Willetts rewrites history

Just heard David Willetts on the radio, touring Birmingham. He was arguing – bizarrely – that the experience of Victorian Birmingham under Joseph Chamberlain shows how the Conservative party is relevant today (and he had a totally uncritical hearing from Evan Davies).

David Willetts pointed to Chamberlain’s powerful role as leader of Birmingham council; how the King Edward foundation opened more schools when their original one was a success; and how the Bourneville chocolate firm, founded by the Quaker Cadbury family, built social housing.

That’s all true. But none of it has anything to do with the Conservatives.

Chamberlain could do great things in Birmingham because the Council was a real power in the city. They ran water and gas, health and housing. The Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s deliberately reduced and removed council powers. This has continued under new Labour. Responsibilities that were once given to councils have been taken away and given to unelected or semi-elected bodies instead. And these bodies are accountable to central government, not local voters.

The King Edward Foundation is interesting and unique. It is associated with 7 schools in Birmingham, 2 independent and 5 state grammar schools, the latter with the same ‘voluntary aided’ status as Central Foundation in Islington. Willetts argued that opening more King Edward schools meant the foundation was not exclusive. However they are grammar schools, which entrench social advantage rather than spreading it – as Willetts himself said last year. He got sacked from the education portfolio for sharing that uncomfortable truth with his party.

As for social housing, another item on today’s news is about the shortage of affordable homes. It was the Conservatives who introduced the ‘right to buy’, and prevented councils building new homes to replace those sold. Again, that’s continued under new Labour. And it was Conservative deregulation of financial services that led to first boom, then bust, in the mortgage market, one of the causes of today’s financial crises.

It’s true that Chamberlain started as a Liberal and ended as a Conservative. But Willetts glossed over that everything he was praising came from Chamberlain’s days as a Liberal. Chamberlain joined the Conservatives over the Irish Question (as divisive then as Europe is now) not social policy – and then split them, leading to the Liberal election victory in 1906.

Frankly it’s insulting to Chamberlain to try and claim his Liberal achievements for Cameron and Co. There’s more than a century of difference between Chamberlain and today’s Tories.

ps Chamberlain also has an Islington connection. He lived in Highbury (there’s a plaque on his former home in Highbury Terrace) and named his Birmingham home ‘Highbury’ in tribute.

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