May 26, 2023 - 6:00pm

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.

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.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.