Friday, December 14, 2007

Bertrand Russell writes House Points

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

I have been madly busy at work for the last couple of weeks, hence the rather uninspired blogging recently. So this time I decided to subcontract my column to the late philosopher Bertrand Russell - better known in Lib Dem circles as "Conrad's Dad".

Russell's great contribution to philosophy was in mathematical logic. I suppose the idea that someone who knows a lot about that necessarily has profound things to say about politics too is rather a 19th century one. Yet whenever I read Russell on political questions I am surprised at how fresh and relevant he is.

Though I have a memory of reading a more elegant passage involving the story of the French education minister and his watch, I cannot find it on the net. But you can find the whole of Political Ideals.

90 Years Ago

On Tuesday Ed Balls unveiled his 10-year plan for the nation’s children. House Points asked the late Bertrand Russell to comment…

“The first thing to observe is that, in any very large organization, and above all in a great state, officials and legislators are usually very remote from those whom they govern, and not imaginatively acquainted with the conditions of life to which their decisions will be applied. This makes them ignorant of much that they ought to know, even when they are industrious and willing to learn whatever can be taught by statistics and blue-books.

“The one thing they understand intimately is the office routine and the administrative rules. The result is an undue anxiety to secure a uniform system. I have heard of a French minister of education taking out his watch, and remarking, ‘At this moment all the children of such and such an age in France are learning so and so.’

“This is the ideal of the administrator, an idea utterly fatal to free growth, initiative, experiment, or any far reaching innovation.

“The energetic official inevitably dislikes anything that he does not control. His official sanction must be obtained before anything can be done.

“Whatever he finds in existence he wishes to alter in some way, so as to have the satisfaction of feeling his power and making it felt.

“If he is conscientious, he will think out some perfectly uniform and rigid scheme which he believes to be the best possible, and he will then impose this scheme ruthlessly, whatever promising growths he may have to lop down for the sake of symmetry.

“The result inevitably has something of the deadly dullness of a new rectangular town, as compared with the beauty and richness of an ancient city which has lived and grown with the separate lives and individualities of many generations.

What has grown is always more living than what has been decreed; but the energetic official will always prefer the tidiness of what he has decreed to the apparent disorder of spontaneous growth.”

This edited passage is taken from Russell’s 1917 book Political Ideals, but it tells you more about Balls’s well-meaning but doomed approach than anything I have read this week.

1 comment:

Tom Barney said...

If I remember rightly, Roy Jenkins gave a good account of the French minister story in the House of Lords second reading debate of the 1988 Education Reform Act.