“The public aren’t some fixed thing…”, Claire Fox tells me, half-way through our interview in the box-filled back room of a slightly dilapidated office block on Farringdon Road. “Why can’t politics be ‘The public think this, that’s a very bad thing to think – as far I’m concerned politically – so I’m going to go out and win an argument with them!’”
Fox welcomes conflict. A former teacher and Trotskyist, she is the founder and director of the Institute of Ideas, a discussion forum about to celebrate its fifteenth year.
It runs an annual festival at the Barbican, where participants spends a few days arguing over often binary choices. “State vs. market: is there a way forward?” “Technology and sustainability: kill or cure?”
The style has its detractors, but for Fox it is one part of creating “an atmosphere where you treat people intelligently, don’t patronise and … make it clear that there isn’t an answer we have to arrive at by the end of the discussion.”
When politicians try to appease the public, they do the opposite.
“People boast we live in post-ideological times, but that does mean we have principle-light political parties.”
“They’re often obsessed with trying to court public opinion, and I don’t approve of that. And they often see public opinion through the eyes of popular newspapers, or even worse, opinion polling…that’s a very skewed view.”
Fox’s problem seems to be that while polling might reflect where we are now, it can’t show where we might soon be. Politicians should have the courage to persuade us.
“People boast we live in post-ideological times, but that does mean we have principle-light political parties, people obsessed with what works – policy outcomes, in a managerial sense. And the big issues – around what you stand for, the vision – have been sidelined.”
It’s true that Miliband and Cameron scarcely exhibit the ideological fire of Nye Bevan or Thatcher, but the Labour leader might disagree with Fox. He has often attempted to offer a grand vision during his annual conference speech, but has been pilloried for not offering enough specific policies alongside a big picture.
Nevertheless, Fox is focused on encouraging and improving “public discussion”, rather than coming up with dozens of potential policies, as think-tanks do.
Impact questions are the “ones I’m nervous about in a way, because it’s answers, answers, answers”
“There’s always going to be a role for think tanks … [but] there’s a kind of policy churn thing … I’ve got no objection to them … but they’re not even addressing the issues I think are important. Sometimes they come up with interesting issues, [but] you sometimes feel like, you know, it really is [like] kite-flying … there’s like ‘[We will propose] twenty policies, [and] see which one flies’. To me it’s a bit dispiriting.”
As for universities, while “the academy is of course a hugely important part of developing ideas”, “let’s just consider what’s happened to the universities sector over recent years”. The focus on measuring impact, taken up with glee by New Labour, has “driven everyone in research circles mad”. “They’ve become a bit like think-tanks, ironically.”
How then can you develop ideas and shape public discussion? It’s the same question Alain de Botton tackled in our launch interview last week.
On the one hand, Fox points to events. “There’s obviously something of an important tradition – everything from the salon to the Putney debates to the dinner party to hustings.” On the other, she values writing “much more than live debates”. “Journalism and comment and essays…they’re hugely valuable.” Debates are often dependent upon arguments that have been shaped in the press.
But how can they continue when the media moves on? Comment sections and Twitter aren’t enough, public discussion can add depth to debate. Take the fate of civil liberties under the Coalition.
On civil liberties under the Coalition: “More vetting’s going on than ever.”
The government scrapped highly unpopular Labour schemes – from ID cards to ContactPoint, a database that would have held the data of every child in the UK and been accessible to more than 300,000 people – and appeared to row back DNA, CCTV and stop & search powers in 2012’s Protection of Freedoms Act. But Fox thinks that while Criminal Record Bureau checks are no longer compulsory, “Everyone wants to do it, because everyone thinks it’s how you save your back … more vetting’s going on than ever”.
While the Coalition made some changes, the state wasn’t won over intellectually. “Just scrapping the policy doesn’t make everything change.” “There was some shift in opinion, but I wouldn’t overestimate it.”
How exactly you win that argument – or measure when you have – is, she recognises, “problematic”. Impact questions are the “ones I’m nervous about in a way, because it’s answers, answers, answers”, she says. But her aim is clear: creating a climate where arguments can continue to be had and won, rather than just defeating some specific measure.
Ultimately that must begin with education, which we drift onto and Fox takes up eagerly, admitting it’s her “absolute passion”. She taught for a decade, beginning in the late ‘80s – a time when education authorities were starting to dumb down standards.
On her education: “It was about giving people like me a grammar school education, or even an Eton, in flinty north Wales.”
“When I did my PGCE…the tutor was saying ‘You know we have to be very careful about labeling people failures’…and I rather haplessly said, ‘Yes… but if you fail – you fail, and I think it’s very important we try and get people to do well’. Well, there was chaos in the tutorial, which was myself and many other leftie types. One girl started crying and said ‘I’ve failed exams all my life and people like you are the reason why I’ve got such low self-esteem’. Obviously my view was partly ‘Well, what are you doing teaching if you failed all your exams…’.”
But the incident was also emblematic of the way the left made a “virtue of failure”.
“You know I used to teach English in further education colleges and in the most inauspicious circumstances you can make people go beyond themselves and cope with the most challenging, difficult texts in English. Michael Gove at least believed that, and I’m not sectarian enough to say “I’m not going to say that because he’s a Tory’.
“I was happily the recipients of people who had a bit of missionary zeal about comprehensive education, and believed … it was about giving people like me a grammar school education, or even an Eton, in flinty north Wales.” “I was taught by aspirational teachers, who made me work very, very hard.”
But in many schools that culture never took hold or was weakened. It became acceptable to “think eighteen year olds can only cope with celebrities. Because we underestimate them it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” And it’s a problem perpetuated by many of our “intellectual institutions”.
“‘It doesn’t matter whose idea it was, is it a good idea?’ That’s what an intellectual atmosphere is like.”
Those at the helm “always think the rest of us won’t get it unless it has some all singing, all dancing, whizzy gimmick attached”. Fox points to BBC3. The corporation’s youth channel didn’t have any news when it first launched, and then fit the world’s events into a minute – “that’s what they think of the young?”
It’s a trend that academies were introduced to reverse. As our upcoming interview with Lucy Heller, the managing director of one of the country’s best performing academy chains, will discuss, any approach that drives up standards should be welcomed. Fox agrees. I ask her how many on the left can be so opposed to the idea when academies were conceived, begun and developed by Andrew Adonis, a Labour minister.
“I agree, but what I’m saying is, ‘It doesn’t matter whose idea it was, is it a good idea?’ And that’s what an intellectual atmosphere is like.”
Creating that atmosphere starts in the classroom. Which is why Fox co-founded Debating Matters, a national sixth-form debating competition, in 2002. As I turn to leave, she makes sure I sign up as a judge.