Thursday, 1 September 2011

Why does the modern Tory Party belittle professionalism so much?

One clear theme that has emerged in little over a year since the Tory Party effectively returned to power is at best an ambivalence and at worst an active belittlement of professional staff, particularly those in public service jobs.

A case in point - Working Families Everywhere - the government-backed third-sector programme (it wouldn't be state delivered, now would it?) that proposes to send volunteers free from the trappings of qualifications and experience into the homes of our underclasses to teach them to turn into deserving, rather than undeserving poor. These volunteers will, of course, be far far better than professional social workers... for why should years of evidence-based degree study count for anything?  'Let amateurs fill the gap', as one news report less kindly put it.

Most recently, this has included proposing that ex-squaddies - a number of whom, with due respect, are hardly models of good behaviour - will somehow be infinitely superior at teaching young children than highly trained, dedicated teaching staff.

Whether it is teachers, social workers or many civil servants in scientific, economic and policy roles, this government clearly has an instinctive distust - and lack of respect - for their work, qualifications and experience.

What explains this? Interestingly, it can (at least in part) be explained by two strands of modern Conservative thinking (I use the latter term in its loosest possible sense).

The first is small-state neo-liberalism. Most, if not all, of these workers are in state jobs. They are therefore, by definition, something to be outsourced or done away with altogether. The kind of job they are doing is therefore less important that who they work for.

The second strand is familiar to anyone who has flicked through the pages of the Daily Mail or Telegraph -  a nostalgic yearning for the 1950s. A time before political correctness. An era when you could give your child a clip round the ear, or your wife a friendly battering, and the namby-pamby interfering busybodies from social services weren't there to object. When we all knew that the history of Britain was thousands of years of glorious military triumph, grateful colonies and good old fashioned Christian values, in clear black and white (although mostly the latter). And an era, in this rose-tinted view, in which there was no bad manners, little crime, close family communities and a highly stable, educated society. A time that never really existed.

It is this second strand that is, if anything, more pernicious than the first. It has manifested itself in right-wing circles in the United States as an inherent fear and distrust of professionalism per se - particularly of scientists and aspects of modern medicine. Evidence-based policy making has increasingly given way to a kind of pre-enlightenment attitude, where God, nostalgia and gut instinct takes precedence over all else. Nadine Dorries aside, this has yet to become so apparent here. But it may not be too far off.

In the meantime, we have the British Tory version: a constant criticism of proessional staff that are dedicated to public service. And one can only wonder about the hypocracy of a government that on the one hand preaches the value of education whilst on the other hand belittles those that commit to educate and better themselves.

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