalists a whole sticker album of free passes” describes both cases well enough. Universal political engagement is rarely a symptom of a happy society, and Campbell’s enthusiasm for it in the abstract sits entirely at odds with his actual politics.
As the Irish theorist and academic Peter Mair explained in his book Ruling the Void, political participation in the West has waned as more and more of what was once the political arena is ceded to courts, quangos, NGOs, and technocratic expert consensus. Whatever you think of it, Brexit was a dramatic case of political conviction retaking territory that the sensible, grown-up tendency had thought settled and fenced off, for our own good. That’s precisely why it drove engagement — and why Campbell hated it so much.
What he really seems to want is narrow, technocratic politics — plus a theatre of democratic engagement to validate it. But it’s either a quiescent populace or a turbulent politics, and Campbell needs to pick one.
A belligerent and rebarbative former alcoholic whose demeanour suggests that his head is akin to an upturned bucket full of angry wasps, full of unwarranted moral certitude, sees himself and others of his ilk in a Jesuitical role?
Dear God, how awful would that be?
As a fellow Lancastrian oik i applaud your linguistic facility, put to good use in the battle against the forces of weevil.
A round of applause for just how good a takedown this is.
More indoctrination. There won’t be debate. How can you debate anything when you can’t even agree on pro-nouns
I thought that the overriding ‘big issues’ of climate catastrophism and pronouns were already rammed down kids’ throats by our education system.
I always liked Rory Stewart. I didn’t agree with most of what he said, but I thought he was an admirable figure. I wasn’t impressed that he chickened out of defending Penrith and the Border in the 2019 general election, but preferred to be yet another London political wannabe. But it was only when he started a podcast with Alastair Campbell that I realised Stewart was a complete waste of space.
Yes I was shocked to see him shred his reputation by associating with the Gorbals Goebbels.
Precisely! A “complete waste of rations”, as The Black Watch would have said.
For others, “nice BUT wet” will suffice.
Why is The Media promoting this wretched man? We are approaching rock bottom.
Because he’s got a Bestselling Book and Podcast PR. It’s a dreadful world isn’t it.
My, you collect downvotes by the bucketload don’t you?
Has it occured to you that you might have a problem?
Toadying to Campbell again Watson! It’s becoming quite a habit with you.
Because he used to be The Media’s de facto boss.
Because they/he thinks that he has left it long enough for us all to forget about scientists hanging from trees, sexed up dossiers for invasions on evidence from a student’s dissertation that displaced 000’s in the Middle East, lots of body bags etc etc. Gen Z doesn’t care and the London set didn’t care at the time anyway
It was a rhetoricsl question, but upticked for a good answer.
Apologies for the rant, very generous PR. The man should be a pariah yet is treated like a font of wisdom.
I’m always amazed at the people who studied philosophy or PPE at university who couldn’t recognise an informal fallacy in their own argument.
You mean like Boris Johnson AR? I assume you knew.
Yep, him too… and Cameron.
“…And today, it’s year two who are getting the sexed-up dossier. Kelly, stop talking and pay attention!”
“Campbell’s enthusiasm for the idea of a highly engaged youth is more than a little weird.”
Unless your political party is considering allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote. They need ‘educating’ don’t they?
Shouldn’t grammar and dialectic come before rhetoric? Or is that also to be inverted?
The men in white coats should have picked him up years ago under a Section 136 and delivered him into a ‘place of safety’, minus the padding.
I don’t get it. If kids truly engage in debate at school, how could this possibly be bad? I don’t care whose idea it is. Simply teaching students the basics of debate – that there are two sides to an issue – would be a monumental step forward from the indoctrination taking place today.
Who would oversee the overwhelmingly left-biased teachers and activist organisations that will wheedle their way in, to ensure they’re actually teaching both sides to issues rather than this just being yet another place to indoctrinate the children?
It would be a good thing if schools were actually going to two sides to the issues they’re debating… but we all know they won’t.
Do you seriously think any students will be taught, or allowed to argue, that there are two sides to every issue?
Will anyone be allowed to argue that trans-women are not women? That abortion is morally wrong? That more taxes are not the solution to every problem?
If they learn the basics of debating – that there are two sides to each issue – I can’t see how it hurts students. These are skills that will benefit them outside the classroom and possibly make them aware of when they are being indoctrinated inside the classroom.
Campbell isn’t referring to “students” – he’s referring to children at primary school. They’re not “studying”, they’re intended to be acquiring the means to allow them to study.
And this isn’t a good thing?
It would be debate in the same way as a struggle session in 1960s Beijing.
Oh lordy, should have known it was that time again for UnHerd to wheel out an article about Campbell/Blair/Guardian. Definitely got to be an end of month subscription renewal curve behind this regularity. Obviously this Author’s turn said the Editor in Chief.
Nonetheless somehow AC has a Best Seller on the Bookshelves and a leading Podcast. That has got to be painful for many. He’s always worn his Left tribalism on his sleeve and his pugilistic style certainly entertaining especially when his guns are turned on some deserved tripe. The Right got a problem with youth too. It can’t connect and it’s policy biases have increased the inter-generational divide with no plans or proposals to abate this either. It’s best bet is that apathy (aside from some ID politics, which is a distraction from real issues) amongst the young keeps them docile. AC knows that’s the game and tries to fight against it. That’s why this particular issue winds up the Right.
As regards Author’s contention that ‘Brexit was a dramatic case of political conviction retaking territory that the sensible, grown-up tendency had thought settled’ – he should have added ‘…aided by lies, mendacity and stupidity that has so clearly unravelled such that the grown-up tendency is now trying to sort out the juvenile mess’.
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